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The Shortest Week

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Saturday, April 28, 11:00 AM PST (1)

Tony jerked awake, a shrill ringing piercing through the fog that was clouding his mind.

“JARVIS, hit snooze already,” he croaked, blinking against the painfully bright sunlight. He had a splitting headache and the light was making it worse. He grabbed the nearest pillow, pulled it over his head, and mumbled, “And tint the windows.”

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS replied and the room immediately dimmed to a slightly less painful level, but the incessant ringing didn’t stop.

“JARVIS?” Tony moaned, bunching two more pillows around his ears.

“You do not have an alarm set today, sir,” JARVIS said. “However, your phone is ringing.”

Tony waited a moment, trying to decide if answering it would lead to a bigger headache than he already had, before reaching out to clumsily feel around on his night table until he managed to grab his cell phone. He peeked out from under the pillow just long enough to check the caller ID. When he saw the name displayed on the screen, he almost sent the call to voicemail, but on the off chance that the world really was ending this time, he didn’t.

“What?” Tony snapped. “This better be good, I was sleeping.”

“It’s two in the afternoon,” Fury’s gruff voice said from the other end of the line.

“So? It’s only eleven here,” Tony answered, peeking out to glance at his clock just to be sure. Math was always harder when he was hung over. “Besides, it’s Saturday. I can sleep as late as I want.”

“I see stable-ish is working out well for you,” Fury replied.

Fury’s smug tone was making Tony’s headache worse, and he rubbed at his temple with his free hand. “My birthday isn’t for months, so I assume this isn’t a social call.”

“No, it’s not,” Fury said, suddenly all business. “Your consulting services are needed.”

“You can set up an appointment with Pepper,” Tony said, forcing himself not to stumble over Pepper’s name. “Just like everyone else.”

“This isn’t a game,” Fury growled. “You will be at S.H.I.E.L.D. by five o’clock or I’m sending Captain Rogers to drag you in by your goatee.” Fury hung up, ending the call before Tony could say anything.

“Damn it,” Tony muttered. He sat up and tossed his phone at the wall. It broke into three pieces on impact, which made him feel a little better. He’d never liked that phone anyway. He threw the covers back and stood up, only to promptly sit right back down on the side of the bed, his head spinning. He buried his it in his hands trying to hold it, or the world, steady. “JARVIS, start the coffee. I’m taking a shower.”

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS said. Tony could hear the disapproval in the AI’s voice. Sometimes he really wondered where he went wrong building JARVIS. Somehow he had created a judgmental, sarcastic AI without really intending to. Tony was pretty sure that a psychologist would have a field day with him.

He shook his head—gently—and stood up again, relieved that he managed to stay upright this time, and stumbled into the bathroom. He turned the water up as hot as he could stand and stepped into the shower, bowing his head under the faucet. He relaxed into the pounding water, letting it soothe muscles still aching from too long spent hunched over his suit in the lab last night. Once he could roll his neck without pain, he tilted his head up and opened his mouth, trying to wash away the taste of sour whiskey.

One of the advantages of being rich was a water heater that never ran out of hot water. Unfortunately, Tony never had enough time to enjoy it, and today was no exception. With a sigh, he grabbed the shampoo and hurried through the rest of his shower routine. He didn’t doubt for a second that Fury actually would send Steve after him if he was late. Hell, Fury probably had a quinjet on stand-by and the last thing Tony needed was Captain America looking at him—and his collection of empty whiskey bottles—with that “holier than thou” disappointed look that he seemed to reserve exclusively for Tony. When Tony was a kid he’d idolized Captain America, but he wasn’t a kid anymore, and frankly, the man got on his last nerve.

Tony didn’t waste time drying off, letting himself air dry as he stood in front of his closet. He ignored the puddle of water growing at his feet as he flipped through the hangers. He didn’t know what the hell Fury wanted from him this time, so he finally decided on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt to wear under his armor instead of the new gold mesh under suit he’d created to make relaying commands during a fight smoother. If he thought there was going to be a fight, the under suit would be much more practical, but the last time Fury had called he’d dragged Tony all the way back to New York just to run some tests on Steve’s shield. It had hardly been a red alert and he wasn’t about to get battle ready this time only to end up upgrading Fury’s computer or helping Barton get rid of the viruses on his laptop. For an elite organization full of highly trained agents, a lot of the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel seemed inept with computers. Either that, or they were purposely trying to get on his last nerve. It was probably the latter.

Although, now that he thought about it, Clint did get some pretty nasty computer viruses, the kind that might require a degree from MIT to fix. He should probably lay off the porn sites or at least find better sites. Tony had a few he could recommend….Tony shook his head. The last thing he needed to be thinking about was porn sites. He needed some caffeine immediately if he wanted to be able to focus on anything today.

Once he was dressed, Tony glanced at the clock and cursed. He had spent longer than he’d intended in the shower and even flying at top speed it would be hard to get to New York on time. It was becoming more and more obvious that if he was serious about this whole Avengers business, he was going to have to move back to New York on a more permanent basis—no matter how convenient Malibu was for hiding out.

He grabbed a cup of coffee on his way to the lab, downing it quickly and wishing that he had time for a side trip to pick up donuts. Donuts were the best hangover food.

When he reached the lab he went straight for the platform and let JARVIS put on his suit. His head still throbbed, but the pain somehow lessoned with each piece of metal that JARVIS screwed into place. It was always that way—being Iron Man always seemed less stressful than being Tony Stark. Whole psychology textbooks could be written about him.

The last piece was the helmet, and as soon as it was on, he began to check and double check the input streams. He could tell that his brain was still a bit sluggish from too much booze and not enough recovery time, because the data being flashed in front of his eyes seemed to be moving too fast, turning into one long brightly colored blur. He took a deep breath and blinked slowly, forcing himself to focus. It wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do. At least this time he was actually sober—mostly.

He let JARVIS do one final check of the suit before he activated his repulsors and took off. He shot up high into the atmosphere, to make for a quicker trip, and took a deep breath. “Call Pepper.”

Tony waited a moment for the suit to connect his call.

“Tony?” Pepper asked, her voice tense. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Tony responded. “Why?”

“The attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. Are you there?”

“What attack?” Tony asked, even as he had JARVIS bring up several news feeds that did indeed show an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters by some sort of giant robots. He increased his speed to maximum levels. “Never mind, I see it. I’m on my way.”

“Be careful,” Pepper whispered.

“I’m always careful,” Tony said absently. “Can you send someone to get the penthouse ready? I’m going to be staying in the city for a while.”

“Of course I can. It’s not like I’m too busy running your company or anything,” Pepper snapped. “Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

Tony swallowed his sigh. “Yes that’s all, Ms. Potts.”

He ended the call, almost glad that he had giant robots to distract him. There was a reason he had been spending his time on the opposite side of the country from Pepper. Ever since their tenuous relationship had ended, things had been tense between them. He really needed to avoid mixing business with relationships; it never ended well. At least this time there was no industrial espionage or attempted assassinations. It had actually been one of his most successful relationships to date; too bad they couldn’t make it work.

When he got to New York, the battle was already in full force. As soon as he entered the city, he could make out lightning strikes raining down from the direction of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters even though it was a sunny day without a cloud in sight, which could only mean one thing—Thor. If the god of thunder was on the scene, Tony doubted there would be much left for him to fight, but he sped up anyway. Taking out a giant robot or two would be a good stress reliever and he could really use one after his conversation with Pepper.

He slowed down when he got into visual range of the fight and took stock of the situation. There were six giant spider-like robots converging on S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters and another six or so destroyed robots littering the area. He could make out Thor standing on the roof, Mjolnir held aloft as he called lightning down from a single storm cloud swirling overhead and directed it at the nearest robot. He could also see a flash of red and blue out of the corner of his eye that indicated Captain America was somewhere in the fray at the base of the building, along with a few dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents brandishing various firearms.

Tony figured that Thor could handle himself and aimed his repulsors at the robot closest to the crowd of agents. He aimed at the robot's body, but his hits didn’t seem to have much effect until a few stray shots hit its legs. As it began to stumble, Tony took advantage of the situation and began to aim for its front legs, shooting several blasts as he slowly flew forward.

He realized his mistake too late. As soon as the robot lost a few legs, it began to topple forward—on top of the agents. He tried to stop it by accelerating as fast as he could and ramming into the robot. He managed to knock it backwards onto the ground, but he wasn’t quite fast enough and two S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were caught underneath the heavy metal.

Tony landed immediately and was relieved to find the men were still alive, although their legs were crushed under the robot. He bent down and used the extra strength that the suit afforded him to lift up the wreckage enough for the men to be pulled free by the other agents. As soon as they were safe he took off in the direction of another robot.

“Stark!” Steve yelled through the communicator in his helmet. “Fall back so we can—“

“Not now,” Tony cut him off. He turned off the communicator and continued towards the next robot taking it out much like he had the first, except without putting anyone at risk. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

After he finished taking down a third robot he looked around, only to find that there were no more standing. He took one final glance around to be sure, before landing and heading inside. As he walked through the mass of agents, he kept the helmet on, still covering his face, which he’d found kept people at arm’s length. It brought to mind cold, emotionless machines and most people gave him a wide berth.

Once inside and away from the crowds, he changed out of the suit and headed straight to the infirmary to make sure that the men who’d been crushed were going to recover.

 

**

“What were you thinking?” Steve yelled as soon as Tony walked into the control room. “You almost got my men killed!”

“But I didn’t,” Tony pointed out. “I’m sorry they got hurt, but if I hadn’t taken those things out, even more people would have been hurt.”

“If you hadn’t jumped in without thinking no one wouldn’t have been hurt at all!”

“And how were you going to take them out? With your glorified discus and some bullets?” Tony scoffed. “I doubt it.”

Steve stepped closer to him, his eyes flashing. “Big man in a suit of armor; take that away and what are you?”

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Tony replied with a smirk, pleased to note that his response got a chuckle out of Thor. It was always nice to be appreciated. “What’s your problem anyway? Today was a win.”

“My problem,” Steve growled, “is that you endangered my men and disobeyed orders just so that you could be the hero.”

“Orders?” Tony laughed. “I don’t take orders from you. I’m just a consultant—an independent contractor.”

“You put lives at risk!”

“And I regret that,” Tony said, dropping the levity and letting some of the guilt he’d felt when he’d checked on the injured men show on his face. “But the robots were stopped. You fought in a war, you know that sometimes people get hurt or killed during battle.”

Steve jerked at Tony’s words and Thor stepped up and put a hand on Steve’s chest to stop him from lunging at Tony. Thor whispered something in his ear and after a moment Steve took a deep breath and stepped back. When he spoke again, his voice was calm and cold. “You’re a liability.” He glanced over at Fury. “If you want me to lead this team, then do something about him.”

Tony watched Steve turn and march out of the room, his back stiff and his shoulders tense, before turning back to Fury. “Are you sure he’s the best America has to offer?”

Fury glared at him and Tony had the sneaking suspicion he was counting to ten. “You’re late.”

Tony glanced down at his watch. “If it weren’t for your little infestation, I’d be early. What was that, anyway?”

“Good question,” Fury snapped. “I’ve had some of the tech brought in for you to look at. Go make yourself useful, for once.”

Tony thought that was unfair, considering he’d just taken out three of the things all by himself, but he managed to hold his tongue. The last thing he wanted was more face time with Fury or Steve or even Thor, who he actually kind of liked. At least Thor knew how to lighten up every now and then.

He flagged down an agent and told him to have the tech shipped to Stark Tower. There was no way he was going to stay in the same building with Fury or Captain Rogers longer than he had to.

**

Tony poured his third—no, wait, fourth—glass of scotch, which was a significant improvement over the comparatively cheap whiskey that he’d been drinking last night, and downed half of it before turning back to the robotic leg on the table in front of him. He’d already gleaned what he could from the control center of the robot and sent the information back to Fury, but the armor plating held his attention.

The armor seemed to be made out of an unfamiliar alloy that was more advanced than what he was using in his suit and he figured that it couldn’t hurt to learn what he could. It was similar to Captain America’s shield, but nowhere near as sturdy. However, if there was a new, easier to synthesize Vibranium alloy, he wanted to figure out how to replicate it. He seriously doubted that whatever super villain had let the robots loose in downtown New York was going to sue him for patent violations.

It wasn’t until hours later that he finally dragged himself away from the work table and stumbled to the cot that was set up in the corner of his lab for nights like these. He collapsed bonelessly down onto the cot, the ceiling spinning just a little, and fell into a heavy sleep.

**

Saturday, April 28, 11:00 AM PST (2)

Tony jerked awake, a shrill ringing piercing through the fog that was clouding his mind. He reached down and ran his hand along the floor next to the cot trying to find his phone, but instead of encountering the cold hard floor of the lab, his fingers felt carpet. Not just any carpet, but the expensive wool rug he’d bought so that he wouldn’t catch a chill first thing in the morning when he crawled out of bed—his bed in Malibu.

He cracked his eyes and immediately regretted it as the sun was painfully bright, but there was no doubt about it, he was in Malibu. He grabbed the nearest pillow and pulled it over his head to block out the light. He must have drunk a lot more last night than he realized to forget where he was.

The phone was still ringing, each ring causing his head to throb painfully, so he sat up, risking the bright light and grabbed the phone off the nightstand. He stared at it blankly for a minute. He could have sworn he’d broken this phone yesterday…

“JARVIS, do something about the light,” he muttered as he squinted down at the apparently not broken phone and tried to read the caller ID. The room immediately dimmed enough that he could open his eyes fully and he finally saw the name on the screen. “Damn it.”

Tony scowled down at the phone for a moment before hitting the answer button. “What do you want?”

“Is that how you always answer the phone?” Fury asked.

“I was asleep.”

“It’s two in the afternoon,” Fury pointed out.

“Not here,” Tony answered. “Besides, it’s Sunday.”

“No,” Fury said slowly. “It’s Saturday. Losing days now, Stark? I see stable-ish is working out well for you.”

Tony had been disoriented since he woke up, but something about this conversation was giving him a serious sense of déjà vu. He could have sworn he’d had this same conversation with Fury yesterday. And for that matter, he was pretty sure that yesterday had been Saturday. For the first time in a while, he wished that he’d gone to bed sober so that he could actually think clearly.

“You still there?” Fury asked.

“Yeah, what do you want?” Tony took a deep breath, trying to get rid of the uneasy feeling.

“Your consulting services are needed,” Fury said.

“You can set up an appointment with Pepper,” Tony said and frowned because that sounded familiar too.

“This isn’t a game,” Fury growled. “You will be at S.H.I.E.L.D. by five o’clock or I’m sending Captain Rogers to drag you in by your goatee.” Fury hung up, ending the call before Tony could say anything.

“Damn it,” Tony muttered. He collapsed back against the pillows and stared at the ceiling, trying to figure out what was going on.

Everything about this morning was strangely familiar, but he was too hung over to really think about what had happened last night. Deciding that a shower would help clear his head, he rolled over to the edge of the bed and tried to stand up. It took him two tries to overcome the spinning of the room, but he finally managed to get up and stumble into the bathroom.

As much as he wanted a hot shower to soothe his aching muscles, he opted for cold to help him wake up instead. He braced himself and stepped under the nearly freezing stream of water, the shock cutting through haze in his mind. He stood under the stream as long as he could physically stand the cold before turning the temperature up slightly and washing off.

When he was done, Tony grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist. He felt a lot more alert than he had just a few minutes ago, but his head was still throbbing. He fumbled around in his medicine cabinet until he found a bottle of Aspirin and poured out a handful. He turned on the tap and cupped water into his hands to swallow the pills with.

He tossed the bottle back into the cabinet and stared at his reflection in the mirror, trying to remember the night before. He was sure that he had been in New York City last night, but if that was then case how did he end up back in Malibu? He couldn’t remember flying back and he was pretty sure that no matter how much he’d had to drink, he would have remembered that.

“JARVIS?” Tony asked, needing confirmation. “Did I go to New York yesterday?”

“No, sir,” JARVIS answered. “You spent the entire day in the lab.”

Tony shook his head. It must have all been a dream, a very vivid dream. Maybe it really was time to lay off the booze—at least for a day or two. Oh, well, he’d worry about it later. He had to get to New York now.

“JARVIS, did you make coffee?”

“You didn’t request it, sir. Would you like me to put some on now?”

“No.” Tony sighed. “I’ll just pick something up on the way.”

**

The clerk at the donut shop didn’t even blink when Iron Man showed up in the drive through. Either the general population was growing used to the superheroes in their midst, or Tony had stopped by the shop post-binge more than he realized. It was probably the latter, because donuts and coffee were the best hangover cure.

He scarfed down two donuts and drank the coffee as fast as he could, keeping his eye on the time. Taking a cold shower had saved him some time, but the last thing he wanted was to be late. He really didn’t care what Fury had to say; however, the threat to send Steve after him was a good one. He really hated Steve’s judgmental stare, especially when he had a headache.

Taking the last swallow of his coffee, he pitched it into the nearest trashcan and took off into the air. Now that he’d had some caffeine, his unease from earlier was dissipating. The sense of déjà vu seemed to have entirely passed after the phone call from Fury. It would probably still be a good idea to sober up for a night though. He wasn’t as young as he used to be.

“Sir,” JARVIS interrupted his thoughts, “Pepper is calling your cell. Would you like me to patch her through?”

Tony was tempted to say no. He already had enough of a headache without talking to Pepper, but he had a feeling that not taking the call would only make it worse. “Do it.”

Tony heard the click as the phone picked up in his helmet. “Pepper?”

“Tony, where are you?”

Tony frowned at the worried edge to Pepper’s voice. “En route to New York. Why? What’s going on?”

“There’s been an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“What kind of attack?” he asked even as he started scanning all of the news feeds coming out of New York.

“Some sort of robots,” Pepper answered. “They look like spiders. It’s all over the news.”

“I see them,” Tony said, studying a live local news feed. “I’m on my way to help.”

“Be careful,” Pepper whispered.

“I’m always careful,” Tony replied.

“Right,” Pepper responded sarcastically.

Tony closed his eyes and held his tongue. Fighting with Pepper would help no one. “I’ll be careful,” he promised, hanging up so that he could focus on the news.

He studied the news feeds, letting JARVIS do most of the work of flying the suit. Unfortunately, the news helicopters weren’t able to get close enough to give him much of a picture, but he could make out some lightning strikes which meant that at least Thor was on the scene. Thor had been traveling back and forth between New York and New Mexico ever since he’d returned from Asgard, and it was a relief that he was in the city today. S.H.I.E.L.D. had a lot of competent agents, but when it came right down to it, Tony trusted Thor to have the power they needed. The guy was unquestionably good in a fight.

When he finally made it to headquarters, the battle was in full swing. He cut off the news feeds and studied the scene around him. There were six giant spider-like robots moving towards the building. They were moving slowly in order to avoid the wreckage of what looked like half a dozen other robots.

Lightning was raining down on the nearest robots from the top of the building. He watched as one spider stood up to three bolts before going down. That much electricity should have shorted out most technology immediately, so the fact that each robot seemed to be absorbing multiple bolts before going down indicated that they were well armored. He doubted that direct hits from his repulsors would be very effective.

He turned his attention to the crowd of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents gathered at the base of the building. There were a few dozen agents firing pistols and shotguns at the creatures. Tony almost laughed at the futility of it. If Thor’s lightning was barely effective, then a shotgun was useless.

As he watched, a red and blue circle flew out of the crowd and hit the leg of one of the creatures. He didn’t expect Captain America’s shield to be more effective than the bullets, but it actually made the spider stumble and have to regain its footing, which gave Tony an idea.

He charged up his repulsors and flew forward as fast as he could, aiming for the front legs of the robot closest to the men. He let loose several blasts that effectively threw the robot off balance.

Tony had barely finished his run when he got a bad sense of déjà vu again and turned back to the robot. It was just starting to topple forward when he realized his mistake. Without conscious thought, he reacted and accelerated as fast as he could toward the robot. A painful jolt ran through his body—despite the armor—as he collided with the spider, but thankfully he managed to knock it backwards instead of forward onto the agents.

“Stark!” Steve yelled through the communicator in his helmet. “Fall back so we can—“

“Not now,” Tony interrupted, closing off the line. His headache from that morning had returned with a vengeance after the impact and he was not in the mood to take orders. Besides, now that he knew how to take them down he could do it a lot faster without having to babysit a bunch of agents.

He turned his attention to the next robot and shot forward, taking out its legs. He kept it up until between himself and Thor, all of the giant spiders were out of commission. As soon as the last one fell, he left the clean-up for Steve and his team and went to find Fury.

**

Tony took the time to quickly change out of his suit before heading to the command center. Apparently he had taken longer than he thought, because by the time he got there, Steve was there too and he didn’t look happy.

“Big man in a suit of armor; take that away and what are you?” Steve asked, intercepting Tony as he entered the room.

“Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist,” Tony replied with a smirk. He was pretty sure that steam was actually going to come pouring out of Steve’s ears at his words. “What’s your problem anyway?”

“My problem,” Steve ground out from between clenched teeth, “is that you endangered my men and disobeyed orders just so that you could be the hero.”

“Orders?” Tony laughed. “I don’t take orders from you. I’m just a consultant—an independent contractor.”

“You put lives at risk!”

“No one got hurt,” Tony said. “The robots were stopped. What’s your problem?” He turned toward Fury and jerked his thumb at Steve. “Are you really sure he’s the best America has to offer?”

Steve was glowering at him, but Tony barely noticed because he was suddenly hit with another overwhelming sense of déjà vu. It wasn’t just the conversation with Steve either, because heaven knew Steve chastised him often enough for it to be familiar. It was everything about this day. He shook his head and tried to focus on Steve.

“You can’t just do everything yourself. There was a plan, Tony,” Steve said, falling into his usual "lecture Tony" voice, the one that made Tony want to piss him off on principle.

“What plan?” Tony scoffed. “Stand around and attract their attention while Thor takes them out? Great plan.”

“That wasn’t—“

“That’s enough,” Fury interrupted. “I’ve had about as much of this as I can take.” He fixed Steve with a glare. “You know better than to let anything this fool says get to you.”

“Hey!” Tony exclaimed, indignantly.

“And you,” Fury said turning to Tony. “I had some pieces of the robots brought in for you to analyze. Go make yourself useful, for once.”

“Next time see if I bother to save your asses,” Tony muttered as he headed for the door.

When he got to the lab, he decided to take some of the samples back to Malibu. There was no way he wanted to stay in New York any longer than he had to.

**

Tony eyed the bottle of scotch sitting in the corner of the lab. It had been a long day and he could really use a drink to help him relax, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew that one drink would lead to more and the last thing he needed was another hangover tomorrow. Things had been weird enough today and he figured waking up sober for once would be an improvement.

He tore his eyes away from the bottle and focused on the pieces of the robot spread out on the table in front of him. He hadn’t been able to bring back all of the pieces Fury had saved for him, but he had enough to start analyzing.

So far he was focusing on the armor, which seemed to be made of an unfamiliar alloy that was more advanced than what he was using in his suit. If he could figure out how to replicate it then he could make his armor much lighter and more durable.

His cell phone rang and he glanced at the screen.

“Oh no,” Tony murmured when he saw the American flag pop up on his screen. “I’ve had enough lecturing for one day, thank you very much.”

He pressed the ignore button. If it was important Steve would leave a message, and if it was really important, Fury would call. Tony watched the phone for a minute and when he didn’t get any other calls, he turned his full attention to the metal in front of him. He worked on it until his eyes began blurring and he finally gave up, stumbling up the stairs and into bed.

**

Saturday, April 28, 11:00 AM PST (3)

Tony knew that there was something wrong the moment the phone woke him up. His head was pounding and his mouth tasted like a distillery, but he knew that he hadn’t been drinking the night before. Despite his disorienting headache, he could clearly remember making a point not to drink last night. He’d spent way too long convincing himself not to go for the Scotch to forget.

“JARVIS,” he said, absently. “Get rid of the light.”

“Yes, sir,” JARVIS replied. The windows immediately became opaque, plunging the room into darkness.

Fighting a wave of dizziness, he sat up and stared at the still ringing phone. He had a very bad feeling about this. “JARVIS, what day of the week is it?”

“It’s Saturday, sir.”

He didn’t think it was possible for his headache to get worse. But it did. He took a deep breath, still staring at the phone. It wouldn’t do any good to ignore it, so he picked it up, not bothering to check the caller ID. “Fury?”

“Stark,” Fury growled. “Took you long enough to answer.”

“I was busy,” Tony mumbled. “What do you want?”

“Your consulting services are needed,” Fury replied.

That clenched it. This really had all happened before. It wasn’t just déjà vu or a bad hangover; he was stuck in some sort of time loop. Tony closed his eyes and tried to do some calculations to figure out the mathematical probability of being trapped in a time loop, but his hangover was making it hard. The hangover he had even though he had purposely not had anything to drink last night.

“Stark!” Fury practically shouted through the phone. “Are you still there?”

“Yeah, consulting, New York, five o’clock,” Tony muttered. “I’ll be there.”

He hung up the phone and scrubbed his hands over his face. The probability didn’t really matter, what did matter is how he got stuck and how to get out. According to the Theory of Relativity, time was not a constant—apparently less constant than Einstein realized—but even considering that, he didn’t know how a loop would have occurred. There were some theories that hypothesized antimatter moved backwards through time while matter moved forward, but the chances that he had turned into antimatter last night and then back into matter today were pretty slim.

Tony sighed. Even if he assumed that it was theoretically possible to move through time, he didn’t know of anyone capable of achieving it through current scientific means. He couldn’t even conceive of the kinds of technology that would be needed to create a time loop. The other option was magic. Before he had met Thor, he would have dismissed the magical option outright, but at the moment it seemed the most likely bet.

The real question, though, was: why? Why was he stuck in a time loop? Why him? Was this loop isolated to only him or were others also experiencing the same day over and over again? He didn’t know how to find out without asking other people outright and he didn’t think that was the best idea. That was how people ended up in Arkham. He would have to figure this out on his own.

He got up and stumbled into the bathroom to splash cold water onto his face. As much as he would like a shower, he needed to get to New York as fast as possible. Not only did he want to find out what was going on with him, but in less than an hour S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters was going to be attacked by giant spider-like robots, and the sooner he could get there the better.

**

His head felt like it was full of cotton, so he let JARVIS guide the suit while he tried to come up with a game plan.

He was starting to regret skipping his shower. He was pretty sure that he smelled like the morning after a frat party, and somehow he doubted that anyone would take anything he said seriously when he reeked of alcohol. Of course, he wasn’t really planning to tell anyone anything anyway. He was going to have to talk to someone about magic, though, even if he didn’t reveal why.

Tony didn’t have a lot of faith in S.H.I.E.L.D., largely because they didn’t have a lot of faith in him, and he would generally prefer to keep them at arm’s length. Nothing he had seen from them so far indicated that they had much experience with magic anyway. Thor, on the other hand, might have answers.

He was just entering New York City when his thoughts were interrupted by a call from Pepper. He had almost forgotten that he had talked to Pepper each of the previous days. He wasn’t sure, but he thought that he had been over Oklahoma when she’d called him yesterday, which meant he was way ahead of schedule.

“Tony, where are you?” she asked, worried.

“I’m in New York, on the way to S.H.I.E.L.D.,” Tony replied calmly. He didn’t bother bringing up the news feeds this time. He already knew what they would show him. “I know about the attack.”

“Be careful,” Pepper whispered.

“I will be,” Tony replied, sincerely. He remembered how his flip response had upset her before and he didn’t want to do that today. “Thanks for the heads up.”

He cut off the call as he rounded a corner, bringing him into sight of headquarters. This time instead of six spider-like robots converging on the building there were about ten, and only two were lying on the ground already disabled. The agents were just starting to scramble out of the building into formation, being led by Captain America, and Thor was already on the roof, guiding lighting down from a single storm cloud with Mjolnir. He was probably responsible for the two robots already down.

Tony blocked all incoming communications, not wanting to listen to Steve at all this time, and flew straight for the nearest robot. He already knew how to take them down and he knew what not to do this time. He carefully took out the legs of each robot, making sure that they fell as far away from people as he could. He left the ones closest to the building for Thor to handle. If Steve actually did have a plan, he could work with Thor to use it on the robots nearest the building.

It didn’t take very long to knock out the robots. As soon as the last one fell, he headed up to the roof and landed next to Thor.

“Tony,” Thor greeted him, his hair waving in the wind and a huge grin on his face. “It’s a lovely afternoon, wouldn’t you say?”

Tony laughed and patted Thor on the back with one gauntleted hand. “Nothing like a little fight to get the blood pumping.”

“You speak truly,” Thor agreed.

“Listen,” Tony said. “I need to meet with Fury, but how about a drink after that? On me.”

“We shall share tales of past battles,” Thor agreed cheerfully. He turned to head into the building, and Tony followed him in.

**

Tony didn’t waste time by changing out of his suit, only taking off the helmet. The faster he talked to Fury, the less likely it was that he would run into Steve. He could always change later.

When he got to the command center he checked the time and smirked when he saw that despite the fight he was five minutes early.

“What are you so happy about?” Fury asked.

“I’m early,” Tony said smugly, pointing at the clock.

“Giant robots attack and that’s all you care about?” Fury shook his head. “You’re impossible.”

“Then why bother calling me in?” Tony asked. “Oh, right, because I’m the best.”

Fury took a deep breath and pointed toward the door. “I had some pieces of the robots brought in for you to analyze. Go make yourself useful, for once.”

“Sure thing.” Tony made a mock salute and left the room, only to encounter an angry Captain America in the hallway.

“What were you thinking?” Steve hissed.

Tony leaned against the wall. “Can you be more specific?”

“You turned your communicator off!”

Tony did his best to shrug in the suit. “I didn’t want the distraction.”

“You weren’t the only one out there.” Steve’s face was getting redder with every word. “You put all of my men at risk. What if something had happened?”

“It didn’t, though,” Tony pointed out. He couldn’t believe that he’d done everything right this time and Steve was still mad.

Steve took a step forward until he was looming over Tony and Tony wondered if Steve was actually going to hit him, despite the armor. Thor wasn’t here to stop Steve this time. But Steve didn’t hit him; instead he inhaled deeply and looked at Tony suspiciously. “Are you drunk?”

“What? No!”

“You smell like it,” Steve said.

“Well, as much faith as I have in your all-American nose, it’s wrong,” Tony said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do.”

He pushed past Steve—not exactly being gentle—and went to find Thor. He’d come back to get the robot parts later. He already knew enough about them to send Fury a report anyway.

**

Tony raised a hand to get the bartender’s attention. “Another round.”

Thor grinned at him and drained the last of his first mug of beer. “Thank you, Tony.”

“It’s the least I can do for a friend.”

Thor’s grin stretched even further and he raised the new mug that the bartender brought him in Tony’s direction. “To friendship.”

Tony raised his own glass in response and took a deep drink.

Since they had left headquarters, Tony had been trying to think of a way to ask Thor about magic without sounding like an idiot, but sometimes it was best to be direct. Thankfully it was easier to be direct after a pint of beer. “So tell me about magic.”

Thor tilted his head. “What do you want to know?”

“I’m a man of science,” Tony explained. “But it’s becoming clear to me that not everything can be explained by science.”

Thor shook his head. “Jane would say that ‘Magic is just science we don't understand yet.’”

“That’s a comforting thought,” Tony said, purposely not pointing out that Jane wasn’t the first to say that. “But right now, I’m nowhere near understanding it, so I could use a little help.”

Thor frowned at his glass, his eyes distant. “I can try to answer your questions, but it was never my area of study. Magic was always Loki’s purview.”

“How do you call down the lightning then?” Tony asked.

Thor shrugged. “Mjolnir was magically constructed and responds to my will. It is like when Darcy uses her taser. She doesn’t understand how the electricity is made, only that it is.”

Tony had to suppress a laugh at the idea of comparing Mjolnir to a taser, and yet the comparison was strangely apt. “Okay, I guess I can see that, but what I was really wanting to know is: can magic control time?”

“There is very little that can’t be done with magic if the magician is strong enough and, more importantly, knowledgeable enough,” Thor said. “But to control something as vast as time itself would be difficult.”

“Do you know anyone that could do it?”

“I never saw him manipulate time, but there is not much that I would put past my brother,” Thor mused. He took another drink of beer, seemingly deep in thought. “There are a few others in Asgard with skills comparable to Loki’s. I could ask them for you?”

“No, that’s okay, I was just curious.” Tony declined. By the time Thor got back to Asgard to ask, another day would have passed and it would be too late.

“You are curious about strangely specific things,” Thor commented. He studied Tony’s face, his eyes projecting age and experience in ways that his youthful appearance did not. Sometimes it was easy to forget just how old Thor was. Tony shifted uncomfortably under the scrutiny.

“There isn’t much that I’m not curious about. It’s a character flaw.” Tony dug out his wallet and threw a few bills on the bar. “I’ve got to head back and look at those robots for Fury. Thanks for the company.”

Thor raised his glass to Tony. “Thanks for the drinks.”

**

Tony picked up a few pieces of the robot from headquarters and flew back to Malibu. He might as well continue to study the robot while he had the time; after all, he’d hit a dead end on the magical research front. Besides, if he was actually stuck in a time loop, then maybe the spiders had somehow caused it. They were the only thing significantly different about this Saturday compared to any other Saturday.

Once he got back to his lab, he quickly typed up some preliminary notes about the robots from memory and sent them to Fury before running some more specialized tests. The previous two days he had focused on the armor and its potential applications, and there was no reason to retread the same ground over and over again. Tonight he wanted to run as many tests as he could to isolate whatever was causing the temporal distortion. He didn’t know what magic would look like to his machines, but some sort of unusual energy signature was a safe bet.

While he waited for JARVIS to come back with the test results he brewed a giant pot of coffee, hoping that staying up all night would be a loophole in the spell. He was on his second cup when his phone started ringing. He glanced at the screen and groaned as soon as he saw the American flag. He didn’t really want to pick up, but he didn’t have anything better to do while he waited for the tests to finish.

“Stark,” he answered.

“It’s Steve.”

Tony sighed. “I know. I have caller ID. You should too.”

He could hear Steve gritting his teeth through the line and he couldn’t help grinning. He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk. Messing with Steve was always an entertaining pastime. “What can I do for you tonight?” He glanced at the clock on his desk and mentally added a few hours. “It’s pretty late in New York isn’t it?”

“I couldn’t sleep,” Steve said. “Listen, Tony, we seem to have gotten off to a bad start somehow, and it’s not helping anybody.”

“We didn’t get off to a bad start,” Tony disagreed. “The start was fine; the problem was everything that came after.”

Steve sighed. “I don’t know what I did, but can we figure out a way to fix it? Today we got lucky. If we don’t learn how to work together, next time we won’t be.”

“How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t play well with others?” Tony asked. “Natasha’s little evaluation said as much. I’m not team material, so why bother?”

“You sound like a spoiled child,” Steve said. “Are you trying to prove Fury right about you?”

“I could care less about Fury or the Avengers for that matter,” Tony said. “I’ve been doing this hero thing on my own for a long time already. I don’t need to take orders from anybody.”

“I’m not exactly new to this either,” Steve pointed out. “And the one thing the army taught me is that even if you can do something yourself, it’s easier if you have men that you can trust at your back.”

“And can I trust you, Steve?” Tony dropped his legs and sat up resting his elbows on the table. “For that matter, are you saying that you think you can trust me?”

“I want to,” Steve said. “And, Tony, it’s not about taking orders. It’s about working together.”

“Under your leadership.”

“It’s not like I asked for this,” Steve said. “Don’t tell me that you want to be in charge? Is that the problem here?”

“Hell, no,” Tony said, shuddering. “Leadership comes with way too much paperwork attached.”

“Then what is it?” Steve asked.

Steve sounded genuinely curious and Tony didn’t know what to say. Thankfully his computer screen chose that moment to start blinking. The test results were in.

“Listen, Steve, I have to go get drunk or do something else irresponsible,” Tony said. He knew it wasn’t fair to cut Steve off like that, but he was still a bit bitter about the accusations Steve had leveled at him earlier. He ended the call before Steve could respond and turned his full attention to the computer.

It took him hours to go through every bit of data, but in the end it was pointless. There was nothing unusual about the robot that would indicate magic—at least not in any way that Tony could quantify. That meant that either the robots weren’t the source of the time loop or that magic didn’t show up on scientific tests. In other words, he had nothing.

Tony closed his eyes and started to go back over the day step by step, trying to come up with something suspicious besides the robots, but he didn’t make it far before he fell asleep, his head resting on his desk.

**

Saturday, April 28, 11:00 AM PST (4)

Tony jerked awake when the phone rang. He didn’t have to look at it to know who it was. Instead of answering the call, he threw the phone at the wall. As soon as it made contact, it broke, cutting off the horrible noise. There was no reason to answer; he knew what Fury was going to say anyway.

“JARVIS, what day is it?” Tony asked, just to be sure.

“Saturday, sir.”

“Fuck!” he yelled, punching the bed. He was hung over again, but his anger was overriding his headache at the moment. The last thing he remembered was sitting in the lab with a mug of coffee. He must have fallen asleep despite all of the caffeine. The idea that he could stay up all night and break the cycle had been a long shot, but he was still pissed at himself.

He wasn’t in the mood to go through this day yet again. The last three days had been nearly identical, at least in all of the important ways, and nothing had changed. His best—only—guess was that the robots had somehow initiated the loop, so maybe staying away from them entirely would break the pattern. He hated the idea of staying put and ignoring a possible threat, but Steve seemed to think they were fine without him anyway.

Making up his mind he rolled over and pulled a pillow over his head. If he didn’t leave this room all day, then nothing could cast a spell on him.

He woke up again several hours later. At first he was confused, thinking that he’d lost another day, but the sun wasn’t shining through the window as brightly anymore. He sat up and was relieved to find that his headache was nearly gone. Maybe Pepper was right and he ought to try getting more than a few hours of sleep in a row more often.

“JARVIS, bring up CNN.”

The screen across from his bed turned on and flipped to CNN. A reporter was recapping the events of the robot attack in New York while video showed the wreckage around S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters. He held his breath, a queasy feeling in his stomach, until the reporter confirmed that there had been no casualties during the fight. He was glad that his decision not to go hadn’t ended up getting anyone killed, but at the same time, it sucked to know that he really hadn’t been needed.

After the report, CNN started showing some video footage captured on a cell phone of the battle including some surprisingly good shots of Thor surrounded by lightning. Tony left the news on half-listening to the coverage while he got up and moved around the room. He grabbed his robe and headed into the bathroom for a long soak in the tub.

He knew that he should feel guilty about ignoring the outside world today, but he had committed to not allowing himself to be exposed to anything that could have initiated the loop. If that meant spending his evening in a bubble bath instead of his lab, well, he’d just have to make that sacrifice for the greater good.

**
Saturday, April 28, 11:00 AM PST (5)

So apparently sleeping the day away didn’t work. It didn’t even help him make up his rather sizable sleep deficit, since he woke up hung over and exhausted to the sound of a ringing phone on Saturday morning, just like every other day.

Somehow waking up feeling like crap felt even worse today than it had the last several days, because by the time he’d fallen asleep last night he had actually felt really good. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so…healthy. He was definitely starting to think that Pepper had a point when she’d nagged him about spending too much time in the lab with a bottle.

The throbbing in his head decreased slightly and it took him a moment to realize that the phone had stopped ringing. “Shit.”

He reached one arm out of the blankets and grabbed the phone. Fury had left a voicemail message, but Tony was pretty sure it would be loud and probably not very polite, which he didn’t think his headache could handle this morning. Instead of listening to it he hit redial and held the phone a few inches away from his ear.

“Stark!” Fury yelled loud enough that Tony winced and moved the phone another inch farther away. “Don’t you answer your damn phone?”

“Sorry,” he mumbled, tilting the receiver closer to his face. “I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

“You don’t even know why I called,” Fury growled.

“You want me to come in and consult right?”

“Well…yes,” Fury replied.

“Then don’t complain.” Tony hung up and squinted up at the ceiling for a few minutes before getting up enough willpower to drag himself out of bed. Since skipping his trip to New York yesterday hadn’t worked, maybe he should try getting there early today.

He quickly threw on some clothes and splashed a few handfuls of cold water onto his face. He grabbed a handful of aspirin for his headache, but reluctantly bypassed both shower and coffee.

He still wasn’t quite awake by the time he took to the air, but by the time he got to Oklahoma the aspirin had kicked in and he was feeling more human. He had JARVIS open several local New York City newsfeeds so that he would know the exact moment that the spiders showed up. He was hoping to get to headquarters before they appeared, but if he couldn’t make it then he wanted to watch everything as it unfolded. He knew he was missing something, but he just didn’t know what.

Pepper hadn’t made her daily call yet and the news was still covering the local mayoral election by the time Tony made it to New York, so he knew he was early. He landed on the roof of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, scanning the area for anything unusual.

Tony didn’t have to wait long. About five minutes after he landed, a ship bearing a Hydra symbol flew over and dropped a dozen robots onto the street before disappearing.

He was tempted to follow the ship, but he couldn’t turn his back on the robots. S.H.I.E.L.D. may have handled the situation without him yesterday, but it wasn’t in his nature to ignore the pedestrians on the street running for cover. Besides, things could go differently today, and so far he was the only person on the scene who could help. He fired up his repulsors and took off in the direction of the nearest robot.

Tony had already taken out four of the things by the time the storm cloud began to gather on top of the building, and had taken down two more before Steve and the agents began to pour out of the building.

“Stark!” Steve yelled at him through his communicator.

“Not now,” Tony responded. “I’m in the middle of something.”

Steve didn’t say anything else to him for the rest of the battle, but instead of being comforting, the radio silence felt ominous.

**

“What were you thinking?” Steve yelled as soon as Tony walked into the command center.

“That I should eliminate the threat?” Tony responded mildly.

“You should have called it in! Damn it, Tony, I don’t understand what goes through your head,” Steve shouted, his voice continuing to rise. “Is it really that hard to sound the alarm?”

Tony winced and raised a hand to his temple. “Do you have to yell? I have a killer hangover.”

Steve glared at him, his jaw opening and closing as if he just couldn’t figure out a response to that. Finally he threw his hands up into the air. “I give up.”

Tony watched Steve stalk away and for once wasn’t pleased with himself for getting under the other man’s skin. He really hadn’t been trying to annoy Steve this time; he just hadn’t thought about calling in the robot threat. For heaven’s sake, the robots were right outside the door; Tony had assumed that they already knew.

“Is it really that entertaining?” Fury asked.

“What?” Tony asked, his attention still focused on Steve’s receding back.

“Baiting him.”

Tony shrugged. “Sometimes it is.”

Fury sighed. “There are some pieces of the robots—“

“I know,” Tony interrupted. “I’ll take a look at them. Are you aware they were dropped by a Hydra ship?”

“The cameras caught it,” Fury confirmed.

“Any idea what Hydra might be after?”

“Just take a look at the tech,” Fury said, ignoring his question.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Tony said under his breath as he left the room.

He picked up the robot pieces and headed straight to Stark Tower. He had research to do and he didn’t want to waste time in the air. As soon as he landed he had JARVIS bring up all of the information available on Hydra, but unfortunately there wasn’t much.

There were a few generic profiles, some vague news articles, and a lot of classified government documents that he didn’t have time to hack into before morning. If he wanted to know more than that he was going to have to ask someone who knew more about Hydra than him. Just about every news article that he’d come across had mentioned Captain America in the same paragraph as Hydra, which made Steve his best option for information, since Fury obviously wasn’t going to be talking.

“Fuck,” Tony muttered, burying his head in his hands. Steve wasn’t like Thor; he couldn’t just take him out for drinks. Could he?

The phone call from Steve last night had been an olive branch, but Steve had been pissed this afternoon, almost more than he’d been that first day when Tony’s mistake had actually made a mistake that led to injuries. Tony really doubted that Steve was going to call today. He shook his head. Even if he did talk to Steve today, they weren’t exactly on good footing. No, he was going to have to wait until tomorrow.

Giving up on research for the night, Tony got up and grabbed a bottle of scotch. If he was going to wake up hung over in the morning then he might as well do something to deserve it. He poured himself four fingers, drained it, and then poured four more, before bringing the glass and the bottle over to the couch.

He made fast work of the scotch and his head was pleasantly spinning when his phone began to vibrate in his pocket. He pulled it out and stared at the American flag on the screen in surprise. He really hadn’t thought that Steve would call today.

“Hello?” he answered, trying not to slur.

“Tony? It’s Steve.”

“I know,” Tony replied. “The flag popped up on my screen and told me.” Okay so he was drunker than he’d thought.

“The flag told you?” Steve repeated. “Tony, have you been drinking?”

“Maybe a little.”

Steve sighed. “How much is a little?”

Tony glanced at the bottle, surprised to find it was almost empty. “A lot.”

“Why do you do this to yourself?”

Tony shrugged, then realized that Steve couldn’t see him. “I dunno. I’m going to wake up hung over tomorrow either way. Might as well enjoy it.”

“I can tell that this isn’t a good time,” Steve said. “I’ll let you go.”

“Okay,” Tony agreed. “Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t worry; tomorrow I’m going to be good.”

“Sure you are, Tony. Sure you are.”

Tony heard the phone click and dropped it next to him on the couch. Steve didn’t believe that Tony could do things the right way; well, tomorrow Tony was going to show him.

**

Saturday, April 28, 11:00 AM PST (6)

It didn’t matter how many times he woke up to that fucking ringing phone, Tony was always struck by how bad this particular hangover was. The headache and dizziness were worse than most of his hangovers, which was really saying something. However, considering how much he’d drunk last night, he decided he might have gotten off lucky this time.

He groaned as the phone call with Steve came back to him. As if Steve needed any more reasons to think that Tony was an incompetent drunkard. For once, he was glad that the day had restarted. Now if only he could get the universe to erase his last birthday party from existence too…

He didn’t have time to worry about last night though, not if he was going to impress Steve today. He answered the phone on its sixth ring, trying to be as polite as it was possible to be with a pounding headache. He assured Fury that he was on his way and crawled out of bed, dragging himself into the bathroom to take a very quick shower. He wanted to look—and smell—presentable today. He wasn’t going to give Steve anything to complain about.

**

He made good time—despite stopping for coffee—and got to New York just as the agents were being led out of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters by Captain America. A couple of robots had already been downed by Thor’s lighting.

Tony told JARVIS to block all incoming calls—he didn’t have time to talk to Pepper today—and opened up a line of communication with Steve.

“Captain, I just got here, and it looks like you have a little problem down there.”

“Stark?” Steve sounded surprised, but he recovered quickly. “Can you identify any weaknesses in those things?”

Tony paused for a moment as though he was thinking before responding. “Their armor is too tough for bullets to penetrate, but I think I can take out their legs. It should incapacitate them.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Tony closed his eyes—now for the hardest part. “What do you want me to do?”

There was silence for a moment, long enough that Tony wished that he could see the look on Steve’s face. He imagined that there must be some gaping, and he almost laughed as his mind brought up an image of Steve opening and closing his mouth like a fish. Thankfully, he managed to hold it in. Steve would probably find laughter inappropriate during battle, especially if it was aimed at him.

“Try to take one down, if it works then we’ll adjust our tactics accordingly,” Steve finally said.

“Yes, sir,” Tony responded. He didn’t manage to keep all of the sarcasm out of his voice on the word “sir,” but he figured that Steve would think he was a pod person if he had. As it was there was a faint, amused snort on the other end of the line.

Keeping the communicator open, Tony flew towards the nearest robot and took out its legs with several strong repulsor blasts. His actions were almost rote by now and it only took him a minute to put the thing out of commission, but instead of moving on to the next robot like he usually did, he pulled back and hovered over the scene.

“How was that?” Tony asked.

“It seemed to work,” Steve acknowledged. “I can take out the ones closest to the building, if you want to work on some of the others?”

“Sure thing,” Tony agreed.

He remembered that Steve’s shield had made a robot stumble a few days ago. Tony wasn’t sure how Steve thought he was going to be able to take the robots out with only the shield, but that wasn’t his concern at the moment. Tony was going to follow Steve’s directions to the letter, and that meant working from the back of the pack to the front. He turned to the next robot and got to work.

**

“You’re late,” Fury growled as soon as Tony walked into the command center.

“If it weren’t for your little infestation, I’d be early,” Tony commented. “Between taking out half of the robots and helping with the clean-up, I was a little busy.”

Fury gave him a funny look. “You> helped with the clean-up?”

“He did,” Steve said from behind him. He gave Tony a long considering look before extending his hand. “Thanks. You were a big help back there.”

Tony stared at Steve’s outstretched hand in surprise and then up at the guardedly hopeful expression on his face. Despite the phone calls the last few days, he hadn’t had any idea that Steve was really this serious about fixing things between them. They had gotten off on the wrong foot from the start and Tony was surprised that Steve was this quick to forgive. Or maybe Tony was biased because he was remembering several more days full of angry confrontations that had never really happened. In Steve’s world, there really was less animosity to set aside.

The longer Tony stared at Steve’s hand the more uncertain Steve looked, which wasn’t his intention, so he took Steve’s hand in a firm grip and shook it. “No problem.”

Steve left and Tony turned back to Fury, who was looking decidedly unsettled. “I’m going to have some of those robot pieces transferred to my lab for study. We need to know what we’re up against.”

Fury nodded and Tony was about to leave when he thought of something that he’d been too distracted to ask about on the previous days.

“Oh, hey, why did you call me in the first place?”

Fury frowned and waved a hand. “It’s not important now. Just look at the robots.”

Tony raised an eyebrow. “Why did you drag me all the way across the country if it’s not important?”

Fury sighed. “We received intel about the latest armored suit developments in North Korea and Iran, but it isn’t anything that won’t keep.”

Well, that was better than Clint having another computer virus, but hardly worth dragging him across the country on short notice. He really was going to have to move back to New York if he wanted to keep consulting with S.H.I.E.L.D. “I’ll want to see that intel, but, according to the last satellite look I got, they are both at least five years away from being able to create a usable armored suit for their militaries. At least.”

Fury nodded, barely paying attention to him, and took a sheaf of papers from an agent. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”

“I’m sure I do.” Tony left in the direction of the labs, but changed course once he was out of sight. He was pretty sure that he’d learned everything he could from the robots in one evening already. Any other tests that he could run were going to take a lot longer than he had, so he changed out of his suit and then headed straight down to the gym, which was where Steve spent most of his free time.

Sure enough, when he got to the gym, Steve was already there. He had changed out of his uniform and into workout clothes and was taking what appeared to be a lot of anger out on a punching bag. Tony was surprised at how much aggression Steve seemed to have, considering how well things had gone today.

Tony leaned against the wall just inside the doorway and watched as Steve punched the bag hard enough that sand started to leak out of a tear. That caused Steve to pause his attack and Tony made himself known. “What did it ever do to you?”

Steve spun around, his hands still raised in a fighting posture. When he saw Tony he took a deep breath and lowered his hands. “What do you need?”

“Need?” Tony repeated.

“No one comes down here unless they need something,” Steve said matter-of-factly.

“Well, that’s depressing.”

Steve shrugged and turned back to the punching bag. “Shouldn’t you be analyzing robots?”

“I’ve got some tests running,” Tony lied. Well, sort of lied; he had run the tests before, after all, just not today. “I was just wondering if you saw the ship that dropped them?”

Steve shook his head. “I wasn’t outside yet.”

“It was Hydra,” Tony said.

Steve’s face darkened and he let loose a particularly vicious punch. “Fury said they were still active…despite everything we went through.”

“The thing is,” Tony said. “Fury won’t tell me anything, and I was wondering if you could.”

Steve caught the swinging bag, but didn’t turn around. “About what?”

“Hydra. What do they do? What do they want?” Tony asked. “Most of the files are classified.”

“They want to rule the world,” Steve answered. “I don’t know how they go about it now, but seventy years ago they used some sort of magical Norse artifact to create what I believe would be called weapons of mass destruction today.”

“Magic?” Tony asked eagerly. This was the closest he’d gotten to a potential magical source and he walked around until he could see Steve’s face, not wanting to miss anything. “Tell me about the artifact.”

Steve gave him a suspicious look but answered his question anyway. “It was this cube thing that they called the Tesseract. They used it to create the energy that powered their weapons.”

Tony stepped closer to Steve, close enough to hit the bag himself if he wanted to. “It didn’t do anything like manipulate time?”

“Not that I know of,” Steve replied. “It just had a lot of raw power.”

Tony was getting a sinking feeling. None of this sounded applicable, although if they still had it, maybe they’d figured out new ways to use it. “What happened to it?”

“The last I saw it, it was falling into the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,” Steve said emotionlessly. “I went down not long after.”

Steve let go of the bag and began attacking it again. Each punch was vicious, causing the bag to swing wide, and Tony had to move aside to avoid it. He took the dismissal for what it was and quietly left the gym.

Tony leaned against the wall just outside the doorway and scrubbed at his face. It didn’t sound like this Tesseract thing was still in play, so he had no idea what Hydra might have been doing with the spiders or even if the spiders were actually the source of whatever spell had gotten him stuck in this time loop. To be completely honest, he wasn’t even one hundred percent sure that magic was to blame in the first place. Tony didn’t have any idea what to do anymore.

He pushed off from the wall and walked numbly out of the building. There was a bar across the street and it wasn’t like he had anything better to do with his life.

**

Saturday, April 28, 11:00 AM PST (7)

Tony didn’t move when the phone rang. His head was aching and the light was hurting his eyes, but he didn’t care. What was the point? His entire life was pointless and he wasn’t even sure if death would provide an escape. For all he knew, he could blow his brains out today and everything would still restart tomorrow. The only thing keeping him from trying it was the same will to live that got him out of Afghanistan.

He just had to accept that he was doomed to live this day over and over again without anything ever changing. There was no point to answering the phone and going to New York. S.H.I.E.L.D. could handle the spiders just fine on their own. Hell, it didn’t matter if he got out of bed or drank himself into oblivion. None of it mattered anymore.

The phone stopped ringing, but Tony still didn’t move. He lay on his back staring blankly at the ceiling. He tried to remember last night, but after the bartender opened up a second bottle of tequila for him it had all begun to blur. He supposed that he should be relieved that when the day reset he woke up safe and sound in his bed instead of whatever alley that he’d collapsed in last night. At least he assumed that there had been an alley because he had flashes of memory that seemed to involve stumbling into a dumpster and falling against the brick wall behind it. And yet, he wasn’t relieved. He would rather be the focus of a rather embarrassing article in The Daily Bugle than have to live this day over again.

Tony was completely unaware of the passage of time until his phone started ringing again. He had almost forgotten that Pepper would be calling too.

“Sorry, Pepper,” he mumbled. “I wouldn’t be very good conversation today. Maybe I’ll be more talkative tomorrow.”

A slightly hysterical laugh escaped him and Tony took a deep breath trying to stay calm. There might not be any point to getting out of bed, but staying in it was going to drive him crazy. He also didn’t fancy the idea of pissing himself, and his bladder was screaming at him.

He rolled off the bed, managing to land on his feet, and stumbled into the bathroom to relieve himself. Once there, he decided he might as well take a shower. Anything would be better than staring at the ceiling for the rest of the day.

Tony stripped off his clothes and turned the water on as hot he could stand. He stood under the faucet, letting the water beat down on his aching neck and back, and tried to figure out what he was going to do. He didn’t have any more ideas to investigate, but, this morning’s depression aside, he didn’t really have it in him to give up. He didn’t survive his kidnapping and manage to escape from that damned cave in Afghanistan by giving up. Of course, at least he’d had help then. Without Yinsen he wouldn’t have made it.

He tipped his head back into the stream of water and began to work his hair into a lather, scrubbing a bit more fiercely than usual. It was strange how he’d felt more isolated this week than he had in that cave. Maybe there was something to be said for not trying to do everything himself—not that he was going to tell Steve that.

Thinking of Steve brought back yesterday’s conversation. Steve had said that nobody ever visited him unless they needed something. Tony could relate to that. He knew that he was an afterthought to most people, but there was something wrong about Steve being an afterthought. He was often on Tony’s mind, although granted not always in a fond way.

He thought about all of those phone calls Steve had tried to make over the last few days, and for the first time began to wonder if Steve was a bit out of his depth. He seemed to be trying to reach out and Tony just kept making it worse…like usual.

Well, since he didn’t have anything better to do today, maybe he would go pay Steve a visit. Steve would probably think that Tony was messing with him, but he could have fun with that too. He hadn’t been lying to Fury when he had said that sometimes it was fun to bait Steve—just not all the time.

Now that he had a game plan, Tony felt a bit less hopeless.

**

By the time Tony got to S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters the debris from the battle had already been cleaned up. The streets looked like any other New York streets, except for a few new potholes, and Tony had seen bigger potholes in his life. Flying over the country he had seen some that were large enough to be seen from hundreds of feet in the air.

Tony landed as softly as he could on the roof of the building and removed his armor. He had worn the Mark V armor this time because the briefcase armor was easy to transport. Once it was off, he picked up the deceptively light briefcase and entered the building.

Fury had probably known the minute that Tony had gotten to New York and was likely keeping track of Tony’s movements, like the paranoid control freak that he was, but Tony gave the command center a wide berth anyway. The last thing he wanted was a confrontation about his phone etiquette.

He knew that Steve spent most of his free time in the gym, but he was still a bit surprised to hear the dull thuds of fists hitting a punching bag when he got out of the elevator. Assuming that Steve had started working out today at the same time that he had yesterday, then he had been at that punching bag for hours now.

Tony stepped inside the door to the gym and leaned against the wall. “That bag must have really pissed you off. You aren’t imagining it’s me, are you?”

Steve punched the bag hard enough that the rope snapped and it flew across the room. He watched as it hit the wall, bursting open, sand flying everywhere, before turning around. “Only a little.” He picked up a bottle of water and took a drink. “What are you doing here?”

Tony shrugged. “I was bored and wondered if you wanted to grab dinner?”

“Dinner?” Steve sounded suspicious.

“Third meal of the day, often comes with bread,” Tony deadpanned. “I’m pretty sure it existed in the Forties. Maybe called supper?”

Steve glared at Tony. “I know what it is. I just don’t know what you want.”

“I want something to eat,” Tony said. “No ulterior motives.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “You flew all the way in from Malibu for dinner. With me? Excuse me if I’m skeptical.”

“Look,” Tony said deciding to be straightforward. “The status quo hasn’t been working. We need to figure out how to work together, right?”

Steve nodded slowly. “We do, although, I might find your argument more convincing if you’d bothered to come in today when you were supposed to. We could’ve used your help.”

“I missed Fury’s call,” Tony lied. “But that’s between me and him. Right now, all I want is pizza. The pizza in Malibu is barely worthy of being called pizza.”

Tony tried to look as innocent as possible as Steve cocked his head to the side and studied him. Finally, he straightened up and grabbed a towel to wipe his face with. “I could eat. Just let me change.”

They took a cab across town to Tony’s favorite pizza restaurant. Steve offered to drive them, but there was no way that Tony was riding on the back of Steve’s motorcycle. He was already trying hard enough to be friendly; riding bitch was a step too far.

“So,” Tony said once they were seated and had placed their order. “What’s your favorite part of the new century?”

Steve shrugged. “I haven’t been out much. I guess I like the sports coverage on television. Without all those stations, I doubt that I’d be able to follow the Dodgers from here.”

Tony raised his eyebrows. “You still follow the Dodgers even though they aren’t in Brooklyn anymore?”

“Who else am I supposed to follow?” Steve asked. “At least they’re familiar…sort of.”

“I guess,” Tony said. “Most people would call them traitors for leaving.”

“I’m not most people.”

“I’m starting to figure that out,” Tony agreed.

Steve frowned at him. “What are you really after here, Tony?”

Tony sighed. It probably wouldn’t hurt to be completely honest with Steve; after all, Steve wouldn’t remember any of this in the morning. It might be nice to actually talk about it too. “I don’t really know. The last few days have been pretty hard, and I do feel bad about the way we’ve been at odds. Everything went so well yesterday and I wish we could get along like that more often.”

Steve frowned. “Tony, I didn’t see you yesterday. We didn’t even talk.”

“Yes we did.” Tony held a hand up to stop Steve from interrupting. “This is going to sound crazy, but I’m stuck in a time loop. I’ve been reliving the same day over and over again.”

“You’re right, that does sound crazy.” Steve hesitated before continuing. “But to be fair, I’ve seen a lot of crazy things.”

Tony let out a breath. “You believe me?”

Steve shrugged. “I don’t have any reason not to.”

“Just like that?” Tony asked, surprised. “You believe me just like that?”

“Tony, you are almost impossible to work with, you’re vain, you flaunt authority, you drink too much, and you take particular pleasure in making my life miserable, but I don’t think you’ve ever actually lied to me.”

“Gee thanks,” Tony said. “But that’s not actually true; I lied to you earlier. I didn’t miss that call from Fury; I just couldn’t do it again. Every day starts with that call. Do you have any idea how miserable it is to have Fury wake you up every single fucking morning?”

“So, you knew about the robots and decided not to come help?” Steve asked, his disapproval clear.

“Some days my helping actually made it worse,” Tony said quietly, thinking about the injured agents on the first day.

The waiter arrived with their pizza and the fell silent as they grabbed slices and began to eat. After he’d eaten his first slice, Steve leaned back in his chair and looked at Tony. “What have you done to fix it?”

Tony took a deep drink of his beer before answering. “Well, I figured it might have to do with the robots, so I studied them. I also talked to Thor about magic and you about Hydra, but I’m all out of ideas now.”

“What did you and I talk about?” Steve asked.

Tony could tell that this was Steve’s way of confirming Tony’s story and he couldn’t really blame him. The story was pretty unbelievable. “You told me about the Tesseract. About how Hydra used it to create weapons and that it was lost at sea right before you were.”

Steve’s eyes widened slightly, but he didn’t react otherwise.

“Are you actually convinced now?” Tony asked. “Because if not you can tell me a secret today for me to surprise you with tomorrow.”

Steve shook his head. “That’s really not necessary. What are you doing about the loop today?”

Tony laughed, bitterly. “Not much. Talking to you.”

“I don’t know much about magic or science. I’m not sure how I can help.”

Tony picked at the pepperoni on his pizza, not looking at Steve. “To be honest, more than anything, I’m just glad to talk to somebody about it. It’s been a lonely week.”

“I can imagine,” Steve said. “Being caught out of time…it’s not fun.”

Tony had never really given much thought to how hard it must have been for Steve to wake up in an entirely new time. Thinking about it in reverse, he was pretty sure that he would be miserable in the 1940s without half of the technology that he took for granted today. Steve was doing pretty well, all things considered.

“So,” Tony said, looking up. “How about you come back to my place? We can put on one of those sports channels you like and break out a bottle of scotch.”

Steve frowned at the mention of the scotch. “Alcohol doesn’t work on me, no matter how hard I try.”

“Well, good, that means more for me.” Tony grinned and tossed down a few bills to cover dinner. “Let’s get out of here.”

 

Sunday, April 29, 9:32 AM PST

Tony jerked awake, a shrill ringing piercing through the fog that was clouding his mind.

“Not again,” he mumbled rolling over and pulling the pillow over his head. Despite the hang over, he clearly remembered the night before, and he obviously hadn’t thought things through yesterday. Now that he finally had had a decent conversation with Steve, it had all been erased—at least for Steve. What was the point?

The phone kept ringing, so in order to stop the noise, Tony reached out to grab it off of the nightstand, but his hand only found open air. Confused, he peeked out from underneath the pillow. As soon as he saw his surroundings he shot straight up. He was in New York. He wasn’t in Malibu.

He wasn’t in Malibu!

“Are you going to answer that?” Steve asked, sticking his head in the bedroom.

“Steve!” Tony exclaimed. He got out of bed and rushed over to Steve, grabbing his arms. “Is it Sunday?”

Steve nodded.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Steve replied.

“I could kiss you!” Tony exclaimed.

“I’d rather you didn’t,” Steve said, stepping out of Tony’s grip and putting several feet between them. He gestured at the phone which had stopped ringing. “No wonder we can never get ahold of you.”

Tony made a dismissive gesture. “I’m sure it can wait. The important thing is that it’s Sunday. Finally.” He raised his hand up to his aching head. “Although, I had been hoping to wake up without a headache when this was finally over.”

“Then you shouldn’t have had so much to drink last night,” Steve chastised. “I had to literally carry you to bed, Tony.”

Tony bit down on his cheek to keep from snapping back at Steve. The disapproving tone to Steve’s voice still pissed him off, but they had come too far last night to undo it today. Besides, it was Sunday!

He grabbed his cell phone and listened to the message in order to avoid an argument. He wasn’t surprised to hear Fury’s voice, but he was thrilled that it was an entirely different message than the one that had grown familiar over the Saturday that would not end.

“That was Fury,” Tony said. “Apparently he misplaced Captain America and was hoping I’d seen him.”

Steve sighed. “I should go back.”

“Let me get dressed and I’ll drive you,” Tony said. “I should probably write up my research on those spider robots you all took down yesterday anyway.”

Steve sat down on the edge of Tony’s bed while Tony dug through his closet. “What do you think happened?”

“I don’t know,” Tony said. “The only thing I did differently yesterday was talk to you.” Tony paused and looked back at Steve. “You do still believe me right?”

“Yes,” Steve said firmly. “I’m not doubting you at all.”

Tony let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he was holding. “Thank you.”

“But Tony, whatever happened, you need to tell Fury.”

Tony sighed. “You’re probably right. I’ll talk to him when I take you in.”

**

“Why don’t you seem at all surprised by any of this?” Tony asked, suspicious. He had just finished telling Fury everything and the man hadn’t even raised an eyebrow.

“Tony, if I was surprised every time something strange happens around here I would be in the grave by now. Shocks aren’t good for the heart.”

“So, what do you think caused it then?”

Fury shrugged. “Maybe Loki isn’t out of the picture after all. Mischief is his specialty. Whatever it is, we’ll look into it. Try not to be concerned.”

“Don’t be concerned,” Tony said, sarcastically. “I’ve only lived through hell for the last seven days. No reason for concern at all.”

“It wasn’t all bad was it? You and Steve seem to be getting along better,” Fury pointed out. “I for one am grateful for whoever stuck you in that loop. I was tired of hearing the two of you bicker like school children.”

Tony opened his mouth in indignation, but Fury talked over his protest.

“Now, go look into those robots. Make yourself useful. I have things to do.”

Tony walked out of Fury’s office and nearly ran into a woman with long, dark hair waiting right outside the door. He’d never seen her before and had just turned to get a better look when Fury slammed the door in his face.

Tony shook his head and put it out of his mind. The reports wouldn’t take long to write up and then maybe he would see if Steve and Thor wanted to go out for drinks. If Steve tried to protest, he’d just call it a team building exercise.

**

Epilogue:

 

“You asked to see me, Director Fury?”

Fury latched the lock on his office door in case Tony decided to get curious and looked at the young woman standing near his desk. “I did indeed, Ms. Maximoff.”

“Have you made a decision then?” Wanda asked as she took the seat in front of Fury’s desk. “Did I pass your test?”

Furry walked around to his chair and sat down. He leaned back in the chair and fixed his good eye on Wanda. “Your powers are very impressive. That was never in question. Your association with the Brotherhood and relation to Magneto on the other hand—“

“Is in the past,” Wanda interrupted. “You made a place for the Hulk despite his past.”

“True.” Fury sighed. “I still have some reservations, but your powers managed to do what no one else has. You actually managed to humble Tony Stark—however briefly—and he’s now willing to work with the team. In light of that, I believe I can find a place for you here.”

“And my brother?” Wanda asked, her eyes intent.

Furry nodded. “And your brother.”

"Good," Wanda said. "I'm sure Pietro will be relieved. We've been running for a long time."

"Just don't make me regret it, Ms. Maximoff," Fury warned.

"You won't," Wanda said, standing up. "You have my word."

Fury waited until Wanda left the room before muttering, "And yet, I still have my doubts."

He shook his head and opened his file on the Maximoff siblings. He had a bad feeling about this, but these were desperate times and their skills could be useful. Right now, he was just glad that Tony and Steve weren't at each other's throats anymore. It was a small victory, but a victory none-the-less. He'd take it.