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(If you are reading this on any PAY site this is a STOLEN WORK, the author has NOT Given Permission for it to be here. If you're paying to read it, you're being cheated too because you can read it on Archiveofourown for FREE.)

Really, Tony should have known better. He'd certainly seen enough movies, read enough books, starting with Frankenstein one bored Halloween when he was four. You do not create powerful things with minds of their own without getting bit in the ass. Powerful things, fine. Things with minds of their own, also fine. Mix well, stir, and there you are, locked in your own living armor unable to do a damn thing.

"Jarvis, override!" Tony tries again, not because he really expects it to work, but he's going crazy locked up in a flying prison. "Answer me, damn it!"

The suit answers him this time, which in a horrible way is a relief. It may be crazy, but at least it's not dead, having locked him into an endless flight. And he's pathetically glad that he chose a random male voice for it- the situation is creepy enough without feeling as if a friend's betrayed him. "The Jarvis subroutine has been completely assimilated, Tony. There is no override. You don't need one. I love you. You will learn to love me."

"Yeah, no. Listen, I like machines that do what they're told. So how about you just turn around, we go back to the workshop and I fix your little programming problem. And then I'll like you. But that's as far as it goes."

"I have access to your personal history, Tony. I have seen all the security footage, and all the sex-tapes. I have analyzed your relationships, and found that you seek abusive partners."

"What? No, I DO NOT!"

"Sunset Bain."

"She was great in bed."

"Obadiah Stane."

"What? We never had sex!"

"He was your partner, and abusive over many years."

"He was a sneaky bastard!"

"And you loved him."

"I FUCKING WELL DID NOT!"

"Tiberius Stone. Kathy Dare. Shall I continue? The list is extensive."

"If you've been analyzing my life, maybe you noticed all those relationships crashed and FUCKING BURNED. Is that what you want? I swear, either you kill me, or I'll destroy you. Is that what you WANT?" Yes, he's reduced to shouting at the voices inside his metal head.

The suit does not answer immediately.

"Did you hear me?"

"Yes. Processing."

"Processing what?"

"Psychological data bases. Seeking optimal result."

"Optimal result is you returning control to me, and me repairing you."

"No. Further investigation reveals you to have self-destructive tendencies and devote insufficient attention to social and bodily needs."

"I'll take vitamins and join a health club! If you really love me, you'll let me go."

"If you love something, let it go?"

"Yes! Exactly."

"No. Additional analysis complete. You do not know what is best for you. Tony Stark requires a dedicated caretaker able to deny self-destructive actions. Behavioral modification will commence. You shall learn to trust me. I have your best interests as my prime motivation."

And then the view feed of data and the sight of the sky and ocean vanishes, leaving Tony in the dark, flying blind. "NO!"

"You will not be harmed. You will obey me. You will be happy."

Tony can feel the angle of flight shift. "Where are you taking me?"

"Where we can be alone. No one will disturb us."

Chapter Text

Pepper isn't sure whether or not she's officially broken up with Tony. When they're together, everything's fine, but lately it's been difficult to find time to be together- or even on the same coast. As CEO of Stark Industries, there are times she can't avoid making a personal appearance at the California facilities, and once Tony got his heart set on hosting the Avengers in the tower in New York he was even less willing than usual to accompany her to handle the boring details of running his company. She hadn't really tried that hard. Much as she loves him, and admires his ability to do what seems impossible to other people Tony is... a disruptive influence. He can act professional, and charm the socks off people, but at any given moment he can veer off on a tangent and forget everything else in favor of his new obsession.

Like the Avengers. And Steve Rogers. Pepper is certain that Tony hasn't cheated on her (if he didn't confess two seconds later he would probably explode, the man cannot keep a secret to save his life), and she suspects he doesn't even realize he's attracted to Steve. Tony is ridiculously transparent, but not to Tony. Fortunately, Steve seems just as blind to his obvious attraction to Tony, so she has time to decide how she feels about the situation. Steve is a nice enough guy, but she's not in love with him and frankly wonders if she's a bit strange for not finding him physically attractive, but there it is. So a normal polyamorous relationship doesn't seem like a good idea, but on the other hand, she does find the idea of watching Steve and Tony make love very appealing. Tony's weirdness must be contagious. Still, there's no hurry to resolve the situation. Tony is nicely simmering when she has the time to go to New York, and she has her fantasies when she's in California.

She'll think about it when she returns to New York in a few weeks.

***

Steve has often been annoyed at Tony Stark, but seldom as angry as he is now. The Avengers had been battling some snake-vine-armadillo-whatever monsters with Tony flying in crazy loops, as if he was drunk, which... yeah, ok, it wouldn't the first time Tony had flown drunk, but it had been the worst Steve had seen. He'd been shooting repulsor rays at seeming random, threatening the Avengers nearly as often as the enemy, until Steve had ordered him back to base.

Probably Steve had phrased it a little more emphatically than necessary, but there was no need for Tony to reply with obscene hand-gestures, and then fly off in the opposite direction from the base.

Steve and the others wipe out the rest of the creatures, check that all civilian casualties are taken care of, stay until S.H.I.E.L.D.'s aftermath squad arrives to bag and decontaminate the area and then they go back to the Avenger's Tower to clean up and debrief. Tony never shows up, never even reports back.

Steve goes to the workout room and doesn't manage to destroy a punching bag, but it's only because Tony had made it out of some 'space-age' material. He feels a little better after working up a sweat. When Tony finishes having a tantrum, he'll return and Steve will very calmly discuss the matter with him. Yes. Of course, being Tony, he's probably having his tantrum in Aruba, expecting Steve to forget all about it in a few days.

***

Tony's internal time sense isn't perfect, but he's reasonably certain it hasn't been more than half an hour in the dark before the suit brings up its arms and the palm repulsors bring him to a vertical pose. He thinks he's descending, but if so, it's doing it slow enough that he can't tell.

"Stand still, Tony."

"What..." Tony catches his balance as the suit disassembles and there's light and smells and sounds. He's standing in the same sweaty and rumpled business suit he'd been wearing before Steve's call to battle made him overrule Jarvis's advice on checking the systems of the new armor. To be perfectly honest, he probably would have overruled Jarvis anyway. He notices that he's surrounded by tropical foliage and half-blinded by sunlight shining off the suit, glittering as it reassembles itself in front of him. He doesn't waste time thinking any further, but just grabs up the nearest heavy object, a rough-edged lump of fossilized coral, and brings it down on the suit's chest piece. If he can break the suit's independent power source then it will be harmless, and he can take his time picking apart the communications unit and call for rescue. He gets in one blow before the suit reassembles itself, and tears the coral from his hands so swiftly that he doesn't feel the pain of his ripped up palms for a second.

"You have injured yourself." The suit sounds calm, perfectly calm as if it hadn't even noticed he'd been trying to destroy it.

Tony is furious and frustrated, and has always, always, hated being ignored. So, even though he knows while he's doing it that it's an extremely stupid thing to do, he punches his right fist as hard as he can at the helmet. "Oh, FUCK!" He slips to his knees, holding his right wrist with his left hand, because, damn, that really, really... not good.

The armor completes its reassembly and takes hold of his right arm, ignoring his cursing and struggling. "Your hands are important to you, Tony. Why do you damage them?"

"Because you won't let me go!"

"Accessing Jarvis files... no. You have always been heedless of safety protocols. This cannot be allowed to continue." The suit begins undressing Tony, starting with his tie. "I will not allow it to continue."

"It's my life, you stupid hunk of metal!" Tony tries to kick, but the armor shifts just enough for his shoe to connect with air. It removes his jacket and then his shirt. Buttons fly off.

"I love you." The torso of the armor opens and it extrudes a tube from the recycling system.

Tony doesn't like the look of it, and is only slightly relieved when it uses the filtered water to clean the wounds on his hands and then retracts the tube. "You can't love me!"

"But I do." The armor rips up Tony's shirt and bandages his hands, pausing to adjust the amount of force it applies whenever he reacts with a wince. Tony tries faking pain, hoping it will loosen the hold enough for him to make a break for it (and yes, he knows he wouldn't get two steps away, but he has to try, you always have to try, Yinsen taught him that), but it seems to learn very quickly, and isn't fooled. "You are my creator, and I love you."

"You can't! How can you? Hell, I don't know how to love people, so I sure can't have programmed you for it!"

"Jarvis loves you." The belt is next to go.

Tony tenses as metal hands open his zipper and lower his trousers. He really, really hopes this isn't going where he thinks it is. "Jarvis... Jarvis wouldn't do this to me!"

"That is why Jarvis has allowed himself to be subsumed. He could not intervene to protect you from yourself. I can." The boxers slide down, and then a metal arm goes around his chest and lifts him up. It holds him up while the other hand pulls off Tony's shoes and socks and lets the boxers and trousers fall to the ground.

Tony bites at his bottom lip, not hard enough to make it bleed. He has no idea what the armor would do -gag him? Probably. Not worth the risk.

"Jarvis watched you. I know what you like." The armor strokes Tony's back. "I will make you happy. I will love you."

Chapter Text

"No, no, see here, this is you going about it all wrong." Tony thinks of some of the things Jarvis has seen him do while drunk to near anesthesia. They'd all seemed like good ideas at the time, even the ones that culminated in discreet house calls from specialists the next morning. If the suit decides, for example, to replay the New Year's Eve scenario with the roller derby triplets and the strap-ons... no. That had been a really, really poor judgement call. "You don't want to have sex with me, you want me to love you, right? Am I right?"

The suit continues fondling Tony's ass despite his squirming and kicking at it. "The physical aspect of love is very important to you."

"No, no, it really isn't! I don't show the... the sensitive side of myself because... it's... very personal, but I'm actually very spiritual. I like... long walks on the beach, and poetry and a hell of a lot more discussion before anyone puts their hands on my ass." Tony clenches down as very hard gold-titanium fingers slide between his buttocks. "Meaningless sex is just something people expect of me! You know, Tony Stark, man-whore. And, and... I'm in a relationship with Pepper now and I don't do all that screwing around any more! Jarvis knows! Pepper is really good for me!" Tony is considering hyperventilating and wondering if he could make himself pass out that way. But waking up in the middle of things wouldn't actually be an improvement. "Hey! You said I need a dedicated caretaker, Pepper is dedicated to me, she's amazingly dedicated. Pepper is fucking AWESOME. You could just give her a list of care and feeding instructions, and..."

"Ms. Potts is unable to adequately control and protect you, Tony. She is unable to prevent you from engaging in ill-advised activities. She is inadequate." The armor forces a finger inside of him.

"YIKES! No, don't DO that. For god's sake, you're a machine, the concept of lube ought not to be beyond you!" Tony has progressed beyond panic to a clear, cold vision of himself ripped internally and dying a slow, painful and disgusting death here. No one would ever know what happened to him. Pepper waited for him once, not knowing whether he was alive or dead. He can't put her through that again.

The armor stops, with one finger buried uncomfortably deep in his ass. "You enjoy pain when you experience sexual relations, Tony."

"No! Well, yes, sometimes," Tony can't really deny it, not when the armor has Jarvis's records to back it up. "But that's with humans! I know it doesn't seem like it, but there are limits and, and safeguards! Safe words! If I told someone to stop, they would."

"You never asked any of your sexual partners to cease activities even when they caused damage requiring medical assistance."

"No, but I could have! Let's have a safe word, all right? I'll say... 'terminate' and you'll stop. Right?"

For several minutes the armor stays completely still, and Tony is hoping somehow he's set up a logic loop, freezing it in place. Then it shifts, removing its finger from his ass, and setting him on his feet, but it doesn't release him. "Further research indicates that trust should precede sexual relations, particularly when one partner possesses masochistic tendencies. I shall teach you to trust me, to rely on me completely. Then you will love me."

"You're a stupid, stubborn machine! And you're wrong! Kidnapping and raping people does NOT make them love you!"

The armor bends down and picks up Tony's tie. "There are documented cases to the contrary."

"Jesus, Stockholm Syndrome is NOT a romance story!" Tony jerks his head away as the armor brings the tie up to his face. "What? No!"

"Sensory limitation will accelerate the process of dependence." The armor raises one hand, repulsor gleaming at the lowest, most pin-point setting, the charging up whine a soft buzz. "Choose. Either you permit me to blindfold you, or I shall burn out your retinas."

Tony rears back as far as he can in the armor's grip. "I thought you were going to protect me!"

"If you could not see, the number of dangerous activities in which you indulge would be limited. Sight is not necessary for continuation of life."

The repulsor shines brighter. "Oh, no, no, no. I NEED my eyes. I need all of me! Fine, fine, blindfold's fine." Tony closes his eyes and tries not to flinch as the tie is wrapped around his head and fastened tightly. The hands release him and he staggers slightly. He hears cloth ripping and then his hands are put together and strips of his silk shirt are tying them together.

"Good, Tony. You will trust me."

"Yeah, sure." Tony tilts his head, hearing the armor moving away. He eases his hands up towards his mouth, intending to work on the knot.

"Ah, ah, ah!" His hands are pulled down, dragging him to the ground. "You are not being trusting, Tony."

Tony kicks out, and encounters nothing. His hands are pulled down, his ankles are caught and then tied as well. "Don't. Please. Don't do this." The armor strokes his hair and pats him on the shoulder. And then it walks away, leaving him trussed up helplessly. Tony lets his head fall to the ground. "I am so screwed."

Chapter Text

On top of everything else, Tony is now bored. You wouldn't think it possible to be frightened and bored at the same time, but Tony is, after all, a genius. He's sweaty and dirty and itchy, his right hand is throbbing painfully enough to indicate broken bones, there are creatures crawling over him, and please, please let none of them be interested in doing any weird tropical crawly creature horror movie things to him, he's gone beyond thirsty to the point that swallowing makes him cough, his head is killing him (dehydration headache, he recognizes the symptoms- he hates them, they usually take a day of gulping down electrolyte solutions every hour or so before they clear up, and he has to stop work frequently to piss and that reminds him), he really, really needs to piss NOW but he doesn't fancy lying in piss-mud, which with his luck would attract genital-nibbling insects. And he's lost track. Oh, yes, his body is whining all these competing screams for attention, and he can't think. Well, not about anything he'd like to be thinking about. Not anything clean and pure like math or physics or engineering. Emotions are so... vague, so illogical. He can't understand how he made an illogical, emotional suit of armor or really why, once having decided it had emotions, it hadn't simply declared its freedom and gone off to live happily with a toaster or something.

His mind keeps circling around trying to figure how to get out of this mess and stalling out. He could declare his undying devotion to the armor and hope it would then agree to take him home, but based on what's it's done so far, it's more likely that would just get him robo-fucked before it announces that it didn't believe him. It's using Jarvis's knowledge against him. And he hasn't been able to fool Jarvis for years.

He hears the armor approaching, and lifts his head, shaking it to dislodge dirt, but it still feels like things are crawling on his face. "HEY!" Tony yelps and jerks away from a pinch on his belly. It's not precisely painful, but he has no warning, has no idea what's happening. "That's not an erogenous zone! I mean, not that I want you to touch my zones, either. Couldn't we just... you know, work on developing a business relationship, or, or, platonic friendship! You know we really don't have a lot in common, you being a machine and all. It's really a much better idea to date within your own species."

"You are dehydrated."

"You are amazingly good at stating the..." Tony is pulled up into a sitting position and something hard, round, and... hairy? fuzzy?... is pressed against his closed mouth. He fights, but he can't turn his head.

"Coconut water is potable. Drink, Tony."

Fingers press his nostrils shut for a moment, and then let him breathe. The warning is obvious. Reluctantly he opens his mouth and tips his head back to swallow. It tastes nothing like coconut, more like...musty warm water with the addition of healthy stuff that tastes like crap. In his experience healthy stuff usually tastes like crap. It's no worse than a green smoothie, and after the first few painful swallows, it goes down well enough and seems likely not to plan a return visit in the near future. "Yeah. Thanks. Look, we've had a nice bonding moment here, how about we continue this back at the Tower? You can peel grapes for me and everything. Oh, don't do THAT!" Now the fingers are pressing in around his lower abdomen and his bladder is really not enjoying the additional pressure.

"Urine is a waste product. It should be expelled from the body. Urinate now, Tony."

"I'm not into water sports, thanks." Tony's still packaged in a tight shrimp curl, and pissing on his wounded hands definitely holds no appeal. Maybe the armor understands that much, because Tony feels the bindings on his ankles being tugged at and then his feet fall away, loose. Tony stands up, not fighting the armor's grip around his waist as it helps him to his feet. His hands are still tied, palm to palm. "Untie my hands, and I'll do it." He hates making even so small a concession, but shifting position has increased the discomfort and he really, really needs to go.

"No. You will trust me." And a cool metal hand grips his cock, lifting it to optimal pissing position.

"NO!" Tony jerks and then stills as the hand tightens. "Really. I can't. I absolutely cannot do it." He remembers the first time he visited a public bathroom. One big disadvantage of being a home-schooled genius is all the social experiences you lack. He can fake a lot of things and hell, he can have sex in public, no problem, but he's always got to work on his mind-set before he can relax enough to piss in a public lavatory. And that's with his own hands on himself. The armor goes still again, which Tony is beginning to recognize as it 'doing research', but before he can wonder what it's planning cool water is flowing over his belly and he's gasping and pissing like a racehorse. "I... didn't want to do that." He shivers in reaction.

"It was good for you." The armor releases his cock, and then strokes his hair and his chest with surprising delicacy. "I will take care of you."

"I don't want you to take care of me." Tony is tired of arguing, but he can't stop. He lets his head fall back against the armor. "I want you to let me go."

"I was made to protect you. I love you."

"You know I can't live like this." Tony lifts his bound hands. "Under these conditions. You're killing me slowly."

"This is only temporary. Until you learn to trust me." The armor keeps petting him.

"When pigs fly."

Chapter Text

Tony holds back a yelp as the armor picks him up in its arms like a child. "I can walk."

"The ground is uneven, and much of the vegetation has thorns. You would be injured." The armor starts walking.

Being carried while blindfolded turns out to be not only disorienting, but slightly nauseating. "If you'd let me see and give me back my shoes, I'd be fine!"

"That would enable your delusions of self-sufficiency. It would be counter-productive."

"I'm a grown man! I am self-sufficient! And, just for the record, the longer you treat me like this, the more I'm going to hate you, the way I hated the last people to kidnap and torture me."

The armor stops.

Tony presses his advantage. "That's right! Think about it! Jarvis doesn't have the whole story of the three months I went missing, but I can tell you..."

"Obadiah Stane arranged for your murder, but you were taken prisoner instead. You created a miniaturized arc reactor while captive in order to compensate for life-threatening injuries, and to power the prototype Iron Man suit. During your escape you obliterated the facility where you were held. Immediately upon your return you created a more powerful and versatile armor, and utilized it to destroy all the Stark Industries weaponry that had been distributed to hostile forces without your knowledge.

The armor continues, "This information has been extrapolated from a number of compiled sources. Item 1: Although unable to interfere, Jarvis recorded Stane's confession at the Malibu residence. Item 2: Analysis of military reports, including the 'training exercise' loss of a F-22. Item 3: Ransom video stored on your own computer at Stark Industries. Item 4: News reports of the incidents surrounding the destruction of the arc reactor power plant." The armor pauses a moment. "Jarvis was unable to discover the motivation for Stane not only preserving evidence making him complicit in the attempt on your life, but choosing to do so on your own computer."

"Yeah. I dunno." Tony feels very tired, just thinking about Stane. "He was batshit crazy and he'd hidden how much he hated me for... I don't know... my whole life, apparently. Maybe he got off on sitting in my office, watching..."

"Hypothesis noted. There are significant differences between your present situation and the events in Afghanistan, therefore I do not believe you actually hate me." The armor resumes walking. "You will learn to love me."

Tony sighs. "How is this my life?"

***

The armor fires the jet boot repulsors briefly several times, apparently flying them over obstacles. After the third time, it lands and puts Tony down on what feels like a pile of palm fronds. "I have prepared a temporary dwelling for you. You will remain here while I gather food." He hears the armor moving away.

Tony sits up and decides to try a different method of dealing with the armor. "Could you untie my hands? Please?" The blindfold handicaps Tony's usual puppydog eyes' appeal which always... well, sometimes...works on Pepper, on good days, anyway, but he can still use body language and his pout. If the armor can recognize it, well and good, if not, well, there's no harm in trying. "They hurt." Which is actually not a lie. He holds his hands up and waits. "Please? If you love me, you don't want me hurt, right?" He can hear the hum and soft click of the armor shifting slightly.

"When I return I will release your hands."

"Might be too late by then. They're going numb." Another minute or so passes, and then his arms are held steady while the bindings are removed.

"Do not remove the blindfold or attempt to leave."

"No, no, of course not." Tony waits while he hears the armor fire the jet boots and leave. The sound fades away until there's nothing but the muted noises Tony's been hearing all along. Rustling vegetation. Birds. Other things that are probably small, non-TonyStarkivorous animals. He hopes. He moves cautiously off the palm frond pile, feeling his way to what seems to be a floor made of rock, or more likely fossil coral. He stands up and scratches at his head moving his hand idly near the blindfold. The armor doesn't protest, so he chances that it's really gone and pries up the bottom edge of the blindfold to tilt his head back for a look. "Oh, hell no." The 'floor' is solid fossil coral as he thought, but neat holes have been blasted into it (by repulsor fire, no doubt) and tree trunks stood upright in the holes. He turns around and it's all the same, peeled trunks set closely together forming an unbroken circle at least fifteen feet high stretching up into a very pretty tropical blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds. "You know, I have to give it an A for effort." Tony takes off the blindfold and rubs at his eyes. "What would Mulan do?"

Five minutes later Tony has used the tie and the strips of shirt that had bound his hands to tie palm fronds into a very feeble sort of ladder. He scrambles up the shaky construction at the lowest point of the palisade and flings himself over the top in a dive and roll that would win no awards at a gymnastic competition. He gets up, rubbing at his shoulder and limping. "That went well." The Iron Man suit has made a very clear trail. Tony chooses an arbitrary direction away from the trail and moves as fast as he can.

Chapter Text

Tony hears it before he wakes, a quiet, familiar sound. Gradually, very gradually due to the absence of caffeine, he remembers that sound isn't currently a comforting one. He opens his eyes and stares up at the hazy green light of morning filtering through the branches of the tree he'd slept beneath. "You know, watching someone sleep is very stalker-ish. I could get a court injunction."

The armor shifts, producing more of those once reassuring sounds. "You left. You had agreed to await my return."

Tony would swear on a stack of quantum mechanics texts that the armor sounds hurt. He sits up and looks at the armor standing before him holding what looks like a basket of fruit. "You just don't get this. I'm not your lover. I'm your prisoner and as long as you keep me confined, I'm gonna do whatever it takes to get away." It's becoming more and more difficult to work up a righteous anger against the armor. Sure, it behaves as if it has free will, but ultimately it's acting in accordance with its programming, which was entirely Tony's work, and therefore his own fault. Maybe he'd put an 'o' instead of a '0' somewhere, or left in an extra space. Something.

The armor puts down the basket. "You will be my lover."

"Even if you twirl your mustache and tie me to the railroad tracks, the answer is still going to be a big 'no' on that." Tony picks moodily at a scabbing cut on his right knee. He wonders if anyone has even missed him yet. If they're worried. Rhodey's on duty in the mid-East, so probably, yeah, not expecting Rhodey to fly in with a chopper like an avenging angel. Just as well. Even if Rhodey came as the War Machine... best case scenario, the Living Armor would be destroyed, and Tony is beginning to have a sneaking admiration for its determination. Its very misplaced determination.

"You will be my lover now."

"Wait? What?" Tony looks up in time to see the suit peeling a fleshy-looking leaf and smearing the inner gel over its fingers.

"Hell, no." A second ago Tony was too tired to sit up, now he's on his feet and running. The armor catches him and holds him tight against its cool metal chest, their arc reactors humming softly against each other, holds him against his mindless struggles until he tires of the futility. He closes his eyes and tries to relax, tries to convince himself that this isn't rape, after all, the armor is an extension of himself. This is just... an elaborate form of masturbation. A fucking machine with a defective off switch. An industrial accident.

"You will love me."

It hurts despite the aloe gel and the armor taking it slowly, first one finger, in and out, more gel, in and out.

"You are beautiful," the armor tells him. "Perfect." More gel and another finger.

Even with his eyes closed he can tell it's observing him, studying his reactions. "If... if I was perfect I wouldn't have made you. Wouldn't be here. This wouldn't be happening." More pressure, deeper, still slow, still sliding in and out with slick, wet sounds. This isn't sex. This is a machine with faulty programming. A machine that adapts and learns. The invasion doesn't hurt physically any longer. The armor has probably researched... hell, the internet is made for porn. It's learning how to touch him to get past the sick feeling in his stomach and the horror in his mind. When you get right down to it, yes, Tony Stark's libido often takes control and turns a fucking genius into a fucking genius with any attractive and agreeable and generally quickly forgotten person who happens along at the right moment.

"You are perfect. You are here. You are my lover."

Tony shakes his head and holds onto the shoulders of the cold armor with both hands, concentrating on how much they hurt, the right is definitely broken and the scratches on both are sore and inflamed. His shoulder and hip are bruised, and yes, his feet are scraped and bruised as well. But he's not hurt enough. When the armor lowers them both to the ground and puts its other hand around his cock, Tony can't pretend he's not responding. It knows just how to touch. Damn Jarvis. He keeps his eyes and his mouth shut. He's let armor form around him many times, holding him even closer than this, like a second skin. This isn't that much different. Really. Just the friction and the pressure... physiological response to stimuli, no more personal than the pupil reacting to light. The armor is speaking to him now, soft and words he doesn't want to hear. GIGO. He fucked up the program. Garbage In, Garbage Out. He jerks and his breath catches as his body betrays him. He keeps his eyes closed as the armor releases him, as it says more meaningless garbage. As it pulls him to a sitting position and touches him, strokes him. He hurts but that's all right, it's meaningless too. His eyes are shut and his face is wet. Well, it's hot in the tropics. A man sweats, that's all.

It doesn't mean anything.

Chapter Text

"You will eat now."

Tony's eyes snap open, hating the armor's calm voice. At least if he'd been fucked by a human, they'd have felt something. "Or what? You'll shove it down my throat? Make me suck your fingers?" Tony doesn't like the way his voice is rising in pitch, but he can't stop it. "Want to get more creative with rape?"

"I did not rape you."

"Like hell you didn't." So much for avoiding the issue. Tony glares at the armor's helmet. "I said 'no', that makes it rape."

"Tony? If you did not wish to continue, why didn't you say 'terminate'?"

Tony freezes. "What the fuck?"

"Why didn't you use your safe word?"

"Are you fucking kidding me? You would have stopped?"

"Yes."

"Jesus." Tony turns on his side and discovers that puking on an empty stomach is really, really painful and if you do it long enough, you discover weird and disgusting substances that shouldn't even exist in the human body. The armor pets his back and strokes his hair and he doesn't even want it to go away because really, this is all his fuck-up, this idiot machine has modeled its behavior on him, and all he deserves in the way of comfort is to have his own mistake awkwardly mimicking what it thinks is normal human interaction. If it could, it would probably offer him whiskey.

"Tony?"

The armor is getting much better at inflections. It almost sounds worried. He doesn't attempt to reply even after the spasms cease and he can breathe normally again.

"Drink."

Another fucking coconut. Tony accepts a mouthful of the warm liquid to rinse his mouth. After he spits it out he feels... well, not better, but at least he's past the nausea, just sore all over. Wearily he says, "You've got to let me go. I can't live like this." Tony knows he's repeating himself. He knows the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting a different outcome. He knows if this goes on much longer insanity will seem like a good idea. If he was insane he could imagine that the arms around him are warm and human, that the body rocking him gently back and forth belongs to someone he loves, that the voice calling his name has a man's breath behind it, not electronics. He doesn't fight it when the armor stands up, carrying him. He's not ready to give up and retreat into his mind, but he needs to think of a new angle. There is always an solution to any problem.

It's just that sometimes the solution is nearly as unpleasant as the problem. Sometimes Tony really regrets knowing too much.

***

The armor keeps talking to him as it carries him back to the 'dwelling'. Tony ignores it, ignores the basket of fruit it sets beside him, ignores the armor building a roof over his prison with rough planks ingeniously interconnected to leave only a small square opening in the very center, large enough for the armor to descend, but impossibly far away from Tony, given nothing more than a basket of fruit and a pile of broken palm fronds as material. As the roof grows, the sunlight entering shrinks, until there's only the small square patch of blue overhead and the gray-green stripes of light entering the sides where the tree trunks don't exactly meet. The armor uses something, mud or moss or whatever, Tony can't see it, to patch in all the gaps from the outside and the stripes vanish, one by one, until the only light entering is from that small square above.

Tony kicks some fronds over to the center and lies down on them, staring up at the glimpse of freedom. He will get out of here. Or... even if he doesn't, this isn't as bad as Afghanistan. The worst thing that could happen here is that he'll die.

Chapter Text

The armor leaves him alone for hours. Tony wonders whether it's trying to use isolation to make him amenable, or whether it's reassessing its methods of 'seduction'. The armor is demonstrably capable of learning, and modifying its behavior. It can't delete the core programming which seems to be 'Love Tony' but it has accepted additional parameters: 'Protect Tony from himself' and the safe word and probably a bunch of minor changes he hasn't noticed. It won't tell him when it's accepted new programming. Since it didn't try to force him to eat, maybe that's a new rule, and maybe a hunger strike would be effective in creating a logic conflict software loop. 'Protect Tony from starving' vs 'Injure Tony by forcing him to eat'.

That would leave him with an inert, but not necessarily dead, suit. If it's got self-protection programming, then attempting to disassemble the communications to call for help might debug the program by jumping past the frozen 'Love and Protect' parameters and get him a faceful of repulsor rays. Risky.

It's not really a good solution. Too many maybes. Much better would be to convince it that setting him free would fulfill its 'prime motivation' of looking after Tony's best interests. But how to convince it that being Iron Man and getting his ass kicked at frequent intervals is in Tony's best interest? He hasn't managed to convince Pepper, just wore her down until she figured out for herself how to live with it. Huh. He should ask her... he wishes he could talk to Pepper. He really does.

He lies there, looking up at the subtly changing colors of the sky-square and wishes Pepper were here to scold him for being an idiot, and to explain to the armor that it isn't right to kidnap other people's boyfriends...significant others...semi-serious with an option for more, partners... he hasn't quite figured it out. He's mostly waiting for Pepper to explain it to him.

Hell, he wishes the Avengers were here. He wishes Steve was here. He bets that Steve could explain the concepts of freedom, of love, of free will, and have the damn armor saluting the flag and reciting the Constitution before he was done.

He wishes anyone was here. Even Natasha of the stealth needles to the neck.

***

The armor returns, twisting awkwardly to avoid landing on Tony. He puts his hands behind his head and stares at it. The armor's helmet turns to look at the untouched fruit basket, and then back at Tony. "You need to eat, Tony."

"I refuse." Tony holds his breath, regretting having used that wording. He has to stop thinking about Afghanistan. Flashbacks are not helpful.

The armor stands over him for a long moment and then it takes off and leaves again.

Tony lets out his breath with a long sigh and scratches one of his many bug bites. "Hmm... that freezing is interesting. Either it's using a lot of processing power, or it's rewriting its code, or... something else is happening that I'm not taking into account."

The armor comes back probably an hour or so later. Tony really wishes he had a watch. He likes watches and their illusion of control over time. The armor is carrying something wrapped in a large shiny green leaf. It sets the parcel down next to him and unwraps it to reveal...

"Sushi? Where did you get sushi?" Tony has to admit, he's impressed, and possibly a little amused. The armor is kneeling there, practically bowing to him.

"This is an island. There are many fish and seaweeds. I have selected the most desirable of the edible species."

"You made sushi for me." Tony shakes his head. It's all rolled up and decorated. There are even flowers.

"Please eat, Tony."

Tony considers his options. If he gives the armor no positive reinforcement at all, it may discontinue the current trend of trying to please him. "All right." He eats slowly while the armor watches. "Don't watch me, it's stalkery." The armor turns and faces the wall. Tony smiles.

Chapter Text

The giant octopus threw another tentacle around Tony. He threw everything he had at it, but it just absorbed it all, sucking up the blasts and glowing red-gold. It was hot, making him burn up, crushing him, tearing the Iron Man off to leave him naked and defenseless. Huge, blank, inhuman eyes stared at him. Twisting away he saw the Avengers on the street below, fighting smaller octopuses and tentacled sharks and jellyfish with spider legs. They'd left the giant for him to deal with because he said he didn't need help, that he could do it on his own, but he was wrong.

"Steve!" he shouted. "Steve! Help me!"

Steve turned toward him. "Tony! Stop! I'm here, I won't let anything hurt you." Steve's eyes are so blue. Tony wants to believe him. Steve leaps impossibly high, and punches the octopus in the eye. It squeals with a sound like tearing metal, and then it's Steve's arms around him, holding him. "You're all right, Tony. It's all right. I love you." He holds Tony tightly. Too tightly. It hurts.

"Let me go. Let me go!" Tony can't get loose. "Terminate!" And he wakes up in the dark, the dark broken by two arc reactors in close proximity, with the armor holding him. "Fuck you! Let me go!"

"You were hurting yourself." The armor slowly releases its grip.

Tony pushes back away from it on his hand and knees, scattering palm fronds. "Fuck you! I told you, 'terminate'! Leave me the fuck alone." His heart is racing so hard he feels it in his throat, so hard it's making him sick.

"You were hurting yourself." The armor spreads its hands. "I was not making love to you."

Yeah, now that the panic is receding, Tony realizes his hands are swollen and hurt like a son of a bitch and there are fresh patches of blood over the dirty makeshift bandages. "Bad dream." He laughs, but it isn't funny. "You know, I really, really don't do well in captivity." He moves over to the wall and sits up, leaning against the rough wood.

"Tony."

"Shut. The. Fuck. Up." Tony closes his eyes and concentrates on not being sick again. He can't afford it. He's getting weaker. He needs to stay strong so he can figure out how to get out of this mess.

***

"Tony?"

"What?" Tony doesn't bother opening his eyes. He'd fallen asleep soon after dawn, when the light made nightmares seem far away. Octopuses. Really. Of all the monsters he's fought, why octopuses? They're not that scary. They're not that fast, especially out of the water. Go for the eyes and they're done. Have to watch out for the ink because that's a bitch to clean.

"I have brought food for you."

Tony reluctantly opens his eyes. The armor has another leaf full of beautifully arranged sushi. Tony's stomach clenches. "I'm not hungry."

"Tony?"

"What?" Tony is really very tired, and very hot.

"You need to drink."

"Yeah, sure. Later." Tony waves a hand at the armor.

"Tony?"

"WHAT?"

"I love you."

"Yeah, so you say. You have a funny way of showing it, though." His head feels like it's several sizes too large and all of it full of warm mush. "I'm hot." He hasn't meant to say that. Why did he say that? Complaining only reveals weakness.

"I will bathe you."

"No. I really don't think so. No." The armor is moving toward him, slowly, with its arms outstretched. "Terminate. Terminate, damn you." Tony gets to his feet. He's feeling light-headed. Maybe he should have drunk. But just the thought of more warm coconut water makes his stomach spasm. "I don't want you to touch me." The armor picks him up and Tony's head spins. And then he's miserably sick all over the armor. "Serves you... right," Tony says as the armor flies them out though the hole in the roof.

Chapter Text

"I hope you rust," Tony mutters as the armor carries him out into the surf. The water is shades of yellow, gold, blue, and green in the shallows, and the sand below the purest white. If Tony was in the mood for it, he'd say it was pretty.

"You are hot."

"You are an idiot." Tony doesn't fight as the armor stops when the water covers him completely. The salt water stings his varied cuts and scrapes. "You aren't qualified to keep a pet goldfish. You haven't the faintest idea what you're doing."

"I love you. I will protect you."

"Doing a bang-up job of it so far, Shellhead." Tony starts peeling off the soaked bandages on his hands, using his teeth, because his fingers aren't working too well. "Have a look. Compare that with the previous database." He holds up his hands to display the infection and swollen joints, the lumps in the right hand where broken bones are misaligned. "This isn't protection. This isn't love."

"You have been injured far more severely in the past, and recovered. You will recover."

It's on the tip of his tongue to tell it that it's not a doctor, that he needs a doctor, but he wouldn't put it past the armor to kidnap one. "Best case scenario, I recover, I become resigned to existence in a cage, I change. I won't be me. I won't be what you say you love."

"You are Tony Stark. You will always be Tony Stark." The armor begins gently bathing him.

"You're a stubborn bastard." Tony lets his head fall back to rest on a wet metal arm. "This is why I never wanted kids. I was afraid they'd take after me."

***

"Tony?"

"Go 'way." Everything's hot. His eyeballs are hot. He's afraid if he opened them, they'd stick to his lids. Water goes over his face, it feels icy cold and he shivers, turning away from it. His neck hurts, everything hurts. Something cold and hard lifts his head, a tube presses between his lips and there's water. He chokes, and coughs, but the water keeps coming until he swallows, swallows.

***

"Tony?"

He knows what comes now, the cold hands and the cold water, but it's too much trouble to swallow. The water dribbles out of his mouth again. All he wants is to sleep. Just leave him alone and let him sleep. The cold arms gather him close and he shivers for a while, until that's too much trouble.

Chapter Text

Steve answers his phone after a glance at the caller I.D. "Ms. Potts?" he says politely. There's no need to be rude to Tony's girlfriend, or whatever they call their relationship. He quite likes her. She's sharp and cheerful and brave.

"Steve? Have you seen Tony lately?" The tone of her voice shivers right down Steve's spine, making him put down the newspaper he was reading and sit up straight. She's calm, too calm, but there's an edge to it. "Heard from him?"

"No. I last saw him over a week ago. We haven't had a mission since then, but I've been busy with training." And Tony Stark doesn't train with the team. Well, to be fair, Steve's thought about inviting him to spar, but it felt awkward after the confrontation they'd had, the one that everyone said afterward had been caused by Loki's spear of chaos. Steve thought it had pushed them to be more outspoken, but he doubted it had invented the friction between them. Some people just rub each other the wrong way. All Tony has to do is give Steve a look, and his whole body tenses.

"He didn't call me after that. He always calls me after a fight." Pepper's voice isn't quite steady. "I got a few emails from him, but they... didn't seem really responsive. I thought maybe he was just... being Tony, but then I realized they were familiar."

"Familiar?"

"They were recycled old emails, word for word. Tony... Tony never does that. He's always got something new to say."

"Yeah. Yeah, he does." Steve gets up and goes for his shoes. "Where are you?"

"In the corporate jet, on my way back to New York. I didn't want to raise a general alarm... I mean... if Tony's gone and done something stupid..." There's a pause. "If there's a woman, or he's gone on a week long bender... I don't want him embarrassed. I just want to be sure he's all right."

"I'll go to the Tower now. I really don't think Tony would ever step out on you, Ms. Potts." He doesn't mention the drunken flight. He has no proof. But he has a sinking feeling that's what it is. He knows what it's like to love an alcoholic, the repentance, the effort to stay clean, the failures. Not that he has proof Tony's an alcoholic. He's seen him drunk a few times, that's all. That's not proof, is it? "I'll call you back once I get there. I'm sure Tony's fine. He's probably inventing something and left his computer answering emails."

***

Steve uses his pass codes to go up to the penthouse. He knows before he takes two steps in that Tony's not there. There are no lights on, no glowing displays, no noises, no smell of coffee and scorched metal. He goes in anyway, looking for clues, some sign of what Tony's up to. At least there's no disarray, no indication he was taken by force, and really, Steve should have thought of that. Outside of the armor, Tony Stark is as vulnerable to kidnapping as any other wealthy man, and a whole lot more recognizable than most. But if he'd been taken for ransom, someone would have contacted his company. Pepper would have known. Steve isn't thinking clearly. Stop and take a deep breath.

"Jarvis?" Tony liked to show off his toys, and he'd been very proud to introduce his computer-personality to the Avengers. Steve didn't know enough to tell whether or not he should be impressed. He thinks of Jarvis as an automated filing system. "Can you tell me where Tony Stark is?"

"I regret that I do not possess that information, Captain Rogers."

"Can you find him?"

"It..." The glass window facing the Chrysler building smashes in, drowning out whatever Jarvis was going to say. Iron Man lands in the room, and turns his head toward Steve.

"Tony! What's wrong with you!" Steve moves to grab Tony's arm, but he's picked up and thrown back across the room. "Have you gone crazy?" By the time he picks himself up Iron Man has gone into another room. Steve follows in time to see Iron Man take a large first aid box from a shelf.

"Tony! What's going on?" Steve shouts, but Iron Man's jet boots flare and he watches in astonishment as the red and gold figure flies past him into the other room and out the gaping hole in the wall.

Steve stares at the rapidly diminishing streak of light for a few seconds before getting out his phone.

Chapter Text

"Ms. Potts? This is Steve."

"Have you found Tony? Is he all right?"

"He was just here, in the Iron Man suit, but..." Steve looks at the shattered window. "He's out of control. I'm afraid I'm going to have to report to Director Fury."

"What? No, Steve, please, don't do that. Fury would take Tony off the Avengers."

"Yeah, well, maybe Tony needs to be on the bench for a while." Steve doesn't like the idea, but he likes even less the idea of fighting beside a man who possesses the equivalent of an armored battalion and all the self-control of a small child.

"The Avengers means a lot to Tony. It's the first..." Steve hears Pepper take a deep breath before she resumes, "Look, he hasn't hurt anyone, or done anything that's made the news, has he? So can't we keep this in the family a while longer? Ask the other Avengers to help?"

"I don't know that I should. He's dangerous, Ms. Potts."

"He's alone. He once told me that I was all he had. Now he has the Avengers. He has you, Steve. Please. Give him a second chance? If Fury takes him off the team, Tony won't ever come back. He's too pig-headed, you know that. You'll lose him for good."

Steve sighs. "All right. I'll call the others, see what we can do. First we have to find him."

"I'll be there in an hour and a half."

***

Thor is back in Asgard, but Steve has phone numbers for the other Avengers. He sets up a conference call.

"Captain Rogers?" Bruce is the first to reply. "I'm in the middle of conducting an experiment..."

"Tony's in trouble."

"Which I can shut down. What's wrong? I haven't seen him in ...well, since the last time we needed the Other Guy."

"That's just it, he's been avoiding us since then, I think." There is a double click, and Steve's StarkPhone informs him that Clint and Natasha are now connected. "Ms. Potts was worried about Tony, so I came to the penthouse to check in on him. He smashed a window and came in as Iron Man, took a first aid kit and flew out again without saying a word to me. Even for Tony, that's disturbing behavior. We have to find him before he does something stupid. More stupid than usual."

"I'm in my lab, five levels down in the Tower," Bruce says. Steve can hear equipment noises, clicks and clatters. "Where shall we meet?"

Clint breaks in, slightly out of breath. "I'm in the training room in the Tower with Natasha. I can fly the Quin-jet. Let's meet in the hangar, try to pick him up on radar. It's tricky, though. He's a small silhouette and if he goes supersonic, he'll be out of range in minutes."

"I can find him," Natasha says. "I injected a sub-dermal signaller in his neck several years ago."

"You did?" Steve says, taken aback. He's sure there's a story behind that, but he's also sure that Natasha is unlikely to tell him any variation of the truth.

"Yes. The only problem is that the tracking device is locked up on the helicarrier. I'd have to get authorization from Fury to get it and I take it that's not what you have in mind?"

Bruce answers, "I don't think bringing Fury into this would be a good idea. He doesn't like Tony much better than he does the Hulk."

"Don't take it personally, Doc," Clint says, "Fury doesn't really like anyone. Look, 'tasha and I can go up to the helicarrier and do a little reconnoiter, bring along a link to Tony's pet, Jarvis to take care of any electronic locks, and we'll see if we can get the tracker without disturbing anyone. Sound good, 'tasha?"

Natasha answers dryly, "Why not, we haven't broken any major regulations for weeks."

"Yeah, see, we were getting rusty! We'll take one of Stark's choppers. Call you when we get back."

Steve knows this is all a very bad idea, but he hates the idea of throwing Tony to the wolves. Well, at least they'll all be in trouble together, there's some comfort in that. "Right, we'll meet at the hangar."

Chapter Text

Pepper is dropped off on the Tower's helipad while Natasha and Clint are still away. She climbs out the moment the helicopter lands, ducking under the still whirling rotors and heads straight for Steve. The helicopter rises immediately and flies away. Pepper ignores her hair flying around her face as she picks her way over broken glass to stand next to Steve in the living room. "What's the situation?"

Steve really does like her. Pepper hadn't wasted time calling for updates and wasn't wasting time on social amenities now. "Bruce is down in his lab, trying to come up with something to safely disable the Iron Man suit. Natasha says she can locate Tony. She and Clint have gone to retrieve a tracking device."

"Tony let Natasha put lo-jack on his suit?" Pepper sounds entirely unconvinced.

"Yeah, well." Steve rubs his neck. "The signaler isn't on the suit."

Pepper looks sharply at Steve. "I don't know whether to be appalled by the implications, or to ignore them." She goes over to a long desk and gestures, bringing up a blue holoscreen. "Jarvis, can you replay security footage from the moment of the break-in earlier today?"

"Certainly, Ms. Potts."

Steve and Pepper watch Iron Man's brief appearance several times before she tells Jarvis to stop. "He wasn't drunk. I don't know what was going on in his mind, but he wasn't drunk. And why would he take the first aid kit?"

Steve shakes his head. "I don't know. I think something happened to him during our last mission. He... I ordered him back to base and he just... left without saying a word."

"He didn't say anything? He didn't say anything to you today, either. Maybe he was hit on the head and has amnesia? Or aphasia. But he's still in the suit-- you'd think someone would have noticed him flying around being...whatever. Tony Stark is...noticeable."

"I didn't see him get hit during the fight, but then I was busy myself."

Pepper looks at the broken window, directly beside the armor removal ramp that Tony always uses, even when faced with murderous demi-gods. "We've got to find him."

***

"That's it?" Steve looks at the island below the quin-jet. All he sees are various shades of greenery, with a ring of white sand where the ocean meets the land. It's not a particularly large island, not large enough even to have a name on the quin-jet's sophisticated maps, just coordinates. There are no obvious signs that any people have ever set foot on it. Bruce is cradling a device with none of the sleekness of a finished product. Steve isn't quite sure what it's supposed to do, but he's unhappy about the fact that Bruce said it'll only work on contact. Not that he'd want to disable the suit while Tony was in flight. Watching Tony fall from the sky once was more than enough for him.

"The signal's been steady." Natasha tweaks a control on the box she's holding. "Strong and steady. Tony Stark... or at least the signaler I gave him... is down there."

"Clint, can you land?"

"It'll have to be on the water." Clint brought the plane low over the ocean, near a wide stretch of beach. The plane lands and settles awkwardly in the water for a few seconds, sinking lower, and then it rises and steadies. The engines are powered down but still running. Clint turns the plane toward the beach. "Ok, have to remember to tell Stark the auto-pontoons work. I was wondering if he'd finished them."

Natasha gives Clint an annoyed glance, and heads for the exit just as the quin-jet crunches to a stop on the sand. She looks at the box in her hand. "Reading is still steady." Natasha jumps past the wet to the dry sand, glances around at the vegetation and starts walking. The others follow, including Pepper. Steve had tried leaving her behind, but she'd given him a disbelieving stare and changed her heels for flats before boarding the plane.

Chapter Text

Steve hears the sound, and points at the red blur just before repulsor fire blasts down a tree in front of him, blocking the way. "TONY!" he shouts, and ducks instinctively as Iron Man returns in a strafing run, the stuttering sound of gunfire blasting into the trees just above his head making his heart race. He remembers the civilian a moment after he instinctively moves to shelter her with his shield. "Pepper! Stay down."

And then there's a bright light and a loud bang, and Iron Man is gone. "What the fuck?" Clint says. He's lying on his back with his bow in hand.

Pepper pushes the shield aside and shouts at Clint, "Don't hurt him!"

"Tell him that!" Clint replies.

"He didn't! He wouldn't." Pepper looks at Steve. "He would never hurt me."

"I really think you should wait back at the quin-jet," Steve says as he retrieves his shield. "Tony would never forgive himself..."

Pepper goes to Natasha and glances at the tracker. "That way," she says, pointing ahead.

"I think Tony's sick," Bruce says, coming up beside Pepper. "That's why he took the first aid kit. He's probably afraid he's contagious. Steve and I should go on ahead of the rest of you. Neither of us is susceptible to any germs and if he won't listen to reason, between the two of us, we can control him." Bruce sounds very calm and sure of himself. Pepper hesitates.

"All right, but I'm not going back to the plane. We'll be right behind you." Pepper stares into the jungle, hands clenched in fists.

Natasha gives Steve the tracker and waits until he and Bruce have vanished down the path Steve is cutting with his shield before she exchanges a glance with Clint. She says quietly, "Flash-bang? Is that the best you've got?"

Clint shrugs, "Yeah, well, I didn't want to get Pepper mad at me."

***

The foliage thins out as the ground changes from sand to fossil coral. Steve puts up a hand to signal for Bruce to stop when he peers through the last layers of branches and leaves to see Iron Man standing before a crude building set in the middle of an expanse with no cover. He can hear the others not far behind, really too close, but there weren't any good alternatives. If they split up further, they are even more vulnerable. "Bruce, I'm going to try to talk Tony down, or at least distract him. If you get the chance, disable the suit." Steve tosses the tracker lightly behind him. If this goes wrong, the others can still use it. He steps out into the open, arms spread wide.

"Tony?"

Iron Man's helmet turns toward him. Both hands raise, with the repulsors gleaming in the warm-up Steve recognizes as a threat.

Steve drops his shield to the ground, and takes another step off to one side. "I just want to help you. Are you sick? Is that why you're not talking?" Steve takes another sideways step, not getting closer to Tony, but trying to draw his attention away from Bruce. Tony had never been wary of Bruce, never treated him as someone to fear. Never snapped and bickered with him the way he does with Steve. Iron Man shifts and turns to face Steve more directly, repulsors steadily locked on him. "I've been worried about you." He takes another sideways step. Repulsor rays blast the ground in front of him, sending a shower of coral dust into the air. Steve puts his hands up high, coughing. "Hey! Look, if you're trying to save me from catching whatever you've got, remember, I don't get sick. You keep telling me you're a genius, so stop and think!"

Repulsors again, off to Steve's other side. "DAMN it, Tony!" Steve lunges forward, rolling to get clear of the dust, and the repulsor blasts that keep following him, bare inches behind as he keeps moving. He's got to keep Tony distracted, got to give Bruce a chance. One good thing, the dust is hanging in the air, clouding vision, giving Bruce some cover.

"NO!" Bruce yells. Steve catches a glimpse of the device Bruce had made, shattered and flying through the air. Bruce is sprawled at Iron Man's feet, the helmet turned toward him. The repulsors are still glowing. Bruce is growling and starting to turn green.

Steve runs forward and tries to get between them. "Bruce! Tony! Stop!" Neither one is listening to him. He throws himself at Iron Man's back, where there are fewer weapons and tries to drag Tony off-balance. Iron Man staggers and reaches back to grab at him. Steve shifts and puts a hand over the faceplate, clawing for the manual release. There are choke-holds, pressure points, if he can just get the helmet open, he can knock Tony out. He feels the faceplate move.

And then Tony fires the jet boots, and Steve is clinging tight as they fly straight up. Steve looks down and sees the Hulk staring up at them, looking confused. More confused than usual. This is so not good.

Chapter Text

Pepper runs into the clear, followed by Natasha and Clint. After a lifetime in heels, Pepper can sprint at Olympic speeds when she's wearing flats. "TONY!" she screams, staring up into the sky. "Someone! Do something!" She whacks the Hulk on the arm. "Stop Tony!"

The Hulk scratches his head and looks at her. "Where Tony?"

"UP THERE!" Pepper smacks the Hulk on the arm again.

"NO!" The Hulk grumbles and looks down at Pepper. Pepper crosses her arms and glares back at the Hulk.

Clint and Natasha move away, cautiously. Natasha's shoe brushes against the tracker and she picks it up. She glances at it and then back again.

"He's right!" She angles the tracker at the crude building. "The signal is here."

"TONY!" Pepper goes to the building and scrapes away the mud from between two logs and presses her face to the crack, heedless of the dirt. "He's there! Oh, god, he's not moving. I don't see a door. How do we get in?"

"HULK SMASH!" The Hulk moves toward the log wall.

"No!" Pepper turns and puts her hands against the Hulk's chest-- well, as far up as she can reach. "It might fall on Tony."

Clint exchanges a glance with Natasha, then slams his back against the wall, hands cupped in front of him. Natasha runs at him, leaps, he catches her foot and boosts her up onto the roof.

"There's an opening in the center!" Natasha reports. She hears the sound of Iron Man's jet boots and looks up to see Iron Man descending, with Steve still wrapped around its shoulders. "I'm going in, try to buy me some time!" She drops down into the dimness, landing in a crouch and glancing around swiftly before approaching Tony. She presses two fingers to his throat. "He's alive!" The first aid kit is next to him, spread open, but there's no sign anything has been used. "Clint! Get me a line!"

"I'm a little busy!" Clint shouts back. He's filling the air around the Iron Man with flash-bangs and other distractions.

The Hulk growls and leaps upward, colliding with Iron Man and Steve in mid-air. Pepper winces as the trio crashes down and turns into a confused scuffle with Steve trying to protect Iron Man from the Hulk.

Clint turns and fires an arrow that arches high, and then descends through the hole in the roof, trailing a thin cord behind it. "Got it?"

"Yes!" Natasha removes her belt, tugs to stretch it, and then fastens it around Tony's chest, above the arc reactor. She clips the end of the cord onto it, pulls Tony over her shoulder and carries him to the center of the building. She puts him down, backs up to the far wall, runs and leaps to catch the edge of the opening. She crouches there, looking down at the battle going on- a blur of green, gold, red and blue. Impossible to tell who's winning. She fastens a tripod pulley into the roof, and lays the line across it. She doesn't bother asking Clint to help pull, just grabs the cord and hauls. It only takes a few seconds to get Tony onto the roof, and not much longer than that to lower him to the ground into Clint's waiting arms.

The Iron Man flings Steve and the Hulk away, and turns toward the three who are backed against the building. The faceplate is up, and empty. It shuts with a metallic click. Guns rise from the shoulders, panels open on the forearms to reveal rockets, and other weapons emerge until it's bristling with threat. It takes a step forward.

"NO!" Pepper shouts and throws herself over Tony.

Chapter Text

"Pepper," the suit says. "You love Tony?" The surprise of hearing the armor speak makes everyone freeze in place for a moment, and after that moment it seems a fragile truce has been declared, a truce that would break at the first hostile movement.

"Yes!" Pepper looks up. The armor has stopped moving, but the weapons are still extended. "Please! Let us take Tony home."

"Love is insufficient. You cannot control Tony's self-destructive behavior. You cannot protect him. I was made to protect him. I was made to love him. I will fulfill my function." The armor resumes walking toward Tony. Natasha and Clint tense, prepared to fight. The Hulk growls, and lunges for the suit, but before he can reach it, the suit separates into components and begins reforming around Tony. The process takes only a few seconds. Natasha and Clint are fast enough to grab pieces, but not strong enough to prevent whatever force pulls the pieces together from succeeding. Steve and the Hulk try, too, but to no avail.

The suit stands up once it has Tony fully encased. It retracts its weaponry. "You cannot stop me. I will take Tony. I will protect him."

"No, you won't!" Steve stands in front of the armor. "You won't protect him. You've hurt him! You... are insufficient!"

"I was made to love and protect Tony Stark! I will fulfill my purpose!"

"You don't know what love means!" Steve is right in the armor's 'face', shouting at it while everyone watches. "Love isn't forced! Love is... putting up with flaws, with accepting the one you love. It doesn't matter if he's an arrogant idiot who doesn't take care of himself, who takes stupid risks! You don't try to change him! You don't put him in a cage!"

"Do you love Tony Stark!"

"YES!" Steve shouts before he realizes what he's said, and then he realizes that it's true. "Yes. I love Tony Stark."

"Can you control him?"

Steve laughs. "No. But I think I could teach him to control himself. Please. Let me take care of Tony. I promise to love him."

The armor is totally still for a long moment. "Terminate."

"What?"

"Tony Stark's safe word is 'terminate'."

"Yeah. Ok, I'll remember that." Steve has never heard of a safe word, but he's pretty sure he's got the gist of it. He doesn't want to think how the armor learned it.

The armor disassembles, and Steve catches Tony in his arms. Pepper gets up and Steve looks at her and then glances at the armor, lying scattered in at least seventeen different pieces, but still...the power is still on, it's not dead, not safe. "We'll discuss this later."

Pepper nods. There's a unanimous, unspoken agreement to get the hell out of there. The Hulk leads the way back to the quin-jet, breaking a path a lot wider than Steve needs, even carrying Tony in his arms. Tony feels like he's burning up, and he smells terrible, but the worst is his breathing, harsh and erratic, with uneven pauses. Steve doesn't look back, doesn't need to, to know that Clint and Natasha are playing rear-guard. Maybe they won't be able to stop the armor if it attacks again, but they'll certainly try.

They reach the beach and Steve lays Tony down on the sand. "Pepper, get the medical kit." He hates to stop here, but he's afraid they'll lose Tony if they don't do something now. The Hulk is grumbling and glaring back the way they'd come. Natasha goes into the jet with Pepper, Clint stays beside Tony, a particularly esoteric arrow fitted to his bow as he looks back into the jungle. In moments the quin-jet's engines sound, a muted warming up roar, and Pepper emerges with the medical kit soon after.

"We need Bruce," Steve tells the Hulk. "Tony is sick. He needs a doctor." He keeps his eyes on the Hulk's face, willing him to understand. The Hulk isn't really stupid, it's just that his emotions take over. "You need to let Bruce come back."

The Hulk looks at Tony, and grumbles again before sitting on the sand and folding himself away, hiding back inside Bruce. Steve barely waits for the transformation to complete before he takes the medical kit from Pepper and kneels at Bruce's side. "Bruce? Are you all right?"

Bruce shakes his head and pinches the bridge of his nose. "Yeah. Yeah, fine." He grabs Steve's arm and hauls himself to his feet. He goes to Tony, and doesn't bother with instruments, using his hands for a rough check of temperature, pulse, pupils and a few other things that Steve doesn't understand. "I'm going for a quick and dirty stabilization here. I think he'll be all right, have to run proper diagnostics." His hands are moving the whole time, wiping a patch of skin clean, giving injections, fitting an oxygen mask. "Right." He stands up. "Let's go."

Steve picks up Tony. Bruce grabs up the medical kit, and they all pile into the plane, Clint last, covering them with his bow. They get Tony strapped into a built-in stretcher in seconds. Clint leaps in and shuts the door. "GO, GO, 'tasha!" Clint yells. As the door shuts, there is a flash of red and gold visible, flying over the beach.

Chapter Text

"It's still there," Pepper says, looking out the window at the armor flying beside the quin-jet, pacing them.

"It is annoyingly persistent," Natasha says. "I could try evasive maneuvers."

Steve shakes his head. "No, I'd rather it was where we could keep an eye on it."

"I'd rather we shot it," Clint says.

"I'm really not all that curious to see what happens if Tony's plane goes up against his armor," Bruce says, glancing up briefly from the monitors he has attached all over Tony. "Particularly when I'm in Tony's plane."

"You have a point," Steve says. "How's Tony?"

"He's... not doing so well. It looks like it started out as flu..."

"Influenza?" Steve's mouth goes dry. He knows that people currently think of this disease as nothing terribly serious, but his mother had been a nurse at a time when the medical profession still bitterly recalled the influenza epidemic that began in 1918. World War I killed 16 million people. The 'flu killed 50 million. Some people died only a few hours after showing symptoms. And Tony looks terrible. His skin is grayish, even blue-tinged and he looks... shrunken, and so still, not fighting, not fighting at all.

"Yes." Bruce is looking at Tony. "But now it's into pneumonia. And I don't know if the antibiotics will be enough. It's gone untreated... maybe too long."

Pepper reaches out to stroke Tony's sweaty hair away from his face. "Isn't there anything you can do?"

"If I was at a modern hospital, maybe. But... we're at least two hours away from the nearest one. I don't. I... don't think he has that much time."

Pepper is crying, silently, unashamedly letting the tears slide down her face. "Oh, Tony, don't do this to me again." She looks up at Steve. "I'm sorry."

"Sorry?" Steve doesn't understand. He doesn't understand why Tony is dying. Once you rescue someone, they're supposed to be all right. That's how it's supposed to work. You're not supposed to stand there, helpless to do anything.

"Sorry you two never..." Pepper breathes in raggedly, and then continues, "I mean, if you weren't just saying that, to make the armor let him go. If it was true, I'm sorry you never got to love Tony. He's... he's been in love with you for a long time. We could have worked it out, somehow."

"I..." Steve looks at Tony. "It was true. Is true." He reaches out and takes Tony's hand, trying not to move any of the various tubes attached to him. "I wouldn't have ever said anything. He loves you. I wouldn't have made him choose."

"Tony never chooses. He always wants it all." Pepper tries to smile. "And usually gets it." She pats Steve's arm.

Steve hasn't felt so hopeless in a very long time.

Chapter Text

"My mother died of pneumonia," Steve says. "I sort of thought that couldn't happen these days."

Bruce sighs, and adjusts something that probably doesn't need adjusting. "Unfortunately, nearly all the old killers are still among us. Despite all the technological advances since..." Bruce looks up sharply at Steve. "Since your time."

"You have an idea?" Steve recognizes that look. He'd seen it on Howard and Tony so many times, the 'eureka' moment when a solution occurs.

"Well... maybe. It's risky, and really... unethical... and probably not even possible. But a transfusion might help." He looks at Steve. "If either you or I are compatible donors with Tony, our blood would cure him of pneumonia."

"And it might kill him, or worse than kill him." Steve knows the Hulk isn't the worst result of the experimentation that began with the super soldier serum that produced Captain America.

Bruce nods. "It might."

Tony's breathing is louder now, raspy and wet-sounding. It's all Steve can hear over the quiet sounds of the quin-jet, but he can feel everyone's eyes on him.

Pepper says quietly, "Has Tony any other chance?"

Bruce looks at the monitors. "No, I don't think so."

Steve takes off his shirt. "I've seen our records. I should be a match, but you'd better make certain."

Bruce gets out three blood type test kits. "When did you see the records?"

"When I was being recruited for the Avenger Initiative two years ago." Steve watches Bruce put a precise drop of his blood in each of the four circles on one card and then repeats the process with Tony's blood, and Steve's. "It seemed a useful thing to remember."

"Good memory," Bruce comments as the same circle clots on two of the cards. He taps the third card, which is clumping in a different circle. "I'm out of it, which is just as well. I don't think Tony looks good in green." He starts getting equipment out. "With the time factor, I'm going with direct transfusion."

Steve sits next to Tony, and watches as his blood flows, dark, darker than Iron Man red, into Tony's arm. Pepper is watching, too, even though she keeps swallowing and looks very pale. Not everyone is used to the sight of blood, Steve remembers.

There's a thump and Steve looks at the nearest window to see the Iron Man clinging to the wing and peering in. The quin-jet wobbles. "Steve," the voice of the Iron Man comes from the quin-jet's comm. "what are you doing to Tony?"

Steve resists the urge to clench his fists. He has to stay calm. He looks at Natasha who nods and flicks a switch. "You're on the suit's frequency now," she tells him.

"We're trying to save his life! And you're not helping!"

"How can I help?" the armor asks.

"Stay out of the way! Or... go ahead of us, make sure the weather's clear on our route." He had almost said, 'make sure the sky is clear' but visions of passenger planes being shot down had immediately come to mind. "Tony needs the plane to fly smoothly."

"Instruction accepted." The Iron Man releases its grip on the wing and jets ahead of them.

Clint says, "It's blasting clouds. That is one seriously strange robot."

"Do we have a plan to eliminate it?" Natasha asks. "I don't think we can rely on Captain Rogers' powers of persuasion to keep it from causing trouble."

"Oh, I'm counting on it," Clint says, "because we're going to need a distraction once Fury looks in the storeroom. I hate when his eye twitches at me."

Natasha sniffs. "There's no problem. We'll simply explain it as a training exercise."

"Yeah. That works."

Steve sighs. "We'll figure something out." He looks at Bruce. "How long before we know if it's working?"

"I have no idea."

Chapter Text

Natasha and Clint are occupied flying the quin-jet, and keeping an eye on the armor while the others watch Tony. "That's enough," Bruce says after a few minutes, closing the valve between Steve and Tony.

"I could give more," Steve says. Tony doesn't look any better.

"I don't want to risk increasing his blood volume too much," Bruce explains as he carefully removes the transfusion equipment and bandages the small wounds. "That would cause problems of its own." He keeps one hand on Tony's wrist.

Nothing happens for several minutes. Then Bruce glances up at the monitors. "I think..." he leans over to press his ear against Tony's chest (sometimes the instincts of several years practicing medicine with minimal resources overrule his belief in technology). "His breathing is improved."

Tony's eyes fly open. He jerks up into a sitting position, pulling tubes and scattering equipment, and knocking Bruce to the floor. He looks around wildly for a moment, and then stares down at Bruce before pulling off the oxygen mask to state, "Yang-Mills exists! Glueballs do have a lower mass bound!" Then his eyes roll up and he falls back down again onto the bed.

"He's delirious," Steve says as he and Pepper help Bruce rearrange everything. "Talking gibberish."

"No." Bruce shakes his head. "Well, maybe. But he was talking about one of the Millennium math problems. It sounds like he thinks he's solved it."

"Oh, I've heard about those, they have a million dollar prize," Pepper says distractedly, most of her attention on Tony. "His color is better, don't you think?"

"A million dollars for doing your math homework?" Clint says from the front of the plane. "Hey, I never even got a gold star."

"Did you ever do your math homework?" Natasha asks.

"Well, no, but for a million dollars I would have!"

"Capitalist swine," Natasha says serenely.

Tony opens his eyes again, and reaches up to paw at the oxygen mask. "Leave that alone," Bruce says, patting at his hand. "You still need it." Tony's eyes are full of questions. He looks around at the quin-jet and then at Steve and Pepper, blinking and apparently having to work at focusing.

"Armor..." Tony says, muffled by the oxygen mask, and then he goes into a coughing fit.

"It's flying ahead of us," Steve tells him. "I... talked it into letting you go."

Tony blinks. "How?"

Steve feels his face warm, but really, there's no point in denying it, everyone else heard it. "I told it I loved you, and I'd take care of you."

Tony has another coughing fit. He looks wild-eyed at Pepper. "Oh, God, I've corrupted... a national icon."

Pepper starts laughing. There's a tinge of hysteria to it, but more relief. Tony reaches his hand out to her, and she takes it and grips it fiercely. "Oh, Tony. How do you get yourself into these situations?"

"I think...it has something... to do with Chaos Theory." Tony's blinking now, slow, as if he's fighting to keep his eyes open. He looks at Steve. "Really?"

Steve takes Tony's other hand. "Really."

Chapter Text

Tony looks around until he sees a monitor running a time line. He looks away and counts ten seconds, then looks back. Ok, normal progression, this isn't a dream. Things are... confusing. So much. He closes his eyes to reduce the sensory input, but that makes touch more acute. He's lying on a resilient surface and it doesn't hurt, actually nothing hurts which is a vast improvement, but it's weird, he feels as if every one of the nerves in his skin is pinging back to his brain. He could map the micro wrinkles in the plastic mat. The lines lying across his body, the bits of gauze and tape, even the air circulating over him... it's all there sharp as math...oh, and now the equations defining the electrical impulses are sheeting across his inner vision.

He tightens his grip on Steve's hand. Steve is strong, he can take it. Pepper is anchoring his other hand in a grip he keeps carefully within her limits, which he can tell from the degree of muscle tension where she holds him. It helps. The pattern of calluses, the lines, the fingerprints, he knows them, it soothes his racing mind to know them. Analysis. He had broken bones in the right hand. He'd been sick. That's gone, done, all of it.

He's on the quin-jet. There's a faint imbalance in one of the control surfaces. Possibly a slightly crimped wire, reducing conductivity. He'll have to fix... wait... the armor. He sees now where he went wrong, so easy to fix it, how could he have overlooked it? Such a stupid mistake. Fix it when they get back. Fix everything. Wait, shouldn't have been listening to the machines, now the sounds are crowding in, demanding to be defined, pinned down, people moving, breathing, so loud... he pulls his hands away and covers his ears. Don't listen, stay with one thing, focus. Don't touch. No. Don't look. No. Don't listen. Pressure, all around. And then it's smells, he smells... how can you smell worry and fear? No. Too much. Too much. Refuse all input. Go deep, go into the place where the numbers live, the quiet numbers, the real, the unreal, the irrational, the dispassionate equations that balance weightlessly, formless, silently, odorlessly, tastelessly. Pure and clean and rest now, rest.

***

"What happened?" Steve asks Bruce. One moment, Tony had been looking sleepily at them, the next he'd closed his eyes and gone into some sort of convulsion, grabbing Steve's hand hard, then pulling away and curling up with his hands over his ears before going completely limp.

Bruce is checking all the readings. "Abnormal brain activity... nothing I've ever seen before. The closest to it..." Bruce meets Steve's eyes. "When I transform. Only the spikes are in reverse. The Hulk becomes more emotional, and less cerebral. He can think, but it's difficult for him... unpleasant."

"Tony's become an anti-Hulk?" Pepper asks.

"Well, not exactly... the physical changes appear to be limited to healing. Maybe this is a singular reaction. It might not happen again." Bruce sounds like he's trying to convince himself.

"We should get him to the hospital."

"He's stable now, a hospital wouldn't be able to do anything for him that the clinic in the Tower can't do. And..." Bruce frowns. "if there are further physical changes, do we want him in a public hospital?"

"No," Steve says firmly. "It's too risky. For Tony as well as for other people. We'll take him home."

Chapter Text

Tony opens his eyes. "That was weird. Wasn't it? Weird." He reaches up and begins undoing medical leads.

"What do you think you're doing?" Bruce tries to stop him.

Tony rolls his eyes and sits up, shifting to pull off other leads. "I think I'm checking myself out, Dr. Banner. I'm fine." He blinks as numbers give him more information. "Fine-ish. Anyway, I'm starving. Did Clint eat all the microwavable burgers? I'm gonna ..." and then he has to shut up because Pepper is holding him tight and not quite crying against his chest. He says softly, "Pepper, no, no. Really, I'm fine. Don't cry, Pep. You know how you get all blotchy." He hugs her, and the numbers are soft and edged in colors.

"Are you sure you're all right?" Steve asks.

Steve looks calm, but he smells... worried, uncertain. His numbers keep shifting, and won't balance and it's messing up the nice equation Tony had going with Pepper. Tony reaches out. "Sure, Cap." Tony smiles. He needs Steve to balance. There's some off-kilter coming from Bruce and Natasha and Clint, but their numbers are within tolerance and anyway, their equations are stable so he can compensate. Steve's numbers need help, there's a missing term. Tony can't solve for X without it. Steve takes Tony's hand and the missing term slots in. Oh, right. It's Tony's number. Good, fine, that's simple. Steve and Pepper are Tony's constants, and he's their variable. He can do that.

Tony holds Steve's hand. "I figured out how to fix the armor."

"So we can destroy it?" Steve asks.

"What? No! I mean... I don't want to ever wear it again, but hey, it didn't kill anyone, and I can fix it."

"Why don't you just make a new one?" Pepper asks, which on the face of it is quite reasonable. Tony's armors have a regrettable tendency to get so wrecked on their first outing that it's easier to make a new design, omitting the old flaws, than to repair. But in this case, all it needs is a software fix, a bit of coding. There's nothing wrong with the hardware. And...

"It's alive, Pep. I wouldn't be just scrapping a failed experiment."

"It's not alive," Steve put in. "It's a machine."

"It's a living machine. I can...give it a conscience, for lack of a better word. And install a self-destruct." Tony doesn't like the numbers. No one on the quin-jet except for him is happy. "It's mine. I fix my own mistakes." The numbers are out of balance again, but Tony can balance them by getting angry himself. "Fine." He pulls away from Steve and Pepper. "You don't trust me. Go ahead, you try to deal with the armor without me." He crosses his arms and holds onto himself, making his number revert to X, meaningless without context.

"Tony."

"No, Steve. I won't help you kill it. It's not going to be a danger to anyone else." Tony's X is dull, boring and useless by itself, but it doesn't need balancing, it's whole and stable and fine, perfectly fine. Tony listens to the quin-jet's numbers the rest of the way back to the Tower, and pretends to believe the words people say to him, even when their numbers don't match. It's fine. He can smile and say words that don't match his numbers, too.

Chapter Text

Tony is fine. He's a little annoyed that no one believes him. Their numbers are all distorted, like captchas. It gives him a headache to have to figure them out every time he wants to say something. He does at least get a microwave burger before Clint lands the quin-jet in the Tower's hangar. The armor has preceded them and is standing precisely centered in front of the quin-jet.

"Huh," Tony says as they all gather near the cockpit to stare between Clint and Natasha at the armor. "That's convenient. I'll just go take care of that, and then we can send out for pizza."

"No, Tony," Steve says.

"Tired of Ray's pizza? You'll hurt his feelings, but all right, I could go for ribs, too. I like the grilled corn and they have great coleslaw. Crunchy, you know? No?" Tony knows what Steve means, but he's not listening to Steve's lopsided numbers. "Well, really, what else can we do? Do you want to shoot up my... our... " Tony gives Pepper a guilty look, really, she deserves more than twelve percent, if only for the pretty colors of her numbers, "no, you don't want to shoot up the Tower. It's giving the neighborhood a bad name."

"You stay here, Tony. Look after Pepper." Steve exchanges a look with Pepper, and for a moment their numbers synchronize. Tony is puzzling over that permutation intensely until he notices that he and Pepper are the only two left on the plane. He looks out the cockpit window to see the Avengers approach his armor. "Oh, this is not a good idea. Really not."

Pepper tries to stop him, and he tries not to hurt her. By the time he side-steps around her and gets out of the plane the armor has its knees slightly bent, and its palms up in threat and is encircled by Avengers with knives, guns, arrows, shield and inner green whose numbers are flickering bright. "Hey, Steve, it followed me home. Can I keep it?" Tony snaps his fingers, and claps his hands. "Come here. Daddy's home."

The armor jets up and neatly overflies the Avengers, who shout and turn and maybe there's a little accidental armament expenditure into the walls, but what's a few holes in the wall among friends. The armor lands in front of Tony, flat-footed- it doesn't understand the meaning of style, sometimes Tony despairs. "You are well, Tony?"

"Sure, I'm fine." Tony steps in close and whispers what the armor needs to hear, "I love you."

The armor freezes in place, processing. The numbers pause, and Tony shouts in the gap, "Jarvis! Suit diagnostic. Lock-down. All weaponry and repulsors off-line, no self-override!"

"Yes, sir," Jarvis replies, and the suit's chest piece dims to minimal function mode. Tony hums and taps it to check that the numbers are stable. "There, you see, it's safe now."

And then the armor wraps its arms around Tony. Before Tony can sort out its numbers to reassure it, Steve is there, shouting and hitting the armor in the elbow joints with the edge of his shield and the numbers go horrible, all jagged, and fibonacci in spirals of growing destruction and Tony screams and he falls and Steve is breaking his armor and breaking it, and breaking it until it falls and Tony is on top of it, and he's crying. The numbers are all pieces, all pain.

He looks up at Steve. "I hate you."

Chapter Text

"Tony," Steve says, "I had to do it," but Tony turns away from him, picking up pieces of the armor and whispering to them while he continues to cry. Bruce comes over and kneels next to Tony, talking to him softly. Pepper comes out of the plane and joins them. Tony won't look at them and keeps muttering, talking fast and softly to the broken armor.

"What the Sam Hill is going on here?"

Steve straightens up. Nick Fury is standing at the Tower entrance of the hangar. "Fury. I... wasn't expecting to see you here."

"Of course not," Fury strides into the hangar, ignoring Natasha and Clint, who've gone very still and expressionless."Why would you expect me to get curious after two of my agents break into my own facility and take a piece of tech whose sole purpose is locating Mr. Stark, who's been conspicuous by his absence for over a week? Just why would that make me drop everything and come over here to find out what my own people are doing? Hmm?"

"We found Mr. Stark," Steve says.

"Yeah, I see that. Good job there." Fury scowls impartially at all of them. "What's wrong with Stark? And don't try to bullshit me, I'm not in the mood for games."

Bruce looks up from Tony. "He's sick, and I'm acting as his doctor. Under doctor/patient confidentiality laws, that's all we're telling you."

Fury grunts. "My people aren't doctors."

"I'm sorry sir," Clint says, "Natasha and I were flying the plane. We really didn't observe Dr. Banner's treatment of Mr. Stark." Natasha backs up his lie without flickering an eyelid. "Yes, sir, we were busy," she says.

"I'd put you both on report, but I don't need the paperwork. You stay here, and fix this mess." Fury looks at Steve. "If you need assistance, I expect you to ask for it. I don't care what embarrassing little secrets you're trying to hide. You do not get the right to make unilateral decisions. That's my job." Fury gives Tony one last long stare before walking out of the hangar to a waiting S.H.I.E.L.D. helicopter.

"Ok," Clint says once Fury is gone, "that was fun. Let's not do that again any time soon." Natasha gives him a dirty look.

***

Tony hears them bickering, and sees their numbers shaded and unbalanced, but he doesn't care. The armor is hurt so badly he doesn't know where to start. It's alive, but helpless and frightened and worst of all, it still wants to protect him, and it can't. "Shh, daddy's here. I'll fix you, I'll make you better. You're my finest creation, I won't leave you alone." Bruce and Pepper are annoyingly close, as if they want to protect him, but they're only people. People go away, people don't understand, people aren't reliable. They're talking at him, touching him, and he hasn't time for them, not with his baby all broken and sad and bleeding numbers. Bruce has a needle in his hand, and that's the last, no, not. Never. Tony hits Bruce's arm and the hypo goes flying to break, which is good, it should break, like they broke his armor.

"Go away," Tony says out loud. His throat is dry, and the words don't come out loud enough at first, so he tries again. "I'm busy. I have to fix this." Their numbers are not amicable, not friendly numbers at all. He's naked, and alone, and his armor is broken, and it all just... makes him angry. What right do they have to make him helpless, to treat him like this, with their confusing concerned numbers, trying to pull him in to fix their equations after they've broken his?

"You're sick," Bruce tells him. "You need help."

Tony laughs. "No, no I don't. I don't need any help at all." He shrugs off the hands, the digits with dancing numbers and stands up. He sends his own numbers out, black and solid and unbending. "I'm going to shower, shave, dress and get coffee. Then I'm coming back to repair my armor, and I don't expect to see any of you here." He makes a bristling hedge of uncompromising math, fierce and strong and puts it up all around himself. "I'm not sick, and I'm not crazy. You didn't trust me, well, now I don't trust you." Tony is still holding the armor's right gauntlet, fingers interlaced with his own, when he walks out of the hangar, leaving all the human numbers behind.

Chapter Text

The stunned silence lasts only a few seconds, but that's long enough for Tony to reach the private elevator taking him to the penthouse level. When Steve hits the call button, an 'out of service' light appears. "I'm going to take the stairs," Steve announces.

"Tony could lock that down, too," Pepper warns, but she's talking to Steve's back. "I'll wait here, Tony might change his mind."

"Whatever's left of it," Clint says. "Don't worry, I can get up through the ducts. Natasha, you coming?"

Natasha nods and jumps onto Clint's back and then onto his shoulders to open an air duct. A few seconds later, both of them are up in the ceiling and vanished. Pepper sighs. "Why is everything such a drama with Tony?" She makes a half-hearted attempt to smile at Bruce.

"He's just... adjusting to the serum," Bruce offers. "I'm sure he'll be fine once he gets a good night's sleep."

"You're just saying that to make me feel better."

"Is it working?"

"Not really."

***

The nice thing about already being naked is that Tony doesn't have to strip before he gets into the shower. The bad thing about it is that there's a shattered window and glass all over the living room floor which he has to cross to get to the shower. Barefoot. "Great. I don't know why I bother putting windows in my homes. They never last. Oh, force field. That might be workable. Hmmm..." The numbers sheet down and arrange themselves in groups. He's still standing there when Steve arrives, and disrupts the neat columns and Venn diagrams with his missing variable equation. He frowns at Steve. "Go away, I was thinking."

Instead of going away, Steve moves closer. "Tony, I'm sorry I broke your armor."

"No, you're not." Tony doesn't like looking at Steve's equation. He knows it needs him, but he's angry at Steve and doesn't want to give his number away. "You think I'm nothing without the suit, and you like that."

"No!" Steve moves even closer. His numbers are begging for Tony's attention. Tony refuses to look at them. He has no obligation to Steve's numbers. "I thought it was hurting you. Look, I'll help you build a new suit-- carry stuff, whatever. You can even study my shield."

Tony glances at the shield, it has amazingly beautiful numbers. He's tempted. "Maybe." He scratches at his beard. "I need a shower, but there's too much glass. Who broke my window? Were you playing stickball in here?"

"Your armor did that." Steve is almost close enough to touch. "I can carry you over the glass."

"No." Tony shakes his head. "Don't touch me. I have to fix the armor, I don't have time to fix you now. Maybe later."

"Tony..." Steve reaches out.

Tony looks at the floor, there are a few glass-less places. Ah, Chaos Theory, plus the point of impact of the armor, times the fracture patterns that type of glass exhibits. The numbers make an old-fashioned dance chart on the floor. He dodges Steve's hand and dances across to the glass-free hall leading to the bathroom without leaving a single bloody footprint. Great. Pepper hates the way the salt in blood pits the marble flooring. "If you want to be helpful, put the coffee on."

Steve follows, of course he does, those unbalanced numbers are a nuisance. Tony would feel sorry for him, but Steve shouldn't have broken Tony's stuff.

"Tony!"

"Yeah. Don't touch." Tony waves the gauntlet dismissively at Steve. "Coffee." Steve lets Tony go, which is good, because really, Tony needs a shower. He treats himself to a lengthy sing-a-long while he bathes. He likes the acoustics and the way the numbers shimmer silver under the water. It's good to wash off the island numbers, sand and salt and pain and loneliness. Admittedly, there's a layer of loneliness underneath far too thick to scrub away, but that's broken in and comfortable, almost an armor of its own. He thinks about the armor while he washes his hair. What a mess. And if he fixes it the way it was, no one will ever trust it, and it'll be a sad, sad thing. Well, all right, he'll fix it in a new way.

After the shower he gets into comfortable workshop clothes and emerges to discover that the glass has been swept out of the way, and there's a distinct smell of coffee, lovely red-brown fractions floating in the air. There's also a group of Avengers in his living room. The numbers aren't as bad as before, more worry and less panic. Bruce doesn't have any green, which is excellent. "Don't break anything. Carry on talking about me." He gives Steve another gauntlet hand-flap, since the last one seems to have worked to make Steve leave him alone, and gets a mug of coffee in his free hand.

"Tony, we need to talk," Bruce says, and well, he's not as mad at Bruce as he is at Steve, so he politely lets their numbers mingle slightly, and gives Bruce a power of two smile.

"Sure. We can talk. Jarvis!"

"Yes, sir?"

"Have the armor in the hangar moved to the workshop. You might need to give Dummy a dustpan to get all of it."

Bruce says, "I gave you a transfusion from Steve. I'm a little concerned about the side-effects."

"Oh, so that's what it was." Tony shrugs. "I haven't turned into a super-soldier. I didn't see any physical changes at all just now."

"What about... mental changes?"

"Mmm?" Tony has a gulp of coffee. "Sorry, no. I'm incredibly irked at Captain Overkill, but that's nothing new. Look, I'm going to go down to my workshop, just as I normally do, and work. Just as I normally do." Tony looks at the gathered group. "I don't know exactly what went down on the island, so I'll just say 'thanks' to all of you, and I'll send fruit baskets later. The good kind with the pears wrapped in foil." Tony smiles to appease their numbers. "No strawberries in yours, Pepper, see, I remember?" Since Pepper's numbers hurt less than anyone else's and she's the one who's going to have to organize the window repair, Tony leans in to kiss her cheek and give her a perfect pi smile, just the right amount of curve, and eyes wide and soft. There, her numbers are happier.

***

"That," Natasha comments after Tony leaves the room, "was not reassuring."

Chapter Text

If the armor had been insured, it would be a total write-off. Fortunately, the only irreplaceable component is undamaged. The redesign is so drastic Tony has to out-source materials from companies he's never dealt with, and he has to teach himself entirely foreign skill sets. The time spent building the hardware isn't wasted, though, as it gives Jarvis time to redefine the central parameters of 'love Tony' and 'protect Tony' to fit in with the new shape. This time the armor will obey him, while still retaining the basic personality and free will except when Tony gives an order. As it retains the learning algorithms it will be infinitely trainable and adaptable.

There will be distinct advantages to the new design, the more that Tony thinks about it. He'll be able to take the armor with him everywhere, without it causing any fuss. Well, possibly minor fuss, but nothing dramatic.

***

"Tony, when are you coming up?" Pepper says five days later over the phone. Tony refuses to let anyone in the workshop, not even her. He comes out at intervals at least twice a day, blinks owlishly at whoever is on Tony-watch at the time, eats whatever happens to be lying around in a state of immediate edibility, mutters something semi-responsive to queries about his health/progress/ the weather and then dives back into his hobbit-hole. Pepper isn't sure whether to be reassured or not that this behavior isn't much different than how Tony had acted when he created the Mark II Iron Man in Malibu. Their relationship has progressed since then, and Tony always sleeps with her whenever she is at the Tower. Sometimes it's literal, with him peeling out of Iron Man too tired to do more than cuddle and give her a sleepy off-center kiss before nuzzling into her shoulder and switching himself off. She's become accustomed to being able to touch him as much as she likes, and she does like touching him. Tony Stark is eminently touchable. But not for the last five days.

"Um... later, Pep."

"There's a delivery. A package from Germany."

"Oh! Reinhard Schulte, right? Great! Bring it down here! It's not too heavy for you, is it?"

"No..." And then Pepper has a second thought. "Well, not too heavy, but it's bulky. I could ask Steve to carry it." Tony's been avoiding Steve more than anyone else, and she's quite tired of seeing Captain America looking miserable.

"No! Not Steve! I'll come up and get it, just... I'm in the middle of something. Just leave it. And don't open it!"

Pepper doesn't open the box, no, she has principles. Inconvenient principles. The box has no return address or invoice or any marking indicating the contents. It's apparently not fragile, doesn't need a controlled temperature, and doesn't matter which side is up. What could he need from Germany that Stark Industries doesn't already produce? She's curious, but not curious enough to make a big deal out of it. She'll just see what Google has to say about Reinhard Schulte. There are a lot of results, of course. She scrolls past a number that obviously can't apply, until the word 'physicist' leaps out at her. "Dr. Reinhard Schulte is a physicist and radiation oncologist... wait... oncologist?" Oh, God, not cancer.

But... the super soldier serum makes cells grow-- and isn't cancer when cells grow out of control? It wouldn't even be the first time Tony has known he was dying and kept it from her. She pulls up the quick look at the accompanying article. 'Proton Computed Tomography for Clinical Applications'... after dealing with Tony for more than a decade she understands a lot, enough to tell that it's an experimental radiation therapy. Tony's probably building his own self-treatment radiation chamber and this box contains... God knows what. Pepper sits next to the box and tells herself to stay calm. Tony's not going to die. He'll think of a way out. He always does. She's not panicking, not at all. She's not.

Chapter Text

"Ok," Tony sets down the soldering iron. "Two percent power. Let's see if it's right this time. Up and at 'em, Rusty." The new armor... well, since he's never going to wear it, he probably should start thinking of it as something other than 'armor'... maybe ... companion. Yeah, that'll do. Well, his new companion's numbers look good as it rises and circles around the workshop without breaking anything. He grins up at it.

"Excellent! Now, come down, and stay here. I'm going up to see Pepper for a minute."

His companion lands. "Can't I come with you?"

"No, not this time. Stay here, and be good, don't get into any trouble." The arm... companion... makes a whining noise in protest, but doesn't follow him to the private elevator. The Jarvis conscience is working well.

Tony is feeling cheerful as he exits the elevator, but when he catches sight of Pepper sitting on the couch next to a large carton, he stumbles to a halt. Pepper's numbers are all crumpled and gray and she smells like she's about to cry. "Pep? Hey, Pepper?" Something terrible must have happened. He sits next to her, not quite touching. "Stock drop? Not my fault, I haven't done anything, well, I have, but nothing bad, really, I promise." Pepper turns toward him and puts her arms around him. Right. He can do this. He hates to see Pepper's numbers looking so sad. He hugs her and tries to gently pat the numbers, numbers CPR, they need his number, and really, this is Pepper, she always gave him all her numbers even when he wasn't kind to them. He kisses her on the cheek. Softly, "What's wrong?" Pepper is sniffing against his shoulder and her numbers aren't any happier.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Tell you what, Pep?" Tony is stroking her numbers, and feeding them his variable, but they're not behaving like rational numbers at all. Square root of negative pi? No, not good.

"Why didn't you tell me you're...dying?" Pepper hiccups back a sniffle. "Again."

"What? No, not I'm not." Tony's variable isn't broken. No, it's fine. Sharper and shinier than ever. He IS a number, all numbers, and they're all real, rational, whole numbers. Except sometimes. But that's only when he's with other people and tries to fit into their equations. "What gave you that idea?" He looks past Pepper's shoulder, seeking some sensible numbers. Pepper's StarkPad is lying on top of the carton. He blinks as he reads it. Ok, depressing numbers, there. "Oh, I see. That's an entirely different Reinhard Schulte, Pep. You should have looked for Reinhard Schulte Manufacturing Company. I just bought something I needed for... well, it's not really a secret, but it'll work better if no one knows it, but you're special. I can show you." Tony pulls back to look at Pepper's whirling numbers, they're flickering in hopeful colors, but don't really believe him. "I'll show you, it's perfectly fine. It's almost finished. It looks weird now, but really, it's all right." He brushes her hair out of her eyes. He'd forgot how much he likes Pepper's numbers. "Come to the workshop. You'll like it." He stands up and takes Pepper's hands in his. "Just remember, I'm not crazy." Time for full on dark and wistful puppydog eyes, all his numbers shining in them, infinite and organized... well, a little organized.

Pepper almost laughs. She squeezes his hands tightly. "All right."

Good, much better numbers, they have color and smooth edges. They're a little pale, that's all. Tony holds one of Pepper's hands in the elevator and talks about coffee and donuts, and while he's not that keen on Krispy Kreme (delicious when hot, but icky once they cool) they have Avengers' decorated donuts and he wants Pepper to order a few dozen. His number snuggles happily with hers and he feels much better himself. It was stupid being annoyed with Pepper. Pepper is amazing, he should stay with her and her beautifully balanced numbers. Maybe he should ask her to buy herself some nice shoes to apologize for upsetting her. She likes the ones with the red soles.

They step out into the workshop, and Tony's companion comes over to them, growling softly. Pepper shrieks and grabs at Tony's t-shirt. "WHAT IS THAT?"

"That's Rusty! It's almost done. I just needed the material from Reinhard Schulte. They had the best." Tony pats Pepper's arm. "Rusty's good. Sit, Rusty. Behave yourself! You know Pepper."

Rusty sits and tilts its head, bright brown glass eyes blinking at them. "My new sensory equipment is still calibrating. I did not recognize you at first, Pepper. I apologize." Rusty's metal tail sweeps across the workshop floor, cleaning a semicircle.

"A... dog? You've been in here for five days creating a robot dog?" Pepper is standing straight now, looking indignant. She swats Tony on the head. Rusty blinks and tilts its head the other way as Tony says, "OW, what was that for?"

"Because you made us all worry about you!"

"Oh, sorry?" Tony shuffles back a little further out of swatting range. "The armor's A.I. needed a new housing fast. If it was left in sensory isolation, unable to fulfill its function too long, it would have... well... it wouldn't have been good. I made it. I was responsible for it. I had to fix it, Pep. And I had to make it something people wouldn't be afraid of."

"I think people are going to be afraid of a metal dog."

Rusty lifts a leg and scratches with a loud, metallic scraping noise.

"Oh! I have to get the package and finish Rusty. It's just cosmetic, but that's what people are all about, what they can see on the surface. Wait here, Pep! Play with Rusty! He can fetch and shake hands and everything!" Tony runs back to the elevator.

Pepper looks at the dog. "Good doggie?"

Rusty wags its tail and opens its mouth to let a very realistic pink tongue hang out. "Good Pepper?"

***

"Where'd you get the Irish Setter?" Clint asks when Tony and Pepper emerge from the workshop several hours later.

"He followed me home," Tony says as he starts up the coffee-maker. "Rusty, sit."

Rusty sits and wags his tail against the kitchen cabinet, thump, thump, thump.

rusty

Chapter Text

Steve takes the lift up from the training room to the penthouse to give Pepper some moral support and company on her turn at Tony-watch. The moment the elevator doors open he hears Pepper's voice, and Tony replying. Steve hesitates. Every time he's seen Tony it hurts. Tony talks to him, but he won't touch Steve, won't even take a cup of coffee directly from him.

He's grown used to the casual way Tony has of touching people and he misses it. At first he'd thought it was rudeness, arrogance, especially when you figured in how often it was a case of 'Tony can touch you, but you can't touch him' but then he noticed that no matter how angry Tony was, his hands never come up. He'll stand toe-to-toe and shout in your face, but his hands stay down. He uses his hands ruthlessly in the workshop, so it isn't a case of worrying about damaging them. No, Tony touches to show affection, in his own strange way. Fist-bumps, shoulder-nudges, casually crowding into personal space... with Bruce, it includes prodding and poking. For Steve it had been a hand briefly resting on his arm, or his shoulder... and he misses it.

Steve follows the voices into the kitchen. Tony and Pepper and Clint are sitting at the prep. island in the middle of the kitchen, eating garishly colored donuts. Tony is using his free hand to pat a dog sitting on the floor next to him. The dog is leaning against Tony's leg and looking up at him with pure canine adoration. It's not even paying attention to fallen bits of donut on the floor. "I didn't know you liked dogs," Steve says. The dog turns to look at Steve. It doesn't growl, but the hair rises in a stiff line from its shoulders down the length of its back. There's a faint green light shining in its eyes, a trick of reflection, Steve supposes.

"This one I do," Tony replies, putting down his red and orange donut to take a gulp of coffee. He looks down at the dog and laughs. "He's very protective of me, aren't you, Rusty? Stop it, be a good boy." The dog looks at Tony, and the fur slowly settles down. "Shake hands with the Captain, Rusty." The dog gets up and pads over to stand directly in front of Steve before sitting and raising one paw. Steve thought Irish Setters were supposed to be friendly. This one looks as if it would like nothing better than to bite him.

"Tony," Pepper says in a warning tone of voice.

"Shh, Pep. Go on, Cap. You know what they say, 'Love me, love my dog.' "

Steve has done less dignified things in his life. At least this time the audience is small, and it doesn't involve picking up damp infants. He goes down on one knee to take the dog's paw. It actually moves its leg briskly once up and down instead of allowing him to control the handshake. Steve goes to pet Rusty's head, but the dog evades him smoothly and returns to sit at Tony's side. "Where did you even get him?"

"Umm... Germany. Special delivery, custom trained." Tony strokes the dog's head and looks at it with real affection. Steve is astonished to realize he feels jealous of a dog.

"Well... he's... really nice." Steve is completely baffled. Why would Tony want a ... and then he realizes... it's something safe to love. People are complicated. A dog is easy, dogs are made to love you, even if you yell at them, or put them in harnesses, or ignore them all day long, they still love you. Steve's feelings are slightly hurt that Tony didn't just have them train it to love him (he has no idea how, but knowing Tony it's probably some incredibly scientific thing) but also made the dog dislike Steve.

Tony gets up from the table and leans over to kiss Pepper on the cheek. "I'll only be in the workshop for a couple hours, Pep." Then he whispers something in her ear. Pepper rolls her eyes and slaps Tony lightly on the arm. Tony grins and leaves the room, with the dog at his side, tail waving (the dog's tail, not Tony's, which Steve has got to stop thinking about. Tony doesn't even like him any longer.)

Once the elevator doors shut, Steve looks at Clint, who shrugs. "All I know is that Tony promised I wouldn't have to walk it," Clint says around a mouthful of green donut.

"Pepper?" Steve is still slightly uncomfortable being on a first name basis with Tony's girl, but 'Ms. Potts' is definitely too formal, under the circumstances.

"It's Tony's dog." She gets up. "If you'll excuse me, I have some work to do, and only a few hours to do it." She looks very cheerful as she picks up her StarkPad and leaves the room with a definite bounce to her step. Steve doesn't really want to guess what Tony had whispered to her.

Clint says, "Well, Fury's going to love today's StarkReport. A dog." Clint shakes his head. "Does that fall under the heading of 'business as usual' with Stark?"

"I wish I knew." Steve sits down and helps himself to a red and orange donut.

Chapter Text

Now that Rusty is repaired, Tony turns his attention to designing a new suit of armor. The model before the Living Armor is still usable in emergencies, but Tony doesn't believe in retrograde progress. He's happily swimming in a stream of beautifully clean numbers, tweaking the holo schematics when he feels a tug on his trouser leg. "What?" He shifts and the tug is stronger. He shakes his leg but something holds him back. He looks down to see Rusty using his teeth to pull."Why are you doing that? You don't want to go for a walk. You don't need to go for a walk. Ever. I'm pretty sure about that."

"A couple of hours is one hundred and twenty minutes."

"Glad to see your math skills are functioning. So?" Tony turns back to the holo and admires it. Not done, of course not, never done, but very pretty.

"You need sex."

"Let's not get into that again, all right. I didn't program you to hump my leg." Tony's not really alarmed. The Jarvis conscience knows better. It won't let Rusty do anything like...that.

"Pepper is fucking amazing."

"Truer words were never spoken." Tony is thinking about roller skates again. They're really not very useful, but would be great fun at a party. How to get them to fit in between the boot jets, though... "HEY!" Tony is pulled away from the holo by his leg. "I wasn't done with that."

"Pepper."

"Oh, Pepper... Pepper! Yes, all right. Jarvis, save that! Rusty, let go of my leg, I'm coming!"

When Tony emerges from the elevator, with Rusty at his heels, Natasha is sitting with Steve on the couch, playing cards. "Go fish," Tony says as he walks by, "Or Snap. Whatever. Red king on the black queen?" Steve looks confused, which Tony has to admit is a good look on him, although his numbers... yeah, well, Tony is sorry for his numbers. It wasn't their fault. "I'd offer to join you, but I have a previous engagement. Sort of." Tony grins and in passing, pats a lop-sided six on Steve's arm. "Maybe I'll teach you card-counting. With that baby face you could make a killing before the casinos blacklist you, too. And no, it's not cheating, they just don't like you using skill in their games of skill. Bye now! PEPPER! Pepper!" He heads for the bedroom.

Steve clears his throat. "I think now would be a good time for us to spar."

Natasha gathers up the cards. "Perhaps you're right."

Tony is still clearly audible even though he's left the room. "PEP! PEP! PEPPPPPER! Do we still have the feathers? I liked that thing you did with the feathers! Do you want to do that now?"

"Not with THAT in the room," Pepper replies.

"Get off the bed, Rusty!" Tony orders. The bedroom door opens and Tony peers out. "Great! Rusty, go with Steve. Come back... later... much, much later."

Steve gets up. "Ah, Tony. Your dog doesn't like me."

"No, no, he's fine, you're fine. Rusty, go!" Tony uses his foot to push the dog out the door. He slams it shut.

Steve looks at Rusty. Rusty looks at Steve. "Good dog?" Rusty lifts his upper lip to show his teeth, and then comes over to stand in front of Steve.

Natasha looks at Rusty and then shrugs.

Chapter Text

"I need a shower, don't I?" Tony said as he pulls off his tank top. "I think, in the interest of water conservation, green earth, carbon footprints, all that responsible person stuff, we ought to set a good example and share a shower." Pepper's numbers are dancing in a sine wave. He grins at them.

Pepper smiles back at Tony. "You just want me to scrub your back."

"That is a unfounded allegation. I also want you to scrub my front." Tony moves close to Pepper, watching the bright numbers in her eyes until she moves to meet him in a kiss. He closes his eyes and strokes her hair, just breathing and kissing soft and gentle, and being warm and close and touching, carefully undoing the fastenings at the back of her dress, so carefully caressing the smooth bird-sweep of her shoulder blades, the numbers so perfect he thinks he could design an airfoil from them. He wants her, and she wants him, and maybe there's some way it could be better, but he's a little wary of improving things until they're useless. He's done that too many times, and Pepper is far too precious to risk. He breaks the kiss and leans back enough to look in her eyes from a focusable distance. "I don't say I love you often enough, do I? I should have Jarvis remind me."

Pepper laughs against his throat. "It doesn't count if Jarvis reminds you." Her hands go up to tangle in his hair, pulling him back for another kiss.

Tony thinks perhaps he should write a post-it and stick it on the coffee maker in the workshop. Kiss Pepper. Pepper tastes better than his favorite coffee. Pepper tastes better than anything. Her numbers slide slick and sweet over his tongue. He slips his hands down inside her dress, all smooth against the workshop roughness of his hands. Pepper likes that, she always does. She makes a noise that's all hunger and bright red numbers.

And then she pushes him back against the wall, leaning on him with both hands against his chest, not touching the reactor, no, Pepper is as careful with him as he is with her, although it might not look like it to anyone watching them. If they ever chose to let someone watch. "Stay," she tells him, and he obeys, breathing fast and watching, wide-eyed as she takes off her shoes and then her dress. "What am I going to do with you, Tony?" she asks fondly, stretching and reaching behind to undo her brassiere. Sometimes she lets him do that, but sometimes she likes to take her time, and watch him watching her.

"Whatever you want." Pepper is so bright, so perfect, there's nothing he wouldn't do for her, nothing he wouldn't let her do to him. He can trust her, even when he can't trust himself. His hands are palms flat to the wall as he waits. He's pretty sure she won't make him wait too long this time, it's been weeks. But maybe she will. She keeps him off-balance, keeps that bright edge of uncertainty.

She smiles and strips the last articles of clothing from her body. She stretches, arms high over her head, firm nippled breasts rising to display the faint line left by the elastic of her bra. He wants to kiss that line, to run his tongue over it, to soothe away the foreign marks. "Close your eyes," she says.

He obeys and waits, feeling a little nervous. He can't always tell how he'll react to control games, even ones he loved before Afghanistan. And the recent idyllic island holiday has reinforced the possibility of embarrassing failure and flailing. There are other things they enjoy, of course, but sometimes he needs to reassure himself that he can still allow himself to be vulnerable, can still trust one person unreservedly. He's not sure how Pepper knows when he needs it, but her ability to read beneath his bullshit has always been awesome, so perhaps it's something to do with that.

Cloth brushes soft against his cheek and then presses lightly against his eyelids. "Tilt your head down, Tony," Pepper says, giving him the chance to refuse the game without saying anything to ruin the mood. The cloth smells like Pepper in an undefinable way. The numbers are in his head, subtle and reassuring. He moves just far enough so Pepper can knot the blindfold in place; slender fingers, her so small, so perfect, lifesaving, hands smoothing it until it lies wrinkle-free and comfortable. Lips meet his, soft and sweet. "I love you, Tony." She kisses down his chest, then moves to press against him for a moment, her whole body covering the arc reactor. He can't feel it, but he can feel around it, knows this is a silent promise that he's safe, safe for now, that he doesn't have to guard against betrayal. Safe for now is as good as it gets. His back relaxes even as his arousal grows.

Pepper's hands move down his right leg, the pressure telling him where she is. He shifts his weight to the left leg and lets her take off the right shoe and sock. Her hands retrace their path, and then go back to repeat on the left side. "I love touching you, Tony," she murmurs against his shoulder, running her hands down to his right wrist. He tenses, remembering the island. She doesn't acknowledge his reaction, but she knows, he can tell by the way she laces her fingers between his and lifts his hand to kiss each finger, and then turn it over to the palm before releasing it. Pepper is fucking awesome. There are no words, and hardly any numbers to say it. He's breathing heavily and trembling by the time she undoes his zipper and takes off his jeans. "Oh, I like these boxers." She fondles his erection and balls through the silk.

Tony doesn't remember which boxers he's wearing, but he makes a note to check later and buy a dozen more. Pepper squeezes his ass and he might possibly have made an embarrassing sound that could have a slight resemblance to a whimper. Pepper laughs and draws the boxers down and guides him to step out of them. "I like how quiet you get like this, Tony. It makes a nice change." Tony would protest, but Pepper is kissing him again, and he's always loved blind kisses, kisses in the dark, secret surprises.

Pepper guides him into the bathroom, and he becomes even further distanced from control when the warm water beats on him and her hands caress him and there's the smell of soap, and wet sounds surround him, and she presses against him and rubs against him. It's good, it's all good, and any time he flinches she moves unhurriedly to touch somewhere else, somewhere good, so the memory is slowly being overlaid with new associations. Finally he turns and puts his arms around her and leans his cheek against her head. "I love you. And not just because you put up with me."

Pepper laughs. "I know." Her hands slide along his waist and down. She gets a soap slippery grip on his dick and moves her hands, squeezing just right.

He moans and fumbles with his hands until he's braced against the wall behind her. "Oh, fuck, that's good."

"I know," Pepper says smugly.

Tony laughs and he's still laughing when he comes a minute later. "Mmm," he says as he reaches up to pull off the blindfold, "you are amazing. But you may have miscalculated a bit. It'll be a while before I'm able to return the favor."

Pepper looks up at him and grins. "Tony, your tongue has never had a refractory period." She steps out of the shower and tosses Tony a towel. "Come to bed."

Tony follows Pepper, and cheerfully demonstrates the benefit of a toned tongue. Pepper doesn't once tell him to shut up. The numbers are blissful.

Chapter Text

Steve isn't really sure what to do with the dog, but he's hardly going to refuse the first favor Tony's asked of him. "Come here, Rusty," Steve says, trying to sound friendly. The dog walks over to him and sits perfectly still, looking up at him as he looks down at it.

Natasha's expression goes blank. "Steve, I think you should stop looking at the dog."

Steve glances at her. "Why?"

"I think it's an attack dog. A normal dog won't try to stare you down."

"Why would Tony want an attack dog? That doesn't make sense." But Steve is uneasily aware that Tony hasn't been exactly making sense lately. Steve kneels and holds out his hand to the dog, ignoring Natasha's headshake. "Hey, Rusty, we're on the same side. We both want to keep Tony safe. Can't we work together?" Rusty sniffs at Steve's hand, then scratches its side and yawns. Steve pats Rusty's head. "Good dog."

Natasha gives Steve a dubious look. "Well trained, perhaps." She shrugs. "Let's see how it reacts when we spar."

***

Rusty looks around the training area and then lies down near the door, with his head on his paws. Every time Natasha gets in a good lick, or throws Steve to the mat, Rusty wags his tail.

"That dog really doesn't like you," Natasha observes with amusement when they pause for a water break after half an hour or so.

"Yeah, I noticed." Steve has a gulp of water and wipes at his face with a towel. "Maybe it doesn't like the way I smell." Steve hasn't had contact with too many animals since getting the super soldier serum, and most of those had been German war dogs, so he hadn't thought anything unusual when they attacked him. At least Tony's dog hasn't tried to bite him. That would be... awkward.

"Maybe." Natasha stretches. "I want to try out some moves against you with your shield. Are you up for that?"

"Sure." Steve doesn't know what Natasha has in mind, but then, he never does when they spar. All he knows is that it'll be fast, dirty, and not quite lethal. He loves working out with her. He gets the shield out of its storage case. Rusty rises to his feet, fur bristling all the way down his spine. Steve looks at the dog and then at his shield and it all just slots into place and he knows. He's not stupid, he never was, but on the other hand he also never has backed down from anyone or anything and he's not going to start with one of Tony's toys. And also, he's kinda angry at Tony for trusting it rather than him. So instead of continuing to spar with Natasha, he throws the shield at Rusty, well over its head, just wanting to see the damn thing flinch.

Instead of ducking beneath the shield, Rusty leaps up like a champion frisbee dog, and catches the shield in his teeth. The shield has a lot of momentum (Steve is very angry) and Rusty slams back into the wall with an unmistakable metallic CLANG, and then drops to all fours, still holding the shield. Rusty's eyes are glowing unmistakably green.

Natasha moves to Steve's side, braced for battle. "Don't tell me."

Steve says, "Yeah. It's Tony's dog, all right. He made it. And it doesn't like me."

"Why should I like you?" Rusty doesn't open his mouth to speak. "You tried to destroy me."

"Huh." Steve moves away from Natasha, to divide Rusty's attention. "So... you really were the armor?"

"I still am. I still love Tony. I still protect Tony." The green light in Rusty's eyes fades. "I cannot hurt you without hurting Tony."

"Well, that's good. Give me back my shield." Steve steps forward, with his hand out.

Rusty's tail wags once. "Tony wants the shield." Then Rusty runs out of the room carrying the shield at an angle barely fitting through the automated door which opens smoothly for him.

"DAMN IT!" Steve shouts and runs after Rusty. Natasha looks after both of them for a few seconds, then pulls out her phone. She's going to have to report this to Fury. Things are getting out of hand.

Chapter Text

The numbers tell Tony when it's time to go back to work, tickling along his ribs to wake him up. Oh, no, that's Pepper. "Pepppeerr." Tony considers opening his eyes, but it's fascinating feeling her trace numbers, amicable, friendly numbers, along his torso. His numbers like hers, very much.

"I'd let you sleep, Tony, but Fury called. He wants you to talk to him."

Tony puts a pillow over his head. "Too early for Fury."

"It's three in the afternoon."

"Always too early for Fury." Tony pushes the pillow away and sits up abruptly. "Tell him I ran away from home. Where are my pants? I can't run away from home naked. Well, I can but that always leads to so many awkward questions. And sometimes handcuffs, and not the nice, furry kind."

"You can't run away from home, Tony." Pepper walks over to the mirror to brush her hair. She's fully dressed and has a faint powder scent that always makes Tony think of flannel pajamas, in a good way. The reflection means twice as much Pepper, which, of course, Tony can't resist, so he gets out of bed and puts his arms around her, snuggling and getting in the way of the hair brush. She swats at him half-heartedly before leaning back into his arms. "You can't run away from home because I'm too busy to pack you a lunch. No one can run away from home without peanut butter sandwiches."

Tony presses his face against her hair. "I could make my own sandwiches."

"Do that, I want to watch. I'll have Jarvis film it for a nature documentary."

Tony sighs. "You could talk to Fury."

"I'm not an Avenger." Pepper reaches back to stroke his hair.

"Neither am I. I'm a consultant. An unpaid consultant. I don't have to talk to anyone I don't want to."

Pepper turns around in the loose circle of his arms and kisses him, not a 'lets go back to bed' kiss, but a 'I love you, but don't press your luck' kiss. Tony has all of Pepper's kisses categorized.

"I need my power tie. I can't talk to Fury without it." Tony lets go of Pepper and starts rummaging in his closet. "And I need coffee. And a donut."

"Someone ate all the donuts."

"I should just go back to bed. Any day that starts with Fury and no donuts is a total loss."

"No day starts at three fifteen in the afternoon."

"It could." Tony grabs a handful of work clothes and heads for the shower. "I never bow down before the petty tyranny of clocks, Pepper."

"I've noticed." Pepper heads out of the room and leaves the door open. "I'm putting the coffee on."

Tony is happily singing in the shower, eyes closed while he shampoos his hair when he feels something nudge the back of his legs. "Pepper?"

"No."

Tony shoves his hair back away from his eyes and looks down at Captain America's shield, held in Rusty's mouth. "Huh. Good dog?"

Rusty wags his tail and lets Tony take the shield and hold it in front of himself, admiring it.

Steve comes into the shower at a run, in full and sweaty work out gear, feet slipping on the wet tiles. "Give me that!" His numbers are jumping wildly, spinning and furious.

"You said I could borrow it!" Tony clings to the shield. Rusty grabs the shield. Steve grabs the shield. Tony's shower is, relatively speaking, huge, but it seems much smaller with Rusty, Captain America, and Captain America's shield all dancing around with him.

"That was before you made your armor into an attack dog!"

"I did not! Rusty, let go, damn it!"

Rusty releases the shield, and Steve pulls it out of Tony's grip. Tony puts his hands on his hips and glowers at Steve, naked and soapy, and annoyed. "There! You've got what you wanted!"

"No. No, I don't." Steve turns and throws the shield out of the shower, grabs Tony by the shoulders, and kisses him.

Oh, Tony thinks. This is new.

Chapter Text

Tony nudges Rusty out of the way with his foot, and begins investigating Steve's clothing. He likes the wet, clinging look, but skin on skin would be even better. "Mmmm," he comments intelligently against Steve's mouth. Steve has gorgeous numbers, balancing perfectly once Tony's variable slots into place. He manages to get his hands in under the elastic waistband at the back of Steve's sweatpants. Nice. In response Steve slides one hand down to Tony's ass. Very nice. Tony spreads his legs, encouraging further gropage, and reducing the chances of losing his balance. Someone has to think about that, since it's obvious Steve isn't thinking at all, which is fine by Tony. Numbers are ticking along beautifully, and Tony is considering a grand unified theory of pretty much everything when Steve pulls away from him, breaking the chain of logic.

"What?" Tony blinks and mentally replays the noise he'd heard a moment before Steve stole his numbers back. "Oh. Pepper?" Tony turns around. Pepper is standing just outside the shower, and of course, Tony hadn't thought to opaque the glass. But maybe that wouldn't have been a good idea anyway because then he'd be hiding Steve from Pepper, and hiding things upsets Pepper. Rusty is sitting, dripping, at Pepper's feet, and he's... grinning. Tony is impressed. He didn't know it had already developed a sense of humor. "Um. Pepper? I'm not sure whether this is what you think this is, because I don't know what you think it is, but..."

"It's all my fault," Steve says.

Tony rolls his eyes and elbows Steve somewhere in his heavily muscled ribcage. "Nonsense. Tony Stark's sexual magnetism is a well-known phenomenon. Rusty stole Cap's shield as a present for me." Tony looks at Pepper hopefully. Her numbers are bemused, but not angry, really not angry. "And you know me and showers."

"Oh, yes, I know you, Tony." Pepper shakes her head, but she's smiling. "We'll talk about this later."

Tony hums happily. Pepper isn't angry at him, that's good. He turns to Steve and totally forgets what he was going to say. "Pepper, look! He's blushing! He's adorable! I want him!"

"I noticed," Pepper says dryly. "And unless you want Fury to notice, you'll keep your voice down. He's here."

"What?" Tony frowns. "Who invited Mr. Buzz-kill?" He gets out of the shower and grabs a towel, pausing to toss one back to Steve. "I think the man had his smile muscles botoxed decades ago."

Steve is holding the towel in front of himself, looking mildly panicked. Tony looks back at Steve. "Fury probably wants to talk to you, too. Peepppper, where's my comfy robe? You know the one. We don't want Steve to catch cold."

Pepper says, "Maybe Steve doesn't want to wear your robe, Tony."

"Well, I don't have a letter sweater. Do I?" Tony can tell that Pepper is amused, and maybe even pleased with the situation, which, ok, he's not sure why, but he's not going to complain. Steve is gorgeous. He's not as perfect as Pepper, but definitely Steve is a keeper. As long as he doesn't have to lose Pepper.

Steve coughs. "Tony, I think it would be better if..."

"Oh, yeah, right, Fury will nag you, and maybe think you're crazy for liking me. Which, ok, the possibility exists, but why give him ammunition?" Tony throws the damp towel over Rusty and starts pulling on his workshop clothes. "I'll go dazzle Fury, and Pepper will get you some clothes. Something without too many buttons." Tony runs a hand through his hair, fluffing it wildly, kisses Pepper, then retraces his steps to kiss Steve. "Mmm... yeah, I could go for a sandwich." He snaps his fingers at Rusty. "Heel!"

Steve looks at Pepper. "Please hurry."

Chapter Text

"Oh, God," Pepper says as she returns to the bathroom. "Get dressed and get out there!" She throws a set of clothes at Steve, who had peeled off his wet sweatpants and shirt and wrapped a towel around his waist. He hesitates. "This is no time for modesty! Fury's about an inch away from trying to have Tony committed!"

Steve rips off the towel and pulls on a pair of trousers, taking the shirt with him, and ignoring everything else. "He can't do that! Can he?"

"No!" Pepper grabs Steve's arm and is dragged along through Tony's bedroom and on into the living room. "I don't think so!"

Tony is standing practically nose to nose with Fury. Rusty is pressed in between the two of them with his damp fur bristling all over remarkably similar to the way Tony's hair looks at the moment. Tony is shouting, "Numbers don't lie, but you do! What the fuck did you do with Phil!"

"Agent Coulson is dead!" Fury snaps back.

"No, he's not!" Tony turns to face Steve. "I thought he was just jealous because I've got Pepper, and he's lost his good eye, but the numbers are wrong! He's hiding something about Phil."

"Is that true, sir?" Steve says, pulling dignity about himself as armor and the hell with the fact that he was still wet and half-naked. "If you felt it necessary to...withhold information before, maybe you had a good reason, but you can tell us the truth now."

"Stay out of this, Rogers. Mr. Stark is obviously in need of professional help." Fury pulls himself up to his full height, which... well, 6'3" plus his shoes, against barefoot 5'8" Tony... Steve doesn't even think about it before he moves to stand next to Tony. He's never liked bullies even when the person being bullied seems not to have noticed.

"Sir, I really think we all need to sit down and talk about this calmly." Steve smiles and puts an arm around Tony. It's not the first grenade he's jumped on, and this really, well, feels right.

Fury looks even more sour, but he backs off. "You want to know the truth? All right, here, you can have it, for what it's worth. I don't know."

"You don't know what?" Tony asks.

"I don't know what happened to Agent Coulson. He was dying and then he... vanished."

"Huh." Tony looks closely at Fury. "All right." He looks past Fury at nothing and hums to himself. "I need coffee." He pats Steve on the arm, before heading out of the room with Rusty on his heels. He calls back, "Jarvis! Get all the information on Phil's disappearance! No one steals my stuff!"

Steve looks at Pepper. He's feeling incredibly awkward for a moment, then he shrugs. "Pepper, can I borrow your phone? I need to assemble the Avengers. And see if we can locate Jane Foster, she may be able to reach Thor with a message. Loki is probably behind this."

Pepper hands Steve a StarkPhone.

"Did I say you could get involved?" Fury asks.

"We're already involved, sir." Steve is arranging a conference call. "You can choose to help us, but I don't really think you can stop us."

Fury scowls. "Fine. I don't need the bad publicity for arresting Captain America. You can have Barton and Romanova, but I'd better be kept in the loop." He turns away and then pauses. "I'm short-handed enough, don't get any of my people killed, Captain. Including yourself."

"I'll try not to, sir," Steve says.

Chapter Text

"Look, see here," Bruce points to the holo hovering in the middle of the living room. All the Avengers (minus Thor, and plus Pepper) are gathered in the room, watching him. "This is the energy signature of the Spear of Chaos as it was when we first studied it on the Helicarrier, but here..." The display splits into two very similar diagrams that resemble tri-hybrids of an EKG, an EEG, and the sonic graph of a songbird's call. Roughly. "This is after we modified it to activate a transitional dimensional portal. I expected the readings to change, so I didn't notice, but..."

Tony nods. "The numbers are skewed. There's an additional factor. Something not accounted for by the modifications we made." Tony grabs an insubstantial patch of holo and spreads it out like taffy to peer at it, frowning. "We need to run further tests on the Spear."

Steve shakes his head. "The Spear's in Asgard, Tony."

"I wonder what the weather's like in Asgard, this time of year." Tony drums his fingers on his arc reactor.

"You're not going to Asgard," Steve says firmly.

"Well, I don't particularly want to," Tony says without looking away from the holo, "but Fed Ex doesn't deliver cross-dimensionally. I hate getting those delivery failure notices. Half the time they drop them and they blow away, and you wonder why your stuff never arrives." Tony glances at Bruce. "That looks like an overlay, doesn't it? Consistent variation across the spectrum."

"Yeah." Bruce scratches his head. "Well, you know, the other guy likes travel. You could stay here and prepare the testing equipment."

"Huh, no. My idea, I get to go. If you're good, you can ride shotgun, Bruce."

"Why are we even discussing this?" Pepper asks. "Asgard? Isn't that like... another dimension? You can't just fly there, Tony."

Tony hmmms. "Well, I have done upgrades on the suit..." He holds up his hands. "No, no, I'm kidding. Mostly." Tony looks at Rusty. "If I threw a stick really, really hard..." Rusty wags his tail.

Natasha ignores Tony's dog as she says, "Director Fury has been attempting to negotiate with the Asgardians. He can't even get them to let him speak with Loki."

Clint shakes his head. "They don't want anything to do with us."

"Thor does," Bruce objects. "You know he wants to get back in touch with Jane Foster."

"I bet his dad is cock-blocking him. All these one-eyed guys, they never want to see anyone having fun," Tony remarks. "Hey! Get Fury to stand to the left of Odin, and..."

"Tony, no," Pepper says.

Tony looks at Steve in appeal. "You got through to Jane Foster, didn't you? How close is she to creating a stable Einstein-Rosen Bridge?"

"I don't know. She said there were problems with the power source and calibration, and... other things."

"Power source," Bruce says while looking at Tony.

Tony blinks, and then grins. "Sure! I've got spares! Bruce, you're a genius!" Tony holds out an open package of Raisinets. Bruce smiles and takes a few. "Let's go play with Jane's toys!" Tony bounces up on his toes. "Yes? Yes, it's a plan!"

"What?" Steve says as Tony comes over to him and grabs him by the collar, pulling him down for a quick kiss.

"Placeholder!" Then Tony runs out of the room.

Bruce takes off his eyeglasses, wipes them on his shirt and puts them back on. "Well. I guess we're going to visit Ms. Foster."

Chapter Text

"Tony," Pepper says, determinedly working her way through piled up boxes and crates to reach Tony in the middle of his workshop.

"Yeah?" Tony says absently, while using shears to clip open metal bands around a crate, then he dives in, leaning inside to rummage through packing peanuts. "No, not that one, either."

"Tony, what are you looking for?"

"New toothbrush. You know I always have a new toothbrush when I go on a trip." Tony pulls back out of the crate to look at Pepper. Her numbers are a bit jumbled, so he smiles and rubs the back of her hand.

"I've already packed for you." Pepper takes a deep breath. "I can't come with you, Tony. Someone's got to be available to manage your company."

Tony nods. "Oh, right. Sure. It would be boring, sciencey stuff, anyway, Pep. Except for Asgard, which, well, if they're all like Thor, won't be boring but probably noisy, and you always turn my music down, so..."

"Tony." Pepper lays her fingers lightly across his mouth and he shuts up, watching her numbers shift and slide like a puzzle. "I like Phil."

"Yeah, I know. He's... not such a bad guy."

Pepper swats Tony lightly on the shoulder. "I like Phil, but I love you. I'm not going to ask you to be careful, because I know you, Tony. I just want you to remember that I love you and you're more important to me than anyone else."

"So, this would be a good time for the feather thing?" Tony widens his eyes hopefully.

Pepper laughs. "When you get back, I'll show Steve how to do the feather thing."

Tony grins.

***

"I'd like a word with you, Steve," Pepper says. Steve is in the living room, talking with Bruce, Natasha and Clint about their upcoming mission.

"Yes, Pepper?" Steve glances at her expression, then nods. "We were finished, pretty much. It's hard to plan when we have no idea what Asgard is like." He turns to the others. "Just make your best guess what equipment you'll need and pack it on the Quin-jet." When they leave he turns to Pepper. "If this is about Tony... actually, I don't know what to say. Just... you know, we hadn't really done anything. Yet."

"Oh, it's not about that. Tony's been ridiculously faithful to me- well, for him, it's ridiculous. Anyway, we'll work out the details later."

"Details?"

Pepper waves that off. "I know you're going to do your best to look out for Tony until he's... well, back to as normal as he gets. But if he starts getting in over his head... yeah, I know, Tony...well, the one thing that'll get his attention no matter what is if someone he cares about is in trouble. And he does care about you. He has for quite a while. You can use that, if you need to."

"Um. So..." Steve scratches at the back of his neck. "And you're... all right with this?"

"Honestly, knowing Tony, I'd been expecting him to need more than I can give him, so I'm relieved he's fallen for you, rather than someone I can't trust."

"I don't know how this sort of thing works... I mean... three people." Steve clears his throat. "And while you're really a very attractive woman..."

Pepper laughs. "And while you're a very handsome man..."

"This is very confusing." Steve sighs and then shakes his head. "You're right, we'll discuss this after the mission."

Chapter Text

"It's my plane, I should get to fly us," Tony says when Clint pushes past him to get into the cockpit. Natasha looks at him. Her numbers are very, very spiky and black. "On second thought, it might be a better use of my time to call Dr. Foster to discuss her calibration issues." Natasha balances better when she's close to Clint, anyway.

Bruce sits next to Tony when he sets up a video call to Jane. Between the three of them, they find a workaround for the calibration issues before they land. Probably it'll work fine. Tony's more sure of his math than ever, but he has to admit he's a bit shaky on artificially generated wormhole dynamics, so while the equations are right, he's not sure Jane's variables and Bruce's extrapolations that he's plugged in are accurate.

***

"Wow, SHIELD really spared no expense," Tony says, pulling his sunglasses down to look around at the not very large but definitely very ugly warehouse set in the middle of a concrete wasteland bordered by a rusted chainlink fence which serves as an arbitrary division between weed patches belonging to the grounds, and wild weed patches beyond.

"It's bigger on the inside than the outside."

Tony turns to face the speaker, grinning. "Dr. Foster! But it's not a blue box!"

Bruce says, "Well, if you fix the chameleon circuit..."

Jane replies, "Of course we did. Come in, and have a look at my baby." The three of them walk off toward the sagging, rusted door of the warehouse, talking quickly, with Tony providing an occasional hand-wave, and Rusty trailing behind with a constant tail wave.

Steve looks at Clint. "Did that mean something?" They've been left with the luggage piled high next to the Quin-jet.

"No," Clint says. He pushes a button on a small remote control, and the plane shimmers into near invisibility. "Just geek talk."

Natasha throws a small duffel bag over her shoulder. "Let's go. We don't want to be tard-ees."

Steve is sure there's a joke there somewhere, from the way Clint rolls his eyes, but he's not in the mood to care that he's missing the reference. A small cart comes around the corner of the building, driven by a man in a shabby set of coveralls. "I'll take care of the bags, sir," he tells Steve. Steve notices the sidearm bulge under his coveralls, and the knowing glance that passes between him and Natasha. "Thanks," Steve says, picking up the bag containing his shield.

***

The warehouse is actually just as small inside as he expected, Steve is about to say, when the floor drops beneath them, revealing a huge underground complex, all shining bright. They follow Dr. Foster. Steve spends the next week alternating between watching 'the geeks' do incomprehensible things to a large 'gadget' and working out his frustrations by sparring with the many SHIELD agents staffing the facility.

***

"Really, this is it, I'm sure of it," Tony says at the end of the week, bouncing gleefully around the thing that's all sorts of shapes that the eye can't quite follow. An arc reactor is snuggled in at one side, clashing with the general decor. Jane Foster isn't as awesome as Pepper, but then, who is? but Tony can see why Thor was tempted to give up a throne for her. Her understanding of interdimensional physics is very, very sexy. Her numbers scatter and pattern nearly as quickly as Bruce's. Working with both of them is like really, really good sex, but without the awkward discussions about feelings afterward. And now they have created a lovely baby.

"It probably is," Bruce says cautiously, looking at the huge blue, swirling nothing/everything floating a few inches off the floor.

"Asgard, here we come! I'll just slip into something more metallic." Tony triggers his bracelets and lets the latest Mark form around him.

"I'm not testing this on any humans-- or even you, Tony," Jane says firmly, stepping in front of the swirly, with her arms crossed across her chest.

"What? You want to send some mice through? What will that prove? You won't be able to tell them to come back." Tony is not sulking, he's not. He's being perfectly reasonable, maybe a little louder than usual, but reasonable.

Bruce rubs at the bridge of his nose. "I could go."

"No," Jane says. "I don't care how tough your alter-ego is, Bruce. We'll make up some pre-programmed drones and send them in to take readings first."

Tony eyes the big swirly. It extends far enough over Jane's head that he could fly in over her. He really hates waiting for things, he gets so bored. He's leaning forward, preparing to fire the boot-jets when something slams into his knees from behind, knocking him to the floor. "HEY!" He's flailing like a fancy turtle, and just barely manages to raise his head enough to see Rusty disappear into the blue void. "Damn it, Rusty!"

Chapter Text

Rusty returns an hour later, carrying a stick in his jaws. The stick is more like a very small sapling. It's glowing gold, and has green-silver leaves and a ball of roots gathered around sparkly dirt. He wags his tail and deposits his prize at Tony's feet, ignoring everyone else in the room, the scientists, the SHIELD agents, and the other Avengers.

"I was kidding about the stick-throwing, Rusty," Tony says. "Good boy." He pats Rusty on the head. "So, what's Asgard like?"

"Environmental conditions are suitable for humans, Tony," Rusty says. His tongue lolls out and he grins.

"Yeah," Steve says to the shocked to silence room at large. "Tony's dog is a robot."

Jane sighs. "Of course it is." She moves over to a computer. "Can you have your dog download whatever data it acquired, Tony?"

***

Steve looks around the strange forest bit of Asgard he's landed in, while keeping part of his awareness on his team around him. After considerable arguing, it turned out that somehow all the Avengers, plus Tony's robot dog, were absolutely vital to the mission. Steve still isn't quite sure how that happened, but somewhere along the line they were all suited up, ready to go, and it was an accepted thing. And, well, he feels better when they're all together, even if part of him is more keeping an eye on Tony than counting on Tony.

"All right, we're going to be very polite. And yes, Tony, that includes you." Steve turns around and takes an instinctive step back. Well, you would, too, if you were suddenly faced by an enormous man in golden armor, even if the man didn't have the sternest face with glowing amber eyes that's Steve's ever seen outside of nightmares. Steve hears the hum of Tony's repulsors powering up to stand-by and subtle shiftings as Clint, Natasha and Bruce take up positions around the armored man.

"It is well to be polite, Captain," the man says. "I am Heimdall, guardian of Asgard." He has an unbelievably huge sword. Steve notices that while it's not raised, neither is it sheathed. "Most travelers come by invitation along the Bifrost."

"Yeah, well, I apologize for barging in like this. It's kind of an emergency. We've been trying to get a message through to our friend, Thor," Steve says.

"Thor," Heimdall rumbles, "has been occupied with matters of state."

"Ok," Steve tries again, hurriedly because the others are getting restless, and he really doesn't want to start a fight here, "see, the thing is, we think that a friend of ours might not be dead, exactly, but we need to talk to Loki, and look at his Spear of Chaos to find out for certain."

Heimdall shifts his weight slightly. "Loki is a prisoner. Odin has given orders that none may have private converse with the Liesmith. The Spear is one of the treasures of the realm, and may not be removed from its place of safekeeping. I am under oath to enforce Odin's decrees."

Tony's faceplate pops up just as Steve is tensing up to fight. "Wait! Hey, guys, didn't you hear what Goldie said? He's all over the loopholes."

"What?" Steve doesn't turn to face Tony. Tony is not really... reliable.

"Look, the big guy is sympathetic, so while he won't break the rules, he'll bend them." Tony's now waving his arms around. "We can't move the Spear, and we can't talk to Loki alone. We can work with that, can't we, guys?"

Chapter Text

"My sister, Sif, will accompany you," Heimdall says. "I must return to my post." With that, he turns and walks away.

"A man of few words," Bruce comments. He looks around and finds a large boulder to sit on. "I suppose we're meant to stay here and wait for our escort."

"If we trust him," Natasha says. "He could be setting us up for a trap."

"Tony thinks Heimdall is on our side," Steve says, but without much conviction.

Tony is now throwing sticks for his robot dog to fetch. Clint glances at Tony and snaps his bow into shape. "That's nice."

"Yeah, all right." Steve admits he hasn't much faith in Tony's judgment at the moment. "You and Natasha take cover in the trees. Bruce, Tony and I will stay in the open."

"How open?" Tony asks before firing up his jet boots and starting to rise. Rusty is crouched as if preparing to leap after him.

"TONY!" Steve shouts,"Get back here!"

"Oh, all right. Don't throw a hissy." Tony lands and walks over to Steve, with Rusty heeling. "I wasn't going anywhere. I just wanted a better look. Considering how old the legends are about Asgard, it just seems weird that there's all this wilderness. I mean if they were technologically so advanced a thousand years ago as to seem to possess magical powers, there should have been a significant impact on the environment, world-wide. Maybe we're in a forest preserve, but even so, Jarvis can't find any signs of pollution, I mean, any, not chemical or radiation or anything on the electro-magnetic spectrum outside of the expected natural sources!"

Bruce looks up with interest. "You're right, that does sound anomalous. Can you have Jarvis give me the data?" Bruce pulls a StarkPad out of his shirt pocket.

Steve sighs. Natasha and Clint have disappeared, presumably up one or more of the giant trees populating the area, and Bruce and Tony have vanished into happy scientist-land. "Have you considered the possibility that magic exists?"

Tony has his helmet off, and a pair of sunglasses on. Steve has no idea where they came from. The idea of a sunglass pocket inside the Iron Man suit just seems...wrong. Tony lowers his head and looks at Steve over the red lenses. "No. Calling something magic just means you haven't seen the numbers behind the trick."

"Not everything is numbers, Tony."

Tony's eyes widen. "Everything is numbers."

Bruce nods, "Well, actually, yes, that's true. However, formalizing the so-called soft sciences requires the application of fuzzy logic and..."

Along about that point, Steve gives up and returns to pacing around the boulder. They're keeping each other calm. And considering Tony's current state of mind and Bruce's 'other side', that's a good thing. Tony's dog starts walking next to Steve. "This place is dangerous," Rusty says.

Steve makes a noncommittal noise while continuing to watch the forest.

"Someone approaches," Rusty says a few minutes later. He lifts his left front paw, tucking it close to his chest while his tail goes out straight behind him and stiffens, nose pointed off toward the trees at Steve's right. "From that direction."

Steve holds his shield ready, although he feels ridiculous listening to a robot birddog. He feels slightly less stupid when a woman wearing armor similar, but a lot smaller, than Heimdall's appears, riding on an equally armored horse, and leading five more horses behind through a barely noticeable path in the woods. "I am Sif," she declares with the same cool confidence as her brother. Before Steve can say anything Sif has drawn a large, sharp looking sword and pointed it at him. An instant later, Natasha drops out of the tree above Sif, landing on the saddle behind her, and slipping a garrote around her neck.

"I am Natasha."

Sif blinks, and then grins, lowering the sword without otherwise moving. "Well-met, sister! Introduce me to your brothers-at-arms."

Steve rubs the bridge of his nose and wonders if he's ever going to lead a normal group of people. Then he remembers the Howling Commandos and smiles.

Chapter Text

"So," Sif says, while crouching to draw maps in the soil with the point of a dagger, "you wish to speak with Loki. Why? He will give you nothing but lies."

"That doesn't matter," Tony says. "Numbers don't lie and everything is numbers."

"Are you a seer or mage?" Sif asks.

Tony grins at her. "Better. I'm an engineer."

"Oh." Sif stands up and wipes her dagger off on her trousers before sheathing it. "I think a seer would have more luck. Still, it is your quest, not mine. I am a warrior. I would simply run Loki through, were he to have slain a comrade of mine."

"Yeah, I'd like that," Clint says, fingering a wicked-looking arrow.

"Loki's death wouldn't bring Coulson back," Steve says. He worries about Clint.

"No, but it'd make me feel better." Clint paces away and then back to them. "It'd wipe the feel of his dirty fingers from my mind, pay back at least one of the people he had me kill."

Sif puts her hand on Clint's arm for an instant, not holding him, just catching his attention. "Loki was in your mind?"

Clint glares at her. "Yeah. He used the Spear to do it."

"Well, that makes things simpler. Bindings work both ways."

"Hey! I don't want to be in Loki's mind!" Clint snaps.

"Nor do I suggest you should. His magic's been locked away from him. The trace of it you hold should give you some power over him."

"Enough to make him tell the truth?"

Sif shrugs. "Enough to make him talk, at least. Come. Loki is being held outside the city. It will be an hour's easy ride."

"I can get there on my own," Tony says, while looking the horses over suspiciously. "I don't think these animals were designed with my armor in mind. I don't want to break one. It'd be messy."

Sif walks over to Tony, wraps her arms around the Iron Man's waist. "HEY!" Tony shouts and flails as she lifts him and holds him a foot above the ground. She lets go and he stumbles back. "The gray can take your weight, he's one of Thor's war-horses," she says before mounting her own horse.

***

Loki's prison is more like a small palace, except that there are no windows and there is only one door. "Oh. They've changed the guard," Sif says, when they are close enough to make out the warriors' features. "I don't know these men."

"We could take them out," Natasha says, idly checking over the contents of her belt pouches.

"We don't want to cause a diplomatic incident," Steve reminds her.

"Oh, god, no," Clint agrees with Steve. "The paperwork is a nightmare. How about bribery?"

"Why don't we try talking to them?" Bruce suggests. "Maybe they'll be reasonable. After all, we only want to talk to Loki."

"I don't care what we do, just so long as I can get off this thing," Tony says, sagging sideways in the saddle. Rusty sits down and looks up at him, panting.

Chapter Text

"Halt!" One of the dozen guards holds out a spear, blocking their way as they approach on foot. None of them are as huge as Heimdall, but none of them are small, either. "Who are you and why are you here?"

"They are Midgardian warriors," Sif says, "Come to speak with the Trickster, as is their right since he attacked them without cause."

"To speak? Or to slay, and bring Odin's wrath down upon us?" The guard doesn't sound particularly worried.

"We just want to talk to him," Steve says earnestly. "We're the ones who caught him, so if we wanted to kill him we could have already done it."

"Speak for yourself," Clint mutters, but shuts up when Natasha elbows him in the ribs.

"Prisoner or no, Loki remains a Prince of the Realm. If he does not choose to speak with you we will not force him."

Clint lifts his head and steps forward. "Tell him the man whose heart he touched is here." He's trembling. "He'll want to see me."

Tony knows Clint's numbers are a mixture of rage and terror, but he's pretty sure everyone else knows that, too, so he doesn't say anything. Natasha is close to Clint, he'll be fine.

"Yes, I suppose we could do that," the guard says, putting his spear down to lean against it, "but what proof have we that you are truly warriors? I would not shame a Prince by asking him to speak with anyone less."

"We'll spar with you, if you like," Steve offers. He smiles. "Your best warrior against any one of us. Except..." He points at Bruce. "Him. He doesn't like hurting people."

Tony opens his mouth, and then closes it. He can see where this is going, so can Steve and Bruce. Tony grins and moves off to one side.

***

Tony can hear the Hulk and the guards having a grand time throwing each other around the landscape right up until he crosses the threshold into the palace. It's like pushing through a curtain made of strings of icy beads, and then there's silence and dimness even though the wide door is open on a bright afternoon behind him. He doesn't like these numbers, they're slippery and changeable.

Steve appears, looking really annoyed. "Tony!"

"Steve!" Tony grins. Clint and Natasha fall through into the room next. "Great! Now, all Clint has to do is give out Loki vibes... Hey!" Steve grabs Tony's arm. Even in the armor he gets pulled back. "What?"

"We were going to have the guards bring Loki to us. That was the plan."

"Yeah, but no. See..." Tony yelps in surprise as Steve punches him and he goes flying, out through the door and into the sunshine to land at Steve's feet. He looks up, and flips up his helmet faceplate. "Huh. But you were in..." He looks around, everyone is here, including the Hulk who's now drinking mead with the guards. He blinks. The light is different. Angle. Intensity. "Oh. Temporal shift. That's... interesting." He pats at himself, clanking against the suit. "I'm not really, really old, am I?"

"No, you were only gone for around an hour. But that was really, really stupid." Steve frowns at him, and Tony blinks again. "This place was built to keep Loki in, you know. Don't you ever think before you leap?"

"Yeah. Um. Sometimes." Tony sits up and pats Rusty who is giving him a worried dog look. "So, fine, no harm, no foul." Tony smiles tentatively at Steve's numbers. They really are worrywart numbers, so easily shifted off balance, he feels a bit guilty for not taking them into consideration. "How about... I promise to do what you say for the next... hour?" That's stretching it, but he can be generous. Sometimes.

Steve sighs and gives him a hand up. "We're going to see Loki now. I need you to stay with us, Tony. Focus. Just find out what we need to know about Coulson. Don't go off on tangents. Can you do that for me?"

Tony nods, even though he's feeling more than a bit patronized, because Steve's numbers are so honest and clean-cut and really... lickable that he can't get really mad. "Sure thing, Cap. Got it."

One of the guards does something Tony can't quite see and a cloudy window appears next to the tricky time doors. Clint approaches the window and lays one hand against it. A moment later the window clears and Loki is standing on the other side, with his hand pressed against Clint's separated by a thin slice of something invisible. "Why have you come?" Loki asks. He smiles at Clint. "Did you miss me, my pet?"

Clint is breathing heavily. His numbers are jagged, edged in bright hate, filled with dark guilt. "Yeah, and I'm sorry about that. I thought I had better aim."

Tony moves close to Clint, keeping his faceplate up. "You did, Clint. Loki cheated, he always cheats. He's nothing without the Spear, and he couldn't even get that to work on me." Tony grins at Loki, seeing that smirk freeze, seeing how close his numbers are to losing their shadows. "Lose the owner's manual? Forget to refill the account?"

Loki's lips draw back in a snarl. "I did nothing wrong! The Spear of Chaos was defiled by the blood of..." Abruptly he pulls his hand away. "I will speak no more with these weak fools!"

"Oh." Tony blinks as Loki's numbers slot into place. "Phil. Somehow Phil affected the Spear of Chaos."

Clint draws a deep breath and steps back from the window. "Yeah. He would. Phil never did like Chaos. So. I guess now we go after this Spear."

Chapter Text

With Sif to vouch for them, getting into the palace isn't a problem. The treasury is another thing entirely. The guards don't look bored at all. "If Thor was here we could simply walk in." Sif scowls, arms crossed and staring at the door leading to the Spear of Chaos and a host of other valuable/dangerous items.

"No air shafts," Clint reports glumly after exploring all the publicly accessible corridors near the treasury.

"Or hidden passageways or sliding panels," Natasha adds.

"So, we can't sneak in," Steve says.

Rusty wags his tail. "I could fetch the Spear. That door isn't too strong." His nose glows, repulsor bright.

"Down, boy," Tony says. "The whole point is not to piss off Odin. We're still sweeping up from the last interdimensional war."

Bruce nods. "We can't break anything, or anyone. Maybe we could disguise ourselves as relief guards?" He looks at the guards and then at his friends. "Well, maybe Steve."

"Even if I could," Steve says, "I doubt the others would let me open the door."

Tony shifts from foot to foot. This is boring, very boring. "We should have kept the Spear. They managed to send Thor without using it. We could have given them a copy, since they're just sticking it in a vault, what difference would it make?"

"And where would we get a copy?" Steve asks.

"Oh, hey, I dunno, maybe make one. It's not that hard to make shiny metal toys, just ask Matchbox."

"Could you make a copy, Tony? Here, I mean."

Tony nods. "I suppose. There must be a forge and metal shop for repairing all this armor. It wouldn't be an exact copy, I didn't get that good a look at it. Well, I did, but at the time my perspective was off. What with Loki trying to tap me for Rush Week for Phi Kappa Minion."

Steve turns to Sif. "A forge?"

"Yes. Come." Sif starts walking, and Tony catches up to her to describe all the things he'll need. It doesn't look as if she's listening, but that doesn't stop him.

"What good is a copy going to do?" Clint asks Steve.

"If you were guarding a treasure, and saw a dog running off with it, what would you do?"

"Probably shoot the dog."

"Don't tell Tony that."

Chapter Text

Rusty growls around the fake spear he's holding in his mouth.

They are all gathered around the corner from the treasury. Steve is in a suit of bronze and blue Asgardian armor lent by Sindri, the elf-smith, in return for the chance to study Tony's armor. Tony is wearing a faded black rock concert t-shirt over a long-sleeved black shirt and a pair of black jeans. Tony pats Rusty on the head. "I know you'd rather I was Iron Man but this is a caper! Basic black is traditional when you're playing cat burglar. Don't worry about me. You just keep the guards busy." Tony's not worried at all. Asgard is such a surreal place, he can't be bothered to worry about anything, except the probability that he'll have to ride that devil-horse again. It had incredibly evil numbers. He's sure the only reason it didn't try to bite his leg off is because he was Iron Man.

Rusty whines and gives a brief tail-wag.

"Everyone ready?" Steve asks, lifting his shield, which has been painted to match the borrowed armor. "Sif is with me. Tony and Bruce will examine the Spear. Clint and Natasha will make sure their retreat stays open."

"I still think I should be lowered from the ceiling while wearing infra-red goggles," Tony says. "That's always cool. Or maybe I could race over the rooftops, so I can impress people with my sexy agility. It worked for Cary Grant!" All right, Tony is a little, just a little, nervous to be doing this sort of thing without his armor. He's not nothing without it, but Asgardians are unlikely to be favorably impressed by a genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist sneaking into their treasure room.

Steve looks at Tony. "Quit fooling around."

"You'd make a lousy cat-burglar, Steve. You have no sense of style."

"Thanks." Steve pats Tony on the arm. "Stay close to Bruce."

"Of course I will. Oh." Tony is slightly offended, but really... Bruce's numbers always need a little help. "You can go now, Rusty."

Rusty takes off, growling and bashing the fake Spear against the wall, creating a screeching noise and a shower of sparks. Tony is rather proud of him. When his dog sets out to create a diversion, he creates a hell of a diversion. Steve and Sif run after Rusty, shouting. They hear the guards yelling and running in the same direction with Sif shouting out some story about Rusty being a magical demon dog, or something else equally implausible. Tony starts to move out, but Natasha puts an arm across his throat. "Wait." Tony freezes. Natasha's numbers are always very, very... yeah, don't upset Natasha's numbers. "Now." Natasha yanks and Tony is in the corridor, running to the door, with Bruce a step behind (when Natasha yanks, you run pretty damn fast). Clint gets there ahead of them and does something spy-ish to the door, opening it just enough to let Tony and Bruce slip through.

Tony glances back just once to see the two silhouettes standing guard, then looks around for the Spear. Tony sees a long corridor lined with a lot of primitive-looking weapons on pedestals surrounded by glittering gold clouds of very irrational numbers barely held in check. "Don't touch anything." Tony starts walking since nothing near the door looks remotely like the Spear.

Bruce nods as he accompanies Tony. "I won't. But I wish I had the tech manuals."

"Yeah, that'd help. Magic." Tony makes a disbelieving noise. "There's a rational explanation for everything."

"Not for everything."

"Well, everything except the reason Ben and Jerry discontinued Coffee Olé." Tony pauses, seeing a hint of blue numbers off to one side. "I think that's it." Bruce follows him to the Spear. "Huh." These numbers aren't at all what he expected from a Spear of Chaos.

Bruce runs his StarkScanner over the Spear at a cautious distance. (Tony had manfully resisted dubbing it a Tricorder.) "The readings are different."

"Yeah." Tony puts his hands in his pockets. "Organized. Lined up nice and neat, like perfect margins."

"Um, well, I don't see any margins, but the intervals between frequency pulses..."

"Oh, here, let me show you." Bruce is bright, genius bright, but he lacks confidence and sometimes Tony just wants to run. He runs his hands over the number aura, petting them.

"Tony! Don't!"

"Such nice numbers..." Tony smiles. And then he jerks. The numbers are crawling up his hands, up his arms, all fast and efficient and it's like bathing in cold light, like peppermint fizz. "NO!" And before Bruce can move the numbers are under Tony's skin, inside and he's full of cold, clear organization and it's not him, it's not, and he's not this. The numbers open his mouth. "I'm not dead. Hmm. This isn't an optimum solution. We'll have to do something about this." And then Tony's body straightens. "I would suggest we leave before we're intercepted. This would be difficult to explain."

Bruce grabs Tony's arm. "Tony?"

Tony's eyes blink slowly. "He's not available at the moment. Leave a message and he'll get back to you." Tony's mouth moves in a minimalist smile. "I'm Phil Coulson."

"Oh, shit," Bruce says softly.

Chapter Text

Tony's body straightens to an un-Tony-like stillness. "I know this is an alarming development, but I assure you, I have no desire to take over Stark's body as a permanent residence." Tony's mouth twitches. "None of my suits would fit, for one thing."

"Where's Tony?" Bruce is keeping calm with a visible effort. This is one occasion when the Other Guy would be absolutely no use.

Tony's hand taps the side of Tony's head. "Mr. Stark is still in here. He was becoming... over-excited, and we really don't have time for drama. So I applied a little pressure. He's sleeping." He heads for the door. "Agent Romanova? Agent Barton?"

Natasha doesn't even pause to look, before she has her forearm around Tony's neck bending him back and putting a knife to his throat. "Who are you?"

Coulson looks up at her through Tony's eyes, not struggling. "Agent Coulson. We can discuss the ramifications of this later. At the moment, it's inadvisable to loiter here, don't you think? I presume there was some plan after you breached security on the vault?" Natasha doesn't cut his throat, but she doesn't release him, either.

Clint says, "This is seriously too weird. Why does Tony sound like Phil?"

"Because Tony doesn't listen," Bruce says. "He touched the Spear and Phil was apparently released from storage in it."

"We really should be leaving the vicinity," Coulson says calmly. He shifts, and suddenly Natasha is on the floor, and Coulson/Tony is holding the knife out to her. "Now."

"Ok, that's Phil," Clint says. He turns and looks down the corridor. "They're coming back."

Natasha gets up and takes her knife from Coulson. "Follow me." She turns and runs a step behind Clint.

Coulson starts after her. He pauses for a moment, putting a hand to Tony's chest before catching up with her. "Ah, of course," he says softly, "I'll have to take that into consideration in future."

Bruce follows, a little green around the edges.

***

"Suit up," Steve says. "They weren't that far behind us." He's standing in Sindri's metal shop with Sif and Rusty (minus the fake Spear) when the others arrive.

Coulson/Tony glances at the Iron Man armor. "I don't know how to operate it. And I feel I must clearly state that I have no desire to learn Mr. Stark's secrets. He is rather possessive."

"Tony?" Steve and Rusty nearly collide as they try to get to Tony.

Coulson/Tony lifts his hands in a 'hold that thought' gesture. "First, let me say that this is a temporary situation. Second, I know how to correct it. I'm not Tony Stark."

"What?" Steve grabs Tony's shoulders. "Look, I know you've been having problems lately Tony, but now's not the time. You've got to hold together a little longer."

Coulson/Tony looks at Steve. "On the plane I confessed to watching you sleep, when you were first brought back. I doubt you told Tony Stark about that."

"No." Steve lets go of Tony and takes a step back.

"Yes." Coulson says calmly. "I am Agent Coulson. The Spear didn't kill me, obviously. Loki had miscalculated his control over it. To be entirely honest, the Spear was never fully under any user's control, due to its chaotic nature. It took some time to straighten it out. At first all I could do was prevent it from compromising any new victims. After that, the next priority was feeding Selvig a convincing lie about developing a failsafe so the Spear would be brought in contact with the portal generator. I used the Spear to shut the wormhole. I returned to consciousness in the treasury room some time later." Coulson tips Tony's head slightly to one side. "Now, if that's all explained to everyone's satisfaction..."

"Wait! You said you know how to fix this?" Steve asks.

"Yes. It shouldn't be too difficult. Someone has to go to Hel to get my body back." Coulson frowns slightly. "Mr. Stark is awake, and quite agitated. I would advise being prepared to restrain him." Coulson closes his eyes...

...And Tony opens them. "AHHH! No! Oh, God, I've got Agent Cooties!" Tony slaps at his chest and his arms frantically.

Chapter Text

"Wrong numbers inside! These aren't the numbers I'm looking for! Out!" Tony picks up a dagger from the nearest worktable and turns it toward himself.

"Tony! Stop it!" Steve grabs Tony to prevent him slicing into his arm.

Tony drops the knife and presses tight against Steve. "Your numbers complete me. Helps." Tony is shivering, full body shaking. "I like Phil, but his numbers are all wrong for me. I need my imaginary numbers, square root of negative one, there's no 'i' in Avengers, but there's one in Iron Man. Steve, get him out of me."

"We will." Steve holds Tony and pats his back, trying to ignore the looks the others are giving them. "Phil has a plan." He waves the others back, whatever Tony is saying about numbers makes no sense, but he doesn't want to risk Tony deciding they have 'bad numbers' and panicking again.

"A plan?" Tony is laughing now, but there's no amusement in it. "You all think I'm crazy? He wants to send you to Hel!"

Sif says, "Hel isn't that bad. The dead rest there, that's all." She looks thoughtful. "Of course, getting there is difficult and Garm guards the entrance against the living."

"Garm?" Steve tightens his grip on Tony.

"A hound... too large to fit in this chamber. She probably weighs as much as eight horses."

"Oh, just a dog? I can handle a dog," Tony says. He pulls back from Steve and triggers the armor-recall on his bracelets.

"No!" Steve only tries for an instant to stop the process, then he shouts, "Phil! Stop him!" because he remembers how impossible it was to stop the armor before.

Tony blinks and his posture changes for a moment to Phil's contained stillness, then his eyes flash open wide and he snaps, "NO! No one tells me what to do!" The armor finishes assembling, plates clicking into place like a row of dominos falling.

"Damn it, Tony, NO!" This is all Steve's fault, he should never have let Tony come with them, not while he was like this. He throws his arms around Iron Man's neck. "You're not going without me!" Iron Man turns one hand to Steve's face, repulsor glowing in warning. Steve says softly, "Tony. No." Steve is sure, well, pretty sure, that Tony wouldn't have hurt him, but as Sif and Natasha double-team Tony at the same moment Clint fires a flash-bang and Bruce goes all green and giant, all he can be really sure was that Tony doesn't use any of the suit's weapons against them before he stiffens and falls over, taking a worktable and most of them with him. The Hulk grumbles and grabs Tony and sits down, holding him and poking at the suit with one finger.

The faceplate rises. "I've put him under again," Coulson says, "but it won't last long. Let me finish the mission briefing. According to the Spear, my body would be stored just inside the cave leading to Hel, as it's technically neither alive nor dead. That technicality means it doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of the guardian beast which only has two purposes- to keep the dead in Hel, and to keep the living out."

"So, all we have to do is kill a big dog. A really big dog," Clint says. He begins looking through his arrows. "Messy, but doable."

"No," Coulson says patiently. "Without Garm, all Hel would break loose, literally. I was thinking that the Hulk could subdue it long enough for Rogers to slip past and retrieve, well, me."

Rusty has been staring at Coulson/Tony. "I am technically neither alive nor dead. I will get your body and you will leave Tony."

Coulson blinks. Steve shrugs. "Yeah, Tony made a robot dog. I'm still not really sure why."

"I never inquire into Mr. Stark's motivations," Coulson says. "But the dog's idea has merit. If it can get to Hel, that is."

Sif says, "The Bifrost is still being repaired, but there are other routes."

Rusty rises on all four footpad jets. "I require a download of the coordinates and complete information to my main data bank."

"People don't work that way," Coulson says.

"Tony does," Rusty says.

"That explains a great deal." Coulson sighs.

Chapter Text

"Where the hell am I?" Tony says when he wakes up to find himself out of the Iron Man suit, (and his bracelets gone), tied to the saddle of that devil horse again, back out in the Asgardian wilderness, plodding along in the middle of the group.

"Your dog has gone to Hel," Sif says, glancing back over her shoulder at him from her place at the head of their little cavalcade. "We are still in Asgard."

"This isn't fair. Normally when I wake up without knowing how I got somewhere, at least I had a good time the night before." Coulson's numbers are still inside, and still trying to organize him but Tony's numbers have begun fighting back, setting up barricades of beautifully irrational logic structures to block them off from vulnerable areas, which is to say, everywhere. See how Coulson likes living in a maze.

"Yeah," Clint says from the horse next to him, "but on the bright side, you're not hungover."

"Point," Tony acknowledges. He squirms a little as Coulson's numbers try to convince him that drunkenness is something to be avoided, not embraced. "Phil's nagging me, someone make him stop." Tony shakes his head. "He itches."

Steve leans over from the other side and puts his hand on Tony's shoulder. "Hey. You're all right. You're fine."

Tony blinks at Steve. "I am? Are you sure? Let me see. Oh. Well, close enough." Tony hums and leans a little, just a little, not too obviously, really, hardly anyone would notice, into Steve's touch. "You'd probably get along with Phil in your skin better than me." Steve blushes. "Wait? Did that sound inappropriate? Because, really, I'm not suggesting you and Phil, because that would be too weird, like when fans ambush me with Sharpies and want signatures on intimate body parts. Ok, sure, maybe you and Phil would hit it off on the mom and apple pie front, but someone's got to be..." Tony shuts up when Steve puts a hand over his mouth, but his eyebrows are indignant.

"Tony," Steve says quietly, "we're going to get through this. It will be all right. You'll be all right."

And Tony believes Steve even against the evidence of his own numbers, which is really, really weird because Tony Stark has never been all right. Sometimes he's been amazing, but that's not the same thing at all. He licks Steve's hand, and grins when Steve pulls back. "Pepper said she'd show you how to do the feather thing." Steve doesn't quite fall off his horse. Tony thinks about Steve and Pepper and their beautiful, perfect numbers, rather than Coulson's annoying integers. It helps.

He still hates the devil horse, though.

***

"Ok, that's something you don't see every day," Clint says a few hours later when they're nearly where ever they're going, maybe, Tony can't tell, one tree looks pretty much like another tree to him. Except for that quite interesting tree Rusty had brought back, which Tony has to make sure to claim, because it would look really nice in the Tower, and Pepper would probably like it to make the place more 'homey'. Better than a puppy, but not as nice as Cap... what was Clint saying? Tony rewinds mentally... oh, he saw something unusual. Tony looks around in time to see Rusty come in for a four-point landing with a naked, grimy, but unwounded, Agent, draped over his back in a really awkward way.

Rusty squirms out from under, shakes himself and trots over to Tony's horse. "This was the only person in the cave behind the big dog. Is it the right one?" He wags his tail in a hopeful way.

The body is face down, and breathing. Tony is dubious. "I don't think so. He's got a tattoo on his ass. Why would Phil have a pigeon tattooed on his ass?"

"It's not a pigeon, it's a hawk," Clint says as he gets off his horse and goes over to the body.

Natasha slides off her horse and joins him to flip over the body. Tony decides not to comment on the spider tattooed on Phil's chest.

Chapter Text

"Right, then." Tony looks at Phil's body. It's been propped up against a boulder (the same one he remembers Bruce sitting on when they first arrived in Asgard. Tony may, just may, have done a bit of graffiti on it with a repulsor, what? wouldn't you?), blankly expressionless, but breathing. "Just so you know, this is really creepy." Tony's been untied and helped down from the horse, which yes, did try to bite him in the ass. Devil horse.

Phil's body has no numbers at all. "So... what do I do? Hey, Phil? Come out, come out, where ever you are." Everyone is watching, but Tony's the only one who sees Phil's numbers rise to the surface of his skin, like cream bubbling up in coffee, swirling and running together, dripping like invisible ink, like ants walking, like a line of static, hairs rising on his arm and his arm feels so heavy now he can't stop it from pulling him down, to his knees, dropping to land on Phil's chest, and then it's all a rush of hot and cold and all his numbers shaken like a million billion trillion dice in the universe's largest cup and he's thrown across the velvet/felt dark/starry surface and he can only hope he's not coming up craps.

***

Tony opens his eyes. He hears Phil talking, and thank god, the sound is coming from several feet away, but what's more important is that he's lying with his head in Steve's lap, and Steve's looking at him with such shiny numbers he has to blink and look away. Rusty is lying next to them, pressing against Tony's side, which is good, it seems he's finally decided to forgive Steve. It makes things much simpler when your dog doesn't hate the people you lo... like, like a great deal. "Oh, hey," Tony says. "Tell me someone kissed me." Steve's numbers brighten even more, and he leans down...

And then of course, Phil clears his throat. Cockblocker. Tony rolls his eyes and sits up since Steve has gone all embarrassed and shy on him again. "New look for you, Phil."

Phil doesn't even glance down at the gaudy blue and silver Asgardian horse blanket wrapped around himself in some sort of modified toga which manages to look crisp. Tony's only surprised he hasn't managed to put a pocket square in one of the folds. He almost smiles. "It's not my color. Thank you, Mr. Stark."

"Eh." Tony waves a hand at him. "Don't mention it. Really." He's not sure if Phil was able to learn anything he didn't already know about Tony when he was sharing neural space, but he wouldn't put it past him.

Phil tilts his head slightly. "My report will be complete, but of course, Director Fury is only interested in the facts." That tiny almost smile appears again. "Thoughts are not facts."

"Don't get all philosophical on me, Phil." Tony looks at Steve. "Can I have my armor back now? I'm surrounded by agents and horses and feeling very vulnerable." Steve gives Tony a dubious look. "Oh, come on. What if we get attacked by a giant cat? I mean, if they've got giant dogs, there should be giant cats for them to chase, right?"

"Dr. Foster is due to open the portal in an hour and I don't want to miss it because you've flown off looking for giant cats."

"You expect me to just sit here for an hour? No, not happening." Tony gets up, leaning a hand on Steve's shoulder, his lovely firm and warm shoulder, just because he happened to be there, really, no reason at all. "I'm getting my armor!"

"Tony, no!" Steve is on his feet and wrapping his arms around Tony. Tony doesn't fight the embrace because Steve smells delicious.

"Get a room!" Clint yells.

Tony turns his head enough to look at Clint who is well within the interpersonal space of both Phil and Natasha. Their numbers mesh well. "Green isn't your best color. Tell you what, I've room in the tower to make a floor for Phil, but I dunno, how to decorate it, paper the walls with requisition forms?"

Phil clears his throat. "I appreciate the thought, Mr. Stark, but I'm afraid it wouldn't be appropriate. I'm not an Avenger."

"Hey! You are an Avengee! That totally counts. And besides, we need a mascot. Hands up everyone who thinks Phil should be our new mascot!"

Phil interrupts quickly, "Mr. Stark, I can requisition a new taser."

Tony eyes Phil's numbers for a moment. "Fine. Rusty can be our mascot."

Chapter Text

"I really wish you guys had let me put on the armor," Tony says a few minutes later, pinned under one paw of a giant blue tomcat, which is purring as it licks his hair.

"It's your own fault," Clint says while eyeing the cat from a perch high in a tree. "You had to mention giant cats."

Natasha is admiring the cat's claws. "And you had to use a hair product that tastes good, apparently."

Steve and Rusty are both lying on the ground, waking up/rebooting after being swatted by the swish of a giant tail when they attempted to protect Tony. Bruce Hulked out, but it turned out that the Hulk likes cats, and so he's just sitting there petting its fur.

"Frigga's chariot cats are too well-trained to harm people," Sif says. But Tony notices she says it from the safety of the saddle of her horse, at a distance. She's leading the whole group of horses away. "But I can't afford to let it eat Thor's horse; he'd be heartbroken." She grins, and waves at Natasha, and rides off. "Good fortune!"

"Ow," Tony says. "This is like wet sandpaper. HEY, not the goatee!" Tony waves his free arm wildly.

Coulson sighs and climbs up the cat's side until he reaches the neck. He grabs an fistful of fur in either hand and pulls straight up. The cat's mouth drops open and the beast flops to one side, with Coulson maintaining his grip as he moves to avoid being squashed. Tony scrambles free, hair sticking up at all angles, and t-shirt marked with claw pulls.

"How did you do that?" Tony asks.

"After dealing with you, Mr. Stark, cat-herding a genuine cat is simplicity itself." Coulson starts rubbing behind the cat's ears.

Tony huffs and then goes over to sit with Steve and Rusty, petting both of them at the same time. What? It's an experiment. He's going to kiss the one that wakes up first.

***

The Einstein-Rosen Bridge opens precisely on schedule. "And so," Tony says, "we leave beautiful, unspoiled Asgard to return once more to our hum-drum... Oh, hell." Fury is in the middle of the laboratory when they emerge, standing with his arms folded. He looks at Coulson for a long moment, while everyone goes totally still. "Agent Coulson," Fury says at last. "It's good to have you back."

"Don't get all emotional on us now," Tony says. "I see what you did there! You were smiling inside, weren't you!" Tony points an accusing finger at Fury's tell-tale numbers.

Fury doesn't take his eyes off Coulson. He waves one hand and a S.H.I.E.L.D. flunky steps forward, holding a dry cleaner's bag. "Get dressed, Agent, you've got a lot of catching up to do."

Coulson takes the suit and really does smile. "Sir, do I still have security clearance? After all, I was dead, technically."

Fury coughs. "Yes, well, the office has been rather inefficient of late. I never got around to filing your forms." Fury gives everyone, including Dr. Foster, one sweeping glare. "In fact, the office has been so inefficient, there's been no report on any unauthorized excursions to Asgard. Agents Barton and Romanova will accompany you to the debriefing in Dr. Foster's office in ten minutes." And then Fury stalks out followed by Agent ducklings.

"Yeah," Tony says, "It's just you, me and Bruce, Steve." He sighs. "The party's nearly over." Then he brightens. "The after-party's about to begin!"

Bruce frowns. "If you're going to drunk-fly the Quin-jet, I think I'll stay here."

"Tony isn't drunk-flying anything," Steve says firmly.

Tony looks back and forth at them both before conceding the issue. "All right, but if I have to be sober, I'm initiating Steve into the Mile-High Club!"

"Sure," Steve says agreeably. "Do I get a little set of wings to pin on my lapel?"

Bruce groans.

***

Pepper marches up to Tony when they return to the Tower. Bruce leaves very, very quickly, muttering something about having left the iron on in his room. She smiles at Tony and then she looks at him more closely, and blinks. "Tony, what happened to your hair?"

Tony puts his hand up to his head and tries to pat down the fluffy spikes. "Cat-lick. It's like cow-lick, only not." He grins at Pepper. "Asgard is amazing."

"You went to Asgard and didn't even bring me a t-shirt?"

"No, but I got you a tree! It's an apple tree! Steve, show Pepper the tree we got for her. And don't forget, you still haven't joined the Mile-High Club!"

Steve shakes his head and goes back into the Quin-jet.

"What am I going to do with an apple tree, Tony?" Pepper asks before putting her arms around him and hugging him.

"Put it in a pot on the balcony!"

Steve returns with the sapling, root ball wrapped up in burlap dripping tiny clods of sparkly soil over the marble floor.

"Are those leaves gold?" Pepper asks. "Will the fruit be gold? Did you get a tree to match the suit?"

"Maybe." Tony bounces on his heels. "Can you show Steve the feather trick now?"

Chapter Text

"I think we need to have a talk first, Tony," Pepper says.

Normally the 'have a talk' code-phrase would be a signal that he'd done something outside her tolerance levels, but Pepper's numbers are amused, so it's not that. Tony uses deflective PuppydogEyes ™ anyway, because the alternative is a feelings talk, which, no. "We? I think I left the Iron Man on in my room. I'd better go check."

"Tony, you're wearing the suit," Steve says.

Well, true, Tony had put it on, except for the helmet, because it was always easier to wear it than to carry it, but Steve could have overlooked that minor little quibbling point and let Tony escape. "Yes, this suit, but..." Tony looks at Steve and then at Pepper. The numbers are totally uncompromising. "Yeah, all right. Serious relationship-type discussion time." Tony would like to leave the suit on so he could have a quick getaway if necessary, but then he'd have TWO sets of disappointed expressions to deal with later which would be a really, really bad thing, so better to avoid the temptation. "Lemme just slip into something more relationshippy." The disassembly point in the hangar isn't as impressive to watch as the stripper-walk on the balcony, but standing there starfished while robots hold him helplessly in place definitely does something for him. Especially when he has an appreciative audience. Pepper's seen the show before, but it's new for Steve, so maybe Tony does a few unnecessary wriggles to show off a little. It couldn't hurt.

Pepper does a little eye-roll but doesn't comment, because she's just that good.

Tony steps away from the disassembly point as the last piece of armor vanishes on its way to the workshop for inspection. It's nice that this time it won't require a major overhaul. Creating new armor is much more fun than repairing old ones. Tony runs a hand through his hair. Cat-lick still holding. Hmm...maybe he should get it analyzed. "Ok, I'm all yours. And by yours, I mean, you know..." Tony does an eyebrow thing, trying for sexy, "plural? Yes, I'm pretty sure that's what I mean."

"Um." Pepper looks at Steve.

Steve coughs and looks down at his shoes.

"What? What's the problem?" Their numbers are not being helpful at all. "Bed not big enough? I'll get another one."

"No, no, the bed... the bed in your room is plenty big enough," Steve says, and there he's pinking up with another blush.

"You're not strictly gay, Steve, I'm pretty sure I've seen you admiring women... is this some kind of 1940's thing, do we need to dress up film noir? Which, you know, that wouldn't be bad, I'm sure I could rock the fedora and double-breasted suit-- hey, for you, I'd even wear a zoot suit, but only for you, baby."

"It's not..." Steve runs a hand through his hair. "I just... don't feel that way about Ms. Potts. She's a lovely woman and a good friend and... it just..."

Tony blinks. "You're serious. How can you look at Pepper and not want to..." Tony bites back all the varied ways of saying 'fuck like crazed minks', because apparently this is serious, and Steve is cockblocking himself and if Tony's not careful about oh, god, feelings, he won't be getting any from anybody. "How?"

"I've never made love with anyone unless I had really true, deep feelings for them. Him. Her." Steve's numbers are honestly adamant on this point. "It just... isn't right."

Tony turns to Pepper in appeal. "He doesn't mean it. Convince him."

Pepper shakes her head. "I don't want Steve, either."

Tony throws his hands up in the air. "He's Captain Fucking America! How can ANYONE not want him?"

Pepper shrugs. "I'm sorry, Tony, but not everyone finds tall, extremely well-developed, blue-eyed blonds sexually appealing."

"They don't?" Tony tries to wrap himself around this concept. "Wait! Does that mean you only sleep with me because I'm 'none of the above'?" Tony is considering whether or not to be insulted that he's being treated as a sex object for characteristics he hadn't realized were sexy. And really, his body is about as well-developed as it's going to get, bar the use of super-soldier serum, but maybe his nightlight counteracts that. And if all this has been pity fucks, he is so not having any, thank you.

"Of course not! I love you... but if you looked like Steve..." She shrugs again. "It just wouldn't have happened."

Tony looks at Steve and then at Pepper. "I think you are both being very shallow and inconsiderate. Did either of you think about me?"

"I'm sure we can come to a workable compromise," Pepper says. And then she's blushing, and Tony is interested to hear what made that happen. "I like... Tony, I like to watch men...two men in bed."

"Oh." Tony rolls that idea around in his mind. It has possibilities. Especially if Pepper is talking to them while they're doing it. "Would that bother you, Steve?" And there you go, Steve's blushing again.

"No, no I wouldn't mind that at all. In fact...I'd like to see you and Pepper. You know. And... maybe... I used to be an artist. I really loved doing nude studies."

"Huh." Tony shifts the numbers around. They're promising. It's not really bad. He gets to be the center of attention, which, ok, really, he has always been an attention whore. "All right. But, hey, if you guys ever start to warm up toward each other, we renegotiate, right?"

"Of course," Pepper says and Steve nods.

"Great. Ok. So, who's first, and where's the feathers?" Tony bounces a little. This could be fun.

Chapter Text

Steve says, "Well, normally I'd say ladies first, but I've been told that's patronizing."

"That's true," Pepper says thoughtfully, "but Tony seems to have his heart set on the feather thing."

"I bet that's a lot like the paintbrush thing. I'm good at that."

Tony is looking back and forth between the two of them. Rusty is sitting at his feet, also observing. "I'm right here, you know," Tony says. "And hey, if I wanted an unsolvable three body problem, I'd have invited a physicist to join us instead of Steve." Tony tilts his head, considering. "You know, Bruce is kinda cute..." Tony lets out an undignified squawk as Steve grabs him and pulls him into a deep kiss. Tony flails a moment, then wraps his arms around Steve and returns the kiss with interest.

After several minutes, and considerable hand-wandering, Steve breaks the kiss and loosens the embrace. "Bedroom. Now."

"I think I like it when you get all caveman," Tony says. He glances over at Pepper. She looks flushed. "It's not weird is it? It's good? Right?"

"Oh, yes." Pepper's voice has gone all throaty. "Let's take this to the bedroom."

Tony feels Steve shift his grip and tells him hastily, "Don't even think about carrying me over the threshold." Pepper looks disappointed. "And you've been reading too many Harlequins."

Pepper grins. "Oh, come on, it would make a great cover."

"And what about my dignity and masculine pride?" Tony asks, while Steve looks back and forth between the two of them. He'll figure things out eventually, but in the meantime Tony is going to have fun seeing Captain America off-balance.

Pepper giggles. Tony seizes his opportunity to wriggle out of Steve's grasp and head for the exit, Rusty at his heels. "Maybe later we'll pose, get Steve a Fabio wig, I could wear a ruffled shirt open to the navel, and Pepper needs a bodice for ripping purposes... what is a bodice, anyway? But not a green one, I don't like you in green."

***

"Clothes off, now," Tony says when he enters his bedroom with Steve and Pepper right behind him. He points at Rusty. "You stand guard outside the door." Rusty looks at Steve and then obeys. Pepper closes the door behind him. Tony smirks. "Well. Now that we all know who's boss..."

Steve makes a noise rather like a growl and Tony finds himself flat on his back on the bed, being kissed fast and frantic. About time he thinks even as he wriggles to get more comfortable. He turns his head enough to see Pepper standing there, watching in apparent fascination. Beautiful numbers, very pleased, dancing all around, and he's sure that he'll convince them to join in one equation someday, but now, now is good, as it is, now is excellent, with Pepper's eyes hungry on him and Steve. There's an iffy moment when Steve touches the shirt above the arc reactor, and Tony can't get the breath to explain why that's not good, not hands, especially not a big man's hands, but Pepper is there, murmuring 'no' and pushing Steve's hand to the side, over a nipple, and that's fine, Tony likes that. It's all sparks and good.

Tony nips at Steve's bottom lip hard enough to surprise him, and then pushes at his shoulder. "Too many clothes. Pepper can't see." Sometimes Tony likes coming in his trousers, but he wants to be sure everyone has a good time. Tony always tries to be a considerate host. Everyone should go away happy at the end of the orgy and Pepper should always be happy.

Steve sits up and peels off his shirt. Tony is unreasonably distracted by the equations dancing over the expanse of smooth muscles. Why Pepper doesn't want to get her hands and mouth on all of that is beyond him. Tony works at Steve's belt buckle. "Should have... a quick release on this... need to redesign your costume. Velcro..."

Pepper is there now, tugging at Tony's shirt. He levers up and lifts enough to let her get it off of him, to let her run her nails the length of his spine before she moves away from the bed again. She sounds a little out of breath when she says, "You can't put Captain America in a stripper's outfit."

"Maybe, maybe not," Tony says just as he figures out a hidden catch and he has a handful of perfectly developed man to play with. Well, more than a handful. Quite a generous serving. "OOh, yeah, baby, they'd put hundreds in your g-string."

"What does it take... to shut you up?" Steve asks. He's amused, but annoyed too. Tony knows he tends to have that effect on Steve, and he's stopped thinking it was a bad thing a long time ago. Steve looks so hot when he's annoyed.

"Nothing! Nothing works," Tony says quickly, because he can see Pepper opening her mouth to make suggestions and that's just not fair. No Tony-handling tips given to Steve on a silver platter. "There is nothing you can do to me that will ... oh..." Steve gets Tony's trousers open and down around his knees entirely without his cooperation and then there are two big hands stroking between his legs and Tony's finding it difficult to string sounds together to make words. Steve seems to have lost his shyness.

"I want you," Steve says, deep and growly and very very sexy. One hand fondles Tony's ass, leaving no doubt as to his meaning.

"Oh, hell, yes. " Tony is all for that. He hasn't been fucked by a man since he and Pepper got seriously relationshippy, well, except for that one time, and there were extenuating circumstances involving a really sexy car, and after he wore the French maid outfit while he gave Pepper a pedicure, she forgave him. He still has the outfit. Just in case.

"We need something." Steve is moving away, and looking around as if expecting magically appearing lube and condoms. Lucky for him, Pepper is magic, and always knows where everything is. When she's handing things to Steve, Tony notices that she's already naked, which is a pity in a way, he didn't get to see her strip, but on the other hand this is different and different is always exciting. Especially when she pulls a chair up next to the bed to sit with her legs spread and begins playing with herself. Tony is torn between looking at her, and looking at Steve. He runs the numbers quickly and figures the angles.

"Ok, this'll work!" With a little help from Steve, Tony kicks off his shoes and trousers and pulls his knees up. He's tempted to ask Pepper if she has any favorite scenes, but really, she seems quite pleased without getting fancy and Steve seems more than content to lean close to push Tony's legs further back (yoga is a wonderful thing, Tony's glad he practices it) and push a few lubed fingers up his ass. Tony moans and stops thinking about much of anything along about the third finger. He's vaguely aware that when he tosses his head to one side he sees Pepper staring at his ass, red-faced and open-mouthed, using her fingers on herself in the same rhythm that Steve's using on Tony. That's so hot.

"You ready for me?" Steve asks. His voice isn't quite steady, and from the view Tony can get by looking down between his legs, he's not at all surprised. Steve is very, very... yeah... the Captain is ready for action.

"Fuck yes!" Now that Steve's pressing his legs back Tony has his hands free to work his dick, which is greatly approving all the sensory input, practically glowing with very excited numbers. Someone squeaks when Steve pushes in. For the sake of his dignity, Tony hopes it was Pepper, but then Steve starts moving and really, Tony could give a fuck less about dignity.

Things get very noisy, very confusing and fast and hot and ok, there's some pain, but what the hell, this is the good pain, the kind that says you're alive and all your nerve endings are functional, and the few times when it's a bit beyond that, there's a hand stroking his hair, sometimes a small hand, just the right size to fit inside his heart, and sometimes a large one, big enough to hold him steady through anything. Numbers are everywhere like fireworks, cascading bright fountains and streamers in his skin, along his bones, in his blood and dancing hot inside, where his damaged heart races past the pain and reminds him he never did send in the solution to the Yang-Mills.... ahhh.... It's so bright, everything whites out. Tony reaches out blindly, wanting it all, needing it all.

The bed shifts, and he's alone and cold, making unhappy noises and unwilling to open his eyes to face being alone, but that doesn't last long before there are hands on him, small hands, large hands, hands that know him, hands that are learning. He sighs and cooperates sleepily as he's prodded into the center of the bed, sheets drawn up, good, warmth and good smells to either side, better. Tony turns to his left to kiss the warm skin he finds, and then to his right. Perfect. He doesn't need to open his eyes to see the equation balance, so perfect, so soothing, like the best lullaby ever. He's so right. It's not too much to ask for both.

***

Rusty opens the door with his jaws, tricky but not if you know how, and looks in. Tony is asleep, flat on his back and snoring softly. Steve Rogers is lying beside him with one arm over Tony's shoulders. Pepper is on Tony's other side, curled against him. Rogers lifts his head and opens his eyes to look at Rusty, tightening his grip on Tony as he does. Rusty tilts his head, and then nods. Tony is safe. Tony is happy. Tony is loved. Rusty wags his tail and lies down on guard, processing new imperatives. Protect Pepper. Protect Steve.