“Well,” Clint said, glancing round, “this sucks.”
Steve glared at him; Natasha gave him a dead-eyed stare. Bruce, long since de-Hulked and too used to the aftereffects to be embarrassed by his nudity, smiled a little. “What gave it away?” he murmured, and Tony rasped out a laugh.
“OK,” he heaved himself upright into a sitting position, the suit creaking ominously as he moved. “So, what’ve we got?”
“A Norse God thoroughly distracted by his very disturbed brother and a cave-in,” Clint told him briskly. “Cap’s super-strength ain’t shifting this stuff like we need, the Hulk can’t help, and I’m all out of explosives, so unless your fancy suit’s up to strength again, we’re waiting for rescue.”
“Whoever comes through that lot,” Steve nodded at the wall of fallen rock, “may not be friendly. This is Loki’s hunting ground, remember.”
“I don’t think any of us are in much danger of forgetting,” Natasha returned smartly. “Look, we’ve gotta get out of here or get ready for whatever’s coming. We can’t assume friendlies are coming for us, and if they are, we can’t assume that they’ll get here first, so we need a plan. Stark?”
“Honeypie?” Tony raised an eyebrow at her, the face-plate long gone.
Natasha rolled her eyes. “Any luck with your suit?”
“Power’s down,” he told her, and ignored Clint’s groan. “And I’m pretty sure it’s not coming back on.”
“I thought that thing ran indefinitely?” Bruce asked, frowning, pointing at the arc reactor. “How can the power be down?”
“Receptors are damaged,” Tony explained briefly, banging one gauntlet against his chest plate. “This thing’ll keep powering my heart, but it won’t power the suit without a fix. Which,” he continued before anyone could complain, “I can’t do here.”
“So we’re stuck,” Natasha said flatly. “Now would be the time to plan. Hawkeye, Cap, on me; Banner, unless the other guy’s gonna make another appearance, you keep Stark occupied. Neither of you are any use to us as you are.”
Bruce and Tony shared a long look. “Well, now we know where the Avengers stand on brawn over brain,” Tony joked lightly. “Help me get this off, would you?”
Bruce gave the suit a doubtful glance. “Where do I start?”
“There’s a catch – back of the neck. That’ll start things off.”
Bruce scrabbled for a moment at the join between the helmet and the torso of the armour, finally getting a finger under the catch and tugging. The torso cracked at the shoulders, taking the arms with it. “You’re gonna need to help me with the gauntlets,” Tony said, still sat in half his suit, and acting like he hadn’t just given the Hulk the clue to taking away his greatest weapon and protection. “I need fine motor control for ’em, and these,” he wiggled his fingers awkwardly, “just don’t give me that.”
Bruce took one of Tony’s gauntleted hands and started looking for a way to get them off manually without taking most of Tony’s hand with it. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to have that catch there?” he asked, low, and Tony shrugged.
“There’s another one round on the inside of my wrist, should get the gauntlet off. And yeah, of course it is. The suit’s great and all – I mean, really, bar none, no one could do what I did – but when power goes down? The Mark VI armour weighed two hundred and forty pounds, Banner, this one probably more. I can’t move in it. If I’m in it and the power’s down, then I’ve gotta be able to get out of it, or it’s a coffin.” Startled, Bruce glanced up at him, and Tony met his eyes with a rather bitter grin. “Kinda like the Hulk, you see?” he said very quietly. “Our best efforts feed off the worst parts of us. This bad boy,” he tapped the arc reactor with his spare hand, “I wouldn’t need it if I hadn’t invented the weapons that gave me all that shrapnel. The suit? Would never have been invented if people hadn’t wanted me to build weapons for ’em.”
The gauntlet came loose with a sharp clang, and all Bruce waved a hand as Natasha, Clint and Steve jerked round to look at them. “Sorry,” he gave them an apologetic smile. “We’re good here.”
Steve appeared over Tony’s left shoulder. “Everything OK?”
“Banner’s just helping me slip into something more comfortable,” Tony said with a grin. “Or slip out of something uncomfortable, but you get the gist.”
Steve gave Bruce a quick look, and shrugged. “Need any help?” he asked, and since Tony was already fiddling with his other gauntlet, Bruce was the only one who noticed that he was hovering just a little too close.
“Nah, I’m good, now that I’ve got a hand free. The armour’s great and all, but it’s not so brilliant for detail work, so.” The other gauntlet came off and he started feeling around the bottom half of the suit for what was doubtless another catch to get the legs of the armour to come free. “I’ve got a couple of ideas.”
“That is never a good sentence to hear out of your mouth, Stark,” Natasha told him, and all three of them jumped.
“I am going to get you fitted with a bell,” Tony said, pointing at her. “Seriously, Jesus. My heart cannot take this shit.”
“Your heart is powered by the most advanced energy source in the world, it can take a damn sight more than an unexpected assassin,” she dismissed him with a smirk. “What’re these ideas of yours?”
“Well,” Tony finally got his legs free and scrambled away from the pieces of his armour to stand. Steve absently helped him to his feet, and Bruce did his level best not to notice the way Steve kept his hand on Tony’s elbow for just a second or two too long. “We need out and we need protection, right? I think I can do both.”
“Out of the armour, you’re-”
“We’ve been over this, Cap,” Tony said with a grin just a couple of shades the wrong side of bitter. “Genius, remember? I was a genius before I built the suit. I think building the suit actually ramped me up a couple of notches on the genius scale, don’t you?” He appealed to Bruce, who shrugged.
“Your genius didn’t turn you into a monster, so you’ve got that going for you at least,” he offered, and Tony’s glance was a little too knowing.
“I’ve got reporter buddies who’d disagree with you there, sugar-plum,” he returned, and Bruce didn’t mean to smile, he really didn’t, but sometimes it was difficult not to when Tony was trying to be charming.
“No one who calls anyone else a monster gets to be called a ‘buddy’,” Steve said, mouth tight.
“We’re veering off course here,” Tony offered into the short silence that followed. “I can get us out of here, I think. I know. I can even get us a weapon, but it’s a one-time-only kinda deal, so we’re gonna need Hawkeye ready to cover us. You got bullets left?”
Natasha nodded. “But your idea, Stark. I’m not signing off on anything until-”
“No paperwork here, sweetheart,” Tony told her. “What I need to know is, is that thing,” he pointed at the pile of rock, “holding this place up? If we blow it out, are we gonna bring the roof down on us? Because, not gonna lie, that would suck.”
“Basic recon says no,” Steve said. “The integrity of the cave’s good, but-” he trailed off, and Tony raised an eyebrow.
“But your suit’s down, Tony. What’s your plan?”
“I built the armour in a cave with a box of scraps,” Tony told him, grinning a little manically. “And right now, that,” he pointed at the pieces of the armour, “is the most advanced box of scraps in the world. I’m pretty sure I can engineer somethin’ that’ll give out a pulse strong enough to dislodge some rocks, and we can get out. Once we get out, if there’s anything waiting for us, I can get a nasty surprise going for ’em, but then it’s gonna be down to you, the Widow and Hawkeye, because I’m armour-less, and Bruce may not Hulk-up, so you’re gonna need to be ready.”
Steve hovered unsurely for a second before visibly coming to a decision. “How long?” he asked, and Tony shrugged.
“Half an hour? Forty minutes? No longer, I promise.” Steve gave him a look which clearly questioned that and Tony met his eyes squarely. “Seriously, why does no one ever believe me when I say I’m a genius? Bruce? Any ideas?” Bruce shook his head, amused, and Tony heaved a sigh, turning back to Steve. “I’m tellin’ you, Cap, I can pull this shit off in my sleep, when I say it’ll take me forty minutes to rig up, I’m not kidding around.”
“Right. Right,” Steve nodded, an odd mix of contrition and determination on his face. “I’ll go brief Hawkeye and the Widow.”
“You do that,” Tony nodded, turning back to his armour and picking up the nearest gauntlet. “Bruce, a little help?”
“What do you need?” Bruce asked, watching with some trepidation as Tony produced a set of miniaturised tools from somewhere in his black under-armour. He accepted the screwdriver Tony passed him and fiddled with it for a minute.
“The repulsors in the boots,” Tony told him. “They’re fused into the sole, but you should be able to lift out the framework they’re in. I need both of ’em.”
“What are we making here?”
“The repulsors,” Tony said, already at work on the gauntlets, “they’ve got a weak independent power source, maybe enough to get ’em up to ten percent power, but no more, which won’t do shit. I’m going to rig them together and pool the power supply; aimed at the right spot, I’m pretty sure that’ll pack enough of a punch to push out the rocks.”
Bruce dragged one of the boots towards him. “Really?”
“Oh yeah.” Tony was systematically taking apart one of the gauntlets, working quickly but carefully to separate out the first repulsor. Taking his cue from Tony, Bruce started in on the first boot. “I invented repulsor technology, if I say it’ll work? It’ll work.”
Bruce shook his head. “No, I mean, you built them with an independent power supply?”
Tony gave him a wry smile. “The repulsors are my first line of defence and the easiest way to manoeuvre this hunk o’ junk,” he pointed out, rapping his knuckles against the chest piece. “Of course I built them with an independent power supply. I mean,” carefully, he lifted out the repulsor from the cannibalised gauntlet, “I keep meaning to make it stronger, but other things kept comin’ up, so.” He shrugged and fell silent. When Bruce glanced at him, Tony was a little grey.
“You OK?” he asked, careful to keep his eyes fixed on the boot he was working with. It amazed him that Tony had built this thing from scratch, by himself; if he’d ever had any doubts that Tony was a genius, they were thoroughly dispelled by the chance to get up-close and personal with the Iron Man suit. It was easy to dismiss the phones and gadgets Tony made as collaborations and inconsequential toys; easy to overlook the fact that under all the bluster and innuendo lay a mind like a steel trap. The armour, though, couldn’t be dismissed – intricate and brilliantly designed, Tony in the suit was a walking advertisement of his own intelligence.
And no one, Bruce thought to himself, torn between sadness and amusement, thought to look, because Tony painted it red and gold and made it look like just another fast car, another gadget.
Tony shrugged. “The reactor’s getting uppity on me,” he said with a grin, like there was any world in which that was funny. “The shot that took out the receptors in the suit kinda overcharged me a little bit there.”
Bruce frowned. “Are you-”
“It’s fine, dollface,” Tony interrupted. “It’s working above optimum capacity, is all.”
The repulsor came free before Bruce could reply, locked in a complicated framework which just might house power supply; Bruce could wield a screwdriver, but he couldn’t make it into a magic wand the way Tony seemed able to, so he passed it over without comment. “If you’re sure,” he said, though he didn’t trust Tony with his own health any further than he could throw him.
Tony didn’t reply, but he’d got the third repulsor free, and was already pulling wires out of the casing of the three he had already; Bruce took the hint and bent over the second boot. Finally handing it over to Tony, who started searching for the same wires he’d pulled out of the other three, he sat for a second before venturing another question. “What now?”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. I need wire. There should be some down the front of the leg that’ll do, I need a long piece of that. And nuts and bolts, gimme – six. Six should do it.”
Bruce set about his task, watching out of the corner of his eye as Tony twisted the wires together, apparently oblivious to the sparks landing on his hands; hands which were already well scarred and burnt from years spent in a lab-cum-forge. They worked in silence for maybe ten minutes while Bruce scavenged the suit for the parts Tony wanted, and Tony did something complicated and unlikely to the back of each repulsor.
It took maybe twenty minutes for the four repulsors to be screwed together, as tight and as close as Tony could manage, a long tail of wire coming out the back. Tony wiped the back of his hand over his forehead, looking smug. “What’d I say?” he said proudly, and Bruce shook his head, trying not to grin. He hadn’t even done anything, really, but inventing with Tony Stark was a pretty exhilarating experience; he wondered whether Tony felt like this when he helped Bruce out in his lab.
“What now?” he asked.
“Now I’m gonna build a bomb,” Tony said, face suddenly serious. “Haven’t done that in a while.”
Bruce didn’t quite know how to respond to that, so he paused, then said, “what do you need me to do?”
“More wire,” Tony told him, “and as many small pits of metal as you can give me.”
It took maybe fifteen minutes to rig up a very rough shrapnel bomb, which Tony set aside with a look of frank distaste. “Eh,” was his only comment, “it’ll do the job. Tell Natasha – no, tell Steve – to pull this tail of wire here, right? This one – and it’ll go off.”
“Tell him yourself,” Steve said, crouching down by them, clapping a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “How’s Team Genius coming along?”
“Team Genius is doing just fine,” Tony said with a smile. “Pretty much ready. Where do we need to hit to get through? Where’s the weak point?”
Steve glanced up. “See that big rock, up at the top? About two metres in?”
“The one that looks like Mickey Mouse?” Tony asked, squinting up into the gloom. “Oh, I see. So, just down and to the right? By about thirty degrees, at a guess.”
Steve looked faintly taken aback. “That’s what we think. Do you think this will work?”
“Oh, I know it will,” Tony said confidently. “No worries, Cap. Can you get Natasha over here? I need her to destroy what’s left of the armour.”
“Destroy it?” Steve gave him an alarmed look. “Why?”
“I can’t leave the most advanced weapon in the world lying around for anyone to find it, even if I’ve taken everything useful out of it already,” Tony explained patiently. “The circuitry alone – Jesus, Cap, I just really don’t want this falling into the wrong hands.”
“O-OK,” Steve nodded. “I’ll go get her. Anything else?”
“We’re good,” Tony smiled at him, a rare real grin, and Bruce steadfastly ignored the way Steve flushed and only just managed to get out an answering smile before Tony looked away.
“Anything more I can do?” Bruce asked, watching as Steve retreated into the gloom at the back of the cave, presumably in search of Natasha, or possibly his lost manhood.
“Mm,” Tony nodded, replacing screwdrivers and allen keys back in their pouch. “I need you to tell Hawkeye we’re nearly ready to go, make sure he doesn’t freak out when this goes boom and start shooting everything in sight.” Bruce frowned a little, but nodded obligingly. “Oh, and make sure he knows not to be anywhere within – god, thirty feet? – of this thing when it blows,” Tony added, nodding at the bomb, “or the Avengers are gonna score the worst own goal in history.”
Bruce got to his feet. “What’re you gonna do?” he asked, giving Tony a faintly suspicious look.
Tony grinned up at him, all teeth, glinting in the light of the arc reactor. “I’m gonna prep this baby,” he said, patting the make-shift repulsor board. “I know what I’m doing.”
“That’s what worries me,” Bruce said, and went off to find Clint.
Left by himself, Tony picked up the repulsors and just held them for a long minute. This thing needed to be positioned exactly right – he’d have maybe thirty seconds once he got them plugged in before they powered up fully, hopefully draining the arc reactor of its excess power, which had been pulling at his chest for the last hour, like heartburn but real. Of course, there was always the chance that it would go too far the other way, but Tony had a long-standing dislike of caves that he’d been fighting down ever since the mouth caved in, and he was willing to take the goddamn risk if he had to.
But first, he had to position it. Steve would be back with Natasha any minute, and he wasn’t screwed up enough to think his team would just stand by and let him take out the thing powering his heart to get them out of a cave when SHIELD were probably looking for them right now.
It didn’t matter to Tony. SHIELD weren’t here, and caves were just – he couldn’t. For the nth time, he swallowed down the rising panic and brought his hand up to his chest.
This was going to be tough.
To Bruce, it felt like he’d been gone for a barely a minute when the wall of rock behind him just exploded outwards. Half without thinking, he turned and ran back to Tony, who was – who was bleeding from a deep gash on his forehead, presumably from one of the rocks pushed back and in by the force of the repulsors.
The blood was the first thing he noticed, but –
“Oh god,” he muttered to himself, taking in Tony’s hands, loosely clasped around the dead arc reactor. “Oh god, Tony, what did you do-”
Tony, knocked out cold, didn’t reply, which goddammit, Tony was the only person in the world who understood how the arc reactor worked, if he couldn’t-
Frantically, Bruce started pulling out the wires attached to the arc reactor, slotting it back into Tony’s chest, where... it did nothing. Nothing happened. The blue glow didn’t start back up again, whatever it was about it that powered Tony’s heart didn’t kick back in. Tony’s lips were turning blue; the wound on his forehead wasn’t bleeding, even sluggishly.
“Stark, what th-” Natasha began, irate, from behind them, then broke off instantly. “What happened?” she asked, dropping to her knees beside Tony while Bruce shrugged helplessly.
“I don’t know, he – he took the arc reactor out, to power those, so we could get out, but it did something to it, it – I think it drained it, I didn’t even know it could-”
“Banner, you’re babbling,” Natasha said, not unkindly. “That thing doesn’t run down, it could power the Helicarrier, let alone Stark’s heart, so we’ve just gotta keep him functioning until it kicks back in again.”
Bruce nodded, pathetically grateful to be told what to do. “OK. OK, I’ll-”
“I’ll deal with it,” she said firmly. “You stop Steve from having a breakdown, it’s OK.”
Bruce wasn’t sure he could stop Steve having a breakdown, when looking at Tony lying there – blue, his lips were blue - was making him feel a lot like having one himself, so he turned away, and bit his lip to get a hold of himself. Stumbling to his feet, he found himself face-to-chest with Captain America, who was staring down at Tony while Natasha pressed hard on his chest over his heart.
“Is he gonna be alright?” Steve asked, and Bruce carefully didn’t notice the way his hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists. Bruce bit his lip, and shrugged, wondering what the best way to say ‘I don’t know’ was, but Steve apparently didn’t take the wait well. “Tell me!” he snapped, then looked away as Bruce flinched back.
“Cap, look, I-”
And then Tony – stupid, stupid, genius Tony, always pulling one out the bag – jerked upright, dragging in a horrible, rasping breath and nearly knocking heads with Natasha. The arc reactor – Bruce was pretty sure he’d never seen anything quite as lovely as the glow of the arc reactor, which was high praise when Natasha Romanoff was sat nearby.
“Oh, Jesus, thank God,” Steve breathed, falling to his knees beside Tony, whose arms were shaking as he held himself up. Clearly without thinking about it, Steve slipped an arm round Tony’s shoulders, supporting him, and Tony let himself hang there for a long minute before pulling away.
“S’alright, Cap,” he said, though his voice was hoarse. The wound on his head was bleeding properly now, and he looked wan and unhealthy; Bruce was pretty sure they needed to get him to a hospital as soon as possible, but that was infinitely preferable to delivering him to a morgue. “I’m good. Though fuck, did you guys let an elephant sit on my chest?”
“I had to break your ribs,” Natasha said coolly. “The arc reactor casing makes CPR harder than you’d think.”
“It’s not a party until someone breaks something,” Tony muttered to himself, and Steve put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently.
“C’mon, let’s get out of here,” he said. “Head back to the Quinjet and get you to hospital.”
“Stark, you died for a minute there, you’re going to hospital,” Natasha told him in a voice that brooked no argument.
“Aw, come on! I save your lives and-”
“We could have waited, Tony,” Steve said, apparently at the end of his tether. “There wasn't any immediate danger, we could have waited-"
“Not for long," Tony interrupted him sharply. "Too far underground for Shield’s shitty tracking devices to be any use, my armour not working, and no water supply. Bruce, did you a see a water supply? Because I did not see a water supply, we’d have lasted two days, Cap. That’s it. And we might not have had that, and I-” he cut himself off abruptly, trying to lever himself to his feet. It looked like hard work.
“And you what?” Bruce asked quietly, heading over to help. Tony’d have to stand to get out of the cave, it made sense for him to get used to it now.
Tony glanced at him. “I just really hate caves,” he said with a twisted grin.
Bruce looked to Cap and Natasha for clarification; Steve looked as baffled as Bruce felt, but Natasha had a look on her face like she was kicking herself for something.
“Touching as this is,” Clint said from behind them, and all of them but Natasha jumped, “Stark isn’t getting any less concussed while we sit around here and chat, so maybe we could move things along?”
Natasha nodded briskly. “Stark, are you OK to move?”
“I can carry him,” Steve offered immediately, but Tony reared back, shaking his head.
“Oh Jesus, no you cannot,” he said firmly. “I can walk.”
Natasha gave him a look. “Captain, you’re on Stark duty. Clint, you go on scout – you’ve still got arrows, right?” Clint nodded. “Banner, you’re with Cap and Stark, I’ll bring up the rear.”
“It warms me to the cockles of my cold, dead heart that I’m not the only one you use surnames with, Tony informed her, beginning to stand, and absently grasping Steve’s hand when he went to pull him up. “I mean that sincerely.”
Natasha didn’t even bother to reply, and Clint was already halfway up the wall of rock, heading for the section Tony’s repulsors had blasted out. Tony caught Natasha’s arm before Cap could hustle him away, pointing at the armour. “You gotta destroy that,” he said firmly. “I can’t carry it, and we do not want Loki getting his hands on it.”
She nodded, and cocked her gun. “Show me the weak points,” she said, and Tony gave her a long, doubtful look. “You really expect me to believe you won’t upgrade them out in the next one?” she asked, eyebrow raised, and he shrugged.
“Fair play. Aim for the joints.”
By the time they got to the Quinjet, it was clear that even Tony’s rigid determination not to show weakness was breaking down; he was stumbling and disorientated, and his eyes kept blurring out of focus. Steve had to all-but carry him onto the jet – not that he seemed to mind – while Clint headed straight for the cockpit.
“No sign of Thor?” Natasha asked, sliding into the co-pilot’s seat, tossing her hair back and fitting herself with headphones.
“He can make his own way home,” Clint pointed out. “Right now, getting Stark back is our number one priority.”
“It would be pretty bad press if we killed off America’s capitalist darling,” Natasha agreed dryly, but there was something worried in her eyes. Clint didn’t make the mistake of thinking she was softening towards Stark; if she was worried for him, it would only make her angrier with him when he was better, but still.
“Not to mention all the funding we’d lose,” Clint added.
“We’d have to exercise squatter’s rights in the Tower,” she nodded.
“I always wondered why you liked me,” Tony piped up from the back, strapping himself in with clumsy fingers. “Doesn’t breaking my ribs get me a free pass?”
“I was saving your life, Stark,” Natasha told him, but she sounded fond. At least, she didn’t sound as deadpan as usual, which was her version of fond.
“And I saved yours, we’re square,” Tony told her, leaning his head back against the headrest of the seat, and shutting his eyes.
“Cap, make sure he doesn’t fall asleep and die,” Natasha ordered. “Clint, take us out.”
It had been so long since Bruce had been close enough to anyone to wait in a hospital waiting room for them that he’d forgotten just how horrible and nerve-wracking it could be. The waiting room on the Helicarrier wasn’t exactly traditional – grey and army green – but the sterile smell and tension were basically the same the world over, and it wasn’t helped by Steve pacing up and down, each turn more clipped and precise.
“I just don’t understand,” he said quietly to Bruce, stress in every line of his face. “The suit’s powered without him having to take it out, I don’t get it-”
“Stark’s a genius,” Natasha said from the door, and Bruce really had to get used to her appearing out of nowhere, or it was going to give him a heart-attack, “but all that box of scraps stuff – he had an advanced lab and some pretty impressive resources when he built the suit after he got back from Afghanistan. I’m guessing the receptors to power the suit from the reactor are more advanced than we could understand. Taking it out was easier and quicker.”
Steve was silent for a long moment. “I guess,” he said very slowly, “I guess I just don’t get why he couldn’t have held off on it.”
Natasha shrugged. “I should have thought,” she said quietly. “Stark spent three months in a cave in Afghanistan. They tortured him until he agreed to build weapons for them.” She sounded so cool, so practical about the whole thing, and Bruce had to bite the inside of his mouth until he calmed down enough to remember that that was just how the Widow dealt with things.
Natasha, being Natasha, caught the tiny movement and gave him a wary look. “I’m not condoning it,” she told him flatly. “I’m just saying, I should have remembered that of all of us, Stark wasn’t going to take being trapped in a cave all that well.”
Steve looked a little like someone had just punched him in the gut. “I – didn’t know that.”
“It’s in his file,” Natasha said. “But I’m guessing that you haven’t done a Stark and read through everyone else’s file.”
“I figured I’d find out whatever I needed to know from my team-mates,” Steve said blankly. “We – I mean, I thought we were supposed to know this stuff about each other.”
“That’s nice,” Clint said, reappearing behind Natasha’s shoulder and brushing past her into the waiting room. “That’s very nice, but this ain’t the forties anymore, Cap, we don’t share stuff we don’t have to. And Stark plays things as close to the chest as he can. Literally, in this case. We heard anything?”
“The doctors are still checking him over,” Bruce said, glad to be able to participate in this conversation for the first time. “But he should be OK. Taking out the arc reactor hasn’t done any lasting damage.”
Clint nodded and sat back. “Pull up a pew, Cap, we’re gonna be waiting a while.”
“I don’t think I can sit still,” Steve admitted, still rather pale.
“This isn’t the first soldier you’ve had down,” Natasha reminded him. “And Stark-”
“Holy Moses, could you two call him Tony?” Steve burst out. “He’s our teammate, he’s saved your life, you’ve saved his, did things change so much while I was on ice that that doesn’t put you on first name terms with the guy?!”
Clint and Natasha exchanged looks. “He’s never asked us to,” Natasha offered, and shrugged. “And Sta- Tony, he’s the kind of guy, you take liberties and he gives you a mile you don’t want.”
“When was the last time Tony – tried anything on with you?” Steve asked, curiosity warring with belligerence in his tone.
“Last Monday,” Natasha answered promptly.
“When was the last time he tried anything on and meant it?” Bruce countered. “And for the record, Romanoff, you can call me Bruce if you want.”
She gave him a long look which spoke more loudly of her uncertainty than she ever would. Still: “you have a point,” she conceded. “Bruce.”
“Thank you, Natasha,” he smiled. The two of them were wary of each other – deeply wary, in Natasha’s case, and he wasn’t sure he could really blame her – but they were teammates, and they could get along. “Look, Tony’s gonna be fine – no, really, Steve,” who had opened his mouth to protest, “he’s going to be fine, he’s got a concussion and some broken ribs, but he’s fine, I just think that maybe we could stand to be better teammates to each other.”
“You want us to do team-building exercises,” Clint said blankly. “You want us to do teambuilding exercises.”
“Did I say that?” Bruce asked, keeping calm with the bare modicum of effort. “It might have been useful to know that Tony’s speluncaphobic-”
“He’s what?” Steve asked, looking up sharply.
“Afraid of caves,” Bruce explained patiently. “It might have been useful to know that before we ended up in a cave. I’m guessing we’ve all got stuff that incapacitates us, that scares us, but we don’t know that about each other, and that’s – not really gonna work out for us, in the long run.”
Steve nodded, jaw set. “We’ll attend to it,” he said firmly. “Right now, we’re waiting on Tony-”
“Aren’t we always?” Natasha murmured, and Steve ignored her.
“-but what’s the sitrep on Thor?”
“He hasn’t been in contact, but Loki’s been spotted in Marrakesh, so as far as we know, Thor’s not doing battle, so unless Loki overpowered him and is holding him hostage, he should be on his way back,” Clint reported. “I can go and get more up-to-date intel, if you want, that’s an hour or so old.”
“Do it. If we haven’t heard from him in an hour, we’ll mobilise. We need intel on where he was last seen, the terrain and possible unfriendlies, in case.”
“Roger, Rogers,” Clint nodded with a quicksilver grin and disappeared.
“I’m going to inform Ms. Potts of S-Tony’s accident,” Natasha told him smartly. “And I’ll run interference with Fury before he becomes unbearable.”
Steve gave her a grateful nod and sank back down into his chair when she’d left. “This might be the real catalyst,” he said, almost thinking out loud. “This might be what tips us over into actually working as a team.” He glanced up at Bruce, and managed a rather strained smile. “I never thought I’d be grateful for Tony getting a concussion.”
“Really?” Bruce took the seat next to him. “I like the guy, and even I’ve dreamed about giving him one a coupla times.”
Steve laughed a little. “OK, well, maybe. Not for a while, at least.”
They sat in silence for a few long minutes before a nurse appeared. She looked hard-bitten and stern – Bruce was starting to think it was a requirement for all SHIELD employees, from Fury to the janitors – but even she wasn’t proof against Steve’s wide-eyed charm, and they were in with Tony before Bruce even knew where they were.
“So, how soon can you spring me from here?” Tony asked. He was sat up in one of SHIELD’s uncomfortable hospital beds, and wearing an expression of frank distaste. There was a large plaster on his forehead and his chest was bandaged, but the arc reactor shone, reassuringly steady, through the bandages, and Bruce let out a breath he felt like he’d been holding in for hours.
“You could have told us,” he blurted out, which was not what he’d meant to say.
Tony’s look was piercing, and Bruce shifted uncomfortably for a brief moment. “OK, so I’m not too proud to tell you that I was kind of freaking out back there. I mean, like, I really hate caves, you know? Or maybe you don’t know, but-”
“We know,” Steve said, his voice very tight.
“OK, good, so I wanted out, right, and I was pretty sure I could survive this. I mean, I was, like, eighty percent sure, I ran the numbers. I needed us out of that cave way more than I needed the arc reactor.”
Steve was silent for a moment, but Bruce wasn’t about to jump in there on this one. He was pretty sure Tony knew what he was thinking just from his expression; it wasn’t like he was holding anything back here. “Those are totally unacceptable numbers, Tony,” Steve said finally. “Totally unacceptable. I know I can’t ask you to do anything where the survival probability isn’t a hundred percent, because you’re an Avenger, but please, can we at least take it up to ninety percent? No more unacceptable risks.”
“This is what I’m saying, Steve,” Tony said firmly. “It wasn’t an unacceptable risk. Not to me.”
“But it was to me. When you’re not in the suit-”
“I got us out of that cave without being in the suit,” Tony said, bristling. “I don’t need the suit to be a valuable member of this team, whatever you think-”
“I don’t give a damn about the suit!” Steve burst out. “I don’t care whether you’re in or out of it, you are valuable to me!” For a long moment, the words hung in the air, and then, finally, Steve’s shoulders slumped. “All I’m asking, is that you be more careful,” he said quietly. “Because your heart might bounce back from all this, but mine cannot take another day like today.”
Bruce glanced between them, smiled faintly at Tony and slipped away. He had no intention of playing third wheel to Captain America and Iron Man, and it looked like Tony was well on his way to recovery – speeding towards it, in fact, if Steve had anything to say about it. And there would be time to make sure Tony never risked his life like that again, to make sure he knew he was a valuable part of their team, suit or no suit. Right now, Thor was their priority again.
The Avengers looked after their own.