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They didn’t expect to get him back. Jotunheim wasn’t Afghanistan, they couldn’t just grab a chopper and extract him. They would have had to combine earth and Asgardian technology and find a way to open a portal to that space...which maybe Stark could have had a chance at figuring out, but it was Stark who had been captured in the battle. After a month, even Steve seemed to have given up. They hadn’t heard from Thor since he went to try to convince Loki to help. Fury had signed the paperwork listing Stark as presumed dead three days before.

It was on that third day, that he got a call from a field agent in New Mexico, reporting an unconscious, injured, but definitely alive, Tony Stark. Fury himself responded, finding the junior agent restraining a very, very upset Tony Stark, in the back of a SHEILD tent. For all that he was fighting, and clearly disoriented, at least he wasn’t yelling.

Fury pushed in, putting himself between between the agent and Stark’s head, “hey. Stark. You know where you are?”

Stark stared up at him, gasping for breath, but pausing in his struggles, staring at Fury with definite recognition. He pulled his arm, a little, and the Junior agent let go. Fury backed up a bit, but Stark just sat up with some difficulty, and scuffed out a smooth patch in the dirt with the palm of his hand, drawing shaky letters with his index finger, ‘SHIELD.’

“Yeah. Can you talk?”

Stark looked at him, for a long time, a strange expression on his face. He opened his mouth, a little, closed it, and wrote, ‘not easily.’

Fury looked at the agent. He shrugged, “he didn’t stop fighting long enough for me to do a medical check.”

Stark glared, but Fury could have sworn he also looked a tiny bit embarrassed. Fury shook his head, “why can’t you talk?”

Stark shook his head, ‘too long.’

“Too long since you’ve spoken?”

‘To write in dirt.’

Fair enough.

“You do realize, I have to ask... why did they give you back? What did they want...and did they get it?”

Stark looked at the dirt, again, smudging his previous message out of existence, without writing another one. Finally, he looked up, pointed at the agent, and jerked his thumb. Fury nodded for the agent to leave, and Stark wrote his answer, ‘they wanted a portal.’

“To earth?”

‘To everywhere.’

“And did they get one?”

‘No.’

“Then how did you get back here?”

‘Loki.’

“Why would he help you?”

Stark looked worried, as he scribbled the next reply hastily, sloppily, ‘he let everything go. Me. Criminals. Monsters. War.’

Fury swore, “you need to give a full report, of everything you know about what he released.”

Stark nodded, shakily starting to get to his feet. He fell almost as soon as he was upright, breathing hard, pale and shaking. Fury gripped his arm, and stopped. He was dressed in ratty, shapeless dark green shirt and pants, which masked how emaciated he was.

“I had hoped to avoid this, because I know it’s going to piss you off.”

Stark managed a glare, but he looked like he was having trouble sitting back up, and there was blood in the corner of his mouth, which he hurriedly wiped away. Fury crouched, “I lied. Coulson isn’t dead. He almost died, but he pulled through. He’s waiting outside, to take your statement, and escort you back to headquarters. Though from the looks of it, you need medical attention first.”

Stark punched him. Then fell back. The punch had barely hurt, and besides, it had landed on his shoulder. Stark sat back up, and wiped his mouth again, still glaring. Fury reached, stopped, and sighed, “open your mouth.”

Stark wrote in the dirt, ‘fuck you.’

Fury stood, and walked out. He looked around the corner of the tent, and found Coulson there, staring up at the sky. The younger agent looked at him, as he rounded the corner, “I’m assuming that went terribly.”

“Basically. He can’t talk, and he’s bleeding in his mouth somewhere, but he wouldn’t let me look.”

“Did they cut off his tongue?”

“God knows I’ve been tempted, but I don’t think so.”

Coulson nodded, and followed him back in.

 

Following Fury in, Coulson almost stopped at the door. Even when he’d just been retrieved from Afghanistan, he hadn’t looked that bad. Fury left, and Coulson stood for a minute, before crouching before the pale man. Stark was staring at him, but seemed to shake himself out of it after a minute, and nod, writing in the dirt, ‘you’re looking better.’

Coulson nodded. The dummy they had created for his funeral had been one of the creepiest things he’d ever seen.

“Fury said your mouth was bleeding.”

Stark sighed, but opened his mouth, and let Coulson gently turn his head, so the light went in. His tongue wasn’t cut off, but it was blotched and criss-crossed by white, pink, and red scars, as well as fresh lacerations. It looked to be entirely caused by Tony’s own teeth, and two of the lacerations were bleeding fairly profusely.

“What did you do?”

Tony looked away, closing his mouth, clenching his jaw. Coulson could see fresh and fading bruises, and odd pink, blotchy stripes on his arms.

“We’re...going to need to get a full medical evaluation, first thing.”

Tony finally did look back at him, nodding in resigned understanding. Coulson stood, leaned down, and offered his hands. Tony took them, and Coulson hauled him up. He was lighter than he ever should have been, and stumbled, when he tried to walk. Coulson pulled his arm over his own shoulders, and went to put an arm around Tony’s back, but the other man gasped, and fell forward onto his hands and knees.

Kneeling, Coulson put a hand on his arm, between the pink areas, “what?”

Tony pushed pebbles and gravel clear of a small area, and wrote, ‘back.’

Coulson reached, waited for Tony’s nod of permission, and lifted his shirt, gently, rolling it back so the extra material didn’t contact the revealed pink and black blisters, pink new skin, and angry red welts, covering much of Tony’s back. Two of the blisters were newly burst and oozing, probably from Coulson trying to help.

 

Tony sat mostly obediently through the medical check, which worried Coulson, up until the point where he started writing angry notes to the doctors on the paper they’d given him, and flat out refused to let anyone mess with the lacerations in his mouth.

When they were finally done, Stark was basically sleeping sitting up. He glared when Coulson entered with a wheelchair, but the angry look was cut short by a massive yawn. He climbed shakily into the chair, and his attempt to make it seem that he was doing most of the pushing was half-hearted at best.

 

Coulson checked his watch. Stark had been in the shower for twenty five minutes. Not that long, but Coulson had warned he would check after twenty. He put down his book, and got up, knocking on the bathroom door. There was no answer. He pushed it open. The room was filled with steam, though not enough to really obscure Tony standing in the shower, his chest an angry red where the water was hitting it, staring straight forward, clearly nobody home.

Coulson hurriedly shoved him out of the spray, and turned it off. Tony stood, still staring blankly forward, having caught himself against the corner of the shower. Coulson sighed, and gently pushed his arms out of the way. There were no blisters, though some might form later, but his skin was definitely burned, from his right shoulder, down to navel and left hip.

Coulson pulled on his hand, squeezing it, rubbing his left shoulder. He reacted a little, but only to take a slightly larger breath. Coulson stepped into the shower, putting a hand on either side of Stark’s face, “Anthony Stark. Do you know where you are?”

A jerk, and Tony opened his mouth. His gaze slowly tracked over to Coulson, and after a moment, he seemed to recognize that someone else was there. He stumbled out of the shower, and sat down on one of the bathmats. Coulson grabbed a towel, rubbed it over his head, then much more carefully patted his back and chest dry. Leaving that towel in Tony’s lap, he got another, and carefully wrapped it around his shoulders. Tony looked up at him, finally seeming to come back to himself, and reached out. Coulson offered his hand, Tony wrote on the palm with one finger, shaky but sure, ‘that was just perfect.’

“I take it you were cold.’

Tony nodded, ‘something like that.’

 

Coulson stood back, in the corner of the room, watching a very bundled up Tony Stark type out what he knew about the creatures and villains that had been released. He had already given a short report of the events of the month, which Coulson had read before sending it on to Fury. Coulson had to imagine that the shirt and two sweatshirts would have been painful against the blisters and burns, but Tony apparently preferred that to being even the least bit chilled, in the air conditioned offices.

Tony sighed, looked at Coulson, pointed at the computer, and opened a new document.

‘Do the others know I’m back yet?’

“No.”

‘Why not?’

“We need to evaluate you, first.”

‘You can’t keep me here.’

“I’m not going to try. That would be idiotic, and unnecessary. You’re free to go.”

‘You think I won’t?’

“I think you won’t want to.”

‘Why?’

“I read the after action report on the first Loki incident. You had the chance to keep being the same lonely jerk you’ve always been, and try to take on an army by yourself...or do something much, much scarier. Believe that you could become heroes, work as a team, and save the world. And you chose the harder, scarier, and frankly heroic path. Which is why you are going to want to stay with us, and come to the Helicarrier to help track what Loki set free, before it can pose a danger to your friends, and the world.”

‘Were you born that sappy, or is it an acquired condition?’

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

Tony glared at him for a minute, then turned back to the laptop, and went back to the report.

Coulson allowed himself a small smile, “I’m going to take a nap. We have a long drive tonight. I’ll be on the couch in the hall, find me when you’re done, and we’ll leave for the Helicarrier.”

Chapter Text

When he wakes up, Tony Stark is standing over him, hands tucked into his armpits, like he’s still cold. He’s managed to find some sort of razor, though apparently wasn’t up to the task of his trademark goatee, and just shaved himself clean.

“We could have stopped at a barber shop.”

Tony shook his head. Coulson sat up, and picked up his suit jacket, “ready?”

Tony nodded. As they were leaving, Coulson stopped by supply, and quietly requisitioned a blanket and extra jacket, the poofy, government kind, that usually had the acronym for whatever agency emblazoned across the back. This one was plain, flat black. Stark took them, when Coulson held them out, without acknowledging that he was actually sweating, at that point, and still hugging himself when nobody was looking.

Tony sat sideways in the passenger seat, staring out the window as they drove. Coulson turned the heated seat on, on Tony’s side, on full blast. They stopped once, at a gas station. Tony followed Coulson in, wandering the isles, settling on honey roasted almonds and a giant paper mug of tea.

 

‘I came to in a pool. One of them was sitting at the edge. She smiled at me, and reached down. All I knew after that was cold, and pain. She was freezing tendrils, lines, of water. Human blood is mostly water, so that froze too. It was like the way lightning acts, seeking the path of least resistance, the areas of water with the most minerals to form catalysts for the formation of ice crystals. That was, obviously, inside my body, so that’s what it froze, instead of just zapping through the water in the pool.’

Tony started snoring. Coulson looked over at him. He had turned the other direction, when he got back in, after they left the gas station, facing Coulson, his knees drawn up onto the seat, arms crossed, over the the absurdly thick layers of sweatshirts and blanket he had wrapped himself in.

 

The day after Coulson deposits Tony Stark at the Helicarrier, he gets a brown paper wrapped package, unlabeled as to the sender. He has it x-rayed, then opens it cautiously, as it has turned out to contain nothing more than a small stack of paper. It turns out to be a set of vintage Captain America trading cards, nearly identical to the one he’d lost to his own bloodstains, courtesy of Fury. He sets them up in plastic card holders, on the shelf right below the Iron Man trading cards that have taken their former place.

 

‘They wanted me to build a portal, combining their power, and scientific knowledge, to allow them to cross into whatever plane of existence they so wished. They wanted to take over all of creation. I said no. They disagreed.’

When he checks on Stark, he finds him hard at work, building on the work Dr. Banner did, in tracking gamma radiation, to create a method of tracing the wholly unusual radiation signatures of cross-plane travel, so they can determine if any of the escaped creatures or criminals have ended up on earth. He’s also wearing a winter parka, and Coulson notices the smell of unchanged bandages, well before he sees that the ones Stark was supposed to use that morning, are still sitting on his desk, unnoticed, and untouched.

Stark doesn’t complain, While he sits, shirtless, and lets Coulson clean the pus and oozing dark blood from his back. Granted, he can’t, not out loud. But Coulson has no doubt he could still manage to make an enormous fuss, if he were so inclined. But he’s not.

‘The showed me how their powers worked. It’s fascinating, when I have a chance, I will try to explain it, though it’s tied intrinsically to their neurological wiring, and no human, nor Asgardian would have a chance of manipulating it. However, if a computer were created mirroring that neurological wiring, it could use that power, tying it in with just plain energy and structuring it with complex enough programming, and create the portal they were searching for. I knew that, very soon after they showed me how their powers worked. I would not allow myself to tell them.’

Finishing with cleaning Stark’s back, Coulson reaches for the bandages. The wounds are starting to heal, but would heal a lot faster if he wasn’t allowing it to foster infection, by not bothering to change the dressings. As Coulson finishes the last of the bandages, Stark turns around, and looks at him. He’s now bearing several days of stubble, and the burns on his chest are starting to fade, though there are a few blisters right at his collarbone, where the water was striking most directly.

“Need to say something?”

Stark nods, and gets up, walking to his computer, picking up a big, fluffy bathrobe on the way, and putting it on, as he reaches the keyboard.

‘One of them is approaching manhattan. I think, it’s not possible to be sure yet. But there’s a 70% chance. Otherwise, it’s just interference from a satellite that picked up a similar radiation signature.’

“Seventy percent is enough to be worried. And given it’s your seventy percent, enough to act on. I’ll have Maria Hill get in contact with Captain Rogers. Is there any way to increase the certainty?”

‘I would have to get closer. Trouble is, as I get closer, if it is one of the creatures Loki released, we’ll also be getting closer to its intended target, and depending on what or who it is, it could detect the sample of terrestrial radiological material I’m using for comparison, and target it as an energy source.’

“So the detector could draw an attack.”

‘Basically, yes.’

“And where is it now?”

‘Almost to New York.’

“Are you comfortable risking an attack?”

‘It’s almost to New York. That’s where everyone is, right? Yes, of course.’

“Then lets pack the detector, and go.”

‘I knew, from Afghanistan, that I couldn’t just not talk. I’m not strong enough for that. And every sound I made when she send those lines of freezing through me, or put freezing stones on my back and arms, felt like losing. I bit my tongue, so I couldn’t talk. I swallowed one of the stones, so it froze my throat, and I couldn’t make sound, couldn’t scream. The bite mostly healed, and swallowing the stone froze my intestines, and even though I couldn’t scream, I was trying to for three days, until it passed, and I couldn’t bring myself to do that again. But I kept biting my tongue. I honestly don’t know if, past a point, I wasn’t just hoping I would bite deep enough and bleed out...but they always froze it if I bit that deeply.’

Tony’s expression, when they round a corner, and find Clint and Natasha standing there, is completely frozen. He just stands stock still, and stares at them. The knew he would be here, and Coulson as well, but Coulson guesses from their expressions that they hadn’t been informed just how bad it was. Coulson grips Tony’s wrist, gently pulling him towards the two agents, “how did the others take it?”

“Angrily,” shrugs Clint, “they want to see both of you.”

“It looks like that will happen soon enough. Did you bring it?”

Clint sets down the large case he was carrying, and Coulson picks it up, knowing full well Tony wouldn’t be able to carry something that heavy in his current state, “I had them bring the most portable version of your suit, in case there is an attack.”

Tony looks at him, looks at the case, and nods.

“Tony, Bruce is on the line, Hill said you needed some things from the tower,” Natasha held out her phone. Tony stares flat, for a moment, then shakes his head, turns around, and walks in the other direction. Coulson nods to the other two, and follows after him. He is crouched on the floor just around the corner, mouth open, face red, like he was trying to force himself to speak.

Coulson kneels, gripping Stark’s wrist. The smaller man’s pulse is quick, erratic, but he seems okay, just stressed out. Gripping his arm, Coulson pulls him up, “they’re waiting for you. Dr. Banner wants to help, agents Barton and Romanov are preparing SHIELD intercept, and Captain Rogers is with Thor, ready to respond to an attack.”

Tony leaned against the wall, watching Coulson. Coulson offers a hand, Tony obliges, spelling into Coulson’s palm, ‘I can physically speak. I just can’t.’

“I know. I’m not remotely surprised.”

Tony glares at him, and he shakes his head, “Agent Hill was captured, in an operation in Somalia, four years ago. When we got her back, she couldn’t fire a gunshot without breaking down--she had been forced to kill two of the other members of her team. She was promoted to Fury’s second in command three months later. It took five months after that, for her to be able to so much as hold a gun again. We see so much crazy, extraordinary stuff, that extraordinary trauma is pretty much a given. We just try and work around it.”

Tony doesn’t react, for a minute, though his fingers stay lightly in contact against Coulson’s palm, ‘have you ever tried to stop that?’

“Stop...us getting traumatized? As in, stop putting ourselves in that kind of danger?”

Tony nods.

“If we were capable of that kind of self preservation, we wouldn’t be working for SHIELD in the first place.”

Tony hesitates for second, but then a grin spreads across his face, ‘I have an idea.’

Coulson sleeps, while Tony works, in a corner of the lab, in case something goes terribly, terribly wrong. He’s woken around five hundred hours by repeated, insistent clanging. Sitting up, sees Tony in the Iron Man suit, on his front, on the ground, repeatedly pounding against the floor, making a dent in the thick metal.

“Are you having a temper tantrum, or is something wrong?”

He gets up, and sees Tony trying to reach back, further than he’s able, towards a catch on the back of the suit. Coulson pulls it, and latches all along the edges release, Coulson pulls them, and lifts away the hinged pieces, until he can pull Tony out. The back of Tony’s shirt is soaked with blood and pus.

Tony sits up, gasping, and pale. Coulson relieves him of the shirt, and soaked bandages, peeling them off as gingerly as he can. All the blisters are popped and oozing, now, and those that were starting to heal are re-opened. Coulson pulls Tony to his feet, and finds Tony suddenly leaning into his side and chest, dizzy, exhausted, and pained.

“Why couldn’t you get it off?”

Tony, leaning with his head on Coulson’s shoulder, slides a hand across Coulson’s belly, to the middle, and shakily traces, ‘voice command. Hurt too much to reach the emergency latch.’

 

Tony falls asleep, while Coulson is rebandaging his back. Coulson tucks a sweatshirt under his head, covers him with his fluffy robe, and goes to look at what he was doing. There’s a thick set of wires going to the detector, from the suit. Only, the core from the detector is sitting in a box on the desk, and the power readings on the computer are much higher. Tony was turning the detector into bait. Except Tony isn’t in the suit, it should be powered down. Coulson heaves the suit up, so he can look. There’s a palladium core, jerry-rigged onto the front of the suit. Using it as an unmanned drone, Tony could distract the thing they were tracking, and send it anywhere in the world, keeping the creature away from major populated areas.

 

Coulson is woken from his sleep by the sound of banging on metal for the second time that day. Only this time, it’s someone trying to break through the door into the lab. Tony is crouched, holding the suit up, in front of him hand reaching down into it, apparently readying the repulsor in the chest to fire. The lock finally gives, with a creak and a crack, and the door slides open...to reveal Clint, of all people, waving away smoke from the explosive arrow he had used to break the lock.

Tony sinks back with a sigh, letting the suit slump into his lap, glancing up in mild surprise, when he finds Coulson behind him, putting his gun away. Clint steps in, looks around, and opens the door, all the way, letting Natasha in as well, and closes the mangled door behind him, setting his quiver down, “we were worried.”

It’s all the explanation he gives...and, Coulson reflects, it’s really all that’s needed.

Tony heaves the suit out of his lap, and climbs shakily to his feet, pulling his floofy bathrobe tight around himself. Coulson makes a mental note to find him something slightly less ridiculous to wrap up in, as the parka smells from when he didn’t change his bandages, and the jacket isn’t heavy enough. Natasha walks forward, “you didn’t have to run. I mean, if you were upset or scared by something...we were told what you went through. It’s okay, you’re not trained for that, and even if you were, it’s hard.”

Tony shakes his head, and steps towards her, giving her a small smile, and touching her hair. Clint grips Tony’s shoulder, “seriously. What happened?”

Tony looks at the two of them, and backs up, a little bit, not even half a step, but just edges away, a little. Clint instantly lets go, clearly not wanting to hold Tony somewhere he didn’t want to be. Coulson expects Tony to flee, honestly. But the smaller man turns, and looks at Coulson, just a little bit pleadingly.

“He can’t speak.”

 

‘The hall was stone, or ice, it was difficult to tell, there. It was cold, anyway, and dark, the walls rough-hewn, and I was naked, but I didn’t die of hypothermia, by whatever power. The cell they kept me in had a clear front, which definitely was ice. I saw him, when he came, at first. I know he saw me, he was there once when I was being taken from the cell to the pool.’

It’s almost here. They still don’t know precisely what it is, but it’s tracking the power signature when Tony flies the suit, the detector/bait bolted to the front, and wired to the palladium core. The creature doesn’t seem to be entirely in their dimension yet, they can track it, through its radiation signature, but not see it, on satellite, or radar.

Tony sets about flying the suit away from New York, but the creature only tracks it for a little while, before starting to move away, at which point they have to go and get its attention again. It’s slow going, and though since they’re basically just sitting there with a computer map and a joystick, it’s still preventing them from preparing in other ways.

Coulson finally declares that Tony is officially removed from that duty, because they need him more elsewhere, and it’s wearing him out. It’s almost midnight, and he’s been at it since seven that morning. Tony refuses, flat out, not trusting anyone else to do it. Coulson marches out, finds Agent Irwin, and escorts him into the lab. Tony glances up to glare, and then stops, looking the Agent up and down, and surrenders his seat, following Coulson out of the room, at what is increasingly less a swift walk, and more a stumbling shuffle.

Coulson had had a hunch Tony would have been legitimately impressed by a man who played Galaga in the middle of a global crisis, and threatening end of the world.

 

Tony falls against the hallway wall, and Coulson stops, gripping his arm, “Dr. Banner and Captain Rogers will meet us at the tower. Agents Barton and Romanov are readying choppers. They will fly ahead to make sure the location is clear, while we pick up Rogers and Banner.”

Tony nods, steadying himself, and walking on, despite the fact he’s clearly at the end of his endurance. Coulson doesn’t let go of his arm until he’s in the helicopter, which is good because he just about collapses trying to climb into it. When Coulson goes to move up to the pilot’s seat, Tony pulls on his suit jacket, and he stops, offering his hand, ‘where’s Thor?’

“Looking for Loki.”

 

Sitting in the chopper, Coulson glances over at Tony, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat. He’s trembling. Exhaustion, and fear, fighting for dominance in his body, and him putting up a desperate, losing fight against both. His hair is still longer and a bit unkempt, and his skin is so pale it seems almost translucent. The blue-white glow from the arc reactor doesn’t help make him look any less wan, either, in the dark cockpit of the chopper. At this point, it’s more a question of when he collapses, than if he will.

Coulson reaches forward, as the radio buzzes on its holder, and confirms that he’s listening. A junior Agent’s voice comes over, sounding strained. There is a small team on the ground, under the path Agent Irwin is leading the creature on, and something is very wrong. Their scattered, frantic attempts to explain, when it’s clear they don’t even know what they’re facing, isn’t making it any clearer what’s actually happening.

Tony leans forward, trying to reply. After several moments of straining, a strange, strangled sound escapes him, like he choked on a hiccup, as do a few frustrated, terrified tears. He clearly knows what the creature is, and what’s happening down below its path of travel, and it’s scaring him, to the point where he’s hyperventilating.

Coulson makes the executive decision to fly much, much faster.

When they land at Avengers tower, Tony less exits the aircraft, than falls out the door before Coulson to get around the nose, and lands in a heap. Captain Rogers and Dr. Banner, who had waited for the blades to slow before approaching, get there just as Coulson is helping him back to his feet.

Steve takes one look at Tony, who at that point is standing solely due to the intervention of Coulson’s shoulder, which he is leaning against, scoops him up, and starts to carry him inside. Tony kicks, until Steve has to set him down or risk dropping him. Tony assaults Steve’s chest, until he fishes the Starktech phone out of the supersoldier’s shirt pocket, slides it open, and starts typing, showing it to Coulson.

Coulson turns right back around, gets on the radio, and starts calling for more agents. And probably the national guard.

‘There had been a lot of death, in that place, over the millennia. Prisoners killed, wars that took place there. The bodies were buried under the stone, apparently. Or, at least, sealed there, somehow. Not buried, because they were perfectly preserved, and you could see them, layers upon layers, under clear stone or ice. Or, at least, that’s where they were, until they brought one of those creatures through. It was one of many, apparently, from what the guards were saying, but the only one they’d managed to capture. They thought they could use it to create an army, somehow; I didn’t understand how. I don’t think they did either, actually, given what happened when they walked it through the central area of the dungeon. All the bodies of all the prisoners...and captured monsters...that had died, were preserved under that area. Until, then, they weren’t exactly bodies, anymore. Nor were they under stone. It only lasted a few hours, before they fell back, and were dead again. But a few hours was a few hours too long.’

Chapter Text

Given what’s going on at the chosen battlesite, they really aren’t inclined to hesitate, but Dr. Banner says Thor is on his way back, so they wait on the roof. It’s cold, and windy, and Coulson watches Tony cross his arms over his chest, and lean forward just a little, glancing sideways at Captain Rogers, like he’s double checking that the larger man doesn’t notice.

Dr. Banner, though, notices, and walks over to Tony, as Rogers tries to work his phone and get a location on Thor. He raises a hand, waits for a cautious nod, and places it on Tony’s shoulder, gently suggesting that maybe he’d like to sit down, inside the chopper. Coulson isn’t sure whether he’s reading probably all too familiar signs of complete exhaustion...or all too familiar signs of being freaked the fuck out.

Tony seats himself on the lip of the hold, in the sliding doorway, crossing his legs, and sitting with his arms still folded, like he’s trying to impersonate a genie. Banner says something else, and Tony looks at him, looks at Rogers, shakes his head, and grips Banner’s shirt, briefly, in emphasis, because Banner doesn’t look like he thinks much of Tony’s answer. Banner nods, finally, and touches Tony’s shoulder again, before walking back over to Coulson, leaning in, “how badly is he injured?”

“His back’s a mess, but as far as I can tell, he doesn’t have any life-threatening. Not physical ones, anyway.”

Banner nods. Coulson guesses that of anyone other than Natasha, Banner gets that physicality means basically nothing about the graveness of the hurts Tony suffered.

 

Thunder rumbles in the distance, and a moment later, Thor lands beside them. Coulson is glad Tony is sitting down for that, because the landing is even less controlled than usual, and even Steve stumbles back a step. Thor is a mess, his arms, chestplate, and hammer coated in grey dirt and mold, and smeared with black, rotted flesh. That, more than anything, drives it home, what they're about to face.

Coulson says he isnt taking off until Tony agrees to lie down. His protests are impressively stubborn, but it must have been clear to him how bad a shape he was in. Never the less, arguments were made, fought, and glared, on Tony's part, until Thor gripped his hand, and looked earnestly at him, "a true warrior should not be shamed in weakness, but only in neglecting to correct it. You must rest."

And Tony does, curled on the floor of the chopper, his head on Thor's leg, for the twenty minutes it takes them to get there.

“He’s... God...” says Rogers, kneeling on the floor, beside Tony and Thor.

Thor has the good grace to not mention his ongoing confusion over that statement, instead, just carefully threads his large fingers through Tony’s hair, and looks at Rogers, “he is very small.”

Rogers nods, and he looks like he wants to do something, touch or comfort Tony somehow, but he doesn’t. Coulson starts the chopper, and they take off, heading into hell.

 

It isn’t that the corpses are aggressive. They just seem to be under the impression that they aren’t dead, and keep trying to leave the area they were buried in. Thus, when they land, they find themselves more corralling them, than fighting. It’s almost worse. No, it’s definitely worse. There’s no adrenaline to mask the horror. There’s nothing to even do, but try to contain them until they...go back to being dead. And they’re in pain. They’re screaming, those that still have throats.

The four junior agents who were on the scene before them, have the same stare, that Tony had when he burned himself in the shower. They’re still working, but their actions are mechanical, and they’re covered in stinking decomposition, and coughing from grave mold. Natasha and Clint don’t have that look quite yet, but they’re definitely on the way.

A new wave is emerging from another part of the cemetery, and the junior agents don’t notice at first. The crush of stumbling bodies from behind catches them unaware, before Coulson can get to them, and they go down under the rush, their reactions slowed by shock and exhaustion. Rogers and Thor push the bodies off, and pull the agents to safety. Thor goes back to work, as do three of the agents. The fourth sits on the ground, and stares straight forward. Rogers crouches, grips their shoulder, pulls them to their feet, and gently leads them towards the chopper, getting them out of danger.

Tony, who at least had the good sense to know he’s not strong enough right now to be anything but a liability in the press of bodies, pulls the agent into the hold with him, and for a long moment, he and Rogers stare at each other, before Rogers says something, and turns to go back into the crowd stinking of formaldehyde and rot.

Twenty-five minutes later, the reinforcements arrive. Coulson briefly sees Tony leading the shell-shocked agent towards the medical crew, which Banner has joined, before a new rush of screaming, sobbing corpses comes at him, trying to break past into freedom, like running somewhere away will make death hurt less. He feels the distinct urge to be sick.

It’s right about then, when the crackle comes over the radio, that the creature has fully emerged.

 

The whole flight to where the monster emerged, everyone is as silent as Tony. It’s only twelve minutes, but that time seems an eternity. Rogers appears to have given up on whatever had kept him from offering contact to Tony earlier, he’s sitting against the wall, Tony sitting sideways beside him, shoulder against the wall, head resting against Steve’s shoulder. Rogers has one of Tony’s hands in both of his own, in his lap, clasped tight. Superficially, it looks no different from Tony sleeping on Thor. Except for the quite frankly panicked look on Rogers’ face.

 

The other Avengers rush out to the designated area, standing beneath the monster in the sky. Coulson stays a moment, and walks around to the door of the hold. Tony is pulling on the Iron Man gauntlets he retrieved at Avengers Tower, wincing as they slide over the still raw frostbite marks on his arms.

“You should hang back.”

Tony looks at him, and shakes his head. Coulson sighs, “you’ll still be a liability, even with those.”

Tony shakes his head again, and takes pen and paper out of his pocket, both looking kind of laughable in his armored hands, ‘doesn’t matter.’

“I think it does. It won’t do them any good if you get killed.”

‘I won’t get in a position where I would be killed. I promise that much. But Steve’s scared all to hell, Thor’s torn up that his brother did this, Natasha’s shaken, Clint’s worried about Natasha, and Bruce was looking awfully green when he was fighting the corpses--of course that might have been related to when he ran away and threw up where nobody could see him, behind the chopper. I think he forgot I was in it. They’re none of them okay, and from how they reacted...Clint doesn’t even like me that much, and he broke into a lab to check on me. Something happened when I was gone, I don’t know what it is, but it was bad, way worse than just me going missing would be, and I’m going to be there, now, no matter what.’

“From the reports? What happened was they lost their friend. End. Full stop. That’s what happened. That’s what’s wrong. Don’t make them go through it all over again.”

 

The creature is beautiful . It's pale, and almost translucent, with six elegant, long, multi-jointed bluish limbs, and deep coral-tinged membranes between them. It has a large, spatulate tail, deeply groved towards the tip, and drawn out to a lethal point. Its face is long, but almost catlike, and its ears, or antenae, maybe, wiggle as it looks around.

Having just turned to catch up after talking to Tony, he watches the Iron Man suit, controlled still by Agent Irwin swoop down. The creature lets out a small, high pitched squee, and flits after it, looping playfully in the air. It reminds Coulson of an otter, chasing after something drawn along the wall of its tank.

Coulson looks over at Tony, who has stubbornly followed, apparently unconvinced of the potential impact his death could possibly have had, or could have now. Tony looks...not scared. He looks over at Coulson, and shakes his head, scribbling on his pad, ‘It was aggressive in the dungeon, but... I think it might have just been scared. I certainly wasn’t having my friendliest days down there. Have Galaga guy land the suit.’

Coulson gives the order over the radio, and signals the others to stand down. The creature dives after the suit, loops once, and then lands, as it does, nuzzling it, and then licking it, with a long,snaking, iridescent green tongue. It cocks its head, and licks it again. Its ears go down, a little.

Thor walks towards it, hammer gripped in his hand, but resting down at his side. The creature, seeing Thor approach, backs quickly away from the suit...but then drops its head to the ground, cocking it slightly, blinking eyes the size of car windows. Thor walks up to it, and stops a few dozen yards away. The creature slowly creeps two small steps forward, and extends one of its limbs, slightly, poking Thor in the chest. Thor grips its knobbed digit, lightly, and pats it, turning to look at the others. The creature licks him, then seems to lose interest, going back to trying to get the Iron Man suit to play again.

Well. That’s inconvenient. The creature is clearly far from actively malicious. But wherever it flies, corpses rise up under its path. Rogers steps forward, “I know it’s not scary. But we have to capture it. It’s going to cause too many problems.”

Coulson nods. He’s right, but it isn’t an easy call.

“If we brought it to Asgard...it would be a delightful curiosity, and we do not have dead kept there.”

“Great. How do we get it to Asgard?” asked Clint, watching it nudge the suit repeatedly, scurrying back when it tips forward.

“That won’t be necessary.”

Coulson turns, immediately drawing his weapon, and training it on the green-clad god. Loki looks at him, curiously, “you’re a resilient one.”

“You won’t be, when I finish with you.”

Loki’s lips curl in a strange perversion of a small smile, “indeed. Alas, this creature is coming with me. Asgard will just have to go on without--”

Tony really probably wasn’t in any shape to take the backlash from a repulsor blast, but he lets one off anyway, knocking himself to the ground, but hitting Loki square in the chest, making him take two steps back. Loki dusts himself off, as Rogers hurries to Tony’s side, where he’s struggling onto his hands and knees.

Loki is beside them, instantly, and Rogers goes to punch him, but Loki blasts him away, before crouching beside Tony, “you really should keep a better eye on this one, Brother. His thoughts are more powerful than he knows, and he’s very difficult to kill. If he were less enduring, we wouldn’t have the situation we are now in.”

“What do you mean, Brother?”

“I mean, the Frost Giants wouldn’t be sending each of their recaptured creatures on the attack.”

“They can’t attack. That’s why they needed Tony, they needed him to build a portal.”

“They needed him to figure out how, they didn’t actually need him to build one. They aren’t entirely imbeciles, they can figure it out when they have the plans.”

“Tony didn’t tell them. He bit his own tongue to not tell them.”

“He didn’t need to say it,” sneers Loki, nudging Tony, who appears to not actually be able to get up, with his boot, “he only needed to think it. I tried to prevent this, but he was too quick at a solution, and I too slow at infiltrating.”

“Why would you help Earth?”

“Not just earth. They want all realms for themselves. They want everyone in the universe but themselves, dead.”

“And you want to prevent that?” asks Natasha, right behind him, her pistol pressed against the back of his ridiculous helmet. Hill walks up, and places her pistol at his chest, as well.

He looks over his shoulder, mildly, “I have no interest in death. Only power. Everyone being dead merely means I have no-one to rule. Of course I wish to halt these plans. And I think I may know how.”

Chapter Text

When Loki looks down, to indicate that his plans center on Tony, even he stops. Something is wrong. Tony’s stopped moving, and his shirt is soaked through in several places with blood, but not the dark, oozing from a torn blister. It does correlate with where Loki booted him, but even Coulson could see that was a light nudging, not anything that should have hurt him.

Natasha kneels, and carefully pulls Tony’s shirt up. What had been dark, damaged areas, were now deep, bleeding ulcers, dead flesh hanging off, where it had been displaced by Loki’s boot. Natasha looks up at Loki. He shakes his head, expression blank with surprise.

Natasha carefully pushes on Tony’s shoulder, rolling him onto his side, pressing her hand to his forehead. He only half seems to react, turning his head a little into the ground, nose squishing against the dirt, little dirt clumps rolling a tiny bit away, then a tiny bit back, with his labored breathing.

Because Tony would hide this from them, thinking he would get away with it because everyone smelled like rotting flesh anyway. Of course he would. Coulson shouldn’t be remotely surprised. Nauseated and worried, though, he feels entitled to.

Nobody was paying attention to Rogers. Coulson would kick himself later, for not. But the punch lands, unseen. Loki staggers back two feet, and falls onto his rear. Rogers stands over him, and Coulson knows he’s seen the Hulk look calmer.

“Steve.”

Rogers looks, at Natasha. She and Banner are trying to move Tony, who has come to, and is trying to get up with their help. Rogers abandons Loki, and lifts Tony onto his shoulder. Thor and Clint stay to supervise Loki’s relocation of the playful creature, Coulson takes off in the chopper, with Rogers and Banner and Natasha keeping the increasingly agonized Tony from getting hurt.

For an emaciated, bleeding man, Tony is strong and insistent. He very much does not want to be on the stretcher, nor does he want any needles in his arms. He especially does not want the restraints. However, when the ER doctor puts cooling packs at his groin and armpits, because he’s running a fever high enough they need to bring it down, he stops fighting. He lies still, on his stomach, and stares straight forward, unseeing, completely lost in terror. His jaw works, for a minute, and then blood starts dripping onto the white sheets, from his mouth.

Rogers is the first to notice, having completely given up on whatever was holding him back, gluing himself to the head of the stretcher, and just daring anyone to ask Captain Fucking America to leave his friend. Someone did make him put on a yellow poofy suit, with booties and a hood, when they moved Tony into a burn unit room, though he ripped two sets of gloves before they found an extra large size box.

The cooling packs are removed, immediately, the first by Rogers throwing it across the room, the other two by the nurse. Tony keeps chewing, and they shove guards into his mouth, causing him to only bruise, not cause further lacerations. Rogers leans over him, and Coulson doesn’t catch what he says, from outside the sealed room, but his expression holds worry, and more than a trace of fear..

 

Between blankets, and Rogers’ touch, Tony seems to come back to himself after a little bit. He glares, as he pulls the guards from his mouth, the dips in the clear molded plastic pooled with blood, and drops them on the floor. Rogers grips his hands, leaning in, putting his head right in front of Tony’s face. Tony stares at him, then looks down, and to the side, a little.

Rogers pulls Tony against himself, careful of his wounds, and buries his face in Tony’s hair. Tony stares forward, chin on Rogers’ shoulder, surprise and confusion clear on his face. Rogers lets go, and stands for a minute, staring at Tony, then flees the room. Tony just sits on the hospital bed, watching Rogers jet past Coulson, standing in the hall. Coulson meets Tony’s eyes, and Tony nods, for him to enter.

Coulson seats himself on the edge of the bed, “that was interesting.”

Tony nods, taking his paper and pencil off the bedside table, ‘he’s been weird. Can’t believe I’m suggesting this, but maybe he’s due for a debrief. And, like, some vacation time. Or at least some booze. Or a lot of booze, given...’’

Coulson shrugs, keeping his suspicions to himself, “your doctor said you’re stable enough to leave. Thor and Clint are on their way here...actually, should be here any time, now..”

Tony nods, then writes, again, ‘did Loki give any more information while I was...occupied?’

“Not really. He said you would be able to create a portal using his powers.”

‘I don’t think the Asgardians have the same type of powers needed for that.’

Coulson shrugs, “that’s all he said.”

Tony sighs, and sits up, a bit, crossing his legs, and pulling his blankets up to his chest, blocking the blue glow coming through his hospital robe. He looks at Coulson, and shakes his head, writing, again, letting the blankets fall back into his lap, ‘I’m going to be a liability. I’m going to need to go back to the tower, build some way to use’

He glares indignantly, as Coulson steals his notepad, “you almost died. After being missing, for a month, presumed dead. Because you didn’t tell anyone how badly hurt you were. It’s been decided, by vote and mostly by Rogers freaking out, that you are to keep yourself safe, and recover, above all else.”

Tony snatches the notepad back, but his glare has faded to mild annoyance, and his reply isn’t exactly the most malicious thing he could have come up with, ‘I don’t want to.’

“I think that was kind of their point. They’re worried you’re self destructive, not just stupid.”

‘I’m not. I just refuse to be useless.’

“Then be useful some other way than fighting. You are officially grounded.”

‘You do realize that, like, the last time you tried to ground me, I left for two days before you noticed? And I’m not actually part of SHIELD, or even the Avengers Initiative. I’m just a consultant, remember?’

Coulson can actually detect a little bit of hurt, when Tony is scribbling that last sentence, and it surprises him. It doesn’t come through in the reports, how different Tony is now, than he was before Afghanistan, or even before the battle with Loki. His actions have changed, but he does an excellent, and Coulson guesses, very calculated, job, of masking that with stupid stunts and an occasional youtube clip. And right now, he’s trying desperately, to mask how fucked up he is, so that he can keep fighting alongside his friends. That’s almost certainly why he hid how severe his injuries were becoming.

Coulson nods, realizing the decision is pretty clear, orders or no, “no, you’re right. It’s a bad idea. If there’s anything guaranteed to make you do something stupid, it’s not letting you do something at least comparatively intelligent. But Rogers, and I think, at this point, probably Thor and Natasha and as well, will just about murder you if you put yourself in harm’s way. Understood?”

Tony gives him a very strange look. But then, slowly, he nods. Then shivers, and pulls the blankets up again, turning his head to look out the window, signaling that he’s ready for the conversation to be over. A moment later, the door opens, and Thor bursts in, followed much more sedately by Clint..and, standing in the doorway, Loki. Thor immediately sweeps Tony up, into a careful, but still somehow highly over-enthusiastic hug. Clint reaches in, gripping Tony’s hand, briefly, “you look better. Less dead.”

Tony manages to finagle his way free of Thor’s embrace enough to glare at Clint, then sees Loki standing behind them all. He frowns, and looks at Clint. Clint nods, “it’s okay.”

Clint looks at Coulson, “where’s Tash?”

“In the waiting room, with Banner. Their turn to nap.”

Clint nods, “I’ll go get them, and then we can go. Or...where’s Steve?”

Coulson shrugs, “I’ll have them page him.”

Clint leaves, and Thor still hasn’t let go. Tony is giving Coulson a pleading look, but for all the act he’s putting up, he’s closed his hand on a fold of Thor’s cape, and pressed his cheek a little against Thor’s neck. Coulson gets up, and goes to have Rogers paged, passing Loki without really acknowledging him. When he glances back, Tony’s closed his eyes, leaning into the arms of a friend. Coulson wonders, what would be happening now, if Tony had been captured before the battle for the Tesseract. He stops thinking about that, because he’s imagined dead Tony more than enough for one lifetime.

Rogers shows up a total of maybe twenty seconds after he’s been paged, at an awkward, not-quite-a-run, bumping into a counter, bouncing off, and then going a little bit faster. He stops, when he sees Coulson, and straightens, “sir?”

“He’s fine. He’s getting let out, we’re leaving soon.”

Rogers nods, face blank. Clint, Natasha, and Dr. Banner walk up, Banner puts a hand on Rogers’ shoulder, “ready?”

Rogers nods, and follows the other two back to Tony’s room. Coulson hangs back, to text a quick report to Fury and Hill. When he gets to the room, Thor is comparing the wheelchair a nurse brought to a chariot, Rogers looks like he wants to murder Loki, who is standing probably purposefully on the other side of the bed from him. Natasha and Banner are carefully helping Tony to get off the bed and shuffle two steps to the wheelchair, and Clint is standing back, watching it all with a mix of amusement and careful watchfulness.

When Tony is finally seated, Coulson notices that he’s gone several shades paler, and sweat has broken out across his forehead and cheeks. This is...is going to be an interesting week.

 

Tony ends up sitting between Thor and Loki, in the middle row of the SUV, because Thor lifted him in, and Natasha and Clint took the two seat back row, and Rogers and Banner are in the front, and Loki has enough self preservation to not want to sit next to either of them. Shotgun remains reserved for the nearly human sized pile of paperwork Coulson has to do when they get back to the tower, secured surprisingly efficiently by the seatbelt.

Tony leans forward, at one point, and pokes Roger’s shoulder, passing him a scrap of note paper. Rogers reads it, and turns, looking over the back at Tony, “I am fine, Tony.”

Tony rolls his eyes at the emphasis on the “I”, and starts poking the back of Rogers’ head. Banner smirks, at that, and Coulson has to wonder if the quiet doctor isn’t quite the reserved, serious man he projects himself to be. He also reflects that purchase of a baby mirror was probably the best fifteen bucks he ever spent.

“I do not understand this ritual,” frowns Thor, leaning forward, as through considering joining in.

“It isn’t a ritual, Thor, he’s just being annoying,” sighs Loki, looking glumly out the window at the passing trees.

Thor considers this for a moment, pokes Rogers twice, and then quickly sits back, and looks innocent. It takes Banner a good two minutes to stop chuckling.

 

Coulson has found himself investing more and more in equipment generally meant for parents of small children. It started with the child-view mirror, which actually was purchased for keeping any eye on anyone, not specifically...well, Tony. The baby powder was a stand-in for fingerprint powder. The baby monitor, though...that one’s all Tony. The look Coulson got when he put the clunky pastel trimmed, off-white radio on the table in Tony’s room was legitimately impressive, especially given the dose of pain meds Tony had taken.

However, he finds himself vindicated when repeated knocking crackles him awake around five in the morning. He picks up the radio, assures Tony that he’s on his way, and then walks down the hall. The other end went silent when he spoke, except for harsh, labored breathing. Coulson overrides the lock, and slips inside. Tony is on the floor, the table knocked over. He isn’t bleeding, and he doesn’t seem to have injured himself, but he’s clearly suffering. Coulson kneels, and places his hand on Tony’s shoulder, carefully.

Tony looks up at him, and his lips are slightly swollen, the lower one chewed almost raw. That’s new. Coulson sighs, grips Tony under the armpits, and lifts him up to a sitting position. Tony leans against the bed, catching his lower lip between his teeth. Coulson grips his jaw, and he releases his lip, looking away. He’s still breathing hard, and he couldn’t have been paler if he’d been bleached.

“What’s wrong? I brought paper...”

Tony shoves the pad away, Coulson rolls his eyes, “Tony.”

Tony looks back at him, sighs, and grabs his hand, writing onto the palm, ‘hurts.’

“You have pain meds, pretty strong ones, given how loopy you were earlier.”

Tony nods, and indicates the door to the bathroom, ‘put them in the pill cabinet.’

He looks quite frankly embarrassed, but he’s also caught his lip again, and as Coulson moves, blocking less of the light, he can see that Tony’s nightshirt and hair are soaked with sweat. How long was he suffering before he deigned to call for help? Coulson gets the appropriate pill bottle, and returns with it, and a glass of water. Tony’s head is down, now, and he starts when Coulson grips his wrist, snapping his head up, and staring straight through Coulson for a moment, before he actually seems to see him.

Tony’s hands shake badly, as he puts the two pills in his mouth, and lifts the glass to his mouth. When the glass comes away, there’s a smear of blood on the rim. Coulson takes it without comment. As skinny as Tony is, lifting him will be difficult because of his back, and Coulson doesn’t want to mess up and hurt him more.

“I need help to get you back up.”

Tony looks at him, flatly, for a moment, then picks up the pen, and paper, ‘Clint or Natasha. Or Bruce.’

Coulson takes a gamble, “not Rogers?”

‘You know damned well not Rogers. I don’t want him to see this, he’s been weird enough as it is, and I think it would really bother him. Thor would also be fine, he’s just louder, and Clint’s room is across the hall.’

“I seriously doubt Clint is actually in his room.”

Tony nods, ‘Natasha’s is around the corner, third door on the left.’

Coulson gets up, and goes to find the two spies.

Chapter Text

The thing about the baby monitor, is that Coulson can’t turn it off, or there’s no point. No, actually, that’s not the problem. The problem is that Tony knows he can’t turn it off. He does have the good grace to not cry wolf, but that hasn’t stopped him from finding new and increasingly strange things to make noise with.

On the other hand, the squeeky toy insistently dying on the other end, does at least let him know that Tony is keeping the damn thing with him.

 

Tony is sitting on a rolly chair, behind Loki, who is sitting on the ground, while Tony glues EEG leads to his head, some of Loki’s hair flopping forward into his face, as Tony squirts the conductive gel onto his scalp. Clint is sitting in a corner, playing a handheld video game. Coulson glances over Tony’s notes, a mix of actual findings, and scribbled questions, probably for Loki. One of them reads, ‘you don’t look like a frost giant’ and Coulson files that bit of information away as...well, a bit relevant.

Thor enters behind Coulson, and sits down in front of Loki, “I have brought you sustenance, Brother.”

Loki, who could probably have looked less happy, but only with some serious thought and effort, rolls his eyes. Tony looks up, kicks away against the floor, rolling to where his notes are, and writes, ‘do any of the SHIELD facilities have an fMRI?’

“I can find out. Did you eat breakfast?”

‘Is it morning?’

“I don’t think Thor would be assaulting his brother with breakfast food of dubious nutrition, otherwise.”

Loki looks over his shoulder, mumbling around essentially forcefed poptart, “Stark, can you finish so I can escape this onslaught?”

Tony glances at the god, smirks, looks up at Coulson, and writes again, ‘I’ll finish the last few leads, and then I can go.’

Coulson nods, Tony scoots the chair back over.

 

Coulson stops, waiting. Tony had stopped, out of breath, his arm linked with Coulson's. There is sweat breaking out on his forehead, and his breathing is harsh, and short. After a few moments, he nods, and starts walking again, but stumbles almost immediately. Coulson tightens his grip, and braces him against the wall, “easy.”

Tony just looks miserable.

 

Banner is washing his plate, when they get to the kitchen. He smiles, at Tony, and at Coulson, too, actually. Rogers turns around from adding flour into some sort of batter, and moves to take over Tony locomacating from Coulson. Tony grins, a little, leaning into Rogers’ shoulder. Coulson looks at Banner, who, though hiding his face behind his coffee mug, is definitely smiling.

Tony looks relaxed. He’s leaning forward, one hand on Rogers’s back to steady himself, as Rogers adds butter and shortening, mixing it in with his hands. Rogers looks over his shoulder, pointing something out for Banner to retrieve, but stops, when he sees Coulson watching. He turns back to the batter, head down. Tony looks at him, face falling, instinctively drawing away in response to the sudden shift in the larger man’s mood. Banner glances at Coulson, gets the buttermilk Rogers asked for, and as he sets it on the counter, quietly takes Tony’s arm, allowing him to escape the vicinity of the suddenly sullen supersoldier.

Tony sits down on one of the stools, and looks at Banner. Banner shakes his head, with a shrug and a small, almost silent sigh, squeezing Tony’s arm before letting go. Rogers shoves the biscuits into the oven with slightly more violence than the door can take, cracking the glass on the front.

Tony watches him go, sadly. He looks at Banner, ‘can you ask Clint to check on him in like twenty minutes?’

Banner nods.

 

Tony’s hands clench, twisting the soft blue cotton fitted sheet on his bed, as Coulson cleans the healing craters on his back. Tony gasps, and pulls, until the sheet pops off the corner of the bed with a soft snap, his toes scraping against the fabric, as he squirms, trying not to movie, but in too much pain to stay still. Coulson finishes cleaning, then starts re-dressing the wounds. That isn’t as bad, but it doesn’t matter, he’s already suffering.

When it’s done, Tony lies still for a while, face pressed into the now-loose sheet, completely still, further pain a snake just waiting to strike, every muscle trembling. Coulson seats himself on the edge of the bed, gently uncurling Tony’s hand from the wrinkles now pressed into the sheet, the fingers shaking, as they curl around his.

After a long while, Tony gingerly turns onto his side. He wipes the tear tracks off his face, and his hand smears fresh blood across his cheek, off his lip. Coulson rests his thumb against Tony’s chin, and raises his eyebrows. Tony opens his mouth, allowing Coulson to check. The insides of his lips look like hamburger, he’s chewed on them so much.

It looks like some of the worst of the sores on his back are contracting as they heal, pulling so much that it’s difficult and very painful for Tony to move his right arm very far in any direction. The healing skin itself is irritated and inflamed, possibly because he never has less than four layers on.

 

It’s legitimately a problem, when the lady at the baby store says hello to him by name.

 

Coulson returns, to find Tony sitting cross-legged on the floor, monitoring a small display, as Loki conjures many copies of himself. Clint is reading a comic book, on Tony’s couch. Coulson sets the shopping bag on the table, and walks over, “any luck?”

Tony turns to look up at him, wincing, and smiles, showing him the display. It means virtually nothing to Coulson, just rows upon rows of squiggly lines, but he nods, “okay.”

“Stark. Something is...” Loki falls onto his hands and knees. Clint moves to check what’s happening, and quickly withdraws his hand, the moment it touches Loki’s shoulder, “he’s freezing.”

Ice starts to spread out from Loki’s hands, and the god screams. Clint calls for help on the intercom, Coulson pulls Tony backwards by the armpits, away from the spreading crystals. He’s hyperventilating, but at least he’s still with it. Loki collapses onto his side, gasping, twitching with pain, but the ice keeps spreading, chasing towards the South. Rogers, Banner, Thor, and Natasha hurry in, Thor goes to Loki, Rogers physically lifts Tony onto his feet, Natasha goes to clint, asking what’s happening, and Banner looks around for a moment, before picking up Tony’s display.

“Tony, these waveforms aren’t anything like what you were showing me earlier. They almost look like epileptiform, I don’t think he’s doing this on purpose.”

Thor, having pulled his brother’s upper body into his lap, shakes his head, “this is causing him great pain.”

Coulson looks at Tony. He’s stark white, and trembling all over, but he nods, and carefully relieves himself of Rogers’ grip, shakily walking to the center of the ice. Crystals spread up, licking at his shoes, but none actually take. He and Banner pour over the readings, and if Tony holds on to Banner’s shirt like he’s trying to disintegrate it through sheer pressure, nobody mentions.

Banner says something, Tony nods, Banner stands, and runs out the door. Tony stares at the screen, but it’s increasingly obvious that fear is taking over, as the crystals slowly creep up the folds of his pants. Natasha crouches in front of him, pulling his upper body against her own, just as Loki screams, for a second time.

Banner returns, he and Thor strip Loki of his coat, and Banner injects something, then checks the monitor. He looks at Tony, “it isn’t taking.”

Tony doesn’t nod, or shake his head. He just stares, ahead, gasping for air. Rogers hurriedly takes him from Natasha, pulling him out of the ice’s grip, lifting him in his arms.

Then, as suddenly as it began, it stops. The ice slowly recedes, Loki stops twitching, and lays still, Thor rubbing his back, and trying to pet his hair, despite the EEG leads glued in it. Loki throws up on Thor’s leg.

Tony wraps his arms around Rogers’ shoulders, buries his face in the larger man’s neck, shoulders heaving as he cries. Loki moans, quietly, whimpers, and then is pretty much out, completely insensate as his brother lifts him. The sounds, though, have an unexpected effect on Tony. He sobs, audibly, and a gives little, quiet, hoarse, “no.”

 

“So,” says Coulson, “who else was with you?”

Tony looks up at him, from trying to open the packaging on the teething ring Coulson had given him, something for him to bite in pain instead of his lips. He shrugs, and goes back to struggling with the package.

“It wasn’t in your report, so it’s obviously important.”

That gets him at least an amused look, if not an explanation. Coulson confiscates the package, slices it open with his pocket knife, and hands it back to the seated man. Tony is forced to wait outside, while the fMRI is in operation, given it’s basically a very large magnet, and a very small magnet is keeping Tony’s heart from being shredded to pieces. Thor was also kicked out, since his very presence was screwing up the machinery, but he’d had to wait outside the hospital not just outside the room, so he’d gone to join the others in battle, on the condition that they would alert him the moment he could return to his brother.

They were lucky, that the beast, what seemed to resemble nothing so much as a bull the size of a building, was just that: a large, angry animal. There were no corpses rising, just a lot of smashed property. That, they could deal with. It was almost cathartic, in comparison of the grand scale of what they were facing.

“Are they still alive?”

Tony shook his head, bending an ear of the plastic lion head biting the flexible ring, and flipped out his cellphone, typing and then showing Coulson, ‘she was another prisoner they wanted something from. Some powerful relic that would help with their plans. It was just that I saw them kill her, and it was very much like something that happened in Afghanistan.’

“You spoke, earlier. Do you remember?”

Tony shook his head again, ‘I don’t remember very clearly what happened between Loki saying something was happening, and being in the helicopter on the way here.’

“Loki collapsed, and was hurting and making noise, and you started sobbing, and saying no.”

‘They froze her to death in the hall in front of my cell.’

Chapter Text

Thor arrives maybe twenty minutes later, with Rogers and Bruce, in a SHIELD van. Bruce gently wakes Tony, while Thor pushes Loki out of the MRI in a wheelchair, still too weak to stand or walk. Loki appeared to be trying to wrest back control of the wheels, unsuccessfully.

Rogers flanks Tony on the side opposite Banner, Tony looks, at him, looks around, at the various hospital personnel milling around. Rogers doesn’t look happy, and he certainly doesn’t look comfortable, but he does look determined. Banner looks at Tony, who shrugs, a little, and lets go.

Banner drops back to Coulson, crossing his arms over his chest, and tucking his hands into his armpits, watching with his eyebrows raised. Tony wobbles, a little, and goes to reach for the counter, to catch himself. He almost falls, his right arm won’t extend far enough, but it doesn’t matter, because Rogers steps in, in front of him, sliding his arm around the small of his back, pulling him close. Tony grabs Rogers’ shirt, the pressure against his back making him gasp in pain.

Rogers hurriedly let go, gripping Tony’s hips instead, “I’m sorry. I just didn’t want you to fall.”

Tony shakes his head, raising his hand to his mouth, biting down.

“Don’t you have a thing?”

Tony glares, momentarily, and shakes his head, hand still in his mouth. Coulson didn’t exactly blame him.

 

On the way back to the tower, Banner nudges his arm, from where he was sitting shotgun. He looks over his shoulder, briefly. Loki, exhausted, had fallen asleep against Thor, who had put his arm around his brother’s shoulders, and pressed his nose into the smaller god’s dark hair. In the seat behind them, Tony was still in pain, had now put the lion’s head into his mouth, head resting against Rogers’ shoulder. Rogers was gently threading his fingers through Tony’s sweaty hair. Tony was pale, but his hand on Roger’s shirt wasn’t shaking.

When they arrive at the tower, Rogers immediately takes Tony to the living room, to check the damage to his back. Coulson hangs back, with Banner, and helps Thor pull Loki out of the van, and lift him piggyback, to carry him to the guest room Tony had allocated and had made ready.

Banner looks at Coulson, “I wonder how long that’ll last.”

“Rogers?”

Banner nods, “last time, it was going great, until Pepper found out they were flirting.”

“Really? I thought she and Tony broke it off amicably.”

“They did, and it wasn’t about that. She thought it was nice to see him so happy. She just mentioned that it might be hard, dealing with the publicity, and Steve panicked.”

 

Coulson walks down into the lab, the next day, and sighs, at what he finds. Clint, reading. Tony and Loki asleep at a desk, one side of a conversation scribbled on various scraps of paper. Apparently, Tony has the information he needs to build the portal. He just doesn’t think Loki is strong enough to send them anywhere without seriously harming himself.

Coulson walks over to Clint, and perches on the end of the couch, “how long have they been asleep?”

“About three hours.”

“Why didn’t you wake them up?”

“You mean you couldn’t hear them arguing from upstairs?”

“Not Tony, anyway.”

Clint shrugs, “they argued themselves to sleep. In about fifteen minutes. They obviously needed the rest.”

“We’re in a bit of a hurry.”

Clint just shrugs, again.

 

Coulson stands in front of Fury and Hill, recounting the previous weeks. Hill just looks concerned. Fury looks concerned, by the more detailed explanation of the broad strokes Coulson had reported as they happened, but he also gets this weird look on his face, when Coulson describes the interpersonal relations starting to develop--not just Tony and Rogers, but the team in general, and even Loki.

“Do you think Stark is stable enough to be allowed to continue working?” asks Hill, sighing.

“As has often been the case, we need him regardless.”

“Answer the question, Coulson,” orders Fury, curiously.

“He...is definitely very traumatized. But also very determined.”

“And? You can be as determined as you want, and still not be capable,” remarks Hill.

“With all due respect? This is Tony Stark. I don’t think there’s much he isn’t capable of.”

She shakes her head, “has he talked yet?”

“That isn’t the point. He’s traumatized; he’s not incapable, and he’s not unstable.”

“He can be as capable as you say, and still not be reliable, if he’s too messed up.”

“Of all the times you decide to question his reliability, it’s when he hasn’t had a drink in seven months, tried to bite through his own tongue to keep the universe safe, and when he wasn’t allowed to, resisted until he was released, and immediately started working despite the damage he suffered, which would have incapacitated any other man I know? I’m not going to say with all due respect, because it isn’t true, Assistant Director. Stark’s weakness has never been coming through in a time of crisis, it’s keeping himself together between them. And despite all that’s happened, he’s still together. He hasn’t had a drink, he hasn’t done one stupid thing. He’s worked, and sought comfort from his friends, and worked some more. He’s handled everything that’s happened in a mature, stable way, and I have every reason to believe he will continue to do so. And no reason to believe he will fail, Assistant Director, as much as you seem to think that he will.”

Hill opened her mouth, but Fury spoke before her, “do we need to have the Captain America chat again?”

“No, Director. This is an objective assessment. The Assistant Director is just wrong.”

With that, he turns, and leaves.

“He never used to be like that, before.”

“Before we made him live in a safe house in Nebraska for a year and hide that he was alive from his family and friends? You think he cared more about offending us before that? I would be shocked.”

Coulson glances back, as he opens the door, just in time to see Hill roll her eyes. Apparently he still has a job.

 

Walking into the workshop, Coulson has to duck under a four foot high ceiling of cables as big around as his arm, walking at a crouch, until they open up, and he straightens. Tony and Banner are working together at a console, where many of the wires seem to be attached, while Clint and Natasha peer at a diagram, directing Thor and Rogers in weaving the cables into an ever more complicated pattern. Loki is asleep again, this time, under the wire ceiling, on Tony’s couch. It looks like someone put him there, after he fell asleep somewhere else.

Coulson ducks again, and comes up by Tony and Banner, “is this going to be the portal?”

Tony nods, and types, ‘it’s not going to be perfect, but it would take decades to mirror a neural structure accurately. This is just a best approximation, which should be close enough to work. The only thing is, it’s not going to be efficient, and I don’t know if that power leakage will be too much for Loki to compensate for, even if he weren’t...’ Tony gestures at the god, completely insensate and exhausted.

 

Three days before they leave, Coulson is helping Tony hold part of his suit, while adjusting the range of motion on his right shoulder, since the normal range will cause the hydraulics to push his arm in ways that it just won’t move, at this point. Rogers pushes through the door, “Tony, Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes is on the phone, he called me to check if you were going to some benefit, you aren’t answering your calls.”

Tony gives him a look--exactly how is he supposed to answer a phone call--and nods.

Rogers covers the mic, “you are?”

Tony nods, again, and goes back to tightening the bolt.

“Do you think that’s a good idea?”

Tony huffs a sigh, and goes to the work table, pushing bolts and screws off a touch screen keyboard, typing, the computer generated voice awkward and mechanical, ‘it’s a charity ball. I show up, stand next to some pretty girl, smile, dance one dance, and then leave. It’s just to show I’m in fact not dead, since I haven’t been seen in public in a month and a half, so the company stock doesn’t take a plunge.’

“What pretty girl?”

‘I don’t know, Pepper said she invited someone. Though maybe I could convince Natasha to have Natalie make an appearance, instead.’

“Could I go?”

‘I mean, sure, though I don’t see why you’d want to.’

“Maybe I don’t want you to go stand next to a pretty girl.”

‘I literally won’t even speak to her. My guess is she’s probably a business friend of Rhody or Pepper’s, who also didn’t have anyone to show up with.’

“Maybe you do have someone to show up with.”

‘I doubt Natasha would actually go for that.’

“No, Tony. That’s not what I’m saying.”

‘Steve, you won’t stand next to me in front of Coulson.’

“I know I’ve been horrible. I’m sorry.”

‘Not horrible. But first the hospital, and now this...isn’t very normal for you. What’s up?’

“I read something Bruce left up on his computer, in the kitchen. It was about a kid, who got death threats, and beat up, and...he committed suicide. He was fourteen, and he’d been braver than I have been. He was bullied, and it killed him. I don’t like bullies, Tony. And I don’t like realizing I’ve been a coward.”

A voice comes, muffled, over the phone, and Rogers turns pink, putting it to his ear, “uh, he’s coming.”

Coulson makes a mental note to both buy dinner for, and never underestimate, Dr. Banner.

 

The portal is almost ready, when Rogers shows up to drag Tony from the darkened workshop--nobody turned the lights on when it got dark out, since Loki was still sleeping, and the arc reactor lit what Tony was working on perfectly well. The network of cables, each connection point a glowing light, is completed, the red lights and grey tubes looking like a ghostly, industrial spiderweb hung with beads of red water. Tony stands up, between two of the cables, grins, oil smudged across his forehead and cheek, and ducks back down, to come up again beside Rogers.

Rogers takes a washcloth, and, one hand cupping the back of Tony’s head, gently wipes the smeared grime away, both of them illuminated with faint red light, and brighter blue.

Coulson looks back down at his magazine. He’s driving and escorting them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a moment or two of private romance, on the eve of war.

Chapter Text

Coulson accompanies Tony to the shower, to change the bandages after, and because the one time the water came out cold, he bashed on the door, instead of sliding it open, breaking the glass and cutting his hands.

Listening to the shower run, he wonders at the fact he feels defensive, of Tony, against Rogers. Not that he thinks anything ill of Rogers, but he just doesn’t want Tony to get hurt, and it seems like the situation might lead to that. On the other hand, Tony blushed earlier, when they were together. Before tonight, he would have doubted Tony was physically capable of such a thing.

He hears a knocking sound, but it isn’t frantic, or anything but steady and persistent. Tony just wants him to come in, he’s guessing. He enters, and finds Tony okay, and writing in the steam on the glass door, the water turned off. The letters are, of course, backwards, because why would Tony put himself out just to make it easier for Coulson, ‘do you think this is a good idea?’

“No,” says Coulson, flatly, even though he meant to say yes, then finds himself having to explain, “I think he’s too scared to be sure he’ll follow through, and you care too much to not get hurt if he doesn’t.”

Tony crouches, in the shower, to use a different part of the door, though the writing from before is already fading, from the dark grey lettering to the light misty shroud, ‘so you think I shouldn’t go with him.’

“No, I think you absolutely should. That doesn’t mean it’s remotely a good idea.”

 

Tony exits the bathroom, a towel wrapped around his waist, and sits sideways on the bed, pulling the covers up to his belly button, closing his eyes in anticipation of pain. Coulson pulls up a chair, setting the supplies on the bedside table. It isn’t nearly as bad as it was, but the inflammation from the heavy layers rubbing on new, tender skin, is becoming more of an issue as the slowly closing sores become less. The skin is chapped, and bright red, rubbed raw on the shoulder blades, and right shoulder, to the point where it was broken in a few places, slowly leaking plasma onto the bandages, leaving brownish yellow stains on the white gauze.

Coulson sighs, putting his hand on Tony’s arm to steady him, possibly more mentally than physically, and picking up one of the swabs, starting to clean the sores and broken skin. Tony shivers, at the cold, wet touch. Coulson squeezes his arm, and keeps cleaning.

When the sores are dealt with, Coulson sets down the swabs, and Tony turns, laying down on his stomach, folding his right arm under his chest, because it won’t really go anywhere else, the scars, like stretched silly putty, have pulled the skin and muscle on his shoulder too tight.

Coulson squirts the baby oil onto his hands, and carefully rubs it in, his palms gliding over the pink, painful skin, carefully avoiding the still open wounds. Tony whimpers. Coulson almost stops, in surprise, but doesn’t, hoping that if he’s reacting to something torturing his mind, not something happening now, the continued touch will help, “what’s wrong?”

Tony turns over, the oil soaking into the sheets, but he doesn’t seem to care, as he pulls the covers up to his neck, staring at Coulson like he’s not really sure where he is.

Coulson climbs onto the bed, with the smaller man, and lifts the covers over his legs, so Tony can lay down in his lap without exiting the warm space.

“N-uh...”

“What?”

Tony closes his eyes, gripping a handful of Coulon’s pants, and pulling, hard.

“I’m sorry.” His voice is hoarse and croaky with disuse, but his words are clear.

“For what?”

“I don’t know what is...”

“It’s okay.”

Coulson pulls Tony’s upper body further into his lap, and texts Banner. He’s 90% sure that Tony got cold, and is having trouble remembering whether this, here, is his present, or back in Jotunheim, and the dark and pain, but Coulson doesn’t want to take any chances that something is happening medically. Banner comes in maybe three minutes later, and kneels beside the bed, hand on Tony’s hip through the covers, “Tony?”

Tony turns his head, and swallows, and nods.

“You okay?”

Tony nods again, and he just looks terrified, and confused, and Banner sits on the bed on the foot or so of mattress on the side of Tony opposite Coulson, though on the covers, instead of under them. There’s nothing really to do, but be warm and comforting, until Tony manages to sort it out. That doesn’t mean Coulson doesn’t feel a little sick, at just how scared Tony is.

He glances up, and realizes Loki is standing in the doorway. Coulson looks at Banner, who shakes his head, a little. Loki must just have been with him when he got the text.

 

Coulson stands, at the benefit, at the edge of the dance floor, discrete, but close enough to be at Tony and Steve’s sides at a moment’s notice. Rogers, in his 40's dress uniform, has one hand on Tony’s arm, the other on his hip. Tony’s grinning, and happy, and is smoothing the pocket on Rogers’ jacket, that was pressed a little wrong when the uniform went into storage seventy years before. Neither of them seem to give the slightest of damns, that everyone else in the room is staring, except Tony might be enjoying it, just a bit. Or possibly kind of a lot.

Coulson glances across the room, at the open bar, where Banner is parked. Coulson’s not sure why Banner’s there, but he thinks he might have seen Natasha, in a suit and heels, earlier, so maybe they came more as Natalie and Dr. Banner, to keep an eye on their friends.

It’s just then, when the photographer comes up, and approaches Tony and Rogers. Coulson wasn’t watching, exactly, to catch the beginning, but when he looks back from Banner, Rogers is ducking out the door, and Tony is standing next to the photographer, looking kind of at a loss, though not shocked, and not as hurt as he could have looked. Coulson goes to step towards them–Tony can’t make an excuse if he can’t speak to the reporter, but Natasha is already there. As Coulson reaches them, he hears her finish explaining that Tony is getting over laryngitis, but that if the reporter has any questions, he can direct them to her or Pepper.

Tony follows Coulson, Natasha, and Banner out, and winds up riding him with Banner and Natasha, while Coulson looks for Rogers. Eventually, he finds him sitting on the steps of the kitchen entrance, staring miserably out into the night. He looks up when he sees Coulson, and sighs, “I’m a coward.”

“Possibly.”

“How bad is it? How badly did I hurt him?”

“I think he might have been expecting it, a little, so less than it could have been.”

“Is he okay?”

“He’s sad. What did you expect?”

“No, but... does it seem like he’s going to do something stupid?”

“No, it seems like he’s going to go to bed. Which you should also do. They already left, so you’re riding with me.”

“I tried to...”

“You can’t change for another person, Rogers. As much as you might want to. It just doesn’t work unless it’s change you want yourself, as well.”

“I don’t want to be a coward.”

“It isn’t about being a coward or not. It’s about being comfortable with who you are. Which you clearly aren’t.”

 

Coulson watches, from his seat cross-legged Tony’s desk chair, as he puts his left arm in his pajama shirt, pulls it over his head, and then stretches the right armhole down to meet his hand, awkwardly pulling the shirt up his arm, tucking it into his armpit.

He looks at Coulson, presses his lips together briefly, closes his eyes, and lays down on the couch, facing the wall, pulling his blankets up over him. He had wanted to stay up the whole night and work, so they had compromised on him sleeping on the couch in the workshop, and getting up early.

 

Around maybe four AM, Coulson woke from where he’d fallen asleep on a cot behind Tony’s desk. He sits up. Loki has entered the workshop, in the baggy baseball print pajamas Thor had insisted on him borrowing. He walks quietly to the couch, and crouches down, carefully lifting the blankets, and folding them back to Tony’s hip. Then he gingerly pulls the nightshirt up, a little. After a moment, he puts it back down, and Coulson could almost dare to call it gently, covers Tony with the blankets again, smoothing them and tucking them.

He ducks under the spider web of cables, and comes up at the control station. Coulson can see Tony watching, having been woken by the god’s actions. Loki changes two things, then ducks back out and leaves the workshop, still unaware that he had been observed.

Tony sits up, sighing, and pulling his shirt back into a comfortable position. Coulson gets to his feet, and carries a pad of paper over to the smaller man, handing it to him, “did he sabotage it?”

‘No. He removed the limits I put on it, so that if it was pulling too much power for him to handle without harm, the portal would shut down, instead of just going on and opening and injuring him.’

 

Coulson stands against the bench, in the gym. Rogers had insisted at some point that they all get some exercise in the morning. Usually, it consisted of Rogers being enthusiastic, Clint and Natasha disappearing mysteriously well before the end, Bruce pointing out that he couldn’t do much without his heartrate rising dangerously, Thor breaking anything he tried to use, but staying cheerfully anyway, and Tony and Coulson occasionally actually participating.

Today, though, Clint has basically glued himself to Tony, which, Coulson saw Rogers’ hurt look, but it was quickly masked, Rogers realizing he had no room to be offended. Just a little hurt.

Natasha is also staying, but she’s watching Loki, and Bruce, standing in a corner. Steve just stands at the punching bags, beating the hell out of some sand. Thor enters with a box of pop tarts, and goes straight to Tony, offering them. Tony smiles slightly, and shakes his head, indicating Coulson. Coulson glares at Tony, and takes one pop tart.

Rogers punching bag dies, and he sighs, picking up another one, and hanging it on the hook. He punches it twice, and then it explodes. Not in a fiery, dangerous, scary way. It just bursts, and covers Rogers, the floor, and a good portion of the room nearby in eye-smartingly bright blue dust.

Rogers turns, and glares, very hurt, at Clint, “why?”

Clint raises his hands, “the literal god of mischief is standing right there, and you’re looking at me.”

Rogers goes to look at Loki, but stops, as an unfamiliar sound echos through the hard-walled room. Tony is bent double, laughing his ever living ass off. Coulson looks over at Loki...and sees that Loki is looking at Banner.

Chapter Text

“Yuh...you’re an id-d...id...”

That Tony has a stutter, at this point, is the last thing any of them could care about. No matter how hard he has to work at it, the words do eventually come, now. He sighs, bracing himself with his palms against the table, and tries again, “st-stupid.”

It’s possibly the sweetest sentence Coulson has ever heard. He nods, agreeably, “probably. Why are you bringing it up at this moment, specifically?”

“Sh-should..not...come.”

“Ah. Yes, I am stupid, in that regard. Also not changing my mind.”

Tony glares at him, so angrily, that Coulson is fairly reassured. Tony isn’t planning to have Natasha drug him out of commission, or whatever. He’d be calmer, if he was.

 

Loki is screaming, thrashing on the floor. Tony goes to manually shut off the machine, even as a small glow starts in the designated area, but Thor grabs him, “you did not say this would injure my brother!”

Tony fights him, hard, but he’s a god, and even in the suit, Tony isn’t a match for him with pure strength. “B-br...”

Bruce hurries past, and pulls the lever himself. Thor drops Tony on the floor, and goes to his brother, glaring at all of them. Tony gets onto his hands and knees, and sits up, “I ch...changed... it b-b-back.”

Thor turns to look at him, “why would you do that?”

“N-no. He ch-changed it. I p-put...”

He gets to his feet, and walks to Thor and Loki, retracting his facemask, and pulling off one of the gauntlets, putting his hand to Loki’s cheek, recoiling immediately, “this sh-sh... should n-not have hap-p-penned.”

“It’s trying to restart, Tony. Get him out of there.”

Tony hurriedly shoves Thor aside, lifts the insensate god over his shoulder, and blasts through the wall, just as the machine starts to hum, and glow. Coulson could see ice crystals raining down from under their path, and starting to spread into the cracks in Tony’s suit.

Tony lands in the garage, according to JARVIS, so they all hurry to meet him. When they get there, he’d put Loki down in the back seat of one of the convertibles, the softest place in the garage, and is awkwardly kneeling, the gauntlets gone, welding gloves in their place, cradling Loki’s head, keeping it from banging against the car door, as he jerks and twitches. Ice is spreading out again, covering the car. Tony goes back through the wall, and a few moments later, Coulson hears a muffled boom several floors above.

The twitching stops. The ice starts to recede. Tony returns, and removes his helmet. Ice falls onto the floor, breaking out of the joints and catches, and cracking off Tony’s spiked, frozen hair. The suit didn’t protect him from that, apparently.

“Is huh...he?”

“He’s alright. He’s coming to.”

Tony nods, in response to Natasha’s words, and leans against a Land Rover, “Th-Thor. He chang..geh...changed...”

Tony looks at Coulson, and he just seems exhausted.

“Loki changed some settings on the portal, turned the safety Tony had put on it, off. Tony changed it back, obviously, but we must have missed something else Loki did.”

“Why would my brother do such a thing?”

“Was he sabotaging it, Tony?” asks Steve, leaning on the convertible, and looking down at the slowly stirring god.

“No. Onluh...ly himseh...seh...self.”

Tony’s speech seems to be getting worse, as he gets more upset, and probably more importantly, cold. Steve definitely has noticed this, but he stands on the other side of the car, and only stares. Bruce nudges him, and he goes across, using his gloved hands to break the ice on the right shoulder of Tony’s suit, where there hasn’t been enough motion to crack it. Tony closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and gives Rogers a very small, wan smile.

“Tony. Why are you sad?”

Tony looks at Thor, and shakes his head.

 

“Why were you so upset? I know you were cold, but you seemed with it.”

‘He tried to kill himself. He knew once we had the neural pattern, inscribed by his power activating the portal, we could open it with just about any kind of energy. He manually shut down the auto-off function, but he also disabled it magically. I had to physically destroy the portal before it stopped drawing his energy.’

“Why would he do that?”

‘I don’t know. But I’m going to assume it’s pretty hard for a god to commit suicide.’

“It is not.”

Tony looks up, surprised, as Thor seats himself beside them on the couch, “we may simply will ourselves to not be.”

“Then why did he...?”

“Would it not have been a death considered heroic, if one did not know of the interference?”

 

“You knew something was wrong with him.”

Bruce looks up, from salvaging what he can of the decimated portal.

“That’s correct.”

“You didn’t tell anyone.”

“I didn’t want to worry Tony. Thor...would have been harmful. The others would have been unhelpful. If he truly wanted to die, no interference anyone could have tried would have prevented it, he explained that much.”

“What did you do to help him?”

“I tried to be a friend. Something he’s had precious little of. Something that can make all the difference.”

“And how did that work out.”

Bruce raises his eyebrows, setting down a circular metal sheet, “I gave him hope, Agent Coulson. I helped him see that things could get better. It’s just that that wasn’t the problem. He didn’t want them to. He didn’t think he deserved them to. He feels guilt, for many things. He acted out even worse in that guilt. He said his leger was dripping red. He took the first step ever to try to redeem some of that guilt, tried to save Tony, and he has watched Tony be so far from saved. Maybe that’s his right, to want to escape that pain.”

“That’s never the right answer, Dr. Banner.”

Bruce looks at him, and Coulson has read the reports. He never quite realized, that maybe Bruce never stopped wishing the Hulk would let him die. Or at least never quite thought he was wrong in trying.

 

Coulson wakes, from where he’d fallen asleep on the couch, to sound coming over the baby monitor.

“It t-takes courage. A l-lot of it.”

“What? Killing yourself?”

It must be Tony’s turn to watch over Loki.

“Ch-changing.”

“Well then call me a coward.”

“C-calling your b-brave. Fixing whh...what you b-broke? Harduh...dest thing ever. C-constantly facing the w-worst p-parts of yourself, without rep-p-preive? Takes so m-much courage to try. Sometimes t-takes help to suhc...succeed. ”

Tony’s getting upset, Coulson hears a rustle, maybe Loki sitting so Tony doesn’t have to speak as loudly with a very disused voice.

“Your boyfriend failed. He’s Captain Fucking America, and he had all of you with him.”

“He wuh...wanted to m-m-m-make me ha-hap...happy. He d-didn’t...w-want to ch-chuh...change. D-don’t b-b-base yuh-you on hih..him.”

“Okay. Calm down. I didn’t realize. But I’m still done trying.”

“Okay.”

“Okay? You’re not going to tell me to buck up and keep trying?”

“Do you w-want me to?”

The only response to that, is a long, silent wait. Then Coulson hears a breath, somewhere between a sigh and a sob, and a rustle, again.

“Buh...buck up and keep t-trying.”

“It didn’t help.” Loki sounds as upset as Tony did earlier.

“Your b-brother l-loves you. Mourned you. M-might not be the m-most tactful of b-beings, but will never g-give up on you. Even if you g-give up on yuh...yourself. Never.”

“That...” another shaky breath, “definitely didn’t hurt.”

“People you t-tried to k-kill want you tuh...to live. Want you t-to have the ch-chance to change.”

Loki doesn’t answer that one, and the line goes silent. After a little while, there’s a soft thump, and a rustle, and then silence, for at least as long as it takes Coulson to fall back asleep.

 

Coulson stares at the ceiling–metal panels, embossed with complex geometric designs. He’s never wanted anything in his life, as much as he wants to turn off the baby monitor, right now. He gets up, leaving the radio on his bedside table, the screams and cries, and worse than all of that, the silence, and small, terrified whimpers, following him out into the hall. He knocks on Banner’s door, and the doctor appears, sleepy and bed-headed.

Coulson probably looks less than calm. Banner glances at him for all of a half second, before ducking back inside, grabbing a shirt, and following him into the hall, “what happened?”

“We need to check on Tony.”

Banner nods, pulling the shirt over his head, and hurrying to the hall. Clint is already standing outside the door, and Coulson has to guess, expression wise, Clint is about as good as a mirror, right now; he looks like he’s going to be sick. Natasha comes around the corner a moment later, though it looks like she was returning, as she hands Clint a key.

Rogers had been the one to insist on physical key overrides, and it’s lucky he did. Clint opens the door. Tony isn’t screaming at this point, but he’s sobbing, and whimpering, tangled in his pile of blankets, face red and snotty and messy with tears.

Coulson seats himself on the edge of the bed, and shakes Tony, until he wakes. He’s confused, and upset, and just looks completely lost. Natasha kneels next to Coulson’s shins, gently pushing Tony’s sweaty, still un-trimmed hair back out of his face, so he can see them properly.

He blinks, a few times, and wipes his nose on his wrist, though there’s still snot everywhere, mixing with tears and blood. Coulson gently presses his thumb against Tony’s lip, until Tony opens his mouth. His tongue, this time. Again. Banner climbs into the bed, heaves Tony’s upper body into his lap, and wraps an arm around Tony’s torso. Tony hides his face in Bruce’s leg, his nightshirt dark with sweat, his shoulders still trembling.

Chapter Text

Coulson sighs, leaning his chin on the back of the chair he’s sitting on. If Bruce had, last night, led a stumbling, cried out Tony Stark to Rogers’ room, Coulson didn’t see. And if Rogers had spend the night humming soft, soothing songs over Tony’s tired, shaken self, Coulson didn’t hear. And if Rogers hasn’t let Tony out of his sight the entire morning, Coulson hasn’t mentioned it.

 

Tonys toes curl when he’s in pain. Coulson hasn’t seen a lot of that recently, but Tony keeps wincing and holding his shoulder, and he’s half asleep on the couch with Thor and Clint, his head on Clint’s lap, Thor sitting on the floor in front of the couch, and his toes are curling. Clint’s hand is rubbing in absent repetition on Tony’s arm, up and down, like at some point he was trying to comfort, and is now just continuing because he never saw any reason to stop.

Apparently the modifications on the suit weren’t enough to keep it from hurting.

 

Coulson stands in the center of the hastily rebuilt portal, this time with a single metallic disk on the floor, in place of the twisted wreckage that had been the cables. Loki was standing, barely, leaning very heavily on a desk. Tony had insisted that no-one touch him during the event, but Thor had carried him in piggy-back to the lab, and Banner had stood beside him, until this point.

The activation is much less eventful, this time around. The glow starts, grows, and opens, and while Loki is on his knees, it’s pretty clearly more that he could barely stay on his feet once he let go of the desk, than that the actual opening is taking too much of his power.

The first thing Coulson sees are sparks and stars, blinding head radiating from each small explosion, burning hot against his skin, small droplets of fire landing across his cheeks and nose and eyes. Rolling away, only white, hard ground greeted him, stretching on into infinity. On his other side a decrepit black tower rose as high as the plain stretched out. Around its base, where Coulson sat were corroded dark metal huts, many of the roofs caved in, the one nearest Coulson being sliced through like butter by a tall, angular thing, its strange, lanky limbs throwing sparks as they cut through the crumpled structure.

On the other side of the thing, in the dim, red light, he can just make out the dark shapes of the others, though only five are up. He stands, and walks to the group, cautiously avoiding the strange things–creatures, or machines, he isn’t sure.

Loki is trying to get up from his hands and knees, Thor helping. Tony is handing Banner the disk to store in his bag. Natasha is steadying a queasy looking Clint. Steve is standing, staring up at the tower, “Tony, I thought you said it was underground.”

“Their current location is,” explains Thor, “this was their city, before their civilization collapsed. They were left to crawl underground, and live in their own filth.”

“Why did it collapse?” asks Natasha, frowning.

“Their ambition exceeded their powers.”

“What d-does that mean?”

“They tried to merge their realm with another, break the walls between the realms. It is not something that is advisable to attempt. Their powers were greatly warped, and broken, by the energy flowing through the broken barriers. They were like those of Asgard, before. Now they are wretches, who cower, broken and disgusting and longing for the power of others, power they once possessed.”

Coulon thinks it’s probably a good thing that Loki is so out of it, for that speech. The god had collapsed, Thor had lifted him easily, carrying him gently in his arms like a small child. The plan, at this point, is strictly recognizance, and that will not be helped by Thor, Loki, Tony, or Bruce. Coulson isn’t leaving two of those four unsupervised, so he’s staying, while Natasha and Clint break in, and find out what’s going on below, and Steve follows behind in case there’s trouble.

Thor sits on the hard ground, shifting his brother, to cradle his upper body in his lap, gently smoothing his hair. Tony stands over them, faceplate still in place, but does ask, “has he sp...spoken to you?”

“About what he attempted? No, he has not. However, when I was watching over him, he did ask when he was nearly slumbering, whether I cared for him, after all he had done. It was a strange question. I do not know why he thought I would not.”

“Because he doesn’t understand why you would.”

“He is my brother. I love him.”

“You aren’t actually his brother,” remarks Bruce.

“I am in all ways that should bear any weight on our hearts.”

“Maybe he doesn’t understand that,” Bruce explains.

“I have told him.”

“Maybe teh...tell him again. When he w-wakes.”

“I shall.”

“Maybe you should tell him it isn’t okay to try to kill yourself.” Coulson is a bit surprised, at how angry the words are, coming out of his own mouth.

Bruce turns to look at him, “I couldn’t stop him, if he really wanted to die. All I could do was not judge him, give him a safe person to talk to. Something you clearly wouldn’t have done.”

“You could have told someone with training.”

“In talking a God down from willing himself into unbeing? Really, does SHEILD offer a course in that? Because sign me up if it does...”

“I’m just not sure someone with the view you have on the matter should have been the person to talk to him.”

“Because I understand where he’s coming from?”

“Stuh.”

They all look at Tony, who has retracted the faceplate, and is glaring at both of them, “stop. Bruce might n-not be th-the best p-person...but he d-d-did wuh-what....” Tony takes a breath, keeps going, “he thought w–was right. And I’m n-not sure he was wruh...wrong. The situation ch-changed because of w-what L-L-Loki d-did. Not b-because anyone else c-could change L-Loki’s mind.”

Coulson notices that Tony is staring to look kind of pale, which is probably a clue as to why his speech is getting worse even though he seems calmer, “is your shoulder okay?”

“It’s fine. You, though, need t-to st-stop.”

It occurs to Coulson, that this is the first time Tony has sided against him. After a moment’s consideration, he realizes that is probably because it’s the first time Coulson has taken a side, not been the impartial observer, been part of the argument. And, stranger, is that he did it without a second thought, and neither Bruce nor Tony seem to have even noticed the change, much less found it surprising.

“He is waking.”

They all stop, and look, at Thor gently setting his brother on the ground, kneeling beside him as he starts to stir.

Chapter Text

“But it isn’t you.”

“It is me.”

“It’s just a wild, out of control creature, the damaged caused is not your decisions.”

“It is my failing, just in a more spectacular way than making a bad decision.”

“It isn’t you, though.”

“It is. It was always inside me, it always came out, the gamma radiation only made it a bit more illustrated.”

Coulson tries not to sigh. Bruce and Loki have been talking for an hour, Tony has been not sleeping, and Thor has been snoring copiously.

Coulson sits up. Loki, still too exhausted to sit, is curled on the ground next to Bruce, his head on Bruce’s bag of extra clothes. Bruce is sitting, watching him. Tony is sitting, off to the side, shifting every few seconds. Thor is in the middle of all of them, sound asleep.

Coulson is about to speak, say something to the effect of the fact they’re all supposed to be resting, when Tony pulls the emergency catch on his suit, and it retracts off his body, into a suitcase shaped cube. He curls up, and Coulson definitely doesn’t miss the quiet moan.

“What happened?” Bruce asks, turning to look.

Tony doesn’t answer, hugs his arm to his chest, crawls three-limbed to Thor, and lays down, using the insensate god’s arm as a pillow and the rest of him as a space heater. Thor wakes enough to notice this, wraps his other arm around Tony’s waist, dragging him closer to his own chest, and goes back to sleep.

 

When Couson wakes again, he thinks it’s because he’s cold. He realizes after a moment, that that’s not the only reason. Footsteps. He rolls over. Bruce, an arm around Loki’s waist, is helping the pale god towards the beacon of warmth that is Thor’s back. Thor rolls over, and Bruce gently repositions Tony, so that it’s kind of just a big pile of Avengers. Seeing that Coulson is awake, Bruce leaves, comes over to him, and reaches down, “it’s too cold. Come on.”

And that’s how Coulson finds himself with an arm of indeterminate origin around his waist, his feet tangled with several other sets, Bruce’s head on his stomach, and Loki’s arm across his hips, the pale god’s face buried in Bruce’s shoulder, his own head on Tony’s side.

 

Morning comes too soon. Literally, it comes after only four hours of dark, but it’s good that it does, because it was dropping close to too cold for the Avengers pile to take.

Natasha, Clint, and Steve return soon after, with the information they need. The Ice Giants are attacking one apparently especially important realm, with all their force. Tony puts the suit back on, before they go, but when he pulls the metal ring to extend the right arm, Steve ends up having to pull it all the way out for him, before the sequence will properly initialize.

There’s no way Loki will make it through activating the portal on his feet, or even on his knees, this time. Over Tony’s objections, that they don’t know if there would be consequences to another person being in contact with him, Bruce holds him up through the whole thing.

Nothing seems wrong, when they sit up. At least, not with how the portal worked. The burning world before them, though, the smell of burning flesh and stone, is a different story.

Coulson helps lift Loki, and is surprised to feel cold, clammy, damp skin, wracked with tiny tremors invisible to the eye. Coulson isn’t sure if the greenish tinge to his skin is his power–no. No, that was nausea, Coulson concludes, as Loki throws up, then passes out.

 

The world before them was burning in the rain, the high, licking flames engulfing the city hardly touched by the heavy downpour drenching them as they stood atop the hill. dim, heavy grey light, filtered weakly through the thunderclouds made the red fire seem like some kind of twisted hearth.

 

There is a classification system, to kinds of biological weaponry. Microbial, chemical, and radiological. Within each, there are many different ways of sorting out what kinds of things do damage in what way, to what people, how much they spread, how long they remain harmful after being dispersed...Coulson had to read all about it, when he was initially assigned to debrief Tony Stark after Afghanistan, since Stark Industries, at the time, had been starting to investigate biological weaponry.

That, and he certainly remembers, when they were used, in other countries he’s been assigned to, and in the United States itself. He had only been a senior agent for two weeks, one of which had been by far the worst and most chaotic week he’d ever had, at least, until he started working directly on Fury’s special projects.

That was earth. That was SHEILD. That was protocol, and orders, and standing around guarding people in suits who knew what they were doing much more than he did.

This is an amphitheater, the seats filled, the actors on the stage, the strange technology pulsing with what he assumes is music and not just especially rhythmic static. This is a theater of the dead.

It isn’t surprising, that they haven’t seen a single living soul this week. The burned city, the main inhabited area on this planet, as far as they can tell, has gone silent. There are people, creatures here, but they haven’t seen one in a week. The battles, little skirmishes, hardly denting their opposing forces, have done nothing to rouse a fight. They know there are people still alive, here, still running and hiding and staying quiet in the dark. Tony’s sensors, the Hulk’s nose and ears, have picked them up.

They shouldn’t be surprised. The Ice Giants had attacked them where it hit the hardest. Drove them to defeat with fear, and silence, by hitting at their hearts. Not their minds, or government, but making them fear to step outside, to do anything joyful or right, lest they be killed in the next radiation wave, the next biological attack.

Coulson can only conclude that someone is working for the Ice Giants, creating all these things, all these sophisticated, and very human methods of attack. He remembers the words, shock and awe, and wonders, at how very well that’s worked here. Six attacks every day, for a month, a human, earth, month, and then silence, for a week.

Silence from the attacks, silence from the people.

Chapter Text

Coulson does not wake up dead. This is something of a surprise, since he was alone, standing against the horde, the cloud of gas approaching, with an incapacitated Loki as his only companion, and half a wall as their only defense. But now he’s sitting up, and Loki next to him, chest on to a broken crate, propping himself up enough to see out the crumbling wall. They’re in a completely different building, Loki is blue, and panting, and seems to be having trouble keeping his eyes from rolling back, as he looks out.

Coulson gets up, crouches beside the god, and looks where he’s staring. Black shapes on the scorched ground, ice slowly turning the dust to mud as it melts on still-warm bodies.

“I think they’re done.”

Loki lets his head drop, and slides off the crate, struggling onto his back, and staring up at the cracked ceiling, “that was difficult.”

“I told you to stay back.”

“I excel at misbehaving.”

“Were you trying to get yourself killed?”

“No. I was trying to keep you alive.”

“Why didn’t you just run?”

“You matter.”

“For whatever you’re planning?”

“To Bruce.”

 

Coulson kneels on the ground, helping Natasha lift their naked teammate. Bruce moaned, kicked, Natasha and Coulson set him back down.

Eyes opened, still green, “what happened?”

“The wind changed.”

He had been trying to get a sample of the gas. Tony could analyze it with his suit, maybe find a way to neutralize it. But they can’t get a sample. It affects all of them, Thor included. Bruce almost died, would have, if the Hulk weren’t the only one immune. That thought makes Coulson really, really angry, as he again lifts Bruce, this time onto his feet, and the irony of that reaction does not escape him.

 

“Why did they keep hurting Tony, if they already had what they wanted as soon as he thought i?”

Loki looks up, apparently surprised by the question, “sport.”

“There was another human prisoner. They killed her in front of him. Why would they do that?”

“They wouldn’t. They don’t kill their prisoners. They get too much pleasure out of hurting them. Killing would be a waste. They probably put on a show to scare him.”

“Then the woman?”

“Was probably in on it. Or just another prisoner, hard to say.”

 

They’re losing. They’ve lost.

Rogers fell, the day before. The Iron Man suit is so badly damaged it can barely fly, and there’s no way to fix it here. Natasha and Clint are still okay, though Clint’s out of arrows, and Natasha’s just plain tired by battle after battle. Bruce almost died again collecting samples. Even Thor is struggling.

All of that, though, they could fight on through.

But the people they’re fighting to save, have stopped.

It’s like they’ve already given up.

They laid down arms, and that’s what Coulson means, when he thinks that they’ve lost.

Tony is kneeling, Steve’s upper body in his lap, head against his belly, Tony’s arms across his chest, the packing on his wound barely holding. Rogers is starting to stir, just a little.

“Tony?” Steve coughs.

“Here.”

Tony reaches, taking Steve’s hand, pulling it up to his face, and pressing his nose to the backs of the fingers.

Steve swallows, voice weak and trembling, “hurts.”

“I know. I’m suh..sorry.”

Steve closes his eyes.

Tony pulls him up, a little more, and resettles, holding his friend tight.

Natasha and Clint are in the corner, huddled together in restless sleep. Bruce is resting, pale and drawn, still barely able to sit on his own, after getting hit by the gas, the Hulk the only thing that saved him. Loki is sitting beside him, watching, no longer bothering to hide his worry.

Steve whimpers, not quite awake anymore, but still not asleep, and still in pain.

Tony strokes his hair, and sings, quietly. It isn’t the first time, he’s hummed to himself, in the dark, or whispered a few bars of something, when Steve fretted in his sleep, nightmares depriving him of even that small reprieve. But it’s the first time that Coulson has listened.

“Hello darkness, my old friend...I’ve come to talk with you again.”

Coulson shifts, a little, and tries to continue not thinking about the fact that Loki is leaning on his shoulder, as he watches Bruce sleep.

“Because a vision softly creeping, left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains
Within the sound of silence”

Loki reaches across, just a little, gripping Coulson’s jacket, his other hand still holding Bruce’s shirt.

“In restless dreams I walked alone, narrow streets of cobblestone
Neath the halo of a streetlamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, split the night
And touched the sound of silence”

Bruce shakily turns over, holding on to both of them.

“And in the naked light I saw, ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared, and no one dared
To stir the sound of silence”

Thor ducks inside, abandoning his duty of staring out into the frozen night, to listen.

“Fool, said I, you do not know, silence, like a cancer, grows
Hear my words and I might teach you, take my arms then I might reach you
But my words, like silent raindrops fell, and echoed in the wells of silence.”

“And the people bowed and prayed to the–“

“We can’t give up.”

Coulson looks at Loki, the god having lifted his head from Coulson’s shoulder, “that the point. That’s the difference between you and them. You’re stupid, you never give up. They will. They have. Somebody has to give them hope, for them to fight. If they don’t have hope, why should they? For a lost cause...we don’t have to win. We just have to give them something to fight for.”

He’s breathing fast, upset. Bruce pulls himself up, enough to sit against the wall, Loki squeezing his hand, hard. .

Tony looks over at them, “like what?

“I don’t know. Something. A show. Something flashy.”

“Well that’s Tony’s area,” quips Clint, sitting up a little, off Natasha.

“What about the prisoner camps?” Steve is awake, apparently.

“The people there are safer if we don’t attack them,” sighs Natasha, “that’s why we haven’t gone after them before, remember?”

“Safer, yeah. Not safe. And they were fighting back, that’s why they were captured in the first place. If the people who are brave enough to speak up aren’t doing it, nobody else ever will.”

“So we’re just going to march in to one of the most heavily fortified places in this realm, and let everyone out. Just us. That sounds like a great idea,” sighs Bruce.

Tony shakes his head, “Steve, you’re an idiot. Just coming close to that area, it’s plain stupid. And what, you’re just going to walk in? My suit won’t fly, Thor isn’t exactly subtle..”

“Yes. Yes, we are. We’re going to walk.”

“Half of us can’t, including you.”

“If you can’t walk, you crawl. If you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you.”

“...your TV privileges are suspended, when we get back.”

But he leans down, and kisses Steve on the mouth, anyway.

Chapter Text

Lashes beaded with moisture, lids red, vibrant green eyes themselves shining far too bright. Lashes meshing, as they close, he shakes the man, again, again, but there is no response, the heavy head lolls to rest against his neck, bloodied lip smearing warmth that turns cold, onto his skin. His hand comes away dripping, his sleeve soaked.

Tony laughs, as they walk, his turn with Loki on his back, and apparently the trickster god said something funny. Thor and Bruce turn, and ask, Tony shakes his head and grins, and looks at Cap, on Thor’s back. Bruce and Coulson share an exasperated look, and Bruce falls back a little, to walk beside him.

Clint and Natasha are off ahead, and so far, crazily, this has worked.

 

The suit is crumpled red paper, the helmet gone. Dark hair matted black with blood, eyes wide with fear, unseeing because they can’t. Beside, Steve lies broken and bleeding, red and blue and so much red.

 

This is what a team is. A family. Not okay all the time, but not a moment of question whether it will be later. The knowledge that the importance of each others bonds is far greater than any fight or petty squabble. And somehow, in the middle of all of this, Coulson has landed, is walking, an arm around Loki’s back, steadying a tired god who can barely hold his head up.

Coulson wishes he would stop doing this, pushing and pushing until he falls, no matter how small the fight.

 

The red cape spreads over the ground, dripping, running in rivulets on the dry riverbed, the shape giving it form draining out, staining grey stone black. Loki, under his brother’s cloak, body still and empty and cold.

The others, fallen later, scattered like dry leaves, bodies sprawled undignified where they fell.

Coulson struggles onto his hands and knees, looking at the creatures looming tall; blue and grey and grotesque and terrible. Between them, in the heart of their circle, a small woman stands, her smile wide and white.

 

Loki falls to his knees, legs giving out beneath him, surprising Coulson, who does at least manage to keep him from falling flat on his face. He’s trembling, as Coulson crouches, pulling his arms around his own neck, to lift him piggy-back. Thor leans down, Steve practically choking him in his effort to not slide off onto his head, placing a hand on Loki’s back, “brother?”

Loki looks up, at the three of them, and the small, tired, weak smile makes Coulson blink. Then, slowly, nod. He doesn’t like the god. But...would rather he be at peace than suffer.

It’s right then, in sight of their goal, that the air starts to cool.

Coulson crawls to where the Hulk fell, pulls the battered, naked body against his own. Natasha, the only other one still moving, pulls herself towards him, as he starts to drag Bruce across the stones.

“What do you think you’re going to do?”

Coulson ignores the woman, focused fully on his task, now joined by Natasha, pulling Bruce to where Tony and Steve lay. Ice is creeping over the folds in Steve’s uniform, the cracks in Tony’s broken armor. Coulson breaks, it, shoving it away, the sharp little bits of the unmelting crystal cutting into his hands.

Staggering upright, he pulls Natasha up, and together they roll Loki over, so he’s face down on top of the cloak, instead of lying under, arranged like a corpse for a funeral. The cloak makes it easier for them to drag him, and it only takes maybe ten slow, stumbling minutes to get him to the others, twenty yards away.

Again he attacks the ice forming, sustaining tiny cuts from finger to elbow, the clear, cold stone breaking sharp like soft glass. They don’t move Clint. He fell, crumpled from his perch, and if anything’s broken, they don’t want to damage it more.

Wait until Bruce is awake.

Natasha goes to Clint, settles in beside him, her last small knife clenched tightly in her hand. Coulson sits, with Tony and Steve, and Bruce and Loki, his gun drawn, two bullets left in the magazine, using the butt of it to break the ice climbing over his twisted leg, “win. We’re going to win.”

She laughs, Coulson raises his gun, it’s far too far away, but it doesn’t matter, he shoots anyway.

She falls, blood spurting from between her eyes.

If it was a mistake, tactically, he doesn’t care, even as the Ice Giants start to attack.

Blades of ice seep up through the ground, Coulson drops his gun, and pushes the others out of the way, frantically, he can’t do it fast enough, and he’s too exhausted to move Tony at all, and Thor barely. One big one is starting to come up, he pulls the twisted shoulder panel off Tony’s suit, and tries to break it, but it won’t break, a mountain of ice is forming right beneath them.

A shot shatters through the heart of that mountain. He turns to look. A male, of the people here, standing just at the edge of the river. A small gun, of some kind, trained and ready.

More ice, sharper, comes up to replace what was gone, this time tinged and veined red, with the blood soaking into the ground.

The man breaks that as well, starting to walk down the curve of the bottom of the river bed.

More ice, less this time, entirely red.

Coulson pounds at it, until it crumbles to the ground.

Ice starts slithering towards them, flowing between the cracks in the rocks, no moisture left in the ground directly below them.

The man shoots again, misses, the shot pings off Tony’s suit. He groans, and mumbles, and wheezes, asking Coulson for help. Coulson pulls the emergency latch, on the side of the suit, releasing him from the twisted metal. He reaches out, Coulson grips his hand, pulls his bruised body from the titanium trap.

Shuddering with the effort of breathing with broken ribs and broken head, he leans on Coulson’s chest, stuttering a question.

“Everyone’s still alive. Barely. But alive.”

Tony nods, and slides down into Coulson’s lap. Coulson thinks he’s gone unconscious again, but instead, he grips Coulson’s hand, and starts to spell, writing out a plan. His fingers tremble, but his words are certain.

The man reaches them, as Coulson breaks the ice again. He, long, spindly grey fingers apparently stronger than they look, is the one to get Tony’s suit into position, and he and Coulson keep the ice from taking hold, while Tony works to get Steve and Bruce back to the waking world.

The ice giants are approaching. Coulson smiles, for the first time.

 

The Hulk loves Tony. Apparently a better judge of character than all the rest of them combined, it had a demonstrated history of saving Tony’s ass even when it didn’t need saving, for a long time, before they really got that Tony loved his masks, and wore them well, to the exclusion of ever seeming like not an jerk. This is to their advantage today, as many days before, because on emerging, the Hulk’s first action is to grab, then stop, and gently lift, him into its arms, instead of going on a blind rampage. Coulson and the alien man push the suit against its leg. It looks at them, the suit, and then at Tony, leans close to hear Tony’s at this point broken, painful words.

It’s lucky, really, that the suit is so badly damaged. They would never have gotten it into the Hulk’s hand, otherwise, its fingers wouldn’t have found a way to fire, if it hadn’t essentially fallen apart when they lifted it.

Nobody ever thought it would be a good idea to give the Hulk a gun. But out of any of them, it is the only one who can stand the radiation in the gas. The sharp, needle-tendrils of glasslike ice invading its veins that stopped it before, will go away very quickly, in the face of the output of the newly modified reactor, sending out intense heat, instead of a repulsion blast.

How long the wiring will hold is a pretty big question, especially since it’s running on auxiliary power.

How long the Hulk will go, especially now that its seen that Tony’s hurt, really isn’t.

Chapter Text

The Hulk is not generally considered a precision strike kind of creature. Except when Natasha got hit, and Tony got upset, it apparently decided that that was enough to consider her close to whatever it seemed to think of Tony, personally punching the Ice Giant attacking her out of existence, and picking her up, going on a bit of a rampage, Natasha held with complete gentleness in his arm.

So, in the end, the assault on the compound itself, aided by a small group of guerrilla refugees, is conducted pretty much exclusively by Natasha and the Hulk. Thor backed them up, but he was passing out every few minutes from the radiation exposure he had received earlier, which didn’t help much on storming a prisoner camp.

Couson sits, on the bloody riverbed. Tony is sitting, hand on Steve’s sleeve, but the soldier not paying much attention, trying to staunch the bleeding on his wounds. Clint has a broken leg, Bruce won’t be able to stand when he comes back, and it’s a damned good thing that Loki is resilient, god or alien, whichever he is, because Coulosn was really expecting him not to wake up again.

But, awake he is, lying flat, Bruce’s torn shirt tucked under his head, by someone, Coulson wonders a little who it was. It wasn’t Bruce, it wasn’t Tony.

Tony sits up, pushes on Steve’s shoulder, “are you okay?”

Steve answers without looking up, “I’ll live. When we get back, I’m officially taking a vacation, though.”

Steve hasn’t noticed, yet, then, how badly Tony is injured. He might be kind of...dense...but he wouldn’t be that flippant if he knew how close his friend had come to dying, and might still come, without proper medical attention.

Tony seems torn, for a moment, between saying something, and letting him be. He turns his head, and Coulson guesses which he’s chosen, goes over, “hey. Come with me?”

He’s just too tired to bother with an excuse, and Steve isn’t paying attention, and Clint is poking at Loki, and it really just doesn’t even matter in the first place. Tony holds on to him, his steps are markedly unsteady, and he buries his face in Coulson’s arm, when they stop, swaying where they stand.

“I need to look.”

Tony’s descent to the ground is not the least abrupt in the history of mankind. Sitting, he leans forward, letting Coulson crouch behind him, checking the wound. His scalp is split open, the bone beneath it visibly cracked, but not displaced. His hair is sticky and stiff with blood, and more has run down his neck, soaking his shirt, drying on his skin.

“It ih...itches.”

Coulson snorts, gingerly pulling clumps of hair from the wound, “can you see?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

“No.”

“How bad?”

“....I’ll get by. It’s probably just from swelling.”

“Like your head could get any better.”

Tony laughs, quietly, reaches back, searching for Coulson’s hand, as he straightens. Coulson takes it, and is a little surprised when his arm is used as a guide rail for Tony to thump against his chest, “I don’t want to tell him. I don’t want him t-to know I’m hurt, and I even luh...less want him to know I’m scared.”

“On the plus side, you’re not stuttering very much.”

“Mister fucking sunshine, right here.”

“What else should I have said?”

“Nothing. I’m whining, that d-doesn’t have almost any correlation to what I actually think. It’s like chicken suh...soup for the...emotionally retarded p-person.”

Coulson slides his arm around Tony’s waist, supporting his weight, as he closes his eyes, “rest, okay?”

“Yeah.”

And he does, pretty much the moment he finishes speaking.

Coulson looks up to see Steve Rogers standing over him, hand pressed to the big hole in his side. It occurs to Coulson, right there, that a year ago, this really would have been a strange, possibly rather shitless moment in his life. Right now, it’s hardly a blip on his radar of shitty moments.

“We’re really bad at this, aren’t we?”

Coulson nods, shifting Tony’s weight, to rest better against his shoulder, instead of so much on his arm, “yes. You are.”

Steve laughs, at the blunt answer, and sits down, checking Tony’s head himself. He pales visibly, at the sight, “what....fuck.”

And now Captain America is swearing.

 

“We can reconfigure the circuit. Use the power from the arc reactor, you don’t have to...”

“That will take too long. You pathetic mortals need medical attention.”

Coulson sits, a now lightly snoring Tony literally in his lap, having continually shifted, seeking the warmth of Coulson’s body, eventually settling in the current configuration, his butt in the diamond formed by Coulson’s crossed legs, his own legs off over Coulson’s left knee, his arms around Coulson’s shoulders, his face in the curve of Coulson’s neck and shoulder.

Steve is holding Bruce sitting, while he argues with Loki, held up by Clint. Both of them are getting agitated, neither of them can take getting upset, are too seriously injured, so Clint and Steve just stop holding them, leaving them to lay, wheezing and too weak to sit back up, on the muddy stones.

Clint scoots back, towards Natasha, but stops, abruptly as a glow starts, “stop, you aren’t–“

 

It’s snowing, outside the hospital room. It’s December. They were fighting for three months.

He leans forward, resting his chin on his folded arms, already resting on the plastic rail. Sighing, he pulls his arm out, and reaches over, his hand cut to pieces from trying to break the glassy ice, but Tony’s bruised and two fingers splinted.

He squeezes, then gets stiffly to his feet, shuffling out to get on a plane and give his report to Fury.

That return to regularity, to procedure, to chain of command and the job he actually gets paid for, is possibly the most bizarre thing he can imagine, right now.

Natasha and Clint are waiting for him, Clint on crutches, Natasha’s arm in a sling, using her free hand to steady Clint. Nobody addressees Steve, sitting, fully healed because of the serum, outside Tony’s room, having still not gone inside.

The air is cold, and crisp, and the slight wind stings against his cheeks. He pulls his coat tighter, and thinks about investing in a ridiculously thick parka. Or five Or maybe eight.

That, and one of those dogs with the hot whiskey barrels.

 

When he is told upon arrival that he has be evaluated for a week, and will then be reassigned, he walks straight out of SHIELD headquarters, and gets in the car with Clint and Natasha, already waiting for him, taking over driving with a glare, met with a smirk from Natasha, and whining from Clint, as he hobbles around to the passenger side, sans crutches.

Clint and Natasha go to drag Steve out of the hallway, either into or away from Tony’s room, whichever proves possible. They pick up Thor, who is just coming back from the vending machines to Loki and Bruce’s room, and drag him along on their noble mission. Coulson goes into the double room.

Bruce has a gash in his leg, and had some internal bleeding, but it stopped on its own, saving him from sugery. Loki still has not woken up, is lying still on the bed, an oxygen cannula around his face, IVs and wires connected.

Bruce looks up, when Coulson comes in, “oh, hey. I didn’t expect to see you back so soon.”

“They’re transferring us. Clint, Natasha, and I”

Bruce’s face falls, but he looks away, and then back, with a small, supportive smile, “where are you going to be assigned?”

“Nowhere. We left.”

Bruce doesn’t even try to hide the shock, “you quit?”

“Not exactly. We just...kind of walked out and drove back here without saying anything.”

Bruce gets a weird look on his face. Coulson doesn’t know what to make of it, until, slowly, it morphs into a grin, and then a laugh.

“I’m just picturing Fury’s face.”

Coulson smiles, and sits on the edge of Bruce’s bed. Bruce grins, but it falters momentarily as he looks past, at Loki.

“Why hasn’t he healed? He can, Thor said he could.”

 

Standing in the doorway to Tony’s room, Coulson knocks on the doorframe. Tony groans, quietly, lying on his side, and raises his head a little off the pillow, squinting at Coulson. After kind of longer than it should have taken, he mumbles, “Agent,” and puts his head back down.

Coulson snorts, and comes in, standing beside the bed, “do you actually not remember my name, or are you just being–“

“Phil.”

Tony sits up a little, looking kind of agitated, “it’s Phil. I didn’t forget your name.”

“Yeah...are you okay?”

“Yes. Sorry.”

“What was that about?” he’s worried that maybe the head injury is worse than he thought. He knows Tony’s a little out of it, overly emotional, and easily upset, but that was just weird.

Tony hesitates, but he looks more reluctant than confused, and finally does answer, “when we thought you were dead...it’s a long story. We made it pretty clear to Loki that he killed the wrong agent, but... well, I did. But it was the first time I actually called you by your name, and it was after you were dead, and I was telling the guy who killed you that he’d done something unforgivable, killed a friend, but I’d never called you by...”

Tony groans, taking in a breath. His monitor is beeping in complaint.

Coulson puts down the plastic rail, reaches over, and puts a hand on Tony’s chest, “calm down. it’s okay.”

Tony nods, and draws his knees up, folding his arms over his chest, pinning Coulson’s hand against the arc reactor. .

“I’m going to step out, because they’re going to yell at me for upsetting you if I don’t, but I’ll be back in like ten minutes, okay?”

Tony nods, letting go, and Coulson leaves, making a mental note to point out that Tony didn’t stutter once that whole rant.

 

“I don’t know if this helps, but I think you can do it. The guy you stabbed through the chest would like to see you succeed, and thinks you can. You’ve shown conviction. You can change. You deserve peace. So get your head out of your ass and wake the hell up.”

Chapter Text

Tony leans on him, as they slowly walk out of the hospital. The smaller man is bundled up in a thick wool coat, floofy scarf, and soft hat, covering his stitched scalp. Loki is slowly improving, still hasn’t woken. Bruce is limping, but okay. Clint has discovered the vaulting potential of his crutches. Natasha’s arm is still in a sling. Thor and Steve were fine in the first place, and have been hovering the whole time since. Though Steve not in Tony’s room. All of them except Loki are waiting in the van.

Tony halts, and Coulson stops beside him, “what’s up?”

Tony extends his hand, letting a few small snowflakes fall into his palm. They sit for a moment, then melt to tiny drops on his skin.

“I actually like snow.”

Coulson is silent for a moment, then shifts, tightening his arm linked with Tony’s, and putting his shoulder more snugly against the other man’s, “there’s supposed to be plenty overnight.”

Tony nods, and squeezes Coulson’s arm, ready to start walking again.

“Can you...”

“What?”

“Drive to 890 Fifth Avenue, not the Tower.”

“Your parents’ mansion?”

“The St-stark family home. I g-grew up there–it wasn’t a f-family, or a huh...home. I w-would like to change that. Besides, it’s got a fireplace. Sadly, putting a fireplace in an industry leading green b-building just didn’t seem like a great idea, publicity wise.”

Coulson laughs, a little, checking the street before they step off the sidewalk.

“It also has a hospital room. From wheh...when my Grandfather was dying. I had it updated.”

They are going back soon. They had to wait until Tony was well enough to leave the hospital to modify the portal generator to work with a more traditional power source, but once that’s done, they’re going back. One, maybe two more nights on Earth, and then back to war.

The ride to the mansion is quiet, though not silent. Clint and Natasha are talking at a low volume to not disturb Bruce, fast asleep, head in Thor’s lap. Steve sits, ramrod straight, Tony leaning tiredly against his shoulder.

“I can’t keep waiting. N-not forever. Not without something...some sign that there w-will be an end to the wait.”

“I love you.”

“I know. That isn’t the q-question. The question is if you are going to be able to b-be with m-me. And I don’t think you are.”

“I’m a coward.”

“You value how p-people see you more than your own happiness. You feel that you m-must stay that old fashioned hero that everyone ever can l-look up to. That doesn’t make you a c-coward. Maybe as America changes, some d-day, you will be able to be with a m-man and still be that uncontroversial hero. That day j-just isn’t today.”

 

Tony looks exhausted, as he and Coulson walk into the large living room. It doesn’t seem like a thing had been changed since the 1950's, including the grand fireplace. Tony, though, pulls him past, out into the dark wood paneled hall on the other side, and to a small door, almost indistinguishable from the hall itself. Enough so that Tony runs his hands along the cool wood to find it, instead of looking.

Coulson reaches, gently touching the side of Tony’s palm with the back of his hand. Tony maintains the contact, as Coulson moves his hand down to the doorknob. Tony turns the knob, and opens the door, walking inside.

This is a much smaller study, with furniture that Coulson is betting has been there since the home was built, at the turn of the last century. The walls are red, and mostly covered in bookcases, the books ranging from engineering periodicals to poetry.

Tony wobbles his way to sit, in front of the fireplace, and starts building a fire, taking kindling and waxed wood shavings from a tin, making a small pile in the center of the hearth. Coulson crouches beside him, helping lean larger firestarters and split wood above the kindling. Tony stops, looking down at a piece of split wood in his hands, picking at the little slivers. He leans sideways against Coulson’s shoulder, a soft indrawn breath audible next to Coulson’s ear.

Coulson lights a match, tosses it onto the kindling, and puts his arm around Tony’s shoulders. Tony turns, shuffles, scoots, until he’s kneeling with his back to the slowly growing fire, his face buried in Coulson’s neck, his hands holding on to Coulson’s shirt at the sides, his front pressed against Coulson’s chest, Coulson’s arms around his back, holding him snug and tight.

It’s physically awkward, and their knees are between them, but Coulson keeps holding him, until well after the small fire has died, and his legs are numb from sitting so still. And if his neck and shirt are a little bit really very wet under Tony’s head, he doesn’t say a word.

 

Standing at the bay window, Couslon looks out into the falling snow, the streetlights illuminating the flakes, falling stars in the dark. Two floors below, the grass is slowly turning white, and on the street, the hard lined sidewalk softened by the curves of shallow snow on top, the black fence between the two topped with little clumps of white.

Bruce joins him, with two hot mugs, “they settled Loki in alright.”

“Tony shouldn’t come. When we go back. He’ll be a liability.”

Bruce smiles, holding out the steaming cup, “right.”

Coulson sighs, taking the mug, “maybe Fury’s right. I should be reassigned.”

“I think several people would be very sad if that happened. Tony not least of which, for all that he’ll never admit it.”

“He’s not the only one bad at admitting things.”

“Drink your hot chocolate.”

Coulson does, and burns his tongue.

“Is there rum in this?”

Bruce nods.

Coulson takes another sip, burned tongue or not.

Bruce takes the small bottle of rum from his pocket, and hands it to Coulson, “I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”

 

Coulson is woken from the armchair he dozed off in, by a computerized voice through the speakers, “Agent Coulson, you are needed in medical.”

He sits up, just in time to see Bruce race past the door, followed by Clint vaulting after them. He struggles up, and follows after them. Tony comes out of his room, and Coulson grips his arm, as Natasha comes up behind, “do you know whuh...what happened?”

“No idea,” answers Natasha, knocking on Steve’s door, but getting no answer, “I guess something with Loki.”

She hurries ahead. Tony looks at him, “go on, I can get there.”

“I know.”

He offers his arm.

Tony leans on him, and is able to shuffle a little faster for the support.

 

“Fuck you. You don’t get to die.” Clint, of all people.

“We spend all our time fighting all these people who just keep dipping their ledger in more and more red. We need to see you bleach yours back to white. We need to see you succeed. So stop dying.” Natasha.

The last two of what were doubtless a long string of pleading speeches. Steve is there already, and it looks like he was actually there before, his shirt is hung on the back of the chair by the bedside. He looks almost panicked.

Coulson lets go of Tony, and pulls Steve to the side, “what did you do?”

“I told him I couldn’t change.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Because I was trying to tell him that he was different, that he actually wanted to try. That that was why he could succeed where I couldn’t. That he was braver than me, than any of us but Tony, to look at the worst parts of himself, face them, and try to change. To spend every day pushing himself and fighting to be better. That I looked up to him.”

For a strange three seconds, Coulson sees, a confused not-even-thirty year old. His worship had long ago faded, he understood that Captain America was also just plain old Steve Rogers, but it hadn’t occurred to him that Steve Rogers still had a lot of living to do before he was really done becoming himself.

Thor pushes into the room, just as the monitor flatlines.

The god takes one look at the room, and pulls Bruce off, where he’s trying to start CPR, “stop. He isn’t dying. His tissues are regenerating themselves, starting with his heart.”

They stand, silent, and watch, as the pale god lays still for ages, what is probably thirty seconds. Then a break in the constant whine of the monitor, a beep, and a convulsion through Loki’s body. Thor holds Bruce’s shoulders, looking slightly sick, as Loki jerks and convulses. Then it’s over. The beeping is steady, and Loki opens his eyes.

Chapter Text

If Tony was exhausted earlier in the evening, he’s dead on his feet, now. Leaning against the wall, watching, but probably not seeing all that much in the dark room, wouldn’t look so bad if he wasn’t so damned pale.

“Ready?”

Tony nods, straightening off the wall, the dim light catching the dark, almost-bruises around his eyes, “we’re leaving in the afternoon, but can you come with me in the morning?”

“Come with you where?”

“Meeting. I got a call from Rhodey, some things need taking care of.”

“Okay. Did you sleep, at all?”

“I disappeared for three months. There’s a lot to catch up on.”

He wobbles, and that’s enough for Coulson. He catches Tony’s elbow, and hip, and turns him back against the wall in one motion, before Tony really knows what’s happening, “stop.”

“What...”

“Either sleep tonight, or you’re not coming.”

“I can’t sleep. There’s too much to do.”

“You have a cracked skull. You need rest. You aren’t getting it. That isn’t okay.”

“I can’t reh...rest, there’s t-too muh...much...” something is off in his tone, he’s stutterning mor than usual, he’s breathing too fast. Coulson grips his wrist, gently checking his pulse. It’s racing, and he’s starting to tip forward. Coulson ducks down, so that he catches Tony over his shoulder, when he falls. Bruce and Thor, the only ones remaining in the room besides a sleeping Loki help him get Tony down the hall, onto a couch.

He’s not completely passed out, but he’s definitely out of it, unable to really keep his eyes open, clearly distressed, shifting around ineffectually. Coulson crouches beside him, gently rubbing his chest, until he starts to calm down, enough to raise his head a little, and realize Coulson is with him, where he is, what happened.

“You have a serious head injury. If you value what still passes for a brain, albeit a very strange one, you need to stop. You can’t just push through this, you’ll really hurt yourself.”

Tony doesn’t say anything, but he relaxes petulantly into the sofa, apparently giving in.

 

Tony does manage to walk to his bedroom, eventually, but it’s very slow progress, and he supports himself on the wall, in addition to his grip on Coulson’s arm. About halfway there, he stops, losing his balance, catching it, but not ready to take another step forward.

“There were more attacks here, on earth, while we were gone. More creatures. Xavier helped out, got all but one, found someone to send them back. But the last one, the military captured. They’ve held it, experimented. They’re playing with something they don’t understand. Rhodey found out, they asked him onto the project.”

“That’s what the meeting is?”

Tony nods, and starts walking again.

Reaching the room, Coulson sits down on the bed next to him, while he crawls under the covers, “I’ll leave when you’re asleep.”

Tony glares, “release my blanket.”

Coulson lifts his butt enough for Tony to pull the blanket out from under. He settles back down, and leans against the headboard, popping his shoes off onto the floor. Tony stretches an arm across his hips, and he raises an eyebrow, “I said once you’re asleep. I’ll wake you up when I leave if you do that.”

“Then you can’t leave, can you?”

“I’m not...staying here all night.”

“Why not?”

“Because I don’t know what it would mean.”

Tony shrugs, settling in, putting his head on Coulson’s chest, “it means I like actually sleeping through the night. And I appreciate your existence.”

“Well, as long as you appreciate my existence, how could I say no...”

Tony laughs, into his chest, and settles in a little bit tighter against him.

 

Coulson wakes to the alarm Tony set, which apparently has no effect on Tony’s own slumbering. Tony apparently decided that the space next to Coulson wasn’t good enough, and therefore the only space he would occupy at all is the space directly on top of him. At the same time, Coulson can’t be annoyed, because he doesn’t think he’s ever seen Tony look that damned peaceful. He’s completely out of it, but he’s got just a little tiny smile on his face, as he shifts to press himself somehow even more against Coulson’s body.

Coulson reaches up, and gently starts to shift him off, turning himself as he does, to escape. His arm is still pinned under Tony’s side, and as he tries to pull it out without disturbing the smaller man, Tony opens his eyes, and smiles, and he just lights up, like three inches from Coulson’s face.

“Mmmmoo-orning...”

Coulson takes the eye-closing yawn as an opportunity to pull his arm away, and sit up, “morning.”

 

He stands, on the dais, Tony’s hand on his wrist, as the variously decorated and dressed up military and government higher-ups take their seats at the raised semi-circle desk, set up to be as imposing as possible. CIA, DEA, ATF, FDA...this is more than he expected, and kind of more random. And then, following NSA and USDA, which he doesn’t quite understand why they’re here, is SHIELD.

Well, then.

“So, c-coming from someone who has an awful lot experience dealing with villains and crackpots, your plan sounds kind of... familiar. Coulson, you’ve read our files, wasn’t there some t-turnip farmer injecting his produce with cocaine to get people addicted to it, a while back?”

“Beet farmer. Local dentist called it in when everyone started showing up with pink teeth.”

“So what part of taking addictive enzymes harvested from an alien and injecting them into people’s food sounds l-like something the good guys do?”

“It really is for people’s own good. We aren’t doing anything that fast food and junk food manufacturers aren’t already doing.”

“I’m fairly certain salt, sugar and fat don’t come from aliens.”

“But they’re more neuro-psychologically addictive than the compound we’re using. People aren’t able to make the right choices on their own, that’s clear, and the health care costs of an increasingly obese population are going to bankrupt the country, make it impossible to invest the proper resources into our military and defense. We’ll be a nation of fat, half dead, sitting ducks.”

“Ignoring the massive headache that arguing your frankly moronic l-logic will be, what kind of studies have you done on the long term effects of that compound? None, you’ve had it for a m-month, and you’re already giving it to the general population.”

“The obesity epidemic is a national emergency. We don’t have time to waste.”

“Oh, yes you do. You have more than a month. This is really going above and b-beyond the normal level of stupid, even for the US Government.”

“You know I have to mean it, when I say I agree with Stark. Seriously, what the fuck?” Fury, glaring in particular at the FDA and USDA representatives.

“All our background can be found in this document. Feel free to read through it, but we are not going to halt either production or dissemination. Have a nice day.”

The other representatives leave, NSA, CIA, DOD and a few of the others looking a bit disturbed and worried, most of them stoic, FDA and USDA just looking entirely smug. Fury stays behind walking down from the raised desk, to joint them on the dais, “this would be the part where you get your involuntary resignation, but I think I could use you on this.”

“In that case, I’m resigning voluntarily. We’re in the middle of a war, and this is just a mess.”

“Resignation not accepted. This is worse than you think. Come with me.”

Fury probably doesn’t miss that Tony’s hand slides up to grip just above Coulson’s elbow, the less than inch thick report held unopened at his side, but says nothing. Once they get out into the brighter light, Tony lets go, and starts flipping through the report as they walk.

“There are already massive shortages, they can’t keep up with demand, for either the enzyme or the vegetables they selected to use with it. Unfortunately, junkies who can’t get their fix can get a bit...unpleasant. Especially when they have no knowledge that they’re even addicted. And Mr. USDA under represented the addictive quality, just a bit.”

The list of violent incidents that Fury pulls up on a tablet would be less impressive if it wasn’t being added to faster than they could read it.

“Do you know who this woman is, the one who headed up the research?”

“Rachel Herxheimer? No idea.”

Tony hands Coulson the report, typing the woman’s name into his phone’s lookup protocol. Approximately three seconds later, he stumbles, stops, and grabs on to Coulson so hard he’s going to have bruises, later.

“What?”

Tony hands him the phone, not letting go.

Coulson grips the back of Tony’s shirt, steadying him, and hands the phone to Fury, “she was in Jotunheim when he was captured, and she was leading the Ice Giants. I shot her between the eyes a week ago. Tony saw her tortured to death months before that.”

Chapter Text

“Even if they are being manipulated by this Rachel woman, I can’t believe the U.S. government would interfere in people’s lives like that. That’s completely against everything they’re supposed to stand for...”

Coulson does not have the energy to point out some choice moments in history to Steve, so he instead goes to start the coffee maker. Clint, Natasha, Thor, and, grudgingly, Steve, are going through to keep fighting the war. Loki and Tony, still too physically shaky to go head to head with the frost giants, are staying behind with Coulson and Bruce.

“What they’re supposed to stand for and what they actually do, are two different things,” says Natasha, with a shrug.

Steve frowns at her. Bruce shakes his head, and interrupts, “regardless, it needs to be stopped. You said SHEILD was going to work on an antidote?”

“Yes. B-but I don’t know how successful they’ll be.”

“So do people know, yet, what’s happened?” asks Clint, as he loads his quiver.

“There are rumors, but they’re being dismissed as crackpot conspiracy theories so far. They’re gaining steam. None of them are really accurate, though.”

“So you have to let them know what’s going on.” Loki, sitting next to Bruce on the sofa.

“Will that not merely cause more panic, people turning against their government?”

“It would be complete chaos. That’s what that woman is counting on, that we can’t tell people what’s happening without causing more harm than good.”

None of them look happy. Steve looks frankly disturbed.

 

After the dead rose, Tony had started working on crowd suppression, but hadn’t had a chance to give it all the thought it really required. Now they were putting that time in on a rather more compressed basis.

It’s difficult to disperse a sedative, because it would reach people of all different body masses, and affect each one of them differently, that they discarded on the spot. Sonic blasts were a better bet, but could cause serious injury if not calibrated with absolute precision for the distance from target. Something that the suit could do, but nobody else could really have a way to fire.

Coulson sits on a chair, resting his chin on the back, and spinning absently back and forth in quarter arcs, “what about that thing Obadiah used?”

Tony turns to look at him, “we’re not using that.”

“Why?”

“It’s scary as fuck.”

“And sonic blasts or sedative gases aren’t?”

“It was also ruled to be against people’s rights, by the U. S. Military. Which is one hell of a big clue that it isn’t a good thing to use.”

“What else have we got, Tony?” Bruce, looking up from his own project, across the lab, “if we don’t come up with something

Tony frowns, “you’ve never had it done to you, so you wouldn’t understand. It’s... someone in one m-moment t-taking away your v-voice, your ability to d-do anything. You can’t keep yourself s-safe, you can’t...anyone co-culd do anything t-to you, and you couldn’t even say n-no. And in a riot situation, you could get trampled.”

“Not if everyone else is affected too.”

“It’s temporarily take away everyone’s ability to fight or let people keep getting killed. Which is rather permanent.” Loki, sitting on the couch, fiddling with something Bruce handed him.

“Use it on us. Test it on us. If we agree, we won’t use it,” he regrets it the moment he suggests it, but maybe that’s the point.

“No way–“

“Phil’s right,” adds Bruce, “thought I wouldn’t recommend I be the test subject. As much as the other guy likes you...”

Tony looks miserable, but does go to the elevator down to prototype storage. Coulson follows him, slipping in just before the elevator doors close. Tony leans against the wall, absently tracing his fingers over the diamond-pattern etching on the handrail, doubling as decoration and a better surface for gripping.

“Steve would never be okay with this. And that makes me very hesitant to be okay with it, even if you are, after testing it.”

“That’s perfectly fair.”

Tony nods, sighing, and glancing up at the floor numbers. He shakes his head, and looks at Coulson, “damn you.”

“Why?”

“You...” he waves his hands in Coulson’s direction, like that explains something, “why don’t you suck? You suck for not sucking.”

“...sorry?” offers Coulson, shrugging.

 

Coulson crouches beside Tony, as he digs through a box of prototypes, without much success, “are you okay? You seem distracted.”

Tony is silent, for a moment, then gets to his feet, walking along the shelves, one hand trailing along the metal zig-zag reinforcement to the shelf at his chest height. Coulson sets down the box, and follows him, is just reaching to grip his arm, when he stops.

“I think it might be in this one.”

Coulson looks, “T7O8539J?”

“Doesn’t sound wrong.”

Coulson lifts it down, and they kneel, opening it.

“There, theh...that’s it.”

Tony lifts out case, and holds on to Coulson’s shoulder, as they get to their feet. Coulson looks at him, steps in close, and offers his arm.

Tony shakes his head, “I’m fine.”

“I know.”

Tony hesitates, then wraps his hand around Coulson’s upper arm, walking with him back to the elevator, and leaning into his shoulder a bit, as they ride.

 

It’s Tony who activates the device, Coulson already lying down on the couch, head in Tony’s lap. Bruce and Loki stand to the side–or, really, Bruce stands, and Loki leans on him, wearing what is pretty clearly Bruce’s shirt, unless someone else has invested in purple button-downs. Granted, Coulson could see Clint doing that, but probably not then lending them to Loki.

Tony looks just plain upset, putting in the ear plugs, and readying the device next to Coulson’s ear. He presses the button, and Coulson’s whole body freezes. He feels like he can’t breathe, and blood is running from his nose, and ears, and he can barely swallow, he can’t speak, his jaw is spasmed shut so hard his teeth creak.

It’s terrifying. But it doesn’t hurt, and if he’s calm, it’s okay. That he’s on a couch, with Tony gently wiping the blood off his upper lip and out of his hair, definitely helps that. But it’s not...the end of the world. It is, though, pretty scary. But he can imagine the other options being much worse.

He’ll have to wait to tell Tony that, though.

As he lays there, though, it starts to get worse. He starts to panic. It’s taking too long to wear off. Tony is stuttering badly, as he talks over Coulson’s unmoving body to Loki and Bruce. An alarm goes off, Tony looks down, tries to calm him, with stuttered words and a hand rubbing his chest, but it doesn’t help, he can’t breathe.

Tony leans down over him, face inches from his, and now he looks scared too, and that just makes everything ten times worse, and he’s trying to tell Coulson it’s okay, but he can barely speak, he’s so upset.

Bruce steps in, taking his wrist, and counting against his watch, “he’s alright, he’s just panicking. It’ll be over in half an hour, maybe forty-five minutes.”

That doesn’t help. He’s crying. He’s dying.

 

“Nnnguh.”

Tony smiles, gently rubs a thumb over his collarbone, “hi.”

Coulson struggles onto his side, burying his face in Tony’s belly.

“We, uh...sedated you. I’m sorry if that wasn’t what you wanted... you just...didn’t seem okay.”

“No. I couldn’t have...it was too much. Thank you.” his voice might be muffled and kind of not understandable, in Tony’s shirt, but he’s not moving.

 

Tony stands with him in the bathroom, helping him get the last of the blood out of his hair. He’s still shaken, leaning against the counter, and mostly letting Tony fuss while he focuses on remaining upright. Which, if he thinks about it, Tony Stark is fussing over him, and he really can’t fathom how normal that bizarre sentence seems.

Tony pulls his shirt collar out of the way, wiping at the blood on his skin, the washcloth hot and rough against his neck and jaw, but so very welcome. Tony steps back, surveying him up and down, “you look like shit.”

Coulson shrugs, “feel like shit.”

Tony steps back in, close, and he’s like three inches shorter than Coulson, but that doesn’t really help, because when he puts his hands on Coulson’s chest to brace himself while he stands on his tiptoes, looking to see that he got all the blood from inside Coulson’s ears, it puts his body so close against Coulson’s that it’s impossible to stand.

Tony isn’t a blushing virgin. Coulson can’t imagine the Tony doesn’t know what that’s doing. The question is why. It’s a question he’s really not prepared to ask.

“Take off your shirt.”

“What?” he comes out of it, looking at the slightly smaller man.

“You’re sweaty, bloody, and your shirt is stained. We’ve got a meeting with Fury in twenty minutes. Take off your shirt.”

Coulson does, slowly, hesitantly. Tony sighs, “I’m sorry. That wasn’t...nice, of me. Earlier. But seriously, take it off.”

Tony unbuttons it, and untucks it, now working efficiently and without comment.

Coulson stands, watching the top of Tony’s head, lowered, as he tries to wash the blood from Coulson’s shirt.

“Forget it, I’ll get it out later.”

Tony obediently drops the shirt in the sink, wets his washcloth again, and goes for the rest of Coulson’s back, cleaning away the blood he couldn’t get at before. He puts a hand on Coulson’s stomach, to brace him, as he scrubs, palm warm and firm against Coulson’s skin. He isn’t doing it on purpose now, he’s just helping Coulson get presentable, but that knowledge doesn’t help the reaction.

Tony rinses the washcloth, and this time runs cold water over it, as he wipes away the heavy layer of acrid-smelling sweat. The point at which the washcloth brushes over his left nipple, rough and cold and wet, is the point at which he loses it.

“Nguuh.”

Tony stops, and looks up at his face, and then down at his cock, and gets a funny expression on his face. It’s one part amusement, one part embarrassment, and one part just plain smug.

Coulson has the double urge to kiss him and punch him, and instead he walks away to get in the shower. If, while he’s in there, he imagines Tony joining him, that will just stay between him and his self.

Chapter Text

Coulson sighs, trying to help a woman struggle to her feet, from where she’d been knocked down in the snowy road. Tony comes out of the storm, landing beside him, lifting her up, “Bruce changed back, I’m going to find him clothes before Loki gets too tired to make him look not naked...”

Coulson nods, Tony takes the woman to the paramedics, then takes off. He surveys the wreckage, finding a wall to lean against. His arm itches, he looks down, still shaky with adrenaline. There’s a big gash down his forearm, he has no idea when he got it. He sighs, and looks around.

Seeing Fury, he carefully picks his way down the closed road, to where he’s standing “lucky for the storm. Broke up the fighting...”

Fury scowls, “we shouldn’t be depending on luck. They haven’t been able to increase production, why are there more riots?”

Coulson shakes his head, “I don’t know.”

“Do you still work for me?”

“...not really, I guess.”

“Good.”

“Why is that good?”

“Because if you do something stupid, I won’t know anything about it.”

“Is there something in particular I shouldn’t be doing?”

“Not yet. But I’ll tell you if I find out something that you shouldn’t investigate.”

Coulson walks away, searching for Loki. He finds him, sitting on the ground, slumped and pale, against an ambulance’s wheel-well. He’s trying to keep the snow-laden wind at bay, but it’s not going well, it keeps breaking through his control, and each time that happens, he slumps a little more, feet scuffing at the ground as little spasms hit him.

Coulson sighs, crouching in front of him.

He looks up, suffering but defiant, “Not stopping.”

“Okay.”

Coulson sits down next to him, and looks out over the broken storefronts that had been a peaceful suburban street hours before.

“I can see why you’d be disgusted with humanity, sometimes.”

A strangled half laugh, and what Coulson assumes was the beginning of a sentence, but it’s choked off, as Loki’s body jerks, the wind whipping past, the EMS people struggling to shield their patients.

He regains control, but he’s lying flat, now, head under the ambulance, next to the wheel. Coulson slips a hand under his head, and grips his shirt, dragging him out from under.

His chest is heaving, his eyes half rolled up. The wind begins to pick up, as he passes out. Coulson looks up, as Bruce slips around the corner, naked other than a blanket borrowed from EMS, and huddles between them. Coulson gives him his jacket, which he gratefully takes and goes to put on, before noticing the one sleeve soaked with blood, and looking at Coulson.

 

Coulson sits in the mansion’s hospital room, on one of the three beds available, the fourth taken up by Loki, who was in considerable pain, having apparently over exerted himself more than usual. Bruce stands to his right, suture kit and swabs laid out behind Coulson’s rear.

The door opens, and Tony comes in, going straight to Bruce, leaning over his shoulder. Coulson can’t help but notice that Tony’s own arm is hugged tight against his side, immobilized by his other hand’s grip.

Bruce finishes stitching, and wipes the area, bandages it, then takes a bag of antibiotics, hanging it on the hook on the wall, “lie down. You’re not allergic to any medications, are you?”

Coulson shakes his head, and lies back on the rest of the bed. Bruce puts the needle in his left arm, and pats his hip, “I’ll be over there.”

Coulson nods, and Bruce goes over, to sit beside the suffering god, turning the lights down as he passes the dimmer, so they can all get a little rest, if possible.

Tony takes his place, biting down on his lower lip.

Coulson sighs, “let Bruce look at that.”

Tony shakes his head, standing a step away from the bed, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Yesterday.”

“It... what were you doing?”

“Being impulsive...?”

“Yes, but what did you think was going to happen?”

“Um, probably what did happen, but with more yelling.”

“Then why did you do it?”

“It still seemed preferable to never doing anything.”

Tony falls silent, but his jaw keeps working, chewing. Coulson sits up at the head of the bed, on top of the pillow, reaching out with his uninjured arm, leaning out past the edge of the mattress, to press his thumb against Tony’s bottom lip, the IV line just long enough to let him do so. Tony lets it slip from between his teeth, blood beading up in two places, where his canines pierced the skin, over the white lines of scarring.

“Stop.”

Across the room, Loki moans, and Bruce hurriedly stands, knocking his chair back. Tony turns to look, and Coulson leans against the wall to look past him. Bruce leans over, bracing himself with a hand on the metal rail on the opposite side of the bed, as he lays his hand along Loki’s jaw, thumb rubbing over his high cheekbone, more pronounced than usual in his gaunt face, trying to comfort against the overwhelming pain.

Coulson looks at Tony again, but he’s already walking away, out of the room. Coulson is sorely tempted to pull out his IV and follow him, but isn’t sure that Bruce won’t need help. Tony comes back, though, not too much later, carrying three steaming mugs. Coulson smells coffee–oh god, coffee–but also something else.

Tony sets two of the mugs down beside Loki’s bed, then comes back to Coulson’s side, handing him the third. It’s not coffee. It’s milk. Warm milk.

He takes a sip, watching Tony stare across the room, at the now quietly moaning god, as Bruce gently lifts him, putting one of their two mugs, also presumably not the one containing coffee, to his lips, a little dribble of the white liquid spilling from the corner of his mouth.

Bruce gently wipes the moisture from the grey, already sweat-beaded skin, as Loki stares up at him.

Coulson looks back up at Tony, “I’m not interested in someone who’s waiting for someone better.”

“There isn’t anyone better.”

“Steve, Tony.”

“I said, there isn’t anyone better.”

With that, he takes his leave, leaving Coulson sitting on the bed, watching him go, and unable to follow, managing to somehow make telling Coulson he’s better than Steve Rogers still be annoying.

 

He finds Tony bent over a toolbench, his shirt torn and blackened with grease or oil, his hair sweaty and sticking up in strange angles from him running his hand through it in thought or frustration.

What Coulson recognizes as basically the same design as Steve’s suit, but dark blue and black, is laid out on the table. Tony is meticulously replacing the SHEILD issue thick kevlar pads with thin plates of a dull blue material Coulson doesn’t recognize, and resewing each pocket he opened, tucking the extra kevlar fabric in when he sews, so the plates don’t slide around.

“What is that?”

Tony starts, and turns around, “oh.”

Coulson moves to stand beside him, “what are you doing?”

“Upgrading this.”

“What is it? Steve’s a ninja now?”

“It isn’t for Steve.”

“Oh. Wouldn’t Clint prefer purple to blue?”

“It isn’t for Clint.”

Coulson picks up one of the larger plates, and raps his knuckles across it. He feels no transfer of force into his hand, and blinks, “this is...”

Tony takes the plate from him, and slips it into the suit, “vibranium.”

“How did you make these plates? The formula for synthesized vibranium was lost in the 40's. Your father used all of what had been made in Steve’s shield.”

Tony taps his arc reactor, “rediscovered it last year.”

Coulson nods, slowly, “I don’t see a particle accelerator this time.”

“I made the plates at the tower, before we with left for the other realm. It got pushed aside working on the riot stuff, but I’m not letting it go any longer. Not after that.”

He nods to Coulson’s arm, and goes back to work.

“Why did you base it on Steve’s? Why not Clint’s, or the SHIELD armor you designed?”

“Had one lying around.”

“No you didn’t.”

Tony looks up.

“You didn’t. Or even if you did, that wasn’t why. You know that makes it mean something, to me, and to anyone who looks at it. So why?”

Tony puts down the plate he had just picked up, making no noise as he sets it on the metal table, shrugging,, “you idolize him, or at least, you idolize Captain America, the hero. I figured if I was going to make you a suit, it might as well be something to do with his uniform.”

“And what are other people going to think when they look at it?” he leans on the table to Tony’s right, and Tony looks up at him, his head only at chest height, Coulson lifting one of the plates, and hefting it in his hand.

“They’re going to think, looking at you, what anyone who knows you already knows.”

“That I’m an terrible yet over-competitive tennis player?”

“That, and, you are what being an American hero should mean.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Tony swivels in his chair, his knees brushing against Coulson’s thighs as he turns, “you weren’t born, you weren’t made by somebody else, you aren’t some science experiment. You made yourself. You just decided, I’m going to save the world. That’s the point of America. You’re supposed to be able to be what you want. And you took that, and went, fuck this astronaut and fireman shit, I’m going to go get shot at by aliens and stabbed by gods, because that will help people the most. Because you’re an idiot. That’s what people will see. That you’re a heroic, American, imbecile...”

Coulson sets down the plate, moves, slides a hand under the tear in Tony’s shirt, across scarred skin damp with sweat running down from his neck, leaning over to pull Tony’s hands free of the kevlar fabric. Tony complies, grinning, and Coulson takes that opportunity to move his hand the rest of the way to the right, checking Tony’s shoulder.

Tony glares, and sighs, and leans his head against Coulson’s ribs, as Coulson’s fingers search out the angry, inflamed joint, the contractures in muscle and skin too severe for Tony to really move it, causing the joint itself start to degrade, and swell when forced into too much movement by the suit’s hydraulics.

“Tease.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Tony looks up at him, and smiles, and Coulson draws a thumb across his lips, rough skin pulling on soft, damp red.

Chapter Text

“Stop it.”

Loki opens his eyes, dull and colorless, sunken in grey flesh, “what...?”

“Stop hurting yourself. Please.”

“I’m trying to... make up...”

Loki groans, lifting a shaky hand to his head, “so much...excuse me.”

Coulson lifts him over the edge of the bed, holding him up with an arm around his chest, and holding his sweat-soaked hair back out of the way, as he retches over the floor. His whole body is trembling and cold, in Coulson’s arms.

“You can make it up a little slower,” sighs Coulson, helping him lay back, curl, watching him hug himself and whimper and try to get his breath back enough to answer.

“Won’t...”

Coulson reaches, putting a hand on his back, rubbing gently, “stop.”

“But–“

“We’re not changing our minds. You don’t have to keep proving how hard you’re trying. And you don’t have to keep testing whether we’ll kick you to the curb, getting hurt and waiting for us to decide it’s too much trouble. We absolutely won’t, no matter how many times you hurt yourself. We would, though, still so much rather you not suffer.”

Loki turns his head, tiredly, to look across the room, at Bruce, asleep on the next bed over, and Tony, konked out with his rear on a stool, his upper body on the bed Coulson had been dozing on after receiving the second course of antibiotics, when he woke to Loki’s quiet moans.

Coulson puts his hand on Loki’s forehead, “I’m going to wake Bruce, and then move Tony onto the bed, which will probably wake him up. If you ask, they’ll both tell you the same thing. If you asked anyone on the team, they would tell you the same, again.”

Loki sighs, and closes his eyes, “I wish that you could be truthful, and not fear so much for what I might do. I have promised to atone, and I will, I will not...I will not be a coward.”

“I am being truthful. And...that isn’t what a coward does. A coward cries and gives up and runs away. It takes a brave man to bear so much, to the point where he is brought to such an option. It takes a proud man to not ask for help with the burden. You are both, and it was almost the death of you. And yeah, that, does scare me. It scares all of us. Because we want to see you well and proud and brave and standing tall, beside us. And seeing you throw yourself so recklessly into pain and danger is scary, because we don’t know if you are trying too hard, or trying to die.”

“You...sound like my brother.”

Coulson shrugs, and Loki gasps, like he’s been smacked across the stomach, pushing himself up to throw up again, but too weak to hold himself up, falling headfirst towards the floor, Coulson just barely managing to catch him, landing on his rear as he does.

“The portal is opening...”

Coulson sighs, Loki crumpled and trembling and retching in his grip, body apparently reacting to the portal despite the arc reactor they’d sent with the others being the source of the power, “thanks, JARVIS.”

Coulson helps Bruce half carry Loki to the livingroom, Tony, sleepy and stumbly, holds on to Bruce’s sleeve, and doesn’t open his eyes until they stop, the winds flying from the portal pulling at their clothes. Loki raises his head, visibly struggling to stay as upright as he is, in anticipation of his brother’s arrival. Coulson exchanges a look with Bruce, on noticing, and a small smile on Bruce’s part.

Tony is halfway behind Bruce, looking as reluctant as Loki appears anticipatory.

The others come through, looking dirty but triumphan, and Tony steps forward, a big, cocky grin on his face, still holding on to Bruce’s sleeve with two fingers, right up to when Steve turns around to face them, and he lets go.

Thor goes straight to Loki, placing his large hands on either side of the grey face, leaning forward, pressing his forehead to one beaded with sweat. Coulson lets go, and Thor takes his place, he and Bruce steering Loki to a chair. Coulson stands beside Tony, touching his arm with the backs of his fingers, brushing down from his elbow to wrist. He says nothing, stands taller, but as Coulson draws his hand away, Tony bends his wrist, lifting the backs of his fingers, so Coulson’s trail against his.

 

He isn’t with Tony, when the lights go out at the press conference. Tony is standing at the podium, speaking, Coulson back in the seats, beside the one Tony had vacated when he walked up. Coulson pushes towards the muted blue glow, stationary on the raised stage, as everyone else rushes the exit, and the secret service and various bodyguards herd their charges, cutting through the crowd with shoulders and elbows. He reaches Tony, still standing, one hand lightly gripping the podium, eyes searching in the darkness, and takes his free hand, “hey.”

“Hi.”

Tony traces Coulson’s arm up, his hand settling just above Coulson’s elbow, and takes out his phone, as they walk down the steps from the stage, to the now mostly empty auditorium floor. It’s dark, the only light coming from Tony’s phone and dimly from the reactor under his shirt, as they make their way between the rows. Past three or four feet out, Coulson can’t see a thing, and it really doesn’t matter that Tony has the glowing newsfeed in his face, he couldn’t see to walk anyway. They reach the crowd still fighting and fumbling through the door. Tony pulls on his arm, and he nods, turning back, out of the press of people, to stand in the open auditorium.

If there’s about to be an attack, they need to be ready to respond, and protect the escaping reporters and politicians. A police Captain who was supposed to be talking about riot control measures joins them, with a flashlight, “well if we get out of this, the fire code enforcement guy is getting a very sternly worded fist to the face.”

Tony snorts, slipping his phone back into his pocket, “it’s not just here. The power’s been cut to the whole city.”

“So it’s probably not a targeted attack.”

Coulson nods, in response to the Captain, as he pulls out his radio, trying to get through, despite the constant panicked crackle. Shaking his head, he looks at them, “unsurprisingly, there are riots. But worse, because of the oil shortages from the riots, we might not have enough fuel to power the emergency generators for long. We’ll get more, but that will take time.”

“If we go to the tower, we can tie the arc reactor into the city’s grid, it should be enough to power vital services.”

The Captain nods, “I’ll find out who we need to talk to. You’re his bodyguard?”

“Friend,” Tony corrects him, “and teammate.”

“Okay, what’s your name?”

“Agent.”

Coulson glares at Tony, but it does unnoticed...well, and unseen, “Agent Phil Coulson. I’m...kind of with SHEILD.”

“He’s with the Avengers. Anyway, I need to get to the central grid office, I need to know if the power to the city has been cut off, or the grid itself went down. And they’ll need me to get things set up for tying the tower in.”

“Come with me, then. You’ll have a hell of a time getting through traffic without a siren, all the lights are out.”

“We appreciate it...” Tony pulls on his arm, ignoring the discussion, and he rolls his eyes, “I appreciate it, anyway.”

The Captain looks at Tony, for a minute, watching him, then looks at Coulson, frowning. Coulson shakes his head, and steers Tony’s impatient footsteps towards the door, now closed, everyone having gotten through. The Captain holds the door open for them, and then follows them out, indicating a light blue unmarked half a block away, as they push through the dark, chaotic street.

The Captain slides the plexiglass out of the way, so they can talk, as they sit in the back seat. Tony calls Pepper, warning her that a large percentage of the Stark company servers are about to go down.

The Captain gets them into the grid office, and Tony talks technobabble with a frantic grey-haired man for half an hour, while Coulson and the Captain–Andrew Harper–stand back, and try to keep track of the situation outside.

Cell towers are out, either without power or overloaded but Tony’s phone is still working, so Coulson uses that to call the mansion, and help direct response to the riots, for once able to coordinate with the police with very little bureaucratic static.

 

Coulson sighs, knocking on Tony’s bathroom door. It’s cold, and Tony’s been in the bathroom for almost an hour. It wouldn’t be the first time he got a flashback–naked in a cold, hard room.

“Come in.”

Coulson does, and finds Tony naked except for boxers, though having apparently quickly put a towel over his shoulders, covering his back. The shower is dismantled, Tony’s bare skin covered in grease and rusty smears.

“What are you doing?”

“It was broken,” shrugs Tony.

“Is it less broken now?”

Tony shakes his head, and picks up the candle from the sink, walking to Coulson, and holding it up, leaning close and smiles, laying his free hand against Coulson’s chest, “can I borrow yours?”

Coulson rolls his eyes,“you can borrow my shower without hitting on me. Also, we have flashlights.”

“I like candles.”

“Of course you do.”

“They’re nice, sue me.”

Tony does, though, hand Coulson the candle, briefly, to readjust the towel over his shoulders, for the walk from his room to Coulson’s.

 

Coulson walks with Tony down the dark hallway, and unlocks his room door with a physical key, instead of voice.

Tony drops the towel on the floor in the bathroom, and Coulson sighs, picking it up, and hanging it over the sink. Tony looks at him, seating himself on the rim of the tub, “we should probably talk at some point.”

“Do you have something to say?”

“Just... that I would really like to be with you.”

“And Steve?”

Tony frowns, “I already said, that isn’t going to happen. It’s irrelevant.”

“It isn’t irrelevant, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Will he be okay.”

Tony narrows his eyes, though Coulson isn’t certain how much he can really see in the dimly lit bathroom, “as a teammate, he will be. As a friend I hope he is. But I’m not him. I’m not the great, shining Captain, and I wouldn’t want to be. People have been thinking badly of me my whole life. If they think that because I’m with you, that’s on them, and fuck them.”

“I think you would want to be. And I think you are actually hurt when you hear people think bad things about you. Especially Steve.”

Tony stands, walking to him, glaring, brown eyes hard. Coulson might have overstepped, but if they can’t talk about this, they won’t make it very far.

“I don’t–”

“What?”

Tony shakes his head, still glaring, but the set of his mouth slightly less hard, seeming to change his mind about what he was going to say, “you aren’t wrong. But this doesn’t feel wrong. This feels...like what a great shiny hero does. Someone who’s...normal. Not a fuck up. The kind of person people like, and respect and...don’t hate. This seems like what they do. Am I wrong?”

There’s so much there, so much in Tony’s words and eyes and voice, hands, and the way he’s standing, shoulders down, and back, unguarded, and looking up at Coulson, so damned...bare.

He doesn’t answer. He can’t.

He sets Tony’s candle on the sink, on top of the towel, leaning past the smaller man to do so, and then straightening, stepping in to Tony’s space, kissing him, gently.

Tony kisses back, and pushes, and Coulson’s back is to the door, and Tony is messy and naked and naked, and Coulson hooks his feet out from under him, catching him, and leaning over him, his head resting on Coulson’s bathmat. He smiles, and reaches up, and pulls Coulson’s face to his, and kisses him, until they have to break apart for air, which all seems to have evaporated from the room.

...And become smoky.

Coulson raises his head, looking up. The candle is on its side, the towel, and now the wallpaper is on fire. Tony scrambles to his feet, and turns on the water, spraying it at the wall, and towel, and all over Coulson, who was standing between them. Coulson is not even going to give Tony the benefit of the doubt that he couldn’t see him.

And then the emergency alarm goes off, and they hear people running down the hall towards the meeting room.

Tony laughs, burying his face in Coulson’s chest, and just sounding so okay and maybe even happy.

Coulson knows how precious that is. It was hard won, and could be snatched away any moment. Right now, the man he’s holding is happy, and it’s because of him, and it’s Tony.

“There was never anything wrong with your shower.”

Tony just laughs harder.

Chapter Text

“It has negative effects.”

Coulson glances up from the book he’s reading by flashlight, as Bruce enters the workshop, scribbled notes and several pages of newspaper held slightly crumpled in his hand.

“What does?”

“The compound. It’s neuro-toxic. The riots aren’t resulting only from shortages, it also just...makes people angry.”

 

“By all rights you should be dead inside, Bruce should have lost himself, Tony and Coulson should be dead, my brother should hate me, and Rogers should have broken. I don’t understand.

“In being lost creatures lies our ability to find our way in the darkest of places.”

Coulson passes Natasha’s room without comment, as she and Loki speak.

 

“Steve?”

“You can’t change for another person, as much as you might want to. But at the same time, the people in your life make you who you are. I wasn’t...I couldn’t have been who I am without Dr. Erskin, or Bucky, or Peggy. The same way that, I’m becoming a different person now. With new people, in a different world, I’m a different person. And I’m not sure I’m okay with that.”

Steve and Bruce, in Steve’s room.

 

“I’m not doing the thing.”

“What thing?”

Coulson sits on the living room in the large livingroom, Tony laying on him, nestled comfortably, hand on Coulson’s chest, thumb moving lazily back and forth, chin resting on Coulson’s breastbone.

“The thing in the movies. With the like blind person putting their hands all over the other person’s face.”

“I don’t watch many movies.”

Tony turns over onto his back, head right over Coulson’s heart. The fire reflects warm light on his face, offsetting the blue glow of the arc reactor. Not enough for him to see by, only enough to softly define the diffuse shadows and contours of his body. Coulson kisses the top of his head, the smaller man’s hair damp from the shower he had taken earlier in the evening, gently brushing the backs of his fingers along Tony’s cheek.

Tony smiles, and Coulson draws his thumb along Tony’s lips, tracing his fingertips over his jaw, up past his ear, and along his hairline, and back down, around his eye, following the curve of the orbit, along the crows feet at the corner of his eye, tracing the small lines representing decades of both pain and laughter but probably mostly pain.

 

Coulson sighs, rolling over, to turn off the baby monitor. It hasn’t been intentionally on in weeks, but Tony must have accidentally turned on the other end, and Coulson had left the receiver on just in case. He could hear Tony and Steve talking, in what was probably the small sitting room, given the occasional crack of the fire.

“It’s because of what this country has become that a woman like Rachel Herxheimer gained power in the first place. It’s because of how inflammatory everything has become that riots for no reason passed unquestioned. It’s because the truth has become taboo, that nobody spoke out to the people about what was happening. I grew up thinking this was a country of freedom and liberty, free speech and the right to be who you want. This isn’t the America I grew up knowing. This isn’t what I stand for.”

Coulson frowns, looking at the monitor. The last time he had seen it, it had been in Tony’s bedroom, turned off on the bedstand. That had been two days ago. Tony had brought it with him, and almost certainly turned it on intentionally.

“I stand for a place of freedom, and individual liberty, the right to live your life, make your own choices, and be happy, no matter who you are, where you came from, what language you speak, or who you love. When I was frozen, a white man and a black woman couldn’t be together. That was wrong. I knew it was wrong. I knew it wasn’t what America should be. This is wrong. This isn’t what America should be. And that’s what I stand for. Not what it is, but what it should be.”

“I’m not going to be with you. N-no matter how m-many speeches you m-make.”

“I...regret that. But that wasn’t what I was saying. I’m leaving. I’m not asking anyone to come with me. I’ll tell the team in the morning. I just wanted to tell you... I owe you that much, to give up a...what, a head’s up?”

“Yeah, head’s up.”

“Okay. Well. I did. I’ll see you tomorrow, Tony. I do love you.”

“I know.”

The door shuts, and Coulson sits, waiting, staring down at the orange “03" in green block numerals, on the display of the dull white and pink monitor.

“Phil?”

“I’m here.”

“He’s going to do s-something stupid.”

“I know.”

“I’m n-not going to stop him. Are you?”

“No. No, I’m not.”

 

He didn’t see what hit him. He knows it was large, heavy and swinging. But beyond that, all he really knows is that it hurt like a bitch, and he’s not really sure he should be getting back up.

Shiny black shoes enter his vision, as he’s starting to try to get onto his hands and knees.

“Hey, stop. Stay still. Wait for the paramedics.”

“Nope.”

A pause, and then, “you’re the Agent.”

“What?”

“The Avenger, the Agent.”

“Uh, sure. Also, Phil Coulson.”

“Captain Harper, we met once before.”

“Andrew, right? The first power outage.”

“Yeah.” a pause, as Coulson’s nose itches from the dirt, then into a radio. He raises his head. Steve stands at the edge of the riot, just twenty yards or so away. Coulson opens his mouth to ask Captain Harper to flag him over, when he sees the soldier turn and start to walk away. Out of nowhere, Natasha joins him, just behind and a little to the right.

“Can you radio Tony?”

“Mr. Stark, if you’re monitoring this frequency, the A–Phil Coulson is down.”

Tony is there in less than a minute, despite the span of the riot.

Coulson does not want to go for a fly, it’s too cold, and he hurts too much. But he doesn’t say that, because he also doesn’t want to get trampled, and Tony moving him has to be better than some impersonal paramedic.

The metal suit in the cold New York January should be freezing. It’s not. It’s just at skin temperature. As Tony lifts him, it warms, slightly, above that. He can’t imagine that’s unintentional.

As he hunkers down, in Tony’s mechanically exoskelletoned arms, he wonders how many people know that Tony designed his war machine to feel close to human.

 

It’s only somewhat creepy, how much Tony had to have studied him, to get the suit to fit like this. The slightly rough, industrial fabric slides over a thin undersuit, basically a rash guard, hugging his limbs and shoulders–and his rear. He knows the original design certainly does the same to Steve, but Tony had to redo the entire pattern to fit him, this was definitely a choice
Regardless of the state of his rear, the suit fits every curve and plane of his body perfectly, the pads under the plates a thick maybe gel, maybe foam, protecting vulnerable and protruding areas.

 

Sitting on the curb, he sighs, removing his soaked, torn socks, his boots surrendered to Bruce a while ago, so he could better wade through the broken glass of the latest riot, helping the injured. The pavement is warm, steam rising from the matte black surface, small rivulets running down both sides, carrying dirt and debris and blood.

One of the cooling tents, set up for a too-hot summer with very intermittent electricity, thanks to a still unknown force’s attacks on power grids across the country, has been turned into a field hospital. Beleaguered citizens slowly shuffle towards it, clothing torn and heads down, injuries and embarrassment impeding their progress. He looks up, as he hears slightly unsteady footsteps coming towards him from behind.

Loki, face pale and hands trembling, but still on his feet, and not grey like the worst times. Coulson hops up, and grips his arm, steadying him. He sways slightly, and tilts forward, head coming to rest seemingly unintentionally on Coulson’s shoulder. His breath is a match for his palour, hissing, almost wheezing, shallow and quick.

He straightens though, after a moment, and gives a shaky, though still reassuring smile, before sitting down on the curb. Coulson joins him, sitting on the slightly less damp semi-circle where his rear had been before.

It’s the Fourth of July.

Chapter Text

Coulson opens the door to his and Tony’s room, stepping out of his shoes, to join his slumbering partner in bed. Tony stirs, as Coulson starts to lift the covers, and Coulson steps back, turning to leave the room. They get little enough sleep that Coulson isn’t going to disturb Tony’s if he can help it.

“Mmph...Phil?” sleepy, mumbled into the pillow, making Coulson smile.

“Yeah. Sleep, I’ll take the--.”

“Uh-uh. Been two weeks since I’ve gotten to sleep next to you. Since the June riots...”

Coulson nods, slipping in, the covers and air and mattress all delightfully warm, the body that wraps around his even warmer and more welcome. Tony curls up, head and upper body on Coulson’s stomach, hand lightly gripping a wrinkle of Coulson’s shirt, as he settles in with a completely unfair little hitched sigh.

It’s the Fourth of July, realizes Coulson. A year since Steve and Natasha left. A year of riots and anger and protests and death. A year of no progress. A year of unredeemable destruction.

Tony makes another sound, already falling back off to sleep, and this time it’s a tiny, almost inaudible hum of comfort and happiness.

Okay. Some progress.

It is a war. Not a proper one. Not one he can take any pride at all in fighting.

Not that there’s any such thing as a good war. But this one is just particularly awful.

A war against nothing more than people’s weakness to the chemicals in their own brains.

JARVIS’s voice comes in, waking Tony, and making Coulson scowl.

“Sir, I think you may want to look at the news.”

Tony waves blindly in consent, and shifts to lay against Coulson’s shoulder instead of belly, so he can sit enough to look at the screen, without relinquishing the physical contact.

‘–and it’s been hidden, for a year and a half. It’s not the economy, or the war, or anything that any of you could have controlled. It’s the United States Government. All this is part of a sanctioned operation.”

Steve. Standing in a dias. Surrounded by cameras. Broadcast live.

 

The Fifth of July riots were the worst in the history of the nation.

They had thought the riots over the past year had been bad. These were insane. People trampled, crushed. Police shoot, shooting, dying, lying dead. Government buildings burned, the people in them burned alive, or killed in the collapsing structures. Sturdier architecture burned out, or bombed. Men and women jumping to their deaths from windows too many stories high. Those who survived the fall shot where they lay, injured and innocent.

Tony lands beside him, in the streets, using the repulsors to force the crowds back, “I saw Natasha. She signaled, she wants to talk.”

Coulson nods, and Tony grips him gently around the waist, lifting them both into the sky.

They find refuge for talking in an alley, stepping over more than one dead body as they huddle together.

“He knew I would have stopped him.”

Tony nods, “he’s not an idiot. Speaking of which, where’s the idiot?”

“He was arrested by the military. I spoke with Agent Irwin, he’s trying to get him out. Though, honestly, he may be safer where he is. Just about anywhere is safer than the streets right now.”

“Yeah, except any government building...”

Natasha shrugs, and looks directly at Coulson, “we need to us it.”

She turns to Tony, and raises her eyebrows. Tony sighs, and Coulson grips his metal-clad arm, “use what?”

Tony shakes his head, “the sonic paralyzer. She convinced me to install a larger scale version in the suit. But I don’t think...”

They turn, as a man comes running towards them, screaming, his hair and clothes on fire, large parts of his body already charred. He trips over one of the other bodies, and falls, convulsing in pain and panic. Coulson and Natasha put out the flames as best they can, and turn to look at Tony again. He retracts the faceplate, and crouches, checking the man. He was still. He no longer breathed. The air smelt of cooked meat.

Tony, face impassive, straightens, the faceplate sliding back down, and takes off. Coulson grips Natasha’s hand, they forge back out into the chaos, she handing him a pair of earplugs as they fight their way through.

Coulson doesn’t hear the screech. He only sees people start to fall. He and Natasha stand, still half clutching at each other, even though the crushing waves and tearing rushes that had threatened to separate them have stopped. All around, people lay in piles, breathing but not moving. A new wave of people start to trample over them, but they fall as well.

All fall down, as they come near.

Clint joins them, starting to go through, make sure everyone is safe as can be.

Thor lands a few minutes in, Coulson looks at him, “where’s Bruce?”

“A child was shot. He and my brother are trying to save her.”

 

One Week Later...

Coulson looks through the night sight of his rifle. He isn’t Hawkeye, but he doesn’t need to be, he has as many shots as he needs. He takes a slow, deep breath, and lets it out smoothly, squeezing the trigger as he breathes. The shot hits, the lock cracks. He shoots again, as men start to pour out, swinging guns as they run, looking wildly for the shooter. This time the lock shatters, and he scoots back down the hill, pressing his finger to his mic, so he can signal the “protesters” to move.

He hears shots pinging off his lover’s armor, as he lies still in the dirt, his dark uniform hiding him well in the night, even among the dull scrubby bushes. Natasha joins him, having taken care of the other entrance, that one actively guarded. He nods, and they both scramble down to the van, running across the road to jump in. Bruce drives them around to the entrance, as they quickly change into dress uniforms.

The Agent, and Black Widow, are still technically part of SHEILD. Which is still technically part of the military. They just usually chose to forget that part, and it’s more useful for Fury if he usually forgets it too. That doesn’t mean their ID’s aren’t valid, nor their ranks not legitimate. That their names certainly don’t match is kind of irrelevant.

They’re greeted hurriedly, and ushered through the only ground level entrance not under attack, someone far too junior to have a clue what was going on reassuring them that their scheduled visit would not be interrupted, but could they please come through this way and hurry just a bit...

“Lt. Colonel Potter, Captain Walker, please, we’ll have the meeting room ready in just a moment...please wait here...”

Coulson nods, and he and Natasha stand in the small room for a good five minutes, before he pokes his head out the door, then nods, and boosts Natasha up into the crawlspace in the ceiling.

Two minutes later, the young man returns, and blinks, “where did Captain Walker go?”

“In search of a restroom, I believe.”

The man turns white, and vanishes. Coulson waits a moment, then follows him out, comfortable in the knowledge that he’ll be searching out the phantom Captain for quite a while. Coulson himself follows the memorized plan to join Agent Hill, already there conducting an inspection, at the cell.

“Colonel Cadwell,” he greets her, as her escort flips out over the unescorted visitor wandering in.

“Lt. Colonel.”

Coulson places his hand against the metal door, “you’re certain this will hold?”

The woman nods, flustered, but at least more with it than Coulson’s easily shaken companion, “yes. It’s reinforced. StarkTech, actually. Not even the Captain will be getting through that.”

Coulson nods, and lifts his hand from the surface. A thin film, appearing to be just the perspiration from his own skin remains behind in a handprint shape, right above the lock, in fact, right over the internal mechanism.

The woman leads them away, rambling on about security measures and tech they had just recently installed to cope with the new prisoner.

They are returned to the room, where Natasha has also reappeared, and the two escorts stand outside in the hall, muttering to each other. Hill and Coulson carefully peal off the false skins on their hands, and wrap them up in apparent plastic wrap, so the compound on the surface would not eat away at their clothes, or anything else they touched.

Then, the lights go out. Their escorts enter with flashlights, “the emergency lights are on in the cafeteria, if you’ll follow us...”

“You know, I think I’d like to redo my inspection...” Hill mutters.

The female escort sighs, “we’re still on the main power grid, Ma’am. Our generators are coming online now, power will be restored within the next two minutes.”

Four minutes later, she is explaining away the delay, while Coulson looks up at the ceiling, in time to see the faint frost spreading across the tiles. The lights flicker, then go out again.

The power comes back on, maybe ten minutes later, and Coulson, Hill, and Natasha sit down with the man in charge of the compound, and talk logistics for an hour and a half. They walk out, and board the van, driving away around the hill, and down the open road. They pull off into an abandoned gas station, Coulson gets out, and they walk around back, climbing in the other van.

It’s a tight fit, with Steve, Tony, Bruce, Natasha, Hill, Thor, Loki, Clint, and Coulson himself, all squeezed in, Steve looking at them all groggily, still coming out of the tranquilizers they had kept him under for the past week, Tony yelling at him for being stupid.

Finally, Tony shuts up long enough for Steve to ask, slightly slurred, but worried, “did’nything...did anything change?”

“Yeah. A lot of people are dead. The government’s on the verge of collapse. Those untouchables, the assholes who did this in the first place were killed by people storming government buildings, and burning everybody inside. The factories and storehouses where they made and kept the chemicals were raided. It’s become a street drug almost overnight. A huge percentage of the population is going through cold withdrawal, which has proved to be fatal sometimes without treatment. The hospitals are full. People are still dying.”

Steve stares at Tony in horror.

“I...I can’t... I did that?”

“No. Well, yes. But there was no other outcome. People were going to find out eventually. This all would have happened, when that happened. This is almost better. We can use you to start restoring order. People will trust you.” Tony smiles wryly, exhausted, “you’re still America’s Golden Boy, after all.”

Coulson shoulders between Clint and Natasha, wraps an arm around Tony’s waist, and provides a steady body for him to lean on. He’s good at hiding it, but he’s about to fall flat on his face. Steve watches that, a just completely pained expression crossing his face for one very short moment, then shakes his head, and looks at Natasha, “you didn’t tell me what you thought, one way or another. Why?”

“It was your decision. And Tony’s right. In the end, the outcome was going to be the same. Your place in it was all that was left to decide.”

Steve climbs to his feet, Natasha and Thor guiding his still-groggy body to one of the seats along the two sides of the van. Coulson sits, and Tony follows, wobbling slightly and half falling. Coulson puts an arm around him, burying his nose in Tony’s hair. Steve looks at Loki, who starts talking with Bruce, tired, but smiling just a little, calm, then looks down at the floor of the van.