Tony Stark felt like crap.
Turning over onto his back, he let out a long, low groan and stretched out all his limbs, none of them coming close to the edges of his king sized bed. The mattress shifted beneath him, the soft, warm sheets pooling around his body.
It couldn’t be morning, he thought. He didn’t care what Jarvis said. He felt like he hadn’t slept in a week. It couldn’t be morning yet.
Slowly opening his eyes, he blinked. It was bright, too bright. Jarvis must have already removed the tint from the large windows that encompassed an entire wall of his bedroom. He groaned again this time turning on to his other side, curling into a ball, and placing a pillow over his head.
He curled up tighter and pressed the pillow down against his ear.
“Sir?” the British voice repeated even louder than before.
“What, Jarvis?” Tony replied in resignation his voice muffled by the pillow.
“I would just like to remind you that if you do not get up in the next five minutes, I am authorized to use the special alarm.”
Tony groaned again.
“The one with the mixture of car alarms, police sirens, church bells, various animals howling, and Agent Barton singing in the shower.”
“Okay! Okay. I’m up.”
He tossed the pillow away and pulled himself over to the side of the bed letting his legs gracelessly flop over the edge as he sat up.
The room began to spin. He put a hand to his head as he waited for it to stop. Had he been drinking last night? He felt like crap, but it didn’t quite feel like a hangover. He let his bleary mind flow back to the day before. No, he hadn’t been drunk. He remembered now. Captain Terrific had cut him off after he’d only had two. He’d even gotten to bed at a reasonable time, well, two in the morning, but for him that was extremely reasonable.
He felt exhausted, his limbs felt weak, and the arc reactor in his chest felt heavier than usual. Was he sick? He better not be sick. He hated being sick. Contrary to popular belief, Tony Stark did care very much about his health. He ate a lot of healthy food: greens and fruit, fibre and whole grains, antioxidants and omega fatty acids. He exercised regularly: boxing, swimming, lifting weights. He knew he needed that stuff if he wanted to keep his mind sharp and his body looking good. It was just sometimes other stuff got in the way, and for a while, he’d forget about things like eating, or sleeping, or anything outside what he was working on in his lab, and lately there seemed to be a lot of stuff he needed to work on in his lab. Of course, now days there was also usually someone around to remind him to eat and drag him screaming from the lab when he tried to ignore them.
Tony yawned and wiped at the grit in his eyes.
“Sir, your five minutes are almost up.”
“Hey. No fair. I’m up, aren’t I? I’m awake. My eyes are open.”
“You’re still on the bed.”
Tony looked down and realized he was in fact still on the bed. Putting a hand on the bedside table, he pushed himself to his feet, and then was forced to hold the hand there as the room spun once more and darkness crept along the edges of his vision.
“Sir, do you require assistance?”
“No. No, Jarvis. I’m fine. I just need coffee.”
Yes, coffee was what he needed. Coffee would make everything better. After a quick side trip to the bathroom, he began stumbling through corridors and stairwells in search of coffee, which is how he eventually found himself in the common kitchen one floor below.
There were people in the kitchen. More precisely, there were five people spread about and busily occupied with various things. It was a large kitchen, but filled with Avengers it became a lot smaller. It was done in an ultra-modern style in white, gray, and black. There were two fridges, a walk in freezer, three microwaves, two four-slice toasters, eight burners, two extra large ovens, and three dishwashers, because Tony Stark did not do dishes. All the appliances were stainless steel and the latest designs, though Tony had added a few upgrades here and there because it was extremely useful when the fridge told you the milk was off before you tried to drink it.
A large island sat in the middle of the room and that is where the Avengers ate their breakfast. There was technically a large dining room just adjacent to the kitchen, but it tended to get ignored in the mornings. Actually, Tony could dimly recall designing each of them their own small, personal kitchen, but those seemed to get ignored too. Somehow whenever the Avengers were there, they always ended up eating in the common one.
A variety of ‘Good Morning’s chimed at him.
“Coffee,” he said in way of reply.
Bruce Banner glanced up from where he stood over several steaming pots and pans and gave him an amused smile.
Though initially shy abut his culinary abilities, Bruce had proven himself to be quite the chef. Thor was a decent cook too, but because he was still familiarizing himself with Midgard ingredients, his meals tended to be hit and miss with the misses causing more than a little gastrointestinal queasiness amongst his fellow Avengers. Tony’s own cooking tended to be like the stuff he worked on in his lab, they didn’t always end up being what he had intended them to be. Steve’s cooking was usually edible, but incredibly bland, and after several incidents, Clint and Natasha had been barred from making anything more complex than cereal upon pain of death.
Despite the wonderful smells of Bruce's cooking there was only one thing Tony felt hungry for that morning.
“Coffee?” he said again hopefully.
Putting down the spatula he was using, Bruce helpfully pointed at a coffee maker, one of several caffeine peculating machines the room contained. The large coffee urn was thankfully still half-full of beautiful, blistering hot coffee. Immediately drawn forward, Tony staggered towards it. Just the smell was already making his head feel clearer. He took a big whiff, and then he frowned.
The coffee smelled different. It was subtle but it was there, a definite change in aroma. Tony spotted a bag of beans beside the coffee machine and picked it up to take a closer look.
“What is this?” he asked.
“I picked that up when I was out yesterday,” said Bruce as he cracked a couple eggs into a frying pan. He looked rumpled, rumpled hair, rumpled face, rumpled sweatpants, rumpled T-shirt, but he often looked a bit rumpled as if he wasn’t quite comfortable in his own skin.
A sudden thought occurred to Tony and he quickly glanced down. Okay. Good. He wasn’t naked. His brain hadn’t exactly been firing on all cylinders that morning and it was always good to double check. Admittedly, his combination of pure silk black pyjama bottoms and an old AC/DC T-shirt was a bit odd though. He tried not to think about what his hair must look like.
“It’s from India,” Bruce continued. “I developed a taste for their coffee while I was over there. It’s less acidic than the stuff we usually have.”
Tony looked at him like he’d just compared the Iron Man armour to a wind-up toy robot. “But what about my coffee? You know the stuff I drink everyday, the stuff I get flown in especially from that little farm down in Panama, the one with the six kids, the five cows, and the two dogs called Cocoa and Bobo. Only three other people in the world buy their coffee and they always give me the best beans.”
Bruce shrugged. “I thought we could use a change.”
Tony gazed warily at the steaming coffee pot. He was all for trying new things, but he did not like people messing with his coffee. Also when it came to taste, he and Bruce were seldom on the same page, or even in the same ballpark. In a lab, they worked together beautifully bouncing ideas off each other at a rapid rate no one else could follow. It had proven a lot more fun than Tony had imagined which coming from someone who had worked solo most of his life was very surprising. But outside of science, they had very little in common. Their tastes in things such as food, music, and movies differed drastically. He trusted both Bruce and his greener half with his life, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to trust a guy who liked sardines and operetta with his coffee.
“You can always make another pot if you want,” Bruce suggested.
For a moment, Tony actually debated doing this, but the idea of having to wait any longer for coffee was too much. Resigning himself to the fact he would be facing the busy day ahead without his normal morning drink, he reached into the cupboard above the coffee maker for his mug.
It wasn’t there.
“Where’s my mug?” He turned to look accusingly at the other occupants of the kitchen.
The responses were a mixture of shaking heads and rolling eyes, but there was one who didn’t respond and Tony’s attention was immediately drawn towards him. While three of the Avengers contentedly sat on the stools surrounding the island, one was even more contentedly sitting on top of the island. Clint Barton, dressed in a threadbare and frayed T-shirt and sweatpants, sat cross-legged in the middle of the table, reading the comics, and eating a bowl of Captain Crunch cereal. Beside him was Tony’s mug.
“You’re using my mug,” Tony declared pointing a finger at Clint.
He wasn’t at all surprised by the agent’s current location. The man always seemed to have something against chairs. Tony had asked him on numerous occasions what childhood trauma had led him to such a hatred but he’d never gotten a straight answer. It wasn’t unusual to find Barton sitting on a table, a desk, a filling cabinet, a fridge, the back of the couch, or most annoyingly, on top of a bookshelf. It was very disconcerting to walk into a room thinking you were all alone and then suddenly find Clint staring down at you from above. Tony accused him of trying too hard to live up to his name sake. Clint just smiled and made bird noises when Tony turned his back on him.
The agent looked up innocent surprise masking his face, and then slowly glanced down at the mug, then back at Tony. “This is your mug?”
Tony knew that Clint knew that that was Tony’s mug, and Tony knew that Clint knew that he knew, but still the expression on the Hawk’s face remained as innocent as ever. That was another thing about Clint and the reason Tony would never ever play poker with him. Barton had almost as much of a sarcastic, antagonistic attitude as Tony, almost because no one could out snark Stark, but while Tony used his wit with a smirk and a gleam in his eye, Clint said everything with a face so straight it usually took people at least ten minutes to figure out they’d been insulted. Tony had rarely seen the man laugh, but he had a smile that would make even the evilest bastard they’d fought against think twice.
“It has my face plastered on it. Of course, it’s my mug!”
Clint looked at the mug once more. A red and gold Iron Man mask was painted brightly on the white surface. “It doesn’t really look like you. Maybe if I drew a little goatee on it. Would you like me to draw a goatee on it?”
“Don’t you dare!”
Barton would do it too if he let him. The man was a master of pranks though he was so good he was almost never caught. All you had to do was look away for a moment and suddenly your phone had disappeared, the stuff you were working on had been rearranged, and one of your robots had been tied up with pink ribbon, and Clint would just be sitting there looking innocent. Tony always knew it was him though. People tended to blame Tony when things went missing, or suddenly changed colour, or blew up, and admittedly often it was him, but Clint was just as good at causing trouble. He was just a bit sneakier about it.
“You know there are plenty of other mugs.”
“But I want my mug.” Tony knew he was starting to sound like a whiny, petulant child, but he was tired and felt crappy, and he just wanted his own damn coffee in his own damn mug just like he had every morning.
“Geez. Someone sure woke up grouchy. Here.” Clint pushed the mug in Tony’s direction. “You can have your mug back.”
Making a face, Tony took a step back. “Eww. I don’t want it now. It’s got Hawk germs all over it.”
“Tony, it’s just a mug,” interrupted Bruce. He reached into the cupboard and pulled out another mug placing it on the counter for Tony. “You can use mine.” The mug was one Tony had given Bruce shortly after Banner had moved in. It said ‘Hulk Smash’ on it in big green letters.
Jaw clenched, Tony glared at Barton for another minute before giving in. He spun on his heels back towards the coffee maker. It made him feel lightheaded again for a second and he stumbled slightly. Pretending nothing had happened, he grabbed the mug and poured out his coffee. He took a moment to savour the feel of the warm mug in his hand, and then he headed for the fridge.
Opening the door, he scanned the cluttered, multicoloured contents awhile before finally alighting on the thing he wanted. He grabbed the jug, but frowned when he realized it was much lighter than it should have been. He shook it, and then took the lid off and looked inside. It was empty.
“Okay. Who finished off the hazelnut creamer?”
Not bothering to look up from his comics, Clint pointed at the person seated across from him.
“Traitor,” grumbled Natasha Romanoff.
The agent, and only woman in the room, was leaning against the table and clutching a mug of coffee which undoubtedly contained the last of Tony’s hazelnut creamer. She wasn’t wearing any make-up, her hair was a tangled mess, and apparently, she hadn’t shaved her legs in a couple days, but she still managed to look sexy. This wasn’t in any way hampered by the fact she was currently wearing purple panties and a My Little Pony nightshirt.
Tony’s eyes had almost fallen out of his head when he’d first seen the shirt. He’d immediately opened his mouth to speak, his brain bursting with inappropriate questions and lewd comments, but had stopped when she’d sent one of her death glares at him. He’d since learned that it was a gift from Clint, but he hadn’t dared ask for the full story, because he really didn’t want to be the one to be taken down by an assassin wearing a My Little Pony nightshirt.
There was nothing like living with two master assassins. He was pretty sure one or the other was going to give him a heart attack one of these days, Natasha being the best candidate. She was so silent most of the time Tony never even noticed she was in the room until she spoke up. He had programmed Jarvis to start playing Bad Moon Rising every time she got near so she couldn’t surprise him, but she'd threatened to do something unseemly to him with a paperclip and a kumquat so he’d deleted the program.
“Itsy Bitsy Spider, you want to tell me why you not only finished off my hazelnut creamer, but decided it was a good idea to put the empty container back in the fridge?”
“It was a clever tactic to mess with your head,” she replied, casually taking a sip of her hazelnut flavoured coffee.
“I knew it!”
“Or maybe I just wanted some hazelnut creamer and was too lazy to throw out the empty carton.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you okay?”
Tony felt the others’ gazes shift his way. He wondered how much of his exhaustion showed on his face and wished he had bothered to look in a mirror on his way there. The question wasn’t one of motherly concern. Natasha wasn’t the motherly type. She was, however, the type who was very good at reading people. Sometimes it felt like she was getting right inside your head, something which had made Tony nervous on more than one occasion. He didn’t like people in his head. There was plenty of stuff in his head as is and he didn’t need someone else messing with it or finding out just how much of a mess it already was.
“Um… I’m fine. I’m fine. I just need coffee.” He spotted a small bowl in the middle of the table. “And sugar.” Maybe a large dose of the stuff added to his coffee would help clear the lethargy that still clung to him. He reached for the sugar bowl, but someone else beat him to it.
That someone being a certain Captain Rogers.
Steve Rogers was the only person in the room not currently wearing sleepwear. Not that the gray sweatsuit he wore couldn’t be slept in, but thanks to a few midnight emergencies, Tony happened to know that Steve slept in a very nice pair of striped flannel pyjamas. Steve was in his sweatsuit because, unlike Tony, he had already been up for over an hour, gone for his usual run around the city, finished his breakfast, and was now contentedly reading the newspaper. Tony was all for healthy living but not at this time of day.
“Pepper said you were trying to cut down on sugar,” said Steve as he moved the sugar bowl out of his reach.
“She was lying,” Tony said. Pepper was currently in DC and what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. He made another clumsy grab for it.
The Captain got there first and passed the sugar to Clint who passed it to Natasha who passed it to Bruce who put it away in a cupboard.
Tony began to pout. The others ignored him.
“Good thing you’re up. I was hoping we could discuss a few things before our meeting with Fury,” said Steve.
Right, thought Tony his groggy mind slowly ticking over, the meeting with Fury. That was the whole reason he was up so early in the first place and not happily asleep in his bed. And now apparently, he had a meeting before the meeting. Tony had made a career of avoiding meetings: business meetings, board meetings, staff meetings, AA meetings. They were a lot harder to avoid when they occurred in your own home, and there seemed to have been a hell of a lot of meetings recently.
Steve loved meetings, and rules, and planning things ahead of time, basically everything Tony hated. It was often a point of contention between the two of them. They argued about it a lot. Sometimes Tony would argue about it just for the sake of arguing, but grudgingly, he had learned to make a few compromises. He would attend meetings, as long as Steve didn’t harp on him about how he acted during those meetings, he would follow rules, as long as they actually made sense and didn’t interfere with him having fun, and sometimes he would even plan ahead. Well, he would try to.
“Another meeting. That sounds great why don’t you poke my eyes out with a corkscrew and brand my butt with a tire iron while you’re at it. That’ll really make this morning complete.”
“I’ll get right on that,” Steve said as he directed his attention back to his newspaper.
Tony scowled. It used to be so much easier to get a rise out of that man.
The newspaper was another compromise. Tony had been quite proud of the fact he lived in a paper free household, but apparently reading the news on the computer wouldn’t do it for the old Captain. So now they had a newspaper delivered every morning. It was one of several new low-tech additions to the household. He supposed it was the least he could do for the man whose age was nearing the century mark.
Picking up his sugar free, hazelnut creamer free, strange bean coffee, Tony grabbed a nearby tablet in hopes of getting some work done and went to sit down. He let his weary body fall on to a stool and taking a hold of his mug in both hands, took a big long drink.
And then a large hand slapped him on the back. He choked and sputtered. Coffee splashed onto the table.
“My friend,” declared Thor enthusiastically from beside him.
The Asgardian was wearing a blue cotton shirt that matched his eyes and a pair of pyjama pants with a kaleidoscope pattern of eye-watering colours that would have made a clown jealous, a gift from a certain Dr. Jane Foster Tony recalled. At least it was better than when he went about nude. Apparently, there was no such thing as pyjamas in Asgard.
“I believe we have a training session together this afternoon.”
“Yay,” Tony said tiredly with as much sarcasm as he could muster.
The training sessions, like the meetings, were another idea of Steve’s, a way for them to improve their skills, get to know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and learn to work together, or so the Captain had said in his long introductory speech. Thor was the one who enjoyed them the most out of all of them. For a warrior of Asgard, regular sparring was normal. As for Tony, he was all for testing new weapon systems and armour, but he really didn’t feel like playing beat each other into a pulp at the moment.
“You will not best me this time.” The demi-god gazed intently at him. “Of course, if you are not up to it, we can always…”
“Oh, I’m up for it, Goldilocks,” Tony interrupted his pride not letting him back down even while a tiny voice in the back of his head told him what a complete idiot he was being. “With the latest improvements to my armour, your hammer might as well be made out of foam rubber. We’ll see who bests who.”
“Good.” Thor grinned, and Tony had just enough time to brace himself before the Asgardian slapped him on the back once more, but something lingered in Thor’s eyes as he gazed at Tony as if he wasn’t quite convinced Stark was telling the truth.
Most people underestimated Thor’s intelligence, mainly because he was frequently confused by Midgard customs and technology, not to mention lacking in knowledge about the world in general. This cultural clash had created numerous awkward moments in the tower and the less said about the jellybean incident the better, but thankfully these moments were becoming rarer. It also didn’t help that he was often loud, impatient, and short tempered. Despite all that, Tony had often noticed how easily Thor adapted to new situations and how quickly he caught on when you explained things to him. He was surprisingly perceptive very little escaping his notice, and as prideful as he was, what with being both a god and a prince, he was also very loyal and protective.
Ignoring the demi-god’s gaze, Tony went back to his coffee calling up the information on one of his many projects to his tablet and pretending everything was normal. He yawned as his mind went over all the things he had scheduled for that day and the countless things he needed to get done. It would be great if he could get a head start on some of them, but as he gazed at the tablet, the words and diagrams blurred in and out of focus. He blinked several times but it made no difference. He put the tablet down and took another long drink of coffee. It didn’t help either. He felt so tired now he didn’t think he could move if he wanted to. Even his lungs felt tired.
It must be the coffee’s fault, he reasoned. If he just had his normal coffee how he normally had it, he’d be fine. He took another large gulp hoping somehow this time it would magically work, that maybe the caffeine was just taking time to kick in. His hopes were in vain. Giving up, he put the coffee down and rested his heavy head in his hand. Soon, he felt himself beginning to drift off. His breathing evened out and the surrounding noise began to fade.
And then something sharp poked him in the shoulder.
He opened his eyes. It was a pen. He glared up into the nearby face of Clint Barton who was leaning over him.
“What’s a three letter word for an expression of distaste?”
Tony told him something long, complicated, and obscene.
Clint frowned. “Too many letters,” he said and turned back to his crossword.
Cursing the archer once more, Tony groaned for what was probably the millionth time that morning and rubbed a hand across his face. It seemed he would have to resign himself to the fact that he would be spending the day half-asleep, and he was blaming it all on the band of superheroes currently camped out in his kitchen.
This wasn’t the way Tony used to spend his mornings. He used spend them alone, nice and peaceful in his workshop with just his tools, his music, and his coffee. When it came to mornings, Tony had always liked his privacy. There was more than one reason he’d kick out his one night stands before they’d even had breakfast. Tony liked people in the evenings, large crowds of people he barely knew preferably with a lot of alcohol involved. Well, maybe not as much as he used. It seemed the amount of partying he was doing was starting to wane partially because he just didn't have the time. There always seemed to be so many more important things he needed to do. He really hoped that didn’t mean he was getting old, or worse mature.
A lighthearted conversation had begun amongst the occupants of the kitchen. The room was filled with the sounds of talking, cooking, and eating. Thor slammed a fist against the table as he emphasized a point. A fork went flying through the air and Clint caught it without even looking. Smirking, Natasha leaned back in her chair as Steve absentmindedly brushed some of the sprayed food from his newspaper and Bruce flipped over an omelet.
Something about this scene bothered Tony but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
He watched as Clint idly scratched his butt, and then asked Natasha what a five letter word for gnat was. Trying to undo a knot in her hair, Tasha gave him the answer, and smiled at Bruce as he placed a beautifully crafted omelet in front of her. Turning back to his cooking, Bruce began humming a song from Gilbert and Sullivan interrupting the music in mid verse to ask Thor if he’d like some more bacon. The Asgardian gave an enthusiastic yes to the request, and then politely asked Steve if he could examine the sports section of the newspaper. Steve handed over the requested section, and then asked Jarvis for the time.
And suddenly, it hit Tony. He knew what was wrong with this picture. They were comfortable. They were soppingly, and lovingly, and disgustingly comfortable in his kitchen and with each other.
What had happened to the days when Clint would spend all his time hiding in the air vents and Natasha wouldn’t go anywhere with any less than two knives on her, the days when Steve spent his time pining for the past and distrusting everything technological, when Thor would start destroying things any time he felt frustrated, and Bruce would shut himself away avoiding everyone, the days when they’d butt heads and argue about everything? Okay, maybe they still argued on occasion, but compared to how it was before the tower was now a utopia of peace.
When had this happened?
And more importantly what had happened to his home? It was like a bunch of cockroaches had moved in and made his home their own. His home had been invaded and they had nested. People often assumed Tony Stark would have a house full of servants, and he could easily afford to if he wanted to, but the only people working for him who had regular access to his various homes were Pepper and Happy. He had plenty of robots to take care of the small things that needed doing around the house. As for bigger things, Pepper was very good at hiring people to come around when they wouldn’t bother him.
He had been quite happy living on his own, and now he had a whole bunch of people living quite intimately with him. Whose idea was this? Okay, maybe it had been his, but he was pretty sure he had been concussed at the time. It hadn’t seemed like such a bad idea. He’d enjoyed working with Bruce and the guy deserved a break after all he’d been through. Natasha was nice to look at and good at killing things and keeping people safe, and he couldn’t invite Natasha without inviting Barton and he’d actually turned out to be a lot of fun when not possessed. Steve had really needed a good education in modern culture and Tony couldn’t stand the idea of him moping around alone in his little apartment, and having a god from another world around had seemed like it might be interesting and it had been.
But when he’d had this idea he hadn’t quite realized that living with these people would actually involve… living with them. Had he made a mistake inviting all these people into his life?
He shook his head. He must really be tired if he was thinking about such things. Taking a deep breath, he sat up straighter on his stool and refocused his attention on his surroundings.
The conversation had moved on to sport as Steve and Thor debated the merits of baseball versus football. Natasha spoke up for soccer while Bruce apparently had developed a thing for hockey after spending some time in Canada. As the debate wore on, Barton declared badminton the best sport, but Tony had a feeling he was just trying to be contrary.
He wanted to speak up, voice his own opinion and denounce all of theirs, but unbelievably for once, he was actually too tired to even speak. He could feel his eyelids threatening to shut again.
What was wrong with him?
A beep from the tablet in front of him interrupted his thoughts. He glanced down. It was an alert from Jarvis, one he had long ago set to private which was why the AI hadn’t simply informed him out loud. He read the message, and then read it again because his sluggish brain was still working in slow-mo.
“Damn it,” he muttered. No wonder he was feeling so crappy. He should have put this together sooner. He would have if his brain wasn’t as affected by the lethargy as the rest of him.
In an automatic motion, he reached beneath his shirt placing his fingertips around the glowing circle of the arc reactor. Triggering the release mechanism, he twisted and pulled wincing slightly as the scrape of metal against metal vibrated through his rib cage and the reactor finally came free. He held it aloft turning it over in his hand so he could see it from every angle.
“Wonderful,” he sighed as he got a good look at its condition making note of the excess plasmic discharge, the neutron damage, the corrosion, the wear.
He had meant to give it an overhaul last week, but the armour had needed repairing again, and there had been that new bow he needed to finish for Clint, and those business meetings Pepper had made him go to, and that giant multi-headed hydra monster that had tried to take over Texas. It shouldn’t have been a problem. The arc reactor should have been fine for a few more weeks, but apparently it was getting a lot of use and the parts were wearing out a lot faster than he’d expected.
It suddenly occurred to him that the room had gone completely silent. The idle chatter, the crinkling of newspaper, the scrape of cutlery against plates had all stopped.
He looked up. Everyone was frozen staring at him and at the reactor he held with a mixture of shock, confusion, and concern. Only then did Tony realize what he had done.
He had taken out his reactor.
He had taken out his reactor in front of everyone.
He had never taken out his reactor in front of anyone other than Pepper and Rhodey. With Rhodey it had kind of been necessary at the time and Pepper was, well, Pepper, but he had never intended to remove it in front of anyone else. Not only did it leave him vulnerable, but it also made it clear for the whole world to see exactly what had been done to him. He might as well have cut out his heart and placed it on the table.
“Tony…” said Bruce in a voice that was trying a bit too hard to stay calm.
The entire atmosphere of the room had completely changed. There was a wary tension in the air, and though no one had actually moved, Tony realized his friends had automatically switched themselves to battle mode ready to jump into action if needed. He was both unnerved and rather embarrassed by the sudden attention.
“Are you alright?” Steve blurted out. The Captain actually looked pretty freaked out and Tony probably would have teased him about it if the situation had been different.
“Um, yeah. I’m fine. I just… ah… Hang on a sec.”
Thankfully, his rational mind was working well enough to inform him that explanations could wait until after he put the arc reactor back in. The pressure was building in his chest and his heart had already started doing some strange jumps. Sometimes when he took the reactor out, he thought he could actually feel the shrapnel shifting inside of him, but he was pretty sure that was just his imagination.
He lifted his shirt trying not to think about the fact everyone was watching him and positioned the device back into the hole twisting it so it locked into place. A short gasp escaped him as the pressure eased and his heart returned to a more normal rhythm. He braced one hand against the table as he got his breathing back under control.
Clint gazed at him, eyebrows raised. "Any reason you felt like trying to scare us to death this morning?"
“Come on,” Tony said once he'd gotten his breath back. “It’s not like I’m going to just keel over and die the instant I take the arc reactor out.” He’d told them that before, hadn’t he? He gazed at their worried faces. Okay, maybe he hadn’t. He’d never been good at sharing personal information. Most of them probably didn’t know anything more than the fact the arc reactor was currently keeping him alive.
“But taking it out isn’t exactly a good thing, is it?” said Natasha pointedly making Tony wonder just how much information Fury had given her when she was sent to spy on him.
“It's nothing,” Tony protested. “I was just checking something.”
“Checking what exactly?” asked Bruce. He at least seemed more curious than freaked out.
Tony sighed. There didn't seem to be any way of getting out of this. “There's some wear on the parts. It's creating inconsistent energy feedback from the power core which is causing a few problems.”
“What sort of problems?'
“It's nothing,” Tony insisted again raising his hands in the air. “It just needs a little tune up.”
“Right,” said Barton clearly disbelieving. He grabbed the tablet from in front of Tony before Stark could even make a move to stop him. Clint frowned at it a moment before passing it on to Bruce.
Banner studied the tablet. Tony vainly hoped that Jarvis would wipe the information from it before Bruce could read it, but he wasn't so lucky.
“Cardiac dysrhythmia and hypotension. You call that nothing?”
Clint snorted. “No wonder you look like crap.”
“Thanks a lot,” Tony grumbled. Normally he liked being the centre of attention but not like this. He rubbed a hand tiredly across his forehead. Why couldn't they leave him alone in his misery.
“I don't understand,” said Thor glancing from Tony to Bruce and back again.
“As well as keeping the shrapnel in Tony's chest from doing any damage,” Bruce explained, “the arc reactor keeps his heart beating at a normal rhythm kind of like a pacemaker. The wear on the parts is causing an irregular heartbeat which is in turn causing low blood pressure which causes fatigue, dizziness...”
“See,” Tony interrupted. “It's just making me a bit sleepy. Now if we could all get back to our regular program...”
“An irregular heartbeat can also lead to cardiac arrest and stroke.”
The room went silent once more.
Tony found himself unwilling to meet their eyes. He didn't want to see any of the pity that might be lurking there. He didn't want to see them looking at him like he was some sort of fragile invalid. It wasn't like he was actually dying, not this time. “It's not a big deal.,” he tried to explain. “I can replace it with one of my back-ups until I get it fixed.”
“You've got back-ups?” asked Steve.
“This thing is currently keeping me alive. Of course, I've got back-ups. I've got loads of back-ups.”
“There is currently only one back-up arc reactor functioning at this location,” Jarvis provided helpfully. “Arc reactor 7a is currently disassembled awaiting upgrades, 7b also requires maintenance, 7d is in Malibu and require a new power core.
Tony winced. Sometimes he wished Jarvis wasn't quite so helpful. “Okay, so I may have gotten a little behind on things lately. I've been busy.”
He looked up then. The Captain was gazing at him, not with pity, but with concern and maybe a hint of exasperation.
“You need to take better care of yourself,” Steve said. “Something like this should take top priority.”
“Right,” Tony grumbled wearily. “I'll just put it somewhere between saving the world and keeping my company which currently employs over two hundred thousand people running.”
“I'm serious, Tony.”
Tony just nodded. Truthfully, he was too tired to argue anymore. Now that he knew about it, he was hyper-aware of the beating of his heart unable to help noticing the odd rhythms and missed beats. The argument had taken whatever reserves of energy he'd had left. His body felt as if weighed as much as his armour. His head especially seemed to have a bowling ball attached to it. The table in front of him was so tempting and he couldn't resist it anymore. Learning over, he let his head rest on the surface and closed his eyes.
Natasha sounded worried. It was strange having her worry about him. He gave a wordless grunt in reply which seemed to satisfy her. The others continued talking as he rested there. Keeping his eyes closed, he let their words wash over him.
“We should cancel the meeting with SHIELD,” said Steve.
“Fury won't like that,” Natasha pointed out.
“I'm pretty sure I can keep him distracted,” said Clint, a smirk audible in his voice.
Someone shuffled over and Bruce's voice came from close by. “I'll help Tony down to the lab and get the back-up reactor in.”
“How long until he's back on his feet?” asked Steve.
“The arrhythmia should clear up as soon as we get the new reactor in. The low blood pressure and resulting symptoms will take a little longer.”
A surprisingly gentle hand patted Tony on the shoulder. “Do not worry, my friend,” said Thor, his voice oddly quiet for once. “We will have a chance to spar when you're feeling better.”
“Mmm,” was all Tony managed to say.
The others started talking of ways to prevent this sort of thing from happening again, but he had begun to doze off. With the rest of the Avengers surrounding him, he felt strangely safe and protected, warm and comfortable, because that was the thing, wasn't it. He was just as disturbingly comfortable with them as they were with each other. That's why he'd taken out his arc reactor in front of them, because he'd known he'd be safe.
He looked up blearily into Bruce's face.
Banner smiled down at him. “Come on. Let's get you fixed up.”
“Yes, Mom,” he said all sarcasm but no real bite to it.
The others laughed.
Maybe, Tony thought as Bruce manhandled him down to his lab, having all these people, these friends, in his home wasn't so bad after all.