He's had enough of being an experiment, a project, a thing, expected to obey, to think only enough to handle the mission, but never to question that the people 'higher up' know what's best. When the one-eyed guy in the leather coat talks to him, all Steve can hear are lies. Ok, looking at Times Square he can see that a lot of time has passed, so that much is true, but what else? All he knows is that he woke up in a fake room, surrounded by lies. Maybe these people are working for the government. Maybe they're working against it. Hell, maybe they're working for it, but the government has turned into something he wouldn't want to support. He's not going to be anyone's patsy.
"I'm just gonna go now." Steve shakes his head and starts walking. If they want to shoot him in the back, well, fine, that'll prove he's right to leave. The skin in between his shoulders is tight at first anticipating a bullet, then he hears scuffling behind him. The guy in the leather coat is talking, snapping out orders. Well, yeah, sounds like a guy who knows what he's doing, but that doesn't mean he's on the same side as Steve. He listens as he works his way through crowds, it's strange how much different the streets are when you're not small enough to hide in the crowd, when people instinctively give way for you. He doesn't think he'll ever get used to that.
He listens and realizes one man is following him, his stride and the sound of his shoes distinctive enough to memorize. That's fine. Whether they're friends or enemies, he'd like to keep a contact link, so he doesn't try to lose his tail. He needs to get off the street for a while, sit and think what to do next. He'll need a job, a place to stay... he doesn't even know what else he'll need, what changes there are. He doesn't see any flying cars, so Howard was wrong about that... but maybe some of all the other nutty inventions he talked about are real... and there have been social changes. Definitely there have been social changes, just going by what he's seen in the last few minutes. Clothing and hair styles are a lot more varied, and mostly a lot more casual. Even the men in business suits aren't wearing hats. And then there was the guy in the leather coat-- someone like him would never have been in charge before... oh, he's picking up too many pieces of a puzzle too big to work on all at once. He really needs some place quiet to think, some place a man can sit and not be bothered by all this... everything.
And then he sees more men walking toward him with quiet purpose, indefinably different from the crowd. If they were going to grab him, they'd have done it already, but he's in no mood to have any more confrontations in public. Someone innocent might get hurt.
He looks around and catches sight of something old-fashioned and homely; a bar with a hand-lettered sign above a varnished brown wooden double door. There are glass windows to either side of the door, not particularly clean, but not filthy, either. He can see a few people sitting inside. The light is a soft, friendly yellow. He pushes in and walks over to the bartender who is playing with something like a typewriter keyboard, if typewriters were flat and the keys set out in curves, and had symbols on them that didn't look like any language he'd ever seen. So, not really much like a keyboard. "Excuse me," Steve says.
"Sure thing, buddy. What's your poison?" The bartender looks up and smiles, and Steve has a nagging sense of not quite familiarity. The man is good-looking in a way that seems more deliberate than Steve's used to. His hair is... well, something's been done to make it stay in a fluffy sort of tousle like that, and the fancy trim of his beard probably requires more tweezing than a dame's eyebrows. In contrast, he's wearing a black undershirt with a faded design like an advertisement for something he's never heard of, over another black shirt, a long-sleeved knit that reminds Steve of long-johns. It's a strange combination of prissiness and sloppiness.
"Oh." Steve pats at his trousers. He's got no wallet, no money. "Sorry. I'm flat busted." He turns away. New York is full of public libraries, he'll have to try one of them.
"Hey, look it's dead right now. We could use some advertisement. How about you take a beer and a bowl of pretzels on the house and sit near the window?"
Steve frowns. "Well, that's very kind of you, but I'm not panhandling, Mister."
The bartender blinks. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"Well, yeah, I was born in Manhattan... haven't been around in a while, though. I've been...traveling in Europe."
"Oh, continental savoir-faire, that'll add tone to the place." The bartender draws a draft beer in a thick glass stein and pushes the mug over to Steve. "Really, just sit and look pretty."
Steve raises his eyebrows. Is this flirting serious, or is just the way people talk these days? The bartender raises his hands, palms out. "Hey, can't blame a guy for testing the waters. Peace offering..." He reaches under the bar, and Steve tenses, relaxing when the man brings out a paper-lined basket of something greasy that smells awfully good. "You like your Buffalo wings spicy?"
"Uh, sure. Thanks." Steve doesn't like accepting charity, but he is hungry, and he's not stupid enough to let pride make him weak. He offers his hand to the bartender. "I'm Steve. Steve Rogers."
The man surprises Steve with a firmer grip than the poncy hair and babbling would lead him to expect. "Tony Stark."
Steve nods and takes the beer and basket over to a seat by the window. It's not as if he didn't want to keep an eye on his followers, anyway. They act a lot like F.B.I. when they want to be seen. Maybe they're trying to panic Steve into doing something stupid. That's not going to happen. He might do something stupid to get a reaction, but not before he has a better lay of the land. He smiles at the passersby, and does his best to show his appreciation of the beer, which is actually a damn good beer, possibly the best he's ever had. Maybe some things about the future are an improvement. Or maybe the bartender really is flirting with him, and hopes to get into his pants. Steve doesn't give much weight to that thought one way or the other. During the war he'd had plenty of offers from both guys and dames, and hey, he's no saint, so sometimes he said yes. It never meant anything, not like Peggy. He meant to do things right with her, dancing and dinner, and... no point thinking about Peggy now. This is like being on a mission, keep focused.
The first tail is now standing on the sidewalk outside, looking in at Steve, looking at him the same way the scientists had done. So curious. What will the dancing monkey do? Will he be amusing? He's suddenly so damn angry and frustrated that he just wants to punch something, or someone. Distantly Steve hears glass shatter, and feels cold liquid run over his hand, cuts stinging in sharp bursts. He doesn't take his eyes off the man watching.
"Steve! Hey! What happened, how the hell did you even do that!" The bartender is at Steve's side, trying to get him to open his fist. "That's... unbreakable..." Something in Tony's voice catches Steve's attention. He looks away from the window and sees Tony has gone pale under his tan and is glaring at... yeah, certainly looks like he's looking at F.B.I. guy.
"What..." Steve asks, but Tony isn't listening.
Tony tosses a clean towel in Steve's direction and storms outside the bar, holding the door open with his body. He stands there, legs braced and whole attitude stiff with hostility. "What do you want? Or should I be asking, what does Fury want? Not that he's going to get it, but I love the sound of your voice, Coulson."
"Director Fury has no current interest in you, Stark. General Fury does, however, have a vested interest in Captain America," maybe F.B.I. guy, Coulson, says.
Steve lets the last of the glass shards fall from his hand and gets up, moving to stand next to Tony. He assumes Fury is the guy in the eye-patch. "You know, I'm pretty sure my term of enlistment ran out a long time ago."
Coulson says calmly, "Retrieving and reviving you diverted a great many resources."
"Yeah, thanks," Steve says. He doesn't owe Fury. He's not even sure whether he'd rather be dead than living in this world, with no connection to it. "We weren't buying and selling people any more in my time, so I guess that puts me one up on you."
"Why don't you have Fury send me the bill, Coulson?" Tony turns to Steve. "You can work it out in trade," he says with definitely salacious overtones, but underneath that Steve can see how very much Tony wants to get Fury's goat, and Steve is all for that.
"Yeah, I can do that." Steve puts his non-bloody arm around Tony's waist and pulls him closer. Tony is stiff against him for a moment, and then relaxes, playing up by leaning against him.
Coulson shrugs. "I'll pass the message on, gentlemen." He leaves, vanishing into the crowd within seconds.
Tony turns to look at Steve, moving back slightly to meet his eyes. "I wasn't kidding about paying Fury, but that's really nothing to do with you. I just like pissing him off."
"Nothing to do with me?"
Tony shrugs. "Well, maybe a little... I didn't place the name at first. My father told me a lot about you. He'd haunt me if I let anyone take advantage of Captain America."
Steve frowns. "Your father?"
"Howard Stark." Tony moves away from Steve, going back into the bar. "He died a long time ago, but I still remember how much he admired you."
Now that he knows, Steve can see the resemblance. And Howard had never been one to care much for orders, either. "About paying Fury, though..." he says as he follows Tony back into the cool semi-privacy. The few other occupants of the bar are more interested in their drinks than in real-life drama, but then, this is New York City, there's always some kind of drama on the street.
"Don't worry about it. He probably wouldn't have the nerve to bill me, but if he did, I'm good for it. Come over to the light, I want to look at that hand." Tony rummages out a first aid kit from under the bar. "So, I'm not sure I really believe it, but hey, I've seen stranger things than a legend come back to life seventy years later, still new penny shiny." He hums under his breath as he grabs Steve's hand and inspects it for glass before disinfecting and bandaging it.
"Have you now?"
"Oh, yes." Tony looks up at him, eyes dark and serious. "And if you're a trick of Fury's it won't do you any good. No one gets the Iron Man."
"I'm gonna feel awful stupid if I have to keep repeating everything you say." Steve flexes his hand once the bandage is in place, checking that he can still make a fist. It seems not unlikely he'll be doing that before the cuts heal, even as quickly as he does. "I don't know what you're talking about. Should I? I mean, is this Iron Man public knowledge?"
"Mmm..." Tony packs up the first aid kit. He glances at Steve. "Sort of. A few people might have heard about him."
"I never thought I'd hear you bein' modest, Stark."
Steve turns at the new, yet familiar, voice to face a man coming from the rear of the barroom, carrying a case of whiskey with negligent ease under one arm. "Logan!" He's astonished to not only recognize him, but to see that he's exactly as Steve remembers him, right down to the cheap cigar clenched between his teeth. There'd been rumors about Wolverine's ability to heal from any injury, and he'd seen the man in action, but still..."You haven't changed."
Logan grunts. "Nah. I like bein' me. Most days."
"You two know each other?" Tony is looking suspicious, and Steve can't entirely blame him. Coincidences usually are set-ups, in Steve's experience and there's at least one too many between the three of them.
"We met in Madripoor, during the war," Steve says.
Logan looks at Steve and then shrugs. "I don't remember you, Bub." He holds up a hand to stop Tony's obviously impending outburst. "I don't remember a lot of things. You might be telling the truth. Maybe."
"Do you remember the war?"
"Which one?" Logan gets behind the bar and opens a bottled beer. "You girls wanna chat, take it to the back room." He looks at the glass and blood on the table near the window. "If you wanna fight, take it into the alley, I ain't no maid to clean up after you."
"Hire one." Tony picks up a bottle and tosses a glass to Steve, who reflexively catches it. Tony grabs another glass and heads for the back. "Come on, Steve."
"Richboy pain in the ass!" Logan shouts after them, but he doesn't sound any more irritated than the usual grumbling simmer Steve remembers.
The back room is a narrow aisle between crates of supplies, well lit and with no place for anyone to hide in ambush. Steve wouldn't say he relaxes, but he isn't any more tense when Tony turns to face Steve. "So, either this is the biggest coincidence in history, or Fury is even more of a manipulative scheming bastard than I thought." He opens the bottle and pours a healthy three fingers into his glass, lifting the bottle and his eyebrows in inquiry at Steve afterward.
Steve holds out the glass for filling. "I don't really believe in coincidence," Steve says after a sip of Scotch, again the best he's ever tasted. "But what purpose would it serve?" Steve acknowledges that he'd been herded here, but he can't fathom why.
"Fury wanted to start up his own little superhero club, polish up a nice shiny band of toy soldiers to march around to his orders. I had..." Tony takes a couple swallows of Scotch. "reasons to almost be persuaded... then I found out that he'd been holding onto my father's personal effects for nearly thirty years, including his notebooks, and a message... that would have meant a hell of a lot to me if I'd seen it sooner." Tony stops talking for a moment, apparently getting his temper under control with the aid of the rest of the Scotch. He refills his glass. "He finally dumped it all on my lap along with some Fury brand sarcasm, only when ... well, basically, I would have died without the information. So, yay, I'm alive. And I'll never let him get control over my life again."
"All right, I get that you don't trust Fury. Heck, I don't trust him. What about Logan?"
"I don't think Logan trusted his own mother... if he could remember her."
"No, I mean, how did you meet him? The two of you don't seem likely to run in the same circles."
Tony laughs. "This is New York City, weird shit central. Someone dressed like a giant alligator led a bunch of flaming reptiles through midtown- right in the middle of rush hour, which made it even more of a joy. Logan was having a drink in one of the bars they burned up. Apparently, they torched him along with his last cigar. That... really burned him up." Tony grins at his own pun and has more Scotch. "We divided the lizards between us, and then went looking for an unburnt bar for a celebratory drink. The owner thought we weren't high-class enough for his establishment, so I bought the building. I decided to stay to run the bar until we run out of Scotch. Logan decided to stay until he gets bored. That's about it."
Steve frowns and drinks his Scotch. "Well, that doesn't sound like Fury could have arranged it."
"Yeah, no, not that. But he did later send a couple of shiny young idealists into the bar trying to recruit Logan. He told them to fuck off, naturally, and so there Fury had two superheroes sitting on his front lawn in beach chairs, thumbing their noses at him. Doesn't help with recruitment. Your glass is empty."
"I like it that way."
Tony taps the bottle against Steve's glass. "I insist."
"Seems the simplest test of your identity. Dad said Cap could drink a regiment under the table."
Steve raises his eyebrows. "Fine. But why waste the good stuff on me?"
Tony looks offended. "If you are Cap, I'm not going to serve you anything less than the best. If you're not, then Logan and I will strip your unconscious body naked, paint witty remarks on you, and dump you on Fury's doorstep along with the liquor bill."
"Do you take anything seriously?" Steve takes the bottle and puts it to his mouth, chugging it down non-stop. It doesn't taste so good that way, but he's tired of playing games.
"Some things." Tony opens another bottle and pours himself another drink.
"I thought you were testing me," Steve says, picking up his glass and holding it out for a refill.
Tony nods. "Yeah, but I get bored."
Well, if Tony is a superhero, Iron Man, whatever, he probably doesn't get drunk either. Although Tony doesn't look like Iron, you can't go by appearances. Probably it's a hidden power, like Logan's claws and healing ability. Iron bones? Iron stomach? He certainly can slug the booze down without blinking.
It isn't too long before Steve changes his mind. Tony becomes pie-eyed, staggering drunk while Steve remains perfectly sober, of course. Tony is so drunk he's having difficulty peeling the seal from a bottle. "You know," Steve says while taking the bottle from Tony's hand, "I think you've proved my point. What kind of a superhero are you, anyway?" Steve is wondering how much of the story Tony told him is the truth. Maybe everyone he's spoken to since he woke has been lying to him. He's not normally a paranoid sort of feller, but he didn't just fall off the turnip truck, either.
Tony smiles and grabs at the bottle. Steve holds onto it. "You've had enough."
"It's mine." Tony pulls at the bottle, loses his balance and winds up tangled in Steve's arms. "Hey! Not on...on the firs' date!" And then he looks up at Steve, all wide-eyed and giggly and it's just too much.
"Cut the joking around," Steve says gruffly, trying to get Tony back on his own feet. His hands slip as Tony wriggles uncooperatively, and the shirts push up. Trying to keep Tony from winding up on the floor, Steve grips harder and the shirts ride up further. A blue-white light shines out, startling him. "What?" Tony starts struggling in earnest now, but he's too drunk to do a good job of it and Steve gets a good look at a metal rimmed glass disc seemingly set in Tony's chest. "What are you?"
"A self-made man," Tony replies, trying to yank the shirts back down. "My father would have been proud of me. Yeah. Not so much, really."
Steve pushes Tony back to sit on a crate. "Is that what makes you Iron Man? What does it do?"
"Yeah. Well, that's part of it." Tony waves his hand vaguely around. "I think I need to visit the little superheroes room." Tony pushes to his feet and wanders back into the bar, leaving Steve standing there, wondering what is going on. There's a door at the far end, presumably leading to an alley. New York can't have changed so much that he can't lose himself beyond Fury's finding... but what good would that do? He needs answers, and whatever else Tony Stark is, he's definitely a talker.
Steve goes back into the bar and takes it in at a glance. There are a few more customers- none of them look like Fury's men. The table where Steve sat has been cleaned up. Logan is pouring drinks. And there's an unobtrusive door swinging shut. Steve assumes its purpose from the placard bearing a stylized stick figure of a man. He goes in. Urinals at least are recognizable, and after drinking several bottles, he can use one. From the sounds coming from a closed stall, Tony won't be talking for a while, so he might as well relieve his bladder while he waits. He finishes, and tidies himself away before washing his hands. He leans on the tiled wall for a few minutes until there's a lull in the unpleasant noises. "Tony?" A toilet flushes. The stall door opens and Tony looks out at him.
"Oh. Yeah. Be with you in a minute, Cap." Tony goes to the sink and washes his hands, then rinses his mouth out. "So. Yeah. That was... yeah." He frowns at Steve. "You're still sober as a...whatever... I've known some drunk judges, so not that."
"Do you want me to touch my nose, or walk a line?" Steve smiles. He isn't amused by Tony, but he's curious, and hostility seldom gets you honest answers.
"No, no, that's fine. For the purposes of this discussion..." Tony shakes his head. "Yeah, all right, you're Captain America. Fury's playing with us. The way I see it, you can flip him off and drop off the map, you can trust his judgment and sign up, or you can hang out with me until you make up your mind."
"Hang out with you? As what, your kept man?"
Tony blinks. "Oh, sorry. I wasn't offering to be your sugar daddy... wasn't not offering either, because... hey, Captain America... I would so not kick you out for eating crackers in bed. But no. I don't know if I mentioned it, but I could be the best sugar daddy in the world. But that's not what I meant."
"Tony." Steve's patience is worn down to a razor's edge. "What. Do. You. Mean?"
Tony runs his hands through his hair. "Go along with Fury by pretending that Logan and you and I are forming up our own boyband to keep him from trying some new trick. Live in my tower-- and no, that's not a dirty euphemism. Logan's got his own floor, I think the walls are lined with Canadian beer and Cuban cigars, not that he ever invites me to visit... and you could have your own floor, on the same terms. Stay as long as you like, and I'll do my best to get you up to speed on the twenty-first century."
"And what do you get out of it?"
"I don't know. That's the thing. I'm a... well, research scientist, among other things... and it's by investigating what I don't know that I come up with new things."
"You're not going to investigate me." Steve has no intention of being x-rayed, measured, poked and prodded, none of that, ever again.
"What? Oh, I'm too drunk for this. No, I do not want to analyze your tissues and bodily fluids, although... no, no, inappropriate, yes, trying to conduct business here. No, it's just... you're you. You're different. You'll make me think different."
"I think you're crazy."
"Eh, when you're as rich as I am, it's called being eccentric. Come on. Where's that famous split-second decision making I heard so much about?"
"Yeah, well. This is different." Steve sighs. "All right. I'll stay with you for now."
"Great! That calls for a celebration." Tony bounces, actually bounces on his feet. "Champagne! You like champagne, don't you?" He heads back into the bar, Steve just catching the swinging door before it smacks him in the face. "Logan!" Tony sidles onto a barstool. "Champagne!"
Steve follows and frowns. "Tony."
"Have to seal the deal. Logan, we're going to be the Three Musketeers! Only without muskets."
"Yeah, muskets were a pain in the ass." Logan pours champagne into three glasses, taking his cigar out of his mouth long enough to gulp down a glass. "Make me a good gun, Stark, and I'm not wearin' no feather hat."
Tony nods agreeably, empties his glass and holds it out for more. "Done deal."
Steve is joining forces with a sociopath and a drunken lecher. Why? He thinks back to the mocked up room he woke in, so clean and serene. Drunken debauchery is honest in comparison. "Yeah, I'm in." The champagne is excellent. Of course it is.
Tony likes Steve. Steve is reserving judgment on Tony until he sees Tony sober. If ever.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Several glasses of champagne later Tony says, "You know, we could put a karaoke machine in here."
Logan scowls. "Over your dead body, Stark." He takes something from his back pocket, flips it open and pushes a button. "Yo, Hogan? You wanna come get Stark? He wants to sing, an' I don' wanna hear it."
Steve has his right hand wound in Tony's collar, keeping him from falling off the bar-stool. "Wireless telephone?"
"Yeah." Logan shows it to Steve. "There's all sorts of new doohickeys since your day, Rogers. But people, people don't change."
Tony shakes his head. "Don' get philosophical on us, Logan."
"Wouldn't think of it, Stark." Logan goes off to serve a new customer.
Tony leans against Steve. "I'll tell you everything from a to z, make a modern man of you in no time, Cap."
"Thanks." Steve returns to eating chicken wings and pretzels with his left hand. He's learning how to tune out Tony Stark. He has a feeling it will be a vital life skill. Vital, that is, for Tony. How no one has strangled the man before now...
"A is for...area codes! No more local exchanges, party lines, rotary dials, forget finding a public phone booth- poor Superman, if he was around today, he'd have to strip in the toilet..."
Steve tries to divert Tony's babbling brook. "Yeah, ok, I don't have anyone to call, anyway."
"A is for... AIDS!" Tony pats at his pocket, fumbles around and then pulls out what Steve belatedly realizes is a condom packaged in foil. "Here! Really, brave new world and new fucking diseases. Don't leave home without it!"
Steve grabs the condom to keep Tony from waving it around. "Thanks. That's... very thoughtful of you."
Tony beams at him and leans closer. "Dad said you never get sick, but hey, why take a chance?"
"Yes, I can see you're a very prudent man." Steve catches Tony as his balance passes too far over, and drags him back. The next time Tony tips over, Steve is going to drop him on the floor.
Fortunately, Hogan shows up before then, double-parking a long, black limousine in front of the bar and coming in. He pauses to look at Steve, still holding Tony upright. "Hey, Boss," he says, moving to get in Tony's visual range, which has narrowed considerably. "Ready to come home?"
"Maybe." Tony is trying to do some sort of bar trick with matchsticks, peering myopically at them from a few inches away.
Steve gets off the bar stool, taking Tony with him by his grip on the collar. "Mr. Stark is several stages past ready." He switches hands to offer Hogan his right, letting Tony wobble slightly. "I'm Steve Rogers. Mr. Stark has kindly invited me to his Tower." Steve says this with a straight face, although it takes some effort.
"Oh," Happy says as he shakes Steve's hand. "Pleased to meet you. I'm Happy Hogan, Mr. Stark's chauffeur."
Tony grins up at Steve. "My body is ready." He frowns. "Except that... I seem to have lost my knees."
Steve pulls Tony over his shoulder, carefully. "Don't puke on me. These are the only clothes I have."
"Nice ass," Tony comments upside-down.
No one in the bar seems to notice as Steve carries Tony out to the car. Apparently this isn't an uncommon exit for Tony Stark.
As they drive off Steve looks back at 'The Iron Wolverine' from the rear window of the limousine. He doesn't see anyone that looks like an F.B.I. man, but that doesn't reassure him. Logan looks up from polishing the bar top and meets his eyes briefly before turning back to the customers. As he recalls it, Logan was a tough son of a bitch, but dead loyal once you won him over. That he's still with Stark probably means there's something more to the man than a drunken fool.
Tony stops talking. Steve glances at him to see if he's passed out, but no such luck. He recognizes a drunken melancholy when he sees one. "You feelin' sorry for yourself, Stark?"
"No, no. Of course not. I've got everything. I've got it all."
"Sure." Steve hates drunken melancholy. It brings up too many memories. He turns his head and looks out the window, trying to recognize the bones of the New York he'd known, under the flashy new skin it had grown. Like Howard's son, there must be something more than he sees. There must be.
Steve pours Tony out of the limo in front of one of the biggest, and to his mind, ugliest, buildings he's ever seen. Even Rockefeller wouldn't have stuck his name all over it in lights. To be fair, though, 'Stark' fits better than 'Rockefeller' would. Steve watches Hogan drive away and turns back to see Tony has pulled himself together pretty well. The main giveaway is his too careful posture. Tony slips on a pair of purple-tinted sunglasses and leads the way into a chrome and glass and marble lobby which is almost bright enough to justify the glasses. It's cool inside, like a movie house. Thinking about it, it makes sense. This steel and glass building would be unbearable without air-conditioning. He wonders what it costs to keep the place running. If Tony can afford this, then yeah, buying a bar in order to get a drink is merely wastefully stupid, not impossible.
"C'mon, Cap," Tony says as the doors of a sleek chrome elevator open after he brushes his hand against a blue-lit plate set in the wall.
The elevator itself is silent, but something that Steve hopes isn't popular music surrounds them. Tony glances at him. "Jarvis, kill the music."
"Thanks." Steve stares at the door, trying not to think of anything. Tony fidgets with some gadget he pulls from his pocket for a minute, and then he puts it away. "I just want you to know," Steve says after a minute, "that I'm not really a superhero, if you were counting on that. I don't even have my shield." And now that he's said it, that hurts. It had become more than a tool to him. He feels unbalanced without it.
"Don't make my old man a liar." Tony slides his hands into his pockets and smiles, all arrogance. "If Fury has the shield, he'll fork it over, don't worry."
"And if he doesn't?"
"I'll make you a new one."
"Howard said he'd used up most of the vibranium in the world on it."
Tony taps at his chest. "I know how to make more." Tony tips his sunglasses down and looks over them at Steve. "Did I forget to mention that I'm a genius?"
The bar is named 'The Iron Wolverine' because there are already many bars named 'The Brass Monkey' .
Pepper shows up. Steve makes a demand of Tony.
The elevator doors open, revealing a room that's impressive for the sheer amount of unused space and expensive hotel-blandness in the decor. The only furnishing that strikes Steve as showing a hint of personality is the large bar stocked with unlabeled bottles in various colors. The floor to ceiling windows add to the impression of a giant goldfish bowl. There's even a couple hunks of coral rock randomly decorating the place. "This is where you live?"
"This is more like the office, actually."
"Tony?" A tall, slender woman with reddish-blonde hair pulled back into a tidy arrangement, one that Steve hasn't got a name for, strides up to them. She's wearing high heels and a gray business skirt set, but somehow the combination doesn't seem incongruous to Steve. She gives Steve a look that's neither friendly nor hostile, more like assessing. "I have some papers you need to look at and sign. I'm sure your friend won't mind waiting a few minutes."
"Well, no, he probably wouldn't, Pepper, he's very polite, but he's not my friend and don't think I didn't catch the way you said that. This is Captain Steven Rogers." Tony beams. "Dad lost him, but I found him!" Tony does another little bounce, and Steve is reminded of a terrier that had been the mascot for one of the units. Yappy, but brave. "Captain America!"
Pepper looks at Tony, and then at Steve. She doesn't quite sigh, but Steve can see how close she is to it. "Virginia Potts, CEO of Mr. Stark's business." She moves the papers to her left hand and holds out her right. "Pleased to meet you." She gives Steve a brief, but firm, handshake, and then turns back to Tony. "Papers, Tony. Now."
"What's the hurry? Don't you want to stay and get to know Cap?"
"I have a luncheon engagement."
"Oh." Tony visibly deflates. "Happy?"
"Yes, Tony. When he told me you were returning early, we decided to take the chance to go out to lunch."
"Yeah." Tony shoves his hands back in his pockets again. "I know. I don't make it easy."
Pepper's expression softens, and Steve is uncomfortable. He feels like he's walked in on something private. Pepper says, "That's all right, Tony. We don't mind. If I leave the papers here, will you look at them and sign them before I return?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'll do that. Hey, you kids have a good time. Throw my name around, it always impresses the waiters. Or at least the sommeliers."
Pepper laughs and puts the papers down on a glass-topped table. "We'll do that." She gives Steve another look and he feels as if she's measured him right down to his socks. "I'll be back in two hours. Will that do, Mr. Stark?"
"Yes, Ms. Potts, that will do," Tony says. He watches her enter the elevator and the doors close behind her. Then he looks at Steve. "Yeah. That was... awkward. Pepper and I... were a thing. Thing-ish. It didn't work out. My fault, really. Pepper is awesome. I need a drink." Tony heads for the bar.
"What about these papers?"
"Right. Papers." Tony sits at the table, picks up the pen clipped to the sheaf of papers and leafs through, signing his name where ever he comes across a yellow arrow sticker.
"Aren't you going to read them?"
"Nah. If Pepper's... if there are any... mistakes... I don't want to know." Tony signs the last of the papers and drops the pen on top of the sheaf. "There! A good day's work calls for a drink."
"How are you a superhero?" Steve doesn't mean to say that, but his disgust at Tony's display just makes it spill out.
Tony looks at him. "There's a funny story behind it, but I don't guess you're in the mood. You're right, I'm not a hero. But things happen and sometimes even when you're not a hero you can't just ignore them. So I suit up and go out there, all shiny and save the day. And then I come home, and relax and everything's fine."
"No. No it's not fine. Tony..." Steve sighs. "Look, I'm not telling you how to run your life, but if you want me to work with you then you've got to promise me one thing."
"If you're drunk, you don't fight."
"How can I promise that? It's not as if the bad guys call ahead for an appointment!"
"You're a genius, right? I'm sure you'll figure something out." Steve walks over to look out at the Chrysler building, leaving his back to Tony. It's nice to see that something has stayed the same, that sometimes something beautiful and unique is protected and maintained, no matter how much upkeep it takes.
"I can't sit on the sidelines and wait to sober up. People could get killed."
Steve doesn't turn. The sunlight brings out the shadows in the building. He can see it so clear, it's almost as if he could reach out and touch it. "Yeah. They could."
"I can't... I can't promise not to get drunk. It happens."
"Yeah." So sharp and perfect, a masterpiece of balance. Balance is tricky. It's so easy to go too far and ruin everything.
"You expect me to quit drinking?"
Steve turns. Tony looks open and without defenses. "I don't know. You didn't tell me your story yet. I don't know if you have it in you to be a real hero. My father never managed it."
"Neither did mine," Tony says softly.
"If you're willing to try, I'll help you."
Tony meets Steve's eyes for a long moment before nodding. "I'll try." Then he sighs. "Logan will have to hire another bartender."
Puzzle pieces will be slowly assembled.
Logan inspects his cigar and sticks it back in his mouth. "Do I have to change the name? I've already got t-shirts on order."
"No, of course not," Tony says. They're sitting at the couch in his 'office' while Steve empties the bottles of liquor down the drain of the wet bar. Tony's talking loud, to cover up the gurgling. "And I want one." He glances at Steve. "Two, if they come in a size that won't choke Steve to death. I don't mind if it's tight."
"Tony," Steve says, warningly.
"Hey, look at the shirt you're wearing now! S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't get your proper size, either, obviously. You're a hard guy to fit." Tony gets up and starts pacing randomly. "Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D. reminds me. Jarvis, see if you can find Captain America's shield. And while you're at it, compile all dad's research and notes on vibranium. Even if Fury gives the shield back, I want to look into other applications. Transfer the data to the workshop. I want to get started right away."
Logan gets up. "Right. Try not to blow yourself up."
"I didn't know you cared, that's so sweet."
"I don't. My floor's just below your workshop an' I hate gettin' plaster in my corn flakes." Logan heads for the elevator. "I gotta get back an' open the bar again. It's gettin' close to Happy Hour."
Steve is doing one last minute sweep for hidden liquor back in the 'office' after having cleared the other levels Tony uses for living and work space when he hears the elevator doors open. He looks up, and sees Pepper Potts take one step in and then stop, staring at the neat rows of empty bottles covering nearly the entire table and the floor around it.
"What is going on?" she asks. "Oh, God, did Tony have another of his parties? No... nothing's broken."
"Mr. Stark tells me that glass bottles are collected for reuse," Steve says. "Would you know where I could get some boxes for these?"
"What?" Pepper sits on the couch and picks up the papers lying in the one non-bottled corner. "Tony signed them?"
"Wasn't he supposed to?"
"Yes, but I'd only asked him once. It usually..." Pepper looks up at Steve. "What have you done to Tony?"
"Nothing. He's in his workshop. He was talking about making me a new shield."
"Shield. Oh. My. God. You really are him. Captain America."
"Well, yeah, that's the code name they gave me." Steve rubs at his neck. "I thought it was kinda silly, especially since everyone knew my real name."
Pepper pats the couch beside her. "Talk to me. Tell me what you're doing with Tony. To Tony."
"I think that's really his business, Miss Potts. You should talk to Tony yourself."
"No. No, you don't get it. Tony will talk all day, but not about anything... personal. He was dying,and rather than tell me, he made me the world's worst omelette and asked me to go with him to Venice! I'm his friend and I want to help him, but it's... not easy."
Steve frowns. "All right, Tony trusts you, so I suppose I should, too. He's gone on the wagon."
"You know. The water wagon. He's taken the blue-ribbon pledge." Pepper still looks confused. "He's agreed to stop drinking liquor."
"Was he drunk at the time?"
"Well, yes. But thinking drunk, not stinking drunk. He knew what he was saying. He asked me to help him." Steve reaches for one of the empty bottles and pushes it more neatly in alignment with the others. "I wasn't strong enough to help someone else... I'd like to help him."
Pepper stares at Steve for a long moment, and then nods. "Maybe it'll work out." She pulls a gadget from her purse. "I've researched alcohol detoxing, without Tony's knowledge, of course. He's never gone through withdrawal before, which is good because it becomes more hazardous with each attempt. But it's also bad, because he has no idea what to expect, and Tony doesn't do well with situations he can't control."
Steve nods. He'd just planned on staying with Tony and making sure he couldn't get any booze. "Well, no one likes to be out of control."
"No, you don't understand. He has to be in control. He lets me bully him into doing things he'd rather let slide, but no one has ever made him do anything he really didn't want to do. That's why I haven't asked him to quit drinking. He might have tried to please me, but if he didn't want to, he would have failed. Do you really think he's ready to quit?"
Steve doesn't have to think about it. "He has to be ready. I don't know what powers or abilities he has as a superhero, but I do know it's dangerous, not just to himself, for him to continue like this."
"Yes." Pepper nods and does something to the gadget. "First thing, I'm calling in a doctor. Tony hates doctors, but this isn't optional. Your job is to convince Tony to allow it." Even as Steve is nodding, Pepper begins talking to the gadget, which is apparently an even less telephone-like telephone than Logan's. "Yes, doctor, this is Pepper Potts..."
Coulson stands patiently in front of Fury's desk until the Director finishes reading his report. Fury looks up at him. "Dr. Nazara entered Stark's Tower over two hours ago and hasn't emerged. The pharmacy sent up an assortment of drugs and supplies," Coulson glances down at a list in his hand, "including magnesium, trazodone, thiamine, folic acid, diazepam, heloperidol, paraldehyde, chloral hydrate, carbamazapine, clonidine, acamprosate, and nitrous oxide."
Fury nods. "Dr. Nazara seems to have covered every contingency."
"Difficult to say, sir. A week to ten days, probably."
Fury grunts and pushes a folder over to Coulson. "It's improved the odds, but not enough."
Coulson picks up the folder, opens it and raises his eyebrows. "Is this necessary, sir?"
"I'm afraid so. We need him."
"The current prediction, sir?"
"Sober, Stark saves New York City, but he dies in the process."
"Ah. And the next crisis?"
"Doesn't turn out well." Fury's lone eye stares bleakly straight ahead. "Not well at all."
Save the Avengers! Collect the whole set.
The next day Tony is pacing in his workshop, pulling holograms (Steve still hasn't figured out how light projections can be made to interact with real people) out of the air pretty much at random as far as Steve can tell. Dr. Nazara has retreated to a guest room on the living quarters level after giving Tony his medication, which was no fun for anyone involved, not even Steve who only had to watch. Steve could still smell the fear-sweat on Tony, a sharp rush of it when Dr. Nazara had approached with the injections neatly laid out on a sterile steel tray.
It hadn't been as bad as the first time, though. Tony had flatly refused. The doctor had mentioned the possibility of brain damage from an uncontrolled withdrawal. Tony had shouted for 'Jarvis', and a voice very like an English butler from a posh movie came from nowhere and proceeded to argue on the doctor's side. Pepper finally stepped in between Tony and the doctor and just said, "Tony." Tony threw up his hands in the air and conceded, but only on condition that Pepper go manage Stark Industries from California where "you can't bully me." Steve thought it was more likely he didn't want Pepper to see him fall apart. He also thought Pepper knew it, but she'd given Tony a sharp answer and marched out as if offended. Pepper kinda reminded him of Peggy.
"Why don't you try to get some sleep?" Steve asks, seeing Tony ball up and 'throw away' yet another glowing insubstantial model. What's really disconcerting is that the disposal lights up a scoreboard and rings a bell like a carnival game. None of the scientists Steve had dealt with played games with their equipment. Isn't anyone serious about anything these days? Or is this just Tony?
"Nah." Tony glances at Steve and then away. "Maybe later. I just remembered. I promised to bring you up to date, Cap. Where do you want to start? I'm not much on history, so Jarvis will have to answer any questions you have on the dark ages, but I can fill you in on the sexual and technological revolutions."
"Sexual revolution? Do I really want to know what that is? More to the point, do I want to hear about it from you?"
Tony grins. "Oh, hey, I know, Jarvis, run Allsop's version of 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. That'll give you a starting place." Tony sits down in a convertible (yes, Steve doesn't know why or how, but there's a car in Tony's workshop near the top of his Tower. Ok, obviously it's Tony who's strange) and waves at Steve. "We need popcorn for the true drive-in experience. Popcorn and necking."
"Oh, yeah, that was a thing. Might be coming back a bit. I'll have to check and see if there are any still open around here."
Steve sits next to Tony without comment. Tony's hands are trembling and when Steve glances at them, Tony stuffs them into his pockets and says, "Ok, I can be a gentleman, no groping on the first date. Run it, Jarvis."
Steve watches, hardly daring to blink. The music and words and images are all fast, like so many other things, but after a few seconds he learns the trick of absorbing the information without thinking about it. It's mostly people he doesn't know -a disproportionate number are entertainers- are entertainers that important? and images of war, including some horrifically huge explosions. He's saddened to realize that people still haven't ended war. It's a short movie, but gives him quite a bit to think about, and many names to research later.
"Well? Any questions?"
Steve frowns. "The Dodgers... are in California?"
"Kid, I didn't mind you shooting webs to pull down bottles, an' I kinda liked the way you tossed that bum causin' trouble onto a lamppost, but you've gotta do a better job of fakin' ID." Logan shrugs. "I don't need the hassle. Come back when you're legal. And don't give me the sad eyes. Makes you look even younger. Here." Logan grabs a small t-shirt out of the box that's just been delivered and tosses it to the young man. "Go give me some free advertisin'."
"Thanks, Logan!" The kid pulls the black shirt with the snarling red iron wolverine motif over his blue and red shirt and walks out the door, whistling.
Coulson puts down his binoculars and sighs, shaking his head at the carnage of smashed Stark Industries military equipment which would now have to be replaced by Hammer's Hummers. It's also a pity about the many damaged soldiers, but they at least are still being produced to the same standard. "Generals. Why do they always make things so difficult?" His tactical earpiece crackles to life. "Yes. I'm ready." He picks up an extra large box of doughnuts and medium size trousers before climbing down the fire escape from the roof of the university library.
He reaches the parking lot just as the black helicopter with the oddly shaped rotor blades sets down, silently. He ducks under the still whirling blades as the side door opens. "Thank you, Agent Romanov," he says as he settles in next to her. "Is the target remaining within range of the transponder?"
The man at the controls takes the helicopter up before Coulson fastens his seat belt.
"Yes, sir," Natasha replies. She's wearing a very demure and feminine light green dress and has her face made up to accentuate her eyes in a soft, innocent look. "Is the plan still the same?"
"Yes, I see no reason to change it. If I fail, then you go in. If you fail, then Agent Barton will attempt to bring the target down. That's a last resort. 'Softly, softly, catchy monkey'."
At the controls, Barton makes a displeased sound. "I like that, 'attempt'."
"I'm casting no aspersions on your aim, but the sedatives may not work."
"That's enough to put a bull elephant down for the count. I know. I tested it."
Coulson gives him a look. "S.H.I.E.L.D. does not approve animal testing."
"Hey, he was gonna get poached. I had him air-lifted to a preserve afterward. He's fine."
"Well, all right then."
"Can I have a doughnut?"
They ride in silence for about an hour. Then Barton says, "The signal's stable. We should reach the location in five minutes unless the target moves again."
"Good," Coulson replies. It's begun raining, and night has fallen. "I should have brought an umbrella."
The helicopter sets down beside a stream next to a cliff-face. The helicopter's lights reveal a large green face scowling at them from a cave, one massive hand shielding a woman beside him. Coulson smiles and waves his hand. "Good evening, Mr. Banner, Miss Ross. Would you care for a doughnut?"
Day 2 of Tony's detox. So far, only one car is a casualty.
"Hey! I hired you to pour drinks, not play Galaga!" Logan tosses his second hire in two days out the door and then throws his laptop after him. "Punk. You're a disgrace to your uniform!" He's sorry he gave the guy a t-shirt.
"Pep, Pep, Pepper! So, how is sunny California?" Tony asks. He's holding his phone in one hand, and a wrench in the other. Terrible things have happened to the convertible. He uses his elbow to fend off a robot holding a glass of something green. "No, Dummy, I don't want a smoothie. Go... polish something."
"California is fine," Pepper answers. "How is New York?"
"Dry. Very dry. Unbelievably dry." Tony kicks a mechanic's crawler out of his path. "And boring."
"Is Steve still there?"
"Yeah. He's sleeping, I think. Oh, hey, what time is it? I didn't wake you up, did I? I have no idea what time it is, I've been working."
"I thought you said you were bored."
"Bored, working, same thing. I just wanted you to know... you know. How dry it is, here."
"I'm glad to hear it, Tony."
"Um, you know... if it had been dry before, do you think it would have worked?"
Pepper doesn't answer at first, and then she sighs. "I don't know, Tony."
"Yeah, me either." Tony stands there for a minute, staring at the dismantled car. "Anyway, I just wanted to give you the weather report. I'll let you get back to work. Or sleeping."
Pepper laughs. "Thanks, Tony. And I'm really very glad about the weather."
Steve finds Jarvis much more helpful at answering questions than Tony. Maybe he's being unfair, having only seen the man when drunk, or when disoriented from withdrawal, but he suspects getting a straight answer out of Tony is always difficult. So when he walks into the workshop after having taken a half hour break (Tony can't tolerate the smell of food today so out of consideration, he'd eaten on the next level up) and sees the condition of the car, he says, "Jarvis, why is the car in pieces?"
"I believe the ash trays were dirty," the computer replies in a long-suffering tone Steve is beginning to empathize with.
He steps over assorted parts and goes over to Tony, who is lounging on one of the ripped out car seats. "I didn't know you smoked."
Tony rolls his eyes up enough to look at Steve. "I don't. They were dusty. Dust is very bad for electronics."
"Oh. Well, I'm glad you got that sorted out." Steve sits down on the other seat, next to Tony. "How are you doing?"
"Fine. Just like the last three times you asked."
"Uh huh. I brought the book with me. Wanna hear some more?"
"Sure." Tony closes his eyes.
" 'Ratty', said the Mole suddenly, one bright summer morning, 'if you please, I want to ask you a favor.'," Steve reads.
"If you're going to read me a bedtime story, you should do the voices properly."
"How does Mole sound?"
"Mmm... I don't know, maybe a bit squeaky, but not too much, because you need to be able to tell him from the Rat."
Steve resumes reading, in a suitably squeaky voice. He's rather proud of himself when he hears Tony snoring after a few minutes. He closes the book and looks down at Tony. He really is handsome. It's a pity he's also crazy as a bedbug. Steve gets up as quietly as he can and wanders around the workroom. He's curious about the display cases against the far wall, occupied by, well... they kinda remind him of the illustration on the cover of the magazine with the story about robots that he'd read a few weeks ago... um. Yeah. Robots? He looks closer. The one thing each has in common is a glass cover in the center of the chest. He looks back at Tony.
That thing in his chest would fit. He moves further away from Tony and says softly, "Jarvis, what can you tell me about Iron Man?"
Day 3 of Tony's detox- Tony makes a deal with the devil. The Iron Wolverine continues to have staffing difficulty.
Logan likes Ororo. She's efficient, no-nonsense, and looks fine in an Iron Wolverine t-shirt. He's thinking he's found his bartender. Then a guy walks in the door, all seven foot or so of well-muscled nobility. He says he's taking a break from a UN meeting, and introduces himself as T'Challa, king of an African nation. Ororo is impressed with T'Challa. T'Challa is impressed with Ororo. Logan can practically see the fireworks and hearts and flowers as their eyes meet. Then Ororo's hair starts flying and dust devils swirl around and there's an indoor tornado for a few moments before Ororo shuts it down and looks embarrassed. Logan's got nothing against romance, but when a whirlwind romance causes an actual whirlwind in his bar, he draws the line.
"Hey, you guys make a nice couple, here, T'Challa, no hard feelings," he hands the king a t-shirt. "You're fired, Ororo."
"Yeah," Tony says, looking morosely at Steve's cup of coffee. Dr. Nazara won't allow him any caffeine. "Iron Man is me, plus the suit. What else did Jarvis tell you?"
"Well, only what was in the public records. I figured out some of the rest on my own." Steve is holding a 'Proof that Tony Stark Has a Heart' display case (Jarvis said it was a replacement, but wouldn't say what had happened to the original), turning it around and around in his hands. "You went overseas to demonstrate a weapon and were kidnapped. When you returned, you wouldn't say how you'd escaped, but you announced your company wouldn't be making weapons any longer. A few weeks later Iron Man appeared and fought another guy in a suit like yours. The next day it was reported that your business partner had died in a plane crash and you told the world you are Iron Man. That tells quite a lot, but not everything."
"Close enough." Tony sips at a glass of water and makes a face. "God, I need a drink...of coffee."
"What the public record doesn't show is this." Steve puts the display case down on the table. "Do you want to tell me how you wound up with something like this in your body?"
"Not really, no."
"You know how I became what I am."
Tony smiles slightly. "So you think it's only fair that I should tell you what happened to me? Not comparable, Cap. You chose it. You gave up everything to become a hero, you volunteered. I was pushed into it and had everything taken from me before I gave in to necessity, to save my own life. It's not a pretty or heroic story. The real hero died in a cave in Afghanistan. I'm just a guy who's trying to make up for some of the mistakes I've made."
"I think that counts as a hero, Tony."
Tony gets up and pats Steve on the arm. "Yay, two points for me. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Cap. Listen, I'm gonna go take care of a killer headache, why don't you try out the exercise room? Not that you look like you need bulking up."
"Yeah, all right." Steve has been getting restless, this is the longest he's gone without physical activity since his first mission. Stark's exercise room looks mostly understandable, apparently free weights and padded floors haven't evolved. And he and Tony haven't had an argument yet today, so they're probably overdue for a little respite from each other's company. "I saw you have a boxing ring. Who's your usual sparring partner?"
"Happy. He's not bad, but he never learned dirty boxing." Tony grins at Steve.
"Yeah, no, I don't want to talk to underling number four. This is Tony Stark. Put me through to Director Fury. Ok, fine, make it Agent Coulson, they're in a symbiotic relationship, mutualism I guess, like a remora attaching itself to the most bad-ass shark it can find. Fury will be leaning over his shoulder, listening in." Tony taps at his arc reactor and paces. His hands are still trembling. "Agent? Yeah. Look, I'm sure you're having fun with Cap's frisbee, but it's not nice to steal a big kid's toys. What say you give it back, so I don't have to put pictures of sad panda Captain America on milk cartons asking if anyone's seen his shield, last known to be in the vicinity of one Nick Fury?"
Coulson replies, "Captain America's shield is a national treasure, not a personal possession. I haven't the authority to transfer custody."
"I call bullshit. My dad made the shield, as an unpaid consultant."
"Your father was a patriot, and volunteered his services."
"My old man was a businessman. If you'll check the records you'll see that he reserved not only the intellectual and commercial rights to everything he worked on for the government, but had a reversion of property rights for all prototypes once the war was over. The shield is a prototype. It's mine, now, but the color scheme doesn't work for me, so I'm gonna give it back to Cap."
"Flowers and dinner aren't working? Have you tried chocolates?"
Tony grins. "You're just jealous, Agent. I can hear heavy breathing in the background. I hope to God that's Fury, because I do not want to envision you naked. It would scar my psyche." Tony hears a click and then Nick Fury's voice.
"Fury here. You told me what you want. Now tell me why I should give you a damn thing. You've been nothing but a pain in the ass. I don't owe you any favors."
"You owe Cap."
Fury grunts. "He's not the one asking me, is he?"
"He's far too polite. Me, if someone takes my stuff, I get mad. Actually, I'm thinking about getting mad on Cap's behalf."
"Are you threatening me, Mr. Stark?"
"I don't make threats. But I keep my promises."
"I'm shaking in my boots. Tell you what, Stark, I'm feeling generous today. I'll let you have the shield."
"And what's the catch?"
"I've got a little personnel problem. Bruce Banner needs lab space, but, eh, can't get an insurance waiver for him to work at S.H.I.E.L.D. because of a little... problem he has."
"Banner... oh. Yeah. I've heard of him, although not recently. Pioneer in gamma research. He's done some really solid work. Too good for S.H.I.E.L.D. in fact. Why are you asking me to take a diamond off your hands? Does he defy authority? Drink to excess? Chase women? Or does he have some flaw that even those redeeming factors can't balance?"
"Yeah, you could say he has a flaw. I'll send over an agent with his file."
"Nah, don't bother. Jarvis, do a little hack and peek over at S.H.I.E.L.D. will you, honey? Transfer everything about Bruce Banner to the monitor." The monitor begins scrolling data and video. Tony blinks at the huge green creature throwing tanks through trees. "Ok. That's... you know, Fury, I was going to tell you I had to think about it, but really, it's a no-brainer. Pack up Dr. Banner's pjs and toothbrush and send him to me, along with Cap's shield. This is gonna be the best sleepover ever. We'll braid each other's hair and discuss boys and physics, possibly mostly physics, but I won't know until I meet Bruce."
"You know, Stark, sometimes I almost like you. This isn't one of those times. A senior agent will escort Dr. Banner to you within the hour."
Tony hangs up on Fury, or maybe Fury hangs up on Tony. They have a competition going. Jarvis is keeping score.
Same day as previous chapter. Hello Bruce! Plot thickening and stirring happens.
Steve is doing reps, enjoying the slow burn of muscles, when Tony enters the room. He's aware of him watching, and mildly surprised that Tony doesn't immediately burst into chatter. He finishes the rep and places the bar back in the stand before sitting up and grabbing a towel to toss around his neck. "Hey."
"Hey," Tony replies, looking bemused. "That... that's five hundred pounds."
"Yeah." Steve wipes at his sweaty chest, waiting for the usual freak show conversation, how much can you lift?, can you really do the thing with the bicycle and the pretty girls in a pyramid? etc. Usually they're very polite. After all, who wants to get someone Steve's size angry? It's not that he misses being bullied, but sometimes he'd just like to be able to get mad without people cringing because he could break them with one hand. Give Tony that much, he doesn't seem to worry about that. Of course, Tony is lacking common sense in quite a few areas.
"Oh. Yeah." Tony blinks. "Um. Sorry. I got distracted there. Just a little. Oh, I came to tell you we'll be getting a new room-mate, Dr. Bruce Banner. Be nice and don't scare him off, he's got an amazingly sexy mind, and I think we could do beautiful things together. Also, he'll be bringing your shield. I'll have Jarvis take lots of photos of the happy reunion. So you probably want to shower and change into something nice. He'll be here within the hour."
Steve latches onto the most important parts of the word-stream. "My shield? So is Dr. Banner part of Fury's organization?"
Tony makes a face. "Not as such, no. Dr. Banner is another special snowflake, one too hot for them to hold, and wow, is that ever a crappy mixed metaphor. I do really need coffee. Anyway, they're afraid of him, which is ridiculous, don't we all have giant rage monsters under our skin? So I get to keep him, provided we're all very nice to him and don't make him run away from home. Apparently he's very sensitive." Tony starts to leave.
"Oh," Steve says, remembering one small problem. "I don't have any other clothes."
Tony stops and turns around. "Damn. I'm being a poor host." He looks Steve over. "You get your shower, I'll see what I can do."
Steve really shouldn't have been surprised when he steps out of the shower in his suite fifteen minutes later to find a neat pile of new clothing on the bed and a pair of new shoes on the floor. He especially shouldn't be surprised that the shirt is a size too small and bears an Iron Wolverine graphic. As he dresses he wonders what exactly a 'giant rage monster under the skin' is. The fact that Tony isn't afraid of Dr. Banner doesn't mean much, and the fact that Fury is afraid of him seems kinda important.
Well, if it comes to a fight, at least he'll have his shield.
"Get them damn ants outta the buffalo wings, Hank! I don't care if they're your friends! They don't pay for drinks, they don't eat bar snacks!" Logan is getting fed up. Hank walks out of the bar, trailing ants and wearing an Iron Wolverine t-shirt. At this rate, Logan's going to run out of shirts before he can sell any. He squishes a stray ant under his thumb and growls as he fills beer mugs.
"What are you doing here?"
Steve is off the living room couch and standing next to Tony before he thinks about it, jerked to his feet and full attention by the hostility in Tony's voice. He follows Tony's glare to the woman holding his shield. She doesn't look dangerous but he doesn't relax. Even if Jarvis hadn't told him about changes in the commonly accepted role for women in today's society, he'd known enough tough and lovely ladies not to judge by appearances.
The woman looks at Tony coolly. "Director Fury has assigned me to remain here and act as liaison while Dr. Banner resides at Stark Tower."
"Liaison? What's that supposed to mean? Does Fury think he's put Dr. Banner on a leash?" Tony is really angry.
Steve's surprised to realize that he finds that very attractive. Not a good thought. He pushes it down and concentrates on the situation at hand.
"Look," the man standing beside her, presumably Dr. Banner, says, "I don't mind, Mr. Stark."
"Well, I mind," Tony snaps. "Natasha, Natalie, whatever 'N' you're currently using, you're not getting another chance to shoot me up with Lithium Dioxide!"
"It saved your life, so I don't know what you're complaining about," she replies.
"What?" Dr. Banner looks at the woman and then at Tony. "There's no such thing as Lithium Dioxide. LiO2 is lithium superoxide, and so far has only been isolated in matrix isolation experiments at 15 Kelvin. And if it existed, it certainly would have no medical use."
"Yeah," Tony says. "I was dying of heavy metal poisoning, not senility. I knew Fury lied when he said that's what it was. I figured it was a sick joke about lithium salt treatments for mania and bipolar conditions. He just liked jerking my chain, making me desperate. He wouldn't even give me another dose of whatever it was, so I had to scramble to find the real cure myself."
Natasha tilts her head. "There was only one dose." She pauses. "It was distilled from a bottle of Pingo Doce Guarana soda found in Milwaukee."
Tony looks as puzzled as Steve feels, but the effect of her words on Dr. Banner is striking. He goes sheet white. "What?"
Natasha turns to look at him, chin up, and looking actually nervous for the first time since the confrontation has begun. "An elderly man drank some and was briefly... invigorated, with no harmful side-effects. S.H.I.E.L.D. obtained the remaining sample, purified and distilled it to the presumably active components, but there wasn't enough for definitive tests. Mr. Stark was dying. There was no known treatment that could give him more time. Director Fury made a judgment call, that it was worth expending a unique drug in the hope of saving a unique individual." She continues to lock gazes with Dr. Banner. "Are you feeling well, sir?"
"I think... I really ought... not to be here." Dr. Banner's eyes are glowing green and strange things are happening under his shirt. "Stay back."
Natasha edges away from him. Steve lunges forward and grabs his shield, having suddenly got the idea that 'giant rage monster' isn't a euphemism.
Tony moves forward too. He grabs Dr. Banner's arm despite Steve shouting 'NO!'
Tony talks to Dr. Banner as he pulls him stumbling across the room, "C'mon, couch right here. Sit, take a deep breath." Tony pushes him down onto the couch and sits next to him. "Head between your knees, or is that only for fainting? Think about... I dunno, kittens... fluffy clouds... would you like a drink? I'd love one myself, but, eh, I kinda overdid it and now I can't, you know how it is, people always want you to do stuff for your own good and sometimes you just give in..." The whole time Tony is touching Dr. Banner on the back of the neck, shoulders and arms, patting. "You know, this is really amazing, but I bet it's uncomfortable, so you don't have to show off on my account, we could just talk about your experiments, I really was fascinated by the one where you altered the wavelength without affecting the frequency..."
"Do you always talk this much?" Dr. Banner finally says, straightening up. His shirt is looking a bit worse for wear, but his complexion is no longer green-tinted. He takes off his glasses and rubs his nose.
"Maybe?" Tony holds out his hand. "We weren't properly introduced. You're Dr. Bruce Banner and I'm Tony Stark, pleased to meet you. Your work on anti-electron collisions is unparalleled. And I'm a huge fan of the way you lose control and turn into an enormous green rage monster." Tony beams in delight.
The doctor blinks at him, and then shakes his hand. "Thanks. I think."
Fury and Coulson are standing in a dark room which is full of objects that are uncomfortable to look at because the shapes and colors aren't quite right, and seem to change when you look away. Fury says, "Dr. Banner has met Mr. Stark. Agent Romanov reports the meeting was favorable and she was able to give them the necessary information without suspicion."
A tall man steps out of the shadows, or condenses out of them. It's impossible to tell. "I know."
"And?" Fury asks.
"It's too soon to tell. Ms. Maximoff has initiated a flux in the line of probability, which I have inverted. Combining our forces is new to us. The current prediction is much more favorable, but it's also more fragile than the natural course of events. We'll have to continue monitoring, and may need further assistance from you."
Fury nods. "We'll keep in touch, Dr. Strange."
It's day 4 of Tony's detox. I don't actually think he's slept much, so his mild mania is understandable. Steve is getting used to it. Fury is still not letting one hand know what the other is doing.
"Hey! McCoy!" Logan reaches over and takes the bottle of gin from Hank's foot. "You want the Health Inspection idiots on my case? Get outta here!" Logan watches the extra-large t-shirt recede as Hank McCoy sheepishly leaves the Iron Wolverine. "And I thought Stark was a crappy bartender. I'm getting too old for this shit. Maybe I shoulda taken that phys. ed. teacher job... nah. Me an' a buncha kids?"
"Pepper! Pepper! Are you in the office? Are you doing paperwork? Contracts and stuff?" Tony is on the phone, jiggling from foot to foot which is possibly a way of disguising his hand-tremors, Steve thinks. Banner is in a hastily opened guest room, sleeping late after staying up most of the night 'talking Science' as Tony described it to Steve this morning. Dr. Nazara has given Tony another blood test, and more injections, and more instructions to rest which Tony is totally ignoring. Natasha is... somewhere around. Steve doesn't know, one minute she's there, the next she's gone.
"Yes, Tony," Pepper replies in tones of long-suffering patience. "I actually do go to the office and handle paperwork and yes, I am here now, working."
"Well, you know, it's not as if it's part of the job description for CEO."
"It really, really is, Tony."
"Huh. Good thing I gave it up, then." There follows a long moment of silence. "Pepper? Could you do me a little favor?"
"How little? And does it involve property damage, personal injury, sexual harassment, or defamation of character?"
"Well, fairly little. And... possibly, except for the sex. But for once, it's not ME. I've got a new science buddy. I want you to help me keep him."
"Um... I'm going to need a little more detail, here, Tony."
Tony sighs and gulps down something green and slippery. Steve is glad he's finally eating something, but he's not sure it's actually edible. A lot of fruits and vegetables he didn't recognize went into the blender. He didn't know there were fruits shaped like stars. Tony had taken gleeful pleasure in slicing several of them onto Steve's breakfast cereal 'to match the shield'. They didn't taste bad. Just... different and new.
Tony resumes talking. "Fury dumped him on me! And really, he's amazing and adorable and already knows so many cute tricks, I wanna make sure no one can reclaim him. He's been through a lot and deserves a forever home."
It makes sense that Tony is excited about meeting someone who speaks his own 'language', and it's really childish of Steve to be feeling neglected. He's a grown man, he doesn't need to be the center of attention all the time. Really, he should be relieved that Tony is too distracted to be teasing him with sexual innuendo. He's just bored, that's all. That's the only reason he's sitting silently in the living room, watching one of Jarvis's educational programs where Tony just happens to be kinda dancing around the room, playing with his light show models and talking a mile a minute. It's... entertaining.
"This is a person we're speaking about or an unadoptable dog?"
"They've treated Bruce like a stray dog. Chased him and tried to trap him and really... Pepper, I want you to make up an ironclad contract so no one, not the military, not the government, not God-almighty Fury, can drag him into custody."
"Does this Bruce want to stay with you?"
"Why shouldn't he?"
Steve can't think of any reason why Bruce wouldn't want to stay. He seems amused by Tony's flirting rather than offended. Steve saw how he relaxed, how when Tony happened to look the other way, Bruce would look at him, really, almost fondly. Steve doesn't believe in love at first sight, and anyway, it's not like that. It's just... apparently Tony is the first person who's been both friendly and unafraid of Bruce in years. That's something special. Well worth putting up with the rest of Tony, to someone like Bruce... and maybe to someone like Steve.
"Tony..." Pepper says.
"Yeah, ok, so maybe I haven't exactly asked him yet, but it'll be easier if I can show him the paperwork when I ask him, you know, like a letter sweater, so he'll know I mean it. I could use a top-flight physicist! SI could, I mean. As head of R&D..."
"You aren't head of R&D, Tony. That would imply you work with the rest of the department, not just correct their homework."
"Fine, fine. As ME, as Tony Stark, I want to offer him a full benefits, top salary, access to all the best toys, research position at Stark. The man is being horribly wasted by people who are only interested in his body. Ok, I know, that sounds strange coming from me."
"Send me all the information you have on Bruce, and I'll have legal make up a package. Tony? How's the weather?"
"Still dry as a bone. It's... uncomfortable, but nothing I can't handle. Thanks, Pep." Tony says goodbye and ends the call. He throws himself down on the couch next to Steve. "Hey."
"Hey," Steve says. "So, you said you were interested in my shield?"
"Yes! Can I look at it in the lab? Oh, hey! Bruce might like to see it, too."
"He's still sleeping."
"Yeah, he looked pretty ragged. Ok, he can see it later; neither of you are going anywhere, right?"
"Right," Steve says, smiling.
"The Council," Fury says, addressing a series of monitors, each showing a different person, semi-obscured, not that he couldn't identify them, but it's not worth the bother, they change faces so often, "has made its opinion known."
"The Council has issued a directive," one of the men corrects.
"With all due respect, the Council has issued a directive based on insufficient facts and come to an incorrect conclusion."
One of the women on the Council speaks, "What facts?"
Fury spreads his hands. "Facts that I cannot divulge."
"Cannot? Or will not?"
"I can't. It's a... paranormal paradox. The more people know, the more the facts change. At the moment, it's under control, but it's vital that nothing be done to interfere with the plan. If I was faced with the choice of telling the Council, or seeing the Council... disbanded, I would opt for the latter without hesitation.The balance is that delicate, and the stakes are that high." Fury doesn't know how the World Security Council confers between themselves, but he knows when they've reached a consensus.
"Very well. For the moment, we do not object to Dr. Banner remaining where he is. The responsibility is yours, Director."
"I accept it." Fury nods and leaves the room.
Tony talks with Bruce. Steve talks with Logan. The Iron Wolverine still hasn't got a relief bartender.
"So, Bruce, I got curious about that soda," Tony says while leaning against the wall of the kitchen area casually, watching Bruce pretend to eat breakfast. Tony had decided against an omelette because the last one had been far too much work for far too little appreciation but everyone likes fresh Krispy Kreme, don't they? Steve's working out on the next level. Natasha is in the dining area, close enough so she can keep an eye on Bruce thanks to the open plan layout, but not listening in too obviously. They have the most privacy they're likely to get.
Bruce pushes the plate of doughnuts away and looks down at his coffee. "I don't really want to talk about it."
"Well I do," Tony says cheerfully. "I looked it up. Guarana berry contains the phytochemicals caffeine, saponin and xanthine. It's used in energy drinks, sodas and herbal weight loss pills. A lot of people consume it because hey, antioxidants! It's a fun word, and it couldn't hurt. But no one really expects it to cure cancer, reverse aging or temporarily reverse heavy metal poisoning."
"Well, that's because it doesn't do any of those things."
"What's on the label doesn't. But whatever was in that one bottle did."
"You only have Ms. Romanov's word for that, and you know lying is part of her job description."
"I saw your reaction. You believed her, and you know more than she's saying."
"What if I do? What does it matter to you? You're cured, why not just accept that, and be glad of it?"
"Because if that can be recreated reliably, Bruce... Bruce, think of it."
"Yeah, you could make a lot of money from it, right?" Bruce is looking everywhere but at Tony.
"No, but, yeah, that, too. Bruce, I know a lot of bad went down with you know, that whole experiment gone wrong..." Tony waves his arms. "This is a chance for you to..."
"What? Make it up to the people I killed? It doesn't work that way, Tony."
Tony says softly, "I know." Bruce finally turns his head to meet Tony's gaze. Tony continues, "It's a chance to honor their memories by doing something good. It's not enough. It's never enough. But it's better to be useful, to be helping, to be trying. You can't hide from yourself, but if you keep working hard enough, you can sleep at night. That's something. That's a lot, actually."
"I... I don't know that I can. It's too dangerous, staying here."
"It's dangerous everywhere. If you stay here, at least I can protect you from the worst case scenario. You know the military wants to duplicate your accident. Wants to use it to make human weapons. You keep running, sooner or later they'll catch up to you. And when they do, you probably won't be lucky enough to die."
Bruce looks at Tony. "Yeah, I know. I tried."
Tony flinches and doesn't say anything for a few seconds. "Yeah. Well, why don't you try living for a while? You could help a lot of people. Make things to improve lives, hell, maybe save lives." Tony picks up a folder from the counter beside him and drops it in front of Bruce. "Look this over and decide. This contract is iron-clad on Stark's side, but open-ended on yours."
Bruce opens the folder. "My blood kills people."
"My weapons killed a lot more."
Bruce nods and picks up the folder. "I'll think about it."
"That's all I ask." Tony pats Bruce on the shoulder and leaves him alone.
Logan looks down at the slushy, malt-smelling mess of exploded beer bottles cascading in globby dribbles off the shelf. Then he looks up at his latest bartender.
"I'm so sorry, Logan," the kid says, crossing his frost-blue arms over the chest of his Iron Wolverine t-shirt. "That never happened when I froze vodka!"
Logan sighs. "Get outta here, Bobby, and don't come back."
Steve is annoyed at himself. He's got what he wanted, a workout without Tony hanging about embarrassing him by staring and making suggestive remarks. He thought it would be relaxing, maybe he'd even make some plans that weren't dependent on Tony. He really doesn't want to have to rely on charity and what else can you call it? He's living under the man's roof, eating his food, wearing his clothes and not doing anything to earn it. He needs some time to think without Tony distracting him. So why is he disappointed that Tony hasn't wandered down to watch him sweat?
He isn't a vain, shallow man. He doesn't need to show off like a muscleman at the beach, flexing for all the pretty girls. But damn it, Tony had said he wanted Steve's company because he was different, made Tony think in different ways and Steve had liked that idea. He'd liked that someone thought he was more than a strong body, maybe would even have liked him for himself, the way Bucky did when he was a skinny nobody. Only now there's Dr. Banner, who is more different than anyone ever was and a bona fide genius to boot. Tony is falling all over himself flirting with the man, so yeah, Tony's a collector and Steve is no longer the newest and shiniest knick-knack on the shelf.
Steve slams a fist into the heavy bag. He doesn't even want Tony. The man is arrogant, rude and more than a little crazy. He's all tangled up and strange, and ridiculously emotionally greedy. The last thing Steve needs is a relationship with him. Tony would be... ok, he's pretty sure it would be nice for a while, but sooner or later he'd want to kill Tony. Sooner probably. He'd leave right now, except... it's really kinda his responsibility to make sure Tony stays off the booze long enough to finish drying out. He can do that. What's a few more days, or even another week? He does a combination, left, right, left flurry of blows, throwing all his frustration into them. The bag splits, showering the floor with sand. He hits the deflated bag once more.
Steve whirls at the voice, both hands up and ready.
Logan grins at him. "Bad day, Bub? Me, too. Wanna go a few rounds? Bare-knuckle, screw the Marquis of Queensbury?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I would." Steve takes off his gloves and heads for the training ring. "You still invulnerable?"
"Yup." Wolverine stubs out his cigar in his palm and dumps the butt in a potted palm. "How breakable are you?" He pulls off his Iron Wolverine t-shirt, baring his hairy chest.
"Why don't you give it your best shot and find out?" Steve starts moving around the ring, loose and easy and watching Logan's chest for clues to his attack. After that, Steve pretty much stops thinking, caught up in the pure, clean fierceness of fighting against someone who can take the best Steve can give, and come up grinning and asking for another helping. Eventually, they wind up in a sweaty grapple, holding onto each other and laughing. Steve doesn't know which one of them started it, or what's so funny, but it is, and it feels good.
Logan pulls away from Steve and works his jaw. Steve suspects it was broken a few minutes ago. He's not without marks of his own, but Logan had held off on using claws, so it's nothing to worry about. "Eh," Logan says, "you still haven't got into Stark's pants, how come?"
Steve thinks he might have blushed. From the surprise of the rude question, that's all. "People do occasionally have friendships that don't involve sex, you know, Logan."
"Sure," Logan says mildly. "But when you both wanna jump each other's bones, it's stupid not to."
"Is that why you came? Did Tony ask you to talk to me?" Steve isn't sure what he wants the answer to be.
"Nah. I came to see if Tony's gone back to drinking. I'm gettin' tired of interviewin' barkeeps."
"He's sober, and staying that way. I'm watching him."
"An' he's watchin' you." Logan gestures at a blank corner of the room. "I come in an' Stark's got you on the monitor. He was real interested." Logan shrugs. "Guess I'll go back an' see if there's anyone in Manhattan knows how to pour booze."
Steve looks at the blank corner after Logan leaves. He picks up a towel and drapes it over his neck. He'll have to have a talk with Tony about privacy. Later. After he has his shower.
Steve and Tony finally get together- just in time. Logan still hasn't found a bartender. Fury's plan, whatever it is, is still on track.
It takes a while for Steve to track Tony down after his shower. The last place he expected to find him was back in the workshop, sitting in the seat of the dismantled convertible, eyes shut and mumbling to himself, "Smart piece of work, that! Brain against brute force-- and brain came out on the top-- as it's bound to do. Poor old Ratty!"
Steve smiles and comes in to sit next to Tony, moving 'The Wind in the Willows' safely to one side. It's a first edition with a beautiful gilt Pan on the cover. "Toad is about to get his comeuppance."
"Yes, but first he gets a glorious ride in a motor-car." Tony doesn't open his eyes, but he smiles. "The ride is always worth it."
"Always?" Steve finds himself on one elbow, leaning over Tony. "Worth being locked up, lectured by his friends, having his home invaded by strangers?"
Tony opens his eyes then, looking straight up at Steve. "Yeah. It'd be worth it."
And then Steve kisses him, because what else can you do with such a willful Toad? Arms come up around him tight and Tony's mouth opens under his. Steve likes this. None of the men he'd had sex with before had wanted to kiss. It made it... romantic, like... like someone you'd want to do other things with, share things with, maybe for a long time. Maybe even forever. It probably didn't mean that much these days, everything's casual. And Tony's always touching people and nothing's serious with him. But it still feels really nice being so close, being held against another warm body, feeling Tony's muscles move against him, tasting mint and that strange green grassy stuff Tony drinks. He moves away from Tony's mouth to kiss a line down his throat. He'd always had to be so careful not to leave marks, not to risk ruining someone's reputation, or worse, but he's seen... yeah... Jarvis has shown him... Tony Stark is shameless about sex. There are probably other things he'd hate people to know about him, but he's gone before the US Senate and told them, told the world... he doesn't care, he's proud of being well, Steve would call it over-sexed. Except that right now, it seems just about right to him. He sucks hard, pulling in soft skin and licking.
Tony chuckles and brings one hand up to pet Steve's hair. "All we need is the popcorn." He tilts his head back, offering better access. "Now that we're necking at the drive-in."
"Next time," Steve promises. He starts to push up Tony's shirt, and then he pauses and sits back up.
"What? No stopping in the middle of the movie, it was just getting good."
"Maybe we shouldn't do this here."
"Why not? What's wrong with here?" Tony glances around his workshop, at the monitors and holograms and robots.
"Well... Dr. Banner might..."
Tony blinks. "You think voyeurism might trigger a metamorphosis? Hmmm... I dunno, maybe. Have to ask Bruce about that, later." Tony flings an arm around Steve's neck and, failing to pull Steve down, pulls himself up to nip at Steve's ear.
"Hey!" Steve pushes Tony off. How could he so casually dismiss them being caught by the other man he's flirting... maybe more than flirting... with? Although really has there been time... then again, Tony is a quick mover and Bruce has been on the run, without human touch, for a long time. Maybe Tony was resting up after a tryst when Steve came in.
"What? No biting? Ok, fine." Tony frowns. "What's the matter?"
"Nothing." So what if this is meaningless to Tony, it's meaningless to Steve, too. He's only just met the man. He's certainly not in love with him. He resumes kissing Tony, fiercely this time. If Banner sees them, it's only right that he should know what Tony's like, all hot and easy, easy for anyone. He pulls Tony's shirt up, dragging his arms with it, and tangles it around Tony's wrists, tying them above his head. As he suspected, Tony laughs and flaunts himself, totally at ease, even approving being manhandled. Tony doesn't want romance, his kisses are lies. Which is fine. God knows Steve has enough problems without becoming emotionally attached to a team mate. Just sex. They can do that.
"Kinky. I like that." Tony lifts his hips and rubs against Steve. "What do you want to do with me?"
"Everything," Steve says, hoarsely, honestly. You don't have to love someone to find them attractive, to want sex with them. It's nice, but really, not necessary.
"I like the way you think. Surprise me." Tony closes his eyes and relaxes. Steve would think he was asleep except for his rapid breathing, and the flush rising across his chest, contrasting with the blue-white light in the center, and, of course, the straining hot length tenting his trousers.
"I could hurt you."
Tony smiles without opening his eyes. "Only if I let you." Steve puts his hands on Tony's chest, palms to either side of that...thing...fingers resting on it. Tony's breath catches for a moment, and then he says, "I trust you."
"Why? Because I'm Captain America?" Steve doesn't mean to sound so bitter, but he's tired of people seeing the uniform, even when he's not wearing it.
At that, Tony opens his eyes. "Because you remember what it's like to be bullied. And because you refuse to be like them."
Damn it, Tony is always throwing him a curve ball. "No more talking," Steve says before he kisses Tony again. After that, Steve deliberately stops thinking about what they're doing, what he's doing. He needs this and so does Tony, that's all that matters. Unsurprisingly, Tony has lube and condoms in the pocket of his jeans, and equally unsurprisingly he's very good with his hands and mouth, greedily sucking and licking until Steve pulls back just long enough to hastily put on a rubber, with clumsy hands. Tony's eyes are laughing at him, but he becomes intently focused when they get down to business. That lasts until Steve is about halfway in and then Tony is laughing and wrapping his arms and legs around him, muttering something incomprehensible about a 'cure for anhedonia' whatever that is, but there's no way Steve is going to pause to ask about it, not when Tony is so hot and tight around him, so hot and sweaty beneath him, eyes and chest so bright.
They don't last long. Steve comes first, and retains enough sense and self-control not to collapse. Tony is whining in a complaining way which at the moment is kinda cute rather than annoying. Heaving up onto his elbows, Steve gives Tony enough room to jerk himself off before he pulls out and lies down with a sigh. He wonders if he can get away with a cuddle. Worth a try. He pulls Tony over on top, shifting until he's comfortable, and he presumes from the lack of bitching that Tony is ok with it, too. This is nice. He likes the pressure, the warm scratchiness of Tony's beard against his shoulder and even the smooth cool circle of the arc reactor on his belly. He locks his arms around and dozes off.
"GOD DAMN IT," Logan yells, grabbing the fire extinguisher and dousing the Flaming Dragon (Chartreuse and Bacardi), a stack of cocktail napkins, and a basket of buffalo wings.
Johnny Storm grabs his Iron Wolverine t-shirt and flees without waiting to be, well, he was already on fire, he didn't need to be fired, too.
"I don't need this shit," Logan says, coughing on smoke. He hears a tremendous noise coming from outside the now-empty bar. He looks in the direction of Harlem. Something enormous and ugly is jumping from the tops of the buildings, smashing hell out of the place. "Great. I hate Mondays." He pulls his cell phone out, and hits an emergency conference call button to reach all his ex-bartenders. Might as well get some value for his t-shirts. "Someone's having a party in Harlem. Get your spandex on, folks. Last one there buys the drinks." He clicks off without waiting for a response, tugs his shirt neater for the cameras (advertising is always good), lights his stogie and gets on his motorcycle.
"It's begun," Coulson says.
"In Harlem. General Ross made a mistake."
Fury grunts and picks up a rocket launcher. "That man lets his emotions rule him. Fucking asshole."
"Yes, Director," Coulson says, following him out of the room.
Still day 4 of Tony's detox, it's been an eventful day. Is it better to have the Hulk or the Abomination? I say, is it too much to ask for both?
Steve is in a flying car with Howard Stark and some chorus girls, and they're all eating fried chicken and the car is a red and white checkered picnic cloth and his mother is there, too, and she's laughing and one of the chorus girls is now Tony Stark and Howard is taking his mother's hand and they're walking off into a mirror together talking about music and Tony Stark leans over and kisses him, and starts whispering in his ear, "Sir. Sir, you must wake up. An extremely large being is attacking the city."
Huh, that's not... "What?" Steve wakes and looks around groggily. He tightens his grip on Tony, who squirms and blinks blearily at him before his eyes suddenly widen and he's pushing at Steve in earnest. He looks like he's going to puke.
"Lemme up. Gotta..."
Steve releases Tony hastily and is embarrassed to find the sloppy condom stuck to his thigh. He gets up and tosses it in a trash bin before belatedly realizing that was Jarvis's voice in his dream saying something about something attacking the city? Tony is being sick in the workshop bathroom, and he didn't shut the door. Steve goes over to see if there's anything he can do, but Tony is already done, and grabbing a handful of damp scented paper from a dispenser. He wipes his mouth and gives a quick once over to remove dried come, and then shoves some more of the wipes at Steve. "No time, here." His hands are shaking. "Gotta suit up. Jarvis, put it on the news feed."
"At once, sir," the disembodied voice replies, as several large screens (well, that's what Steve calls them) light up with images of a nightmarish creature, like some fusion between human and predatory dinosaur. It's smashing buildings and shouting, "HULK, YOU COWARD."
"What is that?"
"Disgruntled citizen doing his bit for urban renewal," Tony suggests even as he's rummaging around in a drawer beneath a worktable.
Steve's wiping himself off and wondering where he left his clothes when the elevator door opens. Natasha is standing there, dressed in... well...it's black... and tight... and...he's covering himself with a shop rag even as she gives him a bland look as if to say she catches naked Super Soldiers and billionaire geniuses in flagrante delicto all the time and twice on Sunday.
"You could knock," Tony says. He's climbing into some kind of bodysuit just as black and even tighter than what Natasha's wearing. "Or is that against the spy handbook?"
"Yes," she says. "A friend of mine..."
"You have friends?" Tony asks. He's squirming to get into the suit, and Steve is just a little distracted.
Natasha continues as if she hadn't been interrupted, "brought my work clothes, and while he was at it, he brought you a present, Rogers." She nods, and the man behind her, who Steve really hadn't noticed, even though he's dressed strangely and has, of all things, a crossbow in one hand, tosses a red, white and blue parcel at Steve. Given the choice between letting something the colors of the flag hit the floor, and keeping the increasingly inadequate shop rag front and center, he snatches the parcel in both hands. It's heavier than it looks.
"Agent Coulson redesigned your armor," Natasha says as she turns to go back into the elevator, followed by the bowman. "There's a communications link in the hood." And then the elevator doors slide shut behind them.
"Things have been ramping up lately," Tony says, tugging on his bodysuit to settle it. "If it's not giant flaming lizards, it's something else, roughly once a month now. Don't know why. Jarvis has been collating information, but there doesn't seem to be a pattern. Megalomaniacs, monsters, misguided inventors..."
Steve has spread out his new armor over a work table and is getting dressed. It fits embarrassingly close, but it's better than going out in street clothes. "All in New York City?"
"Pretty much. You know, if you want attention, there's no better place..." Tony stops and leans over, hand on knees, breathing rapidly. He's shaking again, worse than ever. Steve can see his throat move as he swallows repeatedly.
"Are you all right?"
"Sure. Fine. Just... lousy timing..."
Frowning, Steve puts on his boots, completing his outfit. He goes over to Tony just as he hears the elevator doors open again. This time it's Bruce. Bruce's eyes are green and his voice is hoarse. "Fury called. This is all my fault. General Ross created that... abomination... to bring down the Hulk."
Tony looks up at Bruce. "Hey, how about we talk about fault later... after we get Godzilla outta Tokyo."
"We?" Bruce says. "You don't look fit to stand, let alone fight."
"I don't need to stand once I'm suited up. Iron Man flies. I'm not drunk, you know. Just wish I was."
Steve glances at the news feed. A group of people in Iron Wolverine t-shirts are harassing the monster. "Bruce is right, Tony, you should sit this one out. You're not the only superhero in town."
"No, just the best, and really, look at that guy. Is anything overkill against him?" Tony walks over to one of the few clear areas on the floor to a numbered grid. The floor begins breaking away and Steve sees parts of red and gold armor moving up from below the floor.
"Tony," Steve says, but his protest is lost, drowned in a roar coming from behind him. He whirls and faces a really, really, really large green man who's wearing the stretched and tattered remnants of a pair of trousers that Bruce had been wearing. "Oh," Steve says, backing up to look for his shield. "So, that's what a giant rage monster looks like." He grabs the shield a second before a green hand wraps around his waist, and another green hand picks up Tony, still in just the black bodysuit. And then he's shouting and Tony's shouting and they're both being carried right through the window tucked under the arms of the green creature and falling onto a lower roof.
"Let me go!" Steve shouts and kicks uselessly at leg muscles the size and hardness of a sequoia tree.
"Hulk, no!" Tony shouts, fighting just as uselessly. "Put me down!"
The Hulk rumbles a growl, crouches and jumps to another roof below. By the time they land in an alley, Steve's dizzy and his neck aches. The Hulk dumps them unceremoniously on the ground. "TONY NO FIGHT," the Hulk says, and really, Steve is impressed by the way Tony stands his ground. Up until he's sick again.
"That's embarrassing," Tony manages after he finishes and coughs. "I never get motion sick. You guys go on. I'll be good here."
Steve's not fooled. "You're going to wait until we're out of sight and then go back to the tower and put on your armor."
"So? I only promised I wouldn't fight drunk. This... is not drunk." Tony glares at the Hulk, who glares back. "I'm going and neither of you can stop me."
"I'm not going to argue with you," Steve says. He opens up a dumpster and gestures to the Hulk, who isn't as stupid as he looks.
"HEY!" Tony shouts as the Hulk picks him up and dumps him in the bin, and then bends the steel lid so it can't open. "YOU CAN'T DO THIS!" Tony shouts and makes quite a racket inside. "I'll SUFFOCATE!"
"Stop yelling and there's plenty of air." The bin has dings and rust holes enough for ventilation, but Steve doesn't want to risk Tony being left in there forever, if neither he nor the Hulk return from the battle. You can never be sure of that. So he looks around for a civilian, and latches onto a teenager in a red windbreaker who's taking photos of them from the entrance of the alley, which strikes Steve as a good enough recommendation for bravery.
"Hey, kid, come here and watch this for me, will you?"
The kid comes closer, all wide eyes and tousled brown hair. "You're Captain America. And... wow, the Hulk. I heard about him."
"I'll give you an autograph later. Just look out for my friend." Steve bangs the top of the bin. The Hulk growls, crouches and leaps in the direction of the sounds of destruction. Steve follows at a run, leaving Tony cursing in a dumpster and a kid looking confused.
I think they're gonna need a bigger hero's clubhouse.
"The Hulk is on our side," Steve shouts just in time to prevent Logan from making a tactical error.
"He is?" Logan pauses, claws fully extended, and stares dubiously up at the Hulk. Somewhere along the line, Logan's lost his stogie. Steve thinks he looks incomplete without it.
The Hulk looks down at Logan. "NO WANT BACK SCRATCH NOW." And then he leaps past most of the Iron Wolverines (Johnny Storm is flying aflame, cooking parts of the Abomination on the left side, while Bobby Drake is riding an ice slide around to freeze bits on the right side) to confront the Abomination, who is flailing around in general, roaring and converting historic tenements to sources of used brick when the Hulk lands in front of him and punches him in the head.
"He is," Logan remarks. "Hey, Cap, does this mean we're the four musketeers?"
"Yeah," Steve says, throwing his shield at what should be a vulnerable place on anything male, but it's hard to tell if the Abomination has anything like that. Which might partially account for his bad temper.
"Don't see Tony," Logan remarks as he and Hank McCoy clasp hands and give T'Challa a boost to land on the Abomination's back and begin climbing up the dinosaur spine ridges. "You lose him, or something?"
"He had a headache!" Steve catches his shield. He has to yell while scrambling to stay out of the way of the Abomination and Hulk who are now trying to strangle each other. Hulk's smaller, but he has allies. Steve's not sure it's going to be enough, but then Ororo flies up and some impressive black clouds appear shooting lightning bolts directed at the Abomination. T'Challa and everyone else leaps clear. The Abomination is now really, really annoyed. A thin, almost invisible, line of ants is marching up his legs with Henry Pym telling them... well, Steve's not sure, but 'bite him in the ass' seems to be the gist of it.
"HEY UGLY! PICTURE TIME! SMILE FOR THE BIRDIE!"
Steve looks up to see Tony's red and gold armor, surrounded by lightning, swoop down and shoot rays of white light from his hands right into the Abomination's eyes. The Abomination grabs at his face, the Hulk punches him really, really hard, and then lightning hits him. Steve is almost squashed by one massive hand as the huge creature crashes to the ground, but a sort of webby rope catches him and pulls him to safety. Steve looks up and there's the kid in the red windbreaker, open now over an Iron Wolverine t-shirt, hanging off the side of a building... by his feet... and grinning at him. "Can I have that autograph now, Mr. Rogers?"
"General Ross is a dick," Tony says conversationally to the Hulk, who is sitting next to him on the unconscious Abomination while they wait for heavy construction equipment to clear a path for something big and strong enough to cage their captive- it's suspiciously handy, and all but monogrammed 'H' for Hulk. The Hulk growls and flexes his fists, then stands up and crouches, prepared to leap. "Hey, no," Tony says, jetting up to hover in front of the Hulk. He has the face plate up on the armor and is using puppydog eyes. "Don't you want to stay for the ticker tape parade? Yeah, I know, we don't do that anymore, but for you, big guy, we'll start it up again. You like confetti? It's pretty, come on."
The Hulk's brow crinkles in confusion. "HULK LEAVE."
Steve doesn't think that's a bad idea at all, but on second thought, is it really better to have the Hulk running around loose rather than staying with them? At least he seems to care about Tony. "You know, if you leave, Tony's just going to get into trouble."
Tony looks at Steve indignantly. "Hey!"
"He needs a lot of looking after."
"I do not!"
Steve continues blandly, seeing the Hulk focused on him, head tilted to one side as if he's considering things. "He's like that, you know it. Miss Potts has her hands full looking after his business, and I'm going to have all I can do to lead the team." Steve waves his hands, gesturing at the Iron Wolverines who are helping with clean up in between munching on donated street food and posing for photos. The kid in the red windbreaker has already got Steve and Tony promising not only to pose, but to give interviews for some newspaper. Steve is a bit annoyed that the kid used some kind of 'spider-strength' (whatever that is) to peel open the dumpster, but he's beginning to realize that shouting 'Tony, No' is totally ineffective and the kid meant well. And he had saved Steve from being squashed, so he had to give him points for good timing.
"I do not need a big green babysitter," Tony says. "Don't listen to him."
"Really, Tony, you showed up here when you knew you weren't fit. You sure need someone to pull you back before you jump off the deep end!"
"Are you volunteering?" Tony click-clanks up to stand in front of Steve, the suit giving him the few inches difference between their height so he can glare directly at Steve, looking mildly ridiculous in his shiny candy-apple colored suit, waving his hands for accent.
"YES!" Steve snaps and leans forward to grab Tony and kiss him at an awkward angle framed by metal and really, kissing someone who's been sick is not sexy, so it only lasts a second before Steve pulls back and wipes at his mouth. "Ugh."
"Serves you right," Tony says, but he's grinning.
"Uh, hey, guys," Bruce says from the place where the Hulk had been a few minutes ago, holding an unfolded newspaper in front of him. It really doesn't disguise the fact that he's naked. "We really should, um... go somewhere with fewer cameras. And more pants."
"You can borrow my windbreaker," the kid with the webs says cheerfully, handing it to Bruce after taking a snap of the three of them. "For my personal album!" he wails as Steve grabs the camera. "You can't take all the cameras, why pick on me!" Bruce is hastily tying the windbreaker around his waist in an improvised apron.
Steve looks around and belatedly realizes that EVERYONE in the crowd that had gathered out of nowhere seems to have something aimed at them, mostly things he doesn't recognize as cameras. "Oh, my God."
Tony shrugs and pats Steve on the shoulder. "Actually, Cap, this is probably for the best. Otherwise they'd just photoshop your face on someone else's body doing naughty things. While wearing weird and kinky underwear." His eyes unfocus. "Yeah."
Steve sighs and gives the kid back his camera. "Here, just... have a little respect, please?"
"Sure thing, Mr. Rogers, sir!"
Wolverine wanders up, a new cigar in his mouth. "Whyn't you guys go back to Stark's pad? I c'n handle the reporters." He unsheathes his claws and grins.
"I can fly us back," Tony says.
Bruce coughs. "I think Harlem has seen quite enough of me." He looks around sadly. "That is, what I haven't destroyed."
"Don't hog the credit," Tony says. "The Abomination gets at least seventy-five percent, and Logan's glee club would be insulted if they didn't get another ten."
"Isn't Iron Man taking any?" Bruce asks, a small smile edging the corners of his mouth.
"Modesty, it's a thing. I'm trying it out." Tony starts walking, with Steve and Bruce flanking him. He stops dead. "No. You missed the party, go home."
Fury leans his rocket launcher over one shoulder and scowls. "Well, if you'd built me that goddamn helicarrier, like I asked, I'd have been here on time."
"I gave you a beautiful preliminary sketch and your idiots butchered it! They made a suicide runway aiming at a rotor! Do you eat pilot-sushi for lunch?"
Steve clears his throat. "Ah, Tony, do we really want to do this right now?" He looks at Bruce. "You need to look after your guest."
"Yeah, sorry Bruce." Tony slings one armored arm around him. "Speaking of sushi reminds me, you must be starved after smashing fifteen percent of Harlem."
Steve keeps an eye on Fury as they walk away. Fury has an oddly satisfied air about him. It makes Steve uneasy.
Dr. Strange releases Wanda's hand and sits back, closing his eyes and breathing deeply. "Wong," he calls.
"Yes, Master." Wong moves silently to Dr. Strange's side. He opens his eyes, but silver light still flashes across them, symbols and images, twisting and fading.
"It is done. For the moment. We should have a half year's grace before we reach the next nexus point."
"Is that enough, Stephen?" Wanda says, putting her long scarlet gloves back on. "They are all broken people."
"Broken pieces make the most beautiful mosaics, Wanda." Dr. Strange turns to his servant. "Wong, is your brother prepared?"
Wong nods. "He is as ready as I, Master. Coulson has been preparing to defend our dimension all his life."
"Good. Would you bring us a pot of the Oolong tea, Wong?"
"Of course, Master." Wong bows and leaves the room.
Oh, boy. Oh, boy. Tony's long past dried out (this is 3 months later), Steve catches a clue, 'Wicked' is great, and Logan finally gets relief bartenders. That's the good part.
Bored one day, Steve is playing with google, randomly putting in the names of people he knew, and he notices an interesting thing when he types 'Tony Stark'. There are plenty of links to tell-all stories (and this is with 'Safe Search' on, Steve had learned his lesson about that after accidentally typing 'goatse' in Image Search when he wanted to learn what kind of goat grows fifty feet tall and faints on top of buildings) and lots of links to videos caught in grainy cell-phone footage of Tony making an ass of himself in public (not literally, 'Safe Search' was a good thing, a very good thing) but no scandalous incidents had apparently occurred since Steve met him.
That had been three months ago. Admittedly Tony's been busy, but Steve's learned that Tony makes time for what he wants to do.
Tony's outfitted a lot of floors of his Tower as living quarters for the Allied Avengers who tend to wander around in their Iron Wolverine t-shirts whenever they're not fighting off whatever weird creature/invention/metaphysical apparition (the ghost who attacked hotdog carts in Central Park was probably Steve's favorite in that group)/supervillain with a grudge against the world, etc. etc. has shown up, particularly on Mondays. Mondays are usually an Avengers Assembly day. There are competing theories for that. Wolverine says the villains are hung over after a weekend, Tony says people will do anything to avoid going to work on Monday, and Peter thinks that after a weekend of cosplay (that took some explaining) they simply don't want to quit.
Tony also fiddles with his cars and his armor and his robots, drives/ flies much too fast, boxes (and cheats a bit), plays the piano and guitar when in the mood, does charity appearances (under protest except when there are kids involved- he has a soft spot for kids), antagonizes his board of directors and gives the occasional incomprehensible lecture with Bruce Banner sharing the podium (Tony likes to rub it in to the scientific community that he's got Bruce working with him. Bruce goes along with it, good naturedly for the most part.)
And he always, always, drops whatever he's doing when Steve wants time with him. Even when all Steve wants to do is talk, or watch a movie. He looks at a picture of the two of them at a charity banquet. He's turned to politely speak to the woman sitting beside him, and Tony is looking at him. Looking at him with the intensity he usually reserves for science, or really large explosions. Oh. Well, that explains why Peter's been calling Tony 'Dad', and him 'Mom'.
Steve goes down to Tony's workshop, and dials down the music.
"Please don't..." Tony says, and then he looks up from his welding and shuts off the torch. "Hey, Steve." He waits, expectant look on his face, the one that means Steve has his undivided attention. It takes a lot to get that from Tony Stark. Steve tends to think of Tony's brain as a room full of kittens, scattering and sticking their whiskers into everything. There's both hissing and purring involved, and a certain amount of unintended destruction.
"Hey, Tony. I was just wondering. Are we going steady? If that's what they call it. Exclusive?" He's not quite sure meanings haven't changed.
"Um. Well, I don't know about you, but for my part, yes?" Tony's eyes are very wide, and made more prominent by the grease streaked around the clean circles where the goggles had rested.
"Oh." Steve thinks about it for a minute. "Fine. That's good. You want to go out tonight? See a show or something?"
Tony grins. "Sure. How about that, Jarvis? Get us two front-row tickets for something family-friendly I think, but not childish. What do you suggest?"
"Perhaps 'Wicked' would meet your exacting standards, sir?"
"Awesome, flying monkeys. Yeah, we'll go with that, Jarvis."
Steve enjoys the musical very much, and even more he enjoys putting his arm up and around Tony's shoulders after he stretches casually. Tony grins and whispers, "Classic move" and leans back, warm and firm against his arm. No one points or mutters, and as first dates go, Steve is counting it a success.
Then it's intermission, fifteen minutes before the show resumes for the second act, so they get up for a stretch. Tony goes to the men's room. Steve is about to follow him when a group of boys and girls and young men and women in Captain America t-shirts surround him, asking for him to sign their shirts. He's not sure how they missed Iron Man- Tony is so brassy bright and distinctive- but then, Tony's had a long time to learn how to turn off the public face. Steve doesn't have a public face. Maybe he should learn how to make one, because it gets a little embarrassing having to sign people's clothing.
By the time he finishes the last shirt there isn't much of the intermission remaining. And Tony hasn't come out. Steve wonders if he's not feeling well. He enters the men's room, calling, "Tony?" but stops one step inside the swinging door. A hot air hand-drier is pulled off the wall, there's an arc of urine across the floor by the urinals, there's a spatter of blood leading to an open window, set high in the wall, broken latch hanging below. Tony's designer jacket is lying crumpled on the tile floor along with one of his custom-made shoes, the ones with disguised inner lifts. "TONY!" Steve kicks in all the stall doors even though he knows Tony's not here, and then he pulls himself up to look through the window into an alley beside the theater, empty except for rubbish, and a single startled cat. He can't fit through the window. But Tony could.
Wolverine sniffs around and declares that Tony had been in the alley, alive, and not losing much blood, but he can't follow one car in New York City's traffic. Neither can a bloodhound. The Iron Wolverines crisscross the area, using all their abilities, and turn up no clues. NYPD goes out in force.
No one has seen anything suspicious.
Turns out the fans only know that someone had emailed their Captain America fanclub and tipped them that he'd be attending the play- there'd been a jpg of the ticket confirmation saying Tony Stark and Steve Rogers as evidence. They'd figured even if it was a coincidence of names, at least they'd see a good show so the ones who could afford it had gone. They try to help the police, but the email turns out to have been set up just that day from a public computer at the library.
Pepper waits by the phone, but no one calls Stark Industries with a ransom demand. Not the first day, not the second day, not the third day.
Tony is just gone.
Logan looks up as the bald man in the wheelchair rolls into the bar, followed by a man with silvery eyes that match his unruly hair. "Sorry, gents," Logan says, "We're not open for business. Got a little family trouble."
"That's why we're here," the bald man says, "Erik and I have come to offer our services."
"You wanna be bartenders?" Logan has given up on that, really.
"If it's required." The bald man looks at Logan, and then says, "Erik, the cognac behind the bar. The one with the gold label."
"Yes, Charles." The silvery haired guy holds up his right hand. A metal bracelet undoes itself from his wrist, flies over behind the bar and emerges wrapped around the bottle, which it places in front of Logan.
"Huh," Logan says. "Good party tricks. Wanna t-shirt?"
Erik winces and brushes down the neat line of his gray suit. "Please, no, don't trouble yourself."
"Mr. Stark is missing. I've... been told... that Erik and I can find out who took him."
"Told by who?"
"Someone who apparently prefers to remain anonymous. Her proofs were impressive."
"As was her timing," Erik says dryly.
Logan wrinkles his nose. "I don't think I wanna know." Logan looks at them warily, and then shrugs. "Sure, you can work here. If it turns out you're lyin', hell, you can die here."
Charles smiles benignly. "Excellent. I'll have a ramp built behind the bar in no time."
"Fine. Hey, you rescue Stark, he'll probably build you a flyin' chair."
Wanda pulls off her gloves and holds her hands out to Stephen. "This wasn't supposed to happen."
"There are still three months. We have time. We can adapt the pattern."
"Not without Stark."
"We've lost Stark."
"We don't know."
"That's not good."
"How's the situation in New Mexico?"
Coulson looks back at the glass enclosure holding the man whose scans read 'not human'. "Complicated."
"Uncomplicate it and get your ass back to New York as soon as possible."
Coulson calls another number, one that doesn't appear anywhere in the telephone system. "Is there another?" he asks without preamble.
"No. If we lose him, Earth's dimension is lost."
"Well, damn," Coulson says mildly.
Steve's hunting for Tony.
Steve is keeping himself together very well, so he's a little annoyed that everyone keeps giving him sympathetic looks and bringing him sandwiches and coffee while he coordinates the investigation and search. He's fine. He's not thinking of the newspaper and radio coverage of the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby when he was twelve, and how he'd had fantasies about finding the child and being a hero. He's definitely not thinking about the horror he felt when the baby's body was discovered. Tony will be all right. If they wanted him dead, they wouldn't have bothered taking him. It wasn't that much blood. Tony's strong. Whatever they wanted with him, he'll survive and come back, probably complaining about having missed the end of the play and offering to have the cast restage it in the Tower.
Sure. Sure he will. He'll come back fine, talking nonsense a mile a minute, working all hours on nothing but coffee and inventing-adrenaline up until he crashes on the nearest horizontal surface without regard for the damage grease will do and lies there looking so misleadingly innocent. Steve hears a crack, and looks down to see that he's shattered the pencil he was holding.
Tony. Where are you? What's happening to you? Hold on. I'll find you.
There isn't a clock in the room, and Tony's watch, a hand-crafted work of art that not only shows the phases of the moon, but significant planetary conjunctions, isn't on his wrist. Not that he'd be able to look at it if it were, because he's strapped down to a hospital bed by thickly padded cuffs around his wrists. "Where am I, again?"
A big man wearing a business suit moves into Tony's view. "You're in the infirmary in our base, Tony."
"Oh. Ours? If this is mine, why am I under restraints?"
"You were struck on the head, and behaving irrationally. You even tried to hit me, and I'm your best friend." The man smiles.
"Should I be in the hospital?"
"You hate hospitals. And we couldn't risk it. The people who attacked you are after us. They're well organized, and they have spies everywhere."
"Am I paranoid, too, or is it just you?" Tony pulls at the cuffs. "Seriously, get me out of this."
"I will once you show me you're back to normal. Tony, do you know who I am?"
"That's a stupid question. You're... umm... my best friend."
"What's my name, Tony?" The man leans in close, all smiles.
"Um...Obie... no. No, he's not my friend."
The man sighs and moves away. "Maybe this will help." He presses a button and a wall rolls away, revealing a suit of armor standing in a niche. "You gave it to me, remember? So we could fight together."
Tony frowns. "I remember... I gave a suit to Rhodey."
"That's right, I'm Rhodey."
"Huh. That's one ugly suit, Rhodey. What did you do, let Hammer at it?"
"I didn't have any choice. I need you to fix it so we can get back to fighting."
"I can't fix anything while I'm tied up, Rhodey." Tony's eyes narrow. "Are you sure you're Rhodey? Rhodey... he never wears a business suit. Never. Who are you?" Tony starts struggling against the bindings.
The big man sighs again, and picks up a hypodermic. "We were so close that time, too. Go to sleep, Tony, we'll try it again tomorrow."
"How did they know?" Steve asks Bruce. "I keep going back to that. It was a spur of the moment decision, just random chance that we were at that show."
"You hadn't discussed it with anyone?"
"No. We just... I asked Tony if he'd like to go to a show. He asked Jarvis to suggest something, and then get the tickets. That was only a few hours before the show. We'd never been at that theater before."
"So." Bruce takes off his glasses and wipes them. "Whoever's behind this would have had no reason to be watching the theater or to bribe anyone for the information."
Bruce shakes his head. "Tony's pretty paranoid about Jarvis. It was overridden twice and he's since instituted security measures he said made Black Ice look like a friendly handshake. Anything intrudes on Jarvis gets hunted down with extreme prejudice."
"But what about the computers at the other end?"
"Well, I suppose they have some security, but sure, they'd be hackable. I suppose, if you could design a virus that spread and did nothing noticeable until triggered by Tony Stark making a reservation, and then just sent the information to the programmer. It's not really my field. We should ask Fury about it. If anyone keeps track of trouble-makers, it's him."
"Yeah. I hate asking Fury for anything, but you're right."
"Tony. Wake up."
There's no clock. The room is clean and bare and Tony's strapped down to a hospital bed. "Wha?"
A big man moves in front of Tony. "I've captured you and your good friend Rhodey. Unfortunately your armor was destroyed and his has been botched by Hammer."
"Uh huh." Tony shifts in the bed. "Sure, that's a shame."
"I don't want you."
"That's what they all say. Until they realize how awesome I am."
"All you have to do is fix up Rhodey's armor, and I'll release the two of you."
Tony smiles. "No, you won't."
The big man isn't smiling as he picks up a hypodermic. "You're a stubborn little prick, aren't you?"
"They say that a lot, too."
Fury hands Steve a folder. Steve doesn't bother to tell Fury that he doesn't need printouts. Living with Tony Stark teaches a person their way around a computer pretty fast. In fact Tony had been quite pleased that he didn't have to un-teach Steve any 'bad habits'. He doesn't know how to program because-- well, why own a dog and bark yourself? but he sure can upload and operate text documents, spreadsheets and half a dozen image manipulation programs. He's pretty sure Fury knows all that. If Natasha and Clint aren't reporting to him regularly, Steve would eat the hat he isn't wearing. Fury likes layered games and trying to annoy Steve to see his reaction is just the top of the stack.
Normally Steve would play along with it, but he hasn't the patience, doesn't know how much time Tony has. He lets the folder drop to Fury's desk. "If you'd found Tony, we'd already be going to get him. So what have you found?"
"A black hat who goes by the code name 'Phiber Optix' (Fury taps at the name on the folder) was paid anonymously to create a program to track Tony Stark's activity and drop the information into a remotely accessible system. He got curious." Fury snorts, apparently at the stupidity of hiring a crook and expecting him to be honest with you. "And hacked back to identify his employer. Norman Osborn, the founding genius behind Oscorp. Founding genius, and paranoid psychopath, according to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s analysis of his activities over the years. Unfortunately, he's always managed to stay out of the hands of the law, and S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't have a mandate for preemptive action against 'honest citizens' just because they show all the signs of developing into supervillains."
"I take it Osborn's present whereabouts are unknown?"
Fury nods. "I've got people on it." He opens the folder and pulls out a photograph. "This is Osborn."
Steve takes the photo. "Thank you, sir."
"I want Stark back as bad as you do, Rogers."
"I doubt that, sir. I really do."
Tony's still kidnapped, but pieces are moving into position.
"Frankly, I've run out of time for subtlety. There's a situation in New York that takes precedence over playing games with you." Coulson stands in front of the big blond, strange, very strange, man sitting in his glass cage. "So I'm giving you one last chance to explain who you are, and why you were so sure you could just waltz in over my men and take that artifact. You could be either a problem, or a solution, it's up to you."
"My problems are my own."
"I don't actually care about your problems. In five minutes I'm walking out of here and throwing away the key. If you'd rather sit here than help, fine, you can do that, but I have more important things to do than wipe your nose because you're feeling sorry for yourself. Grow up; at your size you look ridiculous pouting like a child."
"My father is dead because of me. I am exiled because of my arrogance. I have lost my kingdom because of my pride. Even the hammer forged to my hand alone repudiates me because I was a vain, thoughtless fool! But I am not a child, I am Thor!" Thor stands up, kicking the chair behind him. "If I could do anything to atone, I would!"
"Uh huh," Coulson says. "Thor. Ok, here's the deal. You come with me to New York and lend a hand."
"I don't make promises. You need to atone? Well, you don't get to pick and choose how you do that. None of us do. I'm going now. Are you coming with me?"
Thor nods. "Yes."
"Jarvis, wha timzit?"
"Jarvis isn't here," the big man says as he walks around the hospital bed.
Tony's eyes follow him, tracking slowly. "Musta' been a hella party."
"There was no party. You were attacked while working on your latest invention, an armored suit."
"Tha's nice." Tony's head flops to one side. "There's a bug on the wall."
"Tony, you need to complete the suit, so we can fight them!"
"Not a computer bug. A real bug. But there was also a real bug in a real computer." Tony pauses and frowns. "A fly. Maybe. Found it in 1947 when Grace Murray Hopper was working on the Harvard University Mark II Aiken Relay Calculator. They taped it into the log book as a reminder to keep the doors shut. Shutting the computer room door after the horsefly escaped. I think.
"Oh, maybe it was a moth... yeah, a moth. For a long time people thought the log book was at the Smithsonian, but it wasn't. It was at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Computer Museum at Dahlgren, Virginia. They had offered it to the Smithsonian, but the Smithsonian wouldn't take it. Maybe whoever was in charge didn't like moths. Or computers. Or possibly log books. Then in 1990 the editor of the Online Hacker Jargon File got curious and asked about it and found that the current curator of the History of American Technology Museum, which is part of the Smithsonian, really would like to have it. They got it in 1991, but it took years to actually exhibit it. Which I dunno why- space and money constraints? It was only a log book, how much space could it take and how hard to put in a glass case? Hey, if they'd asked me I'd have donated for it. I like worthy causes."
The big man sighs. "I gave you too much. Sleep it off, Tony."
"Get the bug off the wall. It's watching me. It has beady eyes."
Steve scans and prints out enough copies of Osborn's photo to give one to everyone in the Avengers' Alliance. Pepper had suggested sending to their StarkPads, (Tony had a habit of scattering them around like confetti, he said he didn't want to be embarrassed by knowing anyone who used any competing brands) but Steve had pointed out that Osborn had hired one hacker, he could just as well have more they didn't know about. Better to share all information either face to face, or via Charles Xavier's telepathy, which Steve thinks is both incredibly handy and a bit disturbing, mostly because it makes him wonder what other abilities are floating around, and how many of them belong to people not half as trustworthy as Charles.
One example: he isn't at all sure that he trusts the woman who'd told Charles to go to the Iron Wolverine. From the way Charles described her, the Scarlet Witch is a psychic who can see 'possible futures'. But Steve thinks it just as likely she's a fruitcake who knew that Tony was half owner in the Iron Wolverine-- it's hardly as if he'd made a secret of it-- and who wanted to impress Charles, who is apparently a sort of father figure to the younger mutant generation. Charles has admitted that if a person believes what they're thinking, he reads it as true, even if they're mistaken... or deluded.
Still, he's glad Charles has joined them, if nothing else for the man's ability to organize. Steve isn't ... really very calm, despite trying not to show his tension. It's been five days with no word. It's as if the ground opened up and swallowed Tony.
"What are you doin' here?" Logan growls, rising from the table where he'd been playing chess with Charles, while Erik takes over the bar. "And who's the big boy, your bodyguard?"
"Fury sent me." Coulson strides over to the bar and picks up a basket of chicken wings, handing them to Thor, who is right behind him. "This is my friend, Thor. He's my food taster."
Thor begins eating chicken wings while looking around the bar.
Logan eyes him a moment before turning his attention back to Coulson. "Yeah, good idea. I bet a lot of people would like to season your stew with rat-poison. Give me one good reason why I don't kick the two of you outta my place."
"Logan," Charles says mildly, "the man has good intentions."
"Yeah, yeah. That and five bucks'll get you a Bud." Logan growls and extends his claws. Thor stops eating and looks at him with interest.
Coulson sighs. "A lady in red strongly suggests that we spend the day at your fine establishment."
Logan retracts his claws. "Huh. All right, guess we're all gettin' the same memo. Stay outta my way if anything goes down."
Thor drops the empty basket to the floor. "ANOTHER!"
There is no time and no color. Tony smiles at the big man leaning over him. "You look kinda 'miliar."
"That's because I'm your friend."
"Oh." Tony opens and closes his eyes a few times and then squints at the man. "Nope. Not coming to me. Was it a big party? Maybe I was smashed. I do that... did do that. I did that. Then. You know."
"Yes, I know. We met at your bar, so maybe you were a little drunk."
Tony nods. "Mostly I have a good memory. More for numbers than faces, though. So, we're friends, and I'm tied down here, why?"
"You have a mild concussion. Every time you move too much you get sick."
"Yeah. That happens. It's not so much fun as you might think." Tony sighs.
"I wouldn't bother you, but we need you to repair this suit. There's a battle going on and every Avenger and Iron Wolverine is needed. You gave me a suit, remember? They call me the Iron Patriot."
"Oh." Tony looks at the red, white and blue armor. "That explains the color scheme, anyway. Who are you fighting?"
"Doctor Doom. He's got a new army of Doombots, even more powerful than the last batch."
Tony pulls against the restraints. "I should be there. Let me up."
"You're in no condition. Captain America told me to make sure you stayed out of it."
Tony frowns. "Steve would have come to tell me. Are you sure you're an Iron Wolverine? I know, there's a lot of them, but... I just... can't place you."
"Of course I am! I am the Iron Patriot!"
"Geez, don't shout. Where's your t-shirt, then? Huh? Can't be an Iron Wolverine without the t-shirt."
"If I get my shirt will you fix the suit?"
"Probably. Can't tell what's wrong with it from here. Don't see any tools."
"The tools are in the next room, everything you need to build me a whole new suit."
"Great. I'll go get my shirt. I'll be back soon, Tony."
Tony's still kidnapped, but events are narrowing the search.
Steve decides not to join the stake-out in the bar. Either that woman is crazy, in which case he'd be wasting valuable time, or she actually has mental powers to tell the future and deliberately left him out of the loop because his presence would mess things up.
He and Pepper and Jarvis continue to try to find Osborn by investigating his 'computer trail'. Steve doesn't know how to program, but he knows how to ask questions. He doesn't like the picture that develops; doesn't like it at all. Jarvis taps into S.H.I.E.L.D.'s records- no doubt without permission, but Steve doesn't give a flyin' fig- and finds hints of an obsession with Iron Man, with Tony's popularity with the public, with Tony's genius and wealth, but most of all with Iron Man. He's never got the whole story behind Iron Man's creation, but there were hints, times when Tony would be startled and flinch, times he would go silent and there would be something infinitely dark behind his eyes before he'd cover it with laughter and a whirl of activity.
Someone tried to break Tony, once. Steve doesn't believe that you're stronger for having survived terrible things. No, what you get better at is covering up the shattered places to protect them from further damage. Osborn's had five days to dig below Tony's defenses. If... when they get Tony back, Steve is going to make sure he knows he's not alone, never going to be alone without anyone looking for him, caring for him.
And if Tony doesn't come back... well, Osborn can't hide forever, and sometimes justice doesn't wait for a courtroom.
They've made an attempt to keep the Iron Wolverine looking normal, with the Allied Avengers who are pretending to be customers dressed in normal street clothing, and all of the others spread out over the surrounding area, on foot, on top of/swinging from buildings, or in flight, like Ororo and Johnny. Charles has been 'listening in' and serving as central coordinator.
Charles looks up from the chessboard suddenly, frowning. "Ororo has seen Osborn. It appears that he is heading in this direction."
Wolverine stands up, knocking over his king. "Good game, Charles, but I think I found a better one." He flexes his fists.
"Wait, Logan." Charles holds up his hands and concentrates. "It's no good," he says softly.
"It's no good," Charles repeats. "I found his mind by following Ororo. If we try to capture him, he has...I can't visualize it clearly...a remote control device to kill Tony. He can trigger it, or... if he's delayed, it will detonate by itself."
Coulson is sitting at the bar with Thor, who seems to have an infinite tolerance for alcohol. Thor stopped throwing empty containers on the floor after Erik levitated a metal stein and smacked him in the head with it or else they'd be knee-deep. Coulson asks, "Can you get Tony's location from his mind?"
Charles shakes his head. "Unfortunately, no. Mr. Osborn appears to be quite completely insane. According to him, Tony is trapped on an asteroid heading for Mars, falling into the volcano at Mount Doom, or possibly having tea with the Queen of England."
"Then tail him, distract him, and retrieve Mr. Stark," Coulson says.
"That would be too risky, I fear. He's familiar with all of the Allied Avengers," Charles replies. "He feels confident that his identity is unknown to us, and is quite smugly certain that he knows all of us. Except... he does not know you, Mr. Coulson, or your large friend."
Coulson nods and gets up. "Well, Thor, it seems our presence is indeed fortuitous. Remember, don't confront Osborn."
Thor slams back the last of his current boilermaker, and stands. "In this I shall accept your rede, but if your soothsayer sees my purpose, I doubt it is to act as nothing more than a hound."
"That does seem unlikely, doesn't it?" Coulson looks at Charles. "I will allow you to guide me, but I trust you not to peek."
Charles smiles. "Of course."
Wolverine grumbles as Thor and Coulson leave the bar. "I could trail Osborn, once I get a sniff of the bastard."
"I don't doubt it for a minute," Charles says.
"What we doubt is your ability to be subtle," Erik adds with a smirk.
Osborn enters the Iron Wolverine and barely glances at the people inside. He heads straight for the bar and points at the t-shirt hung as a decoration on the wall. "One of those. In a large," he tells Erik.
"Nothing to drink?" Erik asks, mildly.
"Later." Osborn smiles a rather creepy smile. "When I have something to celebrate. For now, I just want the shirt." He takes out his wallet. "How much?"
"Twenty." Erik reaches under the bar and retrieves a plastic wrapped shirt, marked L.
"Thanks." Osborn drops a twenty on the bar, picks up the shirt and leaves.
Logan growls something soft and angry, and then he looks down at a crunch and sees he's put his claws right through the table. "I guess that wasn't subtle, was it?"
Charles has his eyes closed and his lips are moving for a moment before he speaks. "Coulson and Thor have him in sight. They've split up. Ororo, Peter and Johnny are watching from above. Osborn suspects nothing."
Osborn disappears down the steps into the areaway leading to the basement of an ordinary seeming mid-size brick building, one of thousands converted and repurposed over the years, with faded signs painted on the walls, and grimy windows showing the variety of occupants. There's a shoe store and candy shop on the bottom floor. A dentist and optometrist occupy the second floor. Above that the signs are harder to read, probably mostly mailing addresses for businesses that don't have walk-in customers.
Thor is chatting with a woman pushing a cart loaded with possessions on one side of the street. Coulson is further back in the shadows of an alley. Neither of them is entirely inconspicuous, but they'd had crowds to blend with for most of the fairly short walk (so close to Tony's bar, as if Osborn was mocking them), and New York has eminently blendable crowds with people far more eye-catching than either of them.
Charles speaks inside Coulson's mind. Osborn has arrived at his destination. He hasn't yet deactivated the death-trap. Wait for my signal. Coulson looks across the street and catches Thor's eye. Thor nods. They're both on the same page.
Tony rolls his head, looking around the bare room as far as he can from his place in the hospital bed, before focusing on the big man in front of him. "Nice shirt."
"I'm the Iron Patriot, one of the Iron Wolverines. And now you're going to fix my armor."
Tony bites his lip and stares at the man. "What's wrong with it?"
"It needs a new power source. It's currently underpowered. It's only useful for ground assault, and I need it to be able to fly."
"Huh." Tony looks at the red, white, and blue armor and then back at the Iron Patriot. "You know, that looks a lot like the Mark II, the one I gave Rhodey. Only uglier."
"Well, you were in a hurry when you made it."
"Uh huh, no. See, that's just... it's not just ugly. It's wrong. I never made that thing. Who are you?"
"I AM THE IRON PATRIOT!"
"No, really, from where I sit... lie... you're not. Really, you are not the stuff heroes are made of. I know a hero when I see one, and believe me, you are never going to get your smiling face on the Wheaties box. And you sure as hell aren't going to do it in a cheap knockoff of one of my suits."
"You WILL do as I say!"
"Sorry, no. You gonna kill me? I have to tell you, that, that's really not a good plan, either."
"Not you. I'll kill your friends. One by one until you agree to work for me."
"Um. No, I don't think you've thought this out at all well," Tony protests even as the man moves over to the armor, and equipment emerges from the walls to begin putting it on him. "You know, maybe we could discuss this a little further, you could try the Spandex line of heroing, that's cool, too, and it's a hell of a lot easier to replace the costumes between fights."
Resolution of the kidnapping, yay.
Osborn is moving now, to take Tony to another location. He's going to detonate the death trap the moment he's clear. There are people in the building! Charles' thought goes to all the Allied Avengers, to Steve and Bruce, Coulson, and Thor in one swift burst of urgency, implanting the location like a guide beam, even as he's maneuvering his metal wheelchair out the door, and then Erik is standing on a platform at the back and levitating it above the gawking crowds. Logan is running after them, not much slower. Iron Wolverines are converging on the tenement with reckless speed, the fliers landing on the roof and tearing through walls to drag startled workers from their desks while the ones on foot slam through the ground floor and evacuate from there.
Bruce Hulks out in the middle of an experiment, smashing beakers and setting off alarms. Steve runs into the lab. He's wearing street clothes, but has the shield strapped to his free hand. "Hulk! Let's go!" The Hulk looks at him and growls, then tucks him under one arm and smashes out another of Tony's windows. They're farther, much farther, away than any of the other Avengers. Even the Hulk's great strides can't get him there fast enough, Steve thinks.
He's right. There's an explosion when they're still some distance away. The Hulk's roar is louder than Steve's cry, but no more heart-felt.
"Well, now, what have we here? The bastard love-child of Iron Man and Captain America?" Coulson says calmly, standing on the street directly in front of the Iron Patriot.
"Get out of my way," Osborn says, voice metallic and booming. He has Tony held tightly against his chest, and is ignoring Tony's random kicking. Tony looks disoriented and bemused by the superheros busily evacuating protesting civilians.
"You have something that doesn't belong to you." Coulson smiles. "And really, Mr. Stark is far more trouble than he's worth. Why don't you put him down and leave before things get unpleasant?"
"I'll show you unpleasant!" Osborn raises one hand, palm up and repulsor gleaming as it whines to full power. Tony throws his weight to one side just enough so the repulsor blast fires wide, not that Coulson has stayed to be hit. Unfortunately, the mis-aimed blast has knocked over a lamppost, pinning Coulson to the ground. The Iron Patriot takes a step towards Coulson, but then the building explodes, distracting Osborn as superheroes desperately use their powers in a concerted effort to save the civilians. He pauses, then turns back to Coulson, aiming at his head. Coulson stares back at him impassively.
Thor growls from his position on the other side of the street. "Coward!" He lifts his weaponless hands. "Only a base weakling hides behind another man's body! Have the courage of your infamy! Fight me like a man!"
"You fool! You are nothing to me! I will crush you like an ant!" Osborn drops Tony and raises both palms.
"Coward!" Thor shouts and runs towards Osborn. Twin repulsor blasts strike him in the chest and fling him across the street to land in a crumpled, bloody, motionless, heap.
Coulson says softly, "You shouldn't have done that." He pulls a gun from inside his jacket and empties the clip at Osborn, aiming at the center of the armor where a dull light flickers. Osborn turns toward him slowly, obviously unimpaired. "Well. It was worth a try." There's a crack of thunder and Coulson glances up to see Ororo in the middle of a forming storm. "Looks like rain."
Osborn lifts his arms again. Wind suddenly blasts down the street, blowing trash in swirling mini-tornados. Lightning strikes, a blue-white blaze that engulfs Thor's body.
"I am Thor!" Thor is standing, holding a massive hammer in his right hand. He's dressed in black and silver armor, with a blood red cape whipping in the wind behind him. "And you are defeated!" He flings the hammer, smashing it into Osborn and shattering the suit.
Coulson blinks. "Ok, you're Thor."
Steve punches the Hulk in the thigh to get his attention. "Let me down!" The Hulk glances at him and drops him before continuing in a lumbering run. They're too close for Hulk to leap blindly, and the streets are too crowded with vehicles and people for Hulk to move quickly without squashing anyone, and he seems sensible enough to avoid that, although the way he growls makes traffic part for him as best it can. But it's too slow, Steve can move faster on his own.
"Follow me, Hulk!" Steve shouts and runs straight for the dirty cloud of smoke, into the street, over cars, leaping onto moving vehicles amid squealing brakes, blaring horns, and shouts of alarm. He doesn't give a damn about the near collisions. All that matters is getting to Tony. Wind whips around him as he comes around a corner and takes in the scene; half collapsed building, Iron Wolverines, civilians sitting or lying in the rubble, big guy in armor and scarlet cape holding a sledgehammer with electricity sparking and rolling off of it, Coulson pinned under a lamppost looking inconvenienced and irritated, Osborn unconscious in a pile of multicolored metal, and Tony. Tony standing, swaying rather. He's wearing a torn and filthy hospital gown with blue-black bruised dots tracing the veins in both arms. And he's got his right hand inside a gauntlet matching Osborn's armor, trailing wires hooked up to his arc reactor, powering a fully-lit repulsor in the palm. He's aiming it in the general direction of the man in the cape, but wavering enough to cover most of the people around.
Tony turns and Steve sees his face clearly. He's gray-pale, and his pupils are barely visible, pin-dots. Steve's not sure what he can see, and has no idea what he's been drugged with, but it's obvious Tony is a hair away from firing. "Tony! It's me, Steve."
Tony shakes his head. "No. Not going to fool me. I'm onto your tricks!" He wobbles and uses his left arm to steady his right. "Not Steve. Stay back."
Steve would like to take the time to wait for Tony to calm down, but there are injured that need medical care, and there are also superheros not known for their patience. Logan is coming up from another street, with Erik and Charles floating in front of him. Logan growls and Tony whirls with surprising speed, letting off a blast that clips the corner of a building.
"TONY, NO!" Steve moves forward, holding the shield in front of himself before he realizes that there are too many people around to use it against the repulsor- he'd be reflecting it onto them. He drops the shield and holds up his hands. "Tony, it's really me. Put down the glove. You don't want to hurt anyone."
"Prove it!" Tony's shaking even worse, the gauntlet waving in a wide arc.
Steve thinks quickly, mind racing through what Tony must be feeling after days of drugs and whatever else... Osborn had been hacking the computers, he'd know everything public about Tony, use everything to trick him. So, something no one but him and Tony knows... He takes a deep breath. "The Toad came home! There was panic in the parlours and howling in the halls, There was crying in the cow-sheds and shrieking in the walls, When the Toad- came- home!"
Tony tilts his head and slowly lets the gauntlet fall to his side. "Toad comes home?"
"Yes, Tony." Steve comes up to him and puts his arm around him. "Toad comes home."
Tony's buzzed. Steve is happy. Thor wishes he could go home. Bruce is pretty mellow about life in general.
"No, no, no," Tony says, flailing as a paramedic attempts to look at him. "No hospital. Get out of here. Going HOME!"
"Tony, you really should..." Steve says, before getting a good look at Tony's face. He's too drugged to hide how terrified he is. "All right." He tightens his grip on Tony's shoulder and tells the paramedic, "Mr. Stark's private physician will want to examine him first." He lies with a straight face, "He's already on the way here."
The paramedic doesn't look entirely as if she believes Steve, but she's got plenty of cooperative patients who need assistance, so she gives up and goes over to Coulson who is still looking a little pale and ruffled even after Thor picked the lamppost off of him. The Hulk has been hovering over Tony and Steve, which probably adds to her decision. "HULK TAKE TONY HOME." He reaches out to take Tony, but Steve steps back, pulling Tony with him.
"Hulk," Steve says, "can you get Tony a taxi? I don't think jumping would be good for him right now."
"HULK GET TAXI."
Steve watches as the Hulk bounds away and returns a moment later dragging a yellow cab behind him like a toddler with a wheeled duckie toy. "TAXI," the HULK announces with satisfaction.
The driver looks at Steve, wide-eyed, his knuckles clenched tight on the steering wheel. "Where to, sir?"
"Stark Tower," Steve says. He glances at the big blond guy who's staring wistfully after the ambulance carrying Coulson away. Steve hasn't been eavesdropping exactly, but he can't help having perfect hearing, and Thor isn't exactly a whispering type, so he's learned the man's name and that he apparently died temporarily (which, ok, if Coulson says it, then it must have happened) while keeping Osborn from escaping with Tony. So Thor is an ok guy in Steve's book. "Hey, you, Thor! Can we drop you somewhere?"
Thor turns to face Steve. "I have no place here."
Tony blinks. "Well, hell, com'n back to my place. I like your hammer. I'd like to get my hands on it."
Steve sighs and shifts his grip on Tony, heading for the taxi. "He doesn't mean anything by that. He just says things."
"Mjolnir is a mighty weapon. Many have admired it," Thor says as he strides forward and opens the taxi door.
When they return to the Tower Pepper is waiting in the lobby. She takes one look at Tony, hugs him, and then smiles, shakily. "Welcome back, Mr. Stark."
Tony grins at her crookedly. "Like my new dress?" He does a little sloppy dance-step while Steve is basically holding him up, making the ragged hospital gown show a bit more skin than it's designed for. Steve tugs the gown back in place, while Bruce and Thor wear matching non-expressions.
Pepper giggles. "I'm afraid it's not your color, Mr. Stark."
"Make a note of that, Ms. Potts!" Tony calls as Steve hustles him into the elevator. "Are you coming up with us, Ms. Potts?" Steve asks gently, seeing her holding her hands tightly together to disguise the shaking.
"No, thank you, Steve. I... need to... handle the press and...things," she replies. Happy Hogan comes in and puts an arm around her. "Just... let me know how Tony's doing, all right?"
"Of course," Steve says as the elevator doors shut.
"He stole my lightning," Tony says peevishly.
"Isn't that supposed to be thunder?" Bruce says while trying to hold Tony still long enough to put a stethoscope to his back. They're back in the Tower, in the lab outfitted for Bruce's research. Steve and Thor are sweeping up the mess from Bruce's failed experiment. The chemicals have etched an interesting pattern in the floor.
"NO. No, he had repulsors. Crappy repulsors, but still. MY LIGHTNING," Tony throws out a hand and nearly knocks Bruce's eyeglasses off. "JARVIS! Get that lightning stealing bastard!"
"Of course, sir," Jarvis says in a 'humoring the drugged idiot' tone, which Tony is too much of a drugged idiot to notice. "At once."
"Speaking of lightning," Steve says to Thor, "That was pretty amazing, what you did back there."
Thor shakes his head. "It was very little."
"I welcomed the chance to make my death serve some purpose." Thor looks down at his hammer and smiles. "And I reaped much benefit from it." He frowns. "Would that my father were alive to see my redemption."
Steve put his hand on Thor's shoulder. "I'm sure he would have been proud of you."
"I would like to think so. I have been forbidden to return home. I cannot even pay my respects at my father's tomb."
"Go anyway. Trust me on this, it's easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission," Tony says and then yelps when Bruce tries once more to listen to his lungs. "OW, hey, doesn't anybody warm those things?"
"No, Tony, you see your reaction to the cold is part of the exam," Bruce says with a straight face while holding the stethoscope in place. "It'd help if you'd stop talking."
"Huh. Yeah, ok." Tony looks at Thor. "You wanna go somewhere, I can take you. Well, not me, right at the moment. I think I'm a little too juiced to fly... but I have a very nice jet. Take you anywhere in the world." Bruce rolls his eyes at Steve who comes over and puts his hand over Tony's mouth. Tony's eyes go wide in indignation, but he shuts up.
Thor shrugs. "It is a kind offer, but Asgard is not of this world." Tony's eyebrows go even higher. Everyone looks at Thor. Bruce says, "Ok, now this story I want to hear."
After Bruce decides that Tony is not in any immediate danger, provided no one lets him wander around on his own (Blitzed Tony + Power Tools/ Welding Gear= Disaster) they gather in the living room. Tony is still too floppy to shower on his own, so Steve settles for washing his face and arms and maneuvering him into a heavy robe after tossing the hospital gown in the lab incinerator. They arrange themselves on the couch, which Tony has had custom made to support the Hulk, provided the Hulk is in the mood to watch television rather than smash things. Tony is still buzzed and insists on sitting on Steve's lap. Steve thinks he should probably object. But he won't. He's had five days without Tony, when everything was wrong and slow and so damn cold, like ice trapping him, working its way into his heart. He's going to indulge himself, just a little, while Tony needs a bit of coddling.
Bruce sits next to Steve on one side, and Thor takes the other. Thor tells them his story. After a few outbursts, Steve keeps one hand over Tony's mouth. In retaliation, Tony licks his palm. Steve just grins at him.
"So," Bruce says at last, "Your brother is king now, but your exile remains in effect?"
Thor nods. "I have hurt my family deeply. It would be wrong to add further to their sorrow by disobeying my mother's wishes in this matter."
Tony bites Steve's palm. "Hey!" Steve jerks his hand back instinctively even though it didn't really hurt.
"Phone home!" Tony says, and then turns to look at Steve. "Hey, do we have any M & M's? Aliens like them. Thor's an alien. He should like them. Q.E.D."
"That's a hasty generalization, Tony," Bruce points out, mildly.
"Since when did you do debate?" Tony says. "I was debate champion!"
Steve grins. "I think you just wore your opponents down by sheer force of will." Tony looks smug.
"Although," Bruce says, "Tony's basic point is sound. If Thor could send a message home, that wouldn't be defying anyone, and he could tell them that he'd become worthy of Mjolnir. At least they'd know that much."
Thor nods. "That is true. It was my father's wish that I learn to be an honorable warrior. I would like my family to know that he succeeded in that, even though I must remain to battle for this realm rather than my own." Thor gets up. "I shall summon Heimdall. He will know the truth that is in my heart." He strides over to the walkway leading to the balcony, swinging Mjolnir lightly.
"OOOh, lightning show. C'mon, lets go see!" Tony jumps off of Steve and follows Thor. Bruce shrugs. Steve grabs the back of Tony's collar and all three of them go outside to watch Thor summon Heimdall.
It's really quite impressive.
Thor chats with Heimdall. Coulson chats with Fury. Logan chats with Charles and Eric. Tony is still blitzed, so really, he's entertaining, but not really informative.
There's an awful lot of wind and lightning, with Thor standing tall and quite literally in his element as mini-bolts leap from his hammer and dance over his armor. Steve puts an arm around Tony's waist to prevent a lemming-leap. Bruce looks nearly as fascinated, but stays well back.
"HEIMDALL!" Thor shouts into the wind. "I know you hear me, old friend! I beg you, for the love we both bear Asgard, tell my lady mother that I have regained the right to bear Mjolnir. I have vowed to use it to protect Midgard, in Odin's memory." Thor bows his head, and everyone is silent, even Tony having realized this isn't a moment for providing color commentary.
A shimmer of light, a bubble of gilt-edged rainbow, appears in mid-air and expands until it's larger than Thor. Suspended in it, hands folded over the hilt of a huge sword, is an even huger man in gold Asgardian armor. Steve puts a finger under Tony's dropped jaw and pushes up to prevent him making what is likely to be an unwise comment. This guy doesn't look like he has much of a sense of humor and Tony's 'under the influence' humor is definitely an acquired taste. Armored guy doesn't look as if he's really there, since Steve can see the Chrysler building dimly right through him, but he isn't placing any bets on whether the man actually needs to be present to kick up a ruckus.
"Heimdall!" Thor says, smiling, although his eyes are suspiciously damp. "Thank you for listening to my plea. Will you carry my message?"
Heimdall looks slowly at the others and then locks his gaze on Thor. "Odin is not dead; he but sleeps." The guy has an impressively deep voice coming from an equally impressive chest. Steve is kinda really hoping he stays friendly.
"He sleeps?" Thor sounds bewildered. "But Loki said... Loki." Thor groans as if a sudden grief has struck him, and he closes his eyes a moment. "Oh, my brother. What have you done?"
"Loki has taken the throne. He it was who ordered your banishment, while saying he but obeyed Odin's wishes." Heimdall says, "I am bound by my vow to the throne, and cannot grant you passage on the Bifrost."
Bruce steps forward. "But? You know, I get the feeling you'd like to help Thor." Bruce sounds calm, as ever, but Steve sees the line of tension in his stance.
Heimdall inclines his head. "It is true that I would rejoice to see the true prince of Asgard return, but my tongue as well as my hands are bound in this matter. No one of Asgard may assist him."
"Ah," Bruce says. "So someone on Earth might?"
Heimdall's lips turn up in a minimalist smile. "It is possible. Thor may find assistance close at hand, and near his heart." Heimdall nods and then fades away along with the bubble.
The lightning recedes, sparkling lightly along Mjolnir before disappearing completely. "Jane," Thor says. His eyes are still wet, but he's smiling.
Coulson is looking irritably down at a pristine white cast covering his right forearm when Fury walks into the hospital corridor where Coulson is sitting with a clipboard full of papers resting across his knees and a pen held awkwardly in his left hand. "Director," Coulson says politely. "I'm afraid there will be a delay filing my mission report. The hospital likes their forms filled out before release."
Fury grunts, takes the clipboard and pen and begins writing. "No job is finished until the paperwork is done."
Coulson smiles slightly. "Thanks."
"Well, you don't like grapes, and the gift shop was out of teddy bears." Fury is writing very quickly. "Religion? Druid or Jedi?"
"Oh, Jedi, definitely. When you put down druid, they give you a tree surgeon." Coulson looks, without seeming to look, at the other victims of the building collapse awaiting their turn. He says softly, "Prognosis?"
"The good doctor is cautiously optimistic. Apparently, your hammer-wielding friend is part of the solution."
Coulson nods and fussily smoothes the edges of his cast where it meets his wrist. "So, three months?"
"That's the current schedule." Fury goes over to the admissions desk and slaps the paperwork down. "Let's get out of here."
"Donuts on the way?"
"I'm tryin' to figure this out," Logan says after taking a swig of beer and then putting it down on the bar. Most of the Iron Avengers are present, enjoying an After-Abomination party. Someone has brought in a mechanical bull, which Logan was going to forbid, but he reconsidered. It was better than karaoke, and would probably be smashed as soon as McCoy tried it. Logan points a finger at Charles, "You're filthy rich an' own a mansion in Westchester, and you want to go into the heroing business?"
"Well," Charles said, "I wouldn't exactly call it that. Erik and I intend to set up a school for gifted young people."
"Gifted," Logan grunts. "Mutant High the Musical."
Erik says dryly, "I will personally guarantee there will be no karaoke machine."
There's a loud crash from the direction of the mechanical bull, followed by cheers. Logan looks over his shoulder at the smoking remains. "You're welcome to recruit any of this lot."
Tony wanders into the living room and flops down on the couch with an ice bag held to his head. "Steve, I am so wasted, and I didn't even have any fun. That is totally unfair." He turns his head and blinks at the man sitting next to him. "You're not Steve. You're big and blond, but not my big blond." He leans closer to peer at Thor. "Is it Halloween already? Did you get your candy? A guy like you must eat a lot."
Steve enters the living room on a run and sighs in relief. "Tony, I told you to stay in bed."
Tony leans back against the couch and looks at Steve. "Yes, but you weren't there, so what was the point? I want to introduce you to your twin. Conan, meet Steve." Steve sighs and sits down on Tony's other side, and tries to get his attention, but Tony is looking around the room in bemused concentration.
"My name is not Conan, it is Thor," Thor says, mildly enough. "I have already met Captain Rogers."
"Oh, that's good. Thor. Good name, I like it." Tony struggles to sit up and loses the ice bag which falls into his lap, loses the barely attached top and spills ice-melt. As he's only wearing a robe, his reaction is immediate. "Yikes!" He shoves the ice bag onto the floor and shivers. "Ok, this can't be a dream, because I would never literally cold-cock myself while sitting between Steve and Steve's twin. My subconscious isn't crazy. So, if it's not a dream, then I'm awake and not being head-hunted by that guy with the pincushion fetish." Tony peers at the small round bruises on his arms. "Yep. Same number as last time. Huh." Tony looks at Steve. "Not a dream?"
"No, it's not a dream." Steve pulls Tony close. Tony turns and puts his arms around Steve.
"Good. I'm not drunk, you know."
"Yeah, I know."
Tony sighs. "So... there really is a guy who shoots lightning bolts sitting here?"
"Yeah," Steve says and rubs Tony's back.
"This is true, however Midgardians call me the God of Thunder," Thor offers.
"Yeah," Tony says, muffled against Steve's chest. "They call me Iron Man, although my armor is a gold-titanium alloy." He waves a hand vaguely. "I'm not sure Captain America is actually a Captain. 's confusing. They threw him into combat as a Private, but called him Captain, and then he got ... stuck... and so, that's... that's time in service, plus nobody, nobody could ever say Cap didn't have combat experience, an' his leadership qualities... hell, he can lead me so's that's... that...an objective proof of something or other...so I'm gonna go with General. Yeah. General America. Sounds good."
Steve grins and pats Tony on the back. "Go to sleep, Tony. We're going to New Mexico in the morning."
"New Mexico. Land of Enchantment. Oh, hey, Roswell, we can go visit the little green guys. The Hulk might have a bonding moment with his chromatic kinfolk."
Steve gives up. "I'm taking Tony to bed, Thor. If you need anything, just ask Bruce, he'll be back up here once he's through packing up the equipment we'll be taking to Jane Foster's lab." Steve stands up and prods Tony onto his feet.
Thor nods. "Good evening, my friends."
In which Loki appears only by inference, the Bifrost doesn't get broken, Bruce doesn't Hulk out and in general everyone is relieved that the author is giving them a break.
"No, no, really, Tony, that... just won't work," Bruce says a few hours after they arrive in New Mexico to begin working on creating an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. At least that's what Steve thinks they call it. Thor calls it Bifrost. Jane's assistant Darcy calls it a Rainbow Bridge, 'but not the one where kitties go when they die'. From what Steve gathers, they are going to mess about with the basic nature of space. He isn't even too sure Tony was kidding when he said 'Alice in Wonderland' was an example of travel between dimensions using a Riemann Cut, a precursor to true wormhole theory, and what worms have to do with anything, Steve can't guess. After a while, he's stopped talking to them because they are making absolutely no sense even though Tony is now sober. Apparently hyper-caffienated, science-crazed Tony is just as undecipherable as buzzed Tony. So Steve's just standing out of range of flailing arms and floating ideas, observing, in the dim hope that having an innocent bystander nearby will keep the experiments in the reasonably safe range, rather than Tony's 'well, it probably won't blow up, let's see' methodology.
"You see?" Bruce points out something on a holographic blackboard... well, that's how Steve thinks of it, and Tony reaches out to grab the little glowing ball of nothing, and spreads it out between his hands on blue threads of light like a game of cat's cradle. Behind them, Jane is ignoring both of them as she sorts out her notes and materials, mysteriously returned from S.H.I.E.L.D. with authorizations all signed P.C. For some reason that had made Tony call Coulson Mr. Politically Correct, up until he got bored with it (about five minutes) and reverted to calling him 'Agent'.
Steve is keeping Thor company and trying to distract him from worrying about his family and friends. It isn't working too well. "Loki was always clever, and fond of pranks," Thor says, "Sometimes people were hurt, but I have hurt people with my strength, without meaning. It seemed no more than that, that he but exercised his wit as I did my muscles. We played hard and fought hard without considering the end, as young men do. I do not believe he intended things to have gone so far."
"Maybe not," Steve says, although privately he thinks that taking over a kingdom, a whole planet from the sound of it, isn't something you do accidentally. "But you must consider the possibility that he is resolved to keep what he's taken, by whatever means. What happens if your father awakens to expose Loki's lies?"
Thor looks troubled. "Loki would have clever words for him, would try to convince Odin that he had acted out of noble motives."
"Heimdall knows the truth. If Loki suspects, he'll be a target."
Thor shakes his head. "Loki is not mad, he cannot hope to defeat Heimdall by force of arms." Thor doesn't sound entirely certain.
"Whatever he's planned, he knows you, Thor. If he's any sort of strategist he'll have considered the possibility of your return."
"This is true."
"It would be better if you didn't face him alone."
Thor grins and claps Steve on the back. "You are a brave warrior, indeed, Captain Rogers! But this task is mine alone. Midgardians may not visit Asgard without Odin's leave. It would put me further in the wrong were I to allow you to accompany me. But fear not, I have loyal friends who will gather to my standard."
Steve nods. "You have loyal friends here, too. If you need us, we'll come, Tony and Bruce and I. We'd take our chances with your father for breaking the rules."
"I do not mean to disparage your offer, but while the green man is a fearsome battler, and you bear the signs of one accustomed to combat, I fear friend Tony would be somewhat at a disadvantage."
"You haven't seen him in his armor."
"Ah. Something like the one I destroyed with a single blow of Mjolnir?" Thor doesn't quite smile.
Steve says, "Something like that. But don't compare them in front of Tony."
"All right, it should work," Tony says,"the math is right," while wiping his hands across his tank top and stepping back to gaze at the... mechanism... Steve has no adequate words for it. It's big, and shiny, except for the parts that are a really disconcerting non-color that seems like a hole in nothing. Some pieces are glowing arc-reactor blue and it's making a bee-buzzing, static-crackling noise. And it smells like copper and grease and quite possibly papaya.
Bruce takes off his glasses and wipes them on a clean cloth. He's nowhere near as grimy as Tony, but he looks just as tired. "Just in case, I should go through first."
"No, you are not playing lab rat," Tony says.
"If the calibration is even slightly off, the other end of the Bridge could be underwater, or in space. Who else could come back and tell you what went wrong?"
"Nothing is going to go wrong!" Tony goes over to Bruce, and Jane joins in the argument.
Steve is the only one who notices Thor pressing the activation button, but the formation of the Bridge is abrupt and noisy enough to get everyone's attention. "Thank you, my friends," Thor says calmly while wind tugs at his hair and cape. "I shall return as soon as I am able. Jane, I will come back to you." And then he twirls his hammer and flies into the swirling rainbow nothingness and vanishes, the Bridge collapsing the moment he's through in a shower of sparks and burning metal. Pieces melt through and fall to the ground, glowing.
"Well, the man certainly knows how to make a dramatic exit," Tony says, waving smoke away from his face. "Bruce! Jane! Any ideas for Mark II?"
Steve isn't sure how long they'll wait for Thor's return, but he suspects that Mark II won't gather any dust once it's completed. To be on the safe side, he wears his armor under his clothes, and leans his shield up against a convenient table. Tony is wearing suspiciously ugly metal bracelets and Bruce is particularly calm. So, all in all, Steve figures there'll be a three-way tie.
Fortunately, Thor returns before then, walking into the lab to announce, "It is done!"
Tony drops something heavy, barely missing his foot and everyone turns to see Thor looking much the same as before, but his smile doesn't reach his eyes. "Is everything all right?" Steve asks.
Jane doesn't say anything, she just goes to Thor and kisses him. After they break for air, Thor says, "Odin is awake and forgives me for my foolishness." He smiles down at Jane. "Odin and Frigga give their blessings on our union, Jane."
Jane blushes. "Oh, well... that's... very nice."
"Yes, but what about Loki?" Tony asks with his customary tact. "What happened?"
Thor takes a deep breath and then sighs. "I arrived in time to prevent him killing his father. His true father, the king of the Frost Giants." When this falls into a deep well of silence, he adds, "Loki was adopted. We fought, and when he saw he could not defeat Mjolnir, he... leapt from the Bifrost, and fell into the void. I fear I shall never see him again."
"Hmm," Tony says. "I don't know... reminds me of the Reichenbach Falls."
Thor looks at Tony. "I don't..."
"I got that reference," Steve says. And he really hopes Tony's wrong. It's fine when Sherlock Holmes returns, but no one except Thor wants Professor Moriarty back.
Wanda releases Dr. Strange's hands and sits back in her chair with a sigh. "Is it enough?"
"Perhaps. Time will tell."
Wanda nods. "The Void crosses too many probability lines. My influence over it is so little. All my power is like a single drop against an ocean."
"Fortunately the chosen ones are accustomed to fighting the tide."
"It seems hopeless."
Tony EMOs slightly, but cheers up and designs cool stuff. Other people talk too. Gotta do something in between the action chapters. Possibly there is plot development.
Tony and Steve are sitting at a table in the Iron Wolverine at Happy Hour. They're both tired after fighting off the latest supervillain, so they're not saying much, just sitting slumped over their drinks; Steve's beer and Tony's tomato juice and tabasco.
"Really," Tony says, while stirring a celery stick in his glass, "what kind of villain uses animated kudzu as troops?"
"And names himself 'SuperGro'," Steve adds. He shakes his head. "Is it just me showing my age, or are villains nowadays ridiculous?"
Tony smiles. "You never show your age." His smile vanishes and he looks down at his glass.
"What?" By now Steve is intimately familiar with Tony's tells. This is definitely more than 'I'm tired, sore, and depressed because I can't even have booze' expression.
Tony glances up at Steve and then over at Logan. "You and Logan, you don't show your age. Bruce looked into it- your telomeres don't shorten when your cells divide."
"Huh," Steve says. "Well, that's nice to know. I guess. I won't have to get my pants altered when I'm an old man."
"You won't be an old man." Tony gulps some tomato juice and frowns. "You won't, ever." Tony gestures at Charles and Erik who are playing chess at another table. "We won't ever be like them, you know... matching."
"Tony..." Steve reaches across the table to take Tony's hand. "I know you like to think about the future, but now's enough for me. We're good."
"Steve... I'm already too old for you, you know that."
"How can you be too old for me, when you haven't ever grown up?" Steve doesn't like the feeling of hollowness in his stomach at the thought of outliving Tony, of going on alone again. "Anyway, you don't know that I'm not getting older. I was flash-frozen for a while, that's probably..."
Tony shakes his head. "No. You're not aging. I'm glad of it, but... at the same time, I'm selfish enough not...but anyway, you know, you should cultivate more young friends, enlarge your social circle, do the dating thing..."
"Tony, I am not going out looking for a younger man. I love you. I don't want anyone but you."
Tony pauses, and looks at Steve. "For what it's worth... yeah. Me, too. But... no matter what I do, eat healthy, exercise, pop vitamins like candy, brush my teeth after every meal... I'm getting older, and you're not."
"So, what, do you think you can send me away now? Or are you going to mark it on your calendar and have Jarvis tell me to pack up and leave when you hit some magic number and decide we don't match?" Steve doesn't like this at all, he hates it down to his bones. "Give up? Is that what you're going to do?"
"No." Tony tightens his grip on Steve's hand. "I'm going to be a selfish bastard and cling to every moment with you that I can get. This is me, apologizing in advance." He leans across the table and kisses Steve.
Logan says, loudly, "It's gettin' all mushy and romantic in here, mebbe I should put candles on the tables."
Without looking up from the kiss, Tony makes a rude gesture in Logan's direction.
Fury is standing before the World Security Council again, his pose relaxed, with his hands loosely clasped behind his back. "I am not concerned about the lack of official control over Mr. Stark and his associates."
One of the women on the monitors speaks, "His Iron Wolverines are a vigilante group, motivated by self-interest and ultimately unreliable."
"I believe they should be defined a Posse comitatus, as Captain Rogers is officially in command, and his authority to lead U.S. troops has never been rescinded."
"Captain Rogers is not in the official line of command," a man comments. "Ultimately we all must answer to a higher authority, or else there is anarchy."
"Captain Rogers answers to me," Fury says.
"Does he know that?" the man says.
"He doesn't need to know, gentlemen and ladies. I'm sure you understand how that works. Everything Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark, and their colorful associates do is being constantly monitored by my people. I have the situation well in hand."
"See that you do."
Fury nods and leaves the room.
"No, Pepper, I am not designing a flying stealth battleship for Fury." Tony is talking while fiddling with holos and fending Dummy off with an elbow. "Dummy, no, I'm not drinking that. It's black. I don't know how you managed to do that to innocent fruit. Give it to Bruce. He can analyze it, if he's curious. Or throw it away, if he's smart."
"I heard that," Bruce says from the other end of the lab, where he is working with a tank full of green fish. "Don't foist your problem child off on me."
"Huh," Tony says after he gives up and takes the glass and sniffs it. "Licorice, chocolate and banana. Teetotaler's Absinthe." Tony has a gulp. "Not bad."
Pepper says, "It certainly looks like a flying stealth battleship." She is standing behind Tony, dressed in one of her power suits, only this one has a leopard print blazer that matches her shoes. She told Steve something about fashions changing, and powerful women now being able to be more feminine without being dismissed out of hand. Frankly Steve thinks she could dress however she wanted, and still be taken seriously. But he likes the leopard. It would be interesting to sketch. It would make a good contrast to Tony already blocked in on his pad in black and hints of tan.
"No, no, it's a flying stealth battleship I'm designing for me."
"Your bathtub isn't that big, Tony," Pepper says. Steve makes an undignified noise. Tony's bathtub is quite large enough for any number of activities, but so far they haven't played with toy boats.
Tony grins. "Look, you know, you just know that Fury is going to give the contract to Hammer or some other incompetent, and waste the taxpayers' money. And HEY! I'm a taxpayer! I want my money to be spent wisely!"
Bruce raises his head and looks at Tony. "Would you repeat that? I'd like to have it on record for the next time you buy a baseball team."
"Shush," Tony says, "It was a wise investment. Anyway, Pepper, it'll be fun to make Fury grovel."
"Grovel-ish. Ask nicely? Make Natasha apologize for stealth stabbing me?"
Pepper rolls her eyes. "That was over a year ago, and she did it to save your life."
"I still have TRAUMA from that. Steve will tell you!"
"Sure." Steve puts down his pad and gets up from his chair. He goes over to Tony and puts his hand on Tony's neck. He rubs with his thumb. Tony closes his eyes and leans back against him.
"Classic Pavlovian Response," Bruce says. One of the fish is now twice the size of the others and is leaping out of the water for a food pellet. "I bet he can make Tony drool when he rings a bell, too."
Tony opens his eyes. "Well, the microwave does beep..." He straightens up. "So, it'll give me great satisfaction to hold this over Fury's head. On the side with the eye-patch."
"Of course," Steve says. "It's got nothing to do with the fact that Coulson and Thor helped rescue you."
Tony huffs. "Nothing at all."
Loki's back. Oh, boy.
"Dr. Selvig," Fury says with a nod. "I've heard good things about you. I think you're the man for the job." He's standing in a room that looks like an underground bunker, all cement, all smooth walls and institutionally bright lighting strips in the ceiling.
"I already have a job," Selvig says, slightly warily, edging away from the man who had escorted him into the room. "With Doctor Foster, as I'm sure you recall."
"Yes, well, Dr. Foster has expressed some reluctance to work with S.H.I.E.L.D. due to our previous interaction. I was hoping you'd be able to let bygones be bygones."
Selvig shrugs. "That all depends. Dr. Foster's work is cutting edge. I'd be foolish to walk away from it for anything less remarkable."
"Even for the chance to study this?" Fury opens a case, revealing a small, glowing blue cube.
Selvig leans forward but doesn't touch the cube. "What is that?"
"If you can learn how to harness it-- virtually limitless power."
Selvig smiles. "Well, I guess that's worth a look."
"I'm sorry about the lack of notice, but this is an unprecedented opportunity," Selvig tells Jane. "It's all hush-hush, so I can't tell you any details, but believe me, I wouldn't leave you in the lurch unless it was really unavoidable."
"It's S.H.I.E.L.D., isn't it?" Jane waves her hands, indicating the state of the art lab they're in. "We don't need government handouts, Erik, especially not from shadow organizations. Stark is happy to fund us, without the risk of disappearing if anything goes wrong-- or goes too well!"
"It's not the money. You know I was willing to work on a shoestring. This is just something I can't pass up." Selvig is packing notebooks in a cardboard box when Thor enters the lab.
"Jane! Do you have time to..." Thor's smile freezes on his face. He's looking past Selvig at one of the large mirrors set up as part of the Mark III Bridge at a reflection that isn't Selvig. "Brother! Where are you?" Thor grabs Selvig by the shoulders. "Tell me, and I will come for you!"
Selvig's lips curl and his expression turns ugly. "You are no brother of mine. I have done things... seen things... experienced things far beyond you."
"Taking over this man's mind is beneath you, Loki! It is forbidden!"
"Forbidden by whom? Your father? The man who stood by your side and watched me fall into the abyss? I am not bound by any petty laws. You want this worthless mortal? I give him to you. They teem like insects, little scurrying, inconsequential creatures. I'll just take another." Selvig laughs Loki's laugh. "A better one."
And then Selvig slumps in Thor's grasp, dropping the box he holds, and shaking violently. "Oh, God, oh God."
"You will be well, now," Thor says, guiding Selvig to a chair. He looks seriously at Jane. "Loki has left him."
"Left him," Jane says, shaken, staring at Selvig. "To go where?"
Thor shakes his head. "I do not know. I only know that Loki does not surrender. He would only have freed Erik if he had in mind someone more suited to his purpose, whatever it may be."
Selvig whispers, "He wants the Tesseract. It's power. With that much power he could do anything."
"What is this Tesseract? Where is it?" Jane asks, bending down to touch Selvig's shoulders. "Who could Loki use to get to it?"
"I don't know. Fury had it, he said... he said they found it in the Arctic." Selvig looks up at Jane. "He said Howard Stark found it, but until our research... they didn't have the tools to begin to understand it. I believe it's some sort of dimensional conduit, for power-- or other things."
"Like the Bifrost?" Thor asks.
Selvig looks at Thor. "Yes. At the very least. All I had time to discover is that it has a unique gamma signature."
"Oh, God," Jane reaches for her cell phone. "Bruce. Loki will be going after Bruce. Or maybe Tony - he might have his father's notes."
Tony digs his phone out from the couch cushions and sits down to see who's calling him. "Huh."
"Is that Logan?" Steve calls from the kitchen. "The darts tournament is still on, isn't it?"
"Dunno about that, he was pretty peeved with Clint bogarting all the prizes! Anyway, this is Jane." Tony clicks to connect the call. "Hello? How's Thor treating you? Do I have to give him the shovel talk? I hope not, because, wow, that'd have to be an awfully big shovel."
"Tony!" Jane says sharply, and Tony sits up, all attention. "What's the matter, Jane?"
"Loki took over Selvig. Some sort of mind control. Thor saw it, I don't know how, and he says Loki left."
"Mind-control? Yeah, that's not good. We'll have to figure something out, get Charles on it." Tony is putting Charles's number in when he sees Bruce walk into the room. He glances up for a second. "Hey, Bruce, we have a bit of a situation here."
"Oh, yeah?" Bruce walks over to Tony.
"Apparently Thor's brother can hypnotize people or something," Tony tells him at the same time Jane is saying, "To warn you, we think he's after you or Bruce."
"No," Bruce says, "It's not really hypnotism. If it were, I could control more than one person at a time."
Tony looks up as Bruce smiles down at him and presses a cloth over his nose and mouth with one hand, taking the phone away with the other while Tony gasps and briefly struggles before going limp. "Soon that will not be a limitation," Bruce tells Jane before he shuts off the phone.
"Tony?" Steve calls from the kitchen. "What did Jane want?" He wipes his hands on a towel and starts walking into the living room. He catches sight of Tony slumped against the couch, drops the towel and races the rest of the way. "TONY!" He feels for a pulse; it's there, but erratic, and weak. "BRUCE!" he shouts. He looks around wildly, Bruce was here only a few minutes ago. Steve notices the cloth and picks it up, sniffing from a distance. He doesn't recognize the smell, but just that whiff has made him light-headed. "Jarvis! Tony's been drugged; poisoned. Get help. NOW."
He shoves the cloth into his pocket, and picks Tony up. "Is someone coming, Jarvis?" Tony's breathing is labored, and his skin looks blue with reddish burn marks around his nose and mouth.
"Yes, Captain Rogers," Jarvis says just as the elevator doors slide open and Natasha runs into the room. She's in exercise clothes, wet with sweat, and she's carrying a black medical bag in one hand.
"Put him down. Let me look at him," she says while dropping the bag on the coffee table and opening it. She glances at Tony once Steve puts him back on the couch. "Inhaled."
"Yes. It was on this." Steve fishes out the cloth and holds it not too close to Natasha. She sniffs once and dumps the bag, grabbing up a syringe and checking the label. "Got it. Dispose of that under running water. Wash your hands well." She injects Tony in the neck, and lays her hand against his throat. "I think we caught it in time."
Steve runs into the kitchen, throws the cloth in the sink and fills it with water, washing his hands over it. He pulls off his shirt and throws it in the water, too. Then he returns to Natasha. "What was it?"
"Something new." Natasha looks at Steve. "A byproduct of research Bruce was doing."
Steve suspects it was something he meant them to use against the Hulk if necessary. But... "Bruce? He... was here." Steve swallows hard. "He'd never hurt Tony. Hell, even the Hulk wouldn't hurt Tony."
Natasha doesn't respond to Steve's remark. Instead she says, "He's coming 'round." She slaps Tony across the face, hard enough to leave red finger marks against his still abnormally pale skin.
"Ow," Tony says as his eyes fly open, "Why are you always hurting me? I don't find that an attractive quality, you know."
Natasha rolls her eyes. "I just saved your life, Stark. Again. But who's counting?"
"Yeah." Tony blinks and looks around the room. "Bruce? Oh, fuck." Tony sits up with Steve's help. "Oh, damn, what a hangover. Bruce... Steve, call Jane. Loki. Shit's going down." Tony tries to get up, but his legs aren't cooperating.
"Sit, Stark," Natasha says. "And try to explain."
Tony leans back against the couch, staring up at the ceiling. "Thor's crazy brother, mind-control, and then Bruce Mickey Finned me. Or whatever you call it. I don't know. My head is killing me, I can't think. Call Jane."
Steve has his cell phone out and is dialing. "I should go after Bruce."
Natasha stands up. "If he's mind-controlled, and is ordered to become the Hulk, it could get very nasty. Thor is the only one who really has a chance of stopping him. I'll follow Bruce, out of sight, call in the moment he goes to ground."
"And if you lose him?" Steve looks up at the sound of the elevator, Natasha is gone.
Tony looks up at Steve, blearily. "This is so not good."
"How much control have you over the beast?" Loki asks in a conversational tone. "While the Tesseract is indestructible, reclaiming it from rubble would be quite tedious."
Bruce looks at Loki's image in the rear-view mirror of the small car he'd stolen. Calmly he replies, "I've learned how to prevent or trigger the metamorphosis, but the other guy's not too fond of me, so, not much beyond that, I'm afraid."
"Ah. He resents being controlled and only let out when he can be used. Very well, we'll reserve him as a last resort, when mindless destruction is useful. First, since Fury was unfortunately not stupid enough to leave it where Selvig saw it, we must locate the Tesseract."
"Yes. I can do that. I'll need equipment." Bruce has his eyes back on the road, maneuvering smoothly through New York traffic. "Roxxon labs will have what I need. Tony won't think to look for me there."
"The woman is still following us."
"I know. I've been hunted for years. Don't worry, I kept a few tricks up my sleeve even after I moved into Stark Tower. I thought I'd have to run again someday."
"Serve me well, and you need never run again."
Bruce nods. "Will you kill me?"
"I haven't yet decided, but probably."
"Natasha lost Bruce." Steve says. He raises his voice to be heard over the sound of metal being machined by Tony's robots.
"Fantastic. That will have improved her mood no end." Tony doesn't look up from his work. "Remind me to wear a high collar before she gets back here."
"Clint called Fury."
Tony shuts off a cutting torch and turns to him, raising his goggles. "And? Did he admit he had the Tesseract? My father found it, when he was looking for you." Tony sounds angry. Steve suspects it's to cover worry about Bruce as well as apprehension of whatever Loki has planned.
"And I took it from the Red Skull, who murdered an entire town to steal it from people who found it centuries ago. It doesn't belong to anyone, at least not anyone on Earth."
"Yeah, well... it'd be better in my hands than Fury's. You know he's only thought about the weapons' applications."
"Let's take care of Loki first, then you and Fury can argue about who gets custody of the baby. Personally, I'd like to chuck the thing into the sun."
"Not. Not a good idea. I'm not entirely sure which would survive intact, but I'm not betting on the sun."
"You're kidding, aren't you?"
"No." Tony shakes his head. "Selvig said 'unlimited power'. He wasn't kidding, either." He snaps the goggles back in place and turns on the torch. "When I get this gamma detector finished and calibrated we'll be able to find the Tesseract whether or not Fury cooperates."
"No, not unless we're really close."
"Charles called from Westchester. He says that something is shielding Bruce's mind from him, but he'll keep searching."
"Someone, you mean."
"I'm beginning to form a real dislike for Thor's brother and we haven't even met yet." Steve looks at the fading discoloration on Tony's cheek, turned away from him as Tony concentrates on his work. "You know, if Loki can control the Hulk, we'll have to..."
"What?" Tony doesn't look up, but he pauses in his work.
"The poison Bruce used on you. Natasha said he'd made it for the Hulk."
"But if it's one man, or the whole world? Sometimes you've got to look at the big picture, Tony."
"I'm busy here, really, so if you want to go do something, somewhere else, where you're not distracting me, that would be really, really helpful, Steve."
Steve sighs. "I'll be down at the Iron Wolverine, coordinating reports."
Galaga guy says something softly into Maria Hill's ear before returning to his computer. She goes over to Fury who is leaning on the railing, looking down at the control room of the helicarrier.
"The Iron Avengers are all stirred up, but apparently Stark has no better idea where to find Loki than we do."
Coulson is standing next to Fury. "Or else he just isn't telling them."
Fury nods. "Our boy still isn't a team player."
"Is that a problem, sir?" Coulson asks.
"Probably. But it's Captain Rogers'. Our problem is keeping our little puzzle box. We don't have enough intel on this Loki, that makes me uneasy."
"Shall I take the ship up, Director?" Maria asks.
"Yes. Stark will just have to miss the christening ceremony."
"It's moving," Bruce says as he delicately adjusts controls on a device filling most of the seat next to him. "Both horizontally and vertically." He's switched cars and is now sitting in a beat-up van, with Loki's image in the cracked vanity mirror.
"I'll have to move the van and take more readings to triangulate precisely, but I'd say it's fairly close, possibly even within the city limits."
"Ok, that ought to do it. Nothing fancy, but hey, it's not going into consumer production," Tony says, putting down a circuit board and snapping it into place in a breadboarded rig. "Jarvis, hook me up through the satellite links and track down the gamma signature of the Tesseract. Use the data Selvig provided as a baseline."
"At once, sir."
Tony looks at the holo display. "Superimpose that on a map grid, Jarvis." He 'pulls' to enlarge the image. Glowing green lines appear and criss-cross. "And there-- get me a visual, pick it up off Nasa, google-maps, I don't care. I want to see what's at the intersection." Tony turns his head to look at the image on a more standard monitor. The scene is of ocean, from the viewpoint of a high-flying bird. Just sea and sky. "Son of a bitch. On my helicarrier. I'm going to have to have a little eye-to-eye talk with Fury. That's just plain rude.
"I should tell Steve. Yeah. But no. I'm not a 'big picture' guy. " Tony walks over to the assembly station. "Jarvis, suit me up. I'm going for a little ocean cruise."
Loki is a tricky fellow.
Sorry for short chapter. Might be getting hurricane Isaac in a day or so, & I figured better to post what I have with a warning that I can't be sure I'll be back for a while.
Hearing a familiar 'whoosh', Steve looks up from where he's talking with Logan outside of the Iron Wolverine. "Where's Tony going?"
"Hey, he's your boyfriend, don't ask me, " Logan says around his stogie.
Steve gives Logan an exasperated look and gets on his motorcycle which was parked on the curb in a No Parking Unless You're a Superhero spot (Steve still isn't sure whether Tony paid to have that made legal or not). "Keep everyone alert. If Bruce hulks out, we'll have to respond quickly." Steve zooms off, not entirely obeying traffic regulations. He's in his uniform, so people tend to get out of his way.
"Yeah, yeah, right." Logan scratches at his belly, shrugs, and goes back inside. "Nobody get too drunk to fight the Hulk. What am I sayin'? Drink up. We need to be too pissed to realize what a stupid idea that is."
Tony sees Steve down at the dock, waving at him. He's tempted to ignore him, but then he'd probably wind up sleeping on the figurative couch for a week. So not worth it. He lands and flips up the helmet face-plate. "Oh, hi, Steve, it's a nice day for fishing, isn't it? Get any bites?"
Steve folds his arms across his chest.
"Ok, so you're not fishing. Sight-seeing? Urge to become a cargo-handler?"
Steve clears his throat. "You've found Bruce, haven't you?"
"And didn't tell me. Look, Tony, I promise not to hurt Bruce, unless there's absolutely no other choice. You know he'd want to be stopped before the Hulk was used to murder people."
Tony sighs. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. I don't know that Bruce is there, but the Tesseract is on the Helicarrier."
"And Loki will go for that before doing anything else. So if we guard the Tesseract, we can intercept Bruce before anyone gets hurt."
"That was the plan."
"If you don't take me with you, I'll have to call Fury. It would be better if we face him as a united front."
"Probably. Well, let's go then. I want to get Loki before Thor shows up and complicates the issue." Tony widens his stance and holds his arms away from his body so Steve can step onto Iron Man's boots and put his arms around the neck of the armor. "You set?"
"Yeah, let's go."
A few dockworkers watch them take off, but it's not such an uncommon sight any more, and there's work to be done, so no one is still looking when Iron Man and his passenger suddenly disappear inside a cloud.
Tony drops Steve on the deck of the Helicarrier and lands beside him. Fury is already there, of course he is, standing there with his legs braced and a 'repel boarders' pose that only lacks a saber and a shoulder-mounted parrot to complete it. "I really need to get around to designing stealth armor," Tony says as he raises the faceplate. He can make the attempt to be polite, sure he can.
Fury either glares or smiles at Tony, he's never quite figured out the difference on Fury. "Yeah, sure, maybe a nice mauve, that'd blend right in."
"Hey, I made you a stealth battleship! I can so make a stealth armor!"
Steve ignores the banter. "Sir, we've come to guard the Tesseract. With all due respect, I don't think traditional forces will stop someone who's been passing himself off as a God."
Fury scowls. Tony can recognize that expression, he's seen it too many times not to. "There are legitimate channels you could have used to offer your services, Captain."
"Yes, sir, but we thought the time saved by direct action might be essential."
Tony keeps his mouth shut. Steve is so much better at noble hero than him, it'd be a shame to interfere.
"You could be right, Captain. Step this way, sir, oh, and you can come too, Stark."
Tony nobly resists the impulse to make a rude gesture and clanks along behind the two of them.
"Well, there it is, gentlemen," Fury says when they reach the chamber in the lowest level of the helicarrier, passing through multiple layers of armed guards. "It doesn't look like much, does it?" He gazes at the glowing blue cube on a pedestal in an otherwise empty steel room.
Tony taps the arc reactor at his chest. "Sometimes appearances can be deceptive."
"Indeed they can," Steve says as he turns and punches Fury full in the face, knocking him unconscious.
"What? Steve, what the hell?" Tony puts up his hands, but hesitates to fire the repulsors. This can't be happening.
Steve grins at him, sharp and wicked, unlike any smile Tony has ever seen on his face, and then he... shimmers like a heat mirage and... "Bruce?" Tony starts to lower his hands, then he raises them again. "Surrender!"
Bruce blinks and looks bewildered. "No, Tony, look out! It's Loki, he's..."
Tony grunts and staggers backward before he catches himself and then turns back to face Bruce. "I don't think I'll be needing the beast after all." The repulsors whine up to full power. Bruce dodges as Tony fires, blasting a hole in the bottom of the carrier. Bruce disappears through the hole with a yell. "How could you miss, Stark?" It's Tony's mouth, but Loki's voice.
Tony says, "I was conflicted. It won't happen again."
"No, it won't. Take the Tesseract back to your little Tower. I'll show you the true uses of power."
"Yes, sir," Tony says as the faceplate goes back down. He picks up the Tesseract and dives through the hole he's just made, flying over the harbor toward the city. There's no sign of Bruce.
Loki has Tony under his thumb.
Tony avoids the disassembly balcony, landing on the other side and walking into the penthouse to lay the Tesseract down on the main worktable. "They'll come after me soon."
"You should have killed the beast." Loki is reflected in the transparent workscreen hovering over the table.
"That wouldn't have made any difference. I'm pretty sure the helicarrier crew noticed me flying away."
"That's true, you're hardly a subtle creature. Well, it's done. I shall simply have to adapt my plans. You know what I want."
Tony nods. He lifts the faceplate of the helmet and removes his gauntlets. "There won't be time to build the device here. I can take the Tesseract and an arc reactor elsewhere to..."
"No. It must be here. This is the city I promised my allies and I need this Tower. You will find a way."
Tony stands still and looks into the Tesseract. "I'll need a distraction, and a highball."
It's really not difficult to follow Tony, even when Steve gets too far behind and loses sight. All Steve has to do is pause near the sidewalk and ask, 'Iron Man'? There's always someone looking up, or checking an image on their cell phone, who glances at him, at Steve in his red, white and blue uniform, and points, and shouts, "That way!"
He winds up on the docks, smelling brine and fish, and diesel exhaust, the raucous cries of sea-birds mingling with the warning beeps of heavy machinery. Tony is nowhere in sight. He idles the 'bike and cruises up the dock to a line of workers unloading a vessel. "Hey! Anyone seen Iron Man recently?"
The foreman turns to Steve. "Yeah, man. But weren't you with him?"
"Sure," another worker says, pausing his forklift truck. "I saw you guys fly off together."
"Which way?" Steve asks. He doesn't understand this at all, but he can see these men are being honest with him.
"Just... out to sea." They give a general wave and Steve looks in the indicated direction, but sees nothing except sea and sky. And a large green object, heading for shore, waves foaming and cresting white around it.
"Oh, boy. Fellas, you might want to clear the docks. Like... NOW." He jumps off his motorcycle and over to the crane moving crates from the ship to the dock, climbing up until he's leaning against the open window of the operator's compartment. "Swing the hook over the water, and go for a coffee break." He points to the increasingly large green object which is now close enough to reveal furious green eyes and big square white teeth clenched in a grimace of rage. "I don't think the Hulk enjoys swimming."
Steve taps his com link switching to the All Avengers Allies band, and requests immediate assistance at his location to subdue the Hulk. Then he waits for the dock workers to run for cover, and the Hulk to reach shore. He gets his shield and is torn between being glad he'd given in to Tony and not brought the Hulk-poison, and wishing he had it in reserve. He doesn't want to kill Bruce, but a Hulk bent on deliberate mayhem instead of incidental damage... it's not a pretty thought. He doesn't have long for regrets before the Hulk reaches the dock.
Hulk grabs the dangling hook and lunges, coming up out of the water, roaring. He picks up the crane and throws it into the ocean and then he turns to face Steve, his huge face contorted into seriously pissed off lines. Steve braces himself. "Hey, Hulk, you don't wanna do this no matter what Loki's telling you."
A deep groove appears between the Hulk's eyebrows. "HULK SMASH LOKI."
"Oh, well, that's good." The fact that he hasn't been swatted like a bug makes Steve think that the Hulk has shaken off Loki's influence. Unless Loki is really sneaky, and Thor did say they called him the Liesmith... "Do you know where Loki is?"
"LOKI IN TONY'S HEAD. SMASH LOKI."
Steve swallows hard. "You know, if you do that, I'm pretty sure you'll hurt Tony."
Hulk growls in frustration and heaves several crates into the ocean.
"Hey! How about you let Bruce come back and he can help me think of a way to get Loki out of Tony's head, where we can both smash him?"
The Hulk grumbles and kicks a forklift skidding along the dock, looking like a sulky child. "WANT SMASH NOW."
"Yeah, so do I, buddy."
Steve produces a shirt and pair of trousers from the storage compartment on his motorcycle and hands them to Bruce, just as several of the Iron Avengers appear. Ororo and Johnny Storm have the advantage of free flight so they usually are first on the scene. Steve waves them down. "We've got Bruce back. But Loki has Tony now."
Ororo lands lightly and says, "I know. The Professor told me. He thinks he might be able to break Loki's hold if we could bring Mr. Stark to him."
Steve scratches the back of his neck. "Yeah, he doesn't do mental house-calls, I get it. First we gotta find Tony."
"He'll be at the Tower," Bruce says. "Loki switched over to Tony deliberately. He must intend to use Tony's skills, and everything Tony works with is there." He's blinking and a bit wobbly, as he usually is after a transformation. "Loki." Bruce takes a deep breath and rubs the bridge of his nose. "Loki has the Tesseract. He used both of us to get it." He winces. "I punched Fury and Tony blasted a hole in the helicarrier. SHIELD must be going crazy."
Steve gets on the motorcycle and holds an arm out to Bruce. "Get on. I'll have Natasha call SHIELD. The last thing we need is a battle on another front." Bruce climbs on behind Steve and holds on tight. Steve looks at Ororo. "Tell everyone to rendezvous at the Tower and wait for my arrival unless Iron Man does something."
"Does what?" Ororo asks.
"I don't know. Whatever it is, it'll be big and flashy."
Fury opens his eye and looks up at Coulson. "Don't tell me. We were suckered."
"I'm afraid it looks that way, sir." Coulson extends a hand, and Fury accepts, getting to his feet and looking around at the gaping hole in the decking.
"Goddamn it, I hate getting the first ding." He pulls his coat straight and starts walking towards the elevator. "It's just never the same after that."
"I could get one of those 'new car' aerosols, if you like."
Fury grunts something better not understood. "Get me the Tesseract, instead. I want to hang it from my rear view mirror."
"The Tower is on lock-down," Spiderman reports over the com before Steve is halfway back to the Tower. "There was an alarm, and it looks like everyone's cleared the building. I could get in at the penthouse."
"No," Steve orders while taking several entirely illegal shortcuts involving sidewalks and tops of cars stuck in traffic. Bruce is clinging to his back, breathing hard. Steve hopes he doesn't go green again. "That's what Loki wants, it's got to be a trap."
"No, Spiderman," Steve says.
"My spider-sense is telling me something big is going down."
"It won't help if the something big is you. Wait for back up." Steve thinks the last thing Tony needs is the blood of a friend on his hands, especially one as young and bright as Peter.
Steve looks up as he reaches the Tower and parks the cycle. He's caught glimpses of color and bright lights in the sky, hears explosions and confused chatter over the com, but he couldn't take his attention from guiding the motorcycle. Bruce half-falls off and stands beside him. "Oh, crap," Bruce says softly. His hands are clenched into tight fists, and his eyes are glittering green.
"When did Thor arrive?" Steve asks, hating this, hating being a spectator when he should be doing something. Iron Man is carrying something that gives off bright blue rays that scream through the air, twisting like smoke in a wind tunnel and making cracks in the sky. Light shouldn't be able to do that.
"About five minutes ago. SHIELD was already after Tony." Bruce's voice is tight with control.
Helicopters, sleek, strange machines-- something Tony'd designed for SHIELD-- are firing missiles at Iron Man. Even from here, Steve can see streaks and dents scratching through the gaudy red paint to the metal beneath. Tony has only one hand free to fight back with repulsors, and he's besieged on all sides; Thor and the other flight-capable Iron Wolverines are apparently trying to capture him, while Fury's forces are trying to take him down with less lethal weaponry than Steve knows they possess.
"Why doesn't he try to get away?" Steve says, not really asking a question. Tony's not evading, moving only enough to get in another shot, and take down another 'copter. The other heroes have to spend half their time catching helicopters, but Thor is concentrating on Tony. Steve knows that Tony prefers to take the punishment and dive headlong down the enemies' throat, but usually he's maneuvering better than this, he's giving too many openings.
"I guess Loki won't let him," Bruce says softly. "Or maybe Tony's better at fighting him than I was. I hoped someone could stop me."
And then it happens. Erik is using his magnetic abilities to lower one of the broken helicopters at the same time Thor punches Tony in the chest so hard that he flies backward and is caught, dragged down, held still by Erik as someone inside the 'copter, Fury? it could be him...shoots something like a bolo-net made of some weird shiny metal over Iron Man, and Tony's arm is tangled, and turns, and the blue light turns on him, engulfs him, and there's a crack like the mother of all lightnings, and... Tony's gone. Just. Shattered red and gold and silvery netting shards, bursting like fireworks in the middle of the day, bits flung and scattered across the sky, sparkling confetti where Tony had been.
Steve falls to his knees, still staring up in horror. Bruce is gone, too. Gone green and huge and roaring so loud Steve feels the breath hot on his back, and then he feels the ground tremble as the Hulk leaps, trying to get away from the pain, from the grief, and Steve wishes he could run, too. But there's nowhere to go.
Wanda falls back against her chair, shaking. "Have we failed?"
Dr. Strange releases her hand and shakes his head. "I don't know."
Tony's memorial service has a surprise.
"I can't identify the radiation," Bruce says wearily. Steve's tired too, but he doesn't want to leave Bruce to handle this alone. "It doesn't have all the defining characteristics of anything we know, but I can tell you this much, we were lucky." Steve doesn't feel lucky. "It's got a extremely short half-life, and the particles were very heavy so they didn't scatter to contaminate a large area." Steve can tell that Bruce is dumbing down his remarks to the point that Tony would have... no. Bruce is explaining things so people can grasp what's important, even if it's not technically accurate. "For a week a three block radius around Stark Tower will be potentially lethal. If there's strong wind or rain during that time, the evacuation area would have to be increased, but going by current weather forecasts, I don't believe that will be necessary."
They'd gone through this with Fury, and with the mayor of New York, and the police commissioner, and... Steve doesn't remember who else. They've spoken on camera for more reporters than he cares to think about before this one, and they've held together. The Iron Wolverines had gathered to give them support, and Steve had appreciated it. Charles' calm sensibility had helped a lot. And although he couldn't say it, when Logan had snarled and flashed claws at the muck-raking newspaper reporter who tried to get Steve to say that Tony had been drunk and screwed up-- well, it had made him glad to see that little weasel cringe and run back to J. Jonah Jameson with his tail between his legs.
After the 'sciency stuff', it's always Steve's turn. He keeps his 'Captain America' face on and answers all the questions politely. Even the hardest ones. "No, the memorial service for Tony Stark will not be public. His executor has restricted attendance to his team-mates and a few close friends, all of whom have been notified as to the time and location of the service. Tony Stark's life was a matter of public record, but it was his wish that only the people who truly knew him should be present at his funeral."
The interview is finally over, and they leave, dodging reporters trying to pry the memorial details from them. Steve is going to be damned if Tony doesn't get his last wish. Pepper had gone through a lot to arrange the services, even getting the military to grant Tony's friend, Rhodey, compassionate family leave.
Steve really admires Pepper. She'd showed up with Happy a lot sooner than Steve had thought possible, even with today's planes crossing the continent isn't a walk in the park, and taken charge of her duties as executor despite having obviously been crying her eyes out on the flight. When Steve had offered to help, she'd said that it was her job, that she always did anything and everything Mr. Stark required. He'd thought she was going to cry again, but Happy had squeezed her arm and driven her to a hotel before she broke down.
"Hey," Logan says, "I've got an apartment above the bar. Got an extra-long couch ougtta fit you, Cap. Could squeeze Doc Banner in somewhere, if'n he's not too picky."
Bruce gives a soft half-laugh and takes off his glasses to wipe them before putting them back on. "I'm going with Clint and Natasha back to the Helicarrier. The other guy's been... restless, and I think that would be best. They've got a guest suite with his name on it, already."
"You don't have to," Steve says, knowing how Bruce fears being used, and trusting Fury not half as far as he could throw him. "Logan and I would be glad of your company."
"Better to be safe." Bruce shrugs. "I'll leave right after the service. New York's too... breakable." Bruce smiles a little. "I'll send you postcards; you can start collecting foreign stamps."
"Yeah, I could use a new hobby." Steve looks around, feeling oddly vulnerable even though the Iron Wolverines are gathered around to give them shelter from prying eyes and eavesdroppers. "I might be leaving myself after the reading of the will." Maybe he'll see if Xavier still has openings for staff in Westchester, or... he'll find something, maybe just wander until some place feels like a place he could be useful. He has ID now, drivers license, mildly modified birth certificate... he really doesn't want to leave New York, but maybe that's why he should go. Make a fresh start. Even if whoever inherits Stark Tower still wanted him to stay, it wouldn't feel right, not without Tony.
Bruce nods. "Well, if Logan doesn't mind, we can use the bar as a postal drop box. Stay in touch that way."
"Sure," Logan says. "An' send me a card, once in a while. The bar could use wallpaperin'."
"I'll do that." Bruce walks away with Clint and Natasha.
Steve feels like something more than Tony has died. The Avengers had been something... special. Wilder and crazier than the Howling Commandos, and with a laughably loose command structure, but a family all the same. Peter even called him and Tony, Mom and Pop, which was funny, but true in a way. He'll miss them all when he leaves. He'd rather go right after the memorial, like Bruce, but he's half afraid that in a fit of generous whimsey Tony has left him something obscenely expensive. It wouldn't be fair to make Pepper track him down if Tony had done it. They hadn't known each other that long, probably Tony's will had been made years ago, and he wasn't even mentioned in it.
They make their way back to the Iron Wolverine where he drinks beer with Logan, and puts off thinking about the future. It'll come soon enough, and there's really nothing he can do to prepare for it.
Immune to radiation, the Hulk had scoured the area around the Tower for hours, finally emerging with a few small pieces of Iron Man's armor before he folded himself back inside a weary Bruce Banner. Bruce had said that the armor itself hadn't absorbed the radiation, apparently gold-titanium deflected it or something. Deflected the radiation, but failed against the sheer explosive force of the blast. Steve didn't bother to try to understand the details. He was just glad they'd have something to put into the urn. He hates empty coffins even worse than full ones.
They're holding the memorial at a small, abandoned airstrip, four days after Tony's death. It hadn't been specified in the will, but Pepper had once heard Tony mention the place as the site of one of his fondest childhood memories- Howard had taken him there to teach him how to fly. Thor has offered to carry the urn containing the bits of armor into the sky, and call lightning to it. At first Steve wasn't sure he liked the idea, being so similar to how Tony died, but then he remembered how much Tony loved to fly, and how he would have laughed at the idea of getting a send-off by someone people called a god. It'd be flashy and dramatic, just like Tony. So he'd agreed to the plan.
Steve likes to think that Tony would be pleased by how many people considered him a friend. Pepper, Rhodey, the Avengers and the Iron Wolverines are all gathered solemnly on the cracked tarmac, standing near a faded wind sock. Phil Coulson has come, and so has Jane Foster, Erik Selvig and Darcy Lewis.
The urn isn't sealed. It's a graceful red and gold and black ceramic piece donated by T'challa. It's decorated with semi-abstract designs, bold zig-zags and the shapes of various African animals. T'challa said it was from his native Wakanda, a gift he was going to give Tony when they finalized their agreement to exchange Vibranium ore for some of Stark Industries medical and agricultural products. That's not going to happen now. Another thing lost with Tony.
Pepper sets the urn down on a folding table they'd brought with them, and puts her shoulders back, standing tall and dignified, before she starts to speak. She opens her mouth, and Logan leans in and sniffs.
"Y'know, he's not in there."
Logan is a crude fellow, so Steve is mildly surprised to hear philosophy from him. "Yeah, he's in a better place." That gets him an eye-roll.
"I dunno about a better place, I'm jus' saying there's nothin' human in that jam jar." Logan glances at Bruce. "You sure you got th' right puzzle pieces? Mebbe the green guy picked up some Coke cans instead?"
"Of course I'm sure." Bruce sounds mildly annoyed. "I checked. It's all a gold-titanium alloy, not aluminum. The Iron Man suit is all it could be."
"Huh," Logan says. "Iron mebbe, but no Man. Look, ifn' he was wearing it when it got blasted, there'd be traces of him. All I smell is metal. He's not in there."
"So where is he?" Peter asks. There is a collective pause before everyone turns to look at the city skyline, at Stark Tower.
Thor says softly, "Loki is called the Father of Lies."
"I should go," Bruce says. "The radiation levels will still be too high for a normal human for another three days."
"Your green side isn't exactly loaded with smarts, though," Logan points out. "What if this Loki guy takes him over?"
"Loki didn't think he could control the Hulk."
"Ok, fine, suppose he just tricks him?" Logan shakes his head. "I'm damn near as hard to kill, and a hell of a lot harder to fool. I should go."
"Your healing factor works fine against injuries, but radiation is something else again," Bruce argues.
"Neither of you is as fit for the task as I," Thor puts in. "Midgardians lack the constitution of those who travel the Bifrost."
Logan growls around his stogie. "Yeah, but we ain't none of us brother to this Loki. You sure you can take him out?"
Thor is starting to get angry. Steve can tell by the white-knuckled grip he has on Mjolnir. "We do this as a team," he breaks in. "Fury must have radiation-proof suits." Coulson tilts his head slightly in acknowledgment. "Right, Clint, Natasha and Coulson will get as many suits as Fury can spare, and we'll suit up anyone who can use one. Back up forces who'll stay outside the radiation perimeter will be Ant-Man since his helmet won't work inside the suit, same for Spiderman, Ice Man and the Human Torch. Charles will coordinate both teams."
"Sure," Rhodey says when the grumbling dies down. "You can come with me. War Machine's not sitting this one out. If Iron Man's suit was radiation proof..."
Bruce interrupts. "The War Machine isn't gold-titanium. Your protection will be limited."
"Fine by me," Rhodey replies. "I don't like to drag out a fight."
Steve nods. "War Machine has a better grasp of the capabilities of the Iron Man suit. If Tony's sent out to fight us..."
"If?" Logan asks. Steve ignores the interruption. "IF Tony's sent out against us, take your cue from War Machine. We've got to take him out, and get him out of the armor. After that he'll be harmless." Rhodey gives Steve a doubtful look. "Relatively harmless. I'm betting that deep down, he's fighting Loki's control and won't be trying his best against us."
"It's not like being drugged, Steve," Bruce says. "It's harder to fight, because it seems only right to serve Loki. I remember vaguely hoping someone would stop me, but I wasn't going to help them."
Selvig nods. "I was another person, really. I remembered everything, but I didn't care about anyone except Loki. You have to treat Tony as an enemy. He'll be going full out after us." Selvig looks a bit sick. "You may have to kill him to stop him."
"It won't come to that," Steve says firmly. He nods at Coulson. "Get the radiation suits. We'll form up at the Iron Wolverine."
Loki gets the portal, and invites his friends to visit New York.
"Your friends are more intelligent than I would have thought," Loki says idly in Tony's mind. They're at the top of Stark Tower, with the smart glass showing images of the Avengers and Iron Wolverines in front of the bar, sorting out heavy-looking gray suits by size while Nick Fury talks earnestly to Steve.
"I told you not to underestimate them," Tony remarks. He's wearing one of the Iron Man suits while working on a device combining the Tesseract with the Stark Tower arc reactor.
"You also said that the radiation would keep them away for a week."
Tony shrugs, metal shoulders moving to match his own. "That was a Scotty estimate."
"Chief Engineer of the Starship Enterprise." Tony puts down one tool and picks up another. "He always gave his Captain an inflated estimate for the time a repair would take, so he'd look like a hero when he managed it ahead of schedule."
"I see. So how long did you actually think it would take them?"
"Actually-- I expected them here yesterday."
Loki's reflection gives Tony an annoyed look. "And when were you going to tell me about that?"
"You would have just wasted our time trying to plot. I want to get this done, get away from here, and get out of this suit. It really wasn't meant as a mobile home."
"How much longer?"
"Well, it's... sorta done. I've just been trying to narrow the field. As it is, I can't swear that it'll only have the one accessible entry locus."
"So long as it allows me and my army through, I care not if a few strays from other realms stumble in."
"Oh, it'll do that. Shall I charge it up now?"
"Yes. Once you have begun, take off your armor and wait for me."
"The radiation levels are still lethal for a human, although you and your allies can stand it," Tony says calmly, "Are you sure you have no further use for me?"
"You are too clever and too independent to keep as a long-term pet, Tony. You'll last long enough for my purposes."
"I can only guarantee I'll be functional for a few weeks."
"Far more than I need. If I require your services for more than a few hours, I shall be surprised."
"Fine, then." Tony turns back to the machine and starts it. It hums and begins glowing. Tony flies to the disassembly balcony and walks along it, letting the machines strip him. "Do you mind if I take a shower and get something to eat?"
"Not if you're quick about it."
As he showers Tony imagines he feels the radiation sleeting hot through his flesh, pooling in his blood, settling in his marrow. It doesn't really feel like anything, but he's always had imagination. He can imagine the future, with Loki and his army taking over the world, killing and enslaving, and his only regret is that he won't be around to help make the process more efficient. But he can understand why Loki wants him dead. His personality and intellect make him an unpredictable servant and Loki can only hold one person at a time enthralled, so better to kill him as soon as possible and choose another in his place.
Seeing no point in being uncomfortable for his remaining hours, after a brief shower Tony dresses in faded jeans and a favorite t-shirt, makes himself a smoothie and returns to the roof to watch the portal form. It's slower than he expected, probably a side-effect of not refining the stream. He checks the progress and then uses a spy-drone to observe Steve and the others approaching the Tower. "It'll be close," he tells Loki. "They may be able to figure out how to shut down the portal, given access."
"No. I haven't come this far to be stopped by a ragtag group of misfits and monsters."
The air swirls and thickens above Manhattan, darkening in the center, with crystalline flashes on the rim of the growing vortex. It's very like a whirlpool, a dimension-sucking space rather than water. Charybdis, Tony thinks. Or is that Scylla? No, Scylla was the rocks, Charybis the whirlpool. He drinks his smoothie and waits for Loki to come to him in person. There. Some sort of vehicle is emerging from the portal... a sky sled? Tony regrets that he's unlikely to live long enough to find out how it works. The sled grows until he can see that Loki is piloting it, and behind him other shapes are forming, more sleds, and some very large things that move in an organic fashion. He gulps the last of the smoothie and puts the glass down as Loki lands on the roof.
"You're taller than I imagined," Tony says. "And that's a hell of a horny helmet."
"You really can't help being annoying, can you, Tony?" Loki jumps lightly from the sled and strides over to Tony. He's holding a two-pronged polearm, reminiscent of a ranseur, Tony notes. Sometimes you can learn from the design of ancient weapons. Although he rather doubts any ancient ranseurs glowed. It's an arc reactor blue, and he speculates on whether his father had been inspired by the tesseract when he designed the first arc reactor.
Tony grins at Loki. "It's part of my charm." He watches the longer tip of the spear tap him on the chest. He blinks. "If you mean to kill me with that, you're going to have to try harder. Put a little back into it."
Loki frowns and taps him again. "I don't understand it. This always works."
"What's it supposed to do? Maybe I can fix it." Tony is pleased by the thought that he might get to see the inner workings of the spear before he dies.
Loki pokes him again and asks peevishly, "Have you no heart?"
Tony grimaces. "Well, yeah, it's a bit messed up, but underneath the arc reactor..."
"Ah!" Loki's expression lightens. "Of course." He shifts the spear further up and presses it against the base of Tony's throat.
Tony gasps as an indescribable sensation pours through his body before settling where he is (between his eyes and several centimeters back is where he's always known he lives). Reflected in Loki's eyes he sees his own face, sees his eyes turn an unnatural shade of blue, even the whites become sapphire momentarily, then the blue crystallizes in his irises.
Loki looks at him in satisfaction. "Put on your armor. Defend me and the portal." Loki smiles. "To the death, Tony."
"That, gentlemen, does not look good," Ororo says, pointing at the column of blue-white light blasting into the sky from Stark Tower.
Thor takes one look at the growing hole high in the heavens and lifts his hammer. "Loki has opened a portal. He will be coming."
"I don't know why he didn't just take over Jane's Bridge thingie," Darcy says. She's standing with the other noncombatants since no one could convince them to go sit in a hotel and wait to see what happened. "I mean, hey, he had Erik working for him. He could have walked through any time he liked."
Steve says grimly, "I guess he needed a really big door to invite his friends along." Things are emerging from the hole, gray vehicles and other, unidentifiable things. None of them look friendly.
Wolverine growls and flexes his claws. "Let's see if we can make it hit him in the ass."
Steve looks around at his team. "Charles, keep the ground forces outside the radiation perimeter- there's going to be enough work for everyone. If you're not a fighter, stay under cover, don't make us divide our attention protecting you." And yes, Steve is looking at Darcy. "If we can, we'll keep the enemy within the evacuated area."
"Tony's up," Rhodey says. Steve sees Iron Man, hovering over Stark Tower a short distance from the portal, with aliens flying past him. War Machine's face-plate snaps down and he takes off without waiting for orders. Bruce takes off his glasses and tosses them to Jane before he Hulks out and leaps after Rhodey. Thor throws his hammer and follows it into the sky.
"Wait! Watch out for the helicarrier!" Fury said he'd bring it close to help capture Tony, so ...oh, hell, all the flying heroes are in the air now, attacking the sledding aliens.
Well, no battle plan ever survives the first encounter with the enemy, Steve thinks as he starts running toward the Tower, using his shield on any of the gray guys who get in his way.
The Battle for New York! With a few surprises.
"Tony, don't do this!" Rhodey shouts as he gets in front of a repulsor blast aimed at Thor. "You know you don't want to hurt anyone!" Steve is listening in while attending to his own battles, as are all the Avengers and Iron Wolverines, via earbuds.
"Yeah, sorry about that, Honeybunch," Tony replies as he pivots to aim at the ground and send a blast at the Hulk, who is driven back a few steps and then engaged by sledding aliens. "But y'know, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Defend the castle, that sort of thing. You go after the portal or Loki, I'm gonna have to toast you."
"So it's cool with you if we take out the uglies?" Rhodey asks as he interposes himself between Tony and Ororo, who looks simultaneously less dramatic and more unnatural than usual, flying in a drab gray radiation suit and directing tornadoes and lightning against the giant flying... thing, which is either an armored Luck dragon, or an antigravity robot caterpillar. Whichever it is, it's not happy about lightning bolts and convulses, flinging off the fighting bipedal whatevers that were clinging to it.
"Well, they're not my top priority. Cannon fodder, you know? Stay away from Loki!" Tony rolls and turns in a maneuver the War Machine can't match and blasts Thor away from Stark Tower. Thor shouts and throws lightning directly at Tony, hitting him in the chest. Tony is slammed backward in the sky, then hovers.
"Oh, baby, you light my fire," Tony says. His arc reactor glows white-white-hot, and he fires a chest repulsor blast at least three times the size and intensity of normal at Thor before somersaulting in mid-air to fire twin palm repulsors at Logan on the ground, flinging him back against a building.
Logan gets up, staggering and smoking, claws out as he punches and slashes an alien. They're everywhere. "Hey! No lightning! You're just charging Buzz Lightyear's batteries!"
"Copy that, no lightning!" Steve shouts, grabbing his shield and flinging it as he leaps onto the hood of a car and then higher to smash into the underside of one of the alien's sky-sled things, then flipping up onto the sled to punch out the driver, grab his shield, aim the sled at another and leap free before the crash. "Tony! Fight Loki! You can do it!"
"Sorry to disappoint, Cap. You just don't understand. But you will. Or die. Your choice, really." Tony fires at Steve and misses as a bolt of blue ice hits him in the back. "Yikes! What's that?"
Those who can spare a moment from fighting look up to see another set of aliens, even bigger than the gray ones, and meaner looking with ruby red eyes and blue skins, come riding a different style of flying vehicle. They immediately begin battling with the grays.
"You weren't invited," Tony shouts, rolling over to fight the new invaders.
Thor has returned to the fight, but pauses, staring at one of the blue aliens, a particularly tall one with gold inset in his skull and decorating his body and arms. "Laufey? What is the meaning of this?"
Laufey grins at Thor, showing a lot of pointy teeth. "Asgardians think so little of Frost Giant honor. You saved my realm and my life. I wish to wipe out that debt-- starting with that traitor." He aims his weapon at Loki who is standing on the roof of Stark Tower, apparently shocked into stillness.
"No!" Thor shouts, flinging a hand up to deflect the spear of ice. "You cannot! He is your son!"
"I have no son!"
"Odin saved an infant from the temple, when he battled you! It was Loki, your son!"
Laufey laughed. "Odin was always a soft-hearted fool. My son died at birth. That weakling was left as a sacrifice, that my child would be served in the afterworld."
Loki is listening and screams before leaping onto one of the sleds and flying for Laufey, spear held up and glowing. Thor tries to stop him, Tony tries to stop Thor, they collide in mid-air and grapple.
Erik? Charles thinks at Magneto.Can you do it?
Probably. Magneto is standing on an alien sky-sled. Natasha is piloting it and Clint is shooting arrows at anyone aiming near them. "Hold this steady, please. I won't be able to concentrate on keeping myself aloft." Natasha gives him an eye-roll, at the insinuation that she's going to be distracted by a few hundred giant aliens. Magneto holds out his hands, focusing on Tony, held momentarily in Thor's arms. Tony is trying to move his hands up to use a repulsor blast, Thor is squeezing the Iron Man armor until it creaks. "You see," Magneto says as calmly as if he was lecturing at the Westchester academy, "Gold is non-magnetic. Titanium is commonly considered non-magnetic also, but that's a misnomer. It's actually paramagnetic."
Clint and Natasha are too busy for eyerolls, but they manage a glance of shared exasperation.
"This is..." Magneto's voice sounds strained and his arms are shaking, "a form of magnetism which occurs only in the presence of an externally applied magnetic field. Paramagnetic materials are attracted to magnetic fields. Hence they have a magnets permeability greater than one (or, equivalently, a positive magnetic susceptibility.)" Magneto's hands jerk, and he turns his wrists. He smiles. "Ah. Got you."
Iron Man's arms and legs snap down to his sides. Thor takes advantage of his opportunity and slams Mjolnir against the side of Tony's helmet.
"OW! What the fuck, Pointbreak? What... the ... fuck..." The faceplate on the Iron Man helmet comes up. Tony looks at Thor. His eyes are brown again. "Why are you hugging me? Steve won't like that."
"I recognize the Council has made a decision, but given that it's a stupid-ass decision, I've elected to ignore it," Nick Fury says. "There's a battle, yes, but the situation is being contained!"
"Contained? Your definition is not ours." The shadowy image of a man says from one of the wall monitors. "There are now two alien armies in Manhattan. We cannot risk them establishing a beachhead. The order has been given, and it will be carried out."
Fury runs onto the deck of the helicarrier with a shoulder-mounted missile launcher and takes out one plane before it can clear the deck, but a second plane gets out of range. There's no one he can scramble in time to intercept. "There's a nuke headed for New York City," Fury calls on the com link to the Avengers and all their associates. "I repeat. A nuclear missile has been launched."
All Steve can do is watch as Tony hugs a nuclear bomb to his chest, and flies it through into another dimension. There are still aliens coming through, no more of Laufey's troops, but still the gray ones keep coming. Thor and Laufey have overcome Loki, but that hasn't made any difference to the enemy. Steve guesses Loki had made an alliance of convenience, and it's now convenient for them to abandon him to his fate. The battle is still going on fast and furious, Charles sends Steve glimpses of the havoc his people are causing, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Frost giants against an overwhelming force. "We've got to shut that hole," he says.
Over the comm, Selvig says, "I think I can. If someone can get me to the device."
Steve glances around, trying to decide who to send. Natasha says, "I've got it." She pilots the sled down close to the Iron Wolverine. Pepper, Jane, and Darcy rush out with Selvig and boost him into the sled just as a stray gray guy attacks them. Galaga guy jumps up from an alley and shoots the alien at the same time Darcy tasers him, Jane maces him and Pepper clonks him over the head with a half-brick. They dive back into the bar, leaving the alien twitching on the pavement.
Natasha, Clint and Magneto remain with Selvig on the roof of Stark Tower, defending him from a barrage of attacks. "This!" Selvig says, "this will turn it off. But... Tony..." He hesitates. "Tony won't be able to get back."
Heartsick, Steve counts the seconds in his mind. The nuke is going to detonate any time. He can't... Tony wouldn't even want him to... risk New York's millions for any one... even when the one is Tony. It was Tony's choice. "Close it," he orders after waiting several more seconds than he should have, staring into the hole in the sky, praying for a miracle. Just a small one.
The portal begins contracting. And there is Steve's miracle. A tiny red and gold, and Steve is so glad Tony's flashy and bright... flying... no. Tony's falling. He's not. He's not flying. Steve stands, staring in the sky as Tony falls. Dimly he's aware that the gray guys have all collapsed, which is a miracle, but not the one he was praying for. There's a roar of animal rage behind him and he catches a glimpse of green as the Hulk leaps to catch Tony and lay him on the ground, none too gently, but all in one piece. But not moving. Tony is never absolutely still. He even cuddles in his sleep. And his arc reactor is dull. That's... never... no.
"Tony?" Steve grabs the lower edge of the face-plate and rips it up, leaning in to try to feel Tony's breath against his cheek. He grabs the shoulders of the Iron Man suit and shakes him. "TONY!" A massive green arm shoves Steve to one side, and the Hulk roars in Tony's face.
Tony jerks, and his eyes fly wide open, in panic. He looks around and flops an arm against the ground. "Frankly, I'd rather Steve had kissed me."
Dr. Strange limps into his sitting room, with Wanda supporting him on one side. They both look a bit scorched and cut up from battle. "I hadn't anticipated the Frost Giants," Wanda says. "Is that deviation from the time-stream in our favor?"
"Impossible to tell. It may merely be a flexing due to our interference and of neutral import."
Wanda nods as she helps Dr. Strange sit. "The vital element remains."
"Yes. Tony Stark is still alive. Hope remains."
Loki's dealt with, but Tony's in trouble.
Shorter than normal chapter cuz my brain shut down sooner than normal. Sorry about that. *yawn*
"So, what are we going to do with Mr. Coatrack?" Spiderman asks while munching on a chili-cheese dog, mask rolled up past his mouth. Tony wanted comfort food, and Nathan's Famous has been happy to oblige, opening their doors to the whole Avengers and Associates crowd. Thor looks to be setting a new record in the hot dog eating contest. Loki is sitting sullenly in a corner, gagged and tied up next to Laufey, with Bruce glaring daggers at him.
"Director Fury will want to..." Coulson starts to say.
"I'm taking my brother home," Thor interrupts. Sauerkraut escapes him when he speaks. No one is sitting close to him, fortunately.
"No. He is returning to Jotunheim with me," Laufey rebuts while poking curiously at a blue slushy.
"He has to answer for his crimes here," Steve says sternly. He's sitting with an arm around Tony who's been uncharacteristically subdued ever since they got him out of his wrecked suit.
"Ah." A man in red tights with devil horns' mask says, "I'm afraid that as the acknowledged prince of a foreign state, Loki has diplomatic immunity. Legally, we have no right to hold him."
Logan growls at Daredevil. "I told you we shouldn'ta allowed lawyers to join the club."
"So, deporting him is the best we can do?" Bruce hasn't taken his eyes off Loki. "The Hulk would like a few minutes with him."
There is a long moment of silence before Steve clears his throat. "I'm sorry, Bruce, but we can't make him pay for what he's done. You know we can't."
"He will be punished on Asgard." Thor shakes his head. "I do not know why my brother has done these terrible things, but we will make certain he commits no more crimes."
"Loki tried to destroy my entire realm." Laufey swallows the whole cup of blue slushy and grins. "He thought I was his father, and he tried to kill me. My claim is stronger than yours. Also, in case you have forgot... I still have an army." Nathan's didn't have enough slushies for all of them, so the Frost Giants are outside hovering on their floating sleds, awaiting their king's pleasure.
"Was that a threat?" Steve checks that his shield is nearby.
Laufey waves a dismissive hand. "Perhaps it was a trifle impolite. I have no desire to rule this world. Its climate does not suit me." Laufey looks at Thor. "For his adoptive son's acts, I claim restitution from Odin. I would see Jotunheim restored."
Thor nods. "I have no authority to promise this, but I will urge Odin to do as you request."
"Also." Laufey's smile widens to show even more pointy teeth. "I intend to adopt Loki as my heir."
There is muffled protest from Loki, and loud noises of surprise from many of the other people in the restaurant. "Why?" Steve asks for all of them.
Laufey shrugs. "Loki has no ties to any factions on Jotunheim so I will offend none by my choice. He has demonstrated intelligence, determination, and a strong magical gift. My realm could use a man of his abilities." Laufey looks Loki over. "He is small, but I will find him a suitable bride to offset that in his children."
"Does Loki get no choice in this?" Thor asks, with his hand on his hammer.
"Of course. He can stand trial for attempted genocide, attempted regicide, betrayal by forming an alliance with the Chitauri scum, invasion of Midgard, and... oh, really, it doesn't matter. Death is the penalty for all charges." Laufey pulls Loki's gag loose. "Well?"
Loki looks around the table at the scowling superheros, and at Thor's wistful face, then he smiles at Laufey. "Thank you, father, I accept your generous offer."
Laufey grins. "Don't stab me in the back too soon. I need to teach you how to rule. There's more to it than shouting and making people kneel, you know."
The next morning New York has reverted to normal... well, normal if you didn't count piles of debris, dead aliens stinking up the streets, the dead armored alien gigantapillar draped half in and out of the public library totally fubaring the Dewey Decimal, sanitation workers demanding hazard pay, and every other kid wearing Iron Avengers t-shirts, etc. etc. Anyway, Thor is escorting the Frost Giant army in a flying convoy to New Mexico with Jane, Darcy, and Erik Selvig going back on Tony's private jet to warm up Rainbow Bridge, Mark II to get them all back to merry old Jotunheim. Everyone who belongs in Stark Tower is staying at the Stark family mansion until the radiation level drops enough for them to return home in two or three days time.
Bruce is sitting in one of the smaller rooms, fiddling about with some of his notes which had been retrieved electronically by the mansion's Jarvis from the Tower's Jarvis, while Tony wanders in to poke him and offer him dried fruit. One day Bruce is going to take Tony to a children's zoo and see if he can get the petting and treating out of his system.
"So, Bruce," Tony says far too casually while leaning over Bruce's shoulder, "did you ever get anywhere with that Pingo Doce Guarana soda/ gamma blood experiment?"
"Not really. Preliminary tests showed promise, but the mice had a tendency to... well... either explode or sprout extra limbs or... dissolve." Bruce shrugs. "I shelved it."
"You might maybe want to un-shelve it." Tony fidgets with a bag of dried raspberries.
"Tony." Bruce turns to look at him. "What aren't you saying?"
"Eh. I might have a slight problem." Tony shrugs. "Maybe picked up a few rads yesterday."
Bruce stares at Tony.
"Loki told me take off the suit. It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Bruce grabs Tony's arm. "Why didn't you say anything? I don't have any equipment here. We've got to get you to the hospital."
Tony balks, pulling Bruce to a standstill. "I figured we could all use a good night's sleep, and there's nothing standard medicine can do."
"You know that chemical binders can trap some forms of radiation before it absorbs into the tissues."
"Yeah, but not this. After Loki got the tesseract it was in my head, as well as his weird bag of cats' thoughts. There was so much information I couldn't contain it all, but when I made that radiation bomb I paid attention to that. It's an element that doesn't actually exist in this dimension and it doesn't work the same way as anything we know. I was exposed for perhaps ten minutes and I scrubbed myself raw the first chance I got, so I'm thinking I've probably got two weeks of functional life left." Tony tries a grin. "So, how are you at working to a literal deadline?"
"I hate it." Bruce shakes his head. "Right, well, let's go to the infirmary and I'll draw samples and get started." Bruce starts walking and then he looks back at Tony. "Have you told Steve?"
Tony winces. "Not yet. He's already been to my memorial once this week."
Tony's not doing so well. (Clap your hands and say 'I believe in Iron Man'... he's gonna need a miracle to survive this.)
You don't survive as many battles as Steve has without developing a sense for when things are wrong. At first he put Tony and Bruce staying locked up in the lab as a reaction to being mind-controlled. He could understand that they wouldn't want to talk about it to a... what was it, Clint said... a therapist. Beyond the personal nature of it, they both had too many secrets to let down their guards and talk freely to strangers. He even understood why they'd prefer to talk to each other instead of any of the other Avengers or Iron Wolverines, not even Steve. So he was Tony Stark's... whatever... boyfriend just doesn't sound right. And most of the terms people use today are either too rude or too impersonal to suit him. He'll go with lover. Ok, fine, he's thought it in his mind, and nothing terrible happened. Anyway, just because they're lovers doesn't mean he owns Tony, and expects him to come to Steve with all his problems any more than he'd go running to Tony to cry on his shoulder whenever he gets a fit of the blues.
And he knows that when Tony's upset he burrows into the workshop or lab until he's settled whatever's bothering him. But he usually doesn't invite other scientists. In the last week, he's caught glimpses of both Hanks (Dr. Pym and Dr. McCoy) coming and going with sample cases, but seeing Reed Richards was the last straw. Tony had a sort of intellectual rivalry going with Reed, he'd never ask him to help on a project... unless something was very badly wrong.
Steve arms himself with a mug of coffee and a freshly made cheeseburger before going down to the lab. Through the glass walls, he can see Bruce doing something sciency with a gadget that probably was a distant relative of a microscope. Tony's nowhere in sight. The door is locked against him, which only adds to his suspicions. He leans on the intercom with an elbow. "Hey, Bruce, can you let me in? I've brought Tony-fuel."
Bruce looks up and frowns. "Um. We're... kinda busy."
"Hey, it'll get cold, just let me drop it off. You know Tony, you can just shove it in front of him and he'll eat without losing his train of thought."
"Um. Yeah, ok." Bruce glances towards the door to the 'safety station', which includes a toilet and sink as well as a shower, so at least Steve's found Tony. "Jarvis, let Steve in, would you?"
"Of course, Dr. Banner."
The door clicks to let Steve know it's open, and he pushes in, smiling cheerfully, dumps the burger and coffee on the nearest clear surface and turns on Bruce. "What's going on?"
"I don't know what you're..."
And then the door to the toilet opens and Tony emerges, head down and moving slowly but talking a mile a minute, "Yeah, no, Bruce, weed's not working against the nausea, we'll have to..." He looks up and freezes. "Steve?" His face is sweaty, pasty white and gaunt, with livid bruises around the eyes and mouth. And he has a purple knit hat pulled snugly over his head. Too snugly for there to be any hair beneath.
Steve is at Tony's side in a few strides. He touches Tony's face, and frowns at the heat coming off of him. "My God, Tony. What is it?"
Tony doesn't say anything for a few seconds, and then he sighs. "Fate being a bitch, I suppose. My old man helped create the A-bomb. Seems only fitting his son should die of radiation poisoning."
"But..." Steve can't take it in, just for a moment. He puts his hands on Tony's shoulders, feeling the heat and the boniness of them through the shirt. "Your suit... it wasn't damaged, it should have protected you."
"Yeah. Well... I took it off."
"WHAT?" Steve's grip tightens involuntarily.
"Loki ordered it." Tony shakes his head. "Apparently I was an unreliable slave and that was a convenient method of disposing of me."
Behind them, Bruce clears his throat. "We haven't given up yet. We're still exploring possibilities."
"Yeah, but realistically speaking... we're not going to find an answer in time." Tony smiles crookedly at Steve. "I guess I didn't need to worry about growing old while you were still young."
"You don't have to be here," Tony says as he goes over to a cot in the lab and lies down. "I mean...it's not necessary to put yourself through that again."
Steve pauses, and then picks up the basin of warm water he'd filled at the tap, and brings it over along with a clean folded washcloth. "Are you talking about my mother?"
"Yeah." Tony closes his eyes as Steve wipes his face and chest with the cloth. "Fury has... had... files on all of us. I admit I read yours before I wiped it from his database."
"I loved my mother. I wouldn't have traded a minute of the time I had with her for anything. Or with you." Steve kisses Tony softly.
Tony reaches up and touches Steve's cheek. "I'll give you all the minutes I have."
"Hey, I'm feeling pretty good, excellent, Stage Two already, let's go out and do something," Tony says the next morning. He'd slept the night through and his fever had broken before dawn. Steve has sat next to him the whole time, watching him breathe, trying to memorize Tony before he slips through his fingers.
"Shouldn't you stay here?" Steve asks.
"Nah." Tony sits up. "Bruce has enough samples to grow another me. Except... you know, don't, because that's just a creepy thought."
"I promise not to clone you without your permission," Bruce says with a faint smile.
"Good, great. Let's go." Tony says, getting up slowly and then straightening. "Yeah. Ok, great, what do you want to do, Steve?"
"Well, how about a walk in the park? You haven't seen the sun in a week."
"It's overrated, but yeah. I'll just catch a shower and be right with you."
"How about breakfast?"
Tony shakes his head. "I'm not hungry." He walks past Bruce and pats him on the shoulder. "Thanks, big guy."
"I'm not giving up, Tony," Bruce says. "You know, maybe the Asgardians have something that could help."
"I don't want the whole world in on this," Tony snaps, but his voice softens when Steve looks at him.
"Thor is your friend. Let him try to help. Let all of us try," Steve says.
Tony grimaces and then shrugs. "Fine. Bruce, the cat's out of the bag, you might as well tell everyone in the heroing club. But no public leaks. I don't want to waste my time with press conferences. And for gods sake, don't tell Fury."
Tony's reconciled to his fate, pretty much. (He misses his goatee, though he tries not to dwell on that.)
(Apologies for v. short chapter. Am v. sleepy & figuring out the finale is too much for my brain ATM. Yes, the end of the story is near. No, I don't know how many more chapters it will be.)
Thor strides up to them while they are sitting on a bench, looking at the lake. The day is cool enough that Tony doesn't look too odd with a soft gray hoodie covering his head and hiding most of his face. They have been silently watching some children sailing boats. Steve has his arm around Tony's shoulders and Tony's leaning in to him, too tired to do more than sit there and breathe and try not to think.
"Tony!" Thor is as loud as ever.
Tony waves him over. "Hey big guy, how's things in Asgard?" Not that he really cares, but it takes less energy to go with the standard social amenities his mother had tried so hard to instill in him than think of something original and witty. His style is severely impaired at the moment. Dying takes a lot of energy.
"All is well in Asgard. Odin gave me permission to bring this for you." Thor turns his hand and in a move that's either pretty good sleight of hand, or off-hand Asgardian 'magic' produces a golden apple. Not a golden delicious variety apple, but a softly shimmering glistening piece of fruit that has a glow emanating beneath its translucent skin.
"An apple a day keeps the doctor away?" It smells wonderful, like perfume and spring and everything fresh and growing. Tony takes the apple and turns it over in his hand.
"On Asgard it would. Here... it will ease pain and give you strength." Thor looks sad.
"Not a miracle cure, then." Tony bites into the apple, and it tastes like it smells. It's the first time he's had an appetite in a week, the first food that didn't make him queasy. For that, if nothing else, he's grateful.
"I'm sorry." Thor sits on the bench beside them, legs sprawled and cape tossed carelessly over the back. The children have stopped racing their boats to stare at him wide-eyed. "I spoke with the most learned physicians, but the only treatment they suggest resides in the healing chambers of Asgard. I cannot bring them to Midgard, and you would not survive the Bifrost to reach them."
"Huh. Yeah, well, thanks for trying. And thanks for the apple. It's good." Tony eats the whole thing, right down to the seeds. "So, Bruce has already spread the word?"
"Yes. Jane and her friends will be arriving today. They will stay at a hotel if you wish it, but Bruce suggested I ask if you object to opening the unused floors of the Tower. You have many friends who wish to be close to you."
Tony waves a hand vaguely. "Sure, why not. It's a bitch getting last minute rooms in the city." No need to mention that the Tower is going to belong jointly to the Avengers and Iron Wolverines. They'll find out soon enough. Might as well get comfortable with the place ahead of time. "Have Jarvis handle the details."
It's a bit like a wake, Tony thinks the next day as he walks around the common room on the largest furnished level, checking that all his friends have whatever they want to drink or eat, only with the corpse as an active host. The apple does indeed give him strength and banish the pain. He's still dying, he feels things failing inside, but it's a painless progression. He thinks of the poem the Wonderful One-Hoss Shay built with all parts of equal strength, so when it wore out, it did so all at once. He likes that idea, well, as much as anyone can like the idea of dying. Steve won't have to nurse his debilitated body, Pepper won't have to listen to him rambling in delirium, Rhodey won't have to watch him decay. No, there will be good times, laughter and... well... love... up until the end.
Rhodey arrives when Tony is in the shower. Tony hears Jarvis and Steve attempting to delay him, but this is Implacable Rhodey, Tony recognizes that note from years of sharing a college room. "C'mon in Honeybear," Tony shouts as he turns off the water and steps out, very glad that he has strength enough to sound like himself. He's not fast enough to wrap a towel around his waist, so Rhodey is treated to the full glory of blooming bruises spread over a thin and hairless body.
"Jesus," Rhodey says as he slams to a stop. "It's true..." And then he pulls Tony into a tight hug which feels good despite hurting like a son of a bitch.
Finally Tony coughs and Rhodey releases him. "Yeah. It's..." He pulls a face. "I can't complain, really. Had a longer run than I expected."
Rhodey is breathing fast and his eyes are wet. "You just fight this, you son of a bitch. Fight it. I need a drink."
Tony nods and reaches for a towel. "Logan's playing bartender. He's been trying to get Steve drunk. That's been on my bucket list for a while now."
"Yeah. I'll... give Logan some MIT drink recipes."
Grinning, Tony tosses on a robe. "And we'll teach him the MIT drinking song."
"An engineer once stumbled through the halls of Building 10," Tony sings as he waves his glass of tomato juice and clinks it against Steve's MIT Beaverbait (Tony has just invented the drink, and so claims the right to give it an embarrassing name.) "That night he'd drunken rum enough to drown a dozen men. In fact, the only things there were that kept him on his course..." Tony pauses for another swallow of juice. "Were the boundary conditions and the coriolis force!" The ping of the elevator announcer catches his attention and he turns his head to see Pepper arriving with Happy standing behind her holding luggage and looking a bit stunned. "No paperwork, I'm on holiday," Tony cries out. "Hi, Pep! How was your flight?"
"Oh, Tony," Pepper says softly, standing there, looking at him wide-eyed.
Tony runs his hand over his smooth skull and smiles. "I'm really rocking the Yul Brynner look." He's sorry a moment later when Pepper starts crying. He gets up and puts his arms around her. "I'm sorry," he says softly. "I didn't want to tell anyone." He looks up at Happy, trying to apologize with his eyes for upsetting Pepper. It's good that she's moved on and has Happy. Tony wouldn't want her to be alone.
The GRAND FINALE. YAY. *slumps over keyboard*
Tony is finding it seriously weird to have his Tower-- his home full of friends. Weird, but pleasant. They don't intrude into his living quarters unless he's feeling up to it and has Jarvis issue a blanket invitation but even when he doesn't see them, they leave evidence of life all over the place, folded magazines, TVs left on channels he'd never watch (sometimes they are actually interesting, who knew cooking was an artform?), comfortably dented cushions on couches, faint traces of perfume and colognes, fingerprints on the windows.
He makes love with Steve and allows himself to try all the slow, tender and even foolish things that he's avoided because, well...'Starks are made of iron'... yeah, not so much anymore. Sometimes he breaks Steve a little with tenderness, and if Tony cries too, well... Jarvis is the only one who knows what happens in the bedroom, and he won't tell.
"Mmm," he tells Steve when he wakes up to a lazy, warm cuddle on d-day minus four (and no, he hasn't said that aloud, it would be sure to upset Steve), "you know, I think this is the first holiday I've had in six years."
"Holiday?" Steve's expression tells Tony he needs to clarify.
"Um. That didn't come out right. I mean... the first time I haven't been working on any projects... just been... living." He pulls Steve close. "You know, I've been running all my life. Running away, running toward--- I never stopped to enjoy the moment without planning for the next." Tony pushes Steve onto his back and sprawls across him. "This moment is good." He kisses Steve again, concentrates on the feel of warm hands on his hips. "Very good."
"I hate to interrupt this charming scene." Before Tony can recognize the voice coming from behind them, Steve has grabbed him, turned them around and got out of the bed, leaving Tony sprawled on his back, blinking up at the ceiling.
"Loki," Steve growls, and Tony sits up to verify, yes, one blue-skinned, fire-eyed, so-called god is standing in his bedroom. He doesn't have any obvious weapon and isn't wearing armor, and anyway, Tony's going to be dead in a couple of days, so irritation rather than fear is Tony's response.
"You know, on Earth, when a bedroom door is locked, it's considered polite to knock before entering," Tony says.
"What do you want?" Steve is crouched naked and ready to attack, which, from Tony's point of view, does interesting things to the muscles in the back and thighs.
Loki holds up both hands in a gesture probably meant to be disarming. "To avert Ragnarok."
"Thor tells me you people have this thing called Allspeak that makes you understandable." Tony plumps a pillow and puts it behind his back. "Feel free to use it. Any time now."
"Ragnarok is the predestined end of this cycle of life for the Nine Worlds," Loki explains, even though he looks annoyed. Steve is visibly beginning to relax. "There would be a few survivors, to start a new cycle, but in general, you would call it the end of all things."
"Correct me if I'm wrong," Steve comments, "but doesn't 'predestined' mean that there's nothing you can do about it? So why tell us?"
Loki tilts his head in acknowledgment. "The true Ragnarok will be a weaving of many individual threads. Even the greatest seers cannot tell which threads should be cut short to prevent it, and which should be strengthened. What comes now is a single being, with powers so great he considers himself a god among gods. He's also quite, quite insane."
"This sounds familiar," Tony can't help pointing out which gets him a dirty look from Loki.
"It was my ambition to rule a single world, not to destroy all life in this dimension. Thanos... he has destroyed the universe, and then grew bored and reversed his actions." Loki looks up sharply. "He comes. I am not supposed to be here. Mimir has seen that the battle will be on Midgard, and one of your so-called Avengers holds the key. Find Thanos' weakness." Loki's image blurs and grows translucent. "Thor can tell you more." And then Loki is gone.
Tony looks at Steve. "So much for my holiday. Throw me my pants, Steve." He yawns. "And coffee. If we're going to save the world, I need coffee."
The inner cadre of Avengers is gathered, all wearing their battle gear, in the main meeting room, with the Iron Wolverines and everyone else conferencing from various monitors set up around the Tower as Thor tells all he has heard of Thanos. "Thanos is an Eternal. He was born on Titan, twisted in body and soul so that he came to love death. He courts her."
"Well, fine, then" Tony says. "He can just off himself and everyone will be happy."
"You misunderstand. Death is a powerful being, who took the form of a beautiful woman when Thanos met her. He has been trying to impress her ever since."
"You're kidding. You're not kidding," Tony says when Thor turns his 'serious, I am being a warrior here' face to him and Steve lays a hand on Tony's shoulder. "Fine, how about some details." The sky has grown unnaturally dark, with an eerie green-black glow. It feels as if it's pressing in on the windows of the Tower. Bruce is looking a little green around the edges, so Natasha and Clint have given him a couch to himself, in case he suddenly needs extra leg room.
"First Thanos made himself a god with the aid of the Cosmic cube, but was tricked into losing power. Next he collected the six Soul Gems and merged them into a single gem, which he used to wipe out the very stars. He was defeated and turned to stone, but Death revived him and granted him more power.
"He gathered the gems again, and this time created the Infinity Gauntlet. His very thought was enough to kill half of all that lived, and to defeat all who came against him. Victorious he was, but Death spurned him, resenting that his power outmatched her own. This rejection hurt him sorely, so much so that he was defeated once more, and all was put back as it had been.
"Thinking that Death sought to make a consort of the one you know as the Silver Surfer, Thanos killed him, but realized this was giving him to death, so he restored him to life. Death was insulted, and told Thanos that he was immortal and thus could never enter her realm.
"Then Thanos rejected death, declared himself a god again, and discovered a ...thing... a creature of un-being that threatened Eternity itself. Reluctantly he banded with his enemies against it. Death joined them and told him that the creature was their offspring- created when Thanos first embraced Death. They destroyed it. Thanos was distraught and fled Death who had become interested in him once more.
"The last story I've heard of Thanos was as Loki told you. He stole the Heart of the Universe, became a god, defeated all his enemies and caused the obliteration of all. Finding his accomplishment hollow, he restored the universe before destroying the Heart."
No one said anything for a long few minutes. "Well," Steve said at last, "thank you, Thor. It's good to know what we're up against."
"Yeah, a guy who gets his rocks off by using stolen jewels of power..oh... hey... this... Cosmic Cube thingie... does it go by any other names? Like... the Tesseract?" Thor's expression is all the confirmation Tony needs. "Son of a bitch. Maybe I should have given it to Odin after all."
"Avengers assemble!" Steve shouts as he grabs his shield and everyone is checking their weapons and the fit of their spandex and Bruce is growing green.
Jarvis's alarms blare at the same time the lights flicker, the whole Tower rocks and Tony is flung into Steve's arms. "Intruder alert! The vault has been...." Tony shouts, "Jarvis! Suit me up!" He's been wearing the recall bracelets since Loki woke him, and now he struggles out of Steve's arms and scrambles to find a clear space to await the armor.
"Tony! No!" Steve yells.
"Gotta show you the movie, 'Little Big Man', Steve! Today is a good day to die!" Tony grins as the armor encloses him, snug and strong and yes, this is the way he wants to go. He follows Hulk out a broken window, laughing.
"Hey! Prune-face," Tony shouts at Thanos, who is casually holding the Hulk's head in his right hand and squeezing. The Tesseract is in his left hand, glowing brighter than Tony has ever seen it. Thanos is twice the size of the Hulk and growing with every second, laughing as everyone throws everything they've got at him. He notices Thor's lightning no more than Hank's ants. "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?" Tony shoots a double repulsor blast directly into the mad god's face.
Thanos' glowing yellow eyes turn towards him. He flings the Hulk away, tossing him through a building. "There is no one 'my size', you feeble mayfly. I had hoped to have more sport before laying the ruins of your world before my lady Death."
"I had a cat like that, once. Never could understand why I wasn't happy about dead birds on the doorstep." Tony is glad the Iron Man is flashy. At least he's drawn Thanos' attention away from his friends. Too many of them are already lying still, broken and bleeding. Too many people he cares about are already dead or dying. War Machine has been crumpled like a soda can. Clint and Natasha were taken out with one negligent kick. Wolverine is a pile of pulped flesh, trying to knit together. Bits of web are all that remain of Spiderman. Jarvis has been keeping track of the casualties, but Tony can't let himself think about it, about how unfair it is. He had only a few more days, and then he could have gone without worrying about the others. Now, because he was arrogant enough to think the Tesseract better in his keeping than given to another they are all going to die, along with everyone on Earth, and that's only a start. Entire worlds, uncounted lives, all because Tony Stark thought he knew better. He keeps firing at Thanos, trying to distract, to find a vulnerable spot. If he can get the Tesseract away from him, then they have a chance. "You really think your girlfriend's gonna be impressed by a bouquet of bodies?"
"She is DEATH incarnate!" Thanos does something bright and hot and woah, that hurts like a bastard, and Tony's choking on blood, but the suit is still functional, which is all that matters. "She takes all the souls of the dead!"
"No wonder you can't get a date!" Tony uses up all his shoulder-mounted missiles on Thanos' left arm, but that huge fist remains clenched around the cube. "All you do is give her work!" Insults are working at least. Thanos is ignoring the others. He grows even further and snatches Tony out of the sky, as easily as a dog catches a frisbee.
"And what do YOU presume to tell Thanos about Death? You who have courted her and failed so often in your short mortal life?"
Tony squirms and fires everything he's got. It gains him nothing but a tighter grip. He can hear the armor creaking under the strain. "Hey, she's a woman. I know women." What the hell. Tony lifts the helmet faceplate and gives Thanos his best 'fuck you' grin. "I'm Tony Stark. Ask anyone, I'm on all the sexiest men lists. I know what women want. And you'd know it too, if you thought about it."
"Would I?" Thanos kicks idly, sending a scattering of heroes flying.
"Can you guys STOP for a minute?" Tony shouts down at the others. "We're trying to have a serious discussion here!" Tony sees Steve, battered but still mobile, gathering everyone and backing away. Good. While Tony delays and distracts, maybe Steve can come up with a plan. Tony is just winging it. "Look, Thanos, Thor told us about you and Death. You keep wiping out worlds, and she keeps giving you the brush off. She was interested in you when you were defeated, but hated you when you were more powerful than her."
Thanos frowns. "This... may be true."
"Sure, it is! Women love a man who can be vulnerable. Show you're not just the biggest baddest guy in the cosmos, but a sensitive, considerate man... being... whatever. Find out what she does for fun, when she's not collecting corpses. Smile at her. Give her the old intense eye-contact, make her feel like the most important thing in the universe to you. You aren't the most handsome guy around, so you've got to work the personality angle. Work it really hard."
"Hmmm..." Thanos looks thoughtful.
"Flowers. Candy. Maybe jewelry." Tony has no idea what the hell he's saying, but Thanos is listening, so he's not going to stop. "Rub her feet when she's had a hard day. Try different things, and remember what works. Build a relationship. You've got plenty of time. Don't rush to get into her pants. Make her want you."
"Perhaps. But this seems very complicated."
Tony rolls his eyes. "Duh, yeah, she's a woman!"
"I can always destroy the universe later."
"Absolutely! Sure. It's not going anywhere, is it?"
"I shall attempt this for a short while. I will return in a thousand of your years for further advice." Thanos steps over to Stark Tower and drops Tony onto the balcony.
Tony rolls over and tries to sit up, but it's not happening. Things are broken inside of him, and the apple is giving up the fight to keep pain at bay. Tony spits out blood. "Yeah, well, you know, even if I wasn't, like, dying right now, that's way past my expiration date." It doesn't seem right to just delay the end of the world for a thousand years. "Tell you what, I'll set up an Institute of Dating and there'll be plenty of experts when you return."
"No. They would not remember this day. They would not KNOW."
Tony waves a hand. "Ok, fine, well... some of the guys might be around. Thor, sure, he'll be here. And Wolverine and the Hulk probably, they're hard to kill. And... maybe... Steve." Tony coughs to clear his throat again.
"Do they know women as you do?"
"Oh, sure," Tony says blithely.
"YOU LIE." Thanos picks Tony up and the movement is enough to make him light-headed. "You will stay to give me advice." He gestures and the Iron Man suit vanishes. He presses the cube against Tony's chest. "You will live."
Tony jerks in the massive hand as something like electricity, like fire, like ice, like... he can't describe the sensation, flows through him. The pain vanishes. He blinks up at Thanos. "No. You can't expect me to live on alone, just waiting for your call. I won't. And it wouldn't do you any good. After a thousand years of watching my friends die, I'd have forgot what love is like."
Thanos stares into Tony's eyes. "What do your friends matter?"
"They're what makes life worth living," Tony says simply.
"I could make you a god, second only to myself."
"Eh, no thanks. I'd make a crappy god. It's taken me forty years to get the hang of being a human."
"So be it." Thanos puts Tony back on the balcony, and then turns, spinning with the glow of the Tesseract brighter and brighter and then he disappears in a flash of blinding blue-white light.
Tony is back in the Iron Man suit, undamaged. He still feels pretty good, though. He blinks until vision returns and looks down into the street. The signs of battle are erased as though it never happened. The Avengers and Iron Wolverines, and pretty much everyone, including Pepper, Happy, Jane, Darcy, even Coulson and Fury, are in the streets, milling about in apparent confusion. Tony snaps the faceplate back in place and calls up the HUD. Natasha and Clint are alive. Peter is talking to Thor. Bruce is standing next to Steve. If this is a dying hallucination, Tony's going to make the most of it. He fires his repulsors and heads for Steve.
"Tony!" Steve runs to meet him. "What happened?"
"I'm not sure!" Tony lands easily and flips the face plate back up to grin at Steve. "But I think I just OkCupid'd Thanos."
"Tony!" Steve is staring at him in shock.
"Hey. I don't look that bad, do I?"
Steve grabs the latches on the Iron Man helmet and flings it away. "Tony." He grabs Tony and pulls him into a kiss, his fingers reaching deep into Tony's hair.
Hair? Tony breaks the kiss and shakes his head. Yeah. His hair is back. "Hey." He looks around. Charles is out of his wheelchair, walking and has arms wrapped around Magneto. Charles has a full head of hair and looks as if he's no more than twenty-five. "What?"
"I remember," Logan says. He's crying, which... Logan, crying? Tony looks back at Steve in confusion.
Steve is smiling and the light in his eyes makes them bluer than ever. Tony is reflected in the miniature mirrors of Steve's pupils. He has regained his hair, but lost the flecks of white, lost the faint creases and wrinkles of a life not wisely, but well, lived. He's no older than Charles. No older than Steve.
Tony smiles slowly. "We've got an appointment in a thousand years to teach Thanos about love. I think we should start practicing now."
And Steve laughs before he pulls him into a kiss, dipping him despite the armor, surrounded by their friends.
Peter gets the Pulitzer prize for the photo he takes of them.