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Even the Light is an Illusion

Chapter Text


part i




Even the light is an illusion,
for when it stops I'll cease to be.
Then, in the darkness for countless hours,
I can move around freely
exactly as how you like.
Kanon Wakeshima - Maboroshi

Sometimes Tony regrets being under constant surveillance from his own computer systems. Especially when there are at least seven different individuals under his roof who can effortlessly hack into his CCTV banks and retrieve embarrassing footage.

Such as Tony flailing and falling from his chair in surprise when his lab suddenly floods with light.

Tony lets out a huff and starts to push himself up. He learned from an early age how not to show emotion (emotions are a weakness, and the press can smell weakness on you, my boy) so at least he doesn't have to deal with the embarrassment of blushing in shame in front of Captain America.

Or in front of Steve Rogers, because Steve's out of uniform and is finicky with his identity like that. Tony absent-mindedly touches the chest plate of his arc reactor as he orients himself back onto his chair. Some superheroes aren't quite as entwined with their real selves as Tony is. He and the suit really are one. It's not like Tony can fly around and suddenly think of himself as Iron Man. He's just Tony.

"Did you just try and kill me?" Tony asks Steve, smoothing his t-shirt down and pushing around his tools like he's doing something important with them.

"With a lightswitch?" Steve asks, detaching himself from the doorway and walking over to Tony's workstation. "I wouldn't be that subtle."

Tony smirks. Once upon a time, Steve and he were awfully polite, all mindless phatic communion and hellos and how are yous and Mr. Starks and Captain. That was before they found out how to work with each other. How to use their natural clash of approaches as a sounding board to find the strengths and weakness in each other's plans, rather than as an obstacle in their way.

Now they don't bother with small talk or social constructs. Their conversations always seem to begin halfway through.

Also, Steve's been spending way too much time with Pepper for Tony's comfort. That zinger was nearly spot-on Pepper-perfect.

"You'd punch me in the face," Tony says, holding onto two of the nearest pieces of equipment, and looking up at Steve. "Or shoot me."

"I might throw a tank at you," Steve says, looming over Tony's desk a little. "You'd want the press to have something interesting to write about in your obituary, right?"

"Because I'm so very bland," Tony says. "And don't tell me you're planning to type that obituary up yourself?"

"I can type," Steve says, but he doesn't sound too convinced. He straightens, leaning back and shoving his hands in his pockets. He looks around the blueprints, spread around Tony's desk in a complete circle, and changes the subject. "More Iron Man schematics?" He tilts his head and starts to walk around the perimeter of the scans. "Didn't you upgrade the mark fourteen last month?"

Tony resists the urge to touch the piece of paper in his pocket. Steve pauses, one eyebrow twitching. Tony glares at him challengingly for a moment, and then shrugs, turning to his mess of tools, starting to throw them into the nearest drawer haphazardly. "The flight stabilizers, yes," Tony agrees. "But I thought I'd throw in a few special features. You know me. Never happy with the simple model."

"Sometimes simple is best," Steve says.

Tony shoves his drawer shut and idly spins on his wheeled chair. "You came into the wrong room. Logan's room is four floors up. He'll appreciate that lesson completely. Tailor-made for him, right?"

Steve rolls his eyes, and prods at one of Tony's displays. He still jabs at them a little too hard, like he actually has to make contact with the light, but Tony programmed JARVIS to compensate for it years ago. "You need a double spray of this flame-retardant doo-hickey stuff on your left flank," Steve says. "You favor your right side. You keep leaving yourself exposed there."

"I do?" Tony asks, automatically, because every flaw is always going to be something he needs to prod at. JARVIS obligingly plays a quick montage of scenes from some of their recent battles illustrating Steve's point. Tony makes a mental note to tone down JARVIS' pre-emptive intuitive display parameters, because he could almost swear JARVIS takes way too much glee in anything that can be used against him. "I do," he agrees. He stretches, and freezes awkwardly, wondering if he's favoring his right side now.

"You're fine," Steve says.

"Stop reading my mind," Tony says. "It's creepy enough when that Professor guy at the mutant institute does it."

"Charles," Steve says, sounding remarkably patient considering he has to do this every time they talk about the X-Men. "His name is Charles Xavier. You can't just keep pitching a fit about him because you're not the only rich superhero around."

"Rich shmich," Tony mutters, "he barely scrapes the top five hundred of this continent. I'm in the top three of the whole world."

"But not the top," Steve says, and smiles with his perfect, even teeth.

Tony narrows his eyes, and tries valiantly to remember that's not a come-on when it comes from Steve. "What did I tell you about coming in my lab just to bitch at me?"

"That I should do it every day?" Steve says, innocently.

Tony gives him a sour look. "Seriously, first you come in and blind me with my own lighting, and then you stand there and throw insult after insult at me? You'd better be inviting me upstairs for ice cream."

"Breakfast, actually." Steve pauses, like he's thinking about it. "Maybe after you've had a shower."

"Shut up, I smell like strawberries and cream at all times," Tony says, pushing himself to his feet and realizing it's not the embarrassing tumble from his seat that's wholly to blame for his aching muscles. Just how long has he been sat here working? Tony makes a mental note not to ask JARVIS now. JARVIS would be way too delighted to tell Tony in front of Steve. "It's in my official bio on the Stark Industries website and the internet never lies," he adds, pushing his chair under his desk.

"Stop trying to make me believe that," Steve says. "It was very confusing when Clint linked me to reddit for the first time."

"That particular event," Tony says, "is traumatic whatever your set of beliefs." He tries to yawn as subtly as he can, but Steve throws him an evil expression, and as he's busted anyway, Tony rubs sleepily at his eyes. "JARVIS," Tony says, "commence the latest batch of alterations. Make sure to incorporate Cap's suggestion."

"Of course, sir," JARVIS intones. "Confirming a double spray of flame-retardant doo-hickey stuff for the mark fourteen's left flank."

Steve frowns as Tony joins him, and they head towards the door. "Has Logan been into JARVIS' sarcasm sub-routines again?"

Tony scratches his head. "I think it was Spider-Man, actually. Or that new biochemist intern down in R&D, what's his name?"

"Peter Parker," Steve says. "As you well know. He's your favorite."

"Hm," Tony hums, noncommittally. "Him." Tony pauses at the door. "Can I have ice-cream for breakfast?"

"Maybe if you eat your greens," Steve jokes.

"Aw, mom," Tony says. "And who eats green things for breakfast, anyway?"

Steve pauses in the doorway and gives one of his oh, Tony looks. Tony rocks on his heels.

"I might go and have that shower after all?" Tony says.

Steve nods, and taps the doorframe. "Sure. But if you're not up and eating actual food within the next half an hour, I'm sending Cage down to get you out, and he takes Tony-fetching duty with much less panache than I do."

Tony full-body shudders at the mental image of Luke Cage yanking him from the shower for Steve's amusement, and Steve grins, shaking his head. "I'll be there," Tony promises, smiling his thanks at Steve.

Steve nods, and he turns and leaves up the stairs.

Tony's smile fades as soon as Steve's out of sight, and he heads towards the bathroom built onto his lab, automatically reaching for the piece of paper in his pocket as he goes. He keeps it in his palm until he can get behind the door and lock it, and he stares down at it for a long minute.


Tony allows himself a minute and just that minute, and then he slowly and methodically rips the paper up into small pieces before running it under a faucet and dissolving the paper so it makes a thick ball of papier-mâché before bending down and pushing it up into a nook under his sink which will never be excavated in this century. A nook which already has eight similar balls of paper. Each one untraceable. Each one undeniably creepy.

He straightens and strips, JARVIS automatically starting the water as he steps into his shower. Tony leans against the wall, palms flat against the tiles, and tries his best not to panic. He's gotten plenty of death threats before. This one is no different.

Apart from the fact the notes are getting to him in places impossible for anyone but a Stark employee or an Avenger to reach.

Tony manually shuts the water off, and stands there for a while. For a moment he focuses on listening to water run from his body, dripping onto the floor and his shadow, but it's not enough for him to focus on. All he can hear are his own thoughts. One stands out clear from all the worry and stress: there's never a distraction when he needs one.

Tony dries himself, re-dresses in clothes that can't get up from the bathroom floor and walk on their own, heads up the stairs, and finds a bowl of melon left out on the kitchen counter for him. It has a note stuck to the side of it: TONY'S SORTA-GREEN THINGS FOR BREAKFAST. Underneath that is a tiny doodle of Tony eating it with a scowl on his face, and underneath that is a tinier note: I HID THE ICE-CREAM IN THE BAG OF SWEETCORN. Sometimes Tony thinks that sharing a mansion with a whole bunch of crazy people is not always the sanest plan.

He's eaten most of the melon by the time there finally is a distraction.

It's mostly too late to raise Tony's mood—Steve's little post-it notes are always oddly cheering, and Tony has a scrapbook full of them now — but a distraction is a distraction. He hurtles downstairs to get the mark fourteen, misses the quinjet, so has to fly alongside it, giving its pilot the finger through the window.

Logan just smirks. Flipping the bird is like saying good morning to the X-Man.

As the jet lands, Tony tilts his head in welcome to the Avengers coming out of the jet. Once upon a time, Tony would have jetted up into the air, already scoping out the threats — but compromise is one of Tony's best skills, something which irks Steve on occasion. Tony can understand why Steve gets peeved about it, because Steve is all about committing and going gung-ho based on your principals and sticking to them at all times. Tony's aware that compromise is necessary, that some things are going to happen whether you want them to or not, and sometimes compromising is the best thing you can do to get... Well, it might not be the best possible outcome, but the outcome with the least collateral damage regardless.

Despite his muttering on the subject, Steve still expects Tony to compromise and listen to commands. Tony sometimes bridles at it, but he accepts it. Steve's the leader, and for a team to be effective, they have to trust their leader.

Tony trusts Steve. He just doesn't always fully trust the enemy to play by the rules of warfare that Steve expects them to.

As Steve comes out of the jet, fully suited, his shield already on his arm, Tony falls in step next to him.

"What have we got, Cap?" Tony asks, although JARVIS is already collating some of the data. He can make out at least four heat sources coming their way, their flight paths indicating they mean to travel over where the quinjet is landed.

"SHIELD picked up on a coded message," Steve says briskly. "The Mandarin is planning on making a hit on the summit that's going on in the city in approximately ten minutes. Your systems calculated if we intercept them here, we can stop them going much farther."

Tony nods. "What's the plan?"

"You, Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel bring them down to a level where we can take care of them. Jan, I need you back in the perimeter in case any of them slip by the front line. Sting 'em down if you can, squash them if you have to." He nods at the four of them. "Everyone got their comms switched on?"

"Damn," Spider-Man quips, "these things turn off? Gee, sorry for the soundtrack of the hot date I was on last night if anyone was listening in."

"I'm sure you and your hand had a fabulous time," Logan drawls.

"Need a lift up that tree, birdbrain?" Tony asks Clint. Clint gives him a withering look from behind his outlandishly purple mask. Tony's glad his mask hides his smirks — he still remembers Clint's howl of outrage when Fury gave him his new suit. Hawkeye is metaphorical. My face looks like I'm a giant purple bird. There's something to be said for being allowed to design your own suit. Not like Fury could stop me, Tony thinks, and takes up to the sky.

"Whoever takes down two," Carol cries, her cape swirling dramatically behind her, "gets bought dinner by the losers."

"Whoo," Clint calls through the comm, "threesome dinner date with Ms. Marvel."

"Don't let Mockingbird hear you say that," Tony tells him. He adjusts his flight path and JARVIS scans the incoming threats. "The one on the far right is mine. He's lit up like a Christmas Tree."

The extra heat suggests the villain Tony's targeting has some sort of technological augmentation, if it's not yet another Iron Man-wannabe, so it makes sense for him to take out that one.

"Ms. Marvel, I'm getting tinsel-y feelings from the second one on the left," Spider-Man says through the comms. "Sorry, I mean tingles."

"I'm copying that sensation," Carol says. "Tingles all the way."

"The first person to sing a Christmas Carol gets to say hi to my claws," Logan says, grouchily.

"I hate to agree with Wolverine, but I may join in on that brand of violence — I get uncomfortable when people sing me," Carol says.

"Try not to goof around on the comm line, kids," Steve's voice floats authoritatively. "Incoming!"

Tony focuses on his own enemy. As much as his nature means he much prefers to work on his own, Tony does like knowing his team has his back, so he can concentrate fully on pummeling his quarry to the ground. JARVIS brings him up an enhanced picture of the individual barreling in his direction, trailing energy emissions all over the place. Clearly whoever's tried to steal his tech this time hasn't conquered the transit fuel filter problem. Tony swallows the sigh when JARVIS identifies his foe.

"Looks like the Marauder's added a few more toys to his arsenal," he says, through his comm line. "JARVIS is registering all the incoming as thugs for hire."

"We'll subdue now, investigate the hirer later," Steve commands. "Hopefully he hired them through a third party. The more people the Mandarin employs, the better chance we have of finding him."

"Alas, he likes to do his own dirty work," Tony mutters. "Engaging the Marauder."

"Be a darling and send him my way," Logan says. "Us wrist-fighters should stick together."

"That's the sweetest thing you've ever said to me," Spider-Man coos.

"Leave some for me, too," Cage grumbles over the line. "I haven't gotten to punch anything big for a while and I'd rather not punch any of you."

"That's sweet," Jan says, somewhat approvingly. "I appreciate working with colleagues who don't want to punch other colleagues."

"I'd rather not punch any of you," Cage says. "Doesn't mean I won't."

"Relax," Carol sing-songs, "we'll send you some scraps."

"Better be more than scraps," Logan grumbles.

"I don't know," Clint says, "I do like to show off that I can shoot tiny targets as well as big ones."

"Hawk, if there's anything left after I've said hello," Tony tells them, "you can show off as much as you like."

"Just get him on the ground," Steve orders, cutting straight through all the banter like a knife.

Tony rolls his eyes, and is glad no one can see him doing it. Masks really do have their advantages sometimes.

Especially when they protect his face from crazy heat, because the Marauder seems to have added a flame-thrower to his inbuilt arsenal to accompany the rocket pack helping him fly. Taking the Marauder down to the ground is embarrassingly easy — the idiot is basically wearing his jetpack as if it's a parachute. Tony moves as if he's about to tackle the Marauder face on, but as soon as he comes close enough, he barrel rolls.

The Marauder falls for the feint, smashing right through the space of sky Tony's just vacated. Tony uses a few well-aimed (thanks to the advanced targeting system he's programmed JARVIS with) hand blasts to detach the jet pack from the Marauder's back. The blasts send the Marauder twisting and spinning and hurtling down to the ground, where Cap, Spider-Man, Wolverine and Cage are waiting to clean up.

Satisfied, Tony turns to where the rest of the action is, Ms. Marvel grappling with someone mid-air, Hawkeye unleashing a bolt into another from the top of the tree he picked as his vantage point, and he's about to move in on the third before Hawkeye can shoot at him too when his scanner's pick up something else on the periphery of his vision: a new energy source.

"JARVIS," Tony says, disabling his out-going comms and turning the sound down on the comm line chatter from the others, "what is that?"

"I can't get a lock, sir," JARVIS intones. "Scanners indicate it is giving out the same equivalent waste energy as the four ingrates the Avengers are currently tackling. It seems to be coming from the warehouse over there. My scans indicate it's in danger of exploding. Seventy per cent chance within the next five minutes." The warehouse zooms in to the side of Tony's vision, and zooms in even more. JARVIS automatically overlays an energy filter, and Tony can see the pulses of it rolling from the building.

"That's definitely hot," Tony says, already moving towards it. "Civilian count in the local area?"

"I'm picking up two children in front of the building. Local channels suggest they belong to the Miller family. Hacking their family computer. Remotely accessing webcam. The parents are located in the house. Sir, is it worth my time to outline the risk to your personal safety at this point?"

"Aw, JARVIS, any time I hear your dulcet tones could never be considered a waste of time," Tony tells him, and burns faster towards the warehouse. True to his scans, there are two children. Two girls playing jump rope in the clear ground before its doors. When he lowers down to the ground, one of them screams. "Kids, I need you to scram back home." The girls don't make even the tiniest flicker of movement. He sighs, and powers up both palm blasters, shorting them so they spark dramatically. "Scram," he adds.

Both of the girls start screaming, and they start running in the direction of their home, one of them yelping that Iron Man's gonna eat us.

"Seriously?" Tony questions. "I guess I could flambé them pretty thoroughly with these things."

"Indeed, sir," JARVIS says. "Barbecued children for all."

Tony smirks instead of answering immediately, and the lull in sound is when he hears it. "JARVIS, did you register that? Re-route it through the filters. Enhance. Play it again for me."

Some numbers and audio wavelengths sprawl across Tony's readouts, and then JARVIS plays the sound Tony caught. "Help me! I'm in here! Is there anyone out there? Please help!"

"JARVIS, what do your scans say? Is there someone in there? More than one someone? How many potential threats?"

"Scans indicate only that energy source," JARVIS says. "The threat of an explosion has also climbed to eighty-five per cent."

"Well, if there's someone in there," Tony fires up and takes to the air, "it's not a hundred per cent. Gotta take the play." Too bad if someone wants him dead if there's a kid involved. Not that Tony would ever say that aloud — he has a rep to maintain.

"Iron Man. Where are you? The fighting's over here," Steve voice trails in over the comms. It's loud — Steve must have realized Tony had toned down his comm. Dammit. "Are you in trouble?"

Tony tuts, and turns his comm line on. "Nothing I can't handle," he tells Steve.

He hears a spluttering sound, something which is never one of Captain America's finest moments, and then Tony blasts through the front doors of the warehouse in search of whoever was calling for help.

He literally doesn't know what hits him.

Not until he wakes up, probably hours later based on the light in the hospital room Tony finds himself in, to Steve's angry face.

"Hnnghghghhh," Tony says eloquently to Steve. Steve's face doesn't even move, but his arms tense distinctively. Tony's in the doghouse, then. If they were married, Tony would be faceplanting the couch tonight for sure. Then he thinks over what he's just thought. Why did his brain automatically go to the thought of being married to Steve? Tony blinks, and it hurts, and he hates everything. He's been injured then, and some sort of head trauma, if his brain is going off into cloud-cuckoo fantasy land.

"In my defense," Tony says, "I didn't know the warehouse was out to kill me."

"Do you even know what you—" Steve starts.

"Broke off from the team, muted my comms, saved the lives of two girls, thought someone else was in danger, was too stupid to un-mute the comms, got blown up in the process, learned my lesson the hard way," Tony rattles off. "Although, if I'd known my head was going to feel worse than that hangover from my graduation party at MIT, I might have reconsidered my impulsive actions."

"Irresponsible—" Steve manages to get out. His chest puffs up, like it does when he's thoroughly stressed, and if Steve's hair gets any more formal, he's probably going to blow away.

Wait. Tony thinks through his last few thought processes. Huh. What medication is he even on?

"You're pretty when you're upset," Tony says, and tries to move. Nothing seems to have completely vanished from his body, apart from— Oh, wait. His dignity. He squints at Steve, who seems to be holding his breath. Did Tony just call Steve pretty? Well, Tony reflects, dizzily, it's not like it's not true... "How much morphine did they put me on?"

"A little. The doctors weren't sure how much alcohol was in your blood. When your tests came back, they gave you some more."

Tony pulls a face, and it hurts. He sidesteps Steve's pointed reference to his drinking. "What happened? Did the warehouse blow up?"

"In your face," Steve says, heatedly. "Jan used the quinjet's sensors to pull up just how much energy had been radiating from that place before you decided to step through the front door."

"I stepped?" Tony asks. "I sort of remember flying through—"

He quails when Steve's expression colors into a more murderous shade.

"Did I break anything?" Tony asks.

"Nothing apart from protocol, Mr. Stark," Agent Hill says, striding in from the doorway. She has a tablet in her hand, and Tony strains to catch a look — it's his medical records. "Your MRI came back clear. You may have a concussion, so you'll be staying in overnight for supervision. I'll assign agents to keep you awake."

"Not a chance," Tony says, and pushes his sheets away. He peeks down to see if he's dressed. A hospital gown that gapes at the back. Awesome. "I want my suit back."

"It's already back at the mansion," Steve reassures him. Tony starts to push himself up from the bed. Nothing might be broken, but he's bruised everywhere. "Where do you think you're going?"

"Discharging myself," Tony says. "Obviously."

"But—" Steve starts.

"You can do your mother hen routine just as well in the mansion as here," Tony says, succeeding in getting up and moving to the door. Agent Hill hangs back with a distinct what did I do to deserve this expression. There's a definite feel of air where his hospital gown is gaping open. Tony poses as provocatively as he can manage, turning his head over his shoulder and grinning. "Might even be better there, because I won't be half naked."

Steve makes a sort of strangled noise in the back of his throat, and keeps his gaze firmly fixed on Tony's face, the spoilsport. "I suppose. If you promise to follow doctor's orders."

"Maybe if you promise to play nurse," Tony says, and sways a little. Steve sends him a withering look. Tony shrugs. A concussion won't kill him.

Staying somewhere so unprotected might.

"Kiddo, you should have thought that before you tried to go into the warehouse with an eighty-five per cent chance of exploding," Tony tells himself.

"What did you just say?" Steve demands.

Tony internally winces. "I don't know what you're talking about," he lies. The world spins. One day, Tony thinks, he's going to freaking stay in hospital when he's supposed to. But that would just be the smart thing to do, he supposes. "Let's just get out of here," he mutters.

"Sure," Steve says, with surprising amicability. Right up until the point he draws near Tony and leans in to mutter, so Agent Hill won't hear, "the quicker we get you home, the quicker I can find out what you're hiding, Tony." Steve's face is so close. Tony tilts his chin arrogantly. "Unless you'd like to tell me outright."

"It's so good that you're gracious when you're disappointed," Tony tells him back.

"We'll see," Steve says.

No, you won't, Tony thinks, letting Steve thinks he's got this victory because it's the path of least resistance. Tony's going to do his damndest to handle this stupid death threat melodrama on his own. Steve doesn't have to know, or see, a thing at all.

Least of all how scared Tony really is.

No, Steve doesn't have to know that at all.