The fight against the Masters of Evil had not gone well. Steve was astonished that the Black Knight, Radioactive Man, the Melter, and the erstwhile Human Top, now apparently calling himself Whirlwind, had managed to form a functioning team at all, considering that they'd all been solo acts until now. But form a team they had, and an unfortunately effective one.
The Black Knight and Radioactive man were formidable enough on their own, particularly Radioactive Man, whose superhuman strength actually made him a match for Thor. The fact that he actually was radioactive had complicated matters even more, since it meant that Giant-Man, their other powerhouse, couldn't touch him.
Even worse, Iron Man hadn't shown up, which meant that with Thor busy squaring off against his radioactive nemesis, the Black Knight had the sky to himself, and was free to rain energy bolts down on them all, while the Whirlwind ran circles around them and the Melter pulled a nearby building down on their heads.
Eventually, Hank had swatted the Melter into a pile of rubble and Jan had blinded the Black Knight with her sting, putting his energy lance out of commission. Steve, no longer hindered by trying to dodge energy bolts and falling masonry, had finally succeeded in clocking Whirlwind with his shield, and Thor had eventually pounded Radioactive Man into the ground. But it had taken much longer than it should have, much longer than it would have taken with Iron Man there, and the surrounding stores and office buildings had paid the price for it.
"We really could have used your help out there, Iron Man," Steve said. "Where were you?" He studied Iron Man's red and gold faceplate as he spoke, but as usual, it gave nothing away. He had wondered before why the man never took the armor off, if he even could; had something gone wrong with it? Was that why he had been so late? If it doubled as some kind of life support system, as Steve half suspected...
"The Melter is one of yours," Hank put in. "You've gone up against him before; we could have used that experience."
Jan, perched on Hank's shoulder, nodded. She fluttered her wings, saying, "It would have been a big help to have another flyer to tackle the Black Knight. His energy beams are no joke, especially when I'm this size. One of them could have crisped me no problem."
The Avengers had gathered in the conference room, around the massive wooden table, an ugly late-Victorian monstrosity with clawed feet that had probably come with the house. Iron Man had ducked in late, after what Steve considered a debriefing and the others clearly thought of as a round-table discussion was nearly over.
Thor was the only one of them who hadn't addressed Iron Man directly yet; instead, he stayed silent and looked thoughtful, as if waiting to pass judgment.
"I-" Iron Man, in his usual place beside Steve, looked down at his gauntleted hands, folded in front of him on the table, his shoulders slumping. "I'm forced to admit I don't have an excuse. I let a personal problem interfere with my duty to the team."
Steve reached over and laid what he hoped was a supportive hand on Iron Man's shoulder. "What's wrong?" The five of them were a team; if Iron Man was in some kind of trouble, well, one of the things a team did was help each other. "If there's anything we can do to help-"
Iron Man pulled away, shrugging Steve's hand off. "There isn't," he said shortly.
Steve pulled his hand back, stung by the other man's brusque tone. He considered Iron Man a friend, had told him things about himself, about his past, about why he wore the costume, that he hadn't shared with anyone else in this time. There weren't many people he'd shared that kind of information with even before he'd been frozen.
Iron Man was happy to listen to Steve go on about his own problems, it seemed, but didn't trust Steve enough to return the favor.
"Maybe you ought to take a few days off to deal with this 'personal problem,'" Steve said, in the same flat tone Iron Man had used. He phrased it as a suggestion, but it was nothing of the sort. A soldier whose head wasn't in the game was a liability, and that went double for superheroes, who might put civilians as risk as well as themselves and their teammates.
Iron Man nodded, still staring at his hands. "You're right. I probably should take some time off to get things under control."
Despite the fact that Iron Man obviously didn't want him to know about them, Steve couldn't help but wonder what those things were. "Would a week be long enough?"
"A week will be more than enough time," Iron Man said. "I'll see the rest of you then." And with that, he stood and left the room, hands clasped behind his back and posture oddly dejected-looking for someone who had as much as admitted that he needed the time off.
There was silence for a long moment after the door had closed behind him. Steve wasn't sure, but he thought Jan was giving him a funny look - it was hard to read her expressions when she was six inches tall.
The silence had just begun to be uncomfortable when it was finally broken by Thor. "An excellent idea, Captain America," he said, as good-naturedly as if Steve hadn't just allowed his personal irritation to goad him into kicking Iron Man out, without so much as asking any of the others. "A brief leave of absence will give our armored comrade time to resolve whatever problem it is that plagues him." He paused, and frowned faintly, adding, "I would that we might help him, but we must not press him to tell us about it, since we have all pledged to respect one another's secret identities."
Steve was fairly sure that that rule had been Iron Man's idea, since he was the only one of them who actually had a secret identity. Thor's commitment to upholding a pledge that had nothing to do with him was yet another sign of how seriously he took his personal code of honor. Steve himself couldn't help but be curious; he'd even been tempted, once or twice, to ask Tony Stark about his employee's identity, but not only would that be going behind Iron Man's back, it would be asking Stark to betray a confidence.
Jan fluttered down from Hank's shoulder, onto the table top, where she began pacing. "How exactly does Iron Man being gone for a week solve the problem of Iron Man not being there to back us up when we need him?" she asked, coming to a stop in front of Steve, her hands on her hips.
Hank shrugged. "He shouldn't let personal problems interfere with his obligations to us and Tony. Being grounded for a week will remind him of that."
This time, Steve could clearly see Jan's exasperated expression, six inches tall or no. "So we're sending him to his room? When did we turn into high school? And anyway," this directly to Hank, "do you really think Tony minds, all things considered?"
"You have to be able to make this," Steve gestured around the room, "your first priority." Wanting to make sure that they all functioned at their best was not immature or petty. He had already lost one partner; he didn't want to lose any of his teammates to mistakes that could have been easily prevented. "Being distracted in a fight is asking for trouble."
"Indeed," Thor said, "it will reduce our numbers by one, but who are we to begrudge Iron Man some time to deal with whatever it is that troubles him?"
Hank nodded. "Don't worry. We took down the Masters of Evil with just the four of us. We'll be able to handle anything that throws itself at us in the next week."
Steve carefully rotated his left shoulder, still bruised where a piece of falling rubble had hit it, and hoped that Hank was right.
For a long moment after he woke up, Steve could still feel the heat of the explosion. He sat up, swinging his feet over the edge of the bed, toes sinking into the deep pile of the doubtless very expensive carpet. He rested his head in his hands, drawing in a deep, shaky breath.
The worst part was that he couldn't even tell himself it wasn't real. Even slightly distorted through the filter of a dream, all of it had been true. The plane really had blown up. Bucky really was gone.
There was nothing he could do to change things, Steve reminded himself. Dwelling on it too much would make him ready for a section eight. He wasn't at that point yet, but if he let himself just sit around and wallow in guilt…
If he closed his eyes, he could still see Bucky's hand reaching out for him.
Steve stood abruptly. The library was always nice at this time of night, warmly lit and with plenty of books to distract himself with. Stark had shelves and shelves of the classics, not mention countless books written after 1945 that he hadn't even heard of, let alone read.
He'd heard somewhere that some people watched television when they couldn't sleep, but it had only taken him one attempt to realize that there was nothing playing this time of night that he wanted to watch. As far as Steve could tell, the most impressive thing about television seemed to be how many truly bad programs it broadcast.
As soon as he rounded the corner, he could see the light spilling out from under the library door. Iron Man must be- No, Iron Man wouldn't be there, of course; he was dealing with whatever problem it was that he refused to share with them.
Who would be in the library at this time of night?
Steve pushed open the door, curiosity getting the better of good manners, and found Tony Stark sitting in Iron Man's usual chair. He was wearing a crumpled dress shirt and black slacks that had obviously started out as part of a suit, his hair was disheveled, and there was a half-full glass of some kind of amber-colored alcohol at his elbow.
"Couldn't sleep?" Stark asked casually, not looking up from the journal he was reading. The single page Steve could see featured a technical drawing so complicated that he couldn't even begin to figure out what it was supposed to be, especially not from a distance and upside-down.
If it had been Iron Man, whom he'd shared the library with something like half a dozen nights now, and if the Avengers' meeting this afternoon had gone differently, Steve might have admitted to the nightmares, but he still didn't know Tony Stark very well. He funded the Avengers, and had been friendly to Steve the couple of times they had met, but Steve knew little more of him than that. Iron Man didn't talk about his employer much.
Steve shrugged, not answering. "I didn't expect to see you down here at this time of night." He'd been under the impression that Stark lived out near his company's factory complex.
"It's quiet. I don't get much time to myself during the day." Stark cast a glance around the library, giving the heavy wooden bookshelves an almost fond look. "When I was a kid, I used to sneak down here in the middle of the night and read. I still like to spend time here when I get a chance."
Steve walked to the nearest bookshelf, pulling a book out at random. Normally, he would have taken his time selecting one, but he just couldn't make himself at home in Tony Stark's library with Stark sitting right there.
"I think we cost you more in property damage fees today than our salaries are worth," Steve commented wryly, as he sat down.
"Once you've been on the team a little longer, you'll learn that that's what most of the Maria Stark Foundation's funds end up going to." He paused, smirking slightly, and took a sip of his drink. "I try to think of it as funding urban renewal projects."
"I hope it's not usually quite as bad as today."
"I can imagine." Stark's lips twitched. "I saw what the Melter did to my factory floor a few months ago, before old Shellhead put a stop to him."
Steve had never seen Stark and Iron Man together, outside of a couple of news broadcasts, but from the fondness he could hear in Stark's voice, the two of them were obviously closer than he had realized. It made sense, when he thought about it; the Iron Man armor was an incredibly powerful weapon, and Stark wasn't likely to trust just anyone with something like that.
"I don't know if Iron Man's talked to you about earlier," Steve ventured after a moment, feeling awkward at the memory of their near-argument. "The rest of us weren't suspending him as some kind of disciplinary action. His first priority, obviously, is being your bodyguard, and we're not going to try to distract him from that." Actually, he was more worried about Iron Man's mysterious problem distracting him from being an effective Avenger, but he wasn't going to come out and say that to the other man's employer.
"Don't worry," Stark told him, serious now. "One of the reasons I fund the Avengers is because I know how important it is."
According to the newspapers, the only things Tony Stark considered important were expensive business deals and attractive and equally expensive women. On the other hand, the press loved to exaggerate. Some of the things the papers had said about Steve during the war had born only the thinnest connection to reality.
Steve ducked his head, slightly, rubbing at the back of his neck with one hand. "You have no idea how much I appreciate the opportunity to do this," he said. He could feel his face heating slightly under Stark's gaze. "I don't know what I would have done with myself if I hadn't been able to join the Avengers."
Tony shrugged one shoulder. "Those decisions are for the team to make." He drained the remainder of his drink in one long swallow, his head tipped back to expose the long line of his throat, then added, "I just pay the bills."
Not to mention providing a mansion complete with a butler, Steve added silently. He shifted his hand over a little, rubbing at his sore shoulder absently. "We couldn't save the building today, but at least we saved all the people around it. That's what really matters. I wish I'd been able to-" he broke off abruptly. He'd been about to admit to things he wasn't prepared to share. I wish I'd been able to save Bucky.
"I know what you mean." Stark shook his head, a rueful smile visible for an instant under his mustache. "I wish I'd always seen things that way. Then maybe I wouldn't have made so many landmines."
He made it sound as if he'd had a change of heart after an extensive career in the arms business. Steve was fairly certain Stark was around the same age he was, though the expensive suits and the moustache and goatee made him look older. "What made you change your mind?"
"I got to see them in action," Stark said. His hand went to the middle of his chest, in what looked like an unconscious gesture. "I went overseas on a fact-finding investigation that turned into one giant disaster. I only made it out of there alive because someone else sacrificed himself for me. That sort of thing changes the way you look at things." He was silent for a moment, staring down into his empty glass, then added, "Since then, I've just been trying to be worthy of it."
A few weeks ago, just after he'd first woken up in this time, Steve had been sitting in this same spot with Iron Man, discussing why they'd decided to put on their costumes. What Iron Man had said then had been very similar to what Stark was saying now. "I've been very lucky; something happened to me about a year ago. I should have died, but I didn't."
Steve wondered if Iron Man had been on that same fact-finding investigation, if he was the one who had sacrificed himself for Stark. It would explain how he had been injured, and why Stark had spent what had to be considerable time and money designing and building him the armor.
"I know how that feels," Steve admitted. "My partner was on that plane with me. He didn't make it off."
"Iron Man told me that you asked about him when you woke up."
"He must have still been trying to disarm the explosives, and then he got caught on the wing." The plane, an experimental rocket-powered drone, had been packed with dynamite, enough firepower to take out a city block -- or an Allied airfield. And that was without counting the rocket fuel. "I should have made him jump first." The entire operation had been completely unplanned, and things had begun to go wrong right from the start. Planning had been Steve's job, but he'd thrown himself at that plane without a second thought. Even if they had been able to disarm the bombs, they would have no way out; neither of them had had a parachute.
"It gets easier," Stark offered, his eyes serious, intent on Steve's face.
"Really?" Steve couldn't help the hopeful note in his voice.
Stark shook his head, smiling ruefully. "No." He rose, crossing the room to pour himself another glass from the decanter on the sideboard. He held the decanter out in Steve's general direction, the dark amber liquid sloshing against its ornate crystal sides, and raised his eyebrows. "The answer to all life's ills. Can I pour you a drink?"
The heightened resistance to alcohol and other drugs that the supersoldier serum had given him not withstanding, Steve had never been much of a one for seeking answers in the bottom of a glass. "Thanks, but I'll pass."
Stark resumed his seat, and took a sip of his drink. "How are you finding it here? I told the staff to make sure you had whatever you wanted. Is there anything you need?"
Steve shook his head. "I'm fine. I guess I'm just still adjusting. Everything's so different." He paused, trying to think of something else to add, something to lighten the mood. "I still can't believe you have a butler. Are Jarvis's pancakes always that good?"
"I wouldn't know. I'm not really one for breakfast. I usually stick with coffee." He grinned. "He must like you. Jarvis doesn't usually make pancakes three days in a row."
"I'll have to let him know I appreciate it." He'd thanked Jarvis for the food each time, of course, but he'd had no idea it had been especially for him.
There was silence for a moment. Stark looked prepared to return to his technical journal.
Steve stood, stretching, one hand still holding the book he'd borrowed. "I'll leave you to your reading. I ought to try to get back to sleep."
"That ought to help." Stark nodded at the book. "It's one of my father's books on economics."
Steve glanced down at the book in his hand, looking at the title for the first time. It was, in fact, a book on price inflation. He could feel his ears turning red. "Oh," he said. "Um. Well, good night." He retreated back to his bedroom, taking the book with him.
It was, as promised, incredibly boring.
Amora had been stranded in Midgard for over a week now, and she had yet to discover why Thor found the place so fascinating. Mortals made for amusing playthings, but toys were only entertaining for so long. Beside, they broke easily.
Little over a week, and already she longed to return to Asgard. Her alliance with Loki had gone undetected for many years, and she had thought herself safe, her true allegiances unknown. But Odin, the treacherous, the twice-blind, had eyes everywhere. She did not know how he had divined her betrayal, but divine it he had, and his punishment had been swift and harsh.
Banished from Asgard, banned from the mead halls of Valhalla, forced to dwell among mortals, forced, for all intents and purposes, to act as a mortal. She who had once been called the Enchantress, Asgard's greatest sorceress, able only to use her powers to influence others.
Whilst she had remained in Valhalla, in full possession of her powers, Amora had not spared more than a passing thought for Loki's fate. His attempt to kills Baldur had been only partially successful, after all, and eternal imprisonment beneath the earth had seemed a fitting price for his failure.
Now, however, it seemed to her that his return could not come swiftly enough. With Loki free once more to resume his efforts to conquer Asgard, the time of her return to her rightful place could not but be near at hand.
Mortals seemed to spend all of their time attempting to feed and clothe themselves, but as she still possessed at least a fragment of her power, acquiring funds and a place to live had proven to be of no difficulty at all. She had also had no difficulty acquiring the information she required in order to begin preparing for Loki's return; in this case, the location of Thor.
Thor was Odin's favorite child, and had been much in his confidences before his own temporary banishment to Midgard. If any in this dreary realm knew of the location of Loki's prison, or a means of breaching it, it would be him.
Amora paused before the door of the mortal place of business where Thor had concealed himself, admiring her reflection in the mirrored glass. Here among mortals, her beauty shone even brighter; her hair seemed more golden, and her eyes, the blue of the sky at midwinter, seemed to hold their color all the more intensely.
Thor had ever ignored her when the two of them were together in Asgard, preferring to consort with Sif, whose playing at being a warrior ought to have made her as unattractive to him as another man would have been. Here in Midgard, there was no Sif. It was possibly the one good thing about the place.
She tossed her hair back over her shoulder, straightened the hem of her green miniskirt, and went inside.
"Do you have an appointment, Ma'am?" the woman seated behind the desk in the entry hall asked, looking up from the screen of one of the silly technological devices that seemed to fascinate mortals so.
"I do indeed," Amora announced. "One that is greatly overdue." She had taken but a step towards the door to Thor's hiding place when the woman spoke again.
"I'm afraid Dr. Blake is with another patient right now. But you can wait out here until he's free."
"You dare to tell me what to do?" Amora turned back to the woman, raising her eyebrows in astonishment. "Silence, woman, until my business here is done," she said, commanding the mortal women's voice to be still with all that remained of her inborn power.
The women moved her mouth frantically, no sound emerging, one hand going to her throat. Amora nodded in satisfaction, and pushed open the door to "Dr. Blake's" office.
It was, indeed, a clever disguise, she conceded. Who would have guessed that the mighty thunder god was concealed inside a form so… unimpressive?
"Dr. Blake" blinked at her, then turned to the man sitting on his examination table and said. "Here's a prescription for a refill of your medication, Mr. Lieber. I'll see you this time next month, all right?"
The man nodded, and got down off the table, walking towards the door. "Thanks, doctor. See you next month."
Amora took a careful step sideways to let him pass, having no desire to endure any unnecessary physical contact with mortals.
As soon as he had exited the room, leaving to door open behind him, "Dr. Blake" turned to Amora. "I don't think we need an audience for this, do you?" he said, and he crossed the little examination room to close the door, walking with a heavy limp.
Odin's cruelty was indeed great. To so lame the mighty Thor…
"You don't seem surprised to see me," she observed, concealing her momentary swell of pity.
"A little bird told me you might be coming," he said, retrieving a large, heavy walking stick from its resting place beside the door.
"Which one of the Allfather's overgrown crows was it?" she asked idly, silently preparing her spell. She only had to place him under her control for a few brief moments. The potion she had waiting in her purse would do the rest.
Instead of answering her, he struck the end of the walking stick against the ground sharply. Thunder reverberated in the distance, and suddenly the crippled mortal physician was gone, replaced by the tall, broad-shouldered form and familiar visage of Thor, the great hammer Mjollnir clutched in one hand.
Even as he raised the hammer, Amora stepped forward, laying a hand on the side of his face and gazing directly into his eyes, settling her spell over him like a net.
Thor froze, suddenly motionless, and Amora quickly retrieved the potion from her purse, raising it to his lips. His power was such that she could only ensnare him for a few moments, so time was of the essence. "Drink," she commanded.
He did so obediently, as she had known he would.
"Now," she said, once Thor had drunk the potion that would hold him under her power, "tell me where lies my lord."
Thor blinked at her. "In Asgard," he said, and even her potion did not prevent him from sounding as if he were speaking to a slow and stupid child. "On his great throne, Hlidskjalf, with wolves at his feet and a raven at either ear."
Amora stomped her foot. "Not Odin, you fool. My true lord, Loki. Where is Loki imprisoned?" It was fortunate that Thor was so attractive, or his company would have rapidly grown tiresome.
"He is safely bound beneath the oceans, where his malice harms no one but himself."
Well over half the surface of Midgard lay "beneath the oceans," and the mortals who lived there defended their territory fiercely. She would have to persuade him to be more specific.
She was the Enchantress. No man could resist her charms, especially not when he was already under her spell.
Amora leaned forward, going up on tiptoe, until her lips were a mere inch away from his. "What else can you tell me?" she breathed.
His eyes were fixed on her, as the spell required, but he showed no signs of being affected by her closeness. "My companions and I searched the place of his imprisonment, and found no signs of his stirring. I know nothing more to tell." His face had taken on a stern, stubborn set that she, and indeed all of Asgard's inhabitants, were all too familiar with. It was the look he had worn just before Odin had decided to send him to dwell in Midgard. It was also a look that meant she would get no more information out of him, magic or no.
Odin must have made him swear an oath not to reveal Loki's location to any of his allies. Blood oaths sworn to the Allfather were not easily broken, even for someone with her powers.
She had expended much of her remaining magic to ensorcell him thus; as long as he remained under her sway, she might as well derive as much use from him as she could.
Amora slipped one hand behind Thor's neck, and pulled his head down until his lips met hers. She kissed him long and deeply, her attentions meeting with no response.
She had dreamed of the day when Thor would take her in his strong, powerful arms and kiss her, and those dreams had not been like this.
Amora pulled away, frowning. No man resisted her. Had Sif, curse her, put him under some spell of her own, or was this the work of the mortals he had sworn his allegiance to?
If she could not command him to have passion for her, she could at least do something about these allies he seemed to have collected, these "Avengers." A foolish name. What did they imagine they were avenging?
She could not make him feel emotions he didn't feel, but while he was under the influence of her potion, she could make him see whatever she willed. She could even make him perceive her as Sif, she supposed, but that would be a hollow victory. She had something much better than that in mind.
Since he felt so strangely compelled to protect mortals, she would give him something to protect them against.
"Your mortal allies have been deceiving you," she breathed into his ear. "Playing you for a fool. They have been using the power of a son of Asgard for their own ends. They are the ones who wish to break Loki free, not I. And with his aid, they plan to overthrow Midgard's human rulers and rule themselves, making the other mortals their slaves."
Thor frowned, shaking his head, and she went on, pouring all the magic she could into her words, compelling him to believe them. "The giant eats human flesh, as his brothers the frost giants do. The man of iron is merely a soul-less tool built by his war-mongering creator. The insect-woman..."
She could see the anger and betrayal in his eyes as he began to believe the truth of her words. The spell would only last a few hours, of course, but by the time he awoke from it, it would be too late. After she sent him out to attack the Avengers, they would all turn against him, those that did not die. The Mighty Thor would find himself alone on Midgard once more, with no allies remaining to assist him when Loki broke free.
Perhaps then, devoid of all companionship, he would see the value in her company rather than rejecting her.
Now that he had the right gauntlet completely disassembled, Tony could see where the problem was; there was a tiny spot of corrosion on one of the wires that connected the repulsor apparatus to his central power battery. It was small enough to have escaped his notice when he'd overhauled it the day before yesterday, but over the past day or so it had begun interfering with the repulsor's response-time. Only by a fraction of a second, but as had been proven in his attempt to take out the explosive devices the so-called "Phantom" had left around his factory, sometimes a fraction of a second could make all the difference.
It had certainly made a difference yesterday, when he'd been attempting to prevent the Phantom from blowing up his factory. He'd been just a moment too slow to de-activate the last bomb, and the resultant explosion had nearly sent two thousand pounds of electric generator crashing onto factory floor. He'd managed to keep it from actually falling, lowering it gently to the floor instead, but the effort had drained his power reserves to the point that he'd barely had enough juice left to catch and unmask the Phantom. By the time he'd handed the man -- a former employee, which only served to add insult to injury -- over to the police, the pain from his damaged heart had been almost overwhelming. Luckily, he'd had his helmet on, so he'd been able to conceal it.
He'd managed to make it back to the private workshop behind his office, but had blacked out before he could connect his chest device to the recharging unit.
He'd woken up an hour later to find all of the blue lights on his chest device glowing brightly once more, and a "missed call" notification blinking on his Avengers communicator.
Happy had been sitting next to him, glaring mournfully at him. Apparently, he had found Tony unconscious on the floor, his armor only partially removed, and had dragged him over to the recharger and plugged him in.
Cap had not been pleased by his failure to his failure to respond to that call, and rightly so. He'd seen footage of the fight on the news later; the Avengers had nearly had their heads handed to them. He had a responsibility to the team just as he did to Stark Industries, and he'd let them down. Worse, let them down because of something as stupid as not maintaining his armor properly.
He'd known better than to overlook corrosion in wiring by the time he was eight. And that was when the things he had been working on didn't have the potential to cost people their lives if he screwed up.
Tony finished detaching the damaged wire, and discarded it, reaching for a new one. The string of accidents the Phantom's sabotage had caused had nearly shut down production on the aircraft systems work SI was doing for the Navy. Since they weren't selling weapons anymore, they needed to keep all of the other military contracts they could hang on to, and they'd been awarded this one over BAE Systems by the skin of their teeth to begin with. And Hammer Industries and Baintronics were circling like vultures, waiting to swoop in and steal the contract from under him at the first sign of weakness.
Thank God for Fury's pet project. Building a mobile base for SHIELD was paying the bills that kept SI's lights on. But they couldn't rely on that as their only source of revenue. Hence Tony being distracted, hence the sloppy maintenance, hence missing an Avengers priority alert through his own stupidity.
Tony set down the tiny pliers and even tinier acetylene welding torch he'd been using and pushed up his goggles, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his wrist; if he'd used his hands, he would only have gotten grease in his eyes.
He hadn't gotten much sleep the past couple of days, first because he was patrolling the factory floor looking for signs of the Phantom's work, and then because he hadn't been able too. He'd ended up in the library, as he usually did these days, with a glass of whisky and the Journal of Microcircuitry, trying to relax, and as occasionally happened, Cap had come in.
Despite the fact that Iron Man had let the Avengers down, Cap had actually tried to cover for him to "Tony Stark," his supposed employer. Tony had wanted to cringe; he'd tried to make sure Cap knew that he took the Avengers seriously, that Iron Man took the Avengers seriously, but he wasn't sure how well that had gotten across. After all, "Tony Stark" was just a rich playboy who paid the bills.
The gauntlet wasn't difficult to re-assemble, but the dozens of tiny pieces that went into the articulated joints required delicate work. Tony pulled his goggles down again, and dialed up the magnification, until all of the fine detail was visible. Ten minutes, and he would have a working set of repulsor gauntlets again.
He shouldn't have told Cap about the landmines, especially not when he was pretty sure he'd already mentioned them as Iron Man. But talking to Cap just felt so natural, and he'd forgotten for a moment that it hadn't really been him having those midnight conversations with Cap in the library for the past couple of weeks - that had been Captain America and Iron Man, not Captain America and Tony Stark.
It hadn't helped that he'd been on his third glass of whisky when Cap had come in. He probably ought to avoid drinking at the Avengers Mansion, Tony decided, at least, until he was more used to having a secret identity.
A small flash of red light in the corner of the workroom caught his eye; he wasn't wearing his Avengers communicator, but he'd left it in plain sight on the far end of one of the workbenches, and hadn't been able to bring himself to turn it off.
The communicator was currently flashing the deep red that meant that someone or something had set off the Mansion's security alarms.
The last time the alarms had gone off, the Mansion had been under attack by a ten-foot-tall, shapeshifting robot.
Tony reached over and turned the workroom's flat, plasma computer screen around so that it was facing him. A few keystrokes got him access to the feeds from the Mansion's security cameras. Motion on the feed from the front gate caught his eyes, and another keystroke pulled that image to the fore of the screen and enlarged it.
Thor was standing on the Mansion's lawn, the front gates a twisted and warped ruin behind him, hammer whirling around his head.
Tony was tightening the final screw on the gauntlet now - he tossed down the tiny hand-held screwdriver he'd been using and reached for the electric one. Those gates were solid wrought iron, two inches thick, and whatever was attacking the Mansion had just totalled the; Thor might need help. He'd promised to take time off from the Avengers, but that didn't mean Iron Man couldn't turn up on his own time to help out Thor.
Except... Thor wasn't fighting the Wrecking Crew or Dr. Doom. He was fighting Giant-Man. And there went the sudden bright flare of one of Jan's stingers. What the-?
Tony shoved the re-assembled gauntlet onto his hand, then reached for his breastplate. Forget taking time off. He'd apologize to Cap later; something was very wrong, and the team needed him.