Six hours after shawarma, two hours after the endless debriefing with Director Fury, Steve found himself in SHIELD Medical, explaining for the ninth time that he was fine, he would be just fine, thank you very much.
It was starting to get old.
He knew the wound in his stomach looked bad, and it didn't exactly feel great – but he also knew that it was already starting to heal, and there was really nothing the SHIELD personnel could do. Most drugs did not work on him, and while he knew pharmaceuticals had come a long way from the 1940s, he was still pretty sure they would have the same results: namely, none. And he was tired of being poked and prodded at and marveled over.
Pretty much he was just plain tired. It had been one hell of a long day.
He was halfway through his tenth explanation when the door to the infirmary swung open and a very aggravated, very loud Tony Stark entered. Two white-coated doctors trailed along behind him, looking rather nervous.
"There!" Stark announced. He flung up his hands. "I came, I saw, I…left. We're good? We're good." He turned back toward the door, having taken no more than two steps into the room.
"Mr. Stark," one of the doctors said apologetically. He did not back down however; both men stood in front of the door, effectively blocking the way out.
"Look," Stark said, his tone indicating just how short his patience was, "I appreciate your concern and all. I get it. I do. But you seem to be forgetting the whole armored suit thing. I'm fine. I'll be fine. You have nothing to worry about and even on the extremely unlikely chance that you do, it's your bosses who really have to worry, not you." He paused. "Unless you continue to stand in my way, that is. Then you might have to worry."
Steve slid off the paper-covered examination table where he had been sitting. "What's going on?" he asked.
Stark whirled around, obviously surprised to see him. Which was a bit odd considering that Steve hadn't exactly been hiding. "Cap. What are you doing here?"
Figuring that his shirtless state and the reddened wound on his abdomen were answer enough, he chose to ignore the question. "I was about to ask the same thing of you."
Stark glanced at his injury and his eyes narrowed briefly. Then he looked away and gestured to the two doctors who continued to stand between him and the door. "Apparently there's some concern about my exposure to radiation. Nukes and all, you know. But anyway, as I was just saying to these fine gentlemen, I'm fine, perfectly fine, just on my way out."
Steve studied him thoughtfully. He had not missed the growing note of stridency in Stark's voice. He remembered too the notes in the SHIELD file. Tony Stark was not a man who would react well at being forced to remain someplace he did not want to be.
Not that Steve could blame him.
"Guys," he said, raising his voice a little. "It's okay. Let him go. I wondered if you could…" He made a gesture toward his stomach.
Instantly the doctors perked up, their chagrin at losing one patient overruled by eagerness at gaining a far more interesting one. "Yes, Captain Rogers."
The instant the doctors moved away, Stark backed toward the door. He pointed at Steve. "Come by the Tower," he said. "Pepper and I are rebuilding. There's room for everyone."
Steve shook his head. "No, thank you," he said. "I'm going to be busy helping to rebuild the city." He put a slight emphasis on the last word.
Stark's mouth tightened into a thin line. Thanks for making me look like a dick, his eyes said.
Steve hopped back on the examining table. You owe me one, he thought, knowing full well that Stark could read his response on his face.
The doctors pressed in close, full of curious questions and wonder. Without another word, Stark fled and Steve was left to explain for the eleventh time how he was truly going to be all right.
"Sir, Ms. Potts is outside, requesting entry. She appears to be quite irate."
"Quite irate? Have you been reading Regency romances again?"
The AI did not respond to this jab. "Shall I let her in, sir?"
"No," Tony said. "Tell her I'll be done in about twenty minutes."
"I tried that, sir, per your initial orders. Ms. Potts pointed out – rightfully so, I might add – that you said that four hours ago."
Tony sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Already he had a killer headache; he was in no mood to deal with spineless AIs and concerned girlfriends. "Tell her whatever you want, JARVIS. But she is not getting in here. I'm busy."
"Very well, sir." JARVIS sounded vaguely disapproving then. Not that Tony cared.
He had far more important things to worry about. Things like portals and alien motherships and the glittering, vast, cold vacuum of space. Questions of survivors and blame and reprisal. Issues of safety and protection and defense.
The others hadn't seen. They didn't know. Well, maybe Thor did, but he hadn't exactly been in a talking mood when Tony had gone to see him – was it yesterday? Two days ago? – on board the helicarrier. The thunder god had been full of remorse for what his brother had done, and he had used that as an excuse to turn Tony away. The very next day he had taken Loki back to Asgard, and there had gone his only chance to find out if he was alone with this.
He sighed and tipped his head back, staring up at the holographic representation of every satellite currently orbiting the Earth. A good many of those blue dots belonged to him, but there were about to be many more joining them.
But first he had to design the new systems that would enable them to peer far into the depths of space, searching for any approaching threat. Weapons and shields had to be designed and built. The satellite network would need a whole new interface and uplink to ground control systems – which also needed to be designed and built. Existing monitoring stations would have to be upgraded and modified; he'd have to bring Rhodey in when he reached that stage. The suit needed to be rebuilt and modified for extended stellar travel; those weapons and shields weren't going to get to the satellites on their own.
Then there was the Tower needing to be rebuilt, with room for each of the Avengers. The light reading that came from hacking into SHIELD's databases. Repairs to the Mark VII and the finishing touches on the Mark VIII, scarcely begun when all this had happened. Research and study on the new arc reactor powering the building, making the Tower one of the few buildings in New York City with functional electricity and water right now. He already had half a dozen ideas for upgrading the Avengers' gear and equipment, including but not limited to miniature guidance systems for Barton's arrows. And he was pretty sure that Cap was going to press-gang him into helping with the demolition and construction in the city.
Tony closed his eyes. God, there was so much to do.
"Sir, Ms. Potts has asked me to inform you that she has returned to the house in Malibu. If you require anything from her, she will be at work there."
Tony lifted his head, blinking furiously to clear away the equations dancing in his vision. "You make it sound like it's a done deal."
"She left New York earlier this morning," JARVIS said quietly.
"Oh," Tony said. He stared blankly at the satellites orbiting silently above his head. "Oh," he said again. "Well. Good…good for her. She's gotta do what she's gotta do. She knows best, and all." He nodded. The movement sent a spike of pain through his skull; he just gritted his teeth and ignored it. "How are we coming on those new thrusters?"
"The calculations are nearly complete," JARVIS responded.
"Good," Tony said. "Keep working."
"Sir." JARVIS hesitated. "Should I respond to Ms. Potts?"
"No," Tony said, his mind already preoccupied with a new way to configure the satellites to provide greater coverage over the more populated areas of the Earth. He had tried to tell her. It couldn't always be smiles and holograms of the new Tower and working together. None of that would mean a damn when the remaining Chitauri decided to take their revenge against the people – the person – who had attempted to commit genocide on them.
"No," he said. "Let her go."
The meeting, Steve realized quickly, was a big mistake.
He had thought he would bring them together again, the remaining Avengers. He wanted to see how they were doing, to stay in touch with them. He hadn't wanted it to seem like an official request from SHIELD, so he had chosen a restaurant in Brooklyn, not far from where he had grown up. He had thought that meeting on neutral ground would be the best thing.
Instead of coming together as a team, though, he was confronted by three surly men and women who resolutely did not look him in the eye. Thor was back in Asgard and Dr. Banner had vanished completely; Tony would only say that he had taken Bruce to the Port Authority, and claimed ignorance any time someone asked where he had been headed.
Natasha Romanoff seemed the most willing to hear him out, although she had been brutally honest when Steve had asked if she would come to the meeting. "Of course," she had said. "But let's get one thing clear. I don't work for you. I work for Fury, and for SHIELD. As long as our goals coincide, you can count me in. Otherwise, I'll just be wishing you the best of luck, Captain."
Steve could respect that. She had fought brilliantly and without pause during the invasion just five days past, but he was still having difficulty adjusting to the idea of a woman on the battlefield. He wasn't quite sure what to do with her, or where she fit in with the Avengers, and he suspected that until he knew for certain, he was better off not saying anything to her.
On her left, Clint Barton sat in brooding silence. In one of those open secrets that everyone knew about, he had been suspended from active duty pending psychiatric evaluation. He was having trouble dealing with what Loki had done to him, and the acts he had committed while under the god's control. Steve hadn't said more than two words to him since they had gone their separate ways after Central Park, but every day when he returned to SHIELD to give his status report, he heard how Barton had been out there in the city, working to haul away the rubble of wrecked buildings. It would take time, but he had no doubt that Clint would make his peace with what had happened.
Across from them, Tony Stark glowered down at his computer tablet. His hands were never still; he was always typing something or rapidly touching the screen, whisking away one image only to replace it with another. Any time someone tried to steal a peek at what he was working on, he would tilt the screen so the images were hidden from view, and start to wonder aloud about things like copyright infringement and patent theft. He looked like he hadn't been getting much sleep lately, and his attitude was that of a man who wanted to be anywhere other than where he was, but at least he had showed up, which was frankly more than Steve had been expecting from him.
"Um." He cleared his throat. "Thank you guys for coming."
Natasha nodded crisply. Clint mumbled something. Stark barely glanced up at him before returning his attention back to his handheld computer.
"I thought it would be good for us to keep in touch," Steve said. He had given stirring wartime speeches to soldiers without batting an eye, yet now he felt strangely nervous. "You know, keep each other up to date on what's happening in our lives. We're a team now. And I want you all to know that I'm here for you, if you need me."
Tony Stark groaned. "Oh my God, it's not a meeting, it's a pep rally." He pushed his chair back, nearly colliding with a waiter passing by behind him, and stood up. "And that's my cue to exit."
"Would you please—" Steve started.
"Nope," Stark said cheerfully. He reached for his water glass and drank deeply from it, then set it back down. "You guys go on patting each other's backs. I've got work to do. But hey, in keeping with the whole team spirit thing, the Tower is open for business again. I think. Mostly. Anyway, you're all welcome to stop by. Bring your things."
Barton frowned. "What, stay there?"
"Free room and board," Stark said. "State of the art technology. And my 800 channels of cable TV works just fine." He grinned.
"That's not funny," Steve said, thinking of all the people in the city who were still without electricity or running water. All the people who were lying in hospitals. All the people who were dead.
"Whatever." Stark rolled his eyes. "Anyway. Open invitation. Even you, Cap. Just stop by. JARVIS will let you in." And with that, he walked out of the restaurant, toward the black car waiting by the curb.
Clint Barton stood up. "No offense, but I think I'm done, too. I've got somewhere I need to be." He didn't meet Steve's eyes as he said this.
"Okay," Steve said quietly.
That left him and Natasha. She watched Barton leave, then she said, "It was a good thought." She gave him a smile of commiseration that was really just a slight upturn of her mouth. Then she too was gone.
Alone again, Steve just sighed and ordered dinner.
Most days Steve went out into the city, working with the wrecking crews who were busy tearing down buildings that were only half-standing, and helping to clear away the rubble. Director Fury had told him he didn't need to do this, and he had just replied that he wanted to. Besides, it wasn't like he had anything better to do with his time.
Everywhere he went, people came up to him and thanked him for saving them. They all had a story to tell, and he listened solemnly to each one. Sometimes it was their own life saved on that day. Other times it was a relative or a friend. A few told him that their loved ones had died, but that they didn't blame him. Those were the hardest stories to listen to.
For every person on the street who didn't blame him, though, there were those in the media who did. Led by Senator Boynton out of Washington DC, there was a sizable group of people who seemed to think the Avengers were directly responsible for causing the destruction in the city. Those people completely ignored the press conference they had given, just two days after the invasion, explaining about Loki and the Chitauri, and what those things meant for the Earth. Those people didn't care that Tony Stark had nearly sacrificed his life to save the city, or that a good man named Phil Coulson had died while trying to protect them.
It made him angry when he thought about it too much – and it made him angrier that of all the Avengers, only Clint Barton and himself were out here helping with the aftermath. Thor of course could not be expected to stay, but where was Bruce Banner? He had personally created much of this destruction, and it would have gone a long way toward soothing some of the animosity toward the Avengers if he had stepped up and helped out. Where was Natasha, who could have been a great help in directing the work teams and allocating resources? Where was Tony Stark, who had the money and the physical means to lend a hand?
Bruce had vanished and Natasha was on a mission, but Stark was still here. And abruptly Steve decided that enough was enough. Tony had been riding high on the goodwill generated by his brave act with the nuke, but now it was time to show what he was truly made of.
He pulled out the mobile phone Stark had given him and fumbled with it until he managed to find the list of contacts. He scrolled down until he found Stark's number, wasted another few minutes trying to remember how to change his own information from his personal phone to the Avengers signal, and then hit Send.
The phone was answered almost right away by a cultured British gentleman. "You have reached Stark Tower, how may I assist you?"
"This is Captain America," Steve said firmly. "I'm calling for Tony."
"I'll put you through," said the man.
"Thank you," Steve said.
After a few moments, Tony came on the line. "Cap. What is it?" He sounded harried, like he wasn't really focused on the call.
"I need you out here," Steve said. He gave the address of his location. "Bring the suit."
"What are we dealing with?" Stark asked sharply.
"You'll see when you get here," Steve said.
Iron Man showed up ten minutes later. People on the street pointed and exclaimed, and not a few cheered to see him. When Stark landed, it was to a burst of applause.
Surprisingly, Tony ignored this. He looked at Steve, the mask firmly in place. "What have we got? Where's everyone else?" he asked, his voice distorted behind the helmet.
"It's just you and me," Steve said. "And what we're dealing with is up there." He pointed to the jumble of wreckage that had once been the top ten stories of a tall apartment complex.
Stark followed his gaze for a long moment, then looked back at him. "So there's no supervillains. No criminal mastermind. You called me using the Avengers band so I could do your heavy lifting." He shook his head. "That's pretty devious of you, Cap. Are you sure your strict code of honor allows you to screw over your teammates like that?"
Steve just folded his arms and said nothing.
"Fine," Stark sighed. "What do you need? And make it quick, 'cause in sixty-three minutes I have to be back in the lab or my own building's gonna look like this one."
"The foreman is on the roof," Steve said. "Or, what the roof is now. He can show you what we need."
The scowling mask stared at him for a moment, then Iron Man was in flight, rising quickly to where the worst of the wreckage was piled up.
Steve watched him go, then turned his attention to the work on the ground.
For about half an hour, everything went smoothly. From time to time he saw Iron Man swoop down to the ground with some of the heavier pieces of wreckage, then deposit them in the trucks waiting to cart the rubble away. Mostly though his mind was on his own tasks. It wasn't until he heard the shouts of alarm that he looked up and saw what was happening.
One of the heavy girders that had fallen onto the rubble-strewn roof was slowly sliding over the edge. As Steve watched, it hung in the balance, then tipped over and began to plummet down toward the street.
"Get back!" he shouted, arms thrown wide. He raised his shield and ran in, praying it would withstand the impact.
And from up above, a red-gold blur streaked downward. For the space of a few seconds the outcome seemed in doubt, then the suit's thrusters fired and Iron Man put on more speed. Just before the girder would have smashed onto the street, he wrapped both arms around it.
Man and girder hit with a terrific crash, then rolled for some distance before stopping – thankfully not in the direction of the biggest crowds, although some people did have to scurry out of the way.
"Stark!" Steve was the first one to run forward, his shield held out in an effort at keeping everyone else at bay. He was also probably the only one who heard Tony groan deeply as he shoved the girder off his chest so that it clanged to the sidewalk. "Are you all right?"
"Oh sure," Tony sighed. "I'm just going to take a little break, okay?"
Steve dropped down to one knee, and it was like the day of the invasion all over again, only with more of a crowd gathered and without the fires burning all around them. "What happened?" He reached out one hand, but did not quite touch the glowing circle of the arc reactor.
"Nothing happened," Stark said. He still sounded a little breathless, but more like himself. The suit whirred and clanked as he sat up. "It fell. I was too slow. What more do you want?"
Steve glanced behind them and saw at least half the crowd had their phones out, taking pictures and video of this moment. He scowled, then turned back to Tony, who was already standing up, a little bit unsteadily. He stood up too, wishing the mask would lift so he could see Tony's face. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine," Stark said. "I'm also done here. I think we've made the news for the next two days at least. And I've got to get back. I have work to do."
"All right," Steve said. "Thank you for coming out here and helping. It means a lot."
The mask stared at him, inscrutable. "Yeah," Stark said finally. He waved at the crowd as he flew off, which earned him some loud cheering in return. Then he was gone, just a streak of light in the sky.
The next afternoon he went to Stark Tower. He told himself that he would not mention the news story, or what had happened at the demolition site. He was just being a good team leader, that was all. If Stark asked, he would say that he hadn't seen Clint or Natasha in a while, and he wanted to know if they had already made their way out here. Or maybe Tony had heard word from Bruce Banner, which would be good to know.
When he arrived, however, the same Englishman he had talked to yesterday over the phone informed him that Tony Stark was not in at the moment, could he come back later?
"Sure," Steve said, almost embarrassed to admit that he was relieved to hear this news. "Would you please tell him that Steve Rogers came by?"
"Please wait one moment," the British gentleman said through the intercom. He must be the butler named Jarvis, Steve decided.
He waited. From street level, the destruction on the upper floors of the tower was completely unnoticeable. Even from further away, though, it was apparent that already great strides had been made toward making the building habitable again. Which was not right, Steve thought. Plenty of people had been made homeless during the Chitauri invasion – and they had nowhere to go. All Tony Stark had to do was move down a few floors to avoid the damage done to his home.
"Please come in," said the Englishman. "Mr. Stark will be with you in approximately twenty-two minutes." There was a strange note of relief in the man's voice, which was puzzling.
Steve frowned a little, then just shrugged. "Okay."
The massive glass doors unlocked with a faint click, and Steve went inside. The main lobby was enormous, with marble floors and a huge portrait of Howard Stark hanging above a vacant reception desk. The man in the painting looked about twenty years older than the way Steve remembered him. He was posed with the same arrogant tilt of his head that Steve recalled, but his eyes were colder and more intense. He did not look like a happy man.
There was a bank of elevators across the lobby. Steve headed for them, but before he could press the up button, a panel of rich wood slid aside to reveal a private elevator.
Steve glanced around, then stepped inside.
The elevator doors closed. On its own, the button for the penthouse lit up. The elevator ascended rapidly, but without that stomach-dropping sensation that usually came with such speed. It did not take long at all to climb the ninety-three floors of the Tower.
The penthouse suite was empty. There were definite signs of renovation here, but most of the work appeared to have been done already. The windows had been replaced, and the flooring was brand new. There were gaps in the ceiling where exposed wires hung down, but that was really the only concession to any ongoing work.
"Mr. Stark will be with you in eighteen minutes." The Englishman's voice seemed to come from everywhere at once, and Steve jumped a little, not having expected that. "In the meantime," continued the invisible butler, "please make yourself comfortable."
"Er, thank you," Steve said. He wandered around for a bit, not really looking for anything in particular. He was starting to feel unaccountably nervous again, for reasons he couldn't really explain.
He still wasn't quite sure what had happened yesterday. Hell, he wasn't even sure he understood anything at all about Tony Stark. He knew he owed Stark an apology for what he had said aboard the helicarrier when they had first met. Taking the nuke through the portal was clear proof that Tony would lay down on that wire. Yet he was pretty sure that apologizing would only make things worse between them. Even though their animosity had been provoked by Loki's spear, the root causes were still there, and Steve was reluctant to look too deeply at them. The best he could hope for, he decided, was to try and make a fresh start and put the invasion behind them completely.
Right on schedule, the elevator outside the penthouse opened and Tony Stark stepped out. He walked inside and headed straight for the bar without so much as a glance in Steve's direction.
Shocked into silence, Steve just stood there. It had only been a week since the aborted meeting in Brooklyn, but Tony looked like he hadn't slept at all since then. He was too pale, and exhaustion dragged down his steps and slumped his shoulders. There was a long cut just above his eyebrow and another on his chin, no doubt sustained during his tumble with the girder yesterday. Glass rattled on glass as he poured himself a drink, giving away the tremor in his hands.
Steve found his voice. "Where were you?"
"Flight test," Stark said tersely. "New suit." He drained half the alcohol in one long swallow and let his eyes close briefly.
"How did it go?" Steve asked.
"Not well," Stark said. "The life support isn't…" He turned to face Steve, his eyes overly bright in his unshaven face. "What are you doing here? Is this about what happened yesterday?"
"You invited me," Steve said simply, and told himself he was absolutely not going to ask why Iron Man would need life support in one of his suits.
Tony frowned. "Oh," he said. "Yeah. I guess I did." He walked over to a black leather couch and sat down. "And here you are."
"Here I am," Steve said. He glanced around, somewhat foolishly. "Am I the first?"
He waited, but Stark seemed lost in thought, staring blankly out the window. "Stark? You okay?" When that failed to get a response, he cleared his throat loudly. "Tony?"
Tony startled, then blinked rapidly. "Huh?" He looked around and saw Steve standing across the room. "Cap? What…?" He reached up and rubbed at one eye, then shook his head. "Okay, you're really here. Who woulda thought." He gave Steve a weary smile that was a far cry from his usual charming one. "Getcha a drink?"
"No, thanks," Steve said, just as Tony stood up.
Tony waved off his refusal. "I got this," he said. He took a single step forward, and his knees buckled, spilling him to the floor.
Steve reacted without thinking. He darted toward him, his heart racing. "Tony?"
With exquisite care, Tony set his glass down on the floor. "Fine," he muttered. "How're you?" His eyelids fluttered as he pitched forward.
Steve caught him just before he hit the floor face first. He felt sick with fear. "Tony, what is it? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Tony slurred. He pushed weakly at Steve's arms. "Stop."
"Are you sick?" Tony didn't feel feverish, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. And suddenly he remembered that day in the SHIELD infirmary, and cold horror washed over him. He knew what this was.
God, what had he done? Tony was sick, dying even, because of his selfless act with the nuke, and Steve had callously sent him off to do physically demanding work. Guilt twisted deep inside him, stabbing him with pain. He was such a fool! He should have known something was wrong when Tony nearly failed to catch the falling girder – the Iron Man who had fought alongside him during the Chitauri invasion would never have been that slow, or landed with such a lack of grace and care for the assembled civilians. But he hadn't asked, he hadn't even thought to ask. And now it was too late.
He forced himself to say the words as he held Tony in his arms, keeping him off the floor. "Is it the nuke? Tony, is it radiation sickness?"
Tony frowned up at him. "What? No. God, no." He pushed again at Steve's grasp, trying to sit up on his own. "Let go. Let go."
"Then tell me what's wrong," Steve insisted, reluctant to believe him – but also desperate to believe. He loosened his hold just enough that Tony could sit up.
"Nothing," Tony said again. He swayed a little, then gave Steve a look of frank bewilderment, almost like he couldn't believe Steve was really there. "Okay," he said. He planted a hand on Steve's shoulder and hauled himself upright.
Or at least he tried. He didn't even make it halfway up before his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed unconscious.
Fear twisted in Steve's gut. God, what was wrong? "Help!" he called, wondering where the polite English butler was now. "Mr. Jarvis? Help!"
"I am here, Captain Rogers," came the butler's voice. "What is wrong?"
"Tony collapsed," Steve said. Carefully he stood up, carrying Tony with one arm beneath his shoulders, the other under his knees. Despite his strength he was miserably aware that the task was far easier than it should have been – Tony had been losing weight. "He's sick. I think it's radiation poisoning."
"That is impossible," said the butler, his tone flat with disapproval.
"Where are you?" Steve called. "You know what, it doesn't matter. Just call a doctor!" He laid Tony down on the couch as gently as possible.
"That will not be necessary," said the butler, even as Tony stirred and opened his eyes.
"Hey," Steve said as he knelt in front of the couch. He hoped his panic didn't show on his face. "Just lay still, okay?"
Tony stared at him blankly, then began trying to rise. "No," he breathed. "I have to…" Already he was fading, though, and it required no effort at all to push him down to his back. "…save them," he whispered, and then he was out again, deeply unconscious.
Still on his knees, his thoughts a white blur of fear, Steve scrabbled in his pocket for his phone. He knew there was a national emergency hotline to call, but for the life of him he could not recall it.
"Sir? Captain Rogers?"
His phone had no signal, anyway. Or rather, it displayed a message saying the signal was blocked.
"Sir? Captain Rogers? Can you hear me?"
Numbly, Steve put the phone down. "Yes."
"Sir, my name is JARVIS. I run the Tower. I can assure you that there is no need to call for emergency help at this time. Mr. Stark is not ill."
"Where are you?" he asked. The English voice still sounded calm and reasonable, but Steve found he suddenly did not trust it. He had an image of an old, thin man sitting in a room full of computers and blinking lights, monitoring the entire Tower, watching him even now – and he did not like it one bit. If this person was in charge, why wasn't he more concerned about Tony's collapse?
Tony. God. He looked down at the man lying on the couch. Tony's chest rose and fell in the slow but steady rhythm of a person in very deep sleep. He didn't so much as twitch when Steve laid a hand on his brow, testing for fever.
"I do not have physical form," said the English voice. "I am a program written by Tony Stark."
Steve froze, not daring to look up. "A program. You're a computer?"
"Not precisely," came the voice. "I believe the correct term is 'artificial intelligence.'"
That was a phrase even Steve knew, although it was not exactly reassuring, conjuring up images of Frankenstein and such monsters. He swallowed hard. "We need to call a doctor."
"That will not be necessary," said the polite voice of the AI. "I constantly monitor Mr. Stark's vital signs, and I can assure you he is not suffering from radiation poisoning."
"Then what's wrong with him?" Steve demanded. The shadows under Tony's eyes looked almost like bruises – although he admitted that could be a result of yesterday's fall. Still, no single fall could explain the weight loss or the way Tony's hands had been shaking earlier as he poured himself a drink.
"I believe he is merely exhausted," said JARVIS. "He has been working many long hours since the Chitauri invasion, and refuses to rest despite my urging him to do so."
Exhaustion. Not radiation poisoning. Steve slumped back on his heels with relief. It certainly sounded like Tony Stark, even if he couldn't understand it. "What's he working on that's so important? This Tower?"
"Repairs to the Tower are only a small portion of Mr. Stark's workload at the moment," JARVIS said, sounding almost prim. "And I am not at liberty to divulge those matters."
"Fine," Steve said. "But can you at least divulge where his bedroom is?"
"Why do you wish to know that?" asked the AI.
"Because," Steve said. "I'm not going to leave him lying here alone like this." Sudden pity wrenched his heart. For all his great wealth and fame, Tony Stark lived a very lonely life. In all this enormous building, there was no one else around, no one to recognize the symptoms of overwork and urge him to get some rest. Had Steve not come by today, there was no telling how long he would have stumbled on until his inevitable collapse.
"Where was he?" he asked, remembering suddenly the way the AI had sounded almost relieved when he had announced himself at the front door. "When I showed up? He said something about a flight test?"
"That is correct. Mr. Stark was testing the latest iteration of the Iron Man armor," JARVIS responded.
"He went out like this?" Steve asked incredulously. He understood now why Tony had been so slow to react to the falling girder yesterday. It was frightening to think of him out there alone, flying in a new suit when he was so exhausted he couldn't even stand up without getting dizzy. He probably had not slept in days, and on top of that, he was hurt from yesterday's fall. It was no wonder JARVIS had sounded relieved when Steve arrived – it had given the AI an excuse to call Tony back home.
"I believe you yourself have some experience with how difficult it can be to persuade Mr. Stark to follow a suggested course of action," JARVIS said dryly.
In spite of himself, Steve chuckled. He decided right then and there that the AI was to be trusted. "You're right. I do. Which is why I'm staying here until he wakes up and I'm certain he's all right."
There was a slight pause, then JARVIS said, "There is a bedroom through the door on your left, down the hall."
Tony woke to a killer headache, a throat so dry it was painful to swallow, and a series of numbers flashing through his brain. Which wasn't too different from most mornings, actually, although the sudden onset of panic that accompanied the act of waking up was fairly new.
Damnit, he had fallen asleep again. How many hours had he lost this time? How much work rendered useless because he hadn't been there to perform the necessary calculations or start the required tests?
He rolled onto his side and groaned thickly as pain arrowed through his skull. God. He had taken a wicked blow yesterday when the girder had landed on top of him, and now it felt like his head was caught in a vise. "JARVIS?"
"Good evening, sir," said JARVIS.
"Evening?" He squinted one eye open and immediately wished he hadn't.
"You have been asleep for twenty-nine hours," said JARVIS.
Tony groaned again. "How did I get here?" He had no memory of coming in this room, couldn't even remember the last time he had been in here. Probably something to do with Pepper and those crazy days when the Tower had been under construction, back when he had happily skipped off at any provocation just for the chance to have sex with her.
"Captain Rogers carried you in," JARVIS said calmly.
"What?" He sat bolt upright at that – and promptly regretted it as the pain in his head doubled and then tripled. He leaned forward and cradled his head in his hands, mindful of the fresh cut there that still stung and ached.
"Tony?" Steve's voice came from the direction of the doorway.
"Go 'way," he muttered. Bad enough that he had lost over a day, wiping out much of his previous work. Now this on top of it, the humiliation of having Steve Fricking Rogers be the one to witness his collapse and carry him in here – bridal-style, no doubt.
"How are you feeling?" Steve asked. He sounded concerned, which was…unexpected.
"Fine," he said. To prove it, he picked up his head and glared at Steve.
Steve just stood there, perfect arms crossed, leaning against the doorjamb, one perfect eyebrow raised. "Really?"
The sight of him looking so calm and casual and – perfect, damnit – was the icing on the cake. "No," Tony snapped. "I'm thirsty, I have to pee like a racehorse, and I've lost two days' worth of work. So do me a favor and get out of my house."
Steve considered this. "I thought we were all invited to stay here."
"You aren't, effective immediately," Tony retorted. He managed a rather undignified scooting motion across the bed, then swung his legs over. He gave Steve another glare, then stood up.
The bedroom tilted lazily all around him. He flung his arms out, swayed back against the edge of the bed – and a strong hand took hold of his upper arm, steadying him so he was able to regain his balance.
When he was certain he wasn't going to fall down, he stared at the offending hand. "Get off me."
Steve let go. "You sure you're all right?"
"I said I'm fine." He began heading for the bathroom. Shuffling, really, not walking, but at least he was staying upright, which was something.
"I'll make you some soup," Steve called.
A long hot shower and a fresh shave went a long way toward making him feel human again, but he balked at the thought of going out there and playing the patient to Captain America's nursemaid. That was never going to be an option with anyone really, but especially with Steve Rogers.
The urge to get back to work was overwhelming. He knew better than to give in to it just yet, though. The first place Steve would look for him was the workshop. Still, it grated. He should be working. He needed to be working.
But it was not meant to be. Instead he slipped out of the bedroom and stole barefoot down the hall. It was the simplest thing in the world to make his way to the roof without Steve knowing. Alone, he stood under the starry sky, one hand absently touching the arc of robotic machinery that let him walk right out of the Iron Man armor.
He had spent a fair amount of time in this exact pose since the invasion. When he was feeling particularly overwhelmed, standing here helped him focus, reminded him what he was doing and why. The whirling vertigo that came from staring so intently up at the stars was just a bonus.
Steve. Way ahead of schedule, too. Smart, having figured out that the quickest way to find him was just to ask JARVIS.
He pointed up at the stars. "What do you see up there?"
Steve answered in the slow tone of voice that said he knew it was a trick question, but since his only play was to state the obvious, that was what he would do. "I see stars."
"You know what I see?" Tony said, his eyes still on the sky. "I see threats. Vulnerability. A lack of defenses. We are so not ready for what's out there. Fury got it right, you know. We are hopelessly – hilariously – outgunned."
Steve did not respond right away. Just as Tony started to realize he was getting a crick in his neck from staring upward so long, Steve asked, "What was it like out there? What did you see?"
He looked over, and realized with a jolt of something he refused to label as fear that Steve was standing awfully close. And he didn't like that one bit. Not the lack of space between them, and definitely not the way the other man had managed to get so close without his noticing. "Go read the report I filed with SHIELD."
"I read it," Steve said. "I'm asking you."
Just like that, it was all there in front of him again, all those things he had seen when he had gone through the portal. The things he could never forget. The absolute black of the void. The enormity of the mother ship, blotting out the stars and everything in its path. The smaller ships and the individual flyers turned into pinpricks of shadow against the impossible bulk of the cruiser.
The brilliant flare of light and fire that had saved the world. The knowledge that he had succeeded, that it was all right to close his eyes and surrender. The peace of knowing that he had, at the last, finally followed the singular command that haunted him to this day: Don't waste your life.
"It was beautiful," he said. "And it was terrifying. We…we are so small. And we don't even know it." He shook his head. "This building. This…tower. It's got ninety-three stories. And it's nothing. None of this, none of it, is going to mean a damn thing when they come." Unwillingly he raised his eyes to the stars again.
He knew he ought to get Steve off his roof and out of here, but his head hurt and he was so damn tired and he lacked the stomach for a battle of wills right now. And in a strange way it felt good to finally have someone he could talk to, someone who could truly listen. "The Chitauri. Whoever was behind this whole thing. Some other unknown alien race. It doesn't matter who. All that matters is that it will happen sooner or later – and we are not ready."
Fevered intensity seized him, setting his hands to shaking and filling him with a flood of renewed energy – exactly what had allowed him to keep working these past twelve days, long after the point when any sane man would have given up. "I have to do this," he said, the words running together in his haste to make Steve understand, make him see. "There's so much to be done, all of it working together, coming together, and there's no one else, I have to do this, if I can't do it we are all so very, very fucked and I can't, I won't let that happen, not when I've seen, not when I know what's out there—"
"I believe you," Steve said.
Tony could not have been more shocked if Steve had suddenly slapped him. "I—What?"
"I said, I believe you," Steve said. He didn't say it with condescension, either. He said it with simple sincerity and honesty – and he obviously meant it.
Tony just stared at him. "You believe me." He couldn't remember the last time anyone had said that to him and not had it be a lie.
"Why wouldn't I?" Steve said. "You were out there. You saw things. If you say that the Earth is unprepared, then I believe you."
"Oh, thank God," Tony said, and let his knees unhinge.
He dropped to the ground, sort of sprawling in a sitting position, leaning against the metal arc so he wouldn't fall over. He would just stay here for a little bit, he told himself. Just long enough to get his strength back and try to overcome the worst of his headache. "I have to get back to work," he said.
"You need to rest," Steve said. He lowered himself to the ground beside Tony. "You're not going to be working for long if you don't get some sleep."
Tony made a face. "What do you call what I just did?"
"Passing out?" Steve offered with the barest hint of a smile.
Well, that was certainly true. He did not smile back, though. "Touché. But my point stands. I have to do this."
"Why does it have to be you?" Steve asked. "I know you're supposed to be a genius, but I think you need to tell someone about this. SHIELD. The military. NASA. I don't know. Someone. You can't do this alone, Tony. You tried, and look what happened."
He flushed with anger, not wanting to think about the near-catastrophe at the demolition site the other day. "First of all, I am a genius. And second, thanks for reminding me."
"That's not what I meant," Steve said.
"Yeah?" He glared at Steve, really not liking how close the other guy was sitting. "Then what did you mean?"
"All I meant," Steve said, "was that this is too much for you to handle by yourself. You need people to help you." He sounded eminently rational and reasonable, which was all the excuse Tony needed to go off on him.
"Oh yeah? Who's gonna help?" he fired back. "You? Bruce could've, but he's long gone. The rest of you wouldn't know the equation for the rate of orbital decay if it hit you in the ass. So you tell me, Cap: who's gonna help?"
"I don't know," Steve admitted. "But that doesn't mean there aren't people out there who could. You just need to find them, and ask."
Tony made a rude noise and stared up at the stars again, letting his head rest against the metal arch at his back. God, it felt like his skull was splitting in two. "Yeah, right."
"Okay, fine," Steve said, still as calm as ever. "I'll help."
Incredulous, he looked down again. "You?"
"Why not?" Steve said. "So I'm not a mathematical genius, and I don't know the first thing about computers, but I'm smart and I'm willing to learn. And it can't be all numbers and equations, right? There's got to be a practical side to all this, too."
Shocked into the closest thing to speechlessness that he ever felt, Tony just stared at him. "You're serious."
"Yes," Steve said simply. "I'm serious."
"My God, you are a living legend," he groaned.
Steve ducked his head. "I don't know about that," he said. "I just know I'm a guy who wants to help out whenever he sees someone who needs it."
Tony bristled, instantly on the defensive again. "I don't need help," he snapped. To prove it, he lurched to his feet, staggered gracelessly beneath the arch as the world spun dizzily around him, and promptly fell on his ass.
"You were saying?" Steve said with just the lightest touch of teasing humor.
Pain pulsed sickly in his head. Overhead, the stars burned with cruel, unrelenting light. He knew he could do this. He knew he could. He just…needed time, was all. Even back in the cave, when every hour had mattered, he had been smart enough to know when to rest.
Something warm touched his back between his shoulder blades. "Rest, Tony. It'll be all right."
He knew he ought to wrench away from that hand, scornful and angry. Instead he found himself fighting just to stay awake, even as his eyes closed and his chin sank onto his chest. "I can't," he mumbled.
"Yes, you can." Steve's voice sounded very far away.
The hand on his back guided him downward. The stone of the roof was still warm from the day's sunshine. "Don't," he sighed, asking for something he couldn't even identify, let alone understand.
"I'll stay," Steve promised.
And Tony slept.
The night was very long.
Steve sat on the stonework that was the roof of Stark Tower and watched the stars slowly turn above his head. Beyond this island in the sky, the city of New York went on about its business, the lights never going out. This high up, he was isolated from the sounds of traffic and human voices. There was only himself and Tony and the cold endless sky.
He was very aware that he had witnessed something exceedingly rare tonight. He could only explain it by saying that Tony would never have let him see his vulnerability and fear if he were not exhausted in both body and mind. The question now was, having let Steve see it, what would he do?
On that, Steve had no answers.
It probably would be for the best if he left quietly now and pretended the whole incident hadn't happened – but he couldn't bring himself to do that. He had been given unusual insight into what made Tony Stark tick, and he could not just turn his back on that. He knew now just how wrong he had been when he uttered those hateful words on the helicarrier. The irresponsible playboy who acted like he didn't care about anything or anyone except himself did care. Deeply. He just didn't dare let himself show it, for reasons that Steve did not pretend to understand yet.
Still, he had seen past the carefree façade to the courageous heart beneath. Not many people could say that.
He shook his head. Tony Stark was a genuine paradox, there was no doubt about that. It was amazing that one man could be such a smug, insufferable bastard while simultaneously giving so selflessly of himself.
It was perhaps less amazing, and more to be expected, that such a strong man harbored such dark fears.
He wondered if anyone had truly talked with Tony about what he had seen beyond that portal to the Chitauri world. Had anyone bothered to do more than ask for his report? Was Tony really the only one to consider the ramifications of what he had seen?
He had seen things during the day and night that passed while Tony slept in that spare bedroom. JARVIS had led him through the building, guiding him verbally through the floors intended for himself and the other Avengers. He had been allowed to look into the many labs and workshops, and although the doors had remained locked he had seen ample evidence of the myriad projects Tony was working on – all at once. The sheer number of half-finished designs and unidentified objects (was that really a fully functional satellite in Lab 3B?) he had seen were enough to convince him that he had to stay until Tony woke up. Now that he understood how Tony had gotten into this state in the first place, Steve could not let him go back there. Not without at least trying to help.
He had been relieved when Tony woke up and seemed normal enough, if a little cranky. He had imagined that they might talk then, about the way Tony needed to learn to pace himself, about what Steve could do to help. He had even found himself sort of looking forward to that talk. It would be the perfect opportunity to clear the air between them and get the fresh start he wanted.
It hadn't taken long though to realize that Tony had given him the slip. At first irritated over that little move, his annoyance had quickly turned to worry. He had stood there in the penthouse, imagining Tony collapsed on the floor somewhere, unable to even call for help. The huge empty spaces of the Tower had seemed utterly intimidating then, mocking him with their many rooms and hiding places.
It wasn't until he remembered JARVIS that the worst of his fear had subsided. One simple question had been enough to establish that Tony was on the roof. He had slumped with relief, then taken a few deep breaths until he was calm again before going outside.
After that he was just plain worried. Tony badly needed a decent meal and another long stretch of uninterrupted sleep – the rest he had gotten did not seem to have touched the depth of his exhaustion. God knew what he was doing on the roof or why he had come up here in the first place.
Two minutes. That was how long it took for him to realize what was going on. Tony was still locked inside his head, caught by the trap he had laid for himself with his insistence on single-handedly saving the planet. If hehad been fully rested he would have been manic, pacing all over the place and gesturing a lot. Instead he had just looked like he was one step from falling over – which had indeed turned out to be the case.
Steve sighed. "I don't know if you're very brave or very stupid or a little bit of both," he said. "Either way, it looks like you're stuck with me."
He stood up. "JARVIS? Watch over him, will you?"
"Of course, Captain," came the reply.
"I'll be back," he said. He paused at the entrance to the penthouse suite, and glanced back once to where Tony was still deeply asleep. "I just need to get a few things."
Tony woke to sunlight pounding insistently on his closed eyelids, forcing him to acknowledge it. "Lights to 15%," he muttered.
"I appreciate your confidence in my abilities, sir," JARVIS said dryly, "but even I am unable to dim the sun."
Tony cracked his eyes open and winced them closed again right away. Oh hell. He hadn't fallen asleep on the roof in, well, a long time. He could only blame this latest stunt on his semi-delirious state. He was kind of surprised that he hadn't done anything crazier than sleep on the roof; he was pretty sure he had been so messed up that he had even hallucinated Captain America being here.
"I trust you slept well, sir," JARVIS said solicitously.
He rolled over and burrowed his face into the pillow – and it struck him suddenly that pillows had no place on the roof. Nor, for that matter, did the blanket that was currently covering him.
"What the hell?" he croaked. His throat was so dry it hurt to talk. He sat up, and the blanket slid down onto his lap. "Oh God. Please tell me you sent Dummy up here."
"Dummy is still not allowed on the roof," JARVIS replied. "Nor was his assistance required. Captain Rogers was quite capable on his own."
Tony groaned. Well shit. Evidently he hadn't hallucinated last night.
At least Steve was gone now, so his humiliation wasn't total. Thank God for small favors. He snatched up the blanket and pillow and stood up.
Overhead, the sky was the fresh shade of blue that only seemed possible early in the morning. A light breeze stirred his hair. His headache had mercifully dialed it down a few notches while he slept, and today the dull throbbing in his temples was easily manageable. He still felt tired, but it wasn't the bone-deep weariness that had dogged his steps for so long. Apparently there were therapeutic properties to sleeping on the roof.
He sighed, then broke out into a series of harsh, hacking coughs that tore painfully into his throat. Grimacing, he started to go inside when he caught sight of the present Steve had left him on the ground next to the metal arch.
"God bless Captain America," he rasped, and broke the seal on the bottle of water.
He drank until the bottle was empty, then finally headed inside, still clutching the bedding to his chest. The water had woken his stomach up, reminding him painfully that had it been days since he had eaten. He would head down to the kitchen, he decided, and scrounge up whatever food was quickest, then take the world's longest hot shower before returning to the workshop.
Apparently fate had other ideas, though. For there was Steve Rogers standing in the middle of the living room.
"Well, there you are," he said flatly. He opened his arms and let the pillow and blanket fall to the floor.
"Here I am," Steve said. He was holding a large duffel bag in one hand. "Is that offer of free room and board still good?"
Tony blinked. He had expected recriminations for sleeping all night on the roof, or an earnest insistence that he get some more sleep or God forbid, have some soup. Not this. "Um. Sure?"
Steve smiled. "Great. I'll put my things away, if you can just show me where my room is."
Playing the host was something Tony could do even when saddled with what was probably the world's worst case of morning breath. He smiled, charming as ever. "Hell, Cap, I can do you one better than that. You've got a whole floor to call your own."
Steve looked down. "I don't…I don't need all of that," he said.
"Too bad," Tony said brightly. "You got it. Eighty-four is all you."
After a long pause, Steve said, "Well, thank you."
Tony toasted him with the empty water bottle. "Don't mention it."
"Okay," Steve said. "I'll go put my stuff away, then I'll be back and we can get started."
Now it was Tony's turn to be surprised. "Get started?"
Steve nodded. "Yeah," he said, a little too casually as he strolled away. "I said I'd help you, remember?"
Tony frowned, trying to remember if Steve had in fact really said that. "You did?"
In the doorway, Steve stopped and turned around. He smiled, looking oddly shy. "Yeah," he said. "I did."
I don't need your help, he nearly said, then stopped. The past two – or was it three? – days had showed that he clearly did need help, galling as it that might be. And while he would have thought Steve Rogers was the last person in the universe he would want to accept help from, he had to admit that so far it hadn't been bad. In fact, it had been kind of nice. Not that he would ever say that out loud, or even quietly to himself.
And so what if Steve wouldn't be much help in the lab. That didn't mean he still couldn't be useful. Super-strength always came in handy. And if nothing else, it would be nice to have someone to talk to who could also make a Starbucks run when he needed one.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "There's a lot of math involved. I seem to remember you saying something about how much you sucked at math."
"I never said that," Steve protested. "Besides, I do all right."
"Oh yeah?" Tony challenged. He walked up to Steve and stopped in front of him. "What's the square root of three hundred and sixty-two?"
"Um," Steve said. "Thirty?" He gave Tony another one of those dopey, shy smiles.
He was off by eleven and some change, but it didn't matter. He suddenly couldn't even remember why he had asked. "Close enough," Tony said. He stuck out his hand. "You're hired."