Actions

Work Header

Containment

Work Text:

Tony fought against the mask as someone pressed it against his face, arms lashing out in an effort to open some room around him so he could move. He brought his knee up, ignoring the surge of pain that lanced its way across his abdomen. Pain was only important enough to let him know he was still alive -- otherwise it didn’t matter, didn’t mean anything else. The grunt of pain he heard as his knee connected with soft tissue, however, was important. He twisted, unable to prevent a harsh cry at the searing pain the movement caused, and kicked out in the general vicinity of where his knee had connected. Hands came down on his shoulders and hips, pinning him down and he thrashed against them, bucking up to loosen their hold, twisted and shifted, anything to keep them from restraining him, making him helpless.

There were voices calling above him, but it was gibberish. When the garbled shouts fully penetrated the haze of panic, he could feel the adrenaline flooding him, shooting along his muscles, fortifying him, strengthening him and he wasted no time in using the newfound energy. Bucking hard into a shimmying twist, he dislodged several grasping hands, freeing his arm and legs. He could feel something tear deep in his side and belly and he gritted his teeth against it as he snapped his elbow out, connecting with something sharp and hard that gave under the force with a crack. Nose, the thought swirled away with his brief vicious triumph into the searing pain that clawed its way across him, reaching up under his ribs and shooting down across his hip as he twisted sharply again, getting his hip under him and rolling onto his stomach. He shoved up with his forearms, grunting as hands reached for him, gripping, and he jabbed back with his elbow before dragging his knees under him. His vision went white for a moment, an aftershock of pain, and he howled as he raised himself to his knees, twisting and snapping his arms, fists and elbows out wherever he could. The adrenaline, while still flowing strong, was allowing the smaller details in and he could feel something warm and wet make its way over his hip and down his thigh, searing fire through his guts, licking up his side, and he could feel how cold the rest of him was getting. The faint smell of mold from wet cavernous rock drifted past his panic, inciting him further and he worked to get his leg out from under him so he could get to his feet. He needed to find a better stance to fight from. While his knees were better than his back, it didn’t afford him the mobility he needed and he needed to make some room for him to move, to keep the hands off of him – to get free.

He jerked his head back, feeling a presence too close behind him, and his head connected with what he hoped was someone’s face; by the way his head rang with it, it seemed as though he had. He shrugged off the fingers that slid to grip his shoulder, instead turning into it like Natasha had taught him and snapping his elbow around for more damage. He twisted on his knees, dragging a foot around, bracing it in place and feeling it wobble in weakness. His breath quickened even more, rubbing his throat raw as he tried to firm up his leg, increasing panic making him sloppy as he twisted again, limbs flailing out, knocking grasping hands away from him. Warm, smooth fingers slid along his jaw, sliding into his goatee and grasping his chin, yanking his head back. A small prick in his neck, almost not enough to be noticeable, and he threw an elbow back, gritting his teeth as it jarred the pain into a flash, searing further up his chest, wrapping around the reactor and stealing his breath. His limbs then turned heavy and he struggled for breath, fought against the iron grip on his jaw, the iron band that slid up from under his arm to curl over his shoulder, struggled against the other hands gripping his legs and feet.

His lungs felt like there was water in them and he gurgled, gasping against the pressure. He struggled to raise his hands, but they were numb and cold and easily pinned by heavy hands. He bucked and twisted, raising his hips and twisting against the hold on his jaw and shoulder, and gave a broken cry as he felt something tear further, deep in his side. Collapsing against the hold on him, he gasped through the pain as the numbness in his limbs inexorably crept closer toward his heart. He closed his eyes, the heavy smell of wet mold enveloping him, fingers touching sand and flinched away, kicked his feet sluggishly, lethargy settling dark and heavy on him. He couldn’t stop fighting though and he curled his fingers against the sand when he felt the warm, gentle puffs of air against his cheek.

“Shh, shh, Tony, it's okay, shh.”

The fingers gripping his chin loosened and began stroking softly through his goatee. His breath shuddered sharply and his whole body twitched against the hands holding him down. He felt hands brush at his chest, something cold being pressed against the skin over his heart, right beside the casing of the reactor. The air seized in his lungs and he bucked again, twisting through the flare of pain, even more potent for having slowly dulled.

“Nuh--” He slurred out, waving his arm weakly, trying to keep them away from his chest, from the reactor, from putting their fingers into his chest, digging around and pinching, pulling shrapnel and bone fragments out as he screamed and gurgled and could do nothing.

“Shh, Tony, it's okay. They won’t hurt you. Shh.”

He choked on his breath, stilling, sinking against the heavy numbness enveloping him, eyes slipping closed again as his hand flattened against the soothing smoothness of the reactor. The fingers in his beard kept stroking and his breath came out on a tight panicked sob. There was a sudden pressure on his abdomen and he kicked his feet out at the feel of it; a weak attempt as dislodging it, breath shuddering as the heavy stillness crept deep into him, dragging him down and under. He felt his body give another violent twitch, but it was from far away and out of his control and then the water closed over his head and everything fled into nothingness.

 

*

 

There was a tense heavy moment where no one moved, poised on the verge of action. Then Natasha sighed, fingers relaxing from where they’d gripped Tony’s shoulder until they were white. “He’s out.” Her fingers kept moving soothingly across the trimmed hair on Tony’s chin as she tucked his head against her shoulder, shifting Tony from a restraining hold to a worried embrace. She looked up with wide eyes, obviously unsettled, and flattened her hand against Tony’s shoulder, letting it slide down so she was holding him to her and let out a strained breath.

“Whoever thinks Tony’s a wimp out of the suit has shit for brains,” Clint muttered maliciously through the gauze he held against his nose. “And whoever took that pot shot at Tony settled himself into the top slot on my shit list. Jesus Christ.”

“He probably doubled the damage, if not more, with his struggles. It took way too long to get him to settle down.” Bruce didn’t look up from where his hands were busy pressing down in the middle of the bloody mess across Tony’s abdomen, voice strained and high with tension. “Where are the paramedics?”

Steve turned to where the group of paramedics were huddled around one of their own, glowering with irritation at their cowering as he stood up from where he had been crouched beside Bruce, releasing Tony‘s legs. Even if he could normally understand the medics' hesitation, the panic of Tony going down and the resulting struggle with Tony‘s frantic fighting had his heart racing and he was not inclined to deal with people who couldn‘t step up and do their jobs. “Well?” He flicked his hand out to guide them to where Bruce knelt over Tony’s still body, knees in a puddle of blood and tried to block that image from his mind. Several of them jumped up, rushing forward to help once they could see Tony wasn’t struggling anymore. Except for three they huddled around Tony, following Bruce’s terse instructions. Steve watched the paramedics swarm around Tony for a moment, breath sticking in his throat. He felt a smugness edge the worried twist of his lips as he watched them attempt to move Natasha and she refused, fingers still moving against Tony’s jaw, cradling his head against her shoulder before conceding to lower his head to her lap, graciously accepting help shifting him and herself, but stubbornly remaining bent over him – guarding him.

He turned away and stepped over to Clint, settling a hand on his shoulder, giving himself something else to focus on. “How’s the nose?” Clint shot him an irritated glance from the corner of his eye which was beginning to swell.

“Better than the guy who got his face smashed in by Tony.” Clint tilted his head in the direction of the last three medics, two of which were helping out the last who had been unfortunate enough to get in the way of Tony’s panicked elbow. Steve’s mouth tightened as they helped their injured partner to his unsteady feet and guided him away to where the ambulances were waiting. “Not sure which hurts more, my nose or my forehead, but I’ll tell you, Tony has a skull made of iron. Damn.”

“What was that?” He swung his gaze back around to the group working around Tony, unable to see him anymore, Tony’s pain-filled and panicked howls still echoing in his ears, returning defiant to the forefront of his thoughts no matter how much he shoved it aside. He noticed his fingers were trembling and clenched them into a vicious fist, holding them there and slowly letting them uncurl.

“That?” Clint took the gauze away from his nose, pressing tentative fingers to a nostril, “That was a full fledged flashback, Cap. Surprised you hadn’t seen one of those before.”

He dropped his gaze, frowning down at his feet. He remembered Bucky refusing to enter one of HYDRA’s labs, white-knuckled grip on the door frame, gun spinning slowly at his feet. He remembered that Bucky never dropped his guns, except that time; was always aware of where his weapons were, except for that time as he stumbled away from the lab once they finished, leaving the gun behind, surprised when Dum-Dum handed it to him halfway down the hall, blinking slowly as though coming out of a dream. He remembered Dum-Dum thrashing in his bed, fighting against the blankets when they were back in London on leave, chest heaving and eyes blown wide after scrambling up to the head of the bed, hands slipping as the pillows shifted out from under him.

He remembered his own occasional panic when he wakes after he’s kicked all of the covers off and his skin is chilled by the night air and he can’t remember if he’s still in the ice or he ended up going back in the ice and he’s going to lose everyone and everything again.

He sighed, looking back at Clint who had the gauze pressed back against his nose and was absently rubbing two fingers together coated with fresh blood. “Yeah, I have, but nothing like this.”

Clint shrugged, gaze distant, eyes traveling the perimeter, “Not all flashbacks are the same. Not all triggers are the same. Sometimes there’s multiple triggers.” They both turn at the sound of a gurney being rolled across the pavement, more supplies piled on the sheet, one of the medics jogging toward the huddle around Tony. A couple of the medics peeled away from the group, opening up a gap where he could see Bruce still kneeling at Tony’s side, arms bloodied almost up to the elbows, can see the light reflecting off the gathered blood on the concrete, could see Tony’s legs sprawled limply on the pavement, still where they were when Steve held them down after Natasha got the sedative in Tony since he wasn’t calming down, wasn’t responding and was doing damage to himself. The paramedic that brought the gurney grabbed some supplies and fitted himself in the gap, blocking Steve’s view of Tony and Bruce.

His breath caught roughly, thickly in his throat and he turned around, bracing his hands on the half wall Clint was sitting on, dropping his head between his arms, hunching over, suddenly hit with everything. He felt Clint shift beside him, trailing fingers over the swell of his shoulder and gripping firmly. He breathed through seeing Tony crumple to the ground over and over, interspersed with Tony flailing under the hands of those trying to help him, lashing out, getting to his knees despite the severity of his wound, despite the blood flowing faster the more he struggled, fighting with a ferocity Steve had never seen from him, fighting with a desperation he hoped never to see again.

He counted out his breaths, doing his best to calm down, tension ratcheting up his spine. He wouldn’t be useful if he let this overwhelm him, he had to keep himself together. He forcibly and violently shoved the recent memories aside. There will be time later to process and deal. He couldn’t afford to now. Sucking in a deep breath, he straightened, letting Clint’s hand slide off his shoulder and turned around to find the paramedics getting Tony settled on the gurney, Natasha crawling onto the head of the stretcher, sliding her knees under Tony’s shoulders, offering nothing but a steely glare to the medics who bothered to protest. Bruce also hoisted himself up on the gurney, kneeling over Tony’s legs; hands diving in to work on Tony’s wound as the paramedics guided the gurney toward the emergency vehicles gathered at the curb, lights flashing sickly across the buildings surrounding the courtyard.

Clint slid off the wall he had settled on after a medic had helped him up when he had been knocked, sprawling back, from Tony’s head trying to smash his face in. He followed Clint, keeping an eye on his slightly weaving walk, swerving just off center, slowly walking the shock of the hit off as they trailed after the medics hauling Tony off. He swung his gaze around to check the perimeter, focused back on Clint, frowned ahead at the ambulances, darted his eyes back to Clint; looking everywhere, paying attention to everything to keep from having to focus completely on Tony, to keep from being dragged into reliving the way Tony’s body jerked back, stumbling over his feet. He tried to worry about everything and everyone else but Tony to keep his suffocating worry over him tramped down and manageable.

His knuckles creaked lowly and he glanced down, startled to find his hands clenched into fists, tight enough his skin pulled white and red over bone and it took a moment to unlock his fingers enough to slowly uncurl them with a wince of pain. He turned his palms up, frowning at the almost purple marks dug deep in his skin from his nails, bitten down to the quick. Strong callused fingers wrapped around his wrist and his eyes were drawn to the streaks of dried blood on Clint’s fingers.

“Look, I can’t tell you it’ll be okay, but he’s strong. More importantly, he’s a fighter.” Clint’s voice was rough, but his fingers were firm against his wrist and his gaze, when Steve finally raised his eyes to meet Clint’s, was as sharp as ever.

He gave a weak twitch of his lips, dragging himself out of the vortex of his swirling anxiety. “I think we saw that up close and personal.”

Clint barked out a fond, if tight, laugh. “Damn straight, Cap, damn straight.”

They drew up alongside the ambulance the medics loaded Tony into and Steve met Natasha’s eyes through the back windows as a paramedic shut and secured the doors. She nodded at him and he returned it sure in the knowledge Tony was being looked after by one of his own, even as his worry spiked hard at the tightness around her eyes and the smear of blood across her cheek, high up where it looked like she had brushed tears away.

The ambulance jerked forward, settled back and rolled forward again after a pause, tires crunching against the rough asphalt, making its way out of the tangle of emergency vehicles that had responded to the emergency call. Its siren wound up, hollering grief into the fading light as it picked up speed, turning out onto the road and speeding through the hole the other cars on the road made for it. Another ambulance pulled out; Steve presumed it was the one the injured medic had been loaded into, and turned in the other direction, also speeding away.

“Sirs?”

He and Clint turned to a paramedic who had approached from behind.

“We can take you to the hospital as well.” He gestured at Clint’s hand which was holding tight to a bloody wad of gauze, then nodded toward Steve. “You both need to be checked out as well.”

He brought his fingers to the hot patch of skin that felt stretched taut over his cheekbone, just now making itself known. If it was still uncomfortable after this long that meant if it had been someone else taking the blow from Tony’s flailing punches, Tony would’ve broken their cheekbone. He rubbed his cheek distractedly, wondering at what, exactly, Tony had been fighting against. While he had received a briefing on his teammates upon taking up leading the Avengers, he didn’t have the full details, only the relevant information for what skill sets each member brought to the team and the abilities which made them all unique had been present in his docket.

He glanced up at Clint, dropping his hand from his face, and sweeping it out for Clint to precede him in the ambulance, following and climbing in after him, the paramedic stepping up into the vehicle after them. Clint settled on the bench and the medic brushed past Steve in order to crouch in front of Clint, hands reaching for his face. Steve also settled down on the bench, hoping he was out of the way as the last paramedic slammed the doors shut and crawled into the driver’s seat a long moment later.

“Engine Four to Dispatch, we’re heading out, transporting two to NY Downtown. Six minutes out.”

Steve tuned the medic out, dropping his face into his hands, elbows braced solidly on his thighs and let himself have a moment to crumple before he had to be strong again and pretend that he wasn’t falling apart inside with frantic worry for Tony, that his blood wasn’t raging, singing with anger at whomever had dared to take one of his. Not just one of his, he knew as he tentatively touched the tender pocket whispering thoughts of “mine” in a way that was more so than his team, more personal, more permanent than the others. More…his.

 

*

 

“--aking up.”

Tony resisted opening his eyes, but couldn’t help locking his jaw at the fierce pain engulfing him. He didn’t want to see roughly hewn rock butted against smoothly worn stone, didn’t want to see heavy full beards on the perimeter of the weak light around him. “You need to fix this before you do anything else.” A low feminine voice sounded above him, its cadence edged in threat and he tensed up automatically, fingers wrapping around the edge of the surface he was laying on. His head was tilted at slightly too much of an angle, whatever was being used as a pillow too thick for comfort. He choked as he tried to drag in an unsteady breath and his throat seized around whatever was in it. He flailed in panic, though his body didn’t respond beyond a subtle twitch. Fingers pressed against one of his ribs, his breath freezing deep in his lungs and he jerked his body to dislodge the touch, though this time he jerked sluggishly, body not responding as it should, but at least it was responding and the fingers left his skin to the sound of a sharp slap. He twitched his fingers, grasping at nothing, but needing his fingers to close on whatever was in his mouth, down his throat.

“What part of what I said didn’t you understand? You don’t do anything until you get him completely under again. Don’t make me tell you a third time. Do you understand me?” The voice was sharper now, a thread of tethered violence wrapping around the words.

“Natasha…“

A soft masculine voice sounded down by his legs and his skin prickled along his neck and shoulders in rising terror. He didn’t bother trying to control his shortened breaths, but he dug his head back against whatever he was laying on, trying to allow more room for air to move, trying to gasp around whatever was choking him.

“I don’t give a shit. He shouldn’t be conscious for this.“

He wasn’t where he wanted to be, wasn’t where he remembered being, he was safe where he had been and he wasn’t safe anymore and the all-encompassing panic he recalled from before, before, when his life had reinvented itself, was back, suffocating him, pinning him down and he wasn’t going to do that again, wasn‘t going to have the smell of stale run-off water permeating everything, polluting everything. He focused on his body, tried to gather his will into making it do what he wanted and jerked again, this time flinging his arm up as his hips came off the surface he was settled on. There was a sharp startled shout as he grasped at whatever was in his mouth, yanking at the slick tube and feeling something move deep in his chest. He coughed wetly, throat seizing up and he choked, body jerking as he raised his shoulders to help pull the tube out, a pained grunt escaping his throat. Fingers of steel wrapped around his wrist and his hand, prying his fingers from the tube and dragging his hand away from his face, pinning his hand against his chest, his forearm smeared against the cool glass of the reactor. Even as his body tensed up to fight against the hold, a small bit of the panic relaxed knowing at least that hadn’t been touched.

“Get him sedated, now!”

His body trembled under the hand pinning his arm to his chest and he blinked his eyes open, looking up at the blurred face above him haloed in deep red. Movement to his right had him flicking his gaze over, trying to make out what they were doing and he shied away as the white and brown blur beside him leant over him, reaching for his elbow, fingers glancing off his skin and away.

“Here!”

There was another shout from behind him and the world suddenly jerked to a halt, then a cool breeze shifted its way over him, ruffling the legs of his slacks, curling against the bare skin of his arms and chest, and then the world was moving again, the surface he was stretched out on rocking and jerking as sharp thumps sounded around him and they were steady again, light and dark flowing past him in hazy blurs, the white and blood smear a constant above him. He swallowed against the weight in his throat, tried to throw himself against the weight pinning him down, tuning out the garbled noise being spoken and shouted around him.

“Shh, shh, Tony. I’ve got you, Tony. You’ll be okay, Tony, shh.”

No he wouldn’t; it was a lie, even if the panic receded slightly at the gentle tone until he took in too deep a breath and choked again, body twitching against the hold pressing him down.

“Goddamnit, somebody get him out, already!”

The same voice, now sharp with panic and laced with aggression, and suddenly pain washed over him, first a gentle wave until it was smashing against him and he was bucking, fighting against the tube choking him and the hold pinning him down and the smell of stale water ripping his panic wide open. There were too many people around him, he could feel them close by, closing in, leaning over him, digging their fingers into his chest and his sob was muffled and tangled up in his throat.

A wash of cold swept over him, eclipsing the panic and the pain and he sank back against whatever he was laying on, his head lolling against whatever was holding it up. He curled his fingers feebly against his chest, throat shuddering against the weight in it and succumbed to the water closing over his head and let there be nothing.

 

*

 

Natasha’s fists were clenched and she resisted punching something, or sinking to the floor and burying her fingers in her hair. She had been too busy demanding the medic get Tony sedated fully, hoping to spare Tony from the panic he’d been feeling earlier, to protect him from what little she had garnered had happened to him in Afghanistan, that she hadn’t been paying attention to Tony himself. She had thought he was just conscious but not actually awake and she’d been distracted when he grabbed for the endotracheal tube, trying to yank it out. She had been too slow, not able to get a grip on his wrist fast enough before he was able to get a hold on the tube. The echo of his wet choking as he shifted the tube out by an inch rang in her ears, the soft tread of Steve’s feet almost overwhelmed by the memory.

She looked up, crossing her arms across her chest, digging her hands between her arms and sides, needing to stop the trembling in them. She assessed Steve’s and Clint’s conditions quickly, sizing them up, a portion of her mind cataloguing how they would hold up in a fight, in an infiltration, as backup.

“How’s he doing?” Steve asked, stopping in front of her, gaze over her shoulder at the door she had been staring at when they’d entered.

She lifted a shoulder, hands still tucked against her sides. “Bruce went into surgery with him. Came to on the way here and they were too busy getting him in here to put him out again and…” She trailed off, a lump in her throat, closing her eyes against the image of Tony choking on the breathing tube, bucking against the straps across his legs and her hold on him as Bruce helped the medics and the doctors that quickly formed up around the gurney race them through the hospital corridors, forcing her off the gurney as they shoved it through the heavy doors and into surgery. She didn’t know how long she’d stood in middle of the corridor outside of those swinging doors, staring intently, as though she could still see Tony, as though she could still help.

She flinched at the feel of a large hand curling over her shoulder, thumb rubbing gently against the nape of her neck, and shivered, the taste of grief thick in her throat. Steve was a large presence behind her, comforting without trying, even if she tensed further with how close to her he stood. Clint stepped up on her other side; gaze also turned toward the door, silent and stony, blood encrusted on one side of his upper lip.

“I argued with the medics almost the whole way here.” She could tell that Steve tilted his head toward her, even though he was standing behind her and she couldn’t see him. “They wanted to use both straps to secure him for transport. I wouldn’t let them use the torso strap.”

Beside her, Clint murmured, “Wise move,” but she didn’t turn to look at him, dropping her gaze to the floor, eyes tracing the patterns of worn linoleum where countless gurneys and patient beds had been moved up and down the corridor for countless surgeries, countless tests, leaving countless numbers of frightened and anxious family members waiting.

“Wanted to keep him from reliving whatever he was seeing back there, but he woke up.” She dragged in a breath, steeling her shoulders. “He’d better pull through, or he’ll find out just how threatening I can be.” Her voice dropped, cold and hard, channeling her fear and anxiety into anger.

“Rather go after the assholes who did this,” Clint muttered, viciousness edging his tone.

She twitched the corner of her mouth up in a chilling smile, “That’s already a given.” They glanced at each other, gazes immediately locking as they had in the past when they were united in violence and menace.

Behind her, Steve sighed; thumb still brushing soothingly against her neck, “we’re not going after anyone.”

“Bullshit.” Clint’s eyes flickered over to Steve, then back to her gaze, the skin around his eyes pulling tight.

“We’re letting SHIELD handle it.”

“Bullshit.” She dropped her chin a fraction of a degree, just enough so Clint would see, signaling him when she firmed her jaw, setting it stubbornly, only for Clint to see since they knew each other’s body language and facial tics so well. Clint’s mouth pursed slightly, almost more a twitch of the lips before flattening out, his signal to acknowledge and accept. It didn’t matter what Steve said, neither of them were letting anyone get away with trying to take out one of their own.

“We’re letting SHIELD handle it so we can be here for Tony. Where we are needed.” Steve’s voice roughened abruptly, thickening, though he forced the words out, kept them firm, if not strong. Natasha raised an eyebrow at Clint and he twitched his lips into a shrug.

“Fine. We can always free the assholes once SHIELD is finished with them,” She drawled, smooth and deadly. Clint’s teeth flashed with approval.

“That’ll be better, letting them think they’re alive and free and then hunting them down,” Clint added.

“And then they’ll realize they were dead the moment they aimed at Stark,” she confirmed.

Steve’s fingers tightened briefly on her shoulder, relaxing almost instantly. “I’m actually okay with this plan.”

 

*

 

He concentrated on breathing, ignoring the stinging in his throat and sinuses from the tube he had pulled out. His chest was heavy, pebbles in his lungs and boulders on his chest. He reached out to grab a cup of water, but knocked it to the ground with uncoordinated flailing, then turned on his side to reach with his other hand, hoping to be successful this time.

Something jerked him to a halt halfway onto his side, hand reaching out at nothing, and the weight in his chest shifted in time with the dull scraping thud directly behind him. He slowly fell onto his back again, breathing through the flaring pain in his sternum, creeping along his ribs; breathing, just breathing.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

He wrapped his fingers in thick wires leading to a car battery. He couldn’t breathe, the air kept getting stuck in his throat as he stared at a car battery, leads trailing toward him and how could he think about the implications of that, but he could feel the brush of a cable as it shifted against the skin of his side and he refused to go there. He really refused, but there were rough linen bandages swathing his chest and he cracked his knuckle against something that was under those bandages and most certainly not his chest. He tore at the linen in his rising panic, yanking the linen apart, the tearing of the fabric loud against the rasping of his breath. Something, there was something in his chest, in his chest, in it, where it didn’t belong, what the hell was it, get it out get it out get it out.

He stared at his fingers against the thing, saw them trembling, saw his breath fog between him and the thing that was in him – how the hell was it in him – and heard the echo of his panic laced voice, panting with horror.

“What did you do to me?”

 

*

 

“BP rising quickly. He’s gaining consciousness.”

“Get him back out, damnit!” Bruce snapped from where he was keeping a close eye on the surgery. “Get him under and keep him under.”

They had switched surgeons shortly into the emergency procedure when the first couldn’t handle working around the arc reactor, seemingly shell-shocked at the device and how intrusive it was, focusing on the reactor and reactor housing instead of the threatening abdominal wounds. Bruce, gripping the edge of the surgical table Tony was bleeding on while nurses and techs swarmed around getting blood, fluids and anesthesia into him and getting leads placed and monitors set up to watch Tony’s vitals, had worked to contain his fury and shredded the surgeon’s professionalism, ability and mental state that he would ignore the man bleeding out on his table. He had shouted the man out of the room and glowered at the surgeon who took his place. The new surgeon, a Dr Hastings, had flicked her gaze over the arc reactor and then focused on Tony’s wounds, simply asking Bruce to explain how the reactor would affect or complicate the procedure, if at all.

They’d pulled out one bullet which had expanded, probably a hollow point, and had slammed into a floating rib, causing bone fragments to ricochet through the abdominal cavity. Bruce didn’t know how Tony had managed to fight as long and as hard as he had, but he didn’t do himself any favors by struggling as it let both bullet and bone do even more damage. The other bullet had gone straight through.

“He’s completely under now,” the anesthetist reported as Dr Hastings worked to gently remove another bone fragment and Bruce was suddenly bombarded with the image of shrapnel overlaying the bone fragment as the surgeon removed the bone fragment and set it in the bin with the rest of the bone shards and the recovered bullet.

 

*

 

White starbursts exploded behind his eyes an eternity before he was dragged upright, water streaming from his hair and face, washing down the back of his neck and flowing down his chest. His lungs seized as he tried to take in gulps of air, starving and spasming. His throat protested the scrape of air and he swayed in his tormentors grip, abruptly dizzy with his second gasping breath. The world tilted and his arms twitched, torn between holding onto the car battery he’d been forced to become intimate with and snapping forward with instinct to brace himself against the feeling of falling as cold water parted around his face and closed around his head. He jerked back against the hold on him, water sloshing against his neck and shoulders, but the grip on him held firm and he thrashed, seeking other ways to fight his way free, to slip the grasp, to breathe air again. He had to breathe out, to let the precious air go to lessen the pressure which made his lungs feel like they would explode, but then they ached in a different way, screaming for air, demanding he take in a breath, but there was only water around him, no air and why weren’t they letting him up, he couldn’t do this, he needed air.

His gasp as he sucked in air, disorientated from being jerked upright suddenly, was loud, even over the jeers surrounding him, and his breath caught as his throat closed in a sob. Cables jerked at his chest as the hands crushing his shoulders pulled him back and he realized his hands were empty. He pushed past the shroud of panic and lack of oxygen to consider why it was important that his hands not be empty and it took another hard yank, pulling pain from the depths of his chest, down to the marrow in his bones, before he remembered he needed to keep his grip on the battery and it wasn’t in his hands any longer. He’d dropped it, dropped the thing that was now keeping him alive even as his captors were doing their damnedest to drown him, and he reached out, blindly seeking the battery in front of his knees where they dug into the dirt floor of the cave, soaked through with water from his torture.

“Jericho.”

“No.” It took him a couple tries to get the word out past his abused throat, torn from the breathing tube installed after his emergency cave surgery, shredded from his shouts and burned from fighting against breathing water and taking air in after so long denied, swollen from the times he did breathe in water, coughing it out, choking and hacking and gasping, all the while in front of his enraptured audience and pompous tormentor and coercer.

The man in front of him scowled. “Jericho.”

“No.” His fingers closed on the edge of the battery and he slid them blindly against the edge until he found the strap, wrapped his fingers around it and tugged it to him. It had landed upright and the thought of acid burns passed through his mind inanely. The hands gripping his shoulders tightened and he sucked in a deep breath as he was shoved forward into the trough of water and he no longer had room to pretend all of the dampness on his face was water.

They pulled him upright, coughing and gurgling, spitting water out and gagging, pulling forward against the grip on him, heaving until he coughed up the rest of the water he had breathed in when they held him down too long and his lungs gave out. He sobbed as they pulled him upright, peering through the dirty water rolling into his eyes from his hair and shook his head in refusal as they asked him to build death for them. He had only meant to protect American soldiers, to protect American civilians, to protect America herself, but instead he’d placed them in danger, he’d killed them with his own tech, his own hands had helped build and design that tech but he would be damned if he was going to continue. The line was here, even if the next time he breathed in water it was his last breath.

Instead, they dragged him from the room, down the short hall and dumped him through the heavy doors that kept him and Yinsen in captivity. He lay in a soaked heap, the only strength in him in his fingers as they clutched the battery. There were sharp words flung over his head, but he didn’t try to understand them, just tried to remember how to breathe and shivered, the cold already soaking into his bones.

Later, when he squinted into the harsh desert light, almost blind in the intense sun, but able to see the stockpile of weapons with his logo, his name on them, he didn’t feel the heat of the sun beating through his clothes, warming his scalp, burning his eyes, instead he felt the water in his lungs and the cold in his bones as he stared at his weapons and shook hands, mouth grimaced in a parody of a smile.

 

*

 

“Barring any complications, he should make a full recovery. However, due to the ineffectiveness of the anesthesia, we’ve placed him in an induced coma and considering the state he was in on-site as well as when he arrived, I’m keeping him in the coma for at least another 24 hours. I have asked Dr Banner to stay and help me monitor Mr. Stark’s condition, especially regarding the ... thing.” The surgeon gestured to her own chest. “He’s already been moved to ICU and will remain there under Dr Banner’s and my watch until he is stable enough to be moved to a general ward.”

Steve felt his shoulders relax somewhat, relief spreading through tense muscles, giving them a momentary break from stress and worry. Tony would be okay. It wasn’t okay yet, but it would be, and right now, that was enough to allow him to breathe easier. “Can we see him?”

Dr Hastings pursed her lips, gaze locking on to him before sliding to the others, calculating. “Really, I’d prefer not while he’s in ICU. However, I’ll concede to one visitor at a time for five minutes. I’ll inform you when I’m ready to allow him visitors. I’d suggest going home, getting a shower, sleep and change of clothes and by the time you get back, I should be ready to allow you in.”

He didn’t need to glance to the side to see that the looks on Clint and Natasha’s faces matched his own. “I believe we’ll wait here, but we will take your suggestions into consideration, thank you.” She continued to frown at them, then lifted a shoulder in a dismissive shrug, nodded at them and pushed back into the surgical area, leaving Bruce with them.

Bruce sighed, pushing a hand through his hair. “She’s right, some sleep would do everyone some good, but I’d want to stay here, too. I’ll look into getting you guys access to the facilities and some spare scrubs or something.”

“Is it safe?” he asked, unsure.

Bruce raised his eyebrows, “The coma? Yes. He’s only in it because he kept throwing off the normal dosages of anesthesia, so we upped them to keep him out. She’s only keeping him in it now to prevent him from waking up locked in a flashback when he’s so fresh out of surgery.”

“Did he wake up during surgery?” Natasha asked.

“Sort of. He didn’t wake up completely, but he did start to come up. I’ve no idea if he was aware of anything.” She nodded at his words, face pensive. “I’m going to get back in there. I don’t want to leave him alone too long. He’s going to be fine. He won’t heal overnight, but he’ll be just fine and I‘ll keep you updated.” Bruce gave a shaky smile before turning to follow the surgeon.

Steve turned to Natasha and Clint, watching Clint settle into a chair with a groan. “Shouldn’t you be in a patient room?”

Clint grimaced. “Nah. They can’t do much until the swelling goes down. Plus, I couldn’t be here if I was held prisoner upstairs.” He gave a small smirk, clearly kept small due to the swelling of his nose. “Anyway, they already gave me something, so I’m good.”

He nodded and took a seat as well, stretching his legs out in front of him, settling in for the long haul.

 

*

 

“It’s a pity you dragged Pepper into this. I would’ve preferred she to live.”

His breaths were shallow, working solely from involuntary impulses. The illegal tech, he knew, would allow for his heart to keep beating, his lungs to keep breathing, his arteries to keep channeling blood forward, but voluntary impulses were shut down, deep breaths were out, and wrapping his fingers around Obadiah’s throat, definitely was out.

He could only watch from his peripheral vision as Obadiah turned the arc reactor this way and that, admiring it as he lay there, unable to move, unable to grab the reactor back and stuff it back where it belonged, keeping him alive. His heart had already started to rely on the power the reactor put off, already tying his life into the stability of the reactor, and now it was gone, its light disappearing into a box as Obadiah stood up and walked out of Tony’s vision without glancing back.

The golden goose. He wanted to be sick, but for that, he’d have to wait until the paralysis wore off, and even then, he wouldn’t have the time to waste on such a trivial thing. He ran the workshop through his head, placing everything where he last left it. Now where had he left the package…

He wondered how he missed the signs, surely there’d been signs Obadiah was going to betray him, surely there’d been something there, surely he should‘ve seen it coming. Then again, maybe he didn’t want there to be any signs, didn’t want to know he’d ignored them or just didn’t catch them, didn’t want to know he’d knowingly been that close to him, knowingly trusted him when all he was going to do was turn around to kill him.

He tried not to think about the way his lungs felt like they had collapsed, tried not to let that segue into how they had burned from lack of air, how they’d felt as he coughed water up, swollen and bruised and raw. He tried to move his fingers and they remained still, his heart pounding against the empty casing. He swore he could feel the shrapnel moving, though logically he knew it was just in his head. His breath rasped in his throat and his panic tasted foul. He fought against the paralysis, heart thudding harder as each attempt to move was unsuccessful. He kept fighting, even when he knew it was useless because he couldn’t just lay there, couldn’t just accept it, couldn’t let Obadiah go. It was for something more than himself: it was for Pepper, for everyone who would suffer or die from the weapons Obadiah would make, from the way he’d pervert the arc reactor to make a profit. He fought uselessly until suddenly it wasn’t useless and he rolled himself off the couch, hitting the floor at a bad angle, but ignoring the flash of pain and dragging himself to the arm of the couch so he could lever himself up, get his feet under him.

He kept moving, even when he couldn’t breathe anymore, because he knew if he stopped, he wouldn’t get started again.

 

*

 

Bruce yawned and shoved his fists into his lower back, one on either side of his spine, and arched back against them, stretching his back out after being hunched over in an uncomfortable chair by Tony’s bedside for too long. He stood up, reaching his hands toward the ceiling, then bending over to reach for the floor. Straightening up, he twisted sharply to one side and then to the other, sighing at the line of pops traveling up his spine, releasing tension. He did a quick circuit of the various monitors and machines in the room to check up on everything before peering at Tony’s chart, flipping through the surgeon’s notes. He read the notes aloud, updating Tony on his condition before sitting back down and going back to his one-sided discussion on apoptotic mechanisms in mutant physiology and the ramification of how cellular death differed in Steve’s or even his own cells, what that could possibly mean in gene therapy, regeneration of tissues and the anti-ageing research that has cropped up in the last few years. He’d been monologing on the topic for the better part of four hours as he sat by Tony’s bed listening to the ventilator and cardiac monitor, the EEG whispering softly under everything else and keeping an eye on the nurses who came by to assist in Tony’s care, occasionally bantering with Dr Hastings.

“I mean, think about it, we could do transfusions as the most basic vector--” He cut himself off as Dr Hastings cleared her throat and stepped up to him, a faint smile on her face. “Sorry. Was I getting worked up again?”

She chuckled softly, “No, you’re fine. I wanted to let you know you can start letting your friends in.” She raised a stern eyebrow. “One at a time, no more than five minutes each. I’d prefer not back-to-back, though.” She squinted at her watch. “I’m going to take 30 for food and caffeine, not necessarily in that order. You know how to reach me if you need to. When I break for sleep in a few more hours, I’ll send my backup over, fully briefed. He’ll be here in a couple hours.”

Bruce smiled up at her. “Thanks. Enjoy the caffeine.” She chuckled at that and continued on her rounds, making her way out of ICU. Bruce turned to Tony, patted his wrist. “Well, I suppose it's time for you to face the music. Or, rather, for you, it’d be face the reporters.” He shook his head. “Okay, that was lame. And soon enough you’ll be telling me that yourself while you revise the schematics to that engine you keep saying isn‘t perfect yet.” He sighed, smoothing the blanket under Tony’s hand. “You’d better be telling me that yourself soon.” He frowned at Tony’s slack face for a moment before he turned to get the others.

He pushed into the lobby where he had left the others after updating them on Tony’s unchanged condition and hour and a half earlier. Steve was sitting in the same spot he had been before, arms draped over the backs of the chairs to either side of him, feet outstretched in front of him and crossed at the ankles. He looked relaxed, but his eyes were alert, immediately snapping over to watch Bruce approach. Natasha was curled up asleep against Steve’s side, head on his chest and feet tucked on Clint’s lap. Clint was also asleep, leaning on Natasha’s side, hand resting on her thigh, head on her shoulder. From Clint’s other side, Thor was looking up at him with blatant worry and curiosity, his arm around Jane who was cuddled into his side, also blinking up at him. Bruce figured one of the others had called him earlier and they’d shown up from their date.

Bruce couldn’t help the smile that touched him at the scene. This, this was why he stayed, why he trusted. It started with Tony that day on the Helicarrier, but it ended with all of them in their own ways, everyone falling into place. “Dr Hastings is letting you guys see him now. Five minutes each.”

Steve nodded at him with a small smile, obviously relieved he’d get to see Tony was alright for himself. Steve shifted to gently nudge Natasha awake. She came awake with a start, elbowing Clint in the chest and Clint sat up with a jerk, hands twitching, probably for his favored bow and an arrow. They both were wide-eyed, startled out of what must’ve been actual sleep, and then Clint gave a wide, loud yawn and stretched his arms over his head.

“You may look comfortable, Nat, but you really, really aren’t.” Natasha snorted at Clint’s declaration and elbowed him in the side from where she was still leaning against Steve until he stood up, dislodging her. She smoothed her hair down, straightening gracefully, not at all looking like she’d been startled.

“No maiming him now.” Steve cautioned with a chuckle.

She raised her chin. “Fine. I’ll wait until later. Make him sweat.” She looked from Bruce to Steve and back, leaned comfortably against Clint who shifted easily to support her. “We can see him now?”

Bruce nodded. “Who’s first?”

“Steve can go.” Natasha offered. Bruce gestured for Steve to follow him back into ICU.

 

*

 

Tony looked down at the engine he had built. He could feel the echo of the warm solidity of his father behind him and the remembered heat of the lights the photographer had used when taking the pictures. He had followed directions and given happy proud smiles, had posed with the engine, posed with his father and posed for the uncomfortable shot on father’s favorite motorcycle, smiling through the tension of sitting on one of the many things he wasn’t allowed to touch.

He remembered the excited gushing of the men who had asked all of those questions before and after the pictures, the way the lady had smoothed down his hair like mom sometimes did. He remembered the stiff way father had walked away from the questions in order to pour himself a drink in one of the fancy glasses he also wasn’t allowed to touch and were only brought out for company.

Most of all, he remembered his father‘s reaction, “You dragged me down here to show me this? A piece of crap engine? I could‘ve pulled this out of a Fiat, Tony. I have much more important things to be doing than indulging you in this.” His father had given a single glance at the engine and a dismissive wave at it before he had turned away from Tony and his project and left the room. Tony watched his retreating back until the door closed, blocking his father from view and dropped his gaze back to the engine. He wished now that his mom hadn’t pushed his father into arranging for the pictures. “For the publicity, if you can’t do it because you’re proud of him,” he overheard his mom snap while he hid in the kitchen as his father paced in the living room.

He didn’t remember how he had felt when he finished the engine, chattering excitedly to mom and Jarvis, showing them what he had built, explaining what a V8 engine was and how it worked. He knew he had been proud and happy and thrilled, but he couldn’t remember how that felt anymore. He had barreled into the foyer once he heard his father get home from two weeks in California, grabbed his hand and starting pulling him toward the stairs to the workshop so he could show him the engine. He thought that it would be a good welcome home surprise.

Now he just felt empty and cold. He crouched down and pressed his hand against the distributor and wondered how long it would take him to tear his engine apart. Wondered how it would look as pieces spread across the floor. Wondered if he could then make it better, make it not a piece of crap. Make it something his father could be proud of instead of something that gave him his father’s back and the stiff chill of his father talking as though he wasn’t in the room, wasn’t sitting right beside him in front of the hot lights, smooth lenses and excited questions.

He looked up at the sound of his parents‘ voices coming closer, still hunkered by the engine, fingers tangled in the wires leading out of the distributor. Mom’s voice was smooth and low, like she spoke to him when he woke from a nightmare; whereas, father’s voice was sharp and biting as they walked past the open door.

“I’ve been working my ass off getting that new contract - the biggest one and most important yet, and all anyone can talk about is my kid and that damned engine.”

“Honey, you’re sounding jealous.”

“Don’t be stupid, Maria. How in the hell could I be jealous of a six year old boy?” There came the sound of father’s laugh as they walked down the hall away from where Tony crouched by his stupid engine. “It’s ridiculous to think a personal hobby can be anywhere near as important as this contract.”

Tony yanked at the wires, trying to rip them out. They wavered in front of him and when he blinked, he could feel the wetness roll down his face. It was a stupid engine and not even very good. No wonder his father was upset, no wonder. He couldn’t pull the wires out, and he stood up, anger at this stupid crappy thing he had wasted his time on bubbling over as he swiped his hands across his cheeks.

“I hate you!“ He kicked the engine as hard as he could, more tears prickling at his eyes as the pain in his toes radiated upward, turned and ran out of the room.

His mom found him in his room a while later after he had cried himself out and washed his face, irritated with how hot and tight his skin had felt. She sat on the edge of his bed and watched him drawing a Saturn V rocket. When he finished sketching in the tower, she leaned forward expectantly.

“So how about some ice cream to celebrate?” He looked up at her, opening his mouth to reply when she slid off the bed to her knees and cupped his face in her hands. “Oh, Tony. What’s wrong?”

He shrugged, “Nothin’.” She pressed a kiss to his forehead.

“Doesn’t look like nothing. What’s wrong?”

He shrugged again and tried to turn his head, but his mom didn’t let go, brushing her thumb across his cheek. “It wasn’t very good.” He looked at her shoulder so he didn’t have to meet her eyes. “It should’ve been better and and…” He sniffed and bit his lip. Big boys don’t cry. He ignored the fact that he already cried earlier - no one had been around then.

“Oh sweetheart.” He was pulled into her warm arms and he snuggled into her embrace. “What you did was amazing.”

He buried his face in her shoulder and his words came out muffled. “No it wasn’t. It was stupid.”

“Sweetie, you built an engine. And it works. How is that anything less than amazing and wonderful? How can that be stupid?”

He wound his hands in her shirt and clung. “Dunno, but I won’t do it again.”

His mom carded her fingers through his hair. “Tony, why not?”

“Cause it should’ve been better. Cause it was stupid.”

She sighed, dropping a kiss in his hair. “Did you like building it, Tony?” After a moment, he nodded. She wrapped her arms around him tighter and he shifted into her more. “Then it doesn’t matter how good or bad this was, how amazing or stupid it was. If you enjoyed it, then you should keep doing it. If you think it wasn’t good this time, then make it better next time. Keep making it until it’s perfect.”

After a long moment, he nodded, “Okay.” She pressed another kiss to his temple. “Okay.”

“So, ice cream?” He giggled and pulled away, giving her a wavering smile.

“Yeah. Can I have chocolate fudge?”

His mom laughed and smoothed a hand over his hair, “Of course, sweetheart, whatever you want. It’s your celebration, after all, for being so amazing.”

Later, when they sat in the corner of a Baskin Robbins, enjoying their ice cream in celebration, Tony forgot about his father’s words, forgot about the emptiness. But when his mom handed him a copy of the Popular Mechanics he and his engine were featured in, he took it with a smile he didn’t feel and promptly dumped it in the back of his closet. He never opened it.

 

*

 

Steve wrapped his fingers around Tony’s where they lay limp beside his thigh and glanced over to check where Bruce was fiddling with some equipment on the other side of the ICU. This thing between him and Tony wasn’t anything they had really talked about and he was conscious of that fact with the lack of privacy between patient beds and the working medical staff. He squeezed Tony’s fingers, rubbing his thumb on the back of his hand.

“Hey. You gave us quite the scare, there.” He shook his head, leaned in closer. “You scared me. You know you’re not allowed to do that, right?”

He sighed at the stillness, the rhythmic click and hiss of the ventilator Bruce told him was standard procedure to verify air intake during an induced coma. He hated all of the IV lines and monitor wires snaking into Tony’s skin, under the gown Tony wore and under the blanket keeping him warm. He hated all of the machines around Tony keeping everything working properly, hated that Tony was so injured that was even a worry. But even more he hated that Tony was so still, so quiet, not gesturing as he rambled on about the latest creation in his lab or bantering with Natasha and Clint, not leaning back in his chair with a smirk edging his smile as he watched and piping in with a sarcastic remark, not tapping at the reactor when deep in thought or pensive as he drummed out the beat of whatever song was playing or stuck on repeat in the depths of his mind.

He reached up to brush his thumb across Tony’s cheek, stood to lean in to press his lips against Tony’s temple and whispered into his ear. “You’re going to be okay; you’re going to heal and get better and be okay. I’m trusting you in this, Tony, trusting you to come back to us - to me.” He straightened. “And then I can tell you what I learned today.”

He looked over at the soft scrape of Bruce’s shoe against the smooth linoleum and his gentle clearing of his throat. “Sorry, but if I’m strict now, I can probably weasel more time later.”

He shook his head and followed Bruce away from Tony’s bed. “It's fine. I’m just glad we’re getting to see him now. I’m even happier he’s going to be okay.” Bruce tossed him a faint smile, but a sure nod of confirmation as he pushed open the first set of doors for ICU.

“He will.”

 

*

 

Tony’s mom was sitting in front of the TV again, the light from the flickering screen painting her face a sickly blue. He crawled up on the couch and curled up against her and she slipped her arm around him without moving her gaze from the Mary Tyler Moore show she liked so much. She didn’t say anything, only chuckling softly on occasion when there was a funny moment. He wanted to tell her about his day - they’d learned about the solar system today and he decided that instead of building the spaceships and rockets like he’d wanted originally, he wanted to be an astronaut and go to Mars when they went, ‘cause that’d be super awesome.

But each time he tried to tell her, she’d shush him with a soft, “Tony, I’m watching and can’t hear.” So he settled back and watched with her, chewing on his lip in disappointment until he pulled away from her and put his chin on his knees, hugging his legs and watching her. Her arm settled back against her side, hand resting on her thigh and she chuckled at her show and didn’t look at him. Sighing, he slid off the couch and slipped out of the living room.

He trotted down the stairs to his father’s lab, eyed the closed door with trepidation since he had gotten yelled at many times that he needed to respect the closed door, that if the lab door was closed, he wasn’t allowed. But the door was always closed. He still wanted to talk about his day, excitement and wonder clashing with the disappointment of not getting to tell mom, so he pressed his ear up against the door to see if he could hear anything. If his father was working on something dangerous, he’d be able to hear it and then he wouldn’t go in. But the space behind the door was silent, so he leaned his whole weight against the handle, tugging and almost falling back in order to open the heavy door. He stopped and listened again to verify before sticking his head inside and looking around to see if he could spot what his father was working on, just in case it was dangerous but also quiet. His father was sitting at one of the worktables, feet up on the bench, leaning back with a glass in his hands and it didn’t look like he was working on anything except for in his head and that wouldn’t be anything dangerous, so Tony slipped the rest of the way into the lab and rushed up to his father, bouncing.

“Guess what I learned today?” He grinned, head up amongst the planets and moons of the solar system, already imagining what it’d be like to go to Mars. His father startled at his exuberance and slammed his glass down.

“Jesus, Tony! What are you - you know you’re not allowed to be down here.” His father dropped his feet to the floor, mouth tight in an unhappy frown, voice sharp.

Tony shifted from foot to foot, fingers tangling in the bottom hem of his shirt and tried again. “We learned about the planets, dad!”

“Maria!” his father hollered in the direction of the lab door. “Maria!” They didn’t hear a reply if there was one and his father stood up, hand coming down on his shoulder. “You know you can’t be down here, Tony. Go back to your mother and stay out of here.”

“But dad!” he protested, stumbling as his father pushed him along.

“No buts, Tony.” His father’s voice sharpened further, short and snapped. “Maria!” he shouted once they were at the staircase. They could hear his mom’s footsteps after a short moment and she appeared at the top of the stairs. “Get your son out of here; you know he’s not supposed to be down here.”

Maria came down the stairs, slid her hand onto Tony’s shoulder when she reached the bottom. “When did you come down here? You know your father has set rules about his workshop.”

“Not that he’ll ever follow them. Weren’t you watching him?” Tony shrank back against his mom’s legs at the sharp flatness of his father’s voice. His mom’s fingers tightened on his shoulder and then relaxed.

“Howard, he just wants to spend some time with you.”

His father turned back to this lab, stepping through the door and catching at the edge of the door to pull it closed. “I’m too busy right now and you know it. There’ll be time later. Keep him out of the lab, Maria. It’s not a place for him.”

The door clicked closed with a dull noise and his mom sighed. “Come on upstairs, Tony. Why don’t you tell me what you wanted to talk about and I’ll make us some hot cocoa?” She guided him up the stairs and past the living room where the TV was still on, flickering slowly with changing images. He wasn’t in the mood anymore, though, too disappointed and upset to talk about something neither of his parents wanted to hear, bitter at his father for not actually being busy and bitter at his mom because she didn‘t use to watch this much TV, didn‘t use to choose the TV over him, so he shrugged and told her he was tired. He watched from the stairs leading to the top floor as she settled back in front of the TV and he went upstairs to his room to tuck himself into bed.

 

*

 

Natasha pressed her fingers against Tony’s shoulder, taking in a shaky breath. She didn’t like the pallor of Tony’s skin, the surgical tape keeping the breathing apparatus secure in the corner of his mouth, the endless IV and monitor lines. “Damnit, Tony,” she breathed, pressing her fingers more firmly into the flesh of his shoulder. She pulled a rolling stool forward, settling on it, leaving her fingers on Tony’s shoulder.

She let her assessing gaze roam over Tony’s still body, cataloging the damage done, hidden under the sheets, the feeds and lines and monitors regulating Tony’s functions. She let her fingers graze lightly down his arm until they pressed against the back of his hand, skin against skin right where more medical tape secured an IV.

The deep bruising spreading along the back of his hand like a stain settled in her gut, bitter and angry. She assumed the bruising was from a nurse trying to set the IV while Tony was still fighting, but it didn’t matter. It was merely one more injury, one more mark that shouldn’t be there. It was personal. It used to be just Clint, but now Steve, Tony, Thor and Bruce were all hers now, and an injury on one of them was like on injury on her.

Going after Tony’s shooter was like going after someone who tried to kill her.

He was still too pale, almost like that phrase, death warmed over, she thought it was. Which was an unfortunate comparison, she realized. She had seen wounds like Tony’s fester and go septic or, even simpler, bleed out. And true, Tony had gotten help in time, he wasn’t going to bleed out, and the odds of infection were low; he wasn’t going to die, but still.

“You’re going to cheat death.” She wrapped her fingers around his wrist. “It’ll go better for you if you do. If you don’t…” She squeezed his wrist gently, but firmly. It hurt, seeing one of hers like this. They weren’t ever supposed to end up like this and she welcomed the anger that had been roiling in her gut for hours, intensifying to a searing heat when she approached Tony’s bedside.

“You know we’ll be taking them out. Clint and me. And anyone else who wants to come along for the hunt. No one gets to get away with this.” She looked up at the scuff of Bruce’s shoe as he stood up on the other side of the ICU. He started in her direction, her five minutes were up, it seemed. She also stood, leaned over Tony’s still body, her whisper low, cold and deadly. “They’ll fear us. They’ll run from us. They’ll die for us.”

She intercepted Bruce and followed him steadily and silently out of the ICU without looking back. They were silent all of the way to the lobby where the others waited, and she was grateful Bruce seemed to understand she needed the silence. She did reach out for Clint’s hand as she settled back in her seat between him and Steve. She squeezed his hand once while Bruce continued down the hall in search for a vending machine, as he’d tossed over his shoulder as she headed straight for Clint. She let his hand drop before he could squeeze back and crossed her legs, settling back in the chair, calm, smooth and serene. Under the serenity, however, the fury roiled, and she nursed it with an intimate smile.

No one hurt those that were hers.

No one.

 

*

 

“I don’t understand what’s wrong with you, Tony.” Tony fidgeted under Mrs. Thompson’s stern gaze. “You didn’t turn in your homework again and you were doodling during class. Tony. Tony, look at me when I’m talking to you.” He frowned, but looked up. “You need to stop distracting yourself by fidgeting and doodling. You won’t learn that way and it’s the sign of a weak person, which is probably why you’ve been cheating.”

Tony’s head snapped up from where it had dropped so he could gaze at the carpet sullenly. “I don’t cheat!”

“Lying, Tony, isn’t a becoming trait.”

“I’m not lying, Mrs. Thompson. I’m not cheating.” His heart thudded in his chest, anxiety making it difficult to breathe.

Mrs. Thompson clasped her hands together and leaned forward. “What am I supposed to believe, then? You never turn in your homework and you never pay attention in class, yet you get perfect scores on your tests. You never raise your hand to answer a question or contribute to the class discussion. During recess and lunch, you’re always by yourself, never interacting with the other children except occasionally and even then, you're withdrawn and quiet. Intelligent children aren’t like that, Tony. They take pride in their knowledge and offer up answers, they do their homework so they can learn, they make friends and play. They don’t hide and stay silent. Perhaps your parents shouldn’t have started you a year early for school. Clearly you weren’t ready and it will only get worse.”

He mumbled, twisting his fingers and looking down at his feet. “I haven’t cheated.”

She sighed and flipped slowly through some pages. “I think I will recommend that you be held back and do the 2nd grade again. I think it will be better for you.” She looked up at the same time Tony jumped in his chair, startled at the sharp knock on the door behind him.

He stayed hunched over, heart pounding and feeling sick as Mrs. Thompson called out for someone to enter. He was going to be in so much trouble, he could already hear his father’s voice, angry and harsh. He picked sullenly and anxiously at his pants before jumping again as a hand brushed over his hair. He jerked his face up blinking, confused, when he saw it was his mom. Looking over to his other side, he saw the stern and disappointed face of his father and suddenly understood why there were three chairs in front of Mrs. Thompson’s desk.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. and Mrs. Stark,” she started as his parents took their seats on either side of him.

“What is this about?” His father asked as his mom placed a hand on his arm.

“I asked you here today to go over Tony’s issues at school.” She handed his parents each a page of paper. “This is Tony’s last test.” She let the silence hang, heavy and loaded. Tony heard the rough rustle of paper as his father looked at it over the thundering of his heart.

“Tell me what I’m looking at, because I’m not seeing how this is an issue.” Tony’s fists clenched in the fabric of his pants at the tone of his father’s voice. That was the voice he used when he was disappointed in Tony, usually saying he was unworthy of being his son.

“This test has a perfect score, honey!” his mom gushed, hand squeezing at his shoulder.

Mrs. Thompson pursed her lips. “That isn’t his work. He’s cheated from another student.” Tony shook his head, denying her accusation.

“Cheating?” his mom echoed. Tony kept shaking his head, his breathing speeding up, shallowing out. “I doubt that.”

His father snorted unkindly. “Your proof?”

Mrs. Thompson sighed, a gust of irritation. “I understand parents don’t want to hear this about their children, but this is the test of the child he copied from.” She handed his parents another page.

Howard flicked the page with his fingers, a sharp sound cutting the tension. “This proves only that one copied the other. Not that Tony is the one cheating.”

“Mr. Stark, the student Tony cheated from is very responsible, always completing assignments and turning homework in on time. Tony, to date, has not turned in a single assignment. He doesn’t participate in class, whereas the other boy does. The other boy pays attention in class while Tony fidgets, daydreams and doodles. I think it’s quite obvious who has worked for their test scores and who has cheated by copying from the hardworking other.” Mrs. Thompson gestured at him as he chewed anxiously on the side of his thumb. “Look at him, he even acts guilty.”

He glanced up at his father, twitched at the angry blush spreading across his father’s temples and looked quickly at the floor under his dangling feet. He was in so much trouble. He blinked away the stinging behind his eyes and bit down on the fleshy part of his thumb.

“I think we’re finished. This is unbelievable.” His father’s voice was angry. Angry phone call for business that Tony wasn’t supposed to listen to angry.

“Honey, please.” He heard his father resettle in the chair beside him at his mother’s plea. “Mrs. Thompson, while I can see where you are coming from, this still is just conjecture and not proof. Have you tried giving Tony and this boy their tests to complete separately and monitored?”

“No.” Mrs. Thompson settled back in her chair as his mom leaned forward.

“Why not give Tony the test - or a modified test - now and see how he does? If he does poorly, then we will pursue this cheating accusation seriously. However, if he does well, then you will need to look into testing the other child.”

Mrs. Thompson didn’t look happy as she reluctantly agreed. Tony peered at her through his eyelashes as she turned around to open and dig through a drawer. “This is tomorrow’s quiz.” She turned back around, setting the test in front of him and fished a pencil out from a stack of papers on her desk.

He looked up at her fully, gave his parents a quick glance and then scooted forward so he could bend over the page and scribble the answers. They were all easy questions as always. When he set the pencil down, finished, Mrs. Thompson took the test from him and looked it over, face scrunching like a raisin.

“How did he do?” His father’s fingers tapped on the arm of the chair as he asked, voice irritable.

“Everything is correct," Mrs. Thompson admitted, sounding like she’d bitten into something rotten.

His father stood up, “Then we’re done here.” He looked down to meet Tony’s eyes. “Let’s go. This is a waste of time.”

“But Mr. Stark! There’s still the issue of his homework and participation in class. We really can’t be done here.”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Thompson,” his mom said soothingly, “we will discuss those issues with our son. I’m glad we were able to clear up the issue of the cheating and I will hope that you will split up the two boys for future tests to prevent any further incidents.”

“Maria, really. That’s enough. It's time to go.” His father stalked over to the door and yanked it open, impatience bleeding off his every move. He scrambled after his father and winced when his arm was grabbed and he was yanked out of Mrs. Thompson’s office and pulled down the school hallway, his mom falling into step beside them. They were silent as they exited the school and walked to where their driver waited with the car. He father stopped, yanking him in front of him and giving him a shake as their driver helped his mom in the car.

“I had to leave an important meeting for this moronic waste of time. Don‘t ever make me waste my time again, Tony.” He sighed and shoved Tony toward the car. “Get in. The Board had better be understanding about this. Completely ridiculous.”

“Howard, it’s hardly Tony’s fault that another child copied his answers for their own.” His father slid in the car behind him as his mom placed an arm around his shoulders.

“He needs to learn others will always try to use him and he needs to protect his work.” His father scowled out of the window as the car was placed into gear and rolled forward. Tony hunched in against his mother’s side. “You coddle him too much, Maria, it's going to make him weak.”

His mom sighed, slipping her arm from around Tony’s shoulders and lacing her hands together in her lap, staring out the other window. “I think the issue isn’t the cheating, it’s the homework. Why aren’t you completing your assignments, Tony?”

He twisted his fingers together and didn’t look up. “It's too easy. And it's boring. I already know the answers and I can learn more by reading your and dad’s books than by doing my homework,” he mumbled, chin on his chest. “She wants me to do 2nd grade over again,” he admitted, voice wobbling, raising his hand to his mouth to nibble at the side of his thumb again, pinching the flesh between his teeth.

“Figures,” his father snapped. “Get your thumb out of your mouth. You’re too old for that.”

His mom brushed his hair back from his forehead. “We’ll figure something out, okay? But you need to do your homework, even if it's boring. If you know all of the answers, then it won’t take you very long, now will it?”

He shrugged and mumbled, shoving his fingers under his legs wishing the conversation was over, wishing the day had never happened.

 

*

 

The beeping put Clint on edge the moment he stepped into ICU with Bruce. Bruce pointed him to the bed Tony was occupying and murmured that he’d be over after the five minutes they had each been granted. He tried to lower his shoulders from where they were crawling toward his ears with tension, absently writing it off as a lost cause the closer to Tony’s bed he got and the more medical monitors surrounded him. He’d never liked hospitals -- even SHIELD medical gave him the creeps -- and this place couldn’t be mistaken for anything but a hospital or medical center.

Stopping at the foot of Tony’s bed, he crossed his arms protectively across his chest. He had thought that seeing Tony was okay with his own eyes would help alleviate the anxiety he’d felt ever since the first bullet had screamed through the air.

He was wrong. It was worse.

He took in a strained breath, hoping to ease the tightness clamping its way across his chest and arranged himself in a more relaxed, comfortable position. His eyes skittered across the medical equipment surrounding Tony, skittered across the breathing apparatus between Tony’s lax lips.

“We need to have a talk,” he said sternly, ignoring the slight wavering in his tone from the tightness of every muscle in his throat. “I need you to understand this. Your head and my face are never to meet again.”

Tony’s fingers twitched on the sheet and Clint paused to see if there was going to be anything else. After a tense moment with no other movements, he concluded it was an involuntary movement and nothing indicative of Tony waking up anytime soon.

“I fully plan on avenging my face. Just so you’re aware. The asshole who took that shot at you will have the damage done to my face by your head taken out of their skin. And then I’ll get around to taking the damage done to you out of their skin.” He felt the corner of his mouth twitch up.

He reached out to lay his hand over Tony’s ankle. “Okay, my time’s almost up; I’m sure, so I’ve got to go. But we’ve got your back. Just remember that.” He turned and strode out of the ICU, waving off Bruce’s confused frown and taking in his first full breath as soon as the ICU doors closed behind him, cutting off those invasive sounds that settled into his teeth.

Yeah, that asshole was definitely going to get introduced to the full spectrum of his and Natasha’s talents.

 

*

 

“Tony? What’s this?” He looked up from the book he was reading as his father strode into the room, brandishing a piece of paper. “You have Kenny Haughton on your guest list for your birthday party.”

Tony smiled, thinking of his friend. “He said he could come! He‘s my best friend.”

“Kenny Haughton, the son of Daniel Haughton, the chairman of Lockheed.” Tony felt his smile fade at the tone of his father’s voice. His father entered the room fully, face hard, and crouched down in front of him. “Tony, I need you to listen very closely to me. I need you to understand that this is serious and there will be no misinterpretation of my words.”

Tony swallowed, unsure in the face of his father’s hardness and seriousness and words, “Okay.” His voice was small.

“You will not be friends with Kenny Haughton. You will not be involved in any activity with Kenny Haughton. I don’t care what the reason is; you will not associate in any way with Kenny Haughton. He will not come into this house; you will not go to his house. You will not associate with him in or out of school. This is not up for debate or discussion. He is not your friend.”

“He’s my best friend! He’s nice to me and likes me and is my friend!” Tony gritted his teeth, ignoring the way his eyes burned at what his father said. Kenny was his best friend - his only friend. Everyone else either ignored him or they bullied him. No one else liked him, except for Kenny.

“I don’t care, Tony. You will cease your relationship with him.”

“Why?” Tony cried, standing up, hands fisting at his sides. Why was his father being so mean? Why couldn’t he have a friend? What was wrong with him that he couldn’t have a single friend?

His father stood as well, looming over him, stern and cold, unmovable. “Let me explain something to you, Tony. I have an entire company that I need to take care of, and you associating with one of our direct competitors doesn’t look good. If it got out, there could be repercussions that would affect the company and its employees. Not to mention that your so-called friend may not be an actual friend, he may just be pretending to be a friend in order to get information on the company.” Tony gaped up at his father, disbelieving and not understanding. Kenny wasn’t pretending to be his friend!

“Your birthday party, Tony, is a perfect example,” his father continued. “He could snoop around, look for anything his father told him to look for and take it home to be used against my company, and then where would we be? So you will not associate with this boy any longer. This company is everything, Tony, my job is important and this family will do nothing to jeopardize that. Understood?”

Without waiting for an answer from him, his father strode out of his room, the paper he had brought in, lying abandoned on the floor at Tony’s feet. He crouched down and picked it up. It was the guest list for his eighth birthday party. Kenny Haughton was the only name on it that Tony asked for. He knew some of the other names on the list, but only by recognition of the name as they were the kids of his father’s business partners. Some names he didn’t know at all, but he assumed they were more business kids. What he did know was that none of them were his friends, none of them liked him. The only name on the list that did like him was Kenny.

The names blurred as he stared at the page and an uncomfortable bubble filled his chest, rising from his tummy to his throat, causing a harsh sob to tear itself from his throat when it forced its way out. He tore at the page, letting the ragged scraps fall where they would as he cried, hot tears rolling down his face.

At his birthday party, he tried to get involved in the games the other kids were playing, tried to make friends, but they ignored him or laughed at him. Tony stood off to the side and watched the adults all converse with each other, none of them paying any attention to the kids. When his mom finally brought the cake out, the adults singing the birthday song, the other kids flocked around him, wide eyes on the cake. He blew out the candles, wishing that whatever was wrong with him could be fixed, and smiled as best as he could up at his mom while she cut the cake and handed out the pieces to each kid’s grabbing hands. As soon as the cake was eaten, frosting smeared over the kids’ mouths, and the adults finished with cleanup duty, gathering up the dirty plates and wiping faces and fingers clean, Tony slipped into the house and peered out of the dining room window, watched the kids go back to playing with each other and the adults go back to talking business or news and fashion and wondered when, if ever, anyone would realize the birthday boy wasn’t at the party anymore.

 

*

 

“It is very beautiful. I wish to show Jane, as she so desires to see my home world. When the Bifrost opens again and I can show her the magnificence of my home, I would hope to bring the rest of you as well. You would desire to learn of our science, of our treasures. I believe you would be very inspired to travel the Bifrost.”

He thought that, if the Bifrost were fixed, he would take them now so Tony could be taken to the Healing Room. He expected that Tony would heal faster and better there, though he was no man of healing, or medicine, as the Midgardians called it. He knew not enough to assist in the Healing Room, much less compare which techniques worked best. He hoped Migardian healing was good enough to overcome Tony’s injuries. He did not believe it was Tony Stark’s time to be visited by a Valkyrie, though he was certain Tony would appreciate it more than most.

“I cannot attest if the Valkyries would protect you so you would live or if they would take you so they could serve you mead in the grand halls of Valhalla. I would wager, if they did take you, they would all serve you mead and the other einherjar would be left wanting.” He crossed his arms, frowning, his brief levity at the image of Tony Stark in Valhalla surrounded by all of the Valkyrie while the other honorable dead gazed forlornly or with animosity in their jealousy, slowly faded as he recalled the only reason Tony would be in the halls of Valhalla partaking of mead.

“But I will not let them have you.” He scowled furiously, fingers twitching restlessly against the absent Mjöllnir, straining for the familiarity and comfort of his trusted weapon and shield. “I will rain down destruction with whatever is within my reach in order to keep you amongst your mortal brethren.

“They will not have you.”

 

*

 

“Tony! Come in here and sit down,” his father called, catching his attention in the hall as he passed by the formal sitting room. He stepped into the room and took a seat on the second sofa his father gestured to. Both of his parents had big smiles on their faces where they sat on the sofa on the other side of the coffee table. Tony kicked his legs, restless, his heels bouncing off of the sofa and causing him to bounce slightly on the full cushion.

“You’re going to need to pack your bags, son. You’re going to go to a new school.”

“Isn’t it exciting, Tony? They’ll have so many more advanced classes for you and they’re going to bump you ahead by another year.”

“Maria…“ his father’s voice was stern in warning and he watched his mom flick an upset glance at him, before turning back to Tony with another, dimmer, smile.

Tony stilled, staring between his mother and his father. “A new school?” He didn’t want to go to a new school. He’d be even more alone than he already was, he wouldn’t know anyone there and there wasn’t any reason to think he’d be able to make friends at a new school any better than at his current school.

His father smiled, leaning forward in the same way he’d engage business dealings he was excited about. It was something his father had never done with him before and he wasn’t sure what to do. “A new school. This school has advanced classes, as your mother said, and a wide range of scientific extracurricular classes so you can have something to occupy your time appropriately.”

That part sounded pretty cool, but he was still skeptical. He didn’t want to go to a new school. “The school will prepare you for the Ivy League school of your choice, they’ve an excellent program,” his father continued happily. Tony wasn’t sure he’d ever seen his father this happy before. “You’ll also be skipping ahead another year. I expect you will rise to the occasion.”

His mom reached for his father’s hand, grasping it with a wide smile; his father squeezed it back, covering her hand with his other. “It's very exciting, Tony. You’re going to love it there and it’s a fantastic opportunity, isn’t that right, Maria?”

His mom nodded, agreeing. “You will have so much fun and learn so much there, Tony.”

“But…” Tony said, voice small.

“Yes, Tony?” his father asked, actually interested, and Tony squirmed, uncertain.

“What does packing have to do with school?” he asked timidly.

His father’s smile widened. “The school is in Virginia. It’s the best one in the country. You’ll leave Saturday so you have time to settle in.”

“We’re moving?” There were kids at school who had either moved here or moved away. From what he could tell, most kids didn’t like moving.

His parents shared a look before his mom shook her head lightly and his father turned back to him with a smile. “No. We’re staying. It’s a boarding school, Tony, boys of all ages go there to live and go to school during the year.”

Tony frowned. “You want me to go away?”

His mother’s face fell. “No, Tony, that’s not it at all.”

His father sighed. “Maria…” She turned her frown to his father. “Coddling him won’t help him in the world.” He turned back to Tony. “You need this opportunity, Tony. Your current school will do nothing but hold you back, and your classmates can’t hold a candle to you. You need to be where people will challenge you. So yes, you need to go to this school.”

Tony wound his fingers together, kept his eyes on his fingers. “I don’t want to go away.”

His father scoffed and stood up. “Tony, you’re going.”

“It's scary now, Tony,” his mom said, placing a hand on his father’s arm. “But you’ll love it once you settle in.”

“But I don’t want to go away!” Tony cried out.

“That’s enough, Tony!” his father snapped. “You’re going and that’s final. If you have more questions, we can discuss them when you are willing to act better than this. I’m not going to waste my time if all you’re going to do is whine.” His father stalked out of the living room, his mother glancing between the two of them before following his father, calling his name.

That night he heard his parents fight for the very first time. They were both angry and they were fighting about Tony’s schooling. He crouched on the second floor overlooking the two of them shouting at each other, hands wrapped around two balusters, forehead pressed between the spindles. When his father slammed his hands down on the kitchen table shouting that Tony needed to grow up and his mother could only say that he was eight and didn’t need to be an adult yet, he slid back from the railing and tiptoed back into his room and stared at the open suitcases on his bed.

His mother did most of his packing for him, smiling and talking about the different things he could do in his new school, about the new friends he was sure to make. She crouched in front of him Saturday morning once he was all packed and the car was pulled around for the family driver to take him, just him, to the school states away. “You’ll be the most popular boy in school, Tony. Everyone will be lucky to know you.”

His father stepped up to them as the driver finished loading Tony’s bags in the car with a big smile on his face and pulled Tony into a hug. Tony couldn’t resist sinking into his father’s hold; he’d wished for his father to hold him like this for as long as he could remember, it seemed. “I’m so excited for you, son. Go make me proud.”

 

*

 

Pepper followed Bruce into the ICU, fingers aching where they clutched desperately at her purse strap. “I’m sorry it took so long for me to get here,” she said quietly to Bruce as they stepped up to Tony’s bed. She focused on Bruce, not looking at Tony yet, not ready to do so. She took a breath, trying to steel herself. “I got away as soon as I could after I got Steve’s call, but…” She trailed off as Bruce’s fingers squeezed gently, reassuringly around her elbow.

She watched as Bruce turned away, heading over to the other side of ICU, giving her privacy she wasn’t sure she was prepared for. She wasn’t ever prepared for Tony’s injuries, especially when they were serious. They always made her feel like she just walked into the workshop with Tony strung up by his robots and all she could see were bullet holes decorating his side like a soft spray of delicate decals. The same devastating panic that had attacked her when she received the call from Rhodey that Tony was missing in Afghanistan had attacked her when she found out Tony was planning on going back out there in his sleek armor and again on the race track sitting in a cross section of a car watching Tony’s armor crisp and blacken like a fillet of fish. It was the same panic that hit her when she watched, horrified, as the streak that was a missile and Iron Man shot straight up to the hole in the sky, disappearing into it before the hole collapsed in on itself, the cameras shaky and jerking from the hole to the blur of green flashing between buildings and back to where the hole had been, wiped away as though never there, and later, the missed call notification and the hissing silence broken by soft bursts of static in a four second voice mail of nothing before the call had ended. It was the same panic that choked her now, that set her heart pounding, that had her trembling, kept her turned away from Tony.

She squared her shoulders and tensing, turned around to face Tony. “Oh, Tony,” she breathed, reaching a hand out to steady herself on the bed he was laying on. She hated this, hated seeing him too pale, too still, hated wondering if this time would be the end.

She groped for the chair that was at his bedside and sank into it, reached trembling fingers to grasp at Tony’s limp hand. “Damnit, Tony. You’ve got to stop doing this to me.” She spread the fingers of her other hand on Tony’s forearm, sliding her hand up so they curled in the slight crook of his elbow. “You know I’ll always love you, but you’ve got to stop killing me like this.”

Silence greeted her instead of the usual sarcastic barbs and quips, the familiar rambling and half-rants, and to her, that was the worst aspect of this, because then there was something terribly wrong. The silence just drove it home, cut her open and let her bleed out her fear that this was the time he wasn’t going to get up again.

She startled hard at the hand that settled on her shoulder, barely hearing Bruce’s soft apologies. She sat back, letting her fingers slide from Tony’s skin. “My time is up, then?” She sighed and raised a hand to brush at her cheek as though tears had fallen there. Her eyes were dry, though. Bruce nodded with a small crooked smile and she shakily got to her feet. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t rearrange my whole schedule, so I have to get back soon. Please, Bruce, keep me updated? And let him know that I came?”

“Of course.”

 

*

 

“Your father couldn’t make it.”

Tony raised an unsurprised eyebrow and accepted his mom’s hug. She felt fragile in his arms. She had lost too much weight in too little time. “Are you okay?” He pushed her to hold her at arm’s length so he could look at her face as she inevitably lied to him.

She pasted on a confused smile in the mid-morning sun. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? You’re graduating from MIT.” She fitted herself back into a hug, squeezing him tight. “I’m so proud of you. And so is your father.” He doubted that.

He hadn’t expected his father to come, in all honesty, but he would have to lie to himself in order to deny he was disappointed. He hadn’t expected, but he had hoped. He was graduating summa cum laude from MIT at age seventeen, when most kids his age were still in high school. He figured if there was one thing in his life his father would be proud of him for, one thing he’d make the time for, it would be this. However, it still wasn’t enough and his father was working and Tony was back to feeling like maybe his accomplishments weren’t actual accomplishments.

He let his mom go, ignoring the faint whiff of wine he could smell and smiled at her while she gushed about getting a front row seat and hurried off toward the family and friends seating. He took in a fortifying breath and turned the other way to join the rest of the graduating class, teeming together in a sea of black. He adjusted the cords that signified graduating with honors and slipped his sunglasses on as he slid anonymously into the graduating swarm.

Fuck his father, anyway. He was proud of himself, of what he’d been able to do, of the feats of engineering genius his professors had praised him for. He could be proud enough for them both. And anyway, soon enough he’d have his Masters’ and after that he’d get his Doctorate and if his father still wasn’t proud of him then, he’d toss in the towel and give it up as a lost cause as there would be nothing his father would ever be proud of him for.

Still, he swallowed the bitterness as he was handed his diploma knowing that only his mother was in the audience watching him and hearing only the polite smattering of applause as he shook the Dean of the School of Engineering’s hand and accepted his diploma. Afterward, he ran his fingers over the embossed letters of the diploma that granted him the earned Bachelor’s of Science from MIT and ignored his mom as she worked her way through a second bottle of wine and chattered about his father’s work, how he had a job waiting there for him.

He couldn’t bring himself to tell her he had already been accepted on a full ride scholarship into the Graduate program of the School of Engineering at MIT. Instead, he watched the other graduates with their families and friends laughing at other tables scattered throughout the restaurant and envied them.

 

*

 

Steve looked up at the surgeon as she entered the waiting room where they were all still gathered, Bruce trailing behind her. Pepper sat down beside him and laced her fingers with his. He placed his other hand over hers, hoping it would comfort her. She’d been alternating glances between the doors to ICU and her watch or electronic of choice as she became increasingly agitated the closer to the end of her respite to visit Tony and she was losing hope she would get to see Tony awake before she had to head off to whatever meeting she couldn’t reschedule. He hoped the doctor was bringing good news, for her sake as much as the rest of theirs. He knew what it was like to worry and not be able to do anything, not even to be there.

Dr Hastings dragged a chair over to sit in front of their group and gave them a smile, looking at each of them in turn as Bruce settled on Pepper’s other side. “Mr. Stark’s condition has stabilized and remained that way. I will be weaning him off the coma inducing cocktail he’s currently on and letting him wake up naturally. I will also be moving him to general ward shortly for him to finish recovering as he won’t require the close observation he has needed until now.”

Steve blew out a breath in relief and heard most of the others do the same. Pepper leaned against him, squeezed his hand and then straightened again. Dr Hastings glanced at her notes and continued, “Once he’s off the cocktail, he’ll come out of the coma we placed him in, but he’ll still be sedated as the different drugs we’ve had him on will wear off at different times. We’ll be sedating him to ease him off of the withdrawal of some of these, so it will still be a couple hours after we move him to a private room on the general ward before he’ll actually wake up.”

She leaned back in her chair gazing at each of them in turn, eyes lingering. “I’m going to be very frank with all of you. I broke the rules for you. At most, we let the spouse or the parents visit a patient under close observation in ICU, not a whole slew of friends. However, this hospital wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you and him.” Dr Hastings jerked her thumb over her shoulder at the doors that led to the ICU unit Tony was recovering in. “I bent the rules for all of you because of what you’ve done, what you’re doing, and what I imagine you will continue to do. However,” her tone turned steely, “you will obey the rules I’m setting down now or I will not continue to bend the rules for you.”

“You will all go home. Take a shower. Take a nap. Eat some real food. Then you can come back and stay with Mr. Stark once he’s been moved to the general ward. I won’t be moving him for at least a few hours. Dr Banner, this includes you. I realize you’re protective over Mr. Stark’s ... augmentations, shall we say. However, I’m back on shift and will watch him closely until I move him out of ICU. I will make sure nothing happens and give you a call, Dr Banner, should anything change.” She turned back to the rest of them. “You will not make a racket and disturb the other patients. You will continue to eat and sleep on a regular schedule. And if I find any of you are breaking my rules, I will kick all of you out and enforce the regular visitor hours and rules. Questions?” She raised her eyebrow at them and Steve found himself comparing her to Pepper and Natasha and Agent Hill, all strong women who didn’t take people’s stupidity. He smiled at Dr Hastings and left the floor open for anyone who had questions.

After a long silence, she leaned forward and closed the file she carried. “Good. I trust none of this will be an issue, but as I’m bending the visitor rules, I’m making myself feel better by doing this.” She stood, tapping the folder against her thigh. “I’ll continue to be involved in Mr. Stark’s recovery until he wakes up and then the general ward medical staff will take over. I’ll do a last exam upon recommendation of the general ward doctor who will be working with instructions from me, and at that time, will advise when he’s ready to be released as well as home care and recovery. He’ll be just fine.”

She pointed at them with the folder, “Now, home. All of you. Out.” She gave a last smile and headed back toward ICU, leaving the group relieved and amused.

Steve untangled his fingers from Pepper’s and stood up, stretching as he did so, legs cramped from sitting in the waiting room chairs for so long. He turned to the others and smiled at the large grin brightening Thor’s face, the visceral relief on Pepper’s, the small smile on Bruce’s lips and the faint quirk on Natasha’s. He considered Clint, softly snoring on Natasha’s shoulder. “I guess that’s why we’ve been ordered to take a nap.” He jerked his chin at Clint and felt the tension ease out of his shoulders at Natasha’s low chuckle.

He looked at each of them in turn as Natasha flicked her fingers softly against Clint’s forehead, startling him awake in a way that didn’t have him lashing out. It was a technique he had seen Natasha use on Clint before. “It looks like we’ve been booted out for at least four hours for food, nap and showers. I vote we do all three and be back here in four hours exactly. Anyone else?” He was met with mischievous grins.

They tromped out of the hospital, bleary-eyed and stiff, surprised to see Happy waiting with the car. Happy opened the door to the limo with a searching gaze. “Boss isn’t with you?”

“No, Happy. He’s going to be fine according to the doctor, though,” Pepper explained as they crawled into the limo.

“That’s good. I got everything you needed done. You need to be at the airfield in an hour.” Happy closed the door behind Pepper and trotted around the car to get in behind the wheel. “Where to first?”

“Food, then home.” Steve requested, finally feeling the fatigue catching up to him. “Is that okay, Pepper? Will that give you enough time?”

She nodded, pulling out her tablet again. “I need to stop by the Tower for a change of clothes anyway. Happy can take me to the airfield after and then come back to pick all of you up and bring you back here.” Happy provided his affirmation as Steve leaned his head back against the seat.

“Good.”

 

*

 

The missile wasn’t actually heavy on his back as the buildings of New York loomed larger, the water dead ending at land not so very far now. It weighed a ton on his mind, though, as he shifted into an awkward position, gripping its smooth sides with armored fingers, pressing and pressing until the skin of the missile broke, his fingers sinking into the missile just enough to assure him of a firm grip. The rending of metal was soft, barely audible above the screaming of the wind as they barreled through the atmosphere, breaking out of open air above calm waters and into the city, buildings flashing past like figures illuminated by a strobe. The HUD detailed strategy as Stark Tower became visible, stepping into the spot light, the curtains of the other buildings still swishing away.

His focus narrowed down to his flight path, the amount of force he needed his thrusters to exert in order to lift the missile’s nose, the sudden weight of the missile fighting against him, the way the glass of Stark Tower slipping past him looked like the smooth water he’d flown over, the mirage of the tear in the sky, space inky within, and everything else faded away, became unimportant. Until JARVIS spoke up gravely, flashing Pepper’s image, superimposing it momentarily over the sight of space bleeding into sky.

He ignored the stats on the HUD showing the energy drain on his reactor and ignored how every simulated ring wrenched his guts tighter. He watched the blue bleed away and put more power into his thrusters to peel away the clinging fingers of Earth’s gravity as he powered through the spatial rift, breath stolen away when there was nothing more to ignore, no way he could pretend or deflect any longer.

He had no words. No thoughts.

The HUD flickered; shorting out as all sound was sucked away, leaving him with nothing in middle of nothingness with a missile on his back and something looming in the distance. The thruster on one of his boots cut out, surged with power, then cut out again, the other following quickly behind and his fingers pulled metal away as his grip slipped. The HUD flashed, and he saw the alarmingly low numbers on his reactor dropping faster than they did to gain sub-orbital altitude from the corner of his eye, but the understanding those numbers gave him was whisked away with the sound, with the air, with thought, with everything. There was a gentle tug and he fell away, fell back the way he came as the missile pulled away from his weak grasp, surged forward, streaking toward its new target, leaving him behind, alone.

Everything fell away from him even as he was the one falling away. An orange flower bloomed in the distance, beautiful. Soft petals spreading, reaching outward, opening, welcoming. The image struck something deep within him, but he couldn’t grasp anything but two words:

da Vinci.

 

*

 

Steve stepped into Tony’s room first, the others following behind him. They had seen Pepper off with promises to keep her updated and managed to get back to the hospital in just over four hours. Tony was still asleep, but he looked much better now that the breathing tube was gone and the dead sound of the ventilator was absent. Steve stepped up to Tony’s bedside as the others fanned out, checking the hospital room out. There were still several IV and monitor lines snaking out and a nasal cannula feeding oxygen to Tony was nestled against his nose, the tube hooking over his ears.

Tony’s room was decently sized, probably originally meant to hold two patients, but there was a dated couch against the wall opposite Tony’s hospital bed instead of a second patient bed and while there wouldn’t be room for them to all spread out, they would all be able to stay comfortably in Tony’s room for the duration. Steve was grateful for this. He never liked one of his team recovering alone in a sterile hospital. It had been a tradition he started with the Howling Commandos and one he kept with the Avengers. While he knew there was appreciation from his injured crew, it was also a selfish need of his to be able to see for himself that the people he led were okay and healing and happy. He was beyond ready for Tony to wake up already so he could really feel that Tony would be okay. Seeing him out of ICU finally, helped, but didn’t get rid of the sour taste of worry in the back of his throat.

A sudden clatter from behind him made him startle, even though he knew his whole team was here. He turned to see Clint and Natasha dragging some folding chairs into the room. One chair was leaning haphazardly against the doorframe, presumably, Steve figured, the source of the noise. He raised an eyebrow at them which was answered by a mischievous grin from Clint. He ignored the pang in his gut the sight gave him, mind immediately looking to see the missing matching grin on Tony’s slack face.

“Just ‘cause we’re here doesn’t mean we can’t have fun,” Clint said as Thor moved to assist in setting the chairs up around Tony’s bed. “I brought cards.”

They all took a chair and gathered around Tony’s bed and Clint shuffled his deck of cards. This was another tradition the Howling Commandos had made. Steve hadn’t continued it with the Avengers like he had continued his medical vigils, but he was happy to have it transfer over when Clint and Natasha had started it. He focused for a moment on the warmth building in his chest, a sense of belonging with the incredible people in this room that crept up on him with the subtlety of Tony after his fourth pot of coffee. Though the feeling was tainted by the worry and now-dissipating fear for Tony, he had faith that Tony would pull though, though that didn’t do much to alleviate the worry.

He placed his hand on top of Tony’s, being careful of the IV and the heart monitor that was clipped to his finger, and ignored the twin smug and knowing smirks from Clint and Natasha as Clint slowly dealt out the cards. There were two extra hands on the blankets covering Tony when Clint was finished dealing, working the cards into a neat pile and placing the stack on the mattress by his elbow. One of the extra hands was high up on Tony’s chest, clearly meant for Tony, which made Steve smile. The other was sitting innocuously in front of Bruce, who merely sighed and neatened both of his piles and shook his head.

“Really, Barton?” Natasha raised her eyebrow at Clint, affecting a haughty tone. “Do I now need to remind you and Stark there’s no counting cards?”

Clint laughed and sorted his hand, nudging her arm with his elbow. “Only if that also applies to you, too.”

Thor frowned at the two hands Bruce was sorting through separately. “Why does Bruce have two and we each have one?” Steve recalled the last time they’d played poker, the time when Tony had declared their oversight to be a travesty and proceeded to loudly correct it, Thor had been on a weekend date with Jane.

“Because I can already hear Tony insisting that it’s not fair to the other guy that only Bruce gets to play. So they each get a hand. Because Tony says so.” Clint grinned.

Bruce adjusted his glasses. “He was quite insistent last time. Even donated half of his startup chips for the other guy to use.”

Thor nodded, bending over his cards. “Tony is wise in this, then.” Thor peered over his cards with a wide grin, mirth obvious in his expression.

They played a dozen or so rounds before Bruce and Thor left to check out the offerings the hospital cafeteria had and return with food and drinks for everyone. Steve rubbed his thumb along Tony’s bruised knuckles. Natasha got up to go find some extra pillows and blankets to pilfer for when one or all of them would catch up on sleep. She placed her hand on his shoulder before leaving the room.

“I’m glad,” she dropped the cryptic remark and walked out as Steve belatedly turned to glance up at her in question.

“What?” he asked to her retreating back as she turned into the hallway outside the door to Tony’s room.

Clint cleared his throat and gave a crooked smile. “It’s pretty obvious. The two of you, that is. You just got her approval.”

Steve blinked at Clint, resettling in his chair and followed Clint’s gaze when he realized Clint wasn’t looking at him. He realized Clint was looking at his hand on top of Tony’s. He snapped his gaze back up to Clint’s face to find him watching him intently. “Oh.”

“It's about time,” Clint drawled, humor animating his face before it drained away. He scratched slowly at his neck, raising his chin to do so. “I know you’ve been together privately, shall we say. But it’s kinda nice to see it be not so private.”

Steve wasn’t exactly sure when this conversation had started or where it had come from and he was having a hard time getting his mind to reboot, as Tony would say, in order to catch up with the conversation. “Oh,” he repeated.

Clint chuckled; the humor bringing his features alive again as they had been during their poker games. “Yeah, that was me giving you my approval, too.”

“Uh, thank you,” he said awkwardly and then frowned as Clint’s face shut back down again. When Clint met his eyes again, it was Clint’s turn to turn awkward.

“I don’t like hospitals,” Clint offered, shrugging a shoulder. “I do better when I have a distraction.”

Steve nodded, piecing together the many times they’d ended up in SHIELD Medical. “That would explain why it’s so difficult to keep you in Medical when you need to be there.” Clint grinned at him in confirmation and snapped his fingers and pointed at Steve in a familiar gesture. “Well? Are you going to deal the next hand?”

Clint’s grin softened slightly with gratitude and he flipped several cards between the two of them while they waited for the others to return.

 

*

 

Red splashed across his chest at impact and he looked down, then across the field, glowering at Natasha. “What are you doing shooting me?” he hollered, resisting the temptation to rub at the reactor. “We’re on the same team!”

Natasha shrugged a shoulder, directed a smug smirk his way. “One, camouflage. Without it, everyone will see you with your glowing accessory. And two? Satisfaction. This way I get to be the first to shoot you.”

Tony looked down at his chest again. It was true; her shot did cover the glow of the reactor. “Like they won’t see the red just as easily?”

“It's still wet. Go roll in the dirt, that’ll hide it.” He glowered at her smirk, raised his gun and fired at her, watching with satisfaction as yellow bloomed high across her chest. Okay, he definitely agreed about her second reason for shooting him.

“Stark!” He shoved his face mask and goggles down and danced to the side as Natasha brought her gun to bear. Her shot went wide, the red paint exploding against the tree behind him as he dodged. Their eyes caught and he took off running as soon as she moved toward him, lowering her own face mask and goggles. “I’m going to shoot you in the ass, Stark!” he heard her shout behind him and he swerved, darting in between Steve and Thor where Steve was explaining and demonstrating the game to Bruce and Thor.

“If you shoot me in the ass, I get to shoot you in the ass!” he tossed back over his shoulder and rounded a tree laughing. Natasha plowed into him from the side, knocking the breath from him and they both toppled over one another as they hit the ground, tangled up and laughing.

A shadow fell over them and they glanced up to see Clint standing over them, mask shoved up on top of his head, gun pointed at the two of them, amusement written clearly across his face. “I see I get a two for one.”

“Not as cool, though. I got her first,” Tony said smugly from under Natasha where she had him pinned. He was definitely going to have to get her some kind of award for being the most badass in the world, ever. He saw Steve approach, shaking his head.

“We haven’t even started, guys,” Steve admonished with a smile.

“In the words of Tony Stark,” Natasha began, “you cannot contain this much awesome.”

Tony laughed. “What she said.”

Steve sighed good-naturedly. “Alright, up you guys. Teams as discussed previously. Clint and Thor with me, Tony and Bruce with Natasha.”

He took Natasha’s hand and let her help him up. “Great, give me the science nerds.”

He splayed a hand across the dirty red smear across his chest and leaned heavily into Natasha’s side. He could see Steve‘s eyes flicking from the red paint on his chest to the yellow paint on Natasha‘s. “You love us, really.”

“Take out Barton and Rogers and I might consider doing so. Might,” she ordered shoving him in Bruce’s direction to collect their third and go set up.

Steve cleared his throat and Tony glanced over at him, “And guys? Remember you’re on the same team.” He grinned at Steve as his team headed to their safe zone to start. They were so going to beat Steve’s team.

 

*

 

Steve stood up and stretched his legs, twisted and reached to stretch out his back and settled back into the chair he still had at Tony’s bedside. He glanced over his shoulder at the couch that Clint and Natasha were somehow curled up on. Clint was stuffed completely between the arms of the couch and Natasha’s legs were dangling over the arm of the couch. Thor was sitting on the ground, legs stretched out and arms crossed loosely over his chest, head tilted back against the couch he leaned back against, Natasha’s knee resting on his head. Bruce had gathered the remainder of the chairs, placing them side by side, alternating which way they faced. So he wouldn’t roll off, he had said earlier when Steve watched him set the chairs up as Thor had settled on the floor, back against the couch. Bruce had wrapped himself in a blanket like a cocoon and was sleeping on his side, draped across the chairs, feet hanging off the edge of the last. Steve had draped another blanket over Thor after Thor had started to softly snore, figuring that Asgardian or not, he was on the floor whereas Clint and Natasha has each other to help stay warm. The last of the blankets they’d managed to steal without guilt he wrapped around his shoulders again, snuggling in as he turned back to Tony, content now that he had reaffirmed his team was asleep and secure.

There was no change in Tony. He still slept, though Dr Hastings had informed them he had been completely weaned off the drugs used to induce the coma a couple hours ago, before they had relaxed enough to attempt sleep. Bruce had said that Tony’s brain waves indicated he had, in fact, come out of the coma, but some sedatives worked their way out of the system faster than others, and it could be one of the slow to fade sedatives keeping him out now, or Tony’s body keeping him out to heal.

They had dimmed the lights in the room when the other had decided they would try to sleep and the room was now mostly lit by the light seeping in from the door to the hallway where it was left cracked open so the medical staff could come and go as they needed. As a result, the arc reactor’s soft glow was seeping through the double layers of hospital gowns that Tony wore. Steve’s lips quirked slightly in amusement at the thought of Tony complaining about the hospital gowns once he was awake.

He felt the slight smile slip off his face as he continued to stare at Tony, willing him to wake up or even just move. He sighed, shifting in his chair, trying to get comfortable even though he knew he wouldn’t be able to find any position that was comfortable. Reaching out, he slipped his fingers under Tony’s hand and felt himself calm a bit at the touch. He hadn’t realized he had been getting increasingly tense the longer Tony remained asleep.

If he were honest with himself, this thing between them wasn’t actually a thing. It was just friends or, perhaps, something more than friends but never acknowledged beyond friendship. It was fantastic, whatever it was between them, a smoldering ember that flashed into an inferno when they came together. They had never discussed it, only now Steve wished they had talked about what it was they wanted with whatever this thing was between them. Wished they had even just defined their relationship. He had wondered, occasionally, if Tony had wanted something more from the way he would sometimes catch Tony looking at him. Each time, however, he had written it off as nothing more than wishful thinking or Tony being Tony or Steve interpreting anything and everything incorrectly, forgetting for a moment that he was in the “modern” day and not his day. If he continued with the honesty, however, every time he had wondered about Tony, he had thought that it wouldn’t be so bad to be something more, perhaps something named, until he was finding that he wanted something more.

And then Tony had been falling, crumpling to the ground, blood spilling and then he had surged up, arms flailing, aiming fists at anyone that came close, fighting against Natasha and Clint, even Bruce, even him. He leaned forward, shifting against the side of the bed, curling his fingers around Tony’s hand.

“Wake up, Tony. You’ve been asleep long enough.” He shifted forward more, sitting on the edge of his chair. “It's time, Tony. Time to wake up. Time to come back to us. To me.” He took a breath. “You need to wake up now.”

He waited; unaware he was holding his breath until he let it go slowly in disappointment when Tony still didn’t stir. He knew Tony wouldn’t just wake up because he had asked, but he had still hoped. So he sat back in his chair, pulling the blanket up over his shoulders and settled in to wait. He had already proven to Tony that he could outwait him. He was perfectly content with proving it again.

 

*

 

“Wake up, Tony.” There was a soft brush of dry lips against his jaw. He wrinkled his nose, rolling onto his back.

“Five more minutes,” he mumbled, draping his forearm over his face to block out the bright, he assumed, morning light. It was too early to think, though, so he didn‘t bother, snuffling as he felt himself sink back toward sleep.

A strong leg slid between his, knee tucking under his thigh, slowly opening him up as Steve’s weight shifted onto him, a large warm hand dragging up his side. “Tony.”

He shifted under Steve’s bulk and Steve settled over him, stretching under the caress of Steve’s hand as it traveled back down his side, over his hip and down his thigh, hooking behind his knee to hike his leg over Steve’s hip, opening him up further, allowing Steve to settle fully between his thighs. He raised his other knee, eyes still closed, but a wide smile stretching across his face, dragging the inside of his thigh up Steve’s leg and hip and gave a contented moan.

He could feel Steve press his smile against his throat before scrapping his teeth over Tony’s collarbone, causing a shiver as Steve slid his fingers slowly up the back of Tony’s thigh. Steve was hard against him, pressing firmly into him before moving his hips away, hand reaching under to cup his ass, squeezing slightly. Steve twisted against him and then the damp tip of him was dragging up the inside of his other thigh and Tony couldn’t help the loud moan that sensation caused and he tipped his chin up, hips rolling up restlessly to find Steve stiffening quickly. Steve slotted into place beside him, hips lining up, weight pinning him to the bed and he shifted, rubbing up against Steve. Steve pressed a wet kiss to his neck, just behind his jaw against the smooth skin untouched by stubble and then he slid down Tony’s body, letting him feel every centimeter of their skin pressed together.

There was a rustle beside his head, the pillow moving and shifting. He didn’t open his eyes, leaving them covered by his forearm, though his other hand was already clutching Steve’s shoulder and he had no idea when he’d started clinging. The rustling slid away from his head and he assumed Steve had grabbed the lube and he shifted his thighs further apart in anticipation, smile widening further. Steve’s tongue dragged down his stomach, disappearing moments before wet lips pressed against his hip and he murmured his appreciation of the attention, hips rolling and shifting. Steve’s tongue flattened against him, dragging slowly up the length of him, flicking against his tip with the sound of an appreciative rumble from Steve’s chest and then lips wrapped around him, sliding slowly down, warm fingers steadying him, keeping him in place for Steve to take in, and then wet fingers were pressing against him, stroking against him, slipping just slightly inside and he arched his back, taking care to keep his hips still, even as he tossed his head, dropping the hand that had been covering his face down to slid his fingers into Steve’s hair.

Steve’s fingers pressed insistently in, stretching, filling, warm and strong, sliding in long, then retreating slow, searching, stroking. He was saying words now, words spilling from his mouth, probably along the lines of yes, and please and more, more, more and Steve, drawn out and breathy, low and ragged and broken. He shifted himself further inside the warmth of Steve’s mouth, pushing down to get those strong fingers deeper inside him, babbling out moans and words and things that were a mixture of both and neither all at once. Steve pulled up, letting his teeth skim sensitive skin, shoving his fingers in deep and he jerked in Steve’s grip, crying out his pleasure as Steve took him apart from the outside and the inside. Steve’s tongue curled against him, lips sliding around him, fingers stretching him open and he bucked up, shoved down and white heat spread through him, rushing out of him, infusing him, causing him to cry out again, unrestrained, fingers clenching in Steve’s hair, against Steve’s skin and when he blinked the sweat out of his eyes, there was a gentle tongue lapping long strokes against him as he softened, fingers sliding gently out of him. His breath came out on a shudder as Steve propped his head up on an elbow flung over Tony’s thigh stretched wide and sent a smug grin up at Tony. He licked his lips, reached down to drag Steve up to him, licked a line up Steve’s throat and nuzzled into him, feeling Steve’s chuckle.

He shoved Steve onto his back, rolling to fling a leg over Steve’s hips, settling on top of Steve like he belonged there. Leaning forward, he licked along Steve’s collar bone, nipping and sucking along the strong line. Steve’s hands wrapped around his hips, and Tony grinned down at him as he sat up, feeling Steve’s erection brushing against him.

“And what are you hoping for?” He dragged one hand up Steve’s chest, reached the other behind him to wrap around Steve, fingers sliding against heated flesh.

Steve’s hand slid up his spine, pulling him down and raising his shoulders to meet Tony halfway, lips sliding against Tony’s cheek, tongue flicking out to catch his earlobe to suck between his lips, his other hand, fingers still slick with lube, smoothing over his ass, fingers sliding back into him easily. He jerked in Steve’s hold, huffing out a soft moan, hips sliding back to settle Steve’s fingers further in him and grinned at Steve’s pleased grunt.

He lifted his hips, wriggling back and bringing Steve to meet him, waiting to sink back and down until Steve slid his fingers out of the way. He sat up as he sank down, closing his eyes and lifting his chin at the burning stretch, at the hardness filling him. He loved pressing into Steve, loved watching Steve fall apart under his hands as he sank deeper inside Steve, but this, having Steve filling him up, stretching him wide, hands curling around his hips or hooked under his thighs ... this he loved even more.

He waited a few beats once settled completely against Steve before rolling his hips, rocking from side to side, stirring Steve gently inside him, mouth quirked up just waiting for Steve to snap and take control, and Steve didn’t disappoint, fingers grasping at his hips, bucking up forcefully, lifting Tony up and up before sinking back down, though Tony tensed his thighs, hovered above Steve, hands gripping at Steve’s stomach and thigh to brace himself as Steve shoved his hips up, sliding back inside, over and over again until Steve came apart under him, yanking Tony’s hips down to meet his own as he strained upward, a long throaty groan echoing the tension in Steve’s fingers and thighs.

“Now that was an amazing wake up call,“ he murmured as he sagged against Steve as Steve relaxed, panting against Steve’s throat, limp and sated and ready to slip back into sleep when Steve smacked his ass smartly. He yelped, rolling off Steve, hand reaching to cover the sting, looking up at Steve, betrayal contorting his face when Steve rolled out of bed, getting to his feet with a bounce.

“Time to get up, Tony. See you in the kitchen in five.” Steve pulled on his boxers and the tee shirt he’d been wearing before bed. “Up and at ‘em, Stark.” He watched Steve stride out of the bedroom without a glance back and rubbed at his stinging behind.

He shrugged and buried his head under a pillow, muttering, “Jerk. It was still a good wake up call, though.” He grinned into the sheets.

 

*

 

Steve jerked awake to the feel of someone’s hand on his shoulder, nudging him. He looked up to see Bruce bending over him and he straightened in his chair, body protesting. “Any change?”

Bruce shook his head. “Not since I woke up, anyway. He could’ve woken up during the night, of course. Here.” Steve reached for the coffee cup Bruce held out to him gratefully and sipped at it gingerly. He offered a mumbled thanks to Bruce as Bruce paged through Tony’s chart.

“How long have you been awake?” Steve shifted in his chair again, regretting falling asleep in the chair instead of moving to the floor like Thor had. Bruce carried a chair from his makeshift bed over and placed it quietly beside Tony’s bed across from Steve, settling heavily into it.

“Not long. Maybe a half an hour?” Bruce lifted a shoulder. “Mostly just extracted myself from the chairs and got coffee. Woke you up because you didn’t look too comfortable. Figured you’d want to find another place to sleep.”

Steve yawned and raised the coffee to his lips, taking a longer drink. “I think I’m good. Tired, still, but I don’t think I could sleep again for a while anyway.” Bruce nodded and raised his own cup to his lips. Steve stood carefully, setting his coffee on the floor by his chair first. He stretched carefully to work the kinks out of his legs and back from sleeping in the uncomfortable chair for half of the night. He turned away from Tony to get a bearing on the others, unconcerned given Bruce’s behavior.

Clint and Natasha were still passed out on the couch; Natasha still sprawled out on top of Clint, who was still curled up. Natasha had turned over since the last time Steve had checked in on them and had her cheek pressed to Clint’s shoulder. A blanket had been draped over them over the course of the night, presumably by Thor, who was nowhere to be seen now, the floor in front of the couch empty.

He settled back into his chair, muscles feeling a little bit looser and reached down to pick up his coffee cup. “Where’s Thor?”

“He went down to check out the cafeteria. I hope he’s not terribly disappointed by the typical hospital cafeteria breakfast offerings.” Bruce tilted a smile his way.

Steve chuckled, shaking his head. “I’m sure he’ll make up for it by getting everything.”

Bruce huffed out a soft sound of amusement. “I’m sure you’re right about that.”

There was an echo of sound from Tony’s bed and both he and Bruce turned to look as Tony’s hand raised to his chest, shoulders jerking as if he was going to try to sit up. He jumped up, reaching for Tony’s wrist and his shoulder, as Bruce also got to his feet, leaning over to talk to Tony.

“It's okay, Tony, you’re safe and we’re all here. You’ve got to relax, you’re fine.” Bruce continued speaking in a low voice to Tony, working to get his attention while Steve gently pressed Tony back to the bed, not letting him get up. He pulled Tony’s hand away from his chest, moving to place it back at his side, grip firm but gentle. Tony’s whole body stiffened, eyes wide and he tried to jerk his wrist out of Steve’s grip, other hand also raising frantically. Bruce intercepted Tony’s other hand, smoothing it back to the mattress, continuing to try to talk down Tony.

Fingers brushed against his forearm and he glanced over to see Natasha standing next to him, hair rumpled with sleep and creases in her face from the fabric of Clint’s sleeve. “Let him touch it.”

Steve blinked at her, not understanding the apparent non-sequitur, he flicked his eyes up to see Clint slip up to the foot of the bed and then turned his confusion back to Tony who was staring at him, panic flooding his gaze. Natasha’s statement suddenly clicked and he moved Tony’s hand to press against the arc reactor, smoothing his hand over the back of Tony’s. Tony’s fingers shifted restlessly under his, feeling out the edges of the reactor.

“It's fine, Tony,” Steve reassured him. “No one’s touched it. Bruce was with you the whole time.” He watched the tension drain out of Tony’s body and the panic recede from Tony’s eyes and Tony blinked heavily, fingers stilling under Steve’s. Tony’s eyes flickered to everyone, taking them in silently, before turning his sleepy gaze back to Steve. Steve heard Tony make the soft sound that he made whenever Steve shifted at night, disturbing Tony who would resettle with that sleepy sound before sinking back into sleep. He gave Tony a small smile as Tony blinked slowly, lingering, making that soft noise again before his eyes fell shut and he slipped into sleep.

Natasha squeezed his arm, stepping away with a muffled yawn, raising her hands to run her fingers through her hair. Steve looked up to catch the attention of Bruce, who seemed to know exactly what he wanted to ask. “This is completely normal. He’s just sleeping; his body needs it to heal. This is real sleep and nothing to be concerned over.” Bruce smiled. “He’ll be in and out for a while, but it's good, Steve.”

He let out a breath in relief and stepped back to sit back down, hands on his thighs. He noticed his spilled coffee on the floor and made a mental note to get something to clean it up. Just as soon as the relief stopped making him feel weak.

“It's about time Sleeping Beauty woke up. Hopefully he won’t need a kiss this time.” Clint chuckled, moving to the line of chairs Bruce had slept on and yanking one out, turning it around and straddling it, crossing his arms over the back of the chair. Natasha flicked her fingers at his ear and he flinched with a startled and indignant “Hey!” He rubbed his ear as Thor strode into the room, arms full of food and a drink tray balanced in one hand. “He gets to call me Legolas, I get to call him Sleeping Beauty,” Clint defended, good-naturedly.

Thor stopped, a hopeful look on his face. “Is he awake?” Natasha turned to take the drinks form Thor, setting them down on a chair and helping unload the food.

“He woke up for a bit, but fell back asleep again,” Natasha offered and Thor’s face fell slightly, but he was still smiling happily as he passed out the breakfast he’d brought back for them all.

 

*

 

He couldn’t move, his limbs heavy and unresponsive. He could only stare into Obadiah’s eyes, see the triumph and glee in those pale blue eyes as the pull intensified deep in his chest before snapping, the arc reactor pulling completely free, his heart seizing. He watched as Stane admired the reactor glowing softly in the dim room, knew the hole in his chest was exposed and empty.

And then Steve was there, hands on his chest, reactor clicking into place and the tightness was easing as Steve lowered him back on the bed, nudging his thighs apart. Tony slid his hand around Steve’s neck and tugged him down into the kiss he had wanted since before they had started fucking. They hadn’t ever kissed, not like this, not where Tony could nibble at Steve’s lower lip, soothing with his tongue, moan muffled as Steve invaded his mouth and he let him, let Steve take that control as Steve hooked a hand under his knee and dragged his thigh up over Steve’s hip, opening him up further for Steve to settle, pressing hard and hot against him, warm and heavy.

Natasha’s soft clearing of her throat had him turning his head toward her as she shared a private smile with him. He nudged his shoulder against hers with a grin and didn’t think twice about the fact that it wasn’t a guarded smile, that it was open and everyone would be able to read him, but he was okay with this, strangely enough, since he trusted everyone in this room. A puff of popcorn pegged him in the forehead accompanied by Clint’s laughter.

His mother’s hand was sweaty as she clutched at his hand as they crossed the street with the other children. They didn’t have their parents with them, though, or their parents stayed in the car, pulling away when their kids stepped past the brick and wrought iron gate. They stepped up on the curb and he thought they’d say goodbye then, but she took him through the gate. Kids still standing around in loose groups pointed at him, hand still engulfed by his mom’s and he tried to let go, but she didn’t. She walked him into the school and up to the classroom they’d discovered was his. She knelt outside of the door to his classroom in order to hug him, straighten his clothes and wish him good luck on his very important first day of school, eyes and voice filled with tears. When she left and he stepped into the classroom, the kids inside who had all been watching his mom fret over him, all started laughing at him.

The results came in the mail that day and he raced in the house waving the pages and shouting. He’d taken the SAT just two months before his 12th birthday and he had earned a 790 out of 800 for the math section. He was going to apply to MIT with the scores in the fall. His mom raced into the foyer to see what the ruckus was about and they were shouting and jumping and laughing. His father came in as they were hugging and he had proudly shared his news. His father smiled, saying how proud he was of him, how he knew he would do well, and he knew he was dreaming. This was his favorite dream though, showing what he had wanted his father to say, letting all three of them jump and hug and laugh in the foyer of their house, letting him forget for the dream that instead of being happy, instead of being proud, his father had merely said that he had gotten an 800 out of 800 and left Tony and his mom standing there subdued and crushed.

“Fuh.” His throat hurt feeling dry and swollen and torn with the echo of whatever he had tried to say. There was a commotion around him, which he ignored in favor of slapping his hand over the arc reactor to make sure it was there. He could feel the shape of it under his hand, feel the subtle and faint vibration from the reactor, but he couldn’t feel the smooth surface of it through the clothes that were in the way. He raised his head to look, fisted both hands in the collar of the top he had on and tugged it away until he could see under the fabric and could be reassured by its steady glow. He dropped his head back on the pillow, letting out a breath.

There was a cup of ice suddenly in his vision and he glanced over to see Bruce holding it out for him to take. “I’m sure you’re thirsty. Only ice chips for now.”

Tony reached out to take it with a trembling hand, which he frowned at, and slipped a piece of ice between his lips, sucking on it and letting it melt to coat his mouth and throat. He let two other pieces melt in his mouth while he looked between his teammates’ relieved faces before he attempted to speak.

“Wh…what happened?” His voice was little better than a croak and he shoved another ice chip in his mouth. Everyone exchanged a loaded look and he figured that didn’t bode too well for anything, really.

“You were shot,” Steve said simply, a hand resting on the hospital bed in the vicinity Tony’s hand would be in if he rested it on the mattress. Given the expressions on the others’ faces, he suspected there was more to the story.

“And?” he hazarded, sucking on a piece of ice, mouth and throat finally starting to feel halfway usable.

“Had a mother of a flashback and fought the paramedics, nurses, doctors, and us,” Clint supplied lowly, as though he knew Tony wouldn’t be dancing in the streets at the news. In which case, he would be correct. He didn’t really enjoy having his weaknesses brought out on stage. The only saving grace was that he knew the others all had their issues and weaknesses too, so what once would have been an opportunity for headline making meltdowns just made him severely uncomfortable.

“Oh,” he said mildly. “Is that all.” He squinted at Clint, realizing there was something wrong. “What happened to your face?”

Clint’s mouth quirked in amusement. “Your head and my face got into a fight. I think your iron skull won, though, loathe as I am to admit it.”

“Gold titanium,” he muttered reflexively at hearing the word iron applied to him. He shook his head with a wince. “Sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. Just good to know we can throw you head first at anything if we run out of other weapons,” Clint assured him, mouth stretching into an easy grin.

“I believe we already knew that about Tony, Clint. He’d have to have a hard head to support that ego of his,” Natasha chimed in.

“And genius, thank you,” Tony reminded her, smugly.

“It’s good to see you awake and well.” Thor said emphatically, a pleased smile brightening his face. Tony looked around at all of them, Steve sitting by his side, relief etched on his face like words on a page, Clint and Natasha at the foot of his bed both quietly relieved, just a trace of the emotion softening their faces. Thor was beside them, arms crossed and looking like he had won Tony’s fortune and Bruce on his other side across from Steve looking completely zen, like he had just finished a round of yoga, or maybe just a really good pot of tea.

“What’s with the love fest, guys?” He blinked at them, his cup of ice forgotten in his hand and Natasha laughed, mirth bright in the room and Tony wasn’t entirely sure he was actually awake. Maybe this was still part of the dream? But no, he hurt too badly for a dream.

“He’s fine,” Natasha claimed assuredly. “Let’s get lunch.” She winked at Tony and he fumbled the cup of ice, glaring narrow-eyed at her.

“Did I hit you with my head, too?” She shook her head at him with a small smile and wrapped her fingers around Clint’s arm and tugged him toward the door.

“We’ll bring you some contraband,” Clint offered with a wave of his hand as Thor followed them out of the door.

“How are you feeling?” Bruce asked, taking the cup of ice and setting it on the bed tray, moving it into place for easy reach.

He made an attempt to shrug and thought better of it. “Like I got hit by the other guy. A lot.”

Bruce nodded. “I’ll let the nurses know you need more pain killers on my way down, then.” Bruce stood up and clasped Tony on the shoulder lightly. “It’s very good to see you awake. It’s been…trying.” He watched Bruce leave and turned to Steve.

“Was it something I said?”

 

*

 

Steve leaned forward once everyone was gone and slipped his hand under Tony’s where it was laying on his chest, fingers moving restlessly against the reactor. He grasped Tony’s hand and smiled at the searching look Tony turned on him.

“No. Nothing you said,” he answered Tony, squeezing his hand.

“Oookay. Am I still dreaming? I was having a really weird dream before I, well, thought I woke up.”

Steve stood and rested a hip on the mattress so he could be closer. “You’re awake. Not dreaming.”

Tony blinked at him; let his head fall back to the pillows with a yawn. “Are you coming on to me? Here?” Tony raised an eyebrow, a teasing smirk shading the line of his lips.

He leaned closer and paused. “I suppose I am.” He closed the distance between them, lightly brushing his lips against Tony’s. He pulled away after a long moment of warmth as he kissed Tony and let his gaze drink Tony in, everything from the smudged lines of his goatee from stubble growing in to the wide eyes Tony was staring at him with.

“Still dreaming.”

Steve pressed another kiss to Tony’s lips. “Not a dream.” He sat up, staying on the hospital bed and let his thumb trace back and forth against the skin of Tony’s hand. “You need to stick around for a while, Tony. There’s too much for us to do for you to check out early, you know.”

“Uh, sure thing?” Tony’s eyes were still wide, confusion and doubt mixing with fatigue and pain. “What exactly are we doing?”

Steve paused at that, the immediate reply coming to mind seeming old fashioned and something Tony would probably scoff at, but he decided to say it anyway. It had been a difficult time watching Tony injured and unconscious for so long. So he leaned forward, let his lips skim along Tony’s cheek and murmured in Tony’s ear.

“We’re falling in love.” He pressed a kiss against Tony’s cheekbone.

“That is utterly ridiculous, Steve. Did you get that out of a chick flick?” He straightened and ignored Tony’s words as soon as he saw the soft look on Tony’s face, the smile lingering on his lips and squeezed Tony’s hand, getting a light squeeze in return.

“Since I don’t know what a chick flick is…I’m afraid I don’t know,” he said solemnly, dragging the words out. Tony made a face at him.

“I’m on to you, you know. I know you know more than you let on, just as I know you like chick flicks. Pepper inflicts them upon you all of the time.” Tony sniffed theatrically.

“Only the good ones,” he confirmed with a light grin. He shifted off the mattress and settled back into his chair as a nurse bustled into the room carrying an IV bag, the sound of the others approaching behind her. He kept his fingers tangled with Tony’s while the nurse changed out the IV bag for the pain medication and checked Tony’s vitals before hurrying out to check on other patients. Everyone else entered after the nurse left, carrying food and drinks.

Clint handed Tony a cup of pudding. “I thought you were getting me contraband!” Tony accused, reaching for the pudding anyway.

“I did,” Clint said, passing a spoon over as well. “Bruce insisted on Jell-o. I upgraded you to pudding. Chocolate pudding, even!”

Tony dug into the pudding, shoving a spoonful into his mouth and smiling around the spoon. “Okay,” he conceded after removing the spoon. “This is badass contraband. You’re hired.”

They all settled around Tony’s bed again and Clint took out the cards as Bruce fussed over Tony’s IV lines, making sure the new pain meds were flowing properly. Clint shuffled and dealt, “Hey! Bruce gets two hands. Don’t forget,” Tony insisted.

Laughter filled the room as Clint assured Tony they hadn’t forgotten and made sure Bruce got his two hands. Tony fell asleep in middle of the third hand and Steve managed his hand while they continued to play, finally feeling content.

Everyone was okay, and while Tony still had a long way to heal before he’d be 100%, Steve was happy, absolutely sure that Tony would bounce back just fine. He leaned back and watched his team, satisfied. Everything was as it should be.