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Never Close Our Eyes

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It really shouldn't have surprised Tony that, in the aftermath of the almost-destruction of everything in the Nine Realms, the Asgardians wanted to party. After all, back home at the Avengers' Mansion, Thor wanted to have a parade every time he successfully used the toaster (and hey, Tony was only going to humor him with that request once). And although he wasn't against partying per se (Tony Stark had his reputation for a reason), the last thing he really wanted to do was party with some Norse Gods while trapped in a suit that was, for all intents and purposes, made out of stone. Magical stone, yes, but it was still fucking stone. And while his suits at home allowed some flexibility for partying (a fact that he knew because of rigorous testing), he really didn't think the dwarves considered nimbleness on the dance floor when they were helping him forge it. Nor did they think about disassembly, because the hell if he could get the thing off without the aid of robot precision. And super strength. So while the celebration was being arranged in one of Asgard's great halls, Tony returned to Nidavellir.

"You don't have to come with me, you know." Tony argued as they walked from where the Bifröst had dropped them. "I can give the dwarves your shield to take a look at. It'll be okay. I promise I won't steal it..." Smirking, he added, "Without permission."

The joke went over Steve's head. "It's not that, Tony. It's just..." Steve sighed. "It's my choice," he said, shrugging. The sack over his shoulder shifted. It contained the pieces of the broken shield, and he looked absolutely miserable carrying them.

"But the party! All those Valkyrie babes! If you don't make your move first, when I get back you are going to be SOL. This is your big chance!"

Steve let out a short laugh. "I'll be fine. Parties aren't really my thing anyway. After what happened with the Norn stones..." Steve's voice trailed off. "You understand why I would rather not split up."

Tony looked over his shoulder. So much for trying to cheer him up. Not that it was an easy task. Even Tony felt his heart clench when he saw Steve's shield in pieces spread across the throne room. Captain America’s shield was not supposed to break. It wasn't just because it was a flawless piece of engineering. It was a symbol of hope, of good. And now it was gone. He couldn't even imagine what Steve was feeling. "There’s no danger, Steve. These guys made the suit, and they want it back. Can't say I blame them," Tony said. He held out his right arm to admire the craftsmanship. "It's some nice work, if I do say so myself." Whether or not the dwarves realized it, Tony had been paying close attention to their techniques. He was anxious to see what would happen when he tried them on mundane materials back home. "And that's a low blow with the Norn stones. It was the most viable plan at that moment, Cap. I didn't hear you arguing then."

"I'm not saying-"

"Because seriously your control issues—" The look that Steve gave Tony killed whatever he was going to say next. Instead, Tony cleared his throat. "No one could have guessed that we would all be split up into different fucking worlds. It's not like we were dealing with Reed. Jesus, I have I told you how much I hate magic? Because talk about unreliable probability—"

"This wasn't the first time you have done something like this. I just don't want you taking anymore unnecessary risks like that. Is that too much to ask?"

"Pot calling kettle," Tony retorted.

"I'm being serious." Steve's voice was firm. "And it's not just because you're the team leader. I owe it to your—"

"If you end that sentence with the words 'your father' I swear to God, Steve, I'm never talking to you again."

Steve pressed his lips together in a sort of frown. It looked as though he was holding back a long lecture that Tony did not want to hear, ever. After a beat, Steve smirked and said, "Some people might think that would be an incentive."

"I mean I've let a lot of things pass, because hello, you're an American institution but—" Tony stopped mid thought. "Wait a minute." He whirled around to face Steve, halting their progress in the mines. "Did you just make a joke? At my expense? You did! Holy crap, Cap! You have been hanging around us too long."

Steve tipped his head to the side. "Why are you always so surprised that I make jokes? Tony—"

"We've totally corrupted you," Tony continued, paying no mind to anything Steve was saying. "That's it, no more time with Clint, Jan, or me. We've gone and defiled a national treasure! Is there nothing left sacred in this world?"

Tony continued to rant in a stream of consciousness about the 'sacrediticity' of the foundation of America's hero worship culture all the way into the bowels of Nidavellir. Eitri had called it the Forge, which while true, was also a bit misleading. The Forge was the epicenter of a gigantic city buried beneath the rock. An attendant met them at the city gates with a deep bow. "Greetings, friend Stark. Eitri is waiting for you most patiently."

"Yeah, I'm sure he is," Tony grumbled. "Lead the way, Dori. I have an itch on my knee that I need to scratch big time."

The dwarf motioned with his arm for them to follow him into the city. Tony had seen Nidavellir already during his first trip, so it was fun to glance over at Steve and see his hardened expression change into surprise as they entered the city gates. It was hard to tell whether the structures were carved into large stalagmites and stalactite, or if it was just built to look that way. Everything had a luster to it from the precious materials buried within the stone. While the architecture wasn't nearly as breathtaking as Asgard's, it was still impressive. Tony watched as Steve tried to face forward and not be distracted by the view. Steve failed, of course. Tony may not have laughed when Steve almost tripped and knocked into one of the buildings, making it visibly shake. Probably.

From there, they were lead into Eitri's workshop, deep within the Forge. Eitri was waiting along with two of his assistants and a long line of tools. "I trust that your endeavor was successful, mortal," Eitri said. He wasted no time in beginning the de-armoring process; approaching Tony with what looked to be huge iron pliers. Steve backed up a few steps as the assistants swarmed in to help the dissembling of the armor.

"Sure was," Tony said. He winced as the large chest plate was pulled away. "Odin's awake, he took care of Loki, we fought a giant ice wolf thing, everything's peachy." Another piece of the armor was pulled away by one of the assistants. "Hey—watch it Nori, I want full function of my right arm—by the way, this is my friend Steve. He had a little accident during the fight with Loki. I was hoping you could help him?"

Raising an eyebrow, Eitri turned to Steve. "With what do you need my assistance?"

Steve fumbled with the sack and handed it over to the dwarf lord. "It's my shield," Steve explained as Eitri emptied the sack onto a near-by worktable.

"This is an extraordinary material," Eitri replied, taking one of the bigger pieces in hand. He paused for a moment, and looked to Steve. "That has been in an extraordinary place."

Steve's entire face flushed. Tony had never seen Steve so flustered.

"Its adamantium steel-vibranium alloy," Tony explained. "Only one of its kind." One of the other assistants pulled off the armor's helmet. "It's supposed to be indestructible, but clearly no one on earth has put it against an Asgardian before."

"Clearly," Eitri said. He turned to Steve, face solemn. "Sadly, this is not something that I can mend." He handed the piece over to Steve. "The integrity of the shield is no longer sound. If I were to repair it, it would break again, and in much easier circumstances."

Steve held the piece of the shield tight to his chest.

The two dwarf assistants pulled the last of the armor off of Tony. Finally freed from the heavy stone, he walked away, shaking his limbs around. "Not even if you fused it with the stuff the suit was made out of or something?" he asked. "Isn't that made of the same material as Thor's hammer?"

"Indeed it was, friend Stark. However, even when fused with this broken shield, it would not be the same as it once was. Once the integrity of a shield is broken, it is impossible to restore it." Eitri put the remaining pieces on the table back into the sack and gave it to Steve. "I am sorry. I cannot help you."

"How about making a new shield for him then?" Tony asked, a bit irked. "You made me armor that worked fantastic without an OS. I'm sure a shield like Steve's would be a cakewalk."

For a moment, Eitri's kind demeanor changed, his expression turning into a dark look directed at Tony. "It is not for you to request such an item, mortal. I created the armor in my gratitude of helping us escape Loki's minion. But that duty is done. It is unwise of you to request such a task on behalf for your friend."

"Pause a second here." Tony put his hands up defensively. "It's not like I'm asking you to make a sequel to Mjölnir."

"It's fine—" Steve interjected.

"It's a simple request. I just thought that he'd be nice enough—"

Eitri interrupted, "The cost for such a weapon would be too much for any mortal to bear." His voice was hushed now, yet still commanded attention. Tony had always been envious of that kind of power whisper technique. Fury used it a bunch, so had Howard. Whenever Tony tried to use it, it just sounded like he had laryngitis.

"This is why you the armor had to be returned when the battle was over," Eitri explained. "I am giving you warning, friend Stark. Do not ask me again."

When Tony opened his mouth to protest, Steve placed a firm hand on his shoulder. "Really, it's fine," Steve said.

...

"But I was on a flying horse, Tony! And you missed it!" Jan whined, leaning far too much into Tony's personal space.

Jan had never been a real heavyweight when it came to normal human alcohol. Several social gatherings in high school had taught Tony that. The Asgardian version of mead had Tony feeling it after two glasses. Jan was on her third glass. Her ears and cheeks were stained bright pink, and she looked as though she would topple over any minute straight into Tony's lap. Jan had been a friend for way too long, and it was crystal clear how Hank felt about her. With Hank taking one for the team and walking Hulk around Asgard (because a drunken Hulk was a terrible idea) Tony knew somehow the mystical Asgard bugs would tell Hank that his girl had been feeling Tony up, so it had to stop. With a gentle poke on Jan's shoulder, Tony pushed her back to sitting upright. "So you said, Jan. But I was a little busy getting magical armor made by dwarves, so I think my experience tops yours."

"Are you kidding? Flying. Horses."

"You were indeed fortunate to have your experience be so invigorating, Wasp," T'Challa said. "Not all of us shared your luck." He was sitting across from Tony, nursing his drink very slowly.

Tony was willing to bet that T'Challa was the only one not working on getting completely shitfaced. Even Steve, who was supposedly unable to get drunk, looked a bit pink around the ears. It seemed even the super serum was no match for Asgardian alcohol.

T'Challa took a small sip from his chalice. "The land where I was sent was filled with dark spirits and stunk of death. I was lucky to find an escape so quickly. Thankfully, the energy well that I found led me to Hawkeye and his group of elven archers."

"Not really my group of elves," Clint chimed in. "And if you make a joke about Legolas or any other shit in the Lord of the Rings, Stark, so help me! I will fucking end you and laugh about it!"

"I have no idea what you are talking about," Tony replied with a smug grin.

From across the table, Thor joined in their conversation. "The land you describe, friend T'Challa, sounds as if you were in Svartalheim, the land of the dark elves. You took a great risk jumping into the unknown. You could have passed into the land of Niflheim, from which there is no escape!"

"I have heard you say that name before," T'Challa replied. "You called it... the land of the dishonored dead?"

Thor's expression turned solemn. "Indeed it is," he replied softly. "Be thankful none of you were sent there. It is Hela's realm and is part of the Nine Realms connected by the great tree Yggdrasill. Within the red mists Hela sits on her throne, her large beast Garm at her feet, watching the lost souls crawl from their mortal coil into her kingdom. Once in Hela's grasp, there is no escape. Your soul would be feasted on by the serpent Nidhogg for all eternity until Ragnarök comes upon us."

"Well that sounds lovely," Tony muttered. He glanced down the table and saw Steve looking at Thor with wide eyes. His face had turned quite pale. When he noticed Tony looking at him, Steve's eyes quickly lowered and he hunched himself over the table. Pushing himself to standing, Tony walked over to where Steve was sitting and leaned over him, "You okay, Cap?"

"I'm fine," Steve said quietly. "It's been a long day, that's all."

"Hey Cap," Clint interrupted, "You were late to the party too. Please tell me your adventure story is better than Stark and his seven dwarves."

"The dwarves of Nidavellir are quite noble—" Thor interjected.

"Eitri would kick your ass if he heard you call him that," Tony replied, chuckling as he took the empty seat next to Steve. He nudged Steve in the shoulder. "So what were you doing? You know, besides making an awesome entrance."

Steve sighed. "I'm sure everyone is tired. I know I am. Can I tell the story later?"

"Tired?" Tony chuckled. "Is that even possible for Captain America? I thought you had the battery that kept going. You're the Energizer bunny in human form."

"No, that's you, Tony," Jan chimed in.

Raising an eyebrow, Steve said, "I don't think I follow."

"You're the man that nothing can stop, am I right?" Tony said.

Clint rolled his eyes. "Your hero worship is showing again, Stark."

Tony gave Clint the finger and then turned his attention back to Steve. "Did you land in Asgard only to run into a fight with a Cerberus—or whatever the Asgardian equivalent is called—and rescue some amazing looking damsels?"

"Did you find some Nazis hiding in Asgard and kick their asses?" Clint interjected with a smirk on his face.

"Or maybe end up in one of the other Nine Realms like we did?" Tony continued, ignoring Clint.

"I said I don't want to talk about it right now, Tony. How hard is that for you to understand?" Steve snapped.

"Whoa!" Tony put his hands up in surrender. "Sorry Cap. Wow." In a quieter voice he asked, "Is this about your shield? Because I'm totally going to take care—"

"No it's—" Steve pushed a hand through his hair and let out a deep sigh. "I apologize. I didn't mean to snap at you." He stood up from the table, keeping his eyes averted from the rest of the team. "I need some air." And with that, he walked out of the banquet hall while all the eyes of the remaining Avengers were on him.

When the large double doors closed, Clint turned to Tony and shook his head. "Did Mommy and Daddy have a fight while you were out?"

Tony chalked up Clint's not making any sense to the mass amounts of mead he had consumed in the last few hours. It wasn't the best idea to question a drunk person on what they meant, especially when said drunk person had laser precision accuracy with any projectile weapon, but Tony wasn't really operating on all cylinders either. "Huh?"

Clint shrugged. "Well, seeing as you are 'the leader'," he said mockingly as he wagged his fingers in quotations. "Jan insists that you're the Daddy, but I say you're pretty femme compared to Captain America, so you should totally be the Mommy."

"What the hell are you talking about, Barton?"

Clint spoke slowly, with elaborate hand gestures to make his message clear. "Did. You. Have. A. Fight. With. Your. Boyfriend?" At the word 'boyfriend' Clint made a show of rubbing his two pointer fingers together obscenely. Jan snickered into her glass, while T'Challa rolled his eyes, but hid a grin. Thor could only blink.

"Who?" Tony asked.

"Steve." Clint and Jan said in unison.

"Steve Rogers?"

"No, Steve Tyler," Clint replied. "Of course I meant Steve fucking Rogers!"

"You're saying Steve Rogers is my boyfriend." Tony asked, still bewildered by what Clint was saying.

Clint shook his head. "You know, for a super genius futurist guy, you are pretty clueless sometimes, Stark."

"You've been dancing around each other for months," Jan said, waving her chalice in the air dramatically as she spoke. "You spend all your free time together, and you keep giving each other these looks. I think I speak for the entire team when I say we're all sick of dealing with whatever sexual tension you've got going there."

"Says the girl that keeps cockteasing poor Hank," Clint said. "But she's right."

Tony snickered, because so help him God if that wasn't the truth.

Jan folded her arms against her chest. "It's not cockteasing when you are legitimately interested in the party. I'm just trying to help him along, because, like Tony, Hank doesn't have a clue. Maybe it's a scientist-guy-thing. You think we could get Hulk to like, de-Hulk and we could run it by Banner?" She turned her attention to T'Challa, "Or hey even easier! T'Challa, you're a science-guy!"

The look that T'Challa gave Jan was absolutely priceless, and Tony could not help but laugh.

"What Wasp says rings true, friend Tony." Thor added, nodding sagely. "You and the great Captain have made your feelings for one another less discreet as of late."

Clint tilted back his head, laughing loudly. "And if Thor is saying you're obvious, then you might as well send out the wedding invitations."

"Where are you guys getting this from?" Tony said, completely indignant. "Because really? We're just—"

"Madly in love with each other?" Jan supplied, tipping her glass towards Tony.

"Forget it," Tony huffed as he pushed himself up and away from the table. "While you guys are having this conversation of insanity, I'm going to go get Steve before he gets into one of his sulking moods."

As Tony left the hall, Jan called, "Not to mention you chase after him like a seventh grader with a crush!"

Clint, never to be the one left out, chimed in, "Stick your tongue down his throat! That will cheer the both of you up!”

With teammates like them, it was a wonder that Tony hadn't turned to super-villainy.

...

It didn't take Tony long to find Steve. One hallway and a right turn away from the banquet hall, there was Steve, leaning against the railing of a balcony which gave a great view of Asgard. It had been hard to appreciate the beauty of the city earlier. Dodging punches from Loki didn't really leave time to enjoy the scenery. Tony stood there watching Steve take in the view of the golden city. It was a breathtaking sight.

The worst part of Clint and Jan's teasing is that Tony knew they were right— at least for his side of things. The more time he spent with Steve, the more he could feel himself falling for him in a way that he really shouldn't have been letting himself do. Steve was a teammate, a friend, and so completely not interested in Tony in that way. Not if he knew what was good for him, at least.

After a moment, Tony caught himself. Shaking his head, Tony pushed those thoughts away. With Steve's super hearing, Tony was sure that Steve knew he was already there but gave no hint of acknowledgement. Steve either didn't care or was flat out ignoring Tony. Wonderful. It would be so easy just to turn around and go right back into the party. But, conversation of insanity was taking place. Of course, he could always go look for Hulk and Hank, but no. Sulking Steve was never a good thing, and from the expression on Steve's face the sulk had already begun.

Tony joined Steve on the balcony, copying his posture and leaning his arms heavily on the stone railing.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?"

Tony raised an eyebrow. "Cap?"

"It's like a dream. And when we leave, it'll vanish. We are on another world, Tony. There's this amazing city in front of us. When I look out there I wish I had some pencils with me to get it all down on paper. Just so I could remind myself it was real," Steve said, sighing.

"I'd offer to take a picture, but all I have is my mesh suit," Tony gestured down. "Not even my phone made the jump into the dwarf kingdom."

Steve continued to look at the city sparkling. "It's hard to imagine anyone wanting to destroy such a place."

Tony shrugged. "The same could be said for New York, but still we have to save it from destruction at least three times a week. Hopefully, that won't become the habit for Asgard. I don't think I can do this inter-dimensional traveling all the time. I'm bushed!" Making an elaborate show of it, Tony stretched his arms out. "I don't know how Reed— Holy shit, are those bubbles?"

"It looks like."

Rainbow roads, buildings made of iridescent materials, and fucking bubbles floating around. It was official: Asgard was the land that ten year-old-girl dreams where born from. Next, it would be castles made of frosting and animals that could talk. Although, this being the land of the Nordic Gods, Tony wasn't so sure the latter was that far-fetched. After all, as Jan repeatedly pointed out, there were flying horses too.

Beside him, Steve started humming. The tune snapped Tony out of his line of thought. "Wait a sec— I know that song!"

Steve blinked. "How? You're supposed to be the futurist. That song was old when I was a kid."

"A man once told me that a futurist is supposed to learn from the past."

Chuckling, Steve replied, "That is not what I said at all. But really, how do you know it? I've heard the junk that you like to call music. It's nothing close."

The scratches of an old record. Whiskey on the rocks. The smell of motor oil. The voice of constant disappointment.

Oh.

Shifting his weight on his feet, Tony turned around, turning his back to the beautiful view. This wasn't a conversation he really wanted to have in a strange alien land. It wasn't really a conversation he wanted to have anywhere, though, if he were honest about it. Especially having it with Steve. Steve, who thought Howard Stark was a great man, the man who helped make him, the man who helped him fight Hydra. Tony lowered his head. "My old man would play it a lot," he said quietly.

There was an awkward silence for a moment before Steve said, "We sang it a lot, back in the war. It's a surprisingly good bar song."

Tony looked over to him. "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles? Seriously? All you manly commandoes would sing that?" Tony had always assumed Howard would play that song because of Maria. She loved to dance to it. But then again, she would always dance to it alone. Howard would be sitting in a chair, whiskey in hand, staring off into space while it played. Tony still remembered Doris Day's voice floating through the house. The song played five or six times before the record would be stowed away for another time. "Weren't there dirtier songs to be sung? I mean, come on! The lyrics are terrible. Totally cheesy—"

"It was a great song on the piano. And it was a nice ballad to sing in a group." Steve merely shrugged. "Easy to learn, you know? A bit melodramatic, but hopeful at the same time." After a moment, he let out a soft laugh.

"What?"

Shaking his head, Steve said, "Nothing. I was just thinking about the song. I never realized that it illustrated my life so well."

Tony blinked. He was watching Steve closely. The Asgardian sun (which Tony assumed was not Earth's sun because, yeah there was no way) was dipping into the horizon, making the golden city shine all the more. It reflected into Steve's face, his hair, making him seem translucent and ethereal.

Tony held back the want to reach out and touch him to make sure Steve was not about to fade away with his memories. Instead, Tony cleared his throat and looked up to the ceiling. "When we get back to the mansion, I'm going to make you a new shield. One that can't be broken."

"You don't have to do—"

"Oh, but I do," Tony insisted. "I've already got the theories worked out in my head. I just need JARVIS to crunch some numbers and then start working on the circuitry-"

"Circuitry? Tony, what—?"

"Not to worry, Cap," Tony smirked. "I'll take care of you." Steve looked over as Tony realized his slip. "It," Tony corrected, not looking Steve in the eye, no not at all. "I'll take care of it."

"Thank you," Steve replied quietly. He smiled at Tony then. Not the huge, teeth shining, 'hey I'm a national fucking treasure' hero smile, but a small subdued smile that made Tony clear his throat and announce he was going to go back to the party despite Steve's protests.

It was the first time Tony had seen Steve show a sign of weakness. Not weakness, Tony chided himself. But for a moment Steve had stopped being Captain America, and was being Steve Rogers. The Steve Rogers before he became a hero, maybe even the Steve Rogers before the serum.

It was a side of Steve that Tony wasn't quite sure he could handle.

Between conversation of insanity and Steve looking at him like that, Tony chose conversation of insanity hands down. Jan and Clint were too drunk to remember anything in the morning anyhow, so really it was just acting as damage control. Tony could handle being teased that way, but if Steve heard any of that? Tony wasn't sure how he’d react. But it would seem silly to head back into the hall so soon, so Tony made two very slow circuits around the hall.

As he was about to rejoin the celebration, a woman appeared a few feet away. Tony was pretty sure he'd introduced himself to all the ladies in the Nine Realms in the last few hours, but he hadn't seen her. Tony liked her taste in color. She was dressed in a red dress that had intricate gold trim. On top of it she wore an even more ornate see-through robe, with strands of gold and red thread woven throughout.

Tony opened his mouth to say something as Thor and Clint exited the hall. "Friend Stark!" Thor called, waving his hand. "We were about to set out to find thee—" It was then that Thor noticed the woman.

She bowed her head low to Thor.

"Lady Freyja," Thor replied, seeming startled. He returned the bow. "You honor us with your presence today."

"Mighty Thor, before you leave for your Midgard, I have a request of you and your guests," she said, her voice sounding worn, like she had just been crying. Now that Tony was looking he could see ruby and golden stains around her eyes that looked like tear tracks. Did she seriously cry in red and gold too?

Her eyes turned to Tony and looked nowhere else. "If on your travels, you see my husband, can you please convey a message to him? Can you tell him I am thinking of him? Always."

Clint raised an eyebrow. "Seriously?"

"I know it is selfish to ask," Freyja replied, her eyes still locked onto Tony's.

Feeling uneasy, Tony looked over to Thor, who at least looked like he knew what this woman was talking about. Maybe Thor could explain what this all meant. Unfortunately, it was one of the few times when the Asgardian was completely silent.

She slipped her robe off her shoulders and handed it to Tony. "Please take this as a payment. It isn't much, but it will be useful to you when hope has run out."

Tony swallowed nervously. "I don't— I mean, I can't—"

"Please," she implored.

Placing his massive hand over the robe, Thor said, "Of course, Lady Freyja. It would be our honor." Giving Tony a warning look, Thor pushed the robe towards him.

Bowing her head once more, Freyja took a step back. "You have my eternal gratitude. I wish you a safe return to Midgard and," she added, looking to Tony with heavy lidded eyes. "Please take care of those closest to you."

As Tony opened his mouth to reply, Freyja returned the way she came before Tony could form cohesive words. He blinked a few times, and then looked to Thor. "Okay, you wanna tell me what just happened? And why I was given a robe by the Asgardian version of Ophelia?"

Clint blinked. "Who?"

"Ophelia. From Hamlet?" Tony added when Clint still looked lost. "Really, Barton? It's only the greatest drama ever written!"

"Does it have a car chase in it?"

"Never mind," Tony rolled his eyes. Honestly, what did they teach assassins these days? Turning to Thor, he again asked, "What was that all about? She seemed a little— not all there."

"It is not often that the Lady Freyja visits court. She has suffered much. When I was a small boy, there was," he paused, a sad expression overtaking his face. Tony had never seen Thor so upset. "An incident with the dwarves and Lady Freyja. She had asked them for a favor, merely requesting a trinket of their craftsmanship, which they gave, but at a grave price. To be in debt to a dwarf is a very—" Thor sighed. "Forgive me, I think very highly of the Lady Freyja, and it is difficult for me to speak of this.

"They took advantage of her?" Clint offered.

Again, Thor nodded. "When she returned, instead of reaching to her husband for help, she suffered in silence. When her husband discovered what had happened, in part because of Loki's trickery, it tore him apart. He left Asgard, never to be seen again."

"She should have told her husband what happened," Tony said, frowning. "He could have helped."

"She was ashamed, friend Stark," Thor said quietly. "And she did not want her husband to join in her suffering. She was trying to protect him. I understand this, and that is why Lady Freyja has my utmost respect, despite what some of my fellow Asgardians feel. To this day she watches over all lovers, in penance for her own love lost." Thor looked over to Tony and added, "The robe that she gave you is a generous gift indeed."

"Yeah, what was with that?" Tony shook his head. "I don't need a woman's robe."

"That robe was woven from some of the finest materials in Asgard."

Smirking, Clint chimed in, "And the robe matches your suit, shellhead! I think she did a great job of helping you accessorize!"

Not to be outdone by Clint, Tony gave a nonchalant shrug. "What can I say? She's got good taste in colors. Unlike some people who claim they are covert, but dress in a bright purple that can be seen from space."

For a moment Clint scowled at Tony. But that scowl quickly turned into a large grin that Tony knew was up to no good. Turning to Thor, Clint pat the Norse God on the shoulder and said, "Thor, buddy— you think she gave him that robe because she could sense how desperately in love Stark is with—"

"What's all this then?" Steve's voice froze both Clint and Tony.

Thor, being Thor, looked mildly amused by all of this.

Tony turned to see Steve approaching them, still looking slightly forlorn. However, upon seeing Tony, a small smile came to Steve's lips. "What's going on?"

Glancing over to Thor, Clint elbowed him in the stomach. "We were just about to go get some more... mead. Yeah, that's it— right Thor?"

Nodding, Thor said, "Verily. Let us make haste, friend Barton." The two quickly walked away, glancing back at Steve and Tony every few seconds.

It took everything Tony had to not bury his face in his hands. Maybe super villainy was the option for him to take. Because really, you'd think they would at least try not to make it so obvious they were leaving him alone with Steve. Thankfully, it looked as though Steve caught none of this.

Instead, his focus was locked on the robe in Tony's hands. "What on earth is that, Tony?"

"No need to be jealous," Tony waved him off. "Just a gift from a gorgeous Goddess named Freyja. She was just so overcome when she saw my amazing self; she had to give me a gift."

At this, Steve let out an honest laugh, and it made Tony feel all sorts of things in his stomach he should not be feeling. Maybe it was the Asgardian mead? Yeah, he'd blame it on that.

"Really?" Steve asked, trying to hold back more laughter. It was a much better look on him than the expression of loneliness he had before.

"Don't act so surprised, Steve. I'm a very impressive guy."

"That you are," Steve replied, a warm smile on his lips.

Whatever the feeling that Tony had in his heart, it was definitely because of the Asgardian mead. It had nothing to do with Steve and that damned smile at all.

 

On the way back to Earth (because he totally refuses to call it Midgard), Tony found himself humming a familiar tune as they walked the rainbow road to the Bifröst. He looked over to Steve, who had that same sweet-Jesus-it-was-going-to-be-the-end-of-him smile was on his face. Oh God, Steve had probably heard him humming.

Tony thought about the probability of breaking Steve's brain by playing the punk cover of I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles Tony remembered from college and whether it would be worth it or not to see the horrified look on Steve's face. It would be an equivalent exchange for what Steve was doing to him.

...

The first time it happened, Tony thought it was only his genius imagination fucking with him. After all, he had just woke up to Nori, Dori, and Ori telling him he was in the land of the dwarves so who wouldn't think, superhero life or no, that it had to be a dream. Although he would like to think that in a dream, he would at least allow himself to be wearing the armor. Then again, his subconscious hated him, so maybe not.

But he could feel the body-wracking pain when he had popped the glass off the arc reactor, so definitely not a dream, and then suddenly, nothing. The pain was gone. Instead of the dark cave full of dwarves and other things totally-from-a-Tolkien-novel that were trying to kill him, there was nothing but a blindingly bright red haze and the overpowering aroma of sulfur. The cold cave floor had vanished and he was standing, staggering in this shift of surroundings. There was nothing but the haze that stung his eyes and scratched at the back of his throat. The chilled air pierced his lungs as he took a breath in, yet he was not cold.

Tony turned his head back and forth, trying to get some sort of bearing of what on earth his brain was doing to him now, when he saw a lone figure kneeling on the ground. Tony would know that blue anywhere. "Steve?" his voice croaked.

Then a jolt ran through Tony's chest. He gasped, lungs burning with air. He opened his eyes to either Ori or Nori (or was it Dori?) looking down at him, tapping on the glass of the arc reactor.

There was no time to think about the strange experience. Loki's forces were pressing down upon them, and he had his team to find. Why should he have even spared a second's thought on the strange dream that his body in a panicked state created? After all, that's all it was, wasn't it?

 

But then Technovore's attack on Stark Tower happened. When the arc reactor humming in his chest became its target, and it occurred to Tony that maybe he hadn't dreamed it after all.

As great as the new photonic energy shield he made for Cap was (and it was amazing— there were some things that Tony was secretly happy he had outdone his old man on, but this took the prize for best fucking idea ever), it wasn't going to defeat Technovore and Tony knew it. Tony didn't have a choice in the matter, running for it was the best plan.

For a millisecond.

Then the nanomonster pushed Hill aside and knocked Tony on his back. Technovore's freaky mouth tentacles dug into the reactor and the reactor surged. Tony's hips bucked up as his entire body spasmed in pain. The power was draining from the reactor. He could feel the pieces of shrapnel in his chest wiggle around, pushing against the scar tissue.

Then the smell of sulfur overtook him, and Tony once more found himself standing in that red haze, where it was neither hot nor cold. Just... empty.

Except for Steve.

He was still kneeling on the ground, turned away from Tony. But that was impossible, because he knew that Steve was in the basement of Stark Tower, waiting for him. When Tony opened his mouth to call out to him, another figure appeared behind Steve. It was a woman with a large wicked looking helmet. She smirked at Tony before kneeling down and wrapping her arms around Steve. "Back again so soon, Anthony Stark?" She purred. "You always did enjoy such dramatic actions."

"Who are you? Where have you taken Steve?"

"I've not taken him anywhere, he came by his own free will," she said, her arms curling tighter against Steve's back. "As for who I am, with your reckless streak, I am sure you will find out soon enough." She then draped her shawl around Steve and herself.

"What—" Tony started. But before he could say anything else, both the creepy evil lady and Steve vanished. And then he felt a pull on his body. Tony opened his eyes and he was back in Stark Tower. Hill was helping him up, asking if he was okay.

Right. Technovore. The reactor.

He could think about what he did or didn't see later. There were lives at stake.

 

It wasn't until the next day that Tony remembered to ask Steve while they were "sparring" (or what Tony liked to call the hour sessions of trying to get a hit in while getting his ass handed to him). During their water break, Tony decided to ask, "So, yesterday, during the fight at Stark Tower— you weren't transported to any strange mysterious red mist land with a crazy evil lady draped over you, were you?"

Steve could only blink. "Come again?"

He may have asked it a bit too quickly, but the puzzled look on Steve's face was enough of a confirmation that it hadn't really happened. Shaking his head, Tony slapped Steve on the shoulder. "Never mind."

"Are you okay, Tony?" Steve asked, covering Tony's hand with his own. "You've been acting kind of strange since we got back from Asgard. Anything you want to tell me?"

Tony tried to put his best smile forward. After all, he was an experienced liar if there ever was one. "Everything's peachy."

...

It was only during with the battle with the Kree did Tony realize that something was really wrong with Steve. Not that he couldn’t argue with just attacking the Kree from the get-go, no questions asked— but that wasn't Steve's way of doing things. Steve asked questions while Tony jumped into the fray without thought, not the other way around. But when he brought it up with the other Avengers, they looked as though Tony was speaking another language. The Earth was in danger, why was it wrong for Captain America to throw the first punch? So many things, Tony had wanted to tell them, but he kept quiet.

Shortly after that, Steve left for his little "vacation." He was gone for two weeks without a single word on his whereabouts. It was for the best right? Tony was sure that Steve would recover from, well, whatever his issues were. He was working through shit and Tony knew how tough that could be with a whole bunch of people around daily asking how you were doing. Steve did not want to talk about whatever was bothering him. He had made that clear in Asgard with the snapping, dodging, and changing of subject, tactics that Tony was all too familiar with.

 

While Steve was gone, Tony prepared a surprise for him. The south wing was a part of the mansion that had remained locked off when the others moved in. In it was a room that contained what was left of Tony's childhood, tossed into boxes haphazardly by himself, because he couldn't entertain the idea of anyone, even Pepper, seeing any of it. They were things that Tony did not want to talk about. Old photos, keepsakes, newspapers, and Howard’s collection of Captain America memorabilia—at least the parts that Tony decided were worth keeping. Every time Tony would make the conscious decision to finally get rid of all of it, something would always stop him. Guilt, probably. He never could bring himself to light the match to burn it all out of his life. Instead, he kept it all locked away in the old dusty room. Sorting through all of it wasn't how Tony wanted to spend his free time, or any time at all for that matter, but he thought that the surprise (buried somewhere in the pile of boxes that held what remained of the first 20 years of his life) would help cheer Steve up a little.

Tony could only let himself wait five minutes after Steve returned from his trip to give him the surprise. After knocking once, Tony walked into Steve's room with a big grin on his face. "I got a surprise for you."

"Oh?" Steve was sitting on his bed, arms stretched back to hold his weight. It was like he was presenting himself to Tony, and that was totally not what he was doing, Tony reminded himself, but Goddammit did it sure seem like it.

It took Tony a moment to recover. He straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat before handing a flat square envelope to Steve. "Open it."

Steve sat up straight, giving Tony a strange look, but opened the envelope regardless. He took out the seven inch record with his hand. Steve's eyes grew very wide as he carefully looked at the record's label. "Tony... this is..."

There was a pull on his heart, and Tony made a mental note to check the readings of the arc reactor later. If it was working properly, then he shouldn't feel like his heart just stopped beating. "I found it in some boxes I had. It's my old man's record of I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. I know Doris Day is a little bit after your time, but I thought—"

"Thank you, Tony," Steve said. "You're always taking care of me. I want you to know, that it means a lot to me." He looked straight into Tony's eyes, seeming to want to say so much more. Tony didn't know what to do. Where was Steve going with this?

"You're one of closest friends, of course I—" Steve quickly closed the spatial gap between them. He placed his hand on the back of Tony's neck and pulled him in for a kiss.

For a second, every possible alarm went off in Tony's mind and he was frozen in shock. Sweet Jesus Steve was kissing him and it definitely wasn't a dream because his grip on Tony's neck was really starting to hurt, but he'd be damned if he was going to say anything to make it stop. Was this the problem Steve was working through? Because if so, Tony was an absolute idiot. One of them moaned, and Tony was pretty sure it was him. He wrapped his arms around Steve's neck and pulled him in even closer as he deepened the kiss. When Tony pushed his tongue against Steve's mouth, Steve pulled away, a strange smile on his face. "I should've known."

Tony could only blink. "What?"

Shaking his head, Steve's smile grew wider. Cupping Tony's face with his large hands, Steve said, "You are so very predictable, did you know that?"

Tony opened his mouth to say something in return. It would have been something brilliant, he was sure. It wasn't like his brain had just melted into a puddle of goo from that kiss or anything. However, before he could reply, the wall around the door smashed open. Tony jumped away from Steve, making sure there was a good two feet between them. Turning to the broken door, he was about to scream at Hulk for destroying the mansion again, but he saw that it wasn't Hulk standing in the debris. It was Ben Grimm, looking as furious as Tony had ever seen him.

Things moved quickly from there. Grimm didn't hesitate for a moment and jumped towards Steve, who scrambled to get out of the way, turning on the photon shield. Staying clear of the rubble that was thrown around the room, Grimm charged as Tony screamed for JARVIS to activate the suit. Steve threw the shield at Grimm, who reflected it with ease, and then lunged for Steve's throat— pinning him against the wall. The shield ricocheted against Grimm's skin and then into the wall where the projection disappeared. Tony watched, helpless, as Steve flailed his arms and legs trying to get free of Grimm's super grip. "Where is she? " Grimm screamed. With his other hand, Ben tore the photonic shield controls off of Steve's arm and threw it to the ground.

"Ben!" Tony said. His voice was sounding far more panicked than he liked. "Ben, just— calm down!"

It was then that Johnny Storm flew into the room, lit up and looking like he was ready to burn down all of Manhattan. Tony had never felt so relieved to see him. "Johnny, thank Christ. Can you tell Ben to let go of—"

"Crush him, Ben!"

Clearly something had gone awry in Reed's lab once again and turned Grimm and Johnny insane. Or maybe it was alien pollen that made them hone in on American heroes. Tony tried to take a few cautious steps towards them. The suit would be here any second, and then he could at least handle his own against Johnny. In theory, he could contemplate taking on The Thing. He probably wouldn't get far, but at least in the suit Tony would have a chance. Hopefully someone would have noticed that The Thing had just busted through the walls of the mansion with the Human Torch setting the carpets on fire behind him and would come investigate. Depending what was on TV at the moment. Tony put his hands up. "Let's just everyone take a deep breath and think about what they are doing."

"Where is Suzie?" Grimm seethed.

"What are you talking about?" Tony exclaimed. He started slowly walking towards Grimm and Johnny. "You do realize you are choking Captain America."

"Tony!" Tony's head snapped towards where the voice had come from. Reed was standing in what had been the doorway, holding a tablet in one hand, and in the other he had what looked like a modified weapon that they had took from the wreckage the Kree left. "Tony, get away from him!"

"Reed, what the fuck happened? All of your people have gone crazy and are trying to kill Ste—"

Reed aimed the weapon at Steve's head. "That's not Steve Rogers!"

"What?" Tony replied, incredulous. Definitely a space pollen that made them all insane. When this was over, he was never going to let Reed live this one down.

A low sinister laugh emerged from Steve. "It seems that my time here is at an end." Everyone's attention snapped towards Steve as he gave a great yell and pushed Grimm and Johnny down to the ground with an energy attack that Tony knew Steve was incapable of doing.

So, maybe Reed was talking some sense.

It was at that point, the Mark VII suit flew into the room and wrapped itself around Tony. Thank God for small miracles. Tony took defensive stance as he waited for JARVIS' analysis to finish. The heart rate, breathing, body temperature, everything read as Steve's normal stats. What the hell was going on? "If you're not Steve, who are you?"

"Disappointed, are you? I was hoping that my little distraction would delay you from discovering the truth. No matter." The fake Steve gave a wan smile before jumping out the window.

Tony fired a repulsor at the impostor Steve, which knocked him to the ground faster, but did little else (except for maybe piss whoever it was off). Reed leaped for the window, stretching his body so it could be used as a type of parachute to ease his way to the ground. Tony followed, firing the boosters and giving chase. The fake Steve was fast, much faster than Steve was on foot.

From behind them an energy pulse was fired. It struck the impostor right in the shoulder blade, but the aftershock of the blast was enough to throw Tony's flight off trajectory. Tony, somehow, managed to land on his feet. He turned to see Reed standing with both hands aiming the modified Kree weapon, a stream of smoke coming out from where the energy had come out. Tony turned back to where the impostor was now lying face down on the grass. Steve's strong features had been replaced with greasy looking green skin with markings on the chin. Tony swallowed hard. "Who—"

Reed walked towards Tony, a somber expression on his face. "Not who— what. He's a Skrull."

"What?"

Reed knelt down next to the Skrull and turned the body over. "I don't know much of the details about them, save for what you and Carol have told me. There was an incident in the lab while I was trying to work with some of the Kree technology, and Susan was knocked unconscious by the blast. Whatever the blast was, it revealed Susan's true form. It was an impostor Skrull, just as this one. I confined it and began to run tests on it. There were trace cosmic energy readings along with massive amounts of some unknown energy which they use for their shape shifting."

"And you used those energy readings to find this one?" Tony said as the faceplate went up. He could see where his story was headed. He could feel a sickness start to grow in his stomach. That thing had kissed him, pretending to be Steve— which should have been a clear indicator right there. Steve would not want to kiss Tony, well, ever, unless it was for mouth to mouth resuscitation or something, and even then Tony had his doubts that Steve would be the one to do it.

Nodding, Reed said, "With the readings I got when scanning the Avengers' Mansion, it looks like it's been here for weeks."

"What the fuck is going on here?" a voice called from a nearby tree. Clint, finally. It was about time someone from the team noticed that mayhem that was going on. Of course, Tony probably could have used his card, but oh well. The battle was over for the moment at least. Clint leapt down from the tree. "I go for out for some range practice and all of the sudden I see Cap jumping out a window and then Reed shooting him, I—" Clint looked down to see the green-skinned alien impostor. "Shit, what happened to Cap?"

"It's not him," Tony said with a sigh. For a guy that had such excellent sight, Clint had some definite hearing problems.

Over at the mansion, Tony could see Thor standing at Steve's broken window looking down on the scene. "Are you in need of assistance?" Thor's voice boomed. "The flaming man and his rock companion need medical attention!"

With a huff, Tony looked to Clint. "I'll explain in a moment— can we just get it inside before it wakes up and tries to run again?"

...

Tony could not get to the assembly room fast enough. "JARVIS, I need a scan of earth's surface for the location of Steve Rogers done like fifteen minutes ago." He waved his hand above the keyboard sensors, turning them on, and began to type furiously.

"Sir, I believe he is already in—"

"That's not him, JARVIS. We've got an alien race on the loose down here that are pretending to be heroes and who have pulled a heck of a trick to fool my systems. T'Challa and Jan are trying to interrogate the impostor Steve now, but I doubt they're going to get anything out of him. I'm inputting the data that Reed gave me on the Skrull to help locate more of the impostors, but while I'm working on that I need you to find Cap. I don't know if there are more pretending to be him out there, so incorporate these factors into your scan. Disregard any bio signatures that match Steve's if the cosmic energy levels are above .0545728."

"Scanning planet's surface for Rogers, Steven."

When he finished inputting the data Reed provided, Tony started going through weeks of the mansion's security footage in fast forward to try and determine when the switch had been made. Was it before Asgard? During the Loki debacle? Maybe after? All this time Tony had assumed that Steve acting strange was him dealing with issues. How could he have not realized that Steve wasn't Steve?

How long had this impostor been living under his roof without him knowing?

He didn't even want to start to think about the fact that he had made out with that... doppelgänger.

"JARVIS pause the security footage and back it up to 17.34.800." The footage rewound. "Pause it!" And there it was from their little "agreement" with Zemo a few weeks prior. The cameras had captured Steve looming over Zemo, looking nothing like the Captain America Tony knew. The shadows under Steve's eyes made a chill run down Tony's spine. The shadow, which towered over everything in that room, was not Steve’s shadow. It was something very not human.

The computer system beeped. "Rogers, Steven: bio signature not found," JARVIS reported.

"Check again, JARVIS," Tony implored. He was finding it very hard to remain standing. He fell into the chair beside him and pushed his hands through his hair. "Extend search to thirty kilometers above and below the earth's surface, and any spacecraft that we have taps into. That even means S.W.O.R.D.'s little fortress of doom."

"Sir, I've already factored—"

Tony looked up, glaring at the computer. "Check. Again." Turning his attention back to the video feed, Tony stared at the image of Skrull Steve glaring. Tony was trembling, but if asked, he would not be able to say why. It was some kind of combination of fear and anger that he hadn't felt since Obie stole the arc reactor from his chest.

Anger at himself for being so careless.

Fear of what could have happened to Steve.

After a few minutes, the sound of the computer beeping echoed through the room once more.

"Rogers, Steven: bio signature not found."

...

Tony sat in the dark on Steve's bed, amongst the rubble left over from the afternoon's fight. Tony had found the bag of Steve's broken shield thrown in a corner, forgotten since their trip to Asgard. He sat it beside him on the bed, holding one of the larger shield pieces. Mindlessly, he turned the piece over in his hands. Steve had neglected the shield all this time. That should have been a red flag right there. It was a punch in the gut that Tony hadn't noticed it.

What else had he missed? He still wouldn't know if Ben hadn't come charging in like he had. That creature in the basement would be in front of them all, still pretending to be Steve. Acting like Steve. Smiling like Steve. Fooling them all. And Tony would— his mind flashed to that kiss. God, how did he not realize?

Jan hovered at the broken doorway for a moment before returning to full size. "Tony?" she asked, taking a few steps toward him.

"Jan!" Tony jerked his head up to look at her. "Did you get anything?"

She shrugged. "Not much other than the usual. The Skrull will be the end of mankind, your planet will fall, blah blah. You'd think aliens would have a more original spiel than the bad guys on earth. I guess evil learns all their lines from the same book no matter where in the universe they're from. Carol's on her way to see if she can get anything out of him using her methods." Jan walked towards Tony as she spoke, stopping a foot in front of him. "Any luck on your end?"

Tony's head sank back down. He let his attention fall back to the shield in his hands. "I had JARVIS scan the planet for Steve," he mumbled quietly. "He isn't anywhere below, above, or on the planet Earth. Did that thing say anything about where they are keeping Steve?"

"The only thing he would confirm is when he took Steve's place, he shot him." Jan sat on the bed next to him, putting an arm around his shoulder as she did so. "I'm sorry."

Shaking his head, Tony asked, "What's to be sorry about?"

"Tony—"

He pulled away from Jan's arm. "I'm going to find him, Jan. He's just not going to make it easy for me. Not that Steve ever made anything easy for me, uh ever."

"Tony," she said, her voice cracking. "You need to accept the possibility that Cap may be—"

"May be what, Jan?" Tony asked. He snapped his head towards her and glared. "Dead? Are you kidding? This is Captain fucking America we are talking about! He was buried in ice for seventy years. He's not someone who would allow some asshole aliens to kill him so easily. And under my roof, no less."

Raising an eyebrow, Jan replied, "Okay then. Where is he, if he's not on Earth?"

"I'm working on it." Tony looked down to the shield fragment in his hand.

"I know this is hard for you, Tony. I know what Steve—"

"Tread very carefully here, Jan," Tony warned. "I'm not in the mood."

"I'm not teasing! I'm speaking to you as an old friend— an old friend who knows when you are smiling for the cameras and when you aren't pretending," she said, putting her hand gently on Tony's back. "I know you cared for him."

Already with the past tense? They hadn't even confirmed there was a body, and she was already talking about Steve as if he were gone forever. Tony's stomach clenched. "You don't know what you're talking about, okay?" Tony said, pushing himself off of the bed, away from Jan, throwing the shield remnants on the ground. "Steve is one of my best friends! He's part of our team."

"And— you cared about him."

Growling, Tony pushed his hands through his hair. "Goddammit, stop talking about him like he's already gone! I'll find him, okay? I've—" Tony froze. He thought of the red mists, the smell of sulfur, and Steve's figure. Maybe it wasn't a dream. Maybe Steve—

Jan stood up from the bed. "What? What is it?"

But Tony was already lost in his own thoughts.

On both occasions he had seen Steve in that place—

Tony was already out the door and running to his workshop as Jan called after him. Tony didn't even hear her voice. His head was already running calculations, possible outcomes, and trying to form a plan.

He knew how he could find Steve.

...

"I am well aware why the emergency protocols are in place, JARVIS. I put them there. But I still want to override them." Tony typed a few more commands into the computer console. It wouldn't do for JARVIS to disregard his instructions, so at least writing in a code that would ensure that his wishes were followed would be the better move. That didn't stop JARVIS from trying to talk him out of creating the code.

"Sir—"

"Just ten minutes, JARVIS," Tony argued. "After ten minutes, you can contact anyone your little AI heart desires. The Avengers, Pepper, Rhodey, Keyser Söze— I don't care. But I need at least ten minutes." It was a simple enough plan that seemed the most logical. While he preferred having more than two 'experiments' to be sure of this particular outcome, there was no time to wait for the Avengers to be attacked again. So creating the same variables in a controlled environment seemed the safest and most time efficient thing to do. Not the most responsible, sure, but the efficiency thing was pretty damn important at this point.

"The calculated time that the shrapnel shards will begin to dislodge is less than 8.567 minutes. If I were to wait ten minutes—"

"Fine," Tony rolled his eyes. "Five minutes then. The last two times I saw him—"

"—as I have stated previously, in those instances a strong case could be made for hallucinations of the brain caused by—”

"—the reactor was overloading, but it was too brief a time to confirm anything. I need time, JARVIS. This way more time will be allotted without turning the core to a melted crayon. We really don't have to go through the process of making vibranium again in the lab, do we? I mean, sure, I guess I could ask T'Challa to give me some to replace the melted husk I'd have left, but somehow I don't think he will."

"At least discuss the circumstances with the Avengers before—"

"No, no, no," Tony said, finishing the last part of the code. He spun around in his chair and attached a few wires to his chest to monitor heart rate, and a clip over his finger to check for oxygen in the blood. He made sure his stats were clearly visible on the projector, so when whoever JARVIS contacted got there, they would not waste a moment's time in getting things... well... back and running. "They wouldn't even let me try to do this, so nope, not waiting, not discussing. Who knows what danger Steve is in and the longer we wait—"

"But there is no guarantee that your endeavor will succeed. There is a high percentage that no one will—"

"JARVIS."

"Sir?"

"When has a big risk ever scared me?" Without ceremony, Tony clicked the arc reactor out of his chest and placed it on the computer console. "Start the countdown," he said, his voice cracking as he spoke. Tony braced the console to help him stand. Not that it mattered, because his legs gave out a moment later and he found himself curled on the floor.

During the few times that Tony had experienced the arc reactor being removed from his chest, the sharp pain that shot through his lungs the moment the warm glow of the reactor was gone was always the worst. There was a sense of doom, not knowing if that glow would ever return. This time, however, Tony welcomed the pain as the whiteness overtook his vision. It meant that he was not far from finding Steve.