Tony can’t see a damn thing.
He’s wrapped in darkness. He’s floating in it, as thick and cold and deep as the bottom of the ocean, pressing in around him and creeping inside with every breath. He tries to shout, but his voice makes no sound; tries to touch a hand to his chest, thinking of the light that should be right there - but he can’t find himself beneath his fingers. He can’t find his fingers.
For a while, that’s all there is, until he feels air against his face.
The black tide moves past him while Tony remains still, suspended. There’s a speck of light in the far, far distance, but when he wills it to come closer – jaw clenched and eyes watering with the effort – it obeys him, and a wind picks up around him. Nothingness whistles past his ears. Tony reaches out with fingers he can’t see or feel and pulls the speck of light towards him. It grows bigger and bigger; no longer a speck at all, but something vast and distant and moving at an incredible speed. The wind howls.
He closes his eyes and clenches his teeth and lets the universe crash over his head like a tidal wave. When he opens his eyes again, the stars are blurring past him. Tiny galaxies whistle past his ears faster than he can count them. Great clouds of nebulae tangle, briefly, in his hair. There is a brighter pinprick of light far ahead of him and Tony wills it to move faster.
The wind becomes a roar. The light becomes a circle, then a ring, a hole in the universe – expanding, expanding, and rushing forwards to meet him.
There’s something on the other side of that blue-white light.
He realises too late that the light isn’t moving forwards, but upwards – or rather, it isn’t moving at all, because Tony is the one moving.
Tony is the one falling down into it.
He jerks awake too quickly, wide-eyed, panting, tangled in his sheets. He throws his hands up in the dark, with his hands bent out and his palms forward. It takes him a moment to remember that he’s not wearing the suit’s gauntlets. Another moment to remember that he is awake, was asleep, has only had – for fuck’s sake – a freaky dream.
“Jesus,” he groans, flopping back onto his pillow. He kicks the sheets off the bed and onto the floor. Belatedly, he rolls over to check Pepper is already up and gone, which she is.
Her side of the bed is cold.
Tony lets out a breath, dragging his hands down his face.
“Hit the lights, JARVIS,” he says through his fingers. “Update me. You know, the usual.”
“Very good, sir.”
“And don’t take that tone of voice with me, young man.”
“My tone is, as ever, sir, precisely how you programmed it to be,” JARVIS replies smoothly.
The blackout screens filter away from the windows and the sunlight streams through. News headlines and weather reports scroll across the glass faster than Tony cares to read them. Lying back, he puts his hand over his eyes. He looks through his fingers at the cracks of light, reddish with blood and skin where his fingers touch, fall gold in the gaps between.
With his other hand, he rubs the rim of the arc reactor.
“The time is 9:17 am,” JARVIS is saying. “Temperature 61.16°F, 16.2°C. Humidity 44%, wind speed eleven miles per hour and blowing south westerly. Excellent conditions for the armour. Would you care for a summary of the current headlines?”
“Nah, skip that. Tell me where everyone is.”
“Of course, sir.”
JARVIS whirs softly as he collects his data; he’d probably whistle if he could. Tony spreads his fingers while he waits, watching the light between his fingers grow into solid glimpses of the room, the window, the sky. Then he presses his fingers back together so the edges become a dull, red glow again. Then he drops his hand.
“Ms Potts is currently in a meeting, reviewing the budget with heads of department,” JARVIS says. “I’m sure you would be welcome to join her until your meeting with Colonel Fury.”
“Dr Banner is showering. Mr Odinson is in his quarters, experimenting with the verbal lighting commands. Captain Rogers fears he has broken the coffee machine and is thus making tea instead.”
“We have tea?”
“Dr Banner owns the tea, but there is a 93% probability that he has no objections to sharing. Agents Barton and Romanoff,” JARVIS adds, “are already at SHIELD’s New York headquarters.”
“Well, aren’t they a pair of eager beavers.”
Tony stands, yawns, stretching his arms and flexing his fingers. His skin feels itchy on the inside. He walks to the window and, with a swipe of his hand, brushes the scrolling text aside to leave the view clear. The city spreads far out below him. It shines. Four months on, there is still scaffolding all around the blocks closest to the tower, the area worst hit by the attack.
“What’s the schedule on the reconstruction?”
“Nearing completion, sir. Only a few major projects are still in progress, all scheduled to be finished within the first week of October.”
“Funding still going through okay?”
“Indeed. I believe many small businesses have taken it as a chance to refurbish.”
“Good. Nothing worse than an ugly deli.”
The sun is in his eyes. He touches a hand to the glass and blue light ripples out around his fingers, quickly reforming into a list of – something. Tony doesn’t read it. He remembers the sensation of falling.
“You ever dream, JARVIS?” he says.
“Not to my knowledge, sir, no.”
“You should try it sometime.”
“I will endeavour to do so.”
Tony smirks. He drops his hand and steps away, ignoring the itch deep beneath his skin. When he snaps his fingers, the doors to his closet glide open and he steps inside. Bypassing the rows of shoes and ties, he snaps his fingers again so the racks of shirts begin to slowly rotate, bringing new shirts up to the front until the cycle pulls them back again.
“Any sartorial preferences this morning, sir?”
“Big day today,” he says. “Surprise me.”
“Of course, sir.”
SHIELD’s New York base is everything the Helicarrier is not, starting with the fact that it can’t fly or turn invisible and working its way down from there. The place is temporary, thrown together, and smells constantly, faintly of mildew. There are no windows in the conference room.
Standing dimly in the artificial light, Fury rests his knuckles on the conference table and leans forward to stare, slowly, at each of them in turn. Tony swivels around in his chair to watch everyone meet Fury’s eyes without flinching, although Thor is the only one to muster up an affable smile in the face of the stinkeye. Being an alien Viking god prince is one hell of a confidence boost. Who knew?
Fury clears his throat and Tony quickly swivels back to face him, saluting him.
“Well, Stark?” Fury says. “Is this a mutiny?”
Romanoff shifts minutely.
“Ah,” Tony says. He sucks in a breath through his teeth, seesawing his hand back and forth. “Actually, I think you’ll find we’re the ones with the Captain. And you’re, Nick, I hate to break it to you, but you’re the one whose lifestyle choices include an eye patch. So if anything I guess we’re... regaining control of your pirate ship. This is an antimutiny.”
Someone kicks him under the table.
“Sir,” Romanoff begins.
“Okay, okay,” Tony says, holding up his hands, and Romanoff rolls her eyes but falls silent. “No more pirate jokes, let’s cut to the chase. You know as well as I do this isn’t going to work. The Avengers are currently the most famous group of loveable misfits in the world and SHIELD? I think officially you guys don’t even exist.”
He stands, because he always thinks better, talks better, when he’s moving. Pacing along the edge of the room, he raps his knuckles on the back of each chair he passes. Fury’s gaze follows him.
Tony smiles brightly at it, and says, “You’re super-secret, we’re just plain super. You fell face first into the black leather clothes store, we’re about five sequins and Black Widow’s hair extensions short of a drag queen on Mardi Gras. How’s that supposed to work together? I mean, have you seen Cap’s costume?”
He snaps his fingers and points at Steve, until Steve sits up straighter in his seat and clears his throat and says, slowly, “I guess the colours are a little... vivid.”
“Yeah, and the Pope’s a little religious.”
“Get to the point, Stark,” Fury says.
“My point,” he y says, “is that right now the Avengers are riding the public opinion high. We, lady and gentlemen, are loved. Tony’s one of the most popular boy’s names in the world right now – what? Don’t give me that look, it is. Pepper showed me.”
Fury rolls his eye, standing up straight and folding his arms. He clears his throat in a way that says I could kill you and make it look like an accident. Tony grins across at him and, continuing his stroll along the table, pats Thor on the shoulder.
“Class of ’31 is gonna have a buttload of thunder gods in it, too.”
“It is an honour,” Thor says cheerfully, because nobody, not even Fury, could kill him and make it look like an accident.
“But it’s not gonna last. That’s my point. I’m a futurist, and I have more PR experience in my pinkie finger than the rest of you put together. I can see how this is gonna go. Opinion sours, the shine wears off, and pretty soon all our little Thors and Thorettas will start asking the difficult questions. Things like, oh, I don’t know...”
Tony taps his chin in deep, sarcastic thought. “Like, who the hell are these devilishly attractive people anyway? Where did they come from? Who put this team together? Who’s controlling it now? Et cetera.”
Softly, Steve says, “SHIELD.”
“We have a winner. 90% of the answers to those questions are ‘big, scary, faceless organisation with an invisible flying machine and a leather fetish.’ That will go down so well with the populace.”
He pauses, taking a breath, and then when Fury – standing tall and silent, arms crossed – raises an eyebrow at him, Tony spreads his hands and shrugs. He slides back down into his empty seat, drumming his fingers on the edge of the table.
“Way I see it, the way we are right now, it’s too big to fail - and it will fail. You know it, I know it. SHIELD is exposed, we get dragged down with you. Or the Avengers lose favour, and you and all your leather accessories get dragged down with us. We need to cut the apron strings fast, while people still like us. Okay, speech over.”
Done, Tony leans back in his chair and crosses his arms.
The chair creaks; it’s the only sound in the silence that has descended on the conference room. Tony leans forwards and then back again, first with one shoulder and then the other, testing how the squeaky joint responds to different degrees of pressure. Next to him, Bruce winces and Clint mimes something enthusiastically violent from the other side of the table. Fury, frowning in thought, ignores it.
Tony braces a foot against the table leg and starts to swivel his chair back and forth, until he jars to a halt. He looks down at Steve’s hand on the arm of his chair. Steve is sitting straight-backed, staring up at Fury intently as if he’s waiting for new orders, but when Tony pushes against the grip on his armrest it only tightens, until he can’t swing his chair in either direction.
Tony narrows his eyes at Steve. Steve, glancing sideways, smirks at him.
The silence is broken by Fury clearing his throat.
“Agents, you’re in support of this?”
Barton straightens up sharply, snapping to attention. “Sir, yessir. Moonlighting, sir.”
“Yes, sir,” Romanoff says.
Fury turns to her and she adds, with a small shrug, “I think Stark’s right. The Avengers are too public to work well with SHIELD now. Clint and I have been compromised.”
“There’ll always be a place for you at SHIELD,” Fury says.
“Desk work,” Barton snorts.
“We’d like to... remain active in the field,” Romanoff translates, arching an eyebrow at him. “And continue to make use of our skill sets. We would still liaise with SHIELD where appropriate.”
Fury nods slowly. He drums his fingers on his leather-clad arm and then nods again, sharper, and he says, “Okay. Stark, I see your point. Romanoff, Barton, you’re reassigned.”
“Thank you, sir,” Romanoff says.
Barton silently punches the air and Thor, not so silently, throws his arms up and cheers. He grabs Bruce, sitting next to him, and pulls him into a tight embrace that leaves Bruce jerkily, awkwardly, patting him on the back.
“What?” Tony says. “That’s it?”
“It’ll take some paperwork,” Fury says to Romanoff and Barton, who nod along with his words. “Someone will forward it to you. I’m assigning an agent to act as liaison. Will that,” he adds, with a glance that sweeps around the table; his gaze settles on Steve, “be all?”
“Yes, sir,” Steve says.
Fury nods, and straightens up, and heads for the door.
“No, sir. Hold it.”
Tony leaps up out of his chair, sending it rolling across the floor until it bounces off the wall behind him. When Fury keeps on walking, Tony follows him to the door and through it, grabbing him by the arm as the door swings shut behind them.
Drawing to a halt in that cramped, windowless corridor, Fury looks down at Tony’s hand and then looks up at Tony, face impassive.
Tony lets go.
“Yes, Mr Stark?” Fury says.
“Okay?” Tony echoes. “That’s all? I mean, no offence, but I thought you’d put up more of a fight. I prepared a speech. Isn’t this whole thing supposed to be your super-secret boyband baby?”
Fury keeps on staring at him for a moment, until Tony has to surreptitiously check he’s not still holding onto Fury’s coat. When he smiles, Tony takes a quick step back, but,
“Stark,” Fury says. “You know how long I’ve been a member of SHIELD?”
“A little over forty years. Started as a new recruit when your old man was still in charge, but he stepped down a couple years later. His wife was pregnant. Things have changed a lot since then.”
“I’m confused. Did I accidentally say ‘dear Mr Fury, please tell me your life story’, or-”
“When I die,” Fury says loudly, flatly, speaking over Tony until Tony shuts up, “or retire, I suppose, if I’m lucky, I don’t get much say in who takes over from me as Director. Used to, but things change. Oh, I get a vote. Sure, a vote... if I’m still alive to make it. Me and every member of the Council gets a vote.”
Tony pauses, thinking Fury’s words through.
“The same council as in... ‘hey, let’s fire a nuke at New York’, that council we all know and love?”
“The very same.” Fury inclines his head. “Anyway, to answer your question... I like to think I’m old enough and ugly enough to know when a project has outgrown the organisation that created it. I’m sure a genius like you is familiar with the phrase ‘if you love something, let it go.’”
“Britney Spears, right?”
“Right,” Fury says. “Stark.”
“Colonel,” Tony says, with a nod.
“You’re playing in the big league now. Don’t screw it up.” Fury turns and strides away down the corridor, long coat flapping out behind him, pausing mid-step to throw back over his shoulder, “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”
Tony waits until Fury has disappeared around the corner. Then he draws in a deep breath, lets it out slowly. Flexing his fingers, he turns back to the conference room door and catches Steve’s eye through the window. Steve’s sitting up straight, staring over everyone’s heads with his expression inscrutable, as if he’d been watching Tony and Fury’s exchange from across the room and through the glass. Tony nods at him. He pushes the door open and four heads whip around to look at him while Steve looks away.
“Okay, children,” Tony says. “Fess up, who kicked me?”
Bruce clears his throat, raising a hand.
“I’m not angry, Bruce, I’m disappointed.”
“All is well?” Thor asks.
“All is 100% well.” Tony steps back, holding the door open with his foot. “Let’s blow this Popsicle stand – it means go,” he adds automatically. “Let’s go.”
Chairs scrape, shoes scuff the floor. Leaning back against the doorframe, Tony crosses his arms and watches everyone file out. Thor pats him on the shoulder as he passes by, making Tony’s knees buckle. Bruce neatly steps over the leg Tony sticks out to trip him, with a smile and a little bow.
Barton, squeezing past with Romanoff, whispers sotto voce, “If the answers behind the Avengers are 90% SHIELD, what’s the other 10%?”
“Bifrost,” Romanoff replies.
“God bless the alien rainbow bridge,” Barton says, their voices drifting off down the corridor together.
Tony waits, watching Steve fiddle with his ugly leather jacket and straighten the collar of his ugly plaid shirt. He taps the dial of his watch when Steve looks up at him.
“You don’t have to wait,” Steve says. “I know the way.”
“Leave no man behind.”
“I know the way,” Steve says again on his way out the door.
“Yeah, I know you do.”
Tony kicks the door shut behind him. Shoving his hands into his pockets, ruining the line of his $5000 dollar suit, he follows Steve down the corridor, taking 1.2 steps for each one of Steve’s. Steve glances sideways at him four times, but doesn’t say a word. Tony pretends he isn’t counting.
Outside, in the sunlight, there’s a helicopter waiting to carry all six of them home.
Tony makes a beeline for the couch the second he’s through the door. He flops down onto it and swings his feet up to rest on the coffee table. Leans his head back, closes his eyes. He can feel a headache building, scratching at the back of his brain. He listens to the noises that move around him: the departing chopper; five new pairs of footsteps filling up his tower; the sound of someone, gently, closing the balcony door behind them. Steve, Tony figures, or maybe Bruce.
“Bruce,” Steve says, his voice coming from the edge of the room but moving closer. “How are those tests going?”
“Still inconclusive,” Bruce sighs – Tony, with his eyes still closed, cocks his head. Only a few feet away. Steve, then, who closed the door. “I think I need a few more days, maybe a week.”
“That’s fine,” Steve says, closer still.
Someone with large hands delicately lifts Tony’s wrist up from the couch cushion he’s sprawled across and moves it into Tony’s lap. Tony opens his eyes to squint up at Thor.
“My friend,” Thor says, “I fear you may need larger seating arrangements.”
Thor sits down where Tony’s arm had been, making the couch creak; it’s already a pretty big couch, but Thor is a bigger guy. Tony magnanimously moves to the side, drawing his limbs in tighter as he looks around the room at them all. Steve is sitting on the floor on the other side of the coffee table, with his legs crossed so he looks more like a schoolboy than a living legend; Bruce, sitting next to Steve, looks completely normal, because he’s the kind of guy who probably sits on floors for fun.
“JARVIS, add it to the agenda. Item one: couch,” Tony says.
Thor next to him, still in his cape; Romanoff is sitting neatly on Thor’s other side with Barton next to her, half on the couch and half on the arm rest.
Well, Tony finds himself thinking, this is it. The team.
“Bigger couch,” he adds, sitting up a little straighter. “Maybe two. There are a lot of us, and Thor and Cap probably weigh more than the rest of the team put together. Item two: press conference. As in, we’ll need to schedule one.”
“Oh, goodie,” Bruce murmurs.
“We should wait until Fury has assigned a SHIELD liaison,” Romanoff says. “The agent will need to know what we’re going to do and say.”
“What about military and police?” Steve asks, and then when Romanoff raises an eyebrow at him, he adds, “I don’t want us stepping on anyone’s toes.”
Tony waves a hand. “It’s fine, I have a man on the military inside. And the NYPD have a collective crush on you, Cap; you can sweet talk ‘em. The rest, I’ll consult with legal. And we’ll need a publicist. Maybe we could register as a non-profit...”
He trails off, dragging his hands down his face. Nobody else says anything after that. Tony tips his head back and stares up at the ceiling until his eyes start to water, and then he closes his eyes. He wonders if Pepper is still in that meeting. He wonders if this is the mother of all midlife crises or just a psychotic break. Press conference, he thinks. Press conference, publicist, call Rhodey, call legal, and then – what? If Bruce’s tests don’t work, if HYDRA stays in hiding, if aliens don’t invade the planet again, then what?
Thor starts to hum something slow that rumbles sonorously through the couch cushions and into Tony’s skull.
Bruce clears his throat.
“Jesus,” Tony says, eyes snapping open. “I can feel myself aging here. Bruce, what’s your favourite colour?”
“I – what?”
“Come on. Let’s do this thing. We’ll be braiding Thor’s hair in no time.”
“We... will?” Thor says uncertainly.
“No, probably not. Don’t leave me hanging, Bruce.”
“Well, I...” Bruce takes his glasses off and wipes them on the edge of shirt, frowning. “Blue, I guess?”
“Calm, blue oceans, huh?”
“Something like that.”
Tony grins at him. Twisting in his seat, he turns to the right and points at Barton, who sighs.
“We’re really doing this?”
“My tower, my rules,” Tony says. “We’re doing this. Barton, best thing you’ve ever shot?”
“What, you mean other than aliens?”
“Yes, other than aliens. This is a voyage into the unknown, here. We’re not ready to reminisce about the good old days yet.”
Barton rolls his eyes. Swinging his feet up onto the arm rest, he crosses his legs and props his elbows on his knees, his chin on his knuckles. He looks about one pointy hat and a fishing rod away from becoming a lawn ornament.
“A shark,” he says. “In the eye.”
“That was a fluke,” Romanoff says.
“It still happened though, didn’t it? Stark didn’t say best thing I’ve shot that I was definitely aiming for.”
“I’ll allow it,” Tony declares. “Widow, you’re up. Uh... favourite food?”
“What,” she says, in her flattest monotone, “you mean other than my sexual partners?”
Down on the floor, Bruce coughs violently and buries his face in his hands and Barton lets out a great cackle of laughter, throwing his head back and slapping his knee. Romanoff blinks at them both as if she has no idea what the problem is. Patting Bruce on the back, Steve covers his mouth with his other hand. He closes his eyes. Tony can’t tell if he’s laughing or disapproving, only that the tips of his ears are pink.
He watches Steve for a moment longer, and then turns back to Romanoff. The corners of her mouth twitch upwards while she watches Bruce regain control of his lungs. Gotcha, Tony thinks.
“You’re a dark horse, Romanoff,” he says.
She drops her expression of blank innocence just long enough to smirk across at him over Thor’s bowed head.
“But I don’t understand,” Thor says, rubbing his beard. “You eat...?”
“The black widow is a kind of spider,” Romanoff explains. “Genus Latrodectus. The female is famous for cannibalising its sexual partners after mating with them. Highly venomous. I’ve never eaten anyone,” she adds, patting Thor on the knee. “I like apple strudel.”
Tony raises an eyebrow at her. She shrugs.
“Obviously I don’t eat it regularly, with my training regime. But more regularly than Clint shoots sharks.”
“Hey, Barton, aim for a hawk’s eye next time,” Tony says. “Make a thing of it. You wanted a new hobby, right?”
“I’ll shoot you in the eye,” Barton mutters.
Tony grins. He grins around at them all, at Bruce’s slightly bashful expression now he’s stopped coughing and at Thor’s blatant relief that Romanoff isn’t a cannibal.
“We’re learning valuable stuff here,” he says. He lifts a hand and ticks it off on his fingers. “Bruce likes calm, blue oceans, Barton likes injuring sealife, Romanoff doesn’t like eating people. Thor, you’re up.”
Thor sits up straighter, the whole couch shaking with the motion. He looks grave. This probably is valuable stuff to him. Midgardian bonding rituals 101.
“Favourite thing about Midgard? Don’t,” he adds quickly, “say Jane.”
“Ah.” Thor rests his chin on his knuckles, frowning. “The, ah... the spiky plant.”
There’s a pause. Tony slowly turns to stare at Thor, who is still frowning in deep thought. Beyond his giant, alien shoulders, Tony catches Barton’s eye and mouths, incredulously, ‘What?’ Barton quickly turns his face away, covering his mouth with his hand not quite fast enough to hide his choking snort of laughter.
“Cactuses?” Bruce says.
“Yes, that’s the word!”
Thor grins and then, lifting his head and taking in the team’s expressions, grins even wider. “My friends, you must understand, Asgard is a cooler realm than yours. We have no deserts. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have thought no living thing could dwell in such – such sand and heat. Truly, they’re the plants of warriors.”
Barton slowly drags his hand up his face to cover his eyes, his shoulders shaking.
“What’s Asgard like?” Steve asks, softly.
It’s the first time he’s spoken since they started playing this stupid game and Tony turns to look at him. He’s still sitting there cross-legged, looking calm and thoughtful as he leans forwards to listen to Thor’s answer. His hair fastidiously parted, his hands folded in his lap. The tips of his ears are still pink and Tony still doesn’t know if it was laughter or disapproval that he had hidden behind his hand.
“It’s... I’m no poet, Captain,” Thor says, “but...”
Steve gazes slides sideways to Tony. He looks startled for a moment, then raises an eyebrow. Tony realises that he’s frowning while he stares at Steve. He shrugs, looking away.
“It hangs in the stars,” Thor is saying. “Like a jewel. And there are pine trees in the mountains, and in the summer months, flowers bloom across the city like – like further, smaller jewels.”
Tony hates not knowing.
“You ever considered the Asgardian tourism potential?” he says, loudly, over Thor. “You’d make millions. That magical Einstein-Rosen bridge of yours would make Virgin Galactic look the Montgolfier bros. Man, their stock has plummeted since New York. Who knew alien invasion would be so bad for the space tourism industry? But you, people like.”
“I’m not sure that would be wise,” Thor says. “And besides, we have no need for Midgardian riches.”
“No,” Tony says. “I guess not.”
He glances back at Steve. Steve’s looked away.
“Cap.” He snaps his fingers until Steve looks at him. “What’s your-”
“Hold it, Stark.”
Tony double-takes extravagantly, peering around with raised eyebrows, and he says, “Barton, I didn’t know you cared.”
Barton folds his arms and lifts up his chin. “I don’t, but you’ve been going clockwise consistently. So it’s your turn to answer a dumb question, if you’re doing this right.”
“Me? I’m an open book.”
Barton rolls his eyes, scoffing, and Tony flips him off, but Bruce clears his throat and says, “He’s right, though. You have been going clockwise.”
“Bruce, how could you?”
“Pretty easily. Sorry.”
“Fine, you traitor. Come on, let’s get this over with.”
He looks around at them all. Barton shrugs.
“Well,” Steve says, “what are you working on right now?”
Tony draws in a deep breath. He holds up a hand and, “Let’s see. New armour, obviously,” he says, ticking it off on his fingers. “Got an electric car in development. Water filtration device, that’s our Wakanda contract, very hush-hush. Working on an airborne surveillance system. Upgrading JARVIS for his birthday.”
“You’re too kind, sir.”
“Many happy returns.” He wiggles his fingers at Barton. “That enough for you?”
“So do you get JARVIS a cake?” Barton says.
“And do what with it? Rub it on his motherboard?”
“Hell if I know. You’re the eccentric billionaire with a British butler computer, you think of something.”
Tony sighs heavily, rolling his eyes and dropping his hand, and says in a sing-song voice, “No, Barton, JARVIS is 100% cake-free. Now, can we continue?”
“I’ll allow it.”
“Cap.” He snaps his fingers again. “Favourite, uh... No, I’ve got it. Best thing you’ve hit with your shield. Personally,” he adds to Barton, sotto voce, “I’m rooting for killer whale.”
“That,” Barton mutters, “I’d pay to see.”
Sniggering, Tony turns back to Steve. He’s frowning, a hand over his mouth. He shakes his head when Tony catches his eye.
“I don’t know,” he says. “It was a war, I was a soldier. Most of the time I just threw it at Nazis and HYDRA. Red Skull, I guess?”
“If we hadn’t all been beating up aliens a few months ago, Red Skull would be pretty damn impressive,” Barton says. With a shrug, he adds, “Less impressive now.”
“Well, it’s a cross we’ve all gotta bear.” Barton stands, stretching extravagantly and says, around a yawn, “Good work, team. It’s been real. I’m going now.”
That’s Romanoff’s cue to get to her feet. She nods at Tony.
“We should make a start on Fury’s paperwork,” she says.
The two of them drift away together. The spell breaks; Bruce’s watch starts beeping, signalling a crucial point in some time-sensitive experiments, and he flees; Thor declares that he has to tell Jane of the day’s victories. He pats Tony on the knee as he goes. Tony will be feeling that for days, he’s sure.
“And there were two,” he says, rubbing his knee.
He looks around the room. It’s huge – of course it’s huge, because he and Pepper share an appreciation for wide open spaces, warehouses, cathedrals. It had seemed a lot smaller five minutes ago, when it was full of people. But you adapt.
He looks at Steve.
“I think that was the longest conversation I’ve ever had with people I wasn’t trying to sell something.”
“Well, I know for a fact that’s not true,” Steve says. “If nothing else, you and JARVIS gossip like a pair of old ladies in a grocery store.”
Tony stands, stretches, rubs an aching joint or two. Rounding the coffee table, he reaches out a hand to Steve without really thinking about it. Steve has already grabbed hold and pulled himself smoothly up onto his feet before Tony remembers that Steve is a supersoldier, that Steve holds himself like a gymnast vacationing in a brick shithouse. Steve could probably stand up gracefully with both ankles tied behind his head.
“I built JARVIS, so technically when I talk to him I’m talking to myself.”
“Sir, I strongly dispute this hypothesis.”
Steve smiles up at the ceiling, tilting his head back like most people do when faced with a disembodied voice – as if JARVIS were some kind of sarcastic god – and he says, “I think I agree with JARVIS on this one.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
Steve chuckles, ceiling-ward. Then he finger-combs his hair and smoothes his shirt and looks back down at Tony again.
“I’ll see you later,” he says.
Tony nods, salutes. Standing where he is, he watches Steve circle around the table and the couch and head towards the elevator. Tony runs his hand across the back of the couch. They’ll need a bigger one. No, two. And a press conference, a publicist, a consultation with legal. He needs to call Rhodey. He needs –
“Hey,” Tony calls.
Steve pauses with his finger on the elevator button. He presses it before he turns around.
“This is a good idea, right?” Tony says. “We’re not totally crazy. Someone would have noticed by now, if we were having a six person psychotic break.”
Steve’s lips twitch. He hesitates, and then sticks his foot between the elevator doors to keep them from closing. Folding his arms, he leans against the edge of the door and he says, slowly, “I think this is a good idea. I don’t think we’re crazy.”
Tony breathes out.
“Okay, great, that’s – Gotta trust Captain America. It probably counts as treason if you don’t.”
“It’s not treason-”
“I was joking-”
“-but you do have to pay a fine.”
They speak over each other, then stare at each other. Tony grins. He pushes his hands into his pockets and rocks back and forth on his heels. Steve does nothing but smile – but he doesn’t leave.
“You going all the way down?” Tony says.
“I am,” Steve says. He shifts to the side, keeping his foot against the edge of the door until Tony has passed through into the elevator. Tony presses his hand to the wall and drags a finger down to tap the blue light basement button.
“Hey,” Tony says as Steve steps back and the elevator doors slide shut. “Wanna come see my super secret basement labs? I promised you a tour someday.”
“Actually, I was going to take my bike out for a spin. But some other time?”
They stand in silence, but not uncomfortably. The elevator swoops downwards with a silken whisper and Tony can’t suppress the itch of pride that it barely feels like movement, as if the basement were the one rushing politely up to meet them. He thinks of his dream, that sensation of falling, for just one second and then he pushes it aside. Press conference, he tells himself, publicist, Rhodey, legal. He can feel that headache rising up again, like the beat of a heart between skull and skin.
“Your airborne surveillance,” Steve says, suddenly. “That’s the... the camera I took to Chacabuco, isn’t it?”
“Bastard cam, you mean?”
Steve rolls his eyes. “Yeah, that one.”
“I’m trying to get the little bastard flying.” Tony grins up at Steve, who huffs out a disgruntled breath. “But without actually attaching any repulsor tech to it. Ideally we’d want a whole fleet of them, flying independently, so they need to be dispensable. I start letting teeny, tiny, annoying repulsors fly around in battle, I might as well just turn my workshop into a garage sale. It’d be less messy and at least I’d get a buck or two.”
“So how’s it going?”
Tony shrugs. “I’m working on it.”
Steve smiles sideways at him. For a moment Tony’s damn sure he’s going to say something like ‘you can do it’ or ‘I believe in you’, to which Tony would respond with something sarcastic, but Steve’s jaw shifts and he swallows and his mouth stays closed, the smile fading until he’s just looking at Tony out of the corner of his eye.
“Hey,” Tony says. “Whatever the hell it is that HYDRA’s up to, we’re going to stop it.”
Steve stares down at him, turning to face him properly and blinking in surprise, and then he lets out a laugh. “Well, of course we are. I know that.”
“You’ve been kinda...” Tony shrugs, looks away. He waves a hand at Steve’s face. “Quiet. Long-faced. Downhearted. Since you got back from Peru with that headfuck of a gun.”
“Oh.” Steve pauses. “I didn’t mean to – It’s not HYDRA, it’s just something I’ve been figuring out.”
“No, I... Well, I.” He cuts himself off and lets out a low breath. After a moment’s hesitation, his lips twist upwards into a rueful smile. “You’d probably think it was dumb.”
Steve opens his mouth and the elevator glides to its silken halt, the doors sliding open onto the underground parking lot. Neither of them moves for a moment. Closing his mouth again, Steve rubs the back of his neck and looks out towards his motorcycle. Tony stares up at him.
“Basement level,” JARVIS intones in the dragging silence.
“Seriously, try me,” Tony says again.
“No,” Steve says. “Not today, anyhow.”
He steps out, and Tony follows him, rapping his knuckles on Steve’s shoulder. He takes one and a half steps for each one of Steve’s.
“I’ll work it out sooner or later,” he says. “I’m a clever man.”
“You’re a busy man.”
“With appalling priorities.”
Steve comes to a halt next to his bike. He runs his hand over the gas tank and draws in a slow breath.
“Leave it, Tony,” he says. “Please. For now. It’s not Avengers, it’s personal.”
“Okay.” Tony takes a half-step towards Steve and then rocks back, nodding and saying again, “Okay. Alright.”
He says it softly, as though he means it. It’s that, probably, that makes Tony open his mouth again, not quite sure what he’s going to say until he’s saying it.
“Wait. Before you go. One more thing.”
Steve shrugs. He slings a leg over his motorcycle and sits, resting a hand on his thigh and the other, loosely, on the handlebar grip. He has to tilt his head back to look up at Tony, while he waits, smiling faintly.
“Black Widow,” Tony says. “Were you laughing at her, back up there in our team bonding session? Humour me. I’m checking team morale.”
“Oh boy, she’s a funny lady when you get to know her.” Steve chuckles at the memory, ducking his head down. The tips of his ears, turning pink.
“Okay, that’s all. You’re free to go, soldier.”
“I’ll see you later.”
Tony pats the gas tank and steps back, throwing Steve a messy salute while he starts the engine. The bike growls, purrs, rumbles into life like a mountain lion. Steve nods at him before he drives away.
Tony isn’t the kind of guy who stands and watches until a motorcycle has disappeared into the distance. Instead, he turns and strolls to his workshop door, high-fiving the panel to open it. The sound of the motorcycle fades into the sound of all distant traffic. The door opens.
He turns left in the antechamber, to the door that is so small and innocuous compared to the heavy steel of the Hulk playground-cum-test chamber. He dials in a quick code and, when the door unlocks with a click, steps through into the small, white room. There’s nothing inside it but a smooth, black panel on the wall opposite. He presses a hand to it, and then leans forward for the retinal scan. After a few seconds, the black ripples and fades into a solid field of green.
“Authorisation complete,” JARVIS says.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Tony says, swiping the green away with a motion of his hand. He taps a finger to the restored black and enters a long code onto the keyboard that appears beneath his fingers.
“Certainly, sir. Ms Potts has completed her final meeting of the day. At current traffic conditions, she will return to the tower within twenty-two minutes, assuming she takes a direct route.”
He hits enter. With a beep, the elevator begins to descend.
“If the meetings were bad, she’ll probably stop by Jimmy Choo on the way.”
The descent is just a brief one. The elevator beeps again when it reaches the bottom, the floor settling into place. Tony taps in the final exit code on the black console panel. It ripples into green one last time before the colour seeps away entirely, the panel blending seamlessly into its white surroundings, and a crack forms down the middle of the wall; a pair of automatic doors that glide open before him.
He walks through into the bright, blue light of a fully-body scan. He holds himself still until it’s scanned him from head to toe, and then he swats the lingering beams of light away.
“Identity confirmed: Anthony Edward Stark.”
“Honey, I’m home.”
He claps his hands, striding forwards. Light floods into the workshop. The metal shutters roll up from the display of Iron Man suits that lines the outer edge of the great, curving room. A hologram of his latest Mark VIII schematics floats down to hang over his workbench, rotating slowly and enticingly. Tony swats that away too.
He sits down. He drums his fingers on the edge of the desk.
“JARVIS, lights to 60% - no, make it 57%... And down another point five. That’s it.”
He leans back in the dimmed light, rubbing his eyes. He can feel at his back the familiar thrum of the arc reactor through a foot and a half of metal and glass. Call it a vanity project. Call it one last bow for Howard Stark and his beautiful, impractical giant before Tony had the blueprints destroyed. The full-sized arc reactor sits underground, in the centre of the foundations, hidden from view with Tony’s private labs and workshops wrapped in a protective circle around it.
Call it a monument to bad relationships with deceased father-figures.
“Lift section four of the reactor shutters 20%,” he says.
With a whirr, the set of metal shutters next to his desk open up a couple feet, light spilling out through the gap to illuminate the room in white and blue. The row of armour gleams along the opposite wall. Tony turns to face the chamber, squinting into the light until he can see the arc reactor hum through the protective wall of reinforced steel and glass. His own chest throbs in sympathy.
“Hey, you never told me you quit SHIELD when Mom was pregnant,” he says.
Then he snorts, shaking his head. “Which makes sense, as you never even told me about SHIELD anyway. Close it up again, JARVIS.”
The shutters lower again. He spins back around to his face his desk and then, after a pause, drags down the computer hologram screen. He opens a folder and pulls the two video clips inside it, motioning for b-cam-001 to play.
‘I want you down the far end,’ the Tony onscreen says into the camera. ‘Whatever comes outta-‘
“Fastforward 15%,” Tony mutters, leaning back to watch the workshop zip by while Butterfingers move into position at the far end. The camera swings around to face Steve and the other Tony, the two of them moving back and forth in the middle of the workshop, mouths moving too fast to understand.
He pulls file y-cam-001 up and drags it to the adjacent screen.
“Can we sync these timestamps up again? Thanks.”
You’s camera remains in roughly the same position while JARVIS fastforwards, focussed on their backs as Steve and Tony moved and talked and pulled on their safety gear. The image freezes abruptly when it syncs with b-cam-001’s timestamp. Tony leans forward, resting his chin on his hand.
“And play,” he says.
He frowns up at the screens, watching himself pull the trigger from two different angles. The light bursts out so bright both images become, for a moment, entirely flooded with white. He watches the light on the second screen come rushing towards him, Butterfingers rolling backwards with the force of it. When the light hits the wall, the camera shakes and the screen goes blank.
“Pause. Rewind three seconds, play at 50% speed.”
He watches, looking back and forth between each screen. The light pours out like syrup.
“Slow it down another 10%,” he mutters.
Leaning in close, he can see the light crackle and bubble; it moves like a stop-motion capture of an icicle forming. Tendrils lick out from it, lightning fast even at this speed, reaching out towards the ceiling and the floor, searching for a surface to latch onto. It hits the wall at last and Butterfinger’s camera goes dark in a burst of static. The other clip keeps playing, the light spreading like frost across the wall. Tony stumbles back slowly, slowly into Steve and Steve lifts a hand up to Tony’s arm, the movement dreamlike.
“Down another 10%,” Tony says. “Minimise Butterfingers and rewind You point five of a second. Pause.”
He frowns up at the frozen image. On screen, Tony’s mouth is open, his hands caught very, very slowly lowering the gun. He slashes a finger around the portal’s impact zone and drags that section forwards, enlarging it.
“Jump forwards two frames?” he says.
“Sir, password override zero-zero-one in use,” JARVIS says. “Ms Potts has returned home and is currently in the Penthouse elevator.”
“Okay, great. Forwards another frame.”
“She enquires after your wellbeing.”
“I’m – JARVIS, could you clip this from, uh, here to... here.” He drags his finger over the play bar. “Save as a new file. Play.”
He watches. When the clip ends, he zooms in further, dragging the image until the screen is filled with light.
“Okay, replay. Slower.”
“Some might call that insufficient data, sir.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, baby. What’s the slowest you’ve got? Come on, impress me.”
JARVIS would sigh, Tony knows, if he could. But he obliges, and Tony leans back in his chair and watches. His eyes are aching, his head is throbbing, and there is something on the other side of that blue-white light. Of course there is, it’s a portal, they already knew that. But –
“Go back a frame,” Tony says. “Okay, make it back two. Play. Pause.”
He stares up at the screen. There’s something there, in the stars, and it’s moving.
“Back,” he says. “Play. Pause. And again.”
“Sir, Ms Potts ask when you will be up.”
Tony sighs, dropping his head onto his hands. He pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Right,” he breathes. Louder, “Tell her I’ll be up in five – no, ten. I just – I need to know what...”
He trails off. Lowering his hand, he frowns up at the screen again. The image is frozen and blurry, but there it is. A shape. A shadow, moving in the stars and the bright, white light.
Tony hates not knowing.