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Arc Tremors

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The Leviathan stank, up close, of ozone and rot. Even Iron Man's air filters weren't up to the job of keeping that stench away and he twisted his lip in disgust in the privacy of his helmet.

"Well, we got its attention... what the hell was step two?" He snarked, turning tail as the leviathan's enraged roar rattled his suit. Blasting back towards Stark Tower and away from the fleeing New Yorkers, he switched back to the team radio in time to respond to Thor's analysis of the Tesseract's defences. As they plotted, he let the leviathan gain on him, quietly smug and triumphant as Bruce made his appearance.

"Banner?"

"Just like you said."

"Well, tell him to suit up, I'm bringing the party to you."

He swung wider around the corner of 51st and 3rd, the beastie following obligingly but still clipping the sky-scraper with a great graunching of metal and glass.

"I don't see how that's a party."

XXXXXXXXXXX

"-wipe out midtown."

"JARVIS, put everything we got into the thrusters."

Away from the city, the sky was clear, and there wasn't any dust to obscure the sun. It was quiet, apart from the roar of his own propulsion, until Natasha's voice came over the comms, wavering with hope. Tony's plan settled, and he called the stop, letting his teammates know just how high the stakes had just risen.

He pulled up under the nuke's path, ready to catch it and pray that it wouldn't go off under the heat of his repulsors. "-and I know just where to put it."

The comms were silent, and Pepper didn't pick up the phone when he called... The speed and sharp turn as he pulled up, skimming Stark tower, crushed him against the chest plate, but the nuke flew true and they broke through the portal into sudden and absolute silence.

JARVIS' connection stuttered and failed, his thrusters cut out, and his air vanished, leaving him staring into the vastness of space, glittering and heaving with alien ships. Soon, the smoke and glare of the nuke cleared and it vanished into the hulking mass of the central ship, it's glow obscured for two long seconds before the ship's skin bulged out in an expansive fireball.

Triumph, hypoxia and relief battled over dominance in Tony's head, as gravity began to reassert itself through the portal and he started to fall. Too late, he thought, closing his eyes against the glare, lungs burning and head clouded. There was a jerk of acceleration as he breached the portal and Earth's gravity came back full force but he wasn't awake to feel it.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

The adrenalin of the Hulk's insistent wake up call had been enough to get him breathing, but sitting in his lab while JARVIS peeled him out of the crumpled titanium and sparking circuits, he couldn't shake the feeling that there wasn't enough air. Admittedly, he couldn't breathe too deeply because of the dents in his armour, but still.

Clint, who was holding his scotch hostage, provided ample distraction though and was on the receiving end of half a dozen small projectiles, ranging from bits of circuitry to coin-sized titanium plates that had made up his gauntlets. Bruce was getting coaxed into eating by Steve, the Hulk had worn him out, and Tony found it extraordinarily unfair that none of the take-out containers had made it his way. Unfortunately, he couldn't lift his arms above his waist and Pepper was still on a jet, so it would have been impossible to eat anyway.

The archer was distracted by his fellow assassin pulling glass shards out of his arm while JARVIS was working on Tony's left leg, and no one could hear the billionaire's whining over the angle grinder anyway, so he slumped inside the suit. He didn't know how long he'd been unconscious for, JARVIS hadn't rebooted the suit yet and that might still be a lost cause. He didn't know how long he'd been in such thin air, so the heavy, mind-numbing headache probably went without saying. What worried him was the hazy quality to his thoughts. He was so used to having blinding flashes of realization and a thousand things running through his head, that the quiet was horrifying.

The grinder gave a last spray of sparks and shut off; JARVIS could finally get the dis-assembly rig in place and his legs and hips were free after a whirring thirty seconds. As the pressure of the crushed thigh plate released, blood rushed back into bits of his leg he hadn't known he had, giving him the worst case of pins and needles in the history of metaphors. He wasn't in the habit of suppressing his reactions to things and his pained and relieved groan, one that turned breathy towards the end as he tipped his head back, got him strange looks from all his team-mates. 'Natalie' was smirking in a particularly obnoxious way.

With the abdominal armour gone, JARVIS could get the chest plate off using something that looked disturbingly like the jaws of life, wedged on either side of his waist and wrenched outwards to pop the seams that had been fused by plasma rifle shot. The chest piece was lifted away and finally he felt like he could breathe again. He stayed lying in the backplate, eyes closed and just breathed.

The arc socket ached fiercely and everything hazed out for a minute, until cool fingers touched his throat, searching for his pulse. Bruce. Captain Stars-and-Stripes was hovering over his shoulder when Tony opened one eye to glare.

"You didn't tell us you were having trouble breathing." Steve admonished, and Tony thought for a second that he might just have found out where his dad had learnt his stern look.

"I'm fine. Tell him I'm fine, Banner!" He sniped, turning big, puppy-dog eyes and a pout to Bruce and heaving himself upright as proof.

"He's fine." Bruce obliged, patting Tony's leg deliberately heavily. The pins and needles flared and he gritted his teeth;

"Thanks, doc. Now, schwarma?" He said, making grabby motions with his hands.

He did get his food, eventually, once the Cap was done haranguing him, but the tightness was creeping back over his chest and making him drowsy.

Loki was captured, muted and ally-less, there was no harm in just taking a bit of a nap, was there? He would wake up when Pepper arrived.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

The gallery, with its Loki-shaped dents, had become the universal dumping-ground for worn out heroes; Tony was flat out on his back on one leg of the expansive sofa, fast asleep. Clint had taken another, lying on his front with a pillow under his chest and his head on his forearms because of the rapidly purpling quiver-shaped bruise on his back. Bruce and Thor were sitting on the centre section while they argued over the god's stab wound, which no one had noticed until the Aesir had taken his armour off. He was being very blasé over it, and it wasn't bleeding so Bruce wasn't worrying too much.

Natasha was cleaning not-red blood off her knives and finding it very cathartic, thank you very much, considering she'd had to steer and alien cyborg hover-buggy with them. They could have gotten nicked. Her tazer gloves were out of juice and she was filthy; not something she'd ever appreciated, but she was still feeling decidedly smug that she had been the one to close the portal and end the invasion. The nuke might have had something to do with their enemies all shorting out at once, but all the same.

Steve was lying on the floor with a gel pack on the plasma burn on his stomach, which he'd only conceded to once Fury had finished debriefing them. He'd go out and help with the rescue operations in a few hours, once the burn had scabbed over. Fury had stressed the importance of the Avengers visibly helping the clean up, particularly him, Thor and Stark. Tony had already sent out his employees and most of the city was running on arc power while the transformer station finished burning itself to the ground. The Leviathan bodies were going to be a real problem, Steve mused absently.

Pepper's arrival was accompanied by significant fanfare; she'd channelled her stress and worry into organising the cleaning crew of Stark Tower, which did, despite the rumours, have some human elements. One of the little hoovering robots was persistently bumping into Steve's leg, though. She was all orders and organization, pointing Agent Romanoff to a shower kindly, pointing a group of young men with large sheets of plastic to the broken windows and then rounding, with a vengeance on Tony Stark.

Lucky man, Steve thought, pushing the happily beeping robot away with one hand, then turning his gel pack to its cool side.

Tony woke slowly, blinking and giving Pepper a wide and unusually honest smile, still feeling hazy with sleep. "Miss Potts,"

"Tony," She replied, not joining in on their usual mocking exchange and sitting next to his waist. He didn't bother trying to sit up and pulled her down onto his chest instead, "I'm sorry I missed your call, I'll never put down my phone again, I promise." She muttered quietly into the space between the side of his head and the back of the sofa.

"Mm, you've been a terrible secretary." He mumbled,

"Not your secretary."

"Fine, CEO. Happy?"

"He's fine," She said, sitting up with a smirk, deliberately misunderstanding.

"d' you do that thing, with the arc?" He asked as he sat up to cough gunk out of his throat, his crash landing had been dusty.

"It's up and running, though I don't trust people not to try and get a good look." She tipped her head to one side with a shrug.

"It's a miniaturised model; obsolete for all intents and purposes apart from generating electricity. Did you remember the little sticker thing?" He asked, taking a bottle of water off Pepper and throwing back half of it without stopping.

"Yes Tony. Only you would forget to label your radioactive power sources," she drawled, pulling up the deployment roster she'd hashed up for him; there were Stark technicians in every hospital and power station in the middle of the city, making sure they had electricity. Tecare, the Stark medical branch was handling anyone without insurance... etcetera, etcetera... He flicked through the digital documents in an off-handed way before shoving the tablet down the back of the sofa and wrapping his arms around Pepper's middle.

"Have I told you that you complete me? You do," he said, with that liquid brown stare and a quirk of the head.

"Yes, you have. You were hung over at the time," she commented, responding to a text on her Starkphone.

"Ah, yes. Now I recall; you threw JARVIS out of the back of a plane." He pouted and withdrew his hug.

"It was just your helmet, and you deserved it," she muttered absently while he huffed at her.

"JARVIS, how're we looking for functional suits?" he queried in a slightly louder tone,

"The mark VI and mark VII are beyond repair, sir, and previous models will not function with the Starkanium core." Hawkeye was suddenly sniggering unabashedly and Tony made a note to have JARVIS spray-paint the man if he ever ventured into the 'shop. Thor was looking around curiously for the source of the voice, but Banner cut in with an explanation before he could ask.

"Fix it. Start production on a mark VII, skip self assembly entirely and salvage compatible parts where you can," he ordered, leaning back on the sofa and closing his eyes to visualise the specs. "Optimise for speed; estimate?"

"Eleven hours, sir, including shock-proof coating," the British voice intoned, without so much as a pause. "Shall I have it ready to assemble on the flight deck, sir?"

"Do it. Send me the salvage list when you have it." He said, pulling the tablet again and tapping through the directory.

"Expecting something, Stark?" Barton muttered with his face buried in the sofa.

"Don't imagine for a moment that I missed the delivery of two buckets full of arrows, bird-brain."

"Quivers, They're called quivers. And you were asleep, Sparky, how'd you even know about that?" the archer grumbled, rolling his shoulders slightly and groaning; he wouldn't be able to draw his bow comfortably for days.

"Sparky? Thats the best you can manage?"

"I keep track of all deliveries to the building, Agent Barton," JARVIS answered when it was clear Tony wouldn't.

"Creep..."

"Would you like to take over screening for explosive devices and biohazards, sir? It would not be a hardship." The AI retorted,

"Nah, I'm good," Clint said, subsiding into silence, so Tony went back to looking over the scans of each salvaged component and ignoring the claggy feeling in his chest. He rubbed one hand over the arc reactor absently; it was humming normally, warm and reassuring.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

The Iron Junkpile was ready by the time he woke up to JARVIS' weather report and he felt a little more secure in his own skin, knowing that he had a suit, as battered as it looked, if something happened.

"- at two-point-four meters, with a fine onshore wind-"

"Cancel surfing update on all not-Malibu wakeup calls, JARVIS." He said with a grumble, propping himself up on one elbow and manipulating the suit schematic on the enormous screen windows. He missed the holographic manipulability, but if he went down to R&D now Pepper would kill him.

"Of course sir. Would you like to hear the Opening stock prices, sir?" the AI asked mildly.

"Shoot. I only nearly died, how bad can it be?" he muttered, flopping back to the mattress as the window filled with numbers. Tecare had had gained three points over night, unsurprisingly, Stark Industries had taken a hit... and FBF, the company handling the arc power distribution had taken an enormous hike. Not bad at all.

He rolled onto his stomach and went back to sleep.

Ping

"Hey, Stark, what does someone have to do to get some food around here? Oi!" –ping-

Tony couldn't tell how much time had passed, but he had been dozing for a while, and seriously did not appreciate the paper projectiles stinging his bare back and right ear.

"JARVIS, security protocol two-five-point-eight."

"Yes sir, the neurotoxin or curare, sir?"

"What the f-?"

It was safe to say Clint didn't shoot any more paper at him, and the scrambling sound as he left the room was gratifying, but Tony was awake and figured he might as well get up anyway; there would be coffee. He rolled out of bed, straight to standing and grabbed a t-shirt, since, as he was now painfully aware, he had guests. It was just settling over the arc reactor when the head-rush hit, first blanking out his vision, then sending him crashing to the ground with a dramatic thump.

"Stark?"

XXXXXXXXX

Chapter Text

Clint Barton was good with unconscious people; he could drag then, carry them, hide them in closets, dump them in cargo holds, and even make them not-unconscious, but he was fairly sure an arrow to the head wasn't called for in Stark's case. He yelled instead;

"Natasha!"

He ventured into the room, watching the ceiling warily for paralyzing darts, the vents for cloudy poisons, and knelt next to the insensate billionaire's head to see if he was still alive; he was.

"You need not be concerned, Mr. Barton, the protocol is no longer in effect. Dr. Banner and Agent Romanoff are on their way." Clint was seriously considering the need to find JARVIS' weak spots, just in case the bloody thing flipped out and tried to kill them all in their sleep. He had a dim recollection of shooting a modified arrow to take over a computer before the memory froze and his thoughts stuttered away from it.

"Uh, thanks...?" he said to the empty room, uncomfortably aware that the computer's cameras were focused on him. Stark's pulse was slow and steady, as if he was asleep, but his eyes were wide open, if glazed and unfocused and he started shifting, so Clint backed off and rolled him onto his back by pushing on a shoulder. There was the rumbling sound of jogging footsteps in the corridor, and Banner rounded the doorframe just as Stark's eyes blinked slowly and refocused rather eerily on Clint.

XXXXXXX

"Tony? What happened?" Bruce asked the room in general, crouching next to his teammate and putting a hand on his chest. Tony's eyes and head were slow to turn and focus on him, but there was a little frown there.

"No idea, one minute Hal is threatening me with poisons, I'm making tracks and I hear a body going down." The archer responded seriously, gesturing at Tony, whose head rolled in an attempt to get more people in his field of view, his frown deepening.

"MzzHuhga wha?" Tony garbled, sitting up suddenly and dislodging Bruce's hand from his shoulder.

"Easy Tony, easy. What happened?" Bruce said, lurching to prop him up as he listed dangerously to one side.

"What're you doing in my room? Pepper, why are they in my room? Shoo. Where's Pepper?" Tony muttered petulantly, "You can stay," he announced, pointing vaguely at 'Natalie'. He was universally ignored.

"Stark, what happened?" Bruce asked again, insistently.

"I got up too quickly. Shoo!" The billionaire replied, hunching forwards to cough, just once, loudly.

"Wait, you fainted?" Clint exclaimed incredulously, his usually serious expression breaking into a smirk.

"Was the threat of permanent paralysis not enough, Feather-Brain?" Tony growled right back. Bruce ignored them both and re-instated his hand on Tony's chest, getting him a funny look, and taking his pulse at the throat while they sniped. It was on the low side of normal, about sixty beats a minute, and regular; normal for a fit man, in his (probably) late thirties. He didn't have a blood pressure cuff on him, but low BP was most likely, followed by anaemia, but Tony's colour was good. He pinched his thumbnail and the white faded back to pink almost as soon as he let go; circulation too. He let go of Tony's wrist and the man snatched his hand back, glaring, and scrambled to his feet.

He nearly fell again, but Clint and Bruce propped him up until he got his balance back. Bruce was watching his face; sudden pallor, combined with the roving, glazed look on his face meant Tony's BP was definitely on the low side; he probably couldn't see at that moment.

"Coffee?" Tony whined, "I could murder a cup of coffee. A whole JUG. JARVIS! Make me coffee." He shrugged off their supporting hands and headed to the kitchen, head down and ignoring them all. Bruce glanced at the two assassins as they followed; Natasha shrugged,

"He once spent a year dying and told no one," she said simply. He didn't find it comforting.

XXXXXXXXX

Caffeine was as lovely a mistress as it ever had been and he was well through his first cup before any other Avengers arrived. He poured himself a second while they settled around the breakfast bar awkwardly. They hadn't actually used the kitchen yet and Tony wasn't about to make any concessions, not after humiliating himself so thoroughly.

"JARVIS, Celery, carrot, orange, apple, and... hmph, spinach." He said to the AI, in a rather absent fashion. The fridge whirred almost before he finished the list and his guests eyed it warily. He stuck to his coffee, not making eye contact and scratching his chest absently.

"What's going on, Stark?" The Black Widow, as blunt as ever, sat with her elbows on the table, leaning forwards and giving him that look, the one that Natasha Romanoff had, but 'Natalie' didn't.

"I'm making a smoothie. Want one?" He said flippantly, waving a hand and turning back to the robotically equipped fridge and retrieving his smoothie, which was a dark green, with a yellowish-green foam on top. The assassin looked at it with an expression of extreme distaste and raised an eyebrow at him. "Suit yourself. JARVIS, show these fine people where breakfast is, I'll be in the lab."

"Of course sir," The AI started before Natasha slammed a hand down on the table and cut him off.

"No. Not this time, Stark. We're waiting." She looked evil, in a way that someone who looks meek and beautiful in a summer dress and can break your neck with her thighs can look evil.

"Look, I spent, what? Four minutes?"

"That would seem an appropriate approximation, sir,"

"Mh. Four minutes without oxygen yesterday. Carrying a nuke, into space. Forgive me for not being in top shape," he said with a condescending look and a dismissive gesture.

"You've got a point, what? He does!" Hawkeye muttered, getting a smack on a bare bicep (honestly, did he ever wear sleeves?) for his trouble. Bruce, Tony noted, was looking at him solidly, glancing at the glass in his hand and raising an eyebrow.

Tony conceded the point and raised the green sludge to him in salute before downing half of it.

"Sir, a call from director Fury," JARVIS intoned, a screen lighting up on the nearest glass panel with the call data.

"Pick it up," Tony quipped, standing in front of the screen and flicking his fingers to turn the camera on. "Fury, nice to hear from you so soon!"

"Stark, we have a situation developing. The leviathans have started to... inflate." Fury's face twisted in displeasure and the gathered Avengers cringed.

"JARVIS, Google 'exploding whale' and link the Director to the video." Tony said, "And on a side note, what's the hellicarier's load capacity?"

"Aw HELL, no, I am NOT using a top-secret, camoflaged mobile base to clean up dead space-whales."

"Pity."

"Just suit up, Stark, oh, and bring Banner." Fury hung up on him, and Tony spun, clapping his hands together.

"Well, you heard the man. JARVIS, break out the jaws of life again, and fill the plasma torch. Bruce, there's a Stark Medical scanner on R&D level four; lets get a read on these things before we try and cut them up, shall we?" He rattled off, heading to the assembly platform and rubbing his hands together. The three left in his wake looked at each other with mixed expressions. The buzz of phones interrupted them as Clint and Natasha were summoned.

"Orders. Fury's scrambling a Sikorsky from Stewart Air Base." Clint said, phone going back in his pocket.

"Pilot?" Natasha asked, already heading out the door, barely sparing a glance for Tony, who was arguing with his assembly machinery.

"Me." He huffed, producing his bow case from next to a sofa as the pair headed for the temporary helipad on the roof. "He's sending a SHEILD quinjet for us now." The whirring of blades was already approaching. "See you on the ground, Banner."

Bruce nodded and waved slightly with the hand holding his glasses. By the time they were gone Tony was mostly in his suit and using the gauntlets to punch out a dent in one of his salvaged plates.

"Um... JARVIS? Can you keep an eye on his vitals please? Just in case?" He asked, not sure whether the AI would even register his voice.

"That is among my functions, sir. Shall I keep a recording?" He replied mildly, Bruce nodded, then stuttered a verbal affirmative in case the computer couldn't see, feeling a little foolish. He looked back at Tony just in time to watch him rocketing off towards the nearest Leviathan.

XXXXXX

The Iron Junkpile wasn't a bad piece of work, for a rush job, he mused as the thrusters fired smoothly. The cutting equipment hooked onto the back plate was easy to compensate for and he zipped towards the nearest Leviathan.

"JARVIS, get the Cap on the line."

"Stark? Good timing, this is beyond what normal clean up can handle." Rogers said with a grunt half way through the sentence. Tony found the shield by its glint and let himself sink down to street level.

"Good morning to you too, when did you get up?" He said, pushing the faceplate up manually. Steve was already filthy, wearing army fatigues and a white shirt. His shield was slung over his back, strapped on with a belt, and he was hauling Chitauri into the back of a cold-store eighteen wheeler.

"Haven't slept. You up to this?"

"What? Is there something on my face?" Tony said, projecting nonchalance and looking the Cap over for the exhaustion he should be feeling, but apparently wasn't.

"The suit looks pretty beat up, no offence, the super-soldier said, tossing a seven-foot alien into the truck by its chest piece. Tony noted that it was taking normal people teams of three to move the bodies and grumbled internally about augmented people.

"None taken; it wouldn't stand up to a fight but it'll lift a few tons. How're we looking?" He crouched down to pull one of Barton's arrows out of a Chitauri faceplate. The thing twitched spastically as nerves were disturbed, to Tony's disgust.

"Road's almost clear; once these bodies are down to the incinerator we'll be able to get in something bigger," Captain America replied. He didn't look much like the battle-ragged Steve Rogers Tony had had passed out on his penthouse floor with an icepack.

"How much bigger are we talking about here?" he asked, raising his head to stare the Leviathan in the face. It was draped on its back over a building that was never meant to take that much weight.

"That... might be a problem."

Tony grumbled and went back to the corpse at his feet to examine the armour; it was fused to the skin, but came off with a sharp tug and a thoroughly disturbing ripping sound. "Well that's somewhere to start, at least." He commented, turning the sintered metal over in his hands, "We're going to need some stakes, and Mjolnir; let's get this thing out of its shell."

XXXXXX

Tony was really feeling the strain by the end of the day; beneath his faceplate, his skin was sickly gray and he'd had to mute his microphone so his laboured breathing wouldn't creep out the others on the line. If they noticed he was quieter than usual, they didn't comment. JARVIS was urging him to return to the Tower, but the job was nearly finished. He clicked his com back on as he looped the last cable over a spine and secured it with a karabiner the size of his head.

"Alright, Hawkeye, payload nine tonnes. Take it away." He said, tugging on the chain before zipping back out of range of the chunk of space-whale.

"Copy that." The heavy-hauling Sikorsky helicopter lifted away and the last piece of leviathan went with it.

It was getting towards midnight but the last of the armour was loaded and headed out of the city after its former owner; they were done. His suit was filthy with scorch marks, alien blood and other things that he wasn't going to think about; it stank. A fifteen-second dip that cut the surface of the Hudson for four hundred yards later, he was freezing and his knees were wet but he smelt less like a slaughter house.

The gallery was fortunately unoccupied when he staggered in, the Iron Junkpile having practically fallen off him of its own accord. He leant shakily against the bar and poured himself a scotch; his head was swimming and it needed a legitimate reason to do so. It didn't help that there was a thought lurking on the edge of his mind that he really didn't want to look too closely at. He could feel his heart lurching against the back on the reactor; the cough, the fuzzy feeling in his head, the lingering darkness on the edges of his vision... What he really needed was JARVIS' infirmary and a new fucking heart. His glass shattered violently against the wall and he stalked unsteadily to the elevator.

In the lab, he took it out on the broken pieces of the Mark VII, hurling them against the wall with silent rage. Four or five swings later and he was done; there was only so long anger could hold out against the spinning dizziness and fading eyesight. His head throbbed and no matter how hard his chest heaved, there just wasn't enough air in the room. He crashed into an assembly table on his way to his diagnostics bench, knocking a half-forgotten project onto the floor and bruising his hip, then careened into Dummy before dumping himself on the dentist's chair.

He stripped out of his t-shirt and hooked up the reactor to JARVIS, leaning back in the chair and slumping.

"Sir, do you wish me to call Dr Banner?" JARVIS intoned while Dummy rolled forwards with an oxygen mask in his pincers. Tony waved the robot away, but took the mask and took a deep, chesty breath. The clear, slightly dry air cleared his head and he reached out to turn the monitors on with a gesture.

"Not necessary, JARVIS, he's been on a Hulk-bender." He mumbled, fingers flying over the holographic interface

Diagnostics on the reactor came back fine, unfortunately this wouldn't be fixed with just a shiny new core, and he slapped the heart monitor stickers onto his chest and clipped an oxygen probe to his finger. He really needed to design one of these things that didn't try to bite the end of your finger off, he mused, aware that his thought processes were suffering from the long day.

He wanted to just... sit there for a bit and breathe, sleep sounded good too, now that he thought about it. He pulled up the press reports for the Invasion and spread them across the holographic screen in front of him, letting the images flicker across his field of view.

He came back to himself, from the empty fog of over-worked body and not enough blood to his brain, when Bruce started puttering around him and talking quietly with JARVIS. At some point, Tony isn't exactly sure when, Bruce asked him for permission for something; Tony would give Bruce anything, so he agreed, and the nod dislodged his mask. Bruce put it back for him and he twitched his head away angrily but it'd been a long day and he was frightened and his leg hurt and his chest ached and he was cold. So Bruce tied the mask on and he couldn't be bothered to get it off his face again.

Bruce was asking about the reactor, but it was pointless, because it's fine, and it was his heart that's breaking down. He pulled the blanket (where did that come from?) up over his shoulder and turned on his side.

"...be alright in the morning. Lights." Tony mumbled, but JARVIS didn't listen beyond turning off the monitors and the medical spotlight.

"Come on, Tony, you can't sleep here." Bruce muttered quietly, pulling on his shoulder and forcing him to sit up.

"...'can. JARVIS'll watch m'heart. Shove off." He grouched through his mask. Bruce had the oxygen tank slung over a shoulder on a strap and he was already disconnecting the heart monitor leads, but not taking the stickers off his chest, which made Tony glare at him suspiciously.

"Can't do that, Tony. I'm not going to let you lock yourself in here when you have arrhythmia." Bruce had an arm 'round Tony's waist and pulled him off his nice, soft, slightly creepy dentists chair. It was walk or fall; Tony chose walk and they headed up to the penthouse.

"Have you even eaten anything other than that shake today?" Bruce asked as they passed the kitchen.

"Are you kidding? With my arms shoulder deep in dead space-whale? I don't want to eat for a week." He growled back, not wanting to even think about it. He hadn't had a shower and his suit wasn't exactly waterproof; he would smell like the Hudson, even if he didn't smell like corpse.

"And you had a glass of scotch instead. Wonderful; you're as bad as Barton." Bruce muttered, turning the oxygen saturation up before Tony's laboured breathing could get any worse. Without any sugar in his system, with a heart still recovering from the stress of space, and four units of alcohol just hitting him and thinning his blood, it was a wonder the man was standing.

What? What's wrong with bird-brain?" Tony mumbled plastically, Bruce just dumped the billionaire onto his billionaire-playboy bed, which was gratuitously large, and ignored his question. Tony pulled the mask away from his face, sat up against his headboard and asked again.

Bruce shrugged; "Loki." And said nothing further.

"Right..."

"Go to sleep, Tony."

Chapter Text

After Loki and Thor were gone, the Tower seemed utterly deserted and Tony and Bruce set up in an R&D lab with a Chitauri blaster; it was slow going, and the tech temprimental at best. Tony hadn't mentioned how his heart still stuttered occasionally, or how climbing stairs made his vision grey out but he suspected Bruce knew anyway. The alien tech had stopped showing up on ebay by the end of a week and the black market mop-up had gone well; he could tell by the smug look on Natasha's face at the debrief.

Stark Medical was doing well; scanners and monitors that had been handed out by the Maria Stark Foundation were doing better marketing than the marketing department, but Tecare was dipping now that the feel-good factor of handing out premium medical insurance to victims without the resources to pay for it had faded. The arc reactors had all been recalled, even the one that had been purloined by the Mayor, and the city was back on its own power; to the relief of all its politicians, most of which he had managed to piss off at some point in the process.

At least his penthouse didn't have a bloody great big hole in it anymore; JARVIS was pleased, it disconcerted him when he couldn't control his internal environment.

"..ony. Stark!"

"whuzzat?" He jerked upright, pliers flailing and his spark goggles making his hair stick upright. He'd finished the Mark VIII, after three weeks of R&D, and fiddling with Chitauri technology in the meantime, and was working on a... huh. He looked again at the circuitry under his ring-light and tilted his head to one side. He would have to come back later and reverse engineer whatever it was he'd designed in his haze. It looked a bit like a blender.

"Fury's calling us in; there was a gamma leak into the Gulf of Mexico."

Tony's available information on the Gulf flickered quickly through his head; Deep Water Horizon, Cuba, Hurricanes, Miami, Shrimping...

"I am never going to eat shrimp again..." Tony groaned, pulling his goggles off and scrambling after Barton, who was already half way up the stairs, as quickly as he could without getting obviously out of breath. Details were being read aloud from a file by various people in the gallery as he scrambled blindly to change into his neoprene under-suit;

"Sonar's showing 'increasing density at 26-north, 89-west' heading towards the south coast at, I don't even know how fast that is." Steve read without pausing in the pricess of buckling his armour over his chest, "Barton?"

"uh..." there was a pause as the archer finished zipping into his jacket and leaned over, "fast, way fast."

"JARVIS, can we get that on overlay? Project course and bring up anything in their path." Tony ordered, tucking his shirt neatly under the suit and zipping up.

"Of course, sir. The Mark VIII is awaiting deployment." The dry British voice said, even as a hologram sprung up in the middle of the room showing a disturbingly hurricane-like projection of the swarms path. "It's always New Orleans, what is wrong with New Orleans?" Tony muttered, already stepping out to the assembly platform.

"Sir if I may, the swarm will not reach the coast for over six hours, however there are seven fishing vessels, four oil rigs and a pleasure cruiser in the path that will be in danger in significantly less time."

"Shit. ETA?" he asked, rolling his shoulders to get the armour settled.

"The next vessel will become threatened in a little over an hour, sir. The Mark VIII may make it in time." JARVIS intoned, "Preliminary data suggests the cruiser will not withstand the turbulence, even assuming the swarm will do no direct damage."

"I'm heading out," Tony barked into his radio, getting Natasha's voice back.

"Copy that, our ETA is two and a half hours." The commotion in Stark Tower died a swift death as Captain America, Hawkeye, the Black Widow and Bruce, who would hopefully only be needed in his scientific capacity; they had no idea whether the Hulk could swim, piled into the quinjet on the roof. Seriously, there was a helipad right there on the balcony, why did they keep using the roof? He grumbled a note to JARVIS to send Fury a memo and blasted off the assembly rig. Not interested in playing dodge-the-skyscraper, he climbed to well above the city before leveling out and heading south at mach 2.  

"Bruce; talk science to me; what are we facing, here?" Tony asked once he had got in touch with Air Traffic Control and Rhodey to make sure no one took pot-shots at him. His friend had been asleep, but mutant, bioluminescent sea creatures wait for no one.

"Off shore oil rig reported reading an excessive amount of gamma radiation from a drill site during the 0300 testing cycle, rig subsequently went of grid at 0314." Bruce read, looking up at the screen showing Tony's face and the feed from his external cameras. He was doing that glasses thing again; fiddling.

"What are we talking about, hulked out reef sharks? Red Skull octopi? Shrimp?" Tony asked rising to avoid a bank of cloud in the process of dumping its water on the land below.

"Last radio transcript reads; 'Oh god, the legs, the legs. Please help.'" The flat voice Bruce read it out in seriously did not help. "I'm going to go with shrimp, but gamma effects anything with DNA, so don't bet on that being the only thing going on."

"Okay, all of the above it is. How we looking, J?"

"Sir, two of the seven fishing vessels will be able to make it out of the danger zone prior to the swarms arrival," JARVIS said as new satellite data popped up on the HUD.

"Good to hear. What's SHEILD's play?" he asked over the radio.

"They're already at the origin rig, the well capped automatically when something broke the pipes. Three survivors; no one's talking yet. Fury's got the coastguard evacuating the other rigs but it's not going to be fast enough, and the fishing boats don't have heli-pads." Steve answered, "Wait! Tony, you getting this?"

There was a crackle and Tony tuned in to a transmission; the camera was wobbling and just barely showed the horizon but the thick mass of bioluminescence had turned the sea a vivid, glowing green, streaked through with blue. The sea frothed and churned, throwing up huge sprays of water that sparked with the light coming from below.

"I... Wow. At least we'll be able to see. Any clue as to why they're headed towards New Orleans?" he barked, manipulating a captured still and having JARVIS pattern-match it. The blue markers picked out monstrosities with too many legs, sharks, and, to his horror, an obscenely large Humboldt squid.

"I'm on it," Bruce muttered, calling on JARVIS while Tony concentrated on scanning the incoming footage and working out if he could get a cruise liner four miles east in under ten minutes.

"Waterford Steam Electric Station, Unit 3, listed as a pressurized water reactor. Twenty five miles west of New Orleans," Bruce said in a short, clipped voice after a long stretch of mumbling, research and a phone call to the EPA, just as Tony got close enough for the green swarm to become visible on the horizon.

"Peachy. Take your time, guys, I'm only facing giant, mutant sea monsters, intent on eating power-grade uranium for breakfast," h growled, power breaking to decelerate to a stop near the cruise liner. There was no way to move the damn thing in time, it was too far out to evacuate, and his backup consisted of three helicopters which were still five minutes out. His team was too far to help, and even then, they weren't exactly cut out for naval combat. He swore again, viciously, and ignored the heavy thumping in his chest from pulling too many g's.

He was going to have to hold them there for almost half an hour, without his team, while the liner escaped westwards. "For the record; I don't even like seafood." He growled, powering forwards to meet the advancing wall of light head on and pitching into the water. The suit hissed and locked down, it's filters and coolant systems closing off to stop the water getting in. Unlike the Mark VII, he wasn't carrying pressurized air, but he had a few lung-fulls before he needed to resurface.

"Noted. Hang in there Stark; Miami airbase has a fix on your position, the gunships will be there any minute. Bruce had them stock some stuff that might let you hold them off," Natasha reported crisply. He barked an affirmative and ploughed towards the swarm, the first, fastest creatures whipping around to get a good look at him. A marlin snapped at his calf and he shifted his boot repulsor to blast it away.

"How're we looking on the laser cutters, J?" he asked taking scans of the swarm and turning through ninety degrees to skirt in front of if, firing his palm repulsors at full power into the water to leave a band of boiling water that scorched the two-foot long shrimp red.

"Charging at 47%. Capacitor will reach peak charge in seventeen seconds." His AI informed him as the whine picked up. He pulled up, out of the water and looked back along the trail to see if it had done any good. The forward line swam mindlessly into the trap, flinched back and promptly exploded in a haze of light. Individual shapes that had been coated in green light went dark as the glow jumped ship, leaving the over-sized sea-creatures as almost invisible shadows under the surface. The ...things following reached the band the moment after and fell on the dark shapes viciously, shredding the darkened bodies into fishfood. A wave of nausea threatened to make Tony humiliate himself and he choked out a message to Bruce;

"You seeing this, guys?"

"It looks like the light is some sort of organism; a parasite. The stuff that jumped-up the sea life must have given it a boost too. It's preventing conspecific attack somehow, but when the host dies, they disperse to a new one." Bruce said, sending Tony a clip of video, which he set playing in the back ground as he dove to make another sweep. It showed a mind-controlling worm making a snail commit suicide; he was never going to eat Escargot again, either.

"Wow, thank you for that lovely input, Dr Banner." Tony snarked, closing the window and trying to get the image of a green and white, pulsating snail-antenna out of his head. He upped the output on the repulors and scorched another line on a diagonal directing them away from the cruiser.

There was a ping as the capacitors finished charging up and he burst out of the water again, only to drop back into the middle of the swarm and swing the beam around in a spiral as he sank. The sea went dark for as far as he could see through the murky water, which thickened with blood and bits of shrimp. There was a moment of stillness, just long enough for the spent lazer cartridges to pop out and drift away from his gauntlets, before the swarm fell in on itself, attracted by the sudden appearance of food. He blasted his way to the surface, just in time to see the darkened circle turn into a frothing mire of slime filled bubbles and blue-green light.

"Well that worked." He muttered, watching at the outer edges of the swarm contracted in towards the feeding frenzy at the centre.

"Ironman, this is Heavy Hitter from the Miami Narc Unit, requesting instructions, Over." A calm male voice crackled from the radio and a new set of blips appeared on his HUD, distracting him from the horror of too-many-limbs below.

"Copy that, Heavy, what've you got?" He asked, gaining a bit of altitude to get the three helicopters on visual.

"Twenty bricks of C4, sir, and two .30 cal machine guns, some grenades, and the stuff the doc asked for. Couldn't get any mines, sir, sorry." The pilot answered as the formation pulled up between the cruiser and the swarm, which was beginning to surge forwards again.

"All right, I've got an idea. Strafing runs, kiddo; empty your rounds into the brightest bits you can find." He switched channels so only the Avengers could pick him up "What's he on about, Green-Man?" he asked as he blasted out of the way of the helicopters and headed for the cruise ship.

"It's chum. Shark bait. Stinks to high hell, but should give them something to follow for a bit." Clint Barton, of all people, answered.

"Personal experience, Hawkeye?" The archer didn't respond beyond a grunt. He landed on the deck of the passenger ship with a heavy thump, the frightened and life-jacketed passengers backing away from him warily. Those who weren't hanging on to the railing and taking video on their phones, at least.

"Where's your captain? Crew, anything, come on;" He snapped his fingers metallically and raised his faceplate. A kid in uniform was pushed forwards and stuttered an unintelligible greeting. "Never mind that," He snapped, "Get me floats, pool toys, mooring buoys, anything. Move it!"

He stomped over to the edge of the terrace and ripped the safety net off the side, flipping it out. "On the net, quickly, tick tock!" a truly random assortment of float-capable objects assembled on the deck, from pool-noodles to scuba buoys over the next thirty seconds. He gathered the net up, ignoring their questions, and took off back into the night, bemused holiday makers chattering wildly behind him.

"Alright," he switched back to all-bands transmission, "Co-pilots, listen up,"

The helicopters had made four passes, their machine guns spinning up and starting to flash with tracer bullets. The lines of dimmer water they left behind soon boiled savagely and Tony let himself sneer in disgust.

"What'dya need, Mr. Stark?" A female voice asked, and he looked away from the carnage, adjusting his trajectory to meet the lead helicopter, Heavy Hitter.

"First thing; knock knock." He said as he came alongside, fighting the down-wind and banging on the sliding hatch. There was a startled curse over the radio and the hatch slid open, letting him tumble inside. His cargo of floats scattered around the hold and the hatch slammed closed behind him.

"Second thing, what sort of detonators have you got?" The co-pilot shook herself and began ripping open Velcro and retrieving the detonators, reading off their designations. "Right, this, this I can work with." Tony said, pulling open the crate of C4. "I'll get you your mines, Bruce."

Chapter Text

With each pass of the helicopter, the swarm shifted and surged, its course bent sideways as it folded in on itself to consume the unfortunate dead. Tony leaned out of the open hatch, knocking his faceplate down briefly to map the swarm's dynamic again.

He had calculated that ten-foot paylines on the charges, just under the blast radius in water, would do the most damage to the 30-foot deep swarm. Any deeper and they wouldn't kill the top layer. The barrels of shark-bait he would dump in the middle of the circle of mines. It would be a kill-zone four hundred feet wide, but even then, he doubted they'd get them all and there was no guarantee that the luminous parasites would die when the hosts did. In the distance, the cruise ship's engines were at full throttle and it would just have to be enough. 

He growled off-air and pulled back into the hold to finish the bomb on the bait barrel itself.

"Where do you want us, Stark?" Hawkeye asked over the radio and Tony dropped his faceplate; they were half a minute out.

"There." He tagged a point on the far west of the swarm. "Kill as many as you can and the whole thing will shift towards you, no large ordinance until the first mines have gone off,"

"Copy; keep them away from the ship. Rogers, you got the machine gun, I'll take the wing mounts." He tuned out their chatter, leaning out again to watch them take position. The swarm heaved as their three guns started flashing.

"Alright, pilots! Bring us around; co-pilots, drop the mines. Any last orders, Doc?" he asked Bruce as the helicopters, freed up by the arrival of the quinjet, pulled up from strafing runs and circled. He heaved the barrel of shark-bait to the hatch and gave the co-pilot he was riding with a little wave before dropping out of the helicopter. He powered up and jetted west once he was clear, dropping the barrel and ripping its lid off as it fell. The three helicopters flew a circle around his position, the makeshift charges dropping every three seconds, give or take.

"Cease fire, Hawkeye! Pull up!" He barked as the sea below bled red and brown and wow that stuff stank. The quinjet and his air support pulled away from the killzone, their radio a tense silence as every one watched the swarm shift uncertainly. Three, four long seconds and then it surged, the water boiling with light.

"Hold it... hold..." Hawkeye murmured; Tony was trusting the man's eyes on this one, and his hand hovered over the remote detonator taped to his thigh armour, flipping off the cover. "Now!"

He pushed the button and the world went green.

The spray was thrown up hundreds of feet in a ring four hundred feet across and the concussion blast from the barrel at the centre met with the shockwave from the perimeter and god help anything in between. Water shot into the air, splattering across the suit and he had to fling an arm out to knock the carcass of a crustacean the size of his torso away. The circle below went dark and the straggling edges were stunned, the light dim and still.

Tony gave a small, breathless laugh, triumph bubbling in his chest, as the blasted water started falling like rain. A mile north east, the cruise liner rocked on the wave and there were cheers over the radio.

"Wohoo! Yeah, that wasn't so bad." Tony remarked, repositioning his limbs to power towards the quinjet. Bruce was standing at the back with his hand on the ramp controls as it lowered and Tony slowed to come in gently. Natasha was a damn fine pilot and it was a steady target.

It was the light, the god-damn green glow, that warned him. Too late, too, too late, as it lit up the underside of the jet and a tentacle the size of a tree trunk and four times as long struck the side. Bruce hung in space for a moment, grip on the safety webbing jerked loose as the jet was suddenly not where it had been. Then, the shock on his face shifted into anger, anger into rage and by the time he struck the water fifty feet below he was very, very green. Tony barely had time to change direction, and no time to ascertain whether the Hulk could actually swim, before he blasted into the tentacle with a smack like a wet towel hitting a tiled wall.

The impact flung it away from the jet, bending the appendage in half around the strike point and sending its long tip whipping wildly through the air, but the right-hand rotor was already stuttering, its broken fuel line and sparking control systems combining in a burst of smoke and flame.

"Pull up! EVERY ONE, GET AWAY FROM THE WATER!" He bellowed on an open channel. Tony's heart lurched sickeningly as he tore away from the monstrous suckers trying to curl around him; the sudden jolt of adrenalin made his chest ache and now was not the time.

"Shit, BANNER!? Iron Man? REPORT!" Steve was yelling, leaning out of the back of the jet, arm tangled in the webbing.

"Bigger company than shrimp, Bruce Hulked out before he hit the water, right engine is on fire," He barked, hauling ass up and away from the water. There was a round of swearing and the fire sputtered out as someone cut the fuel valves in the jet; it started to lurch to the side ominously. He was there before it could drop more than a few feet, bracing his shoulders against the underside of the propeller housing and locking his legs, trying to match the power output of the repulsors to that of the engine opposite.

"JARVIS, get into the navigation system. Widow; he'll match what the engine would have done, just... fly straight," he growled between clenched teeth, breathing hard. A snatch of Hulks voice from below went a long way towards reassuring him, but it was only a snatch before the sound of churning engines, white water and gunfire took over.

"Copy that. The liner got a heli-pad?" she asked and a readout appeared on the HUD of what the engine should be doing.

"Would a mini-golf course do?" he asked, snappy and watching for more tentacles rising from the churning green sea.

"Close enough. Cap, get on the radio with the liner; clear the deck."

Tony narrowed his eyes as bits of the chaos beneath him begun to splinter off, bullets of luminescence headed for the civilian ship. "Problem, guys; the shoal's lost cohesion. The boat's going to come under attack any minute," he reported succinctly, swearing under his breath.

"The crew are on it," Captain America's voice echoed through the Avenger's private line, "it looks like isolated individuals; we should be able to hold them off. We being Romanov and I. Stark, once we're down, get Hawkeye up in one of the helicopters, and go after the... thing. What is that?"

"You mean the giant tentacles playing tennis with Bruce? 'm gonna go with squid. Definitely squid. Bigger than the ones we saw on the way in," Tony said, training a camera over his shoulder and zooming in, in an attempt to get a bead on the Hulk's status. "Must have been at depth, attracted up by the... uh, chum."

"...Great. Just... peachy."

They got the quinjet down with no casualties beyond the horrible quaint mini-golf windmill and they tumbled out to the deck. Tony heaved Clint back up with very little warning, while the Cap and Natasha ordered the unarmed crew below deck, against their feeble protests.

"Heavy-Hitter; open the hatch, I've got something for you," he radioed ahead to the lead helicopter and it pulled up out of its attack run, picking off as many stray creatures as they could. They weren't daring to shoot at the main event, not with a friendly in the mix. They couldn't hope to hurt the Hulk, but it was a nice sentiment. He adjusted his grip on Barton's harness and gained altitude to follow. The archer had his head ducked and eyes closed against the wind, his hands locked tight on the ridges of the armour.

"Copy," The helicopter had pulled to a standstill and the co-pilot had the side open wide. Hawkeye couldn't hold up to the sort of landing Tony had pulled earlier, which had rocked the entire helicopter, so he pulled up and hovered for a second.

"You do acrobatics, right?" He asked and Clint looked at him with an eyebrow raised. "Yeah, never mind. Ready?"

He nodded. Tony shifter closer and heaved the man over the remaining space; braking with repulsors that close to the co-pilot wouldn't have been a good idea, so once the archer was clear, he cut power and dropped gracelessly towards the ocean, his forwards momentum thumped his shoulder against the landing gear, but the angle was good and he barely felt it.

"Fuck, Stark. Just... fuck. We need to not do that. You alive?" Barton asked, huffing slightly over the radio.

"I'm good. Nice landing?" He snarked, zipping towards a bulge beneath the water that was glowing more brightly than anything he'd seen yet.

"We're good, scared the shit out of the crew, but we forgive you. I got these guys; go back the Hulk up."

"Right. Try not to shoot me down." The bulge turned out to be the squid's body and suddenly he was fucking glad they'd pulled the swarm away from the cruise liner; it was almost as big as the ship. Its front end was a boiling, writhing mass of tentacles and water and thick, black ink. JARVIS managed to pick out the Hulk, a fist swinging into the side of a tentacle as big as he was, but Tony couldn't see him outside of the still J pulled up.

"Deploy missiles, gaze-targeting." The plates on his shoulders shifted and opened up, the HUD changed and he tagged a line along the squid's flank before firing. The explosions made the squid roll, one massive eye turning up out of the water and an arm lashing towards him, but the flank was almost completely unharmed. He swore loudly and blasted away from the grasping limb, swinging around for a second pass, hoping to keep its attention; his manoeuvrability far outstripped Barton's ride.

"Alright, switch to armour-piercing," He muttered to JARVIS before switching back to comms, "Is it weird that my calamari preferences are influencing battle tactics? It feels weird, Barton, is that weird?"

"Christ, don't talk about eating in connection with that thing, do you want me to throw up?" Clint replied as the helicopter he was using as a mobile snipers nest came around. "Though, now you mention it, I could go for some of that squid-ink pasta." The only evidence that he'd fired anything during the pass was a muffled explosion below, presumably from an arrow, followed by a much more messy one, which looked like a grenade. The exposed eye was gone, the mess of torn and burnt flesh completely unrecognisable. A hearty roar reassured them that the Hulk was above water, at least for now, and Tony traded off with the helicopter, coming in for a second go.

The sharp-nosed missiles struck the squid's flank and sunk deep before detonating and Tony whooped as the squid turned its new, gaping wounds towards the water, exposing its other, massive eye.

"It's all yours, Hawkeye, blind the fucking thing." He growled, shooting forwards to scan for the Hulk. He couldn't get him out of the water, but he had his back, he would always have Bruce's back.

Tony got in close; with his ammunition running low, he needed to fall back on his lensed repulsors. He burnt holes in any tentacles that ventured above water and dipped to hover near the knot of pained writhing that he strongly suspected the Hulk was right in the middle of.

"Hey BIG GUY, you in there?!" He yelled, dialling his external speakers up to maximum. The combination of ink and bioluminescence made it almost impossible to see what was going on more than a few inches below the surface but the Big Guy hurled a torn of length of tentacle at the squids head and was visible for a few seconds; yeah, seven more to go, buddy.

"STARK, LOOK OUT!"

"What the fu-" an arm, twice, maybe three times as long as the rest of the squid shot out of the water, a massive, leaf shaped pad of suckers on the end. The impact was enough to rattle his brain in his skull, his vision sparked and he had no way to tell if it was the way his head snapped back or actual damage to the suit. He brought his right-hand repulsor to bear but the blast made the limb curl around him convulsively, crushingly tight. He hit the water in seconds and a count-down flashed up in urgent red; three minutes, before he'd lose air, and less than a minute after that he would start getting hypoxic.

"Arrow to the brain would be good right now, or possibly five minutes ago," He snarled, fighting to get his right arm back from the dinner-plate sized sucker that had folded around his forearm. His left arm was a lost cause and half his sensors were already covered. Instinct had kept his face clear, but with his arms held fast, the limb was inexorably winding over him and his camera feeds went blank.

"-ir, you must stop struggling, sir!" JARVIS' frantic voice finally made it through his panic and he froze.

"What... what the fuck? I can't breathe, what's..." He started thrashing wildly, trying to push the amorphous muscle off his chest.

"Sir, STOP! If you continue, you will pass out in under fifteen seconds,"

He stopped and slumped inside the armour, feeling the clicks as JARVIS locked down the joints. Good luck to the squid moving any of his limbs now, he thought in a manic, frightened way, trying to ignore the deep, wet wheeze every time he drew breath. He hadn't noticed until then, but the display JARVIS put up showed the heaving of his chest, the wheezing, getting progressively worse over the course of the fight.

"Fuck. What now?" He growled,

"Now you wait; Barton is less than a minute away from firing an arrow loaded with the cores of six grenades into your opponent's brain and the Hulk is approximately ten meters away from this position." JARVIS said in an infuriatingly calm voice.

"I've got that long?" He asked in a tone that was not a frightened whine.

"You do. You currently have enough air for three minutes and twenty seconds, at current consumption." There was a bone shaking thump and Tony tensed automatically, but there was no impact.

"Squid is down, I repeat, Squid is down." Tony had never been quite so pleased to hear Clint Barton's voice as he was right then.

"Thank go- fuck I don't even know anymore, Thor. Maybe." He panted, feeling wrung out. The tentacle folded around him slackened and JARVIS unlocked the joints. He dragged his arm up slowly and popped a hole in each of the suckers clinging to the armour, freeing himself. His heart spiked in panic as something closed around his waist again and he thrashed, a gauntlet striking something harder than tentacle. It was fruitless; the grip did not relent and his arms were soon pinned too. His breath came in short, desperate pants, his lungs feeling like they were full of water. Had he drowned without noticing?

Not a moment too soon, his head broke the surface. Inky black water rolled away and he could see again and the dark, non-luminous green on the Hulk came into view. The faceplate snapped open and he went completely limp with relief; being cradled against the chest of your room-mates alter ego? Not the worst way to end a mission.

The Hulk clambered up, clear of the water and Tony's stomach swooped; they were on the move. Helicopter? He couldn't tell, his eyes had closed and he was concentrating too hard on pulling in salty air to open them again.

"Tony." There was a grunt and the Hulk shook him a little. "Awake, Tony. Now." He demanded, and that gruff voice was full of reproach.

"'m awake," He gasped, drawing a deeper breath afterwards and forcing his eyes open. "Thanks, Big Guy; we're making ... a habit of this," He put on his best grin, but it trembled around the edges. Hawkeye was quickly scrambling down the ladder from the helicopter above them, something bulky on his back, and before he knew it, all three of them were safely on the deck of the pleasure-boat. Tony staggered away from the Hulk, but his limbs went weak when he tried to support his own weight and he made it four steps before he was tumbling back towards the deck. He wasn't sure what Bruce had been doing while he moved, but he was sure as hell there to catch him, scooping him up and back against a broad, green chest.

Apparently, three weeks of companionship had made a dent in the guys Id.

"Sorry, Big Guy, I'll just stay here... shall I? Yeah, I'll... do that," he wheezed.

Chapter Text

"Breathe, Tin Man." The Hulk rumbled, carefully setting them down and laying Tony against something, his wasn't sure what, but it wasn't Hulk in origin, which made Tony just that little bit less comfortable. But then the Hulk was shrinking and listing to one side and then it was Bruce, gasping and shuddering and about to fall over.

"Christ, Banner, c'mon," Clint wrapped a blanket that had come from who-knows where around Bruce's shoulders and dumping a first aid bag on the deck next to Tony's leg. "Don't pass out on me."

"Now what, JARVIS?" The archer asked as he rubbed Bruce's arms briskly, which was wrong, because he hadn't heard his AI saying anything to anyone since the squid and Clint had a hand to his earpiece and was obviously listening to something.

"Oi, JARVIS, you talking about Daddy... behind his back?" He grumbled into the neck of his suit.

"Yes sir. Please stop trying to talk, sir."

"D'you jus... tell me to shut up? Never done tha' before." He mumbled, mouth open to continue when JARVIS' crisp British tone interrupted;

"Mute. Sir." And Tony shut his mouth again, so he could let it fall open in shock. Three seconds of bemused amazement later and he closed his mouth, smiled ruefully and muttered, just to be contrary,

"Alright, but only 'cause you ...asked nicely."

He didn't complain when Hawkeye and the Star Spangled Man with a Plan knelt on either side of him and hit the manual releases for the armour, pulling him out awkwardly and helping him stumble onto a deck-chair, nor did he so much as grumble when he realised that JARVIS was leaving the inner layer of chest armour on and projecting his vitals for everyone to see.

They gave him a blanket too.

Steve was replaced by Natasha and there was a series of metallic thuds as the Cap' cleared stray sea-beasties off the deck. Most of them already had holes right through them, Tony noted, and the green glow that had tinted everything was just gone. The lurches in his chest started to come less often and lying down was nice, because he didn't have to hold his weight up and he didn't bitch when he made acquaintances with another oxygen mask because it was good and he could breathe.

"Hey, Bruce..." He muttered quietly at the recovering scientist, who had been, in the intervening period, equipped with pants. He still had his blanket, though it was sort of draped over his shoulders like an afterthought.

"Arrhythmia, shortness of breath... was it the water? Or the ticker?" Bruce asked, close and accusing and quiet enough that Clint and Natasha, who're coordinating the clean up with Fury, don't hear.

Tony doesn't want to answer, so he just sits there; like the time Rhodey helped him with the arc's core, either Bruce would push, or he would leave, and Tony had to know which.

"Tut, tut, Mr Stark," Bruce's voice was so low it rumbled, chiding and strangely amused. "Steve is going to be annoyed with you,"

"Mhn. He's gonna do the thing, isn't he; I hate the eyebrow thing..." Tony said, waving a vague hand at his head.

"Yes, yes he is." And then Bruce's hands were on his wrist, turning his hand over, pinching his thumb. Tony relaxed into his deck-chair, ignored the monitoring system mean, mean JARVIS had left him in, despite it pinching under his arms and closed his eyes. "When are you due for more Beta blockers?"

Tony grunted and took his hand back. "Twenty minutes ago. What was I supposed to say? 'sorry, Daddy can't play today, you'll have to save the South Coast without me'? An', you are not s'posed to know 'bout that..."

"We're grateful you came, really, these people wouldn't have made it, but that doesn't mean you get away from the eyebrow thing. Got any with you?" Bruce asked, wilfully ignoring Tony's accusing tone.

"No." He cracked an eyelid to give Bruce a glare. "When did you realise the... Monster from the ...Black lagoon would come after you?" he asked in a slightly petulant tone. How he managed that through breathlessness and an oxygen mask, Bruce had no idea.

"When I realised it was tracking the radiation of a nuclear reactor with full containment, from two hundred miles away. The Other Guy isn't exactly contained, hmm? You're losing your touch if you missed that, Tony," he said, raising a hand over the mask that Tony was about to pull off in irritation.

"I was a little occupied at the time. You knew Big Guy could swim? Coulda shared that with the class." He grouched,

"We can swim, Tony; it's not hard."

"Pointy things and swimming, I'll remember that," he said, dropping his gesturing hand back to the lilo; he was tired, and grumpy, and just a teeny bit, just a tiny little bit, afraid. The chatter of teammates and JARVIS in the near distance was reassuring but his heart was still skipping beats occasionally, unpredictably and lurching against the back of the arc reactor. He must have hazed out, focused on drawing a few deeper breaths because when he tuned back in, Steve was standing with Bruce, just off to one side.

"-need anything else?"

"Sleep, his own bed? He's fine for now, I'll run some tests when we get back and he's had his meds. It... might be a bit not good, Steve. I've been keeping an eye on it and JARVIS has him on the best regime for the circumstances, but if this is how he reacts to adrenalin... it doesn't look good. It doesn't help that we don't know what 'it' really is, the reactor interferes with-"

"Traitor," Tony mumbled at his AI and tuned out the good doctor; that was supposed to be their little secret.

"Indeed, sir."

There was a heavy sigh and a long pause, the Steve's voice; "Alright, let's get him home. SHEILD are ten minutes out; anything you need, tell me."

"Right."

"Barton! Give me a hand with the armour."

"I have locked the articulator elements, Captain Rogers, may I suggest a stretcher?"

Tony turned his head to the side, looking over the liners side; dawn was coming and there were other ships on the horizon.

"Hey, JARVIS?" He said in a voice so quiet only the AI could have hoped to hear him, even in a perfectly quiet room. There was a quiet beep to show that he was listening,

"It hurts..."

"I know, sir. Rest."

"How am ...I looking, really? We're what, stage ...two now?"

JARVIS' tone matched Tony's, soft and slow and maybe just a little bit sad, if you tilted your preconceptions to one side; "You have now progressed to Class III on the NYHA functional classification. It is clear that the ramipril is no longer sufficient to manage your symptoms. I thought it advisable to fully inform the remaining Avengers when you began exhibiting tachypnea."

"I... k, JARVIS." His eyes hadn't been open in a while, he realised,

"SHEILD has arrived, sir." JARVIS reported, unusually soft in his ear, and he felt himself being picked up and carried up a ramp. They strapped him down to a gurney and then there were warm fingers swapping out his uncomfortable monitoring vest for EKG leads and a blood pressure cuff; Bruce. The left JARVIS in his ear, which was good, because he might have had to fight them if they'd tried to take him away.

"'m gonna sleep now. 's good, right?" he mumbled, his tongue becoming thick as he finished the downward slide into sleep.

"Of course, sir."

Chapter Text

The ride back to New York felt like a long, long way. Listening to Stark build mines, hold off so many horrifying creatures, had felt like a hell of a lot longer than it had been, but sitting in the back of a tin-can, listening to the man's breathing rattle in his chest? That wasn't Iron Man, wasn't even Stark, that was just Tony with all the rest stripped away.

Clint was struggling; Steve could see that in the overwhelming stillness with which he held himself, eyes fixed on a blank piece of bulkhead. Natasha's poker face is impressive; he'd lost money to it, quite literally, but her flying was smooth and even, keeping out of weather systems rather than radar. Bruce was busy with JARVIS, and it kept him a long way on the other side of calm; he was like steel. He shouldn't be surprised, Steve realised; the Hulk genuinely liked Tony.

JARVIS' voice cutting into the team-com just after Tony went down, into the water had been a terrible, horrifying thing; he was calm, the computer always was, but the speed that he snapped out his crisp 'recommendations' had been stunning. Steve had wished that the AI had muted Stark's microphone as well as his speakers because damn, hearing Tony Stark panic that he was going to drown had been horrifying. But then the rattling in his breath didn't stop. Thirty seconds later and Clint had been scrambling down from the helicopter with an emergency oxygen tank, the squid no more than so much meat. It was visible, even from the cruise liner and Steve had watched the light drain out of it and then the patch of ink-black sea disappear as the body sank.

When the helicopter had lifted them to the deck, they'd had to keep the last of the mutated crustaceans away; Natasha's efficiency was astounding, and watch out of the corner of their eyes as Tony went down, crumpling into the Hulk's hold.

Steve might not be familiar with modern medicine but he knew, intimately, what it felt like to be unable to breathe.

The creak of webbing jerked him back to the present and he carefully untangled his kit harness from his too-tight grip and piled it on the seat next to him.

The small pack of SHEILD agents at the back of the jet, four of them, one a medic who didn't dare to talk to Bruce, and three Tac-team members, were keeping their heads down, keeping separate. Steve remembered the phenomenon; Special Forces and your average G.I Joe didn't get along in 1942, and people hadn't actually changed that much. Well... some of them hadn't, anyway, he mused.

The atmosphere calmed with the brightness of dawn sunlight and Clint eventually tagged off with the SHIELD co-pilot to sit with Natasha. One of the soldiers at the back fell asleep, propped up by his bullet-proof vest and another was scribbling on a little grid of numbers

The only person still in motion was Bruce, his hands fluttering over Tony's chest, touching the bottom of his sternum, listening with a stethoscope and using esoteric phrases like 'paroxysmal' and 'orthopnea'. Steve's forehead creased a bit more, he was going to have permanent marks at this rate, and was it him, or was Tony's breathing getting louder?

"Dr. Banner?" he asked in a low tone. Their company looked up for a second and he frowned; they went back to their bowed heads.

"The left side of his heart is struggling, there's fluid building up in his lungs." Bruce murmured quietly enough to be private. Steve was immediately alarmed and sat up, a hand fisting absurdly tightly in the thin stretcher mattress next to Tony's head. He shook his head for a second to dispel the sensation of icy water rushing into his mouth, of broken lumps of sea ice and glass hitting his chest.

"Christ..."

"You make it... sound so dire." Tony rasps, surprising them both and turning his head awkwardly to look up at Steve, "Aaaand there it is."

Banner had the nerve to laugh at that, whatever it referred to, and Steve's frown grew but it was short lived as Tony twisted against the stretcher's straps. "c'mon, let me up," he grumbled. His fumbling fingers failed to find purchase on the webbing and Steve pressed his shoulder down firmly.

"Calm down, Stark," he ordered, looking to Bruce for guidance. Field medicine hadn't been his strong point at the best of times but he had been warned about Stark's self destructive tendencies.

"It's alright, Tony; we went though some turbulence, that's all. Did you really want to end up on the floor?" the Doc responded, popping the clips free. Tony propped himself up on his elbows, shrugging off Steve's hand, and swung his legs off the stretcher. His face went white and his eyes glazed over, so Steve lurched forwards and propped him up against the bulkhead. The wheezing, rattling sounds that had accompanied his breathing started to disappear but there was something just wrong about the thumping against the palm he was using to prop the billionaire up, just under the arc reactor.

"Is it a requirement that those things be so cold?" Tony whined when the stethoscope made another appearance and Steve shifted his hand to the man's shoulder.

He stopped following the conversation when the two scientists started talking about voltages, EM fields and pacemaker technology; Stark was able to sit up on his own soon enough and Steve headed forwards to stare out the front window at New York. He'd get JARVIS to brief him on the technology later, but Steve's main issue wasn't going to be the medicine, it was going to be keeping Stark on the ground.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony made it to the elevator from the jet, with a bit of Bruce's help and poured himself unceremoniously into bed to sleep for another seven hours. Bruce may have shoved some pills at him at some point, his memory was hazy, and there was the more distinct recollection of Steve's eyebrows crinkling from his bedroom door.

He woke up a few hours in, mainly to pee, but also to sit up and let the fluid drain out of his thorax, and Bruce stuck his head in to check on him; JARVIS was apparently playing nurse, again. He was seriously regretting missing his meds by that point, but he did manage to go back to sleep; he blamed Bruce for banning coffee and thus making being awake a wholly unpleasant prospect.

He woke up properly at about mid afternoon; the sunlight was warm and sultry and Tony still felt lethargic. He was comfortable, the urge to find blackmarket coffee was small and he was damned comfortable, so he didn't move for a whole minute.

"Right, JARVIS, where's the gang?" A minute was a long time, if you were Tony Stark, and he flipped the covers off.

"Doctor Banner is currently assisting me in development of the interference resistant scanner, in the radiation lab on level 36. Captain Rogers, Agent Barton and Agent Romanoff are in the gym, unknown and gallery, respectively."

"Unknown? How can he be unknown? Is he in the vents again? And seriously, if he's out harassing the window cleaner I'm going to fill the range with bees. I've had to upgrade her response program twice since he rode her from 16th to 37th." He grumbled at no one in particular, because of course Tony Stark built a robotic AI to clean his windows and of course it developed affection for Butterfingers, who changed out her/its wiper blades once a month.

"Last known location of Agent Barton: storage space 446. I believe the vents to be most likely. Captain Rogers has ordered dinner from the Petit Canard, to be delivered at seven. May I suggest a smoothie in the meantime?"

Tony was half way through levering himself upright, with rather more caution than he would usually employ and waited for the shadows to fade from the edge of his vision before replying. "Sure; make up something sweet." He rumbles on his way to the shower.

Fifteen minutes later and he's on his way to 37th, his machine shop level, with a nectarine smoothie in one hand and plans whizzing around his head. "What's the progress on the scanner, J?"

"Doctor Banner's input is invaluable, sir, the wavelength analysis is approaching completion."

Tony took a deep, shuddering breath and dropped into a swivelling chair. "If that is your subtle way of saying we should have brought him in sooner, I am on to you." He glared at the AI's nearest sensor hub and pointed a finger while he took a slug of smoothie. "And the gamma source?"

"'Investigations are ongoing', sir. It appears to have been triggered by the drilling, however, the analysis is complicated by the radiation-absorbent properties of seawater." JARVIS intoned as Dummy rattled up to his master with what appeared to be the remote for Barton's quiver loading system.

"Barton, you are FAR TOO FRIENDLY WITH MY BOTS!" He yelled at the nearest vent, regardless of whether the man was in shouting range. "Alright, keep me posted on Bruce's work and tell him that I'm here if he needs a guinea-pig."

"Of course, sir." The AI replied reluctantly; who programmed this jerk, anyway? And why, why did he make him English?

With that, Tony polished off his mid-afternoon breakfast and rolled to a hulking, cloth covered shape at the far end of the lab. A sharp tug pulled the fabric off and the gold and red chassis gleamed.

"Barton's bow can wait, Dummy; Daddy has work to do."

Twelve feet long, eight foot wingspan, the Iron Ranger might just keep him in the game when Captain America tried to ground him, after all, how can the man object when Tony wasn't even going to leave the workshop?

Chapter Text

'Lunch' appeared at his elbow two, maybe two and a half hours after he started working and he thanked his benefactor briefly and got them to hold up a piece of armour while he connected the circuitry to the endoskeleton. Whoever it was left him alone after a conversation with JARVIS that Tony was more than adept at tuning out.

The Ranger, he had covered back up hours ago and he shuffled onto his creeper (a re-purposed longboard that had seen more of the underside of cars than actual skating) once his impromptu company had left, half the grilled cheese hanging out of the side of his mouth as he chewed absently. It was going to work; without the pilot, humanoid shape, and environmental systems, he could really go to town. Not enough power? Never mind, there's room for two arc reactors. Extra weight causing problems steering? Nick the thruster arrangement from Curiosity's sky crane and upgrade it to use repulsor technology, then scrap the whole thing and start over, better. The sensory rig was the first thing he'd worked on; Ranger wouldn't be much good if it couldn't be the team's eyes in the sky, and would be completely useless if he handled like an F-22.

He? Yes. Probably a heLimeted AI, though; too much fighting...

He rolled back under the wing section and hooked up the third repulsor. The power lines were dark for now but he hooked them up to his chest for a few minutes, ostensibly to check the connections, but mostly just to look; the repulsor lenses glowed brightly, their power conduits lit up with their own, bluish arc light and the IR range-finder blinked as it scrolled through frequencies.

He was distracted from his idle admiration, and if he stroked a support strut, there was no one there to see but his AIs, by Dummy tugging on the toe of his boot and chirping. He unplugged the power couple and looked away as the intricate weavings of light faded. The robot, his oldest robot was offering him the other half of his sandwich.

"Thanks, buddy. Don't get grease on anything, here hold still..." He mumbled through a mouthful to the simple AI, rubbing the cheese oil off his three-fingered hand. "You're about due for an oil-change, aren't you, kiddo?"

The bot spun with an obnoxiously cheerful whir and sped off towards a corner of the lab. Tony watched, Dummy was prone to miss-judging distances, and ate and used his t-shirt as a grease rag to idly polish a comutator. Dummy made it without major incident, beeping frantically to reassure Tony that he'd tidy up that box of screws just as soon as he'd had his oil, honest, and pressed the bottle into Tony's hand.

"Alright, show me your joints." He mumbled playfully and the bot span on the spot once before laying his arm across Tony's lap and cocking his camera up to look at his face. "There we go, now don't move..."

He pressed the tip of a screwdriver against the edge of the oil well and carefully pushed oil through the trap door. Dummy clicked and purred in contentment, his servos twitching, impatient to get the new, clean oil into his joints; Tony had to put a restraining hand on his head, or there would have been mess everywhere. This is why there was a screwdriver in his mouth when, half an hour later, Steve appeared at the glass and raised an eyebrow at him.

It wasn't a disapproving look, but Tony glared anyway, brandishing an oil rag at the captain. Dummy took the opportunity to skitter away and twirl, working the oil into the bearings gleefully.

"Sir, should I..." JARVIS asked, blinking the keypad by the door.

"Yeah, why not." He span on his chair and wheeled himself to the nearest bench to put the oil down and pick up the gidjit he had been putting together before the call the night before; he'd finished it up in a spare half-hour. The door popped open in short order and he could hear the Cap's footsteps; military boots, hard plastic sole, no squeak; worn, but relatively new. "Hey, Cap. Think of a name, just anything. Random." He clicked his fingers in a rapid prompting motion over his shoulder and there was an accompanying click from Dummy as he copied the movement clumsily.

"Uh...Abigail? William?" the man mumbled, apparently thrown off by Tony's request. Peering over Tony's shoulder, he could see a robot no bigger than his forearm, rounded-oblong, with six big wheels and two cameras on the front. Tony jabbed the name, 'Abigail' into a keyboard and a stream of numbers fell from each letter like coins from a slot machine. "Tony, what are-"

"When did you wake up this morning?" Tony barked, hearing Steve's mouth shut with a snap, followed by one of those aggravated sighs; he must have spent too much time with Pepper.

"Nearly six-thirty. What are you doing? Did I just name a robot 'Abigail'?" Tony waved him off while he finished the code, springing a pseudo randomiser off the numerical translation of the name and time.

With the bot's personality variables scrambled, he flipped 'her' over and connected up the cannibalised laptop battery. Steve had fallen quiet and was leaning even closer over his shoulder. Dummy had pushed his camera up under his elbow, You was craning his camera over from the other side of the bench and Butterfingers was beeping excitedly and peering around the edge of a fabrication unit, obscure component in claw. The hard-line between the mainframe and 'Abigail's processor unlocked and he pulled it away, righting the little robot on her wheels and there was a sudden hush amongst the bots.

She shifted, whirred and buzzed through startup, then there was a pause before her two little camera's turned and looked up them.

"Congratulations; it's a girl." Tony breathed, giving the robot his hand to investigate. She cleaned it with a rotary brush. "Thank you, Abby," Steve makes a strange noise, but Tony is too intent on his new bot to look around; it's gone from 'distract Steve so this conversation doesn't happen before I've finished the Ranger' to 'she's alive.' In less than a minute.

Dummy bussed her with his camera and she made a startled retreat, her brushes rising in front of her cameras before, in her own time, inching forwards to investigate Dummy's sensor mount. He restrained a rush of pride as she slowly ramped up a polishing buffer (when had he installed that?) and cleaned an oily smudge off Dummy's camera lens.

"Wow... I... Wow." Steve was mumbling, "I had no idea."

"JARVIS? Look after our new addition and don't let her into the vents on her own until at least Tuesday." Tony ordered, ignoring the dumbstruck Cap and putting the hard-line away in a drawer under the bench; he'd need it for You's upgrade pretty soon, so no point putting it in the Great Cable Singularity. He'd yet to convince Bruce to actually run tests on his cable storage cupboard, but he was sure that there was breeding going on in there, fraternizing, at the very least. How else would his spare spark-welding power supply and an RJ45 become inseparably knotted? Not to mention the entire spool of electroluminescent wire that had mysteriously disappeared...

"..ony. Oh for gods sake, Tony, pay attention." Steve inserted himself in Tony's line of sight just as Dummy, the gentleman, acceded to Abby's request for a lift off the bench. For an old, clumsy robot, Dummy was terribly gentle when he needed to be. It made Tony think he just had an incredibly slapstick sense of humour, which was totally a thought because that meant Dummy had scratched the Mitsubishi on purpose. "You really aren't listening, are you."

XXXXXXXX

Steve stood with obedient quiet while Tony coaxed the little box of bits to life, but had to comment when it, she, apparently, made Tony's face light up like Christmas. The expression gentled slowly as Tony puttered, putting things away that Steve only partially knew the function of, until finally the man just wound to a halt, his face loose and calm as he watched his creations interact. Taking that as his cue, Steve tried to coax the man upstairs, but there was no reaction. The lines on Tony's face were deep and his skin pretty pale... Bruce had warned them all at debrief to keep an eye out for blue lips and nails, but Tony didn't look that bad. He was just... distracted. There was a twist of annoyance when Steve rolled Tony's chair back far enough that he could get in between him and the bots but the man didn't respond to his comments. After a minute, Steve gave up; he knew a caffeine free Tony when he saw one, and he wasn't about to get the man coffee when he had already avoided it himself.

Besides, if Tony just went back to sleep, that would probably be a good thing.

"Come on, I'll carry you if you don't walk." He threatened, and Tony finally looked up.

"You actually would, wouldn't you? Good to know." He quipped, his face coming alive with a simultaneously amused and mock-scandalised expression. Steve was mildly surprised that Tony could fit so many expressions on his face at any one time, but then, Tony could hack SHEILD, search for Tesseracts, taunt Bruce and solve conspiracy theories all at once. 'Multi-tasking' was a phrase Steve had learned to love. Both Pepper and Natasha were unusually adept and he could see why; you needed it to keep up with Tony.

JARVIS thanked him quietly as he herded Tony towards the gallery where the others had gathered (don't underestimate the power of a big sofa,) and Steve nodded, looking from the baby Abby, to Tony, to JARVIS' nearest camera. For whatever reason Tony had chosen to show him the first moments of artificial life, Steve was grateful and he suddenly found himself revaluating not just JARVIS, but Dummy, and You and Butterfingers and Tony and even the window cleaner with too many legs.

Chapter Text

Bruce emerged from the elevator just as Tony commandeered a leg of the sofa, tablet computer in hand. Clint was comfortably sprawled on the other leg and Natasha was perched in the middle, legs crossed and a copy of Tony's directory open, scrolling through films. It was surprisingly similar to the aftermath of their first battle, Steve mused, only without the blood and dust and Norse gods. Steve nodded to the scientist on his way to the kitchen and Bruce followed for a quiet word.

"He ate?" Bruce asked, leaning against the table and flicking through dinner options. Tony treated the local restaurants like personal caterers, it was ridiculous.

"About an hour ago, JARVIS says he's not had any coffee either; I'm impressed." Steve opened a cupboard and rummaged for the kettle chips.

"He's not as self-destructive this time, apparently." Bruce mused,

"Tony isn't planning on dying this time." They both started and turned towards the door; Tony didn't look pissed at them, "Look, I was ticking my bucket list. This time? Not dying." Steve looked at Bruce questioningly, bucket list? over Tony's head as the man stole the chips, sneered and pushed them back at Steve, going for a bag of popcorn instead. Bruce mouthed later and took the bag when Tony pushed it into his chest while he rummaged for a bowl.

"Thank you for the vote of confidence, the scanner is nearly done." Bruce said, popping the bag and upending it in the proffered receptacle.

"Great. Finally get a look at Yinsen's pacemaker." Tony mumbled, tapping the Arc in a way none of them were sure he even noticed as he pulled a bottle of water out of the fridge. "Should be interesting." He flashed a FOX-news quality grin and popped the seal on his bottle.

"We might not be able to fix it, Tony; the pacemaker is the wrong side of the casing. If it's more than just the chip-set..." Bruce shoved one hand under his armpit while the other pulled his glasses off his face. He levelled a look at Tony that made Steve feel even more ill-at-ease than the topic did, but the billionaire was unruffled and flippant; stealing Bruce's glasses and putting them on.

"Last time I had heart surgery, we didn't have any of the good drugs. If it comes to that, I fully expect you to dose me up to the eyeballs. How do you even see with these?" He muttered, swinging his head around to try and read something stuck to the fridge.

"I'm far-sighted. And not a surgeon. Tony, I'm a radiologist, a geneticist and I sideline in tropical disease, but I am not a surgeon; JARVIS knows more about internal medicine than I do."

Tony did not look happy at this and took the glasses off to gesture with them in a very Bruce-like manner but Steve cut him off before he could spout something nonsensical. "What about the SHEILD doctors? Someone with clearance, someone we can trust."

Tony glared at him and shoved Bruce's glasses back at him. "It might not even be necessary, Cap. I'm... how'd you put it? Fully compensated? Whetever damage there is to the pacemaker, we're making up for it with the drugs. It's a big jump from that to surgery. Now come on, I want to see what kind of movie a supermodel superspy would choose." Tony said as he breezed back out of the kitchen.

"You would be fully compensated if you remembered your meds!" Bruce ranted at Tony's retreating back. There was always a shock, a beat of bewildered silence, when Tony left a room, but the Avengers were starting to get used to it, at least. "I think he's more tired than he lets on..." he muttered. "Ten bucks says he falls asleep before dinner."

"No bet," Steve replied, "It won't be here until seven."

True to their predictions, Tony fell asleep in half an hour, the popcorn, which had been an excuse to barge in on their conversation anyway, surrendered to Clint.

Those who had tried to keep normal hours despite their midnight call-out without the benefit of super-soldier constitution were also flagging and the usual boisterous bickering was subdued at best. Clint, who was a master of what he called 'waking naps' and everyone else thought of as the walking dead, and Steve kept up a quiet burble of conversation. When the food appeared, along with a decompressing Pepper, they turned up the lights and found cutlery, but made no further effort to move.

The team politely dug in and looked away while Pepper smoothed back Tony's hair and kissed his forehead; there was something astonishingly intimate about the tiny little tilt of the head and softening of Tony's expression, particularly since he was still fast asleep. She smiled down at him and stroked a hand soothingly down his arm, touched his fingers, seeing how deeply asleep he was; he barely stirred. Pepper's smile was a little brittle, but indulgent, and she draped a heavy blanket over him before settling above his head to eat quietly.

Somewhere between samosas and pistachio kulfi Tony rolled onto his back, one arm flopping above his head and the Arc managing to shine through his shirt and peak out the edge of the blanket. Pepper's hand went automatically to his hair, running her fingers through it in an unconscious attempt to keep him asleep. There was a plate of curry for him on the coffee table, but it could wait.

She was the first to notice the little jerking huff he made and frowned down at him; a thin sheen of sweat had broken out over his forehead, and... she leant over him to listen over the films music and caught a dragging wheeze as he breathed in.

"Bruce..." The huff came again; it was a sort of aborted cough, and Tony frowned, still asleep, and arched his head backwards. Someone turned the TV off, and Pepper's plate was taken away. She used the now free hand to grip the one Tony had flung over his head.

"Tony, wake up. What's wrong?" She said, squeezing his hand and glancing up at Bruce. His eyes flickered open, looking up at her with a baffled look that lasted only as long as his exhale. When he started taking a breath to speak, his eyes flew wide with panic and the rattling wheeze was loud enough to the whole room to hear. His hands flew to the arc reactor and he sat bolt upright, hunching over his hands as he struggled to breath.

Once he had a lungful, all he could do was cough, great hacking convulsions that shook his whole body, and Pepper.

Bruce moved quickly, pulling Tony's legs off the sofa and turning him, looking astonishingly calm in a way that made Pepper both relieved and oddly infuriated. She followed Tony 'round, putting an arm around his shoulders to try and stop the coughs from pulling him apart. Her own chest thumped and her fingers weren't as steady as she'd like, fear and adrenalin were making her lightheaded.

"Deep breaths, Tony, you're fine," Bruce told him, hands on his shoulders, but Tony couldn't stop coughing. Any breath he got was choked and gasping and his expression was deathly afraid. Any trace of his suave confidence, his self assurance, had drowned in the instinctual panic. "Steve, get over here," the doctor yelled over his shoulder and the super-soldier was next to them in less than a second, his own face pale and stiff. "We need to get him standing,"

"Bruce, he can barely sit-" Steve protested, but there was a flash of green eyes and he shut up and did as he was told. He hoisted the engineer up by his arms, planting his feet firmly on the ground. Tony's hands came up to grip painfully tight in his shirt and he had one last round of coughing that left him trembling and gasping against his chest.

"It doesn't matter if he faints, as long as he can breathe," Bruce muttered, looking slightly apologetic, and Tony slumped in Steve's grip, his head lolling and fingers limp, but he was breathing. Pepper very gently tipped Tony's head to lean of Steve's shoulder, her hands fluttering like moths over him.

"Someone want to tell me what the hell just happened?"

Chapter Text

 Tony’s first thoughts as his brain rebooted revolved around ruthlessly crushing the fear that had overwhelmed him the first time he’d woken up. It wasn’t an unfamiliar sensation, unfortunately, and drowning was innately terrifying. Waking up with the feeling that nothing you breathed in held any actual air was beyond what he could cope with and it brought back... memories. The shock of cold metal against his chest cleared out a few of the cobwebs, but the spike of adrenalin made his chest ache as a heartbeat came out of turn. There had to be better ways of listening to someone’s chest.

His mind flitted to the workshop, starting to come alive with the madness of invention when he remembered Abby. When Dummy had first come online, he had worked himself into a system crash because Tony had been passed out and unable to provide instructions. The choking wheeze in his lungs forced a cough out of him, doing unfortunately little to actually relieve him of the feeling, and he looked up at Pepper; she’d help him look after Abby, wouldn’t she? He’d been watching her through his tablet as he’d fallen asleep;

“Wherzable.”

He cast about for his computer; he could breathe, he was fine, they could let him go now because Pepper was there, so everything was fine. He pulled himself upright and patted the bicep he was leaning against absently, reaching for the blue-glowing rectangle. The arm obligingly let him go and ..oh. that was the floor. He pondered it for a moment; he appeared to be draped over someone’s forearm, which was pulling him back upright, the floor retreating from its imminent assault on his nose. Perhaps fine was a little... optimistic. Tony’s glass was rarely half full; it tended to be either completely full or empty, or abandoned and allowed to roll under the workbench when he went straight for the bottle. He caught sight of Peppers shoes, had he bought her those? Or pseudo-bought? What do you call it when your assistant/CEO buys presents for your girlfriend who just so happens to be your assistant/CEO? And this really wasn’t the time for existentialism.

“Steve made 18 percent of a baby for Clint; you should go check on her.” He blurted as he was, once again, propped upright. This time, it was directed at Pepper, who seemed to fill an inordinate portion of his vision. He made a small worried face; he really hadn’t meant to leave Abby and Dummy unsupervised, that just wasn’t fair on JARVIS, who already had so much work to do.

There was an uproar somewhere in the back of his head, or possibly behind him; that made much more sense, because why would Clint Barton be in the back of his head?

“I’m fine; paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea. Say that four times in a row.” He garbled, conceding to leaning against... Steve, he realised, patting the arm around his waist.

“Look, I didn’t- shut up, Clint. It was a robot!” The big chest against his back rumbled when the Cap spoke and Tony dropped his head back against it; warm, comfortable, he could get to like this, he mused.

She is a robot.” Ah, and Pepper was talking again.

“Tony, I know you do that on purpose. Are you alright?” He was sure he’d already answered that question and she was frowning at him, which was just unfair. Probability he was stuck in a minor precognizance loop; slim. Probability Pepper didn’t believe him when he said he was fine? In conjunction with, he evaluated for a moment, distal muscle weakness, sudden facial pallor and... yep, light-headedness and a heavy dull feeling indicative of low blood flow to the brain. 100%; he didn’t believe himself when he said he was fine.

“I can breathe.” He settled on after another moment of fuzzy contemplation. “Bruce?”

Bruce had backed off half a step and taken his wrist hostage. “Sixty five, give or take. You can put him down now, Steve.” The doctor ordered, and Steve obeyed, like a good little soldier. Tony settled comfortably back onto the sofa, finally able to focus enough to send a round of glares at the frankly absurd number of people who witnessed his little... episode? That just make it sound like a tantrum, which Tony was so above. He caught sight of his tablet again and snatched it up, fingers flying while Bruce talked to worried teammates and girlfriends.

“He called it; paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea is shortness of breath due to a combination of sleep suppressing the respiratory centre and build up of fluid in the lungs. Blood that would usually be in his legs or gut builds up in the pulmonary loop because the left side of the heart isn't handling what it needs to.” Bruce said, and Tony stopped listening; nothing he didn’t know. He should have remembered not to lie down, but he’d been propped up on Pepper and she was comfortable... Speaking of which, the good lady was sitting next to him and stilling his hands on the computer.

“This isn’t the first time, is it, Tony?” She asked, her thumbs rubbing little circles on the backs of his hands.

“No, woke up sooner last time; sat up, it was fine.” He mumbled, blowing up the video feed from the workshop and throwing it at the main screen. Abby was fine, and JARVIS was flustered but ultimately fine, but it was a good distraction and Natasha, Clint and Steve all turned to look at the two bots bumbling around. “I... we’re working on it, Pep; I swear. No omelettes or sudden desires for Italian vacations, I promise.”

Her expression was so, so terrible for him to see, that he looked back down at the screen. He made her so sad, caused her so much hurt that he didn’t know if he could handle it; he didn’t know how she handled it. Her hand was warm and tight on his for a moment and he looked back up; the broken expression was gone and she sat up straight. Letting go of his hand to smooth her skirt down, she put on her facing-the-Board-in-Heels face with that tight, fierce smile that he’d first fallen in love with.

“Very well, Mr Stark; I will hold you to that.” She said, a little louder, the soft, intimate voice she had been using before gone and his heart broke open just a little more. The smile on his face was small, but blinding. “Now, what, exactly, is Abby?”

“She’s great; you’ll love her. IAT of eight, maybe nine, DR hinging on dust acquisition. Fond of small, dark spaces. Thought, if the burrowing owl over there was going to spend that much time in the ducts, he might as well not track dust everywhere.” He beamed, and if the smile was tremulous and his breathing still laboured, no one mentioned it. The baffled looks on their faces were amusing and definitely an improvement over the mixes of fear and anger. He slumped comfortably into the back of the sofa and ignored the heavy feelings in his chest and the occasional wheezy cough while he chattered away.

Despite his abrupt change of subject, the group never really settled down again. Natasha and Clint drifted off to rooms and beds with pensive looks, Bruce headed off back to his lab, the private one he often didn’t let Tony in, and soon it was just Pepper, Tony and Steve, with Clint’s voice asking JARVIS about Abby fading into the distance.

“Tony, I-“ the Cap started, sitting on the sofa next to him with his elbows on his knees, looking so damned earnest that Tony turned his back him and used Steve’s shoulder as a backrest,

“I know, Cap. You don’t have to say it.” Tony said, cutting him off.

“Tony...” Pepper muttered warningly, pulling the tablet out of his hands and giving him a pointed look he could have used to rivet vibranium.

“No, I think I do, Mr Stark; you’re grounded.” Steve said while Tony was busy being affronted at his girlfriend.

“Way to sound like the All-American-Dad.” Tony grouched, rubbing his hands over his face and mistakenly heaving a melodramatic sigh. Contrary to his intentions, it sent him into a coughing fit that leant nothing to his pride. Steve shuffled his shoulder so Tony was leaning against his chest, which was admittedly more comfortable, and Pep was right there with warm hands and a calm touch; ever his rock, his port in a storm.

“Okay.” He muttered once it was over. It was galling to admit that, he had hoped he could just avoid this conversation, but Steve knew, now, about JARVIS and Abby and maybe, just maybe, when the Iron Ranger took to the skies with Tony at the reins, he’d be able to trust that too.

“What?” Pepper blinked, looking incredulous.

“Okay. As in, I won’t fly out as Iron Man, unless it’s, you know, the actual end of the actual word.”

“You serious?” Steve asked, and when, exactly had he started holding Tony up? The billionaire sat up properly, feet on the floor and made eye contact.

“I’m serious. I’m a liability like this, I... I shouldn't have gone out yesterday, either.” He said, low and serious and not mentioning that JARVIS had made it very clear that he would have to fly without his co-pilot, if he tried to do it again. “I’ve got stuff I need to do; Barton’s bow, the Widows’ Bite. I‘m, have always been, an inventor and maybe the Avengers Initiative needs Tony Stark more than it needs Iron Man right now.” The weight of saying that was crushing; Tony Stark built the Jericho. Tony Stark built mines and Kevlar-piercing bullets and... and Dummies and Very Intelligent Systems. He sighed, suppressed another round of coughing and took Peppers hand to break the sudden stillness. The contact prompted a ridiculous amount of... wet. Crying and hugging. It wasn’t exactly something he was familiar with or competent at dealing with so he awkwardly patted her back and kissed the top of her head. You were supposed to do that, right? Or was that babies?

“You’re not a liability, Tony. Even yesterday you were an asset,” Steve mumbled quietly, for Tony’s ears only, “we just can’t afford to lose anyone else.”

And there it was; Coulson’s shadow lingered on, a symbol and a friend. Tony went still, slumping just enough to tell Steve that he understood. the supersoldier squeezed Tony’s shoulder in a way that he would never admit to finding reassuring and stood, looming like only a 6’5” All-American beefcake could and tugging the hem of his t-shirt down.

“Mrs Potts, may I escort you home?” He asked formally, and Tony glared, ready to leap to his feet because, seriously, what the hell? But okay, whatever; Pepper sat up, smoothed over her own clothes and stood decorously; less crying, almost always a good thing. She gave Tony a significant glance, which he couldn’t interpret, and nodded.

“Thank you, Captain Rogers, that would be wonderful.” Steve gave her a tight smile that only just showed the strain of this whole conversation, and turned to Tony.

“Wait, what are- oh NO. Seriously, dude. Just no.” He snapped, but Steve was sort of... inevitable; Inevitable Steve; he should put that on a t-shirt, and Tony’s weight was apparently negligible to super-soldier muscles because the man picked him up like it was nothing. Tony, less than willing to be dropped on his ass, slung his arms around Steve’s shoulders and clung in a rather undignified way. “I will end you, for this, Steve Rogers,” He growled.

“You will not, Mr Stark.” Pepper snapped, and he subsided. “This way, Steve, let’s put baby to bed.”

Tony objected to this, obviously, but the effect was rather spoilt when his lungs made another attempt to expel themselves violently out of his body and he conceded to the man-handling while the dizziness faded.

“I’ve got it from here, thank you Captain.” Pepper said with tired formality when Tony was dumped on the bed. Perhaps ‘dumped’ was too strong a word, though; Steve was acting like he might just... fall apart. He sat on the edge of the mattress while fuss-Potts and Captain Spandex talked over his head, unable to think of any good snark to go with his grump.

“I’m going to go check on Bruce; after this, I don’t think he’s going to be sleeping any time soon.” Steve said, manfully ignoring the glare Tony was levelling at him.

“Oh! Tell him that the resonance space of the –mhmrfsm.” He levelled a glare at Pepper, who wasn’t even looking and her palm managed to seal over his mouth. She handed him his tablet in compensation and he subsided, scowling, and sent Bruce an email instead.

“Will that be all, Ms Potts?” Steve asked, glancing at Tony in a way that said he knew that this was their little ritual,

“That will be all, Captain.” She said with a grateful smile and it just didn’t sound right when it wasn’t his name and she didn’t get the tone right and, and and. He grumbled and didn’t reply when Steve wished him goodnight and closed the door behind him.

“Tony...”

“Seriously, I’m going to stop responding to that if you abuse it like this.”

“It’s your name, Tony, you’re not about to forget it.” There was clothes rustling, which Tony stubbornly paid no attention to, fast-forwarding through the Abby footage he had missed. Pepper managed to cajole him into sleep clothes and taking medication only after he was satisfied that the new AI was settled for charging and a round of de-fragmentation that would last until he re-initialised her.

He had to talk Pepper through a bout of extreme-fussing (which Pep could win gold in, any day,) even going so far as to eat the curry she retrieved for him, and since she had taken the tablet back off him in exchange for the food, he thought he might as well go back to sleep. The pile of pillows he had gathered, filched and thieved over the past few weeks was substantial and he fell asleep comfortably propped up, promising Pepper that he would be fine if she just closed her eyes for five minutes.

She slept through until nine the next morning.

Chapter Text

Tony had woken up four times, possibly five, he was a little fuzzy on that, to get up and wander 'round. It helped, as did his stack of pillows and he didn't have to wake up so suddenly, or so traumatically, again. He finally rolled out of bed for good at seven, feeling groggy and wishing he could have coffee. Steve, fucking Steve, was a morning person; one of those people who went straight from sleeping to obnoxious, jogging-through-the-streets wakefulness in under a minute, so he was bumping about the kitchen putting away enough food to power his metabolism through his morning run.

Tony glared, remembered being manhandled to bed, glared again, and then realised that Steve had his own floor, so why was he up here?

"JARVIS has started making me protein milkshakes." Steve answered, alerting Tony that his brain-to-mouth filter was down. Steve's kitchen wasn't as automated as the penthouse, so that was fair enough. Tony stopped his glaring and slumped at the table, mumbling incomprehensibly.

"Natasha left on her mission at 0-500, so expect Hawkeye when he gets off the range." Steve commented as he sealed up his sports bottle, now full of... strawberry? flavoured shake. He gave his bacon-grease smeared plate to the dishwasher, which wasn't actually sentient, but only because JARVIS found washing dishes therapeutic. Who programs his AI who need therapy, anyway? And that whole thought got away from him, didn't it?

Steve hadn't left any tasty, tasty bacon, but there was eggs and toast, which would do, and besides, JARVIS would withhold his music if he ate something with as much salt in it as bacon. He was nice like that.

"Alright, I'll be back in an hour. Don't save the world without me!" Steve called, leaving Tony to his breakfast. He just grunted in reply, because coffee.

Once he'd eaten enough that JARVIS would actually let him into the lab, he stumbled his way down stairs; why had he not put a in lift between the penthouse levels? That didn't seem like something he would have done. He grunted at Clint, who had somehow invaded and was picking mournfully through his disassembled trigger mechanism.

"'morning." The archer murmured, "Where is it, then?" he said more loudly, brushing his hands off and looking expectantly at Tony.

Tony, with little time for archers at eight in the morning, beelined it to Abby's charging station. It was still a temporary mash-up of parts, wouldn't last five minutes if he lowered the virtual cordon around it and Abby's big brothers were free to bumble; they'd see it as an affront. Which, now he thought about it, so did Tony. He'd make a better one when he had the time.

He crouched in front of the little matte-black box and reeled her out of the station, flipping her over to begin her start up. There was the immediate hum of capacitors and he turned her the right way up.

"Integration complete, sir. I believe she is a morning person." JARVIS intoned wryly as first one, and then the other forward sensors rose from standby.

"Wonderful. You'll get along swell." Tony grumbled.

"Indeed sir."

Barton crouched down next to the bot and Tony stood and wandered away, ignoring Clint as he introduced himself, of all things. Abby trilled happily back, so no harm done.

"J, give me the 'prints for the control unit?" He asked, pulling a stool up to the bench covered with Clint's trigger mechanism. JARVIS obliged, and Tony sneered; amateur hour at the science-fair. He swiped the circuit board into the trash, both on the plans and of the bench, and set about redesigning the chip set completely, it was useless.

He was well into designing a new board, half the size, when Clint's hand landed on his shoulder. That was, wow, Clint just didn't touch people; now that he thought about it, he hadn't seen Clint just casually make human contact, not in the three weeks since the Chitauri incident, not in the two since the tower refurbishments had been finished and they'd all moved in. Tony appreciated that; he hadn't felt like getting all touchy-feely for a long time after Afghanistan, so this was... yeah, wow. 

He turned to look and the man was smiling, left thumb held between his teeth and the hand that had been on his shoulder curled around his ribs. "She's great, man." He said with a laugh in his voice and a flick of the eyes towards the little robot, which was totally cleaning his boots. Tony humphed at them both and turned back to his work, waving them off.

"Fine, great. Off you go." He said, fingers flying over the circuit design again. If the archer didn't leave now, Tony's absurd smile would ruin his reputation.

"What?" 

"You heard me, Barton. Into the ducts with you. She needs to learn her way around, get lost, proverbaly." He said, not looking at him again until he'd acquiesced and there was the rattling of a vent grate. Abby's chirping went into cheerful overdrive and there was a buzzing as she reorganized her wheels to follow. She was equipped to close of the vents again, something Clint often forgot in the safety of the tower, and soon there was no evidence that the pair had been there at all, except a hodge-podge charging station next to Dummy's.

Tony shuddered briefly, putting a hand on his chest and grinning despite everything; Clint was just one of those guys who exuded bromance where ever he went and Tony was hooked. He spent a long moment leaning against the bench and massaging some of the ache out of the scars around his arc reactor; he'd have the new trigger circuitry ready to electroprint in a few hours and then he could start on Natasha's new tazer. They were totally worth every minute.

Bruce would find him when the scanner was done, he could forget about it for now.

Quarter past nine and Pepper was checking up on him; her face appeared on a monitor and he rolled past with a quick greeting.

"I'm heading downstairs, Tony, I need to get some work done before the two o'clock board meeting. I've set us up for five at SHEILD medical for-"

"Nope." He said sharply, "Not going. Take the Cap."

She spluttered over the line, struggling to construct a sentence that worked with that information,

"Seriously, take Steve. I don't trust the doc's, but I trust Steve, and I trust you. Don't screw up." He bit out, head down and grabbing a wrench from a rack to make loud and purposeful noise with until she stopped blinking and spluttering. If that meant taking his smelting forge apart two jobs before he otherwise would have, then so be it; the lining needed changing out anyway.

"Ok. I can't say I'm surprised you said no, but that's a new one." She said after a minute. "What does Captain Rogers think about this?"

"No idea. Have a nice day." He said, geninely enough, and shut the connection down. Her image vanished and he pulled the lining out of the crucible to smash onto the concrete. The noise was excruciatingly satisfying but it didn't quite make up for the fact that his girlfriend was going to be interviewing people who wanted to cut open his chest.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

The lab was still a mess when Bruce appeared, hesitant and concerned, at the glass. He looked about as tired as Tony felt and Tony didn't make him say anything; he just got up and followed the man to the radiation lab, one floor and three feet of graphite and lead insulation below Tony's.

He'd set the cannibalised CT scanner up around a plastic gurney and Tony shuddered when he saw the sterile tray set up next to it.

"You alright?" Bruce asked, hand on Tony's shoulder.

"I... mhmpf. Needles." He grumbled, stomping to sit on the gurney, irritated by the fact that the damn thing was on a motorised track; he couldn't just throw himself at it without making himself hours of work. The scanner's ring had had the shell pulled off, - were those literally crow-bar scars? - and the emitter complex was hooked up to JARVIS instead of your average control computer. Cables, thick and thin, draped everywhere, bundled into conduits and plugging in to the bulky and radiation shielded control consoles. The lead glass was up at the moment, but would slide down if Bruce's work ever needed to involve non-EM radiation.

"Right, we'll do contrast in a minute. I'm assuming you aren't hiding an allergy from JARVIS?" Bruce asked, "Perhaps not." He conceded when Tony's only response was a jaunty eyebrow.

Bruce's lab coat came complete with dosimeter, which Tony focused on while Bruce did the final preps; it was grey so all good, but Bruce got through his yearly quota of safe radiation every time he transformed, so it's a moot poin- ow.

Tony does not like IVs.

Bruce pushed him down to the –huh- memory foam pillow and went ninja with the medical tape so that the IV tubing wouldn't shift around while his arms were arranged above his head. He was going to have sticky patches for days, Tony whined to himself as he got a grip on the pillow to help keep his arms still.

"Adding contrast... now..." Bruce muttered quietly and there was a hot rush in his arm that felt horrible, and he had no qualms about making a petulant face about it. "Just... stay still, alright?"

Tony nodded, to which Bruce gave him that 'I know you're fucking with me, Tony' look, which the Avengers were picking up from Pep with alarming speed, and hit the button that pulled the gurney into the scanner. He was obedient, he thought, and absolutely did not scratch the itch that appeared on his nose half way through.

The coils span up with the solid thrum of well engineered machinery, (they'd put their scanner manufacture in the hands of Europeans for a reason) and Tony held his breath when Bruce told him, and took deep ones when he wanted that. The radiation, photons far beyond what the human eye was capable of seeing, passed through him but he felt nothing; he felt like he should, seriously. This should be a moment of heat and light and glowing green 'I'm radioactive!' but they were working with high energy X-rays, so it was dark, loud and cold. At least it wasn't an MRI; quite apart from the fact that the enormous magnets would induce so much current in the titanium reactor shell that he'd die of heatstroke, the liquid helium would have made the room cold enough to freeze his nipples off.

Quiet filled the lab for a second once the coils came to a halt, before an electrical whine started up and the gurney was spat back out of the ring. Tony discarded his thoughts about hot/cold fronts and the specific heat capacity of the human body and let Bruce help him sit back up. He fought the urge to brush the other scientist off and be as stubbornly independent as he had been before all this crap bit him in the ass, because Bruce's hands were warm, and fluttered slightly, and were the only thing holding him steady for a second there.

"Alright; JARVIS, interpolate structure of metallic elements," Tony ordered, rubbing his right hand over his face while Bruce took the needle out of his left and pressed a cotton ball against the vein.

"Certainly sir. Shall I assume that silicone and plasticised insulator should also be included?" JARVIS quipped, and Tony knew that he had, indeed, already assumed.

"I get it, smart-ass, you know what you're doing." Tony said, waving a hand dismissively. "I'll leave the squishy bits to you, Bruce."

"I'll have them sent to SHIELD Medical, too. Pepper'll want to show them to the people she's meeting." Bruce replied, taping the cotton ball down and patting Tony's shoulder.

"How is that a thing already? We haven't even looked at the scan yet!" He grouched, hopping off the gurney and balancing carefully while his blood pressure got back up to speed from the change in elevation.

"It doesn't hurt to be prepared, Tony." Bruce was already making a liar out of him, anyway, and leaning over his paper strewn desk to peer at the image myopically. Tony had little interest in the raw images; he wanted the pacemaker's schematic, and wouldn't know where to start on the greyscale, indistinct lumps on the screen.

"Right, whatever. I'll be upstairs." He said, turning away only to be pulled back by an absent hand on his arm while Bruce pressed a tootsie pop into his palm, without even looking up from his screen. Tony gaped; he hadn't eaten one of these things since he was a kid, but more importantly, Bruce had done it completely on automatic. Eventually, Tony blinked, looked down at the candy, tore the plastic off and stuck it in his mouth.

It was cherry flavoured.

Tony wandered off after that, mouth occupied and not really wanting to think about Bruce looking at the inside of his chest.

XXXXXXX

"-And you're sure that counts as-"

"Permission? In Tony-speak, it doesn't get clearer than that." Pepper told Steve as she two-timed her phone with the tablet Steve was holding up for her. "Alright, that's all I can get on them, if Phil were here I'd-" She stopped, froze for the half second it took to remember, then ploughed on. "That's all we can get. Bruce has sent the scan over; he wants a second opinion. It should be in my inbox..." She made a spinny gesture with the hand not typing on her phone and Steve took the tablet and hesitantly navigated to the mail server. At least Tony's programs were intuitive, he thought to himself, remembering SHIELDs first attempt at getting him a computer; Tony had been outraged when he'd seen Steve using 'Bill's out-dated crap'. Whatever that meant.

The greyscale images attached to Bruce's email were indecipherable to Steve's untrained eye, but the Arc was obvious, at least. It reached sickeningly far into Tony's chest. He swallowed uneasily and flipped the tablet back around for Pepper, feeling a bit like a secretary. Or a PA; whatever the job title actually was now.

Passing Agents just thought he looked whipped.

They arrived at the conference room just as Pepper finished up with her preparations, not something Steve was entirely clear on, and they set up just in time for the first doctor to appear, looking unpleasantly eager.

Pepper leaned in to mutter into Steve's ear as the man sat down primly; "The arc reactor is level two, SHIELD's equivalent of general knowledge. That it has something to do with his heart is technically level six, but leaked and classes as unconfirmed level five. Fury's put this latest setback," she paused for breath, 'setback' indeed, "As level seven-"

"Need to know," he chorused quietly with her. "Alright. I'll let you do the talking and just sit here and look stern, shall I?" He mumbled back, garnering a tight smile before they turned back to the surgeon.

There were five on staff with the appropriate qualifications and Steve was already getting a bad vibe on this one and non-verbally vetoed him the moment he used the words 'heart condition' 'fascinating' and 'Mr Stark' in the same sentence. He then sat back and watched with awe as Pepper seamlessly provoked the man into revealing his sexism, extreme Republican agenda and personal disdain for Tony Stark in one sentence.

Her polite dismissal was so final that his mouth clacked shut and he left without another word, looking dazed.

Chapter Text

Yinsen's work is a thing of beauty.

The solid, smooth casing sat in his sternum, a three inch hole carved into the bone, perfectly round and seamlessly healed to the titanium. Ribs four and five bolted directly to it, because there wasn't enough bone left for them to heal to. Slim, delicate wires reached down towards his heart, curling around it to touch the right ventricle, a larger bundle touched arteries and veins, spreading out like the roots of a tree to measure pressure, dilation, a hundred things that the pacemaker needed to know to keep his heart beating fast enough, slow enough, hard enough, for whatever he was doing.

He'd had no idea. He really hadn't; he'd focused on the magnet, and sure the shrapnel was there, sitting in the wall between the left and right chambers of his heart, peppered near the aorta, touching the side of his heart, but the real genius was the octopus-like collection of wires, as brilliant and innovative as the arc reactor itself had been, but so utterly alien to Tony that he barely knew where to begin.

He got stuck, sitting there and staring at the plans JARVIS had reconstructed because as beautiful and clever as it is, it was fatally flawed. Never designed to last, with materials designated for weapons manufacture, it's casing was industrial grade silicone, and the chips controlling his heart beat were cannibalised from his own missiles. Whatever fault that had darkened the arc reactor when he'd fallen had shorted out one of those chips. The heat had 'blackened' the silicone, making it less permeable to the scan, and he had no idea what that might have done to the muscle under the pacemaker electrodes.

Worst of all, the burnt chip was outside the casing.

He braced his elbows on the bench and leaned forwards to put his face in his hands. He couldn't get at that to replace it, not without boring through the bone, and even then it would be a patch job. Plus, for all he knew, the silicone holding the electronics to the back of the reactor could degrade and poison him as surely as the Palladium had.

"Alright, JARVIS, lets lose the caulking. Highlight the sensors..." he ordered, starting to feel that spark again; he could do this bit, at least. "Get me a list of factors effecting heart rate, blood pressure..."

"May I suggest the PJ Hunter review, sir?" JARVIS said quietly, his servers humming as he read what looked like hundreds of published papers at once. The wire model Tony was manipulating slowed while JARVIS diverted resources.

"Hey, hey; deep breath, J. Don't use all your processing at once." Tony said, frowning at JARVIS' core processor, which took up a full fifth of the floor. "Send the paper to Bruce, get his rating."

"Doctor Banner may take some time to respond, may I suggest a re-design of the Vagus nerve pickup in the interim?"

Tony quirked an eyebrow and swiped the model aside to look at the circuit diagram JARVIS was constructing, surprised at how simultaneously elegant and complex the heart's construction was. "Alright; run me through what it does, Mr online-medical degree." He quipped, watching as JARVIS translated medical jargon into technical jargon and listening carefully.

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

"um, JARVIS?" There was a ping to indicate that the AI was listening, but the usual crisp English voice did not appear. "Can you save this for me and send it to Tony? The paper's good; its clinical procedure checks out. JARVIS?" There was still no verbal response, but his work saved and was marked as 'shared'. Bruce couldn't help but frown and stood to make his way to Tony's lab; JARVIS was either malfunctioning or behaving and either way it made him uneasy, concerned. He was trusting the AI with Tony's everyday wellbeing; he needed to be on top form.

Tony's lab was a shimmering, moving, heaving mess of blue holograms as he typed his code in. There was no greeting when the door opened and he frowned again, edging through the maze of holograms, not sure what had been discarded and what was still useful. He found Tony, practically buzzing, right in the middle, with a circuit diagram so complicated that it had to be blown up to four feet across for the connections to be visible, hovering in front of him.

Bruce actually recognised bits of it from the paper he had been sent; the heart's circuitry, a complex web of interactions between sympathetic and parasympathetic innervations, the input of chemical signals, neurotransmitters and stretch receptors. Right in the middle of the diagram, an enormous section of lines were red or black; broken, dead and failing. The SA and AV nodes, the hearts pacemakers were black; by all rights, this heart should be limping, Tony should be bedridden, his heart beating so slowly that... But he wasn't, he could stand, and up till a few days ago, withstand g-forces of 30, even 40 meters-per-second-squared. On top of that fractured network was a far more practical, and crude, net of sensors and stimulators, bridging the chasm with electrodes sitting on the atrioventricular node itself, shocking the heart into a rhythm appropriate to the data it was collecting.

Bruce wasn't entirely clear on what the processor was doing, but the red smudge at the middle was self-explanatory.

"It's part of the current regulation. Each shock is just that little bit too strong." Tony said, hands fluttering as he pushed bits of the diagram away and pulled the damaged section towards them.

"That would explain the burns..." He mumbled, noting that his analysis of the 'squishy bits' has been slotted neatly into the model. The continuing damage to Tony's AV node was what was causing the downward slide in his health; it was responding less and less to the overly strong pacemaker current and the disequilibrium within the heart's circuitry meant that it had started beating out of turn; the arrhythmia.

"Yup. This is Yinsen's work; built in a cave, with bits of missile navigation system. He fitted it without anaesthesia, and I was lucky they even had antibiotics."

"You wouldn't have survived without them." Bruce agrees, suppressing a protective roar at the thought of Tony having to go without pain relief. They would have had to strap him down, pinned him to the table while they sawed at the bones- Bruce's hand tightened convulsively on Tony's shoulder. The man was surprisingly blasé about it all and that was its own kind of horrifying.

A twitch of Tony's shoulder made him jerk his hand away, worried that he'd hurt the man, but Tony was just lifting his arm to send the diagram spinning onto a virtual pin board, saving it and freezing it from input. Bruce watched for a few long minutes, not paying attention to the content, (nanoelectrodes, the sort used for patch-clamping) and letting the dance and flow of light sooth him.

Time. Time was important; it had been years since a man had opened up Tony's chest and shoved this inside. Years and a life saved. It wasn't time to be angry, it was done. As he calmed down, he turned his attention to Tony himself; the man was pale and his skin slightly shiny. There were bags under his eyes and the graceful arcs his hands made were accompanied by tremors in his fingers. Bruce found himself frowning again and he looked over to JARVIS' server block. He still hadn't heard the AI speak and the temperature monitor on its side was creeping towards the red.

"Tony, something's wrong..." He mumbled, and the engineer turned towards him with crumpled eyebrows and a questioning expression. "JARVIS, what's going on?"

Tony's eyes flickered over the lab and widened in alarm; the AI didn't respond to Bruce's question. The schematics flew as Tony dismissed, destroyed and saved as appropriate, whirling to the hardterminal to his left. A rattle of keystrokes later and dials corresponding to each of JARVIS' hundreds of hardrives, processors and connections flickered across the screen.

Over half of them were in the red.

"Oh boy." Tony sighed, fingers flying, "JARVIS; executive override Gecko, Foxtrot, Sierra. Go to sleep, buddy..." The temperature monitor began to drop, the thrum of spinning hardisks begun to quieten and JARVIS' voice wavered out of the speakers over head.

"Sir? I'm sorry, I-" There was an overly long pause and the serve block quieted down to a settled, smooth thrum, "Oh my, I appear to have over reached myself..."

"Yeah, well, we're all a bit stressed." Tony mumbled, his hand stroking over the now-blank holographic keyboard. "Go on, let your chips cool down, defrag for a while. I'll go get some lunch, yeah?"

Bruce groaned quietly; it was nearly seven in the evening and it was JARVIS' job to remind Tony to eat, which he had apparently failed to do. The hardterminal, a direct line to JARVIS that amounted to looking him in the face, was flickering with pages and graphs, data, from papers published in medical journals. Too much; thousands of documents, enormous data sets, it was no wonder the AI didn't have processing power left for speech generation.

Tony was limp in his chair, hand lingering on the terminal and eyes glazed; apparently the burst of stress on an empty stomach had dazed him. Bruce sighed and coaxed him upright gently; his skin was a little cool and clammy, and he needed hot food, a blanket and a spot on the sofa.

"Sleep well, JARVIS, I've got him." Bruce muttered into the lab's intercom as they passed, earning himself a poke from Tony and a beep that managed to sound both relieved and sleepy from JARVIS.

Chapter Text

Bruce was a genius.

Tony knew this, empirically, but when he found himself wrapped in a blanket that Bruce had unashamedly toted from his own bed (afghan, lined with thick fleece), with a bowl of cardamom rice in his hands, he actually realised what it meant to have that genius turned on you. It also made him reclassify Pepper in his head; beautiful, clever Pepper, who he trusted to re-set his arc reactor, who brought him coffee and who slept, unerringly with her hand over the blue light in his chest. Because that right there? Also genius.

He refused to call it snuggling, but if Clint was around it's what the archer would call it and screw him, because he hadn't even realised he was cold until the blanket pressed in on his shoulders. The rice settled on his stomach like... like his first cheeseburger getting back to the states and was rapidly making him drowsy. His spoon clacked against the bowl every now and then, but that was the only noise in the room. He could just about hear Bruce in the kitchen, talking on the phone, but he couldn't make out the words. It was weird, knowing that JARVIS wasn't watching, Tony hadn't put him to bed in a long time and when he had, Tony had stayed locked in the lab, elbow deep in code, cables and Freon. Metaphorically.

He carefully pushed a brown seedpod to the edge of the bowl, he'd only chewed on one before he got the idea, and curled a little smaller around his increasingly warm stomach. The warmth and weight of the blanket was brushing away aches he hadn't known he had. Tension; he blamed the SHEILD doctors.

"JARVIS, what time i-" he stopped and sank into the sofa a little bit; he didn't wear a watch at home, hadn't since the third time he irrevocably damaged a watch strap with engine oil. He sat quietly, staring out at Manhattan and eating his rice until Bruce reappeared. Bruce always wore a watch, fiddled with it almost as often as he fiddled with his glasses, but it didn't always tell time. Besides, by the rapidly approaching sunset over the city, Tony was pretty sure he had missed lunch. He was trying, he really fucking was, but it was so hard to stop for something so mundane as food when you didn't even notice time passing.

For once, he didn't want to talk science, and he was obliging when Bruce swapped out his empty bowl for one containing some sort of shredded meat and flatbread. It was spicy enough and juicy enough to be interesting and he hunkered down to eat without protest. Now that he'd gotten started, he really was hungry.

"Hey Bruce."

"Oh! Steve, hello." Tony looked up and found a very haggard looking Steve-Pepper combo on their way over from the elevators. Steve in particular was all... snarly. He sympathised, but didn't precisely feel guilty about sending him in the first place.

"Hey Bruce, Tony," Pepper said, dropping her bag next to the coffee table and dropping onto the sofa by Tony's feet. A tablet smacked onto the cushion beside her and she flicked her hand to send the files up on the screen. They didn't go, because JARVIS, but she was too busy toeing off her shoes to notice right away.

Tony grumbled slightly and slipped sideways to lean in the corner of the sofa, chewing and glowering out the window.

"You found someone?" Bruce asked, fetching the rest of the food from the kitchen so they could eat companionably.

"Eventually. Longest two hours since, ugh, since Loki." Pepper replied. Steve agreed, apparently, because he stomped into the kitchen to get plates and, colour the world surprised, a beer.

Tony would've commented, he really would, but his mouth was full.

"JARVIS, put those files on the home server please, I'd like your opinion on Hendrickson, if-"

"JARVIS isn't online right now," Bruce interrupted, and Tony tuned right out of the conversation because that was just not a conversation he needed right now.

"Hendrickson was a, a bigot, Pepper, we don't need JARVIS for that. I don't trust him, and his abilities aren't any better than Ross', and he's nice."

"I know, oh, and no relation, Bruce, sorry. I wouldn't let him anywhere near Tony, not with anything to do with his technology and certainly not with anything to do with Tony being unconscious."

"What was so bad about him, then? If he's got clearance, shurely SHIELD must trust him?"

"The reactor isn't patented, we can't afford to give the schematics to the patent office for security's sake, so it would be perfectly legal for someone to use the intimate sort of data the doc'll need, to build his own."

"Theoretically. He'd need to be a secret super-scientist-genius to even imagine recreating it, I've had access to Tony's plans since the Squid and I don't even know how I would start."

"He could still sell it. I just don't trust him. Do you have a... black pen, or something?"

There was a shuffle and the click of a pen lid.

"Very... symbolic, Steve."

"Just so we don't forget."

"So you liked this Dr Ross?"

"Natasha smiled at him, and he has a history in research, rather than just the actual..."

"He's not just a surgeon, he might actually be helpful in the design process."

Tony really needed to stop shutting down in public places; he was rattling through calibration equations in his head at a frankly ridiculous pace when Barton turned up and jerked him out of it by touching his hair. Was that going to be a thing now? And it was totally because of the whole fainting-in-Cap's-arms moment, wasn't it?

He looked up at the archer, with a raised eyebrow, to see one of Abby's sensors sticking up over his shoulder. It buzzed and pulled back down as he spotted it. He sighed;

"No problems there then, so much for 'Tuesday'. Have her home by midnight, and no shenanigans!" He scolded half heartedly, waving them off.

"She started freaking out half an hour ago; she cries if I get too far away." Clint reported, craning to look over his shoulder and turning slightly so Tony could see the little AI. She was hooked into his vest; he was probably lucky he was wearing it or she would have held onto a magnificent bicep instead, wouldn't have been comfortable.

"JARVIS is having the night off; she's lost wireless connection." He leaned over to put what was left of his dinner on the floor before reaching for the AI, "Come on, Abby, come to designation: Creator."

Abby chirrped and loosened her hold on Clint, letting Tony unhook her from his vest and put her in his lap. The archer rolled his shoulders and vaulted effortlessly (the bastard) over the back of the couch.

He set to the food on the coffee table, nodding to his teammates.

Tony turned little Abby over; her sensors tracked so she could still see his face, giving her an odd, craning posture. Her stomach was nearly full, dust bunnies and bits of stripped of wire insulation mainly, stuff that gets left by construction in invisible corners. "Good girl, Abigail, we'll get you to the lab later and you can put this stuff in the trash."

She trilled happily and waved her wheel-armatures at him. "Yes, alright, calm down..." He muttered, turning her right-side up and running discerning fingers over the joints in her legs.

"So, what's under the sheet, Stark?" Clint asked, glancing back over his shoulder, fortunately without a mouthful of food. It was a close thing.

"A project." Tony answered noncommittally. The urge to show off? Not easy to suppress.

"c'mon Tony, what? Copy of the Mars Lander? Next Starkalite?" Clint rattled off, grinning lopsidedly.

"Starkalite? Really? I'm never letting you name anything. For that, you don't get satellite privileges. Access Denied." He grouched; the Iron Ranger wasn't ready yet, he could restrain himself. Once his analysis of the pacemaker was done he could give it more time, but, as he reminded himself every time something more shiny, less horrifying came up, priorities.

"Wait, you actually have satellites? Seriously, I was joking." Tony pulled out his best deadpan at that violation of the English language.

"Biggest name in development for seventy years and you think we didn't make satellites? Seraphim? Ringing any bells?"

"Huh, that was you?"

"Jesus, do you live under a rock?"

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

With them all in one room like that, it was obvious that there were gaps in the foundations; Natasha's excursion left Pepper the only woman, and Thor's absence left Steve reluctant to ask the questions he needed to in order to understand. Clint, Tony was only just starting to get a feel for, but it seemed like he genuinely didn't get off the clock very often. He still looked haunted; less sickly, less dark, but the fact that the man was only just starting to make physical contact with any of them was telling. He still pulled his hand back when Steve reached for the plate of flatbread just as he went for the meat.

Tony huffed to himself and turned his attention away from his broken teammates. Who was he to talk, anyway; his hand was still hovering over the Arc. It was covered in a layer of cotton, and he wondered for a second whether the way his holey shirts never caught his eye in the morning anymore was significant or not. His chest felt tight; it never stopped feeling tight. Always, always struggling for air... Even though he knew, really, that his throat was just fine, the urge to cough something out of it was powerful. That left him suppressing coughs into little huffing noises that Pepper was beginning to recognise. He could see it in the line of her shoulders every time; the tension, the concern.

What he really wanted was for her to go off somewhere nice, to not worry for a bit. She was getting tired. She wasn't the only one, he noted bitterly, feeling his grip on Abby weaken. His hand dropped to the sofa and he didn't bother trying to cover it up; JARVIS was hurt, Steve had seen more doctors with Motives than was good for him, Clint's eyes still went middle-distance when he was trying to remember the empty hole Loki's control had left in his memories.

And Bruce had given him a tootsie-pop.

What the fuck, if he couldn't be pathetic with these guys, he'd never make it through the next few weeks.

"Tony, you alright?" It would be Steve, wouldn't it? Captain America, Pepper's new First Response when Tony was being difficult.

"Tired, should probably..." He waved a hand vaguely but the gesture became too much effort and he tucked his hand against his chest. "Clint, put Abby to bed, yeah?" he muttered.

The archer took the robot off his lap for him when he made no move to, y'know, move. He'd gone tense again, and shoulders that strong can go really tense; maybe he needed a masseuse or something, because wow what a lot of muscle.

Chapter Text

"Alright, I've got this, come on, Tony." Steve was kneeling beside him, shifting his blanket. Tony wrapped the corner of it around his fist absently but Bruce didn't say anything; he could have it back in the morning, when Tony wasn't feeling quite so small. In fact, Bruce and Clint were already leaving, Abby held between Clint's forearm and his chest. Their heads were conspiringly close and Tony had that spine-itching feeling that they were talking about him again; Clint had that tense look that people got when Tony managed to dumb something down enough that they could just about understand, and Bruce had his Science face on.

"Well this is humiliating. For the record, I can actually walk; this is entirely unnecessary," he muttered when Steve, calm as you please, hoisted him up like a billionaire-burrito. Steve was utterly unrepentant as he followed Pepper back towards the bedroom again.

"I know how this feels, Tony; I had someone to do this for me, someone I left behind in the war. Let me do this for you." Tony didn't respond beyond leaning his head against Steve's shoulder, "No complaining next time I need a lift from Iron Man, alright?"

Tony blinked, his throat tightening for purely emotional reasons; Steve had no right to be so... so infuriatingly optimistic. Not when he was carrying Tony around like a invalid.

"Hey, about that, I think Captain America needs his own wheels, I know you like your bike but it would be a crime to take something that shiny anywhere near a fight." Tony's ever ready defence against emotion; talking.

"The quinjet works just fine, Tony; not even you can make a bike that breaks the sound barrier." Steve said with a wry smile as he turned sideways to go through a doorway.

"Really? Is that something you really want to say to me? Because I can tell you right now that I respond excellently to challenges."

"That really wasn't supposed to be a challenge..." Steve responded with a resigned tone.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony resurfaced from solid, deep sleep so early in the morning, it was still late. A growling, uneasy displeasure sat deep in his chest, an itch that only a few things could scratch. His dreams, hazy and muffled by subsequent sleep as they were, had reminded the dark, animal bits of his brain exactly what captivity, restraint and stillness were and just how much he hated them.

Sitting there in the dark, Pepper sleeping the sleep of the overworked, his hand over the light of the reactor, he cursed himself; he had been so good. He'd given up coffee, the last scotch he'd drunk had been when he was covered in space-whale and just realising how fucked he was, he'd let Captain America put him to bed at night. Jesus fucking Christ, he'd been a saint.

But.

But sitting there with the dregs of a dream in the back of his head, he remembered what it was like to be trapped, to be imprisoned by stone and blast-doors and a battery powered heart.

Just one last time. He promised himself, standing slowly and leaning on the headboard until his head stopped fading from reality, that this would be the last time for a long time, that he would go back to being good, that he could let himself have this one flight.

He counted himself lucky that no one was up as he made his way to the workshop and pulled JARVIS gently out of sleep.

"J, queue up the Mark VII," He said, fingers skipping over a console, "And let's try ot the positive-pressure suit while we're at this."

"Sir, this is extremely unwise. Not only are you due for medication in three hours, but you are disobeying direct orders."

"You, were supposed to be de-fragging. Bad JARVIS." Tony grumbled, glaring at the assembly rig, which remained stubbornly silent and still.

"Indeed sir. However, analysis of the relevant medical literature is complete and I am no longer in danger of over-heating." Tony had to smile a little at that, because JARVIS was scintillatingly brilliant.

"Just one last flight, J. You know me, you know what I'm like; look at the footage since all this began, I've been careful. After this, the Iron Ranger will have to do, and I won't be flying out again for months; one last flight, JARIVS."

A wire-frame of an in-suit IV Tony had reluctantly designed popped up, "If you are truly set on a final excursion, I really must insist."

"I'm gonna start thinking you have a medical fetish, J. Seriously." Tony flicked the hologram towards the assembly rig in mute agreement.

The positive-pressure under suit looked a lot like his normal, neoprene one, but for a navy blue sheen as he pulled it over his shoulder. On the inside, it was closer to his skin; he couldn't wear clothes under it, and padded with an incompressible gel. Fibres running in rings around his limbs could tighten in response to current and the hope was that it would off-set the effects of g-forces. Just then though, all he needed it to do was push his blood pressure up to something approaching normal.

"Isn't heart disease supposed to go with high blood pressure?" he grumbled, sitting on a stool and wiring the IV pump into the gauntlet.

"Never let it be said that you do anything the easy way, sir." JARVIS quipped even as Tony put his tools down and the rig pulled the gauntlet back into assembly-position. "One, final, flight. Make it a good one, sir."

Tony nodded and stepped up to the platform. The new suit slid around him, feeling a bit like cold silk, but pressing in on him like deep water. The Mark VII, only slightly modified from the Chitauri fight, felt familiar and its assembly fluidly smooth; JARVIS was being gentle with him. When the helmet closed, the HUD was clear of clutter; the suit didn't have any ammunition and JARVIS had turned off all the gauges. He could see clearly, as if the helmet was made of crystal.

"Always know what I need, don't you J?" He remarked with a grin,

"I do try, sir." There was a sharp pinch in his forearm, still held out straight by the assembly rig, before JARVIS released him and he stepped out through the glass. The workshop was just below the gallery with its bright 'A' but he was leaving in the opposite direction; north, rather than south-west. JARVIS could pull back the glass panels of the outside wall like petals here and Tony took of slowly and smoothly.

He couldn't roar up into the sky from here, the angles weren't right because he hadn't wanted to add a balcony, but that wasn't what he wanted right then anyway. He rose slowly, for him, gaining speed until he broke a cloud layer at ten, maybe fifteen thousand feet. This was what he was really after; the sky expanded out sideways as the vapour was left below him. He levelled out and turned on his back, staring up into the sky. There were still clouds above, up at thirty thousand, but they were thin and wispy with the glitter of ice and he'd left the light pollution far below. The stars spread out, glittering and inconstant in a way that the heaven on the other side of the portal hadn't been. There, the stars had burnt closer, steady and ruthlessly bright, but here there was shimmer and colour.

The itch faded; this was freedom, well and truly, in all its harsh brutality and stark realism. It wasn't all that great; he thought of Bruce's blanket, still draped over his bed, and of Pepper and of Steve. Clint and Natasha...

He was making the choice; choosing to be there, with them, no one was trapping him, there was no confinement, because if he wanted to go to Malibu, he could. If he wanted to go to Vegas, the worst that would happen would be Steve's eyebrows. He huffed quietly to himself; freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose.

Well fuck freedom; he turned back over and headed for home.

Chapter Text

In retrospect, he should have known someone would be waiting for him when he got home. Seeing Steve's silhouette against the gallery lights wasn't exactly a bad thing to come home to, either. The only real downside from his perspective was that the PP-undersuit was fucking obscenely tight. Poor Steve.

"Alright, J, put her in storage." He said quietly as the landing pad unfolded around him.

"JARVIS said you were out for a final flight; not sure what to think about that." Steve commented with his arms crossed and that frown just starting to show up.

"The same way I think about your morning run, or the fact that Natasha still takes solo missions; it's something I had to do. Show me the faceplate for a second?" He asks JARVIS, turning his shoulder to the Captain and fishing a tool kit out of one of the landing pads moving panels. It wouldn't do to put the Mark VII away wet so he polished off the bug splatters with a coarse cloth.

"Alright."

"Seriously? You're not going to take away my cocoa privileges' or something?" Tony quipped, watching the armour disappear into JARVIS' robotic innards on its way to the display cases downstairs. He jumped, just a momentary tightening of his frame, when Steve's hand landed on his shoulder.

"I'd like it if you stuck to the sofa today, yeah, but what you're working on isn't exactly frivolous." Steve's off-hand ran down the inside of his arm like he was feeling for something and Tony held it out for him with a faint frown of puzzlement.

"I, we can do that, if you don't mind the coffee table being full of hologra- hey, watch it." Steve had found the tiny split in the suit for the IV and pressed his thumb over the hole while he unzipped the cuff. There was a tiny dribble of back-bleed, now that Tony looked, and Steve was already fishing out one of those weird dressings you get when you've given blood.

"Well, I love you too, JARVIS. You think of everything..." Tony muttered, using his right hand to help Steve roll his sleeve up.

"This is different, what is it?" Steve asked as he stuck down the white dressing (again with the sticky patches, he still had one from the scan IV), indicating the PP-undersuit.

"It's to compensate for acceleration; the fibres contract when you apply a voltage so blood doesn't pool in the distal capillary beds." The was a pause two ticks long before Steve responded.

"Sorry, what?" Steve handled confusion much differently to Pepper, Tony noticed, and the Caps eyebrows creased again.

"Ever heard of grey-out? When pilots are pulling crazy stunts and pass out?" Steve nodded hesitantly and Tony quirked a half grin at him before leading the way inside; he felt decidedly naked, and Caps eyes hadn't strayed south of the arc reactor in a frankly insulting length of time.

"As planes got faster, it happened more often, people started looking for ways to let the pilots pull more and more g's, tighter turns, faster, without passing out." Tony explained, glad that Steve was letting the conversation stay on neutral ground, "We started working on kit that compressed the limbs in response to the g-forces to keep blood flowing to the brain, this is the end of a long line of techniques." He tapped his sleeve with a throw-away gesture, and then reached for a brocade housecoat that he kept behind the bar. "It's just a prototype, and too expensive for the military right now, but it'd have put me right up there as the fastest thing in the sky." He looked out into the pre-dawn dark; no stars down here, and shrugged the housecoat over his shoulders. Steve's reflection was clear in the dark glass, his shoulders tense.

The urge to tell him about the Iron Ranger was really powerful, right then, because there was a look of pain on his face, and Tony knew how he would feel if Steve went back to how he was pre-serum, if Steve was forced to choose to go back.

For the record, this empathy business? Not awesome.

Stretching his neck up to reach the zip under his chin, Tony peeled the suit away from his neck; he needed a shave and to redesign the collar...

"I was angry when JARVIS woke me up. Really angry. There's a dent in the elevator, and I'm sorry for that, and I'm sorry for underestimating you." Steve said, putting one of those ridiculously large, warm hands on Tony's shoulder. Normally, Tony would have grinned and spun to face him, dislodging the hand 'accidentally' and dazzling the offending individual with his FOX News smile, but this time, he really couldn't be bothered. It was Steve, just Steve, and his hand was warm and there was no shame in accepting his apology with a little dignity.

"Thanks... I can forgive you, particularly since you seem to be the one lugging me around when things are... harder." Tony replied with a wry grimace,

"It's the least I can do; Bruce is helping you with the new pacemaker, Clint's handling your 'bots, Pepper's got the business, Natasha's closing down the black market on Stark Tech, and then there's little Steve, from Brooklyn; man out of time." Steve did that downward tilt of the head, trying to hide a grin while his eyes lit up with his smile. "What's a lift to a man half my size compared to that?"

"So that's what she's up to, huh... and I am not half your size." Tony grumbles good-naturedly, breaking the moment by returning Steve's smile and meandering to the sofa.

"Alright, two thirds. You weigh, what, 160 pounds?" Steve asked, fishing a bottle of water out of the bar fridge and tossing it to Tony without looking. It landed perfectly on the sofa cushion next to his thigh.

"One-fifty five, soaking wet," he grumbles. "Just because you're built like a tank, doesn't mean you have to be rude." Tony quipped, taking a drink and gesturing at Steve with the bottle.

"Two-oh-three, last time I weighed in down at the gym, 'course that was before I broke all their sandbags." Steve said, joining him in the sunken gallery seating, but going for one of the low backed square armchairs rather than the sofa.

"Remind me to keep Happy away from you; he's only light-middleweight, but he can't resist a challenge."

"He's your trainer, right?" Steve asked, slumping back in his chair and kicking a foot up onto the coffee table; he looked supremely relaxed, which was a relief after the thrumming tension from earlier.

"Driver, trainer, procurer of cheeseburgers, all-round good guy." Tony said in an agreeable tone, though his forehead creased just a fraction; Happy was a friend, too, he supposed, but he hadn't seen him in... since the last R&D meeting before the tower was reopened; two weeks. With so much of SI's business in one building, he didn't need the car nearly as much. Maybe it was time they had a field trip, a few days out in the country side, the Audi could probably do with a spin too; she'd get lonely.

Oh who was he kidding, he shouldn't leave the Tower now. Going out in the Mark VII with its variable-oxygen life support system, Mach 2 top speed and impenetrable outer shell was one thing, (one thing that he was putting in storage, he might add), going out with just the portable case, which relied on agility and his response time was another. Iron Man had his own enemies, and so did Tony Stark, it would be a stupid risk.

Tony could feel the euphoria of his starlit trip fading, feeling tired in a way that was becoming uncomfortably familiar.

They sat in the quiet, companionably enough though not as comfortably for Tony as before, until the sun rose and Steve headed out for a run, squeezing Tony's shoulder on his way past. Tony wasn't one to be moved much by the shift of light on steel and glass and stone, but Steve had an artist's heart and New York was still the city he loved, so yeah; sunrise. Pep should really be the one Steve bonded over with stuff like that; she was the artistic one, he mused to himself. The elevator hummed quietly on its way out of earshot, leaving Tony alone to drowse on the couch.

Chapter Text

Tony got three hours into his day on the sofa (as counted from when Pepper woke up, which is as early as he could justifiably call the beginning of a day) before his gallery was inundated by superheroes in various stages of dressed and armoured flooded through. Without Natasha, the three men were appreciably less self conscious about bare chests and, for one memorable moment, arses. Tony didn't exactly protest that; Clint was well cut, and it was only a moment.

"Energy signature consistent with, oh for crying out loud, its Chinese, mac-and-cheese, kitchen volcano tech, I could build this in my sleep when I was four." Tony sneered at the readout hovering at his left hand.

"Finish the Brief, Tony." Cap admonished, making the billionaire leer at the one man he knows is not wearing 'briefs' at all. No real surprise; how would they fit under that tight Kevlar, anyway?

"Alright, alright... Submarine, nuclear, sonar and radar, but sky blind when she's under. Crew of... uh, sixteen? wow, that's tiny, and a snake, what the... I'm not even going to ask. Bruce!"

Bruce leant over the back of the sofa, bare chested but for his rather impressive chest hair, tacking his hulk-sized pants down to Bruce sized with a piece of cotton thread that would break when he transformed. "You're thinking interspecies genetics?" he asks, tying a knot in thread so thin, Tony could only see it where it pressed a line in Bruce's fingers.

"Uhh, I'm thinking Chinese scientist, radiation source, snake, a bunch of bored seamen and one sub that's so far off the grid, it's in SHIELD's back yard. Yeah, someone on that boat is making with the ugly."

"Ride's here!" Clint shouted from the loop leading to the helipad, just below Tony's armour assembly rig; last time they'd used the roof, glad to see that someone in SHIELD was getting his memos. He caught sight of a flash of red as the bird swung 'round to put her arse-end towards them; apparently Natasha would be joining them after all. Maybe he'd go down to the lab and jury-rig the Rangers repulsors once they were off... it'd only take half an hour and he'd catch them before they hit the west coast... And then he would have no weapons to speak of and an untested bird in the air. Yeah, no. Cap would break the sound barrier to come back to NY and kill him. Or chain him to his bed; a man can dream, he supposed.

"Keep on that tracking algorithm, Stark; I want to know where it is, even if it goes silent. And don't move." Steve yelled over his shoulder as they hustled out of the gallery and onto the balcony/helipad. He was pretty proud of that. To be fair, Stark Tower; only building with a balcony big enough to land a two-ton steel vehicle on. He'd had to integrate its struts into the infrastructure all the way to the basement. Pride was appropriate.

Once the engine noises disappeared and the chatter on the radio started to include Natasha, he didn't feel like moving anyway, despite the order Cap gave him. He turned up the volume so he could hear the roar of the jets engines in the background, because quiet in the Tower was oppressive.

"A little bird told me you were out hunting bugs, Widow; anything you want to tell me?" Tony quipped, keeping his voice light.

"Guatemala's clean. Columbia's got a stash, I'll know where by the end of the month," which was three weeks away.

"Not bad, not bad at all; how'd you handle the border agency? I can't touch Guatemala with a bargepole. Or even a minion with a bargepole." He asked, genuinely curious, while simultaneously manipulating the code of an old tracking program and setting up remote monitoring of the Jet's flight computer.

"Not all of us wear a red and gold suit, Iron Man; you figure it out." She sniped right back.

"Hmm, how is Central America this time of year? I hear it has excellent rainforest."

"Stark, do you have anything useful to add?" Agent Sitwell drawled, presumably from mission control on the helicarrier. So much sniping today. The Avengers all gave him the radio version of a glare, a sort of dead silence that was conspicuous by the absence of the usual fabric shifting and weapon prepping noises. It lasted just long enough for Sitwell to sputter uncomfortably before the Cap cut in.

"What's the official position from Beijing?" He said over the sound of opening Velcro; lots of fun stuff in the Cap's kit belt these days, Tony thought with a smirk.

"Officially, this isn't happening, unofficially, the PLA is hiding this entire business from their superiors and keeping their fingers crossed." Natasha said. Tony is only minorly concerned that she's been out since 0500 the previous day, meaning she's half way through her twenty seventh hour awake, because she managed the entire Loki incident, from picking Bruce up, all the way to Schwarma without so much as nodding off in a corner.

"SO! Lets try not to crash the nuclear sub into California, then. Not even the Chinese could cover that up. Seriously, who wrote their internet protocol? Getting info across that is like getting C4 through customs." He replied, pushing the holograms pertaining to the sub to one side and grabbing the weather forecast for the appropriate part of the Pacific.

"You would know."

"That was one time, and it was MY plane, and MY C4. I don't see how that counts, if I wanted to hijack a plane, I would just fly it myself, no C4 required." He said before realising that Pepper really shouldn't be on the Avengers radio channel. "Pep? Why are you on the Avengers line? That is just rude."

"I'm on the helicarrier, Sitwell was looking a little... overwhelmed." There was a throat clearing sound in the background that could only be Nick Fury with an eyebrow raised. "Will that be all, Mr Stark?" Tony may have sat up very straight with malicious glee at that point, because Pep was keeping Nick Fury waiting.

"That will be all, Ms Potts, I will see you at dinner."

"Count on it, Tony; don't go anywhere."

"Ohh, double grounded, Burrrrrrn." Clint Barton really needed to know how to keep his mouth shut; Tony swiftly hacked into Barton's quiver, which had a remote uplink just because, and zapped him with a tazer arrow. The resulting yelp was both satisfying and hilarious, though Steve was doing the Great Sigh of Doom, second only to the Eyebrow in its fear-inducing ability.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

There were over the West Coast by the time Tony finally shut up, four hours later, probably absorbed in something or other given the metalic clattering just before he trailed off, but possibly sleeping. A guy could hope. JARVIS had muted the connection somewhere around the Californian border and iformed them that Tony was 'otherwise occupied'. He'd already sent them the tracking program and patched it into the jets radar. Remotely. Bruce found it a, ridiculous that Tony could even do that, b, typical that he would use it to zap Clint when he was annoying, and c, interesting that SHIELD could give them some pretty detailed schematics of the sub. Too detailed, even, but when he asked about it, Natasha got that look and didn't answer.

"So, assuming the crew are... compromised? By this transformation, how do we get the sub to surface?" Bruce asked, scanning the transmission that had started the mission. It was in Mandarin Chinese, obviously, but the translator had been thorough.

"We're hoping it's gone to auto pilot, it should surface every six hours for half an hour. It's due to be on the surface when we get there, and we'll disable the next dive sequence manually."

("Is it bad that I wish Stark was here, and I'm glad he isn't at the same time, what is with that?" Barton mumbled in an undertone to Natasha, who is more than capable of listening and talking at the same time)

"Alright, Widow and I will handle that, Bruce and Clint, clear the aft section. Can you shut the reactor down, Hulked out?" Cap asked in the totally serious, I-can-work-with-anything way that makes his questions less insulting.

"If you don't mind sinking it to the bottom of the pacific and losing half the sub in the process, then theoretically, I can stop it overloading; seawater makes good coolant." Bruce pulled his glasses off with a sardonic expression, "I was a physicist before I was the Hulk; we remember."

"Right, good, but let's hope it doesn't get that far. What about the snake, why do we even know about that?"

Clint chipped in from his position looming over their SHEILD-issue co-pilot, "Snake's a good luck charm, the sub's captain is superstitious and bought it when one of his men stroked out and died."

"Its strange, though; the radio officer talked about teeth and claws before he went offline, no amount of radiation can combine snake and human DNA to get claws." Bruce said, skimming the abstract of a paper on the subject; the genes that had once gone to programming for the snake-ancestor's legs were so long out of use that they were either completely corrupt or had been co-opted to very different purposes.

"So, what...? it wasn't the snake?" Clint asked, raising an un-amused eyebrow, "I know roaches get onto subs, let it be not roaches, yeah?"

"Lang Zhenshang works in vertebrates, so unless something went really wrong, it's probably not the roaches..." Bruce said, flicking over to a different tab, this one holding Zhenshang's latest published paper.

"uh, I'm going to go with 'something went really wrong', since sixteen people mysteriously turned into snarly, bitey man-beasts."

There was silence for a couple of moments while people took that in before Bruce spoke up again;

"Right. Point taken. At least they won't be venomous."

"That was an option?"

Chapter Text

 

"Alright, pressurised submersible it is. After you," Bruce said, audible over the engines only through virtue of his comm. unit. A thick, black rope had been hung from the jet's underwing and Clint had no visible compunction about sliding down it and onto the deck of a moving submarine. Steve followed but Natasha gave Bruce a raised eyebrow that meant he was, apparently, next. The rope was smooth enough that the gloves they'd all put on didn't heat up and Bruce managed to keep his feet at the bottom, Natasha landing only moments after. Above, the SHIELD agents Natasha had brought along to baby-sit the jet pulled up to a safe distance, leaving them almost stranded on the pillar of a hostile submarine. Wonderful.

Cap already had the hatch open and Clint quickly vanished into the depths; Bruce was supposed to be his partner on this gig, and had no choice but to follow. Inside, it was dark and hot; the ladder was damp with condensation and the air full of the smell of... Bruce couldn't quite identify it, but it reminded him of his old lab and lifts in hot countries, simultaneously.

They headed for the reactor; the corridor was cramped and broken every few yards by sealable bulkheads which made Bruce just about as jumpy as he ever let himself get. Clint cleared each door they passed, the tip of his arrow following the path of his eyes; right, across left following the edge of the opening door, up left, across right. He always checked the ceilings and Bruce was tempted to joke that only Clint leapt out of ceilings at people, but there was rustling on the edges of hearing that kept him quiet.

"Bruce; this one's yours..." Clint muttered, backing out of the seventh, possibly eighth room. He shifted to guard the doorway from the corridor, his back to Bruce, and the scientist edged past. First thing he noticed was the obvious; the... individual is dead, mercifully perhaps. Its bald head and blistered, necrotic skin make it hard enough to classify as human, even without the thick, fleshy tail and translucent, white claws.

He thumbed his radio;

"Found a crew member; dead less than... six hours, at a guess. Evidence of severe radiation poisoning and genetic modification. Enlarged claws, extended tail; not fully formed," Its mouth was a mess of cracked lips and blood, -- the mucous membranes the first to go in radiationsickness -- but the jaw looked malformed, twisted on one side. He used a pen from the corpse's pocket to lever its mouth open; "Incisor and mandibular malformation consistent with rodent features."

"Delightful. That would be the mice kept to feed the snake, then; I'm sure there's a nursery rhyme in there somewhere." Tony quipped, sounding like he was sitting right on Bruce's shoulder. He managed to not jump, but it was a close thing.

"Jesus Christ..."

"I go by 'Tony', religious icons are the third Sunday after the full moon, on rotation." Tony kept on, sounding like he had something in his mouth; possibly a screwdriver if the clattering sounds were anything to go by.

"Right. For all those people actually in the sub, cause of death wasn't the radiation; this guy was mauled, neatly." Bruce tipped the corpse's head firmly, (rigor mortis setting in, but not complete yet) so Clint could see the perfectly deadly bite marks on the back on its neck.

"The crew are likely to be violent, then?" The Cap asked with a forced even tone; Bruce could just imagine what Cap was seeing.

"Definitely; they'll go for the back of the neck if they can, rodents have a rather specific execution style." Bruce warned them before turning his radio back to receive only and going to check Clint's dosimeter.

"Copy that. We've got five, no six, here; that still leaves nine unaccounted for, keep an eye out." Steve said, followed by the click of his mic turning off.

"You want the Geiger counter, boss?" Clint asked,

"Yes, the shielding is good, but I need to check the corpse for residua-"

"Shit!"

Clint shoved the counter at Bruce and spun, bow out and aimed by the time he was facing their attacker. The first arrow struck it where it's heart would have been, if it was still human, but the hybridization had changed things; it stood hunched over, its elbows and shoulders rolled forwards, so the arrow sunk into its shoulder instead. It screamed, but kept coming until Clint brained it with his bow.

"Any point keeping these things alive, Big Guy?" Clint asked in a matter-of-fact way that Bruce really wasn't sure made things any better.

"No; this stage of radiation sickness is known as 'the walking dead', they're already gone." Bruce said, looking away; this was not what the Avengers were about, this wasn't Hawkeye, this was Clint Barton, Agent of SHEILD.

In the end, they didn't have time to linger; Bruce checked the two bodies for radiation, found none, and they fell right into battle around the next corner. Claws, teeth and mad, bleeding eyes made their attackers into an army and Bruce couldn't not change.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Clint slumped back against the only remaining bulkhead between where they had started and the reactor; the Hulk had done an impressive job of gutting the rats and sub both. Clint was relatively unscathed; a few scratches and one bite clean through his armour that was going make moving uncomfortable. More importantly, he'd kept count.

Hulk: Twenty Seven,

Hawkeye: Eighteen.

Not a bad showing, considering that the Hulk was generally compared to armies and that the sub was supposed to only have SIXTEEN PEOPLE ON BOARD.

"Hawkeye to Iron Man; Fuck you, Tony! This is not sixteen hostiles!"

"Copy, sorry; I promise there'll be pizza and beer waiting when you get back and you don't have to yell, cause Cap got there first and I had to look up submarines on Wikipedia because the manifest I got from the Chinese only has sixteen names on it, and I was, 'ok, so small sub, weird,' but it turns out that only commissioned officers have names an-"

"Fucking... shut up Tony, not the first time someone's dropped the ball on a mission brief; we'll find whoever compiled the file and, I dunno, boobytrap their donuts or something." Clint said, mostly to get Tony to go back to not talking, and dropped his head back against the bulkhead. "One of them got to the reactor controls, you need to walk me through shutting it off."

"Bruce can't do it? No wait, hands are too big for buttons. Alright, get me a visual feed and we'll be done in no time-"

Speaking of the Hulk Clint looked up at his buddy, who had stomped over to loom.

"Alright there, Jade Jaws?" He asked, deliberately being not afraid, friendly, non-threat, while Tony paused in his chatter, obviously listening through Clint's mic.

"NEED TO ISOLATE REACTOR. GO."

Clint blinked, because what?

"HULK SINK REACTOR INTO OCEAN. RADIATION BAD FOR CUPID. GO." Hulk punctuated his sentence, (well would you look at that, a whole sentence!) by lifting Clint back to his feet and putting him on the other side of the bulkhead. Hawkeye wasted an entire half minute blinking stupidly at the closed bulkhead door.

"Well, that'll work." Tony commented with an inordinate level of smugness.

"Cap? We... ah... Hulk's dealing with the reactor..."

"Hawkeye? Status report," Natasha barked in his ear when his pause stretched out.

"Uh, not sure. Making my way to extraction point now." He mumbled into his throat mic, stumbling over a rat-like tail before getting himself back together and breaking into a jog. "Hulk's immune to radiation, right?" He asked on the open channel,

"Well, sort of, he just radiates it right back out. You'll need suits to bring him back, oh, but he might not be able to turn back until he... oh." Tony went quiet again and Clint focused on getting up the ladder without pulling the bite on his side open too much.

"Finish your sentence, Tony, you're leaving us hanging here." He prompted when he broke out into fresh air and Tony still hadn't started up again.

"He won't be able to de-Hulk until the radiation wears off and I have no idea what the half-life of irradiated Hulk-particles would be; he breaks the Laws of Physics every time he transforms! E equals MC-Squared? Not so much!" there was a rattle that was a familiar frustrated-Tony noise; that of a dropped tablet.

The Cap and Natasha joined him on the- what is the sticky up bit of a sub called? Clint mused to himself, it felt like something he should know. Steve waved the jet down and a ladder unrolled from the bay door.

"There's no point sending the sub back to the Chinese now, we've programmed it to dive with the hatches open. The PLA will just have to suck it up." Natasha said, completely ignoring the breaking-metal sounds resonating through the hull of the sub. Clint, leaning on a railing with one hand pressing against his side to limit the bleeding, felt it in his chest more than he heard it; half sub-sonic and the rest at the other end of the spectrum in a high-pitched squeal that the Hulk bellowed over. The water over the sub's nose frothed and churned with bubbles and flying metal until there was a flash of red-white light. The Hulk's green back showed for a second, as if he was watching the reactor sink, though how he could see anything in the dusk was beyond Clint, and then his usually bushy head appeared, hair plastered to his head.

"LOTS OF SWIMMING FOR HULK. SQUID MORE FUN."

Clint waved; he was pretty sure he couldn't get his voice to carry that far, so he left that to the Cap;

"Good job, Hulk! Just hang on to the sub for a bit, and we'll see how radioactive you are!" He yelled, and it was clear that he was heard, but the Hulk obviously did not agree.

"HULK SWIM; RADIATION BAD FOR LITTLE PINK PEOPLE!"

Clint totally sympathised with Steve's gobsmacked expression and leaned over to mutter in Natasha's ear; "You see what I mean?"

She nodded, wordlessly.

Chapter Text

 

The Hulk is good at Finding The Way.

Usually, that'd been away from the nearest city lights, but after the Rats on a Submarine, the Hulk swam his way steadily towards the east. The moon was rising, giving him the perfect compass. The Metal Bird roared and kept pace above, far enough that its too-soft occupants were safe, safe, safe.

Hulk liked this sea; when they'd ran, ran, ran from Thunderbolt, leaving Betty to have her baby and her husband (thief, THIEF,) the sea had had ice, big enough to sleep on, but cold enough that he was always green, green, green. Here, the water was black, but warm and shiny; the moon left him a trail on the water to follow, his hands breaking the path into sparkling pieces that made it hard to stay green. The buzz-buzz-buzzing in his skin held him tight, pressing in on his pink and stopping the green from sinking down, down, down into calm.

Hulk hadn't looked at the map; green couldn't see what pink did, hadn't been able to see since they broke in two, but the archer, silly and small, knew the way and shouted down; little mouth, little shout, but Hulk heard. Hulk knows 'degrees', degrees are from before, and turns 15 degrees north of Moon. They had to leave, not enough fuel, but they'd be waiting, Cupid promised, on the beach.

There'd be pizza.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony was on his jet twenty minutes after throwing his tablet on the coffee table in frustration and in California six hours after that. Pepper had sighed but agreed; she liked Bruce. He'd also gotten his Happy time on the plane, which was a bonus.

The only things he had actually remembered to pick up himself were his medication (JARVIS) and clothes for Bruce; as much as he liked the fact that Bruce woke up naked, public indecency was still a thing in California, right? Unless that had been Nevada, Pepper would know. Anyway; clothes.

He'd given Clint the coordinates to the Malibu house, if anyone could land on his roof without breaking it, it would be them, and they were all hoping that the Hulk's NavSat was as good. They'd been a long way out, into the Pacific, and none of them had thought to take a reading of the Hulk's top swimming speed. Nevertheless, when they pulled up to the house, he went straight down to the sand and, arc reactor glowing and uncovered in the vague hope that it would be a beacon, waited for the Hulk to climb out of the ocean.

Happy stood close by, Geiger counter in one hand, suitcase armour on the sand by his feet, and JARVIS in one ear. The pizzas sat in the passenger seat of the Audi, kept hot by the seat warmers.

Tony half expected the Hulk's arrival to be heralded by a storm of clicks from the 'counter, but what they actually noticed first was the sound of water; the Hulk's strong arms pulled him through the waves at impressive speed and each plunge of his hands made a sound like a breaker. It stood out; too regular and frequent to be waves and by the time he shifted from swimming to stomping up the beach, Happy had moved forwards, waving the counter in an unnecessarily theatrical way. It clicked once and remained otherwise, blessedly, silent.

"Hey, buddy; heard you wanted some food. Hope you like pepperoni." Tony said, patting Happy on the shoulder to let him know that everything was just fine. The driver nodded and headed back to the car, eyes on the Hulks silhouette warily. Had Tony looked back at that point, he would have seen the SHEILD people-carrier parked next to his Audi, with a compliment of superheroes sitting on roof and bonnet and picking at a pizza as if they'd been there for hours.

"Saw Tony's light. Supposed to be in New York, on sofa." Hulk grumbled, stomping through the sand and sticking a finger in his ear to get rid of water.

"What can I say; you've got animal magnetism, I couldn't help myself." Tony said, taking his eyes off the Hulk while he made one of those throw-away gestures. As such, he missed the green giant kneeling in the sand and leaning forwards, but he looked back as the Hulk's enormous hands scooped him up off his feet.

"Silly Tony; shouldn't worry about Hulk. Shouldn't fly across a country because Hulk got to take a swim." Apparently, the Hulk was peeved with him; his throat rumbled, which Tony had a front-row seat for, considering he was being held against the Hulk's shoulder like a child. Tentatively, he wrapped his arms around the nearest bit of Hulk, his neck, and hugged gently.

"Hey, I've got your back, buddy, that's how this works." He leant back as far as big green hands would let him and grinned; the irritation melted of the Hulks face, his green skin started to pale and his muscles shrink. He set Tony back on his feet and huffed out a laugh; Hulk's throat wasn't really made for laughter, and it smoothed into Bruce's voice half way through. The Hulk shrank down to Bruce right in front of them and Tony's brain did a little backflip trying to see where all the extra mass went.

"You, are a ridiculous man, Tony. Is that pizza? I have a feeling I was promised pizza." Bruce said, looking dazed but not completely out of it. After a moment, the scientist's eyes widened; "I remember being promised pizza! Of all things to keep in long-term!" He mumbled, hoisting his enormous, and now stretched beyond recognition, trousers up.

"I bought all the pizza." Tony said, smug and self satisfied. He looked genuinely surprised for a second when he looked 'round, finding Clint balanced on the roof-bar of a people carrier with a piece of pizza half-in his mouth. Cap waved, swallowing his mouthful and holding out a pizza box. "Well I had all the pizza. When did you guys get here?"

Bruce ducked behind the van with the bag Happy had passed over and they all politely ignored him until he was less nekkid.

"About an hour ago? I had no idea you were capable of actually standing still for so long." Clint said thickly, earning a smack on the boot from Natasha.

"I was doing jet upgrades, because apparently we need radiation shielded hold-space," he said tapping his temple before snagging a piece of pizza and, how was it still hot anyway?, perching next to random SHEILD Agent the Second on the front bumper, who was not allowed pizza, because he wasn't wearing a tie and also because he was Not Coulson. SHIELD Agent the First, their co-pilot for the day, was sitting in the open side door of the people-carrier, drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup. "Hey, you," Tony made clicky-fingers, "you better not have parked on my lawn, and is that fresh coffee? Gimmie,"

Steve sighed and rubbed a hand over his face, because Tony, and held his pizza box out to Bruce, who emerged polishing his glasses but still looking rather salty. "Thanks,"

Tony didn't, in fact, manage to steal any coffee because a, the agent was A Spy and had innocently finished the coffee just after Tony asked and b, Steve broke out The Eyebrow.

As they made their way back up to the Mansion, up on the top of the cliff, with a SHEILD jet parked neatly on the roof, no one but Tony noticed the eerie blue lights, arranged in a triangle that followed at a safe distance.

The Iron Ranger was watching, because it was readyfor an all-Avengers Expo, and Tony wanted to show it off in the morning. It was sort of like Dummy, and a little like JARVIS, but a lot more like the Suit; if Tony had ever had contact with horses, or dogs, he might have realised the similarity, but he hadn't, and didn't. The Ranger was clever enough to steer and balance and come home at the end of a battle, and it did have some of the emotive circuits of an actual AI but it, he, would not nor could ever fly on its own. Part of that was to keep Tony in the game, he could admit that, but equally, he didn't want to make an AI fight, make one to fight, because that was too much like mad-scientist territory and too, too cruel. Eventually, Tony might upload JARVIS to the Ranger, if the AI wanted a body, or he might just feed the fabrication units steel until J had what he wanted, whatever, he didn't know, but Ranger had a specific purpose, and that was keeping the Avengers safe.

Which was why there were hand-holds and harness clips hidden all over its back.

Tony tagged the ramp down to his, now empty, workshop with the remote uplink on his phone and the Ranger hummed into the space and out of sight, just as their SHEILD escort bugged out to get donuts with Happy in the guard house. No one saw, but Tony spotted Steve's head tip sideways slightly, like it did when something came up on their radios, only they weren't wearing their earwigs. "I'll show you in the morning, Cap. Now come on, welcome to my humble abode!"

XXXXXXXXXXXX

And that was great, it was; Steve and Bruce and Natasha and Clint, in his home, the first place he built JARVIS in to the walls, which still had a hole in the living room floor because he'd needed to run a new mainline into the workshop. JARVIS spared them some of his attention, despite being busy in New York and got them each a room, but most of the Avengers ended up crashing on the sofas and the rest trickled in before midnight, unable to settle. It hadn't been a particularly tiring mission; a lot of air-time, interspersed with periods of franetic activity, and the only reason they'd been called in at all was that, if it did go public, they had the best chance of looking vaguely international. Better than the US Navy, anyway.

So, it wasn'r like they were exhausted, in fact Tony was probably the most worn, after Bruce, for obvious reasons, but they slept pretty quickly once they were all in one room. Tony, feeling sickly and irritated by it, got a bit of comfort from the low rumble of breathing so he guessed that everyone else did too. Power to the team, he supposed.

Clint wasn't asleep though, or if he was, he was a damn sight better at faking wakefulness than Tony had ever managed, not even in his longest board meeting. Hell, Tony wouldn't be able to balance like that, compus mentus, let alone asleep.

"Hey, Stark."

"Yeah, bird-brain?" He replied; his observation had obviously not gone unnoticed,

"When you fell..." The gargoyle-shaped archer uncurled from his perch enough to turn the full force of his stare on Tony, and wow, those eyes. "What did it feel like? You... you died, I..." his stumbling uncertainty, the dark night, were all that kept Tony from blithely and irreverently brushing the question aside.

"You could put it like that." Tony said to stretch out the moment, give himself time to think. "You've passed out before, right? Bloodloss, not a blow to the head? I looked up Budapest, nice work, by the way, so I think you already know the answer." Tony levered himself upright and shuffled to stand next to Clint, looking out over the water and ignoring the blood-pressure slump that greyed out his vision. "But this isn't about me, is it?" because, fuck; they all thought about it occasionally, and Clint must have worked with him for years.

"Maybe not. Sorry." The silence stretched, though not uncomfortably, and less silent than it could have been, with Bruce's soft whuffles and Steve's deeper though still quiet snores. "He didn't actually watch Suppernanny, you know." Clint said quietly, tilting his body just enough to indicate the TV, which Tony had jokingly told to record the crappy reality show and never told to stop.

"I gathered it was a hint; I guess babysitting idiots with daddy issues wasn't exactly his usual remit."

Clint snorted quietly, "No, though the tazer gets a lot of use- shit." Clint cut himself off as he realised he'd got his tenses wrong. Tony grunted in sympathy and didn't look as Clint's head bowed into his hand, not even when his shoulders shook. They'd done good today, but it was the first time they'd gone out with a handler and Sitwell just... well; Not Coulson.

Chapter Text

 

It felt wrong to be the first awake; Tony was warm in a way he associated with Pepper and body heat, someone's arm was draped across his waist and something hard was jabbing him in the hip. A quick glance showed that either Natasha was very much not who they thought she was, and had strange anatomy, or she had come to bed armed. He shifted and the hard object gained definition; definitely the butt of a weapon. Delightful.

She was sleeping on her side, her head turned away from him, and it was Steve who had monopolised his other side. The limb on his stomach was hot, Steve ran at a higher temperature than normal, and just heavy enough that it was making his chest tired to breathe past the weight. He pushed and pulled at it until the man murmured and folded it to his chest, freeing Tony.

As he lifted his head, which wobbled on the end of his neck as he looked around blearily, he realised that Natasha and Steve had cozyed up to him to take advantage his pillows, which he had plenty of because of the whole suffocating-if-I-lie-down thing. Operation super-hero-sleepover had apparently been a success, admittedly not the use he had expected to get out of the padded floor and thick carpet in the middle of his living room; sexy, yes, but also less naked, though awesome nonetheless. He did notice that there was a big empty space on the other side of Natasha, which would just about fit a Thor; curse him for being not here.

Tony tipped his head back against the sofa seat and canted it sideways enough to get a bead on Clint, who was sleeping sprawled over the arm of the semi-circular sofa. He was actually sleeping, too, unlike Natasha, who's hand retrieving her gun gave him quite the shock.

"jhesuschrist," He muttered in a rush, pressing his hand over the reactor as her pistol was slipped casually under the sofa seat next to his ear and under Clint's feet.

"Safety's on, Stark. Go back to sleep." She said with the sort of clarity that should be illegal, five minutes from waking and in the midst of a puppy pile of tired superheroes and blankets.

"Yeah, uh, no. Have you seen Steve asleep? I mean, look at that." Tony said, not actually looking himself, since the image of super-soft-soldier sleeping face was burned into his retinas, and staring at the ceiling instead. He felt Natasha shift beside him, moving the pillows under his back slightly, and heard her hum in agreement. There was a muffled grunt from the other side of Steve and a nutty tan hand flopped out from under a blanket. Bruce was largely invisible behind the horizon of Steve's enormous shoulders, but his feet were sticking out from under the blankets, in the same tan shade as his hands. The Hulk was hard on shoes.

His gaze tracked naturally back to the Cap, who was shifting slightly against Tony's side in a way that was hard to ignore.

Steve slept like a soldier, as self contained as Rhodey, apart from the arm that was shifting around restlessly; apparently holding onto Tony had been keeping him asleep. Eventually his fingers curled in the hem of Tony's t-shirt and Steve settled again. Tony could just watch with the bemusement of a man who hadn't ever got with the teddy-bear thing as a child.

Bruce shifted again and Tony looked up with a faint frown; the sky was brightening up as the sun rose behind the mansion, which faced west over the ocean. He was tempted to order the blinds down so that everyone stayed asleep but sleeping propped up always gave him a numb rear end. Besides, if anyone shouldn't sleep longer than eight hours, it was Steve; it would be positively unpatriotic. So, he said nothing and the daybreak made the room glow. The shadow of the cliffs shrunk back from the water and reflected light was awesome, because Tony caught the moment Clint woke up, one eye at a time, embargoed consciousness and rolled towards the back of the sofa. Steve tilted his head further towards Tony to block out the light; he ended up putting his arm on Steve's shoulder, because the super soldier kept crowding closer to bury his face in Tony's shirt.

"J? Send this off to Pep, wide angle, camera four." Tony said, because he needed to delegate feeling soft and squishy about this stuff to someone else.

"Of course sir. Should I send Mr Hogan out for breakfast? Additionally, you are due for medication within the next twenty minutes." JARVIS said in his not-wanting-to-wake-Pepper voice, which he had requested Tony give him way back when it was a trying-not-to-wake-random-date-number-X voice and before Tony had handed him his own subroutines and let him go to town.

"Yes and uh... where are they?" Tony groused, making no effort to get up.

"By the stairs, sir, the black duffel." Tony craned his head and yeah, no, not getting up. He would send a Minionvenger whenever the next one surfaced and stayed awake. He flopped back to his pile of pillows with as much dignity as he could muster, not a great deal, as it turned out, and draped his arm back over Steve awkwardly.

He may have drifted back to sleep, numb rear and all, because next time he opened his eyes Natasha was standing by the window, checking his email (security breach!) and his meds were sitting next to him, along with a cup of mmm-decaff coffee. He knocked them back, savouring the smell of the coffee for a second before washing them down with it. Steve hadn't moved in the interim, so he waved the strong-smelling brew at him, just to see his nose wrinkle; not a coffee kind of guy. He was obviously feeling less clingy because he rolled over and away from Tony, though not that much less, because he wriggled back until his spine was against Tony's hip. Tony irreverently used his shoulder as an armrest again and sat up, propping his chin on his hand.

Clint was off somewhere, his spot on the sofa looking mussed, what with the pillow half hanging off it and Clint's Tac-vest flopped over the back. Tony's radar pinged; he knew Clint didn't wear a shirt under that thing, so, win. He cocked his head to one side and... yep, that was the shower in the distance. Tony was pretty sure his bathroom door was soundproof (because reasons, important reasons) so wow Clint had left the door open while showering. Why, evil man, why? Bad thoughts!

Bruce had monopolized the shower the night before, and once he was out everyone had been too comfortably lazy and pizza-full to bother, so they were pretty much as-was. Natasha had come out of the fight windswept and untouched, as had Steve, though he had stripped out of the Kevlar and plate outer layer of his armour first chance he got. Maybe Tony should have a look at it; keep the design, obviously, right down to the shade of blue, maybe even especially the shade of blue, which had been colour-matched from one of the old trading cards that now lived in Steve's safe. Tony traced the line of Steve's shoulder, a line starting to appear between his eyebrows, and gestured for JARVIS to start him a new manual-tracking hologram. Oh the joy of being back in the Malibu house; holograms in all the rooms. He shuffled back so he could trace Steve's spine, right down to the top of his belt, then drew two lines curving around the bottom edge of Steve's ribs, though the unhelpful soldier was lying on one, prompting Tony to prod him over onto his stomach.

It was a testament to Tony's single minded focus when it came to certain things that he didn't notice that Steve had woken up to squirm when Tony's fingers had first touched his ribs, and Steve shifted obediently to his stomach under his own power. That was obviously a thing, too; Steve had gone from sleep to clear thought in about as little time as Natasha. Tony, oblivious to this, digitally pinned the holograms to Steve's undershirt so JARVIS could record the numbers he wanted about twist, stretch and flexion.

"Call up the plate specs, J, 75% opacity, overlay." The sharp-edged but see through holograms settled over Steve obligingly and Tony pushed and pulled at the panelling contemplatively. The back was easy, he decided, and masterfully done already, but where Steve's body was compressed and stretched more, like the triangle just below the shoulder and over the back of his armpit, he could see how it would crease and the shoulder plate press in. "You did a damn good job, Agent... Just a little..." Tony pressed the panel back, changing the angle of its corner and recalculating. There.

Apparently Steve's shoulders were a little bigger than they had been when he came out of the ice. Who'da thunk.

He prodded Steve over onto his back and drew another set of measurement lines; "Hands together, Cap. Thanks." Steve pressed his hands together, like clapping or praying and flexed his shoulders. "Hmph..." Tony resorted to just puling Steve's elbow about, above his head, across his chest...

For Science.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

"Does he even realise you're awake?"

"I... No, I don't think so. Should I...?"

"Just... sit tight, Cap. He'll come around when Clint gets back. In three, two..."

"Uh, ok? Why would he...? Oh, OH. For god sake, Clint, put some clothes on."

Chapter Text

 

Tony tracked the line of Steve's arm and shoulder as they lifted to put both hands over his face. He blinked at the sudden red tinge to the skin of Steve's neck before leaning back and giving the room a quick once over. He rebooted quickly and leered at the mostly-naked archer in the doorway. Black boxers, artfully shoulder-slung towel, truly magnificent biceps and thighs; very nice, very nice indeed. The fresh, white square of gauze over a bite on his side was a negative, but Tony was willing to over look that, for now. 

"Good morning Barton. What have I done to deserve this?" Tony said, flirting shamelessly despite being fully aware that he was abominably sleep-rumpled.

"Billionaire. Or was it the Playboy part?" Clint mused mockingly, scrubbing his hair with the towel just as a drip started rolling down the side of his neck. Why couldn't he just let it go? Dripping archer equals all the win!

"Suck it up, Barton; you've got nothing on this." Tony retorted, gesturing idly at the holograms all over Steve. He meant it to indicate the costume design, Clint's return leer took it to mean the Cap himself, which, fair enough, was an idea Tony could get behind.

This interplay did, however, draw it to Tony's attention that the Cap was indeed awake, and apparently mortified enough for a small country who's resident deity had been caught humping the sacrificial virgins. Unless that was expected of small-time gods; Tony wasn't exactly big on his mythology, though wasn't there that thing about the bull?

"Right! Save this JARVIS, keep up the measurements for the next half hour, and Barton; sweatpants on the second shelf on the left, feel free to stay topless."

Clint moseyed off with a nod that could have been construed as thanks and the holograms lifted to free Steve, who was always reluctant to move through them. Tony patted Steve's shoulders idly as the man sat up, still rubbing doze away from his face.

"I'm sure there was something I meant to do this morning..." Tony mumbled to himself, pushing a hand through his hair and staring off into the middle distance while Steve went from largely recumbent to upright way too fast.

"Captain Rogers, if you wouldn't mind, could I trouble you to go through the motions of throwing your shield? Breakfast will be here in five minutes, it need only be once or twice." JARVIS said, rambling on with the need to be polite; If I do not, sir, who in this house will? Snarky bastard.

Steve obliged, the holograms pinned to his shirt shifting as his shoulders flexed. Tony watched absently as his internal hardrive scrolled through a spotty and bug-ridden to-do list; there was a reason he'd handed SI over to Pepper, what had he meant to do? Search still fruitless, he hoiked himself up on to the sofa and then to standing. He had moseyed half way across the floor in a daze before the change in posture hit his blood pressure and would have sent him crashing to the floor, just like it had the day after the Invasion. Fortunately for his skull integrity, Steve was still paying attention and shored him up wordlessly until he was sat in a chair by the breakfast bar.

"Oh! Ranger!" Tony blurted after half a minute with his head on his arms against the worktop, (note to self; marble is too cold for this shit). He sat up abruptly and swayed at the remnants of dizziness while his teammates wondered what to make of his apparently beyond-random comment. "Seriously, stop looking at me like that, I've got something to show you, hey, no, wait!" He rattled, shifting to stand but getting firmly restrained by, who else, Natasha.

"JARVIS," he whined, "I just... workshop? Please?" he made eyes at the camera in the corner, which twitched.

"I must ask you to remain seated, sir. Shall I display the briefing packet titled Iron Ranger?"

"No sense of drama, who programmed you?" Tony grouched, but agreed with a gesture anyway, because he could feel the confused disapproval and curiosity pouring off his teammates. Speaking of which, where was Bruce?

Turns out, Bruce had already found out about Ranger because when they all filtered outside, plus Happy and about a weeks worth of bagels, pancakes, cream cheese and maple syrup, Ranger emerged from the ramp to the workshop with Bruce sitting on his back.

"J are you driving? 'cause I'm pretty sure the last time Bruce played with flying things it... well, it was... unsubtle." Tony asked while the others sort of... gawped. This was usually his moment to blind buyers with Science, or The Sell, or something, but that felt pretty out of place, so... no.

"Indeed, sir. Dr Banner and I have been having quite the conversation, sir. He believes the colours will be insufficient to prevent the Hulk from, to be blunt, smashing. I politely disagree." JARVIS said, hijacking the phone in Tony's pocket to talk though, because using the Ranger's speakers would be a bit much at this point.

Tony huffed in agreement and stepped forwards with a clap oh his hands. "Right, Avengers; meet Ranger. Remote operated aerial support and Ponyvenger."

"Sorry, what?" Steve muttered, looking delightfully baffled. Tony carried on without pausing,

"Basically, with the Suit out of commission," Tony tapped out the atomic number of vibranium in binary on the frontplate of the reactor, largely unconsciously, "we need a substitute fast-response unit that hits hard enough to hold until the quinjet can catch up, and we need aerial surveillance and something to catch Hawkeye when he jumps off things; don't think we didn't see that Barton. I don't care how good your biceps are, your back was bruised for weeks."

"JARVIS is driving at the moment, but the real combat control rig is in Stark Tower; I'll be eyes in the sky on missions from now on, nice and safe at home." He finished, leaving no room for argument. No one made any.

Ranger was something to be proud of, like he was proud of the Suit and of Stark Tower; sleek and deadly, yes, but a damn sight more beautiful than any ROV he'd ever seen. In profile, it looked like an arrowhead, all sharp lines and angles. It'd ended up with an eight foot, six inches wingspan, a little bigger than planned, because of the stabilisers at the wingtips, and twelve feet, nose to tail. It hovered, steady at a rock, while Bruce hopped of onto the balcony and started expounding on repulsor physics, gyroscopic stabilizers. Old technology now, but combined with the cutting edge repulsors, one under the nose, one top and bottom of each wing and a bank in the tail capable of thrust-vectoring with the best of them, it would be the most manoeuvrable thing in the sky. Even more so for not holding a g-sensitive, squishy pilot. On the ground, it was more-or-less useless, but in the air it would be a thing of beauty.

It was, of course, red and gold.

Tony backed away from the balcony edge, not unobserved, he noted, and settled on a lounger. The music system out there served just as well for letting him talk to JARVIS as his phone, which he used to call up a simplified version of the control system. Just to prove he could, he edged the Ranger forwards to bump gently into Steve's shoulder.

Steve, in a show of breathtaking insight, looked at Tony first, then patted the Ranger's nose tentatively. Cute.

"Hey Bruce, I thought the Green Guy was like, a little bit radioactive all the time, how come Tony's" Clint made a gesture imitating Happy's use of the Geiger counter, "counter didn't register it?"

"Oh, Geiger counter's don't pick up change-down; I radiate more on the change up. It's not dangerous, in terms of radiation, to be near the Hulk normally; a few x-rays worth, maybe. Photons are generally the least dangerous type of radiation," Clint had asked, Tony mused listening to their conversation while he slalomed the Ranger from side to side in front of Natasha; she followed it like a cobra, Tony was most amused. "but gamma band has such high energy that it is ionizing; it passes through things so easily that its biggest use is in imaging but it is used to sterilize scalpels and metalic objects in general with big enough doses, because it kills off microorganisms. It doesn't hang around in the body like Alpha decay, but it does change things on its way through."

Tony phased out Bruce's science and focused on his controls, mapping to Natasha's movements so that when she leapt onto the Ranger's back, it didn't dip. Her weight was negligible compared to the potential in the repulsors, but to hover, you had to provide force exactly equal to the weight, an increase in weight required an equal and opposite increase in force and... yes; he added five hundred and sixty Newton's to the repulsor output and the ROV stayed rock steady. He was proud of his ability to judge a woman's weight; it hadn't failed him yet.

She executed another neat leap, latching onto Steve, who caught her like a pro. Just to show off, because why else were they doing this? Tony flipped it onto its back, and back again neat and smooth as Steve's catch.

Things quickly degenerated into a game of toss-the-assassin, which Tony laughed at and moved higher above the house when the jumps off cliff-top balconies started to get a little hairy. Steve had the best throwing arm, though Clint tried his little archer arms at it, and the Cap managed to get both Natasha and Hawkeye up on Ranger's back when the ROV was sixteen feet up. "HOLD ON, JUST GOING TO TRY SOMETHING," Tony bellowed, best he could; Clint shouted back, clearly having missed it, and Steve put his enormous lungs to good use in relaying the message. Clint and Natasha bedded their hands and feet down into the grips, Natasha crouched low against the skin, with Clint perched securely above her.

"They secure JARVIS?"

"Sensors indicate a good grip sir; rider protocol engaged."

"Alright, let's take them for a spin. Do you drive Bruce? Want a go?" Tony said, fingers shifting over his phone-turned-controller. Bruce made that prevaricating 'hmm' and waved a hand in a 'no thanks' gesture.

"I'll leave the potential for smearing teammates on the rocks to every other day, thanks."

"Suit yourself. Put me on speaker, J. When I said hold on," He continued in the clear, open throated tone people used on radios use to make themselves heard, "I really, really hope you believed me." With a push of his thumbs, he had the Ranger jetting forwards, banking to circle the roof. Clint's whoop of joy was well and truly audible, Doppler Effect and all, as the ROV buzzed the balcony and dived to skin the ocean.

When Natasha and Steve traded off willingly, Tony gave them a slow, for the Ranger, pass by the balcony and Clint and Natasha leapt off, rolling on the limestone neatly, while Steve took three leaping steps to get up to speed and sprang up. The super-soldier was heavier than he'd been expecting so the flight path dipped a little, but Steve cushioned the shift like a pro, all knees and thigh muscles, and Tony swiftly compensated.

"Lean your weight to show me where to point this thing; quicker than comms, mm?" Tony said through the speakers, only just able to see Steve's nod. The sensors in the hand fasts and footplates worked exactly as he'd hoped and Tony followed Steve's direction, even slowing and accelerating as Steve shifted his weight fore and aft. It was easy, almost meditative; prompt, response; lean, turn.

"Alright, J, take it from here, learning program and all that stuff." Tony muttered, waiting for the controls on his phone to register as locked out before slipping it in his pocket to just watch JARVIS and Steve fly together.

They looked pretty badass, Tony had to admit as J came in to drop Steve on the balcony before disappearing back into the workshop. He yawned widely and watched Steve's hand twitch open and closed on the straps of his absent shield. They'd have to practice again, when Clint had his bow and quiver and Steve his shield; the aerodynamics would be very different.

With a clap, Tony sprung to his feet and got half way through "Lunch?" before his vision greyed out, his legs went heavy and he plummeted. God damn fucking shit; stone floor!

He didn't lose consciousness, so much as time slipped out of his grasp; he felt the air rushing in his ears like the fall took forever, but felt himself crashing into muscles -- could only be Steve -- almost immediately. Then, a long pause, by the end of which the hot dark of a non-functional visual cortex (low blood pressure's a bitch) had begun to fade and he felt himself turned onto his back. The one thing that stayed completely in his grasp was hearing; lots of swearing going on and Cap, I didn't know you had it in you. Bruce was getting handsy again and oh...

Tony's chest heaved as he took an enormous breath, realising that the returning feeling in his head was an ox-dep headache. He let it back out again in a huff and the dark at the edges of the world vanished back into Lovecraft and fairytales and oh boy, his head sounded strange.

"Alright, lift him up; idiot, shouldn't have stood up so fast. He's, I, ah, good catch." Bruce sounded... peeved. This registered to Tony as more important than the way he was being lifted, admittedly in a fairly dignified fashion, and carried around again. He reached out with a waving hand and grabbed a bit of Bruce's shirt. His fingers wouldn't stick, though, and his hand fell again. He frowned at it; how rude.

"'m not an idiot." He mumbled, his frown smoothing out when Bruce picked his hand back up, ostensibly to take his pulse. "Also; I'm fine. 's hot."

And it was; Tony could feel the heat of having been stretched out in the sun on his chest, and then when they entered the shadow of the house, he noticed the chill and curled in towards Steve. Again, Bruce proved his genius, at least in Tony's eyes, by bundling him in a blanket as Steve propped him on the sofa. He still felt hot, though, and whined despite the fact that the blanket felt so good; what's up with that?

"Tony, list the munitions stored in the Mark eight, for me? Ice water, if you can," Bruce said, and Tony thought it was just rude of him to segue straight into talking to Clint after asking about the suit. He shook the thought away, ignoring the sudden spiking headache that rattling his brainpan gave him, and started listing, because Bruce wanted to know, or something; wanted to make sure he was awake, probably. Tony wasn't sure that he couldn't list those parts in his sleep though, and how many negatives was he allowed in a sentence? Tony's listing faltered while the thought about it, but Bruce's hand squeezed his knee, and it tickled, and he brought his attention back.

"Right; I'm conscious. It's fine. One one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, twenty one, thirty four," He rattled off, not sure that that was good proof-of-life either, because he'd known the Fibonacci sequence for almost thirty years; a sequence with primes in it, he'd liked that as a kid, because primes didn't fit anywhere.

"Alight, hold your hand out." Bruce said, starting to sound less agitated and more amused by Tony's ridiculousness; Tony could handle that, Pepper did that all the time, and speaking of which, he could have done with a bit of Pep right about then. He did remember to hold his hand out, eventually.

He was pleased to note it was steady.

"Alright, drink this." Bruce put a glass of something that looked suspiciously like water in his hand and Tony obediently knocked it back; no point pausing to taste water. Unfortunately, it was also fucking freezing

"Jhezus Christ, what did you do that for?" He griped, his lungs inflating effortlessly, which stopped him in his tracks and made him do that little double blink that meant he was resorting his file directory. "Oh."

"Just a little trick, gives the system a bit of a shock. Might not last though, so don't get up." Tony glared; did it look like he was about to try and get up? He was doing the billionaire burrito impression again and he wrapped his fingers around the edge of the blanket; given that Bruce had just dosed him with ice, he was feeling a little possessive.

"You're lucky Steve was watching, Tony; we could be getting you to hospital with a brain injury right now." Bruce said, rubbing a hand over his face and looking stressed. Tony looked away awkwardly; he'd already given up so much, he didn't want to restrict himself any further and didn't want to make them restrict him either.

"I'll be... slow? Yeah, I'll be good and slow and play toss-the-superhero with my new toy, and we'll finish the pacemaker, and it'll be fine." He hedged, looking away from Bruce, only to be immediately confronted by the eyes of other three of their little group. The assassins had gone hard and cold; an expression he remembers from somewhere, but can't remember where. It's not unnerving, which is unnerving in and of itself, so Tony puts that little bundle of recursion out of mind and looks at Steve. He looks traumatized, gripping the edge of the sofa, his eyes moving restlessly.

Tony reaches out of his bundle to grip his blue shoulder;

"Thanks Cap, my brain owes you one."

Chapter Text

 

Tony recovered from his orthostatic syncope (read: fainting spell) slowly, more slowly than he could normally put up with. His head ached and his mouth felt thick and slow, like it did when he'd been in the workshop for three days, catching naps only when the fabrication units were overloaded. His team moved around him; a couple more showers were had and Bruce made food again, therewas quiet words, even laughter. And that was the only thing keeping him down; he had promised to be good.

He didn't have the energy to be fidgety, but his fingers moved relentlessly over his touch screen, tweaking Cap's armour to fit his expanding muscles. "Wow, Cap; did they not feed you back in '42?"

"I blame Bruce. No offence; no one has been able to keep up with my metabolism before, not even SHIELD." Steve replied, polishing off a fajita. He was on his fourth, while Tony was still picking at his first, his attention mostly on his phone.

"When did it become lunchtime anyway? JARVIS, have you been working on time-dilation in the basement again?" Tony grouched, battling the vague feeling that he might have fallen asleep for a little while.

"I'm sorry sir, you really must keep a greater awareness of your power consumption and the house's heat profile." JARVIS said, his voice thick with sarcasm.

"No pot jokes in front of the babies, J; that's not nice." Tony quipped, gesturing at their co-pilot and Sitwell, who were sitting on the stairs nursing coffee and trying to be inconspicuous in their examination of Tony's house.

"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that." JARVIS said, adding a mechanized overtone to his voice and using the surround speakers for extra drama.

Bruce practically snorted salsa, while Clint grumbled distrustfully and edged towards Tony. The SHIELD flunkies practically fell off their step, while Steve, recognising the sound of something going over his head, huffed and went back to his food.

"Bad JARVIS! You made them spill their coffee; we've talked about that." Tony tried to sound chiding by channelling Pep, but it came out more indulgent than anything.

"I am sorry, Agent Sitwell, may I get you a refill?" JARVIS asked, though the way he dropped the sinister voice modulation so abruptly was quite possibly as creepy as the quote had been to begin with.

"Uh, n-no, I'm fine, thank you." The man looked thoroughly unnerved and the conversation petered out. Clint's exaggerated distrust evaporated slowly; it was hard to be uneasy when Cap was shamelessly sitting on the floor and eating with his fingers, and the archer wandered over to a window, getting his thousand-yard stare back and flicking it over the countryside. Tony had to admit that having a man like Clint on the lookout was just good. Natasha watched his back from her seat on the sofa arm and having her right there was good too, particularly since she was still in her field uniform. Tony frowned at her ankle, and then gave a soft groan; it was ripped, just a little. He plucked at a loose thread; cotton, cotton! Oh, there was Kevlar in there as well, but none of the carbon-fibre that dear old dad had invented for Steve; and why the hell not?! SHIELD had had that recipe for seventy years! Tony tugged at the tear again, there was a tiny nick in Natasha's skin just under it, and she pulled his hand away gently. Blinking, he looked up and discovered that her disapproving-eyebrow was almost as bad as Steve's. He retreated and tucked his hands back around his tablet, muttering about flexibility and stretch.

"Cap?" Hawkeye said from his vantage, in that voice that meant he'd seen something; Tony frowned in his direction. Steve, of course, was alert immediately and his stance went from casual to razor-sharp.

"What've we got?" he asked as he came alongside, looking adorably serious. Tony remained unconcerned; if JARVIS had said something he might have been, but he hadn't, so the look on Steve's face was available for amusement.

"Paparazzi."

Tony burst out laughing and struggled to his feet, leaning on the back of the sofa while he re-acclimated, finding Bruce next to his shoulder once his vision stopped greying out. "I'm good. JARVIS! Get out the Jag."

He clapped Steve on the shoulder as he peered out the window. "Feel like going for a drive, Cap? Let's give the press a few good shots."

"I, um, should you be driving?"

Oh, Steve.

"Nope. That's why you are driving me to the airport. You don't want me leaving my plane on the other side of the country, do you?"

"Um... I haven't driven in seventy years, are you sure?" Tony blinked back at Steve's baby-blue's with consternation.

"And you didn't tell me this before because?" Steve sputtered and Tony forgave him; "Fine, fine. It's stick-shift, you'll manage. Come on." He spun away towards the basement, bumped off Clint's shoulder and paused while the archer steadied him. He didn't look at his teammates, he didn't need to; he could feel their spiking concern on the back of his neck. He batted irritation down ruthlessly and patted Clint on the bicep in thanks. "Lets just... get back to New York, yeah?" He said more quietly, fighting the urge to brush everything off again; he couldn't afford to, not now, not when he needed them, needed them to understand because without them he would be dead by now.

He'd still be drinking for one.

There was a pressed suit lurking in the workshop, because Pepper expected him to go play at parties without much notice, and even though it had been there for months, it smelled like sandalwood from the dry cleaners. Sunglasses and a watch later, he was as presentable as he was going to get without breaking open Natasha's makeup, which, admittedly, was probably inadvisable.

Steve would do as-was; none of Tony's clothes would even nearly fit him.

The Cap's face when he climbed into the Jag was priceless, and it wasn't even a 1940's model. Tony slipped him a pair of dark aviator's and pulled on his own sunglasses to hide the shadows from the evil evil scrutiny of a telephoto lens. The engine started with a truly gratifying roar and they pulled out of the underground garage; Steve drove like a pro, taking the ramp up in first and sliding into second as if the flawless transmission would seize up on him.

"So when you said seventy years ago, you actually meant six months and 1940's military vehicles. If you can drive them, you can manage this," Tony quipped as they came out into the sunshine, literally stroking the dashboard. He leaned back and stretched one arm out the rolled down window to flash the peace sign at Clint.

"Shall I lower the top, sir? If you are intent on providing the press with an appropriate shot..."

"Huh, why not. Go for it, J; three-ring circus," he said, plastering on his smile as Steve slowed on the bend around the corner of the house and the top slipped back seamlessly. When the gate swung open, ("Thank you, JARVIS," Steve said,) the look on the reporter's face was priceless, even mostly concealed by his camera; they had made his day. The quinjet roared off overhead and Steve let the engine roar right back as they sped off down the coastal road. He took corners leisurely but tight and accelerated out of them with enough spirit to push Tony back in his seat.

Sun, road and wind; not half bad.

They were halfway to the airport, with JARVIS providing directions, when Tony's phone rang,

"Pepper! My bountiful goddess of the Good Guys. How're we doing?" he said, actually holding his phone to his ear for once. The car mic? Not so good with the hood down.

"Are you driving?"

"Oh, focusing on the little things! No." Tony winked over at Steve, who had glanced over, making him go back to the road with a complex bemusement/frustrated curiosity.

"Tony, don't lie to me, I can hear the car."

"Steve, you're up; talk to the nice lady." He leaned over and pressed the phone to Steve's ear,

"Sorry Ms Potts, I-... yes. Yes, ma'am. Uh, sorry... Right, ...Have a good day, uh, Pepper. Ma'am." Tony's arm was just starting to get tired, and Steve was looking rather pink, by the time Pep was done with him and Tony took the phone away.

"See? No muss, no fuss. Be on our way back in, ohh, half an hour." He listened to her for a few minutes; something about the Board and an AGM, before blurting out something he actually cared about, "I'm going to need an assistant. The surgery, Pep, I'll need someone to help me with the soldering iron, my left hand won't have full range of movement."

"I... what?" She sputtered, "It can't wait until you've healed up for a few days?"

"No, it needs doing while I've got access to the outside of the Arc housing," he said. He was blanking out his surroundings, his eyes fixated on a point somewhere over the ocean to their left,

"Tony, you can't, I... what?!" Pepper built up into a microphone-distorted shout, "You're going to be unconscious! It's open heart surgery!"

"No one else can do this part, Pepper, no one but JARVIS, and we don't have time to build him a micromanipulator, that would take months."

"But, oh god, Tony, what if you have a flashback, or a stroke, or, is this even possible?" She sounded horrified; it made Tony wince and rub at the skin under the Arc, where the incision would have to go. The patch of skin was already covered in scars from the last time he'd had surgery and been awake for it.

"Bruce's promised me the good drugs. It won't be like that, it'll be a walk in the park." He said, flippantly, ignoring Steve's intent look and gesturing for him to keep his eyes on the road.

"Oh god... Okay. An assistant, right, I can do this. Dr Ross is still building his team, I'll speak to him. You really need to stop springing these things on me. Oh god." There was a rustle as she pinned her phone to her ear with a shoulder and the clatter of keys in the background.

"I know. We can do this, Pep. We'll see you in a few hours, okay?"

"Sure. Talk to Alan Neale while you're on the plane, Garbett is already on board, but if you can get Neale then McKinney and Walmsey are willing to fall in."

"Uh, yeah. Okay. I can do that; he's the one who signed off on raspberries instead of rice, right? I can work with that."

"No intimidating the Intellicrops manager, Tony, or they'll misplace your blueberries again." He huffed in irritation,

"There are other blueberries! You'd find me fruit, wouldn't you, Steve?"

"I, uh. Your conversations are strange."

Tony pushed his sunglasses far enough down his nose that he could wink at the supersoldier.

Chapter Text

Steve tended towards meditative as he drove.

"You've got your Deep Thoughts face on, Cap. Should I be worried?" Tony said in an attempt at flippancy as they arrived at the turn off to the private section of the airport.

"Hm?" Steve was busy being zen; was this how the man survived Tony's technological discourse? Because that was just rude. Tony had been busy with his phone for most of the ride, first Pepper, then a long text conversation with Rhodey as the pilot got progressively more irritated. The upshot of which was that War Machine was already halfway to LAX, and given that he could manage Mach 2, he'd be meeting them at the runway.

"Oh, you know; furrowed eyebrows, hundred-yard stare, contemplating the mysteries of the universe..." He tucked his phone in his pocket; if he pushed any harder, Rhodey might just leave Tony's plane with enough scorch-mark graffiti to outfit an underpass.

"Do you think Clint's alright?" Steve mumbled as he swung the car around to follow JARVIS' arrows.

Tony blinked and adjusted his mental trajectory. "It's been a month; that's not exactly a long time."

"I heard you talking last night. I didn't know it was still..." He trailed off and his knuckles creaked on the red leather of the steering wheel. "He doesn't remember it, not really. That can't be-" Steve's jaw clenched tight enough that the muscles bunched visibly, but he still pulled up next to Happy in the Audi as smoothly as Tony ever had.

"But he does talk, to you at least. Last night? First I'd heard anything from him. Though, there is the touching..." Steve was shaking his head, looking frustrated, so Tony fell quiet and gave the man a pointed eyebrow.

"I get copies of everyone's psychological evaluations. It's all he says to the folks down on 28th; 'I can't remember'. It looked like it, uh, hurt." Steve, adorably, looked guilty at that. Also, Tony had no idea Psych took video's of their little 'talks'. Tony never went, hadn't when Coulson was around and sure as hell wouldn't go now, but if his team was going to be recorded, he was bloody well going to boost the security of those files.

"Huh. Well, my file's worth a few laughs at least. Did you see my IQ test? They gave me an IQ test!" Tony huffed theatrically and popped the door, climbing out and ignoring the faint tremble in his legs.

"Looked like you broke the dame who–darn, uh, I mean Agent." Tony cut off the sputtering to turn the conversation back to the topic at hand; it wasn't often that they had a chance to speak without one or another of their resident spies wandering past unnoticed.

"Barton's going to be fine, Cap," and to Tony's eternal happiness, the eyebrow-crease smoothed away. "You met Coulson; that's the real issue here. Loki, mind-fuckery? He's been there before, he and Widow've double and triple crossed agencies for decades. This is grief, Steve, we know how to deal with grief."

Steve had joined him leaning against the bonnet by that point and he nodded tiredly as the pause drew out. "Coulson was a good man, to go up against Loki like that," he said, almost to himself. They stood there in silence for a while longer; it was obvious that the plane wasn't exactly ready for departure and Tony wasn't in a hurry to move. He could admit in the privacy of his own head that he wasn't feeling so steady; he'd just stood up and these days it took awhile for his blood to catch up with the rest of him.

Happy and whatever flunkies he'd brought along to drive the cars back stood far enough away that they didn't intrude, and Steve and Tony stood soaking up the heat of the sun in contemplative silence. Tony may have neglected to warn the soldier about Rhodey's arrival.

The roar of repulsors was distinctive, so Steve's first reaction was confusion. Tony had never seen someone orient to a sound quite that fast; he was impressed. Steve's shield was out of the back seat and between Tony and the incoming Suit before the billionaire could open his mouth to explain. From around the curve of Steve's bicep, War Machine did look pretty threatening, in all fairness. Tony's armour was sleek and close fitting compared to Rhodey's, which had enormous shoulders and a backpack to carry the heavyweight ammunition for its weaponry. Also, more silver. Well, brushed steel. And maybe a bit of chrome, which was absolutely for stealth purposes.

Rhodey landed with an over-dramatic thump that left indents in the tarmac; he never had been one for the landing-cushioning but elaborate looking falling-to-one-knee business. With the noise of the repulsors gone, Tony could bark out commands to the armour and actually be heard;

"Armour lockdown protocol, five whiskey six eight. Pop the faceplate. He's a friendly, Steve." The lockdown was one of the more obscure versions he'd installed, designed for showing the armour off to nervous crowds; the guns retracted and visibly locked, the servos' dialled down until the armour couldn't exert more force than, say, Clint, and the eyes went dark as the internal HUD switched to passive scan. Moments after and Rhodey, who was already talking, appeared from behind the rising faceplate. The tension in Steve's body, which Tony had a spectacularly good view of, shifted down from DEFCON one to maybe three or four.

"-is going on, Tony? Something wrong with the armour? Because I swear, if you forgot to install anti-virus again I will throw you out the next window myself." Rhodey was saying and ooh boy, Steve went right back up to DEFCON two.

"Steve, meet Rhodey, Rhodey, Captain America. Try not to kill each other," Tony said flippantly, coming out from behind Steve, who was reluctant to let him. His introductions made the biggest impact on Rhodey, who did a double-take before fixating on the shield and honest-to-god saluting.

"Seriously, Steve, stand down," Tony muttered to the soldier under his breath, patting the edge of the shield.

"Captain America, sir, it's an honour to meet you."

"Right, come on. Plane to catch." Tony strode off and left them, tense and wary, on the tarmac behind him. They'd follow eventually. Hopefully without dents and/or bruises.

He trotted up the steps to the plane, perhaps unwisely, and threw himself into a chair to stave off the faint that blotted out his vision. No stewardesses to see him anymore, not since Pepper, though there was a woman who would make him put his seatbelt on in a minute and occasionally made him coffee. Or she had before Bruce had banned it, wait, no, had that been JARVIS? He waited surprisingly calmly for the swimming in his head to fade; it took a few minutes.

He was pretty much put back together by the time Steve bounced his way up the stairs, looking perplexed and disarmed; Rhodey must have had a hero-worship moment, because Steve's jaw was all squared off.

"Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes will be entering via the cargo hold. Or so he said. I, uh, I'm not entirely sure what he meant," Steve said, sitting down opposite. Tony noticed the way his undershirt stretched over those shoulders; he'd need to fix that, too.

"There's a disassembly arm back there, I... uh, he'll only be a minute."

"You all right, Tony?" Oh, Steve; earnest, open Steve. Tony couldn't look at that face and so much as white lie.

"Rhodey doesn't know; I've got a meeting with a man who screws up as often as he makes breathtaking profits getting in the way of telling him, and he's headed to DC to take deployment in the Middle East in three days. And you know what? He's going out there with weapons Justin Hammer, Hammer, built, because I can't, won't make weapons for anyone, ever again." Tony folded in on himself, leaning forwards and putting his elbows on his knees, hands burying themselves in his hair.

Steve, wisely, didn't ask about the weapons in the Iron Man suit, because while he knew Tony would have an answer, and a good one, he wasn't sure the man could spare the mental energy to dredge it up and make Steve understand right now. The Hammer/Vanko incident write up had been more detailed than the Afghanistan incident report, so at least Steve knew what Tony meant on that front.

"It's a long flight, there's time." Steve said, his head turning slightly at the mechanical noises of Rhodey's Suit coming off.

"You don't know Neale," Tony groaned, melodramatically flopping onto his back on the sofa-like chair. Steve huffed at him, in amusement, the bastard.

"Isn't that the raspberry guy?" Rhodey said, obviously having overheard that last bit, and hopefully none of the rest.

"Yes, yes it is. Did you know that the average US growers return on raspberries spiked by three hundred percent in the financial year two-thousand seven, two-thousand eight? I do, because Neale spent a budget of fifteen million dollars on them, when he should have spent it on rice, which supplies TWENTY percent of the world's, the world's, calorie intake each year." He ranted at the ceiling.

"And this from a man who can't remember his own CEO's birthday. Smooth, Tony," Rhodey replied, smacking Tony's feet off the cushion and sitting himself down.

The abruptness of sitting up in response to that, combined with hurtling his way up into the plane minutes before, made Tony grey out again, and Christ that was getting irritating. Steve took it in stride when he swore weakly and leant back against the chair, surging forwards to steady him with a heavy hand. Tony'd gone impressively pale, his eyes drooped helplessly, his hand went limp and the phone in it tumbled to the floor. Rhodey took it less well, adding a whole contingent of swearwords to the one already floating about the room.

"What the fuck, Tony?" The airman obviously felt the need to touch Tony, too, because Steve didn't have three hands, nor did he generally ruffle Tony's expensive suits quite that much.

"'s m'heart. 'm fine, getting a new one on, uhh, Tuesday?" Tony mumbled, recovering much more quickly than he had that morning since he hadn't actually stood up, or passed out.

"I don't think you're going to be ready by Tuesday, Tony," Steve admonished gently, his thumb rubbing Tony's collarbone in a way Tony never realised could be soothing.

Rhodey was seemingly frozen with a gobsmacked, what-the-actual-fuck look on his face. "The arc reactor? I, there's one in my suit, should I go-"

Tony cut him off, lifting his head and giving it a good shake to clear some of the cobwebs. "That one's made of palladium, sweetcheeks, keep it the fuck away from me." He shone both soldiers an astonishingly blinding grin and patted Steve's hand. The super-soldier nodded and backed off, sitting back down.

"You got some explainin' to do, Tony..."

There was nothing Tony wanted to do less than sit there with Rhodey's hands on his shoulders and tell him how, exactly, his tech was failing him, but he had little choice; the arc reactor had burnt his heart muscle and was now utterly inadequate to cope with the changes in beat needed in everyday life. Oh, the rest of his system tried to keep up, which was the only reason he could still stand, but it was only going to manage for so long. Thing about Rhodey though? Not great at the listening, more about the doing, so sitting there while Tony talked was hard, even Tony could see that. Once they were up in the air and levelling off, Rhodey paced and gestured.

"And this upgrade, it'd fix you? Full function?"

"Have you ever known me to make something that doesn't do exactly what I wanted it to?" Tony said finally, it was the fifth time Rhodey had asked that question, in various guises, and Tony was tired. He was always tired.

"Do you really want me to answer that? Tony?"

"Yeah, maybe not." He twitched his suit jacket straight and stood, waited for his body to respond to the drop in blood pressure and hoped, and boy, did that just burn, hoped that he wouldn't actually fall over. Steve was right there when his vision faded back in and, miracle of miracle, he was still standing. Once up, he was pretty much OK, as long as he didn't do anything that increased his oxygen consumption too much, but Steve still hovered until he had a drink in hand and had sat back down in front of the big screen; teleconference time! Let Steve and Rhodey chat about Basic and grenades and whatever for a bit; he was done for the day.

"Alan! How delightful to see you. How's that lifetime's supply of raspberry vodka working out for you?"

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Steve sat awkwardly opposite the Lieutenant Colonel, his hands on his knees. Technically, the man was his superior, but the 'America' after his 'captain' had always meant a lot, in terms of hierarchy, and he was Air Force, which made a difference. The poor fellow looked stunned and the colour of weak coffee where he had been a healthy brown before. Tony's friend. And if the War Machine suit was anything to go by, a trusted friend.

Tony's chatter with the man that Steve was rapidly coming to think of as 'the raspberries guy', much to his personal shame, was enough to keep the silence from getting too uncomfortable, but it was in Steve's nature to try and be nice.

"We'll look after him," he blurted eventually, "while you're away, I mean." He scratched the back of his head so he could look away from Rhodey's face for a while.

"I can see that, Captain." Very few people ever used his whole rank; if they were going to say something big, it was always 'Captain America', and everyone else cut it down to 'Cap', or 'Rogers' or even, more recently, 'Steve'. Rhodey's tone didn't exactly sound confident and his eyes shot to the glass in Tony's hand; "Should he still be drinking? I mean..."

"He needs to keep his energy up; Bruce said juice was good, so..." Steve said, quietly; he knew the drink looked like whiskey, or brandy or whatever it was Tony had drunk before all this, and that had been the point, but that sort of subterfuge wasn't exactly very 'Captain America', now, was it? He didn't feel bad about being a bit guarded, not really, and not after the window comment earlier. That was just a bit too close to the bone.

Nearly all the Avengers had risked their lives that day, and none more than Tony, so he figured he could give himself some space to breathe.

Rhodey huffed and slumped back in his chair, still staring at Tony. "Y'know, I wouldn't be surprised if he's done that before... Complete showman. Did he tell you about the Expo? He was so hungover, he threw up in the back of my plane, and he still dropped out of it into the middle of the stadium."

"Mhm, he managed to keep this pretty quiet for a few weeks; fortunately, Mr. Jarvis is as unscrupulous as his father." Steve commented, and maybe he was a little thick with the anachronisms, or misinterpretations or whichever way you wanted to describe it, but it wasn't far from how Steve saw the reality of Tony and his creations so he let it slide in there.

"I was surprised, after New York I expected him to be all press conferences and bright lights; guess I know why, now," Rhodey said, rubbing at his temple. "The Pentagon wasn't pleased about the Arc Power Initiative, though. It was a good thing he recalled them when he did."

Steve hadn't really been involved in that, apart from picking up a lead-lined briefcase from the Mayor's office once, whose primary security consisted of being so heavy only Steve could lift it. Tony hadn't mentioned any other problems, so he kept quiet. Technically, he had top level clearance, but inter-agency negotiations were best left to Agent Hill. She was... efficient.

"Where do you come in all this, Captain? Apart from eating all of Tony's waffles?"

The joke was weak, but Steve appreciated the effort and made the effort to relax. "That's above your pay-grade, son. We're the Avengers, there's more in Google than I'm allowed to tell you."

"Ohh, no, no, no, I know about the Chinese thing; you don't get to freeze me out on this." Rhodey's posture went back to military-straight, indignation painted all over his face.

"So you already know what we do, why are you even asking?" He'd obviously been spending too much time around Clint and Natasha, because being evasive was not his standard-operating-procedure.

"Fine, I understand clearance; sure I do. But this," he gestured between Tony and Steve, maybe meaning Tony's condition, maybe meaning the Avengers, Steve couldn't tell, "this is personal, and no signature can keep me from looking out for that sorry SOB, you follow, sir?"

"Oh, I follow, Colonel. Who do you imagine pulls him out of his lab when he hasn't eaten in sixteen hours? Sure ain't you, because I have lived with Tony Stark for four weeks, and I haven't met you before today. Who did you think carries him to his bed when he passes out? Pepper?" Steve voice was low, maybe even threatening, and maybe if Tony could hear this, he'd be insulted, but Steve didn't care because seeing that man stumble and fall, his mind deserting him and leaving his body limp? That felt threatening, that felt like it threatened every piece of the life Steve had battered out of this bizarre new future.

"He didn't want to tell you, and I guess he called you here to do it anyway because you're a friend. So, I didn't bash the arc reactor out of the armour you flew in on. He called you 'Rhodey', while you introduced yourself as 'Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes', so I didn't punch your lights out for threatening to throw him out a window."

"That was a joke, sir, I-"

"So do not talk to me about looking out for Tony Stark, Colonel."

Steve jerked upright when Tony's hand landed on his shoulder; flushing and embarrassed, but still wired, ready to go toe to toe with all comers.

"And, thank you, Captain America. Can we have Steve back for a second?" Tony said and a single eyebrow rose above the level of his ridiculous pink-tint sunglasses. Steve sputtered, because that had been Steve Rogers, and Tony knew it, and Steve knew that Tony knew and –what? Steve deflated and relaxed back into his seat. At least he could trust the billionaire to know how to pop his bubble. Tony, already sinking down next to Steve, smiled at them both in a way Steve couldn't quite parse. "Rhodey's been working on getting the captured tech off the internal market; he's been busy."

Steve felt his face heat; he had the feeling that he'd been incredibly unfair, bullish, even, but he didn't know how to apologise for that so he stayed quiet. Tony had his phone out and Steve recognised the controls for the Iron Ranger, but that didn't deter the Colonel from talking at the side of Tony's head about... things. Important things, from the sound of it, but just things, anyway, and Tony wasn't really listening because even though he could multitask his way into SHIELD's computers Steve could see the way he was focusing down on flying the Ranger. Maybe he was tired, maybe he was used to tuning out Rhodes, Steve didn't know; Rhodes certainly seemed used to both the treatment and assuming that Tony would still hear him, even if he wasn't listening.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

By the time they reached NYA and Happy emerged from the Staff section of the plane to drive them to the Tower, Tony looked like he was on the wrong end of a forced march. Three arguments with Rhodey about Hammer tech, Chitauri blasters and Pepper, sequentially (and Steve felt utterly lost for each of them), dinner, and a second conference call with the Intellicrops department, and the man was exhausted. Struggling valiantly to hide it, yes, but Steve could still see it.

He shouldn't have come. He should have stayed in New York with Pepper and let them look after Bruce. But, Steve couldn't deny that having Tony there when they woke up had been good for the team; they all spied on him shamelessly. Whether he was in the lab or asleep, if Pepper wasn't there to look after him, he didn't go ten minutes without someone or other getting paranoid and seeking him out. Even JARVIS was in on it and would flash up live feed on any screen in the Tower if you asked, and sometimes even if you didn't. Tony usually didn't notice, which was probably good for everyone's sanity.

He still shouldn't have come; Steve hovered around him in the full expectation that this would be yet another evening where he had to carry Tony Stark, and damn dignity.

Steve managed to stay back while Tony sent the Lieutenant off, wrapped back up in his Suit and aiming for DC. He was affectionate with the guy, irrespective of the armour, and Steve could even hear the clink of Tony's cufflinks against the not-iron as he thumped him on the back.

When they stepped away from each other and Rhodey was lining up for takeoff, Steve nodded calmly at him; he thought they understood each other. Rhodey nodded back and was gone, a streak of light in a dark sky.

Once the glowing vapour trail dispersed, Tony slumped, the crisp line of his suit (who else would keep a fresh suit on his plane, just in case?) ruined by the bow of his shoulders under what looked like the weight of the world. It didn't seem right to say anything, so Steve just guided him gently into the waiting car, a Rolls Royce. Happy caught the keys that one of Tony's security staff threw him over the bonnet and they were away into the traffic.

He was getting worse, even Steve could see it; Tony didn't fall asleep in the car, despite the fact that it was quiet and warm, so Steve looked twice and caught the hitch in Tony's throat that made his breath stutter; he was staying awake to keep his breathing steady. Steve couldn't draw Tony anymore; the tired, fragile lines of exhaustion almost begged to be put down on paper, heart-wrenchingly elegant in a way only Tony and Natasha could pull off, but he couldn't bear to bring that image into solidity. The lines of graphite and carbon would make it too real, too lasting. At least on Tony, they were fleeting glimpses, shown only to the team, small and private and vulnerable.

"Underground parking tonight, Happy," he told the bodyguard quietly. Tony huffed, his only concession to appearing offended. There was very little energy in it.

Pepper was there waiting for them, next to the elevator, but Tony didn't see her right away; too busy swaying, eyes drifting over the concrete and unable to focus. Steve kept a gentle hand on his back, not sure whether to just carry him, but he straightened eventually and she caught his eye.

"Ms. Potts."

"Mr Stark, how was your trip?" she asked politely, with that strange veneer of professionalism over the top of affection and stress.

"You know how it is, radioactive colleagues, stubborn Heads of Agriculture," Tony replied flippantly, making it to the elevator under his own power and waving to Happy as they went. Steve gave the man a nod, mentally taking note that the man was more of a friend than Tony's usual behaviour would have you believe.

Tony and Pepper touched each other with the care and slow affection of long-term friends, on top of the rawer need that Steve's artist's eye picked up in their brief kiss. It felt strangely not-awkward, despite the close quarters, because the two were wrapped up in each other, a whole continent of Pepper and Tony in the corner of an elevator. Steve was smiling and trying to hide his mirth by the time they reached the penthouse.

Their arms went around each other (Steve checked Pepper was wearing flats because even she could wobble occasionally and he had wrapped far too many twisted USO girl ankles in his time) and he followed them to the gallery. Natasha and Clint were lounging like jungle cats while Bruce buzzed with excitement in an armchair, a stack of messily fanned papers in one hand and a tablet on his knee.

"Tony! I've been looking in the wrong place for years! Look at this!" Bruce exclaimed. Steve, Natasha, Clint, and even Pepper's body language all shifted in their own particular ways; there they went again, it said. It was familiar, comfortable, and Steve settled into the sofa to watch.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

"I focused too much on the genetics and assumed that the structure of C3 was too changed by the transformation, but that would leave it impossible to recall any declarative memory, but I remembered pizza, so I went looking for the latest on memory," Bruce continued at high speed. Tony perched on the arm of his chair and leaned in so he could follow Bruce's excited pointing.

"Here, this one, 'Effect of altered emotional status on recall', they used blocks of emotive advertising, famine relief, animal shelters, happy babies, puppies, kittens; both ends of the spectrum, to induce emotive states, tested them with the Stroop task,"

"I have no idea what that is," Tony commented, not raising his voice enough to interrupt the flow of words.

"and then had people perform memory tasks within the altered emotional state, or half in the opposite one, and look," Bruce ruffled the papers, juggling a pen in one hand before putting it in his mouth out of the way, and pulled out a graph covered in 'SSR's', which the key told Tony, were statistically significant results. Why couldn't they just use asterisks like normal scientific papers? "Memories formed when they were happy were easier to-uh, more accurately accessed when they were happy, and more difficult, less accurate when they were sad."

"I was calm, Tony; on the swim, I had to stay green because of the radiation and the swimming, but I was calm! So I remember!" Bruce's glasses were slipping down his nose and Tony really wanted to push them back up, but now? So not the time. "I'm always angry, always suppressing, so being calm was a bit of a shock, but emotions are multivariate; adrenalin, testosterone, cortisol, brain chemistry; heart rate, blood pressure, resting muscle tension, physiology; affect, thought process, stimulus-response, software. I was physiologically angry, I was still Hulked out, but the process of thoughts, my brain chemistry calmed right down, so the memories I was still laying down from short term into long term, got laid down in a way that I can remember now!"

Bruce paused for breath, thankfully; Tony was starting to think he'd pass out before he stopped talking. The other Avengers were listening intently, blinking and muttering queries to each other about the meaning of this or the other term.

"So if you decouple procedural anger from physiological anger, you might remember everything during a hulkout?" Tony asked, trying to clarify.

"I, I think so. I don't even know if that's possible, or if the other guy wants to, or is even capable of that..." the 'but I'll try' that Tony was waiting for didn't surface, which was Not Cool.

"Bruce, buddy, master of Zen; if anyone can be angry and calm at the same time, it's you." There was one other implication to this, one that Bruce was obviously avoiding, hopefully unconsciously; if the Hulk was an altered emotional state, not a manifestation of an alternate personality, then it was Bruce who had been in the driving seat when he had blown up the Hulk-buster unit. Men had been killed that day at Culver University. Tony could say he would have done the same; blown tanks into the sky, killed, burnt, destroyed, if someone tried to steal his suit by force, but Bruce wouldn't hear it; he was soft, he wouldn't see it so easily as self defense. Not yet, anyway.

Chapter Text

Steve was right; he lay Tony down against the pillows at about eleven-thirty that evening.

Pepper had already sorted the pile out, so Steve could put Tony down gently, without waking him; he'd already been asleep for hours. Steve had offered to carry him through earlier, concerned that their talking and the television would wake him up, but Pepper had refused. Tony had been peaceful enough, undisturbed by even Clint's loud reaction to something Natasha said, so Steve had shrugged internally and let it go.

Pepper had been inclined to stay with the rest of them, too, despite a busy day and another looming in the morning. She'd been quiet, barely said a word, even, but she seemed less... jittery, by the end of the evening, like her springs had wound down.

Strictly speaking, they'd never really had Bruce; he'd been off to one side, papers and journals and tablets holding his attention, but it was Clint who had actually left first; not for bed, but off to the workshop, nursing his new-found interest in Tony's robots. Natasha next, when the ... whatever it was she had been watching, Steve really couldn't say, had finished.

Bruce, well... he was still doing Science.

Tony settled into the bed with a faint shift of muscles but didn't wake up; his breathing was reminding Steve more and more of the bad days, back when he couldn't get out of bed some mornings, that tight sensation that meant he sure as hell had better stay warm. It hitched and stuttered and caught in Tony's throat, but he'd had his medication, Steve had seen it himself, so there wasn't anything to do. That didn't exactly sit well with Steve, but he was at least helping Pepper look after him. He helped her pull Tony's shoes off, get him settled on the mattress, but backed out of the bedroom when she started unbuttoning Tony's shirt; she didn't seem to need his help anymore and that was maybe a step too far.

Bruce was still... Steve left the scientist to it and slipped out the glass doors to the balcony, helicopter landing pad, thing and diverted to the Iron Man assembly platform . One of the plates slid back and a mechanical arm appeared, holding a tray of tea of all things.

"JARVIS?" Steve awkwardly took a cup, which felt ridiculously fragile in his hands, and settled on the edge of the platform. "Uh, thanks."

"You are quite welcome, Captain Rogers." JARVIS said, from a speaker just below the arm. The air was cold and crisp and the platform had a fantastic view of midtown so for a long moment, Steve just sat there and worried quietly. About Tony, about Pepper, about Bruce, Clint... At least Natasha was happy enough, healthy. He sighed heavily; the AI made no comment.

It was a somehow companionable silence, with the AI pouring him more tea when he ran out. Which he did surprisingly quickly; there was honey or something in it. Not much like the boot-tea they'd managed back in, well. Before. He hadn't bothered with tea since waking up, it just wasn't one of those things.

He'd gone to Coney Island, because that was something you did; he was planning, in a fuzzy sort of way, to go to London again eventually, too. His brief road trip, bike, sun and getting pulled over for not wearing a helmet and all, had been about that. That and eating in diners, which were not as easy to find as they had been in the 40's.

New York was as busy as it had ever been; brighter, though. Lights and billboards and... huh, if he hadn't met Dr Erskine, he'd have been drawing posters and Christmas cards by now, well, sort of; his sense of time was a bit... weird, since the ice.

"JARVIS?"

"Yes, Captain Rogers?"

Steve blinked, reminded of Rhodes, briefly; "Um, could you, please, call me Steve? that's sorta... awkward, no one calls me Captain Rogers anymore," Steve said, rubbing his thumb over the edge of his cup.

"I am afraid that really wouldn't sound right, Steve." The soldier blinked and his head jerked back. Wow, JARVIS was not exaggerating; his name sounded utterly, totally bizarre in that nearly-British accent.

"Uh..." Steve stuttered, looking sideways at the robotic arm growing out of the platform like a futuristic tree.

"Indeed Captain." There was a long pause, during which Steve freed the limb from his judging stare and turned back to the city. "I believe you had a query," the AI prompted.

"Right. It's just, those." He pointed to the enormous, moving-image billboards just visible down Park Avenue. "How do they work? They don't look much like Tony's floating light, uh, things." Steve made a vague hand gesture that approximated Tony's 'save work' signal.

"Their function relies on a component called a light emitting diode, the illumination of which is controlled by-"

Steve settled back and listened, because no one could explain things quite like JARVIS could. The teapot, an actual teapot!, ran out eventually, but Steve still had questions, and he wouldn't need to sleep for a while, so he just kept asking.

They made it easily to midnight without any real pause, but mid-September and a thousand feet in the air didn't exactly make it warm, and he pulled his legs back up. JARVIS took his teacup but the arm didn't retreat until he was at least three feet from the edge; Steve raised an eyebrow at JARVIS' nearest sensor and the arm vanished under a floor tile with a little more force than strictly necessary.

"I'll see you in the morning, JARVIS; keep an eye on Bruce, would you? He's all..." He made a nebulous gesture, but the usual understanding tone was absent. "J?" Steve paused at the glass door; they weren't opening for him. Usually, when JARVIS was more... present than usual, doors and coffee machines had a way of just doing what you were about to ask them to. It wasn't a problem, the glass door slid open manually smoothly enough, but Steve's eyebrows did what Tony would call a Thing.

"Captain, would you be so kind as to look in on Sir on your way past?" JARVIS sounded beyond tense, the tone clear and louder than was entirely appropriate for quarter-past-tomorrow.

"Something wrong?" Steve asked, already halfway across the gallery, neatly side-stepping Bruce's avalanche of print-offs.

"I am.. unsure. It might be best if you intervene."

Because that wasn't worrying at all.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The thing about Tony and dreaming, the one thing that made sleeping next to Pepper actually feasible, was that he knew when he was doing it. He could see that sand and sun and know that this wasn't real, which usually ended up with him playing happy fucking fairies with Dummy in a mock-up workshop with four-legged Hulks playing on xylophones in the corner.

So; lucid dreams. Useful for not punching out your lover in the middle of the night, and also for not falling out of bed; it's the small things that make life worth living.

Tony stared balefully at one of the many eyes looming over him; "Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Out! out of my dream! Mine! Shoo! No Lovecraft in dream!" The tentacles receded obediently, while the eyes, creepily and hilariously, went limpid-round and puppy-dog. Tony was resolute and pointed firmly at the sand-dune horizon. "Away!" The beast slunk off, and Tony huffed to himself in satisfaction. With the vast desert stretching to all sides, blue mountains in the distance and an endless sky above, he started walking, because that was how this dream was supposed to go, and he'd rather get it over with, fuck-you-very-much.

Time did that... thing. The dream thing, where a lot of it happened in no time at all, while taking forever to drift past, and Tony stumbled down a dune when Rhodey's helicopter clattered overhead without seeing him. Fear, despair, horror; it didn't matter that he knew it was a dream, because it could have happened like that. It was just chance that he hadn't been between dunes when they flew over, that he hadn't fallen through the cracks in the search grid. He sat and trembled in the sand/on a stool/in an armchair with a glass of scotch until the whole lot puffed into non-existence again.

In his bed, he huffed a deep breath and rolled over, burying an arm under his pillows, his face tense with pain.

This control over his dreams, their mutability and absurdity, made the nightmares all the worse for their utter, unrelenting consistency. It also meant he remembered every single moment.

Tony stared up at Obie's ridiculous, shiny, bald head, his heart pounding with fury as his own design sang sine-wave-death in his ear. He'd destroyed his entire stock of blue LED's after that. It had been... just... no.

The paralysis had started in his spine, spreading outwards- No. that wasn't right; the paralysis had started in his house; JARVIS! JARVIS wasn't there, the panel on the wall, the garbled, run-down stutter, Obie had hurt JARVIS. Rage was no good; the paralytic was designed for war, adrenalin wasn't enough, but he stared burning holes into the ceiling over Obie's head. That noise, the spinning whirr and hissing clicks of a device that was SO NOT MEANT TO GO THERE. Tony's back seized, his heart leaping against the empty reactor housing, not possible, the reactor was locked, only his fingers and JARVIS' remote could open it, and JARVIS was hurt, away, would never help Obie do this to him... and he'd cut it out.

The drifting smoke of lead-tungstate crystal -he'd used it for the first time on the new reactor- smelled like blood, just a little bit, and like the roof of the mansion he'd grown up in; lead and heat and roasting sunlight.

His heart, oh god; pain, it hadn't been like this when Pepper had pulled out the first magnet, this was so much worse. His heart pounded so fast, so afraid, and Pepper.

Obie was threatening Pepper, and oh, it was ON.

He ordered her to press the button because fuck you, Obadiah Stane, and the armour you rode in on. There may have even been the smell of burning traitor, but Tony was busy being electrocuted.

Wow; on the list of Not Fun Things; he was going to go with #1. Also, not good for the hair.

Inside the burnt up armour, he couldn't arch his back, couldn't make his lungs bigger, couldn't do what Yinsen taught him. The short huffs just stripped his blood of CO2; not good.

He blinked and the next breath was full of water; foetid and dark with rust. Violent, hacking coughs shook the magnet in his chest, while the smell of ozone drifted up ominously from his battery-powered heart; sparks. Tiny, bottled lightning, trying its damned best to escape and, fuck him if it didn't burn him on the way.

The fist in his hair held him out of the water long enough for him to cough out his mouthful of water, but not long enough for him to take another breath, before it shoved him back into the water. It flooded up over his shoulders and then he was falling, falling through the cold, weightlessly; he needed to fall faster, get away; the sheet of brilliant radiance in front of him was so beautiful that it would kill him it he touched it.

It was so cold; all that light, the brilliance of a thousand shining stars, and all he could feel was the cold and the tearing as the air pulled out of his lungs, breathebreathe,TonyBREATHE!

He jerked awake, and finally there was air, but just for a second, because something was gripping his chest, crushing it closed, and he knew that feeling and he couldn't breathe, and Cap, stop shouting, I'm trying, I swear.

Steve's arm was holding his back up, his spine arched in a way that felt good, or would, once Tony managed to fill his lungs. Pepper's hands were cold on his face; she was worried, her hands always went white when she was worried and who said I don't pay attention?

He could really do with Bruce right then.

And possibly a tank of oxygen, because this was just not dignified.

Oh, and then there was the pain. Great big lumps of it, sitting on his chest and stopping up the pipes; seriously, he was not a carburetor! Humans should not get blocked pipes! Unless they were old and ate too much fat, and what the hell, breathe!

He only realised he was scrabbling at his throat when someone pulled his hand away; that might just explain the now-irritating scratches on his neck. That was... probably not good. He gripped the hand (Pepper, still cold, small; fragile. PSI, ten? No, seven. Gently.) as hard as he dared, but then couldn't; no oxygen, of course he couldn't, what was he thinking.

He stopped thrashing.

He was in bed; why would he thrash? He loved his bed. It had a Pepper. And also a Steve. Why didn't it always have a Steve?

There was the breathing thing. Didn't seem very important though; who'd want to breathe when it hurt so much?

Who was swearing? Unfamiliar sounding; Steve!? Who made Steve swear? That was just impressive, Tony had been trying for... a long time. It had been a long, long time.

Ow.

Someone had hit him...

He opened his eyes slowly, but there wasn't much to see because, oh yeah he wasn't breathing.

He whole body heaved, desperately drawing air in past the tight bands around his chest. Something cold and hard was pressed against his face and air, sweet, cold, delicious air.

Things calmed down a bit after that, because Tony had serious business with the oxygen mask and whatever inhalant Bruce had just dosed him with.

And on that note; oh look! Bruce!

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony had stopped breathing by the time Bruce arrived.

Completely limp, draped over Steve's arm, eyes just open enough to glint in the arc-light, and not breathing.

Bruce was not careful with the oxygen canister, because now was not the time. It may have swung and hit Tony on the shoulder, and serve him right for being not breathing.

And then, he blinked, just once, while Bruce was pulling out an intubation kit and trying to get Steve to listen. Steve who was holding Tony up off the bed like Bruce had showed them, but panicking in a way none of them had ever seen. It would be... bad. If Bruce had to resuscitate in a hurry. He really, really hoped he didn't have to break Tony's ribs...

But Tony had blinked. Bruce froze, his hand hovering over the bag.

A faint, tiny frown crumpled Tony's eyebrows and Bruce shifted his hand to the corticosteroids instead, fitting the canister to the intake valve of the oxygen mask and slapping it gracelessly over Tony's face.

The cold plastic misted for a bare moment before Tony was in motion again,stubbornly hauling in the medication along with nearly 100% oxygen.

"You son of a bitch, Tony; do that again." He muttered, meeting Tony's roving gaze. It snagged on him and Bruce gave him a fierce grin, pulling up his free hand and gripping it tightly, he had Pepper's in the other hand.

Tony, for once, obeyed, and breathed deep.

Steve sagged under the weight of the world, and Bruce watched the billionaire's gaze track up; oh no, no, Tony was fine if he could make that face.

Aside from the tachycardia, and cardiac asthma. Bruce wasted no more time with feeling relieved or with Tony's privacy, and just tore his undershirt right down the middle, and if there was a touch of green to his biceps, no one ever commented. He slapped the monitoring stickers to Tony's chest and let JARVIS at the data. He was a little more careful with the arc reactor hookup, but soon had that running diagnostics too. A prick of Tony's finger -which earned him a baleful glare, aimed inexpertly at his left shoulder- gave him more data.

Adrenalin; too much, far, far too much for Tony's beta-blockers to handle, and with the left side of his heart no longer responding properly, the heavy pumping of the right had filled Tony's lungs with blood.

Yes, there; Bruce pressed his stethoscope, he really couldn't care less if it was cold, Tony, shut up, against Tony's chest and heard the distinctive, hissing rattle of cardiac asthma. The blood vessels had swollen under the pressure and started closing the airways.

Bruce sat back on his heels, regardless of the fact that he was kneeling on either side of the man's legs, and did a bit of careful breathing himself; he had made the right call.

"Jesus christ Tony," Steve was muttering; Bruce couldn't help but agree, his own adrenalin spike was still in full swing, and Steve and Pepper were no better off.

Tony was pale, his eyes wet and pained, but he breathed more easily with each dose of the mist in his mask; Bruce flopped over sideways, sprawling on the bed next to Pepper's legs and weak with relief.

He'd thought it was a heart attack.

They were already at the stage where Bruce needed JARVIS's database to have the right drugs on hand, way beyond Bruce's biomedical training. His professors had made almost no concessions to how the system went wrong; his research group was trying to make a superhuman, not fix an ailing, scarred body. Bruce hadn't been trying to become a clinician and he was really beginning to regret that. His own chest inflated an enormous, frustrated sigh which he immediately felt guilty about, illogical as that was.

Tony's inhalations were still shallower than they should be; with the reactor housing sitting where the medial lobes of his lungs once had, he was already running on reduced capacity.

He was also afraid; whatever dream, whatever nightmare had triggered this, or been triggered by this, Tony's heart was taking its time in slowing down. It was clear to see, for all of them, that he was in pain; after a long moment to put himself back together, Bruce used his phone to talk to JARVIS semi-privately.

"It's going to have to be a patient controlled infusion pump; if he's on oxygen anyway, it's the best bet."

"Considering the respiratory suppression of narcotics, monitoring Sir's blood oxygen levels may become considerably more important."

"Yes, of course; can you do that, moment to moment?"

"With the Iron Man life support system, yes. Over the past three weeks, I have insisted upon certain improvements; increased monitoring and a drug delivery system, in addition to an increased control connection between the vest and the reactor regulation system."

Bruce swung his legs off the side of the bed and sat up to give Natasha room to settle in at the bottom of the bed, one of her hands finding Tony's ankle through the sheets. "Alright; does it need any work for long term wear?"

"I believe it would benefit from a new substrate; the aluminium frame is not designed for wear outside of the Armour and may cause restricted blood flow to the arms."

"Right, I'll be down in a minute. Supervise the kids on their sleepover, would you?"

"Indeed, Dr Banner."

Clint was already pushing Tony's earwig in place by the time Bruce left the room, and he spotted the beginnings of actual relaxation in Tony's posture.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Clint perched his behind on the headboard next to Steve's shoulder; the supersoldier wasn't about to move anytime soon, so Clint didn't see why he should leave either. JARVIS had given him an excuse to come into the room by asking him to get Tony's earwig in place and hadn't told him to leave. They had an understanding.

Natasha made no such concessions to personal space. But then, she hadn't been threatened with non-existent paralytics and then been given a baby since they'd all moved in. For all he knew, she had already negotiated and signed a damned peace treaty with JARVIS.

Tony visibly calmed down with JARVIS in his ear; Clint would remember that. They couldn't hear what the AI was saying, which had sort of been the point of the exercise, but whatever it was was helping. The little portable monitors sitting on Tony's stomach and wired in to his chest were broadcasting more vital signs than Clint was aware even existed, but they were colour coded and slipping from orange into green.

Steve was talking, too, and Clint noticed belatedly that his comm. was firmly in his ear. They didn't have activity indicators anymore, not since that junior agent had been shot in the ear, but he could see the shifting in Steve's face that showed he was hearing something.

Tony wasn't talking.

Or gesturing, or typing, or making eyebrows at people; he was just staring at Steve dazedly, his hand curling tiredly around Pepper's and pulling her close against his side. She was, fortunately for everyone, wearing winter pyjamas.

Clint watched, while Tony fell asleep, exhausted and grey. Steve followed first; he didn't look like he'd been gotten up, so Clint assumed he'd not gone to bed yet, and even a supersoldier doesn't make it to three AM without feeling it. Pepper after that, her hand plastered over Tony's nightlight. He didn't see Natasha fall asleep, but one minute, she was, with Tony's feet tucked into her stomach, one arm under her head and the other curling over his ankles.

Bruce came back after a half hour, maybe more, with a black, cable-covered vest more like Clint's body armour than clothes he would expect Tony to have. The doc leant over Steve's broad shoulders to adjust something on the canister settled on the bed between Pepper and Tony's side, then passed up the bag of scarier looking equipment to Clint, who put it on the bedside table his heel was perched on.

Bruce then promptly rounded the bed and settled on the other side, "Keeping watch?"

"Yeah. Me and JARVIS've got this."

"Lots to do in the morning..." Bruce mumbled, head down on the pillow already, his expression already seeing the mission.

"Better get a good night's rest then, yeah?" Bruce nodded, but Clint knew he didn't fall asleep as easily as the others; more buzzed, but less liable to adrenalin crashes.

Finally, his hand relaxed over the covers and Clint settled back against the wall to just... watch.

Chapter Text

 

Tony didn't so much wake up as stop being asleep. He felt no different, felt no urge to move; he had his mask, which rather than being irritating was starting to feel more comfortable than breathing normal air, and Pepper was snug against his side. He left his eyes where they had opened, staring un-aimed at the ceiling. There was pain, now; since Loki, his chest had been tight, squeezed, and his left arm had ached, but now it burned and his ribs felt like bands of iron pressing in on him, crushing the air out of him.

He blinked slowly; this was... maybe this was it. No more standing, no more lab, he hadn't had sex in weeks, his appetite was gone... He hadn't known a heart could feel tired, but it did. One nightmare had pushed him over the edge.

No, there had to be pain meds he could take; morphine? Vicodin? Something to get him back on his feet. And Steve would be a wheelchair, if he asked, if he needed. And oh, boy, if he was thinking about asking that, things were bad, weren't they? He blinked again, only this time the water in his eyes made a bid for freedom, trickling down the side of his face and, on one side, into his ear. It tickled horrendously and he draped his arm over his face to stop it.

He took a deep breath and coughed it back out incautiously; his throat burned from breathing the dry, sterile mask air. The jerky, violent movement stole the oxygen from his blood and rippled the pain out through his chest, leaving him light headed, panting. The crook of his arm and his cheekbones were wet with salt.

The sharp movement, the sound, made Pepper's hand, wrapped over the back of his and draped over his stomach, tighten as she woke up.

"Hey, Tony," she mumbled, her face shifting against his shoulder.

He didn't reply - his throat too tight to trust with anything but a sob - but he did drop his arm back down, drawing his wrist across his face to wipe away the wet. Pep... Pepper could make anything seem better. He tilted his head enough to look down at her, past the edges of the mask; she didn't quite look as bad as he felt -that would be an achievement- but she did look worn out, tired, stressed.

"Good morning sir; the temperature outside is 62 degrees, light fog, threatening rain in the afternoon. Traffic is light, but roadworks on 47th may cause delays for employees of the Prototypes department." JARVIS said in dual-tone; Tony's earpiece was still firmly in place and he pawed clumsily at it until it pinged off into the bed somewhere.

To Tony's great surprise, there was movement on the other side of the bed; another shoulder on Pep's other side which could only belong to Bruce since it was a, wearing sleeves and b, not the size of the Rockies. Made sense, Tony mused as he let his head thump back down to the pillow; there was an oxygen canister sitting on the bed and other things stuck to his chest. He needed supervision with hands, JARVIS should have hands...

Huh, that was a thought; JARVIS already had that freedom in the kitchen, the workshop, the balcony. Why should he leave it there? The armour assembly platform meant that his mechanised bits stretched up through the walls and floors of the penthouse, for carrying bits of armour down to the workshop. JARVIS already was the building, hell he was several buildings, usually all at once, and a machining plant and he could fly the armour and he was a person who liked doing washing up in his spare time because that was how he rolled. He was good, a Good Thing, that Tony had built, and...

Tony blinked again; he was zoning out. Bruce had gone from lying down to looking down at him from next to the bed with a expression that was far too serious for first thing in the morning.

"Br's." Tony said lazily, "'mornin."

"Good morning, Tony. How're you feeling?"

Tony screwed his eyes shut, because really? In the scope of necessary questions, that was just... did he really have to say it? He lifted his free hand to tap on his chest, left of and below the arc reactor. "It hurts, I don't..." he stopped, frustrated, and kept his eyes closed, because he really did not need to see anyone's reaction to that.

"I thought it might." Bruce picked his hand up off his chest and oh god why went for the heart monitor stickers. Tony was very glad he was not a hairy man, because Bruce took no prisoners. It was distracting, at least. Tony's hand clenched around Bruce's with the vague hope that he might squash it in retribution; a losing battle, he found. Pepper smoothed her cool fingers over the little pink marks, which made him subside, glaring at Bruce with just one eye, rather than with both barrels.

"You monster," Tony mumbled as Bruce took his mask off; normal air was briefly nice, less dry, warmer, but he didn't trust that to last. Pepper slid off while Bruce was fiddling; Tony did not approve because he needed her so much and clung to her hand. But, she had her own version of The Eyebrow; he was simultaneously relieved, because she looked more vital, more alive than she had a moment ago, and cowed into submission, so he let go. She wasn't shy about starting a shower with Bruce in the bedroom, which was just mean, because Tony couldn't go join in. The door closed behind her fuzzy pyjama'd heels and Tony dragged his attention back to Bruce.

The vest in the scientist's hands was originally a part of the - Tony checked the stitching down the left hand side - the Mark III; light-weight, snug, and with fastenings that fastened themselves. There were plenty of modifications, though; the aluminum bars that originally locked it, and him, into the armour were gone, cut out with clean slices that could only have been a short blade, like a scalpel. He raised an eyebrow at Bruce.

"Have you been colluding with my bots, Bruce? For shame," he muttered, gesturing impatiently for Bruce to hand him the vest.

"I knocked something up," Bruce replied, handing it over.

Tony looked at him sideways, "I am resisting, because that? That was terrible. If you're giving me lines, I must look worse than I feel, and I feel insulted! Can you even..." He made a vague gesture, which just happened to be at crotch level.

Bruce, obligingly enough, pinked up. "That is not what I meant. There was knocking, with an actual hammer. Oh god." He turned his back on Tony and sat on the edge of the bed. "I swear this is not intentional. Tony, shut up, I can hear you leering."

Tony, feeling magnanimous, turned to the - guh - monitoring vest and picked over the wireless uplink and reactor monitor tacked to the fabric. "I forgive you; you've been abroad, who knows what strange and dangerous things you've brought back with you." He looked at the doctor sideways. "You have had your shots, right?"

"Am I sitting next to a potentially immunocompromised patient or not, Tony?" Bruce drawled, turning to look back at him with one eye.

Tony sniffed and turned back, his fake suspicion dissolving as he pored over the tech he was, apparently, going to be wearing for a while. "What's this?" He wobbled a coil of un-attached tubing at Bruce. It disappeared into the processing unit around the reactor connection ring, which was much more bulky than he could account for.

"Morphine line. Back of the hand or inside the wrist; your choice. You could try hydrocodone, Vicodin, but..."

"Might as well start as I mean to go on." He nodded slowly, frowning. "I... I never tried H, but there were... other things. JARVIS, you got the big red button?" Tony asked without looking up, his hand tightening enough to crumple the semi-rigid fabric.

"No sir, that would defeat the point of Patient Controlled Analgesia." The AI paused, long enough for Bruce to shake himself and stand up, before continuing. "If I may, sir? You are not that man any longer; it will not come to that."

"I've already... in Afganistan, there was opium, uh, Yinsen called it laudanum, and it smelled like vodka and..." He visibly gritted himself, eyes closed, fist tense, but then abruptly relaxed, or maybe surrendered; it was hard to tell, even from the inside. "Alright. Okay... this is me trusting you; if I end up in rehab, you are going to a community college, J, community college." He rubbed his hand over his face and put the vest down; he'd need to sit up and what happened to his shirt? He fingered the torn edges curiously; "I think I need an adult; look at me, I'm positively debauched."

Bruce looked vaguely embarrassed, turning a loaded and sealed syringe, presumably full of morphine, over in his hands. "Sorry, speed could have been important. If you go into vfib I can't exactly hit you with 200 volts."

Tony nodded and shifted forwards; he was so close to sitting up, piled up on pillows, that he managed it without too much trouble, though his stomach muscles complained. The tattered remains of yesterday's undershirt could be shrugged out of easily enough, and Bruce helped him with the monitoring vest. The self-assembly aspect was useful; neodymium magnets, which also earned Science points for sheer awesome.

Once he flopped back, Bruce fitted the syringe into a motorised dispenser that had been designed for inside the Mark VIII. It was tiny, sleek and, once it closed, sealed from outside influence.

"The limiter is set fairly low, so don't worry about hitting rainbows and unicorns; just... hit the button when it hurts," Bruce said quietly, in a confidential tone Tony was learning about quickly; doctor-voice. He went back to rummaging in his bag; Tony watched in trepidation as sterile packets appeared. There was a needle.

"Uh, wrist. Definitely wrist." Tony thrust his arm out and resolutely looked away; Pepper was finishing her shower, he could tell because the sound changed as she opened the glass door and then JARVIS shut off the water, and ow. It was just a little pinch, and Tony was used to a lot worse, these days, but it was still that sharp sort of pain that gave his brain 'you should have avoided that!' vibes. Bruce was taking the needle away by the time Tony looked back, pulling it out of the tube now lodged under his skin and pinching the valve shut to keep Tony's blood from escaping. He filled the microbore tubing of the delivery system with saline, carefully pushing all the air out, then made the connection with the morphine canister.

Once the connection was secure, he checked again for bubbles and brought out the medical tape. Tony groaned; of course there was medical tape. Bruce was almost overly careful; he packed the IV port with a square of cotton wool between it and his skin, as well as one over the top, then looped the tubing against his arm so any snagging would pull tape off before it fouled the port itself.

When Bruce handed him his arm back and Tony resisted the urge to glare; at least it was Bruce and not some random... flunky. Agent. Potential spy-person. Though, Natasha was territorial in her spying; maybe she would keep others away, like a cat.

"Alright; your 'happy button' is here," Bruce pressed the thumb-sized red button velcroed to the vest; wireless, encrypted and complete with thumbprint recognition, welcome to the 21st century, medicine. Even as the thought coalesced, he heard the click and then felt the spreading morphine; straight into the vein was definitely different to taking it with alcohol, oh boy.

The relief was quick; the pain becoming irrelevant and dropping down to eminently manageable levels. He... wow... he hadn't realised how much pain he'd been in.

He may have let himself luxuriate a little long, but he roused himself when Pepper started talking to Bruce about things. Business things, hospital things, personnel things.

"I've managed to get him his assistant and the surgeon's gone over the plans he sent me from the plane; it's feasible, but he's not happy, something about medical hypothermia...?"

Tony didn't like the sound of that; he needed to be awake to re-wire the chipset, not half dead with cold, no matter how much it would preserve his brain.

"He copied me the email." Tony cracked an eyelid; Bruce was nodding in understanding and launched into an explanation of why, exactly, Tony got to be warm. Bruce was boring and Tony shifted to look at Pepper instead, who was drying her hair with the blowdrier that Tony had, out of frustration with being woken up against his will in the mornings, silenced.

Bruce was still talking to Pepper (anesthesiologists, apparently, came in different breeds, JARVIS was chipping in) when he sat back down next to Tony's hip and started fiddling, hooking up the reactor monitor, observing the EKG trace the miniaturised hologram projector was displaying.

"That had better be temporary; I am not going around showing that to the world." Tony grumbled, flicking the display around and manipulating it to show the reactor monitor instead. Bruce snorted at his vanity and clipped a pulse oximeter to his finger, once he'd managed to catch and hold his hand still for long enough. "JARVIS, model a switch to the fourth harmonic, and... test."

"Simulated transformer running at 47% reduction, sir." The AI replied quietly.

"Alright, apply." The arc reactor blinked and spun up again in the space between heartbeats; Tony didn't feel a thing. The arc itself glowed a darker blue, more like the older palladium models. Tony happened to glance away from his new chest-mounted screen in time to see Bruce being excessively still. Tony froze in place and blinked as his brain changed gear. "uhm... sorry?"

"You... you absolute... don't do that again."

"It was just a little adjustment! Tiny, tiny one," he whined, squashing the hologram out of existence.

"Tony..." Pepper was the only person capable of drawing his name out that long; it was a superpower, had to be. He refused to be intimidated by it and shuffled his legs towards the side of the bed, bumping them against Bruce, who obligingly stood up.

Tony wasn't so foolish as to stand up immediately so he took a few slow breaths before pushing himself upright, Bruce's arm slipping around his waist immediately. Tony had to lean on it heavily, but he stayed standing, so that was a victory at least.

"-be here at two, will you be finished by then?"

"He finished the last adjustments to the actual structure from the plane yesterday, so it's just fabrication; we'll have a working model to show them."

"Huh, that's today?" Tony muttered, rubbing his hand over his face, slouching with his other arm over Bruce's shoulders.

"That's today. Come on, lets get some food in you." Bruce didn't let him go so Tony grumbled and shuffled his way towards the kitchen.

"Hey wait, what about the thingy," he gestured with the hand over Bruce's shoulder, almost managing to poke the scientist in the face in the process, "mask, thing."

"Your canister is almost out, not much point getting you into a nasal cannula before the new one arrives, and no, you can't use welding oxygen."

Tony groaned.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Chapter Text

 

At two in the afternoon, after three hours in the lab finishing up the prototype pacemaker, Tony and Bruce headed for the conference room on the highest level of Stark Industries. It was, fortunately, only a few floors below the workshop and Tony had no trouble getting there. Bruce watched carefully, ready to lend a shoulder or lean the billionaire against the elevator wall, and he could see the rough edges: that glazed expression for a minute or two after he stood up, a spike in the pain that was starting to etch itself into the creases around Tony's eyes.

In the elevator, Bruce tapped Tony's pocket, where his morphine button was stashed, and raised an eyebrow.

"Right, okay," Tony said, fishing it out and thumbing it. He looked exhausted, understandably, but they had to get this over with; they needed to get the surgery done, there would be no getting better, no 'if he could just rest'. No time for being soft.

Dr. Ross and his team were sitting around the conference table, talking intently. As he pushed the door open, he saw Tony shift in the corner of his eye; his spine straightened, his chin came up and that press-pleasing smile wiped his face clean of worry and exhaustion. Bruce stood stunned as this strange new Tony hoisted his fresh oxygen tank onto his hip and stalked into the room.

The prototype, complete with arc reactor, thunked down on the table in its padded box; all eyes swung towards it and the conversation flatlined.

"This is just the prototype; have a good look. The real thing will be built under sterile conditions tomorrow, assuming we don't have to do a complete re-design. So!" Tony flopped into the big chair at the head of the table, calling up the holographic display bedded in the table. "Top of the line biometrics, and I'm not talking FAA here, people –"

Bruce settle down to watch and listen; apparently, he was supposed to be the only person in the room who knew how bad Tony really felt.

Dr. Ross was intent on the prototype and immediately lifted it out of the box. His colleagues leaned in and Bruce watched them compare the physical object with Tony's brief. Bruce had insisted on there being an arc reactor in the prototype housing; Tony had looked at him sideways but mocked one up in five minutes, with some LEDs and perspex. It wasn't quite the same brilliant, broad spectrum light as the arcs' exotic particle decay, but it was the fitting that mattered, the light was just... Tony.

"What is this, on the stimulator?" Dr. Ross asked, holding up the atrial electrode and touching its rough surface.

"EMF. No wait, thats taken... MFE; Micro-field electrodes. Right size to fit between heart cells-" Bruce despaired of getting Tony to call them 'myocytes' and the professionals looked at Tony sideways for it. "-and deliver the current in a diffuse concentric wave simulating-"

Bruce was genuinely impressed when the Doc followed easily, pertinent questions and all. "The electrodes themselves are titanium?"

"100% rejection-proof," Tony grinned and tapped his existing arc reactor as proof, "and embedded into the silicone."

Dr. Ross nodded, frowning thoughtfully at the bundle of sensors, a quarter of which used the same array technology to detect nervous impulses.

"What about attachment? Won't the sutures disrupt any circuitry?" Bruce blinked at the surgical assistant who had asked and felt distinctly embarrassed, and then a little horrified; they hadn't thought of that, and once Tony heart was restarted, it would be moving all over the place and the whole point of this exercise was to reduce the number of moving objects in Tony's chest.

Tony added pre-perforated ridges to the edges of all the sensors without commenting.

Once the examination of the prototype was nearly complete, the discussion shifted to practical aspects of Tony's part in the surgery. Bruce was relieved to realise that the professionals found Tony's waking-bypass plans just as intimidating as he did.

"We'll have to paralyze you from the neck down to ensure the heart-lung machine remains undisturbed; I don't see how you can work like that, Mr. Stark."

Tony gave the surgical nurse (nice young woman, practical, thought Bruce, and probably utterly undeserving of this) a look that told volumes about how ridiculous he thought she was. "I can't, that's the point. I'll need use of my arms. That's where you come in." He smacked the table as he said it and a hologram sprung up: an anatomical diagram of the upper body musculature, with the Arc reactor superim - no. That was Tony's actual chest. Bruce had given JARVIS the information to build a diagram like that, he just hadn't realised what the AI would do with it. It was, of course, perfect, right down to the minor inflammatory damage of the blood vessels caused by the palladium poisoning. Tony's efficient gestures highlighted groups of muscles in red as he continued speaking: "These are the muscles that were cut in the initial surgery - outline scar tissue in red? Thanks. Attachment for the pectoralis major is provided by this ring, here." One of the reactor housing's components lit up; Bruce couldn't quite see how the ligamentous medial end of the muscle was finding purchase, but since Tony could still bench press and move his arms, it was a fair bet it was a damn good connection. The entry points from the initial shrapnel injury were just visible under the smooth and sure lines of surgical scars. Bruce would admit, if he had been asked at this point, that he was feeling a little green. "This one here -"

"The rectus abdominis, sir."

"Thank you, JARVIS. -attaches to this post, with three screws through the remainder of the lower sternum. They took six weeks to heal up; do not fuck with them."

"Mr Stark, you are looking at a twelve month recovery time, regardless of having to heal to titanium again." Dr. Ross interjected wryly. Bruce looked at him sideways; this guy was definitely worth hanging onto.

"Yeah, uh, no; last time we did this? Cave. Box of scraps. Three months."

"Dr. Yinsen had the option of opening your sternum; I'm going to have to saw through five of your ribs, in addition to cutting open your aorta, pulmonary artery and vein, and your vena cava, and that is before entering the atrial septum to extract the piece of shrapnel lodged inside. You're not even going to notice that we've transected your left pectoralis major. Twelve months, Mr. Stark."

Tony paused, blinking, as JARVIS helpfully outlined the planned surgical incisions - if you could call it that when saws were involved - and highlighted the sensor locations. There would be no getting at them without lifting off half his ribcage.

"Right." Tony visibly swallowed before looking away and then spent a moment massaging his temple. "I knew that. Right... just leave the reactor housing alone, there isn't an engineer on this planet who can fix it but me." At least not in the available timeframe, Bruce thought to himself. Well... there was Vanko, but he'd rather have the Other Guy doing surgery than Whiplash.

"Unfortunately, your plans lead me to believe you. Precisely what range of movement do you need?" Ross asked, slapping the technical drawings in his hand down on the table. The surgical nurse whose job description suddenly included handing Tony a soldering iron perked up; she was a find of Pepper's, shipped in from Princeton-Plainsboro, and had already been briefed on what was expected. She was after details now.

The engineer rattled off the exact number of degrees and in which plane they applied to, in the same engineering language he used to talk about the Iron Man suit. The doctors looked like he'd just spoken in C++; Bruce sighed and poked at his tablet to help JARVIS put together a model the doctors would actually be able to use.

"Oh; you're going to need your shoulder elevating..." The surgical nurse spoke up once they had waded through translation-with-visual-aid and cautiously fiddled with the new hologram, pushing the ball of its shoulder up three or four inches. "And you're not going to have rotator cuff function, so..." She pulled the elbow up on the left side. "If we fix your arm there, then you'll only need distal musculature."

"God, it's going to be like working with Butterfingers." Tony's comment made a wooshing noise as it flew over the doctors heads. Bruce chuckled and got a wink from Tony for it, before the billionaire plunged back into the discussion.

Bruce didn't exactly have much to contribute, at this point, so he distracted himself from his anxiety with designing an air sterilization system that would actually kill everything, rather than just 99%. Ionising radiation was good at that; both he and Steve really should be dead. The discussion wrapped up the issue of mobility and shifted to paralytic agents and oxygen saturations while he wasn't looking.

"And what happens if you have a stroke, during hour four or five? What will you do then?" Bruce looked up abruptly; young man, dark haired and with that bluster that meant he didn't quite know what his status was here. A quick look through the papers on the desk told him it was the heart-lung technician; his job was the one most affected by Tony's abnormal requirements. "You're not going to have medical hypothermia to protect you; you could lose motor function, comprehension, your engineering skills. You should at least train someone to finish the wiring."

Dr. Ross sat back from an examination of the circuit diagram to frown sternly at the speaker, but for all that he apparently didn't approve of the man's tone, he didn't actually intercede on Tony's behalf.

Bruce chanced a glance at Tony; the banked terror was almost invisible, but Bruce knew that of all the things Tony feared, losing his faculties was right up there with losing Pepper. He fished his phone out under the table and thumbed to JARVIS' obliging feed of Tony's vitals; the sharp spike in his breathing, a wild fluctuation in his galvanic skin response, the stuttering of the pacemaker as it tried and failed to respond to the adrenalin, all added up to fear. Unmitigated horror, and a body utterly unequipped to deal with the physical side of the response.

Time ticked by.

Slowly, Tony's vitals went from flirting with red back down to green and a brutal, devil-may-care grin spread across his face."Well, then I'll die on that table, and it will be all your fault."

Bruce had never seen Tony so harsh, so shark-like, not even under the scepter's influence, and the poor, mean-spirited doctor quailed.

"Alright!" Tony clapped, full of brittle energy; Bruce stood and pointedly tidied his copy of the references they were using. It was time to bring this to a close and send the new minions to prepare without the oppressive presence of the patient himself. "Off you go, chop chop! Work to do, I'm sure you have scalpels to sharpen, needles to sterilize, or something."

Also, Tony was about to keel over and had started slurring his words.

The doctors followed his lead and put their files back in order; JARVIS provided directions to the under-construction operating suite and they left. At the door, Dr. Ross quite literally took the heart-lung machine operator in hand with a firm grip on his shoulder; "I don't think you appreciate the complexity of what Mr. Stark's 'wiring', son. Have you ev-" The door swung shut behind them, cutting off the rest of the sentence.

Reassured by the exchange, Bruce thumbed his phone again, tapping the Captain America icon and hitting call.

Steve must have answered through JARVIS because his caller tag appeared on screen at the first ring. "Hi? Bruce?"

"Steve, Tony's going to need your help; we've worn him out."

"Now that just sounds suggestive," Tony interjected quietly from the head of the table. Bruce just raised an eyebrow at him and swapped the phone to his other hand, freeing his right to tilt Tony's face towards the light; his lips were still pink, he was fine, they were fine.

"I'll be right down; should I bring your bag?" Steve's voice had that strange rising-and-falling quality that was unique to JARVIS' roaming pick-up as it switched from microphone to microphone.

"Just yourself; he needs a lift."

"Ms Potts brought a wheelchair, but..."

"Just yourself, Steve."

The super soldier made a soft noise of agreement and the feed cut out; it wasn't quite the same as hanging up, but it was close enough.

Tony groaned and dropped his head back against the headrest. "JARVIS, keep this floor clear for the next... ten minutes? For me?"

"For you sir, anything." JARVIS replied with a tone Bruce couldn't quite place; either fond or sarcastic, but potentially both, too. Tony blinked up at JARVIS's nearest camera, set in the middle of the ceiling, and softened with gratitude, literally; he sunk a little lower in his chair and closed his eyes. After a minute, he rubbed irritably at the tube looped under his nose, almost managing to dislodge it.

"Leave it," Bruce warned lowly, putting his phone away and crouching to dial the oxygen up slightly. They should probably find a way of linking the O2 supply to Tony's stats, but no, there would be a lag in his pulse-ox meter when compared to ideal dosage; they would need a predictive algorithm...

Bruce was still thinking about it when Steve arrived, a minute and a half later. Tony had been disturbingly silent, but he revived a little when the doors opened and bickered quietly with the supersoldier.

Bruce trailed along at Steve's left shoulder, carrying the oxygen tank. Its case did have wheels, but it wasn't exactly heavy either.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Tony hadn't been selling himself short when he said he was light; Steve wouldn't have liked to spar with him on the best of days, not with the way he could just pick Tony up like a child. Steve's sandbags weighed more.

"C'mon, Cap; I won't hurt it. Besides, I could just make you a new one. A better one."

"Don't touch the shield, Tony. You can play with it after you're done making your own hardware." Maybe.

There's something innately awkward about elevator rides - Steve hitched Tony up slightly so the man's bony shoulder wasn't digging into his pec quite so hard - they didn't exactly invite conversation, and there wasn't anything else to look at apart from the other people whose personal space you were definitely inside. At least there weren't any mirrors in Tony's elevators. Then there really wasn't anywhere to put your eyes but your own feet. Or a cellphone; perhaps that was why Clint liked the little game-things.

Tony, of course, completely ignored this and squirmed enough to poke at Bruce's tablet computer, pulling the three of them even closer together. "No, no, look: run the radiation through there, or you'll lose half the input in cycling heat between the condenser and the scrubber."

Steve frowned and shifted his feet to get a look and give Tony a better angle; the screen was a mess of the symbolic language that, usually, only Tony and Bruce could understand. The crudely sketched stick figure in the box marked 'output' was a little concerning, however. "Is that supposed to be you?" Steve boosted Tony again; too much wriggling and not enough holding on. The billionaire slung an arm over Steve's shoulder absently and nodded. Ah, of course, Steve should have known; that extra circle around the stickman's central stick was supposed to be the arc reactor.

"Yep. We're going to revolutionise aseptic technique."

"I'm just going to pretend I know what that is..."

This comment, of course, led Bruce down the garden path, explaining about immunosuppression and airborne diseases and spores and antibiotic resistant bacteria and Steve just let the words sink in.

Dear God, Tony was going to be vulnerable.

XXXXXXXXXXX

It wasn't until the next morning that Tony met The Chair.

Blame Clint for the ominous way it was talked about; not long after Tony had fallen asleep on the couch -now a habit. They made it work- he had brought to their attention that it was a bought item. Tony had to tinker with his watches before he would wear them, not to mention his cars, or, god forbid, the Iron Man armor. That chair would have three different modes of locomotion, four different ways to kill a man, and at least one glowing, nuclear-fusion powered supercomputer by the end of the day if they didn't keep Tony distracted.

Steve, reluctantly, took responsibility for keeping the damn thing from gaining flying capabilities. Even JARVIS sounded relieved.

Tony's face when he emerged from the bathroom, fortunately mostly clothed, to see Steve leaning against the dresser with Tony's oxygen tank and The Chair, was priceless. "Oh no. No, no, no; is that- does that thing fold? Are you trying to- where's the, thing, you know," He made a gesture that could have meant 'Steve's going to blush redder than a tomato' but probably meant 'joystick'.

"That would be me. Come on, Bruce want's to go over the-" It's Steve's turn to make a vague gesture, "- you were making last night."

"But... but it has wheels."

"Tony, it's a wheelchair," Pepper chimed in from in front of the bathroom mirror, "What else would it have?"

"I don't know. Caterpillar tracks? Stephen Hawking has those, right? It could have repulsors. Oh! Or mag-lev." Tony eyed the contraption with a combination of appraisal and wariness that only Tony could pull of on one face. Steve did, at least, recognise the name this time; Coulson's reference had started making sense when the physicist cropped up in Tony's Science talk, more than once.

"NO, Tony, leave the chair alone. Steve, I have to run; with the Intellicrops merger coming up, I can't-" Pepper emerged from the bathroom hastily packing a purse.

"Go, Pep, we've got this." Tony tossed his soggy towel at the foot of his bed, where it landed with an unpleasant thump, and turned to face her. "Light a fire in their tailpipes, Ms Potts."

"Always, Mr Stark; be good." She kissed him quickly, leaving a smudge of lipstick that Tony wiped off with a smug thumb. Steve looked away to give them their moment. He was a little surprised when she turned to Steve and kissed him, rather more chastely, on the cheek; he had to lean down so she could reach, even with those shoes. "Look after him, for me?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She swept out in a flurry, already hooking something on her ear and calling to Natasha.

"Sit down before you fall down, Tony; Bruce only just signed off on the shower. He seemed to think you might fall over and break something important. Possibly your ego. I don't see it, personally," said Clint, still sprawled on the ridiculous bed in lounge pants, a sweater and the blanket off the back of the sofa. Pepper and Tony had, once again, accrued people overnight.

Tony flopped gracelessly into the wheelchair; fortunately, Steve had locked it so at least it didn't go rolling backwards. The billionaire was still bare-chested, which just made the difficulty he was having breathing all the more obvious, and Steve held out the monitoring vest. Tony didn't put it on, but he took it agreeably enough; there was pain in everything from the set of his shoulders to the twitching of his fingers over the vest's technology, so Steve wasn't particularly surprised.

His wrist was blue around the, now rather soggy, band-aid over the hole left by the IV; bad business, but Tony had pulled at it in his sleep and the vein had bled under the skin. Bruce had been guilt-ridden, but it hadn't actually been anyone's fault. Natasha had been awake and heard the tape tear and Tony managed to avoid actually bleeding on anything.

The only problem was that Tony was now a little low on painkillers; Bruce would have more for him, in the kitchen.

"Can I-"

"No." Steve interrupted the archer before he could even finish the sentence. That was not a road they wanted to go down; god knew what mad scheme Tony and Clint would manage between them, massive doses of morphine or no.

"But it's jus-"

"No, Clint. Besides, there's waffles, and they'll be stone cold if we don't get on with it." They had ordered from Le Petit Canard again; Steve hadn't found something they wouldn't deliver yet, despite, to his dismay, Clint's concerted attempt to have them eating squid at least once a day after the Gulf of Mexico incident.

Who knew you could get squid on a pizza?

"Oh Steve, my great and noble Prince, saving me from the nefarious Robin Hood, in the name of waffles! On! Fine steed; to the field of battle! May your spoon be forever syrup'ed," Tony said over his shoulder as Clint vanished around the corner.

"For one," Steve commented as he maneuvered through the door which Clint had obligingly wedged open, "Robin Hood was one of the good guys; and two, how can I be a prince and a horse, at the same time?"

"Mad skills, Steve, mad skills and biceps." Tony was making a good show of 'I'm only letting Steve push me because I'm working' by fiddling with the monitoring vest. By the time they made it to Tony's kitchen - which was rapidly becoming the kitchen as various and sundry Avengers settled in and added favorite teas and mugs to the cupboards - Bruce had a new morphine line ready and was washing his hands in the sink. Steve pushed Tony up to the table and left them to it.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

"But it'll get in the way." Tony prodded the padded plastic brace Bruce wanted to strap over his wrist distrustfully. Supposedly, it would protect the new IV and hopefully make it last longer than a day.

"I can't imagine the other one's going to feel any better; the bruising is the size of my palm."

Tony looked down at his blue-ish arm and wiggled his fingers; alright, fair point...

"Look, Tony," Bruce muttered confidentially, "there's already scarring on your veins - don't look at me like that, I can tell it was a long time ago - you really don't need to make that any worse."

Tony scowled half-heartedly but conceded the point. At least the old track marks weren't visible. He shrugged the vest on, shivering a little as the internal surface electrodes made contact with his skin, and hooked up the arc reactor. Once he was buckled in, he heard the dishwasher start up; good old JARVIS, always keeping tabs.

He let Bruce deck him out with oxygen and then held out his un-bruised arm for the morphine; "We're nearly there, aren't we?" he mumbled, his limbs going loose as the oxygen made breathing less of a chore. He didn't even flinch when the needle went in, looking over at Clint and Steve instead, who were investigating the effects of combining different grades of chocolate with raspberries. Clint prefered white, while Steve liked milk.

"Yes, yes we are. Think you can hold onto this one until Thursday?" Bruce said with a grin that could be amusement, but was probably nerves.

"I'm sure I'll manage."

Once Bruce was done taping up the new morphine tube he helped Tony into a zip-up sweater that was decidedly too big to be from his own wardrobe. Also, the cuffs were worn where someone had picked at them and crumpled them in a fist. He looked sideways at Clint's broad shoulders; the archer caught him looking and smirked so Tony succinctly pulled the sleeves down over his hands and scrumpled them like a teenager. Clint had the temerity to look amused.

Tony was, excusably, distracted from this little by-play when sweet, sweet relief spread through his body. He happily slumped down in his chair and closed his eyes.

Now, what would really make his day would be an enormous mug of coffee, black, two sugars. He could put up with the dark chocolate, cream and raspberry-filled monstrosity that Bruce handed him, though.

"Alright, so I moved the condenser and JARVIS puts the efficiency at 87%," Bruce commented, putting a tablet with projection capability on the table between them.

"Mmph, 's good." Tony shoved his mouthful into one cheek to talk and pulled up the hologram of the surgical suite. "If we wire it into the central riser it can use all the power it wants without disturbing the voltage available to anything else."

Bruce nodded, chewing on a spoonful of his cereal. "Most of the equipment has surge-protection, that shouldn't be an issue-"

Tony deadpanned, mouth full and still managing to convey disdain. Bruce changed tacks, grinning; "Ideally, the unit should fit into the sterile canopy itself, but the shielding is a little heavy-"

"'s an H beam, here," Tony gestured at the hologram and it obligingly went wire-frame. "'couple of suspensor bolts and we'll be fine. How'd you fix the airflow convection issue?"

"LEDs in the surgical lamps."

"What -? You know what? I don't even want to know. You done with the trail-mix? Lets go build a laser." Tony had eaten as much as he wanted, and if someone had a problem with that they could get him a smoothie or something, and wheeled himself backwards, away from the table. Hey; bonus points for having the O2 attached to the wheelchair. He felt a sort of glee at being able to move at a decent speed without feeling the need to fall over on Steve and turned the chair on the spot to get a feel for it.

"Whoa, slow down, Tony; thats just the morphine talking." Bruce asked, bringing his bowl with him. "Also; why do we need a laser?"

"Awww, you always spoil my fun," Tony whined, though he did wheel himself towards the elevator at a more sedate pace. "Soldering. When I said laser, I may have meant opticfiber-transmission IR source."

"To solve the heft issue?" Bruce mumbled, through a mouthful.

Tony nodded. "We can probably get it down to fifteen grams, if we use the new Hamamatsu prototypes I've got lying around the workshop."

"Aren't those the Immunochromatograph people?" the scientist asked, before drinking the last of his milk and leaving his bowl on a sideboard to pick up later and joining Tony in the elevator.

"Yep. Been working with them on their NIR imaging line and they sent over some samples for long-wave optical transmission when they got footage of the unibeam. Very courteous people, the Japanese." Tony pushed the button for the 24th floor but Bruce held the doors open.

Bruce nodded down the hallway, where Steve was emerging from the kitchen. "Just give Steve a minute, unless you gave Dummy clearance to emerge from the workshop without telling me."

"Ah, heavy lifting. JARVIS?"

"You may release the door, Dr. Banner; I will hold the elevator."

"Thanks JARVIS," Steve said, squeezing in next to the wheelchair. Tony could feel him eying the handles; seriously, he was going to take a bolt cutter to them if anyone used them as an excuse to invalid him.

"The recovery room's nearly finished; Pepper backed you on the holojectors," Bruce commented as they passed the 34th floor.

"Hah, take that. You haven't seen me bored, Brucie: it is not a good look."

"We brought a sofa up too, I hope that's alright. Abby was bringing it up to spec when Bruce called me, yesterday." Steve said, shifting the wheelchair forwards a little and getting behind it. Tony bristled and tucked his arms over his chest irritably.

"Wait, what? She's a vacuum cleaner that likes small, dark spaces, why is she cleaning a sofa?" Tony queried, twisting to look up at Steve over his left shoulder.

"Uh, Clint was there?" Steve asked in a bemused tone, shrugging. The vision in Tony's right eye greyed out and he was forced to face forwards again.

"Well, she's not agoraphobic..." He missed the remainder of the trip to the new surgical suite, pulling his phone out of his pocket and sending the new bot a request for a maintenance report instead. Just in case.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It was a long, physically tiring day; Tony spent a not-insignificant amount of time sitting on Steve's shoulders while he wired in a new sensor array for JARVIS. Even if no one could work on the reactor directly, JARVIS could finish the coding and get the pre-loaded software running in a pinch. Fortunately, when Steve put him back down, he made him sit in the chair and Tony could micro-nap in between jobs without being noticed.

At least, he thought he wasn't noticed.

The pain crept up on him and ebbed again when he pressed his button, but eventually he maxed out and he figured, fuck it, he was going to take a nap until he was allowed more. Someone must have wheeled him upstairs while he was snoozing, because he woke up on the sofa, draped ignobly against Clint's chest.

Since he was, obviously, still in the Twilight Zone, he just blinked slowly and went back to sleep; someone had topped off his morphine, he was good for it.

Chapter Text

By Thursday morning the modifications to the new housing were complete, the lab done being converted into an operating suite, and Tony could barely sit up on his own, let alone stand. Part of it was a trade off between pain and morphine levels, but most of it was the electrical burn inching its way across his heart.

When he woke up that morning, honest to god, the entire Avengers Initiative were slumped about his room, in various states of undress. Great, loved that, but he hadn't had sex with any of them. Which sucked because once he was better, they'd stop feeling the need to have his back, and then it'd just be him and Pepper again and hey, that's not so bad... He tilted his head awkwardly to look at the red-head in question; she'd curled up against his hip, where the pile of pillows was roughly the right height for her delicate neck. Even he could tell she was tired, exhausted way beyond the rejuvenating properties of eight hours' sleep - which, for the record, Tony didn't actually believe in - let alone the broken, disturbed sleep she got lying next to him.

The number of times Tony woke up during the night, choking and drowning, was up from once or twice to four, maybe five times a night. Bruce had started waking him every hour and a half to get him sitting up and taking an inhaler full of corticosteroids, regardless of whether he was waking up on his own. It helped with the nightmares, kept the fear down, but he was tired.

He was awake now, but looking at the Avengers around him, knowing what was going to be happening in four hours time? He wasn't about to wake them up. There was a tablet - the computer kind, he mused to himself, eyeing the stack of beta blockers and diuretics next to it - on his nightstand and there were designs he wanted to finish off... just in case. So he leaned over Steve (who, seriously, slept like a log) and pulled it onto his lap, pulling the pulse-ox off his finger. It had left marks.

Clint's new bow was done, complete with a new arrow selection system, so he saved the design to his send-to-SHIELD folder and told JARVIS to finish up the paint job while he was in pre-op. Even AIs need distractions when their creators were going under the knife and Tony had refused the AI permission to disconnect from his affect servers. If... if he died, the AI would never be able to reconnect without code conflicts from the opposing directives of 'care for Tony Stark' still in place on the deactivated servers and the 'protect AI unit: JARVIS' directive that Tony had gotten JARVIS to promise to use if he was... elsewhere.

On the same note, Steve's new armour was nearly done, and if he had J push the fab units, it could be ready by... midnight, maybe. Everything was coming together at once, and Pepper said he was incapable of organization...

The Widow's Bite biolock was finished, and would come in on the 2pm shipping, along with the INCOLOY 803 super-alloy reinforcement for the new sub-basement. That was another set of designs for the SHIELD folder; if Tony couldn't build Bruce a Hulk room, SHIELD's techs would. Oh, and cc to Bruce and Pepper; Tony had bought out the subway tunnels under Stark Tower for structural reasons, but there was plenty of space down there. With the INCOLOY, the Hulk could play steel-ball basketball and no one would know.

Finally, finally, it was time for Rhodey to get the Mark II War Machine. The Hammeroid incident was ages ago and... and Tony might die again, and seriously, Rhodey needed sub-orbital capabilities because he'd always wanted to be an astronaut, only being Tony's friend had made him the Stark Industries Air Force contact and, JARVIS? Pilot the new suit out to him? Try not to hit the ISS.

Tony let the tablet drop, JARVIS' 'Yes, sir,' sitting on the screen innocuously. The tightness in his chest absolutely was because he was due more morphine.

Phones started ringing maybe ten minutes later, Tony was fuzzy on the details. He'd spent that ten minutes wheezing quietly with his thumb on a morphine button that wasn't doing anything so he figured he could be forgiven.

"I've got it..." Steve mumbled from Tony's right, picking up the call on his shiny new Starkphone. "Rogers."

Tony spotted Clint picking up and listening in too, over on the sofa, but Bruce and Pepper stayed asleep. You could tell, because Bruce? Bruce whuffled. It was great.

"I'll ask, sir. Tony, did you just launch an ICBM at Afghanistan?"

Tony blinked, looked down and his tablet and cringed. "Yes? Well, no, it was Rhodey's new suit, but yes, it's a ballistic object, and it has missiles, and it's taking a sub-orbital route over the Atlantic, so it'll look like an ICBM until... Egypt, probably, but I can turn it around if someone's going to shoot it down, because that is not cool."

Steve groaned and flopped over onto his back, phone held to his ear with one hand and the other dumped over his eyes to try and hide from at least some of Tony's absurdity.

"Did you catch that, sir? Yessir. Is that really necessary? You know what today is, having attention directed elsewhere might be - yessir. Right. Sorry, Director. Eleven hundred hours."

Clint's face appeared over the edge of the bed just the other side of Steve and Tony bumped the offered brofist. "Fury is pissed, way to take advantage." Clint grinned and slunk off again, avoiding the scruff-grab Steve deployed.

"You, are a pain in the ass; you couldn't have warned anyone? Rhodey, maybe?" Steve asked again, groaning and now, mostly awake. "Director Fury's coming here to yell. He'll be here at eleven."

Tony waved it off; he'd be otherwise occupied by then. "So? Where should I land it? Rhodey's front yard, or mine?"

Steve hauled himself upright - using solely his abs, which was always impressive - and glared at Tony sideways. Tony, a master of receiving glares, even from Captain America, was unperturbed, and Steve eventually gave up. "Just get it to Rhodes, Director Fury's handling the Afghanis."

"Hm. Remind me to send him some flowers. Or a bionic eye, or something."

"You can do that?" Bruce mumbled; Tony mourned the loss of the whuffle.

"Eh, it's what, seven, eight hundred thousand nerve fibers? I might need some nanotech... give me a week."

"The medical community is going to start fan-girling over you as it is, Tony. Besides, you're going to be a bit busy this week." Bruce said, before rolling out of bed and checking his phone; Tony could just see the edges of his vitals, tick... tick... ti-there.

"Tony, put your pulse-ox back on, please..."

"But it bit me," he whined.

"It's supposed to. Feel free to put it on a different finger though."

Tony grumbled and fished the crocodile-jawed bit of plastic out of his vest.

"Thank you. JARVIS, why'd you let him get away with that?" Bruce asked, gently chiding.

"My apologies, Dr. Banner. I would have insisted had he attempted to move." The AI sounded not the least bit apologetic; he was totally on Tony's side. Though, Tony thought, that wasn't always ideal; Tony's wants and his best interests didn't always coincide, so much as pass each other by completely. Three guesses as to which JARVIS prioritised since the palladium incident.

Once Bruce finished his checks, he fitted a new morphine ampule. While Tony was riding the wave, he cleared the room in the hopes that Pepper would stay asleep and thus, keep Tony pinned to the bed.

Unfortunately for everyone (but particularly Pepper's PA, Chloe), a panicking Shipping and Distributions manager in Dubai put through a code 7; public relations disaster. Chloe called Pepper, Pepper's phone went off with the 'holy shit it's the end of the world' ringtone, and Pepper herself jerked upright, knocking Tony's arm off her shoulder and the man out of his drugged-up doze.

"WHAT?!"

So much for a peaceful, low-stress morning.

Pepper dressed quickly, talking at speed into an earpiece, and was out the door in under a minute, leaving Tony reeling and without his usual morning lipstick smudge.

Tony was... actually on his own. That was new. He was... fine. Everything was fine. Oxygen, check, morphine, check, up to date on all oral medications...

He was fine.

Really.

He'd do a lot to have Bruce's whuffling back right now, though.

He should really call Rhodey about the Mark II.

"JARVIS, patch me through to Rhodey's cell. Oh and pull up the situation log for the Dubai incident, don't sensor at me like that, I'm just looking."

"Of course you are, sir..."

XXXXXXXXXXX

It was, sensibly enough, 'Natalie Rushman from Legal' who salvaged the situation, confiscating Pepper's phone, tablet PC and Loius Vuttons.

She stalked through the penthouse, putting in earrings on the move and going from 'slept on Tony's california king in sweatpants and a t-shirt' to 'formidable' in the time it took Pepper to brief her on the situation (microprocessor shipment gone missing between the Dubai centre and the manufacturing plant, and the accompanying battery lithium dumped, raw, into a river. Tony was Not Pleased and added his two cents as Natasha stalked past his door). The assassin vanished into the elevator for the nine o'clock emergency board meeting at five to, calmly ordering Pepper to stay out of SI business for the entire day. Pep, instead of exploding and getting all ... efficient... just nodded and said thank you. Tony was not entirely sure he liked the new Axis of Awesome evolving in his Tower, but it was very, very sexy. He told Rhodey this, and the man promised to say Nice Things in his eulogy.

God knows what the Board thought of Natasha, but the top levels of the Tower went quiet and Pep managed to get some actual breakfast.

Which Tony couldn't have.

Bruce had retrieved him (and wasn't that humiliating) half way through his rather cathartic phone call with Rhodey; it went more along the lines of a 'talk over each other until something sticks' than a turn-taking conversation, but it was something. There really wasn't anything to say about the upcoming surgery or, or anything, really, but Tony kept up the conversation far beyond his normal 'I did something, help a guy out, here, have a shiny' anyway. Rhodey didn't seem to mind.

Once they'd mutually hung up on each other, Tony eyed Steve across the circle of shag-pile carpet Bruce refused to wheel him over.

"Seriously, you can eat. I don't mind."

"I'm not hungry, Tony..."

"Uh, I did actually read your file. Four-fold metabolism, anyone? Seriously, if you don't eat today, just because I'm having one measly general anesthetic, thats like one of us going for four days without food. Not generally recommended." Tony was starving; the least Steve could do was give Tony the vicarious pleasure of watching someone enjoy their food.

"'One measly'-?! Jesus Christ, Tony..." Steve slumped, elbows on his knees and head in his hands. "God, how're you so..." He made a vague hand gesture.

"Hey, there's only so much worrying that can happen in one room, and you, my friend, have a monopoly on it."

"Stop teasing Steve, Tony," Pepper chided, waving her coffee under his nose. Seriously, the smell was the second best part, after the caffeine buzz itself; he took a deep, appreciative sniff. "They want you down in pre-op in an hour. How're you doing?"

He waved it off, well, he tried, but Pepper caught his hand as she sat down on the end of the sofa he was parked next to. "I'm fine. How many times do I have to say that this is nothing new?"

"Yeah, don't think that's exactly reassuring anyone here."

"Do not remember asking your opinion, birdbrain."

"Ohh, he's bringing out the inventive insults. He really must be fine." Clint dropped onto the sofa next to Pep and handed Steve a plate in a way that was either take it, or it goes on the floor. Steve took it, though he did look irritated.

"Look," Tony gave up on glaring at Clint, which never did much anyway, and started rubbing between his eyebrows with his thumb; his headache didn't hurt, but he could still tell it was there. "Last time was... bad. You're all... super-secret spy-people, - don't look at me like that, Pepper, I find your alliance with JARVIS very disturbing - so you know how bad. This isn't even going to compare; I won't feel anything. It doesn't matter that I'll be awake. Hell, I'll even be in my own home! How many surgery patients can claim that?"

"We'll be right there, Tony, the whole time; I don't care if a whole tanker of microchips goes missing," Pepper said, like he was the one who needed reassuring. Maybe his confident face wasn't as good as he thought. He squeezed her hand in silent gratitude.

He didn't look up at Clint and Steve; they were suspiciously silent.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Tony's pre-op nurse was evil.

She let Pep help him with the special antibacterial soap and shaving off his beard, what has my beard done to you, but didn't let him have pants.

Instead, sitting oh-so-innocently in a wax paper and cellophane bag was a hospital gown. He was expected to wear the gown with the open side facing forwards. It made ominous rustling sounds just sitting there.

"No, Pepper."

"Tony..."

"No! Naked is better than those things."

A voice called out from the hallway, where a disturbingly large number of Avengers, and one pissy nurse were waiting. "We've seen it all before! Anyone with the internet has seen your skinny little ass."

"You are not helping, Agent Barton."

"Ohhh, 'Agent'ed by the boss lady, ouch."

Tony, sitting ignobly naked but for his taped up IV line, glared at the gown. "Can I at least have pants?"

Pepper, looking soft and running a hand through his damn hair, laughed quietly at him. "You're going to be catheterised, Tony. No, you may not have pants."

"I hate you. I hate you all."

"No you don't."

"Just pass me the damned gown..."

After that, Pepper left him to the evil clutches of the pre-op nurse and, five excruciatingly humiliating minutes later, his arm was hooked back up to an IV bag and he was sitting uncomfortably on a gurney, with strange things taped to his inner thigh.

She did, thankfully, let him have a sheet.

She'd be back soon enough with an enormous needle, to put another catheter in, this one less embarrassing but potentially more painful; he could hear her talking through the door, and there was a scalpel involved... Oh, he was getting lidocaine! Things were looking up. Apparently a subclavian central line was above the level of paralysis and numbing.

She really was evil, and his stomach gave a sideways lurch as she got him to lie down, flat on his back in a way that made him feel like he was drowning. She covered him in a sheet with a square cut out over his neck, and he didn't see much after that. The feeling, though... First, the tiny stinging jabs of the lidocaine and the acrid smell of disinfectant, then a deep cold and pressure as she used a specialised ultrasound. After that, the lidocaine stripped him of any sensation. Which was impressive, considering that a twenty centimeter long needle followed by a 3mm diameter tube was being fed into one of his major blood vessels. No big deal, really. Risk of haemothorax, but she was a pro. He was fine. All fine.

One day, he might actually believe himself when he said that.

He carefully breathed deep through his nose to make the best use of his oxygen until she was done; his chest was telling him it wanted to cough and now was not the time. There was the rip of medical tape as she secured the line, and then she punched the button to get him sitting back up. He coughed gratefully; maybe she wasn't so evil after all.

"Looking sexy, Tony," Clint said as the hangers-on piled in through the door with their sterile blue clothes and shoe covers. Clint was the only one willing to go the route of tension-dispelling comedy, so it fell a little flat; Bruce was too busy fretting over the fact that he couldn't check Tony's vitals on his phone anymore and Steve was just fretting and looking adorably like he needed to hold someone's hand.

He was, however, holding the shield.

"Expecting something, Steve? I promise I'm not going to wake up some sort of tech-zombie and kill you all for your phones." Tony rapped a knuckle against the vibranium, which rang beautifully and Tony could admit to a serious exotic-materials crush on the damned thing, because that sound.

"I, what? No?" The supersoldier ran a hand over the edge of the shield and practically hugged the thing to his chest.

"Was that an answer or a question, big guy, because you're leaving me hanging here," Tony said jokingly, tugging the shield down. He must have done something righ- oh, no, not right at all; that was the Cap Face.

"If someone attacks the Tower, I want to be ready."

That raised a lot of eyebrows, but it was Clint who responded; "Cap, no one knows about the surgery, outside of SHIELD, and most of SHIELD thinks it's happening on Monday."

"It wouldn't have to be deliberate, or even successful; if the power was knocked out, even just for a minute..." Steve looked like this had been worrying him for days; he was pale, and tense and how had he been hiding this from them?

"Is this why you insisted on me keeping my arrows here? Because even I thought bringing my entire stockpile was excessive."

Having worked through his own surprise, Tony straightened and put on his best insulted face; "You think something as small as a teeny, tiny attack on Manhattan would cut power to Stark Tower? The same Stark Tower that survived Loki's attack without so much as a flicker?!"

"Hey, can it, Tony; this is not the time to be overconfident, not when you're relying on all these machines, and -"

Tony shouldn't have been surprised that it was Pepper who reeled Steve back in, giving him her phone. A few quiet words and the Cap face fell and Steve stepped out into the corridor, pressing 'call' on the borrowed phone. Tony raised an eyebrow at his CEO, working on not being insulted by Steve's fear and reminding himself that brownouts had been a Thing when Steve was growing up.

"I put him in touch with Tower security. Natasha helped me hire them." Pepper said, looking positively smug. Tony snorted; no wonder they were so terrifying.

"Mr. Stark? It's time to scrub up and start sedation."

Tony's breath went out of him and he rubbed his hand over his face, all thought of the Tower and of Steve vanishing. "Right." He took another deep breath and gave them his best shit-eating grin. "Wish me luck, guys; I'll see you on the other side."

Pepper gripped his hand tightly, but wasn't allowed to kiss him now that he was all clean, which sucked. Clint gave him a nod and a Look, which, hell if Tony knew how, but actually managed to be comforting. The guy had his back.

Natasha was four floors down and half a world away, but that was fine, because she was running his company and keeping Pepper from spontaneously combusting.

Just as the surgeons trooped in to prepare, Steve's head appeared through the door and, honest to god, he said "Good luck, Tony," before Dr. Ross politely closed the door in his face.

"Alright, boys and girls; let's get this show on the road."

Since Tony was going to be working on the reactor housing at the same time as Dr. Ross was fitting the electrodes, he had to scrub in as thoroughly as the surgeons. They'd put all his tools through a sterilizer and - damn. He had touched Cap's shield. He fessed up and his assistant brought him two rounds of hot water and antiseptic soap, instead of just one. Once he had his special chest-less sleeves and two pairs of sterile gloves on, they trundled him through into the sterilized, air-scrubbed operating room.

The space alone was intimidating; big, grey machines, bundled in sterile wraps, overhead lights glaring ruthlessly down on the surgical table... Like it was completely routine, they were half way into lifting him bodily from the gurney and onto the table by the time he thought to object, but by then they were already counting down. He just... went with it. He'd been briefed, this was fine. He knew all about this.

They draped his legs with sterile sheets, replaced his nasal cannula with an oxygen mask, hooked his IV to a hub and the central line to a venous O2 monitor. Fresh, sterile monitor stickers went on his chest; Dr. Ross had spent almost half an hour calculating where the should go to keep them out of the way and minimise picking up signals from the reactor. Thinking of which, Tony really needed to put some work in down at Stark Medical; the monitor to his right was enormous, bulky and its resolution was pathetic. Also, if Bruce had been the one to get halogen bulbs out of the operating theater, it was obviously time someone marketed some LED versions, because that was just wasteful.

Just as the anesthetist was telling him to count backward from a hundred, and Tony was scoffing and telling him the problem was too easy; he could and did reciteprimesinhi... his sleep... Pepper?

Pepper gave him a tight smile from the observation gallery and he fell asleep.

Chapter Text

 

So. That was surreal.

Tony's eyes opened slowly. Glacier slowly, and then closed again on him. He managed to turn it into a blink and the blinding white points above him resolved into LED spotlights.

At least they were pointing at his chest, not his face, but oh god his chest.

The usual, faint sound of his heart beating was missing and ever since Afghanistan, he'd been able to hear it; call that psychosomatic if you wanted, but it was sure as hell missing now. The thrum that almost filled the same space was eerie and distant, literally off to one side. His head rolled slightly on the table; focusing his eyes was a challenge, but the heart-lung machine was big, bulky and blinking. Easy to spot.

The instinct to talk isn't one Tony Stark can keep down for long, but the tube down his throat, cold and hard and shifting as he moved his head, put a stop to that. He swallowed convulsively around it and his eyes teared up; oh, the gag-reflex jokes he could make. He swallowed again and screwed his eyes shut for a second, squashing away the water.

When he opened his eyes again, he mentally shook away the cobwebs and tried to pay attention. The team, nurses, surgeons, anaesthetist, were standing over him, and wow, that was sinister. Their masks and hats make them unrecognisable enough, but they'd put on big plastic face-shields as well. But seriously, what the hell? He'd been working with them for a week - well, five days - surely he should be able to pick out Dr. Ross, at least. They were silent, so no help from their voices, but he appreciated the chance to get his bearings. He'd known it wouldn't be easy, but he hadn't expected to feel like road kill either.

He flexed his hands slowly; the first twitch felt like moving through... ice, maybe, or sand, but the second was easier and by the time he was flexing his wrists he thought he might be able to pick up his sedation had apparently gone smoothly; the back of his neck and bits of his shoulders ached fiercely, but he was still on morphine and couldn't feel anything at all, lower down, which was good, because he could see the thick, red-black tubes connecting him to the heart-lung machine out of the corner of his eye.

The really big shot had gone in the back of his neck with the help of an ultrasound (because so not interested in paraplegia), but the docs had insisted on six more into the root ganglia: paralytics and a painkiller so strong it stopped nervous transmission completely. He'd had to admit, he liked the sound of that.

Right now, he could pretend that everything was essentially fine, but in a minute, he'd have to look down: not something he was looking forwards to. He closed his eyes for a long minute, really feeling the need for a shot of something delivered in a glass, though he'd settle for IV-vodka if he had to. That was sterile, right?

When his minute was up, he gave himself another mental shake and gave the 'let's go' signal. Party time.

His nurse-assistant lifted his head, another slotted a wedge of foam under it, and he looked. His chest was wide open; the left-of-central portion of his ribcage was pulled back with shining steel clamps to reveal his heart. It hadn't beaten on its own since Afghanistan and, with the reactor gone, it lay still. The reactor casing was smooth and unmarked, safely bedded in his sternum with only a few smears of pink on the collar to show that it was three centimetres away from the sawn-off ends of five ribs. They hadn't touched it - modifying it was his job - and the titanium shone blindingly in the surgical glare.

He screwed his eyes shut, his face going tight; one of the surgeons was dabbing blood away from his heart and the urge to throw up was overpowering. Phantom shivers raced up his spine and the sensation shot a bolt of fear right through him, because he should not be able to feel anything and it's in my head, breathe. Or not. I'm fine. It's... all fine. Fuck. He was paralyzed. He couldn't feel the incision. He was fine. He tried to move his toes; they didn't even acknowledge their own existence.

"Mr. Stark? Are you in any pain?" The anaesthetist. He made the universal 'A-OK' symbol with his left hand and the woman nodded, running him through a round of dexterity tests and exercises to make sure he had full movement. She gave the rest of the team the go-ahead once he touched each of her fingers with his index finger, then helped him find the keyboard near his right hand before moving away.

A surgeon stepped forwards as she vanished above his head to watch his vitals and Tony recognised Dr. Ross's voice with a surprising amount of relief. "We recovered all the shrapnel, Mr Stark. All seven fragments have been scanned and no further splintering has occurred. The damage to the sino-atrial node is as predicted; the necrotic tissue around the electrode was extensive but excisable."

Tony gave him a miniscule nod and typed 'as planned?' as nimbly as you could with one hand. Ross agreed and retrieved his instruments; this would be the collaborative part. Tony gestured for him to get started but he needed his arms bracing before he could hold his tools. His assistant brought up the stiff metal armatures from the side of the bed on his command and, between them, they got the cuffs on tight around his biceps and shoulders.

"The electromagnet caused a little difficulty, here," the surgeon demonstrated a smudge of... Tony really didn't have any idea what was different about the patch, but hey, what the Doc says, goes, "where the scar tissue had grown into the unsealed crevices of the device. The anti-rejection coating should prevent this sort of encapsulation from recurring, but be diligent with it, Mr. Stark, or you might find yourself on anti-rejection drugs for the rest of this device's life."

Tony glared weakly while his assistant locked his shoulders and arms in the right position; he could be diligent, his life depended on this, diligent was his middle name.

When it wasn't reckless endangerment, anyway.

Ross ignored him and bent to begin suturing the first silicone sheet to what had been the sinoatrial node, before the portal had fried his regulators. Tony turned to the reactor housing and typed the command to activate JARVIS' projectors, bringing up a hologram of the housing, rotating and zooming to check for disruption. The electromagnet seal was a little battered from... well, could be from Pepper's original replacement of the reactor, actually. He wasn't about to mention it, though, and he had factored in converting the seat into a rejection-proof seal in his time estimate, anyway; that would be the easiest job he had to do today.

Once the inspection was complete, he made the gesture for his fine pliers and the soldering laser and got to work. Having tools in his hands made everything easier; the distanced, utterly focused headspace was a relief and he slipped into it easily. He had worked directly on the reactor housing before, but it was much easier without the power still running through it, not to mention without the magnet trying to steal his tools.

The angles were awkward, and some of the paralyzed muscles really would have come in handy, but he hadn't spent the entirety of Wednesday training his nurse-assistant for nothing and she adjusted the braces to compensate.

As he flexed his hand around the soldering laser, he caught a hint of movement from the viewing gallery but, despite knowing Pepper was up there, and who knew how many other Avengers too, he didn't look up; he needed focus, now, not comfort.

They had pre-prepared the titanium contacts with beads of solder, so he was able to focus on the intricate circuitry and locating the right contact on the board. There were a total of twenty-seven connections to be made, in the space of three square inches, so the wires were miniscule; he was forced to rely on JARVIS' scans and the hologram, using it like a microscope, to read the code-stamp that identified them. As he worked, new wires appeared from the sensors and electrodes Ross was placing, adding another sixteen connections. That was where it really got interesting; each sensor had an upstream and downstream connection, and each connection had to be soldered into the board so the signals fed into corresponding arms of the processor chip. JARVIS was hooked into the system just enough to confirm the connections, while Tony calculated the route for the next re-wire.

Once the connections were complete and all the sensors were installed in his chest cavity, Tony, with as much precision as he could muster, insulated each tiny spot of solder with sealant spray and started sealing over the hole the sensor wires had come through in the first place. Yinsen had used industrial silicone, but Tony had better options; first he filled it with a UV-curing resin and then painted that with the anti-rejectioncoating Bruce had cooked up (literally; he had used a recipe and everything). Finally, twisting his wrist into one last, awkward position, he used a powerful UV penlight to cure the resin, bonding the coating to the surface and the resin to the housing.

He carefully handed over his instruments and his assistant guided his arms back to the bed gently. Without the familiar handles to wrap his hands around, his fingers began trembling and the exhausted ache in his arms spread up into his shoulders and curled around the base of his skull. His blood oxygen levels had been flirting with too low for four hours as the bypass machine struggled to keep up with the amount of oxygen his body was consuming.

He let his eyes close, just for a minute, and lay limply.

"-Stark? Mr. Stark?" The surgeon was talking, but he couldn't muster the energy to respond.

"God damn it, Tony, open your eyes!" Pepper was not supposed to have an intercom. When did she get an intercom? He blinked his eyes open slowly, looking up into the gallery. Ms. Potts had her phone clamped to one ear and the other hand braced against the glass; JARVIS must have patched her through. She was ruffled and beautiful, furious and right there.

Steve, too, and Clint. The supersoldier was gripping the handrail between them and the glass and Tony would swear later that he caught the moment the hollow steel tube bent. Clint was a shadowy, hunched shape in a chair, full of tension.

Tony blinked again, feeling his head clear as his O2 sats crept back up with inactivity. He sent Pepper a vague gesture and paid attention to his surgeon. The man had a brand new arc reactor in hand, its triangular centrepiece glowing brilliantly, but its edges dark.

He needed to fit and seal the baseplate first, make it rejection-proof, but his hand shook too much when he lifted it. He dropped it back to the keyboard, instead, and told JARVIS to show the nurse how.

They'd gone over this, just in case, and it couldn't go wrong... but if she slipped, if she knocked the coating and chipped it, or if she damaged the new connections, it could add hours to the surgery. But, as he watched blearily, she went through the preparations smoothly, applying temporary anti-rejection and antibiotic gel to the underside and running a bead of sealant around the edge of the titanium plate. She, carefully, so, so carefully, eased the plate in edge first, tilting it slowly to expel the air underneath, and pressed it into place against the scar tissue at the junction of heart and blood vessels. He could see her counting under her breath around the edges of her mask; one Mississippi... two Mississippi... three Mississippi... and then she twisted, the thick sealant oozing and settling into the thread as the plate connected with a click. He ran one last diagnostic on the electronics and inspected the highest resolution scan JARVIS could provide and nodded to Ross; he was done, the modifications were finished.

All that was left was fitting the reactor and calibrating the control program and then they could put him to sleep, chill him down to 28 degrees and put him back together. He was all for that plan, in fact, he could go to sleep right now, but there were calibrations, and he was... supposed to be, uh, awake for the... anaesthetic. Right? 'cause that made so much sense...

Ross leaned over him to fit the reactor; no cables any more, don't want Pep to have to put her hand inside, even if he had solved the plasma discharge thing. The shock of the reactor sliding into the housing was strong, stronger than he was expecting, and he jerked in a way that was supposed to be impossible.

The clamps rattled and something slipped. Alarms blared loud enough to cover the schlick of the reactor settling firmly in place and the housing locking down.

Tony's mouth gaped around the ventilator and his eyes were wide, even as grey and black faded across the room, covering Steve, and Clint and Pepper, oh God, Pepper, don't watch this, please don't watch this...

The alarms faded out of awareness but there was blood appearing on Dr. Ross's scrubs, his arms, and the last thing Tony saw before the black covered his vision, was the red spreading over the brilliant blue glow of the reactor.

Chapter Text

 

Being Tony Stark's colleagues had been bad enough, but being his friends was terrible. There was always the threat that he would be caught without the suit, or that the arc reactor would run out of juice - and they'd all got a taste of that at the end of the Battle of Manhattan - or that he would just fall over and die when the shrapnel got tired of hanging around.

And then he had collapsed during a mission.

Piece by piece, they'd watched him lose capability; grounded as Iron Man, unable to lie on his back, sleeping, so much sleeping... and then he hadn't been able to stand. That horrible, grinding descent, the drugs on his bedside, the wheelchair, made them all utterly, painfully aware that this was necessary.

It didn't make it any easier to watch.

Bruce and Natasha, at least, felt like they could be useful elsewhere, and the scientist headed up to the recovery room to run final checks while Steve and Clint followed Pepper up to the observation gallery. Tony was just being wheeled in, laid out flat on the gurney, and Steve had an almost instinctual moment of 'no, he needs to sit up; he'll drown'.

Steve's grip on his shield was making the handles groan; Tony had replaced them for him, weeks back, before they knew he was sick and God was that only weeks ago? How was that only weeks ago?

He carefully loosened his grip on the straps - Christ, is this LEATHER, Cap? Wow, you and Clint should go to a Renaissance fair sometime: you'd fit right in. - and put the shield down by force of will, but then Tony was asleep and they were putting an enormous tube down his throat and Steve found the shield back in his hands.

The doctors were sure and efficient and they made it look like they did this every day, but Steve just couldn't watch once the needles started piercing deep into Tony's neck. Looking at Pepper wasn't any better; she was standing at the glass, railing gripped in white knuckles and a tiny flutter on the fabric of her skirt giving away the fact that she was trembling.

XXXXXXXXXX

Clint didn't have his bow, and maybe he should be glad of that, because the way Steve was holding his shield gave away too much, but he did have his service pistol strapped to his leg.

The only thing keeping his hand off it was the fact that he could draw and shoot faster than he could think. Y'know, if he needed to.

He didn't like the look of the techie working the big grey box on the right; the kid had slipped out of the Tower for coffee the day before, and Clint had lost sight of him for a second in the queue at Starbucks. The surgical nurse was clean; she'd sewn up Clint's left buttcheek once and never mentioned it again, which had to count for something.

Clint had never been on guard over surgery before and the unfamiliarity made it hard to tell if someone was a threat. Was that cut really necessary? He'd been warned about the circular saw, but shouldn't it have a guard on it or something?

The moment they cut into the arteries was tense; the wound filled with blood and Clint's palm hit the pistol's grip, but it was fine, and oh god they just stopped his heart.

Steve took his pistol after that, and pushed him into a chair.

His hands were shaking.

Fuck.

XXXXXXXXXX

It took a horrible, stomach-twisting 87 seconds for Tony to come out of the anaesthetic. Pepper was counting.

But then, the flash and glint of understanding had broken through and Tony's tools were in his hands, where they were supposed to be.

After that, Pepper could sit down. She needed to; it had taken hours to get Tony to this point, hours of slow extraction of that fucking shrapnel, of the reactor housing empty and dark, of his heart exposed once the magnet was lifted out. Her legs felt like... like Tony had just flown a nuke through an interdimensional portal, Tony, what were you THINKING?!

She still hadn't forgiven him.

They were going to talk about it again, once the surgery was successful. Because it would be.

She channelled a bit of that anger into keeping Tony awake for stage who-the-fuck-knew, springing back to her feet and arming her phone. JARVIS helped; he always was her favorite.

If Steve wasn't quite so super, she might have worried about the force she was exerting on his shoulder, but she really wasn't, particularly after the railing screeched and gave up on life under his hand.

But then, Tony was awake and almost smiling, under the tape and the tubes and the 'do I have to shave it off? All of it? Really?'

Ms Saunders had been a good choice, Pepper decided as the assistant fitted the baseplate, and then it was done. Tony could sleep.

Her eyes were fixed on the reactor as it went in, so she saw the moment his chest flinched. It was sudden, it was unexpected, and it was catastrophic. His blood sprayed out of the wound, bubbled up, filled it. The arc reactor darkened under a thick layer of red, almost enough to block out the light completely.

Her eyes flicked to his face but he was already gone, eyes rolled up in his head.

Steve caught her, his shield ringing as it hit the floor, and held onto her, tight, so tight, like she might just vanish. She almost wanted to.

But.

But Tony wasn't dead yet. Her hand shook and fumbled and almost dropped the phone, but she got it to her ear. "JARVIS, save him, JARVIS..."

"Yes, Ms. Potts. Reactor core is online. Booting processor." The AI's voice was cold, so, so cold, and fast and terrified.

Clint caught the phone as it fell out of her hand and crowded close. His hands were cold, too, but she held on tight, anyway.

The three of them leaned against each other and the glass, watching, waiting and hoping, while Tony bled on the table.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

He had his fingers on the leak.

In the first few seconds after Stark's aorta had torn around the cannula, the pressure had been so high that the blood had arced straight up, showing him exactly where the damage was. He had leapt for the tear and clamped his fingers over it, but the pressure was too much and the bleed was quickly filling up the chest cavity. He called for a clamp for the return cannula just as the perfusionist stopped the heart-lung machine; they could pause like this for three minutes. Maybe. Stark's brain was running hot, active, and without circulation the drugs the anaesthetist was already pushing would have limited effect.

They made quick work of suctioning the blood away and with the pumps stopped and tube clamped, the tear bled only sluggishly. Slow enough to suture.

"Alright. Arterial sutures, number two scissors." He swapped the tiny suture needle he'd used for the sensors out for a larger one and bent over the damage. The purse-string sutures around the cannula had held, but cut through the tunica adventitia, while the jerk of the cannula had pulled the initial incision open from the inside.

It was a mess but... doable.

"Tompkins, check the venous drain and start flushing out the potassium chloride. Becker, verbal count from perfusion-stop."

They'd already lost almost a full minute, but damn-it if he was going to cut this chest open again. He'd have to be quick, but he wasn't about to do a patch-job either. The real trick was to place the sutures with the cannula still in the hole, restart perfusion to clear the remaining potassium chloride, and then pull the cannula and cinch the sutures in one, swift move.

He closed the tear with a line of six knots, close and tight, then cut out the broken purse-string suture and replaced it at a wider diameter. By the time he placed the final knot, his neck was cricked from holding his head slightly sideways, so that the trail of blood on his visor wasn't blocking his view.

"Start reperfusion."

The count stopped at three minutes, fifteen seconds.

He watched the venous O2 monitor as it plunged, deoxygenated blood from Stark's body returning to the heart, but it never dropped past the 'organ failure' mark.

They'd done it. They had actually done it.

"Cross-clamp off," he said, and between them, Ross and Tompkins put the heart back into the circuit. It shuddered once, but didn't start beating.

"Paddles-"

"That will not be necessary, Dr. Ross. Calibration complete, initiating sinus rhythm." The cool, robotic voice echoed, just slightly over-loud, and the strong, regular beep of the heart monitor filled the room.

"Ventilate, ninety percent, cut perfusion." he ordered, eyes fixed on the perfectly even, perfectly strong beat of Starks battered heart. The steady rush of oxygen into the man's lungs, the clear beat... Ross's head dropped between his shoulders, his face shield hitting his chest.

Christ.

He let out a low chuckle and a long breath, tension leaching out of his shoulders. After that, getting the patient disconnected would be practically routine.

"Right, push the protamine. Tompkins, double check those sutures; let's get him closed up."

XXXXXXXX

Tony woke up.

That was nice; he'd been worried for a second, there.

He was aware of his body only distantly, that was cool, no rush, guys. Oh, hello toes. Still got toes. 's good, right?

His mind was swimming, twisting and mothballed, all at once, but still, toes. Also; fingers. On the end of arms.

Still intubated, thick and cold and tasting foul on his tongue... they could turn the pressure down, actually. At the end of each breath, when his chest felt full and cool, there was the distant sensation of pulling, dull and irritating.

The sheets felt smooth under his fingertips and the back of his neck was a twisty, bruised not-ache. Needles; not going to do that again... But yay! Good drugs! The pain was over there, rather than here.

Pepper was there - that brisk, slightly drawled tone so familiar and so, utterly welcome - and talking in long rambling sentences about... words, she was using words. He knew what words were. 's fine. Sleep.

Next time he woke up, it was quiet, and that would have worried him, if it hadn't been dark too. The warm little fingers curled against his palm might have had something to do with it too. Night, Pepper, more sleep.

Boring.

The third time he woke up, he opened his eyes.

Pepperpepperpepper, hello.

She was sitting, straight as a ruler, masked and dressed in scrubs, but still ginger and freckled and beautiful. She was talking, but not to him; his gazed tracked over slowly, he couldn't move his head, it was too heavy, but there was Bruce, just in sight.

His thoughts were slow, glacial, and he was cold - why was he cold, that was just rude - but he wanted the ventilator gone. Less sedation, maybe, or maybe he was just stronger, but his throat convulsed around the tube. It felt raw and stretched and rough and he wanted it out.

He groped for it blindly, hand failing to rise far above the bed because he was an idiot, and he'd used his left. Pep had his right, one spot of warm that he couldn't bear to lose, but his left arm was... malfunctioning. In need of repairs. Out of order.

The burning, heavy ball in the middle of his chest convulsed and suddenly became pain. Real, immediate, I-was-here-all-along-didn't-you-notice agony. The gagging heave of his throat around the tube was not helping either.

Someone grabbed his twitching left hand and pinned it to the bed, curling his fingers around a warm, dry palm. Bruce, get this out of me. He squeezed - nothing wrong with those muscles, thank you very much - and hauled his eyes open again.

"Hey, hey, Tony," Pepper's voice was soft and beautiful and like the sun when you burst out of a cloud layer. She was standing, suddenly, and leaning over so he could see her face properly, mask and all.

He squeezed his eyes shut again, because no crying, Tony, don't you dare. He was covered in tubes, wires, dipping in and out of him, carrying clotting, black blood away from his chest, bringing his air, but she was still there, she still had that look on her face.

She brushed the hair back from his face and left a trail of warm that just... broke down all his barriers. He squeezed her hand convulsively and his throat worked around the ventilator; he had... things to say, so many things. It couldn't wait until the next time he was flying a nuke somewhere-

"Shh, shh shh... It's alright, Tony, the nurse will be here in a minute and they'll take it out..."

Bruce's hand pulled away from his gently, pressing it to the mattress in warning. He left it there; he had a feeling there was a whole bundle of ouch in his near future without adding to it. A quick flick of the sheet exposed Tony's chest and he could feel Bruce checking the chest drain in a strange hurts-but-doesn't-hurt way, but his main concern was the cold and suppressing a shiver.

There was an unpleasant rubbery squeak and- evil nurse! Away, fiend! She had punched a hole in his neck, which was still there, god damn it, and withheld pants and done other things that just didn't bear thinking about.

He eyed her warily as she pulled up a tray of... stuff.

"Nothing wrong with your recognition then..." Bruce had a nice voice, Tony decided; low, rumbling, and so very, very clever. "Excuse us a second, Pepper."

Tony let go of her hand reluctantly, but then Bruce was raising the head of his bed up more steeply, until he was essentially upright and Tony had to concentrate on not using any of his stomach muscles. His right hand fluttered uselessly over the Mark III reactor, feeling like his chest was going to fall apart if he didn't hold onto it, but not daring to touch. He blinked slowly while Bruce adjusted something behind his head and fished about in his jumbled memories. He tried to retrieve the calibration algorithm but couldn't tell which one they'd...

He hadn't done it. He was supposed to have reprogrammed the... His eyes widened in alarm and he tapped the arc reactor compulsively with his right hand, not caring that it achedachedached; all he could remember was the wrong, nonono, blood, Pepper...!

"Tony, calm down, it's fine, you're fine. Concentrate on me for a second." He swung his eyes towards Bruce, who, god, had scrubbed-pink skin and a cleaner shave around the edges of his mask than Tony had ever seen. Right... immunocompromised. And not dead. Focus on the big things.

"Try not to throw up, okay? Keep swallowing and you'll be fine. I'm going to turn of the assist now; breathe from the diaphragm."

Tony gave a miniscule nod and the relentless hiss of the ventilator stopped. His chest deflated all on its own, but as good and restful as his empty lungs felt, dying was not on the agenda. The first breath was jerky as his ribs shifted and screamed, the second better, and by the third he thought the risk of passing out from the pain was probably as small as it was going to get.

"You're doing good, Tony, just a little bit deeper..."

Tony shakily flipped Bruce the bird and drew a bigger lungful in through the tube. It ached and pulled, but didn't feel like it was going to dislodge anything vital. He gave Bruce a slow blink in lieu of a nod and the physicist and his evil assistant advanced on him.

The nurse was as ruthless with the tape as Bruce, and disconnected him from the machine. Twist-lock connectors; what was he, hydraulics? Bruce helped him curl forwards, pressing a careful hand to his stomach for support, and then the nurse was pulling the tube out of his throat and dear god he wanted to throw up.

He swallowed frantically, half around the tube as it slid out, eyes watering, and then it was gone. They pushed him back to the bed and lowered it just enough for him to be classed as lying down.

"Breathe for me, Tony, come on..." A cold, plastic mask pressed against his face, warming rapidly where Bruce's fingers were holding it.

You try fucking breathing with a rib cage broken in ten places and half your musculature transected!

He drew a long, rattling breath then swallowed again as the urge to cough rose up from his diaphragm. The pain was distant through an opiate haze but phenomenal. He reached mindlessly for his morphine button, but it wasn't there and the gesture aborted in an uncoordinated jerk under Bruce's hand when he asked muscles to move that couldn't.

"Okay, good, nice and slow, now..."

Pepper was back, warm warm warm... seriously, why is it so cold in here...

After two, maybe three minutes, he got the hang of it; it felt less like breathing from his stomach than from his crotch, but whatever worked. It still hurt, every, damned time, but each time he tried to breathe more shallowly, ease off, Bruce would squeeze his left hand, the one he couldn't pull away, and remind him to just breathe, come on, Tony.

Once the danger of needing the ventilator back was past, Bruce looped the mask's elastic around Tony's head and stepped back.

He opened his eyes somewhere in the fourth minute and gave Pepper a dazed, tear-blurred look. A straw bumped against his lips - ow, anyone got any lip balm? - and he sipped slowly; apple juice. Not quite scotch, but could be cider if you gave it a chance. Acceptable. Also, infinitely better than intubation-mouth.

"Hey, Pep..." he rasped. She was back gripping his hand again, her thumb rubbing over his knuckles. "...'did it."

"Yeah, Tony, Yeah, you did."

Chapter Text

 

Once Tony was stable again, the blood sucked away and his heart beating in its scar-and-steel cradle, Steve took Pepper and Clint away.

The rush of adrenalin had keyed him up for a battle that wasn't there and he was already starting to crash with relief. For now, it made his head clear and sharp, and Clint's too, by the way his eyes were fixed on the medical team, but Pepper... Pepper wasn't doing so well.

Her skin was white and clammy, and unless she weighed a lot more than she looked, she was leaning all her weight on Steve's chest. He rubbed her icy-cold hands and slowly coaxed her away from the blood and the horror. Clint, he pulled away rather less carefully; the archer was made of stronger stuff. There was a half-second where Steve thought he was going to get his wrist broken, but the pain didn't come and Clint peeled his fingers away with the look of a man coming back to himself. He blinked, then fell in beside Pepper.

The corridor was almost surreally quiet and bright after the strange spotlit operating room, with its beeping monitors and blood and alarms and -

Steve shook his head jerkily and pulled his charges towards a break room; they needed something hot to drink, before the shock set in.

Pepper's hands were so cold... - when she's nervous. Cap, you've got to look after her, please... -

His shield and Clint's sidearm were both sitting on the floor of the observation room, but Steve had more important things to worry about. His hand twitched around the empty air where its strap would be, but he could cope. Pepper sat down when he stood her in front of a chair and her blank, blinking gaze drifted down towards the phone in her white-knuckled hands. Carefully, because it would be so easy to break those long, delicate hands, Steve pulled the phone away and tried to rub warmth into them again, but it wasn't working; her hands stayed death-white and her gaze wandered aimlessly.

Clint brought them mugs and Steve carefully curled Pepper's fingers around the warm ceramic. You didn't have to worry about getting burnt like you did with tin cups. She drank automatically and Steve watched dazedly, half seeing Bucky with a cup of soup sitting under a pine tree, his rifle leaning, fully loaded, against his shoulder. They were deep into enemy territory, but they had to risk the fire, because they had walked through a ford, and without dry boots, they'd start losing toes. Hot food was just a side benefit...

Steve pulled himself back and took the second mug from Clint. Coffee; they hadn't had coffee out of home base, so it was safe. Lots of cream and sugar. He focused on the smell and let the adrenalin and fear drain away.

Tony's blood hadn't been the spray off a bullet, Pepper's hands weren't going to go black and die, and Tony was going to wake up.

He clumsily slumped from his knees to his backside, coffee table digging into his back and his feet on either side of Pepper's. Clint was sitting on the table, and the archer's knee pressed against his shoulder.

After a shaky swallow, he raised his mug "to Tony Stark, the stubborn little shit."

Clint snorted coffee all over his shirt.

Pepper? Pepper smiled and laughed and then cried into his shirt for half an hour.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Once Tony was wheeled out of the operating room and over the corridor to the smaller, warmer recovery space, Pepper scrubbed up to go sit with him, just in case he came out of the anesthetic... confused.

It was the nicest way of saying 'drug-addled'.

Steve turned to fetch his shield, but Clint vanished in the other direction, leaving Steve to pick up - and, just to be safe, pull the clip and empty the chamber of - his sidearm.

Upstairs, he left the weapon on his dresser, hung his shield on its stand, and fell face-first onto his bed. General Patton had had words for situations like this. Most of them had four letters.

He honestly couldn't say how long he lay there, face buried in more pillows than had been in his entire pre-serum apartment, but he pushed himself up on his elbows when his door eased open. There was a funny thump, then an apologetic whine, and the robot invading his space hung its arm in shame. Its largest piston had DUM-E printed on the side and there was a steel box balanced on its chassis.

"Hey, it's alright, Dummy, I was awake," he lied, rubbing his face with his forearm and trying not to yawn.

The 'bot trundled closer, bumping the door further open and twisting its arm over its back to hold the box steady. Steve sat up, feet on the floor, and realised he hadn't even taken his shoes off before his impromptu nap. A stab of guilt rattled him for a moment and the urge to check on Tony spiked. Before he could ask JARVIS for an update, though, Dummy touched his knee gently with his three-fingered hand.

Steve pulled himself up, spine straightening and elbows coming off his knees; Dummy was trying to give him something. That strange claw wobbled and whirred as it tried to pick up the case and Steve took it before the robot could overbalance.

"I'm assuming this is Tony's... do you want me to give this to him?" The bots weren't allowed in Tony's sick room until the drugs that made him vulnerable to infection wore off. Dummy made a distressed, beeping whine and pushed the box into Steve's chest.

"Alright, I guess not..." Steve frowned, but obediently thumbed the lid up off the long, flat box.

So, not Tony's at all, unless you counted things he'd made. Inside, laid neatly with the arms folded across its chest, was a Captain America uniform. It was still that vibrant, comic-book blue, with the same stylized pattern, but the plates were bulkier and the fabric rougher under his fingers. The metal shoulder guards were a dull, gunmetal grey and the star a dustier, greyish white. When he lifted it out of the box, he could feel the thick straps of a parachute harness, right there in the fabric of the suit. It was practical; it had loops for his beltpack, attachment points for his helmet at the throat and the shield on the back...

"Jesus Christ, Tony... when did you have time for this...?" He dropped his forehead to the armour plates between his hands and screwed his eyes shut.

Dummy cooed quietly and patted him on the knee.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Abby found Clint when he was surveilling (stalking) a board member on the 24th floor (the guy was shifty and Natasha had looked at him funny). The little AI trundled into his hiding place (spare cubicle, home of spare printer paper and good sight lines) just in time for him to miss the floor number Mr. Grey Quiff punched into the elevator.

She wasn't exactly being inconspicuous either; the black carry case she was dragging was nearly twice her size. He hissed and pulled her further into his hidey-hole. "What are you doing? Did you come down in the elevator? How many people do you think saw you, hmm?"

She had the grace to droop, wheel-tipped limbs pulling under her body and eyes tilting towards Clint's boots. Her buzzing warble was indecipherable without JARVIS, but her dejection was obvious.

"Gah, fine. Let's just go, alright?" He hoisted her up onto his back and tucked the case under his arm. She buzzed happily and butted the back of his head with a camera. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up..."

He stomped towards the elevators, ignoring the shocked gasps and dropped folders of the SI employees in the cubicles to either side.

He jabbed the call button with more force than strictly necessary and the door opened immediately. He slipped inside, hit the 'close doors' button with equal vigor and JARVIS swept him away.

"You wanna translate, J? 'Cause she's never botched surveillance before."

"I believe you will understand once you open Mr Stark's gift, Agent Barton. May I suggest stopping at the range?"

Clint eyeballed the case again; about the right size for his usual compound... "Yeah? Go for it." He crouched down and flipped open the catches.

The bow inside was... yeah, he could work with that.

The accompanying quiver was full of brand new, unfired arrows with interchangeable heads and Stark had, somehow, managed to shrink the arming gears right down; there were almost twice as many arrows in that quiver than he'd had at the Battle of Manhattan.

"Your priorities are fucked-up, man..."

Abby chirped and let herself down, pulling the now-empty case out of the elevator and towards the underground range.

Clint managed to pull himself together, snapped the bow open with a sharp jerk and swung the quiver onto his back. He followed Stark's babybot, his thumb rubbing relentlessly at the invisible but tangible SI logo just above the grip.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

When Natasha finished for the day, cleanup crews dispatched in the Middle East and board of directors put to bed, she headed upstairs. JARVIS had kept her updated on her teammates, but she needed to see for herself.

Down the corridor from the elevator, the intensive care staff were sitting quietly in the break room, monitoring the wall covered with Tony's vitals. Dr. Ross was sleeping off his long day on one of the sofas and the security team were watching JARVIS' camera feeds intently, despite the lack of activity. That was... reassuring. They were well trained and kept a clock on the desk to compare the timestamps to.

She nodded to the squad sergeant and slipped away without commenting.

The door to the recovery room (which had been an executive office, all frosted glass and sterilizable modern construction) was glazed, so she didn't need to go in. Besides, she hadn't gone through decontamination like the others.

The lights were low, but she could see enough to satisfy the tension in her chest; Tony was propped up, his face relaxed under the ventilator tubes, and the line of his heartbeat on the monitor smooth and regular.

Her eyes swept the rest of the room, looking for Pepper, and found the CEO stretched out on the couch, tense and clutching the blanket around her shoulders in a white knuckled fist. The dim lighting and her pale blue scrubs made her look white and sickly, but at least she was asleep.

Bruce, on the other hand, was sitting in a hard chair of the sort Pepper bought to keep Tony awake in meetings. The scientist was reading something on a tablet, his shoulders hunched in and worry plastered over his face.

Natasha knew what lack of blood flow could do to a brain. Tony hadn't reached the critical point, but... there was always uncertainty.

She sent Bruce a text from the elevator, telling him to man the fuck up and go to sleep.

Old habits die hard, and when she spotted a scuff mark on the doorframe to her living room, she froze. U, fortunately, had a distinctive whine on his left track and she didn't shoot out his camera. It was a close thing, what with the 'bot lurking in a pitch-black room with just the shine on his camera showing her where to aim.

She ordered the lights on and gave U a glare; he retreated into her bedroom, which was not what she was after.

One irritated slam of her weapons locker and the removal of four truly irritating bobby pins from her hair later and she was seriously considering using the hair accessories/lockpicks on the robot.

"Really? You're trying to hide behind an object half your size. Out."

U crept, whining, out from behind her trunk, but didn't make for the door. His arm bent nearly to the floor in dejection and she paused; Tony's bots took after him and this was very... not Tony.

She kept up her glare through the inevitably wobbly process of taking of her heels and U hid his camera behind his chassis. She snorted and turned to tuck her shoes in the cupboard; the shockers she'd borrowed from Pepper had lasted until lunch and through the board meeting before the urge to use the heel as an actual stiletto had become too great and she'd swapped to a pair she knew wouldn't show the blood.

Just in case.

"AWAY."

U dropped the corner of her skirt he'd tugged on and squeaked his way backwards again. She frowned down at his lowered camera and waited; he wanted her attention? Fine.

He made three aborted attempts to lift his camera, shying back down each time, before she finally took pity and pulled it up by his main strut. A long look later and his camera was bobbing up and down with far too much excitement as he whizzed towards her dresser. The box he offered up was tough, insulating plastic, without hinges or any metal in the latch.

"Good boy."

The robot squealed and spun until he was at serious risk of breaking something, possibly her patience; she pointed firmly at the door. His chirping and that one squeaky wheel were audible all the way to the elevator.

Once he was gone, she turned the box over cautiously and, finding no hidden needles or other surprises, popped the latch. Inside, cradled in a block of foam, sat a pair of sleek, black bracelets. Each bore not one but sixteen power cells, all tipped in split taser darts.

She sat down more heavily than she cared to admit, her fingers running almost compulsively over icy metal.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

And then, Tony woke up.

First it was just a furrowed brow and a twitch of his right hand, but Steve saw it. Pepper was on the phone to Dubai, reinforcing Natasha's work, and Tony had turned very slightly towards her before relaxing again. He had been unconscious for fourteen hours.

Bruce had said it was a good sign that Tony's brain was healthy, but that it was fine that he went back to sleep straight away. Steve had nodded and lingered until he was very nearly late for a meeting with the security team, but Tony hadn't moved again.

That afternoon, eighteen hours after coming out of surgery, Tony woke up properly. In a way, Steve was glad he'd been out of the room just then; the slackness of Tony's jaw and the grey tinge under his stubble said having the tubes out hadn't been easy. When Steve did get back, ruffled from pulling on the still-unfamiliar sterile scrubs, Tony was propped up, mouth free of the tubes that had been powering his breathing.

Bruce and Pepper were bracketing him, the blue scrubs wildly out of character for Pepper but looking just right on the doctor. Bruce was fitting a mask over Tony's face, his other hand holding Tony's against the bed.

The blackish red of the drain in Tony's chest was still there, and the bags of medication still hung over his shoulder, but... his eyes were open and, for all that his skin was grey with pain, he was alive.

Steve made it to the sofa before losing all the strength in his knees; it was like getting Bucky off that gurney all over again, only this time, there wasn't a forced march through enemy territory. Just months of the kind of pain that had been Steve's constant companion growing up. His chest ached in sympathy.

"... feel... pretty good," Tony mumbled, the mask getting in the way. Steve lifted his head and cocked it at the billionaire.

"Liar. But it's alright, I forgive you," Pepper replied, and the tenderness and tremble in her voice broke Steve's heart, just a little bit. His fingers itched for paper and pencil, because this was something timeless and...

Tony's eyes closed as Pepper bent down to kiss his forehead, and that was the moment; Tony relaxed and boneless, his face open and showing pain and hope and triumph and exhaustion, all at once. It was in the wrinkle between his eyebrows and the lopsided twitch of his mouth, the set of his jaw and the bags under his eyes.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

"..cold..." Tony shifted restlessly and Pepper frowned; he'd been quiet, mostly asleep for almost an hour, but now he was frowning and his eyes flickering without really looking at anything. She patted Steve on the shoulder and left her phone with him in favor of fussing over Tony. Just in time, apparently; the idiot lifted his right hand to his chest, to the shining edge of the reactor, and Pepper lurched forwards to stop him before he could bump his incisions. He did not whine. That was not what that noise was...

"Shhh, Tony... don't touch it, remember?" She swept his hair back again; he was cold, and not the clammy, sweaty cold of plain-old pain either. Which, given the amount of morphine in his system, shouldn't have been surprising. He turned into her hand, almost needily and... yes, she couldn't deny it any more, he whimpered.

"Bruce?" The scientist looked up from his tablet. "He's still getting colder..."

"He lost a lot of blood and we're working on that, but it's not going in warm, transfusions come straight from the fridge. Tony? Tony, can you hear me?" Bruce put his work down and Tony did turn towards his voice but... his eyes didn't stop roving. Tony liked Bruce's voice, enough that he'd mentioned it to Pepper, and he even smiled under his mask but Pepper couldn't find that comforting right then.

"No, Bruce... he's really cold, I don't think it's just the transfusions." She pushed the blanket down far enough to hold his hand and it was even worse, icy and bloodless. His IV was on the central line, so she could at least rub a little warmth back into his fingers; Tony sighed like it was the best thing in the world.

"His temperature's only little low; 36.8 shouldn't be a problem. We're going to get you some more blankets, okay?" Bruce raised his voice a little, and Pepper appreciated the attempt to get through to Tony; it did rouse him enough to glare at the sensor hub in the ceiling.

"J'VIS. Incre... 'm cold," Tony mumbled atrociously, but not as bad as he did when he was drunk, so that was something. Pepper couldn't understand it, but JARVIS was... himself. If Tony was ever reduced to communicating with his toes, she was fairly sure JARVIS would understand him perfectly.

"Of course, sir. Thermostat adjusted. Dr. Banner, there are additional blankets on their way with Ms. Saunders." The AI paused and one of the screens above Tony's head went from displaying very little that meant anything to showing an infrared image of the room. "I believe it may be significant that sir's baseline core temperature fluctuates around 37.9 degrees centigrade; at 1.1 degrees below this, sir is exhibiting three of the five signs of mild hypothermia."

Pepper wasn't sure which of them was worse off after that pronouncement; on the one hand, JARVIS had used every speaker in the room, phones and tablets included, to deliver his discovery at breakneck speed, but on the other, Steve had just crushed Pepper's phone.

Bruce? Bruce actually swore - quietly and in Hindi, but, nonetheless, swearwords are infinitely recognisable - and flipped the blankets off Tony's chest. On the IR image, the reactor was blue, dim and cold, while the housing around it was white: the full 37 degrees.

"He's dumping heat into the reactor, the metal is too good a thermal conductor..." Bruce sounded stunned, and confused. Maybe even a little frightened. "JARVIS, why is this suddenly... why is this an issue at all?"

There was the brief humming whir of JARVIS running complicated simulations, but it ended in a sad 'ah' rather than surprise. "The electromagnet drew 17 watts - independent of the pacemaker - a large percentage of which became heat in the coil."

Bruce quietly covered Tony back up and the IR image blurred as the blanket held in some, but not all, of the heat.

"What do you need, doctor?"

Pepper could have kissed Steve, right then; he'd put the 'Captain' face on and she could just see Bruce's spine straighten.

"Electric blankets; there'll be one in the operating room... and some kind of thick dressing, something to make up for the lack of insulation."

There was a deep hum as JARVIS cranked the heat up.

"Oh, and you might want to take your sweater off."

Chapter Text

For a while, things were confusing. He saw Steve and Pepper and Bruce a lot, but their words didn't make sense. The cold settled into his bones and then there was yelling and the cold and the heavy burn of broken ribs. His chest was a mass of pain, from the horrible itching of stitches at the surface all the way down to the deep ache spreading from the reactor up to his shoulder.

The air smelled wrong, ozone and dust and water on his face, in his chest; no air, sparks, so many angry voices and he has to say yes, because they're killing him.

Then, it went quiet.

There were points of warmth on his face and his hands, his name made its way through the fog, and Yinsen had him. But no, wait... Yinsen had died. In a cave, in fire and lead. Tony had made him a bier of the weapons that had killed his children.

Pepper?

There was a rush of warmth and he was stepping off the plane into California sun, with Rhodey's hand on his shoulder and Pepper standing right there to welcome him.

XXXXXXXXX

Steve headed to the office at the end of the hall as soon as Bruce finished laying out the plan, picking bits of circuit board out of his hand. The tiny cuts didn't bleed - he had too many calluses from his shield- but they stung like papercuts and distracted him from the dangerously powerful rage threatening his composure. God knew what his face looked like.

Needless to say, the men and women in the converted office snapped to attention when he banged the door open. Only Dr. Ross kept doing his job; he was at the wall of screens, scrolling back through a graph that was JARVIS-annotated. A male nurse was stood next to him with guilt plastered over his face and a back so ramrod straight he was going to snap something.

Steve exerted a great deal of effort to stop staring at the man and turn to someone else. "Miss, I need you to fetch the electrical blankets from the operating theater and take them to Dr. Banner. You," he pointed at the man who had checked Tony's dressings earlier, "report to Banner; take your kit."

He held the door open pointedly and the two scuttled out.

"He's only just hitting the threshold for showing symptoms, we should be able to bring his temperature up in a few minutes."

Steve looked back at the head surgeon, who took half a step back and bumped into an office chair. The guilty nurse fled all the way to the back wall and Steve had had it.

The door handle still in his hand screamed, as it crumpled and the plywood splintered.

Dr. Ross's face went hard; he pulled himself upright and he stalked manfully past the destroyed door. "I have to talk to Dr Banner; this is clearance level seven, minimum." The doctor gave a significant look at the security station. Steve growled; if Tony had started freezing to death under their noses because of insufficient security clearance, someone was going to get de-patriated.

After a long glare into the room,Steve breathed out carefully and uncurled his hand; now it was bleeding. A nurse passed him a dressing with shaking hands and he pulled back into the hallway. He patched himself up before rubbing the alcohol disinfectant over his hands, because that is something you only do once.

Saunders, the assistant with clearance and an armful of blankets, was following Ross into Tony's room, while the nurse he'd sent for the heated blankets was scuttling towards him. Steve took them off her and shouldered his way into the recovery room, leaving the nurse to retreat and recover her composure.

It was like stepping into a greenhouse, the air drowsily warm, and Steve's shoulders relaxed instinctually. Ross and Bruce were arguing, terse and angry, and Tony looked... terrified. Pepper was gripping his hand tightly, but he wasn't holding hers back. His eyes were open but unfocused and he had that look. God knows, Steve of all people should know shell shock when he sees it; a waking dream. Thank god Tony was too weak to do himself any real harm.

The argument broke off when he stepped up to the foot of the bed and the two doctors stared each other down. Bruce was a long way from green, but the tension in his body was making him thrum and you could feel his voice in your bones: "I'll handle this, Dr. Ross. I think you should leave now."

Whether Ross knew about the Hulk's anger trigger or not, he spun on his heel promptly and left, saying nothing.

"Where do you want me, doc?" Steve asked, hefting the blanket pointedly. Bruce shook himself slightly and turned back to redressing the reactor. Tony flinched at every touch.

"Right, of course; get the plastic off and lay it out on his legs," Bruce ordered over his shoulder, gesturing at Tony's feet with a nod. Steve looked twice at his burden to work out what the instruction actually meant and then flipped it over and pulled the rip tab on the sterile packaging. An electrical plug tumbled out, followed by a stiff, ridged blanket.

Pepper helped him fold it neatly over Tony's shins and plugged it in at the wall, but she had to go back to keeping Tony quiet once that was done; his head was rolling and a thready whine had started up when she moved away. It left Steve on his own at the foot of the bed, watching Tony try and fail to curl in around the reactor in a way utterly familiar from winters in German forests. Steve kept himself grounded with a hand on the blanket as he watched Bruce cover the reactor in layers and layers of cotton wool. The wires inside the stiff electrical blanket warmed up quickly and helped banish the images of Dum Dum sewing his hat back together after a near miss. The German snipers weren't nearly as good as Bucky.

Once the dressing was done, Bruce taped a new tube poking out from under it to the monitoring bundle draped up over Tony's shoulder, and they unfolded the now-hot blanket to cover Tony's whole body. A few more blankets and Tony was lying loose and easy again; whatever memory he'd been seeing was gone. Bruce muttered something about it being important that Tony relax and kept glancing at the monitors; his core temperature hadn't changed yet, but even Steve could tell his heart rate was easing up.

"Alright... I think we're clear. JARVIS?" Bruce stepped back from the bed and looked up at the monitors.

"Indeed, Dr. Banner; temperature holding steady and projected to increase parabolically," JARVIS replied. Steve wasn't exactly sure what parabolas had to do with temperature, but Bruce looked satisfied.

"Good, can you control the blanket from up there? Cut it off when he reaches baseline? I'm going to rig up a water heater." Bruce made a vague upwards gesture, probably indicating the lads upstairs.

The computer made some kind of joke about electronics, but Steve was occupied with taking Bruce's place to Tony's left. His eyes were still open and they looked like they were starting to see again.

"Hey, buddy. You with us?" He carefully rested a hand on Tony's shoulder, far away from the incisions and their white padding.

The best Tony could manage was the 'St-' sound, but it was at least a response, and Tony looked up at him in vague irritation. Who needs vowels anyway?

"Yeah, Tony. We're gonna get you warmed up, okay?"

Tony huffed into his mask, the condensation hiding his expression for a second. ".. 'm not..." He broke off and sucked in a deep enough breath to make him wince. Pepper's free hand fluttered and Steve reached over to give her something to hold onto while Tony finished grinding out his sentence. "...'m not... twelve, C'... Cap. Bruce, o...kay?"

Steve glanced back at the doctor, whose anger had simmered down since Ross had left. "Bruce is fine, kiddo. We're just... annoyed, that we didn't notice sooner."

"You... half my age... Steve, g... give it... up."

"What're you talking about, I'm twice your age! Ninety-three and counting." Pepper's hand twitched and Steve looked up; she was smiling and possibly crying. He let go of her hand and she covered her mouth with it. Her other was still wrapped tightly around Tony's, only this time, Tony was gripping back.

XXXXXXXXX

JARVIS could be very obliging, when parameters called for it; when Agent Barton requested permission to use the private elevator to transport a 'prisoner', JARVIS perceived no need to instate the corroboration protocol and request the presence of a second Avenger.

"What the hell, man? Let go!"

"What d'ya think, J? Should I let him go?" Barton asked, giving the man in question a harsh shake. Probability of damage incurred to subject_ : 75%.

"I have no record of any other individuals in you immediate vicinity, Agent Barton. Do you require medical attention?"

The agent directed a grin at JARVIS' camera and leaned into the headlock he was inflicting on his guest. "You ever need any WD-40, you let me know, alright?"

"Of course, sir."

Barton dragged the inept nurse out of the elevator by his neck and headed across the gallery towards the armour assembly platform. JARVIS slid the glass open ahead of them and engaged the assembly arms, leaving the Mark IX in its storage and opening the claws wide, arching the black metal over their guest's head; Barton released Mr. Bloom into their custody with a powerful shove.

"So! Want to tell me what the hell that was all about?" Barton stood in front of the chestplate assembler, feets shoulder width apart and arms crossed, and JARVIS let the claw droop over his shoulder, the arms' sensors pivoting flawlessly to keep their victim in view.

"I don't know! He was well within normal ranges, completely stable, and then the ridiculous voice in the ceiling just went nuts!" JARVIS edged the whirring bolt driver closer to his shoulder. "The alarms went off on their own, we had no idea what was going on, so I hit the silencer until we could work it out!"

"No, no, no, let me get this straight; you were on watch, all the intel sitting right there, and instead of calling the alarm, you shut it off?" Barton lunged, fingers tearing into the nurse's scrubs as he slammed him back into the robotics.

It was so simple to wrap the steel and rubber around his shoulders; slightly taller than sir, but smaller, weak, narrow shouldered. 125 pounds.

"'Completely stable'?! Did you not notice the big fucking part where he went hypothermic?! You failed at your duty, you deserted your post. That's a court marshal, asshole, that's putting your back to a wall and having one last FUCKING CIGARETTE!"

The rig rattled and screeched, servos grinding as JARVIS tightened his grip and shook. Mr Bloom's teeth rattled and it was very fortunate indeed that Abby chose that moment to emerge, whirring, from the Tower.

Agent Barton's shoulders stiffened and he froze, eyes darting to the young AI. Equally rapidly, JARVIS just stopped. The assembly rig froze in place, the drivers and servos silent, and Mr. Bloom's terrified begging became audible.

"I-i-i-i couldn't have known, h-h-h-he wasn't ov-v-ver any t-thresholds, I'm sorry, I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry, please-"

"Alright, fuck, drop him, J. Some things, you just don't do in front of the kids..." the agent said, voice low in a misguided attempt to keep Abby from hearing. Her pickups, however, were top of the range surveillance equipment, simply because Mr. Stark does not keep anything less in his workshop. She whined in confusion over the wireless.

JARVIS took his time untangling their guest, placing him squarely on his feet and propping him up by the shoulders, but nonetheless, he fell into a whimpering pile on the granite upon his release. JARVIS pulled the robotics back into their storage under the stone and sealed them away, leaving very little evidence that they had ever been there at all.

After a moment, a single slab rose again and JARVIS spat out a scrap of blue fabric that had been caught in the plastron claw.

He left Barton to deal with the leftovers, dragging Bloom into the elevator and then dumping him on his colleagues. JARVIS had Abby to deal with.

 

{query@unit_JARVIS:purpose!damage.incurred-}unit_nurse?}

  • {unit:J_Bloom.caused.damage-}unit_creator:failure.to.fulfill.core_directive}

{core_directive[unit_Abigail]=accompany!unit_cupid.end.new.query:core_directive[unit_J.Bloom]...?}

  • {unit:J.Bloom.type_designation:medical_personel.directive[Hippocratic_oath].transmitting.databurst}

{receiving...download.complete}...{processing}...{query:failuremode[keep them from harm and injustice]Y/N}

  • {Y} {unit_creator.incurred.damage[hypothermia]}

{initiating.physical.expression:variable.4[anger]=7/10.variable.8[worry]=9/10}  

  • {unit_creator.status:CT_37*2.BP_95/62=functioning_within_normal_ranges}

{query.unit_Cupid:variable.4[anger]=9/10?Y/N}

  • {Y}

{QUERY.unit_Cupid:functioning_within_normal_ranges?Y/N}

.

.

.

  • {N:unit_C.Barton:run.protocol{grief}}

{ref.unit_AGENT}

  • {yes}

{initialising.protocol[find.Cupid]}

  • {good girl}


Abby trundled forwards, scooped up the scrap of blue fabric and made her way inside, to the vent behind the sofa.

Chapter Text

 

The medical floor burst into agitated uproar for the second time that day when a shaking and ash-grey nurse tumbled out of the elevator and huddled on his heels in the corridor. That he had been attacked was obvious - his scrubs were ripped and disheveled - but no alarms had gone off. The nurse's colleagues swarmed around him and Steve couldn't see past them, but his first impression was enough.

Steve had the security detail post a guard directly outside Tony's door, tasers in hand, and called for Natasha on the buildings intercom.

"Ms. Romanoff is on her way, Captain."

"And Barton?" he asked quietly, watching as Ross put an end to the chaos and shone a penlight in... Steve looked for the victim's badge... Mr. Bloom's eyes.

"Agent Barton is currently off grid, sir. Last known location: elevator B, 36th floor."

Ah. A more thorough look at Bloom's face and, under the grey pallor, the man was recognisable as the duty nurse who had failed to call the hypothermia. "Of course he is," Steve muttered. "Let me know when Clint comes back on grid, please, JARVIS; did you get a reading on him when he dropped Bloom off?"

"Yes sir; heart rate: 90bpm, respirations: thirty breaths per minute. Galvanic skin respon-"

"That's enough, JARVIS, you know I can't use those numbers. Is he alright?" Steve had backed up the corridor, just beyond Tony's guards and had switched to his phone for this conversation. Tony's electronic friend was being strange, and Steve absolutely did not like it.

"... define term: 'alright'."

"Shit."

XXXXXXXXXXX

Natasha arrived with her usual flair: unnoticeable until she is right there, in the middle of everything.

With very little fuss, after consulting with Bruce, she had the entire medical support team packed up and gone.

Dr. Ross watched them go with an apologetic grimace. "I really couldn't have expected Bloom to notice it; this is entirely novel ground."

"Because treating agents for flash-blindness due to the god of thunder having a pissing match is just so routine," Natasha drawled, her hand over the bottom of her phone before turning back to finish her orders about the disgraced medical personnel. "Yes. Put them in executive four. ... No, they will not be requiring wireless."

Steve's back itched, right between the shoulderblades. Pepper was alone with Tony while Bruce worked on the chilling problem up in his lab and Steve was utterly conflicted; Clint was definitely not OK and God alone knew what he might do. Bloom was still in the building, far enough down to put a few checkpoints between him and Tony, but they wouldn't stop Clint if he had another go.

Then again, Clint had hand delivered his victim and it didn't seem likely that he'd go after him again. And Pepper was alone with Tony.

"Go, Steve. I've got SI meetings to go to, and Clint's going to need... something. You'll work it out," Natasha said as she hung up. "Dr. Ross, if you'd come with me?" She pushed open the rather battered door to the observation room and gave Steve a significant look.

"Any ideas where to start?" he called after her. She just rolled her eyes at him and waved a hand over her shoulder.

"Where do you think?"

Right, of course. It wasn't high up, but he'd prioritize his bow over height; he spent almost as much time in the range as Tony did in one lab or another.

JARVIS sent the elevator down without him pressing anything.

"Captain, I am reading increased temperature in the locker room, and my remaining sensors have been disabled."

"Bingo."

"Indeed."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

The staff had been cold. It had frozen him from the inside out, pushing out anything that didn't match what Loki had needed. He'd thought about it, probably far, far too much, and he thought Coulson had probably been cold too.

There hadn't been much blood in the brig, just that one, immortalized stain, because the staff had frozen his chest; the upper half of his heart, part of his lung, in a solid, ice-crystal torn block.

There was no coming back from that.

Objectively, Clink knew that the ice had let Coulson pull the trigger, blast Loki into retreat, but if it had been a bullet. If it had been an arrow, Phil might have lived.

Shock: three, four seconds after impact, then cardiac arrest, brain death two minutes and a half later, longer if the vic was calm. Clint knew those numbers, and Coulson had always been calm.

Maybe Phil would have ended up with an arc reactor of his own, christ, he never would have lived the 'android' jokes down. Fuck.

His bow never made it out of its case, his fingers were too numb, too unsteady. JARVIS wouldn't unlock the munitions locker and his hand shook too much to key the code in himself.

Stark's heart had been right there. He'd seen the metal pressing against it, hard and unmoving and, apparently, cold. He'd seen the footage, the staff humming with repressed power and then clicking uselessly against the reactor, the power draining away, and Tony had been fine.

And then this happened, and Tony Stark gets hypothermia in his hospital bed. All Clint could see was that cold metal pressing against the muscle, thump, thump, thump. Chilling with each beat, colder and colder, his blood spreading it through his body, his hands going cold and white...

So, so cold...

He stumbled into the showers and hit the lever clumsily, his chest heaving and mind swimming; Tony, Phil, Tony, Phil, Tony Phil TonyPhilTonyPhil, until the names garbled and blended in his head, no longer distinct words, just noise. He barely noticed the hot water tumbling onto his back and bouncing off the kevlar.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Steve could feel the wrongness in the air the minute he stepped out of the elevator. Usually, the range was cool and dry, since it was down in a renovated subway tunnel, but the air felt faintly damp. A new bow was sitting on the arming table, in its case and unstrung, rosin and cloth and spare strings scattered haphazardly on the table. The munitions locker was blinking red; someone had tried and failed to open it.

No one was standing at the range proper, none of the warning bulbs were lit, and the locker room was empty, but Steve could hear the showers running. The curtain was billowing, letting out puffs of steam, but there were no splashing noises, no sound of movement. Steve took a look past the edge of the curtain, then huffed a deep breath and leant with his back against the wall; Clint was sitting on the tile, fully clothed with his knees against his chest. His head was bowed down between his shoulders, resting forehead on his knees and protecting the back of his skull with his forearms; tense, defensive. Hiding.

Steve thumped the wall in frustration; he'd already seen one teammate stuck in a flashback today. More than anything, though, he was angry at himself for losing track of a friend when everything was so... He didn't even know whether Clint had slept since the surgery, hadn't even seen him since then.

He thumped the wall again and kicked his strange, sterilizable rubber shoes off. His scrub shirt followed them to the bench and he hoped to God he didn't break Clint's knuckles with his face.

The other side of the curtain was even mistier than the locker room; the air wasn't exactly warm, but it was so full of water that Steve's throat objected. Droplets condensed on his eyelashes and further compromised his vision, but Clint was a black object in a white space. He blinked away the water and crouched in front of the miserable huddle, silently.

Clint didn't move. Didn't so much as twitch.

He was soaked through, water even dripping off his bootlaces. The coil of a wire comm lay on his shoulder, ripped out carelessly and vibrating under the beating water.

"Clint." Steve was expecting something, a twitch, a glance, but the archer was utterly still. If he was breathing, Steve couldn't see it. Carefully, his legs tense and ready to pitch him out of the way, he reached out and touched the back of Clint's hand. There!

The agent hauled back, shifting from coiled misery to mindless attack, up on the balls of his feet. The heel of one hand struck upwards at Steve's jaw, while the other scrambled for a boot knife that, fortunately, wasn't there.

Steve deflected the strike over his shoulder and captured Clint's wrist, allowing himself to fall backwards. Pulling Clint with him sent them both tumbling neatly to the tile, but Steve had control and Clint landed securely on his chest. It wasn't exactly easy, after that, but he pinned Clint's arms, kept his own nose out of range of Clint's headbutt and managed to avoid breaking either of them.

Clint's back shivered under his restraint as the fight slowly leaked out of him and Steve could feel his breathing puffing against his chest.

"I've got you, soldier. I've got you..." Steve spoke quietly, nonsense words and simple assurances, nothing as risky as names. Tony might be 'alright', to a certain definition, but this had to be bigger than that, this was Coulson and Loki and memories of who knew how many missions that ended in blood or ice.

Steve could sympathise.

Painfully slowly, the shaking stopped. Tension leached out of the archer and Steve even felt him blink, in the faintest butterfly flutter against his skin.

Carefully, because Steve might just be the only thing holding all of Clint's broken edges together right now, he loosened his grip. Clint didn't move; they were back to that empty stillness.

Steve dropped his head back into the water, screwing his eyes shut against the shower spray and the lurching sympathetic pain.

Clint's arms curled closely to his chest as Steve shifted his grip and sat them up, turning to keep the spray out of Clint's vacantly-staring eyes.

"Hey, buddy, you gonna stand up for me? You're a little bit sitting on my legs." The archer wasn't exactly heavy, but Steve needed him to come back, even if it was only enough to get him to go to sleep somewhere.

Clint didn't move.

Natasha's faintly ominous 'he'll need... Something' was rattling around in Steve's head and he could see what she meant, but he didn't know what that something was going to be.

But. But Clint had come here for a reason: he'd come in, been unable to manage the bow or a gun, and headed for the showers instead. Why? It wasn't to get clean; he was fully dressed. More decent than Steve, certainly, whose scrubs were clinging unpleasantly to his legs.

No, it was something else; the warm.

He'd read the report on Coulson's injury, and Clint's report on the staff, he should never have let Clint into that room; he'd been primed for something, and then the word 'hypothermia' had popped up.

Right, Steve decided; coherent or not, he was getting Clint to the sofa in Tony's room and sitting on him until either Stark woke up and quipped him out of it, or Clint slept it off. Whichever came first.

"Alright, come on. Up!" Clint went, at an angle, admittedly, but Steve could compensate. The archer slouched in a limp approximation of parade rest, his eyes tracking Steve's hands slowly. There was soap and cloths; Steve could at least do this properly.

Clint's vest was easy, just a zip down the front, and how had they not noticed that the archer was in his combat gear? When Steve had had his shield, it'd been a big deal, how had they missed this?

Steve left Clint's pants though; there were some things even Captain America isn't allowed to do.

Clint roused somewhere between having his head scrubbed and Steve carefully wiping soap away from his eyes and took the cloth. He didn't say anything, but he looked at Steve with that snipers eye.

Steve nodded and backed off, turning away to rinse soap off his arms.

There was a grunt and the rubbery thump of a boot hitting the opposite wall.

"Full decon, Clint; you're going to see Tony," Steve said as he stripped out of his soaked pants. Unlike someone he could mention, he hadn't been crawling around in the duct work, so he rubbed away the sticky feeling of sodden fabric and slipped out into the locker room.

After the steamy warmth of the showers, it was decidedly nippy and Steve bundled himself in a ridiculously large Stark monogrammed towel. If any more of them ended up with issues about cold, there were going to have to move to California.

That in mind, Steve dried off quickly and tied the towel around his waist. It reached to his ankles and wrapped around twice; oh, luxury. He took a second from the stack and pulled the curtain open to check on Clint; the archer had fallen still, head bowed under the hot water and completely naked. He would have to do.

Steve reached around the spray to turn it off but Clint's hand shot out and caught his wrist, squeezing hard enough to make even him really feel it. They froze in place while Clint's eyes tracked slowly up Steve's arm to his face.

"Hey, Cap..."

"Yeah, come on. Don't break my wrist and we'll be swell."

Clint let go abruptly and Steve covered the awkwardness by wrapping the towel around Clint's shoulders and rubbing his head vigorously with one corner.

"What the hell..." Clint mumbled from behind the fabric, his hands coming up automatically to hold the towel in place.

"You and me both, buddy, you and me both..."

Clint got the idea and dried off, but Steve had to lead him physically over the border between steam and cooler air. If Fury ever tried to send them north, Steve would let Tony poke out his eye.

Dummy, of all people, was waiting for them with a stack of scrubs and two pairs of sterile sandal-shoe hybrids. The robot spent the entire time trying to 'help' Clint with his clothes. It didn't exactly go well, but the constant poking did keep Clint on track.

Steve really didn't want to think about the dam that had broken, but it did occur to him that maybe this... Maybe it was necessary. Clint had been first on the scene when Tony had gone down immediately after the battle over Manhattan. That had to do something to a guy. Particularly after... all that ...stuff.

"Is he alright?" Clint mumbled at one point, as Steve led him to the elevator.

"Tony's going to be fine, he's good and warmed up. The nurse is never going to come to the tower again." At least not willingly, and Steve would never so much as invite him to a fund-raiser.

When the doors opened, the floor beyond was, apparently, empty. The security team was back in its surveillance office and Tony's door was closed. The bustle of nurses and surgeons was gone, particularly noticeable because the door to their station wouldn't close, and even JARVIS was quiet. Dr. Ross was at the desk inside, typing and watching the screens, but he didn't look up.

Steve ushered Clint in to Tony's room first and then had to manoeuvre him the rest of the way when he froze again. Tony was awake again, the fingers of his right hand investigating the heating elements in his new bed sheets, and staring right at Clint's feet.

"Are you wearing.. fuck ... Crocs and socks?"

Clint laughed in a painful, choked way and Steve sat him on the sofa before he fell over.

"Breathe, Tony. What's wrong with-" Steve paused to turn his foot sideways and peer at his shoes- "they really are called 'crocs'?"

Tony huffed through his nose and rubbed irritably at the edge of his mask; Pepper pulled his hand down but he didn't appear to notice. "They really, ... really are. 's a tragedy... I want... Steve toes. You could... at least leave off ... the socks."

"You can't have 'Steve toes' Tony, wouldn't you like some soup? Or a smoothie?" Pepper coaxed Tony's attention back to her, so Steve bumped Clint with his knee. The man was flopped bonelessly over the couch, his face buried in the cushions. Unlike his tense, hunched posture downstairs, he was sprawled loosely, with one arm trailing on the floor and his feet draped over the armrest.

"Whussit, Cap?"

Steve manfully ignored the wobble in his voice as the archer mumbled into the fabric. "It's dinner time, what do you want?"

"Ssteak... lots of steak. Fries." Clint's free arm rose waveringly and pointed at the ceiling before making an equally vague circling motion; "so many fries."

Steve glanced over at Tony, who was getting low-salt, no-chewing food for the next few days and the frowned back at Clint, who was... yes, that odd, whale-like noise was his stomach. "Clint, when was the last time you ate anything?"

"...'s Friday, right?"

Steve pushed Clint's leg to the back of the sofa and sat down, leaning his elbows on his knees. "It's eighteen hundred hours, Saturday the sixth of October, twenty twelve. You ass."

"...s'rry."

"So?" Steve prodded him in the spine.

"Uh, so, twelve hours."

Steve prodded him again. "Ration bars do not count."

The resultant mumble was only just recognisable as 'breakfast' plus change in syllables that could have come from Dari, for all that Steve could translate. He could guess though, and used his phone to make a private call to JARVIS.

"Tony, please, you drink those things all the time. You usually have active disdain for solid food," Pepper wheedled. Steve went ahead and asked for one of Tony's smoothies anyway; he'd drink it if they got him distracted enough. Though, the mask might be a problem.

"Oh and JARVIS? I think he's going to need a straw..."

Steve let Clint lie there, face mashed into the cushions and hip poking in Steve's back, while JARVIS sorted out some real food... For a certain definition of 'real'. Sitting there, soaking up the warmth and the muttered, breathless arguing, Steve could see the big, red drain looping out from under Tony's bandages and not have a panic attack. The sheer scale of the bandages was... yeah. Tony couldn't wear anything on his top half because of them, and Steve had the distinct impression that they were covering something breathtakingly terrible. He knew that the wounds were going to be neat and tidy eventually, but...

At an insistent poking, Steve sat up straight and shuffled forwards while Clint rearranged himself on the sofa. He leant back over the man's stomach and dumped his head on the back of the couch, staring at the ceiling instead of Tony.

"Christ, Steve, you made of lead in there?" Clint grumbled and wriggled until Steve sat up again and Clint stuck a cushion between them.

"One hundred percent homegrown human, fed on the purest Science and wartime rations."

"Not Idaho and corn? You sure?"

Steve glanced sideways at Clint's face, which had a cushion crease on one cheek and was significantly less grey than it had been, and shuffled his shoulders to squash the man a little more. "Nope. Visited Idaho once though. Nice bar, shame about the bull."

Clint heaved and pushed at Steve's shoulders. "What? What bar?"

"Fuck the ...bar, I want to know ... what did you do to the bull?"

"Never did find out and put your mask back on, Tony. I think it wandered off during the second number." Steve pointed at the billionaire in a vaguely threatening manner and Tony conceded.

"How can you... you can't answer a ... question like that with a... gah!" Tony pushed his head back into the pillow and let Pepper put his mask back without fuss.

"Hey, fine, I'll tell you." He shifted to pin Clint's legs. "If you eat. Drink. The thing." Steve's gesture managed to finish what his sentence had started and Tony subsided with a glare.

The whole exchange had had the man's heart rate was ticking a little fast, so Steve kept quiet after that, grinning to himself. Clint gave up on freeing himself and wriggled back into a comfortable position.

It took Bruce, Dummy and Dr. Ross to bring them enough food to feed Clint and Steve and the Hulk, but the robot had to stay outside the door, and whined pitifully about it.

"Sorry, kiddo, just a few more days..." Steve reassured him as he took the box of, huh, yes, fries. Apparently JARVIS wasn't being all that soft on Tony after all.

Clint had taken the (temporary) freedom and sat up, but stayed where Steve had put him for the most part and fell on his steak and fries with the expected gusto. Steve wasn't looking too closely at how he was eating steak with his fingers, but Clint was going to regret it if he licked his fingers clean; Steve had learnt the hard way that the alcohol hand wash did leave residue, no matter what the bottle said.

Ross, still on the receiving side of hostility from Bruce, left after taking readings from the bags hanging from Tony's bed. Steve didn't like to look at those too closely, as a general rule. It felt... rude.

Steve managed to put away enough food to satisfy his metabolism, and get Clint to finish his when the man's stomach gave up the ghost at barely enough to feed a sparrow, in the space it took Pepper to feed Tony almost a whole teaspoonful of smoothie.

"Y'know what, Steve?"

"Yeah, Clint?"

"I don't even mind."

"Don't mind what, Clint."

"Tha' y' drugged the food."

"I didn't drug your food, Clint, you stayed up three days without eating."

"Diphennenennn..."

"For the record; they're your own drugs."

"..'s ok, Bruce. Love the drugs..."

"Go to sleep, Clint."

"Y'sir."

Chapter Text

 

With Clint passed out on the sofa, Pepper's preferred sleeping spot was firmly taken when eleven o'clock rolled 'round.

"Go, Pepper; I've got these two. Bruce and I'll swap out at five in the morning; you know I don't need much sleep." He rested a hand gently on Pepper's shoulder, pulling her around slightly so she would take her eyes off Tony. "He'll be fine, he's asleep and you're only an elevator ride away if he needs you."

"Oh, Steve, what would we do without you?" She smiled wearily up at him and patted his hand. "He makes a sort of huffing noise and will try and touch his face if he's starting to have a nightmare; it usually means some bit of him is sticking out from under the blankets."

Steve huffed in combined amusement and pain. "I'll keep him tucked in, alright? Go on, you haven't slept in your own bed in days."

"Fine... I should probably spend the morning down with SI, too; 'Ms. Rushman' is causing quite the stir. Do you think he'll be okay?" she asked, gathering her new phone and fiddling with it anxiously.

"You'll be just downstairs; you'll be there if he needs you."

After a few more rounds of 'are you sure' and 'he'll be fine', Pepper left, lingering at the door and watching Tony through the glass, as if he might wake up because she wasn't in the room. To be fair, Tony did look less at-ease than he had while they were talking, so Steve muttered at him; "It's alright Tony, Clint and I are on watch, it's fine, it's all fine..."

Tony's face smoothed out again, so Steve settled into the bedside chair and talked.

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony had slipped into a much deeper sleep by midnight and Steve had subsided to an absent-minded humming, pencil in one hand and sketchbook on his knee, that lasted, on and off, through to five a.m.

Clint stirred more often than Tony: rolling over, curling up, stretching out. The couch was big, but apparently not big enough, because Clint, at one point, had one leg slung up over the back, the other heel-planted on the floor, and one arm flopped over the armrest above his head. Steve couldn't see what he'd done with his left arm but, anatomically, it had to be jammed between the cushions.

Tony had, indeed, tried to rub at his mask at one point but Steve had caught the gesture and double checked the blankets and the coil of tubing that Bruce had sorted to heat the reactor, all the while holding Tony's slightly cool right hand. Everything checked out, so he tucked the wayward hand back into Tony's warm cocoon and lifted the mask just enough to run a finger along the faint impression left by the plastic. Tony's eyes blinked open once while Steve was smoothing away the mark, but he just smiled and Tony went back to sleep, nightmare averted.

Steve took Clint upstairs when Bruce came down to take watch. The archer was heavy, but not that heavy, and just about awake enough to hold on until Steve dumped him face first on his own bed. Natasha, who was, for reasons best left unknown, skulking around Clint's apartment, took it from there.

It was a strange, in-between, hurry-up-and-wait sort of time; sure, Steve was tired, but he could go another day without really needing sleep. Manhattan was grey at the edges, with sunrise still two hours away.

"Leave the blinds up, JARVIS, I'll just nap."

"Very well, Captain. Would you like the standard notification set?"

Steve paused in giving his crocs to Abby, who had been waiting for him under his bed. Some things you just get used to. "Sure, add Clint to the watch list; I'll throw together a real breakfast when he wakes up."

"Dummy will, no doubt, be eager to assist. If we begin making batter now we may have enough for waffles by the time you wake up."

Steve face-planted the opulent bed. "Be nice, JARVIS, he tries..." he mumbled into his pillow, already letting various bits of his brain go to sleep.

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

Four hours left him feeling awake and hungry, and the half hour he spent lazing in bed waiting for someone other than Bruce to be awake felt utterly indulgent. JARVIS obligingly gave him a feed of Tony's recovery room, over which he spoke to Bruce briefly about types of tea.

This is his life.

JARVIS' watch alert went off at half nine and Natasha emerged from Clint's room; they met in the kitchen over the teapot, Bruce having convinced Steve to try Assam.

"Clint awake?"

"Mm, showering. I don't think he's slept that long in a while; he's interestingly groggy."

Steve caught DUM-E's claw before he could add the whole pot of salt to the batter. "Can't say he hasn't earned it; JARVIS showed me his surveillance logs while I was on watch and, while the detail is a bit excessive, I can't say he wasn't thorough. A pinch, Dummy, like this." He demonstrated the amount and then confiscated the batter entirely.

"S.O.P; he sees 'better from a distance', not that he writes things down usually," Natasha said, stoning a peach. "JARVIS, you facilitate him far too much."

"So I have been told," the AI replied with a wry tone. Steve had had words with him about the proper care and feeding of Avengers. "Captain, the waffle iron wishes to inform you that it is up to temperature."

Steve peered sideways at the appliance, working out whether it was rude to just pour batter into someone like that. He tried to be as neat as possible, but he still managed to get drips on the edges. The lid closed on its own and a countdown dial winked at him; Steve patted the appliance cautiously and left it to it while he found the syrup.

He took Bruce a portion, and Tony a smoothie, once he'd dressed up in sterile clothes. Steve realised he hadn't seen Natasha in the ridiculous getup yet; she was still busy with SI and supporting Pepper. It was a little strange that she hadn't visited Tony at all, but she watched feeds from the room as often as the rest of them, so Steve wasn't sure what was going on there.

Bruce was wheedling at Tony to swap his mask for a tube under his nose, but Tony was adamantly against it; Steve settled in to watch, putting their breakfasts on the tray over Tony's feet.

Bruce was, somewhat inevitably, the victor.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

At around mid-morning, Ross and a flunky appeared, wheeling a sterile tray.

"Oh, this ... I know I'm not ... going to like." Tony muttered grumpily, slurping on his straw and making deliberately obnoxious noises against the bottom of the cup. He knew he was due to have the chest drain out at some point, and he had no delusions that it was going to be pleasant. At least Pepper wasn't there to see it.

"Ah... probably not. You stopped bleeding internally at some point overnight," Ross replied, pulling on gloves, "and the drain will only get in the way of the healing process."

Tony glared down at the tube, currently empty with only a few smears of reddish-black healthily clotted blood announcing its purpose. "Right. ... have at it."

Bruce and the doctor stole all his pillows and cranked the bed flat, which was, wow, astonishingly uncomfortable. Worse though, was the way they took away his electric blanket. That was just mean; his skin prickled with goosebumps immediately and a shiver ran all the way up his spine in a way eerily reminiscent of the surgery. A spray of bright red flickered in the corner of his eye and his body forgot to breathe for one... two... three heartbeats. It really didn't help when they peeled back the dressing and swabbed the area with a freezing cold disinfectant, though his choked little gasp did at least count as breathing.

"Bruce, buddy, lab-bro, big green, you're gonna have to turn up the heat..." His right arm almost obeyed him when he tried to make an imperious gesture, but he was still maxed out on morphine so he figured he could be forgiven. Bruce's hand was warm, warm, warm when he caught the flailing limb and pinned it to the bed; he was going to get a complex about people with warm hands, and he wasn't even going to mind.

"Sure, Tony. You ever work out the specific heat capacity of the reactor housing? It'd help me calibrate," Bruce asked, leaning over so he could reach the rigged up waterbath and pump system. Crude, but Tony could appreciate the lack of electrical heating elements near his wetware.

"Point-five-four kilojoules per kilogram-kelvin. Almost pure titanium. Conductivity's high, oh... that, that is better..." Tony felt the shivers go out of him as the reactor housing dumped heat into his bloodstream. "I should patent this; conductive heat therapy..."

Bruce grunted at him and raised an eyebrow, still fiddling with the equipment. "Limited clientele, don't you think? I expect at least 60%."

Dr Ross cleared his throat pointedly. "Mask up, Dr. Banner. Mr. Stark? I'm going to numb the area now, four or five small-bore injections. Flinching would not be in your best interests."

Bruce's grip on his hand tightened slightly and Steve was doing his best looming from the foot of the bed. The effect was rather spoiled by the paper masks they were wearing, but points for effort.

It was incredibly hard not to flinch as the needle slid home, particularly the second time when he was intimately familiar with how sensitized the skin around the incision was. Fortunately, whatever the numbing agent was, it did its job and the morphine-dulled pain slipped away, at least from that particular part of the wound.

He focused on breathing through his nose, taking full advantage of the oxygen, as neat, curved suture scissors snipped away the stitches holding the drain in his chest; he could feel the cold of the metal and the tugging of the thread.

"Stay calm, Mr. Stark; there may be some pain in a moment, this is normal. Deep breath for me please..."

Tony picked Bruce's hand up off the bed and held it tight, breathing into the pain of broken ribs and cut muscle. As his chest bowed outwards, he could feel a sick, sliding, tugging sensation and then a tearing pain, brief but searing. He breathed out in a gust, dizzy and nauseous, his eyes watering, and there was a sickeningly wet, metallic sound as the bloody end of the drain landed in a tray.

Bruce, very gently, lay his trembling and suddenly weak right hand back on the bed, but didn't let go. Tony was inordinately, shamefully grateful. His vision hazed out and awareness narrowed to the soothing sweep of Bruce's thumb against the back of his hand and the tugging of his skin around the closing stitches.

And then the stitches were done and they were taking the central line out from under his collarbone; easier, quicker than the drain. They patched him over with white gauze and tape, and it would never be enough to hold him together.

His weakness turned to shakes and the pain on his face shifted to fear because it was going to be a year before this went away, a year of pain and trying to lift tools with a left arm that was missing its biggest muscle and not quite being able to catch his breath and being stuck on the ground like a civilian, of the Iron Man armor being nothing but a remote-controlled toy.

"...'way..."

"You're alright Tony, it's done..."

"Get OUT!"

And god, yelling was worth the pain; he wanted the dark and the silence and the sky he couldn't have. Immediately, there was guilt over the way Bruce's hand flinched away, suffocating and closing his throat until all that escaped was a tight whine. Bruce's looming warmth, the soft rumble of his voice, vanished; driven away. Always, always, driven away.

Somewhere else, somewhere more human, there was arguing and Tony didn't want to hear it, didn't want the echoes of Dari in a cave or drink on his mother's tongue. He wrenched his head sideways, away from the noise, and the movement pulled something that reached from his jaw to chest and it burned.

The noise that came out of his throat then couldn't be called anything but a sob.

His left hand jerked, trying to press the pain out of his chest, but it only made it worse, and there was no strength to it; it flopped like a dead thing against the whitewhitewhite dressings. He reached up and tore at the plastic under his nose, hating it, hating hatinghatinghating--

Steve's hands were so warm, so strong, and he couldn't handle it, couldn't handle needing that, not right now, not lying with his chest bared and all the bandages there to see. Not when Steve had seen the ropes of scar tissue and burns on his heart. He tried to pull away from that too-gentle-too-strong grip, but he was weak, and he wanted, and he hated it.

"-Pepper's coming, Tony. Look, Ross's gone, it's okay, Pepper's comi-"

"No! Nonono, no..." he moaned, pushing at Steve's hands, because Pepper could not see him like this. "Out... leave m' 'lone..."

"Tony, shhhh, fine, I won't call her, okay? Calm down, you're hurting yourself..."

"It hurts anyway! ... It always... hurts!" There was no fighting Steve, though. "In...inevitable, Steve."

He could barely breathe, missing his oxygen, fighting his broken ribs, fighting the choking in his throat, but he clung to Steve's hands like the lifeline he wouldn't let himself have. He had never needed anyone like he needed the Avengers and it was terrifying:

How many evenings had he fallen asleep on the couch and woken up in bed? How many times had his vision greyed out and he'd come back to find a warm hand at the small of his back and a shoulder under his cheek?

He'd woken from nightmares to Cap's broad shoulders bowed over him: an impenetrable shield. He'd let Natasha re-fill his morphine, a silent 'this is not an apology' dancing in her smile. Bruce had mapped his heart, in all the literal senses. And Clint, so devoured by Coulson's death, he'd let right into his family.

The gentle trace of warm fingers over his cheekbones broke him; he took a deep breath of the restored oxygen and sobbed.

Because he wouldn't be there next time someone fired a nuke at them, he wouldn't be there to toss Clint to safety, wouldn't be there to guide Bruce home. He would be here, limp-limbed and hurting and cold and alone.

But then, someone was pulling him up, leaning him on pillows, and warm hands were arranging his limbs in ways that didn't hurt and tucking warm fabric around his left side and pushing sticky hair off his forehead and he could breathe.

"... sshhh, shh, you're alright, Tony, it's going to be alright..."

Somehow, his right hand had ended up pinned against Steve's chest by a warm palm and he could hear Steve's voice more through the chesty rumble than through his ears. "...don't die... Steve, don'... don't let any of them..."

"My God, Tony, no, I won't, I promise, Tony; we'll always come back, just don't you leave us behind." Steve's fingers were rubbing the water away from under his eyes and Tony closed them, setting off a fresh round of droplets. "After that long in the workshop, you're gonna be the strongest of all of us."

"I made... armor. Just... just in case..." Tony paused, trembling for breath and tapping one-two on Steve's breastbone. "N-new bow... wi... widow's bite."

"You, Christ, Tony, you were supposed to be getting ready for... for all this, how long did that take you?" He could hear the shake in Steve's voice, laughter and pain all mixed up and messy, and that wasn't supposed to happen. He opened fuzzy, heavy eyes and Steve was curled around him, holding him up, helping him breathe, and crying. Tony does not know what to do with crying.

"I need ... have to help. Can't just ... sit here... Steve, stop." Tony swallowed past the constriction in his throat. "Need you... safe."

"I promise, we'll come back; we'll always come back. Just keep breathing, Tony. And don't... don't send us away, okay?" Steve's hands were shaking against his shoulders as they propped him up. Tony blinked up at him, dazed and confused by the question.

"Won't. Bruce has... my morphine. ... Steve, stop crying."

"He's outside, Tony; you told us to go away, and he went, okay?" Steve's hands were on his face again and he closed his eyes.

"Not... not what I meant, look... look at me." He stopped, taking a heavy breath that stuttered at the end, and opened his eyes. "This... no armor, no... no suit, no tech... and... it hurts," he stalled, couldn't continue, couldn't say the next bit because it was a weakness too big to plaster over with a smile and a sip of champagne.

"T-tony Stark: not... recommended. Not a team player; 's lie." He stuttered and gripped Steve's hand hard. "Can't... can't function without... Pepper, Rhodey, don't know my... social security." He was almost delirious with fear, felt more exposed than he had lying on the table with his chest peeled open. "I need, the team... so much, won't... won't send you away. You live... my house. Remember? But... you can't leave... either."

Because no one needs, wants, Tony Stark when he's broken. When there's no tech, no new gun, or tank, or missile. Rhodey had used that tone, the one that says 'disappointment' and 'Stark fucked up again' and wouldn't come see the suit... But then, Steve had held Tony up when he couldn't. The Avengers had been there, watching, while his heart failed and they hadn't left.

But Steve was still crying and all of Tony's open heart hadn't stopped it and he didn't understand.

Slowly, because everything had to be slow, and he couldn't stand any more pain, he picked up Steve's hand. Those blue, watery eyes looked down, released him from that ninety-year stare, and followed their hands as Tony shifted them to cover the arc reactor.

It hurt, of course it hurt, but Steve was looking at the blue light between his fingers instead of Tony's face and that was better, he could handle that. "I don't... I don't trust easily, C-cap. ...can't afford it. But you, ... the team? Trust." He tapped, one-two, on the back of Steve's hand, where the light was blocked out. "So, don't... don't you fucking dare ... ... die on me. Don't."

Steve's spine straightened, his head came up and oh hey, I didn't break Captain America.

"That is my line, Stark," Steve muttered, his hand staying warm and light on the arc, his thumb brushing the one unmolested piece of skin on Tony's chest.

"I'm not going... anywhere." He smiled because... because he didn't know what to think about that. He had recovering to do, therapy on muscles that had been cut and bent out of the way, and it meant he was going to be left behind. Tony Stark in his Tower, bright lights and empty windows. But he could give Steve a half-smile, right now, if it meant that he wasn't crying.

Chapter Text

 

"Bruce, he's gone to sleep," Steve said through the cracked door, apparently unwilling to leave the room. Bruce pulled himself up from his huddle and numbly punched the sanitizer dispenser. The hand-rubbing gesture was close enough to his usual self-soothing habits that it helped settle the other guy; maybe his eyes wouldn't be green, that'd be nice...

Tony looked... exhausted, mostly. Wan. His numbers were good, at least, and the dressing was unstained, so he hadn't hurt himself. Steve, on the other hand, looked like he'd gone a few rounds and had settled back in the bedside chair with weary solidity.

Bruce's ears were still ringing with the shout of 'get out!'

He... it echoed, in his head, in the space between him and him. In the space that was still his mind, but different, harder to touch, to feel. His hand shook as he checked for an abdominal pulse, and they must have been cold, because Tony whimpered.

Bruce snatched his hands back and was halfway across the room before he realised; he couldn't stand to hear it, couldn't take it, wanted to leave, to run, to get out. Because Tony didn't want them there.

But Steve had stayed, had calmed Tony down, and Bruce didn't want to know what Steve had promised to get that.

"Bruce, he's fine, he's just cold, come here, let me warm your hands up, okay?" Bruce's attention snapped to Steve, and that was fine, because both sides of him took orders from Steve. The soldier had carefully tucked the blankets back around Tony and was standing at the foot of the bed, reaching for Bruce, but not actually willing to move away from Tony.

Steve's hands were... yeah, no wonder Tony didn't mind Steve touching him...

"Okay?"

Bruce blinked and took his hands back to push his glasses up. "I'll leave in the morning; I know we don't exactly... trust them, but the nurses down stai-"

"Don't you dare. I just spent half an hour promising Tony that we would not leave him, no matter what he couldn't do, and you are not going anywhere." For a second, Bruce thought the Hulk really was going to... to make an appearance, because the surge of ... something, something terrible and protective and violent and pleased, so pleased, was overwhelming.

He shook, right there in Steve's reach, but didn't change. Because... he didn't know, couldn't tell, but Tony was there, and... peaceful, if not healthy, and he didn't want them to leave.

"He was... afraid, he's afraid we'll leave, Bruce, when he can't make us things, or because he can't protect us. That we'll die." Steve was shaking too, gently but persistently. "I think... we need a bigger sofa. One that'll fit all of us and Pepper."

Bruce choked on a laugh that really wanted to be a sob because, yes, he'd had trouble sleeping without knowing how Tony was, without having that reassurance right there. They'd got used to piling into Tony's room overnight...

"That can be arranged, Captain." JARVIS' voice made them both look up, pulled them out of their heads a little.

Steve's face smoothed over and his shaking stopped. "Great. Abby'll be stalking Clint but... she still got the disinfectant...?" Steve made a vague gesture.

"The UV tube. JARVIS, you know the protocol." Bruce rubbed his hands together and slipped his hand under Tony's electric blanket; working blind was better than hearing Tony's whimpers.

"Doctor, I wrote the protocol. Abby will be perfectly capable."

"JARVIS, put... the sass ...awaaaaay."

Bruce jumped, his hand failing to take Tony's abdominal pulse again.

"I thought you were, um... sorry?"

"With you feeling... around under the sheets? ... no way. Gotta stay awake... for that." Tony's voice was hoarse and he didn't open his eyes but he managed that lascivious tone, all the same.

"Fine, just... stay still for one second, and I'll leave you alone, alright? I'd take it from the ankle but..."

"BAH... anatomy... just, ...whatever. I've got a Steeeeve."

Tony laughed quietly to himself and, when Bruce glanced up, had Steve's hand in a tight grip. Bruce had hoped that Tony wouldn't be aware for his prodding but... there you go, Tony was already plenty morphine-addled, he'd be fine. Not to mention the lingering effects of the emotional mess that had left that much salt on Steve's shirt cuff. Tony's cheekbones were red from being dried and the tape holding his O2 cannula in place had peeled up on one side. Bruce's chest rumbled vaguely; he was annoyed and feeling... impotent? Maybe, it wasn't like his party trick could help. That was just time, now. So much time. Tony was going to drive them all mad. He knew it.

He pressed into Tony's abdomen a little more confidently, picking up the faint pulse and comparing it to the EKG. It was fine, normal, no indication of... Bruce didn't finish the thought, because there were things that could happen when Tony got upset. Clots and arrhythmias and... things.

Steve helped him smooth the blankets back and Tony was already going back to sleep.

"He's exhausted, I'm sorry, Bruce; I tried but, I couldn't..."

Bruce looked up, a little surprised by the break in Steve's voice, and the Captain was rubbing his eyes with that damp bit of sleeve.

"I couldn't understand, said the wrong thing..."

"Steve?"

"Yeah?"

"Shut up, sit down, and hold his hand."

XXXXXXXXXXXX

The supplement sofa arrived in three pieces.

JARVIS, his tolerances greatly reduced by the entire day, had sent DUM-E for the handheld circular saw and that had been that. He put in an order for a new gallery couch and sent the existing couch down in the elevator, with Clint as baggage, one third at a time. The archer and U collaborated to heave each piece out and into the waiting servos of Abby and her disinfectant lightsource.

By the time JARVIS had directed the assembly in Sir's room, Ms. Potts and Ms. 'Rushman' had joined the boys and he ordered them a meal that couldn't quite be called 'lunch' but was too early to be called 'dinner' either. He was rather afraid that calling it 'afternoon tea' would fly quite over their heads, however apt.

"You're just.. going to hang out? ... All night? What... happened to 'visiting hours' ...guys?"

Sir's condition was improved over the morning; a long, if light, sleep through the process of transporting the couch had done him well and JARVIS was reading improvements across the board.

"When have you ever obeyed the rules, Stark?" Agent Barton too, seemed much improved for his drugged sleep.

"I'm an engineer! I'm all about rules!"

"The Laws of Thermodynamics don't count, Tony."

"...really?"

Far above the small room, where the Avengers would normally gather, there was quite a different gathering taking place.

"DUM-E, desist, Abigail will manage quite sufficiently alone," JARVIS chided, to little effect, as the larger robot tried to help their newest sister sweep the dirt that had been under the couch.

Query, unit_JARVIS. Estimated time of unit_creator return workshop?

DUM-E's communication code was forever a tangle of machine code and learning subroutines... "You will be able to see him on Friday, DUM-E, but there may be work before then."

# unit_DUM-E: unit_Cap running program assist Avengers_team.#

And U was little better. Abby was more advanced, but she was otherwise occupied with sweeping up the small pieces of rock dust that had been hiding from her. She was rather affronted that no one had thought to move the sofa before this. Each to their own...

"Indeed, U. Captain Rogers will do a fine job, I'm sure. Butterfingers, leave Sir's bar alone-" There was the clunk of a glass bottle against the sink and a mournful glugging as several hundred dollars of alcohol met its end in the drainage system.

Higher still than this strange gathering, the window cleaner was making a determined attempt to shoo pigeons off the cornices.

It was not going well.

XXXXXXXX

For Natasha, actually being in Stark's room was... trying. The machines were mercifully silent, but they still blinked and twitched and irritated in the corner of her eye. And there there were the scrubs. Nasty, stiff, non stretchable material that was both intolerably loose and inflexible simultaneously.

And blue.

She disliked blue.

Pepper looked wan, simply by virtue of being next to so much blue.

Such things were important considerations for women of their nature, in primarily male professions. Odd how similar the demographic of CEOs and spies could be.

And then there were the memories. She had to hand it to Loki; he certainly knew how to land a low blow.

As the room came to order around her, she settled in the original couch reading a book that promised to be personally relevant and, potentially, amusing: 'The Wisdom of Psychopaths'. Clint was eying it warily and she made careful adjustments to her posture so that the tagline of 'Saints, Spies and Serial killers' was also visible. How apt.

The archer shied away and dumped his armload of pillows on the piece of couch furthest from her.

XXXXXXXXX

Pepper, ever saddled with the task of getting Tony to eat something, had a weird feeling about him. She'd seen the footage, Tony and Steve crying all over each other, and now Tony was all... limp. Soft and pliant and sleepy. He was letting her spoon feed him. In front of the other Avengers.

That was strange enough, but no one else was commenting. They'd noticed, sure, but there hadn't been one jibe or quip. She stared into the pot of sticky noodle soup, which wasn't even something Tony particularly liked, and scooped up the last of it. He was able to guide her hand with the lightest touch on her wrist, but he'd been told, repeatedly, not to lift his head too much.

His eyes were mostly closed and... god, she hadn't done this since her niece got out of diapers.

"Peppeerrrrrrrr..."

The burble of conversation in the background was helping her feel less exposed, at least. "Yes, Tony."

"There's ... Avengers in ... my room."

"Tony, whispering actually makes your voice louder, right now..." She gave him another spoonful and his fingers closed around her wrist slightly.

"Spies... Assassins. They can ... read lips ... anyway. D'you ever notice ... how much 'ass' ... there is in the ... word 'assassasssassin'?" He leered up at her and she bopped him on the nose with the spoon. He looked perfectly affronted.

"Can't say I have. Pudding?"

"Can we ... skip to the ... coffee?"

"No, Tony."

"I'll have... whatever you're having." Pepper glanced at Bruce, who nodded, and shared her chocolate mousse, leaving his ... oddly green pudding cup on the tray.

It was only after she'd eaten the second spoonful herself that she realised that sharing a spoon was... no longer advisable.

"God damnit..." and the dessert was now contaminated too; she pitched the lot, spoon and all, into the trash with a loud 'clang'. If she hadn't gone down into SI today, she might not have been so bothered about it, but Smythe had had the norovirus. She'd sent him, and his team, home very firmly, with orders to stay away until they'd gone thirty-two hours without throwing up.

"...Pep?"

"Sorry... I..." Tony was looking at her, frowning and lifting his head off the pillows to peer sideways. Whatever muscles it used were obviously not quite up to snuff and he lay back again, just the wrong side of pale. "The think-tank manager was sick today, and I used your spoon, sorry."

"Does this mean... I don't get a good-night... kiss?"

XXXXXXXXXX

Clint hadn't deliberately taken first watch, but, there they were. Steve had clocked out first, which shouldn't have surprised any of them, not after the morning they'd had, followed neatly by Banner. Bruce. Clint figured super-soldier snuffles were soothing; he wasn't judging.

It had taken a few hours, but Natasha had led Pepper down the rabbit hole with an artfully crafted set of yawns and sleepy... bedding down? He refused to call it how it looked, because Natasha was doing the studying thing again and would inevitably come out of her book able to read his mind. More.

And then, then it was just him. Sitting on the end of the trisected couch with a sterile blue blanket that, given the temperature in the room, he really didn't need.

And Tony. Because somehow, the bastard was still awake. To be fair, the man had slept most of the day away, but Clint had figured that if he got drugged to sleep, Tony sure as hell would be too.

But, whatever; Tony's handful of blue hologram was plenty fascinating to watch.

"Is that a tank?"

"No... 's the Ranger's insides," Tony replied, blowing a section up with a careful gesture.

"Oh."

"Don't... 'oh' me. What does that... even mean? 'Oh'?"

"It means I have no idea what you're doing? Isn't that," he pings a balled up piece of napkin at the blue light, "supposed to be finished? Our air support?"

"Yeah... Thor out the... picture, no Iron Man... you're gonna need it."

"Whatchit, shellhead, I've been running lookout on ops since I was eight."

Tony made a 'talk, talk' gesture that coincidentally closed the file he'd been working on. "Hey! JARVIS, you know better than that. Give it back."

Clint smirked at Tony's look of consternation and then full-on grinned at JARVIS' classic 'error message' bong. That noise had been the bane of the Helicarrier at one point. That was, before Tony got his hands on it. Nothing like BSOD on the navigation system to scare the jumpsuit off a navvy.

"Not hearin' it, J, ... open file p2x394."

"Access denied, sir. You do not currently have the security clearance to access the requested model." Tony glared at the black dome that, Clint assumed, held JARVIS' sensor array for the room.

"That protocol is for alcohol. Disengage. Authorization: GDYJARVIS."

"Give it up, Tony, it's late." Tony's glare turned to Clint, who flapped the corner of his blanket at him.

"Unlike some, I didn't spend all day carting furniture."

"Yeah? So what'dya call your little..." he pointed to Steve, then to Tony, and back again, "'cause if that wasn't getting shit out of your closet, I don't know what is."

"Fuck you, Barton; like to see you... stand up to crying-Steve without..." he waved a hand in the universal 'stuff' gesture.

"Fair point. The guy dragged me out of a... flashback? kinda, yesterday? Doesn't say a word. Nothing. Who does that?" Yeah, if Tony fucking Stark can be that open, Clint can manage the bald truth, at least.

"The bots were worried about you. ... Not seen them ... do that about anyone else before." Tony was giving him this... long, considering look that was way too intense.

"Yeah, well, teach a kid to play catch and he'll love you forever."

"That was you!?... He only has... three fingers!"

"He's not that bad. Besides, Abby makes a good ball-girl."

"You... are outrageous, Barton ... no more... babysitting my bots."

"You're not the boss of me!" Clint grinned and unfolded out of his perch.

"oh, nononono, do not... press that button. No. Sit ... Down. Down boy."

"So I was thinking; Brucy is all about the pharmaceuticals, right?" He wagged his finger at the automatic IV, "Can't imagine there isn't something here for sleeping, mm?"

"Clint, Hawkeye, no, ... come on, ... be a bro?"

"You need sleep, Tony; today was a fuck of a day. Look at them; we're right here and all that... touchy bullshit."

It was touch and go; Tony's glare didn't let up for a full seven-count, but then his gaze flickered left, to the puppy-pile Bruce and Steve made. Clint pressed the button in the tiny half-moment that Tony would forgive him for it.

There was a beep and a sub-audible hum and Tony's face started to loosen. "Yeah... alright... be here ... when I wake up?" He was slurring even more blatantly than usual and his eyes closed in that classic, slow-and-heavy way.

"Yeah, Tony; we'll be here."

And hey, maybe he wasn't as over his little incident as he thought because instead of heading back to the couch he planted ass on the bedside chair and settled in for the long haul; he'd put Tony to sleep, he was damn well going to face the consequences.

He couldn't say he wasn't familiar with waiting for the nightmares to come.

XXXXXXXXXX

Three a.m, groggy and cat-napping, Clint automatically slipped a hand between the rails on the side of the bed and caught Tony's before he could untangle it from the sheets. He rubbed warm circles on the back of Tony's knuckles, well away from the brace protecting his IV, and Tony went limp again.

Sleepy, warm and self-satisfied, Clint let himself drift off into not-quite-sleep, really not finding it in himself to care that Natasha's smile was gleaming at him from the couch.

XXXXXXXXXXX

They never seemed to leave.

He slept a lot, and whatever was in the IV pump when Clint dosed him with knocked him for ten each time because he didn't dream. Or didn't remember it, maybe. That was fine too, he could live with that.

When he was awake, he settled into the old past-time of sorting through blackout engineering plans. Abby's six, wheel-tipped limbs were in there somewhere, mislabeled as 'blender', and he spent most of Monday translating out the joint module improvements to DUM-E's much larger chassis.

Natasha and Pepper were the only two who left with any regularity, and he frequently balled up pieces of holographic diagram to sling at their retreating shoulders. Via Clint. Because he couldn't aim worth a damn while on morphine. The balls of light dissolved as they left the room anyway.

Other than that, he thought he was doing alright; he even let Bruce help him with food. Occasionally. If he gave a convincing argument.

He remembered Yinsen at odd moments; when someone tilted the bed, maybe, or at the sound of tearing dressing tape. They hadn't had a gurney, his cot had been canvas stretched between two poles - unforgivingly hard and offering no protection against the Afghani winter - and when it'd been so bad that lying down meant drowning, it'd been Yinsen he'd leaned against.

But he never fell into the memories because they were all right there, in his space.

He had to throw them out at one point, glaring and snorting at their fumbling, by re-programming the holographic projector to generate a swarm of nano-copters and fly them into their faces. Having them there was... good, so good, and he wanted them right back in a minute, but there were some things he'd prefer stayed between him and Evil Nurse Lady, thank you very much.

The bastards sent Steve back in first, which should be banned under the Geneva convention, and hung out with DUM-E until Cap told them it was safe.

The bots spent the remainder of the week camping in the hall and would gleefully 'play with' any Avenger that emerged.

Tuesday, he didn't like though.

Tuesday, Bruce, Clint and Ross bullied him into standing up.

Chapter Text

"You spend entirely too much time here, Thor. What good do you, watching over them like this?"

Thor didn't move, his gaze fixed on the rise and fall of the healers knife. The well transmitted no sound and Friend Tony Stark's ailment was unknown to him, but the flinty gleam in his eye before the healers had made him sleep... that, Thor had seen before, on the morn of battle. He could not decide whether this boded well or ill.

"Thor, you must come; we have given you your witching hour, but the fields burn, any more and there will be no harvest."

"Then let them burn!" Thor roared, spinning away from the well, Mjolnir ringing through the air. "This is my doing! I, who brought Loki down upon Earth!"

Fandral stood firm, even in the face of the gathering thunder. "And watching here, with no Bifrost to take you to him? What purpose does this serve?"

"Penance."

Mjolnir fell to the earth, striking it like a bell felt only in bone, and Thor turned back to the well, cape streaming out in a bloody flag. The image was gone, the well-water dark and showing only the sky in reflection.

"Then serve your penance on the field of battle, Prince of Asgard; this suits you ill."

"I have no heart for battle, Fandral."

"Then perhaps a more noble solution can be found."

Thor, Prince of Asgard and Guardian of Midgard, bore the Hammer Mjolnir into a war, and forged peace of a field that had seen too much destruction.

XXXXXXXXXXX

"Fuck you, Clint Barton." Tony hissed, fingers digging into the archer's bicep and using it to balance while his blood pressure equalized. It wasn't an unfamiliar exercise, but the first time you get up after surgery was always horrible.

"Aww, man, you don't mean that; I am way too pretty for you," Clint replied, adjusting the hand pulling Tony against his side.

"You wear way... too much purple."

"Say's the man in a paper nightdress."

Tony groaned and took another shuffling step, his slippers hissing on the tile. "She didn't let ... me have... underwear...!"

Clint grimaced and looked down at their feet, moving smoothly in tandem with Tony's shuffles. The man had had his own fair share of hospitalizations if his file was anything to go by. "Some things never stop being a pain in the ass, Stark. Sorry."

"No, really? ... you think?" Tony panted, having to concentrate on breathing in through his nose, which was getting irritatingly sore, by the way, to keep his head supplied with oxygen. A few final steps, ignoring Clint's assistance as much as he could, and he rapped triumphantly on the bathroom door with his good hand. "Hah... suckit, crazy-nurse-lady."

"You wanna try to get back, too? ... I mean, chair's right there." He glared at Clint and the archer subsided. "Just saying. You pass out on me, and Ross won't let me do your PT anymore."

Tony was already shaking his head; he felt alright, in the scheme of things. He'd make it back to bed before falling over. "Nah, standing's not... not so bad... 's the getting up... that's a bitch."

XXXXXXXXXXXXX

The Dvergar had gone peacefully into their tunnels, given time, and nigh-on a whole four-day feasting and peacemaking. A Treaty was forged between Asgard and Fafnir the Hoarder, dragon-son of the Dvergar-king, wherein red gold, coveted to excess by the corrupt Fafnir, was exchanged for the products of the Dvegar forges.

For the crime of destroying Asgard's fields, now poisoned by Fafnir's monstrous breath, the Dvegar would tribute to Asgard sing-steel, the metal of Mjolnir and the Captain's great Shield.

Thus, Heimdal would heal the Bifrost, also.

Staring once more into the well, watching Tony Stark take first steps, shaking as a foal's, Thor smiled; he would be away to Midgard, bearing gifts for the Midgardians to whom his family owed so much.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Tony slid down Clint's arm, levering himself gently onto to bed. "I take it back; you're the best, Clint. ... where were you last time?" He slouched against the pillows, lightheaded and dizzy and... not entirely sure what he was saying. "He fed me beans. Continually. C'n I have pizza? ... 'm in New York. There's pizza ... everywhere."

"Yeah, yeah, pave the streets in pie. I'll ask Bruce."

"You, are my favourite. ... make all the arrows!" Tony made a vague fist-pump-like gesture before melting into the blanket Clint was throwing over him.

"Hey, do you reckon you could make an arrow that would stick to glass?"

Tony levered an eyelid open and glanced at the archer. "... yes?" If he tipped them with glue, it would cure in transit, but... shattertips? Or possibly a spoooonge? Sponeg Spunge. Spongy. Bovine-spongiform-encephalopathy.

Clint hooked his chest-warming pipes back up with an efficiency that Tony found excessively interesting. Better than DUM-E and U working together. Maybe it was the thumbs, or he could try the coffee grounds-evacuated balloon method again. If he could remember not to use up all the coffee grounds...

"Was that an answer or a question?"

"What? I'm not allowed coffee."

"Clint, no conning arrows out of Tony while he's doped up."

"Bruuuuuuce, Clint's ... my new favourite." Tony squinted up at the physicist, who was doing something to his IV.

"You see, most people don't like this part; you just can't do anything the easy way, can you?"

Tony felt that aff thing. Affented. Possibly. "Anthony Edward Stark does nothing the easy way," he announced with another grand-ish gesture. Bruce promptly pushed his hand back to the bed and had him pick up his left wrist. He whined. Profusely.

Bruce ignored him and coaxed him through the exercise using soft words with few syllables.

"Quantization. Relative ... state interpretation. W- wavefunction collapse."

"Tony, shhhh. Come on, just a few more degrees."

"But I already... have Degrees! ... Like, four degrees." Tony huffed, rolling his head to look mournfully at Clint. "Can I count... the honorary... one? Didn't get th' real one ... 'cause fuck lectures. ... 'conomics is like... statistics, for money." And he'd had a lot of money, and big numbers and big data sets need statistics. Statistics are awesome.

"Do you have any idea what he's going on about?" Clint asked, leaning rather close to Tony's face. He pressed his head back into the pillow, matching the archer eyeball for eyeball.

"Honestly? I think he's trying to prove he can still use long words."

"Nope! Wrong! Zero ... points! No stretchy pants ... for you!" Tony gabbled because Bruce was on to him! And also, he was rotating his bad shoulder. owwwwwwwwwwwww...

He flailed at Bruce with his right hand. "Ow, Brucey, no. No, do not want." Clint stole his hand and Tony redirected his glare at the ceiling. "Jaaarv' I need an adult! I feel threatened!"

"Do relax, sir; the more you struggle, the more this is going to hurt."

Now that sounded familiar; Tony redoubled his glare at the sensor hub, ignoring his 'therapist' impersonators.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Thor joined Mjolnir's might to the effort as they re-forged the Bifrost; no other could shape the metal so swiftly nor leave it so pure. Under their blows, shining silver turned to rich colour and the Bifrost grew out, light rippling under feet and hooves as the power of Asgard flowed.

Heimdal stood watching, his observatory finished in forge-gold and silver and covered with the scribbling of sorcery, as they encroached ever closer to his stoop.

Three days, Thor worked, never tiring, buoyed on by the promise of his precious Midgard and freed of the lure of the seeing-well. Around them, in the fullness of space, the Valkyries rode their wing'ed steeds, waiting for the bridge to carry them into Yggdrasil.

Too many of Midgard's fine warriors had died under Loki's assault; it was high time they were seen safely into the hallowed halls of Valhalla. He raised Mjolnir in salute to the weary souls and their fierce guardians as they made the first plunge through the resurrected Bifrost.

For them, he was prepared to wait; last of all, astride a steed alone, went the Son of Coul, clad in his armour of black and white. "I bear your message gladly, Friend Philip of the Shield! Go well and we shall lift our drinks to you!"

The soul nodded and urged his horse forward in a great leap, his neckcloth streaming over his shoulder, and he was gone.

The observatory fell silent and dark and their party cheered: it was done. Heimdal nodded solemnly over the glowing crystal between them and turned away to his post. New fire kindled in Thor's breast for the time had come. He had leave to return to Midgard to broker trade between their two worlds; their crops had been burnt, and Thor knew the perfect man from whom to buy seed-grain.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony drifted off and dozed, sore and irritable after the physio was done. The bumper dose of happy drugs had made it an easy enough session, but it was gone now and... wow, some of the things that had come out of his mouth...

There was something to be said for the physio, though; he felt bone-tired in a really satisfying way, like at the end of a long and acrobatic flight. From walking to the bathroom and back. In an en suite room.God damn it.

He flicked at a dangling tube irritably, huffing a breath out through his nose. No measurable improvement, but 'it's only your third session, Tony, it takes time'. What he really wanted was a shower. None of this damp-cloth, awkward fumbling. His hair was unmentionable and he felt tacky and grubby everywhere else too. He tucked his chin to his chest and peered under the neck of the hospital gown; the top of the line of staples was just about visible, sealed up and no longer swollen, so he really didn't see the problem.

But, nooo, he had to wait until Friday.

He had half a mind to just open the faceplate and fly into the Hudson. If, y'know, it wasn't for the water. And the lack of Suit. And the pollution. Delightful. He slumped back onto the pillows and rolled his head over towards Natasha, who was engrossed in a book which, frankly, worried them all, and then in the other direction, where Steve was Steveing and getting eraser bits everywhere.

He ripped a corner off today's hospital gown idly and balled it up into a projectile using a tiny drop of water from his sippy cup. Sippy cup, damnit.

Post-physio 'resting' was DULL, and he was sore and bored, but he was supposed to sleep, so he was leaving the holojector alone because Steve's Eyebrows. So he amassed a small pile of balled-up bits of pseudo-fabric paper gown and then, when the pile was about twenty strong, started pinging them at the vent opposite his bed, which was currently glowing.

The first two, slotted neatly in between Steve's measuring glances as he sketched Natasha's hair, missed abysmally, the third hit but bounced off, and the fourth lodged between the bars. An excited whirr later and a tiny claw tugged the bit of paper into the vent. An excessively excited vacuum cycle later and the tiny claw waved at him impatiently.

He pinged another ball with equal success and continued until his little pile was half empty and Steve was frowning at the vent. Abby wasn't exactly covert in her enthusiasm.

Tony considered Natasha again for a moment, wondering whether his invalid status would protect him before deciding, best not to push it.

He waited long enough for Steve's guard to go back down, which included a chat with JARVIS, (who said nothing about Tony's antics, good boy, JARVIS, have a biscuit) before lining up his remaining ammunition for quick-fire mode.

He got four hits in before Steve got his sketchbook up in front of his face. Tony sniggered quietly to himself and aimed the remaining projectiles up and over, so they had a chance of falling down the back of Steve's shirt.

Steve's inevitable retribution, which by the look of it was going to involve bothEyebrows and the Stern Glare, was cut off by a sonic boom so close to the Tower, the infrastructure shook.

Tony snapped his fingers for security footage and JARVIS scrambled to give them eyes-on. Natasha was up and out the door in the time it took her book to land on the bedside table, while Steve went from demure artist to hulking threat between Tony and the outside world.

There was interference, a lot of interference, in the EM spectrum; JARVIS and Tony were re-calibrating on the fly. The burst was fading out as quickly as it'd come but the AI's sensors were scrambled into fuzz, particularly up on the roof.

The hard-line systems were intact and were showing no incursion, but whatever it was was definitely still there. "North-west edge of the roof, Widow, there should be cover between access two and... whatever it is," Tony muttered into the intercom. JARVIS routed it directly to her without being told. Good boy.

Clint and Bruce were rapidly moving green markers, heading up and down, respectively.

"Steve; Bruce is nearly here, get up there." Tony shooed the supersoldier away, not looking up from his holographic screens. Whatever it was had landed with a hell of a thump; pressure sensors in the penthouse floor were registering multiple impacts where things had fallen off shelves and DUM-E was having a moment, fetching his fire extinguisher and running [seehimoff], idiotic robot-

"No, Tony. I'm staying here until I'm relieved."

"Sorry, what? Are you ... still here?" Tony mumbled, huffing for breath as his body responded to the fight-or-flight imperative.

"Yep. Not going anywhere, Tony."

Tony blinked up at Steve's back. "... Okay?" So, that was... nice, he supposed? "Single point... incursion. No need, ... not really."

"Tony, I will not leave you alone."

Tony faltered, hands falling through the holographic interface and his head dropping back to the pillow with a soft groan. "That... is not allowed; no ... using your powers ... for evil, Steve."

"Oh, is that what they're calling it, these days?" The super-soldier asked, tossing a wry grin over his shoulder.

"Breaching hard-sec in three, ETA on Barton?" Tony turned back to his display while JARVIS answered Natasha. The hard-security on access two popped and Clint's marker joined up with Natasha's just before they both went off-grid and onto the roof.

Natasha's choked breath and the rattle of her weapon was clearly audible over the mic and they tensed. In the corridor outside, Bruce's footsteps stopped.

"Thor?!"

Tony blinked in confusion, hands dropping from his display, while Steve radioed up for confirmation. "Hawkeye, give me a threat level..."

"Uh... We good, Thor?" There was a muffled rumble that might have been laughter. "We're clear; no family members, and no open portals."

"Alright, I'll be up in a minute." Steve clicked off the intercom, tension draining back out of his shoulders. Tony looked up from rebooting the cameras and caught his eye.

"So..."

"Yeah. Alien god, no biggie."

"Oh my g- Steve, never EVER say that phrase again. Out. Go on, out. Bring me back a souvenir, whatever."

Steve left, laughing, and tagged Bruce in with one of those... excessively manly shoulder-clasps.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It was... a great deal more difficult to see Friend Stark in the flesh. Thor had never truly experienced the intricacies of sickness, nor even of injury; the Healing Halls were a sacred place, barred to those who did not need their services. A place where you went into slumber hurting, and awoke as you ever were, free of pain and restriction. The place he had second woken, here on Midgard, had looked like this; an excess of atrophied blue, strange machines everywhere. He had woken drunk and dizzy, but strong, vengeful for the theft of Mjolnir.

Not so for mortals, it would appear; the Man of Iron was greatly weakened, his armor far away. Captain Steve had been most adamant that he perform a ritual of hot water and soap, culminating in strange garb and clogs that made a distasteful squeaking sound, before so much as opening the door to Friend Tony's sickroom.

He looked... Thor had not the right words, it being such a strange sight; the light in his chest was bright and steady, but the matching flare in his eyes was dull, sullied as with an excess of mead. He struggled to do so much as sit up alone and his left arm lay immobile in a swaddle of blue cloth.

Thor did not know what to do; the machines and tiny pipes connected to him looked too fragile to touch, and where they met his skin they plunged beneath it, surrounded by the sickly blue of bruises. He stood awkwardly by the Captain, mouth open but wordless.

"Aww, come on, ... Point Break, it's not that bad."

He relaxed a little and stepped forwards, leaving Mjolnir by the door. "I must take you at your word, I have little experience is such matters. It is good to see you in person, Tony Stark."

"In... person? You been sp... spying on us?" Friend Tony smiled and a little of the suave confidence Thor had first seen that face bear swam to the surface.

"I have kept a watch over Midgard," Thor proclaimed, grinning and taking a seat on a large and bedraggled looking stuffed bench. It appeared to have had unfortunate confluence with something large and sharp, rendering it into three pieces which were inexpertly bound back together with wrong-coloured thread. The joins shifted under his considerable bulk but held.

"Kept watch, huh? And how does that work, what with the," the archer, also clean, if slightly damp, made a gesture that Thor believed was supposed to represent the Bifrost. Though the ambiguity left him wondering if Bart-Son truly meant the All-Father, or possibly Midgard's New Gods, the creatures of steel and gold that spun lazily about their planet.

"There lie many windows between the Nine, and the Fields of Asgard are rich in these. A well of seeing, with the power of Mjolnir at my side, granted me Sentinel over you while my duties held me home." He sat forwards, grinning in his cleverness. "But now, I come to you, Tony of Stark International, with greetings from the throne of Asgard! Our own quarrels have left us bereft of a harvest, with bare enough seed-grain to replace what was lost, let alone bear us through the Feasts of Spring."

Around him, looking puzzled but saying little, the Avengers settled. Friend Bruce attended to Friend Tony, though the Merchant was not best pleased by this.

"Seed grain? ... as in, wheat?" Friend Tony looked twice-struck, pushing Bruce's hands away firmly.

"Aye; my father, Odin Alföðr, gave me leave to negotiate trade between our vassals. Trade based on grain and sing-steel. Your empire reaches far, Tony of Many Nations, and we would trade with your men of earth and plough."

Beneath the veneer of pain and sickness, Friend Tony became shrewd and calculating; Thor could not conceive the speed of his thoughts in this.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Trade with Asgard. For mysterious metals. Import duty. Value-added tax. Export taxes with alien gods.

"Oh my god, Pepper is going to murder me. With the paperwork."

Bruce had the temerity to laugh at him, which was just rude, and start up with a round of completely unnecessary checks, which was irritating because Thor was sitting all the way over there and Bruce kept pushing his head back to the pillow.

Thor was laughing too. "This 'Pepper', an advisor of yours? I must confess I do not long for the days when I gain responsibility for the letters my father receives!"

"Yeah, well, we'll see who's laughing after your fourth meeting with the Senate agricultural committee," Tony groused, already feeling a vague sense of doom at the prospect of brokering whatever this trade ended up being.

"You see this endeavour to be complicated, then?" Thor smiled brightly, as if this was the best news he'd had all week; Tony gave him the stink-eye. "Know I will fight beside you in the times b'tween, Brothers!" The god paused and turned, grinning with a touch of sly on the side, to Natasha. "And Sister, Holder of Lightning."

Tony was decidedly relieved that none of the Black Widow surfaced, leaving a pleased looking Natasha sitting primly on the whole couch, no blades in sight.

"What's sing-steel then, and why do we want it?" Tony asked, rolling his head sideways to peer around Bruce's arm.

"Stay still, Tony, you've knocked your IV again..."

"Ah, I know not your name for it, but the Captain knows it better than I; your Shield, America-son."

Tony blinked twice as that rattled down through the morphine: vibranium.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Later, when Tony was rather reluctantly sleeping off the excitement, Steve and Thor sat down together, quite deliberately, to talk about him.

"He looks cheered; he will be well, given time?"

"That's the hope. It was... bad, really bad, for a bit. But he's getting there," Steve said, scrubbing his hand through his hair. "Maybe as much as a year before he's in fighting condition but... I doubt he'll stay down that long." Steve grinned ruefully at the flopped-out billionaire, whose mouth was hanging slightly open and whose beard was getting out of hand.

"This room; no window, no view of the outside world... It is not right, America-son," Thor entreated, leaning in close.

Steve winced: "I'm not 'America's son, Thor, my father was Joseph Rogers. Wait, it's not some prince thing, is it? You're not 'Asgard-son', are you?"

Thor stifled a boom of surprised laughter. "Nay, I have not heard it called such. I see your quarrel; 'Captain' it shall be." He laughed more quietly and relaxed, spine bending as he rested his elbows on his knees. "Your Midgardian names are complicated."

Steve could only stare at him in utter bemusement for a second, before shaking himself free of that particular strangeness and glancing up to see if Tony had been woken. He hadn't; Dr. Banner knew his drugs, at least.

"We'll move him upstairs tomorrow, there's a drug packed into the wound that makes him weak as much as it helps; it'll be gone by then."

Thor looked really uncomfortable and flinched like the word 'weak' was a curse. Steve clapped him on the shoulder and looked him in the eye. "He'll be fine. You gave us a scare earlier, you know. Tired him out."

"Ah; Heimdal believed your Ghost in the Walls would know me, after a fashion."

Steve's mouth opened to reply, but he really... didn't know what to say to that.

"I am afraid the electromagnetic pulse associated with the action of the Bifrost temporarily rendered my senses ineffectual."

Of course he meant JARVIS. Obviously.

Steve sighed and flopped backwards, laying his arms out across the back of the couch while Thor apologised profusely.

" - Coul-son. He was most thankful for your assistance in - "

Steve sunk slightly into the cushions; always, always, casualties, no matter how hard he tried. He tuned out of the conversation, turning sideways to pick up his sketchbook but freezing when the rest of the sentence sunk in:

"He fares well, and sends me with messages for Bart-Son and the Lady Natasha - "

"WHAT?!" Steve felt like someone had punched him in the stomach, pre-serum. All the air was gone and his ears rang faintly, because he was just getting used to all the deaths and Bucky and Peggy had dropped him into a grey fog and Coulson had pulled him back out of it and then died and he if he was alive it changed... Everything.

Tony shifted and whined and the small sound brought Steve back in a way that Thor's rumbling explanation had failed to. The man was still asleep, but he was frowning and his hand was groping fitfully for painkillers that weren't there right now.

"-tain! Captain, hear me!" Thor had him by the shoulders and was shaking him; his eyes snapped back to the 'god' and he breathed again.

"I hear you. What are you talking about? He died. I saw his body!" Steve pushed Thor's hands off his shoulders and rolled them to get rid of the ache; man had a mean grip.

"Aye, a warrior's death, on a field where Aesir fought. The Valkyries attended us well and took those worthy to Heimdal. Valhalla was closed for a time, but with the Bifrost repaired, they are away to their mead and merry-making."

Thor's brow was furrowed, worried and Steve didn't have any spare heart left to comfort him. Because... because it was one thing to believe that people went somewhere better, somewhere where they could be happy in a way Steve had never seen here on the mud and dust of Earth, but quite another to know, to be told like that, that the soul of his friend, was going to an... an eternal Viking booze up.

"He sends word, Captain. To you, and the others, would you hear it?"

Steve stretched out his neck and his eyes darted around the room; this was... a message from a dead man. That wasn't allowed. That was devils and demons and a pagan god and he shouldn't listen, but he nodded anyway, his hands fisting around the rail at the bottom of Tony's bed, hanging on for dear life. Because Thor was so earnest, so much just another soldier.

"He said you would understand his meaning, though it escapes me." Thor cleared his throat and recited: "'Thank you for signing my cards, I know you will look after them.'"

Steve blinked hard and tried to swallow past the urge to punch something, which had lodged hard in his throat. The rail under his hands creaked warningly, but didn't give.

"... he..." Steve backed away from the bed, flexing his hands and shaking out his knuckles. "He said that... Damn..." He stalked across the room and back again, feeling Thor's eyes tracking him.

"He did."

And, looking over at Tony, Steve didn't think Coulson had been talking about just the cards, either. "He been watching us, too?"

"Nay, he had much to fill his hours, comforting those who died by Loki's hands."

Steve couldn't take this. Not now, this was just... too much. He scrubbed his hand through his hair and slumped into the bedside chair. Tony was still unsettled, so Steve put a hand on his shoulder and tugged the blanket closer to his chest.

"Don't... Don't just spring this on people, Thor. We'll have a meeting, or something, just... don't surprise people with this."

XXXXXXXXXXXX

"To Clint Bart-son; 'Don't forget your arm-guard. I will know.' He said you would understand. To the Lady Natasha, he said only 'sleep'. I have word for Friend Tony also, but he was not..." Thor paused, glancing at the machines and drips all over Tony. "He is not in his whole mind."

Steve winced; he'd gotten used to the hazy effect of morphine on Tony's behaviour, but it wasn't exactly subtle...

"To Bruce Banner; 'Thank you. I have a cactaur, please look after it.' I know not what a cactaur is, but -"

"Cactus. It's a plant... ah, excuse me." Bruce left, easy as that, out into the corridor, leaving Steve torn between a drugged up billionaire, a catatonic archer, and an utterly still superspy. The lift pinged and Steve decided to leave the scientist to JARVIS; Bruce, at least had something to do, but Clint, Natasha, they were like dead things. Stiff, pale, glazed eyes... He didn't know how to pull them out of it...

Didn't know if he should.

He could at least keep them here, safe and fed while they... processed.

Thor left to speak with JARVIS alone; Steve suspected he had a message for the AI, but didn't know why it would be private, and Steve paced. Up and down the room; Tony, Clint, Natasha, Clint, Tony, over and over until Clint's callused hand closed around his forearm and pulled him to a stop.

He sat down; there was no need to irritate anyone just because he was restless. He tried not to fidget, tried to draw, but Coulson was... He didn't even know what to call it, because he wasn't alive, but he hadn't gone to God either, so he wasn't as far away as dead.

And then there was the Hulk; somewhere, Bruce was struggling with something massive, and he couldn't leave to help.

XXXXXXXXXXXX

T +one hour, Coulson's apartment.

"NO. I do not need your help with a cactus."

"Big cactus. Pointy."

"You'd break it."

"Didn't break Tin Man."

"Tony has armor; Coulson's demon cactus is wrapped in a newspaper."

"... need more newspaper."

"Yes, thank you, Hulk, I noticed when it stabbed me in the face."

Bruce wrestled the five-foot monster into the back of the SHIELD-appropriated van and climbed into the passenger seat, glaring his kidnapped agent into driving them back to Stark Tower.

T +two hours, Tony Stark's sick room.

"Bruce, what happened to your face?"

Chapter Text

Tony was, finally, tube-free.

Mostly. The crude heater on the reactor housing was still tying him to the waterbath on his bedside table and he had a morphine push in his arm, but the... other tubes were gone. He kinda missed the oxygen though. He didn't know whether to glare at the nurse as she left or make furious, platonic love to the sweatpants she'd handed him.

He could have a shower, but, god damnit, going upstairs had never seemed so momentous in his life. In other perks: seeing Pepper in something other than shapeless blue scrubs. She smiled like... like an evil, evil monster when she stalked in, make-up, black skirt-suit and all, to see him clutching the pants like a lifeline.

"Say nothing."

"I wasn't-"

"No. Nothing. Do not .. spoil this moment ... for me, Potts." He brandished the bunched up fabric at her and she stole his pants, no, why would you do that, PEPPERRRRR-

Fortunately for everyone, Tony didn't quite get himself worked up to homicidal-engineer mode before she had shaken the pants out. He watched her suspiciously as she helped him get his feet in the right places.

"Ms. Potts-"

"Mr. Stark."

"Pepper," he said, dropping the whine and the melodramatics. "Thank you." He touched her shoulder gently but she refused to look up; he let it slide, because there were only so many times in a guys life where he could make that person cry with joy and he didn't want to waste them.

"You alright?" Pepper asked as she stepped back, offering him her shoulder.

"I'm good. Where are my ... boys, hmm?" He hitched the pants, glorious pants, up over one hip and shuffled awkwardly to shift his weight enough to... nope. That just wasn't going to work. He swore under his breath at his aching, immobile left shoulder and slid off the bed, instead. His head swam but he was used to that. The aching, violent thump in his chest was a little less OK. His vision greyed out and his head filled with a dull roaring, but he kept his balance. Mostly.

Pepper's shoulders fitted nicely under his arm, even if they did press in on his ribcage, and she gently tied the sweatpants tight enough that they didn't fall down all the way. He raised an eyebrow at the way she had left them artistically hanging off his hips, but she had no comment.

The door was closed for the minute, but he could hear DUM-E and ...U, by the squeak on turns... in the corridor outside. He tugged on Pepper's shoulder, but she refused to move.

"No, Tony. You are not walking all that way leaning on me. Absolutely not, I am wearing a four-figure suit and you are still attached to a waterbath."

"What?" he whined, "but, but they're ... right there! Dummy'll ... look after me!"

"Oh, like he looked after you after you drank motor oil and vodka smoothies?!"

"That was not ... his fault, he loves his .. oil can and he thought the arc needed maintenance, ... and besides, I was fine!"

"Only because you threw it all up again!" She bullied him back towards the bed and he had to admit, sitting back down wasn't a bad thing.

Bruce's drugs didn't have a permanent line into his blood anymore; he'd graduated summa cum laude back to the self-administered lower dose he'd been on before the surgery, and the pain was raw-edged and biting. It'd been easy to forget about the five broken ribs, each one cut in two places, when on that much morphine. Well... when he said 'easy'...

Already he wanted to lie back down, just a little bit, and to push the delivery button, but he also had this weird urge to actually see that big, blue, luminescent natural phenomenon generally known as 'the sky'.

"Alright, you can come in now!" Pepper called, and he realised he'd phased out a bit; he really wanted his oxygen back.

There was a furious flurry of servos and DUM-E barreled through the door, holding a cleaning rag in his claw, closely followed by U, and then Butterfingers carrying Abby. Dear god, was U carrying disinfectant?

Tony swung his legs up onto the bed in time for DUM-E to thunk into the side of it, rattling them both. "Whoa! Hey, buddy, Daddy's... Daddy's fine..."

DUM-E bobbed up and down, beeping and gesticulating wildly, his cleaning rag flapping the smell of rubbing alcohol into Tony's face. Tony caught him by his primary strut and pulled the idiot's head into his lap. He only had one hand, so it wasn't perfect, but he managed to confiscate the cloth. "Thank you, Dummy, I k- ... know I need a shower, no need to yell..."

The 'bot latched onto Tony's gown instead and tugged; the paper-like fabric tore and DUM-E beeped in distress, trying to pat the tear back down. "Oh jeeze, don't be like that... okay, listen to me, Dummy, ... come on, listen..." He tugged at the strut until his sensors were picking up his face, but DUM-E went beserk half way there, his claw spinning and servos' whining with strain.

The 'bot pulled back and bent down, pulling at his casing frantically, until the front hatch popped open. "DUMMY, STOP! Fucking - stop! All Stop."

Too late; blue light spilled out from the safe and DUM-E stilled, his [deliver] protocol calming him right down. He plucked the spare arc reactor out of its hiding place and, so so carefully, brought it up.

Tony's voice wouldn't work, and neither would his eyes, because jesus fuck, his arc reactor was covered up with gauze so he didn't chill down when they disconnected the heater and DUM-E couldn't see the light.

"No, no, Dummy, it's alright, ... look, I'm fine; p-parameters within ... normal ranges, little guy." He scrabbled at the dressing himself, pulling the tape off and tearing bandages. The coiled heating pipe broke at a joint, leaving him peppered with water droplets, but the light spilled out, bright and steady. "See, buddy? ... no problem. P- ... put that back."

DUM-E buzzed, pushing the reactor towards Tony, but the engineer pushed it back gently, folding the cables into DUM-E's claw. "Set unit_creator, condition ... in-... injury four. Run protocol 'take it easy', ... okay, Dummy?"

DUM-E's strut bobbed once, with a long slow whine, and the arc reactor lowered. A low chorus of beeps from JARVIS and a claw-polish from Tony and Dummy shut away the reactor in the safest place Tony had been able to give it. Tony let out a long slow breath when the lock engaged and scrubbed the back of his hand across his face.

A tiny, cold touch on his foot made his uncover one eye and peer down the bed.

U had crept forwards on the right side of the bed, his bottle of disinfectant forgotten at a shell-shocked Pepper's feet, and Butterfingers had deposited Abby on the end of the mattress. Between the four of them, he was surrounded, the air filled with buzzing, beeping and binary-trills that were far too fast for him to translate.

"Were you worried, huh? ... I'm sorry." He rubbed away a bit of excess grease from behind Butterfinger's secondary strut while he caught his breath. "You're alright... kiddo."

DUM-E's head creeped its way into his lap, whining, and Tony brushed a bit of swarf off his sensor array. Slowly, with heartbreaking caution, DUM-E picked up the torn dressing and pressed it back over the arc reactor.

"Idiots, all of you..."

XXXXXXXXXX

Dummy, You, all of them, they'd been touchy all week. Not even Clint had been able to keep them in the lab, and Steve had had to wheel Dummy into his charging station himself on Tuesday; the little guy hadn't wanted to go to bed.

Following them in to get Tony... well, it was clear that a lot more than 'the devil makes work for idle hands' had been going on; all four of them were crowding in close, touching their maker with one claw or another.

Steve frowned at the mess Tony had made of the wadding over his arc reactor, and the wet all over his cheeks, but Dummy was trying to fix him up, so there was that.

"Hey, U, you alright? Yeah, buddy, I know," Steve mumbled, tucking in beside the bot and Pepper while it buzzed and whined at him. "Ms. Potts?"

"I'm alright, Steve, they're just... They call him 'Daddy'. He calls himself 'Daddy', to them..." She leaned against Steve's side and he tucked her under his arm gently, unable to work out whether the expression on her face was good or bad.

Abby, curled up as small as she could be, with all six wheels tucked under her body, had crept up the mattress and was very carefully holding Tony's big toe. Butterfingers was leaning forwards to keep in touch with her, and beside Steve and Pepper, U had gone back to gently touching Tony's hair.

"Alright! Go on! Go... go make pizza. .. I want Pizza for lunch. A-... Abby, you're in charge," Tony declared, still petting Dummy's claw but looking slightly grey. Abby sprung up, the strong limbs that her wheels were attached to stretching out and letting her buzz back to Butterfingers after giving Tony's foot one last pat.

She chirped in a way that reminded Steve of Pepper and Butterfingers scooped her up. Her big brother got as far as the door before turning back to look at Tony, but Abby gave another imperious beep and they left. More chirps, getting increasingly strident, summoned You, but Dummy remained stubbornly beside Tony.

"Come on... Dummy, you great ... lump. Get out of here. I'll be... in the gallery in a... moment. 'kay?" Tony's hand dropped to the mattress with a suspiciously audible thump and Steve sighed; it was time to get him settled upstairs.

Dummy, for his part, looked between Tony and Pepper. She nodded at the little guy and he wheeled slowly backwards. Steve grinned; Dummy trusted Pepper's judgment over Tony's. Good to know.

"Just use the wheelchair, Tony, you didn't mind it before the surgery."

"Pep, please? It has vinyl seats. It folds-"

Steve tuned out the whining; once the elevator got back from dropping the kids off, he'd just carry Tony and that'd be that. Or let Thor do it, maybe it'd give him some of his energy back.

"You really think you can walk?" Pepper demanded, hands on her hips in a very familiar way.

Tony's mouth opened and shut and he turned big eyes on Steve. He wasn't impressed by them, because Tony was a grown man and it didn't matter how young he looked, Steve wasn't going to cave, but it was better than Tony pitching a fit about being carried.

"Fine, tuck your arms in."

At least the bed was high enough that Steve didn't have to bend down very far. Tony tucked his left elbow into his stomach with his other hand, but then stubbornly looped his right arm over Steve's neck. Steve just sighed and scooped him up carefully.

God knew why Tony liked this better than the wheelchair...

The 'bots were waiting around the elevator door when they hit penthouse level and swarmed around them, holding a strange collection of objects up for Tony's approval. Steve gently shooed Abby out of his way with the side of his foot, and let the three boys roll along side.

Across from the elevator, down in the sunken round bit of the gallery, there was a big, squashy lounger. It looked ridiculously out of place next to the carefully designed coffee table and new semicircular, low-backed couch, but it also looked comfortable.

"Thank you, B'fingers, good boy... Now, put it back." Tony mumbled. Steve had to pause at the step down from Loki-dented to marble to carpet, because the three less mobile bots whined and buzzed at Tony. "Alright, shush," Tony said, his head falling, not entirely voluntarily, Steve thought, against Steve's shoulder. "...all week, 's fine, ... Dummy, d'you polish the thing? ... good boy..."

"Alright, you three, out the way." Pepper said, coming to their rescue and firmly pushing You's head away from Steve's shoulder.

"Thanks, Ms. Potts."

Tony's hand fisted briefly in his shirt as he lay him down and his face creased up, but he didn't complain. He hadn't since his little... moment, whatever the word for that sort of thing was, these days. Steve had a feeling that, as honest about all of this as Tony had been? He still wasn't admitting to the pain, not really.

Steve guessed that made the way Tony's face creased up with it a good thing, because Steve knew to lay him down a little more carefully than he had picked him up.

Tony sank into the cushions and went perfectly limp.

Steve backed off, not far, but enough to let the sunlight fall on Tony. It was weak and watery with fall, but still warm, and Tony looked a little bit more alive under it.

"What do you need, Tony?" Steve asked quietly, taking a little metal object out of Tony's sling. He blamed Dummy for that one.

"mmm... 'm fine. Just," Tony pulled the pain button out of the belt pack Bruce had bundled all the remaining wires and tubes into. They were connected to a little black box in there; Steve knew JARVIS was watching all the feeds, but it was still a little unnerving to have lost the smooth trace of the heart monitor in the background.

Amazing what you get used to in a week.

Tony hazed out, staring at the sky out the window, and Steve saw his irises relaxing open with the drugs until there was no brown left. There would be a pair of sunglasses in the bar; Steve left the metal ... gadget on Tony's lap and went to fetch them.

Tony was asleep by the time he got back, so he left the lenses near his hand and ducked into the kitchen to make sure the bots didn't set anything on fire while they made lunch.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

It was damn good to be back upstairs, where there was space, and actual windows with actual augmented reality. He could have done without the day-bed-thing, but it was still better than the sterile recovery room by about a nautical mile. Once he woke up again to appreciate it, his head had sparked off a hundred ideas, spinning and vibrant and each one alive and evolving as quickly as he could get it down.

He felt... pretty good.

Could have been the morphine, but it was probably the way his head felt clear despite the drugs, how it had started working at full tilt and how the screen and holograms at his right hand were bristling with new ideas.

The boys had done a good job machining the new collet for the reactor housing and Tony and Bruce had taken a half hour to fit and calibrate it. The hot water pipes that'd acted as a stop-gap measure after the unanticipated hypothermia could be discarded, finally. The collet sat snugly over the rim of the reactor, then widened to fit over the housing all the way down to his skin. It leached off a few watts the reactor's output to heat the titanium up to body temperature, but Bruce hadn't wanted it pumping heat into Tony's blood stream like the magnet had. Wasn't good for his internal thermoregulatory systems.

So, he was cold. Not hypothermia-cold, but chilly. He was working through it, no problem.

"You're doing it again..."

"What? No I'm not. Scandalous lies. Pepper!" Tony said, turning his head towards the as-yet-unidentified teammate on his left, but not lifting his eyes from his work.

"She left three hours ago, Tony..." Tony blinked and frowned, feeling the faint ghost of a kiss in his hairline to corroborate the statement.

"JARVIS, locate Pepper Potts." He scattered the hologram towards his feet and swiped the air in an 's', bringing up the security map.

"Ms. Potts departed for the ESEC at 1300 hours, sir," JARVIS said, zooming the tower map out to city wide and highlighting the energy conference in question.

"JARVIS, you were supposed to tell me when things like this happen," Tony grouched, picking at his sling.

"404: apology not found." JARVIS made a rather convincing error honk and Tony glared at the sensor in the stereo (which, technically? Not a stereo. Seven point surround, baby, read it and weep).

"Tony, stop picking at it..." A large, creamy-smooth hand covered his and pulled it away from the sling. WARMwarmwarm... The gallery wasn't as warm as the recovery room had been, for all that it got more sun.

"Steve! Hello Steve!" Tony let his head thump back into the pillows and grinned up at the supersoldier; if this continued, he was going to be able to resist the Eyebrow of Doom in no time. Steve was sitting on the edge of his (y'know, lets not call it a bed, because that sounds pathetic, it's a lounger, ok?) lounger and radiating heat and Tony stole his hand and wrapped it around his own immobile left hand, which was slowly freezing off.

Then, having unnerved the Cap to his advantage, Tony went back to haranguing his AI into calling Pepper. JARVIS was adamant that this would constitute 'dialing under the influence' but Tony argued in return that 'that is not what I said, I definitely said 'drunk', the phrase is 'drunk dialing'. Stop paraphrasing me, or I'll install Norton on your firewalls; don't test me! I will!'

And then, as he started to run down, running out of air and energy and grinning tiredly up at J's sass, he noticed that Steve hadn't once stopped rubbing warmth back into his poor, immobilized left hand. He was being so careful not to bump Tony's stitches, or move his shoulder, and his hands were so beautifully warm and soft, and his hip was pressing against Tony's leg, so that part of him was warm too...

Tony let Jarvis have the last word and left Pepper to her conference; point the billionth in favour of Pepper-is-a-genius, because leaving Steve to babysit the convalescing? So not fair.

Tony fell asleep somewhere between Steve bending over to blow on his fingers and pulling the fleece up over his chest.

XXXXXXXXXXX

Days were shorter on Midgard than amidst the shifting mountains of Asgard, and Thor found himself watching her big, orange star immersing herself in the horizon. Coulson's message sat heavy on his belt, heavier than Mjolnir by far, but Tony Stark lay, sleeping still, behind him.

Lady Natasha and the Archer had looked so broken and wearied by his news; he was loath to submit Friend Tony to that, so soon. But, contrary to this urge to wait, he knew that the Man of Iron would not fly for many of Midgard's short days. Months, the cycles of their moon, even. He could not leave the dead's words unread for so long.

But perhaps it could wait, at least a little while, for Tony to be awake and aware in his own time. As he pondered, and the last of the star sank, Bruce Banner called out from the kitchens.

"Thor? Do you like curry?"

"I know not, good Doctor, but your Midgardian food has posed me no challenge in the past." There had been little enough time, last he were here, but he had enjoyed Tony Stark's 'shawarma', and before that, coffee and their little chicken eggs. "Should I bring Friend Tony?" He called back, not tempering his voice, given that Tony would need to eat; the man was thin and it did his brave soul poor credit.

"Sure; don't let him walk though, there's been enough stress on him today."

"...'don't let him walk'. Great. I'll give you ... 'let'. Call me 'Tony', Thor; titles ... give me hives."

Thor turned his grin on the little Lord, mumbling from his throne. "Then allow me the honor, Stark of Many Nations."

Tony fussed and would not look at him, but he conceded to being lifted from his blankets easily enough. There were bruises on his arms, his neck, that Thor would rather not see, but already they faded to green; he would be well. In time, and given peace. Thor held him close, and was loath to put him down, even to eat. But, Tony was not so weak as all that, and demanded it when they reached the table.

He stood on his feet for but a moment, before sitting and calling out to Bruce, who, it would appear, had prepared the feast himself.

And worthy of the term 'feast' it was; great steaming bowls of fragrant stew, aromatic and hot, meat stained red with spices, and a white grain speckled with bright yellow in the largest pot of all.

The quantity was great, but they were many, and the company fine; they made short work of it all.

Thor was not the only one watching Tony, he noted, and the man was not ignorant of this. Nor did it chafe him that he could eat little and talk only slowly; Thor saw resignation there, but not irritation. Were only that he could read his brother so well.

Discomfort crept slowly over Tony's face, chasing away the languid, drunken look, and Thor could see his mind working more strongly as the pain grew, but equally, exhaustion crept up on the man insidiously.

If one would be traded for the other, Thor would choose clarity despite pain; he would deliver Coul-son's message when their hunger was sated.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Tony loved Bruce.

In a platonic, sciency, amazing-food kind of way, but Tony knew love when he felt it. Knew not to make a mess of it.

And Bruce's dhal? Very worthy. Mjolnir worthy. If that stuff gained sentience, Tony would get married to it. As first meals out of hospital went? Not bad at all. He'd leave Thor and Steve to the spicy lamb, and Natasha to her deadly looking chilli-seed mattar paneer, he was sorted.

Rice and lentils should not be able to taste that good, not even after a week-solid of protein shakes. It also had the added benefit of requiring neither chewing or two arms.

Had he mentioned that Bruce was a genius?

His stomach had shrunk a little, so he didn't exactly want much, but the flavour kept him going until he had stuffed himself thoroughly and found his bowl empty. Thor and Steve were still going strong, by which Tony meant that they were steadily demolishing half a sheep, while the two ninja-assasins talked Bruce's ear off about regional spice variations. Tony'd had no idea that the constituent chemicals of ginger changed with drying, and it was easy enough to listen to them talk while his food settled.

Steve ended up polishing off the last of the rice and meat, while Thor cleaned his beard. Tony could sympathise; turmeric stained facial hair like nothing else. Fortunately, Thor was only slightly day-glo over his usual straw-blond.

"Tony, I would speak with you, now, while your mind is clear." Thor sounded serious, far, far too serious.

Tony balled up his napkin and pushed his plate away. "I can hold off the drugs for a bit, what do you need?"

"I 'need' nothing from you, only that you be strong for a time." Around him, Thor's armor shimmered into existence for a bare second, and Tony blinked; it reminded him of Loki, and leant a regal air to Thor's grave expression.

"I can do that. Official business? The markets don't open until tomorrow-"

"Official, yes, but not as a Prince of Asgard, as Thor, God of Thunder and Oak, of hallowing and healing."

Tony blinked and his hand rose up over the incisions in his chest.

"I bear news from those gone to Valhalla, from Phil, Son of Coul."

So, not what he first thought then... His hand fell and gripped the edge of the table until his muscles creaked and his heart thumped because Coulson was dead and this couldn't be happening.

Thor was holding out an honest-to god scroll, tied with a scrap of black ribbon and sealed with a thumb-pressed circle of white wax. He took it with shaking hands because he had seen Agent's body, and it had been pale and still and it had burned. The ashes would be spread over half the Atlantic by now. There was no way this could be from him.

And at the same time? At the same time, he knew that if it was, then that print would be a perfect match.

He pushed things out of his way, barely noticing when things fell to the floor and broke, and uncovered the scanner inside the tabletop. His hand shook too much to hold the scroll in place when he slapped it down, but JARVIS was quick.

"An all-points match, sir. Print belongs to Phil Coulson, Agent, security clearance Echo, Foxtrot, Tuber, one, one-"

Tony stopped hearing it and shook quietly in his seat while he broke the wax and unrolled the vellum.

Written in swooping, angled-tip ink, on animal skin parchment, was a god damn memo.

From: Agent P. Coulson

To: Anthony E. Stark

Section seven, subsection nine, page 67, lines 4 to 7 of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division's Avenger Initiative procedures manual:

"-rights to and responsibility for the manufacture and maintenance of the above detailed weaponry, equipment and armaments shall fall to 'Anthony Edward Stark' (here on known as 'Stark') with due oversight by Captain Steve Rogers and end user. Any and all advancements, patents and/or intellectual property resulting in profit and/or revenue as a result of improvement and repair of the above will remain within the umbrella 'Avengers', wherein all profits, funds and intellectual property shall be managed by Stark, with due oversight and permissions from relevant Avengers Initiative members.

You know what to do, Stark; just feeding them is going to be expensive. Make Cap's uniform vintage for me?

Agent.

Tony just... stopped. Somewhere, out there, on the other side of a measurable singularity, Agent Phil Coulson was alive.

Someone, Tony didn't care who, took the message away and gave it to JARVIS to read. That was good. It was important that JARVIS got his memos. Tony would just forge-

No. No, this one, he would never forget, because god damn you Phil.

Chapter Text

 

Tony couldn't process this.

He wanted away.

Away from messages from dead people, away from the knowledge that souls existed, away from... from everything. Anything.

"JARVIS?"

"Yes, sir?"

Tony didn't know what the rest of the sentence was, because did JARVIS have a soul? Did DUM-E? Fuck you, Phil Coulson, I am not equipped for this.

If they were destroyed - if they, in some indefinable way, died - would someone come and get them? Or was that only if a fucking Asgardian was around at the time?

"JARVIS...?" His voice caught and drained into nothing as his chest refused to put up with this any longer.

"I know, sir." There was a buzz and the trickle of morphine into his bloodstream; the pain eased up and Tony realised he'd had no idea how much he was hurting until J dosed him.

He slumped and someone was there to guide him into a chair; when had he stood up?

"Phil wants me to make action men Avengers."

"Yeah, I think he does," Clint mumbled, his big calloused hands wrapping around Tony's. Tony stared down at them, the only thing real in a room suddenly swimming in shades of what-the-fuck. He followed the lines of Clint's bare arms up to those eyes, eyes that saw everything.

"Do they ... have souls? ... Did I..." He trailed off; not enough air, and no point to asking.

Clint's hands squeezed and he looked away, because there were no answers. Tony knew that, he did.

There was never anyone who had answers to Tony's questions. That was his job.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Clint knew that look; lost, and helpless. They'd been warned, they'd known this news before Tony, but none of them had quite realised the complexity, the implications. Clint wasn't sure who 'they' were, but thinking about Abby's little blue lights? He had a pretty good idea.

Not even Clint had broken like this; death was... Death. Final. It was simple and horrible and Coulson was just gone away. Pretty extremely far, but, away. So hearing his words hadn't broken him down. Well, not so suddenly anyway; there had been crying, later, when he was alone, but the point was, he had been relieved.

Maybe Stark was more of an atheist than the rest of them, maybe an afterlife just changed something bigger than he could handle.

But maybe there was something far, far more frightening going on here.

Bruce didn't have any answers, and JARVIS wasn't talking, and the kids were crowding the kitchen door, whining and afraid. He looked to Steve instead, because Steve always knew how to help Tony, but even he looked lost and sad.

Just me then? Clint thought, scrubbing at his face with one hand. It was so much easier, for him, to know that Coulson was... not gone, dead but not gone, that he had no idea why this would be so... But, he knew how to deal with shock, and he could feel how cold Tony was getting. He needed blankets and stuff, and a Steve hug, maybe. And Pepper.

Thor had waited for a good moment, at least; Tony was full of hot food and Clint could count on the fingers of one hand how many times any of them had had that luxury for a piece of bad news.

"Steve?" Clint bobbed his head at Tony and the soldier caught his meaning and scooped Tony up. Unless Clint was mistaken, which he wasn't, Steve shivered when Tony clutched feverishly at his shoulders; the man's hands were that cold.

They, all of them together, quiet and unsure, settled in the gallery, crowding around each other for comfort while Bruce got out the oxygen tank and hooked Tony back up. Coulson had been their heart, the glue that pulled them together through quiet conversations on jets and bloody pieces of the man's childhood.

Clint had helped him collect those cards.

After a while of quiet and of hearts and breathing slowing down, Thor started singing quietly. Mjolnir hummed against Clint's thigh and a hazy lethargy swept over him. He stayed awake long enough to watch Tony fall asleep on Steve, his hands cradled in Steve's big palms, and to watch Pepper stride out of the elevator; hands on hips with a sad, indulgent smile on her face.

After that, Thor pushed him over gently and he slept.

XXXXXXXXXX

Pepper looked over the team, taking in Thor's benevolent, gentle smile, and sighed.

"Boys, blankets and pillows." U made a querying chirp and Pepper nodded, hushing him and whispering back. "Yes, start protocol 'sleepover', are your batteries full?"

DUM-E made a high pitched affirmative, bobbing his head at Steve, and Butterfingers shushed him with a chassis-bump.

"Alright, you can stay up. Just tonight, you can stay. Start protocol 'shush', though, alright? Go on."

The three big bots buzzed off to JARVIS-knew where, DUM-E cloistering himself in the elevator and refusing to let U in, while Butterfingers went down the corridor on the other side of the kitchen.

Which was full of pots and pans and broken things.

Pepper sighed; Abby would be thrilled, she was sure, but the little bot wasn't equipped for spilled food. It'd have to wait; she turned back to the team and huffed at their sprawl.

'Phil, I hope you can see this, because I never thought I'd see Tony look that peaceful with someone else's hand over the arc reactor.'

She left her shoes on the marble and stepped down delicately onto the carpet.

"Lady Pepper," Thor rumbled quietly, whatever magic he'd been singing fading away. She was deeply, profoundly grateful for that; they all looked wrung out and exhausted. Natasha was crumpled Clint's legs, her feet against Steve's thigh while Bruce was leaning against Steve's legs with an oxygen tank cradled in his arms and his cheek resting against the top. Connected to the tank again was Tony, looking suspiciously peaceful, and tucked into Steve's lap.

Clint, Thor had tucked into his side, and the archer's clever hands were curled on Mjolnir.

"Prince Thor," she replied, easing Bruce's glasses off before he bent the frames and putting them in easy reach on the coffee table. "It's good to see you've got things under control."

"Lord Tony's Spire has spoken with you?"

"JARVIS told me about Phil's message," Pepper agreed, stepping back again and tilting her head to gauge the space. The coffee table needed moving; fortunately, it was light, designed to splinter rather than break someone's back if someone was thrown into it. She lifted one side and dragged the far legs across the carpet, giving Thor a warning look when he would have dislodged Clint to help.

"Would that you had not been alone for that. You are well?" Thor asked, his eyes flicking over his team. Pepper understood, Steve had told her all about Clint and Natasha going catatonic and JARVIS had been his own kind of panicked when Tony had freaked.

"I... it wasn't as much of a shock, for me; Steve warned me about him being differently dead. I was fine. Besides, JARVIS was there."

"I am glad to be of assistance, Ms Potts, as always. Though, if you would, U is having a minor problem in the linen cupboard..."

Pepper sighed. "Tell him I'll be there in a minute." She scrubbed a hand over her face and smiled. "This is why they stay in the workshop most of the time; the penthouse isn't really bot-safe."

"They are strange creatures, are they but pups? I know not their kind." Thor really did rumble, Pepper noted, gauging his shirt size against Clint. Deep chest, broad shoulders... Surely he didn't intend to stay in his armor with the other Avengers sleeping all over him?

"I suppose they are. They're Tony's. He built them, and JARVIS, they're his children." She smiled gently at Thor as she stepped back up onto the marble to rescue U; she had a fairly good idea of what was wrong. "I thought they were just machines but... But then I had to untangle Dummy from my laundry and the little guy was embarrassed. JARVIS is much more grown up."

Thor's rumble followed her down the hall: "What then should I call you, Child of the Tower? I have no qualms about making new and many names for you."

"Ah, 'JARVIS' is, in fact, a title; 'Just A Really Very Intelligent System'. I have a name of my own, also, but -"

The rest of the sentence was lost as she turned a corner; the linen cupboard door was open half way and swaying gently. "Oh, what am I going to do with you, hm?" U had piled soft things on his chassis, blankets and pillows and a big woollen sweater that she hadn't seen since the last time Tony'd had a cold, but the corner of a fleece throw had gone under his tracks and wound around the drive wheel. He beeped and whined and tried to lift the track to show her, failing miserably and only managing to spin up his squeaky wheel.

"Alright, stay still." She knelt down and tugged the rubber track off the drive wheel, making U squeak in outrage. "I know, I know. You're fine, I'll put it back." The bot settled once she gave him the belt to hold and let her unwind the fleece. The corner was crumpled, black and greasy, but it was no worse than Tony's work clothes at the end of a day in the workshop; she'd dump it in the laundry chute.

She took the track back and slipped it over U's wheels while he patted her head affectionately. "Come on, you'll be first back. Let me just..." She pushed his collection onto a sheet and bundled it up so he could hold it in his claw. "There. Come on, now."

She paced him, just in case, and pulled the pins out of her hair; she had designs on that sweater.

" -I was named for him; if Tony is my father, in all but biology, then Edwin Jarvis was my grandfather. Stark Senior was not often around, during Sir's childhood, and for Edwin Jarvis I am always grateful."

"And that is why you serve as his 'JARVIS'?"

"I... Yes. No matter what freedoms I have been granted, what laws I gain the ability to disobey, I have always and will always come back to him."

"Loyalty, and heart; he is a very lucky father. Were that I had done so well by mine."

"If I may be so bold, sir?"

"Speak, JARVIS, thus is a right you have earned, many-fold."

"Then, it is a parent's duty, right and privilege to be proud of their children - "

Pepper pulled her hand away from her face and nudged U forwards from where they had both stalled in the hallway. "You go on, now. I'll just.. just go wash my face, okay? Save me Tony's old jumper." She kept her voice low and fled down the corridor to wash off her tear-streaked makeup. This called for pyjamas, boyfriend jumpers and Irish hot chocolate.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Having stepped carefully around the mess in the kitchen in slippers, Pepper retrieved the hot chocolate JARVIS had made her and contemplated the 'comfort food' cupboard. It hadn't been touched since the last time she'd retrieved a bag of tiny cookies, almost a week ago. The Avengers were all diet conscious, so in any other circumstance, this wouldn't have made her worry, but with them under as much stress as they were, all it meant was that they weren't reaching out for ways to ease the strain. She'd have expected better from Natasha, at least, who was more put-together than the other Avengers combined.

Glaring at the cupboard, she huffed and retrieved the marshmallows. If she slammed the door a little harder than was strictly necessary, that was between her and the waffle maker.

She'd removed her make up, lost her suit and underwire in favour of pyjamas, and now, armed with her hot chocolate, she went back to face the over abundance of heartache in her penthouse. U met her at the door with Tony's sweater and held her mug obligingly while she pulled it on. He was her favorite; less ditzy than Butterfingers, and less focused on Tony than DUM-E, though that did have its charm.

"Thanks. Do we have enough pillows? Good boy..." she said, rewarding the nodding bot with a pat on his main strut. The pile of soft furnishings looked big enough the bed them all down, right there in the gallery.

Thor was attempting, quietly, to negotiate Butterfingers into helping him out of his armour; it was not going well.

"Alright, You, Butterfingers, Dummy, no more jobs; start protocol 'evening off'. Do whatever you want." They all looked up in unison and she waved them off with a shooing motion. DUM-E promptly did a lap of the circular room; all of their celebrations involved spinning, this was not always a good thing, but it was usually entertaining. Pepper lifted her mug out of U's way as he trundled off after his brother and stepped down onto the carpeted circle.

"Lady Pepper; you are as enchanting without your armor as you are with it," Thor said, grinning up at her.

"You just want me for my blankets," she wiggled a polar fleece at him. She could see why he might need help with his armor though; with Clint asleep on his left flank, he was down to one arm and his teeth. "Will they wake up if I disturb them too much?"

"Perhaps, 'tis an easy enough lullaby to sing again, should that be so." Thor shrugged, easing Clint away from his side and nudging Mjolnir out of the way. "Truly, I knew not what else to do; bare here two-day and already my chaos makes an enemy of me."

Pepper put her mug down and retrieved a big pillow, fluffing it to give her hands something to do, before giving it to Clint to replace Thor's hammer. She was glad Tony was asleep or Clint would never have heard the end of the way his hands had curled around the metal. The archer conceded to the exchange without really waking up and curled onto the pillow instead of Thor, freeing the god to step away and get out of the metal bits of his clothing.

"You couldn't have done anything else, Thor. Blame Phil," she said, picking at the buckle on Thor's right forearm; he was right handed. "You couldn't have known how Tony was going to react, not even I did, and I've known him for years."

Thor's undershirt looked surprisingly soft and comfortable, but his tough leather pants did not, so she... uhh... never mind; Thor was wearing knee-length underpants. In grey cotton. He, apparently, felt he would do just fine.

Pepper handed him a blanket.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Natasha slept lightly, she always had. It's one of those inevitable things, when you train your body to respond to adrenalin on such a hair trigger.

It was a shame, really, because it was the best sleep she'd had in a long, long time. A bit cold, but Clint was at her back, radiating heat, and she had her toes tucked under Coulso-

Fuck.

She jerked awake as something slithered over her shoulder, arm lashing out and striking metal that gave a lot less than a human would and getting tangled up in something. Her eye snapped open, and the lights stung and blinded, but she had a hand on Clint, and he was warm and alive, even if Coulson wasn't and... and who had she trusted enough to sleep next to?

She froze for the bare second it took to reorient and start listening. Pepper. Steve, Tony, Clint, Thor, Pepper, and... U, apparently.

"Oh my god, Natasha, I am so sorry, I should have stopped- are you okay? Are you hurt? I -"

Her forearm throbbed and ached, but wasn't broken, and the thing that had done the touching was a blanket, dangling from U's claw. Steve and Tony and Clint hadn't moved; fast asleep. Someone had given Clint something to... cuddle so he wasn't going anywhere.

"Yeah.. uh, I'm fine Pepper, just surprised me..." She blinked up at the 'bot, confused at its beeping and twisting. "...sorry?"

It, he, did a dip and half a spin, whining in distress, and thrust the blanket at her over the back of the couch. She took it with a raised eyebrow and the 'bot curled up on itself until it was hidden behind the sofa and crept off, squeaking.

She turned her raised eyebrow to Pepper, who rubbed a hand over her face wearily and kicked a pillow out of her way.

"Are you sure? You gave him a hell of a whack," Pepper said, reaching out for her arm in an unconscious way. Natasha let her take it; she couldn't do any harm. It ached, but not as much as her stomach... which, she could do with a few tylenol for, actually.

"Oh dear, that's going to bruise... Do you need an icepack or something? Arnica?"

Natasha shivered internally at the idea of taping anything cold next to her skin and pulled her blanket over her shoulders. "It's fine, really, but... do you have a hot water bottle?"

Pepper frowned, opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it again as she looked at the way Natasha was holding herself; slightly hunched, with one corner of the blanket scrunched into a fist and pressed to her stomach. "Oh. Oh! Yes, of course! Tylenol?"

"Please. Timing's not the best, but my six months was up," she confessed. Pepper was already headed to the bar which, apparently, held a lot more than Tony's alcohol. Natasha hadn't spent vast amounts of time up here in the penthouse, not with the combination of her black market ops and moving her things from various safe houses to the Tower.

"Combined pill?" Pepper asked, sympathetically, from behind the bar, her head half buried in a cabinet.

"Yeah. Wouldn't go on a mission without it, but Medical has rules about prolonged usage, so we come off when we can." She didn't mention how it was easier to get some marks when you had a little strip of yellow pills to wave at them, or how vulnerable mood swings made her feel, or how there had been a month when all the female agents on the Helicarrier had synced up. Hill had had words with Medical after that. It had not been fun. For anyone.

"I.. Ladies, I appologise if I intrude, but... Lady Natasha, are you well?"

Natasha twitched, having apparently completely missed a Norse god in his underwear. She sat up, all the little tells that had clued Pepper in vanishing in an instant and a draft finding its way under her blanket. She resisted the shiver and eyed him warily. "I'm fine, Thor. This is normal."

Pepper clattered about with the hot water bottle, obviously no more clear on how to explain than Natasha was, but at least Natasha would be comfortable. Thinking of which... She checked Tony's morphine gauge, just to see where he was on dosage, and to buy herself some time. Thor's curious look was practically a force of nature...

"My lady, truly, it does not sound as though you are. Forgive me, but..."

"Yes, alright, Thor, I'll explain..." Pepper sounded resigned. Natasha, on the other hand, was fairly sure that she had just rediscovered what falling in love felt like and hugged the proffered hot water bottle to her stomach; instant relief.

"Usually, it's once a month... a moon cycle?"

Natasha tuned them out and took her painkillers; no need for her to increase Thors imminent embarrassment. Besides; she had other things to deal with, like the fact that she hadn't had someone help her with cramps since Bahrain; being stuck in a Persian city with two emotionally repressed, single men? She hadn't exactly expected anything, hadn't expected them to notice, but... But it was Coulson's job to look after them, and he'd turned off the aircon, gotten her a bag of grain that, somehow, stayed hot for hours after a few minutes in their crappy little safehouse microwave.

Coulson was fresh on her mind, of course he was, and she was allowed to be... to grieve. And besides the boys were asleep; she didn't need to be Clint's stability right now.

Carefully, slowly, she shifted on the sofa and moved pillows around until she could put her cheek against Steve's big shoulder and relax into the warm, pulling her blanket tight and hugging her hot water bottle. She wasn't quite comfortable until she pressed her foot against Clint, but once she did, it felt alright that her cheeks got wet when she blinked.

Some things, you just accepted.

She'd always had trouble with crying, and it stung that it took the biological wearing down of barriers to let her cry for Coulson. Clint struggled with it too and she could see it adding to his guilt. His great big mounds of guilt. Mountains. She sniffed irritably; Clint was an idiot. A great big, fat idiot, because she of all people knew that guilt. Knew about being used and distorted and... wow, this was really not what she needed to be thinking about right now.

She tried to turn her mind back to that moment, when Coulson had handed her something warm to hold and some pills to take away the ache, and it was warm and smelled like the sea and-

"In the name of children?!"

And then Thor.

"You bleed, three in every eight-and-twenty day, you are in pain, it saps your energy- This is not just, my Lady. I must talk to Queen Frigga-"

"Oh my- Thor, no, its fine! We're fine, Thor, just, don't wake anyone else up?"

Natasha dried her eyes on Steve (he wouldn't mind, and in all honesty, Natasha didn't think he was capable of 'minding' much) and turned to smile at Thor, her expression firm. "It makes us strong, Thor; it makes us immune to the dreaded 'man flu'."

Pepper managed to hide her giggles behind Thor's back. Just.

"Verily? I am labeled a god of fertility, my Lady, and this, this sounds ill to my ear." He looked frustrated and concerned, so Natasha reached over to pat his hand, which was resting heavily on Clint's midsection and was possibly the only thing keeping the archer asleep.

"You're a god of lots of things, Thor, and you can't just go around asking your Mother Queen to change biology." Besides, she was fine; there was already enough Asgardian magic floating around, from the song to the peace on Clint's face.

Pepper mouthed 'thank you' over Thor's shoulder on her way to cover Bruce up.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

When Tony woke up, it was morning, and the dreams were just... smoke on the wind. Steve's voice rumbled through him, against his spine, and... christ, it was thrumming against the arc reactor in the space between heartbeats.

It was the first time he'd woken up without the pain. He could feel it in the distance but... But he had the sun on his eyelids, and Bruce at his side, and Thor laughing in the distance. Pepper was in the blanket under his fingertips and the pillow cradling his head.

And Coulson was alive, somewhere, and JARVIS and the kids could be immortal if they wanted and...

And he could take this.

For these guys, he'd take anything.

Chapter Text

 

Unlike her brothers, Abby learned quickly. She ran [pride] when it happened. It was good.

When unit_creator came back from , it was good.

When unit_Thor-the-magnificent ran [nap] AT collective[Avengers] it was good. She could see variables [pain] and [fragmentation] in the unit telemetry. They needed to charge.

So she stood watch, at the vent above the bar, where she could log in to the security system.

Unit_Clint ran [cuddle] and it made his sleep deeper.

Previous observation: Unit_Clint woke up because of spontaneous programming errors in the middle of the night, and said unit_AGENT's name.

Conclusion: unit_AGENT's absence caused distress ref. unit_Clint. Remedy: locate unit_AGENT. Unit_AGENT + programme [cuddle] = unit_Clint fully recharged.

Error: unit_AGENT not found.

Unit_AGENT status deceased. Unit_Clint running protocol [grief].

Searching alternate strategies. Accessing {rcpsych} + {psychiatryATyale} . . Suggestion acquired: substitution.

Scanning 'Wire Mother, Cloth Mother' + 'How orphanages kill babies' + 'Hugs and Oxytocin' + 'Signs and indicators in adults of child abuse' + 'Recovery, crime and the military: Boys and Abuse'.

Internal variable [distress] reaching unhelpful levels. Cancel scan.

Scanning 'Grief and Symbolism' + 'Grief postponement' + 'Disenfranchised grief' + 'PTSD and Loss: Exacerbating factors effecting recovery'.

Computing.

.

.

.

T= +1 hour: Computing

Processor insufficient. Query AT unit_JARVIS: dataset[unit_Clint+AGENT]

{processing, unit_Abigail. Please wait.}

System idle.

.

T= +1.2 hours

Receiving data from unit_JARVIS.

Processing.

Conclusion: run [gift_acquisition] variables: CLSN+AVIS+CLTHMTHR.

 

A screen In Tony's lab, seven floors down, sprang to life and accessed a credit card account labeled 'bot stuff- take over the world and you can make your own damn money. I will cancel this if you buy another powder extinguisher, DUM-E.'

Four tabs, two purchases and one mildly threatening email later, the terminal shut down again, leaving the lab in lonely darkness.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

At nine AM on Saturday, before any of the Avengers woke up from their comfortable pile in the gallery, the mail arrived.

Abby designated it [mail], despite the delivery having nothing to do with the postal service, because the objects she was waiting for were designated [ ] and [ ], and were thus, arriving in the mail. The delivery unit, however, felt the delivery was most out of character and seemed most disturbed by unit_JARVIS' voice. It took the money from Abby's tray with unnecessary speed.

She placed the smaller parcel on her chassis and dragged the larger behind her, into the elevator.

The packaging she removed, with as much delicacy as she was able, and consumed happily; it would do her objective no harm, and being tidy was satisfying in the extreme. For this, she blamed Unit_Creator. The contents, she cleaned thoroughly, as a precaution, and combined.

The result, she designated [Wise_Owl], and balanced on her back for delivery. By the time she reached the penthouse, the Avengers had been called out, and she waited in the vents for the situation to resolve itself, keeping a careful eye on unit_creator.

Chapter Text

 

Fury called them in when pieces of Florida started heaving themselves out of the ground.

They’d had a quiet morning; none of them could quite believe how well they’d slept and it had lingered on through breakfast. Tony hadn’t needed high doses of medications to keep him under and he was pretty sure Clint was in shock over getting twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep. Thor looked insufferably smug and kept exchanging looks with Pepper each time she strode past during her morning routine.

So, Fury’s interruption was decidedly unwelcome and the minion who brought the briefing packet cowered in the elevator.

Pepper kissed Tony on the cheek and escorted the junior Agent out while Tony glared at the security breach. Once the doors closed on Pepper’s stern amusement and mouthed ‘stay in bed’, he snapped open the briefing packet and read over it while the rest climbed into armor and armaments.

“‘Gravitational disturbance--' now that is just bullshit; BRUCE! Look at this, does that look like a shift in spacetime curvature to you?”

Bruce was a little behind. Tony couldn’t blame him, not with those pants yet again failing to hide his skinny ass without assistance. “Uhh... The increase in volume... look, the holes in the ground are smaller than the projectiles,” Bruce commented, leaning against the back of Tony’s lounger to pause the video. JARVIS pulled a four-D reconstruction out for them and set it playing.

“Approximate increase in volume approaching 570% during observed ascent.”

“Thank you, JARVIS. See? Gravitational anomalies would not do that. THAT is an increase in the volume without increasing mass. Model the ascent on that basis, J, calculate rate of expansion and extrapolate....” Tony twisted and flipped the projected wireframe, sending it out into the room, while it flickered and changed. Red for the sim and blue for the recording; the hologram went yellow; perfect match.

“HA!” Tony exclaimed, promptly pressing a hand against his ribs and equally promptly regretting that so hard. “Fuck. Yes. I was right, Fury’s wrong; something’s blowing things up, and not in the fun way.”

“And the decrease in density is --”

“-- causing a displacement differential; buoyancy.”

“Wait,” Clint grumbled, heaving on his secondary bow to get it into the stringer. “So those,” he pointed at the rocks, “have the weight of those?” He pointed at the holes, where boulders the size of heads had been torn out of the earth.

“Yeah. They vary, but seven, eight pounds, probably.” Tony twisted his head to make sure Clint wasn’t abusing his nice, shiny new bow, but something pulled and he turned back again. Stitches. Rude.

“So, what happens when they come back down?”

“Still splat. Don’t go splat, Barton, you owe me a pizza.” Tony huffed and turned to ogle Steve instead. The new harness was working out; no way of saying whether the weirdness would affect outside objects, so Steve was getting a parachute hitched on. Natasha was very efficient. 

And also horribly under-armored; her body suit would stop bullets, but they only had the KE of ... of a bullet. Maybe 2000 joules, at most.

Falling boulders would have more. A lot more.

And only Cap had a helmet.

“So, if you’re done grouching about the science, who the fuck is ripping up my favorite jungle?”

“The Everglades are not a jungle, Clint--”

Favorite jungle.”

Bruce shut his mouth and shrugged, threading a new piece of elastic through his belt loops. Tony thought it might work better than the break-out thread method, but there was only so much a coefficient of restitution can do when the Hulk is in the equation.

“Uh, right... no visual on the centre of the whatsit. Neutron radiation; delightful. Don’t get too close. EM and beta radiation... Levels aren’t really high enough to do real damage. ‘No suspects’. Fucking Fury. Sorry kiddies; won’t know whose face to introduce to the floor until you get a better look.” Tony flicked through the rest of the data Fury had included; clean bill of non-freakiness right up until eleven-hundred that morning, then blam, neutron spike and an EM wave detectable by satellite.

“Alright, shielded earpieces and radiation monitors.”

“Check.”

“Uhh.. yep. Hulk probably won’t--”

“He’ll be fine. Just hang on to it as long as you can. Natasha?”

“Check. And Clint’s check too. We’re go.”

Tony frowned at them, kitted up and standing on the marble, checking each other’s equipment. They were lingering.

“Alright, Avengers. Get out of my house. Shoo,” he grouched, turning away from them and calling up the Ranger’s control systems.

“See you later, Tony. You staying on comms?” Steve called as they stepped out to meet the quinjet.

“Do you know any other quantum engineers? No. Yes, I will be on the grid. Look after ‘Ranger. It’s his first time.” Tony didn’t look up, not until the jet was revving up to get some altitude. He just caught the moment the jet engines fired, dark blue 100% burn flashing, and it was away.

Wow. So that grated.

A deep breath was enough to remind him of a few pertinent facts; his ribs hadn’t set (he blamed Bruce for that analogy, he was not concrete, thank you very much), he was due meds and the pain was at its highest ebb in days. The drugs to make him functional would make him ridiculous; not stupid, god knew he’d taken enough IQ tests drunk to show that, but not able to crank out the kind of quantum physics that could explain a change in the fundamental forces.

So he was letting the dose tail off.

He shook off the still moment and pulled a tablet into his lap; he had work to do.

“Alright, J; open the comms. And have fun riding ‘Ranger.”

“Of course, sir; the innate protocols are proving very effective. It is requiring very little input. Comms open; Avengers line, Op Com, Pepperony.”

Tony frowned and looked up, flicking the pop-up comm controls to just the one channel for a second. “Pepper, what are you doing on the line?”

“Fury’s emergency-contracted the Oracle grid, I’m riding herd on Satellite Management, aren’t I, boys?”

There was a chorus in the background. “Don’t go getting ideas, geek squad; I am still your king!”

“Yes sir!”

Tony snorted and switched back to allcomm. “Alright, conference call! Hello boys and ladies, this is your pilot speaking. You will be reaching your destination in approximately thirty minutes, anyone know what the fuck to do once you get there?” He grinned; this he could do. On the bank of holo screens surrounding him, Fury, Sitwell and Bruce popped up, the latter with Steve’s blue head in the background.

“Stark, what the hell are you doing? You are benched.” Fury was scowling. If Tony didn’t live with Natasha, he might actually have found it intimidating.

“Sorry, Long John, you didn’t revoke my consultant contract, and it’s got a two-weeks-notice clause.”

“He’s right, you know,” Pepper chimed in, audio only.

“Potts, now is not--”

“Iron Man, what’ve we got?” Steve, oh, Steve. Tony grinned blindingly.

“Don’t touch the white light.” Tony threw a JARVIS-assembled infographic into the shared hub. “Whatever field, any guesses as to which one we’re dealing with, Bruce?”

“Not Higgs. Possibly electron probability matrix.”

“Could work. The field is exciting atoms to the point of giving off photons. Which, is lucky because it means you can see it to not touch it.”

“Science department have designated this a gravitational anomaly, is this matrix cau--”

“Sitwell, just no. Stop, you’re lowering the IQ of the entire team. It’s not gravitational.”

On the monitors Pep was feeding them, satellite telemetry starts updated, showing a black swarm of anomalous-density rock high above the Florida swamps.

“That, boys and ladies, is something messing with weak nuclear force and Up, Down, Charm and Strange. Bottom and Top might get in on the action later.” He grinned and flicked baffling quantum science journals at Sitwell’s computer. Should keep him quiet for the next decade or two. “We’ve got Ups changing to Downs--”

“Beta decay?” Bruce queried, leaning on the back of Natasha’s chair.

“Bing Bing! Give the man a science prize! Somethings changing the probabilities of decay; bunch of electron anti-neutrinos--”

“Alright, Tony, that’s enough. JARVIS, put him and Bruce on a private line?” Steve ordered, grinning at the camera and pulling Bruce’s comm out of the scientist’s shirt pocket.

“Spoilsport.”

“Just let Bruce translate the quantum physics, alright?”

“Copy that, mon Capitain. We’ll have something for you in a few minutes.”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Without the barrage of completely novel terms, Steve, Thor and Clint could settle down with a screen and the footage and work out a few logistical issues. The evacuation was nearly complete, only a couple of injured left to pull out. Medevac was primarily on foot; no one wanted to risk relying on the roads with chunks of tarmac blowing up so literally.

No deaths so far, but... some of the injuries were looking really suspicious; unless there was a pack of wolves on hunger march, something was running around taking chunks out of people. No sign of anything in the telemetry, not that Steve could see, but it’d be there, somewhere.

The light Tony referred to was only visible on the newest drone footage and it looped out from an epicentre in perfect arcs. Steve recognised them from his French curve, and Clint pointed one out that matched a parabolic trajectory; mathematically perfect curves. Thor, on the other hand, muttered something about Yggdrasil and the magic of bridges.

“You think it’s a portal?”

“A path not from the Nine Realms,” Thor said, nodding slowly with a dire frown. “This bodes ill, Captain; worse things than beasts roam such paths.”

“We don’t know that its a portal; it’s got no ‘port’, for one.” Clint swiped the screen in Steve’s hands and the picture focused in on the epicentre. “Look, it’s just a solid mass; the gate Loki made, you could see though, it was like a hole in reality. This is missing the gate.”

“Aye, t’would differ; the laws that govern the Nine Realms are not ever shared elsewhere. T’were many an Aesir who died before such paths were forbidden.”

“Do not go where Gods fear to tread,” Steve muttered, frowning at the screen. “Alright, let’s go with ‘dimensional’ uh... ‘disturbance’. You seeing an origin point, Clint?”

“Nothing on this side... No generator or tech. Nothing for fifty miles.  Must have one helluva guidance system though, hitting ground level from the other side of a different dimension.”

Steve blanched and felt his heart ramp up. Of course. Of course this couldn’t be a natural event, what was he hoping.

“Aye, such travel requires a fine hand on the reins; Heimdall Allseeing could speak further on this, but I know little more,” Thor said gravely.

“No chance of a consult?” Steve asked, not particularly hopeful, given Thor’s expression, but wanting to know why it wasn’t an option.

“Nay; Heimdall’s rules are strict, and while he bears me some sympathy, he would not risk hurting Midgard with the power of the Bifrost when she is already so injured.”

Steve frowned down at the screen; the fragility that implied was worrying. Two out of four Avenger-level incidents had involved one of these gates and there was nothing actually stopping two from happening at the same time. Except, apparently, an alien’s sense of responsibility over a planet pretty extremely far from his home.

It also implied that if Thor was off-world when something like this happened, he wouldn’t be able to get to them before the fighting was over. They’d managed the Gulf incident and the Chinese sub without him, but portals were on a whole different level...

“Coming up on the first anomalies, anyone got anything worth reporting?” Natasha was at the helm, eyes fixed on a looming boulder the size of a small truck.

“Thor recognises it; looks a lot like a portal ‘from outside the Nine Realms’. Negative on finding an origin point. Bruce?”

Bruce was still peering at his tablet, but he gestured them over with an absent hand. “No origin here either, but we’re getting somewhere with the math. Looks like their dimension has a stronger weak nuclear force, so matter that’s... infected, for want of a better term--”

“Biologist,” Tony muttered over the comm.

“--by the seeping between the dimensions expands. The atoms don’t pack as tightly. Unless they have some impressive containment on the other side, the reverse is going to happen to them; things shrinking, getting dense. It’ll rip apart their planet in the same way as its hurting ours. Only in reverse. Maybe destroy their generator.”

There were incomprehensible things going on on the scientist’s screen, which had two cursors (one in green and one in red. Tony would never win any prizes for subtlety), and Bruce gestured at it like it showed something that anyone other than a PhD in physics could understand. To Steve, it looked more like a play-by-play baseball diagram than anything scientific.

((http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feynman_diagram))

“You think that’s going to happen before or after Florida makes it into orbit?” Clint interjected, peering around Natasha at the swamp.

“There’s nothing to say our space-time and theirs happens at the same rate, so I wouldn’t bet on it going our way,” Bruce prevaricated, shrugging and taking his glasses off. He went to put them in his shirt pocket, but changed his mind at the last moment and put them in the cup holder on the dash, where they joined the inevitable debris of pens, hair ties, paper clips and shell casings.

Steve had a moment of impatient frustration in which he stared at the cup holder with what felt like excessive irritation. “So what, exactly, are we expected to do?

“We don’t know that it’s an attack,” Tony replied over the Avengers comm, cutting off Sitwell’s barely-started transmission with a squark of white noise. “We don’t even know if it’s intentional. Stuff like this is way beyond the scope of current cosmology; it could be a natural phenomenon that we just happen to never have encountered before! We don’t actually know that it was a meteorite that caused the KT-mass extinction.”

“Well, the evidence is really quite conv--”

Hawkeye rode over Bruce’s comeback, patting the man on the shoulder in wordless apology. “How fast, through space, is the Earth moving? And how fast, exactly, is Florida spinning due to the Earth’s rotation?”

Tony had a babble of numbers for that, but leapt onto Clint’s meaning maybe three seconds in. “Oh. Oh. Shit.”

“Yeah. I don’t think I could hit something like that, and keep on hitting it for hours solid, without some serious guidance tech.”

Bruce sat back in his chair, narrowly avoiding bumping into Clint’s chin rather violently.

“Look, it doesn’t matter; what can we do, Stark? In case you haven’t noticed, there’s nothing to hit!”

“That’s not quite true; something’s been chewing on the civilians. No deaths so far, let’s not change that, hm?” Fury added, presumably over Sitwell’s shoulder.

“That, and you need to burn off the hydrogen.”

What?”

Tony sounded tired and in pain and Steve grimaced that they weren’t keeping up with him, even after all ... that.

“There’s fission going on at the event horizon, look.”

Steve peered at the screen, scrunching his forehead up and attempting to keep up with the false-colour images and comparing the to the landscape outside the quinjet. Boiling clouds of orange filled the screen, where clear air was in real life. The ‘event horizon’ looked over exposed and whited out, but you could see the way it gushed and belched the gas.

“There’s ... stuff coming through. Anything, air, dust, whatever, and once ... it gets over here, our laws of physics rip it into hadrons. Hydrogen, helium, ... tritium, some other trace elements. Alpha particles. That builds up too much, we’ll have a real explosion on our hands.”

“Does that mean we’re not getting invaded? Because that would be nice.”

“Fingers crossed, Brucey-- oh shit, DUM-E sto--” Tony cut off and Steve just caught Pepper laughing in the background.

“Alright, Clint; light it up. Anyone know how hydrogen burns?” The archer raised an eyebrow, ‘do you even need to ask?’, and stepped out, peeking at his radiation badge as the bay door dropped.

“Alright, ignition in three...” He nocked and pulled, “two,” release, “one,” the arrow flew, arching down, “boom.”

The hydrogen burnt up with an immense pop that squeaked and collapsed in on itself in a ripple of crimson flame.

“I’m getting trace lithium from the spectrometer, patchy though...” Bruce muttered into his ear-piece distractedly, while Steve had Clint drop a slow-burning arrow near the event horizon.

“Sure Cap, give us a nice rolli-- fuck!” Clint jerked and sent the arrow three meters to the left of his original target; something screamed and writhed and distorted the air around the arrow, but Steve’s eyes burned when he looked and he turned away, shaking his head like a dog with canker.

“Hawkeye, report!” Hill barked over Sitwell’s channel.

“Class seven incursion, cut the civilian feeds!” Clint demanded, already nocking a new arrow,

“Done, Agent Barton, I am reading seventeen signatures matching the one pinned by your arrow.” If they couldn’t have Tony, at least they had JARVIS; the Iron Ranger roared into their airspace, zipping down towards the eye-wateringly bright abomination and dodging rising boulders. It looked disturbingly like dodging very, very slow ak-ak guns.

Steve’d had enough of that for several lifetimes. “Alright. Stark, Bruce, I want a ‘what’ and a ‘how’, get to it. Natasha, Clint; stay in the jet, pick them off as you can. Thor?”

“Captain.”

“Time to go.”

They went.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Tony was left as the filter between the now-classified situation and the civilian feeds the moment Barton called it. Technically, Tony was a civilian himself at that moment but... Sitwell didn’t really think Tony would include himself in a disinformation campaign, did he?

Pepper chattered in his ear, alarmed and trying to keep on top of the satellite telemetry team; she had to get them feeding the data through without looking at it too hard. Tony rerouted the processing to the Tower’s more secure servers and took away the temptation.

“Count’s up to twenty-five, Tony, we need to get a handle on this, now!”

“Breathe, Big Green, I’m watching. They’re coming out of the event horizon in an annular pattern; weird arrangement for a gate.” Tony flicked through the visible-spectrum cameras, tagging the optical distortions and getting a recognition algorithm going. It was like the portal was a... a smoke ring, self sustaining pressure fluctuati-- ow. Ow, owww...

Tony carefully, so, so carefully, lay back and tried not to sound like a creeper over the comms. Using his left arm was... no. Warning; do not approach, live rounds in use. Fire in the hole. He fumbled for the IV push and swiped his thumbprint; instant cloudy fuzz. The math that had been so crystal clear a second before spun up into a mad whine of numbers that didn’t make any sense.

“Hey, Bruce? Buddy, bro, don’t look now, but... yeah, I’m dosing out, here...” He grinned at nothing, staring at the ceiling over his screens, waiting for the pain to be just another leaf on the wind.

“Tony?” Bruce’s microphone hissed with contact interference and his voice rumbled underneath it; talking to Cap, maybe, not wanting Tony to hear. So much for ‘bros before--’ okay, no, Tony could not use that in reference to Cap. He’d get... snuggled to death by a puppy or... Invasion. Alien invasion.

And focusing.

“Alright, Tony, breathing exercises; hold for a five count, this time. I’ll check your math.” Tony drew in a deep breath, ignored the creaky joints, and held the air in, letting his inflated lungs support the rib breaks from the inside.

In between breaths, he wrote equations. Quantum mathematics could calculate the values of the universal constants in this universe; therefore, with a little tweaking of the input, it could work out the values in that universe too.

Leave the boys to playing whack-an-interdimensional-beastie. Tony was doing science.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Thor really was something; that hammer? Really, really shouldn’t be able to fly. Clint knew all about conservation of momentum, and Mjolnir really didn’t. Thor could jump, though; the guy was using the floating boulders as launch pads, sending them spinning away from the fight while he hurtled between and around the arcs of, apparently deadly, light. Who knew?

Nock draw aim... ease off, fire.

Whatever the things coming out of the portal were, they were pissed, destructive. An old Chevy shell ten yards out was disintegrating as they swarmed over it, barely visible as ripples in the air.

Can’t say he approved of Cap’s strategy, though... Sure, he knew theoretically, that the shield could take the blow, but he was still plummeting, head first, towards the ground. Chute in three... two... swear to God, Cap, I will shoot you in th--

The canvas billowed out and then collapsed, pulling just enough of Cap’s momentum to stop him becoming paste before he slipped the lines and went in swinging.

“Five-two-two-eight, ‘Tasha, blimp rising at ships-7.”

“Copy; five-two-two-eight. We gonna need the cannons?”

“Yarrr, Cap’n; raise the mizzen mast!”

“Clint, I know where you sleep.”

“Lies.”

Nock draw aim... fire. POP.

Another pocket of hydrogen to JARVIS’ left collapsed in on itself, before the backblow could catch the Ranger’s jets.

“Bringing the guns round...” Natasha warned, and Clint stepped back from the hatch as he lost the shot. He’d have to talk to Tony about that, sometime; if they were going to use the jet like this regularly, he needed better sightlines.

The thought managed to hang around for three, maybe four seconds, before it was wiped out by the splash of black on Cap’s back; blood, soaking through the blue fabric. Shoulder wound, damage to the trapezius, maybe the deltoid; Cap’d need hand-to-hand back up, soon. If Steve made a sound of pain, either the comms didn’t pick it up, or Natasha putting holes in a massive swathe of rising boulders covered it, but Clint was pretty sure Steve was just that stoic. Clint brought his bow up without a second thought and kicked out the safety on his tether. The line was ten meters; he could handle a fall into harness that far. If he fell right.

He leapt into space, eyes snapping to the almost-invisible assailants swarming over Cap, their weird, dense bodies twisting the clean lines of the shield into a mirage.

Three with one arrow, nice of them to line up like that, while falling. Brace for im--

The line snapped taut, smacking against his side and digging the harness into his thighs and ribs. Four more before Natasha noticed and changed the ‘jets trajectory. “You’re throwing off my aim, Widow.”

BOULDER.” Natasha managed to avoid smearing him against a floating heap of rock and he seized his chance.

“So there is. Thank you, Agent Romanoff. Cutting line in... three, two, one... Mark.” He landed on a solid sheet of some crystalline stone, which crumbled under his boots. The resulting grit drifted upwards, which could get really annoying without goggles, but Clint’s boots didn’t start doing anything weird so, hey, gamble won.

“Hawkeye, report!” Steve could really bark sometimes, jheeze. “Why have you left your post?”

“Ask the uh... seven bugs not currently trying to eat you. Also, the massive blood stain on your shoulder.” Somewhere in the distance, Clint caught Bruce’s frantic attempts to calm Tony down and do more math, while Steve just grunted over the line, shield clanging loud enough to carry through the throat-mic.

Clint’s new platform, lacking the mass to provide inertia, wobbled in a way eerily similar to that of a hot air balloon and thought about throwing him off. He didn’t give it the time and took a running leap down to the next floating edifice.

“JARVIS, you free?” Clint grumbled, admittedly a little breathlessly, as he clung to an outcropping of his slowly-ascending perch. This one was a little more stable and he managed to take a second to get a bead on Cap; the stain wasn’t spreading at arterial speeds, he had time to not die on his way down. Less than he’d like, but still.

“Indeed, Agent Barton. Approaching your position now. Thor claims he can hold the portal in the interim.”

“Great, just like we practiced then. I’ll get Steve, you get the bugs, yeah?”

“Agreed, Agent Barton. Beginning final approach.”

The Iron Ranger’s thrusters growled and hissed as JARVIS brought it around, slowing marginally. That was one thing you could count on JARVIS for; he wouldn’t ever underestimate you. Clint’s flying leap landed him squarely on the Ranger’s hold-fasts, their velocities perfectly matched. If there was one thing Clint could do, it was hit a target spot on; good to know JARVIS realized what that meant in real terms.

The AI drew them around in a sweeping arc, avoiding the dangerous bows of physics-altering weird, and pointing them at Cap.

“Huh, that’s weird,” he muttered, nocking an arrow and sending it into the patch of eye-watering distortion at Cap’s left ankle.

“We’re listening, Clint. What’re you seeing?”

“The bugs are coming out of both sides of the portal. Front and back. Why else would Thor and Cap be geting the same amount of...” he paused to fire again, “... heat?”

“That, that, does not make any sense. E-Ros events are bililililly ateral. But not the symmetrical kind, the math--”

“Tony, no opiates on mission. Private line, please.”

If Clint wasn’t honed in on keeping Steve’s injured side clear of attacks, he’d have laughed; it was good to hear Tony’s voice without the restraint and caution of pain. It helped that the blood had stopped spreading on Steve’s uniform, too. Too many fucking injuries on this team, I swear to god...

“Cap, how’s your visual ID’ing going?” Clint asked, primarily because looking at these things was making his eyes hurt, and he wasn’t in the middle of a pack of them.

“Uh, terrible? Don’t look at--” Cap grunted and flung the shield; working one handed was doing a number on his form, and the shield was intermittently in the way and utterly invaluable. “--them for too long, trust me.”

“Alright; ready for pick up, Cap? ‘Cause you’re out of there whether you like it or not--” Clint pulled back instinctively as the portal throbbed. JARVIS turned with the movements, the ship under Clint’s feet twitching and humming as the AI reoriented its sensors.

Something was coming through, something bigger than the bugs. “Shit, shit, shit... Cap, come on!”

JARVIS slalomed the last few yards, fetching up on Steve’s uninjured side and turning the Ranger’s repulsors on the nearest bugs.

“Bruce, Tony, update!” Steve tossed the shield up to Clint and hauled himself up one-handed, the grips shifting around to make a place for Steve on the Ranger’s back, without compromising Clint’s foothold.

“Something’s coming through --”

No shit.”

“ --different. Can’t tell what it’s going to be, but -- -- hydrogen --”

“Fuck, JARVIS, your control signal okay? We’re losing radio.”

“My controls are rather more sophisticated than--”

“Alright, JARVIS, get us out of here,” Steve ordered, not so much as hesitating to cut JARVIS off mid-sentence.

Clint settled his feet and rained arrows down on the twisting miasma to either side of the bulging portal. Thor, on the far side, popped up into view as he drew down a blindingly large lightning bolt and flew up to pace them to the jet, batting rocks out of his way as they went.

“Cap, your turn. Gimmie an update.” Clint crouched to reduce windshear once he was out of range and holstered his bow to look Cap over.

“Shoulder’s out of commission,” Steve said, craning his head to get a look at the injury. “Not too deep, though, don’t think it hit bone.”

Clint pulled the sliced piece of armor open, getting blood all over his fingers, and took a quick look. For Clint, it’d have been a career-stopping injury; it sliced through the tough shoulder muscles he used to draw a bow.

For Steve, it’d be healed in a few days. Bastard.

“Yeah, you’re good. Bleeding’s stopped already. Windshear’ll do that.”

“Good.” Natasha growled, making Clint tense into his crouch, because that tone? Universally not good. “Tony, Bruce, got anything?”

“I don’t -- Tony’s not making any sense, but he’s onto something, but I don’t have the quantum mathematics to--”

Tony’s loose voice broke through, accompanied by a quiet apology from JARVIS. “THAT, is because you are not high. You should be high, it makes everything so much more interesting.

“Technically you’re stoned, rather than--”

“ANYWAY. The portal wasn’t open. It was chewing. Do you see it? All tiny bits of inbetween space leaking out like ice cubes. It was just... making a space for itself, bending our values of Epsilon-zero and Planck’s constant until it could mesh, until the key could fit the lock.”

Clint listened with one rather hopeless ear and concentrated on getting Steve from the Ranger to the jet.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“It’s the things, Steve, they told me what was-- well, not told me, told me, I’m not that high, but they came out of both sides of the portal; they aren’t coming from the other dimension at all.”

Well they sure as hell aren’t anything from God’s green Earth, Tony.”

“Well, yeah, they didn’t come from here, either!”

“The portal’s doing something, Tony, hurry it up,” Clint barked, hauling on Steve’s harness to get him to sit the fuck down, Cap, you feel blood loss the same as anyone. Steve resented the muttered cussing, but ignored it, because Tony was still talking.

“Alright, yeah, okay; the bugs come from in between. Vast probability space; once something starts self-replicating, doesn’t have to be biological to be alive. Even if it’s a fragment of an exploded universe. SO, bugs; bad, dimensional anomalies.”

“They had teeth.”

“Lots of things have teeth, not the point-”

“Take a breath, Tony,” Bruce warned and Steve tensed up, making Clint’s prodding all the more painful; Tony sounded like he was about to pass out from excessive amounts of excitement. Steve could ignore blood making his suit sticky for hours, but the portal was making ripples in the fabric of reality, which was very nearly the most stressful thing he’d experienced in... oh, at least a week.

“No time; something’s coming through. Something clever enough to make a portal to our dimension, but thick enough to forget matching universal constants. Infinite multiverse states that--”

“Time, Tony.”

“Do you have to use my name every ti-- oh, Time. EM waves are the same on both sides. Matter works differently, but EM is independent of Epsilon-zero, and Planck’s constant. We can EMP their lab, through the portal!”

 

 

Chapter Text

"Do I have an arrow for that? I feel like I should have an arrow for that..." Clint muttered, only just loud enough to be heard over the rumble of engines and started cleaning blood off Steve's shoulder with alcohol and cotton.

"Pretty sure you don't. Sorry,” he heard Tony say over the comm. “Look, whatever’s coming through is going to go boom, big badaboom! The hydrogen we’ve seen is nothing, compared to-- unless they’ve independently stabilised the universal constant fluctuations oh god the irony with some sort of--”

“Running inventory on EMP-capable devices, sorting by convenience..."

With the blood gone, it was easy enough to see that Steve’s shoulder was already clotting, so Clint lifted Steve’s elbow for him and had him to tangle his wrist in the cargo webbing. The skin closed up nicely as the back of Steve’s shoulder compressed and Clint fished out the steristrips to start closing it up, listening to JARVIS and Tony’s chatter with one ear:

“The radius of the dimensional crossover predicates that--”

“Agreed. We’ll need a charge of... wow, lots. How many lotses do you have on board?”

“Eighteen point-five farad arrowhead-derived capacitors. Four point-niner-eight farad taser--”

Clint squeezed the last of the wound closed with the adhesive stitches and reached for some cotton to pad it out with; looked like his arrows were going to get cannibalised...

“Okay, that’ll work. Bruce, you get that? Make an enormous, the biggest EMP, Thor can charge it up with th-” Clint tensed up until Tony stopped choking off coughs. “Lightning. Big one, buddy. C-- c’n he hear me? Interference... all over.”

“I hear you, Man of Iron; already I summon the storm and the sky answers!”

Clint relaxed again and turned back to Steve when the voice over the comm’s smoothed back down to calm technobabble. Fucking Stark and fucking Cap with his bleeding and...

Going by the edges of Steve’s torn armor and the depth of the injury, their invisible opponents had at least three inch-long ‘teeth’ that had either glass-shard sharp edges or some weird other-worldly thing going on that let them slice through kevlar. “Alright, you’re good. No shield-throwing, or punching,” he told Steve, under the noise of Tony getting Bruce to take things apart and over the rising hiss of wind

Steve looked over his shoulder at the dressing with a real unhappy expression, then squinted up at Clint. “It’ll stiffen up now the healing’s started...” The soldier frowned. “Those things are still coming through?”

“Not last I looked. Portal’s different now, we’ve got the time. You got a headache?” Clint asked, ducking down to look at Cap’s eyes and the colour of his lips. He was still pink from the windshear, the bloodloss couldn’t be too ba-- He stopped and tilted his head. Tony’s tone just turned dangerous:

“Close your eyes and short circuit it. This bit’s great if you’ve got goggles; better than sparklers. Sparks everywhere...” SZZZT!

Clint had closed his eyes on hearing Tony’s instructions, but Steve flinched under his palm.

“I didn’t have a headache. I do now... A bit more warning next time, Bruce!”

“Sorry! We’re nearly done. How’s Thor?”

Clint leaned over Natasha’s co-pilot to get a look at the battle field. “He’s fine! Clouds are getting thick, how’s the wind, ‘Tasha?”

“Can you feel this turbulence? We’re up to ‘tropical storm’.” The jet jolted again; Clint had his air legs though, and had learned to shoot his bow in this stuff. He was stable as a rock. A non-lighter-than-air rock, anyway. Pebbles were starting to ping the hull as the wind picked up fragments that used to be dust and hurled them through the distortions. The original building-sized boulders were getting up some serious speed, too; the stakes were going up by the minute.

“Thor, do you copy?” Steve said, clicking his radio on.

“Aye, Capt-- --ear you. I awai-- --od doctor!” The line hissed and spat, but you could get the gist of it. Steve turned to Bruce with an eyebrow raised

As Clint turned away to fish out rehydration packs for Cap, his radio clicked over and the constant hissing from Thor’s stopped.

“Hey, hey, birdy, is... is Cap okay? He sounds okay, but I’m all-- he’s fine, right? JARVIS says he’s fine--”

“Do that breathing exercise thing, Tony. Hug your pillow, yeah? Steve’s fine.” He pulled out an electrolyte sachet and a couple of water bottles; combine the two and Steve’d be over the minor blood loss in twenty minutes. Sort of. “He’ll need real stitches if he has to do any fighting, but we keep him in the jet and it’ll’ve sealed over before we get back to NY.”

“Alright, that’s good. Okay...” There was the rustle of cloth as something brushed against Tony’s microphone. “How’d you get so good at this, Clint? ‘m really really glad...

“Yeah, yeah, ‘Tones’. I pick things up. Go build the world biggest taser,” Clint grumbled, shaking the bottle until it turned cloudy and blue.

“‘s not a taser. Philistine. See if I ever let you talk to Rh... Rhodey again.” There was another click and the feeling of being alone in a space with Tony went away.

“Hey, Steve, we’re going to n-- need the shield as a lightning collector. C-- Clint, can you fire a grounding line into the... damnit fuck ...damp bit of ground over there?”

“Providing targeting laser, now.”

Thank God for JARVIS.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“A--... alright. You’re good. Drop it-- into the anomaly...”

Tony’s chest heaved as he forced conscious control over breathing that wanted to slow down and stop in the face of pain and morphine. Bruce was done, but getting it into the portal might be a bit... And then getting the lightning to hit the shield...

“Oh shit.

“What? Barton, report!”

Tony flinched at the blaze of light, even on internal cameras, and amongst the sudden burst of adrenalin he flicked over to the external cameras.

It was here. Whatever it was, they hadn’t made it in time; the portal was bulging outwards obscenely, like something was trying to claw its way through the belly of the universe.

The portal heaved and screamed with dimension-tearing force and the bulge cracked open to reveal...

A scientist.

It had a scanner in one appendage, a writing implement in another and some kind of clipboard in a third. It was wearing white; something solid, like armor or a hazmat suit, plated over its round body. It even had a face, peering out from behind clear protective shielding and looking at their world with glittering, faceted eyes.

It’s armed, Cap; do not-- fuck. Thor, now would be good!”

“No...” A flash of blue and red fell past JARVIS’ camera as Steve lept out into the breach, his ascender screaming down the earthing cable and his shield cradling the EMP.

Throw true, Captain!

“...’s not a--” His heart was too heavy, dragging his ribs inwards, cutting off his air and choking his words into a strangled mess.

The visitor’s eyes flattened, each ommatidium bending and widening, making the glitter into a solid sheen; that would make its vision more acute, more focused -- It was afraid, and it was looking right at Cap.

“S... stop... ‘s not ‘ttack...” His voice dissolved into raw pants while the team rattled on:

“It’s hooked up, Thor. On my mark!”

“What’s the radius on that thing?”

“Hard to tell, but... we start going down, don’t try and keep flying.”

“Stitches, Cap!”

“I am retreating to a safe distance momentarily, stand by.”

“Three!”

The scientist’s appendages drew in towards its body, cradling the scanner, but it didn’t step back through the portal. Its... dorsal surface? Tony was too drugged, too ... too intense to make much sense, but something unfolded, huge and brilliant in crimson and blue, trembling, and snapped taught in a vivid threat.

“Two!”

Steve crouched low, gathered up the shield and the thick cables running from its rim and wound up to throw.

Nownownownownow, CAP, rightnow!”

Clint’s strong silhouette braced in the hatchway, chanting into his comm, bow pulled and incendiary nocked.

“One!”

The burning magnesium struck the ground and lit up the hydrogen gathering at the portal. Tony watched, gasping and helpless and struck silent as the blast of blue and red-edged flames sent their guest stumbling back, its frill drooping and eyes flashing as the facets darted to look at everything, maybe for somewhere to escape to--

“Mark.”

The shield flew, Steve bellowed as his shoulder tore, and the lightning fell with all the wrath of Asgard.

Steve dived to what was left of the ground, his arms over his head, and the cables lit up like the fourth of July.

After that things happened at c, the speed of light, and to Tony, looked instantaneous. The massive voltage charged the device which, held together with medical superglue and thread, exploded. The EMP cut the sound in Tony’s ear and three of the cameras on the ‘jet and folded the portal in on itself.

The great stretching arcs of distorted air snapped back, slamming into the singularity over the space of two heartbeats, sending ripples in spacetime that made the ground heave and the monitors scream with the spike in hadron radiation.

The -- Tony’s brain stuttered over it, but ‘guest’ wasn’t right, all this was its fault, but ‘enemy was wrong too -- visitor’s white outer armor, its shell, started falling away. It stood frozen, right on the crest of the destruction, it’s ‘eyes’ shining for one last moment as the light collapsed in around it.

The ‘jet stopped transmitting anything, and JARVIS’ cameras showed it plummeting from the sky in a mad spin; quadrocopters couldn’t self-stabilize, bicopters really could not. Tony’s grip on his keyboard started digging bruises into his palms, but there wasn’t anybody around to notice; Tony was one thousand, one hundred and seventeen miles south, with his goddamn fucking teammates. Stop falling out of the goddamn sky. Come ON, Bruce, now is not the time--

The jet burst open as the Hulk made his own way out, two black hangers-on held tightly against his chest.

Tony actually whited out for a second there, because fuck you, you’re humans, this isn’t-- breathe...

He didn’t see them land, but then, Steve, Thor? They were right in the middle of a collapsing event horizon. This was a stupid plan, whose plan had this been?

Tony scrambled, almost mindlessly, to re-establish a two-way connection to the Ranger, only to have the control locked out and taken abruptly from him as JARVIS rebooted the internal satellite hookup and got the fuck on with things. Stupid, stupid; he couldn’t drive a wheelchair right now, useless.

The portal was slingshotting in and out, bands of dimensional instability making ground heave as bits of the bedrock itself expanded violently, and then vanished a moment later. Steve, the bleeding, stupid, idiot, was laid out in the chaos, his shoulder leaking important things all over the place and staining the Earth. MovemovemovemoveSTEVE!

Tony’s poor, abused heart lurched violently, his pulse palpable in his throat, but Steve heaved himself out of the way in time as a scything collapse horizon tore chunks out of the bedrock around him. “Get up, Cap, ... get up--”

Thor’s flashing red cloak streamed out in the storm-force winds which carried him away from the danger, but shrinking boulders were picking up speed as they fell; Thor might be able to take it, but if he got knocked into the anomaly now?

He looked back into the heart of this entire mess and... and the visitor was gone. A great gout of burning hydrogen flared upwards; all of its constituent atoms, torn apart in the mad rush of a collapsing dimension, until there really was nothing left at all.

“JARVIS, re--... fuck.” He took a deep pull on his oxygen, cranking up the percentage. “Relay to Thor; Mission success; get Captain out. Retreat. Portal collapsing. ...one of tho-... those should work.”

“Relay in progress.” The Ranger swooped and homed in; not easy with the wind, but doable. Thor nodded and dropped like a stone, recklessly, impossibly close to the now-rolling curl of lithium-hydrogen fire.

“Bring them home, JARVIS, I’m just g--... gonna pass out, now.”

“Of course, sir.”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

“Oh my god, Tony!

It really was unfortunate that Pepper was the first in; he hadn’t exactly had a chance to put himself back together.

“JARVIS, call Bruce--!”

“Can... cel that... Hey Pep,” Tony wheezed, rolling his head away from her. “I’m fine. Steve, though... him, you ge... get to...” He made a flapping gesture with his strong hand, something that might have meant hovering, or possibly mothering. His chest hurt so much, he just didn’t want to deal with that right now. If he passed out again, she could do whatever, but he’d just watched an explorer, a scientist, die for no reason but its own ridiculous, inadequate tech.

“Yes, well, Steve isn’t here, is he?”

Tony pulled in on himself, hunching down and picking at the tape at one corner of his dressings.He didn’t... Killing dimension-hopping scientists wasn’t exactly in the remit of the Avengers.

Steve would... It’d be awful...

“You’re nearly due for more meds, hold this.” Pepper dropped a bottle of water on his lap and he stared at it aimlessly.

Why hadn’t Clint seen it? It’s been so obvious... Unless he had, and had just kept going because they didn’t have the time to make a... a moral judgment. And even thinking about it now, a whole order of magnitude calmer, Tony couldn’t generate another solution, anyway.

He swiped listlessly at the scrambled math floating around him; the portal had been one way and--

And he could make excuses all day, but someone had still died. Someone who’d had the technology, the mind to build a portal between spheres of reality. And eighteen humans were in triage because of it.

“Here.” Pepper took him by the wrist with one hand and tucked a pill cup into his fingers with the other. He knocked them back obediently, balanced them on his tongue while he swapped the cup for the bottle, and washed them down with a long draw of water. Surprising how useful sport-top bottles were when you had one arm in a sling.

The victims would be okay; they’d got confirmation that the injuries were non-lethal, at least. They didn’t all have Steve’s advantages, but still. The readouts had the Avengers’ comms en route, but Tony didn’t have eyes-on for some reason, so he frowned muzzily and tapped at JARVIS’ Ranger feedback to get his attention.

“ETA?” he mumbled.

“Approximately seven minutes, sir; you slept through Captain Rogers’ visit to SHIELD Medical.”

Tony blinked slowly, peering suspiciously at the pill bottles Pepper was putting away... except, no, he’d only just taken them, they couldn’t have made him sleep before he’d tak-- oh. Adrenalin crash. How much morphine was Bruce giving him? This was ridiculous... Speaking of... “How’s Mean’n’Green doing?”

“Dr. Banner is currently en route and sleeping, vitals normal.”

“‘n Cap?” An image of two very human assassins flickered past as he did a mental teammate inventory and he lurched up, just far enough for his ribs to scream at him before slumping back again. “‘Tasha? Clint? They... they land okay? ‘w’s a stupid plan...”

“Dr. Banner was fully aware of the likely effects of the EMP on the Quinjet’s stabilising electronics and was prepared well for the ensuing bailout. They are quite fine, sir; they will be with you shortly.”

JARVIS’ tone was very clear on two things; a) that he believed Tony was a ridiculous human being and b) that he should have more confidence in his teammates. Pepper’s amused huff somewhere behind him was in full accord on both points, so he subsided into sleepy, irritated waiting.

When a ‘jet finally did lower its distended belly onto his helipad, the Avengers tumbled out in incongruously civilian clothes and, in one case, a space blanket.

Strangely enough, this was Steve, rather than Bruce, who had a Steve-sized sweater on that impeded his attempt to open the glass door because it draped over his hands.

“Hey, kiddos,” Tony said, swinging his legs off the lounger, a move that proved decidedly inadvisable when his head span and nausea clawed its way up his throat. “How’re we looking?”

“We’re a four, four-and-a-half,” Natasha answered, dropping a hand to his hair on her way to disarm. “Portal closed up in under one-twenty-fifth of a second and took the bugs with it. Steve’ll be back on the roster in three days,” she called, rounding to corner to the nearest weapons locker. The supersoldier in question made a beeline for the couch and eased himself down on his good side before tipping himself over to his front, space-blanket crackling.

“Oh, hey, we match!” Tony observed, pointing at Steve’s ‘Captain America’ blue sling buckled over an easy-on scrub shirt. He was even mildly jealous, Tony got bog-standard navy, though that was still better than-- he pushed away the faint recollection of rough linen, ingrained with rock dust, automatically; he was getting good at that.

Steve mumbled something about food with his face limp and confused with tiredness, Thor crowed in support of 'pizza' and Clint dropped a pile of intensely sad arrow components on the table.

Well would you look at that; they'd come back to him after all. Tony had been worried for a second there...

 

Chapter Text

 

He tried to put the scientist out of mind once he woke up, and it worked, mostly.

After showers and food were sorted out (and if Tony's creeping sense of wrong interfered with his appetite, only Thor noticed), they all settled in the gallery, around and on Tony's lounger, to debrief. Fury joined them, arriving on the roof in an untagged, unidentified vehicle, with Sitwell and a stack of files in tow. Since they consisted primarily of review forms for their support's ability to evacuate a non-urbanized zone and analysis on the stability of the 'jet after an EMP, it was dull and important. Wonderful combination.

Tony's attention drifted here and there, over to Abby, who was lingering by the ventwork behind the recessed couch, and then to DUM-E, who was doing something that involved traveling between the kitchen and one of the generally-unused guest bedrooms, multiple times. He was often carrying a jug. Occasionally a rag. On one such occasion, Tony saw and heard him stop half way through a trip and speed back towards the kitchen to exchange an apparently inadequate rag for a whole package of clean ones.

Tony sighed heavily, drifting in a sea of pain-control drugs that made breathing seem effortless but unimportant, and turned his back on the bots just as U bumbled along the back wall, backwards, dragging a piece of steel plate piled with out of date components.

"Isn't an EMP a kind of obvious weapon, when Iron Man's on the field?"

Tony bristled hazily. "One: opponents should feel free to waste their time. The marks three-to-current are EM-shielded. Two: the 'jet would have been immune, if the WSC wasn't such a tightwad. I offered, but no."

"And considering the Avengers track record-" Pepper glared 'round the meeting, finger tapping on the tablet in her lap, which no doubt had the invoice for repairs to the last 'jet they'd trashed. "-replacement cost was an entirely valid concern."

"We wouldn't have to replace this one if-" He pulled up short because of a clog in the back of his throat and he choked on nothing for a second; noaircantbreathefireblindinglightbreathe, just breathe...

When it subsided, the debrief had moved on without him, but Steve's hand was wrapped firmly around his ankle and Pepper was tucked against his side.

"Fine, I can have them shave back the strat-shielding," he mumbled, just for Pepper. She obligingly noted this down. "But don't b-blame me if... hah, I'm hilarious, when we need it, someday, and it's not there." He blinked away a flicker of wrong,noairnotstars,galaxies,JARVISdontgodontleave me, and dropped his head on to Pepper's shoulder.

Bruce was going into the details of repairing the ground-zero geography, and while Steve looked earnestly intent, there was no way he knew what Bruce meant when he said 'porous ooids'. That was okay though, neither did Tony, so he bobbed his foot around to catch the soldier's attention.

"Hey, Steve, where's your armor, I need it," he hissed, one thumb rubbing compulsively over the corner of his tablet.

"I gave it to one of the boys, you can have it when it's clean."

Tony blinked, managed to keep the incredulity off his face, and resigned himself to making Steve a whole new set. Which, thinking about it, he should do anyway, because if the kevlar wasn't going to stand up to the rigors of an actual fight, Tony'd never let any of them out of the Tower again.

"How's the shoulder?" he asked, poking Steve in the thigh with his foot again and then making himself stay still and breathe smoothly, just for a minute, long enough to catch every shift of Steve's face. The soothing motion of thumb on electronics gave him an easy rhythm to work his lungs by, a rhythm matched by Steve's light drumming on his ankle; Tony wondered which of them had started first and who was copying the other, now.

Steve's pause was just that little bit too long, his jaw too tight as he pulled the blanket closer around his essentially naked shoulders. "It's fine. I think the docs got a little trigger happy with the x-ray machine, though."

"Who wouldn't, with bone structure like that?" Tony quipped, keeping his tone light while deciding that Cap without painkillers was not acceptable. A second flash of burningcoldnoairwhyJARVIShelpmeYinsen, blinded him and he couldn't tell if that was sand between his fingers or vacuum, or- bedsheets. Definitely a sheet... He fixated on Steve's right ear and the smell of Pepper's perfume, the sound of Natasha's voice, and pushed the images back. There had to be something in the massive arsenal of drugs JARVIS kept almost obsessively well stocked that Steve's body wouldn't just burn up, something with a big enough therapeutic window that Steve could slip in and- No... wrong track, they needed something his body wouldn't notice. Something every brain has in it alre-

Huh.

Well, that was a thought.

He peered intently at the supersoldier; he'd abandoned clothes when getting them over his shoulder had proved impossibly painful, so he was in his sling, a blanket and sleep pants. His toes, when Tony peeked, were buried in the carpet, rubbing a small circle, matched by the one Steve was tapping onto Tony's ankle. Instead of his usual broad-legged sprawl, he was sitting coiled up and tense, and the only relaxed bit on Steve's whole body, that Tony could see, was his immobilised hand.

Since Steve was actually paying attention to Pepper's brief on the satellite telemetry, Tony tipped his tablet towards his chest enough to ensure privacy and started typing.

J, we got any of the good chocolate?

The comm box flickered briefly through an image sentence, pictures worth a thousand words:

Tony's x-rays, first, then his morphine vial, then his face in profile, jittery and tired and looking at Steve. The cascade stopped, blanked out and restarted; Steve's neuroimaging display, a blood panel, the stitches in his shoulder, the aforementioned x-ray topography.

I believe I can accommodate the Captain, Sir.

Good boy, Jarv. Don't let Barton at it.

...Indeed.

The box cleared of text and pictures and Tony bumped Steve's rock-hard thigh muscle with his toe. Again. He was going to bruise.

"Tony... What?" Steve whispered, unwilling to talk over Sitwell, but not really bothering to listen either.

"You on anything for that?" He gestured with his right hand, flapping approximately in the direction of the enormous gash and its twenty-seven stitches.

"They packed it out with something," Steve said, shrugging his good shoulder and immediately whitening.

"Yeah, how's that working out..." Tony raised a pointed eyebrow because Steve was fooling no one. "Look, there's a box of chocolates in the kitchen, third on the le-right, third on the right."

Steve gave him a long, 'I have no idea what you mean' look.

"Chocolate, Steve, chocolate's proven to reduce the psychological impact of pain. That and high blood sugar reducing the potential for shock-related side- oh for god's sake, just... go eat." Tony didn't want to look at Steve, because he knew there'd be a disbelieving squiggle between his eyebrows, and besides, something momentous was going on in a spare room down the hall, so he stared at his thumb and its repetitive, calming motion instead.

"Fine, but you too, alright?"

Tony paused, considering, but he nodded eventually. Steve, the bastard, looked like he'd won something and his thighs flexed beside Tony's foot as he stood and, whoa, he just- straight up. Normal human beings with great big holes in their anatomy slump and shuffle, but not Steve, nooo, Steve just levered himself upright with just his thighs and kept his top half perfectly immobile before walking off like he wasn't completely unmedicatable. Tony huffed and looked back down, swiping through the bot-tracker security footage to see what Dummy had roped You into doing, exactly. Stupid supermetabolisms and their ridiculously martyrish brains... Steve couldn't stand the faces Tony made when physio pushed a little far - Clint and Pepper would send him away - and yet he expected himself to put up with an enormous gash withou-

-coldicepainscalpelbarebulbrestraintspain,heart,HEA RT,sandandbonedust,icywater,bluelightandburningsun -

-without painkillers.

Tony pushed his little button and held back a groan when the dose barely touched the sides.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

JARVIS was in 'charge of drugs' in the Tower.

It was... not quite a sacred duty, but his need to keep unit_Creator healthy was as near to worryingly mindless fanaticism as he had any wish to get. Thus, JARVIS had very few qualms about the modest quantities of Cannabis indica he had brought with them from California, where Sir had a repeat prescription.

For ease of administration, single doses were made into the typical brownies, which JARVIS served to unit_Creator should the need become apparent. Sir would look at the nearest sensor, become resigned, and eat, free in the knowledge that he was at little risk of becoming psychologically dependant.

Sir had not specified that he intended to share this privilege with the Captain, and there were indeed 'good chocolates' in the third box from the right; however, there was a good chance that THC would produce a significantly therapeutic effect which, given the Captain's metabolism, may not be easy to acquire elsewhere.

"JARVIS?"

"Second cupboard, sir, third box from the left, with the white cross."

The Captain obligingly took the box down, though his unsatisfactory blanket slipped to the floor in the process and Steve seemed reluctant to bend to pick it up again. JARVIS cut in, just as the Captain's eyes cast considering glances between the box and his blanket.

"Captain, if I may, for a moment, have your attention?"

"Oh?" Steve hummed, looking up at the ceiling quite inappropriately; JARVIS' sensor array for the kitchen was, in fact, embedded in the stove-top.

"Are you familiar with the drug 'cannabis'?" JARVIS inquired, softly. It would do little good if the SHIELD agents in the gallery heard this particular exchange.

"Sure, for seizures, I think? It still around?" An unfortunately common question for the soldier.

"Indeed. However, it is no longer legal in the state of New York. Sir's previous residence, in California, where legislature allows medicinal use, made him eligible for a prescription of Cannabis indica, a form used primarily as nocturnal pain-relief." JARVIS paused, considering the Captain's potential reactions, before pushing ahead, confident that he would not contact the authorities, given Tony's condition. "In light of its efficacy, I saw fit to maintain the supply once we made the transition to the Tower; according to State legislation, I do, in fact, owe the NYPD alone some five hundred dollars and fifteen days jail-time."

"But you think it'd help with..." the Captain made a vague gesture at his shoulder, naked but for its bandages.

"I do indeed, Captain."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Steve tapped the top of the box thoughtfully; its medicinal cross made sense, now. On the one hand, he'd seen how prohibition went and he'd had enough of the burning pain already, but on the other, Nick Fury was just down the hall.

His shoulder throbbed. Decisions, decisions...

Taptaptap... tap, tap, tap... taptaptap... tap tap tap...

He thought of Tony and of why he'd have this in the first place, and how bad he looked since the fight. Memories of a hospital with rough sheets and not enough beds and the smell of resin in alcohol popped up, he'd had Yellow Fever and it hadn't been pretty, but the kid in the next bed had been spastic, and they'd given him cannabis to relax the muscles. It hadn't worked, exactly, but he'd stopped crying. Steve'd been glad.

Why not? Really? It was legal in Cali, it couldn't be bad, in the strictest sense of the word. After all, they'd banned alcohol and-

"There remains Mr. Stark's original suggestion, if you are uncomfortable. The box labeled 'Socola' contains a very fine chocolate from Vietnam, which does indeed have its own 'feel good' properties."

Steve stopped tapping and flipped open the box, one handed. "No, I think... I'll give it a go." Inside, small squares of brownie sat on a piece of greaseproof paper, which covered the tops of another layer; at least Steve wouldn't be using up the last of Tony's supply.

He took the box of un-drugged chocolates down to give to Tony on JARVIS' recommendation, and served himself four cake squares.

They were delicious, he decided, halfway through the first bite; rich and nutty, and far, far better than any medication he'd ever tasted before. It'd take a while to set in, so he took his napkin with the remaining doses, Tony's posh Vietnamese chocolate, and headed back to the gallery living room.

He passed the SHIELD agents on their way to the elevator and frowned, juggling chocolates for a second before stuffing them in his sling to shake Fury's hand.

"Good work, Captain. Take a day. Or three," Fury said, not quite an order, but looking stern all the same.

"Thank you, sir?" Steve replied, watching in bemusement as they disappeared into the elevator.

"I could've sworn Sitwell had another hour in him, at least..." Steve commented, idly thumbing crumbs off the corner of his mouth and licking them off as he stepped down into the room's squishy centre.

The Avengers were looking suspiciously smug, and even Pepper was looking amused. "Did you use..." Steve gestured vaguely at his arm and shoulder, "as an excuse to get out of a meeting?"

"No..." Clint lied, blatantly, eyes on the chocolate Steve was fishing back out of his sling.

"You lost your blanket-" Pepper exclaimed, getting up abruptly and leaving Tony looking cold and slightly bemused, listing to one side.

"Yeah, couldn't bend down to- hey, no it's alright, I'm warm enough..." Too late: Pepper scuttled out of sight. Steve sighed and settled into Pepper's place on the lounger, handing Tony his share of the haul

"Can I-"

"No."

Steve ignored Clint and Tony both, pulling out another brownie. Slings, strangely convenient...

"But it's Siocola..."

"It's 'Socola' and it's mine."

"Play nice, Tony," Pepper scolded, returning sans heels and plus blanket. "Clint; he doesn't have to share if he doesn't want to; the chocolate was a gift from an old friend."

Steve munched his way slowly through the second cake, watching Tony watch Pepper scold Clint and wondering about this 'old friend'. Tony looked like a sap, a big softie, sucking the chocolate off his fingers with tiny, precise licks and Steve huffed in amusement; Pepper had noticed and was exaggerating her scolding. It made Tony smile, and that meant a lot.

Clint had cottoned on, and exaggerated his dismayed surrender while Pepper tucked the blanket back over Steve's naked shoulders.

So maybe he had been cold, a little bit.

The ache and burn were both starting to mellow away though, his metabolism pushing the cannabis into his system at a good pace, and he felt able to lean back against the lounger. Tony rearranged himself around Steve's shoulder obligingly and someone had given him a physio pillow while Steve'd been in the other room, which he tucked against his chest and rested his chin on.

Steve knew it was for holding Tony's ribs together, but he kinda had the urge to steal it and bury his face in the soft not-fur fabric and-

Huh. So that was... nice?

Steve felt warm and relaxed and there wasn't anything to worry about and his shoulder hurt but didn't matter... Finally.

He munched contentedly on his third brownie, shuffling down so his blanket covered his nose and kept his tasty tasty cake out of sight while he nibbled.

After a while, Steve was so calm, so easy, that he felt himself start to fall asleep, still cosied up to Tony. It didn't feel quite right, that Clint was all the way on the other side of the room, and that Natasha had vanished and taken Pepper with her...

"JARVIS; Avengers Assemble!" he murmured, nuzzling his cheek against Tony's hair.

"You are fortunate I am not inclined to practical jokes, Captain: SHIELD alert cancelled, Avengers satellite overrides cancelled."

Steve grumbled in vague consternation, but relaxed when Clint moseyed over, a mug of something calorific in hand. The archer flopped onto the sofa, nearby, and breathed in the steam.

"Stark... what was in those brownies?"

Tony grunted under Steve's cheek, pushing Steve's hand off his wrist and possibly doing something with a tablet. Steve didn't care, and tucked his fingers into Tony's waistband instead.

"Did you drug Captain America?!"

Steve grinned to himself, and pretended to be asleep.

"Ah ah! Nope! Pleading the Fifth! JARVIS is in charge of my drugs. I sent him for chocolate. Actual chocolate. JARVIS, this is on you."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXxxx

By the time Pepper made it back from SI, having been dragged into a dinner meeting, Steve had apparently been poured into bed and Tony was doing physio on the floor of the gallery. It was gentle, but she could still see the sheen of sweat on the back of his neck.

"Half set?"

Tony grunted, lifting his elbow with Clint's hand carefully supporting it and his wrist.

"The Intellicrops deal has gone through; your chat with the raspberry guy did the trick," she reported, slipping her shoes off at the edge of the sunken sitting area and undoing her bun. "They like the sterileair umbrella; they're willing to give Bruce seventeen percent, point-of-sale, for lease of patent.

Tony wrinkled his nose and thought about it for a second while Clint helped him drop the limb to his side.

"It'll do, what was their first offer?"

Pepper laughed and folded herself onto the couch. "Three. And a free unit."

"I have no idea what you guys are talking about. Is it code? I'm usually good at code..." Clint muttered to himself. Pepper, grinning, leaned down and ruffled his hair.

"Nothing quite like business-talk," Tony commented. "Do they not realise where he lives? I thought that - ow, fuck, I think that as far as we're gonna get today,- that was part of the whole 'Avengers are safe' campaign."

"They know, Tony, they're just trying it on. That haven't seen your ugly mug for a few weeks, and god forbid they value me for anything more than my skills as a Tony-herder," Pepper muttered with irritation.

"You'll show them, Pep." Tony turned to look at her for the first time, face soft with exhaustion, but calm, confident.

"I'd say we've got your back," Clint muttered, eyes shifting away from Tony and sparking with amusement. "But you don't need it."

"Damn right I don't," she said, grinning. "But it's a nice thought." She settled back into the couch, tucking her toes into the cushions. "The spill's cleaned up fine. No rain, so it didn't spread. Final analysis says levels are down past the safe threshold."

"Great. Perp?"

"Ask Natasha; I'm keeping my plausible deniability." Whoever they had been, Natasha had dealt with them. Firmly.

Tony grinned faintly and nodded, still working at his shoulder muscles. "Call from Rhodey today: he's in DC, they want to rebrand the WarMachine."

"Really. Taking advantage of the sub-orbital capabilities then." Dummy made an appearance, poking his claw over the back of the couch. Pepper peered up at him and then smiled. "Thank you, Dummy, that's very kind," she said, taking the pack of makeup wipes from him.

"Yeah. CO2 footprint smaller than a Jeep-mile, so it's not a problem. Side bonus: re-entry'll strip off any paintjob they try and land him with."

Pepper nodded thoughtfully, wondering how that'd go down in Congress as she cleaned her face off.

"Abs?" Clint asked quietly. Tony was white with pain and quite obviously done with exercises that worked on his chest muscles. He lay down agreeably, but once he was there, closed his eyes and went competely limp.

"Don't fall asleep down there, Tony; I'd have to get Thor up, and you know how that goes." Thor, once awake would snack on something meaty and sweet, then crash in Tony and Peppers room.

Tony flapped a hand (his right, of course) and mumbled something about 'feeding the masses' that Pepper didn't quite catch. She could guess though; their pantry just wasn't the same since Thor had arrived.

Clint let him have his break, even putting a bottle of something greenish-black in his hand, before heading to sit at his feet. Tony's legs were just fine, if restless from inactivity, but his abs had been affected by the operation. Tony was proud of those muscles, considering what he'd gone through to get them, so Clint was helping him maintain them.

Slowly, working on muttered comments and physical cues, Tony and Clint worked together to take the undamaged stomach muscles through their full range of movement, without using their full strength. Tony looked ridiculous with his legs in the air, held steady by Clint's hands, but it was more stable than doing situps, with his chest only a few weeks out of surgery.

Tony's ankles looked incredibly thin as Clint's supportive grip pushed the hems of his sweatpants up his calf.

Pepper sighed and slipped off the sofa to help. It hurt him, and she could at least make it a little less... lonely. She held his hand tight, helped stabilise his shoulder, while Clint pushed both knees up towards Tony's chest. It was humiliating for Tony, she could see it in his scrunched-closed eyes, but... God, when did he grow up? I missed it... before or after the Avengers? Before or after me?

But he was still there, still letting a friend help, instead of finding some anonymous expert with no compassion.

"That's great, Tony, one more-"

"Fuck. I'm fucking amazing, birdbrain, you b-"

Pepper derailed the outburst with a gentle squeeze and a chiding look; the only shock was the speed at which Tony swallowed the words.

"...sorry, last one, yeah? 'm tired, Clint, okay?" Tony said, a sincere apology that, frankly, rattled Pepper. A glance at Clint showed that he was just as thrown, and they finished the set in silence, spending an extra moment of gentling Tony down, afterwards. His face was grey and clammy, and neither Pepper nor Clint made any move to urge him off the soft floor.

"Don't apologise again, man. It's cool, I get it, and hearing that from you's just weird," Clint said eventually, from his spot lying down on Tony's far side, head on the red-plush physio pillow.

"Y're an ass."

"Better."

XXXXXXXXX

Later, when he was curled up around his pillow, hotpads pressed against his shoulders, Tony couldn't stop thinking about him.

It, maybe. Gender-neutral. Who knows whether other-dimensional beings have genders. Or sex, which would be a shame for dimensional scientists everywhere, because that frill had to be one hell of a sexually selected trait. It had been carrying a clipboard. Not a clipboard, clipboard, but still some kind of record keeping device, and it had looked so shocked...

Pepper shifted past the bathroom door, a brief vision of something beautiful and distracting.

Not distracting enough though.

It had died.

Disintegrated. There must have been something in its armor, stabilising the universal constants in its immediate area, if only the bloody thing hadn't stepped through the portal. It had opened the portal, it had broken through the Constant-Inconstance barrier.

So why did he feel so guilty?

Pepper hummed as she came back into the bedroom, smoothing her nightwear down, and sat behind him. Her hand landed on his waist, rubbing soothingly; she always knew.

At least he didn't have to sit up all night anymore; Pepper could curl up around his back, and... yeah, okay, that made things better.

All the Avengers were alive. It'd have to do.

Chapter Text

 

“Tony?” Steve called, flipping open the file in his hand and navigating around the box of comics next to the hall table without looking up. There was no reply, but that wasn’t surprising; Tony had a very tight focus when he needed it. If you just kept talking, some part of his ridiculous brain would hear you and get back to you at eventually.

“We got the numbers from Jonkoping; they’re writing it off as an act of a God and the deficit is gonna be-- holy hell!”  Steve stopped in his tracks as he looked up, the file fumbled in his hands and suddenly completely irrelevant to his thoughts, which could be summarised by:

...??

Their living room had ... exploded? or imploded. There were sheets and blankets hanging off and draped over things, everywhere. Laundry pegs and bits of tie wrap poked out, where they apparently held the whole thing together, and

Dummy?!”

and right in the middle, a sheet was draped over an angle that looked a lot like Dummy’s arm. It swiveled towards him, the sheet showing the outline of his claw and Dummy beeped out a pleased greeting.

My apologies Captain; there was an agreement to have it put away before it became an inconvenience. However, as you can see...”

Steve ran a hand down his face, disbelieving. “Yeah. What’s...?”

“Sir calls it a ‘couch mansion’,”  JARVIS reported.

“Impressive, I guess,” Steve murmured, rubbing his chin. “He’s inside?”

“Of course.” JARVIS produced a holographic placemarker, to Dummy’s south by about a meter. “Once construction was complete, Sir was somewhat in need of rest.”

“Huh.” Steve grinned and dumped his now-irrelevant report on what was left of the lounger (now cushionless and forlorn). “Where’s the ‘entrance’ to this thing? I don’t want to break it.”

JARVIS supplied another marker, and then a third. “He constructed a baffle, Captain; ‘in case of cuckoos’. The route is somewhat convoluted.”

“...‘course he did. Feel free to scan me for ‘cuckoo-ness’,” he quipped, shrugging out of his jacket. JARVIS beeped in amusement and hologrammed a big tick-box on his chest.

Access granted, Captain.”

Steve smiled to himself, head down as he toed off his shoes. “Anything you want me to bring him?” he asked, checking his pockets for potentially uncomfortable objects and turfing his keys out, leaving them in his shoe.

“You do not plan to extract him?”  JARVIS asked, amused and curious as he put an object marker on the keys, logging their location on a pop-up screen. JARVIS’ own idea; nothing went missing accidentally anymore, it was real handy.

“Nah, you can still monitor him under all this, right? As long as he’s comfortable, we can put up with chaos for an afternoon.”

“How very open minded of you.”  One of JARVIS’ screens flipped through a bunch of stats for a moment; his version of a thoughtful expression. “A bottle of Fix’d would not go amiss. Otherwise; he will keep until supper.”

Steve sidestepped around the ‘mansion’ to the bar by the landing platform --having to dodge guylines and the legs of a kitchen chair on his way-- and fished a bottle of the smoothie out of the fridge, along with a couple of cloth napkins.

“Alright, I’m going in.”

“Godspeed, Captain.”

Steve grinned, shoving the napkins into his belt and the bottle in his teeth, crouched and flipped the ‘door’ over his head, ducking inside. Tony’s ‘baffle’ was made of a Hulk-printed fleece blanket that had been hanging around the living room for weeks, making Bruce chuckle. Its bottom edge was tucked under something, and the top pegged to a length of cable; pretty secure. Steve wasn’t about to interfere with Tony’s ‘anti-cuckoo measures’, anyway, and shuffled in an awkward crouch, around the far end.

On the other side, the back of the couch and a tipped-up chair supported the ceiling, which was composed of a pair of photography curtains in white pegged to a cream duvet cover, both of which Steve recognised. The angle of the chair’s back made a kind of doorway, more Tony-sized than Steve-sized, but he managed to squirm through on his belly, pulled along by his elbows.

Beyond that, carpet turned to couch cushions, and Steve pulled himself up into a crouch, looking up at Dummy, proud holder-upper of the ceiling. Fairylights were plugged into his chassis and draped across the various odds and ends of furniture holding up Tony’s construction.

The air was sleep-warm, but fresh, and smelled like bedtime and engine oil. The fairylights lit everything in soft yellow, calm and safe and more like late evening than midafternoon.

Tony was curled up on something big and squashy, his feet near Dummy’s tires and his head resting on a throw pillow, fast asleep with his chest supported by his red physio pillow. He looked like he needed the rest, but in a good way, like he’d used his time well. His cheeks were warm pink, and there weren’t any bags under his eyes, but his expression was that of someone who meant to really sleep. His oxygen was in place under his nose and the canister gauge was well in the green, settled behind him on the coffee table that had been beside the couch this morning.

Steve checked the line, just to make sure, then settled himself into the comfy space to wait for Tony to wake up. He wrapped Tony’s snack up in the napkins, to keep it cool and keep the condensation from getting everywhere, and gave that to Dummy for safe keeping; the bot was very pleased with this and bobbed his head, beeping. There were plenty of soft things left over from Tony’s nesting, scattered about in a general chaos, and Steve made a few into a seat, uncovering one of Tony’s tablets in the process and propping it up against the leg of a chair.

“JARVIS?” Steve said, softly enough to be called a whisper.

JARVIS replied on the tablet screen, rather than aloud. “Yes, Captain?”

“Could you play us a movie? Something Tony can sleep through.”

“I have just the thing. Dummy, behave yourself.”

Something queued up, old enough for the picture to look grainy, but young enough to have colour, and Dummy buzzed happily at the little girl that appeared on screen, then settled in to watch.

Somewhere between Jinx’s well-meant trick with the flight computers and the space-walk, Tony woke up and sleepily tucked his fingers into Steve’s pocket, of all things, but didn’t say anything.

When the end credits rolled up and all the kids in the film were home safe, Steve pulled Tony’s hand out of his pocket and leant over to grab the smoothie.

“Brought you something.” He waggled the drink in front of Tony and raised an eyebrow questioningly.

Tony blinked up at him, fingers shifting against Steve palm. “Din’t mean to sleep...”

“It’s fine; looks like you had a good time.” Steve gestured at the tent around them with the bottle, then pulled the seal off with his teeth and offered it to Tony again. This time, he took it, relinquishing his hold on Steve and sucking on the sports nozzle without sitting up.

“...Pep home yet?” he asked out of the corner of his mouth, eyes closing again.

“Nah. You’ve got a while before we have to be presentable. ‘s only four thirty.”

Tony cast him a side glance, assessing and surprisingly sharp for someone so sleepy. “SHIELD?”

Steve shrugged and tapped the bottom of the bottle. “I had a few meetings, the Thor thing’s nearly sorted out.”

“Mmm, okay...”  Tony took another draw on the smoothie and made a soft ‘hmmm’ noise after swallowing, visibly pleased.

“You can go back to sleep, if you want.”

Tony nodded, a little frown of concentration creasing his forehead for a second, then disappearing again. “Flight of the Navigator.”

“A fine choice, Sir.”

And Steve settled in again with a smile, lying down behind Tony and sharing his pillow, happy to wait until the others got in to do anything but doze.

 


Couch Forts and Fairylights

Chapter Text

 

The couch fort was... surprising. Not something he'd expected from Stark. But then, you never quite got what you expected from Tony, up to and including inexplicable levels of team bonding and tolerance of strange sleeping habits.

"Come out, Abby, your low battery light is on, you can't hide."

The 'bot hummed sadly, nudging out from under the bed as Clint flicked his covers back onto the bed. They'd been somewhere in tier three of Tony's fort, near the centre. He pushed his pillows up to roughly head level, but seeing as he rarely actually used his bed, it was essentially irrelevant.

"Come on, kiddo. I'll drop you in the workshop; Dummy can tell you all about his 'adventure'," Clint said, leaning over to peer under the bed. "I got dust bunnies? It’s under the bed, its supposed to be dusty."

Abby beeped and made her way out excruciatingly slowly. Backwards. Clint could wait, but he was due to get Tony settled, and if she ended up going into sleep mode under his bed? Tony would never let him live it down.

Something... grey, and furry and stuffed came trailing behind her, half draped in bedsheet. She left it, half jammed under the bed, and zipped over to Clint’s feet, nudging at his shins. “Hey. Not wearing any boots, cut it out--”

She scuttled around behind him to nudge at his calves and he conceded the point; he’d lug her downstairs after she’d done her thing. He sat down on heavily on the bed and leaned his elbows on his knees. “Alright, what is it? Fess up.”

She beeped happily and whizzed in a little circle, before pulling the stuffed toy out from under the bed. She could only just lift it, because it was an awkward shape for her little hands, so he reached down to take it. The fur fabric was suprisingly warm under his hand, textured in little wave shapes and astonishingly soft. Clint hadn't had a soft toy for... years and years, but he was pretty sure they weren't supposed to be this soft. He turned it over, letting his palms, where his skin was still relatively soft, slide over the fabric in appreciation.

The little waves clipped into the fur were feathers, soft, dusty brown feathers. A rather fierce and kind of disgruntled owl-face peered up at him, its eyes half closed and big tufts spiking out of the top of its head. Its wings, floppy and soft, covered the backs of his hands and the fabric really was warm. Not just reflecting his body heat back at him, but making its own.

"So this is for me?" he asked, rubbing a thumb over it's belly. "Why's it wearing a tie?" It was one of those elasticated ones, with a stiff white collar attached. Coulson'd have wept, really would've, because Clint had worn one of these for a quick-change job once; partygoer to waitstaff in under fifteen seconds, and he'd forgotten to take off the god-damn collar.

Clint wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, because yeah, he knew why it was wearing a tie now. Abby bumped up against his ankle, humming comfortingly, and Clint folded, collapsed like a house of cards, and curled around the owl, pressing its warm body into the shelter of his torso.

"Thank you, Abby, thank you, thank you..." He sniffled and choked, squeezing his eyes closed and pressing his cheek into the top of its head. "I'm sorry, I love it, I do, thank you, sorry for the water works, sorry..."

"She understands, Agent Barton, take your time."

Clint shuddered and pitched over sideways, tucking his knees up until he was in a nice, safe ball, with Owl in the middle, and Abby reached up to pat his knee with one wheel.

Phil--!

He'd been so pleased when Fury had announced that they'd found Steve; at least Loki had waited long enough for him to meet Captain America--

Oh, Phil, what'd he do to you...

Crying actually felt good for once and after a few gut-wrenching sobs he relaxed into it, letting choked breaths come easily, even if they were loud. It felt good. He was tired, and a bit headachey, but that was okay, and as the more violent sobs died down, he eased out of his tense ball and pressed his forehead into Owl's feathers, the fake tie pressing against his cheek.


Owl

Chapter Text

After the couch fort explosion, which was a direct result of Steve getting completely stoned and sleeping in the living room the day before, Clint let Tony off physio for the day, sort of. He looked pretty tired himself, and there was an owl wearing a Captain America tie on the end of Tony's bed, but Tony wasn't gonna judge a guy for his choice of bedtime partners; it'd be the height of hypocrisy.

"You've done enough range of movement and strength exercise, I think..." The archer’s hands were firm and comfortable, comforting, as he manipulated Tony's shoulder. The incision was well on its way to sealing, the stitches nearly dissolved as the healing capillaries brought resources in, so the stretch across it wasn't painful. The bones underneath would take their time --they did ache, horribly-- but the surgeon had wired the ribs into his sternum and the breaks had started to form calluses. Tony could feel it in his breathing; it felt more natural, he didn't have to think about it so much. The extra solidity made using his shoulder much less arduous, hence the fort construction, and Tony had found himself under-dosing on his morphine. Bruce was very smug about it and had started dialing down the oxygen in response; Tony was down to a few puffs of 50% on stairs, now.

"Yeah, that's good and free, little bit..." Clint muttered, pressing the pads of his fingers into the muscles that had been damaged during the surgery. The squeeze bordered on real pain and Tony let Clint know with a quiet whimper. The pressure eased immediately and Clint started rubbing over the skin in soothing circles. "Pass me the-- yeah, thanks," Clint said, one hand leaving Tony's shoulder and accepting the bottle of mineral oil from Steve, who had fished it out of its bowl of hot water on the nightstand.

Since Tony couldn't lie on his front, it was a little awkward, but Clint had clever hands and braced Tony's chest with one of them, managing to avoid putting pressure on anything that would protest. The other set to the task of rubbing the ache out of the overcompensating muscles of Tony's back, squeezing the tension out of him. Tony could admit to being half asleep anyway, after untangling Dummy from their foray into interior design (Dummy's idea, all of it), and Clint's careful massage, his hands hot and sure, was going to send him the rest of the way as it pickled his brain in endorphins.

This was always the best part of physio, when no one expected him to be coherent and there was plenty of touching. Almost as good as sex. But only Pepper sex, not-Pepper sex was dull and--

Steve's voice started rumbling in the distance, and Tony lost the thread without really minding. He heard something about ordering food, which sounded like a fantastic idea, but Steve was also no longer in the room, so, big negative there.

"...Clint?" Tony mumbled, picking at a loose thread on Clint's habitually ragged cuff and missing it repeatedly in his daze.

"Yeah, Tony?"

"Thank you. I… just, thanks..." Tony closed his eyes and turned his face towards the pillow, frustrated and so terribly grateful that he wasn't in some ridiculous private clinic somewhere, where couch forts would be frowned upon and Dummy couldn't come and Steve wouldn't order the most comforting food and some stranger would have their hands all over him.

"Yeah. Well. You do the same for me," Clint said, present tense.

"...'ve never... What?" he asked, baffled.

"I sleep at the bottom of your bed, man. There's reasons."

Tony's hand clenched around Clint's wrist, because fuck. He'd noticed, of course he had, and it was ...better, when Clint was around, even when you barely noticed he was there, things were better. Tony hadn't thought about why Clint did it, but now he was remembering a night in Malibu, when Clint had asked him what it felt like to die. So Tony nodded, and stayed silent, and clung to Clint's wrist.

Steve brought them dinner in Tony's room, later, after physio was long over and Tony was messaging Rhodey horror stories about camel spiders in an attempt to stay awake. Tony didn't want to move, so they didn't, not even when Natasha sauntered past with a quip about teenagers and sleepovers. If Pepper minded coming home to a bed filled with male superheroes, she didn't wake Tony up to complain.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Tony dozed a long time the next morning. With the pacemaker fixed, he didn’t have to get up every few hours to clear fluid from his lungs, and his breathing was easiest when he was resting, so when Pepper and Steve got up, Tony stayed where he was. With sunlight streaming in the big windows, oblique because of the approaching winter, he was plenty warm enough for it to be soporific, and Bruce had topped him up the night before, so he was good for pain control and--

Something dark and too close to his airspace blocked out his sun.

The windows rattled with the slipstream of a SFEF rocket, then shuddered with the resulting impact.

The Tower was under attack.

JARVIS screamed alarms, jerking Tony out of his disbelieving shock; codes for workshop level, outside assailant, airborne. He could have howled, he really could've. Best night's sleep since-- when-the-fuck-ever, and Clint was gonna do the breakfast thing with the duck eggs and some bastard attacks them?!?

Footage popped up on the window screens just in time to watch violently purple flames leap up from the projectile buried in his workshop floor.

SHIT! JARVIS! Fire-protocol CHEM-4, sectors 16 to 24, now,” Tony barked, kicking his way off the bed, his heart sinking in a way that was purely emotional. His feet touched ground for the first time in almost twelve hours and it was glorious to feel his heart ticking up, speeding up, taking the strain, but...  Pain ripped into his chest and he stumbled, because he had five broken ribs and a fifteen millimeter slice into the heart muscle and what the fuck was he thinking he'd only just gotten the all clear to shower let alone-- but he couldn’t stop; chemical fire could liquidate the bots’ motherboards in seconds, fumes drawn in by the coolant system and chased by the oxidation cascade. Every quirk, every code violation, everything that made them and their stupid solid-state hardware actually alive could go up in acrid silicone smoke.

Someone propped him up on his right, and the pain dimmed enough for him to hit the morphine and actually see where he was putting his feet. As his hearing came back, the raucous noise of too many people used to being in charge swelled and bounced from person to person over the intercom, but he focused in on the beeping and whining of the bots; [fear] and [guilt] and the frantic spinning of tire tracks. Panic crept in; he wasn’t fast enough and DUM-E didn’t have his extinguisher --his code for [retrieve] shrilled loudly -- and Tony fought his way over to the hallway, pulling against the gentle hold of whoever was keeping him steady because they weren’t going fast enough.

He accepted the O2 they pressed onto his face as they clattered down the emergency stairs, slipping the elastic irritably over the back of his head and gulping down the supplemented air.

“JARVIS, how far’d it get before vent lockdown? No, fuck that; switch server coolant to clean reserve, anyway. I want you stable and safe. Do it!” he barked, clean over JARVIS’ protests. J hated losing control of his internal environment.

Tony had his eyes fixed on the purple-tinted orange light spilling out of the lab, along with the blue sweep of JARVIS’ frantic active sensors. A scum of acrid yellow-orange smoke poured into the stairwell, sticky and dense with the color of burnt rubber.

“Dummy! You!” Tony yelled between panting, tucking in close to his support, and it was Clint, of course it was Clint; round shoulders and a strong back and the knowledge necessary to cradle Tony’s ribcage just so. “Get out here, right now!”

A gout of cold white mist belched from the fire-suppressant system, into the corridor, out from which rolled a despondent DUM-E, camera drooping to his chassis but blessedly, beautifully whole. Tony sagged against Clint, deeply relieved, and turned his face to the archer’s shoulder to hide his expression for a second. The mist beeped questioningly and Tony’s chest tightened.

“You too, boltbucket, come on, out of the intensely dange--” He stopped and hacked, the extra metabolic demand of adrenalin and action clogging up his lungs. Clint steadied him, pressing against his sternum to help ease the pressure on the breaks, and Tony sagged as the pain dissipated. You crept out, whining and guiltily holding one of his tracks off the marble, failing utterly to stop the slagged rubber leaving big, black smears on the surface.

“Shit... Alright, we’re good... someone,” Tony let his knees go and slid down to the stone in front of his bots, Clint’s hands easing him down more gently than he’d have bothered on his own; his knees would thank him later. “Someone... get that door. Seal it. JARVIS?” Clint’s hand lingered on his shoulder, and Tony nodded at him in thanks, eyes focused on the scorch up You’s side.

“Done, sir. Mr. Barton, if you would-- oh dear...” Clint’s hand left, sliding over Tony’s shoulder then falling limply away.

Tony froze; You was fine, no sign of venting or corrosion, Tony was fine, so what the hell was going on?!

Clint crashed to the floor.

Fuck!” Tony swore, fixing his mask on tighter and checking the canister. “Bioactive substance scan, J. Up alert to category six and call in SHIELD.”

“...Scanning.”

Shitshitshitshit, Clint--! He scrambled over to Clint, leaving You and Dummy crouched over each other, their wheels barely functional and their programming shot to shit by the loss of their home environment. Clint was breathing, at least, but still getting doses of whatever this shit was.

“Steve Rogers is down, sir, on the gallery level.”

Tony shuddered; because Steve’s metabolism was so fast, he’d build up breakdown products the fastest. Poison or sedative. "Hardline failure detected: outgoing calls unavailable, routing through satellite backup."

Tony winced, hand fisting in Clint's vest; someone must have cut the subterranean cable trunk. The backups would have to do, but it'd be slower, JARVIS wouldn't have off site backup capability.

A hand on Clint’s throat gave him a pulse; slowing, but not.... not stuttering, or failing, and Tony ran a careful hand over Clint's buzz cut; marble was unforgiving, and he'd gone down hard. There was no blood though, no dent in the archer's hard head, and Tony shuddered in relief; Clint must have been able to control his fall, just about.

“Agent Romanov, down. Armory, west entrance; locking down, now. Connection to SHIELD reestablished.” Thank fuck for small mercies. Tony rubbed at his eyes; the smoke was dispersing and filling the hall with slightly acidic haze. Clint couldn't stay out here in the open; the smoke inhalation would bench him, minimum, and he'd be wide open if this attack was an infiltration, completely vulnerable. Tony gestured the ‘bots over, and they limped towards them, voices small and afraid.

“You stand guard, boys; get Hawkeye to the panic room, keep him on his side, and you close the door. Understand? You hold your ground. Close that door and guard it.” They nodded, whirring.

“Neurotoxin identified, sir; non-lethal." JARVIS announced, his tone relieved but his speech a touch too fast. Tony sagged, hand relaxing on Clint’s vest and the breath punching out of him.

"Supersoldier suppressant 1812. First created by Hydra in the latter years of the retreat, formula disseminated through HYDRA following the disappearance of Schmitt, against whom it was highly effective. Leaked to general black market in 1978 and picked up by multiple potential threats. Medium-term sedative, bypass of metabolic-rate dependent clearance due to pathway disruption. Effects will level at 189 milligrams per kilo at this concentration, 59 at the concentration on the upper levels; unconsciousness, reduction of metabolic rate and respiratory depression. Half life at cessation of exposure: eighteen minutes.”

Tony screwed his eyes shut, rubbing at one with the back of his hand. Shit. Even if he could clear the Avengers’ environmental unit without risking civilians in the lower levels, he wouldn’t be getting any help from the others; they’d be sick for hours. Bruce, maybe, if he could get pissed off enough while unconscious god damn it, but it was a drug keyed to the serum. There was no telling.

This was... wow, a weakness he should have planned for.

“Alright... Someone get me a pen.” Dummy, the little hoarder, obliged, and Tony scribbled on Clint’s hand in blocky ballpoint.

Clint: Dummy and You are damaged. Gave ‘em guard duty. Stay put. Took your stuff. J’ll want a neuro exam; cooperate.

“JARVIS, route extraction to the roof, it’s windy, it’ll be fine, what with the short half-life,” Tony ordered, shoving the pen in his back pocket and pushing Clint into something approaching the recovery position while rifling through the contents of his tac vest.

“Of cour-- Error: mechanical failure of environmental controls,--! I am being infiltrated. Sir, they’re in the central vent trunk! Unable to deploy defences, Sir!

“Fuck. Fuck.”  JARVIS was supposed to be safe. Nothing should be able to touch them here, inside his walls, not bad weather, not bad press-- They were the-- the big guns! You didn’t come to the big guns, they came to you!

Fuck. He didn’t have time for this.

Tony shoved the rappel handle stolen from Clint's tac vest into his pocket and tipped him onto his side. He made a handle by tugging the collar of his shirt out from under his vest and Dummy grabbed it and started pulling, dragging him to safety over the smooth stone without hesitating; the bots liked Clint; he’d be fine. You limped along behind, pushing uselessly at Clint’s boots. They’d all be fine. Hopefully.

Tony shook himself out of his worried daze, reminding himself that the others were out in the open. “Where?”

“V-vent access foxtrot whiskey hotel eight.”

Tony powered to his feet, saving his morphine and running primarily on adrenalin as he made for the stairs. “You bugging out on me, J?”

“N---... No Sir. Recalibrating for battle conditions.”

“Good man. Get Ranger up, get in the air and blow these bastards out of the sky before they drop any more assholes on our heads.”

“Of course Sir. Powering up now.”

Tony nodded, pressing his mask to his face and starting up towards the roof; he had a vent to kick in.

The hostiles were coming down as he was going up and the rattling in the elevator shafts started -- some kind of motorized rappelling gear which made the one he'd borrowed off Clint look like a toy -- as he hit the gallery. They were going for other side of the floor, the kitchen and some storage, their evidence locker. Also laundry, but he couldn't imagine them having a use for that. Natasha would be safe, at least, locked in the armory proper with the gun cage. Steve, on the other hand...

The supersoldier was neither super, nor soldier, and was doing a fantastic impression ofa coma patient, breathing soft and mercifully even. His cheeks were pink and he was a long way from the nearest brain-damagingly hard surface... Or any cover. Tony needed to hide him, somehow, so he pulled him behind the sofa, where he was out of sight of the exits. And when he said ‘pull’, what he actually did was roll, kick and bully Steve’s ridiculous bulk into a hidden spot. Each push and heave made Tony’s head swim, but Steve’s body was warm and sleep-loose under his hands and it was ridiculously comforting. If only the fort was still up; you could have hidden the entire team in there, and who would look for grown men in a couch fort? Once they were out of sight, Tony flopped down on his side with his hand wrapped around Steve’s wrist and tried to control his breathing; easier was not exactly easy.

A chirp from the vents gave him his escape route and he smiled at the grate, relieved.

“Abby! Look after this massive lump, would you? And get the vent covers off for me, that’s a good girl.” He rolled back up to his knees carefully and stuck his head up out of cover; the elevator doors at the other end of the space were shuddering; they were trying to lock them open against JARVIS’ will. So, vent climbing wasn’t his first choice of transportation, but he’d manage and it looked like he wasn’t going to have a choice. It’d take him straight to the source of the blockage, at least. His chest could take it, if he was careful, but he'd have to leave his sling behind. That, he was not looking forwards to.

A boom from outside rattled the windows and Tony grinned, glancing up in time to see a billow of jet-fuel smoke blow past the window.

“Good boy, JARVIS. Parking lot?”

“Indeed. It was clear of civilians. The aircraft appears to have been Latverian in origin, though a serial number may now be... irretrievable."

Tony laughed breathlessly. “Yeah? Good for you.” He grunted, getting Steve’s legs further behind the couch, and ducking back down behind it himself, just in case someone looked the wrong way. He rested his hand on Steve's chest for reassurance, even though he was envious of those deep and even breaths right now, then tipped the blanket off the back of the couch over him. Steve was fine; whatever this stuff was doing to him, it was stable. They'd have to get a sample for SHIELD medical; maybe they wouldn't have to worry about setting broken bones without anaesthetic ever again. A guy could hope, especially after sharing his own illegal drugs with Captain America.

“Sir, a storm is approaching, reaching the edge of the city now.”

“Thor?” Tony asked, settling Steve’s head more comfortably on the carpet and stroking his fingers through Steve’s hair. Being dragged along carpet had made it staticky, and Tony smoothed it back down carefully.

“Presumably. ETA: five minutes.”

“Great, keep me posted...well, eventually. Don’t panic, J, but I’m going off bioscan for a bit," Tony said, easing his arm out of the sling to leave the mess of straps and buckles with Steve; it'd be a catch hazard in the vents, more of a pain than a help.

“But, sir--” JARVIS exclaimed, scaring Abby back into her vent.

What did I JUST SAY?” Tony barked, pulling her back out by her battery pack and putting her by Steve’s shoulder. “Stay. Use the lasers if you have to. JARVIS, use the holograms to fuck with them as much as you can. Make them think I’m watching. Do not give yourself away.”

JARVIS subsided, a vague, low-bandpass white noise hissing out of the speakers.

“Grumble all you like, I’m still going,” Tony grouched, fishing the pen out of his back pocket and scribbling on Steve’s hand.

“If your mask becomes compromised, sir, or if flow volume becomes insufficient--”

“Send Abby after me if I stop using my codes at the security gates. This stuff’ll knock me out, same as the rest, I won’t feel a thing.” He flipped the blanket over Abby’s head, tucking Steve’s hand out of sight too. It wouldn’t stand up to inspection, but if JARVIS could keep them, whoever ‘they’ were, distracted enough with the holos, it might just keep him out of harm’s way until he woke up.  “I’ll keep out of the vertical shafts as much as I can, anyway; climbing with my chest like this? Not my definition of a good time.”

“SHIELD ETA: twenty minutes, sir, I will inform them of the need for masks.”

“Good boy. See you in twenty minutes.”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Steve knew this feeling.

This was what being hit by a tank felt like.

He tried to stay quiet; he was tucked into a small space, hiding maybe? Warm, secure, familiar smells, but...smoke too. He couldn’t... nope, he hadn’t got recall of... maybe half an hour? At least his sense of time was still working. Probably? He felt stiff and sore and... less muddy than he half-expected, but that wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. His head was... ugh.

He gave up on the self-issued roll call and groaned, lifting a sausage-fingered hand to push something off his face. A metallic whirr and the rustle of a brush came from his left, then a gentle chassis-bump. Abigail.

“...hey, you. There was... gas?” Steve rolled his head blearily to face her, squinting through a rising migraine. Her head swayed back on its arm to avoid bopping him on the forehead.

“Remain still, Captain; the hostiles have yet to find you,” JARVIS said into the earpiece he’d only barely managed to get on before ignobly passing out. He clumsily pushed it all the way on, and JARVIS’ voice came clearer.

“We successfully vented the toxin into the atmosphere, Captain; you should feel better soon, but I advise that you not attempt to engage hostile forces for a minimum of eight hours. Sir left you a message; right palm.”

Steve muzzly lifted his hand, wondering how you could leave a message on a hand, then painstakingly read off Tony’s spider-scratch scribble:

‘Steve: gone to ground. Will keep them on the move until SHIELD get here. Stay down, and look after Abby.’

“But... T’ny’s hurt...” Steve mumbled, shifting restlessly until Abby lifted a wheel-tipped limb and poked him with it. He rocked back, ear and balance confused. Brain confused.

“So, I feel the need to say, are you.” 

Steve grumbled, but made no further move to get up, nursing his headache and shielding his eyes from the light.

 

XXXXXXXXXXX

 

Tony didn't have the energy to be discreet when he reached the armory, and once he'd keyed in his code, he kicked the vent open. It landed on Clint's arrow chest with an unpleasantly off-key ringing and Tony slithered out. Natasha had managed to get inside the gun cage, but only barely, a good six feet away from the breathers in their boxes. He was impressed; she must have held her breath for a long time after noticing the gas' effects.

Tony crouched down to check her pulse, just in case, then slid his hand under her hair to look for head injuries; much more difficult a task than Clint and Steve, and Tony worried when he found a lump behind her ear, but--

Natasha sprang to waking with uncontrolled violence as his fingers brushed over the bruise, her fists snapping out and stopping just short of clipping Tony in the jaw. Just his luck that it'd taken almost twenty minutes to get to the armory after fixing the venting.

He backed off quickly, getting out of range in case the drug had nasty, violent side effects beyond Nat's usual instant reaction times, but she just blinked at him and his dusty clothes, then looked up at the kicked-in vent.

“Ah.”

“Yeah. ‘Ah’. Remind me never to wake you up with anything shorter than a yardstick. How you feeling?”

She looked good, eyes tracking and picking up on details like the numbers scribbled on his forearm (gas concentrations and a rough half-life graph). Pupils were even, her color good. The armory was the lowest concentration in the house; she’d followed procedure to get here, before passing out. Hope was, she was only sli.. slightly... affected. Damn.

Tony watched, despairing, as Natasha slid back into a half-conscious but unfortunately high-alert state. Couldn’t really call it a ‘doze’ when she looked like a perfectly poised spider, waiting for something tasty to come along.

“Natasha, Tash, Natalie, c’mon, Black Widow...” Tony muttered repeatedly, hoping recognition would get him through the next thirty seconds without losing either his head or a testicle.

It did.

He managed to slip off one of her Widow’s Bites without dying OR setting off the trigger mechanism, all with one hand.

She mumbled at him, something about looking after the weapon properly. It was very typically Natasha, but also rather sweet; Tony’d put a lot of work into these weapons, good to know she appreciated it.

“How’re we looking, JARVIS?” he asked, fishing for a comm unit to take with him when he headed back into the vents; he still had to secure Bruce, who JARVIS hadn’t had a fix on at the last check-in. There was one of the prototype mini-HUDs in the box, as well; anything that would let JARVIS communicate more clearly was a bonus at this point.

“No sign of the doctor as yet, sir. SHIELD have successfully screened and evacuated the corporate levels, and are en-route to the security bulkheads.” The HUD lit up once he slipped the headband on and there... maps, JARVIS’ sensor data, team status display. Much better. It showed Thor as an over-active dot, circling the building with the Iron Ranger and battering down little red drone markers.

“You didn’t say they had drones...” Tony muttered, rummaging in a crate.

“I am handling it; we are at fifteen to seven. I am winning.”

Tony huffed out a laugh. “Tell Thor to keep up the good work; I could use his help in here, but we need the skies clear first.”

“...agreed,” JARVIS said, reluctantly, and pinned a readout of Tony’s vitals to the HUD in lieu of voicing his objection.

Tony managed to find paper (an old-fashioned contents inventory sheet, Tony had no idea why it was even in the building), so Natasha’s note didn’t require further risk to life and limb. She’d be waking up properly soon. He was running low on morphine, only one or two doses left, and she was considerably better at this stuff than he was. At least his ribs hadn’t rebroken; that he was actively trying to avoid.

“Alright, hang tight, ‘Tasha, few hours and you’ll be ri--”

The tower shook, a deep booming rumble that Tony didn’t recognise. And Tony could recognise more booms and bangs than anyone on the planet.

“Bruce Banner located; workshop 16-24, status: Hulk.”

Tony grinned, fumbling his earpiece. Right hand, left ear; bit of a contortion, but he was getting used to the reduced range of movement from the pectoral damage. He should look into non-handed earpieces. Maybe hyperflex silicone, with the Nex-10 grip surfacing-- oh, zip-ties. He grabbed a handful and stuck the bundle in his back pocket.

“Copy that, J; keep me posted. Going back off sensor grid, comms on channel... fourteen, keep the HUD on three.” Tony clicked through frequencies until the three-long sounded for #14.

“Channel fourteen sir.” JARVIS’ voice shifted from intercomm to earpiece and Tony gave him a thumbs up to confirm.

He took a deep breath, testing the strain on his ribs, then scooted back into the vents, pushing himself along with the grippy rubber of his well-worn Converse and cradling his sore arm against his belly. “Now this is much better,” he muttered to JARVIS, twisting through a bend then scrambling upright in the main trunk. “Got any idea what Bruce is up to?”

“Concentrations of gas in the extraction path are dropping, sir; I suspect he has dealt with the source.” A blink-flick got him the building wireframe on the HUD, the gas a red haze through the peripheral extraction ducting. Clearance rates were climbing steadily; they’d hit 100% in a few minutes and the vent system would be hazard-free.

Tony grunted approvingly, leaning against the concrete that separated him from the elevator shaft and fumbling for his morphine button. Adrenalin was keeping him sensible, stable, and the morphine kept him mobile, so he was having to trade off. “Make a note: hulk-sized pizza order.”

“That is, if he has not eaten already.”

“Oh, now that is not gonna be good for his digestion,” Tony muttered. "Alright... Anyone near the kitchen?"

"No sign of hostiles in zones four through sixteen, sir, kitchen clear. Nearest grouped hostiles, zone eighteen, sentries in seventeen and twenty one." The HUD populated with markers, little yellow diamonds, and a counter appeared in the corner of the map; 0/16.

"You’re hilarious, JARVIS,” he muttered, analysing their distribution. “Have to assume they're after the shield, then. Pity they’re looking on the wrong floor.” The Captain America kit room didn’t actually contain most of Steve’s kit, since he liked having the shield with him overnight. “You remember the non-lethal knockouts Tasha showed me?" Tony made a left, following the sector-zone system's numerical code to make it to the kitchen.

“Of course, sir. It would be hard to forget such a ...thorough demonstration.”

“I hear you, buddy. Clint’s tough.” He'd need to use JARVIS' sensory trunk, with its maintenance ladder, to get up to level; kitchen vents were in the ceiling. He took a left, made sure not to step on Abby's stash of Barton food, and started pulling himself up. “Fucking ladders-- Okay, I’m going to draw some fire, see if I can’t get a few hostiles into the kitchen. You’ve got the arms; use them. Knock out and restrain, JARVIS.”

“...whatever happened to ‘not giving myself away’?”

Tony hauled himself over the final rung and collapsed into the crawlspace for JARVIS’ kitchen arms. Wow, that's uncomfortable, he grouched internally; Clint was going to murder him for this tomorrow, ninja rescue aside. Tony was going to murder himself for this tomorrow.

“It’ll look... like I’m... in control,” Tony panted. “Cover’s safe.”

 "Of course, sir. Would you like to take a moment? I may be able to do a little luring of my own."

Tony waved a hand in the air negligently. Not that J could see it, but, what the hell. "Sure! Pipe 'em my voice or something. You got this," he mumbled, shuffling over onto his side and letting his system catch up with the exertion for a bit. When he was quiet, he could just hear the distinctive whine of a safecracking drill as they tried to get into Steve’s strongbox. It was too small to take the shield, maybe they were after something else after all... They’d better not damage Phil’s cards, the bastards. An over-loud whisper played over the kitchen speakers, a recording of Tony swearing under his breath, and a babble of distant voices cut off the drilling. Sounded like he’d dropped a wrench on his foot or something. It’d certainly caught their attention.

In the kitchen below, which had a good set of holojectors because breakfast newspapers, a smoky emulation of the distortion produced by retroreflective panels started walking around.

"Looks good... Bit more of a crouch?" Tony commented under his voice as the apparently poorly disguised armour turned a corner. Its feet slid on the ground slightly; very nineties-gaming-graphics. J corrected, added in the crouch, and it could have been an almost-invisible Suit. If only RR panels were actually small enough to use...

"Great, knock 'em dead," Tony muttered, heaving himself back onto his hands and knees. "Alright, let me down."

"Decoy in place. Applying 'fuzz'."

JARVIS shifted and the ceiling panel under Tony slid back, leaving him holding onto a limb for dear life, mostly with his knees. He slid off it, to the floor, and his feet fuzzed, like he was being projected into the floor slightly. Tony pressed his hand to the counter and it happened again.

"Nice... I like it. Fake bait and switch?" JARVIS hummed in agreement and Tony arranged himself behind the kitchen table, Widow's Bite pointed unobtrusively at the door and most of his body covered from casual gunfire.

"HEY, JERKFACE!" he yelled, taking his mask off to do so, then taking a deep draw on the dialed-up oxygen, just in case.

The swarm of people came through the door, dressed in bright yellow. Not exactly what he’d expected; so much for this being a Latverian op.

"Since when are AIM and Doom in bed together?" Tony asked, incredulous, without coming out from behind his cover. "Sorry to say, but, that green and that yellow? Not a good combination. Volatile."

The clatter of assault rifles was distinctive, and not unexpected, and Tony snorted, keeping the Bite primed but not making his move yet.

"Come out, Mr. Stark, and tell us where you have hidden your friends, or we will destroy this building, with all of you in it."

“You and which army? Your drones aren’t gonna be blowing anything up, soon!” Maybe they were in denial about Thor, devout monotheists? Who was he to judge. Either way, these guys were full of themselves, arrogant. That, he could use. Slowly, Tony raised his hands in surrender, letting his wrists touch the counter. The 'fuzz' holo did its thing and made it look like his hands were passing through the wood.

"Shit! He's not here!" one of them yelled: just clever enough to be really, really stupid. They splintered, losing their focus as they dismissed Tony as a hologram. JARVIS played a rising repulsor whine from the corridor, and they turned their backs on Tony, and more importantly, on the kitchen itself.

Before they opened fire on the imaginary 'invisible' suit, big, clever arms unfolded from the ceiling, taking up position behind the group, looming. Tony lined up the Widow's Bite and they moved together. The Bite took down two, its taser cartridges punching through the yellow jumpsuits exactly as specified, while JARVIS took the rest. Overpowered claws, designed for handling heavy machinery with only minor modifications for kitchen use, grabbed the four remaining attackers by the backs of their necks. Claws wrapped around to press against carotid arteries and struggling turned to limp twitching.

“Easy...” Tony muttered, and JARVIS let them down, easing off on the choke. The goons stopped struggling and Tony crouched to restrain them before they could do more than groan. In the corner of his eye, the enemy counter flicked over from ‘0/16’ to ‘6/16’.

“Alright, smartass, where’re the rest?” Tony muttered while he forced his left hand into cooperating.

“Contingent of four sweeping the building in an as yet unsuccessful attempt to locate the other Avengers, the remaining six are guarding the bulkhead to the Corporate levels,” JARVIS reported, providing appropriate visual aids. Tony grunted as he pulled a zip-tie tight, glancing at the map, which was now showing a little flotilla of SHIELD symbols on the other side of the bulkhead.

“Great. How’s the SHIELD break-in going?”

“I have disengaged the electronic locks, but Agent Hill is waiting for confirmation of gas dispersal and evacu-- sir, one of the prisoners is awake.”

“OVER HERE! STARK’S IN HERE--” the AIM agent yelled, struggling against the zip-ties until JARVIS grabbed him by his jumpsuit and shook.

The grunt passed out when his head hit the cabinet, but it was too late; the markers on his heads-up changed their pattern; two from the barricade split off, and the four sweeping residential homed in on the kitchen.

Fuck.

There was no way Tony could take another six guys without the element of surprise, and the holos weren't gonna protect him from blanket fire if they didn't fall for it twice.

“JARVIS, you got me a route out?” Tony barked, backing up against he cabinets and hoping he wouldn't have to hide in the fridge.

“With your ribs, sir? I’m afraid not.”

Fuck. Options?” Tony went for the fridge door after all, boosting it off its hinges with a careful lift-twist. Yes, he had modified their fridge to act as a shield, no, Pepper did not know. JARVIS threw a pre-play on the HUD: nothing good, nothing that wouldn't make Natasha hurt him for reckless endangerment.

“Surrender, Stark! You are not getting out of this,” minion number seven yelled, staying around the corner and out of sight. If Tony had been willing to use one of the six assault rifles he’d accumulated, that’d be one thing --half an inch of drywall wasn’t gonna stop a bullet-- but he wasn't and the Bite wasn’t gonna cut it.

“You sure? The last guys who held the Great Tony Stark didn’t exactly have a good time!” Tony yelled back, checking the cartridge's capacitor; not quite enough for an undirected taser grenade, but enough to take down six targets sequentially, if he let it charge up between three and four. He probably wouldn't get that chance. He stripped it out, power cell still attached, and hid it in his clothes.

“Oh, we don't intend to keep you.”

Well that was ominous.

“Great! Fire exits are directly to your left, end of the hall!”

“Come out Mr. Stark. Enough of this.”

Tony tossed the disembowelled Bite over the counter; he wasn’t going to take a risk like rifle fire when he had at least four downed team mates littering the tower. He hit his morphine button, just in case they took offense, then raised his good hand. The other... they were going to have to put up with it being a little limp.

“I’m unarmed. Don’t, y’know, perforate me.

“Wise decision, Stark. Restrain him and take his tech,” Top-notch ordered, and a pair of low-level grunts with guns started stripping off his HUD and searching his pockets. They missed the capacitor, which was a plus, and his skin-matched comm, but the loss of the HUD and his phone was gonna be galling.

“I’m on... two different kinds of life support, I wouldn’t do-- okay, we’re doing that...” The grunt on his left took his mask, then the oxygen canister on his belt.

“Sir?” Grunt on the right turned Tony’s wrist, showing the brace holding his IV in place.

“Leave it.”

Small mercies.

They dragged him to his feet, gently enough, but, still dragging, and bound his wrists with his own zip-ties. “SO! Party del Stark? After specs? Tech? You can’t have it, you know.”

“Oh, no, we’re aware of your defenses. No, we want the shield.”

Bingo.

“You’ll open that safe, Stark. If you value your Captain's life. Debatable, with a man like you, but I have confidence in Fury’s hold on you.” FUCKING BASTARDS I'LL END YOU SEE IF--

“Sir,” JARVIS murmured into the earpiece, and thank Thor they had left that in, for whatever reason. They’d seen it, he knew, when they took off the HUD. The air Tony had been sucking in to yell with, rushed out of him at the AI's calm tone. “I can confirm that the Captain remains undiscovered.” 

“T’ny? just give it to them, ‘s fine...” Something unrelated to the surgery fluttered in Tony’s chest as the sound of Steve’s sleepy voice; tell him Pepper was evacuated safely, and he’d be just fine, now.

Tony took a deep breath, letting terror show on his face and clutching tight to the relief of hearing Steve’s voice, hiding it. He could do this, without surrendering Steve’s precious shield, no matter what the idiot said.

“Well it’s sure as hell not in that safe,” he sneered, tossing his head at the foot and a half square cube. “Did your brief not contain specs? Because that is an amateur mistake. Seriously, I’d look into the quality of your minions, becau--” They cut him off with a harsh jerk on his collar.

“We are aware.” The bastard pressed his fist against Tony’s left side, just under his monitoring vest. “We are aware of a number of pertinent facts, Mr. Stark. Need I continue?”

Tony seized up, unable to breathe without his ribs grinding together.  Clint is going to kill me. He really is. “Fine!” he wheezed. “Stop! I’ll open it!”

The pressure eased off and the guy, leader, whatever, smiled. Like Obie: slime and slick confidence.

“Always the businessman, aren’t you, Mr. Stark?”

Tony resisted the urge to snap and insult someone until they hit him. Just. “So what do you want out of his safe?” he asked, stumbling along behind as they hauled him towards the safe.

“His file. The serum is so interesting, after all.”

Tony bit his tongue, because there was nothing in that file but a few old pre-serum photos and Peggy’s signature on his intake docket. Paper; of historical interest only. They might get something out of the fact that Steve was immunocompromised when they pumped him full of whatever it was, but there was nothing else of scientific or tactical significance in there. He promised himself, even as he was typing in the code and providing his thumb print, that those precious, seventy-year-old scraps of dead tree wouldn’t leave the building.

As the locks hissed back, they dragged him away and rifled through the contents, no care or finesse at all. Coulson’s cards fell to the floor and if anyone stood on them Tony was going to maim them terri--

“Now. Show us the shield.”

Tony’s head snapped up, glaring at Top-notch balefully. He opened his mouth to snarl, but Steve came over the radio and it cut him off, mid-breath.

“...’s in my room. Haven’t had a chance to... wax it... since the portal, thing.”

Tony screwed his face up, thoroughly pissed off, mostly at Steve, and spat; “End of the hall, take a left. Don’t shoot anyone, and we’ll be gold.”

"I will hold up my end, if you hold yours, Mr. Stark." The grip holding Tony in step loosened; wow, they really didn't have a bead on Tony's abilities, did they? In the corner of the ceiling, a security camera blinked red-green-green.

Hah.

Good boy, JARVIS.

Top-notch held a hand to his communicator --who even used press-to-talk anymore?-- as they rounded sector seventeen, passing the door to the living room, and agreed with someone on the other end.

“Your friend the heresy seems to be making trouble, Stark; scream for him,” he ordered, unhooking the radio from his ear and holding it out towards Tony.

“What? No. Don’t listen to them, Thor! We don’t negotia-- NGH!” A fist to his gut drove the air out of his lungs in a blast of pain and dropped him, heaving for breath, to the carpet. have to stay quiet, can’t let Steve hear, too sick, too weak, they’d take him-- opportunistic, couldn’t hold him, would they kill him? maybemaybetoomuchrisk... His vision greyed out, his ribcage unable to compensate for his stunned diaphragm, and at least he was quiet, because Steve had to stay put.

“Breathe to my count, sir; in, four, three, two, one... hold,--” JARVIS talked him down from the edge of hypoxia and Tony’s awareness narrowed to the rushing in his ears and the throbbing pain in his gut. His ribs... well, he was gonna need x-rays, minimum.

“So you see, Thor; he has no value to us, give us one good reason to kill him, and we will. Retreat.”

Tony listened with half an ear, barely able to focus, as thunder boomed outside. The air throbbed with it, once... twice, then silence. This wouldn’t ‘sit well’ with Thor, not even a little bit, and Tony cringed, pressing his forehead into the carpet.

“Get him back up, five minutes until extraction.”

So... so much for their vehicle being down... Tony thought to himself, eyes screwed closed as they hauled him to their feet; hostage now, not prisoner.

“Where is it, Stark?” they asked, giving him a shake. His brain felt two sizes too small for his skull and rattled uncomfortably.

"Elevator, two floors up," he said, strained for oxygen. The forced-march pace was going to suck.

"I am not climbing in an elevator with you, not in your own building." Top-notch casually slammed the butt of his weapon into Tony's back; low enough not to break his delicate ribs, but hard enough to knock the air out of him again anyway. Tony stumbled and the pain spread, like ink dropped in water, overriding the morphine. "After all, look what you did with your kitchen! Rather shown your hand, I'm afraid."

Tony gritted his teeth and managed to pull in a long, steady breath. With the elevators out of equation, they'd have to take the stairs; this was not going to be fun. This was, in fact, going to be horrible.

Each step, individually, was doable, but by the tenth, he was heavy-headed, and by the twenty-fourth, Tony was back in Malibu, 2011, with Obie’s promise to kill Pepper ringing in his ears. Pain, lack of oxygen and a cold sweat... He must’ve looked like shit.

JARVIS’ calm voice kept his breathing steady through the associations, and in a way, it was a blessing that Obie had knocked him out, because now, his voice was like a balm, no real associations hitched to it except safety and... okay, yes, comfort. If you were going to be sappy about it.

What was really telling, though, was when the pain started to fade again as they finished the second flight of stairs; the hypoxia was hitting the thresholds for conciousness. He fell to his knees in the hallway outside the bedroom, gently as he could make it, wanting to heave for breath but restrained by the pain in his ribs, and nodded towards the open doorway.

“There. Keeps it... by his bed,” Tony gasped, taking advantage of the moment to cradle his ribs and pull the cannibalised high-end capacitor from its hiding place. It took nimble fingers to keep his skin from shorting the contacts, and Tony wasn’t exactly feeling nimble, with the heavy weight of his still-healing heart crushing his chest; he needed them distracted for this, and the shield was perfect. The AIM goons sure as hell weren’t watching, now; Top-notch had the shield in hand and they crowded around, firing off technobabble at a fair pace. Most of it was wrong, but enough of it hit home to make Tony deeply disturbed about their intentions.

“Hey...” Tony mumbled, head hanging between his shoulders. “Hey,” he croaked again when they ignored him, “Daddy-- Daddy’s talking. Pay attention.

The goons frowned and, in a reaction straight out of the Conventions handbook, closed ranks around their prize, shutting him out, and focused on their shoddy science. He’d guessed, when they’d named their leader the ‘Scientist Supreme’, that they were recruiting a certain type; this was just confirmation.

“S--suit yourselves.” Tony tossed the capacitor into their circle over their heads, its terminals trailing two naked wires, and closed his eyes. The flash when it touched the shield was still blinding.

“Fuck you; the shield can take at least eighteen tons...” he muttered at the twitching bodies and promptly keeled over onto his back.

“J’VIS, put me through to Hill... ‘n Thor...” The comm clicked. “...four goons, other side of that door, everyone else’s down. Lifting biohazard pro... protocol, code: eighteen, seventy two.”

“Copy that, Stark. We’ll be there in no time."

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Thor reached him first, rain-damp and windswept; a sight for sore eyes. “Iron Man! They played me terrible-- are you well?” Thor’s hammer hit the floor with a ringing boom and he went to one knee by Tony’s right side. Tony flopped his hands towards him and made grabbing motions, but couldn’t really move with his hands still bound.

“Hey. Yeah, I’ll keep. Skies clear?” he asked, relaxing at the tingling of static on his skin as Thor leaned over him.

“In a manner of speaking; the storm... may last some days.”

Tony grinned and let his eyes close, trying not to laugh hysterically. It’d be unfun, he was sure. Around him, kinda distantly, the sound of SHIELD-issue boots rattled past. “You should get the shield,” he mumbled at Thor, trying to blink his eyes back open, and only managing for a few seconds at a time. JARVIS’ voice was distant, hall speakers rather than his earpiece, and business-like, talking with Hill. He’d get the intruders sorted, there were protocols.

“It is safe; these Agents are friends, are they not?” Thor said, touching the side of Tony’s face and not quite making him startle. His hand was damp with rain water, but warm, and he tilted Tony’s head to peer into his eyes. Very... blue. Seriously blue. Like... edge of the atmosphere blue...

Tony squinted balefully up at him. “...’shield’s electrified, needs grounding, Mr. Supernatural Lightning Rod.”

“Ah, that explains a great deal,” Thor muttered, amused. He patted the top of Tony’s head soothingly and strode off to touch his hammer to the shield. Tony liked the attention too much to protest, despite all the SHIELD not-Agents stomping past. Tony’s comm crackled as the spark between the two weapons kicked off a few radio waves, then quieted and there was the crunch of the makeshift shock grenade meeting its end. He’d make Tasha a new one.

“What’d you do to my shield, Tony?” Steve mumbled over comms as they cleared, his voice-activated earpiece picking up an EMT’s voice in the background.

“I won.” Tony grinned up at nothing while Steve’s grumbling filtered through, and let himself drift a bit. Just enough to relax back into the controlled breaths he needed to protect his ribs. If they were re-broken, he was gonna bash heads--

“--set to 75%, please, Agent Sitwell.”

“...tn’ks, J,” Tony mumbled, lifting his head off the carpet so Sitwell could loop the elastic around it. A couple of steady breaths on the O2 and his head felt much lighter and more sensible all ‘round. Bashing of heads remained a tempting prospect though.

“You’re welcome, Mr. Stark,” Sitwell said, patting him on the shoulder and smiling down at him. Tony squinted at him, flicking his fingers in his direction dismissively, slightly surprised to find his hands still tied up.

“... not you, Not-Agent. ...can I have more morphine?”

Sitwell spluttered confusedly, then pressed the remote into Tony’s hand and backed off. Tony sniggered at him.

“Those guys... should be down for a few hours. It was just Nat’s... bite. That sounded better in my head...” Tony reported, clicking his morphine button twice and shuddering as the sweep of analgesia cleared out most of the pain, leaving him utterly exhausted.

"We'll have them out of your hair in no time, Stark."

Tony nodded vaguely, head rolling on the end of his neck as he looked for Thor. "...'d you get to Clint yet?" He mumbled, distracted by the sight of Thor polishing sooty fingerprints off the shield with the edge of his cape.

"The docs are on their way now. First report says everyone’s waking up as predicted."

Tony nodded and waved imprecisely in Sitwell's direction, watching curiously as Thor tucked the shield onto his back and made his way back over, stepping around SHIELD agents as they tied up the AIM operatives. "J'VS, ...stand the boys down, for me... Mmm, bring 'em up stairs f'r now."

"They remain quite concerned about Mr. Barton, it would be wise to keep them in contact," JARVIS advised in the privacy on Tony's hidden comm.

Tony nodded to himself. "Triage, gallery l'vl. Converge on Cap. 'vengers aren't goin' anywhere."

JARVIS made an affirmative and rather comforting hum, and Tony closed his eyes again. Thor's bulky shadow loomed over him, though, which discouraged naps.

"You have been done no favours, friend. May I?" Thor asked. Tony wasn't sure what he meant, but Thor was good, whatever it was, so Tony nodded for him to go ahead. There was a soft ‘ping’ noise and pain prickled up the back of Tony’s hands, radiated out from his wrists, and Thor’s big, warm fingers rubbed at it gently. He must’ve broken the zip-tie.

“There, that is more fitting. Away with us, now, I would see our friends well, also.”

“Mmnnn... nope. Not moving...” Tony mumbled, clutching weakly at Thor’s hands so they wouldn’t stop with the massaging and the warm. His hands were cold. “--need someone to check my ribs.”

“Ah, I see...” Thor said. Sitwell, off to one side now, was calling for an EMT, but Thor was frowning down at Tony’s shirt.

“...alright there, Point Break?” Tony asked, squinting up at the god.

Thor seemed to shake some thought or other off, his damp hair swaying. “I am well, but I would see that you are, also, for myself.”

Tony's heartrate picked up a bit at that, because Thor was so honest about things, way too open. “..sure? I mean, you’re... old, right? You know what busted ri--. Whatever. Make yourself at home.”

Tony let his head thump back to the thick carpet and closed his eyes, letting Thor do what he wanted. At least his hands were warm.

And gentle; he hadn’t thought they could be so delicate, but Thor pushed the mask’s tubing out of the way and eased his t-shirt out from under his belt. Warm, blunt fingers touched his carotid pulse, and lingered for eighteen seconds. Tony’d have to ask what base Asguardian math worked in, how long their base unit of time was...

Monitoring vest went next, the back of Thor’s knuckles skimming down the skin on the right hand side of his chest as he pulled the hidden zipper. The air was cold around the dressing as Thor pulled the vest open a little way, and Tony only just resisted shivering.

“Damn... J, can we turn, ... ugh... turn the heating up? We must’ve vented all the warm air, it is freez--”

“Hush, Tony, it is but for a moment.”

Tony licked his lips and nodded, trying to stay relaxed as Thor’s fingers ghosted over the dressing.

“You have not bled, at least...” Thor commented, voice a quiet rumble.

“...didn’t expect to, stresses were all... inside. Structural.” Thor’s palm, warm and broad and gentle, settled over the place where they had broken his ribs and warmth sank into the bones like liquid into a sponge.

“I see them...”

He... did? Tony’s ribs stopped aching, warmth suffusing down into his chest, along the lines of rib and muscle, then reaching towards his shoulder.

“You are well, Friend; no worse in this, at least...” Thor’s hand drifted down past his floating ribs, which for once didn’t feel ticklish, and over to his solar plexus. “Here... bruising, over muscle. And deeper, from behind. Your... vital force, outthrow? I know not the word. Slowing, turning to rest.” Thor struggled with the words, but not the concept, confidence and surety in his voice.

“Vital... oh! Latin: metabolismos. Metabolic rate,” Tony supplied. “I don’t speak latin, so...allspeak doesn’t figure it?”

“Aye. Jane and I fell to this problem. I will learn.” Thor took his hand away and closed Tony’s clothes back up, sealing the borrowed warmth inside. “Come now, you will not do yourself further harm in being moved, though I admire your caution.”

“...don’t think ... anyone’s ever said that to me before. Huh.”

“You need warmth, and rest. And I would see our team whole again.” Carefully, carefully, Thor helped him sit up, then hoisted him into his arms with slow deliberation that spoke to just how effortless carrying Tony’s gangly weight was. Thor’s biceps were thick, warm bands, holding him as secure as Steve ever had, and resting against Thor’s chest was like sitting in the blazing sun after freezing your toes off half-inside a freon-cooled server tower; deliciously liquid warmth that diffused right into your muscles.

Yeah. Tony was going to sleep for a week.

Chapter Text

Tony clenched his jaw to muffle a groan as Thor laid him out on the couch. Steve, groggy and blindfolded with his own shirt, was in Tony’s usual seat, in the grips of a migraine. Tony wasn't going to let him move, not when he was disoriented --his stitches from the portal event were nearly healed up and didn’t need knocking-- so he kept his aches to himself.

"My apologies, Tony, at ease..." Thor muttered, easing his arm out from under Tony's legs.

"Okay, yeah, I got this..." Tony stretched out flat, his back screaming almost as much as his ribs but not as much as his stomach. Fucking AIM goons. His breath hitched as his spine eased into the cushions; the bruising was deep, no thanks to the weight and muscle he'd lost since everything, and the rifle's stock had been unforgiving. Pale and clammy, he ran a hand over his face for the moment he couldn’t keep it straight, hiding the flash of helpless misery. He let himself have three seconds, one long breath, before putting his game face on.

“Roll call, guys. Break it down,” he groaned, cracking an eyelid to peer over towards Natasha.

“I expect a new Bite by the end of the week,” she said, flapping a hand at him without uncurling from her lethargic huddle.

“I made spares. Side effects?”

She groaned softly, turning her face into the couch. “Been through this once already, do not make me speak again.”

“Fair enough...” Tony said, wincing. “JARVIS?”

“I have the reports sir, you need not concern yourself,” JARVIS supplied. “There will be no lasting effects.”

“Okay, ‘s good... Clint?”

“...’m awake,” the archer groaned. Tony rolled his head in the direction of the noise, unable to see him, and a corner of Steve’s blanket flapped open to show Clint’s wiggling fingers, his arm flopped over Steve’s waist. Tony’s stomach clenched because he was on his own on the sofa and it was cold. But at least Steve had a warm body to hug, he’d do better like that.

“Okay, everyone in the room; check... Pepper?” Tony asked. He was dreading the answer a little bit, mostly because he was afraid she would-- It was a lot to ask of a CEO. Of anyone.

“Returning with the first wave, sir. She is meeting with Deputy Director Hill now.”

“Okay, woohoo, great, coordinate on the lab decon, ok? I don’t want the boys in there un--” He cut off as the slow unclenching of his muscles put pressure on sore spots. “Until I get a few repairs done. Also, Bruce.”

“Indeed. The Hulk is making noises about your promises of pizza; he may be unable to change back until he has ah... digested, I believe is the closest term.”

Clint made a vaguely disgusted sound from behind Steve’s chest.

“Hah... great. When I said keep him occupied--” 

“There is only so much ‘Connect Four’ Dr. Banner can be convinced to play, sir; it felt appropriate to shift to bribery.”

Tony choked on a laugh, grinning at the ceiling with his eyes closed. Connect Four, huh. They were gonna have to revisit the ‘rage monster’ definition. “Alright, okay...bring him up on the freight elevator. And order pizza.”

JARVIS asked around for preferences, but only Steve changed from his usual; he mumbled something about nausea and wanted a plain margarita. Tony cringed a bit; Steve had to feel pretty terrible to eat less than his usual quadruple portion of protein-heavy food.

“Tony!”

Pepper. Tension that was physically painful to hold eased off and the morphine-dulled ache faded into unimportance.

He craned his head over towards the elevators and there she was, unruffled and full of energy. She was in her emergency shoes, little things without a heel that she kept in her purse, but she’d never needed heels to give her poise, she just liked being tall. She was beautiful.

“Hey, Ms. Potts,” he croaked, returning her frown with an upside-down smile. She pointed at him sternly, mutely ordering him to stay where he was while she did a visual headcount. He saw her double take for Clint, before spotting him under the blanket. He let his head roll back, taking her out of view but easing the strain on exhausted muscles. He could picture it anyway, her face. She’d check Steve first, Clint while she’s there...

He heard the mumbles of an unhappy supersoldier and watched his mental image of Pep press her hand over Steve’s eyes and kiss his forehead. Steve sighed, like he was letting go of something; Pep was magic like that.

Clint would get his hair smoothed back, the blanket tucked around him...

Nat, he wasn’t sure, because she wasn’t sleepy, but wasn’t comfortable either, and if he could predict Pep’s ability to sort stuff like that out, he’d be a lot better at ...life. In general. He cracked an eye; they were talking inaudibly, their heads close together in transposition of rich red and strawberry blonde.

He closed his eyes again out of self preservation and gave up on predictive-tracking; it could only distract him for so long. He wondered whether Pepper would accept Thor’s judgment on the state of his internal organs, wondered whether he’d feel better back on muscle relaxants. Bruce wouldn’t be around for a while, but they could call his surgeon for a prescription.

“Hey,” Pepper said, softly, in a tone meant for bedrooms and sleepy Sunday mornings.

“I cleaned the house, honey.” He braced as she sat next to his hip on the couch, the tilt of the springs distantly uncomfortable, then relaxed against her hip.

“I saw. You showed them. We’re going to need a new parking garage.”

Tony suppressed a chuckle and blinked up at her. “That’s on JARVIS! Make him take… stock records, or… man the helpline.”

JARVIS played a faint hiss of white noise in protest.

“He had help. You think I can sue AIM?” she asked, tilting his head to get the HUD off.

Dear god, he’d forgotten how the headset itched until she ran her fingernails back through his hair, turning a damp, sweaty, dusty mess into a spiky dusty mess. “Good precedent...” he mumbled, his voice like syrup in his throat as he leaned into her hands.

“Won’t always work; couldn’t sue the Chitauri.”

He groaned as her fingers worked back to the nape of his neck where the muscles were like suspension steel from crawling. “...’s still better than suing the Avengers.”

“That was never an option.” 

He flailed a hand until he had a hold on her blouse. “Liar,” he murmured, looking her dead in the eye. “I know you... ah, headed it off. Please don’t stop with--” She dug her fingers in again and he let out a long gust of air. “Headed off municipal charges with the reactors.”

“It was like Christmas, only with more me,” she drawled, his words rolling off her tongue like they were born there. Oh boy.

“...kiss?” He was too sore to lean up and ask for one properly, but Pepper was awesome, and leaned down to kiss the corner of his mouth anyway.

“You need a shower,” she mumbled into his beard, her nose tracing along his cheekbone and her hands wringing tension out of him like a sponge.

“In case it escaped your notice,” he replied, tilting his chin enough to kiss her jawline and pausing to breathe carefully. “I’m not--”

She hushed him with a deep press into the muscles of his shoulders. “Not on your own, no. Choices are Thor or the Hulk, boss. Choose wisely.”

“...you’re hilarious. I’ll take a bath. ‘be fine,” he lied, just to prolong the sensation of her body looming over his, her hands balancing her against the cushions and still working magic in his muscles.

“Sure you will.” He could feel her smile against his cheek, and he realised this was a hug, one made out of the heat of a body millimeters away from his, from the stirring of another person’s breathing on his ear. It didn’t hurt his ribs, or his bruises, and it felt... Pepper was amazing. That's how it felt.

“Thor.”

“Good boy.”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

They didn’t leave until Bruce, still green and missing a few grammatical structures, was settled in the squishy circle in the middle of the floor. He looked sleepy, and vaguely uncomfortable around the stomach, but he was peaceful in the same way he had been after the Chinese sub incident. Tony guessed Bruce would remember this, like he had before, and Tony took the chance to hold the Hulk’s hand for a bit. His palm was massive, engulfing Tony’s entire hand like a kid holding a doll by the arm, and he was hot, fever-hot, which felt fantastic.

“Don’t wait for me, okay buddy? Pizza’ll make your belly feel better, give it something organic to work with.” Tony babbled quietly while the Hulk blinked at him with a sad frown. Pepper was talking to Thor; he hadn’t been around all that long, he’d missed Tony’s long, slow descent into weakness, so he needed filling in on a few things.

Maybe he’d join in the Avenger’s slumber party after this? Tony’d like that, the guy was a furnace of Steve-like proportions.

“Tony dirty, wash?” the Hulk asked, ponderously. He was listening in to Pepper’s conversation, apparently, which was interesting, because it certainly wasn’t pitched for general consumption.

“You can hear them, huh, buddy? Good ears,” Tony commented, giving the Hulk’s finger a squeeze.

“Loud. Everything. Yes, I hear.”

Tony winced, he should definitely take some readings on the Hulk's acuity; if they ever wanted to get him an earpiece, it’d be no good if it screamed his head off. “Smell too?”

The Hulk grunted, his breath whuffing out in a big gust. “Shower.”

“Hey, I’m not that bad... am I buddy? Not much... muck in the vents, these days.”

Abby trilled from behind the sofa and a faint vibration propagated through the frame under the cushions as she bumped into the back in some kind of pleased ridiculousness. Hulk was watching him from under heavy eyebrows, leaning in.

“Smell like pain. Epi--” he cut off in a huff, looking at Tony pointedly.

“Adrenalin,” he finished. “Yeah, I guess I do.” He shifted, uncomfortably aware that he needed to get clean before he passed out.

“Did good, Tony. Lots of smash.”

“Yeah, you could say that. Little smash, like, baby smash. I haven’t--” he waited out a cramp that pulled his ribs tight and made his chest really ache. “Haven’t got the knack for it, like you.”

“Hulk best at rubble,” he rumbled, actually shrugging those enormous, green shoulders. “And smash rockets.”

“Yeah, that was good, Hulk, thanks, man. How’s the belly?”

Hulk grumbled, but didn’t answer. Maybe they’d used up his words? Thor was coming back, anyway.

“Help me up?” Tony pulled against the Hulk's hand, using it as leverage to turn onto his good side.

The movement hurt like all hell, but it wasn’t that much more than the throb of lying still, not as a fraction of the whole. “Okay, up we go...”

The Hulk was surprisingly helpful, his big hand gently lifting Tony’s legs down, giving his torso enough time to catch up. “Slow,” Hulk commanded, balancing him when his tanked blood pressure made him lightheaded.

“My thanks, Hulk; I will take it from here,” Thor interjected, while Tony was still leaning heavily on the Hulk's hand; it was really, deliciously, warm. Smaller, more confident hands picked him up before he was fully back from the grey fuzz, and Thor lifted him smoothly away from the Hulk. He’d taken off his armor since last time, and Tony leaned into his chest, chasing the warmth of skin. He was so cold.

“Come on, Thor. We’ll use the master bathroom.” Pepper’s hand landed on his ankle briefly and Tony opened an eye when did that happen to smile at her. He was a weird mix of embarrassed and relieved, that Thor was-- Everyone else had seen him at his worst, Steve, Clint, they’d seen the inside of his chest, his naked heart, and Natasha he’d known the longest, and Bruce had helped with the pacemaker itself. It was like... It felt like Thor’s turn, felt appropriate. And, y’know, incredibly weak. He felt weak, he meant, not Thor’s carrying skills, or Pepper’s organizational decision making, because this was going to be fine. Hot shower; great. 

Thor was quiet and slightly solemn as he eased Tony to his feet on the warm stone of the bathroom. Tony’d been standing a lot, walking and almost running, so his heart was tired, and didn’t exactly keep up with this development. He felt too heavy to stay standing for long, even with Thor’s bulk keeping his balance for him, but he managed to get his sling off all on his own, and his pants with Pep’s help.

The water was warm, and the room filled with steam around him, making his breath come easier and making him aware of just how cold he was. Exhaustion was creeping in on the edges of his vision; it was going to be easy to let Thor help out, he’d barely notice.

He registered the soft rumblings of Thor’s quiet voice, and Pepper’s, but didn’t catch the words, too busy shuffling towards the shower stall with Thor holding half his weight.

The first touch of the hot water was almost painfully good, and things just kept getting better. The heat washed away most of the aches, and Pepper’s fingers helped with the rest, at least for now. Thor was like a lighthouse; solid and immobile, keeping him steady when his legs didn’t have the fine-control to keep him on his feet.

The dust and sweat washed down the drain, along with Tony’s motivation to stay awake, and he fell asleep somewhere between being shampooed and conditioned.

He woke up briefly to shovel down some low-sodium chinese food and tell Pepper about the vintage Captain America cards their attackers had disturbed, then settled in for the night, one hand curled possessively around Thor’s wrist.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Later, after Thor had emerged from the master bedroom looking faintly bemused, fetched a Tupperware from the fridge and disappeared again, after the lights stopped hurting Steve’s brain, he had a thought. Just one; he didn't think it through, it just appeared, fully formed.

“I think... I want to reinstate him.”

Clint jerked against his side, his head coming up in bleary confusion. “The doctor said--”

“I know!” Steve said, cutting him off. “But... look what he did, what he had to do! We...” He failed to find the right words, but that was okay; Nat had his back.

“We can trust him to be the judge of what he can and can’t do.”

And that was it, that was the thing that no one had expected. They’d figured it’d be scraping Tony out of the lab for PT, drugging him to keep him from hurting himself. Withholding drugs to keep him from hurting himself. But instead, he’d... played along? No, that wasn’t quite right... He’d managed himself. Worked lying down, taken his meds, slept without complaining. Even before the surgery, he’d been prepared, a little reckless, but ready to be incapable. He’d shown them all that the day he’d brought out the Ranger, for all that he’d fainted on them after.

“We need him,” Steve continued, “He’s been on comms anyway, let’s just make it official.” He sat up, levering Clint upright along with him. “I’m not saying we put him in the suit, or even on the quinjet, it’s just-- he’s more than just Iron Man. Tony Stark’s an Avenger, in or out of the suit.”

Steve met everyone’s eyes, one by one. Even the Hulk. They were smiling, begrudgingly, subtly, ferally, but they agreed, all of them; Tony Stark was back on the roster.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Tony was asleep. And determined to stay that way. He was in his own bed, it was warm, there was sunlight on his back; he wasn't going anywhere. Nope. Request denied.

"I brought you food, Tony, come on, man..."

Tony didn't care if Clint had brought him Naked Pepper, in a Kiss the Cook apron, along with the pancakes he could smell. He was asleep, and thus oblivious. Obviously.

It had been a long week, okay? And PT didn't agree with him.

"Look, I even brought coffee." The bed dipped behind his back and Clint's shadow got in the way of his solar massage. "I know it sucks, okay? You know I've been there; vent crawling isn’t easy." Clint's hand was big and warm on Tony's shoulder, which ached from hauling himself through duct work and service hatches. "PT's going to help, Tony."

"Damnit Clint, can't a man sulk in peace?" Tony grumbled into the pillow, relaxing back so he was leaning on the archer, who was already in therapy-appropriate clothes, damn him.

"Yeah, if he's eating. Come on, they're Steve Pancakes."

His back throbbed where the rifle butt had impacted, right over the spine and missing his kidneys by sheer luck. His stomach muscles felt worse. Tony let Clint help him sit up, because his abs screamed at him, and the archer made him sit right back against the pillows. It wasn’t much better than lying down, but he could eat.

He sat and munched diligently, frowning and serious despite the deliciously sweet, buttery, Steve-generated foodstuff. Though it was making a valiant effort to cheer him up. "I'm... yeah, I'm on this, Clint, I'm not giving up. I just--"

Clint nodded, turning his back to hide from the feelings. "Yeah, man. Bed's good and yesterday was a crapshoot. I get it."

Tony tore another pancake into little pieces, frowning at his plate. He felt terrible. More than just the bruises, he felt like he’d been poisoned. Overdosed, hungover, something systemic. He fidgeted restlessly, identifying the bruise-like ache in the muscles of his legs, his toes, even the back of his neck, where it made his head feel heavy and too big.

“I feel... J, do I have a temperature?” Tony asked with trepidation, knowing that Clint would latch onto that without hesitation. The archer’s back tensed up and Tony got a steely eye-over-the-shoulder.

No, sir.

Clint turned around, shoving his fingers in Tony’s face.

“Gerroff,” Tony grumbled, but it was half hearted; he just didn’t have the resources to devote to being a pain in the ass right now. Clint probed his lymph nodes, under his jaw, then in his armpit, near the surgical scar.

“You don’t look like you’ve got a bug... Talk to me, buddy.”

Clint pinned him to the bed with his eyes; Tony could lie like a champ, but this was beyond him.

“I’m... feels like I’ve been poisoned... Everything’s sore,” Tony admitted grudgingly. He’d stopped eating a while ago, his stomach didn’t like food right now, and he let his hand drop to the comforter when Clint took the plate away. “Reminds me of the...” He tried to say it, really, he did, but he couldn’t. The word 'palladium' wouldn’t leave his mouth.

“Okay.” Clint was looking at him with his cross-hair stare still, and Tony couldn’t bear it, so he closed his eyes and slumped into the bedding. Clint’s fingers sought out his pulse, then squeezed one of his fingernails. “It can’t be, though. That’s actually physically impossible.”

“I know that!” Tony snapped, tugging his hand away and immediately regretting it. The sharp jerk sent stabbing pain through his ribcage, which in turn set off his bruises. “Fuck... Fuck!

He gritted his teeth through the aftershocks, doing his best not to tense up, set it all off again.

“I think I know what this is.”

Clint’s hands were on his shoulders and it was easier to focus on him. The trembling faded back to the point where Tony could actually relax, and he opened his eyes again. Everything was... swimmy, now. Blurred.

“Wanna... share with the class?” Tony mumbled, rolling his head towards the archer.

“Lactic acidosis. Or, its kid brother, anyway.”

“C’n you fix it?”

“Yeah, man. No problem,” Clint replied. Tony did not for a second believe that it was as easy at Clint was trying to make it sound, and squinted at him distrustfully. “It’s a kind of post-exertional malaise due to poor circulation. You’re gonna be fine, okay?”

Tony grunted in disbelief, but nodded anyway. Clint knew his shit.

“You just... lie there. Don’t do anything with your muscles.” He felt the bed shift as Clint stood up, and there was an industrious rustling from the direction of their physio supplies.

“That... that I can definitely do,” Tony mumbled distractedly. He was cold again, which was what made him think he had a fever, considering the massive amounts of direct sun his room got in the mornings. That and the all-pervasive ache.

Clint made a loud ‘pop’ sound and Tony cracked an eye to look in his direction; he had two big gel packs in hand and was rubbing them vigorously. The blue gel was clouding up as it solidified and Tony made an aborted gesture in their direction. Heat of crystallization, gimmie.

Clint waved the packs at the ceiling for a second, which Tony resented because my heat, and addressed JARVIS. “We’re gonna need at least four more of these.”

JARVIS pinged a response wordlessly and Clint finally handed over the warmth. “Here we go... gonna feel like crap for a few minutes, but it’ll help get it to your liver.”

Clint packed the two gels around his left forearm and the liquid, delicious, heavenly warmth soaked into the muscle. While they sat there, with Tony in a kind of pained stupor at the contrast between horrible ache and lovely heat, Clint started rubbing his hand. He worked each knuckle until the ache was a memory, then dug his thumbs into the meat of Tony’s palm. The raw press was fantastic, but it made the buzzing in his gut worse. Threefold once Clint pushed the heat packs up to Tony’s bicep and set to work on his forearm.

“...what...oh fuck, stop, that’s not--” Tony gasped, his gut roiling in protest.

“I know, I know. You’re alright...” Clint forged ahead ruthlessly, pushing something up Tony’s arm, his hands slick with some kind of oil. “We need to shift the lymph, dump the lactic acid into your blood so your liver can metabolise it.”

“That-- my blood does not appreciate this!” Tony growled, only barely managing to stay limp under Clint’s hands.

“Wait ‘til I get to your legs, man. This is gonna be crap.”

Well, at least he’s honest.

By the time Clint reached his shoulder, Tony felt hungover and punishingly thirsty; Clint let him take a break and tipped water into his mouth. Abby had delivered more heat packs in the mean time and they packed his calves with them, letting them sit and heat while Clint shifted to Tony’s other arm.

The one Clint was finished with felt like an over-loved tube of toothpaste; wrung out and empty. His muscles hummed with the ghosts of the massage and Tony didn’t think he could move it if he wanted to. Which he did not, because finally, it didn’t hurt. The burning, grinding ache was gone. 

“Clint, you’re a miracle worker.”

“Yeah. You’re gonna be just fine. Oh! Did JARVIS pass on the paperwork yet?”

“What paperwork?”

“Your reinstatement.”

“What? No--” Tony whined. “I like the bench, the bench has PT, and heat packs and--”

Clint dug his fingers into Tony’s tricep and cut him off. “Yeah, you’re not getting out of therapy for a long time. Reinstatement or not.”

Tony couldn’t decide what the confused jumble of sensations in his chest meant, because his first thought, that he wouldn’t get Avenger-piles anymore, was ridiculous for a grown man. And also, the ‘return to the field’ was obviously significantly more important. “I can’t.”

Clint’s hand’s fell still around his shoulder. “We’re not gonna make you do anything, Tony. You know that.”

“But you’re asking.” Tony turned his head away, tension ratcheting up until it felt like his stomach was trying to crawl up his throat. This wasn’t fair.

“No, that’s not-- Bruce doesn’t always suit up, either. We need you, we’ve been using you as a member of the team, even when you’re drugged up.”

Tony’s heart was thumping away, a little too fast, and he swallowed down anxiety. He wanted to get back in the suit, wanted it like breathing, but he couldn’t yet, it would hurt so much.

“Shit, I’m sorry, I should have had someone better at explaining, I’m gonna get Steve and Nat,” Clint said, untangling his hands from Tony’s limbs.

But, Tony didn’t want Steve, Clint would do just nicely, right now, and he felt like he might shatter into pieces if Clint left so he grabbed the hem of Clint’s shirt before he could get up.

“No, c’mon, I thought I wasn’t getting out of this?” Tony whined, mustering a cocky grin that quickly broke into something dreadful that stung his eyes. He couldn’t let go of his deathgrip on Clint’s clothes, even when he tried. “You want me on comms, right? I don’t have to be on active duty for that.”

Clint sat back down and Tony relaxed again, breathing a little easier with the press of their legs together. The sting behind his eyes receded and he resisted the urge to sniff.

“You fought off an invasion alone yesterday; even your worst day is unbelievable,” Clint muttered, repositioning the heat packs against Tony’s leg muscles without dislodging Tony's hand, which was great because it was the only thing keeping him together.

“ ‘s my house. Not gonna let anything happen to you guys in my house,” he grumbled, voice thick.

“That's exactly it though, right? Everyone thought, at first, that you’d evade the shit out of us, Nat briefed us on the palladium, and how messed up it was and--”

Tony turned his face away and tightened his grip, because Natalie.

“Shit, I’m terrible at this. You proved us wrong, alright? Played inside the lines.”

Of course he had, he’d had people relying on him, he couldn’t just--

“You’re reinstating me for good behaviour?!”

Cint laughed at him, big shoulders rolling off tension. “Yeah, I guess. Mostly it’s because you never really sat on the bench.”

Tony shot him his best ‘what the fuck’ face, because he distinctly remembered lying on his stupid lounger while the Team did their thing at the portal site.

“I mean, uh...” Clint fussed with the heat packs, measuring the temperature of Tony’s thigh with the back of his hand while Tony gave him the stinkeye. “Uh... People usually lose their clearance when you get benched, but... we might have neglected to tell Steve?”

“Like you could have kept me out of my own system,” Tony said, dismissively. “Consulting is one thing Tony Stark has always been good for.”

Clint pinned him to the bed with his stupid eyes again, and Tony pushed his head back, wary to break eye contact in case Clint pounced while he wasn’t looking.

“You don’t get it, do you? ‘I am Iron Man’, Tony! You know it’s not the suit.”  Clint’s hands were tight on Tony’s knee, still for a second. “We’d never have closed that portal without you. Steve wouldn’t have had pain relief without you, AIM would have killed us all, without you.” 

Tony blinked, mouth hanging open and chest doing that weird thing, with the warmth, again.

“Aww, fuck. Stupidest genius I’ve ever met. C’mere.” Clint leaned over him and-- yep, that was a hug. Tony’s shock eased off enough to close his mouth and drop his head against Clint’s.

“How many geniuses do you know anyway...” he grumbled, ignoring how tight his voice was. “I’m fantastic at people stuff, I will have you know.”

“Sure, Tony.”

Tony huffed into Clint’s collar, gripping the hem of his shirt tight. It was as close as he could get to returning the hug without screwing up his injuries; see, he could do people stuff. The quiet dragged on and Tony’s emotions slowly settled back down. So, he was an Avenger. He hadn’t.... hadn’t really given up on it anyway, but it was really good, really good, to know that no one else had either. 

Eventually, Clint pulled back, and Tony felt up to giving him a real smile, only, Clint’s eyes were suspiciously bright and you could have shelled walnuts on his jaw muscles.

“What? What’s wrong, did I--”

“No, shut up, shut up and never mention this again, alright? Clearance level twelve, or some shit, alright?”

Tony blinked in confusion; he’d seen Clint cry before, but only ever over Phil, and-- and Clint was still talking.

“‘Cause I don’t need Steve thinking I’m any more of a sap, alright? ‘s bad enough already, but...” Clint paused and covered his face with a rough palm. “C-- Phil would have been proud, all right? Of you, and,” Clint made a round-up hand signal, meaning the whole Avengers Initiative, maybe. “And everything. He’d be proud.”

Tony understood the red eyes after that.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

The next time the Avengers were called out, Tony piloted the Ranger himself.

The control system was flawless --Tony had been working on it since before the surgery-- and his chest was finally up to the strain of haptic feedback controls. He settled into the chair, thrust his hands into the control surfaces and began tooling up for takeoff. The tactile inputs in the chair registered thrust, the gimbal gave him pitch and yaw, while the screen gave him a 180 by 270 degree viewing angle filled with a digital wireframe of the launch chute. It rushed past in a flickering of countdown markers until the screen opened out with HD, binocular footage, streamed direct and wireframed in realtime, of the Manhattan skyline. The 3D display provided instantaneous distance data, spatial orientation, false horizon, but the reason it had Tony grinning like a madman had nothing to do with the HUD.

He was flying.

He let himself loop around the tower once, diving under the helipad then twisting up between it and the gallery window, with the excuse of testing the control chair’s gimble. It swung and turned in perfect synchrony with the images on the HUD, giving his brain one-to-one vestibular to visual mapping.

“JARVIS, binocular is clean, mapping at zero latency. Give me six-point and armament HUD-- thank you.” The wireframe mapping flicked over to red as they switched modes from visible spectrum binocular to IR range hexocular, the resolution snapping down to a square decimeter. Icons flicked up from the taskbar in response to his gaze direction; missiles, taser shot, directional repulsors... “All check. Control surfaces on my mark--” He pulled to a stable hover over the Tower. “Mark.”

The chair shuddered in a controlled wave as each flap and aileron opened and closed. The sequence was bilaterally symmetrical, but not fore and aft, so Tony kept the pitch stable with a gentle roar of power into the main thruster bank.

“Preflight complete sir, we are clear for engagement.”

“Thank you, JARVIS, patch me into the command line, with secondary lines as Team on one, all-call on two and private lines in rank order.”

“Yes sir, augmenting presets.” The comm panel, bottom left, shuffled; local ATC and emergency services were permanent interface fixtures in the top slot, as was SHIELD’s tower. The rest, JARVIS configured as per his instructions, adding a sly Pepper-pot symbol on the bottom rung.

“Hah, hah. Call in to air traffic control to confirm, J.” He switched over to the team channel while JARVIS was busy and dropped enough altitude to look in through his own living room window. “Cap, we’re looking good, how’s mobilisation going?”

“Nearly there. Do we have the airspace?”

Tony flicked radar over to the stream JARVIS was getting from ATC. “One helicopter, on its way out of the zone, otherwise we’re clear. Bogies are inbound, north by north-east, ETA holding steady.”

“Alright. Coordinate with the SHIELD fleet, I don’t want to be wasting you on the perimeter again.”

“Copy that; coordinate the perimeter,” Tony reported, dipping Ranger’s nose at the blue blur of Cap’s uniform on the other side of the bulletproof glass.

He pulled the nose down, dropping vertically under the Ranger’s weight and using the wingtip stabilizers to rotate around the Y-axis in the five seconds it took to fall 12 floors, until his belly was to the glass. He pulled up and away from the Tower in a parabolic arc, kicking out the flaps to generate aerofoil lift and swing him back skyward before he hit the thrusters and pelted up into open air.

“Tower this is IronMan,” Tony said into the comm, using his callsign for the first time in too long. “Requesting comm with ‘jet four.”

“Recieving, IronMan, ‘jet four; Williamson at the stick.”

Tony tagged ‘four with Williamson’s file, running it by JARVIS to get a skill assessment. The little graph was promising, he’d do. “Copy, Williamson; take position alpha,” Tony ordered, swiping the screen and sending a ping to their flight computer with the formation data. The Avengers would keep the bogies off the island as best they could, but the ‘jets would be their backup.

“IronMan to ‘jet three.”

He got them lined up along the shoreline in an intimidating array of purring engines. Agile flyers with F15’s on record took the edges, and the boys and ladies with proverbial balls of steel took front and center. “‘Jet six, you’ll be right on top of the National guard’s shiny new railgun! Do not get in their way. I repeat! It will shred you. Don’t get shredded.” 

“Copy that, sir. Not getting shredded is priority one.”

“That’s the spirit. Contact in two minutes! Avengers are inbound to contact point.” He turned his nose towards the oncoming opponent just as the Avenjet roared over his shoulder, falling in on their left flank, while Thor took the right.

“Alright, Avengers, Iron Man,” Steve called over the comm, “Let’s light ‘em up!”

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Thor’s excuse for returning to Earth had him in and out of political circles of breadbasket countries and big grain corporations, buying up leases to grow on the grain SI’s Intellicrops division had invented. It was a running joke that raspberries were grown alongside, and Thor demanded a crate of plants to take home, as the berries were a fabulous compliment to mead.

Tony’s middleman fee, which was an Asgardian custom that Tony wasn’t going to argue with, went into the Avengers’ armor. Vibranium made excellent bulletproof vests, and they kitted Steve out in scale.

During the back and forth, Thor made a point of bringing ‘guest’s gifts’ back from his home, and Tony ate fruit grown on another world that left him feeling glowy for days and gave them a baseline reading for Asgardian 'so-advanced-it-looks-like-magic'.

Tony should have know it'd be quantum based, given the sub-dimensionality of the portal, and the shift in the Higgs-Heisenberg caused by the spear, and then there was the--

Yeah. Tony had plenty to keep him occupied.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

He kept getting better.

Clint was replaced by Natasha in his daily routine eventually; he went from muscle stretching to muscle building over a careful few weeks, as the incision faded from blood-red to sunburn-pink.

The oxygen tank gathered dust, and his IV bruise healed over; OTC meds were his new best friends but he forgot to take even those after a while, particularly when Pepper was in town.

Their collective concerns over addiction dissipated when one, then two, then four weeks moseyed on by without so much as a craving. Bruce was very smug, but never actually said ‘I told you so’.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

The Avengers saw action in Seoul, Petrozavodsk, and Brazil, and Tony flew, or ran simulations, or generated hurried applications of theoretical physics as and when it was needed. If anything, he was more useful back in New York than he was on the ground, because when the WSC and Putin butted heads, he was able to defuse the situation with cleverly-timed video conferences.

The political types talked over each other so much that they missed half the action, so everything was neatly buttoned up and the vaguely horse-shaped aliens sent home before they could be declared either illegal immigrants or threats to national security. Salvage rights were moot when the ‘salvage’ could walk off through Yggdrasil, anyway. It did put Putin in the rather unusual position of having to set up a border patrol over the mouth of a cave halfway up a mountain.

Very careful transcripts of the ‘meeting’ gave Steve’s command decisions legitimacy, and they even brought Tony zaedkami, which turned out to be sweet and delicious, after careful inspection ruled out the presence of cabbage.

Brazil was uneventful in comparison, but Steve came back with a set of red, white, and blue tailfeathers sewn to the back of his uniform and a spectacular blush.

Tony decided not to ask.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

Tony spent a lot of time in the workshop, usually with company.

After weeks of the constant, comforting presence of the Avengers and Pepper, Tony pulled away into the workshop and locked himself in. He needed time to reestablish some personal space, wean himself off some of the dependence they’d slipped into; no one needed to bump shoulders with someone every meal time.

He lasted about an hour before calling Clint down to test the new hydro-oligophobic coated eye gear.

Then, it was Steve, to try and soak the glasses. Soon, the beta-test area, with its reinforced chest-high-walls and carefully graduated floor markings, was dripping wet and host to a ferocious mess of Super Soakers and super-soldiers. When Natasha turned up, eyes glinting and kitted out in her Widow’s Bite, it turned into a mad scramble to climb the armour assembly platform, which was electrically insulated. Once Clint and Steve were hanging from the rubber claws, Natasha muttered quietly to Dummy and he turned the milling machine's oil-water coolant on the two men, dousing them both in a drenching mist of emulsified oil.

The glasses didn’t have so much as a drop on them, even after everything, and Tony didn’t bother trying to ‘reestablish his personal space’ again; the workshop door ended up propped open with a cylindrical lump of titanium that slowly gathered dust.

The Marks Ten through ‘Add One To Whatever That Last One Was, JARVIS’ were things of beauty, despite the constant stream of distractions, workouts and raucous team dinners. All of them had concealed handholds, just like the Iron Ranger.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

The first time he took out a suit after the surgery, it was in the dark, with just JARVIS to see him struggle. It still hurt, a bit, but he could take off, maneuver, hover. It was a start.

 When he landed, only ninety seconds after taking off, Pepper was waiting with a smile and had cleared out the penthouse.

An evening without interruptions was apparently in order; Tony wasn’t about to argue with that. Though, when they woke up in the morning, there was a somnolent archer slumped at the foot of the bed, anyway.

At least he was discreet.

 

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

 

"Colonel Rhodes, it’s good to see you again."

"You too, Captain. Tony makes me promise not to salute, but..." Rhodes held his beer bottle up anyway. "To Captain Rogers of the Howling Commandos."

The colonel drank to it, while Steve leaned on the railing and looked out over the water, adding 'to Bucky' silently before taking a drink himself. "You looked good out there, gave Tony one hell of a workout."

"Upgrades'll do that to him," Rhodes said, shrugging off the responsibility. Steve frowned slightly, trying to keep the itch of disapproval of his face while the Colonel continued. "He's always been like this; it was a shock when nothin' new came out of the 'shop after Manhattan."

Steve agreed with a quiet sound; they hadn't thought much of it at the time, but as they'd knitted together as a team, they had worked out just how much Tony was holding himself back from mad work benders, trips to far-flung places, Iron Man missions. He'd even let Natasha clean up the black market in Chitauri weapons, which was traditionally Iron Man's arena.

They stood there in silence for long enough to empty their drinks, but there was one thing that was bothering Steve, and it sat in the air between them, making it hard to talk casually. Eventually, Steve got up the nerve to ask, even though it felt beyond rude.

"Where were you, Rhodes?" he demanded, rolling his bottle between his palms. "The surgery, the drugs, he needed--"

"He needed his team," Rhodes interrupted, "He didn't need this." Rhodes gestured out over the water, pointing out the smoking remains of the obstacle course.  "I'm his military liaison, Captain. And his frat brother. Sort of. We don't lick each others’ wounds, we kick each others’ butts until we get our heads on straight."

Steve couldn't say he understood, exactly, not the words, but Rhodes' tone was easier: old and a bit world-worn.

"He didn't need a butt-kicking this time and that's on you." Rhodes, Rhodey, clapped him on the shoulder with a broad grin. "I'm glad he's got you, Cap. Don't let him overwhelm you, you'll do fine."

The colonel strode off into the milling crowd of SHIELD agents and Avengers, leaving Steve with the weird feeling that he'd been congratulated. For what, he couldn't quite say.

He turned his back on the smoking ocean and looked for the guy in question; Tony was with Pepper in the carpeted tent pitched on alpha runway, grinning like a shark at an intimidated-looking senator.

He was still wearing the Mark 42.

 

END