His place was closer, at least that's what he told them. He had a house, a small vacation home used solely for the boring business trips to the region, that was both closer to the battle zone and had the benefit of not being a SHIELD issued tiny hole in the wall apartment with absolutely no amenities for anyone. Plus, it being one of his own, he had the machines to remove the suit there. He was nothing if not practical.
It may have been the final point that won the argument. It may have been that at least two of his teammates were too damned exhausted to care and the others didn't want to raise a fuss. It may have been that they all just needed a break, brief as it may be.
So they ended up at his place in Miami. Small by his standards with only three bedrooms and two baths, but it had a decent sized area for them all to sit and relax and heal. Not that any of his teammates would admit that they needed the latter, but they really needed the latter.
His suit was scuffed and the repulsor on the left hand was glitching from being knocked around and he had been wearing full armor versus bare skin and cloth and he was smart enough not to mention his bruises when there was so much worse to go around.
He used the bath attached to the master bedroom to clean up, and was not at all surprised to find the others had let Natasha go first with use of the sole other bathroom available. Really, if he was going to use this place as a getaway for them all, he should add a few more, and maybe another bedroom or two. Anyway, he motioned for Steve to go use the one he had just come out of around the time Barton bounced off the doorway to get into the other one, tossing a comb over his shoulder at his teammate to use before shutting the door behind him.
Natasha had stolen one of his tank tops and a pair of sleep pants and sat down on the ottoman to deal with her hair while Tony ordered both food and spare clothing for all involved to be delivered. Her bruises he could see, as well as some scrapes and something that looked to be welts of all things across a shoulder and a wrist. He had a brief pang of doubt that maybe he should have let everyone go to the SHIELD approved med check first, but then he remembered how every single person claimed they were fine, how there were no obvious bullet wounds or broken bones, and how relieved more than just he looked at the offer of a place to rest before they had to go back out at it again.
Thor had moved on to replace Steve in the shower, and Tony had moved on to deal with the glitchy repulsor by the time Clint finally emerged from the other bath, steam billowing out into the shared area of the house. He had taken Natasha's lead and wore a pair of pajama bottoms that did not quite fit, but had yet to hijack a shirt. Steve tossed him one while Bruce made a beeline for the open room, and it was when Clint turned slightly to the side to catch it that Tony saw a hell of a lot worse than bruising lining his back.
"What the hell?" he demanded. Screwdriver and gauntlet were left forgotten on the sofa as he marched over and tried to forcibly turn his teammate to get a better view of the damage.
Welts, bruises, abrasions littered his side and arms, but there were scars, deeper and older and telling of stories far more dire than simple ops carved into his back, everything reddened and highlighted by the recent near-scalding water. Something that looked like a healed bullet wound was inches away from his spine, and Tony knew electrical burns when he saw them, though he was not used to seeing so many with such precision before.
"Leave it alone, Stark," Natasha demanded. Her voice was a threat, and he knew at some level that he should listen to it, even as he knew his own innate curiosity would not let him.
"They're old anyway," Clint shrugged, and it was a lie. Too many were fresh. Too many were days old when the only Avengers mission for months had been today, when Barton had been called to SHIELD-specific missions for weeks before, Romanov rushing away a week ago, both returning in time to join them now.
The "like hell they are," was out of his mouth before he could stop himself, though he readily dropped his hands when Barton stepped away.
Natasha stood, hair barely combed and dripping across the borrowed fabric. She half-embraced and half-led her fellow spy from the room, choosing a bedroom at random and closing the door behind her. It was not the dismissal that burned into his brain, but the way the thin red line across her forearm so neatly completed the broken set across Clint's shoulder, as though it had been there all along.
"What the hell was that?" Tony demanded as the locked snicked shut.
"You overreacting?" Steve muttered in a near whisper, clearly not meant to be heard it possibly not caring if it was. When he was rewarded with a glare for his efforts, he added at a far louder volume, "They are soldiers, Tony. Every battle leaves its marks; these are just some of the ones they're forced to wear."
Tony shook his head. "They are not soldiers. They are spies, they are assassins, but they sure as hell are not soldiers," he protested vehemently. "Those are not 'battle scars' or bullshit like that, those are are from interrogation, those are from torture, those are from no one being there to stop it from happening." He scrubbed his fingers through his hair, pulling on the ends as he tried to get the images right in his mind. They wouldn't fall into place, no matter how hard he tried.
"And you're an expert now after a few months in the field?" Steve asked. He would say it was not intended to be unkind, but there was a hard edge to his tone. "In the war-"
But Tony cut him off before he could delve into tales of old. "Yeah, I'm an expert, but not from this," he said, waving a hand to encompass the room and the various bits of his suit that laid about it. He pointed to the scars of his wrists, left from heavy manacles gifted to him inside a freezing cave. "I'm an expert because of these." He moved on to point to a tiny nick beside his carotid. "And this. And nightmares of being chained up and drowning, of hot pokers shoved against the man who saved my life." He yanked up his shirt and smacked his hand against his reactor and the lines littered around it and said, "This is not the only memoir they gave me. Every god damn piece of metal digging towards my heart reminds me of what they did and what assholes like them are capable of and to see that, to see evidence of things like that happening to people I consider friends because some fucker with a clipboard who has never been out in the field decides they don't need backup? Yeah, that pisses me off!"
He stormed towards his room, a bewildered Thor choosing that moment to reappear. He let the massive man pass and it was probably only the fact he was forced to pause to do so that kept him from slamming the door in his wake.
He sat down on the edge of the bed and held his head in his hands, willed his breathing to calm and his body to stop shaking. He took a deep breath, and then another, and then chucked something solid and breakable against the wall just to hear it shatter.
"Sir, shall I-?" the calming voice of JARVIS sounded in the room, only a hint of concern to his tone.
"Leave it," he snarled. He realized he was being ridiculous, snapping at an AI when he was upset over so many other things. He tugged his shirt back fully into place and sighed, "Just... leave it."
Food and clothing arrived within the hour, and he knew he needed to leave the little sanctuary he had made for himself and deal with the others. He had heard them outside his door more than once, muffled voices that ebbed and flowed and should have worried him but instead reminded him that his team was out there, alive and whole and not tucked away in some dirty cell or cave, but freely roaming a beach house owned by a man quickly redefining the word "eccentric."
He put down the tablet he had been poking at, not actually making any progress on the design specs anyway, and pushed himself up off the bed. He opened the door and made his way to the dining room to find various foodstuffs already laid out. Most of his teammates had opted to stay in the borrowed clothing, at least for now, and he felt overdressed in jeans and a Henley when everyone else seemed to be in various forms of sleepwear.
"Rice?" Bruce asked, offering him a bowl as if nothing was out of the ordinary. His eyes betrayed him though, and told Tony that he had heard the full story, knew of his little outburst even though he hadn't been there at the time.
He took some quietly and gathered a handful of other items onto his plate, not even certain what he was choosing at the point. He sat down with a soda and longed for a beer and thought that, maybe, everyone had forgotten, or at least chosen to let the matter drop for now.
He was, of course, mistaken, as proven when Clint asked, "So are you done with your little hissy fit?" Natasha did not bother to glare at him, though Steve managed to look disappointed.
"Maybe," he allowed, and shoved a forkful of something into his mouth. It was far spicier than he originally realized, but he managed to get it down with minimal coughing.
Clint placed a bottle of beer in front of him, a peace offering and possibly a rescue, and said, "You do realize not everything is about you, right?" His eyes traced the wounds though, the scars revealed from sleeves pushed just a bit too high on his forearms, centered on the glowing blue light in the center of his chest.
Tony took a draw from the bottle and, yeah, much better than Coke. "No, this is about you, actually," he said. He saw the frown and the defensive posture and the way it was echoed in Natasha at his side. "This is about Fury and the other assholes sending you out without enough backup, letting you get hurt, and tossing you back at us without a word as to what happened or what state you're in. If I had known, if any of us had known you two were injured..."
"We still would have come," Clint told him and, yeah, at some level Tony knew that to be true.
"But we would have strategized differently, wouldn't have sent either one of you out without someone at your side, would have watched you closer to make sure you didn't collapse and die and get us killed by not providing cover also I guess, yeah, it does all come down it being about me and Steve and Bruce and even Thor because we would have seen you fall and would have cut a swath to you and assumed the god damn janitor took you out and not some idiot weeks ago that hurt you and we didn't know about it." And, wow, that was a lot more than he intended to say but now it was out and open and they could mock him for it all they wanted so he braced himself for the inevitable response.
When it came, he could not tell if it was better or worse than he had expected. Clint, because it was always Clint, smiled all over the top and cooed, "Aw, he does care!"
"Fuck you, Barton," he said with forced cheer.
Clint took it as his due and sat back down, a beer of his own in hand. He exchanged a look with his partner in crime as he did so, but said nothing more as he dug in to a plate heaping with a bit of everything, and Tony made a mental note to make sure the fridge was well-stocked if they were going to stay for more than a day or two.
When Natasha spoke, he had the feeling it was well-rehearsed, that the two of them had decided how much to share and who was going to share it and exactly what parts of the story were to be left out. She lowered her fork and neatly wiped her mouth with her napkin and began, "He was in a cell when I found him. They had only had him for a few hours, but likely knew I was not far behind. They had not pulled out the big guns yet, but the standard tools were there."
"It was an electrical cord," Clint said calmly. He took another bite and swallowed that, the room eerily silent save for his chewing. "They hadn't hooked it up to anything yet, but that's what they hit me with. Smacked it across me enough to rip open the skin in a few places. Nat knocked them out and got me down, but one of the buys rallied and managed another strike while she caught me, got her a decent slice too. He didn't survive, in case you were wondering."
"Pleasant dinner conversation," Bruce murmured, but it did not seem like he was complaining, not really. He, like Thor and Steve, listened with forced impassiveness, cutlery in their fists, food untouched on their plates.
"This is what we do," Natasha told him, told the room as a whole. "We go on missions, we get the intel. Sometimes it means wearing a fancy dress, and sometimes it means hanging from chains until the other guy breaks."
"I look great in the dress," Clint chimed in.
"He really does," she agreed dryly. "Especially when we can get him in the heels to match."
"You might not like it, but it's what we do," he added with a shrug, scars and scabs moving with him. "We've been beaten and we've been tortured, every single last one of us, but we still come back, still work as a team. That some asshole years ago took a liking to a belt and my back, or some dickwad had an affection for car batteries and my skin shouldn't matter because it is the past and we survived and we moved on."
Tony was sure he said more, but he didn't hear it, concentration breaking at the mention of the battery, head filled with images of failed attempts in a cave in the middle of nowhere. The pain, the jolt, the blood, the freezing, the burns - he could feel them all, smell them all, mixed with dirt and sweat and foulness like no other. The food he had just eaten sat cold and hard in his stomach, the beer replaced with metallic water, tinged with the taste of the burlap it had dripped through. He was choking on nothing, bile rising, muscles screaming from being overworked, chest heaving in pain.
A hand on his arm brought him crashing back to the present, breath too fast and skin too clammy. Steve was beside him, hand on his wrist and concern in his eyes. He forced his own hand down from where it clawed at his reactor, clenched it under the table instead as he managed to choke out, "Yeah, well, let's just say I have some experience with that whole car battery thing and I'd both rather not relive it or have anyone else here have to, so..."
Steve lowered his hand and eventually looked away, far more graceful and contained as he said, "I think what it all comes down to is we'd like to know. If you're hurt, if you're tired, if a situation is too similar to something you'd rather forget - tell us. We may well still need you for a mission, but we will at least know what we can and cannot expect so that we don't inadvertently make matters worse."
He sounded so professional, so touting the party line, that Tony kind of wanted to punch him. He saw the way the others relaxed a little though, how his words struck a chord at some level, and he was forced to admit that, yeah, they were soldiers, at least in part. They had the training and the battle experience and the following the chain of command even when it whipped around to bite them in the ass, but it was something they understood, something they found reason if not solace in, even if Tony tended to despise it with every fiber of his being.
No one mentioned Tony's little outburst, or his trip to la-la land for the rest of the meal. In truth, no one mentioned much of anything at all. After though, when the food had been put away and the plates had been cleared, when Clint had found where the good stuff was hidden and Natasha had picked the lock, far more than drinks flowed.
Clint talked about growing up, about how a pissed off carnie taught him to withstand far more than any inept interrogation by AIM and their ilk. How he had taken shots that mattered, shots that saved people's lives while soaking blood into rooftops, fighting to stay conscious until relief arrived.
Natasha spoke of how often she was that relief. She hinted at times in training and early missions, horrific things dealt out and repaid, but kept things vague, offering more than he expected but still playing it close to her chest.
The two of them pointed out scar and argued over who was telling the story right, over whether it was a whip or a flogger or a cord, and asked why they seemed to like his back so much anyway when it was his arms, his eyes that managed the shot every time.
Steve claimed to have no scars, everything washed away and polished clean with the serum he was given. He talked of scrap fights when he was younger though, how his best friend rescued him, wrapped up his wounds, and forced him to get his asthmatic breathing in order while one of the two of them darned yet another hole in his clothing.
Bruce seemed entirely uneasy about anything to do with any one of them getting even a scratch as a child, and Tony made a mental note to push the topic of conversation away from that anytime it wandered too close, even if the others were smart enough to figure it out on their own. Banner did manage to mention how The Other Guy seemed to take the worst of it, and that he was rarely left with any marks unless they managed to hit during the transformation. He did mention nightmares though, dreams half remembered that matched mission reports and made him assume his experiences as the Hulk dripped through his unconscious on some level, binding them both together.
Nightmares were apparently both fair game and something to tiptoe around at the same time for the others. They admitted they got them, but didn't really talk about how or when or what caused them, what led up to the dreams. Instead, Barton mentioned the time he woke up with Romanov's blade at his throat and how his awful Russian snapped her out of it because nowhere had any of her marks ever tried to tell her the puppies were on sale if she could afford the milk. She countered with tales of why he was allowed keep his bow close but not a knife because he always had to draw back to pull it, which is how she'd trip him and knock him back to his senses.
Tony did not really want to mention his own nightmares, but told them to just make sure he was warm, there was light, and no one was dumb enough not to speak English around him and he should be fine. They didn't even mock him for it, but seemed to take it in stride. It was a note in his ledger much like the rule about never sneaking up on Nat while she slept or never moving Clint's bow or Cap's shield even if there was a chance you were going to trip over it in the middle of the night.
Thor, of course, drew them out of their maudlin ways with stories of epic battles that seemed right out of mythologies and likely were. The few scars he bore all seemed to come from fantastical monsters, usually rightfully defeated, and put everyone else's to shame. Save for one, he admitted as things began to wind down. It was small, nearly unnoticeable on his left hand. It was from his brother, a bite mark of all things. He would not go into detail but claimed he was young, he was foolish, and he owed his brother many great apologies after the incident.
Clint commiserated about brothers making you do stupid things, but that seemed to bring up another sore spot and they decided to call it a night.
Natasha and Clint took the room they had claimed earlier, and Bruce took the spare. Thor proclaimed he needed little sleep, and was soon snoring from his place on the couch, television turned down low. Steve crawled in next to Tony and pulled him close, holding him tightly and not letting him slink away to the other side of the bed. "Better?" he asked, voice warm and familiar against Tony's ear.
"We should have been there," Tony replied. He stared at the wall and wondered if he could reach one of his tablets to immerse himself in instead of having this conversation.
"Every time?" Steve asked, and did not even have the audacity to sound surprised or even amused. He tugged Tony's reaching hand back, away from the distraction he almost had in his grasp.
Tony nodded, even though he knew he was being ridiculous, at least in part. "If I could go back in time, I'd stop any one of them from ever being hurt. Seeing how Fury expressly made me promise never to mess with the space-time continuum, I will just have to content myself with keeping them safe in the here and now."
"They do appreciate it, you know. We all do," Steve told him. As expected though, there was more. With Steve, there always seemed to be more. "But we have jobs to do, and sometimes those jobs get us hurt."
"Yeah, well, you don't have to be as hurt if we're actually able to watch each others' backs instead of sneak off in the middle of the night to who knows where to do who knows what," Tony griped.
That gripe turned to a yelp though when Steve unerringly found the decent sized bruise on his shoulder from the day's battle. "Even when we're all there, we still get injured," he pointed out knowingly.
Tony huffed. "Yeah, we get bruises, that's part of the job. We get knocked around and smacked back and then one of us goes and kicks the bad guy's ass for it," he allowed. "But we don't get hung, we don't get whipped or beaten and left alone because, and this is important, we're not alone. We as a team stop things like that from happening to our teammates. It's a thing. It's a big thing, really."
"It's part of their job," Steve pointed out once again. "We might not like it, but it's what they do."
"Then get them new jobs," Tony tried. He would have thrown his hands up in the air, but Steve held them snugly in place. "The Avengers can be a full time gig and, if it's not, I can hire them on as consultants, pay them well and make them say, 'sorry, we're busy' the next time Fury wants to send them off on a death mission without us."
He could feel Steve's breath on his neck, quick and amused at the simplicity of it all. Which is why it was so much worse when his next words were, "What if they like what they do? They are very good at it, possibly for a reason. You can't force them to do things your way just because it's convenient to you?"
"Yes I can," he pouted, even though he knew Steve was right.
The breath was back, this time with the argument, "And how far does this safety net go? You don't want them to take small jobs, but you want them there with you for the big ones? Where do you draw the line at keeping them safe versus locking us all away in a padded room while the bad guys rule the world?"
Tony turned in his arms and looked him in the eyes, both faces highlighted by the glow of the reactor in his chest. "I don't want them to not take jobs, I just want to be there with them when they do," he insisted. He also wanted to design each and every one of them suits of various armament and fighting capacities, but knew better than to mention that right now as he kind of wanted to ease into that one. Plus, working out the logistics of one that would grow with Banner's transformation into the Hulk was proving to be a bit of a bitch, really.
"And they say you have no heart," Steve smiled.
He leaned down to kiss Tony on the forehead, but Tony pushed back with a frown. "Who? Who says that? Because I have some pretty detailed x-rays that prove otherwise," he demanded.
Steve simply pulled him close again and kissed him anyway. "Go to sleep, Tony," he whispered. Tony opened his mouth to protest, and to possibly find a way to mention he might not have the most restful of nights given their earlier conversations, but found it was unnecessary when Steve promised, "We'll all be right here."
"Because that's not scary or overbearing at all," Tony muttered, but adjusted himself to pillow his head on Steve's chest. "Besides, there's a really good chance Clint and Nat are going to wake us all up with potential bloodshed in the morning."
He could feel Steve tense slightly as he analyzed the possibility and then relax again as he pushed it aside. "Nah, they know each other too well for that. Plus, Thor will stop them before they break something important, like each other," he said.
Tony mused on that for a bit, but found he had no suitable comeback. Instead, he closed his eyes and hoped he did not embarrass himself any more than usual come morning.