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Reboot

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Robots.

Steve, Nat, Clint and Vision are fighting robots.

Again.

At least it’s on purpose this time. In the training facility.

It’s deja-vu inducing, to be sure, with Ultron behind them. But honestly? There’s no one else to fight. No Avengers-level threats, anyway. The team is restless, and Steve’s doing everything he can to keep their skills sharp.

The second you come up with a snappy rallying cry, Steve has ruefully thought more than once, everything falls apart.

He found the bots packed away on a subterranean storage floor; Steve’s fairly certain they were going to be members of the Iron Legion one day, but had their external networking capabilities removed after, well, everything. They were just uselessly sitting there, collecting so much dust.

So, they’re fighting robots.

Nat lets out a huff, and Clint rolls his eyes, but Steve is determined not to let another training day go to waste.

He won’t admit to this out loud—not after Sokovia, that would be cruel—but he still remembers seeing the Synthetic Man back at the World Exposition of Tomorrow back in ‘43 and being awed by it. Robots held so much promise; they’d be the perfect soldiers for a number of missions. Steve winces; he imagines that’s how Tony got the idea for the Legion, for Ultron, in the first place. It’s hard not to see how helpful they could be.

Maybe next time Tony could just… program the bots to read their Asimov a little better?

Clint preps his arrows as the shiny automatons power up; he’s got a few new anti-electricity tips; Steve hopes this will actually be somewhat therapeutic for him.

“What’ve you got going on this weekend Steve?” he asks, expanding his bow in the space of a breath. “Barring apocalypse, natch.”

Somehow, even as Steve’s readying his shield, gauging the best battle plan implementation, executing hand signals to the two assassins flanking him, he notices Nat’s eyes light up.

“Something... seasonal?” she offers, quirking an eyebrow, all but flat-out asking if Steve has any new leads on a certain metal-limbed sniper.

Steve shakes his head. “Not so much.” That trail is cold, for now.

“Don’t you draw, Steve?” Clint asks offhandedly, nocking an arrow as the bots spring to life.

The team swings into motion. Steve, for his part, is trying to focus on his shield work: more precise, efficient striking. “Sometimes. I was… I was thinking of taking it digital.”

Clint releases an arrow, and a black goop pours from the tip on impact, gumming up one of the robot’s joints, rendering it useless. He’s chewing over Steve’s words. “I gotta admit, Cap, that doesn’t sound like you.”

Steve manages not to grouse— because, yes, sure, he’s from a few (seven counts as a few, right?) decades back. But really, when you think about it, hasn’t he been as high-tech as it gets his whole life? The SSR had projects that the general public wouldn’t see until almost 20 years later. If he was ahead of the curve in the forties, and slightly behind it now, doesn’t it kind of cancel out? At least enough for people to stop giving him guff about it?

“Yeah, well, you lose four sketchbooks in a row on combat missions, you start to think storage in the cloud sounds like a pretty keen idea,” he punches emphasis on the old timey slang for effect, while also punching a bot in its aluminum sternum.

“So what’s stopping you?”

“I just don’t know where to get started with the hardware.”

“You should call Stark.” Nat advises coolly after a perfect execution of her signature flying leg triangle takedown.

The Farm, Steve thinks. He is not going to think about The Farm, he is not— “Tony? No, he’s got to be way too busy to—”

“Nat—” says Clint, and it sounds like a warning, which is odd; Natasha is handling the bots better than Steve’s ever seen her, which is saying something.

“Trust me,” Natasha ignores Clint entirely, answering through gritted teeth, applying an armbar to one of the metal figures until its arm actually flies off, “I bet he could use the company—”

“What d’you mean?” Steve asks.

Nat’s voice is quizzical, maybe overly so. “Oh, you didn’t hear?”

Nat—” Clint says again, more forcefully.

“Pepper and Tony had… words after the Ultron mess.”

Steve’s shocked for a moment. Tony and Pepper seemed so happy together. Ultron? Ultron broke them up? It just seems so unimportant, compared to what they had together—

It takes a bot nearly grappling Steve from behind to snap him back into action, and realize that floating cities overrun with assassin droids only seem trivial from one superhero to another. And Steve had only met Pepper once or twice, but it was pretty clear she had never been a fan of that life. Tony had very briefly opened up about the Clean Slate Protocol, right after SHIELD fell, an admission of his own wounds, a show of solidarity. He was coy in describing it at the time, but Steve thought he got a sense that it was a promise of sorts. A manifesto, a plan. For Pepper, for himself.

When he came back to active Avengers duty for the von Strucker mission less than six months later, Steve assumed he must have misinterpreted what Tony was trying to tell him before.

Maybe he’d gotten it right, though.

Being an Avenger again, even briefly, must have been a bit of a betrayal for Pepper. And of course, the whole thing was complicated by Pepper’s position as CEO; Tony’s personal decisions had a direct effect on the company’s standing, which had to put a whole other level of strain on the relationship.

“And he replaced Jarvis,” Nat continues, “Because of Vision, I guess; he won’t really talk about it—I know Jarvis was just an AI—no offense Vizh —”

The Vision phases in from nowhere, and Steve must have really been distracted by the breakup news; he had almost entirely forgotten about him. “That is factually accurate; none taken.”

“—but I think he knew the guy longer than anyone. Rhodes is busy with work, and we’re his after-school gig. Tony’s got… no one right now.”

“Do you still talk to Tony, Vision?”

“I have reached out, Captain, but not received a response. I think you might say… the wound is still too fresh.”

“Trust me, Steve, I bet he’d like nothing better than to help you with your... hardware.”

“Laying it on thick—” grunts Clint.

Nat rolls her eyes good-naturedly.

“Shouldn’t someone besides you get to be happy, Ranchhand Clint?”

What does that mean? Steve thinks. They don’t know about… anything that might have happened between him and Tony, do they?

“Heal thyself, Doc,” Clint grumps to Nat.

And Steve’s head snaps up at that, forgetting how exposed his own crush might be for a moment, because everyone knows talking about All Things Green is off-limits. Clint must really hate this training exercise, because that is a suicidal move.

Fotunately for Clint, the Vision appears from nowhere, stealing focus by phasing his fists into the chests of the last two robots, then resolidifying. He flexes his hands with the power of tiny bombs, causing the bots to burst apart dramatically.

“I don’t believe Agent Romanov is in need of medical assistance,” he supplies thoughtfully.

“Yeah, well,” Nat kicks some of the bot carcasses aside as she cuts a path through them toward Steve, casting a glance at Clint over her shoulder. “Somebody might be.”

Clint swallows audibly.

Nat puts a hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Call Tony. He can help with the tablet thing. And besides,” she nods to the wreckage formerly known as the Iron Legion, “You can tell him we’re bored.”


It’s quiet in the Tower.

And why shouldn’t it be? Quiet is nice. Tony likes quiet. Loves it. Silence is golden, y’know?

And space! The final-frontier! Which is to say: it’s empty up here. Just him and the bots, like right after MIT. It’s good. It’s great. There’s no one to give him shit about anything. Like what posters cannot be considered art, and how long to hide out in his workshop, and how loud to play his music, which are completely legitimate adult reasons to be happy, not typical of a twelve-year-old at all, and hey, why isn’t he playing music?

When a song immediately bursts through the workshop speakers, Tony jumps enough to rattle every tool at his workstation, and okay, Friday really shouldn’t be approaching mind-reading levels of obedience, her approaching the singularity should be at least a few years off—

He calms momentarily when he realizes it’s not Friday responding to commands he hadn’t spoken aloud. The song playing is a purposely goofy, tinny-sounding midi version of “Party In The USA.” Which is just the audio notification signal (okay, fine: ringtone, he still uses ringtones in 2015, shut up) he set up for one Steven Grant Rogers playing over the room’s A/V system.

And then he descends into an entirely different kind of panic.

Tony immediately has some star-strangled thoughts about The Farm oh GOD, he’s not going bring up the The Farm, is he? Fuck fuck fuck—

“Boss?” Friday checks in with him after an abnormally long silence.

He takes a deep breath; postpone that particular flop sweat and answer the phone like a person, Stark.

Tony gestures at some glowing rectangles on the display hovering before him, and a tiny beep tells him he’s live on the call.

“Captain Handsome!” he crows like nothing-is-wrong-of-course-it-isn’t-why-would-it-be? “What can I do ya for today?”

“Hey, Tony,” Steve says, and his voice is soft, slightly sheepish. No admonishment for the nickname, either. Not Earth’s Mightiest Heroes stuff, then. Which is fine. Tony already chucked his Avengers decoder ring, Ovaltine be damned. He totally doesn’t need to save the world or rescue puppies or, more importantly, blow stuff up just to blow off some steam. No matter how good it sounds.

Steve clears his throat. “I was just wondering if you could help me, uh. Get started with… that is, find a good model, of, uh…”

This is the guy who tossed out battle plans for defeating an invading alien army without a second thought?

Maybe he’s thinking about The Farm, Tony’s brain unhelpfully supplies, and nope nope nope nope nope. In an effort to completely avoid that subject forever, Tony doesn’t even pick at Steve’s rambling, just lets him stutter on, kind of like that guy in Swingers leaving the voicemail in that one scene.

“...a drawing tablet, so I could… well, I was thinking I might like to store my, uh… sketches. Digitally?” Steve finishes somewhat disjointedly, in an unintentional-but-not-half-bad impression of Christopher Walken.

Oh. He’s nervous. Because, technology?

“You… want help with a tablet?” Tony parrots back, because he wants to make sure he caught that right.

It’s a small thing, but the StarkPhone Steve’s calling Tony on has four upgraded mics and new binaural processing algorithms, so Tony clearly hears the tiny sigh on the other end of the line; Steve might as well have shouted I’M NOT AN OLD FUDDY-DUDDY at him.

Tony could go in for the kill, he’s got jibes at the ready—‘American as Raspberry Pi’, does that work?—he certainly would have let them fly a few years ago when he first met Rogers.

But Steve sounds tired, like he’s probably already asked everyone else in upstate New York first and gotten similar snark, Man Out Of Time quickly becoming Man Out Of Patience.

Besides, Tony hasn’t heard from Steve in a while, and yeah, okay, he’s grinning now, his face unused to the feeling recently. He’d cheekily informed Steve that he’d miss Tony—and Steve had the audacity to agree with him, sincerely even!

And it doesn’t take the entirety of Tony’s rather considerable grey matter to realize that that street goes both ways. In Tony’s direction, for several miles. Marathon distance, even. He’s maybe kinda sorta definitely missed Steve, too.

Tony holds his tongue.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” the soldier soldiers on, sounding embarrassed, “I should’ve just gone to the StarkStore—”

“No, no, Steve, it’s no trouble. It’s you, so it’s the literal opposite of trouble. I haven’t used anything but a gestural interface in a while, but we’ve got some amazing concept artists on staff, I’ll double check with them, get the latest specs on what’s good, and get a care package sent out today—hey, I’ll have Cecil fly it out to you—”

“Cecil?”

“Yeah, one of my new experimental autonomous drone prototypes. Made a pair of ‘em. DUM-E and U have some new sibs; I don’t know whether to call the other one ‘Beany’ or ‘Carlos’—”

“You’re… you’re building bots again?” Steve asks cautiously.

Shit. He’s busted, isn’t he?

To be fair, Tony hadn’t even thought of it like that, like it was dangerous, though it’s pretty reasonable for Steve to see it that way: he and Pepper broke up, he’s back in the lab, unhinged and without Bruce’s stabilizing influence. Coming to a theatre near you, it’s Murderbots: The Sequel!

But for Tony, it’s the tactile equivalent of comfort food.

When he was 7 years old and there was shouting coming from downstairs, followed by the sound of one of Howard’s rocks glasses hitting the wall and Maria’s sobbing, Tony built bots.

When he was 15 and a sophomore at MIT, voice just barely beyond cracking, while everyone else’s hormones were on overdrive and all they wanted to do was drink and fuck (and make Tony’s life a living hell, apparently), Tony built bots.

When he was 21, trying to play the role of returning prince of the empire, all the while unmoored and unsteady, doing his best to convince himself all he wanted to do was drink and fuck, and making a decent job of it… In the quiet moments in between, he built, well, JARVIS.

And now, when—fuck, it’s hard to even think it—when he’s lost his AI, who happened to be one of his closest friends, and his—his Pepper; she’s a category of her own—within the span of a few months, not to mention quit being an Avenger, twice—of course he’s fallen back into it.

Like riding a bike doesn’t begin to cover it. It’s half-involuntary; it’s like breathing.

Nonetheless, when the last robot you built went rogue and had a hand in the destruction of multiple major metropolitan areas, he can maybe get why Steve sounds concerned.

Tony’s hand scrubs the back of his neck, and he’s actually glad this isn’t a video call for once. “Yeah, you got me. They’re just little—”

“—That’s great. I’d love to meet ‘em.” Steve says softly, and sounds like he means it.

Oh, huh. Really? This day is full of surprises.

“Keep your eyes on the skies in a few hours, one of ‘em will be there, tablet in hand. Er, claw, really.”

“Well, thanks, Tony—” Steve says, and the casual observer might think he sounds satisfied enough, but Tony’s pretty sure there’s something else there. He’d better extend an invite; it’s for Steve’s sake, really, Tony’s not lonely at all—

“Actually, you wanna come by the Tower? Pick it up? I can send a quinjet your way. Though as I recall, some philanthropist left a couple in your garage as well, the beautiful bastard. Come visit me, we’ll get some lunch, and I’ll hook you up with your dream tablet.”

“That’d be nice. I’d like that. I’ll—”

There’s a faint noise in the background and Steve pauses, sounding distracted.

“Can you take a rain check? I just got an Avengers priority alert.”

Friday pipes up over the call before Tony can respond.

“Maria Hill for you, Boss; she’s sending some information over right now.”

A map of Europe with red patterns overlaid, starting in Sokovia and spreading to the rest of the region, appears on the nearest display, along with a report on lost Ultron tech.

They’re calling him in? And Cap, too? That’s… unexpected.

“Well, what do you know, Cap, they’re playing our song.”

Steve pauses. “Are you saying you’ve—”

Tony gestures, a throwing motion with both hands, and the data display expands around the room, mission parameters (yep, there’s Steve’s name, too), videos and images arranged around him for his perusal.

In a lower corner, in a red bold font: ESTIMATED LAUNCH TIME: 16:00, paired with today’s date.

“How do you feel about reunion tours?”


The Sokovian government—aided by Stark Industries and various official (and, ahem, unofficial) United States agencies—did its best to corral the leftover Ultron tech in the wake of that disaster, but leaks were going to be inevitable. Steve remembers the debriefing clearly: Tony hadn’t really been worried about the now-destroyed Ultron-bots; Ultron had essentially been the hive mind controlling them all. There was no strong AI onboard the individual units for anyone to scavenge.

Even a base Ultron model wouldn’t be too terribly useful, Tony had said, without the something similar to the gem from Loki’s sceptre, the original catalyst that made Ultron possible—humans wouldn’t be able to replicate that technology for some time. So, yes, keep an eye on the remaining tech debris from the disaster, of course, but it shouldn’t be a problem. To galvanize another threat of that level, it would take something powerful, something otherworldly...

Something Asgardian would do.

“It’s called Draupnir; it’s a ring that belonged to Odin,” Hill explains via video conference, a talking head on the projection display against the left side of the quinjet’s cargo hold. “Before you panic, I’m told it’s not nearly as powerful as the Tesseract or Loki’s sceptre. But it was forged by Dwarves, apparently, which, according to our Asgardian contacts, are the ‘greatest builders in the nine realms’—”

Tony huffs out a disdainful noise at that presumptive title, and Steve tries not to smile.

“What’s so important about this particular bling? Gives the wearer, what? Mind control, eternal life, the ability to talk like Andy Serkis —”

“It makes copies of itself, or least, that was its original purpose— it can break down into smaller components and reform itself into other shapes: expand, construct, adapt to the situation—”

Tony’s eyes light up at that.

“Sounds like nanotech to me,” he says, suddenly rapt.

“It’s entirely possible—it’s been gone since before Thor’s birth, so: a really extremely long time, and our intel is shoddy at best, but we think there’s a technical component to it, hence needing your expertise, Stark.”

“I missed you, too, Prickly Muffin—”

Hill manages to keep right on moving through her info dump without her eyes rolling out of her head, which Steve finds highly impressive. “There’s an exiled Asgardian we’ve had our eye on in Eastern Europe, who probably had Draupnir in his possession for the last millennium or so—”

What? S.H.I.E.L.D—or the New Avengers, or whoever the hell Steve worked for these days—knew about this person and just… left them to their own devices? The more things change… Steve shakes his head.

“We actually think this guy was—and still is—an ally, but the artifact was taken from him without his knowledge.”

“Let me guess,” Steve theorizes, “Right in the same area we started tracing black market Ultron parts to.”

Hill nods gravely. “Bingo.”

Tony’s face contorts in something like suspicion. “I don’t get it: I’m going on this Ren Faire adventure ‘cause you think I can help with the toys— which I appreciate—but where’s our be-caped and hammered blondie bear? No offense, Cap, just asking about Thor’s domain knowledge, not his biceps—”

Tony—

“If you can believe it,” Hill’s eyes dart around on the screen— is she nervous? “Thor’s told us he’s investigating something possibly even worse.

“Well, that doesn’t give me a warm fuzzy. So, you think Ultron scraps plus Ring of Power equals bad news Midgard?”

“That’s about the size of it. Remember, this is recon only: we don’t know who the buyer was in the Ultron transactions, and the Asgardian tech will be hard to wrangle. We don’t expect them to have gotten far with it. We just want some more detailed sweeps of the area than our satellites and drones can provide.”

“Thanks, Maria,” Steve nods, and her image blinks out, replaced on the screen by detailed mission information.

Tony paces behind him before giving him a delighted look. “So this is like old times, huh?”

Steve, perhaps unbeknownst to most, can give as good as get, so he’s prepared with a quip about how ‘old times’ isn’t really a phrase you should use to reference a few summers ago when you’re hanging out with a guy born in 1918.

But Tony’s smiling at him, so he keeps it to himself.

“You, me, in the back of a plane, dealing with some ridiculous Norse crap,” Tony carries on, “We’re on our way to…” Tony gestures at the display, zooming in on the map for confirmation, “...a forest in Latveria, instead of coming back from Stuttgart, but you know. Similar. I think the traditional third anniversary gift is, uh, leather, but something tells me you’re not ready to go there, and alien tech is a suitable alternative.”

“Loki was a helluva third wheel,” Steve says, indicating the cargo hold, blissfully empty of Asgardian gods for the moment (and deftly avoiding that leather comment altogether.) “So I think this is an improvement. Hey, speaking of company, who’s up front?” He’d been so focused on Hill’s mission prep transmission, he hadn’t even thought about who might be piloting the jet. He jerks a thumb to the cockpit.

“Friday,” Tony says unconcerned.

“Who— wait, your AI?”

“You thought I was going to let Elon have all the self-driving software fun?”

Before Steve can protest, Friday chimes in.

“Sir, Captain: we’re five minutes out from our destination. There’s some inclement weather, but nothing of concern.”

“Thanks, French Fri,” Tony shoots Steve a grin. “Hey, a storm! Completes the deja vu experience!”

He pulls his armor briefcase out of its storage compartment, along with Steve’s helmet and hands it to him. “Oh, stop that brow-a-crinklin’, Steven. C’mon, it’s a flyover. I’ll pop out, give everything a quick scan, and then we’ll head back— in and out, no muss, no fuss—”

“What if we need backup?”

“This was just going to be me, Steve— you are my backup. I only took the jet because I didn’t think you’d appreciate me carrying you bridal-style in the suit for two and a half hours—feel extremely free to correct me if I’m wrong—”

Steve shakes his head, mutters “star wars” under his breath as he applies his helmet.

“What?” Tony asks.

‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’?” Steve offers while clipping the chinstrap, trying to feel out Tony’s reaction. Is he hiding something? “This feels off. If it’s not important, an observation-only one-man mission, why send an Avenger at all?”

“They didn’t— I’m not an Avenger anymore—”

“Stark, you fund this whole operation! You’re our main backer since SHIELD went off the map. You can do whatever you want!”

Tony’s face hardens, closes down. “Right, I just buy my way into things, I’m of no use at—” His eyebrows rocket up his forehead in realization. “You think I set this up? That I had something to do with this little tête-à-tête?”

And here we go again, thinks Steve. Of course this was going to happen. Absence makes the heart grow more deluded, apparently. Did he just fantasize a version of Tony Stark that didn’t hate him? That wanted to spend time with him? That could give him an honest answer about literally anything?

Just tell me, Tony, Steve pleads internally. If you wanted to come back to the team, to hang out, to get me alone, to do anything at all, all you had to do was ask.

But what escapes Steve’s lips is: “It’s not the first time you’ve kept things from me—”

We have nothing in common, Steve’s inner monologue races onward, careening off the rails. Our backgrounds, interests, how we work, how we feel

Tony tosses the briefcase with some force on the floor of the hold, the sound echoing around them, then stomps on the release latch. The armor pieces rise up and begin to assemble as if sentient, and god, it’s really as beautiful as it is every time Steve sees it. The intricacy and precision of the interlocking pieces, forming a fully protective shell, which Tony steps easily into, is breathtaking. The sound of the faceplate slamming down and the grim, fixed expression of the helmet snap Steve back to the moment: he’s supposed to be mad at Tony, goddammit, or at least determined to get some answers.

“Look, Frosty,” comes a slightly tinny response through the suit’s external speakers, “All I wanted to do was get you set up with your paint-by-numbers, and then we both got the call.”

Tony’s indignation is temporarily disrupted when the jet is rocked. Turbulence. Steve glances at the map display; there’s an indication of rain, but nothing else. He starts up to the cockpit to try and figure out what the issue is.

Tony paces after him, clomping all the way.

“I’m just the checkbook, all right? I don’t know what Hill was thinking, I don’t review Avengers intel day-to-day and approve everything, and I sure as hell don’t want back on the team, so don’t get your panties in a—”

“—cyclone,” says Steve, staring out the front windshield at the massive funnel cloud forming before them.

“Weird choice of words, but, sure—”

Steve whips back around. The suit’s body language says Tony’s gaze is entirely fixed on Steve, oblivious to what they are flying into. He points to the rapidly darkening sky in front of them.

“No, dammit, Tony, look.”


What the hell is that?

Not that your garden variety hurricane or tornado is anything to scoff at, but even at a glance, it’s pretty clear this is not a normal storm.

And they are headed right into it.

Tony shoves past Steve, planting his shiny metal ass in the pilot’s seat, glancing at the controls, comparing their readings to what’s showing on the HUD.

“Friday, where did this come from? Our radar isn’t showing—”

“I think I’ve been compromised. I don’t have any reading of the storm, other than the jet’s sensors picking up the—”

The plane rocks again, harder this time. Steve stumbles behind him, clings to the copilot’s seat for stability.

“—turbulence,” finishes Friday, voice slowing to a distorted robotic crawl before going to complete silence.

“Fine, give me manual control— Friday? You there?”

“Sorry, Boss,” Friday whispers from inside Tony’s helmet, “I pulled a subset of my functionality into the armor’s local storage before the jet went offline. No connection to the Tower— to anywhere. There's a basic auto-pilot you can fall back on, but no GPS, no tracking... you're flying solo.”

The world around them is darkening, the windshield covered in a uniform fog, the color of charcoal and seemingly as thick, as the nose of the quinjet starts to enter the cyclone. Tony takes a deep breath, grabbing the controls before swiveling his head to regard Steve. He nods for him to take a seat.

“Looks like you had the right of it, Skywalker; buckle up. Unless you want to drive?”

Steve winces as he straps in. “I think you know my track record putting down planes. You’ve got this, Tony.”

“Right, right,” Tony breathes, trying to calm himself, gripping the controls through the gauntlets as they plunge fully into the cyclone.

It’s obvious the moment they’ve been pulled fully into the funnel, as the plane is effectively tossed in what feels like several directions at once, huge jolts rocking the craft, first knocking around anything not bolted down, followed by just about anything that was.

The opacity and darkness of the storm makes it hard to tell if anything Tony is doing at the controls is having an effect at all; even zooming in using the helmet’s capabilities, it’s hard to see much of anything through the windshield. But within the winds whipping around the plane, he thinks he can make out… tiny silver specks? Is that rain? Hail?

There’s a horrifying sound of tearing metal and the plane makes a full rotation sideways, having lost some vital part of itself, maybe the tip of a wing—the life has flickered out of the damage monitoring system, so it’s difficult to say.

They can’t fly out of here.

They can’t fly out of here… in this, anyway.

Tony flips the controls back to auto pilot and then stands as he makes the decision. He looks at Steve. “Okay, new plan. You’re with me.”

“What?” Steve asks, but he’s already taking off the seat restraints. Does he actually trust—?

Never mind, there’ll be time to think about that when when they’re not dead.

Tony stalks back to the storage units in the hold, half of them knocked open, supplies in disarray. He manages to find some industrial grade bungee cable half falling out of one, and gives it to Steve; they’re both steadying themselves against the side of the aircraft so they don’t fall every time it pitches.

“I realize you’re probably not the type for bondage fun, but I need you to affix yourself to me, because I’m going to have to take us down the old-fashioned way. New-fashioned. Whatever. In the suit.”

Steve’s lips look like they’re on the point of parting, some objection at the ready. But his eyes dart to the cockpit, and he, too, knows the plane won’t even have power in a few seconds. They might die out in the storm, but they will die in here.

Steve nods once, tightly, and approaches Tony from behind, chest to back. Without another word, he starts winding the cable around them both in a way that Tony really hopes is some standard military thing and not just a haphazard mess like it seems.

There’s nothing to do but wait a few more seconds as Steve finishes attaching the cable and fastening the ends, and Tony can’t help but think of Afghanistan, of being helpless in the Mark I, waiting for the software to boot. What Yinsen… what Yinsen did…

“I’m gonna make this right, Steve. I don’t know what Hill was thinking,” he hears himself say, voice sounding half-hollow. “But I didn’t know about this.”

“I believe you, Tony.”

Well. Captain America—Steve—believes him. There’s a first time for everything.

And a last, he guesses.

Steve tugs on the cable, checking its security, and Tony starts to shuffle them towards the emergency manual cargo door release. “Ready to do your best Kate Winslet impression and ‘never let go’?”

“I’m making a face that looks like I have some idea what you’re talking about,” Steve narrates next to his head, sounding about as amused as someone who has no control over the life-or-death situation they’re about to enter can be.

Just as well he doesn’t get the reference, because name-checking someone who nearly freezes to death in icy water? Yeah, that was stupid, Stark. “Well, they’re not all winners. Here we go.”

He jams the door release and Steve’s arms wrap around his chest—well, the chest plate. That... particular action is not playing out like he fantasized it would. Not that he has. Frequently.

Just as the lights in the cargo hold flicker out entirely and the plane gives up the ghost, Tony leaps forward, taking them both into the unyielding grey.

The hand and boot thrusters are on full blast and they burst forward—what he hopes is forward; direction is a bit of challenge at the moment.

Immediately, they are surrounded by the silver flecks Tony glimpsed from the jet. He can’t hear Steve’s shout, even over the comms, but he feels him convulse slightly on his back and that’s worse.

His HUD displays are alight in red.

“Friday,” he asks, desperation creeping into his tone. Those silver flecks aren’t just tiny passengers in the storm, are they? They’re flying, in formation—

“My sensors are being disrupted, just as they were on the Quinjet, but if I had to guess I’d say we’re surrounded by—”

“—Nanobots,” Tony finishes.

They’re hurting Steve. Shit.

Tony considers removing the suit and letting it envelope Steve, to try and stop any further damage the bots might be causing. But Steve is already compromised, and one of them has to try to fly this rig, or they are both beyond hope.

The protective seal provided by Tony’s armor appears to have kept its integrity, so he’s safe—but if Friday’s external sensors are already borked by these things, what’s to say any of this information is accurate? What if they’re already inside and attacking him, too?

He hopes his own internal sensors—i.e. nervous system—not being on fire is an indication that they’re not; either way, no choice but to continue with the plan of trying to land them safely.

Steve’s squirming suddenly quiets, and his arms go slack around Tony’s body.

“Steve,” Tony hisses. “Friday, is Steve—?”

“Difficult to say for sure, but I think Captain Rogers is merely unconscious. I wish I could be of more assistance,” Friday laments.

“Just tell me which way is down,” Tony responds, voice steely.

They’re barreling through slate colored fog, punctuated by tiny glimmering enemies, for what feels like forever.

Finally, the opacity of the storms lifts slightly—there’s green below— oh shit, that’s the forest— the ground

The HUD is more error messages than accurate readings, but he estimates he’s got about five more seconds to impact; there is no time to slow down, no landing he can approximate that could be described as anything other than “crash.”

And this time there’s no convenient deus ex Hulkina to catch him before going splat.

Pepper flashes through his brain momentarily, and his heart lurches. No. Not going there.

Oddly—or, maybe not oddly at all—Steve’s face is the next one that races through his mind.

As close as Steve’s body is, he’s just as out of reach as Pepper at the moment; plummeting toward the earth with no way to contact people he cares about is a shitty hobby, Tony decides.

We kissed, at Clint’s farm. We were in the same bed. I said I was having a dream about Pepper, but I—

No way to say it now. No way to make it right— make anything right. Tony shuts his eyes.

Then he feels it—strong arms around him, gripping the chest plate tightly.

This is a hallucination. It has to be. (All things considered, it’s a pretty good one.)

He feels himself start to lose consciousness, and he doesn’t fight it. He imagines he hears a voice saying his name.

He thinks it sounds like Steve’s.