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He signed the last document in front of him and put his pen down with a sigh, leaning back in his chair and rubbing at the headache stretching between his temples. He wondered what it was that had him coming into the office that day since he usually preferred to deal with his corporate responsibilities from the comfort of his own workshop. He dismissed the thought as his door opened and Pepper walked in, folders in hand.

“I need you to sign this. And don’t forget about the Board meeting tomorrow, first thing. You cannot miss this one.” Pepper pulled a packet out of her folder and laid it in front of Tony. He leaned forward with a sigh and started paging through the packet.

“But Pep, I think you need a spa day tomorrow. And if you have a spa day, obviously you don’t need to be worrying about how the meeting is going, so therefore, there is no meeting tomorrow. Especially not a Board meeting.” He glanced up at her with his smile specifically designed to persuade Pepper.

She rolled her eyes at him and leaned over to tap the packet under his fingers. “Sign. Board meeting first thing. Don’t be late.”

“You wound me, Pepper. Where did the love go? You’re being so cold; I feel it right here.” He pushed three fingers against the casing of the arc reactor. “A stiletto right here.”

She raised her eyebrow, rather condescendingly, he felt. She really had mastered that expression in the years he had known her. He felt rather proud at the visual proof of how far she had come. “If you‘re lucky, my stiletto won‘t get that high.” She said sweetly. Then again, perhaps he wasn’t so proud.

“Wounded, Pepper. Seriously bleeding out over here.” He dropped his gaze to the pages in his hand and started skimming the contents.

“Yes, I see it flowing everywhere. Really, Tony, you know that’s going to be a large cleaning bill.”

“Good thing I can afford it.” He mumbled automatically as he read, eyes catching on certain words. “Why are we putting an arc reactor in Chicago?”

Pepper sighed and sat down, placing her folder on his desk. She leaned forward, “We already discussed this, Tony. I know that you’re having difficulty with the arc reactors. You want to distribute them for green power, but you’re concerned about the technology getting in the wrong hands. But we discussed this. You’ve modified the designs enough no one will be able to reverse-engineer your personal reactors.”

“Right, right. I just thought we were still another six months away from beginning distribution.” He frowned at the signature line waiting for him to pick up the pen. He flicked his gaze up to meet hers. “Pepper.”

She held up a hand, “No, Tony. We discussed this. We’ve been discussing this. We’re ready to move forward. Delaying won’t do anyone a bit of good. I know what this means to you, but I also know you’re afraid.”

“I am not--” he began, only to be cut off.

“Yes, you are. And understandably so. Which is why we put in to place the modifications. It’s why we’ve waited to change and adjust everything you’ve asked. Can you tell me one more precaution we need to take before we distribute? Give me one more and we’ll delay this.”

He dropped his gaze back to the signature line and didn’t answer; couldn‘t answer. Pepper let the silence stretch until he picked up the pen and signed his name. He pushed the packet toward Pepper and leaned back in his chair. “You know we’ve done everything we can think of.” He sighed as Pepper nodded in agreement and turned the packet to face her. He tossed his pen on the desk and she picked it up after flipping to her signature line and signed her name.

“Laurie.” Pepper slid the packet to the side so a woman from Legal could step up and add her signature and notary stamp. He wondered when she arrived; he didn’t recall noticing her enter. He watched her straighten, handing the packet to Pepper.

“Will that be all, Ms. Potts?” Laurie gathered her stamp and her pen while Pepper checked the signature page.

“That will be all. Thank you, Laurie.” He felt his lips twitch, wanting to curve into a smile at the exchange, but he kept his face still. Pepper waited until his office door closed behind her before smirking at him. “One of these days, I’m going to want that from you, Mr. Stark.”

He returned her amusement, “One of these days, Ms. Potts.” He tapped his fingers on the arm of his chair, amusement fading away. “So. Chicago. Why not California?”

Pepper tucked the packet away into her folder, smoothing the pages absently, “Do you really want the bad press should something go wrong and we cause rolling blackouts? Do you really think having that happen again will generate goodwill with Southern California?”

“Point. Though I’m insulted you don’t think my products are good enough.” He sniffed dramatically, shuffling his unease to the side.

Pepper snorted indelicately, “Even you don’t want to distribute the first generation in the most intense markets. If you had, the prototype would be powering all of New York City, not just the tower and hospitals.” She stood and picked up her folder, tucking it under one arm. “Tony,” she started, concern leaking into her voice, “go home, get some sleep. If you’re this worried about our distribution, then I’m worried you aren’t sleeping again.”

He waved an absent hand in an effort to wipe away her concern. “Been sleeping just fine.” He paused at the look of disbelief that spread across her face. “Maybe,” he conceded, “I’ve been working too hard. Some rest might be good.”

“Good.” She nodded, “Then I’ll see you first thing.” She turned away, striding to his office door, but stopped before she reached for the knob and turned to look at him over her shoulder. “It’s going to be just fine, Tony. This is a good thing you’re doing and this is just step one. It’s going to be brilliant.”

He gave her a half smile and watched as she let herself out of his office, fingers moving restlessly, searchingly on the arm of his chair.

 

***

 

He startled at the touch on his shoulder as he bent over his workbench soldering delicate wiring. His flinch caused the soldering iron to jerk away from the joint and touch a tangle of wires, melting them before he could react. He straightened, pulling the soldering iron away from his work and turned with a scowl to see who had disturbed him.

He narrowed his eyes at Steve’s easy grin and looked down at his work, verifying it was unsalvageable. “Well, that’s ten hours of work I have to start over on.” He wiped the soldering iron clean and replaced it in its holder, shutting it off and turning to face Steve, crossing his arms and leaning back against the work table. “What do you want?” He asked flatly, containing his anger at the way he was interrupted.

Steve’s fingers curled around his shoulder and Steve’s thumb brushed against his collarbone. “I think it’s time for you to take a break.” He took a step back from Steve, rolling his shoulder and Steve’s other hand brushed over his shoulder, sliding up his neck. He shuddered at the unfamiliar closeness and touch. “You’ve been down here way too long if you’re in a bad mood.”

He raised an eyebrow, “A bad mood? You come in here without saying anything, you touch me and startle me, since, again, no announcement, and ruin 10 hours worth of delicate work and you wonder why I’m in a bad mood?” He turned away from Steve, working to slide out from under Steve’s hands. “And JARVIS, why didn’t you warn me?”

He felt Steve’s bulk at his back and tensed, Steve’s hands curling over his shoulders, thumbs pressing into muscle. “It’s not my fault you don’t pay attention.” Steve’s thumbs dug in and started kneading at the base of his neck. Steve’s breath brushed against his ear, “You get so wrapped up in your projects that you don’t notice anything else.”

He tensed under Steve’s hands, mind racing in circles between trying to figure out if there was a way to salvage his work to why Steve’s hands were lingering on him. He thought about reminding Steve that’s what JARVIS was for, but discarded the idea as Steve’s hands slid over his shoulders and down his arms. He wanted to move away, but Steve’s hands and body were caging him in and his workbench was directly in front of him; he was left with nowhere to go smoothly.

“What did you need, Steve?” He asked tersely, crossing his arms. Steve’s hands cupped his elbows and there was a faint pressure against the side of his head and a brush of skin against his ear. He shuddered, shifting. “Steve…” his voice was faintly warning and Steve slowly pulled away, fingers lingering on his skin.

Steve took a seat on a stool nearby, dragging it a touch closer and settling on it, hands on his thighs. He remained standing, turning slightly to watch Steve warily. “We’re going to talk about the arc reactor.” Steve’s lips twitched, his eyebrows jumping slightly in feigned surprise, teasing. “Or did you forget? Again.”

He scowled at the mention of the arc reactor, “I didn’t forget.” He had; couldn’t recall ever agreeing to discuss the arc reactor with anyone, much less Steve. Steve’s smile slowly slipped from his face, gaze too low to be on his face. He jolted, fingers stilling mid tap against the reactor and he let his hand drop to the workbench, controlled and smooth, giving nothing away by the move; nothing more than he had already let slip.

Steve’s gaze dragged up to meet his eyes and he heard Steve take in a quick breath to speak, but he interrupted. “Why are we discussing this again?”

Steve’s mouth tightened briefly before relaxing, breathing out. “We have to know its particulars, Tony. If it malfunctions, we need to know how to help you, how to fix it, how to change it, if necessary. So,” Steve raised his hands in an all-encompassing gesture, then let them drop, “discussion.”

“Discussion.” He echoed, flatly, fingers twitching against the edge of the workbench in an aborted staccato.

Steve sighed, shoulders rising and slumping, “We don’t have to do this today if it makes you that uncomfortable.”

“Really. And why should I tell you about this?” His lip curled as he sounded out the words, guard up from discussing the arc reactor and defensive at Steve’s implication of his weakness.

Steve leaned forward, reaching for his hand where it dangled against his thigh. Steve pressed his hand between both of his hands, warmth spreading, intense and burning, through his hand and wrist where Steve’s fingers lay. “I told you, Tony. If something happens to the arc reactor, we need to know what to do.”

“It’s powered by an element I created.” His words were flat, automatic, lacking emotion. He slid his fingers under the hem of his tank after sliding his hand out of Steve’s grasp. He pulled the material up until he could hook it between his chin and his chest and let his fingers come to rest of the smooth surface of the arc reactor, fingers already positioned over the proper niches. He pressed and twisted, the arc reactor coming loose under his fingers and he grasped the edges and pulled the reactor from its housing, exposing the hole bored deep into his chest.

Steve was staring with a singular intensity where he was removing the arc reactor, pulling it down, wires catching on the edge of the housing. He blinked, jarring himself out of a daze, focusing on the weight of Steve’s hungry gaze and realized just what he was doing automatically and without thought.

He shoved the reactor back into place, letting his shirt fall with a strangled gasp of air. He stumbled back, feeling the blood drain from his face, watching as Steve blinked slowly, gaze flicking between the glow under his shirt and his cold face. He turned his back on Steve, fumbling ungracefully under his tank until the reactor clicked softly into place, secure once again. His hand trembled against his chest, what the hell had he been thinking?

He could feel Steve’s presence crowding up behind him and he stepped further away, retreating. “Another time, Steve.”

“Tony,” Steve started, from way too close and he rounded the corner of his workbench, turning to face Steve and putting the heavy table between them, dragging his trembling fingers along the surface of the table to ground him, to balance him, to support him. How could he have done that? And without even thinking about it?

“I’m busy, Steve. Another time.” He kept retreating along the workbench as Steve kept trying to close the distance. When he had his back to the workshop’s door, he paused, flicking a quick glance across the workshop to verify what he had in progress. He took two large steps back toward the door before Steve could round the far corner of the workbench. He couldn’t believe he’d almost taken it out. “JARVIS, shut everything down for the night.”

He didn’t wait for JARVIS’ reply, turning for the door. He slammed out of the workshop at a run and didn’t care that he seemed to be clearly fleeing from Steve when he was really fleeing from himself.

 

***

 

“That seems unlike you.” Bruce commented from somewhere behind him. He stared down at his fingers where they worried the edge of a book.

“It does?” He asked baldly, unsure as to what was unlike him.

Bruce’s hand pressed down gently on his, stilling his fingers and flattening his hand against the cover of the book. Their shoulders were pressed together, Bruce‘s warmth a line down his arm. “Tony, you said that you panicked. You don’t panic.”

“Right. Right, of course I don’t.” At least that informed him of what was so unlike him, he supposed, watching their hands as Bruce pulled away. “It’s just…” He trailed off, unwilling to voice out loud that he pulled the arc reactor out of his body of his own volition without even sparing it the slightest thought. And really, wasn’t that more unlike him than panicking?

“I understand why the arc reactor is a delicate subject for you, so really, your panic makes sense. However, it’s still out of character for you.” Bruce sat down on a stool and reached for the book that was still under his hand. “So there’s nothing here that’s odd for you to be feeling the way you do.” Bruce slid his glasses on and glanced up at him, lips quirked in the subtle way Bruce had. “Also, I doubt you’re in the habit of just handing the arc reactor to whomever asks.”

He flinched at that and hoped Bruce wouldn’t notice, though he didn’t hold his breath with hope; Bruce was extremely observant and seemed to have picked up Pepper’s uncanny ability to read him. Sometimes, it wasn’t awesome having two people who could read him with a glance, cutting through whatever bullshit he used to pretend he was invincible and immutable. Usually, it felt nice to have two people who could read him, who would know when he was off and when he was joking even through his asshole snark. But when he didn’t want anyone to know how weak he could sometimes be, when he didn’t want anyone to know about the tender spot he had, like now; that was when Pepper and Bruce were unfortunate to be around. How he hoped that a night’s sleep would get him back on track so Pepper didn’t see through him in the morning.

“Of course I don’t. If I did that, I’d be…” He trailed off again, unsettled. One yank earlier, while standing in front of Steve, one small yank and he could’ve disconnected the arc reactor. One yank and straightening his arm and he could’ve handed the damned thing to Steve while his body felt the effects of losing the power source. The arc reactor no longer just powered the electromagnet to keep the shrapnel at bay, though it certainly never lost that responsibility, but his heart now relied on the arc reactor.

Bruce looked up at him, curiously. “You’d be…?”

He sighed and stepped back to drop down on the chair which was behind him. He swiveled from side to side a few times before reluctantly answering. “I’d probably be dead.”

“From the shrapnel.”

He shook his head and crossed his arms tightly across his chest, blocking the light from the reactor where its glow was diluted through his two shirts. “I’d probably be dead before the shrapnel could get to my heart.”

Bruce’s eyebrows came together, furrowing, “how so?”

He huffed out a surprised laugh, “Seriously? You don’t know?” Bruce’s expression didn’t change, though he set the book down. “My heart has become dependant upon the arc reactor. Even though the arc reactor is not meant to function as a pacemaker, it is still electrical energy in my body that wasn’t there before. My heart has become dependant on the energy output of the arc reactor and uses that energy in order to regulate itself.”

“So the electrical systems of the heart are actually using the energy from the arc reactor in order to function.” Bruce commented, seeking verification of his understanding.

He nodded slowly, “As a result, if the arc reactor is removed, my heart doesn’t have the energy in order to regulate its organic pacemaker system: it doesn’t send its own electrical impulses to the heart so it contracts as it should. So my heart goes into palpitations and eventually, cardiac arrest.”

“Do you know how long you have between removal of the arc reactor and cardiac arrest?”

“Not really. I know that the last time I was without the arc reactor for any length of time, it was less than a half hour.” He shrugged, trying to portray nonchalance. “But I don’t know how much of that was due to the paralysis I was subjected to or if it was solely my body’s reliance on the arc reactor.”

Bruce nodded absently, then opened his mouth to say something, but he cut Bruce off. “I don’t really want to discuss this, Bruce.”

“Okay. Then we won’t.”

 

***

 

A small plate of apple slices was placed in front of him; he glanced up to see Steve standing beside him. He looked down at the fruit and up to Steve again before picking up a slice with his fingers and slipping the slice between his teeth. He chewed the tart apple, enjoying the way its flavor flowed over his tongue and muttered a soft thanks after swallowing. He glanced up at Steve again as Steve settled onto the stool beside him.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked, his voice soft like exposing his underbelly to the unknown. Or just soft like Steve was feeling out just how badly he had shattered earlier.

He scowled, picking up another slice of apple, “Fine.” He ate in silence while Steve watched him. The quiet of the kitchen drifted between them; hushed and soft, but with the creeping edge of embarrassment. The longer Steve watched him while he chewed, the more intensely he felt the afterimage of panic.

He dropped his gaze to the last apple slice left on his plate and slowly toyed with it, turning it this way and that, watching it spin. “I should probably apologize.” He spoke to the plate, spinning the apple slice and watching it slow to a stop.

“Probably.” Steve agreed from beside him, voice neutral.

He waited for Steve to continue; picked up the apple and spoke when it became obvious Steve wasn’t going to say anything more. “I won’t.” He bit into the apple slice and licked its juice off of his bottom lip.

“I know.”

He chewed thoughtfully, swallowing and flicked his gaze to take in Steve watching him. “We’re not going to discuss it.” He pressed the remaining apple into his mouth and sucked its juice from his fingers, watching Steve watching him.

Steve’s mouth tightened, white at the corners, his eyebrows furrowing close. It wasn’t the expression Steve had when he was angry, though; at least not entirely. He interrupted Steve before he could protest. “No.” He pushed the empty plate away, moving it to the center of the kitchen island and turned to face Steve fully. “We are not discussing the arc reactor.”

The silence stretched, tight and barbed, waiting for a weakness to be betrayed. Steve’s mouth slowly relaxed, though the line of his shoulders remained taut. “Tony,” Steve started, voice rough with emotion. “We need to know about it.”

“No, you don’t.” He defended, tightly. “It’s none of your business.”

Steve’s hand cupped over his shoulder, fingers pressing into muscle; obvious in their presence; obvious in their tension. “Yes it is, what if something happens to it? How can we know what to do to help if we know nothing of it?”

He stood, shaking Steve’s hand off his shoulder and stepped around the stool, getting himself free. “It’s my problem, not yours. I already have contingencies in place in case of failure. That’s enough.” He snapped harshly, the words clipped.

Steve surged to his feet, his stool tumbling over and clattering loudly on the wood floor. “No, it’s not! It is not enough!” Steve’s voice rang out in the kitchen, powerful and sharp. “I need to know, Tony. I need to understand it.”

He stepped forward, drawing to his full height, aggressively getting into Steve’s space, trying to intimidate Steve into retreating, but Steve was immovable. “You need?” He sneered. “What happened to the team?”

Steve stepped forward and he found himself retreating as Steve kept pressing forward until his back came up hard against the chilled wall. Steve’s hand slapped against the plaster beside his face and Steve braced that arm as he leaned forward, invading his space, his comfort. “Goddamnit, Tony. Does it matter? The team needs to know; I need to know.” Steve’s voice was loud, grating like sandpaper. “We need to know how to save your life, if it comes to it. It’s your weakness!”

He flinched against the wall, Steve‘s words hitting him in the gut, cutting his gaze away from Steve’s twisted face to the floor beyond Steve’s hip. His voice was torn and frayed: weak. “Which is why we will not discuss it.” He swallowed, hating how much of his hand he was showing in the quality of his voice. “The more people who know, the larger the liability.”

Steve’s hand cupped his hip, low, very low, almost to his thigh. Steve’s fingers rested along the crease where his ass met his thigh and he started at the bold touch, gaze flicking up to meet Steve’s, startled. Steve leaned closer, dropping to brace his forearm against the wall instead of his hand. “Sometimes, Tony,” Steve started, softly, “you are an idiot.”

Steve’s mouth pressed against his as he opened his mouth to refute and a startled noise clawed its way up from his throat as he jerked back against the wall, unable to go anywhere. Steve’s lips were hot and insistent against his, caressing and working with the soft flick of a wet tongue. His hands were suddenly fisted in Steve’s shirt just above his hips and Steve’s hand slid around to cup his ass, squeezing and kneading, pulling his hips flush against Steve’s. He responded to the kiss on automatic, working his mouth to match Steve’s rhythm. He slid his hand around to clutch at Steve’s lower back as Steve’s hand dragged the back of his shirt up and he shivered as the cool air of the kitchen shifted over the bared skin of his abdomen and lower back.

Steve pressed him further against the wall and spread his other hand against his skin, thumb rubbing against his lower abdomen from the button on his slacks to his navel, shifting the hairs there back and forth. Steve’s lips dragged away from his mouth, pressing nipping kisses along his jaw and he sucked in air. “Fuck…Steve, what…?”

Steve’s hand dropped back to grope his ass and he licked his lips, mouth feeling oddly dry after the intense kiss. Steve’s tongue touched his earlobe and moist air curled around his ear. “Tony,” he breathed, “shut up.” Steve’s mouth found his again.

 

***

 

“What the hell, Pepper? Now the Board wants to know about the arc reactor?” He dropped into his chair, fingers automatically drifting lightly over the arm of his chair. Pepper set her folder on his desk and settled into one of the chairs. He wondered why he even had the office still, given that he was no longer CEO and that he spent most of his time either in the R&D department or in his workshop at home.

Pepper laid her hands on his desk, leaning forward, “Tony, they’re not asking anything out of the ordinary. They need to understand the liability and how to mitigate that liability. In order to do that, they need to understand the product.”

“Liability? Pepper, that’s ridiculous.” Setting his forearm on his desk, he leaned forward bracing his weight, spine stiff. The early morning Board meeting had been a disaster in his view. “Not once did they ask for this much detail on any of the missiles we used to produce and there’s a fuck load of liability in weapons.”

“Not as much, Tony. Weapons are weapons. They aren’t supposed to be safe. An energy source is supposed to be safe and when it isn’t…” She trailed off, gesturing with her hand to encompass everything left unsaid.

He leaned back and rubbed his face with both hands, “And we don’t need to lose the country’s faith and end up going bankrupt or worse, getting bailed out by the government.”

“We’re in a very strong position right now, but that can and will change the moment something goes wrong with the arc reactors.” Pepper held up a hand to forestall his protest. “I know you say nothing will go wrong with the reactors and I know you’re right. But the Board doesn’t work that way, they require proof since they cannot function on trust.”

He huffed irritably and rubbed his fingers along the bridge of his nose, attempting to alleviate the pressure slowly building up between his eyes. “I don’t think the Board knows the meaning of the word trust.”

Pepper leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs, “They aren’t asking anything unusual. Their questions are routine.”

He sighed heavily, dropping his hands to the arms of his chair, “It doesn’t feel that way when everyone is wanting to know details on the arc reactor.” He rolled his wrists to loosen the tension running through them.

“What do you mean?” Pepper asked, watching him closely from across his desk.

He frowned and raised his hand to dig his fingers into the tight muscles in his shoulder. “Everyone has been asking me about the arc reactor, lately.” He shook his head as he rubbed at the aching muscles. “It’s the hot topic, apparently. And the last thing I want to discuss.”

Pepper hummed sympathetically, eyes soft as she focused on him, “Are you doing okay?”

He lifted the shoulder he wasn’t massaging and bent his head to stretch his neck; he was starting to ache from his head to his hips. “I’m fine.” He knew she wouldn’t buy it; he’d used the platitude too many times when he was clearly not fine for her to believe it anymore. He dropped his hand back to the arm of his chair, giving up on trying to loosen the knots in his shoulder. “It’s not a good thing, all of this attention on the arc reactor, but I’m fine, Pepper. Really.”

She clearly didn’t believe him, but relaxed as though willing to humor him for the moment. She was really good at projecting her stayed disbelief; he supposed she had plenty of practice through the years.

“It’s just…odd.” He confessed lightly. He continued at Pepper’s raised eyebrow, “You know that feeling when you know it’s Wednesday but it feels like Monday?” She nodded and he raised his hands and let them drop immediately, uselessly trying to encompass how disconcerted he was feeling. “I feel like that, only it’s not Monday, but something else.

“Like kissing Steve.” He finished after a short pause. “Why would I kiss Steve?” He continued, absently, “Yes, I find him attractive, but kissing him? Why was I making out with Steve in the kitchen last night?” He raised his eyes to meet Pepper’s wary stare. “I made out with Steve last night in the kitchen.” He gestured uselessly again.

The silence stretched and he could almost feel the incredulity radiating off of Pepper. “Are you…have you been drinking?” She asked, voice strained.

“What?” He sat up, unsure how to reply. “Are you kidding me with this?”

Pepper frowned, “Tony…”

He planted his elbow on the desk and dropped his forehead to cradle with his hand. “You’re killing me here. No, I have not been drinking.” He tilted his head so he could narrow his eyes at her, matching her frown with lips tight with anger. “You know this, Pepper. You know I haven’t had a drink since that birthday mess.”

She huffed lightly, the sound faint and airy between them, “You’re dating Steve but can’t figure out why you were kissing him and you wonder why I asked if you’ve been drinking?”

He straightened, staring at her and trying to parse through her last statement as the alert on her phone went off. She pulled it from her pocket and glanced at it before slipping it in place again and stood. He turned her words over again and looked up at her to ask if she could speak English, but she gathered up her folder before he could.

“My next meeting. I have a lunch appointment, but nothing for dinner, if you need to talk.” She waited expectantly and he shook his head.

“No. That’s okay, I don’t need to bother you at dinner.” He flicked his fingers at her with a half-hearted smirk, curving his mouth automatically. She nodded at him and left for her meeting. He leaned back in his chair, fingers brushing distractedly along the smooth arm of his chair: the very smooth arm of his chair.

His eyebrows furrowed as he looked down to where his fingers were searching out imperfection and called out to the empty office, “Did someone get me a new chair?”

 

***

 

He gazed into the gleaming chrome of Warmachine’s face plate where it rested before the open cavity of Warmachine’s chest. The arc reactor which powered the suit sat off to the side, throwing a soft white glow onto the side of the helmet. He traced a finger over where he recalled having marked up the faceplate with references and measurements and smiled at his second suit.

Strong footfalls sounded out just as the click from the door lock disengaging faded from its sharp echo. He straightened, turning to meet Rhodey with his arms stretched out.

“Sourpuss!”

Rhodey rolled his eyes at him and hefted the pizza box he was carrying. “Try again or you won’t get any.”

“Sourpatch? No? Cabbagepatch?” He grinned at Rhodey as he dropped the pizza box on a somewhat cleared work table. Rhodey pulled a stool up to the worktable and sat down, pointedly dragging the pizza box close to him and away from where he stood on the other side of the table. “Aw, you know I love you, honeybunches.” He kicked his favorite rolling chair over to the table and sat down opposite where Rhodey was pulling a slice of pizza out. He reached out for a slice of his own, but Rhodey snapped the box shut, grazing his fingers.

“None for you.” Rhodey bit into his slice of pizza and gave out a moan worthy of him at his most obnoxious. He was impressed with his friend and grinned to show his pride.

“You love me, really, honey muffin. I can see it.”

“Uh huh.” Rhodey swallowed, “Whatever you say, Tony. Thanks for the pizza, I’m famished.”

He put his hand to his chest, letting out a dramatic sigh, “Don’t be like that, muffin top. How am I going to fix up the suit if you deny me?”

Rhodey narrowed his eyes, “You’re not fixing Warmachine, you’re performing routine maintenance only.”

“But--”

“No.”

“Fine.” He sighed sitting down and turning the chair from side to side, stuffing his hands in his pocket and eyeing the pizza box. “You got it from the good place on 35th.”

Rhodey opened the box, grudgingly, though the grin that was pulling at the corners of his mouth belied his actions, “You can have one. For the tune up.”

He snatched a slice, “Thanks, pumpkin. Come on, I’ve got an awesome upgrade for your targeting system.” He shoved the tip of the slice of pizza in his mouth and rolled his chair over to where Warmachine lay hearing Rhodey getting up to follow him. “I’ve already gotten most of it done while you were out getting this delicious pizza.”

Rhodey drew up beside him, “Maybe you can have a second piece. If, if I like what you’ve done.”

He laughed, “Oh honeybear, you’re going to end up giving me the rest of the pie, then.” He smirked as Rhodey grinned at him.

“Good thing I got a second pie upstairs, then. Show me.”

He leaned over and started explaining between bites the upgrade he had been working on. After his third slice, he wiped his fingers on a dirty rag he’d left on the worktable and reached in to adjust some wiring, tucking it into place. He settled into place and grabbed his soldering iron, leaning forward to continue working on the upgrade.

“So this will trim off targeting time of the gatling gun.” Rhodey mused while watching him work.

“And your missiles. This should finally work out all of the horrible kinks that you let Hammer add and fuck up my suit.” He sniffed. “Course, there’s nothing I can do about the balance and handling until you let me remove--”

“No. It’s badass.” Rhodey interrupted, used to the argument.

“It’s definitely bad. Sleek, Rhodey, streamlined.”

“Badass motherfucker.” Rhodey said, pointedly. “Badass motherfucker.”

He huffed out a chuckle, pleased Rhodey still clearly loved Warmachine. He straightened and clapped Rhodey on the shoulder. “Badass motherfucker that handles like a boat.”

“Like one of those little speedboats that barely touch the water and can turn on a dime, you mean?” Rhodey grinned widely.

“Like a cargo ship. Iron Man is the speedboat.” He jostled Rhodey, “You’ve no one to blame but yourself since you won’t let me--”

“No.”

He sighed good naturedly. “Fine.”

Rhodey picked up Warmachine’s arc reactor and cupped it between both hands. “So how much more power will this end up draining?”

He watched Rhodey roll the arc reactor carefully from hand to hand, “Less than it was.”

“Yeah?” Rhodey held the arc reactor up to eye level, peering at it.

“That’s why it’s called an upgrade, sugar pie.” He frowned slightly as he watched Rhodey turn the arc reactor slowly, studying it from different angles. His fingers tingled sharply and he loosened his grip on the soldering iron. “Anyway, Warmachine doesn’t drain energy from the arc reactor, it uses only the energy output of the reactor. Nothing to drain unless you deliberately do so.” He bent back over the suit to finish up his work. Once he was finished, he could do a few tests to make sure everything was correct, then hook the arc reactor back in so he could power the suit and work on the HUD and system upgrades he had planned. He worked his fingers, trying to ease their stiffness before moving on to the next connection.

“How does it drain from the arc reactor?” Rhodey asked, still gazing at the arc reactor. He answered absently as he worked, a part of his brain picking up Rhodey’s questions and supplying answers automatically until he trailed off, focusing entirely on his work.

He set the soldering iron aside and rolled his wrists, trying to ease the tingling he was getting in both hands. He closed them into fists and opened them until he could feel the tips of his fingers again. He shook his hands out, glancing over at Rhodey who was petting the arc reactor fondly.

“Should I leave the two of you alone?” He asked, raising his eyebrows. “You look like you could use some private time over there. I can always finish this up later…”

Rhodey shook his head like he was coming out of a trance and looked over at him, “No, I do not need private time. It’s just…beautiful.” Rhodey held it up again and he felt distinctly uncomfortable as he watched Rhodey admire the arc reactor. He felt like he should snatch it away and hide it, but this was Rhodey.

“You know, I have plenty of rooms upstairs.” He reached for the soldering iron again, frowning when his fingers went numb again.

“Are you telling me to get a room? With an arc reactor?” Rhodey asked incredulously, tucking the arc reactor to his chest, protecting it.

“Hey, you’re the one molesting it; I’m just calling it as I see it. Or maybe I should file for sexual harassment on its behalf.” He worked for a few minutes more while Rhodey rolled his eyes at him and set the reactor down by his elbow, but the numbness spread from his fingers to his wrists, crawling slightly up his forearms. He wasn’t going to be able to finish the upgrade until the feeling in his hands came back, so he clumsily replaced the soldering iron in its base and shut it off.

“You finished?” Rhodey asked.

“Nope.” He showed Rhodey his hands. “Hands are numb. I’ll have to finish this later.” He frowned at his hands as he dropped them to his lap before looking up at Rhodey again with an easy grin to hide how unsettled he was. “How about decimating that other pizza you brought?” Rhodey answered with a grin of his own.

 

***

 

Sweat tricked down the side of his face from his temple as he fucked up into Steve, leaving little nipping kisses along Steve’s defined shoulders and neck. Steve’s fingers were strained white where they gripped the top of his headboard and his fingers were wrapped tight around Steve’s dick. They were kneeling together at the head of the bed, Steve’s head tossed back, his throat working around his moans. He snapped his hips, burying himself inside Steve where it was so tight and so hot and he really never wanted to stop because it felt so damned good. Sweat beaded on Steve’s skin as they moved together and he licked Steve’s neck, tasting the salt and moved his fist around Steve’s dick as fast as he was shoving in and out of Steve.

He groaned as Steve tightened around him and dug his fingers into Steve’s hip and tightened his fist around Steve, pumping him with long, smooth strokes, squeezing just a touch extra as he got to the head each time. Steve’s torso heaved with his quick breaths and the wood of the headboard creaked as Steve pulled against it as his body twitched against his. He snapped his hips harder and faster, fucking up hard into Steve until the coiling tension in Steve’s body wound too far and snapped, Steve crying out a groan as he came, spilling over the headboard and spasming like a vice around him.

He kept going, fucking Steve through his orgasm, until Steve was soft in his hand and he could feel Steve’s muscles go loose and his breaths started hitching again. Steve pried a hand off the headboard to reach behind and grab at his ass, fingers digging into the muscle.

“Fuck, Tony.” Steve breathed, voice wrecked. He fucked hard into Steve, stilling as though electrocuted, tension vibrating through his body, but unable to move as he spilled deep inside Steve, pulsing and throbbing, panting open-mouthed into Steve’s sweaty neck. They stayed there until he softened and he pulled out, dropping to the mattress on his back with a moan, watching Steve turn and sink more gracefully to the mattress beside him.

Steve scooted up close, pushing at him until he turned onto his side, back to Steve. He briefly considered laughing when Steve curled up behind him, but really couldn’t care if he was getting spooned so long as he didn’t have to move. Steve pulled him close and flattened his hand against his lower abdomen, fingers lightly brushing into his pubic hair.

He wasn’t entirely comfortable, though his body was relaxing by increments the longer he stayed in Steve’s embrace. He did enjoy cuddling, but he enjoyed being cuddled up to, having someone’s head on his shoulder while they watched a movie or lazed the morning away in bed. Spooning was for sleeping, when he curled around whomever was sharing his bed. But he didn’t exactly have too much experience enjoying either cuddling or spooning given that they were highly intimate to him. He didn’t just do this with casual flings.

“How did we get here?” He wondered out loud. He wasn’t sure how he ended up having sex with Steve. Sure, Steve was hot and he certainly didn’t have anything against sleeping with anyone he thought was attractive. But the couple fantasies he’d enjoyed didn’t point to actually fucking the man. Pepper’s crazy assertion that he and Steve were dating drifted through his thoughts and he found himself frowning as Steve’s fingers trailed lightly up his stomach, pausing to circle his navel.

He felt Steve smiling against his shoulder before Steve trailed his nose up his neck and behind his ear. “I seduced you out of the workshop.” Steve’s voice was the same type of smug that reflected when he beat Thor at basketball or when the Dodgers beat the Yankees, or really, whenever anyone beat the Yankees. And really, there wasn’t much to say to that. His mind relaxed, no longer tense about the situation, just a night of good old sex and he was certainly on board for that. Steve’s fingers continued to trail slowly up his torso as he closed his eyes, content to drift off to sleep, even if he hadn’t cleaned up.

He tensed slightly as Steve’s fingers circled the arc reactor, mind focusing on the fingers curving concentric circles along the scarred skin and smooth metal. His breath picked up, lungs working harder to take in air. His chest ached. He tried to take in a deeper, slower breath to stave off the pain, but his lungs seized and he breathed out through his mouth. There was a rush of feeling leaving his chest, like the reactor was being pulled out and taken away.

Steve’s hand flattened over the arc reactor and his eyes snapped open, kicking hard, gasping in a thin breath. It felt like his ribs were splintering under Steve’s hand, but he couldn’t get the air to speak, to tell Steve to get his hand off of him. He shuddered against Steve’s chest, choking on air and rolled away, bringing his hands up to dig under Steve’s heavy hand and rip it away from his chest. He ignored Steve’s startled voice, couldn’t understand the words over the roaring of blood rushing in his ears and he scrambled against the rucked blankets on the bed until he fell over the edge, landing hard on the floor and sucked in a lungful of cool air.

He lay face down on the carpet where he landed, simply breathing as his chest seemed to right itself, ribs whole and his lungs filling with air. He dug his hand under his chest and felt to make sure the arc reactor was in place. It was there, smooth and faintly humming with energy, exactly as it should. But his chest still ached, though it was dull now, but he breathed against the pain.

“Tony! What happened? Are you okay? Tony!” Steve crouched down beside him, still naked, and placed a hand on his shoulder. He shoved back, kneeling up and backing away from Steve’s worried face.

“Don’t. Just don’t touch me.” His voice was thready and wobbled and he sat back, leaning against the nightstand beside the bed while Steve remained crouched in place by the foot of the bed. He pressed his hand against the arc reactor, taking comfort in the feel of it beneath his palm.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked, voice soft.

He shrugged. “Fine.” He wanted to be fine, anyway.

“What happened?” Steve’s voice was still soft, but held the steel that he used when giving orders. He curled his lip at Steve, unappreciative of his tone, but he told him, anyway; automatically explaining the car battery, talking about the night Obie took the reactor from his chest, describing how it felt when the reactor shorted out as he lay above the ruin of his factory, how it kept him alive.

Through it all, Steve listened.

 

***

 

“Good morning. It is 4:24 am. The weather in New York is 61 degrees and overcast with likely showers. There is a 40% chance of rain and humidity is 72% with 6 mph winds. Sunrise is at 5:41 am. You have a 6:00 am meeting with the Tokyo branch and Tokyo Electric Power Company to discuss using the arc reactor in Japan.”

He stood up from his bed as JARVIS finished his wakeup call. “Finally talking to me again, JARVIS?” He rubbed his eyes as he stumbled into the bathroom to get ready for the day, feeling hollowed and scoured out. He braced his hands against the counter and leaned in to look at himself in the mirror. His entire body ached and he could tell just by looking at his face. His hands were numb again and his feet were tingling painfully. The rest of his body was stiff and there was a throbbing headache deep behind his eyes. He jammed his thumb into the hollow between his eyes and applied pressure, closing his eyes and trying to relax.

He dropped his hand when it became obvious the pressure point wasn’t going to help ease his headache. Bracing himself on the counter, he dropped his head, chin to his chest and shoulders down so he could feel the warm stretch of his neck and shoulders. He slowly rolled his head one way, letting the taut muscles have a chance to lengthen and relax before slowly rolling his head the other way to stretch the other side of his neck and shoulders.

Straightening, he could tell it didn’t help. He still ached and his face was drawn. He felt like he’d gone five rounds with terrorists rather than have a night of sex and spewing his secrets like they weren‘t something he‘d held so close to his chest they were hiding behind the arc reactor. He was glad he had woken up alone, not wanting to be reminded of his loose tongue on top of the pulsing ache deep in his brain. Maybe caffeine would help to mitigate his headache. He reached into the top drawer and pulled out a bottle of ibuprophen and his toothbrush. He shook out three pills and shoved them in his mouth, dry swallowing them one at a time, dropping the bottle back into the drawer and grabbed up the toothpaste. He brushed his teeth quickly deciding to forego anything else until he’d gotten a few cups of coffee into him.

He stepped back into his bedroom and hunted up one of the hoodies he liked to wear while working out or boxing with Happy. He stopped, hoodie in his hands, catching sight of someone out of the corner of his eye and jerked to the side, turning to see the person who was in his room. He stared across the empty bedroom, heart racing. After a long moment where he remained still, waiting for the apparition to return, he yanked the hoodie on and shoved out of the room, stumbling into the hallway. The walls felt like they curved in, pressing close to him while the ceiling dropped down, hovering just over his head. He bypassed the kitchen and went straight to the elevator, deciding he couldn’t stay in the Tower and needed to get out.

The elevator was a quick, smooth and silent ride down to the lobby. This early in the morning, he didn’t need to worry about running into anyone. He pushed out of the building and immediately felt better in the pre-dawn chill. The city was lit up around him, breathing. He stepped down to the sidewalk and headed down Vanderbilt passing the smooth stone of the façade of Grand Central under the Park Avenue overpass toward the nearest Starbucks. While it wasn’t his favorite, it was close, had decent coffee: had lots of coffee, actually. There was someone on the other side of the street in a white jacket, but when he glanced over, they must have entered a building as they were gone.

“This isn’t right.” He muttered to himself as he stared across the street, narrowing his eyes. He’d been feeling odd for a while now, not just the weird things that were happening to his body for no discernable reason, but also his relationships and conversations with people. He tried to think back to when things had started feeling off, trying to wade through what was truly not right and what was just his own issues.

He tapped his fingers on the arc reactor and stopped, his whole body stilling, highlighting the aches and pains, how they moved from his head to his legs and back up again, how they flowed through the center of his chest. Chicago. Chicago wasn’t right: Chicago was wrong. He’d signed the papers authorizing the Chicago project to move forward, but that wasn’t for another six months. Pepper had assured him that they’d discussed this and were ready to move forward, which they were, but Chicago still wasn’t supposed to happen for six months.

The conversation about the arc reactor which led into another conversation about the arc reactor with Steve, and then yet another with Bruce. And the Board. And Pepper again. Steve again. And now the meeting with Tokyo that wasn’t supposed to happen until next month? He remembered the way Rhodey held the reactor in his hands. But it didn’t stop there; everything that was off, everything that was odd, it wasn’t just the arc reactor. He remembered the way Steve had been too close in the workshop, how, while Steve was always free with touching him, Steve’s touches didn’t typically linger and he’d certainly never received a shoulder rub from Steve before. Pepper’s claim that he and Steve were dating, Pepper wanting to know if he was drunk. The kiss in the kitchen. Sex. None of this was right and he’d felt off, felt wrong; but he’d gone along with it anyway, blindly, and worse yet, all of the information he’d spilled; to Pepper, to Bruce, to Steve, to Rhodey. Information he normally kept close, guarded, and he’d simply spilled it at the slightest question; at the slightest interested look.

He dragged shaking fingers through his hair, rubbing at the side of his head where it felt like something was there, though he felt nothing but hair and his scalp. He stumbled as he stepped off of the curb to cross the street toward 43rd, aches shooting up his thigh and gathering in his hip. He shifted accordingly, shortening his stride as the buildings felt like they were closing in on him. Sharp pain radiated through his chest and he stumbled to a stop, panting and clutching his chest in middle of the street.

He hunched over as the pain centered around the arc reactor stealing his breath away. He gasped, curling over until the pain spiked, warmth rushing through his ribs, curling around his torso and racing up and down his spine. The pain eased before he could drop to his knees and his lungs drew in air again. He braced his hands on his knees and breathed, getting his heart under control and letting the adrenaline fade slowly away. He straightened and noticed a group of people in white coats walking his way in middle of the street from the corner of his eye. He turned to get a good look at them and they resolved into a pair of headlights. He darted across the street, narrowly missing being hit by the car, its horn blaring loudly.

His breaths were fast and heavy and he coughed wetly, chest flaring with pain. He felt too warm, heating up from the inside as the pain in his chest increased. He clawed at the zipper on his hoodie, yanking it down and letting the hoodie fall open. He slapped his hand against the arc reactor and yanked his hand away immediately; the reactor was searing hot and his palm throbbed with a fresh burn.

“His vitals are spiking. They’re destabilizing, sir.” A panicked voice sounded from behind him and he spun around to find only the empty street. The pain from his headache spiked, focusing around his skull, behind his ears on the sides of his head. He groaned as the pain around the arc reactor spiked and the heat from the reactor spread through his chest, following the same path around his ribs and spine that the pain had traveled earlier. He coughed, the force of it forcing him to his knees. The taste of copper flooded over his tongue and he spat blood out onto the pavement in front of him.

“What is happening?” More voices around him on the empty street. It was still too early to for a crowd to be out and about, even Grand Central was as good as deserted. He sat down, coughing and slumped against the building behind him, staring out across the street to where Grand Central loomed warm and imposing. The large arched windows on Grand Central’s second level reflected the soft street lights. He yanked at his shirt, dragging it down from the neck to see the arc reactor glowing too brightly as it sank into his body. Grand Central hovered over him, pressing down on him and he choked, panting harshly as his eyes snapped open and he was no longer staring at New York.

 

***

 

“Still nothing on Stark’s whereabouts, sir.” Coulson took the folder that was handed to him and waved the agent off. He paged through the folder finding that it told him nothing more than he already knew. He snapped the folder closed and tucked it under his arm as he strode onto the bridge. They were all there, sitting around the conference table behind the Director’s post. Everyone, but Stark.

Steve looked up as he set the folder down at the head of the table and he offered the barest of nods in acknowledgment, “Stark is completely off the grid. The latest sweep didn’t find anything of any significance.”

“And the leads the insignificant findings found?” Steve asked, voice steady but careful.

He sighed, “Nothing. Dead ends, just like the last times.” He had to admit that he kept hoping to find some sort of explosion in some remote location that would signal that Stark Was Here they could follow and find the man smugly grinning from the exhilaration of rescuing himself and defeating those who took him and tried to use him. But each time, there was nothing useful. Five days of nothing useful and they were spinning in circles looking for clues that just weren’t there.

Steve stood up and walked away from the table, crossing his arms and gazing out of the main windows. Clint and Natasha both looked up as Steve moved, watching him carefully. Thor also rose to his feet and moved to join Steve. Coulson opened the folder to finish paging through the reports, hoping this time there would be something. Bruce, who was sitting the closest to where Coulson stood at the head of the table, drew the discarded pages toward him to review the reports.

He paused, rereading the block of text detailing out yet another failed lead from the insignificant markers the latest sweep had picked up. Per the research, it was a dead end, but no teams had been dispatched to investigate. He sat down, reviewing the sub section further where it explained the lead had been ruled out twice previously and therefore was continuing to be ruled as a failed lead every time the sweep picked it up. There wasn’t anything, however; that would mark the information as a true lead. Nothing that would seem to lead to any location Tony Stark was bring held at, but it did hold some unusual energy readings, which was enough for him to send a team out.

“Phil?” Bruce’s soft voice pulled him out of his thoughts and he looked up. “Does SHIELD make it a habit of ruling out reoccurring potential leads?”

Coulson frowned and got up to move to stand behind Bruce to he could see exactly what Bruce was referencing. “We don’t, but I have a lead I was just looking at which was ruled out with no investigation.”

“See this here? It’s a rather interesting energy reading, but it was ruled as a dead end.” Bruce looked up at him. “Twice.”

“Three times.” Coulson corrected laying the page in front of Bruce he had reviewed when Bruce asked for his attention. “That’s the same energy pattern that wasn’t followed up on that I saw.”

Bruce flipped back to an earlier page, “It was originally ruled out by an Agent Ming Tan and in the next sweep, he confirmed it was a failed lead.”

“What do you make of the energy reading, Dr Banner?” He asked while he considered how intense he ought to make the agent’s questioning. Five days with an integral member of the Avengers missing and looking at a block at finding his missing ward that could be anything from incompetence to maliciousness. It really wasn’t a question of intensity, though; more of a question on how much he wanted to scare the agent.

Bruce glanced between the different reports, lips moving soundlessly as he worked through the information. “It’s a unique signature, but nothing I recognize. We should have JARVIS analyze it, however; he may know if this is something that Tony was working on.”

“Do it.” He stepped away from Bruce toward where Natasha was sitting. “I need you to dig into the results of some reports from a particular agent.” He started when she looked up at him with a frown. “There has been a reoccurring lead from each sweep that has been ruled out as a failed lead with no investigation. The same agent has ruled it out each time. If it’s incompetence, I need them to understand how we feel about that here. If it’s not…” He trailed off meaningfully and watched her mouth tighten in understanding.

She turned and smacked Clint lightly on the arm with the back of her hand, drawing his attention from Steve and Thor. “Come on. We have work to do.”

As they stood up, pale blue light flickered over them, spilling over the table and drawing their attention. Coulson turned as well to see the screens on the far wall were lit up. A rising murmur rolled through the ranks of agents working as they also noticed the feed and started working on it, back tracing the source, checking authenticity and recording it.

The feed showed Tony, sitting bound, shirtless in a chair with cables snaking to his head. He was struggling slowly, like he was moving through molasses and attempting to free his hands, muscles shifting and bunching under bare skin. He kept pausing in his efforts, like he was focused on something else entirely and kept forgetting that he should be working to free himself. Coulson crossed his arms, narrowing his eyes at the feed and worked to absorb every detail he could.

There was a group of people behind Tony and a few people occasionally passing in front of him. They were in white coats, like lab assistants, and they were huddled around some piece of equipment, gesturing wildly, like they were frantic or arguing about something. There was no sound to the feed, just video, and he could see Tony’s lips moving, but couldn’t tell what he was saying.

A short woman with her dark hair pulled up off of her neck rushed into the frame up to Tony’s side and slid a needle into his neck, injecting him slowly with some solution which caused him to thrash, tossing his head back and disturbing the cables which traveled up from his head to something, he presumed, outside of the field of vision of whatever camera they suddenly had access to. Tony’s body vibrated, tense and taut, and the arc reactor shone brightly: almost too brightly. The woman backed out of view, face carved with shock, as Tony’s back arched, chest pushing up as the reactor’s brightness increased. Coulson could see the tight bob of Tony’s exposed throat before his body relaxed, slumping back to his original position, rolling his head forward, cables jostling.

Tony’s mouth was open, but no longer forming words. A line of blood dripped from his bottom lip, stretching down until it’s liquid tension broke and a circle of blood appeared on his thigh, soaking a small circle on his jeans. Tony’s chest rose with breaths too fast and Coulson worried if he was hyperventilating; wondered what was in the syringe; wondered what they were doing to Stark. He could hear a distressed sound behind him that sounded like Steve and he looked over to find Steve staring at the feed, face pale and anguished.

Coulson looked back at the feed to see that Tony’s eyes were open, and glowing with the same chilled blue as the arc reactor and Iron Man’s eye holes. He felt a chill race up his spine at the sight and turned away to meet whomever was pounding up the aisle toward him, calling his name.

Additional light flickered across the bridge as the agent called out, “We’ve got the location.” Coulson looked up at the source of the extra light to see that more screens had turned on showing other locations of the room Tony was bound in. He could see the cables as they reached up to a vast circular hub dangling from the ceiling. The room was mostly empty, most of the people gathered around Tony. Already, Coulson could spot three entry points.

He turned back to the agent, “Good. Get me as much information on what we‘re seeing as possible. I want names, profiles, histories. I want blueprints. I want tax information. I want the information out of their servers. I want everything.” He held out his hand for the tablet the agent carried. All in all, it had only taken a couple minutes to trace the feed.

“We’ve actually already gotten an incoming feed on a different frequency sending us information from their servers. A group is parsing the data as we speak. Preliminary analysis shows that whomever is sending the video feed is also sending the data feed.” He gave the agent a nod and turned back to the conference table and took a seat at the head, gesturing for the others to sit as well and marveled at how long it felt like he was frozen watching the feed. He glanced back up at the video feed, frowning at Tony’s glowing eyes and tried to suppress his worry for Stark as they worked out a plan of rescue.

 

***

 

Coulson looked up as another agent approached with a tablet. “Here’s some of the data we’ve received from the external data feed. Data is still downloading, so we won’t have it all for quite a while, but we’re continuing to analyze it.” The agent spoke softly so as not to interrupt the planning session still going on.

He took the tablet, glancing through a couple of the screens quickly before dismissing the agent and turning back to the Avengers. He glanced around the table as they hammered out the details of Tony’s rescue and the capture of those holding him. He gave them a small smile even though they weren’t paying attention to him, rather huddled around the blueprints of the facility Stark was being held in.

This was his team; even if it was currently missing one. This was his team; handpicked by him, banding together to protect their own. He keenly felt Stark’s absence knowing the Avengers down one member, regardless of who that member was, was an injured entity. The Avengers were strongest when everyone was there, and he felt privately that there wasn’t a single person at the table that didn’t feel Tony’s absence just as keenly as they’d feel anyone else’s.

He’d heard the saying of pride before the fall. He hoped that his pride wasn’t the precursor to the fall, because he couldn’t deny how proud of the Avengers he was, at how well they’d pulled together for the Battle of Manhattan as well as after. Even Tony worked well within the team; even Bruce worked well, both as Bruce and as the Other Guy, and Natasha had integrated her skill set into the team. He had no doubt that the team would get Stark back.

He turned his attention to the tablet, noticing first that no one had managed to figure out just who was sending the data or the video feeds. He had his thoughts on that as while he didn’t doubt his team would get Stark back, he also didn’t doubt that the data stream from the remote servers was by Stark’s doing, though in watching the video feed that was still showing on the screens to the left of him, he couldn’t begin to tell you how Tony was sending the data, but Coulson was still sure that Stark had a hand in it.

He swiped the summary of the data stream off to the side and started working his way through the downloaded and sorted data as his team tossed around the idea that Tony wouldn’t be able to get out under his own power. First came the profiles of those who had taken Tony, then the communications surrounding Stark’s abduction. He glanced up at his team, mouth tight.

“Natasha.” The whole team looked over at him, falling silent and he suspected his tone wasn’t as blandly professional as usual. “Agent Tan.”

“Sitwell is with him.” She confirmed, easing his mind that at least an infiltrator wasn’t still loose.

He nodded, “Please take over. I want everything from him.”

She stood up, “Of course.”

He turned the tablet toward her as she stepped up flush with him, “It looks like it’s not incompetence. And we now know how Stark was taken to begin with.”

She gazed impassively down at the tablet for a long moment before raising her eyes to meet his. “I’ll have everything for you.” She held his gaze for another moment before slipping off the bridge to interrogate Ming Tan. He knew she would have plenty of information by the time the team left on their mission. He sent off a message to Fury and Hill confirming Ming Tan’s role so they could assign another team to track down any and all information he managed to send out as well as investigate how an infiltrator came to be in their midst.

Bruce shifted uncomfortably in his chair, catching Coulson’s notice and he watched Bruce focus on his tablet, watched the way expressions flowed across his face, eyes and mouth tight in displeasure. He leaned close to Bruce and pitched his voice low so as not to disturb the others as they tightened down the details of the rescue.

“What’s wrong? What did you find out?”

Bruce looked up at him and frowned, clearly uncomfortable, reminding him of how Bruce had been prior to the Battle of Manhattan, uncomfortable in his skin, suspicious of SHIELD and wary of anyone, except Tony, who he’d warmed up to extremely quickly, the two of them easing into a friendship immediately. Bruce’s eyes drifted over to where Steve was discussing logistics with Thor and snapped back to Coulson, guilty.

“It’s nothing.”

Of course it wasn’t nothing, but he had followed Bruce’s gaze and understood what that meant. Both Bruce and Tony were highly private, paranoid and wary people. Bruce due to his nature, Coulson assumed, but Tony due to how invasive the media and the public could be in his life. Neither of them, Coulson had come to learn, liked having their private matters, including their terrible privileges, as Stark called them, to be public knowledge, and most of the time, public was anyone who wasn’t the two of them and JARVIS. Every once in a while, they would share those details with him after he refrained from asking or pressing any issue. Something which Steve, in particular, did not practice. Coulson had noticed that the more Steve pressed for details and understanding, the more stubborn and standoffish Bruce and Tony became in protecting their vulnerabilities. That had been the cause for several explosive arguments between Stark and Steve there at the beginning, yet Coulson had viewed the lab footage while Tony and Bruce were searching for the Tesseract where Stark, out of no where, offered up information about the arc reactor.

Coulson had discovered that both Bruce and Tony would entrust him with those details so long as they could trust that he wouldn’t tell SHIELD; just like Clint and Natasha had been doing for years. It took a while, but he had built up that trust with the both of them and continued to show the two of them that he wouldn’t push the issue. It was with this in mind that he caught Clint’s eye and nodded toward Steve in a signal to keep the Captain busy and distracted. He waited until Clint acknowledged and turned to engage in Steve’s conversation with Thor.

He stood and gestured for Bruce to accompany him out of the way of the conference table. Bruce hesitated, but climbed to his feet and followed him to a nook beside the main entrance to the bridge. He waited until they’d arranged themselves close to each other while still keeping an eye on anyone who could approach them. When the tense line of Bruce’s shoulder relaxed just a touch, he spoke softly.

“What have you found?”

Bruce sighed, “Tony’s been distributing the data between SHIELD and JARVIS. A lot of the data is going to JARVIS and not to SHIELD.”

“Because it pertains directly to Tony?” Coulson confirmed, already knowing the answer.

Bruce nodded. “They’re after information on the arc reactor and the Iron Man suit, but mostly, the arc reactor. It looks like they injected him with a variety of drugs, including truth serums and drugs intended to make the subject more susceptible to suggestion. However, that’s all the easy part. They also injected him with a virus of some sort. Experimental.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose, then dropped his hand quickly, not wanting to draw attention. “I’m really not going to like this.”

“No.” Bruce offered a strained smile. “One purpose of this virus was to allow for entry of a outside party into the mind. This way, they could ask questions and skim the answers directly from the mind instead of waiting for the subject to speak, and potentially lie or omit information. They’ve been using this to get information, detailed information, on the arc reactor as well as removing the arc reactor for study and comparison of the information they‘ve received through their interrogation.”

Taking in a centering breath, he asked, dreading the answer, “And have they gotten it.”

“That’s part of what Tony’s digging out of their servers. That was the first thing he sent to JARVIS.”

“So they’re only going to have what they recall from memory? No further records?”

Bruce shook his head. “Not unless they took manual records as well. We should look for any paper records while we’re there. Just to be safe.”

“How is Tony doing this?” He gestured to the video feed where Tony was still bound, still had the cables attached to his head and still had a thin line of blood dripping from his mouth. The arc reactor was shining overly brightly, washing out details, so they couldn’t figure out if Tony had been hurt further.

A smooth, soft voice drifted up from Bruce’s tablet, JARVIS cutting into the conversation. “Sir is somehow in the mainframe, though I cannot communicate directly with him. I recognize his thought patterns, however.”

Coulson nodded, frowning at the video feed. “I’m not taking that as a good sign. When did you first notice Tony’s presence?”

“I first noticed the energy signature which I now associate with Sir approximately three hours prior to Dr Banner requesting information on the same energy signature and the appearance of the first feed sent by Sir. However, I only recognized the energy signature as matching Sir’s thought patterns moments before he sent the first feed, though I was not certain it was him. I’ve only become certain in the last 15 minutes as the signal strengthens and becomes clearer.” JARVIS answered smoothly.

He shared a look with Bruce, seeing his worry reflected at him from Bruce. “I think that’s our cue to move out.” Bruce gave a solemn nod and he stepped away from Bruce to catch the attention of the rest of the Avengers. “If our plan is solid, we’re deploying now.”

Bruce touched his elbow lightly and murmured when he gave Bruce his attention. “One last thing. The interrogation technique is merely a symptom of the virus. The virus is much more than that. And has a high fatality rate.”

His mouth thinned, lips pressing together. “Then I suppose we’d better get him home sooner than later.” Bruce gave him a shaky parody of a smile, but it was enough to see the gratitude behind it.

 

***

 

He reached up to touch the weight on his head and found a cable attached to the side of his head. He wrapped his fingers around it as he stared out into a large concrete room. He put his other hand behind him, feeling the cold marble façade of the Bank of America building across the street from Grand Central. Using the building as a brace, he staggered to his feet, head swaying between the multiple weights on either side of his head. He let his fingers explore the cable jutting from his head, letting them trail down as the cable drooped with gravity until rising until he couldn’t reach any further.

Grand Central snapped back into place, hiding the warehouse and his head suddenly felt lighter. He staggered, falling back against the smooth chilled marble of the building at his back and stared at the warm façade of Grand Central. He focused on the arched windows that rose above the Park Ave viaduct, waiting for them to fade away into a vast room again.

He peered at his reflection in the windows, inspecting his head for any sign of the cables, but found nothing except for his glowing eyes. He blinked and moved his head, watching the blue glow trail and fade away. He frowned, unsettled, at the too intense glow of the arc reactor under his thin tank. He met his gaze again in the upper panes of the windows, reaching out to touch the reflection of his glowing eyes and flinched, startled when his fingers brushed against glass. He stumbled back and dropped several feet to the window ledge, knees buckling and hitting his hip on the curb and tumbling over onto the street with a startled shout that echoed off of the buildings on the empty streets of New York.

He pushed himself up, leaning back on his hands as he gazed up the height of Grand Central’s west façade; the great carved columns stretching up between the arched windows which loomed over head. “What the--” he cut himself off, trying to figure out how in an instant he ended up from where he had been touching the Bank of America building to touching Grand Central, somehow floating above Park Avenue.

“You have been found worthy.”

He rolled onto his hip, twisting to find Happy behind him, standing across Park Ave from him, leaning casually against the stone barrier. It looked like Happy, anyway; though he was hesitant to actually call the glowing blue form his friend, bodyguard and chauffeur. He dragged his knees under him and pushed up to his feet.

“Worthy of what?” He asked cautiously, watching what looked like blue fire dance along the lines of Happy’s body.

“Of me.”

He nodded solemnly, “Worthy of my friend covered in glowing blue fire. Because that’s not cryptic at all. Try again.”

Happy’s eyebrows raised in a flash of brightness looking like Iron Man’s repulsors as they charged for a shot. “Worthy of me - Extremis, is what they call me.” The not Happy lifted his hands, blue fire trailing behind as he gestured. “I’m supposed to change that which I find. But none have yet been worthy. Until you.”

“Seriously? I have not had enough coffee for this.” He let his words be as dry as possible, but they still had an edge to them.

Happy touched the arc reactor, suddenly in front of him. He stumbled back, but found he couldn’t move with the glow of Happy’s finger merged with the glow of the arc reactor. He squinted in the brightness. “If I’m to disappear, which I must, I want to disappear only for one who is worthy of me.”

He stared, eyes wide, at Happy and from this close could see the eyes were different. He shuddered against the fire that was licking through his chest, radiating out from Happy’s finger. “You are changed. You are more. He taught you to fight, to box. And so he shall teach you about me.”

The finger pushed into his chest through the arc reactor, but there was no pain, though he still flinched, arms twitching with desire to push Happy away. “Listen, boss.” Happy continued and pushed his whole hand into his chest, the blue fire flickering along his torso and down his arms. He imagined it flickering up his neck.

New York disappeared from around him, but it wasn’t the concrete warehouse. Instead, he saw data. In fact, he could vaguely make out JARVIS’ code.

“It’s good to see you, sir.” JARVIS’ smooth tone flowed over him and he closed his eyes in relief, suddenly feeling like he was home.

“I missed you, too, JARVIS.” He whispered into data lines before he was pulled away with fresh understanding. New York appeared around him again, Happy still standing in front of him, hand buried in his chest. He took his new understanding and pressed outward, upward, pressing until he could feel the cables weighing his head down, until he could feel rough rope curled too tight around his wrists, until he could see people around him on the fading streets of New York.

Data flung itself across his vision as Happy watched him with a proud smile through the flickering blue glow. “That’s it, boss. You’re doing great.”

He found the files with too intimate details of the arc reactor first. He found the medical records detailing out the drug cocktail they’d had him on and he felt his lip curl in a disgusted sneer as he found the effects of the drugs, specifically the truth serum and the cocktail which made him extremely susceptible to suggestion.

“Did you do all of this?” He opened his eyes to New York as the weight lifted from his head and the rope faded away. “Were you Pepper? Steve? Rhodey?”

Happy shook his head, “No, it takes time for me to mature. I didn’t help, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“Before I mature, your defenses are down. The others they put in you after they put me in you, they render you even more open. So they ask what they want to know. But I make you see it, live it and they can manipulate that.” Happy pulled his hand out of his chest and took a step back. “But then I mature and I decide.”

“If I’m worthy.”

It was painful, watching Happy’s quirked grin spread across the glowing visage. “I can finish now. You are changed. And now you know. You are more, boss, for you are worthy.” Happy leaned back, rocking onto his heels and beyond, stretching his arms out as he fell back, exploding into blue flame that burned away New York until Grand Central was no longer at his back with the Tower rising proudly behind him.

He was left with the vast warehouse, all concrete, steel girders and lab workers hurrying around or snagged together in knots. He yanked at the ropes binding his wrists too tightly, feeling like his body was dragging behind, like it was slow and delayed. He pushed out, following the cables from where they connected to his head to where they originated with the servers, all of that data at his virtual fingertips and he knew just what to do with it as he greeted JARVIS again.

“Daddy’s back.”

 

***

 

The guard falling at Natasha’s feet barely made a noise. Steve glanced around, making sure they were clear and no one heard to come investigating. He made a quick signal, knowing Clint would see it from his perch and continued forward with Natasha at his side. The plan was to take the warehouse in waves - Clint and Thor would follow, with Bruce playing backup in case worse was needed. However, he was counting on the four of them being enough without the Other Guy’s help so Bruce would be in a position to help Tony when they got to him. Coulson had advised him that the video feed had cut off shortly after they left, so they had no idea Tony‘s condition, though the other data feed was still active, so it was highly likely he was still alive.

Steve pressed his back against the wall next to the side entrance to the warehouse, trusting that Clint and Thor were on their way since they knew the plan. He glanced over at Natasha where she mirrored his position, charging up her left Widow’s Bite. He sidled over to press his ear against the door, closing his eyes to focus, but he heard nothing. Backing up to his previous position, he nodded at Natasha, who moved swiftly into place, jamming her Widow’s Bite against the electronic lock on the door, short circuiting it.

The door swung open and Steve wasted no time in slipping inside, Natasha hot on the heels. He led with the shield, crouched down, steps silent; Natasha even more ghost-like behind him. The hallway was dark and empty, barely lit by the outline of a double set of doors at the end of the hallway, light streaming around the door where it met the door frame, but not enough light to do anything more than give them a direction to head in. He slipped as silently as he could toward the light, senses on high alert, straining to hear anything or anyone.

As they approached the doors, he could make out soft sounds, muffled by the door. He leaned in close to the door so he could listen and the muffled voices he could just make out amongst what sounded like machinery which sounded like they were separated by distance as well as the door. He glanced back at Natasha, placing her more by the sound of her breath than the faint light brushing her cheek a dark gray instead of black. He brushed his hand against the door, slowly pushing it open until he could slip through.

They were in another hallway, this one perpendicular to the hallway they entered from. So far, the building layout was exactly like the blueprints. If that continued, they would head to the right and there would be a door into the vast center room just after the hallway turned to the left. It was the only room in the building which matched what they could see from the video feed they’d received, so it was there they would check first. However, each of the outer offices and miscellaneous rooms would get cleared as they made their way down the hall. When Thor and Clint got to the point he and Natasha stood, they would head to the left, clearing offices until they reached the other door which was only a few yards down the corridor. By the time Thor and Clint got to the door to the center room, he and Natasha should be at their designated point of entry.

He gestured them to proceed down the hall as planned, keeping to hand signals so as not to break radio silence. He had wanted no risk of being discovered too early. Once they had Tony, they could chatter as much as they liked, but until then, they were only to break radio silence for an urgent situation. He peered into the first office on the right as Natasha covered him. He signaled the room was clear and they moved down the hall. When they’d almost reached the bend in the hallway, he heard a soft sound behind him. Natasha already had her gun trained steadily on the source of the sound by the time he turned. They both relaxed as Clint nodded at them, just having entered the main corridor, bow drawn and slowly sweeping his sight lines while Thor guided the door closed so it wouldn’t make a racket.

Steve and Natasha turned back around to continue their chosen path as behind them, Clint and Thor pursued their pre-determined path. There was no movement in the building except for the four of them. He and Natasha stilled in front of the door that was their entry point to the room they assumed Tony was being held in. He could hear the pulse of machinery beyond the door along with the buzz he’d come to associate with servers and multiple voices, frantic and upset, the occasional word understandable amongst the murmur of multiple people speaking at once. He was confident that Tony would be on the other side of the door, though he couldn’t make our the timbre of his voice.

“I want the arc reactor. But just taking yours isn’t enough. I want to know its secrets.” A man’s voice cut through the door and Steve paused, trying to parse how far away from the door he was.

“Fuck you.” Steve was straining, trying to pick up anything, and though the voice was low and coarse, that was clearly Tony’s voice. Bracing for anything, though it didn’t sound like anyone was close to the door, the man‘s and Tony’s voices seeming to come from a distance, though that didn’t mean there wasn’t someone guarding silently; he shoved through the door, quickly but quietly, Natasha sidling in the room behind him, cutting to the right. Across the room, Clint and Thor slipped through the other door as well, though that wasn’t what had Steve’s attention. That honor was given to the large contraption in the middle of the room, cables rising up the two stories to the circular hub hanging from the metal girders stretched across the ceiling. The cables dropped from the hub until they seemed to attach to Tony’s head where he was tied to a heavy metal chair. Most of the light in the room originated from the lights set up around Tony and the equipment in the center of the cavernous room. There was some light which filtered in through the windows situated up high along the line of the ceiling, flood lights from the parking lot on the opposite side of their original entry point, but it quickly was lost. There was a gaggle of scientists and lab technicians huddled around the various equipment in the center of the room and one tall man in a long coat standing in front of Tony, bending close. The man reached out to grab Tony’s jaw, pulling Tony’s face toward him, light reflecting off of the rings he had on his fingers. The cables shivered and swayed with the movement.

“You will tell me. You left out what I want to know; you held back when we skimmed the information from your mind.” Steve recognized him as Zhang Tong, one of the profiles SHIELD was able to parse from the data feed they’d received. Zhang leaned down again, forcing Tony’s chin up, fingers pressing into the stubble filling in along Tony’s jaw. “You will tell me what you tried to hide.” Surprisingly, no one had noticed their entry yet and Steve felt his nerves light up in anxiousness at the imminent discovery. Each breath felt like it was tempting fate, like it was three counts after the countdown reached zero.

“No.” Tony shifted suddenly, bringing his feet up and kicking out at the Zhang’s legs. Zhang stumbled back, fingers losing their grip on Tony’s jaw. Tony kicked out again, the cables shuddering as they swayed with his abrupt movements, yanking Tony’s head back with their momentum just as Tony’s feet connected with Zhang’s side, knocking him to the floor.

Zhang pulled himself to his feet, raising his head in the process and locking gazes with Steve. He froze, hoping that the brightness of the center of the room compared with the dimness of the perimeter of the room would make it difficult for Zhang to see him. Then again, the shield wasn’t exactly subtle, and by the way Zhang straightened, shoulders snapping back and spinning away from Tony, Steve didn’t hold out much hope and burst forward as Zhang hollered for the guards, flinging himself at a computer.

Sparks burst from the ceiling, raining down on the center of the room, technicians ducking out of the way. Two scientists went down to the right of him and he caught a flash of the deep red of Natasha’s hair as she melted back into the shadows. An arrow slammed into the monitor closest to Tony and two more into the equipment behind him. A loud bang heralded the arrival of the remainder of the guards, those that had been assigned to the front entrance. Thor turned to meet the guards head on and Tony turned his head to look at the quivering arrow embedded in the monitor.

Steve ran through a new shower of sparks bursting from the hub toward Tony and Zhang. He snapped his shield out and to the side, scooping a technician out of the way and flinging them into a bank of servers, focus narrowing. Zhang turned, dragging a case off the counter just as the bank of servers beside him started sparking. Zhang glanced at the servers, then yanked a gun out from behind him and stepped toward Tony, raising the gun to aim at him. Steve threw his shield at Zhang’s arm, diving after his shield. Zhang gave a startled and pain-filled shout as his shield crashed into his arm, the gun skittering away across the floor and Steve barreled into Zhang, tackling him back against the bank of servers, the case dropping to the floor with a thud. They grappled, Zhang shoving off the equipment rack, getting the leverage needed to force Steve back two steps. Zhang tried to eel out of his grip and they ended up spinning, Steve’s back colliding with the rack which rocked slightly at the force.

The server bank exploded, shoving Steve forward, body slamming into Zhang, then hitting the ground, sliding across the concrete. He heard more explosions around him and above him and he pushed to his knees, ears ringing and looked up at the hub, its lights flickering and dying, sparks showering everywhere and one side slowly pulling free with a rending groan of steel. There was the faint sound of someone speaking, but it was muffled like there was cotton stuffed in his ears. He glanced around to locate Zhang, who had picked the case back up and was backing toward the entrance where Thor was busy subduing the last few guards. Steve staggered to his feet, back screaming in pain from the force of the blast, but Zhang slipped out the door and disappeared and there was no one left to fight.

Steve turned to Tony, whose head was tipped down, chin to his chest. He stepped up in front of Tony, “You okay?”

“Good timing.” Tony’s voice was soft and raggedly gritty, exactly how Steve thought Tony would sound as he woke up, still wrapped in blankets and face pressed into his pillow. Of course, he had always hoped he’d finally get to hear that voice when he was in the same bed, reaching over to brush hair from Tony’s forehead, watching as Tony blinked his eyes open, blurrily focusing on Steve and he rolled over to kiss Tony’s lips, to sink down over Tony’s body cradled between Tony’s thighs and spread his hands along sleep warmed skin, coaxing moans out of that gritty, sleepy voice. But he hadn’t had that opportunity yet, wasn’t even close to having that opportunity, but the voice may have to be incorporated, along with the way Tony looked as he barely raised his head, gazing up at him through the fringe of hair hanging limply over his forehead, eyes blazing blue, lips parted and all of his smooth naked chest and abdomen on display.

He shoved the inappropriate thoughts aside, noticing Natasha approaching from behind Tony, and crouched down between Tony’s spread legs, resting his hands on the dirty and ripped jeans stretched across his thighs. Tony jerked back, sending the cables knocking against each other, the abrupt movement traveling up the length of the cables until a faint but ominous metallic groan signaled the hub rocking slowly back and forth on what looked like its lone support.

“We should get those cables off of you.” He reached up to Tony’s face to hold his head still, reaching up with his other toward the cables, but Tony leaned back.

“Some personal space would be nice, Cap.” Tony’s voice was odd, a little sharp, a little flat, a little defensive and a lot not right.

The whisper of rope fibers parting against a sharp blade sounded and Natasha stood up from behind Tony as Tony groaned loudly as he moved his hands forward, fisting them in his lap. She studied the cables silently, a streak of black soot across her jaw and up her cheek. “We should be able to detach these without hurting you. Can you help me Clint?”

Clint stepped up beside him and Steve stood up, backing out of the way, taking a long glance around the warehouse room. Most of the scientists and technicians were tied up. Several were still conscious, but most had been knocked unconscious. Thor was no where to be found, but the guards all were unconscious on the floor. He spotted his shield and moved to pick it up. When he looked back at Tony, Natasha and Clint were leaning over him carefully detaching the cables. A thin line of blood traced its way down the tendons of Tony’s neck, pooling slowly in the dip of his collarbone.

“Damn, these things suck. How in the hell did they ever get you attached?” Clint grunted, pulling another cable away and letting it hang.

“While I was drugged unconscious. Glad I wasn’t awake for it.” Tony murmured absently, looking down at his hands rhythmically fisting and relaxing in his lap, otherwise still as the two agents worked on freeing him. “Do you have any of your exploding arrows, Clint?” Clint snorted, clearly affronted at being asked such a basic question with only one possible answer. “You want to destroy the rest of the hub before we leave? I won’t be able to do so after you finish unhooking me.”

Steve frowned, mind working through Tony’s words. “You were causing the explosions?” He asked incredulously as Bruce came jogging into the room.

Tony smirked, clearly pleased with himself, “Yup. That was pretty awesome.” Tony glanced at him from around Clint’s solid body, the blue glow in his eyes no longer as intense, seeming to dull and fade the more cables were removed. “Didn’t expect you to end up over there, though. You weren’t there when I triggered them to go.” Tony waved his hand toward the bank of servers that had exploded while Steve had his back pressed to them.

Steve shrugged as the last of the cables came free and Tony’s eyes were back to their normal brown. Steve definitely preferred Tony’s natural eyes to the bright blue they’d been while he was hooked up to the hub still dangling above their heads. “I’ll be fine.”

Bruce pushed his way in front of Tony, gently nudging Clint aside as Clint studied the hub. “Are you okay?” Steve stepped away, letting the two of them talk as Thor shoved through the main door.

“I was unable to catch up to him before I lost him. I do not know where the coward has fled.” Thor announced, heading over to join Steve on the outskirts of the charred equipment and debris.

“SHIELD is on its way with a clean up and detention crew. We’re clear to move out as soon as we’re ready.” Natasha advised, joining them as Bruce and Clint assisted Tony to his feet.

Steve hefted his shield on his back. “Good. It’s time to go home.”

 

***

 

Tony mostly tuned everyone out, staring down at his hands and making appropriate noises where it seemed fitting. It had been almost five hours since his team had pulled him out of the warehouse and his hands were still tingling with waking nerves. Though the SHIELD doctor had assured him there was no nerve damage and he wouldn’t lose function in his hands, Tony found himself fretting over it, studying his hands as he fisted them, as he relaxed them, as he wiggled his fingers, tracing over the rope marks cut into his wrists. His head still hurt in that range of pain and almost pain that was between a headache and a migraine. He was on enough pain meds, though, that it shouldn’t tip over, but it still wasn’t pleasant and he took a sip of water, wrapping his hand carefully around his cup.

He looked down at his chest where the cool light of the arc reactor glowed softly through the scrubs he was wearing. He pressed his fingers against the reactor, feeling the pressure of fingers instead of the pressure of pressing down on a large casing stuffed in his chest. He didn’t feel his fingers deep in his chest, he felt them as though the arc reactor wasn’t there, as though his chest had never been carved up to save his life. He dragged his fingers over the fabric covering his chest, feeling the sensation in his chest. He’d never been able to feel a light touch on the reactor, but now…now it was just like skin.

He’d looked at his chest in the mirror during a short break from being examined by the SHIELD doctors who had been fascinated by the changes of his chest, the disappearance of the scars surrounding the arc reactor and his x-rays which came back showing the reactor buried in his chest, but not the casing, not the hardware anchoring the casing to his ribcage and none of the shrapnel. The reactor had buried itself into Tony’s chest, fusing metal to skin seamlessly. He had brushed his fingers over the reactor, seeking out the niches which would release the reactor and not finding them there. He had to consider that the reactor had become permanently a part of him.

He wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about that, though. And knowing himself the way he pretended he didn’t, he would probably ignore the changes even as he took advantage of them, just like he did after coming home from Afghanistan. So long as the changes didn’t try to kill him like the original palladium had, he’d continue to ignore it.

The incessant beeping of the monitoring machines was slowly driving him insane as everyone spoke around him. He pushed, as he had in the…he didn’t want to call it a dream, but was it a hallucination? A delusion? He wasn’t sure. He pushed as he had in the fake New York and again in the warehouse before and after his team had shown up. Nothing happened, though it certainly felt like the damned monitor was in his head like the data streams of the servers had in the warehouse. Once Clint and Natasha had finished unhooking him from the thick cables attaching him to the hub, he’d been cut off from the world the blue Happy had shown him.

Extremis.

Lovely.

While he had glanced over the files he had pulled from the servers, he hadn’t been overly concerned with taking the time to research what Extremis was, instead focusing on getting as much information to JARVIS and SHIELD, wiping the records pertaining to the arc reactor and Iron Man and blowing the place up.

Blowing the place up had been a lot of fun. He kind of wanted to do it again. He wondered that if he installed an Ethernet port if he could just plug himself into the system and blow up whatever system he wanted. Either that, or just kick back and chill with JARVIS in a way he’d never been able to before.

Bruce’s fingers pressed briefly against his shoulder and he glanced up at him. “Doing okay?”

Tony nodded, “Yeah, I’m fine.” He resisted saying that he wasn’t entirely sure if he was okay or not, didn’t elaborate that he felt a little distant, untrusting if this was real or something else in his head as a result of the drugs, which per the doctors wasn’t completely through his system. He could tell, however; that Bruce picked up on what he wasn’t saying by the way his lips twitched into a small smile.

He glanced over at Coulson, who was watching him carefully, but didn’t feel threatened or weirded out by it. Not like Steve’s gaze tracking him. He avoided Steve’s gaze, instead flicking his gaze over to actually half pay attention to the debriefing which Fury had acquiesced to be held in Tony’s recovery room, where the doctors were going to hold him overnight until all of the drugs had been flushed out of his system. They claimed it was to monitor for potential reactions, but Tony was positive Fury was concerned he might go blabbing all of SHIELD’s secrets.

Frankly, Tony wasn’t too sure he wouldn’t given that he’d blabbed out his own secrets. It didn’t really matter that it had only been in his own mind, because it hadn’t been an only given there had been an interface attached to him to harvest the information directly from his mind as he’d acted out the play provided to him.

“Agent Ming Tan has officially been arrested and charged with conspiracy, treason and aiding and abetting as an accessory, and so forth. It seems that he was working in collusion, accepting payouts to provide inside information to Zhang Tong. He provided data packets to Tong about the Avengers including personal observations, habits, appointments.” Natasha advised, handing her report to Fury. “That’s how they were able to take Tony without anyone knowing for a few hours. There’s a lot of detailed information on us and the top SHIELD agents, including yourself, Director.”

Fury sighed as though it was painful to hear one of his agents was corrupted so easily and got his hands on so much information. Tony figured, since Fury was The Spy, it was like a…well, an arc reactor in the chest, and now it was time for Fury to relearn how to breathe. Fury gestured for Bruce to report.

“They injected Tony with a wide variety of interrogation drugs, all highly illegal and all highly potent. They kept up the injections the whole time he was there, which is what allowed for his susceptibility in providing information. Per the records, they still had to get most of their information directly from his mind using the hub they hooked directly into his brain. They were only actively interrogating Tony for the last two days, having spent the first three getting him hooked up to their system.” Bruce took off his glasses, twirled them between his forefinger and thumb and then replaced them, pushing them up his nose to settle into place. “The doctors say that the drugs will flush themselves out of Tony’s system by tomorrow and as he is otherwise in good health, they will release him at that time.”

Fury nodded, “Anything else?” After a moment where everyone was silent, he stood and made his way to the door. “Keep me updated, Agent Coulson; and everyone? Get some sleep.” Fury disappeared through the door after leveling a piercing look at everyone, reinforcing through intimidation his last order.

Coulson stood up after the door closed behind Fury. “I think that’s a good idea. You should all go home and get some sleep. We‘re keeping the search going for Tong and will keep you updated as to our progress.” Slowly, everyone get to their feet and after wishing him well, filed out of the recovery room, presumably to head back to the tower and their beds. Clint held up a hand and Tony slapped him a high-five with a grin, their typical routine post-mission, especially with a visit to medical. Clint flipped him off, also routine and slipped out the door with a cheeky smirk. Steve filed out last, leaving just Coulson in the room.

Tony probably should feel guilty over how he’d treated Steve in the plane on the way back to base, but he was having difficulty already not being overtly defensive about the reactor; though, he could admit privately, very, very privately, that he probably wasn’t succeeding at not being completely, utterly and obviously defensive over it. He also felt that no one who knew him should be surprised by this given that he’d just spent the last five days hooked up to a computer which was taking and recording his thoughts regarding the arc reactor. There was footage of the questions they’d asked which matched up uncomfortably close to the questions that had been asked of him in the hallucination brought on by Extremis as it evolved and modified itself in his body until it was ready to actively change his body.

Steve, as usual, had wanted to understand what had happened and why. Tony didn’t know if that was just how Steve was or if that was a reaction to getting frozen and waking up seventy years later and facing seven decades worth of social and technological advancements. Just the global political landscape would be enough to throw anyone off their game what with several countries breaking up in the last twenty five years alone. In any case, everyone, including Tony, typically humored Steve, understanding his need, giving him the answers he constantly asked for. But when it touched on personal and private matters, like the arc reactor, Steve could ask until he was blue in the face and Tony wouldn’t provide answers. Only this time, fresh from discovering he’d spilled his secrets to some hallucination of Steve and others, he was too defensive, too frayed, too exposed and too rubbed raw to let Steve continue, and he’d snapped at Steve, telling him in less than polite terms to mind his own business.

Tony picked up his tablet that Bruce had given him after the doctors had finally stopped prodding him and wanting to examine the changes to the arc reactor. It had taken Coulson stepping in to get the doctors to back off. For your own good. So we can tell if there’s any long-term effects. So we can treat him in the future. So the team can save you if something happens to it. So I can help you. All things which sound reasonable, of course, but were merely window dressing for they wanted to know to assuage their own curiosity.

He scrolled through the data he had sent JARVIS, skimming through the specs on Extremis, trying to gain an understanding of the virus as Coulson sat silently with his own work. He ended up in a strange mode of relaxed and tense at the same time. Tense because of the changes Extremis wrought to his body and relaxed in Coulson’s presence.

“Apparently,” he started out loud, though Coulson didn’t startle, “I really do need to install an Ethernet port in my skull.”

Coulson set his work aside, setting his ankle on his other knee and leaning back into the embrace of the chair. It couldn’t have been comfortable, but he looked comfortable and at ease. “Is that so?”

“Apparently. Looks like my brain has been altered to be able to interface with computers and the internet and intranets.” He met Coulson’s calm gaze. “Fun times.”

“We’re going to have a hell of a time keeping you out of our systems, now, aren’t we?” It wasn’t a question, though it was unbelievably dry and Tony laughed.

“Maybe I should get wi-fi installed instead.” Suddenly he couldn’t breathe, cold pricks swept over his skin. He tried to sit up but didn’t have the air for it.

Fingers snapped in front of his face and his gaze snapped up to Coulson‘s where he sat on the edge of the cot. “Breathe with me.” Coulson sucked in a small but slow breath and let it out just as slow before taking in another breath. He watched him closely, trying to time his hitching breaths with Coulson’s inhales and exhales until he was mostly in sync. Phil started taking in bigger, deeper breaths, still slow and Tony matched him with difficulty at first until his chest eased sometime later.

“Fuck.” He spat, looking away, hating to be seen so vulnerable.

Phil flicked his fingers against his arm, “I still have my taser, you know. It has your name on it. Still.”

Tony huffed out a breathy laugh and relaxed against the pillows. “Must be a handsome rogue of a taser if it’s named after me.”

Phil leaned back slightly, lacing his fingers around his knee and just watched him. “Bruce said it was highly fatal. That most of the experimental subjects didn’t survive.”

Tony nodded, hefting his tablet in emphasis, “Pretty much.”

“Talk to me?”

“About what?”

Phil sighed, “Anything, Tony. Anything you want.”

Tony stared down at the tablet where it showed him how his brain could interface with the internet. “I slept with Steve. And I don’t even know why.” Phil’s eyebrows jumped slightly, though he stayed silent. “It was just a dream. Thing. Something. It seemed real, though. For the most part, I didn’t question it.” Tony rubbed his eyes, “And I slept with Steve, something I’d never do. I mean, sure, he’s hot, who wouldn’t bang him.”

Phil’s lips quirked into subtle amusement, “I wouldn’t.”

“Yeah, well, if you didn’t have your cellist, I’d call you out on that, Agent.” He sighed, “If I didn’t know Steve, I’d be all over that for an awesome night. But there’s no way I want a relationship with him, just not interested in him like that, and no way I’d turn him into a one night stand or fuck buddy when I know how he doesn’t go for that, even if I thought for half a minute he was interested in me. So sleeping with him? Really fucking weird.” He dropped the tablet to the mattress and rubbed his face with his hands, leaning his head back against the pillows.

“Pepper told me I was dating him during the whole this is but isn’t reality thing.” He continued from behind his palms, “Steve ended an argument we were having by shoving me against the wall and kissing me. He was touchy feely and constantly in my space. And then I’m awake and in that warehouse tied to the damned chair with fucking cables attached to my head and there’s Steve, putting himself between my goddamned legs and touching me and I can’t tell if it’s the dream hallucination or if it’s reality and now I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

He dropped his hands to the mattress staring up at the ceiling. “He then keeps pressing me for what the assholes wanted, what questions were they asking about the arc reactor, what did I tell them, on and on and on and on and I wanted to punch him, to push him out of the jet and watch reality bleed over the dream. I just spent five days telling strangers masquerading as Steve and Bruce and Pepper and Rhodey, how the arc reactor works and how it affects me and my vulnerabilities, something I have tried to get away without having to tell even Pepper.” He rolled his head to pin Phil with a hard stare. “Are you going to ask me about the reactor now? Is that what this is leading to?”

“No. I’m not. And, as always, this conversation isn’t happening.”

Tony rolled his head back to gaze up at the ceiling. “I just feel hulled out. Exposed. And I can’t tell if I’m still stuck in my head or if I’m in reality and it scares me.”

Phil stayed silent, simply readjusting his grip on his knee and Tony didn’t feel the need to speak again. He relaxed, knowing that Phil wouldn’t betray his confidence. After a long while of the silence stretching comfortably, Tony rolled on to his side, placing his back to Phil where he still sat on the edge of the mattress.

“Happy should come pick me up tomorrow.” He spoke into the pillow, muffled, “He should pick whatever car he wants to drive, too.” He yawned, exhausted both physically and emotionally. It’d be good to see Happy for real and not as an image sculpted into the same blue glow of the arc reactor.

 

***

 

Steve bumped the refrigerator door closed with his hip and turned to set the vegetables in his hands on the counter. He plucked out the onion and started slicing it on the cutting board he’d previously pulled out. He was grateful the onion was already peeled and ready to use as he hated peeling them. He enjoyed cooking and it always served to calm him down and relax him from whatever stresses were plaguing him. It was common to find himself in the kitchen creating a meal after most missions to help him decompress; and while he’d spent more time in the gym those first few months after waking up from what Tony and Clint liked to call his ice nap, as he’d migrated to spending more and more time in the kitchen, he found himself adjusting better to the future, adjusting to the changes and finally starting to work through his anger and depression at finding himself seventy years in the future and losing everyone and everything he knew.

His hands moved rhythmically, handling the knife firmly yet with care as he chopped the onions. He could already feel himself breathing easier as he transferred the onions into the skillet and opened a small packet of peeled garlic. He loved being able to bypass the frustration of working to peel onions and garlic; especially the garlic. He pulled out the small knife from the block that he liked to use to chop garlic and started slicing.

As he worked, he processed the last few days from Tony’s apparent failure to show up for the afternoon training the two of them had every Thursday, to being unable to reach him and finding him missing from the Tower, anything Stark Industries related and anything SHIELD related, to finding the surveillance footage showing Tony walking along, entering a blind spot between two cameras and never reappearing on the second camera and visiting the location only to see how they’d gotten Tony, but no leads for them to follow. The next days dragging long as nothing on Tony’s whereabouts or kidnappers appeared despite SHIELD’s and the Avenger’s efforts until they finally had something and they could finally get their teammate and friend back.

The Avengers had become his new Howling Commandos, and like the Commandos, he’d lay down on the wire for any of them. Having one of his team missing for any length of time twisted his guts up and hollowed his chest. He set the knife down and braced his arms against the counter, dropping his head and just breathing through the magnitude of missing a part of him for five days and the relief at having that piece of him returned. The Avengers may have become the Commandos, but he held on to them a little bit tighter than he had with the Commandos; not really, honestly prepared for loss before Bucky. He had thought he had been prepared for the realities of war, but he really only learned what that meant as he’d been in the thick of it; and his lesson on loss only came after his fingers closed on nothing but air as he clung to the side of a damaged train able to see nothing but just how far down the ravine went, the river carving through the valley too far below.

He raised his head, glancing over the sliced peppers and the cubed potatoes and chopped cauliflower in their piles in the bowls he had set out to hold them while he prepped the vegetables for use. He turned, pushing off the counter to reach for the oil, pouring a dab over the pile of onions, ginger and garlic in the skillet waiting to be sautéed. He turned the heat on after he put the oil away and pulled out a wooden spoon to stir the onions as the pan heated up. As he watched the onions sauté, he thought about the relief of getting Tony back, of finding him relatively unharmed. He hadn’t truly felt it while going after Zhang, but the relief practically hit him in the face at seeing Tony still moving, shoulders shifting as he tried to wiggle his hands out of their bonds. It was vivid and visceral which made the fear when Tony pulled away from him that much stronger.

Tony never pulled away from his touch, never seemed to notice when Steve’s fingers lingered a touch too long. Tony typically would lean in to his touch, pressing his shoulder against his palm, turning his head to follow Steve’s fingers when they brushed across his forehead. It was an unconscious action on Tony’s part, Steve knew, but it warmed low in Steve’s belly when Tony would respond to his touch. For him to flinch away, to request personal space he’d never requested before, made something in Steve shrivel. Just how vulnerable had Tony felt that he needed to back away? Of course, Steve thought privately as he added the potatoes to the skillet and moved to start opening the canned goods he needed, he probably should’ve moved to free Tony immediately instead of crouching down to find out if Tony was okay, to get Tony’s eyes tracking him and check him for injuries. But he had needed to make sure that Tony was okay.

He’d needed to touch him to reassure himself that Tony was real.

He dumped the rest of vegetables into the skillet and added the spices and curry paste, stirring until everything was coated properly before pouring the coconut milk over the mixture. The food smelled delicious and was probably wafting slowly through the common floor they all shared. He turned to work on the rice, pulling the rice cooker forward and pulling the bag of rice out of the pantry.

Tony’s sharp voice cut through his movements from memory as he measured out the rice, the exact tone he’d had on the jet that seemed just shy of anger. He’d been asking Tony about the five days he’d been missing; wanting to know, needing to know what information Zhang had gotten away with so he could better protect his team and especially Tony. If Zhang got away with the specs of the arc reactor and built one, who knows what he could do with it, or if Zhang had enough information to hurt or kill Tony; he wanted to be prepared. He needed to be able to protect Tony. But he had pushed too hard; he knew he had that tendency after coming out of the ice and tried to temper it. Usually, that was fairly easy to do, but with five days of worry and stress and not knowing what was happening to Tony, if Tony was even still alive, he hadn’t bothered to temper his need to know and he’d pushed Tony too hard, too fast and Tony had pushed back.

He smiled as he got the rice started and moved back to the stove to stir the curry. He had been frustrated, a little angry, even, but he was also relieved that Tony had been in a position to bristle against Steve’s questions. There was a sound behind him and he turned to see Tony shuffling into the kitchen, pulling up a seat at the center island where there were a few stools placed. He leaned back against the counter beside the stove, crossing his arms and studying Tony. He was dressed down, probably planning on spending time in his workshop, but his face was tired and pale as though he hadn’t slept well. He’d been released from the hospital earlier that morning and Happy had picked him up and brought him home where Tony had disappeared into his room and, presumably, slept.

“Sleep well?” He asked, watching Tony frown.

“I slept.” Tony answered with a shrug. Not really an answer, though, but Steve was pretty used to those non-answers from Tony.

He pushed off from the counter and opened the refrigerator, pulling out a bottle of water. He broke the seal as he walked over to Tony, setting it down in front of him. “How are you doing?”

Tony wrapped his fingers around the bottle, but didn’t move to take a drink from it. “As good as can be expected.” Tony looked up at him, gaze direct and piercing. He felt like he was being studied.

He placed his hand on Tony’s shoulder, lightly squeezing so Tony could feel that he was there. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Tony’s gaze sharpened, mouth pressing tight and going still under his hand. “Are we together?” There was something off about the tone of Tony’s voice, something flat and distant.

He blinked, startled by the question. “No.” But if Tony was asking what he thought he was asking…well it was something Steve wanted, anyway.

“Are we fucking?” He felt his jaw go slack. He must’ve taken too long to process and reply as Tony continued in the same unsettling voice. “Screwing? Bumping uglies? Doing the tango between the sheets?”

“No.” Steve denied. Something he wanted to do? Yes, he absolutely wanted sex with Tony; wanted to caress his skin, to make him moan, to make love to him. But they weren’t dating, much less having sex, since Steve hadn’t yet gathered the courage to ask Tony on a date. “No, Tony, we’re not.” The tension suddenly drained out of Tony and his shoulders relaxed under his hand.

“Oh, good. Then this is reality.” Tony smiled, face relaxing, relieved.

Steve didn’t know what to say to that. “What?”

Tony unscrewed the cap and dropped it to the counter and took a sip of water. “They had me in some hallucination thing, probably from the drugs and the thing,” Tony waved a hand around toward the ceiling, “they had me hooked in to. It seemed ridiculously real, so I keep wondering if I’m still hooked up to that thing and still stuck in the hallucination or if you guys really did get me out of there and I’m back in reality.”

“I…I’m not sure I understand.”

“Oh, you were just…extremely touchy feely. Probably because we were dating, though I’ve no idea where that came from.” Tony stood up, dislodging Steve’s hand and he let his hand fall to his side. Tony clapped him on the arm. “You and I dating is pretty weird, right? Plus, you’ve probably got all sorts of people wanting to bump uglies with you.” Tony grinned. “I’m know I’m just that awesome, and you’re quite the catch yourself, but the two of us? There’d have to be interest, first, right?”

Steve felt his stomach plunge to his feet as Tony turned with a wave and a see you tossed over his shoulder. Well, he supposed that answered his question on when to ask Tony to dinner. Never. He swallowed thickly and looked down at the bottle of water Tony had left on the counter. He reached for the cap and slowly screwed it into place and put the bottle back in the refrigerator. He shut the door, hand pressed flat to the surface of the door, closing his eyes and just breathing through the shattering disappointment.

The scuff of a shoe behind him had him straightening and moving over to stir the food, turning it down to simmer and grabbing the lid and covering the skillet. He cleared his throat and turned to see Natasha sitting on the stool Tony abandoned.

“Dinner will be ready in about thirty.”

“He doesn’t know.”

Steve stopped at her non sequitor. “Doesn’t know what?”

“About your feelings for him.” She stated simply.

He winced, “You know about that? Of course you know about that.”

“I heard the two of you talking. Waited to come in until he left.”

“Once a spy?” He asked sardonically.

She lifted her shoulder in a shrug. “Guess so.” She watched him. “He really doesn’t know. He wasn’t being an unfeeling ass.”

“But you know.” He shook his head and moved to sit down beside her, forearms on the counter, hands clasped in front of him. “He said we were dating in the hallucination he was having due to the drugs they used on him.”

She pursed her lips, “From the files we’ve been through, it sounds like they were, in part, able to craft his experiences while they interrogated him. If they got their information from Agent Tan, then they crafted that relationship. Tan thought the two of you were dating.”

“Where did he get that idea?” Steve asked, incredulously.

“Steve,” Natasha started gently, “Tony may be oblivious to your feelings, but those of us who are trained spies, we notice things like that. You’re pretty obvious in how you feel. I think Tony is just seeing your interest in him as a purely plutonic friendship.”

Steve buried his face in his hands. “Of course.”

She placed her hand on his arm, “Are you going to be okay?” She asked, concern an undertone in her voice.

He sighed, dropping his hands and covering her hand on his arm. “Yeah. It sucks. But I’ll be okay.” He gave her a small smile, though he knew it wasn’t a solid smile, things were still too raw for that. “I still have him as a friend and that means a lot to me.” She squeezed his arm under his hand and he took comfort in her touch.

 

***

 

Tony clapped his hands as he settled on his favorite stool in his workshop and watched his work flare to light in front of him. “Wake up. Daddy’s home. And it’s time to get to work.” He let his gaze roam across the room, immediately latching on to the differences between his workshop here and his workshop in the dream.

“Welcome home, sir. It is good to see you well.” JARVIS greeted. Tony felt something in him unwind.

“Talk to me, baby.” He prompted.

“Of course, sir. You know how much I love to ramble at you.” JARVIS’ voice was dry.

He grinned, tight and fierce, the feeling of right and home flooding through him. Dummy rolled up to him, pushing his claw into his shoulder and he raised a hand to hook over Dummy’s strut, fingers clutching at the metal.

“It’s good to be home.” He breathed, grateful. Dummy pushed against his shoulder again. Glad Daddy’s home. Glad Daddy’s safe. Glad Daddy’s better. He glanced down at Dummy. “Glad you think so, buddy.”

He leaned back against the short back of the stool, letting his head fall back and look up at the ceiling. No cables and no hub and “What the hell, Dummy?” He raised his head and scooted back from Dummy to stare at him.

No fire extinguisher.

Tony stared. “JARVIS? Did I just hear Dummy talking to me? Did he just tell me no fire extinguisher?”

“Yes, sir. It would appear that you did hear Dummy.” JARVIS confirmed smoothly. “I would hazard that your modifications are allowing you to pick up his code.”

He stared at Dummy who moved forward to push at his shoulder again. He closed his eyes and pushed out; it hadn’t worked in SHIELD’s medical bay and didn’t really work now, not the way it had when he was hooked up to the hub, but he could hear You and Butterfingers waking up and making their way over to him, excited. There was a small pocket of blue in his head and he poked tentatively at it, hearing the hum of JARVIS, like he was hearing JARVIS breathe.

He smiled, the possibilities unfurling in his mind.