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Bid my blood to run

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Say what you want, that shit never gets old.

"Look at those ugly mother fuckers," Tony breathes out.

Everyone in the Local Command Center – LOCCENT for short - have their eyes riveted on the displays and monitors when the first Kaiju roars and spits copious amounts of acid on the white star in the middle of Blue Eagle's torso. It's one of the long and agile beasts that looks like a dragon without wings, vicious and fast, code name Waindingu. Steve and Bucky killed what could have passed as its cousin relatively easily two years ago, but this one has moves.

Meanwhile the second Kaiju – Poundfoot - engages Ragnarok Awaits with a direct charge, head down, like a rhinoceros. It even has a horn, gleaming in the sunlight, and Ragnarok Awaits takes a classic baseball-batting stance, waiting for it. They deploy the hammer – always the hammer, Tony had seriously made Thor's year with that one – and are ready for it. Tony instinctively crouches a little, preparing for impact while Poundfoot doesn't even slow down or try to feint. When the beast gets in range, Ragnarok Awaits' swing is absolutely gorgeous and the hammer meets the Kaiju's head right on, the force so impressive that its head twists on its pseudo neck and Poundfoot falls on its side causing a huge splash. It's visibly shaken and Ragnarok Awaits doesn’t let it recover, hammering down with all the power it has, big almighty swings until the Kaiju's head caves in.

Blue Eagle immobilized one of Waindingu's arms and is punching it repeatedly, all the while steadily discharging beams of plasma ray in its chest and face. The Kaiju is holding its ground, twisting in Blue Eagle's grip, it's free arm clawing at BE’s back and trying to reach the head.

Archer Delta, who had been kept for backup near the wall protecting the San Francisco Bay until now, has been given the authorization by Coulson to join the fight, since both Kaijus are unlikely to reach the civilians now. Archer Delta is running with more grace than 1,890 tons of metal should have, holding both hands up and ready to fire.

"Blue Eagle! Twist it 180!" Natasha shouts over the comms.

"We've got this!" Bucky replies, even though Blue Eagle starts twisting Waindingu around.

"Come on, buddy, gotta share the fun a little!" Clint says, and Archer Delta is already firing.

From any other Jaeger there could be a risk of a shot going wide and clipping Blue Eagle, since it's all but intertwined with Waindingu, but Archer Delta is the most precise Jaeger when it comes to guns and rockets. Tony read Clint's file – everyone's file, in fact – and the man was the best sharpshooter in the world before his profession became obsolete. He's heard that Bucky challenges Clint on that claim every chance he's got, though.

Ragnarok Awaits finishes its Kaiju with a flourish, plunging a fist in Poundfoot's bashed skull, and then goes right into the monster's torso to pull out its heart. By Tony's side, Pepper makes a disgusted sound.

"You've got to admit, they've got style," Tony says as Ragnarok Awaits brandishes the ripped off heart up in the air, raising the hammer too.

"That last part was totally unnecessary," Pepper says.

"One might even say overkill," Rhodey adds and Tony rolls his eyes at the way they all but giggle in synch.

"I can't believe we didn't realize you two were drift compatible before," Tony says.

"I know, right?" Rhodey says. "After all we're the only ones who can stand you for extended periods of time, it should have been a clue!"

In the last nine years Rhodey has piloted the choppers bringing the Jaegers to battle, and then later been used in Mission Control for his strategic skills. He'd been tested to become a Jaeger pilot, but even though he was exceptional in the simulators, they hadn't found anyone drift compatible enough – well apart from all signs pointing to Tony, who'd refused to share his mind again after the accident. So Rhodey had been stoically miserable while other pilots were given Jaegers… until three months ago when he'd sparred with Pepper and it clicked perfectly. They both had been ecstatic and Tony had resolved that his two best friends would get the best system and weapons the Shatterdome could afford (plus a couple of gifts on his own dime). No way is he losing them to the fucking Kaijus.

"James…" Pepper chides, but Tony elbows her in the side lightly with a smirk. From anyone else the remark could have hurt, but not by Rhodey. He's right, after all.

"It's fine," Tony says. "The last simulations checked out, so we could do live test in the Jaeger tomorrow. Are you guys ready?"

"You bet!" Pepper says, eyes sparkling.

"Hell yeah," Rhodey adds. "What time?"

Tony sees from the corner of his eyes how Waindingu slumps in Blue Eagle's arms following the onslaught brought by Archer Delta. The whole of LOCCENT immediately cheers, followed by the joyful roar from the Shatterdome's worker. Tony takes a moment to whistle, eyes roaming over the Jaegers to try to assess the damage. With the repair charts to overview, plus the celebrations that are sure to shake the Dome tonight, he's not sure how much sleep he's going to get. When there's a lull in the noise - once the counter is reset - Tony turns back to Rhodey and Pepper.

"How does 1500 sound?"

Their blinding grins are answer enough.

**

All in all, Blue Eagle's damage is almost limited to tears in the outside armor and corrosion, which is better than Tony expected. The worst is some busted relays – thank god for redundancy – and even though those are harder to come by these days, he knows which supplier will have to be call first thing tomorrow. Well later.

Once he's done examining the Jaegers, and has approved the charts his engineers have imputed in the system to coordinate the repairs, Tony adds a link for a new shoulder weapon he'd planned on giving to Blue Eagle in a month or so. No one should accuse him of playing favorites since the top half of BE's back has to be re-done anyway. In fact it might even distract the hearsay he's putting too much time on Rhodey and Pepper's mech. It has to be noted that Tony doesn't care what people say, but Steve and Pepper do, so… Tony has three (soon four) Jaegers to take care of in his own Shatterdome and he consults around the globe (the Starks were heavily involved in the Jaeger’s creation, after all). He also develops more effective operating systems, power sources and weapons because he's the best in the business and everyone knows it. If his pilots had a problem with how he splits his time between the Jaegers, they'd let him know. Or the crews would, and anyway, Jane and Bruce would never let him focus on one more than the others.

Tony's life has been a perpetual state of alertness and urgency since he was twelve and the Kaijus first appeared. He clocks, on average, fourteen hours of work per day in the hangar and his workshop for the "regular" stuff. While no one with half a brain believes he gets eight hours of sleep a day, his friends – he has some! – don't know how much time he spends on his special, and as of yet, secret project or he'd get yelled at. Which is why it's secret, even though it's pretty damn bitching and one of his top ideas ever (apart from JARVIS, maybe. And since JARVIS is integral to the secret project, it makes it even more awesome).

As a rule, Tony tries his hardest to avoid thinking about the accident where his cockiness and stupidity got Howard killed while they were piloting Beast Slayer seven years ago. He still has flashes about it from time to time – chasing the rabbit is not reserved to the drift - and the nightmares are why he avoids sleep as much as possible. He misses his dad and how it felt to be connected to him, at least when they were in a Jaeger, but also the beauty of merging his mind with a machine and fighting the Kaijus. He wants to get back in the middle of the action instead of only prepping others, but on the other hand he cannot bear the idea of drifting with someone once more. It took him years to feel that it was worth putting energy and resources in the idea, but now Tony's working on an autonomous armor, small but maneuverable, with the ability to fly and enough firepower to sting the damn beasts.

The temptation to entirely skip the celebrations of today's victory to go work on the suit is strong, he's so close to finishing it, but his absence would probably draw more attention than he wants. He's got a playboy and party animal reputation to maintain, after all.

Tony feels the bass of the music in the mess hall start pounding in his skull as soon as he gets to the party. There are strobe lights and a laser show, and it’s easy to spot several tables where people are distributing booze, even though it's supposed to be rationed. The hooch is decent and no one has gone blind, so it's tolerated on nights like this. Tony spends several minutes just inside the door watching the crowd dancing, drinking and having a good time. The threat of the world’s end makes people desperate for human contact, and victories exacerbate that feeling. Tony's not immune, finding a warm embrace to forget everything for a moment is something he does often, but he's not feeling it tonight.

The Jaeger pilots are always the center of the maelstrom in theses celebrations, being the all-stars that everyone wants to congratulate. A lot of people hope to get their attention and there's always a few that make a mission to get into their pants (or skirts). It's a heady feeling, especially when the pilots are young, though this particular group has seen more than one rodeo. Instead of heading for them, Tony manages to make his way towards the back where he knows Bruce likes to hang out, if he's still here at all.

Fortunately he is, though busy explaining something to Jane, with an emphasis in arm movement that shows he took a couple of drinks already.

"Hey, Brucie, how's it going?" Tony says, grabbing the top of his shoulders playfully. "Jane," he adds with a nod and a smile that she returns in kind. Judging by how pink her cheeks are, it seems she matched Bruce in the drinking.

Bruce blinks up at him and grins. "Tony! There you are!"

"What, were you lonely without me?" Tony grabs a chair that he turns around to straddle, crossing his forearms on its back. There are shot glasses on the table filled with something too purple to be good, but he throws one back anyway. Tony grimaces at the aftertaste but the burn feels good going down.

"Did you stay in the hangar all of this time?" Bruce asks, frowning now. "Dammit, Tony! I told you before, you need to delegate!"

"Funny that you'd say that," Tony replies with a huff. He's not the only workaholic in this place and Bruce Banner has a gold membership card.

"He's right, Bruce," Jane says. "Therefore you should go with Tony."

Going where now? Tony frowns, confused, because he has no trip planned in the near future.

"What! What?" Bruce splutters. "Absolutely not, I'm fine."

"You'd be even better, after," Jane says with a shrug.

"Then what about you?" Bruce challenges, looking hilariously mulish. "You should come too, if that's your argument."

Jane sighs wistfully. "Oh, I would, but us three away at the same time? This place would fall apart!"

"Not that she's wrong, the Dome would implode, but I have no idea what trip you are talking about. I'm not due to visit the Tokyo Dome until March."

"Vacation, Tony," Bruce says, grabbing his forearm. "You need to take some time off."

Tony blinks, surprised. He has no idea why this is even discussed. "No I don't?" he says carefully. Heck, he wouldn't know what to do if he wasn't in the Dome.

"Maybe you should think about it," comes from behind him, and Tony bends his head backward to look at Steve. He had no idea he was right there, and the sight of how delicious Steve looks in a blue t-shirt that make his eyes pop makes something clench in Tony's chest.

"But why? I'm fine."

"When is the last time you took a complete day off? No phone, no computer?" Steve asks, raising his eyebrows. It's fascinating to watch, upside down. "And no, you can't count the times you were injured or had the flu."

Tony shrugs. "Then I don't know, I don't remember."

No work at all? Maybe never, because even when he was with Pepper, he still checked his emails and remotely consulted for the Santiago Shatterdome that time they spent a few days in the Barbados. He knows Pepper had been disappointed about it too, that it had hurt their relationship, but back then he'd felt that the consult was important and that he was the only one qualified to do it. Maybe he'd do things differently now, knowing what he was about to lose.

"Well that's why, that's the reason you need a vacation," Steve says with a small smile.

"I don't want to take a vacation," Tony says with feeling. What if a category four gets out of the breach and attacks? His place is here, ready to arm and repair the Jaegers.

"I don't know, maybe we could go, you know… there's this place in Minnesota where…"

Tony blinks at Steve, who doesn't usually stutter like that, and wonders if he had too much to drink too. It happens so rarely, but Steve's cheeks are as pink as Jane's, so who knows. The moment is broken when Bucky all but jumps on Steve's back with a cackle, then throws an arm around his broad, broad shoulders.

"What are you talking about, Squirt?" Bucky asks.

Tony can't stand that nickname, by the way. Okay, it's true, Steve was a sickly child before puberty did wonders for him, Tony has seen the pictures. But Bucky could stop calling him squirt now that his buddy is twice his size. It's ridiculous, and he probably uses it just to rub in everyone's face that he's known Steve forever.

Steve laughs, leaning into Bucky's touch. It's bad for Tony's insides, he's always been jealous of the affectionate ease those two have.

"I was telling Tony about the place in Minnesota?"

"The fishing cabin? Oh, yeah, we should go there soon! It's been forever, I miss it."

Weirdly, Steve doesn't sound so hot at the idea, squirming a little and blushing even more.

"I meant that maybe –"

Bucky cuts over him with a heavy sigh. "Man, I miss that old lady at the diner. She looked just like my aunt Emma. Remember aunt Emma? I think you met her once."

Steve smiles softly. "Not so sure, but yeah, Doris at the diner is great. We should go see her, then."

Tony abruptly stands up, plastering a smile to hide how much he wants to get away. He's crushing on Steve big time, he learned to accept the fact that it was a lost cause a long time ago, but he doesn't have to subject himself to the torture of hearing Steve plan his next getaway with his… his Bucky. Those two are so close, they get compatibility results off the charts, beating even Thor and Loki who have a well documented co-dependent relationship.

"I'll leave you guys to your planning, then!" he says fake-joyfully, then salutes the pretty brunette who's been making eyes at him from the next table over since he sat down, or at least until Steve showed up. Tony might not be a pilot anymore nor a perfect embodiment of masculinity, but this war against the Kaijus made him the richest man in the world and that gets him laid too.

"What do you say, dear?" he asks her, as she tucks a long strand of hair behind her ear. "Want to dance?"

"I sure do!" she replies with a smirk, taking his hand to lead him towards the dance floor, hips swaying. Nice.

"See? Told you. Can we go to bed now?" Tony hears Bucky say before the music drowns all conversations from the table, which is clearly for the best.

"What's your name?" Tony shouts as the woman pulls him deeper and deeper on the dance floor.

She turns and loops her arms around his neck. "Mandy!" she answers with a smile. "I've heard you're quite the dancer, Mr. Stark. Care to show me your best moves?"

He laughs as they start dancing. "It's the plan! And please, call me Tony."

Mandy grins. "Sure thing."

Okay, so maybe he's feeling the need for a little companionship after all. Mind made, Tony draws Mandy closer and gives into the rhythm.

**

"What the hell?" Bruce exclaims, as the alarms blare in the hangar.

"JARVIS?" Tony asks, diving towards the closest terminal.

"A category four Kaiju has been detected, Sir. It's 90 miles off the coast at this point, closing in rapidly."

"That makes no sense," Bruce says as they hurry towards mission control. "There should not have been an attack for at least a week!"

"I know," Tony says, flipping screens on his tablet and looking at the emergence stats.

This sudden attack breaks the pattern, big time. The data from the fourteen years since the Kaijus first showed up helps predict at what side of the Breach the beasts will appear and when, or close enough. They may rely on that a little too much, Tony muses, because they had felt confident they'd be safe sending Ragnarok Awaits to the Seattle Dome as a backup since the Storm sibling's Jaeger has sustained heavy damage. With Thor and Loki gone, it leaves them with only Archer Delta in perfect condition, Blue Eagle missing a couple of important metal plates on its back that are being installed as they speak, and a pilot team so new that they first Bridged – and only for some tests in the hangar – two days ago.

Tony sends several messages asking the crew to focus on patching up Blue Eagle ASAP while Bucky and Steve suit up, but it's going to be close. LOCCENT is even more of a mad house than usual when they run in, Fury barking orders while Coulson keeps talking in his comms, probably briefing the pilots.

"What's this?" Fury shouts when he sees Bruce, gesturing to the radar screens.

"An anomaly! It was totally unpredictable with current data," Bruce answers, jaw set. He almost shoves a technician out of the way to get to scroll through the info that is coming in. Jane appears immediately after, mouth a thin line, and they start crunching numbers.

"He's right," Tony adds, because Fury tends to lay blame on the science team when he's agitated. "There's no way to know why it happened, not at this point."

Fury throws him a look, but quickly focuses on what's important. "What can we work with? There's no time for a Jaeger from Acapulco to fly in."

"There's only one Kaiju, it shouldn't be a problem for Archer Delta."

Coulson chimes in. "Romanoff and Barton are suited up, and Archer Delta is being anchored for liftoff as we speak."

"We'll take care of this one," Natasha adds on comms, followed by Clint's voice. "No problem there."

Fury insists. "You know protocol, Stark: two Jaegers out, one in backup. Are Rhodes and Potts ready for first line?"

The idea of sending Rhodey and Pepper out to fight when they didn't finish basic tests on their Jaeger makes Tony nervous. What if there's a bug and they can't defend themselves properly?

"We haven't done armament tests, yet," Tony says, but right then a message flashes on his tablet, announcing that the repairs on Blue Eagle are finished.

A technician re-routes Steve on speaker. "Blue Eagle is ready for battle, Sir. The crew pulled it off, once again. Requesting the all clear to exit the Dome and join Archer Delta."

A heady sense of relief overcomes Tony, because there is no denying the importance of experience in those situations. He'd prefer to check up on the work done on Blue Eagle himself, but his engineers are the best. He trained them, after all.

Tony raises his tablet to face Fury. "Says here that all is good."

"All clear, then," Fury says. "Blue Eagle will join Archer Delta and…. Was the new Jaeger ever named? Why doesn't it have a name?"

Well that's a very good question, and Tony's been having arguments with Pepper and Rhodey about it for weeks. He had awesome ideas like War Machine or something with Rescue, but they both insisted that they'd know its name once they tried it.

"It's Silver Fox, Sir," comes Peppers voice. "And we're ready for first line if needs to be, all systems are green."

"Copy that, Silver Fox," Fury acknowledges. "For today I want you to hold the five mile line, and wait for further orders."

Tony tunes out the chitchat to focus on the data flowing as the Neural Handshake links Rhodey and Pepper, and then as Silver Fox is towed out. Everything is going well, and when they are dropped at the five miles line, they land will aplomb and straighten up, silver and copper silhouette gleaming in the sun. SF has an impressive number of cannons, the biggest mounted on the shoulders, and a chest plasma ray that should be mighty efficient. The overall look is intimidating but sleek, which Tony thinks fits his friends really well. Even though Archer Delta and Blue Eagle should dispatch the Kaiju without need of assistance, Tony keeps in constant communication with Rhodey and Pepper while arming the weapons. It's a good opportunity for tests, after all.

He's looking at the buildup output for the plasma ray cannon when there is a collective gasp around him, followed by shouting and cursing. Eyes immediately drawn to the monitors, Tony sees that the Kaiju, even if it has taken a pummeling, has somehow managed to destroy Archer Delta's right leg and the Jaeger is falling sideways in the ocean. Blue Eagle immediately leaps in between the two, which saves Archer Delta from a nasty blow. The Kaiju, that has by now been named Bitterbeak, twists and focuses on Blue Eagle, throwing his heavy tail with a ball full of spikes in its direction. Fortunately Steve's agility transfers surprisingly well in the way BE moves, so they avoid the hit.

Mission Control is filled by people shouting, from Fury ordering Silver Fox to start an approach to Natasha who's swearing up a storm on comms (pretty creatively, too, judging by the little Russian Tony knows). Tony sets his ear piece to relay all crews plus Coulson and Fury, and can only helplessly witness how the situation becomes very fast even more of a clusterfuck.

Archer Delta has managed to kneel on the ocean's floor, but can't shoot because Blue Eagle is in between them and the resilient Kaiju. Both Bucky and Steve have the strongest fighting moves when they have a certain distance to work with; Bucky is great with weapons of precision while Steve has perfected throwing objects over the years. They are impressive at close combat, too, especially because of Steve's technique, but never as good as Archer Delta. Right now, they have their arms full with Bitterbeak who is clinging to the Jaeger, using claws and spikes that it sticks in the joints of BE in hope to disable it.

"Fucking piece of shit!" Bucky is yelling. "Let's-"

Tony hears the sound of metal tearing in the comms link as he witnesses the Kaiju puncture the armor right in the Conn-Pod. There's more yelling as the displays go wild, showing severe malfunctions and then the thing that no one wants to see: Bucky is forcefully disconnected from the Drift and ejected from the Jaeger, falling down into the ocean.

"Bucky! Bucky, no!" Steve is screaming with absolute heartbreak, making Tony's heart twist violently in his chest.

Made half crazy by shock – god, Tony is shaking too, sees Howard dying by his side, the blood, the terror - Steve disconnects himself from Blue Eagle and, before anyone can reason him, he's jumping after Bucky.

Heart pounding in his ears, Tony barely can follow the action as Coulson orders Archer Delta to fire everything, Blue Eagle being useless. Meanwhile Silver Fox is running towards the fight, guns blazing. A lot dazed, Tony feels himself detach from what is going on, sitting down on a chair. Bucky and Steve are all but gone after that high of a fall, though Jane is screaming for chopper rescue. On the screens, Silver Fox is gorgeous as it charges, efficient and deadly. If he could feel something, Tony would be proud to see how his best friends are naturals at this, how fantastic a team they already are.

His brain keeps a bit of efficiency - and by that he means that he manages to stay mostly lucid - until Bitterbeak dies, but after that Tony zones completely out, falling down into the poor excuse of a Drift his mind conjures when the PTSD episodes are at their worst.

**

Tony can't stand the pale green on the walls of the infirmary. The room is too small, and filled with equipment that he has never bothered to learn about, so maybe they don't help as much as they should. But most of all, he hates how pale and unmoving Steve is on the bed, hooked up with an IV and a heart monitor (at least that one shows Steve's heart is steady).

"You need to wake up, you asshole," Tony tells him, but the rhythm stays the same, no sign that he's being heard. "We need you."

Due to the quick intervention by the search and rescue team, both Steve and Bucky had been fished out of the water in time. It had been a close call, with Bucky almost bleeding to death and Steve who'd been hit on the head and all but drowned by the time help got to them. That they hadn't both died from the fall alone was a miracle.

It's been a week and Steve is not showing any sign that he'll get out of his coma anytime soon. Tony hasn't been able to sleep much since the accident, his nightmares worse than they've been in years, but the medic team has been really patient with him, letting him come and visit Steve at all hours of the day and night when he takes a break from working.

He expects a nurse when the door opens, but it's Bucky, pulling his drip after him with his good hand – his only hand. Shit. The doctors had tried to save his left arm, but it had been too damaged by the Kaiju's acid; amputation at the shoulder had been the only way to save the guy. Bucky narrows his eyes slightly when he sees Tony in the room, but it's more in confusion than annoyance.

"Stark," he says with a nod.

"Barnes," Tony replies, wondering if Bucky would be insulted if he offered his chair. It would be the right thing to do, Bucky looks pretty tired, but they've never been nice to one another and starting now would make Bucky think he pities the invalid. He might not like the guy, but he respects his pride.

"How is he?" Bucky asks.

"Nothing new," Tony says with a shrug. He glares at the monitors, tries to will them to change.

"You've been here a lot," Bucky says after a couple of minutes of awkward silence where all they did was watch Steve breathe like creeps.

Tony gets defensive. "He's my friend too!"

"I know, I know." Bucky sighs before he continues. "It's just… if he knew he might get the wrong idea."

Just as Tony starts to turn to ask Bucky what the hell that is supposed to mean, he catches a minute movement in Steve's eyebrows and the way the cadence of his pulse speeds up lightly. Could it be? He dares to touch Steve's forearm.

"Hey, sleeping beauty! Wake up!" Tony says softly as Bucky hurries closer to the bed.

"Steve? Come on, man!" Bucky urges.

Seeing Steve's eyes open up, even if their blue is clouded and a bit dazed, is one of the most beautiful things Tony has ever seen. The soft smile that follows is even better.

"Tony?"

"Yeah, there you are!" Tony coos, smiling so hard his cheeks hurt.

"Finally!" Bucky says, gripping Steve's hand tightly, who immediately focuses on him.

"Hey!" he says, smile widening. It's clear as day when reality slams into Steve because he tenses all over, eyes going wild, searching his partner's face. The heart monitor is pinging like crazy. "Oh shit, Bucky! You were gone, you fell –"

Tony pushes away from them to give Bucky more space to sit on the bed near Steve's hip. He's laughing, still gripping Steve's hand.

"And you stupid jackass came after me. I know, I was there! You almost got yourself killed in the process by the way!"

Steve gets a light shove with that but he's laughing, but also crying at the same time and Tony feels like he's intruding on something too private to be seen, he needs to get out of here.

"Thank god you're okay," Steve is saying now, and Tony doesn't want to see when he realizes Bucky lost an arm.

"Gotta go, work to do! Get better soon okay? Okay!" Tony babbles, grabbing his tablet and it's slightly mortifying that he all but runs away (though he's not sure anyone notices).

***

The bi-monthly strategic meeting is coming to a close and Tony can't stop his leg from jumping under the table, anxious to finally talk about the Iron Man armor. It's been his secret baby for months, but he needs to do test flights and it can't be done without Coulson hearing about it. Therefore Tony needs official approval, though he's already decided that if he doesn't get it, he'll have to leave the Shatterdome. It would be a last resort, this place has been his home for fourteen years and people count on him, but he needs to get it done.

"What's up with you?" Pepper murmurs to his right, putting a hand on his leg.

Tony stops the bouncing with a dismissive wave, but after a second he starts hitting the arm of his chair with his stylus. God, do they really have to be briefed on the status of the food supplies? So much time wasted. Tony hates meetings.

"So that brings us to number twelve, requested by Stark to be penned in as 'item to be discussed'."

Finally!

"Yes, yes, thank you Ranger Coulson," Tony says, all but jumping up.

"Since when does Tony put something on the agenda instead of just blurting it out whenever he wants?" Clint asks.

There are a couple of laughs and it somehow breaks the tension for Tony, who grins at Clint.

"When it's something big, obviously," he replies with an eyebrow waggle.

Loki, who up until then was sprawled in his chair in a study of complete nonchalance, sits a little straighter, now interested. "A new weapon?"

Tony winks at him. "You know me so well, darling."

He gets a smirk in return, and for a second Tony reminisces about the hot sex they used to have. It's was a long time ago, back when Thor and Loki joined the Dome and Tony was seventeen and eager, fascinated by Loki's presence. It hadn't worked for long, but it had been memorable.

"What kind of weapon?" Fury asks. "The electric whip blueprints that got forwarded to me yesterday?"

Natasha perks up at that (Tony expected nothing less).

"No, something else. It would be better if I showed you."

If Fury rolled his eye any harder, he'd sprain his neck. "Come on, Stark, just tell us."

Tony has a hologram presentation ready that he could do right in this very room, but he does love a good show and tell. The armor is also a lot more impressive in person.

"We're done here, no?" he asks. "So let's just go to my lab, it's two stories down."

"I don't have time for this!" Fury says, gathering his tablet and mug.

"Fine, I'll show whomever wants to come down. I'm sure you'll hear of it later." Tony takes his own stuff and goes for the door, and as expected everyone follows, even though there's a bit of grumbling for show.

Say what you want, Tony's gadgets and weapons are the best there are and it's a little bit like Christmas every time he puts out something new.

"What have you done again?" Rhodey whispers as he hurries to his side. "Why didn't you tell me? Is it for Silver Fox?"

Tony laughs. "Sorry, muffin, no. I've been working on that one for a long time. It's for me."

"For you?" Steve asks, and Tony hadn't realized he was so close behind.

"Yeah," Tony says with a smile; Steve's confused face is adorable. "Just wait and see."

As he thought, even Fury came down even though he looks aggravated. Tony makes JARVIS light a line for everyone to stand behind and goes to the pad where he's going to suit up.

"As you all know, back when the Kaiju first appeared we tried to fight them with fighter planes, tanks and all those conventional methods. It failed. Our weapons were too weak and not maneuverable or instinctive enough. My father and his peers came up with the Jaegers, which made everything bigger and evened the chances without having to use nukes. The problem is that they need two pilots, and when…" his voice does not crack, but he has to clear his throat to continue, and he avoids looking in Steve and Bucky's direction. "When something bad happens to one, the whole system and the billion of dollars it represents turns into a giant metal sculpture."

Tony takes a big breath and hopes he's going to be able to sell this. "Instead of bigger and bigger, I thought of a different approach. Let's complement the big bad Jaegers with something small in support, but more powerful than the conventional fighter planes ever were. One pilot, assisted by the best artificial intelligence system to have ever existed."

"Thank you for the compliment, Sir." JARVIS says over comms, making more than one person smile.

"I do not see a weapon fitting this description in here," Thor says.

His usual worktables, mess and the bots have all been pushed to the back of the lab to make more room for his audience. The armor is hidden under the floor, ready to be deployed.

"Oh, it's here alright." Tony gets in position and raises his arms. "JARVIS, work your magic."

The floor moves and the assembling bots get to work: he is suited up in exactly 23 seconds – he's timed it. All the while he basks in the amazed expression on every face in the lab, save from Coulson and Fury who both keep their poker face and Loki with his usual smirk. Then the helmet is in place, the facemask closes and the data starts streaming as JARVIS connects directly in Tony's neural system. The armor has been developed with the same technology that's used for drifting, but Tony now shares his mind with the cool and rational presence of JARVIS instead of a person, devoid of any input resembling emotions. Initially Tony had built the Iron Man as a remote controlled device, where the pilot stayed on base, but it turned more practical – and more fun – to make it into a one-man armor instead.

JARVIS he prompts with his mind, Give them the run-down.

Tony takes a few steps while JARVIS starts spouting the armor's specs, detailing everything from speed to weapons. He hovers around a little, as stable as he can do it – he did practice – and when the hand repulsors are mentioned he fires at a pre-determined target.

Show done, Tony gets back in position and speaks out of the suit, knowing it gives his voice a synthetic tone. "I want to take it out for test flights."

"Why is it the first time I'm hearing about this?" Fury asks, walking closer.

"Because I'm not a Ranger, so I don't report to you. This is a personal project, made on my time, funded by me. I'm finished now and I want to fight the Kaijus."

"They are immense beasts! You'll be all but a fly around them, easily crushed," Fury argues while miming a finger that gets swapped away.

"That's if they catch me, which they won't," Tony replies, leaning forward and enjoying how Fury leans back a tiny fraction of an inch. He knows, the suit measured it.

"Open this," Fury says, flicking the faceplate; Tony complies begrudgingly, opening the helmet. "If they do get you, we lose our Head of Science."

Of course. Fury's always thinking about what is worth more for the Dome, and Tony's main contribution is to maintain and improve the Jaegers.

"If you don't want me and the armor here, I'll find a Shatterdome that does," Tony says, fixing Fury's only eye, jaw set. "And I'm taking JARVIS with me, by the way."

It's not a bluff, and Fury knows it instantly. "Stark…"

"Look, I'll still do the rest of my job. I just want to go out there and fight too."

One day, Tony will manage to make Fury's eye pop out in rage. By the looks of it, he's not that far from that goal.

"I want Banner to give me his opinion on that thing's safety first. If he has concerns, we need to talk about them."

"Deal," Tony agrees. Frankly, it's less of a fight than he'd expected.

Agreement reached, Fury does an about-turn and stalks off, leather jacket floating behind him. Coulson gives Tony a long speculating look and follows. When both are gone, the others come closer.

Their fascination is heady, and surprisingly it's Bucky who dares to touch the armor first. He trails his finger down an arm, and it's not rocket science to guess what he's thinking.

"I wanted to offer to make you something, but I didn't know how to breach the subject," Tony blurts out.

It's true, he even has several designs in progress. To be honest, Tony was afraid he'd get punched in the face if he offered Bucky to make a prosthetic. Surprisingly, Bucky only raises an eyebrow, amused.

"Really?" And is this a Bucky smile? Directed at him?

Tony smiles back. "Yeah. JARVIS could show you?" he says, gesturing to the right where a hologram display appears.

Bucky blinks and then Tony gets a full out grin. It makes Tony feel really good, especially when Steve, who was staying slightly back with his arms crossed and a faintly constipated look on his face (a very disappointing reaction to the armor's awesomeness, in fact), shoots Tony a grateful smile as the pair move towards the holograms to examine them further.

"Holy shit, Tones, this is awesome!" Rhodey is saying with almost anime stars in his eyes.

"Truly, it is very impressive," Thor adds, walking around the armor.

"Thanks, I like it too," Tony says.

"How long have you been working on this?" Pepper asks, eyes narrowed. And shit, yeah, he didn't want to bring up that he had very secret projects when they were dating.

"A while? A couple of hours here and there," Tony says.

"You mean a couple of hours a day at least," Jane says. "What's the energy source?" she asks, tapping on the chest plate where the reactor glows.

"I miniaturized the ARC reactor. I have a prototype intended for our next Jaeger, too, or to replace Ragnarok Awaits' power source that has been unreliable lately. They've got the hammer, maybe they could have simulated lightning too."

Jane's jaw drops. "Specs, I want specs!"

Tony laughs, and gestures her to the left, where another display appears. Loki follows her, obviously intrigued.

"You heard Fury, I'll need to check this out in details," Bruce his saying. "Can you get it off easily?"

"Sure thing. Everyone stand back, please?"

The dismantlement goes easy, bots whirring and unbolting while he's unwrapped, starting from the legs and working up towards the helmet.

"That is so very cool," Clint says, which is the reaction everyone should have.

"Not bad," Natasha agrees.

As the bots align the armor parts on the ground for an easier inspection, Tony severs the neural connection with JARVIS, equations, displays and numbers fading from his mind. He feels great, energized even, and the usual headache after the share is just a tiny throb compared to when they'd done the intensive testing in the last few days.

Soon JARVIS and him will get to fly, they just have to be a little patient.

***

"Hold your fire, Silver Fox, I'm going for the eyes," Tony says, banking a sharp right to loop around the Kaiju's head.

"Roger that," Rhodey says.

It's their fourth outing together and they've developed a system that so far is pretty successful. Tony annoys the Kaijus by buzzing around them like the fly Fury accused he'd be – personally he prefers thinking in terms of being a wasp – while the Jaegers do the heavy hitting. After a few passes and an analysis by JARVIS, they map the most vulnerable parts of the beast they are fighting and Tony does surgical strikes. Eyes are generally the safest bet, but it's also the riskiest move because it puts him really close to very sharp teeth or gallons of acid. The armor's plating is a lot thinner than the Jaegers', he can't sustain as much direct abuse.

The category four known as Kyouteki has big black eyes in a truly horrific shark-looking face. With JARVIS' assistance, Tony focuses on diverting all available energy towards the chest piece, powering up the laser. Kyouteki roars and shakes its head, knowing Iron Man can sting, as proven by the new scar on the side of its face.

"Watch out for the tail, Tony!" comes Steve's voice over coms. Without even taking aim, he flies Iron Man right up in the air, out of reach, barely missing getting hit.

Steve's been more and more involved in LOCCENT since the accident, to Coulson's delight. It's always been obvious that Steve has a great tactical mind just by seeing Blue Eagle fight, and now he does great coordinating the outings of the Shatterdome's three remaining Jaegers. There have been talks to find a replacement for Bucky so Steve could go back in the field with BE, but he categorically refused, saying he'd drift again when Bucky would be back and not before. It's against protocol to have someone who's been as badly injured as Bucky back in a Jaeger – a high risk of flashbacks on top of the physical limitations - but if there is a way to change the rule book, it might be through the combined pig headedness of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.

The addition of the Iron Man armor to the Shatterdome's defense has changed the fighting patterns. Tony instinctively works better in close collaboration with Pepper and Rhodey, which is not surprising since JARVIS has established the three of them freakily drift compatible. Silver Fox has been first line three times in a row, now, and Steve's taken to give directions to them as a single unit. Tony listens to him… most of the time. If Steve gives a warning to watch out for Kyouteki's tail, it's because he's in real danger of being swiped.

JARVIS immediately focuses some sensors to monitor Kyouteki's tail more closely, adding a new window in the display lighting up in his brain. The added data into his already crowded awareness makes a sharp stab of pain bloom in Tony's head. Immediately several displays dedicated to flight disappear.

What the fuck are you doing, JARVIS?

I can take care of the flying, Sir

Since when do you close systems I didn't ask you to shut down?

I detected pain in the inferior temporal gyrus, Sir. I'm alleviating the charge to your brain.

I told you that pain is a relative concept, very human. I can take it.

If it's so normal and benign, then the command to lighten the displays to a minimum for Doctor Banner during the control tests and to hide the information documenting that you have had negative physical effects to extreme data processing makes no sense.

Quit the passive-aggressiveness, JARVIS. I can deal with a little headache.

I have studied drifting patterns between Miss Potts and Ranger Rhodes and our link as currently designed makes you process at least four hundred percent more -

I know, I know! Look, I brag a lot, but I DO have a superior mental capacity than lots of my peers.

I am aware, Sir, having analyzed some data from outings with Mr. Stark Senior.

You what?

Data control was needed, and it did prove that the neural exchange between you and your father doubled what is observed in Silver Fox.

There you go. I can take it, I told you. Open those windows again.

The pain is very real when JARVIS obeys, but Tony grits his teeth and endures. He'll get used to it, it's like a mental exercise. During the whole exchange he just had with JARVIS - that maybe took seven seconds tops - he hovered twenty meters above the fight between Silver Fox and Kyouteki. On their right, Archer Delta has almost gone through their Kaiju and Ragnarok Awaits is holding the five miles line, walking back and forth on it like a lion in a cage. They just received the modified ARC core, and Tony can see the Jaeger weave lightning-like beams of energy between its fingers. It must kill the Odinson brothers to stay behind right now.

A seven seconds pause is enough of a lull that Steve asks questions. "Status, Iron Man."

"All green, just waiting for a good opening. Hey, there we go! Going back in, Silver Fox, avoid blows to the head for a bit," Tony replies.

"Got it," Pepper says. "Go get him, we've got your back." Tony loves how she doesn't bother with codified speak.

"Thanks, honey, never doubted you."

Tony dives in, goes directly for the eye with both hands extended to fire at full blast when in reach, aiming for maximum damage. The repulsor charge hits the Kaiju's eye exactly as expected, visibly causing trauma, but Kyouteki jerks rapidly in his direction instead of leaning away from the pain, forcing Tony and JARVIS into an extreme avoiding maneuver. The move fall a little bit short and their legs are clipped by Kyouteki's acid-covered jaw. Immediately several red alarm windows appear to list the damages and Tony yells in pain as if a knife has sliced through his head. It hurts so much that he can't tell if there's something wrong with his legs at all. On top there's a lot of noise and yelling – JARVIS-Rhodey-JARVIS-Pepper-JARVIS- Steve-JARVIS-Bruce –, which doesn't help.

Fortunately JARVIS can fly the suit without his input, as long as he stays conscious and relatively aware. He stabilizes the rapid barrel roll towards the ocean, though they plunge in the water to wash the acid away as much as possible. Kaiju acid and water is a truly terrible mix, heating up rapidly, but the speed at which they slice through the ocean dilutes the slimy mix rapidly and they soon emerge pretty much gunk free, going straight towards the Shatterdome. At this point, Tony is mostly hanging on, even though he's laughing like a maniac, saying he's fine over and over again so the voices will stop. Adrenaline is a truly wonderful drug.

***

Bruce is at the disassembly platform, vibrating with worry and wiping his glasses over and over again on his shirt as the bots do their work. It's longer than usual with the legs because some parts have melted together, but it's going relatively well. Tony still feels nothing wrong with them, his headache being the worst of his problems. Thankfully it's not as bad as earlier because JARVIS has cut the feed from most systems, basically retreating from the drift.

"JARVIS, give me a complete rundown," Bruce asks.

Tony sees a med team with their kit near the platform, ready to intervene.

"No need to panic, I'm fine!" Tony says, though he winces at the slight slur in his speech that can be heard even with the voice processor.

"You shut up!" Bruce shouts, pointing a finger at the mask. "JARVIS, how are the legs?"

Fortunately the damage is mainly to the armor that absorbed the shock. A negligible amount of acid has infiltrated the right knee joint, but Mr. Stark's inner flight suit is acid-resistant and nothing has reached the skin. There are several contusions but no fracture –

Bruce's shoulders sag in relief.

"See? I'm perfectly okay," Tony crows.

I do recommend that Mr. Stark be brought immediately to the medical facility to treat an extensive trauma to the brain, the traitor adds, and the fucker has timed his little quirk with the helmet being taken away, which means Tony sees the horror dawning on Bruce's face with no filter.

"Holy fucking shit!" Bruce says, launching himself at Tony who, now without any support from bots taking the armor away, falls to his knees.

Tony snorts at the dramatic betrayal of his body. "What? I'm fine, just give me a second. It's the adrenaline dropping."

Bruce shoots him an almost murderous look, wipes the cuff of his lab coat under Tony's nose, and then raises it to eye level. It's bright red, soaked with blood.

"Yeah? Then why are you bleeding from the nose, eyes and the ears, you jackass?"

"Oh," is the only thing Tony manages to say before the medics surround him.

Totally busted, then. Tony stops working so hard to appear okay and goes limp in Bruce's arms, exhausted.

**

The list of people that tear Tony a new one while he's confined to his hospital bed? Is pretty long.

Pepper and Rhodey are first in line. Tony hates making Pepper cry, and it's more effective in guilt tripping him than the speech about responsibility and the lack of thereof given by Fury a bit later. Natasha barely says anything at all, but her face makes it clear that she'd beat him up if he weren't already down. Maybe it's going to happen later, when he's discharged – it's silently implied.

"Sucks to be you," Clint says when he follows her out, though he gives Tony's shin a little squeeze in passing. "We're happy you're not dead."

"Thanks." Tony smiles as he leaves. "Let's keep it that way, yeah? Calm her down, please?"

Thor brings him chocolate, exalting how courageous his battle against Kyouteki was, but he's with Loki who insults his intelligence, which balances that visit up. Bruce and Jane do come over to ask questions and insult him some more, but they are overworked with running the science division in his absence, so it's never too long. Tony made the mistake early on to ask for his tablet to help, but Bruce almost had a stroke right then and there.

In short, Tony is grounded for the foreseeable future and suffers through a series of specialists doing scans of his brain and inflecting on him various boring tests to try to evaluate the extent of the damage he's done to himself while drifting with JARVIS. He was pretty doped up at first, but once the painkillers wore off he felt absolutely fine so having to stay in this stupid room with nothing to do is pure torture. He's so bored that he welcomes the visits, even though they are mostly to tell him how much of a moron he was to hide that drifting with JARVIS had bad side effects.

One visit that he didn't expect is Bucky, who after three days storms in his room as if he's absolutely aggravated to be there.

"Huh, hi?" Tony says, unsure.

At first Bucky doesn't say anything, glaring hard. After a couple of seconds he flails a little – the artificial arm Tony designed moves so smoothly you'd swear it was natural if it wasn't brushed metal – and fishes something from his pocket only to throw it on the bed.

"You are such an asshole, Stark. Such a fucking asshole. Everyone should hate you," he says harshly, before storming off.

Okay, so that was weird. On the other hand Bucky brought him his fucking phone and Tony almost weeps with joy, clutching the device to his heart.

"I knew you loved me!" Tony shouts after Bucky, though he's pretty sure the man is by now too far to hear it.

There is a notable absence in his visitors, though: Steve. Not once does he come over and it's clear that Tony pissed the man off royally if he can't even do judging and disappointed faces in his direction. A man who endangers the whole Dome with lies doesn't deserve Steve's company, anyway.

It's therefore a surprise when Tony jolts out of a nightmare – blood, blood, so much blood, Dad, no, please don't leave me! – to see Steve asleep in the visitor's chair. He's got his arms crossed and his head bowed down uncomfortable towards his chest, while he breathes in and out slowly. When Tony discreetly checks his phone, that he generally hides under his pillow – it will have to be pried from his cold dead hands – it's 0300.

For long minutes Tony drinks in the sight - the occasions to stare openly are rare after all. With the down-tilt of his head it's hard to see Steve's features, but the way his long eyelashes fan over his cheeks is unreal. He's per usual dressed in fatigue pants and a plain t-shirt, but the way he fills them is almost indecent. Tony would let him sleep, but Steve's heading towards a serious crick in the neck if he stays like this too long.

"Hey, sleepyhead," Tony murmurs, with a gentle nudge to Steve's knee.

Steve snorts awake, which shouldn't be as cute as it is. He blinks at Tony, momentarily confused.

"Go to bed, you big lug," Tony says. "We'll do a take two on your first visit to my sick bed in daytime hours, okay?" He hopes the 'please come back' is implied enough.

After a full body stretch – dear god, why does his t-shirt have to ride up to reveal a blond happy trail? Tony doesn't need this torture – Steve rubs his face with his broad hands, willing the sleepiness away.

"Not my first visit," he mumbles, voice scratchy with sleep.

That's a surprise. "I must have missed you, then. Though I've been here all week."

Steve huffs. "I came while you slept because I couldn't deal with you yet."

Okay, so that's harsh.

"I see," Tony says, hurt. "I'll let you go, then. Feel free to come back while I am unconscious, I don't mind. It's not creepy at all."

"Was it creepy when you watched over me?" Steve asks, with a head tilt.

If Tony still had the ability to blush, he would do so right now. "It's not the same, you were in a coma. I couldn't come over when you were awake at all, I had to make do."

Steve sighs, rubbing the back of his hand on his mouth. He fixes the unhelpful brain wave monitor before he speaks again.

"You could have died."

"I didn't."

That earns him a glare. "You lied about the suit and - You. Could. Have. Died."

The over-enunciation is a little bit much, though Steve really seems worked up now, all traces of sleep gone.

"I should not have done that, I know. Everyone told me. I was sure I could handle it, okay? I had no idea it could get so bad," Tony says. He's pissed, too.

"It's like you don't care – " Steve starts.

"I care!" Tony shouts. "I care for the Dome, for everyone here. That's why I wanted to help more! Don't you dare say I don't care."

"That's not what I mean!" Steve says, speaking loudly too.

"Shut up, we're trying to sleep here!" a voice floats from the corridor, which makes them both clamp up, glaring at each other.

After a minute Steve deflates. "Jesus Christ, Tony," he says, as if Tony is the worst burden he's ever had to bear in his life.

"I'm sorry," Tony says, though it's for being a disappointment. Not for lying because he doesn't regret fighting in the suit: while it worked well it was the best feeling he's ever experienced in his life.

"You know you're grounded, right?" Steve asks.

"It was made very clear. But I'll fix what's wrong." Tony already has several ideas to test.

Steve looks horrified. "You can't drift with JARVIS ever again, Tony. Don't even joke about that."

"What are you talking about? It's just a question of limiting the data transfer. I can do it."

"But… dammit, Tony!" Steve grits between his teeth, mindful of the poor souls trying to sleep in the next rooms.

"I don't get why you're so surprised by that?" Tony asks. "Of course I'll try to fix it, fixing stuff is what I do!"

"I've seen the results of your brain scans. Bruce and Jane both looked at them over and over again. One more incident and you are at high risk of a devastating aneurysm. That can't be fixed, Tony."

Tony chooses not to tell Steve that the only way that the possible aneurysm could be something he'd be too afraid to risk was if he was told it wouldn't kill him, but would cause severe brain damage. He has a feeling Steve would not appreciate that reasoning.

"I'll be careful. Anyway, it's my research." My toy, my money, he doesn't add because he'd sound like a six years old.

Steve crosses his arms again, sitting back. His face goes from pissed to closed off.

"You'd leave, if we don't let you? Like you said you'd leave if Fury didn't give you the all-clear to test the armor in the first place?"

The question leaves Tony off balance. He was serious when he'd said that to Fury, weeks ago, but he's not sure what he'd do now.

"Maybe." Steve flinches minutely, which Tony hates. "No. I don't know! It's not like I want to leave! This is my home, I've lived here since I was twelve fucking years old." He loves this place, loves the people too. Leaving his Jaegers – they are his babies, okay? He built Silver Fox from the blueprints – and his friends would be the worst possible scenarios. "Anyway, I wouldn't leave you guys hanging or anything. I'd find a terrific replacement for the science team. After a couple of weeks, everyone would be glad to be rid of me."

Gradually Steve has lost his blank mask to openly gape at Tony.

"Wha-" he stops, shakes his head. "No. We would not, you asshole. I just- " he throws his hands in the air, a lot like Bucky had done a couple of days ago. "I can't… I have to go. You're an idiot, Tony Stark. Some days I wonder why I like you."

With that Steve leaves, still shaking his head. Tony has a feeling he's missing something big.

**

With only his phone to use as an interface, Tony can't work on his projects as much as he wishes he could. The technology is also limited when he tries to overview the Jaeger repairs in progress, since it doesn't have the right displays built in to interrogate the system (he programs something to make do, but it's a pain in the ass with the tiny keyboard and the result offends his aesthetic sensibilities). On top, JARVIS is blocking absolutely everything that has to do with the Iron Man armor from his personal server. From the look of things, Tony will have to update JARVIS' code, because an Artificial Intelligence able to make decisions is one thing, but refusing compliance to direct commands from his programmer is another. A nurse did bring Tony pens and a notebook, so he's been jolting down ideas old school to pass time.

It's obvious that this forced downtime is some kind of punishment to make Tony think about how irresponsible he was, and not just for the 'rest' he supposedly needs. He feels fine now, and he probably slept more in the last week than he had in the last two months combined. Unable to tinker with his toys – the nurse sure didn't find funny that he'd broken down the heart monitor just because he was bored – Tony has fallen back to broader subjects. Like the eternal question of how to close that goddamn portal that spouts out the Kaijus.

Tony's the best of the best where bombs are concerned, so they've tried to shove one in the Breach several times. All those attempts were resounding failures. How do you block a portal? All over the world, scientists have tried to understand the physics of it, first, to try to find a solution. Jane is the California Shatterdome's expert on the subject and without a doubt an authority in the field. The next time she drops by his hospital room, Tony starts interrogating her on her latest portal models.

She fills several pages of Tony's notebook with diagrams and equations as she answers his questions.

"It's so… frustrating! All the sensitive equipment that has been sent to gather data either got damaged by the energy surge when the portal flickers with an emergence, or by the Kaijus themselves."

"I remember some probes with reinforced armor and delayed deployment procedures. Didn't those help?" Tony asks.

"Yes, of course. But it doesn't matter that we managed to replicate opening a portal, we have no idea how to shut down theirs for good," Jane says throwing the pen down on Tony's hospital bed in disgust.

"What? Someone knows how to open portals? I've never heard about that!" Tony exclaims.

Jane's eyes are sparkling. "It's new. Really new."

"You're the one who did it, aren't you?" Tony asks, grinning. When Jane offers her fist, he bumps it with his own. "You're the best, Jane Foster. How was it?"

She flails a little, getting animated. "So very cool! It was a small portal, in a controlled environment, and I am not quite sure where it lead exactly," she says, gesturing as to cover the universe. "But it worked and the probe sent remote data of a place filled with sulfur and dust."

She leans in, intent. "Not a word to anyone, okay? It's top secret, I shouldn't have told you. Fury only just allowed me to break it out to Bruce, and I've got to contact Reed Richards to pursue the tests, if he's interested."

Tony laughs. "Oh, he'll be interested alright, don't worry about it. Does that mean Richards will come over soon?"

"Hopefully. Having a portal of our own to study will certainly help to learn how to disrupt theirs," Jane says.

"Or, you know, to open one in their faces," Tony says.

Jane blinks several times. She then smiles widely before jumping to her feet.

"Tony Stark, you're a genius," she says before running out.

"I already knew that!" he shouts after her.

Wow, their own portals. This has the potential to change everything.

***

Tony is eventually allowed to go back to work, though he's prohibited from tinkering on the Iron Man armor system. Just to shut everyone up - and because he never could refuse Pepper anything - Tony pinky swears to leave it alone for a whole month. There's a lot to do on the actual Jaegers, anyway, so he dives back into that familiar routine. Finding himself back in LOCCENT when the next Kaiju attacks is more difficult that he thought, but Steve stays close and squeezes his shoulder when things get stressful with Silver Fox.

"They're fine, look," he says as Ragnarok Awaits stuns the Kaiju with its hammer, liberating Silver Fox that immediately blasts the beast's head almost off with their shoulder weapons.

"I hate feeling helpless," Tony confesses.

"Don't we all," Bucky says from his other side.

***

"The problem," Jane is explaining at the strategic meeting. "Will be to position OTPOR in a way that will create the mirror portal in exact alignment with the one from the Kaiju's world when it's still opened following an emergence."

"If it so much but deviates from the intended position by one degree, it will cause more harm than good," adds Richards.

Tony's heard most of what's been going on in the portal development from Bruce, who swears he almost tore all of his hair out while they argued on a viable solution. Ever since Tony's heard about the critical importance of placing the device creating their own portal exactly so, several miles under water while dealing with the Kaijus, he hasn't stopped thinking about it.

"I can do it," Tony says. Everyone shuts up and turns to him. "I can bring the portal thing where it needs to be with the armor."

"Are you insane?" Bruce shouts.

"You'll kill yourself, Tony," Pepper adds, looking just as furious. "No, we'll find another solution."

"It would work! I just need to pre-set the amount of data that can flow from JARVIS to me, get it done, then come back!" Tony argues.

"Creating an interface with JARVIS could be too much," Bruce says. "It's a machine and you are not. There is no drift compatibility there, that's why it's dangerous."

"There could be another way," Steve says, almost nonchalantly.

Tony is so pissed off that they don't want to let him take care of this that he snaps, vicious: "Iron Man is THE way."

"I think so too," Steve says, and that shuts Tony right up. "But not with JARVIS. The armor is made with drift tech, but was initially conceived to be remote controlled, right?"

"That's correct, but it needs an occupant the way it's designed now. Me, in fact, I'm the only one who can operate it." Okay, so that could be changed, but not without a lot of modifications Tony is not ready to do.

"Yes, but the armor also needs a second consciousness, therefore why JARVIS comes into play. I got that too?" Steve asks, way too intent. He's up to something and Tony doesn't know what.

"Yes, that's exactly it. There are too many systems to operate for me alone the way it's built right now. Maybe if I changed all of the interfaces, so it became more of a robot I'd pilot, then maybe I could do it alone without the drift. But that would mean a complete overhaul and it would take a while."

"Then do it," Rhodey says. "We can hold off the Kaijus until you modify Iron Man."

Tony is already planning how he'd do just that and how much time it would take when Steve speaks up again.

"Or we replace JARVIS with a drift compatible human, eliminating the risk of overload. No need for big modifications, just an interface for a human that plugs into the system linked to the armor."

The idea is met by a momentary silence before several people start talking at once. Tony's frankly not listening anymore, all of his worries associated with drifting with another person coming back at once. He doesn't like that option, not at all. He comes back to the present when Rhodey touches his arm.

"I could do it. We've known that we'd be drift compatible forever," he says.

If he has to do it, Tony guesses that Rhodey wouldn't be so bad. Plus he'd be in the lab, safe from harm, no chance of being ripped in two by a Kaiju, so maybe –

"That's impossible, not while Blue Eagle is still out of commission," Fury says.

"Then let me pilot again, dammit!" Bucky says, only to be shushed by Natasha.

"We need Silver Fox out there, that's non negotiable," Fury adds.

"Then that leaves me. I'll drift with Tony," Steve says.

Wait, what?

"You?" Fury asks, eyebrows raised.

"I, huh, got confirmation by JARVIS that we could make it work," Steve says, and he has the decency to blush.

"What the hell!" Tony says, getting up. "You asked JARVIS without even running it through me first? Don't I have a say in it this at all?"

"Of course you do," Steve says, raising his hands in a placating gesture. Goddamn Steve with his stupid earnest eyes.

There are too many emotions to process at once – anger, confusion, fear – and Tony needs to regroup.

"I've got to think about this," Tony says, leaving the room and heading for the lab.

He needs to ream JARVIS a new one for not telling him Steve was considering co-piloting the armor.

And maybe he wants to see the results of those drift-compatibility tests with Steve, too (he may be pathetically love-sick enough to find the idea they'd fit romantic).

***

Unsurprisingly for everyone, Steve gets his way. They are very compatible by the standard tests and simulator runs, which made Tony joke that he's everyone's type (because Howard, Rhodey, Pepper and now Steve? That's a lot of people to be in synch with, especially since they are so different from one another). The current theory is that his brain's higher process rate makes it adaptable and flexible enough to turn good enough compatibility into a sustainable link. Tony has decided that he's going to lord that fact over everyone for many, many years.

Tony is now encased in the armor, save from the helmet, and thirty seconds away from mind melding with Steve. His favorite Ranger is in his Drivesuit but stands near the console that will link him to the system relevant to the armor's control. Displays with the basic flight-relevant informations have been integrated into Tony's helmet's environment, to avoid the need for JARVIS to input data directly into his brain. The rest of the controls are split between Tony and Steve, and it's now time to do a test flight.

"I can't believe you've convinced me to do this," Tony grumbles.

What if he can't hide his feelings for Steve well enough? This has the potential to be very humiliating. Plus there is too much of an audience in the lab for his possible meltdown, with all of the pilots, Bruce and Coulson.

"I don't get why you're being a pussy about this," Bucky says. "You were one of the first to ever pilot, and you were gifted at it. You can do this."

Was that an insult wrapped in a compliment? My, one could believe Bucky is turning into a friend.

"I also had a very, very traumatic experience," Tony reminds him. "Excuse me if I'm wary."

"We'll be fine, I've got your back," Steve says with a smile. "Ready?"

And yeah, Pepper is not the only one Tony never managed to say no to. Better keep that kind of thoughts to himself from now on, though.

"Ready. JARVIS, want to do the countdown?"

My pleasure, Sir. Neural Handshake in 5, 4 –"

As the countdown lowers, Tony focuses on the joy that he'll get to fly again. That will be worth it, no matter what. When the connection to Steve clicks, the contrast with his previous experiences with Howard and JARVIS is jarring. Mostly, he feels strength and warmth, with the underlying impression of extreme competence. Steve's mind is calm, focused on the tasks to come and it takes a moment for Tony to get used to the contrast with his own.

"Whoa, that's different!" Tony says.

"You tell me about it," Steve says, voiced awed. "Jesus, it's like being connected to a bee hive, it goes so fast. Is that's how it always is for you?"

"Uh huh. Sometimes worse." Tony is trying to focus at the moment.

He remembers how he'd been awed at his father's constant ideas, appearing one after the other, even when they were fighting. Maybe it's the fact that Tony's got a real connection for the first time in seven years, but a couple of memories slip up. Mostly it's how Howard was larger than life, but he can't help the familiar speech where he's being told to suck his fear up, because Starks don't get to fail. It was in the pre-fight routine for five years, after all, until fear won. It takes half of a second and Tony takes reign of his mind, but the damage is done, the memories have slipped to Steve without his consent.

"What the hell?" Steve says, outrage vibes clear.

"Sorry about that, just getting my footing at this two person gig. It won't happen again," Tony apologizes.

"You were fourteen years old! Fighting monsters! It was normal to be afraid!"

Steve's righteous indignation on his behalf is heart warming, he won't lie.

"It's fine, don't worry. Are we going to fly or not? I promise you'll like it."

That's incentive enough to refocus them on the important stuff and they start the pre-flight checklist.

***

"Remember, we go in and out with no stupid risks," Steve is… unnecessarily saying out loud, since it was clear enough just by the shared thoughts.

"Yes dear," Tony says, clutching an arm around OTPOR, the device that will open their portal, even though it's also magnetized to the suit for precaution.

They fly around Archer Delta, who is about to engage a category 4 Kaiju that has something like twelve long tentacles whipping in the air. When a sword deploys in AD's right hand, Tony can't help but think that Natasha will make it regret its evolutionary choices.

You bet. comes Steve's thought and Tony smiles.

Several hundred meters on their left, Silver Fox is running towards their own target, and Tony is convinced they'll be okay. There was a special vibe in the Dome today, as if somehow everyone knew the Kaijus could be stopped forever. He's pretty sure that all of the pilots have an extra kick today (and frankly, the barely contained rage that Loki had shown when Ragnarok Awaits was told to hold the 5 miles line proved that everyone wanted to fight today, badly). But that's not their job and Iron Man leaves the Jaegers behind as they speed towards the Breach.

It's been a lot easier than expected to pilot with Steve, and as of now they have no Random Access Brain Impulse Triggers to report except for Tony's slight slip that first time. If he had known that it would be so different than drifting with Howard, he would have gotten a new partner years ago. Slowly but surely, Tony is coming to terms with the fact that Howard was way too tough on him, borderline abusive, and that maybe not everything that went wrong was his fault. Tony was brilliant, yes, but a teenager who only wanted to prove himself to his dad and the merging had only made him more desperate to feel Howard proud, if only once.

"Iron Man, I'm sending you the exact coordinate where to deploy OTPOR," Jane says, just as the data appears on Iron Man's main screen.

From Steve's end of things comes a neat route to reach the delivery point, almost as fast as JARVIS would have produced it.

Tony grins, and does some quick math of his own. "We've got it. Diving in 160 seconds, ETA in 325."

You're like a human calculator, Steve teases.

Brilliant you said? Yes, yes, you would be right, Tony replies with the power of his mind. When drifting isn't traumatic, it's pretty neat.

Right, Steve replies and even though in the outside world Steve would be looking slightly exasperated – they've perfected that kind of banter years ago – in their shared headspace it's mostly fond and earnest.

They reach their destination without incident, and Tony focuses most of his attention on deploying OTPOR correctly while Steve takes care of stabilizing the armor. This close to the Breach, the energy of the Kaiju's portal tends to disrupt electronic equipment and there's also quite a bit of current. Jane's device has little motors so it will stay in place once deployed, for as long as it needs to lock the two portals together. One of those isn't working right, so Tony taps it delicately with his armored index, cursing under his breath.

Is that enough of a problem to abort? Steve inquires.

Could be.

Better ask the Dome. "Jane! One of the left thrusters won't start. Can you do something remotely?"

"Shit! Wait a second!" she says.

"Iron Man, there's a weird energy surge coming from the Breach," Bruce warns. Probably the portal about to close, goddamn it.

Jane must have managed to reset OTPOR remotely because the little thruster starts spluttering. Tony taps on the side of it again.

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon!"

Steve's obviously just as focused on the portal device as he is, because there is absolutely no warning and something huge zooms on his right, causing a hell of a draught. The unexpected disturbance makes Iron Man flip a couple of time, but by sheer dumb luck he doesn't touch OTPOR, that has finally started functioning properly; Tony can see it get back in perfect alignment immediately.

"It's a category four Kaiju, there's a third one!" Bruce yells just as Tony sees glowing red eyes, coming towards him fast.

This deep in the ocean, Tony can't see shit out of the radius of the front-light produced by the armor that he was just using to set up OTPOR. The monster blends with the darkness of the ocean, leaving visible only those eyes getting bigger and bigger.

Kill the light, kill the light! Steve is urging and oh, right, that's how the beast can see him. A switch on the side of the helmet activates the light beam, one Steve can't control.

" OTPOR is in position!" Tony yells. "Activate, now!"

"You're too close, get out of there!" Jane urges, while Steve seems to have taken over the feet jets, aiming them towards the surface with non-stop curses that would make sailors blush.

As Tony reaches for the light switch, hoping to become less visible to the Kaiju, he sees at the last second a dark shape coming in his direction again: it's a dart, as big as a submarine. He's so fucked.

At the same time, OTPOR deploys down below, creating an energy surge more intense that Richards had projected because it makes the Iron Man displays and the drift connection flicker.

"Tony!" Steve yells, with complete horror in his voice.

A fraction of a second later Tony is hit by a memory not his own, in sharp Technicolor like nothing Steve has ever broadcasted before while they were bridged: it's Bucky being ripped from Blue Eagle's Conn-Pod. There's the echo of screams, physical pain to his arm and a powerful sense despair, of loosing his best friends, his brother, the last link to his childhood. Also there's blood and-

Tony zones out.

**

It's very calm in his workshop today, Tony muses. The bots are in their charging stations and there's no music or noises, not even fans from the servers or the hum of conditioned air. It's weird, but also nice, especially since Tony has a nasty headache right now.

Of course, it can't last. An annoying muffled noise now comes from somewhere. Weirdly, it kinds of sounds like Steve. Tony ignores it.

Then, out of the blue, Steve appears, dressed in his Drivesuit. He pops up right in middle of the room and looks around. Tony can see him frown through the mask.

"Hey, Steve!" Tony says with a smile. He's always happy to see him, no matter if his presence is weird.

Steve talks but Tony can't hear him though the helmet. He gestures to his ear and Steve gets it, takes the helmet off. He looks a little panicked, wide eyed.

"Tony, you've got to come back. Right now"

Which makes no sense.

"Go back where? I'm fine here!" he says with a shrug.

Steve shakes his head. "No. You're way down the rabbit hole, you've got to come back."

Weirdo Steve has it all wrong.

"Pshah, nah," Tony says. He gestures around him. "Look, my dad isn't here. This is not a memory, I'm not in the hole. I must be dreaming or something. I'm fine."

Oh, a dream. That's the obvious explanation.

"No, it's not. This is not a dream, and the only way I'm able to speak to you right now is because we're in the drift together."

"Dream you could say that, you know. And I like it here," Tony declares.

Steve grows agitated. "Look, I fucked up and my memory of the accident with Bucky made you fall in the hole. You have to come back, because I can't pilot Iron Man alone and the suit is dropping in the ocean."

Sinking into the Mariana trench is not a happy thought. Tony rubs at his chest, feeling a pressure there that makes it harder to breathe.

"But it's over, right? The portal worked, no more Kaijus?" Tony asks and Steve nods, tries to smile but it doesn't reach his eyes. He really does look upset. Tony speaks up again. "We won, then. That's great. I'm tired, though. I think I'll sleep a little."

"You can't do that," Steve says, pleading. "Not now. You have to come back first."

"Why?"

"For me. Because you can't die on me when I have so much to tell you," Steve says, and he's suddenly right next to him, close enough to touch if Tony would dare. "Don't let me feel your death, Tony. Don't do that to me."

There's a strong emotional charge building between them, as if Steve is projecting everything he can towards him. There's an underlying sense of panic and horror, enough to make Tony uneasy, but also deep longing and affection – maybe something stronger than that - and it's so bright it makes Tony reconsider letting everything go.

"Huh," he says, a bit lost for words. "It's as if you like me back."

"I do!" Steve says, intent.

"No you don't."

"Of course I do, I've been in love with you for a long time. But I can't control the suit alone, it won't respond to me. Come on, wake up!"

The pressure on Tony's chest is very annoying, and his headache is getting worse, too. If it was a real dream where Steve confesses his feelings, Tony guesses that there would be less pain and more sex. They haven't even touched or anything. He closes his eyes and focuses, tries to get out of his head. To achieve that, he hangs on to the little muffled voices. They take more and more amplitude and suddenly noises explodes as he wakes up, a mix of Bruce, Rhodey and Pepper urging and cajoling, all asking him to wake up.

Steve's the first to know it worked.

"Thank god," he breathes out. "He's out, he's awake. Talk to me Tony!"

Are you okay? Steve asks through the link. There is relief and joy and love again, a heady mix that merges with Tony's friends now sounding a lot happier.

"I'm back, I'm back," Tony says.

Looking out, everything is pitch black and there's no way to know which way is up. It's terrifying.

"Fuck."

"Steve, take control now, steer the suit," Bruce is saying.

"Doing just that. Prepare a med team, we're coming back," Steve says.

He continues to reassure Tony in the drift.

It's okay, it's fine, I've got you now. Focus on propulsion and I'll do the navigation, I know exactly where you are.

Okay, cool. Hurry, though, pressure… it's hard to breathe.

I know. I can feel it. You'll be fine. See? Already better. I'm bringing you home.

To you? Tony dares to ask.

Maybe what Steve said earlier was just to shake him out of the rabbit hole. Maybe Tony let slip his feeling at one point, and Steve was ready to use any advantage he had.

The answer comes immediately, everything about it convinced and without a shadow of a doubt.

To me.

 

***

 

Epilogue, weeks later

"Is this better?"

"Did something change? I don't know. It's fine, it's great," Bucky says, opening and closing his fist as directed.

"Good," Tony says, checking the readings. "You've proved earlier that brute force isn't a problem." Let's just say the metal plate Bucky punched will never be the same and leave it at that. "But how's the fine motor control?"

"Cool too. Want me to tie my shoelaces?" Bucky asks. He sounds fed up but he's grinning.

Tony knows the questioning gets a bit much, but his motto is that if he builds something, it's going to be the best of that something that exists, period. "No slip when dosing your strength?"

"No, but I sometimes wake up with the urge to strangle someone, it's really weird," Bucky says as the door to the lab swishes open.

"You're the one who's weird," Tony says, rolling his eyes and disconnecting the sensors from Bucky's new mechanical arm.

Tony has a lot of time to spare now that the maintenance on the Jaegers is all but done. The Domes all over the world are still on alert, in case the Kaijus open a new portal, but so far so good. Meanwhile, Tony's been tinkering on this new cybernetic arm that allows Bucky to have more heat and sensory feedback. For now, it will do. Maybe he'll add fun gadgets later, when Bucky's more used to it.

"Are the tests all done?" Steve asks, leaning on the lab bench by Bucky's side. Tony looks up and can't help his helpless grin when he meets Steve's own smile. God he's gorgeous.

"Yep," Tony says.

Bucky makes a pleased grumble but Steve all but pouts.

"You should have called me. You know I'm interested in how it works."

"And that's why I didn't tell you," Bucky says, gripping Steve's neck and shaking him lightly, how you'd ruffle a puppy. "You like to watch a little too much and then it feeds these loops of Stark wanting to impress you, more watching, he gets distracted and I end up the one at risk of electrocution."

"Hey!" Tony protests. "If I ever electrocute you, it will be deliberate!"

With a laugh Bucky hits Tony lightly on the shoulder – with his prosthetic arm, hit and force perfectly controlled.

"I'm out of here. Try not to traumatize the kids," he says pointing to the bots as he walks towards the door.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Tony replies, though since Steve is already circling the lab bench with intent, it weakens his argument.

"Yeah, sure. See you at dinner," Bucky says as he leaves.

"Later," they both answer, but Bucky's almost forgotten already as Steve pulls Tony into a kiss.

It's been several weeks since the Breach has been neutralized, but kissing Steve still gives Tony butterflies. He's not sure that he's ever been wanted this much, kissed this passionately. In Tony's fantasies, Steve was eager but pliable; the reality is that he's forceful and definitely not shy to ask for what he wants. And – miracle of miracle – what he wants is Tony. Very often (not that he's complaining, hell no).

Today, it means that Steve is picking him up like it's nothing, urging Tony's legs around his waist as he walks towards the cot in the back of the lab.

"But honey, think of the children!" Tony says, mock-flustered.

Steve grins. "You know, I fear for the world now that you two are finally friends."

Tony laughs, genuinely happy in a way he hasn't been for a long time. His laughter morphs into a moan when Steve pins him down on the cot, body heavy on top of his, kisses wet and deep.

"Oh yeah. Come on," he urges when Steve pauses to kneels up a bit to undo Tony's jeans buttons; Tony tries his best to help getting them off.

"I want you, so much," Steve says, throwing away the pants as soon as they are free.

"Me too, me too," Tony says, coating his fingers with the lube he keeps under the pillow and he starts stretching himself with two. Steve loves to watch him get ready.

"That's it," he says. "You're so hot like this."

He keeps praising Tony until he's at four fingers, desperate, his shirt sticking to his chest with sweat because they haven't even taken time to get undressed. Steve shoved his own pants and underwear down his tights and is slowly jacking off while eating Tony up with his eyes, making him crazy.

"Come on, Steve! Fuck me, please," Tony begs.

It must sound desperate enough because Steve finally gets in position, guiding his cock to Tony's hole.

"You want to come?" Steve asks, intent. There's nothing headier than being the sole focus of Steve Rogers.

"Yes, please, fuck me," Tony pleads again, wrapping his legs around Steve's waist.

Finally Steve relents, pushing in firm and steady. It's so, so good that the only thing Tony can do is moan, head thrown back.

"You feel so good," Steve murmurs in his ear. "So hot, so tight. Just for me."

"Yes, yours," Tony says as Steve starts moving, finally. God it's good, it's great, there's no word that appropriately conveys how fantastic this is.

Maybe it's because they've drifted together, but they move together seamlessly, as if able to read each other's minds. Oh, that's an idea.

"We should-" Tony starts, then gasps when Steve nails him just right. "We should, ha god, that's good, should fuck with the helmets."

Steve laughs, but doesn't stop thrusting, his rhythm unforgiving. "I'm doing something wrong if you're still thinking."

"I'm the one doing s'thing wrong," Tony forces himself to say (it's difficult). "If you use c'plete sentences."

A big hand on his dick shuts Tony just after that, and he's so wound up that he falls over the edge after a couple of pulls, gripping Steve's shirt so tightly he's pretty sure it rips. He doesn't care, though, not when he's coming his brains out and Steve is following.

They're silent for long minutes, after, just breathing heavy then calming down. It's completely comfortable, and even though Steve is physically crushing him, he wouldn't move for anything. Well if he could, he'd be naked instead of having clothes sticking to him. And spunk cooling is never fun. Tony might be a little hungry, too.

"There you go again," Steve mumbles.

"What?"

"I can feel that brain of yours start."

Tony's biggest fear is that Steve will get tired of his shit. God knows everyone does, at one point.

"I'll have you know it was pretty mundane thoughts, no existential crisis," Tony says. "Well until right now."

"Mundane is good. And don't worry, I love your brain," Steve says, getting up on his elbows to look down at Tony. He's still flushed, hair going every which way and utterly gorgeous. He leans in for a soft kiss, so very sweet, and pulls back to say, "I love you."

It looks easy when Steve does it. Tony wishes he could say it back, but he blocks, every time.

"Jesus, you are such a sap. I can't believe we're drift compatible," he jokes, trying to cover his stupid hang-ups.

"You love it."

"I do. I really, really do," Tony says, as sincere as he can get.

Steve's smile in return is proof enough that he gets him, no drift needed.

And that? Feels just as important – if not more - as saving the world.

 

The End