A strong, heated container used for chemical reactions and other processes using high pressures and temperatures.
A pressure chamber.
"I'm so hungry I could eat one of those giant squids right about now," Clint said, his voice ragged with exhaustion and rough over the steady hum of the Quinjet's engines. "I mean, there's some poetic justice in that, right? They snapped us down like tasty squid bait, so we return the fuckin' favor."
"I thought I was clear when I told you we are never to speak of that again." Natasha's tone was sweet and casual in a way that was anything but sweet and casual. Tony could only imagine the look she shot Barton and snorted when he heard Clint choke and try to cover it up with an unconvincing cough. Somewhere in the background, Tony heard Bruce's sleepy laughter.
Grinning for the first time in hours Tony darted ahead of the Quinjet as honor guard, Avengers Tower lined up in the sights of his HUD.
"Fear not, Birdbrain. If I know my AI – which, obviously – there should be an obscene amount of greasy Chinese food on its way to the Tower as we speak."
"Indeed, Sir. The food arrived twenty-seven minutes ago and is awaiting you all on the common floor."
Clint moaned, exaggerated and borderline obscene. "Oh God, JARVIS, you're my favorite."
"However," JARVIS continued, "I am afraid it may be necessary to reheat the food as it has gone rather cold. I underestimated the length of time required to debrief with SHIELD post-battle."
"If Clint is contemplating gigantic mutant calamari I think cold rice and orange chicken is more than adequate," Steve laughed. "Thank you, JARVIS. That was very thoughtful."
"It is my pleasure, Captain Rogers."
"Hey, stop sounding so surprised," Tony said in mock offense. "Don't forget I wrote JARVIS' code."
"Which is why it's all the more impressive that JARVIS has grown to be such a considerate, well-rounded person with only you as a role model in his formative years."
"I do try, Dr.Banner."
"Et Tu, Brucie? That hurts. That's offensive, I am offended. Everyone knows I make all the best stuff."
"Really?" Coulson chimed in. "Need I remind you of the Toaster Uprising of 2013?"
"Okay, that – I thought we all agreed that I'm not responsible for the actions of any appliance I build an AI into when I blackout engineer."
"I still don't know how you won that argument."
"Or how that's even a thing that we keep bringing up in casual conversation."
"Or a real sentence."
"And why have we not yet addressed the issue of Tony 'blackout engineering?'"
"Is anyone even going to mention what happened with the Roombas?"
"But! Household appliance revolutions aside, I am awesome, and by virtue of that fact JARVIS is awesome, the veracity of which should never be questioned." Closing in on Avengers Tower, Tony picked up speed and circled around it just for the joy of it, because he could, because flying would always be one of the best parts of being Iron Man. He'd never felt so free as when flying.
And freedom's certainly hard to come by right now.
He sent a cheeky wave at Clint in the Quinjet's cockpit and banked back around to his private landing pad on the penthouse balcony. "And really, J, I don't think any of us expected an evil marine biologist with an inferiority complex and his giant squid pals to warrant a two hour debrief. What, exactly, did Fury want us to say other than 'we came, we saw, we made sushi?'"
"You do realize that Fury drags debriefs out as a passive-aggressive power play just to mess with you, right?" Natasha said, and Tony swore he could hear her smirking. "Particularly when you're stuck in the armor covered in something unspeakable."
Tony dropped on the landing platform with an emphatic clank and belayed the armor removal sequence with a curt hand gesture. "Hey, that is not – okay, maybe that's true, but – "
"All right, all right, enough," Steve cut in, heading off Tony's rant before he could really get started. Steve's authoritative air was ruined by Steve snorting in laughter at the end of the order. "Everyone get cleaned up and we'll meet on the common floor for dinner in twenty. Sound good?"
"Uh, no can do on the twenty, Cap," Tony said, the lie flowing easily off his tongue. He re-engaged the armor removal sequence with a "come hither" gesture and started walking down the pathway. "It's gonna take a little time and finesse to get the armor off, after playing with that squid. I'll be down once it's sorted out."
"Do you need any help?" Bruce asked, much more alert than before and his tone tipping the scales towards concerned.
"Nah, I've got it, Brucie-bear," Tony said, a tendril of guilt twisting in his gut at the deceit.
It was no small thing, Bruce's desire to be with the team, to stay in New York with them. To be a part of a group, their strange makeshift family, and open himself up to other people and form real relationships for the first time in years. Bruce had gained so much confidence since that first, fateful meeting on the hellicarrier. He'd found a purpose, and something more in the Hulk than death and destruction and fear, and with Tony's help reawakened his love of science and discovery.
Bruce had damn well learned to strut, and it was enough to make Tony want to cry. To turn Bruce's earnest offer of help and companionship down now felt like the worst of betrayals.
Just a few minutes alone, Tony reminded himself, that's all I want. I'm allowed to want five minutes to myself.
"The damaged panels in the midsection just need a bit more persuasion to release. A little time in the shop with the bots and maybe a crowbar and I'll be back in business." The assembly rings stripped Tony of his armor piece by piece as he meandered down the walkway, and JARVIS switched the comm link over to to the nearest speakers without being asked because JARVIS is the best.
"Are you sure you're all right? That squid had a hell of a hold on you," Steve said, his "Captain" voice edging back to the forefront in spite of post-battle exhaustion. "Your armor buckled like a tin can where it grabbed you."
The last thing Tony needed was for Steve to switch back over to helicopter-bodyguard mode, not if he wanted five seconds by himself to just breathe. "Yes, mom, I'm fine," Tony snarked.
He had to bite his lip bloody a second later when the walkway bots pulled at the damaged midsection of the suit and pain, sharp and hot, raced across Tony's ribs and down his spine.
Okay, this might be worse than I thought . . .
"At the very least one of us wouldn't mind staying with you while you and the bots 'finesse' the armor," Natasha murmured, soft and fond and totally disarming in a way that caused the guilt in Tony's gut to swell.
"I really don't think 'finesse' should ever be used in relation to Tony's bots."
"Hey, fuck you, Barton. Come talk to me about the shortcomings of my robots after you build some of your own," Tony said, hoping the gasp of pain that slipped out sounded like indignation. "And seriously, I can go ten minutes without a babysitter. It's fine, I'm fine, nothing is going to happen. I'll be down as soon as I'm free, and Thor, I swear, if you eat all of the crab rangoons again I'm evicting you." Thor's booming laughter echoed from the speakers and absolved Tony's fear that his voice had sounded as strained as it had felt coming out.
JARVIS cut the connection just in the nick of time.
Tony shouted in pain, his breath stuttering in his lungs when the walkway bots gave a valiant tug on the crushed armor at Tony's waist. For one long, agonizing minute Tony thought he would have to call for help after all, or faint, or both, until the pressure suddenly released with the shriek of stressed metal and a sickening squelch. The damaged pieces of the Mark 41 tumbled to Tony's feet like so much gold titanium scrap metal.
The relief of being freed from the armor was short lived. Pain flared raw and bright across Tony's left side, visceral and present in a way it hadn't been with the stabilizing pressure and pain management of the suit's medical protocols. Tony staggered and swayed on his feet, but caught himself on the nearest walkway apparatus as he breathed through the pain and attempted to will away his weak knees and spotty vision, while at the same time drafting contingency plans to waylay the inevitable epic chewing-out he's going to get in SHIELD medical after the others find him passed out on the balcony.
Cap is going to kill me.
Steve didn't know how right he was about that squid's grip. Tony really must be doing something wrong if one hard squeeze from a giant cephalopod is enough to buckle one of the most reinforced sections of the armor like an aluminum can.
Miraculously, after a few minutes of careful breathing and fevered fantasies of what the others would do to him if he ended up in the hospital for something as stupid as lying about being injured to gain a few unsupervised minutes (including but not limited to: sad puppy eyes, death threats, and being read the riot act), the pain subsided. A tension Tony hadn't realized he'd had loosened in his chest, and he took a cautious step away from the robot arm he'd been gripping for dear life. The arm whirred and chirped at him in question. "Yeah, buddy, I think I'm good," Tony said, giving the arm an awkward pat, his steps surer as he made his way inside into the penthouse proper.
JARVIS raised the lights to an unobtrusive glow as Tony peeled up the top of his undersuit to survey the damage, greeted by the sight of a large cross-section of ragged lacerations curling around his side and the bottom of his ribcage like a macabre cummerbund. Really it was much better than Tony had anticipated, but the lacerations were bleeding freely at the left side of his waist where the damage was the worst and had to be attended to fast.
I've handled worse.
Tony made tracks to the kitchen for the heavy duty first aid kit, moving slow and stiff and trying to staunch the blood enough to stop it from dripping on the carpet, because wouldn't that be awkward to explain to whoever was taking the nighttime rotation of Stark-sitting tonight.
He isn't dumb enough to harbor any illusions that the fact he's injured will escape the team entirely once he joins the post-squid-attack festivities, but if Tony handled the worst of it now he'd have a much better chance of downplaying the severity and not lose workshop privileges for pithy things like bed rest. He's already been restricted, and for his very sanity, Tony needs to be able to work and feel even the least bit useful.
Tony dug the first aid kit out of the cabinet next to the refrigerator with a grunt and a wince and opened it up on the countertop next to the sink. "J, anything scary going on internally that I should know about?" Tony snagged the hem of his top with his teeth to hold it out of the way, which, yeah that was kind of gross, but priorities.
Tony dabbed at the wounds with a hand towel in the long beat of silence that indicated JARVIS' disapproval of Tony's life choices before responding with his version of a long-suffering sigh.
"You have three fractured ribs and significant soft tissue damage on your abdomen, back, and chest, as well as numerous minor abrasions and bruising elsewhere," JARVIS said, "and while my scans indicate no other anomalies I highly recommend allowing Dr.Banner – "
"Nope, not happening, J. I can handle this just fine on my own."
"Sir." JARVIS pressed, as insistent and reproachful as Edwin Jarvis would sound if he were there – and isn't that just something?
"JARVIS," Tony echoed, gingerly cleaning his bleeding side. "I just . . . I need a break. The past couple months have been so fucking weird, and while I appreciate everything the team is doing for me – because seriously, I didn't think half of them even really liked me that much let alone enough to become my own version of the Secret Service – I just really need five minutes without someone hovering over me playing guard dog. It's not like I'm some helpless damsel in distress, and it's so frustrating that I can't . . . that I can't stand well enough on my own to handle matters myself." Tony pressed the towel to his side for a moment, the aching throb centering him as he stared off unfocused into the living room contemplating his predicament.
It was overwhelming, in truth, the way the team had rallied themselves around Tony when he was threatened. All these weeks later Tony still struggled to reconcile the fact that these people – these fierce, brilliant, amazing, beautiful people – cared. About Tony.
As much as Tony had been able to convince himself that he was tolerated at best by the Avengers over the past year, having to spend six weeks with at least one of them shadowing him at all times sufficiently blew that hypothesis out of the water. Sure, they'd all taken his invitation to stay with him at the Tower after the Incident, eventually. But before this latest plot twist in Tony's sorry excuse of a life, Tony had been allowed to distance himself enough to convince himself he was being humored when they hung around him or invited him to group activities.
Get too close to the fire and you get burned.
But now that Tony's life had spiraled into a steaming pile of crazy Tony knew what he hadn't allowed himself to see when he kept himself on the sidelines.
Steve's dry humor and sass, his gentle smiles and brash stubbornness. The way he'll let Tony talk at him for hours, sketching on the workshop couch and playing fetch with the bots. His proposition of Pop Culture Education movie marathons used as a cover for what's really just family movie night. How he'll shove a plate under Tony's nose to remind him that food is a thing even coffee-fueled geniuses need to survive and drag Tony to bed after too many hours of coding and armor upgrades with no heed to Tony's (very loud and creative) complaints and excuses.
Natasha, the grace and quiet joy with which she dances, and how she has a soft spot for Disney movies and stealing clothes from her teammates to cuddle up in when she's feeling down. The serene way in which she can laugh at you without cracking a smile, and the way her eyes crinkle when she does smile. Her intense dedication to training Tony so he can better protect himself outside of the suit, and the casual intimacy of her running her fingers through Tony's hair when he's stressed. The way she just knows when Tony can't sleep and will curl up next to him, silent comfort with the warm press of her body against his.
Clint, all sarcasm with a sniper's precision but who still finds an innocent joy in simple pleasures, and will squabble good-naturedly over video games and prank wars with whoever else is willing to engage with him in what is inevitably a losing battle. His readiness to help Tony beef up security by scouting out the blind spots in the ventilation systems and every other high, cramped vantage point in the Tower when Tony is feeling extra paranoid. His easy affection given in hugs, and back rubs, and sinfully delicious baked goods. Clint listening with steady eyes, steady hands, and steady assurances when the worst of Tony's anxieties boiled over just a week ago, telling him, "We've got you, Tones."
Agent Agent using paperwork and protocols to corral wayward superheroes, and wielding bureaucracy as a higher form of war when SHIELD oversteps their bounds with the team. The way he's mastered bland smiles and deadpan humor and makes the best Goddamn coffee Tony's ever had. That Phil loves cheesy romance novels and bad TV, and made sport of taking awkward candids of the team and posting them on Instagram because the man is a fucking troll, how had Tony not known this? How he takes the time to have serious one-sided conversations with the bots every time he comes down to the workshop and is always, always amazed by Tony's tech.
Bruce. Oh, Bruce. Tony's science brother from another mother. The first real friend that Tony's ever had that understands the way his mind works, that's on the same level as Tony. Careful smiles and herbal tea, sharp wit and cutting sarcasm that most people don't even pick up on, don't realize they're being condescended to with a smile (which is a fucking gift, no matter what Bruce thinks). Bruce who is patient, who is kind, who is honest when Tony needs it and accepting when Tony screws up. Who told Tony without pause that he can and will let the Hulk smash anyone stupid enough to terrorize him, that, "It's one of the few things we both agree on."
The way that Thor is often at odds with himself, big and brash, loud and uninhibited, but gentle and sweet. Joyful, interested in learning as much as he can of Midgard, and quick to praise anything he deems "wonderous." Thor who is loyal to a fault loves strongly and rankles at slights and intimidation. Thor who is incredibly smart and intuitive, and often lets people forget it. Who is steady and quiet when he is needed, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to bend, all given with a singular intensity and nothing asked in return. Thor, who offered the cloak of his protection to Tony without a second of hesitation.
It frightens Tony how much he loves these people, how much they mean to him because the prospect of the rug getting pulled out from under him the way it always does has the potential to ruin him. Never had he dreamed he'd have a family.
Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy are the outliers, standing by Tony through decades of bad decisions and, well, Tony being Tony. But this, sharing his living space, and meals, game nights and movie nights, battles and training, Tony's had to wonder if this was how it was supposed to feel when he was a kid. And no one, outside of Rhodey's mama bear tendencies and Pepper's vindictive streak, has ever made a gesture as grand as the team's vigilant protection. And all Tony can dwell on as the days stretch on is how long this can go on before they get sick of this, of him and the burden he has become.
Tony can't stop counting the days until he drives them away.
Tony blew out his breath in a slow exhale, trying to center himself the way Bruce taught him and shut down all of the dangerous "what-ifs" cropping up in his brain that are neither helpful nor worth dwelling on. Taking JARVIS' heavy silence as a win for this round of Who Has the Bigger Guilt Trip he returned his focus to the task at hand.
Peeling back the towel again to consider the lacerations Tony decided butterfly bandages should suffice in lieu of stitches since the bleeding had mostly stopped. Tony pulled out the box of assorted bandages and a thick wad of gauze and rummaged in the first aid kit for the bottle of antiseptic.
"Goddamn it, where – ha!" Tony's fingers closed around the bottle and pulled it from the kit only to fumble it in surprise at the sudden presence of someone behind him and a firm, cool hand pressing against his wounded side. The bottle of antiseptic tumbled to the floor with a clatter and Tony froze, his heart tripping over itself in shock.
"While I detest agreeing with the Captain on any matter of importance, your habit of hiding injuries is not one I enjoy," said a low, displeased voice in Tony's ear.
An unnatural heat Tony was sorry to say he recognized as magic spread from the hand on his waist and jolted Tony back into movement. The contents of the first aid kit scattered across the countertop when Tony knocked the offending hand away and jerked free of Loki's hold. Tony tripped over the antiseptic bottle and an instant cold pack in his haste but caught himself on the countertop before stumbling away from the stern, frowning face of his extraterrestrial stalker.
That wasn't even five minutes, was it?
To be continued.