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CAEB- Those Nightmares we hide

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Prologue

 

Everything ached. He was pretty sure he was bleeding internally. He could feel his pulse, rapid and weak, throbbing all over his body. The accompanying sensation of his tattered armour digging into his flesh made breathing difficult and it was warm in here. He was roasting inside his shell. His vision seemed pixelated and the weight on his back he was fighting so hard to control seemed to be slowly crushing him. Darkness gathered in the corners of his vision and yet the light above was blinding. He had to pull up. The tower loomed ahead, but his strength had long since left him.

Come on! He could do this - he had to do this. As he approached Stark Tower, he managed to pull up in time. He barely scraped the top of the building, but it was enough to make another bruised rib buckle. Yet he didn't notice the pain anymore. Everything in him was focused on his task. And now he was finally flying upwards, just meters away from the glowing blue that rimmed an intense void of darkness.

That void that would be his final destination. He knew that. He wasn't really bothered about dying; he hadn't thought twice about grabbing that missile until now. But seeing Pepper's contact photo staring back at him from his display forced him to swallow down the tears. He didn't want to leave her without saying goodbye. But she never picked up.

Pepper watched the TV screens from the jet in horror as events unfolded. Tony disappeared from view and was gone. Just like that. Eaten by the blackness and sucked into the empty.

As the agents around them cheered, Maria glanced over at her Boss. Fury bowed his head, realising that Stark had just paid the ultimate price for his mistakes.

As cheers broke out in the streets, there wasn’t a sound from the Avengers. Their eyes remained fixed on the ring of blue. This wasn’t over yet.

Pepper held her breath. The Avengers held their breath. Together, they prayed. He was coming back. He was coming back. Wasn't he?

In a flash, the Earth was gone. Just... gone. He was separated from everything he knew, and every second he continued his course death edged nearer. He hadn't been scared before, but the sight he saw before him stole the air from his lungs. The alien warship loomed, but it was the vastness of space surrounding him that was truly suffocating. It was so cold, he couldn't breathe. The suit was too damaged. The oxygen just leaked away into the vacuum surrounding him. He was running out of time, out of power - and he was so very tired. He wanted to run. Until this moment he had wanted to see space all his life - he was a scientist after all - but there was no wonder in what he saw before him; only despair. If he let go now and turned back he could make it. He'd be ok - they all would - and he'd see Pepper again.

But the missile was still so far from its target. There was no guidance for it up here other than him and he had to make sure that it reached its destination. That was his only job now. His final task.

The suit was nearly exhausted - he could feel the arc reactor burning in his chest, the last of the fuel that was keeping him alive evaporating. He didn't matter. In his head he never really had, but now he had to ignore his terror and carry on. He had to die.

How much did he have left to give? Would he make it far enough? His vision blurred his lungs screamed. Where had the air gone? The suit was compromised. He was compromised and suddenly he could hold on no longer.

The rest happened in slow motion. The nuke reached its target and the shock wave blasted through him. He could feel his life leaving him, slowly draining, but there was tunnel, no bright white light and no guardian angel to guide him, only pain.

Alone. He was so very alone, in this desolate place and far, far away from home. He hoped he wouldn't remember dying. He had many awful memories but this was well up there. That was his last thought before the darkness folded in and he started falling.

...

Far away alarms sounded deep beneath the golden City. Platoons of thunderous footsteps pounded down the marble stairs but they were too late. As Odin burst into the dark vault the prisoner who must never leave already had a knife in hand.

"No!" The All-father's voice was but a whisper. This was not possible.

A dark smile passed across the prisoner’s face and without another second of hesitation he plunged the metal deep into his chest.

Odin looked at the corpse in horror. The life had already drained from their prisoner’s body, his face ghostly white. They had kept him so close to death for millennia, so it was no wonder it took him quickly. Blood pooled around his feet and the stench of it rose in the air and clung inside his throat. Death had just freed the most dangerous being in the universe and Odin had let it happen.

"Find it." He broke the dread-filled silence. "Scour the Universe. Find the new host!” Odin’s thunderous voice sent feet scrambling to obey furious their king. “And do so quickly!"

...

Air! He was breathing, oh shit - something was roaring. "What the hell!" Jeez it was the Hulk, just the Hulk, ok, ok. Thor was there, and Steve. "What just happened?"

That question answered itself soon enough as the world came back into focus. He was back, but how. Oh God that hurt. He felt like… well, like he'd just fallen to Earth through a portal.

“We won.” Steve’s simple words made relief wash over him. He clicked his witty persona back into place, but lay still as long as he could without raising unwanted concern.

The team was tired, they had eaten their Shawarma in silence and then SHIELD inevitably had wanted them all to have their injuries checked and be fully debriefed. Tony hurt all over; it hurt to breathe, to move, to sit, and even to think. It was over - so why did he feel like he was still fighting, his energy constantly draining away?

He was almost too tired to bother fighting treatment, which was certainly not like him. Bruce was concerned when he re-emerged from the Hulk's grasp; he didn't remember much of the battle, but he did remember that the Hulk hadn't been all that gentle with Tony when he’d saved him from the fall. Tony kept up the façade that he was fine. He brushed off the medics with his usual tantrum-like behaviour and if it was less convincing than usual no one else noticed.

Thankfully, SHIELD waved on the debrief. It took some persuasion, but apparently it could be postponed till 7 AM. 'I mean Jeez, did they think there were going to suffer sleep amnesia?!' There was no way in hell Tony was going to get up that early. He'd rock up at 15:00 or maybe 15:30, probably drunk just to piss off Fury. Whatever . He wasn’t going to feel guilty about it. They'd just saved the world; didn't they deserve a break?

Everyone was fine. It was a miracle really - they were battered and bruised, but rest of the team had dealt with nothing more serious than a few broken ribs. Their wounds would heal, and despite his public stubbornness, Tony would have Jarvis check him over to make sure there was nothing seriously wrong with him. He wasn’t an idiot, he just hated fuss.

But would their minds heal?

The question popped into Tony’s mind unexpectedly. The others should be fine, he mused. War was nothing to most of them. Thor had seen centuries of death, Steve was a soldier and despite the fact that Natasha and Clint weren't, they were more than used to situations like this. Tony and Bruce were the only civilians. But Bruce didn't remember much of the Hulk being in control. Besides, he was so pleased with the fact that the only damage done by the Hulk was to the aliens that he wasn’t dwelling on the horror or the death. And no one had seen what Tony had.

He had no one to talk to. Not that he would ever talk about his feelings. That was not something he ever did. His circle of trust would never be bigger than a few people. In fact, he thought he had already let it stretch too far some days.

Once back at the tower, he disappeared down to the lab. He needed to be alone and to be busy, so that he wouldn't think about it. Busy, so he wouldn't keep remembering what he saw out there, so far away.

But he did remember. He wished he had died like he was supposed to. Then he wouldn’t have to keep reliving it every time his mind wandered. But that wasn't all. Underneath the multiple broken ribs, cracked pelvis and barrage of bruising the battle had left him, there was something different in there. Something was sucking the life out of him. Something that Jarvis didn't understand and… what really scared him was that he didn’t understand it either.

…..

The Ravens had arrived in time to see the battle end and see the heroes depart with Loki well and truly detained. They had information to deliver to the Æsir on Midgard deemed of the utmost urgency, yet their Master would need to know the outcome of the battle. They glanced at each other and seemed to agree. They could not approach the Prince with so many Midgardians present. With a caw in the silenced city, Muninn spread his wings and took off from the scorched branches they had made their perch, disappearing into the horizon. Huginn watched his compatriot leave and then returned his gaze to the Prince as the setting sun demanded that the light begin to fade.

…..

Chapter Text

Pepper always kept her cool. Always. Or that’s what she told herself. It was for the most part true, but there was one exception. One person that could make her melt into a puddle and reduce her to nothing more than a mess of a woman. That, of course, was Tony Stark.

Pepper was a formidable, no-nonsense kind of woman. CEO of Stark enterprises, queen of one of the world’s most powerful companies. So why did she feel so powerless?

Regardless of the heels she was wearing and the burning it sent through the arches of her feet, she hit the ground running from the moment the jet’s door opened. Tony was alive - that was what had been reported on the news channel - but she'd seen him fall. Was he hurt? How badly? She had missed his call. She hadn't been there when he had needed her the most and now he wasn’t picking up. There were innumerable possibilities rushing through her mind, most of which she knew were just plain ridiculous. But no amount of reason would help quell her thoughts. She had to see Tony. A tear slid down her cheek, unnoticed by her chauffeur, but by the time she reached the tower she had her business face on.

The elevator doors breezed open. The room before her was dim and silent, yet she could make out five figures strewn across the couches and as her eyes adjusted to the light she could tell that most of them were asleep. There was no Tony.

Tony was down in the lab, fighting with the arc reactor. It was a complete write off; the core was completely frazzled and it just kept flickering, fighting for life. He had plenty of spares but the dying reactor's casing was deformed from the pummelling the suit had taken, both from Thor before the battle and everything that had happened during it. What this meant was the usually very simple mechanism to remove the arc reactor wasn't working and the damn thing was stuck. Couldn't anything just be easy today?

This was not good. He looked back to the mirror and tried again to twist it out of its holder, but every time he pressed on his sternum his broken ribs screamed and the air left his lungs. The area around the casing was surrounded by an extensive stain of deep purple bruising which didn’t exactly help things. He sat down, panting, after another failed attempt. This was getting risky now. He was on the clock and with the reactor’s erratic power supply, he was starting to feel really awful.

He gasped and grabbed his chest suddenly - was that the shrapnel moving, or was he just being paranoid? Either way, he had to get it out and now.

"Sir..." Jarvis began for the 20th time. The bots continued to whine and twirl in distressed circles.

"No!" Tony gasped, cutting off the AI abruptly. He didn't want the others down here and they wouldn't be able to help anyway. There was only one thing to do now.

Tony got up and faced the mirror, taking short, sharp breaths - psyching himself up for the pain that was about to come. He could vaguely hear Jarvis' protests in the background, but all his senses were gradually getting duller. He closed his eyes. God, he wasn't looking forward to this, but being gentle had failed and sometimes when things weren't working you just had to hit them with a hammer…

Of course, in practice that sometimes made things worse, but he wasn't going to consider that possibility until he had to.

Ok. He blew out hard and placed both hands gently over the reactor, making sure he had a good grip, and paused. He was dreading what was to come. "Well, here goes nothing."

He braced himself and pulled as hard as he could. "Oh Jesus ," he yelled - the pain was severe, bordering on unbearable, and his cry did nothing to help relieve it. And the reactor still wasn’t giving. He swore and twisted it, unable to hold in the scream as the pain reached a crescendo. He was thankful for the sound proofing in his workshop, and more thankful that the pain was short lived. The reactor finally came free and Tony stumbled onto his knees as the force was released.

Now time was crucial. He inspected the empty casing in the mirror and cursed again. It would need replacing and that would take precious time that he barely had. Still, he had no choice. Walking clumsily across the room, he rooted around his desk, frantically looking for the spare. Shit. Why couldn’t something just be where he’d left it for a change? Why hadn’t he thought to get everything ready before he’d torn out his life support? He cursed himself silently. The panic he’d been trying so hard to keep a lid on was starting to rise in the back of his throat and his hands scurried faster. Where the hell was it? He could have sworn he’d left it in the top drawer.

"For fucks sake Jarvis, a little help!" Tony bit out, glaring upwards in a glance as he started shovelling papers onto the floor.

"Third drawer on the left."

Tony was covered in sweat now, breathing heavily - and he was starting to shiver. That would be the shock setting in. He hadn't felt this bad since Obadiah had stolen the reactor and that memory was hardly helping with the state of terror he was wrestling with. He finally found the casing, grabbed on to it with trembling fingers, and fumbled to keep hold as he slumped back in the chair, his legs finally starting to buckle.

He panted quietly, focusing on getting his breathing even so he could get to work. No matter how hard he tried he couldn’t get his usually steady hands to stop shaking. This was making things impossible. He lifted a hand and beckoned his bots to come closer. They obeyed quickly with a concerned whir of electronics. Butterfingers leaned over him, taking the place of a steady hand, and for once managed to stay still while Tony slipped everything back into place.

Finally, there was some relief.  As the new reactor clicked into place he felt the power coarse through his chest and everything settled slowly into its normal rhythm.

Tony was still shaking. That had been far too close for his liking. Dummy whined behind him, trying to drape a blanket over Tony's shoulders but struggling with his single arm. The robot scampered away and came back with U in tow, the two of them together managing to complete the task. Tony smiled and patted the bots lovingly. Maybe they weren't completely useless.

He sank back onto a couch and wrapped the blanket around himself more tightly. Catching a glimpse of his reflection, he groaned at the deathly pale, sweat sheened glisten of his skin and gently rocked himself backward and forward for comfort. The bots fussed around him, refusing to leave their creator’s side, but Tony didn't notice. He was somewhere else entirely.

"Sir... Sir… SIR!"

Tony jerked and brought himself back out of the trance.

"Sir?" Tony held up his hand to halt the AI. He needed a minute. There was something in the back of his throat. He started coughing and pulled a trashcan closer to him before retching painfully. He spat out a mouthful of sickening, copper tasting liquid. Blood. Great.  Fuck, that wasn't good. He glanced upwards but Jarvis was one step ahead.

"Running scans Sir, please stay still." The AI had to wait until the coughs stopped wracking Tony’s body. Each one burnt and tore at his broken ribs, forcing tears to his eyes. Finally, he sunk to the floor and obliged, staying still while the AI did his job.

"No further damage Sir, the blood was just a remnant from damage to the reactor casing." Tony sighed in relief, shivering a little which brought a grimace to his face.

"Sir, may I add that Miss Potts arrived outside the tower 4 minutes ago and has just reached the penthouse."

"Oh shit!" Tony looked at himself in the mirror. He was regaining his color but he still looked very rough and trembled slightly. She couldn't find him like this; he didn't want her to worry. As soon she found out he where he was she'd be marching down here, and he really didn't feel like answering a barrage of questions or being fussed over.

He rushed to the sink and instantly regretted it, hanging onto the worktop and swaying slightly. Once the world stopped spinning, he ran some water into the bowl, rinsing the sweat from his face and running a hand towel through his hair to make it look less grimy. He inspected himself in the mirror one more time, slapping a little more color into his gray cheeks before ditching the blanket and making his way back up the stairs to the penthouse.

"Jarvis, don't you say a word," he warned the ceiling as he entered the stairwell.

Tony could almost feel Jarvis sigh. "Understood, sir."

No one had noticed Pepper come in. Clint was screwing up a paper ball, which he proceeded to throw it at a sleeping Natasha. Senses still sharp from the battle, she sensed danger and woke up with a start. The sudden movement jostled Bruce next to her. His head swung up groggily with a mumbled “What?” and stretched instinctively to remove the haze of sleep, elbowing Steve in the head. Steve jumped violently to his feet, standing on Thor’s arm and suddenly everyone was on high alert.

Clint started chuckling quietly and Natasha cursed him in Russian. What she threw back his way was not so soft and light. With his back aching Clint was not so nimble and the heavy ceramic mug glanced his forehead before smashing on the floor. His face curled into a childish sulk and he was soon the one being laughed at.

Pepper breathed a sigh of relief. They were all fine. She smiled at the scene in front of her and cleared her throat loudly, which brought the laughter to a halt as five faces snapped around to look at her.

"Natasha's paying for the mug!" Natasha glared at Clint from across the room. "And Bruce is paying for the floor!" They all glanced over at the Loki sized dent and Bruce chuckled for the first time at a memory shared between him and the Hulk. That had been fun.

"Does that mean you're volunteering to pay for the glass, Clint?" Pepper raised an eyebrow, eyes flitting the broken window. The others chuckled as Clint squirmed in his seat.

"Well… uh - technically that was Tony's fault, not mine!"

"Ok then, I'll take that up with him. Where is Tony?" she asked. The Avengers glanced around for a moment before Thor remembered.

"He said something about going to a shop. What he means to buy, I do not know." Thor's response only served to make Pepper look confused.

"He's in his workshop Pepper." Natasha translated, rolling her eyes at Thor’s naivete to Earthly expressions. He’d been living on and off the planet for a while now, hadn’t he?

Pepper’s mouth fell open in disbelief. Although she had to admit that part of her had expected it, she couldn’t quite believe he’d be so stupid.

"Oh, for God's sake, after what you've all just been through, surely fixing… uh… whatever , can wait! If he's locked himself in there again I'll…"

"Chillax Pep, I haven’t locked myself in there again."

Everyone turned around. Tony was leaning casually against the wall. Pepper looked him up and down, inspecting him for injuries. He looked ok. His face was a bit smashed up and on second glance the way he was leaning on the wall seemed more like he was clinging onto it for dear life. Pepper frowned and Tony noticed.

He walked over to the couch, calmly and fluidly, showing no sign of the sharp pain nor his endless weariness and practically sat on Clint to force him to move over. Pepper was still not convinced. She knew Tony well enough to understand that his acting ability was more than a rival to his intellect.

"I see that the circle of light glows again Stark," Thor said, noticing the more intense than normal glow of the arc reactor. "I take that this is a good sign."

Tony face-palmed. 'Thanks a lot, Goldilocks' he thought to himself.

Pepper’s eyes widened in horror. "The reactor went out ?!"

"Pepper, chill, it was only for a minute. It was drained and I swapped her over for a new one. Easy-peasy," he talked her down gently, waving his hands in a calming manner.

Pepper opened her mouth to argue, but she wasn't going to make more of a fuss in front of everyone. They were all tired, but that didn't mean Tony wouldn't be explaining later. In detail!

"What does it even do?" Steve asked, glancing at the arc.

"That's a long story Cap," Tony replied, hoping he sounded off-handed. Steve's unimpressed look spoke his thoughts before he did.

"We're a team now, Stark. If something like this happens again we need to know. I mean, you were on the ground, the light was out, and we didn't know what to do. The worst case scenario nearly happened."

"It's not going to happen again." Steve gave Tony the eyebrow. ‘ Oh God, not the eyebrow!’ He rolled his eyes. "Natasha knows, she can handle it," he finished, shrugging the question off to the Russian.

"Um, no. No, I don't Stark, not really,” she corrected, crossing her legs. “SHIELD only has very basic information about the palladium - which you keep deleting from the file, don’t think we haven’t noticed…” she scolded. “But after that were in the dark and I can't see you filling us in any time soon."

Pepper made eye contact with Natasha, unnoticed by the others. Her eyes pleaded with her to drop it - it had been a tough day and she could sense Tony getting edgy. This was a touchy subject and not one to be discussing right now. Natasha gave a small nod in response. She could understand Tony's need for a bit peace right now; hell, she needed it herself.

There was an awkward silence in the room for a moment while Tony considered his options. Having teammates really sucked. He should have stayed in his lab.

"Tony?" Steve demanded an answer. Natasha was about to back him down, but Tony had had enough.

"Ok, ok, fine! I'll give you your storytime Capsicle, but just not right now, ok? So… maybe later," he offered. There was a pause whilst Steve met Natasha's gaze and decided that was enough for now. He needed to lighten the mood; he knew he’d pushed a bit too far.

"That nickname better not stick, Stark." Steve raised his eyebrow again.

“Out of my hands now Steve.” Tony just lay his head back on the sofa and high-fived Clint. The pair’s eyes were already closing.

Pepper watched them quietly as they all slowly sank back into the couches and closed their eyes. She tiptoed to the kitchen and opened the fridge. Well, that was a surprise. Tony had actual food in it for once. She checked the expiration dates skeptically. Predictably, most of it was out of date, but there was enough.

"Who's hungry?" She chimed. Two hands instantly shot up followed by eager faces.

"But we just had Shawarma," Natasha protested, then reconsidered. "Fuck it. I'm hungry again already."

Thor and Steve needed no encouragement, but Bruce hung back.

"Not hungry, Bruce?" Pepper called from the kitchen as they all joined her, busy behind the stove.

"No thanks, I'm ok. I should probably get going," he replied uncomfortably. He felt that he’d overstayed his welcome already.

"You’re joking, right?" Tony called through the kitchen. "Where to, Calcutta?" Bruce simply shrugged.

"Seriously guys, you're all staying here, for tonight at least. And… uh, indefinitely, if you want." There was a mumble of concern from the Avengers.

"No, come on, think about it,”  Tony reasoned. “When was the last time that any of you had a real home? No offence intended, of course. It’s not like there isn't enough space. If it’s privacy you're worried about, you can have a floor each!"

There was a moment of silent consideration and then Steve took the lead.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea to stay together as a team. Who knows when we'll be needed again and we can't have another show like on the Helicarrier. We have to be better, smooth out those kinks. The world might depend on it again someday."

"Steve's right," Natasha said, needing no more convincing, and Clint nodded along with her. Tony glanced at Bruce and could see he would need a little more convincing, but had accepted it for now.

"I'm afraid I may not be able to commit to stay on Midgard, comrades,” Thor said apologetically. “I have duties to perform Asgard, and whether your SHIELD should permit it or not I must return my brother home to face his punishment."

"Sure thing Point Break, but you’ll have a room here whenever you want it."

"I appreciate that very much, Man of Iron."

"Tony please, just Tony."

"Ok… Tony," Thor tested out. Everyone winced.

"You know what, it doesn't sound right when you say it. Just call me whatever. Now come on slackers, get back here and help us. If you're staying here I'm sure as hell not cooking for you every day. It’s everyone for themselves!"

"I thought we were supposed to be 'being a team'," Clint pointed out

"Yeah well, I'm not your mother, Legolas." Tony eyed the pile in front of him and shook his head. "Pepper, you do realize how much we all eat, right? That's nowhere near enough."

"Tony, there's tons here. How on Earth could you eat all that?"

"Well for a start, he's not from Earth," Tony said, pointing at Thor, "he's got a supercharged metabolism," he swung his arm to point at Steve whilst stirring furiously with his other, "and me and Clint are just fat." For that, Tony got a face full of cold pasta sauce, flung with great accuracy from the other side of the kitchen. He wiped it off dispassionately and flung it straight back.

"Face it, Clint: I call you Legolas, but you look like you ate Orlando bloom."

"Oh man, you're on, Stark!" A handful of pasta flew across the room, but this time was artfully dodged by Tony and arranged itself in the hair of an unprepared Natasha and Thor. There was a burning Russian fury in Natasha eyes which instantly silenced the room and made jaws drop nervously. Clint's face was priceless.

"I think I'm going to leave now," Bruce said, shuffling toward the door. It was obvious what was coming next and the Hulk didn't need to make another appearance today.

"I might join you," Pepper seconded, and followed him calmly.

When the two came back an hour later the room was covered floor to ceiling in red sauce and uncooked pasta, and so too were the Avengers, who were now asleep on the couch. Having clearly abandoned the cooking, empty pizza boxes were strewn amongst them.

There were two boxes on the counter, marked in Tony's handwriting with Bruce and Pepper's names on top. They smiled softly. Bruce glanced at his friends - and strangely, it felt right to call them that - wondering how they had managed to guess his favourite type. After lingering for a moment, they retreated to another room with their pizzas to leave the others in peace.

Huginn had tried to approach Thor once the Avengers had been alone, yet the Prince seemed not to notice his calls. Muninn's return brought with it the demand that the Prince return to the golden city immediately, but as the ravens circled the strange glass tower they were unable to reach him. The glass was broken, they had a way in, yet there was something stopping them from entering - a strange energy meant they couldn't get closer than a few meters away from the battered humans and their Prince. They watched from the balcony as Thor slept, hoping that when they woke their presence would be noticed.

Chapter Text

Tony was too tired to sleep for long, however crazy that seemed. He woke up on his side, throbbing all over. The pain made him feel nauseous, but he resisted the urge to groan as he shuffled gingerly. Daylight still streamed in through the broken windows but it was finally showing signs of fading into night. The absence of glass was noticeable as the evening chill started to bite. He couldn’t have been out for more than a few hours, he mused. Tony swallowed down a yelp as he tried to sit up and his broken ribs shifted.

How the hell had he fallen asleep on his side? He must have passed out; the pain was horrific. He moved himself carefully, making one small move at a time. It must have taken him a good 10 minutes to get to his feet. He uttered a whimper as his muscles spasmed to maintain his balance, and he felt a bit dizzy but the room looked solid for a change. It took a further few minutes to pick his way through the sleeping bodies that surrounded him without waking them. It was like playing a dangerous and painful game of twister.

He picked a piece of pasta from his hair and inspected the layer of bolognese sauce, blood and rubble he was caked in. Then he saw the kitchen and a smile twitched at his lips. It looked like the battle of Stark tower kitchen had nearly matched the battle of Manhattan on the messiness front. He seriously needed a shower. And to clean up the kitchen. But the latter could certainly wait.

He glanced back at his teammates fondly and then extended his gaze across the damaged city. There were two black shapes sat at the edge of his balcony. As he looked more intently, he recognised them as ravens. Two abnormally large ravens were just sitting there, on his balcony, staring at him. There was a prickle in the air, an anxiety that bit at his stomach. The soulless eyes of the two birds seemed to bore into him, making him feel very unsettled. This was all feeling like some sort of weird and disturbing dream, so he pinched himself to check he was indeed awake.

The feeling of anxiety seemed to pass and the tiredness started to return. He waved his hands half-heartedly to shoo the damn birds, but he abandoned the endeavour quickly when he realised they hadn't so much as blinked. 'Could ravens even blink? He thought to himself. ‘Meh, whatever’ . The shower was calling. He turned to walk away, but suddenly his insides recoiled in burning hatred. Those bastard ravens. He needed to get rid of them. He imagined loading a shotgun and shooting the birds straight through their skulls, gaining intense satisfaction at the vision of their limp carcasses spiralling down from the balcony to the concrete below.

Tony jolted in confusion, letting out a small gasp. Why had he just thought that? What the fuck was wrong with him? Today had been far too weird already. He was tired, it had been a tough day and everything would be fine in the morning. Well, at least he hoped it would. Putting the birds out of his mind, he turned and left the room, thoughts of sleep and comfort taking the forefront of his consciousness.

The hot water should have made him feel better but it just sapped his strength more. At least now he was clean, but watching a stain of red wash down the drain despite knowing most of it was sauce was a bit disconcerting. He was hypnotised by the way it spiralled around his feet and before he could realize his mistake his mind was torn away from the safety of his home and suddenly he was back there, in the dark and the cold. The distant lights danced in the darkness and the hum of the Chitauri war ship resonated through the air and through his body. And then he couldn't breathe. The Iron Man suit clung to him, crushing and suffocating him. Then came the panic.

He gasped aloud and slammed through the shower door, landing on hands and knees. Desperate pants fell from his lips as he tried frantically to fill his lungs. He cursed quietly, groaning; deep breathing was horrendously painful and he had to calm down before he popped a rib and punctured his own lung.

“Pull yourself together Stark!” he hissed. God, he hoped he hadn't yelled out. He stayed silent and listened for a moment; the absence of worried footsteps seemed to confirm that no one had noticed the commotion. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? It's not like this was Afghanistan happening again, and Neil Armstrong didn't freak out about being on the moon. So why was he getting all fainty about a few seconds of being in space? There was no doubt he'd been through worse. God, he was such a loser.

Moving slowly in a vain attempt to avoid any pain, he slipped into a robe and went to turn the water off. Then he saw what he had done. He hadn't just barged through the shower door, he'd taken it with him. It was shattered on the floor where he had landed, taken clean off its hinges with the frame pulled out of the wall. The tiles were his knees had landed were cracked and plaster was hanging off the wall were the shower door had once been.

Well, shit. It had been a tough, adrenaline fueled day - that’s all this was about. Sleep was what he needed, just a good night’s sleep. He shook out the faint tremble in his arms and glanced back at the mess he’d made. He'd fix that later. Now he just wanted to fade into a calm and dreamless slumber.

Natasha's eyes snapped open, but she didn't panic. She knew the difference between a bad dream and reality and she certainly knew that Loki wasn't here commanding Clint to stab her. He was now safely under armed guard at SHIELD to give “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” a few hours of peace before his fate was decided. Not that that prison walls had stopped Loki before, but this time there were a few more people guarding him. Try, like 200.

She sat up slowly. God, her neck hurt.  It served her right for sleeping on a couch, she supposed. Around the room, the other Avengers were sleeping peacefully. There was a faint snoring coming from Thor, but no, there were no other noises but the sounds of their sleeping breaths. She smiled then yawned, closing her heavy eyelids again. She should probably get up and Clint should too. His back was bad after landing on his quiver and it certainly wouldn't appreciate sleeping that twisted.

Suddenly there was thunder - thunder inside the tower. Natasha's sat up quickly and looked around, concerned. That wasn't thunder, that was Thor's snoring . She must have fallen asleep again before the noise had risen to its crescendo. She wasn't the only one awake now, both Steve and Clint had been woken by the noise and were gazing around bleary eyed.

Clint groaned, clearly regretting his sleeping position. "So that's why they call him the God of Thunder!"

Natasha got up slowly and prodded Clint gently with her foot. "Come on, up."

"Why," Clint moaned, childish as ever.

"Because, we're all going to find ourselves that room that Tony offered and sleep in proper bed so you don't wake up with a broken spine. Shower first."

"Yes, Mom!" Clint protested, but Natasha had her arms on him, helping ease him to his feet. Clint’s face broke a grimace as he clutched his back before straightening up, nodding a thank you her way.

"You too, Cap."

"Yes Ma'am." Steve wasn't going to protest. For someone who was supposed to need next to no sleep, he was tired and he ached from his various injuries. His open wounds had been patched up and with his quick healing he would be fine by morning, but he wasn't so sure about the others. Thor's wounds had probably healed already, being a demi-God and all, but the others were only human. He knew Clint and Natasha had had a proper check-up, as he had done himself, but Tony had resisted; either because he was just being stubborn as usual or he was hiding something.

Steve looked around, puzzled. Where was Tony? He'd been there for the pasta fight (that was the most fun he'd had in a long, long time) and the billionaire had been one of the first to fall asleep.

He followed Natasha and Clint slowly down the hallway and he could hear a running shower when he passed what he assumed was Tony's room. Maybe he was being sensible, for once - if not Pepper would surely be onto him. Then he heard the chatter of Bruce and Pepper coming from behind.

"Oh hey, Pepper." Natasha smiled cheerily. "Which rooms can we sleep in? We're all pretty tired."

"Oh, any down that hallway, I think there's one each actually. Talk about good planning," she smiled sweetly.

"Why did Tony put so many rooms in this place if there's only two of you?" Steve asked, amused.

"Because he's rich and he can," Clint answered with a smirk on his face.

"Yep, pretty much." Pepper confirmed. "With a tower this big, you have to fill it with something."

"I suppose." Steve still didn't really understand, but that was about the best explanation he was going to get.

"What about sleeping beauty back there?" Clint asked.

"Who is this sleeping beauty of which you speak?" the Thunderer’s voice boomed as he came up behind them.

"Uh, no one," Clint waved a hand dismissively. They held back a snicker and Thor was too weary to notice or probe further.

"You all look exhausted, so I'll leave you to it. Take care of yourselves and just ask Jarvis if you need anything - I've given you all basic security clearance, but don't try to get into Tony's lab without his permission or he'll flip."

Natasha remembered her short time working for Stark; she hadn't once been inside.  "True, that place is like Fort Knox."

They all nodded. Even Clint was too tired to joke or make conversation. They dispersed into their various rooms and as they did Pepper retreated quickly to check on Tony.

Thor's sleep had been troubled. He kept seeing the ravens, Huginn and Muninn, and it gave him a bad feeling. Why? He did not know. The presence of his father's messengers was not necessarily a bad omen, so this feeling of foreboding seemed unwarranted. He opened his eyes to find himself alone. The others had obviously left as he could hear hushed voices and tired footsteps retreating down the corridor. Thor glanced out of the gaping hole in the tower and saw clear skies. The absence of Huginn and Muninn’s dark figures gave him comfort enough to dismiss the dream as exactly that. He took in a breath of the Midgardian air and turned to follow the others.

The ravens rejoiced when Thor woke alone, yet they could still not breach this invisible barrier. They cawed and danced on the balcony edge, flapping their wings in an attempt to draw the Prince's gaze. Finally, the Prince looked, he stared right at them, so how did he not see?! This was vexing indeed. Odin must be told. This time it was Huginn's turn to seek advice from their master. Muninn was left with the task of summoning the Prince's attention and returning him forthwith to Asgard. The question was, how?

Pepper was desperately relieved to find Tony tucked up in bed, although wriggling uncomfortably. He had clearly spent a while time trying to construct some sort of framework of pillows to get comfortable on his side.

She slid into bed beside him. It was a bit early for her to sleep, but she didn't want to spend another minute without Tony. She slid her hand into his and gently pulled his arm away from the pillow he was currently wrestling with.

"Let me help. Where do you want it?"

"Two inches up and three to the right," Tony sighed, clearly exhausted and no longer able to hide it. Pepper obliged as gently as she could, smiling at his engineer’s precision.

"Are you going tell me what you've injured, or do I have to ask Jarvis?"

Tony sighed. "Just a couple of broken ribs, hence the pillow fortress… and a few scrapes and bruises."

Pepper knew Tony too well and glanced up to the ceiling to ask Jarvis for confirmation.

"Sir, you’ve neglected to mention your pelvic fracture.”

"Thank you, Jarvis" Tony growled.

"Tony," Pepper frowned.

"I know, I know. I'm sorry, and no I don't need to go to hospital, they'd just tell me to go home and rest - which is what I'm trying to do right now," Tony whined and waved a hand lazily at the ceiling "Tell her, Jarvis."

"I can confirm Sir's statement Miss Potts." Pepper hummed, still a little annoyed that Tony wouldn't just be straight with her.

"Jarvis?" Tony grunted

"Yes Sir?"

"Put this floor on lockdown. No one leaves this floor before o’930 tomorrow,” Tony huffed and quickly reconsidered. “No wait… make that 10AM."

Pepper frowned and opened her mouth, but Jarvis beat her to it.

"Very well Sir. May I ask why?"

"SHIELD has organised a debrief at 7AM and I want to piss Fury off by keeping him waiting."

"Tony!"

"What!? We just saved the world and he wants us up that early!? He can go to hell. Can you pull that pillow out for me Pep?" Tony flicked his hand sluggishly.

"This one?" She tapped it gently and Tony nodded. "Better?"

"Yeah, nailed it."

Pepper wasn't convinced. "Are you sure you're comfy, Tony? Why don't you just sleep on your back tonight?"

"I can't."

"You can't?"

"No, I can't sleep on my back. Believe me, I've been trying since I was eight."

Pepper frowned in confusion, but let it go deciding now was not the time to probe further. "Ok, well just wake me if you need anything… please."

Tony grunted.

"Let me look after you, Tony. I love you and I nearly lost you today. I am so, so sorry I missed your call, I…" Tears were welling in Pepper's eyes.

"It's fine Pep." Tony's tone was dismissive, but then he heard Pepper's quiet sniffle as she tried to hold back the tears and felt guilty. He turned over very, very slowly despite Pepper's protests, so he was looking into her eyes.

"Come here." He whispered. Tony pulled Pepper in to a hug, albeit a gentle one. It spoke more than his words ever could to her. They didn't move for a while and Tony began to drift off finally. "I love you Pep," He mumbled, only half conscious.

Pepper smiled, and a tear ran down her cheek. "I love you too, Tony."

She didn't drift off for a while after they'd rearranged the pillows to allow for Tony's new position. She just lay there and watched him breathing. She still couldn't quite believe he was really here. She had been so convinced that she had lost him. Today had certainly not been an easy one, but one thing she had always found was that no matter how bad the day had been, it was how you felt when it ended that you remembered. So today had been a good day, because right now she was very happy. She had Tony back, the planet was safe and things couldn't be much better. Well, apart from the small, fast, laboured breaths Tony took. He was in far more pain than he was letting on, but that was nothing new. She closed her eyes and prayed, to whoever was listening, thanking them again for bringing him back home and not leaving him in some godforsaken reach of outer space.

She finally drifted off, though even the tiniest of twitches that Tony made in the night woke her from light slumber. He didn't wake once.

Steve was livid. He'd dragged himself out of bed at 6:15 AM to find that not only did nobody else have any intention of getting up, but Tony had locked him into the penthouse so there was no way he could get to the SHIELD debrief. Was he the only one around here with a sense of duty? There was protocol to follow and it wasn't as if he wasn't tired too, he had been there with them!

He sat on a stool and rested his head on the worktop. Maybe he was overreacting. They were all exhausted and he supposed that SHIELD could wait. Perhaps it was, for once, Tony who was being sensible. He scoffed in amusement at that thought.

Sleep filled his mind once he accepted the situation. He needed to go back to bed for a few hours.

"Morning, Cap." Tony wandered groggily into the kitchen and made straight for the coffee machine. Steve woke with a start, a red mark on his forehead giving away the fact he must have fallen asleep on the kitchen counter.

"Go back to bed." Tony enjoyed the chance to give orders. Steve smiled weakly as the fog of sleep cleared and glanced up at the clock. Yikes, it was quarter past eight already.

"No, once I'm up, I'm up.”

Tony chuckled, “Yeah?” He said with raised eyebrow. “Tell that to your forehead.”

Steve rubbed the ridge absentmindedly and smiled. “Well, you know some of us intended to go to that debrief this morning."

Tony looked at him quizzically, the glint in his deep hazel eyes the only thing giving away his insincerity. He slapped a hand over his mouth and gasped in a moment of realization. "Oh no, the debrief! I forgot all about that." He looked at the clock in mock horror. "Oh no, it’s 8:15, we've missed it! Nevermind, we'll have to reschedule."

"Very funny, Stark."

"I do try."

Steve just shook his head in defeat as Bruce walked in yawning and trying to straighten out his hair.

“Hey guys.” Bruce’s voice was gravely and tired. “Can I?” Bruce looked at Tony and pointed to the fridge.

“Knock yourself out.” Tony got out his phone and glanced at the screen. “I’m popular this morning. 14 missed calls from Fury. I’ll call him after lunch.” He said flippantly.

“Tony seriously, winding Fury up already?” Bruce sighed.

“Yep.” Tony said, dropping the P.

Steve couldn’t help but chuckle at Tony’s completely carefree attitude. He sometimes wished he could be like that - it would be nice to not always feel responsible and bound to follow orders.

"Why are you up, Stark, if you forgot all about the debrief?” Steve asked with a little concern. “Couldn't sleep?"

"Nah, slept like a log. I'm not tired now, 11 hours is more than I usually have in a fortnight."

"And isn’t that all too true," Pepper said, walking in behind them and ruffling Tony's hair lovingly. She had tried and tried to get Tony to stay in bed, but she knew it was pointless once he had set his mind on something. In all honesty, she knew he probably hadn't been comfy and she didn't blame him. She slid a couple of Advil along the worktop towards him. He scooped them up thankfully, dry swallowing, then planted a kiss in her cheek.

"Hungry?" She turned to Steve as Bruce was already helping himself to cereal.

"Did someone say food?" Clint poked his head around the corner, eager eyed. He waddled in stiffly, cradling his injured back. Tony didn’t mock as he usually would have - every one of them was sore as hell and it really was no fun. Instead, he pushed the painkiller box his way which earned him a grunt of thanks.

Seconds later, a bleary eyed, long-haired blonde appeared wearing a borrowed T-shirt that was far too tight on him.

"I have a feeling our food bill will be going up considerably while you're all staying here." Pepper grinned. It was nice to have other people in this place.

"You betcha!" Clint grinned at Pepper. "You got bacon?"

She just smiled and nodded.

"I remember these delicious morsels!" Thor mumbled, head in the cupboard.

"Oh my God!" Clint went to jump up but quickly realized it was a bad idea, grimacing as pain jolted up his back. "You've got Pop Tarts!" The grimace faded and was replaced by a glint in his eye.

"God no, don't give Clint Pop Tarts, he's hyper enough without them,” Natasha said, emerging from the hall. She was clearly sleepy and not in the best of moods. She needed coffee. "Could you guys have made any more noise?! I was trying to sleep."

"Sorry, ‘Tash," Clint said sincerely.  Her room had been closest to the kitchen and if she was even half as beat as Clint felt, she would not have enjoyed being woken prematurely.

"It’s fine, couldn't sleep anyway. Bad dreams," she admitted.

“Huh, yeah. Join the club.” Clint coughed.

"Yeah well, I’d bet good money most of us struggled to sleep. Some of us are just a little more reluctant to admit it than others," Steve said, staring at Tony in particular, who rolled his eyes in response.

"Yeah," Clint considered, "yesterday was some weird shit."

"Agreed," Tony nodded. The room had fallen into a contemplative silence.

"I'm just glad you're all back safe." Pepper ruffled Tony's hair and placed her hand supportively on Natasha's back as she stood next to her.

"Yeah, it's a damn miracle, really!" Natasha mused. "We're all still standing."

"Speak for yourself," Clint said, clutching his back and sitting awkwardly on the stool.

"Oh, great, we're comparing injures now!" Tony rolled his eyes and shuffled the bacon in the pan.

"Ah, Comrades, this is something we often do on Asgard after a mighty battle, I must share with you my tale!"

Pepper and Natasha exchanged a glance as Thor began to tell of his battle with Loki, of course omitting the fact that he had been outwitted by his brother. Thor lifted his shirt to show off his stab wound, though it had faded to a red ridge on his skin, already nearly repaired. Nonetheless, it earned him a high five from Clint (the concept of which needed explaining to the Norse God which was quite a source of amusement for the others in the room).

Natasha showed off a bit of road rash on her hands and arms from skidding across the roof, and Clint complained some more about his back, but Tony and Cap stayed silent.

"Steve, Stark, do join with us in the sharing of our triumph!" Thor invited.

"Nothing exciting over here, I'm afraid.” Steve said. "Most of mine have healed."

"And I'm just perfect!" Tony received a glare from Pepper which he ignored entirely.

"Spoil sports!" Clint sulked, getting up gingerly and sliding towards the fridge. His stomach was impatient for something and the smell of the bacon was driving him insane. As he brushed past Tony, a glint in his eye, his hand lunged out, thumping Stark playfully in the chest.

Pepper gasped as a pained grunt escaped Tony. His legs buckled and he tumbled backwards onto the floor. Hissing on the cold tiles, he gasped for air, trying to mask the pain but his face betrayed him with a grimace.

"Stark?" Steve rushed forward but was beaten by the ever vigilant Pepper.

"’M fine," Tony managed to gasp, swatting off the concerned crowd and stumbling back to his feet - but this unsettled his lungs, sending him into a spiralling coughing fit, the agony of which brought him back onto his knees.

Natasha thwacked Clint on the back of the head, hard, and received a yelp as well as his 'how was I supposed to know?' face in return.

Once Tony had recovered, Steve offered him a hand which was reluctantly accepted. "Still feeling perfect, Stark?"

"Yep."

"How many ribs have you broken?" Steve said knowingly.

"Seven and cracked his sternum." Pepper butted in, knowing Tony would only lie to cover the state he was in.

"Much appreciated Pepper and they’re only cracked, not broken,” Tony huffed and Pepper shrugged unapologetically.

"Clint, you idiot, you could have punctured his lung!" Natasha wasn't surprised to hear of Tony's injuries. She had learned in her time at Stark industries that Tony was very good at hiding his pain, but the others did a double-take. Steve gripped the bridge of his nose in annoyance. Why hadn't he just told them?

Clint was apologizing and rambling about his innocence in the background. Tony was still claiming he was fine and trying to reclaim some personal space, while Bruce and Pepper fought to guide him to a seat so he could regain his breath. Tony succumbed if only to get them to leave him alone and it worked. They backed away, giving Tony his space.

"Hang on, how did you know how many ribs I'd broken? I never said," Tony stared quizzically at Pepper. Realization sunk in. "JARVIS!"

"Yes, sir."

"I am going to dismantle your motherboard and shove it so far…"

"Sir, Colonel Rhodes is here."

"No, no, no, you're not getting out that easily buddy "

"Tony!" the elevator slid silently onto the penthouse floor and Rhodey emerged, arms outstretched.

"Rhodey you son of bitch, where the hell were you?!" Tony questioned, keen to get the attention off of himself.

"Sorry Tones, I would have come but it seemed like you all had it handled." The two were like reunited brothers, causing Pepper to grin and Natasha to smile warmly at the exchange.

"Next time you're planning on flying through a wormhole, please let me know in advance and I'll book a day off fighting the Ten Rings."

Wormhole. Tony stopped dead. The cold and loneliness coursed through him for a moment but he regained himself quickly. Those who noticed Tony's pause also knew about his history with the Ten Rings, and he was extremely grateful for the cover it provided him. He sucked in a few breaths and Rhodey put a hand on his shoulder without changing his expression.

"Ah, how are my old friends?" Tony pulled his trademark smile, composure regained and tapped Rhodey on the shoulder as a signal for him to remove his hand.

"Oh, pretty dead now."

"Glad to hear it." Tony turned around and looked at the others faces, who were clearly expecting some sort of explanation.

"Rhodey, Avengers. Avengers, Rhodey."

Silence.

Tony looked confused, then saw the expectant face of Steve saying 'explain' and rubbed his forehead in annoyance. Seriously, that look burnt holes into him.

"Alright, alright, I'll give you your storytime, Rogers." Tony sank into the chair and sighed quietly. Pepper ran a comforting hand through his hair before settling with the rest of the Avengers and a slightly confused Rhodey to listen.

Chapter Text

"Once upon a time…" Tony began in his most annoying voice.

"Tony." Pepper knew this was hard for him, and she wasn't mad - her comment was more to remind him that she and Rhodey were there with him and that he didn't have to do anything he didn't want to.

Tony sighed. Maybe that was the case, but he wasn't going to show weakness by not going through with this now.

"Well, you all know my company used to sell weapons." There was a nod of confirmation from most, although to Thor this whole story was fairly new. Apparently, though, he deemed it best to simply listen and try as follow as best he could because he didn’t ask for clarification.

"The policy was that we only sold to military,” Tony continued, “but, well, I was too busy in my own little world to bother checking. So, I'm presenting my new missile in some Afghani dessert, and riding back in the convey we get attacked. The soldiers in the car with me were killed and when I tried to make a run for it I was blown up by my own missile."

Natasha knew this much, but is hurt more to hear him say it with such dispassion; it was like he thought he deserved it. She frowned and glanced at Rhodes, who was trying to maintain constant eye contact with his friend.

She realised that Tony was acting as if he was addressing them all, but in reality, he was just addressing his best friend. This was hard for him to recall and perhaps the first time he’d done it to anyone other than Col. Rhodes.

"There was this doctor, Yinsen.” Tony said, unable to keep a twinge of sadness from his voice. “He pulled as much shrapnel out of me as he could, but he couldn't get it all. That guy was the genius; to do that in a cave with me thrashing around…"

"Thrashing around?" Natasha couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You weren't sedated?"

"Uh.. well, kinda…" Tony mentally cursed his slip. He could never help praising Yinsen but the last thing he wanted was their sympathy.

"No, he wasn't." Rhodey could see Tony trying to back out of answering, and it needed to be said.  Tony opened his mouth to object, but Rhodey held up his hand. "Chloroform doesn't count, Tony."

The others were silent for a moment. Natasha was contemplating how she hadn’t seen this during her month in Stark’s employ. She was supposed to be able to read people like a book. She realised now how much she’d been missing with Stark. Tony only allowed people to see exactly what he wanted them to, and that scared her a little.

The others felt sick to their stomachs.

Tony just wanted it over with.

"Never mind all that.” He huffed, jaw clenched mask cracking a little. He regained his composure. “He put in an electromagnet in my chest to keep the rest of the shrapnel out, but that only gave me three months so I built this." He tapped on the glowing circle of light gently, still mindful of his aching ribs. "This keeps the shrapnel out of my heart, so this goes out and it’s goodnight Vienna."

"So, what can we do if it does go out?" Steve remained objective as always. A little too objective and a little too inhuman. The others just couldn't stop staring at Tony and the poor guy, who was already uncomfortable, was refusing to show just how awkward and vulnerable this was making him feel.

"I have a few spares around the place, mostly in the lab. If you're lucky it's just the core that needs replacing but sometimes the housing gets damaged and the whole thing needs doing. Basically, Jarvis will talk you through it if anything happens." Tony continued confidently, as if this was a completely normal conversation.

"But what if, for whatever reason, Jarvis is offline?" Bruce spoke up.

Tony contemplated that. He'd considered it before, of course, and it was a fair point. The only way around it was a demonstration and there were problems with that. 1) It would fucking hurt with all his bruising 2) He didn't want to show the Avengers, or Pepper, or Rhodey all that bruising and 3) Taking the reactor out unless absolutely necessary was never a good plan.

He took a deep breath. Did he trust these people? Was he really going to do this?

Nobody noticed Tony's struggle; his face was contemplative though in his head he was now bordering on panic. To Tony, the silence was deafening, accentuating the pounding of his heart thumping in his skull.

"I've done it before," Pepper contributed. She held up her hand before anyone could interrupt; "And I know I won't necessarily be there. My point is it's not something that's easy to describe unless you see it."

"And taking it out isn't exactly safe,” Rhodey added.

"Didn't he used to have to do it to change the palladium?" Clint added. He had read Stark's SHIELD file but had come to realize that only what Stark wanted in the file was in that file.

"Yes, but…"

"It's ok, Rhodey,” Tony took back the reins, his friends having come to his rescue. “There might be no other way and Bruce has a point."

"Tony, we don't want you to do anything you're uncomfortable with," Bruce emulated Pepper and Rhodey's primary concern.

"Sir, may I suggest a solution?"

"Go ahead, J."

"Sir, there is a disassembled reactor in your lab yet to be disposed of. It would serve as a suitable demonstration."

Thank God for his AI, able to think straight when he certainly didn't seem to be.

"Thank you, J." Tony ran down to the workshop to grab what he needed.

"So,” Steve turned to Rhodey and Pepper now Tony was out the room. “They captured Tony because they wanted him to make weapons?"

Steve of course had known the main bulk of the story, he’d read Tony’s Shield file, but he could sense there were gaps and wanted to pry for more information while Tony was out of the room.

Rhodey nodded, wary of giving away too much and betraying his friend's confidence. "Yes, but he didn't instead he made the first Iron Man suit and escaped into the desert.”

"He made Iron Man in a cave?" Clint hadn't really believed it when he'd read it; yes Tony was a genius but… was that really possible?

"Yes, nowhere near what it is now but it could shoot and it could fly. It just wasn't so good at the landing part." Rhodey confirmed.

Steve jumped straight back in. "So, did he just let them think he was giving them what they wanted?"

"Yes, he refused at first from what I can tell but… let's just say he realized he could use it to his advantage."

"He refused? I'm guessing they didn't take that well," Steve said, backtracking much to Rhodey’s irritation.

"No, they wouldn’t have. He'll have been tortured; some of his injuries were evidence of that, but you'll never get him to talk about it."

"He's still said nothing to either of us," Pepper backed up Rhodey, feeling slightly guilty about doing this without Tony's permission. She trusted they had his best interests at heart.

"Jeez." Clint exhaled sharply and a painful silence fell for a while in the room. Maybe Tony hadn't had such a perfect little life after all.

"Ok!" Tony appeared back at the top of the stairs oblivious to the conversation in his absence.

"This is the casing, it should normally stay in my chest and the reactor should just twist in nice and easy, really not that hard." He placed the reactor in the middle of the table, keeping hold of the casing.

"But if it looks like this," he needlessly pointed out the obvious buckling on the outsides which had caused him such a problem yesterday, "then it needs to come out - it's damaged.”

"Will the damage always be this obvious?" Bruce asked.

"Well… no, but you can leave it unless it's obvious. It should work fine and I’ll figure it out after. The priority is to get the new reactor in." Tony looked up to check everyone was following. "If you do have to replace this, hold out the wire - but don't let it touch the casing and don't pull the magnet out at the end."

Pepper blushed, remembering her panic when she had had to help Tony with it the first time. But then, something clicked.

"Where did you get this casing from, Tony?" Tony just stared at his feet, hoping Pepper would drop it. "You replaced that after the battle by yourself? Is that why you were down in the lab?"

"Christ Tony, if the casing's this damaged what the hell do your ribs look like?" Bruce exclaimed.

Tony sighed. He felt backed into a corner. He didn't want or deserve this attention and his chest began to feel heavier and more crushed than it already was. He looked up at the expectant faces, keeping his mask in place. They couldn't know how vulnerable he was feeling right now.

He fisted his hands into the hem of his t-shirt and reluctantly lifted it just enough to answer their question. He was greeted by gasps and sympathetic hisses as the extensive, nearly black, stain across the centre of his chest was revealed.

"I think friend Tony may have triumphed with the best injury." It was the first time Thor had spoken and he was unusually quiet and solemn. Natasha clipped Clint on the back of his head again for thumping Tony earlier. Clint didn’t say anything. He knew he deserved it, accident or not.

"No Point Break, your stab wound is pretty cool." Thor smiled weakly at Tony's remark.

"Was that from really all from the battle?" Rhodey asked skeptically.

"Mostly, but sorting out the reactor wasn’t pretty this time." Tony admitted, dropping his shirt and covering up as quickly as he could without the others noticing his eagerness. "Getting the reactor out was the main problem; because the casing was deformed, it wouldn't just twist out. If that happens on the field, just yank it out. Yes it might hurt, but it's better than me dying so just get on with it."

"So yesterday you were in the lab, quite literally ripping your heart out of your chest." Trust Clint to be blunt.

Tony rolled his eyes but nodded curtly.

"Why didn't you tell us? We could have helped," Steve asked.

"Because it's not your problem, guys. Unless I'm unconscious, I can deal with it - and seriously, you wouldn’t have been much help anyway."

Nobody believed that, but they also had nothing to say. Bruce picked up the casing and reactor inspecting them, practicing sliding them together. It was difficult with the damage but considerably easier than it been for Tony in the lab. It got passed around as mumbles of conversation broke out and Tony took the chance to slip out into the corridor.

Why had he done this? Everyone always said talking about things made you feel better and the others had taken it well, but he felt worse. A lot worse. None of them would ever look at him the same way again and he couldn’t help but wonder if her could really trust them.  After everything that had happened over the past few days, he’d decided to let a few more people into his circle. But the people he was talking about were the most unlikely friends a person could have. Two of them lied for a living, one of them had serious anger issues, Thor wasn’t from this planet, and he wasn’t going to get started on Steve. He supposed that even if one of the super spies reported back to SHIELD he could easily hack in and delete anything he wanted from his file, which he had been doing for the past 5 years anyway.  But this whole “sharing” thing was bringing up so many bad memories; things he'd never said to Pepper… even things he'd never said to Rhodey.

And then there was that new memory hanging over him, fresh in his mind and refusing to leave him - the thing that had really stopped him sleeping that night. The blasted battle and that damned portal… sometimes he wished he could just press reset and start again. If only life was that easy.

He felt his heart rate rising in his chest and he tried to quell the racing thoughts in his head. But he couldn’t. He was drawn back to the thing that was eating most at his mind; by far the worst of his truckload of problems. The question of what Jarvis had found during his injury scan was still weighing on his mind.

He was carrying some sort of weird energy signature. It was inside him, spreading fast like nothing Earth science had ever seen. It was pure energy, but behaved like a living organism; multiplying, attaching itself to his cells one by one. Jarvis was frantically running diagnostics, but Tony didn’t have much hope or figuring out what this was. He was baffled, completely, and that didn’t happen often - and when it did, it was usually an exciting experience rather than an utterly frightening one. Trust him to come back with a space virus to add to the pile.

Perhaps he'd casually run it past Thor and Banner later, pass it off as something else. He'd have to do it soon, though. This thing was spreading far too fast for his liking.

Rhodey slipped out to join Tony, and Pepper followed. She just hugged him gently around the waist. No words were needed.

"That was brave, Tones. Well done." Rhodey ruffled his friend’s hair as Pepper let go. Tony smiled wearily in response. "Feel better?"

"Yeah, a bit," Tony lied, but convincingly. He was usually honest to the only two people he allowed himself to be truly close to, but if it made them less worried he could cope with his feelings alone.

Rhodey could tell, though. He’d known Tony too long. The Avengers had better not screw up Tony's trust like he had done all those years ago - he'd made Tony spill his guts and then not been there to help him through the aftermath, and the consequences had been disastrous.

"Friend Stark! Come quick, there is fire!" The voice of a demigod broke through the pensive silence.

"Oh, God," Tony breathed in the smell of smoke and singed meat. "We forgot about the freaking breakfast!"

……

The minor fire had been put out by Natasha whilst Clint flapped around unhelpfully. The next blaze was left to Steve to fix. Only minutes after Tony had taught him to use it, Thor managed to spark some more flames by trying to put croissants in the toaster. Pepper for once just laughed at the chaos; she so strongly hoped they would decide to stay at the tower. Their presence made the place feel alive and she could see many of them were as much in need of a true home as Tony was in need of the company.  Tony was already complaining about the mess they had made of the place and how much it was going to cost to clean up after their mishaps, but she could tell he was happy in reality. The awkwardness of the arc reactor demonstration had already started to fade from his mind and she saw his shoulders slowly relaxing as the morning went on. As she watched him more closely, she realised it was as if little flames had begun burning in his eyes. It was just like it had been when they had first got together. She smiled at the thought as she shut down the automatic call to the fire department.

……

Rhodes could scarcely believe it. That night on the roof, when Tony and Pepper had kissed for the first time, he could have sworn he saw a flicker - the tiniest spark of fire in Tony's eyes. He had jested and told them to get a roof, but when the next time he saw Tony the flames had taken hold. They were tiny, barely noticeable, but they were there all the same. He hadn't seen them for a long, long time, if he was honest he'd never thought he would see them again.

He was overjoyed. He had waited so long and tried so hard to see Tony truly happy again. Maybe everything really would be ok now, maybe he'd get back the friend he'd been missing for so long. But that was selfish. Yes, it had been difficult dealing with the man that Tony had become. Rhodey knew that he owed Tony because he was partly to blame for it in the first place. He'd promised to be there after the crash, and if he had been then maybe none of this would ever have happened. He could never forgive himself for letting his friend down then, and he would spend the rest of his life putting that right.

He'd never thought he'd manage it - well, he couldn’t take the credit. It was Pepper, really. That woman was the best thing that could have happened to Tony, finally he had given himself a chance to be happy and he prayed to God that it would last.

And then the Avengers had come along…

From what he had gathered, it had been a difficult start for the “team”, but seeing the atmosphere in that Tower when he walked in he could tell that there were a lot of damaged souls that were starting to heal now that they had come together. The simple fact that Tony, despite his reluctance, had opened to this group of people who he had only met yesterday told him that there were going to be some very strong bonds formed over the next few months. Hope was something that had been missing from his life for a very long time, and it was brilliant.

Chapter Text

All this talk of the past was bringing back some very old memories for Tony, most of which he wanted to forget. Yet there was one that he had been wanting so desperately to re-live since the day he got home from that cave. If the team realized how much he still wasn't telling the - if Pepper realised how little she really knew about him - they would be truly astonished and probably quite heartbroken.

Tony had lived through too much to be naïve enough to let people know anything more than what he wanted them to. He was a master of making people think they knew something that he'd given away without realizing. But Tony Stark never made such mistakes. Trust was for dead men, and he was determined to take his secrets with him to the grave. That didn't mean he didn't trust Rhodey and Pepper, nor that he wasn't starting to trust the Avengers. He would certainly willingly lay down his life for any of them; it was just that he knew too well that people let you down. Even people who deserved the trust you placed in them - because people made mistakes, and hurt you without meaning to.  And that was a risk he wasn’t willing to take anymore.

Tony slipped away the second the others settled back into a rhythm of normal conversation. Of course, he excused himself to his workshop for armour repairs, which he insisted couldn't be delayed (and no, he wouldn't be down there all day, Pepper). But for once that's not where he went.

Pepper had always wondered why Tony had insisted on having a pool in the tower. Fair enough, he wanted to show off, and she supposed a pool was on every rich person’s list of things to have. But to have built a 50 meter competition pool when he openly admitted that he couldn't swim was strange indeed.

Of course, Pepper had followed Tony the minute he had excused himself - she was worried and wanted to make sure he wasn't going straight down to the workshop and breaking out the drink. She was surprised when at the door he paused and then took the stairs back to the very upper floors, avoiding the elevator entirely. She decided not to follow further; he was probably heading for the roof to get some air, and it wasn't as if he didn't need it. She'd drag him down in half an hour. He certainly didn't need to be left on his own with his thoughts for too long. She was sure that Jarvis would be looking out for him regardless. It had been a stressful few days and she owed it to herself to spend 5 minutes not worrying about Tony.

Pepper didn't know the half of it. Tony's mind had always worked far too fast, never turning off, never pausing… and they always badgered him for not getting enough sleep. Try getting sleep when you have designs and equations running through your head in raging torrents! Only when they calmed to gentle streams could he even hope to sleep, and that never really lasted. But he was thankful for that - he had to keep his head busy, because when it wasn't the dark memories would start to eek their way into the corners of his mind. And once they were there, they would grow and linger. It had been this way for most of his life; it was a wonder he hadn't gone insane years ago. In hindsight, that’s probably exactly why his father had ended up like he did. He refused to let himself become anything like that man.

He had told Pepper he couldn't swim - yet that couldn't have been further from the truth. His mother had tried everything to allow Tony to have his own life as a child, a more ordinary life, but with Howard as a father that had never been easy. In the end, it had proved impossible. Back in the day, he used to churn between the two tiled walls of the pool at Stark Manor. It was his only escape - from the math and the lab work and the constant put downs of his father. And you know what? Tony had been pretty damn good at it. He’d competed for a little while under an assumed name, until his father saw through his mother's deception and put an end to that . Howard's son an athlete? Only morons choose sport over science. But that never stopped him - nothing could. Whenever his father was away, asleep, or passed out drunk (which become more and more frequent as the years passed), he would escape to the pool and only then did he ever truly feel free. Training was like a drug to him; or it had been, until his life fell apart.

Tony sat on the side of the pool for the first time in decades, the smell of the chlorine rising to his nostrils. The heat forced small beads of sweat onto his skin, which contrasted sharply with the cool of the tiles under his bare feet. He was home. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply. The chemical taste of the air and the gentle lapping of the water washed a wave of calmness over him and for the first time in years there was nothing whirring round in his head. No fear, no sorrow, nothing, just a sense of freedom and of inner peace. This was incredible.

He dipped a toe lazily into the cool water and looked across the expanse of the pool in front of him. He could have made his living swimming between those two walls, if he’d be born to any other family that is, and he couldn't imagine anything that would have made him happier. His best memories were of standing on starting blocks with a different name on the scoreboard, no pressure on his shoulders other than his own expectations and completely equal with everyone standing round him.

Tony had barely noticed that he’d allowed himself to slip into the water. The pool was deep at both ends and the water soaked into his clothes as he sank slowly below the surface. He lay on his back, totally submerged and stared to the surface above. A long trail of bubbles left his nose and twirled slowly upwards. He loved the way the light danced on the water in little ripples, there was no pattern to it, an unpredictable beauty that didn't need understanding.

But then the spotlights sensed the movement and switched on. Tony was blinded and screwed his eyes shut. All too quickly he has reminded why he didn't come here anymore.

It was dark and icy cold. He was desperate for breath but all that surrounded him was an inky black pool. He tried to move, to fight back to the surface but the pain from his chest was paralysing and four strong pairs of hands were forcing him down. Panic consumed him, he needed to breath. He could feel his consciousness fading fast - he thrashed and thrashed while the pain just continued to rise. He gasped for air and was rewarded with a lung full of water. Every fiber of his body was screaming for air, but there was none to be had. He tried to scream, but all that escaped was a stream of bubbles.

Then the hands moved and he was forced upwards, up towards the blinding spot-lights, his full weight yanked by his hair. For five seconds he gasped for air, greedily gulping in the oxygen. It felt only like the blink of an eye before he was forced under again.

Tony gasped for air and clung onto the poolside for dear life. Panic filled the mind that only seconds ago had been utterly at ease. He coughed and sputtered, the water he had choked on now spilling out onto the tiles. He took a minute, trying to breathe, to calm down and drag his mind away from that memory. There was no Jarvis to help him down here. This was the only place in the tower he hadn't been installed. It made him feel very alone but in this case, he was grateful, he couldn't let the others see him like this.

Tony was freezing, his entire body shaking as the shock racked through him. He should have known this was going to happen. Even now, he had to psych himself up just to put his face under the shower. Yet, somehow, he had just felt that he could do it.  Perhaps after all that had happened in the last 48 hours, everything he’d overcome, he'd felt that maybe he would be able to take back one of the things in his life that he had lost and that had mattered so much to him. Being in Afghanistan had made him into Iron Man, made him take back responsibility for his life, but of all the ways they could have tortured him waterboarding was perhaps the worst. Other than taking his hands, he guessed. They had made him fear the only thing that had used to give him strength. He couldn't let them win. He had escaped them. It was years ago, and yet they still had that hold over him. No, he had pushed too far today but that wasn't going to stop him. He'd have to take it slowly one step at a time but he would beat this.

He had decided. He was going to swim again.

It had taken all of Tony's strength the haul himself out of the pool with his shaking limbs. The exertion made him feel like he'd broken his ribs all over again and the permanent ache of the arc reactor had grown into a crescendo, stabbing like a knife in the chest. He had somehow made it up to his room, got out of his sodden clothes and showered to remove the smell of the chlorine, though this time no amount of self-convincing could make him put his face under the jet.

He put back on his usually cheery face to greet the avengers in the penthouse. They'd settled down to watch a movie and Tony joined them, but made sure that he took the single seat to avoid anyone jostling his aching ribs.

Pepper greeted him with a soft smile, but noticed the change of clothes. "You've changed."

"Yeah got engine oil everywhere." Tony replied seamlessly

"What cars you got down there?" Clint looked interested.

"Not many, most of them are in Malibu. I'll show you some time if you want."

Pepper knew Tony hadn't gone to the lab; Jarvis had confirmed as much. She'd assumed he'd gone to the roof, so why the change of clothes? She frowned in thought. Tony was acting strangely, and she supposed it was to be expected. She and Rhodey exchanged a look that spoke volumes. They would both be keeping a very close eye on Tony Stark.

The movie of choice was Titanic. Apparently there had been some reference earlier in the day which Steve had obviously failed to understand, so the Avengers had taken it upon themselves to educate him. The atmosphere in the tower was fantastic, Clint's running commentary finally got on Natasha's nerves, resulting in a quite comical fight to which Clint quickly surrendered. With a strong battle of wits in the room, mainly between Clint and Tony, Steve and Thor didn't get to hear much of the film and after the inevitable sing along the room descended into silence as the movie drew to a close. Natasha teased Clint for tearing up, which of course was because of something in his eye, but there was barely a dry eye in the house by the time the final credits began rolling.

Water, freezing cold water. They had to pick a film with a load of drowning people in it. Tony closed his eyes and set as many calculations running as he could to keep the memories from returning. Thankfully, it seemed to work, but not before Bruce noticed him turning pale.

"You ok, Tony?"

"Yeah, just peachy, thanks. You?"

"I'm fine Tony, you just look a bit pale. That's all."

"I must agree Man of Iron, you do look pasty."

Everyone was staring now, and Tony had to admit he didn't feel so good, but perplexingly he realised it wasn't to do with the film.

"Seriously guys I'm…. Ow! Fine!" Suddenly, Tony's body was racked with coughs and shit that hurt his ribs. Tony doubled over as his chest rattled; Bruce was instantly by his side, quickly followed by the others. He was going to puncture a lung if he wasn't careful.

"Just breathe for me, Tony." Bruce had his hand lightly on his back.

"I'm …” he coughed several times, “… trying!" he bit back.

"Tony," Pepper scolded, but it was a tone of worry rather than annoyance.

Finally, the coughs started to subside and Tony's pain was relieved.

"Seriously guys, I was fine until you all started asking me questions."

"Tony, you should get checked out." Oh, listen to Steve! Ever the voice of reason.

"I did! Tell them, Jarvis."

"I can confirm that Sir's injuries at the time of his assessment did not need further treatment."

"See!"

"But in light of recent events I would suggest further diagnostics to detect if there has been any change to his condition."

"Oh, for God's sake, Jarvis!" Tony practically screamed at his AI. The room recoiled in shock.

"Tony, seriously, what's the big deal?" Clint was next to join the bug-Tony-party and Tony was about to make his next childish retort, but he knew he was fighting a losing battle and he was really, really tired.

"Fine whatever, I'll get Jarvis to give me another look over." Tony still sounded very irritated which made Pepper and Rhodey blink in confusion. Something wasn't right. Yes Tony could be a child when it came to these things, but he was rarely this irate.

"Sorry Tony, that's not good enough. We're heading out to the SHIELD debrief. I called Fury earlier and we've kept them waiting long enough. Afterwards, you are having a full medical check-up." Rhodey winced. Steve giving Tony orders was unlikely to end well.

"No way."

"Yes way."

"Jesus Steve, seriously. Get lost."

"Come on Stark, you know it's for the best." Ok, so now Natasha as well.

"Tony, please. We just want to be sure you're ok." With Bruce now standing in as well he was unequivocally outnumbered and far too tired to bother fighting.

He let out a long sigh with head in hands, massaging his temples. He didn't feel great right now, but that made no difference.

He flicked his hand in submission and the others instantly relaxed. Tony had no intention, however, of going to medical.

"Ok, we leave in 30."

The room started to empty and once Tony had gone off in a huff, Steve pulled Rhodey and Pepper to one side.

"Why does he object so strongly to a simple check-up? It's just reckless!" Steve wasn't angry, just frustrated. The team had grown very close in such a short time, and frustration at Tony not looking after himself was a feeling Pepper and Rhodey knew all too well.

"He's not being reckless, Steve. I know he seems stubborn, but nine times out of ten he actually does get himself sorted out." Pepper wasn't lying when she said that. He was stubborn, but he could be sensible when necessary.

"Well what's his problem with having it done at SHIELD?"

"He doesn't like people around the arc reactor." This time it was Rhodey's turn to explain. "He doesn't want that technology in anyone else's hands and he doesn't trust SHIELD once inch."

"Why doesn't he trust SHIELD?"

"Seriously, Steve? They're a bunch of spies. Why would you trust them?"

Steve understood. He knew there was more to this, which is why he hadn't called into question Tony's childish behavior when he didn't know the facts. The arc reactor was a sensitive point for Tony and he could see why he was right to want to keep it under wraps.

…..

Tony Stark, a grown man and head of a multi-billion dollar company, was sulking like a four-year-old. He may have been backed into a corner on this one, but he didn't have to like it. It had made the car journey to SHIELD headquarters very awkward, and Pepper and Rhodey had been dragged along in case “Stark control” was needed.

Pepper had never seen him this irritable, and he certainly hadn't got any more color in his cheeks despite his obvious annoyance. Bruce was keeping a wary eye on him. Tony’s breathing was shallow and fast - probably a way to try and curb the pain from his ribs, which Bruce could imagine was starting to make Tony very touchy. He knew Stark hadn't taken anything since breakfast, and acetaminophen was hardly going to take the edge off seven broken ribs. So, if all they could do at this SHIELD medical was get him some morphine, it would be a success.

When they arrived, Tony went into the debriefing room and sat in his chair without saying a word. He wanted this over with, he was really feeling shit now and he ached all over.

Bruce held Steve back at the door with a few words of warning. "Look, Steve. Tony hasn’t been very vigilant on the painkiller front. He hasn’t had any since this morning, so he’s going to be suffering, and you've already pissed him off...” Bruce regretted his choice of phrase at Steve’s protesting look and held up his hands apologetically. “Look, all I’m saying is that if he behaves like an ass, just try and shrug it off."

"That won't be easy." Natasha had overheard and knew from experience. "Tony can be unbearable when he's in a good mood, so I have a feeling this debrief is going to be more than a little difficult."

"Oh, joy!" Steve, for one, was tired, and really couldn't be dealing with this. "Tell me honestly. Did I push too hard for this check-up?" Steve still had confidence in his decision, but he valued the opinion of his team.

"No Steve, you did the right thing. He's been getting paler and paler since we left and he will be the last one to admit he's feeling like shit." Rhodey said, joining the conversation, "and honestly? Thank you for looking out for him. He'd never had listened to me or Pepper."

"Why would he listen to me over you?" Steve asked.

"He respects you." It was obvious to Natasha. She was, after all, trained to notice these things. Despite this, it made Steve want to laugh out loud. Tony Stark respected him ? Well that was more than a little difficult to believe. Yet Natasha seemed deadly serious, and he trusted her instincts.

They left Steve with his thoughts and entered the debriefing room. It wasn't long before he followed. Pepper and Rhodey waited outside - they weren't really needed and they certainly didn’t have security clearance, but SHIELD had overlooked it under the circumstances.

"So, it seems you finally decided to show up. Nice to know that Earth's mightiest heroes are so reliable." Nick Fury wasn't best pleased about being kept waiting. But then again, Tony thought, he never seemed to be pleased about anything. God, he was such a prick.

"Get lost, Fury. We saved the planet. Give us a break."

Fury’s eyebrow raised, but no annoyance crept into his tone. He wondered what he had done to deserve this attitude from Stark… today, anyway. But the guy looked like death warmed up so he decided it would be best if he tried to ignore it.

"Well good evening to you too, Stark. I suppose this delay was down to you."

"So what if it was, cyclops? We wouldn't be here at all if we hadn't been cleaning up after your mess."

You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Natasha held her head in her hands in frustration, but for whatever reason Fury decided not to react which made the other Avengers incredibly grateful.

"Are we missing somebody? Because last time I checked I had six avengers." Fury asked as he looked up from his paperwork.

Right on cue the door opened, and Thor stepped into the room. "I apologize for my tardiness. I was checking that my brother was still secure, and I am confident he will remain so. Before we begin I have something that must be known - and please note that this is not a request. My brother and I will be returning home tomorrow noon. He will face Asgardian justice and I will require the space gem, known to you as the tesseract, to do so."

"That's fine by me Thor, but we certainly don't want to see either of them back here any time soon. Do you understand?"

"You have my solemn word, Director Fury."

"Good. Now that that’s settled, let's get the facts down, shall we?"

...

Breathing was getting more and more difficult for Tony. He couldn't seem to get enough air in and the pain was stopping him from breathing any more deeply. Was it just him, or was it hot in here? He pulled at the neck of his T-shirt in an attempt to loosen it. The others seemed to be content with the temperature, but to Tony it felt like someone had put him in a sauna while stealing away all the air.

He realised he was wheezing now, but he was sitting far enough away that no one could hear him. He was coughing regularly, but trying hard to hide it, timing it to moments were there was more than one person talking to drown him out. It was like his airways were closing up. The room looked a little hazy now and if he was honest he couldn't really remember what he was doing here. He felt like he was drowning and that made his chest clamp up in anxiety, snatching away what little air had been getting into his lungs. He squeezed his eyes shut and try to force the memories away.

Nobody had noticed Tony deteriorate. They had been well and truly caught up in the debrief until Fury noticed Stark, slouched in his seat, eyes shut and clearly not paying any attention.

"Are we keeping you up, Stark?"

"Hmm, what's going on?" Tony didn't seem irritated anymore, he seemed dazed.

"Nice to know you're paying attention."

"Why am I here?"

"Well, Stark, I really don't know, considering you've made no positive contributions since you arrived."

"What am I…? Why… Jesus." Tony started coughing and the annoyed faces around him turned to concern.

"Tony, you ok?" Tony was clearly not ok and Bruce felt the question was a little redundant.

Tony continued to cough and then looked round the room confused. "What the hell is going on and what are these fucking birds doing in here?" Tony was out of his seat now, his face covered in sweat.

"Birds?" Natasha cocked her head, Bruce got up and started to edge towards Tony.

"Yeah, fucking ravens, they won't stop staring at me!" Tony's breathing was very, very laboured now and he looked seriously in danger of falling.

"Ravens?" Thor was suddenly alert, this seemed too much of a coincidence after his dreams of Huginn and Muninn.

"I need medics to the debriefing room, now!" Fury yelled, talking into his ear piece.

Tony swayed on the spot and looked around, dazed. It was clear he had no idea what was going on. He was practically gasping for air now and his oxygen starved body finally gave in.

Tony's knees buckled and his eyes rolled back in his head. Bruce was there to catch him before he hit the floor.

"Shit!" Steve was by his side instantly, ready to help move the semi-conscious man into a more comfortable position.

"Tony, can you hear me?" Bruce received a grunt and a hand that tried to swat him away. Bruce was trying to check Tony's pupils - he was completely confused and hallucinating. Was there a head injury that had been missed?

"Bruce, what are you doing here?" Tony was panting painfully and he was starting to shake uncontrollably.

"Bruce, can we help?" Steve felt helpless.

"Uh, no. Just get the EMTs here ASAP." Bruce was completely focused on Tony. There were no signs of a head injury…

"They're on the way."

Bruce barely heard. Tony was quickly turning gray, his skin cold and clammy and his lips tinted blue at the corners.

"Cyanosis!" Bruce exclaimed to a room of puzzled faces. "I think he's punctured a lung. He's not getting enough oxygen and his body is going into shock."

The door burst open and the medics rushed in, quickly followed by a concerned Pepper and Rhodey who started to take charge.

Pepper's objectivity and calmness was impressive considering the state Tony was in. "Right everyone out the way, give him some space, let Bruce and the EMTs do their jobs." In reality, she was panicking and on the verge of tears, desperate to know what was happening.

Within seconds Tony was on a stretcher, oxygen mask in place and on his way out of the room. The whole room started to empty, everyone wanting to follow their injured comrade.

"Look guys, I know you want to stay with him. But we have to stay out of the way." There were reluctant nods of agreement to Pepper's statement - they respected her request, knowing that Pepper and Rhodey would long to be with Tony more than any of them could imagine.

The minutes ticked by, each seeming longer than the last. Pepper started to feel her composure breaking when a voice stopped her thoughts.

"Pepper," Bruce poked his head around the door "He's asking for you." Pepper was silently pleased she had an excuse to go to him. She tapped Rhodey on the shoulder sympathetically as she left. "I'll keep you updated."

Tony was sat slouched on a bed in the med bay, propped against the wall and clutching onto the oxygen mask for dear life. He was still pale and frowning in confusion, but at least his lips were no longer blue.

"Tony, how are feeling? Do you know where you are now?" Bruce was carefully examining Tony's ribs. Knowing Tony's sensitivity about the arc reactor, he felt it should be him rather than some stranger on the SHIELD medical team.

"Yeah yeah, I'm in the fucking hospital," Tony gasped, seemingly more lucid, the oxygen doing its work. Bruce cocked his head to one side.

"Near enough,” he muttered.

Bruce was confused. Tony must have punctured a lung, it was the only explanation but none of his ribs seemed to be too out of place.

"We need to scan him, find out what's going on with his lungs."

"I thought you said he'd punctured a lung?" Pepper was now even more concerned. She had been constantly talking to the still confused Tony. His oxygen starved brain was struggling to comprehend what was going on, and his mumblings had been subsiding - but now he seemed to be deteriorating again and no one seemed sure of the cause.

"Well, yeah - that's what it looks like. I thought one of his ribs might have broken off and punctured it but none of them seem to have moved. There's other ways it could have happened, but I want to check, I don't want to make any mistakes."

Pepper nodded curtly and turned her attention back to Tony. He was just staring into space, still shaking, albeit less violently. He was fighting hard for breath.

"Pepp," Tony whined. This was shit. It hurt like hell, and if he was honest he was scared.

" I know Tony, I know. It's going to be fine."

Suddenly, Tony started gagging and slumped onto the bed. There was something coming out of his mouth, Bruce pulled the mask off quickly. Foam, pink foam, was coming from his mouth.

"He's drowning."

"What?" Now Pepper really was confused. "How can he be drowning? He's on dry land!”

"It's secondary drowning. He's got water in his lungs and it’s drawing more fluid into them from his body. That's why he isn't getting the oxygen."

"Ok, so what do we do?"

"You start CPR I'll get some diuretics." It was the first time any of the SHIELD medics had spoken and Bruce had to credit them, they knew what they were doing.

Bruce had hoped he'd never have to do CPR on a friend, and that's what he considered Tony. The foam meant that Tony was getting no oxygen in, and also meant Bruce couldn't do mouth to mouth. So, he just continued chest compressions at 120bpm, grimacing as Tony’s broken ribs shifted underneath his hands. He might end up treating Tony for a punctured lung after all.

Thankfully, the medic was back quickly and they got the drugs into Tony's blood. It seemed like far too long between the injection and the time that Tony stop foaming at the mouth, yet in reality is was a lot more quickly than Bruce could have hoped.

"Ok get him back on the oxygen." Bruce didn't stop compressions till Tony started breathing on his own again and then sat on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. That had been too close. Why on earth did Tony have secondary drowning? He hadn’t been in the water.

"Pepper, he's out of the woods -but do you have any idea why or how he could have water in his lungs?"

"Not a clue!"

"Well, I need to go and calm down if you don't mind." Pepper nodded in understanding and Bruce quickly took his leave.

Bruce was bombarded as soon as he left the med bay.

"Is he ok?" Rhodey was desperate for answers.

"What happened?"

"What's wrong with him?"

"Guys, give him some space." Natasha could see Bruce was shaken and tired and they didn't need the Hulk making another appearance today.

Bruce took a deep breath. "He's going to be fine. His breathing is much better now, and I think if we give him an hour on the oxygen he should be back to his normal charming self."

"So, I'm guessing his behavior was not just down to him being an ass?" Natasha asked, noticing Bruce's subtle tone.

"Yes, the lack of oxygen wasn't exactly helping."

Bruce could see the room had more questions for him but Natasha was quick to come to his rescue.

"Come on Bruce, I'll find you a quiet room." She pulled him away quickly then turned back to the others. "Come get us if he wakes up."

Chapter Text

Tony looked so calm now. It was a stark contrast to the events just 15 minutes ago. Pepper smiled at the pun. It was like he was sleeping, but he didn't look quite relaxed. She ran her fingers through his hair and then remembered what he had said to her last night. He couldn't sleep on his back. Maybe she should turn him? No, that wasn't a good idea; an X-ray had confirmed that somehow his ribs had survived the CPR without too much further damage, but Tony was going to be horribly sore when he woke up. As if he wasn't already.

It had also revealed to Bruce the extent of the damage that allowed the arc reactor to fit. It was sickening. He had burnt the film - Tony wouldn't want SHIELD having it on their files and it pleased Pepper to know Tony had a few more people looking out for him nowadays.

But secondary drowning? Pepper didn't understand. Tony hadn't been near any water. Bruce had asked her to think about it, but there was nothing. He'd had a shower when he got back from the battle and the shower door had been broken. Tony said he’d slipped... but maybe he had panicked, swallowed. Yet Bruce said it was unlikely; he'd had to have inhaled a good amount of water and even with Tony's power showers it would have taken a long time. What had happened since they got back? He'd been in the lab when she got there, they'd had a food fight, and gone to sleep.

He'd flown over water in the battle, so it was possible that he may have gone in for whatever reason. Yet, secondary drowning sets in after less than 24 hours, so it had to have been last night or more likely that morning.

Well, it wasn't last night - unless it was the shower. This morning, they'd made breakfast, had that very awkward arc reactor lesson and then… Tony had gone down to the lab. But he hadn't, he went up to the roof. But did he? She didn't know that for certain - she'd only guessed. What else was up those stairs?

"Hey Pep, how's he doing?" Rhodey looked sick with worry being kept away for so long.

"Take a look for yourself." She smiled. Tony was a much more normal color now and breathing evenly, if still a little too fast.

"I'll be back in a minute." Pepper took her phone out of her pocket and stepped into the cool light of the hall. She dialed the connection to Jarvis and the answer was almost instant.

"Miss Potts, how I can I be of assistance."

"When Tony went “down to the lab” this morning, where did he really go?"

"I'm afraid I'm not really sure, Miss Potts. As you know, he entered the south stairwell without entering the lab as he had suggested, but he was not on my sensors for the next 15 minutes."

"How could that happen?" Pepper was now very confused.

"Well, I can only assume that he went to the pool floor, which is the only place in the tower where I have no access."

"The pool?" That fitted with the drowning, but why would Tony go there if he couldn't swim?

"Yes, and may I also note that when he next appeared both he and his clothes were soaking wet."

Pepper hung up after thanking the AI. How it could be that now that she knew roughly what had happened, it made even less sense? She stepped back into the room with a slightly perplexed look on her face.

"You ok, Pepper?" Steve slid back into the chair after having leaving Rhodey and Clint at Tony's side.

"Yeah, fine. Just thinking through a problem." She glanced at Tony who was now on his side. Had he woken up? No, the fact Rhodes was stood still rearranging the pillows to keep the weight off his ribs answered her question. They had moved him, she was pleased.

Rhodey saw Pepper look at him with a contemplative look and was a bit concerned.

"Rhodey, can I talk to you for a second?" She stepped outside and Rhodey followed cautiously.

"Uh, Pepper, if this is because we moved him - don't worry, we were careful. I know it's a risk, but it's just that he was on his back… and, well…"

"I know, I know. He can't sleep on his back. Rhodey, I trust you. I wouldn't lecture you!"

Rhodey cocked his head to the side. “Wait. How do you know that?"

"He told me the other night." Pepper glanced back into the room and at Tony. "God, he does look so much more relaxed now. Why can't he sleep on his back?"

“Honestly? Don't know," Rhodey replied smoothly, but Pepper could tell he was lying through his teeth. "So, what did you want to talk to me about?" he said quickly, changing the subject.

"It's Tony, he had secondary drowning. That's why all this has happened."

"What? How?"

"This morning, when he said he was going to the workshop... well, he didn't. He went up to the pool. Why would he do that? He can't swim."

Rhodey scoffed at the last remark. Tony can't swim ?

"What, what is it Rhodey?"

"He told you that? He told you that he can't swim?"

"Yes! Was he lying? Why would he do that?” She shook her head. “Rhodey, what's going on?" Pepper was understandably flustered now, and Rhodey was starting to put everything together.

"Let me figure this out, Pepper. I think I know what's going on. It's going to be fine, just play it cool with the others. We don't need them asking questions."

"Bruce knows, but he's letting me handle it. Why does he keep things from me, Rhodes? Doesn't he trust me?"

"It's not that, Pepper. I wouldn't know half the things I do about him if I hadn't been there. It's impossible to explain why he's like this without telling you the full story, and I couldn't betray his confidence - even to you."

"Ok Rhodey, I understand," Pepper said finally. She was bitterly disappointed to learn that there was more that Tony didn't share with her. She'd thought they had something good going here. Rhodey put a hand on her shoulder in comfort.

"It's not just you, Pepper. I know there's a hell of a lot he hasn't told me either. That's just Tony, but it doesn't mean he doesn't love you, because he really does. Believe me."

Pepper knew that, but it was nice to hear it from someone else. They stood there for a minute before Pepper decided she needed some air. Rhodey watched her go and then returned to Tony's beside. Natasha and Bruce came back after a while, stuffing more chairs into the tiny room. Now all there was to do was wait.

……

Clint was bored. Bored and worried; it wasn't a good combination. It had only been two hours since Stark had passed out but it felt like forever. Natasha was getting sick of Clint constantly shuffling, Bruce was dozing, Steve was standing guard, and Rhodey was on the edge of his seat ready to leap to his friend's side the moment there was any sign of him waking up. Natasha could tell he had done this before, too many times, but she was glad that Pepper was taking her time to get some air. She had been so calm through the whole ordeal - and if it had shaken Bruce, Pep would need a good amount of time to let out her emotions.

"This sucks!" Clint sunk further into his seat and folded his arms in annoyance.

"Clint, don't be a dick," Natasha flung back.

"Clint sucks what?" A muffled noise came from across the room which had everyone on their feet. Tony grinned at his own joke from underneath the mask, and his eyes blinked open.

"Tony!" Tony already had the mask off by the time Rhodey got to him. "My man. You have to stop doing that to me."

"Sorry guys, but right now I'd be more worried about the fact that Clint hasn't denied what I just accused him of."

Clint tried hard not to respond. It lasted all of 2 seconds. A pillow flew across the room and bounced off the wall above Tony's head. The archer knew better than to hit him after the incident with the ribs earlier, but it certainly didn't make his situation any better.

"OMG, call the press, bird-brain just missed his target. Your perfect record is gone now - you're all here to bear witness,” he said, gesturing around the room. “Such a shame Clint, such a shame. You're never getting that back."

"God, if you weren’t injured I’d… shit…  just… Screw you, Stark!"

"Please don't, Clint. Unlike you, I'm not inclined that way."

"Oh for God's sake! I'm going to shut up now." Clint was starting to wish Tony had stayed asleep as the room chuckled softly at Clint's expense. How could someone who'd just woken up be so sharp with the comebacks?

"Wise move feathers. JESUS!" Tony yelped. He had tried to sit up and got a shock. His chest, which had hurt a lot before, was now in absolute agony. "Who the hell used my chest as a punching bag?" he wheezed.

"That was me." Bruce held his hand up. "And it serves you right for stopping breathing." He got up wearily and wandered towards his patient.

"Fair enough."

Rhodey placed his hands underneath Tony and helped him sit up slowly. Bruce managed to slide some morphine into Tony's IV while he was distracted - at least that made him feel a little less guilty about the extra damage he had done. Tony was certainly good at masking his pain, and that why he was in this mess in the first place. It was a good thing Bruce had acted when he did, because the first thing Tony did was to yank out his IV and try to get up. Fortunately, Steve's strong hands pressed him firmly back down.

"Nope, you're spending 20 more minutes on the oxygen, and then if Bruce is happy we'll take you home."

"Rogers…"

"No buts, Tony. If we hadn't managed to drag you here in the first place you'd be 6 feet under by now, so your complaints don't have a leg to stand on.”

Tony glared at Steve for that full 20 minutes, at which Rhodey couldn't help but giggle. Not at his friend's annoyance, of course, but at the fact that for once it wasn't directed at him!

"Not funny." Tony mumbled from underneath the mask.

"Kinda is." Oh! So now Clint decided to take his own back. If that's how it was, he was declaring war and Clint didn't even know it yet.

.….

It turned into a double movie day. After the events of that day, a quiet night was certainly needed. The Avengers had taken it upon themselves to continue Steve's education by means of film, and Tony was horrified to learn that he hadn't seen any Disney flicks. The Lion King ended up as the movie of choice. Natasha complained, but secretly really enjoyed the film. Though no one even pretended to be impressed with Clint's rendition of Hakuna Matata.

Tony could feel the eyes on him, watching for any sign of discomfort, but if he was honest he felt fine. The morphine was really doing the trick and for the first time since before the battle the pain from his ribs was nothing more than a niggle at the back of his mind.

They all got another early night, well fed and drained from the day's events. They had all enjoyed the company and accommodation of the past few days. The tower was all but silent by 10pm, apart from Tony in the lab organizing a time for the glass across the balcony to be replaced.

Tony was all but ready to go to bed. He was tired, and the morphine was slowly but surely starting to wear off. He was hoping that he could get himself to sleep before it really started to hurt. He was anxious to get on with the suit repairs - he felt it was his duty to be sure that he was never out of action. He knew it was unlikely that there would be anyone stupid enough to attack after their display in what had been dubbed by the media as “The Battle of Manhattan”, but then again not all villains were renowned for their intelligence.

"Jarvis, run suit diagnostics and have it ready for me in the morning."

"Yes sir. Colonel Rhodes is requesting access."

"Show him in, J."

The door clicked open as requested. Rhodey just stood in the door for a while watching Tony wrap up his work.

"What's eating you, Rhodey?"

Rhodey didn't really know how to go about this.

"Secondary drowning."

Tony stopped what he was doing and blinked at his friend in confusion. "Secondary drowning?"

"Yes, Tony. That's why you collapsed earlier today."

"Oh." Tony's reaction was genuine. He honestly hadn't known what was wrong with him - he'd just assumed. "Shit." Rhodey was going to want answers.

"You told Pepper you couldn't swim."

"Yes." Tony didn't really know what to say at this point.

"Why?"

"Because it's kind of true."

"Since when?" Rhodey was getting a bit irate now, which rubbed off on his friend.

"Because I haven't swum in ages."

"Tony, a swimmer like you isn't just going to forget how to swim." But then Rhodey started asking the right questions. "When did you stop? Why did you stop?"

Tony sighed and put down what he was working on. " When Dad died. And then after Afghanistan it wasn’t even an option." He answered simply.

Realization hit Rhodey hard. "Oh no, tell me they didn't. Tony please tell me they didn't…"

"Use waterboarding,?” Tony rubbed the back of his neck, making an effort to sound nonchalant. “Yep. One of their favorite methods, as it turns out.

"Shit, so all this time…"

"Yeah, Tony Stark’s been scared of water. I know, pathetic, isn't it?"

"Tony, that's not pathetic, it’s…" Rhodey paused. He felt sick now. He knew how much swimming meant to Tony - it was the only time he had ever been able to be himself when he’d been young.

"I'm so sorry." Rhodey didn't know what to say.

"Don't be, it's not your fault." Tony was furiously cleaning the same inch of metal over and over again. Idiot! How can he have not realized he had secondary drowning! He was kicking himself for getting so carried away.

"So, this morning, what happened?"

"I decided I would try again and I panicked." Tony's responses were annoying Rhodey. Couldn't he just give him a full answer? "It was great, Rhodey. I haven't felt so at home in a long time. I just went a bit too far. Something triggered the memory and, well ,you can guess." Better, Rhodey thought to himself.

"Are you going to try again?" Rhodey hoped to God the answer would be yes. If Tony could get back to swimming. The good it would do him would be endless.

"Yes." Tony didn't hesitate to answer - he'd made up his mind.

"But..."

"Yes, Rhodey, I'll be careful next time. And yes, the workmen are installing Jarvis on the pool deck as we speak."

Rhodey breathed a sigh of relief. "Will you let me help you?"

"No.” His answer was short and chopped. At Rhodey’s expression, he softened. “It's not that I don't want you to - it’s just… this is something I have to do by myself."

"Ok." Rhodey understood when Tony needed space. He hadn't had such an honest and open conversation with his best friend for a long time and it was weird. Good weird, but he could have sworn he had just heard some of the old Tony in there… or should he say the young Tony.

"Promise me one thing, Tony. If you do start training again, please just take it a bit easier than you used to." Having Jarvis installed wasn't just important if Tony panicked. In the old days, back at MIT, Rhodey used to watch Tony train - and he was an animal. Once, he'd had to pull him out of the pool when he'd passed out from exertion, and the last thing he wanted to find was Tony face down on the bottom because nobody had noticed.

Tony knew he couldn't promise what Rhodey was asking. There was something when he was swimming that he couldn't control, a burning desire to just keep pushing. It was the same thing that drove him to spend days in the lab without food or a break, to work until he passed out or was dragged out. If that crazy drive was still there, he couldn't promise to take it easy. He just couldn't help himself. But Rhodey knew that, so Tony gave the closest thing he could to what had been requested.

"I promise I'll be careful."

"Thank you." That was good enough for Rhodey.

The two embraced for a moment and then Tony yawned. It was time to go to sleep.

"Jarvis, lights." The room fell into darkness as the two departed, and the door swung shut, locking behind them.

Chapter Text

Midday came around all too soon.

Tony had slept through till the early hours before the ache of his ribs became too much. He slid out of bed at 4am without waking Pepper and went down to the workshop. As promised, Jarvis had the suit diagnostics ready so he got to work. He was really hoping they would all stay. Maybe having Steve would be a challenge - he brought back bad memories. But he supposed they'd be able to get along most of the time. He didn't really expect them to stay - I mean, why would anyone want to stay with him? But they'd seemed keen when he offered. He decided to remain hopeful.

Steve spent the morning thinking about Tony's offer. It would be great to have a place to stay at the tower and it would be helpful for the whole team to stay together, but Thor had to go back with Loki and Steve felt that he really had to go too. He needed to get back into the world again. Stand on his own two feet for a while. He'd announce his intentions later. He wasn't so sure how the others would take it, seeing as he'd been the first to back up Tony's suggestion, but for once he needed to be selfish. He had every intention of coming back - he certainly did support the idea of the Avengers having a permanent home base, and the last few days had been the most fun he'd had in a long time.

Thor, of course, had to go home. He wanted so badly to stay and find Jane. It would be nice to have somewhere where he was welcome on Midgard and be close to her. But in truth, he did not know when he would see Earth again, with the bifrost destroyed. It would take a long time to repair, and he would be all but stuck on Asgard the moment he returned. It pained him to have been so close to Jane and leave without seeing her. He would miss his Midgardian comrades, as well; it had been a difficult and hostile beginning but he now felt almost as close to them as he did Sif and the Warriors Three. It was strange, he pondered; he had known them mere moments compared to his Asgardian compatriots, yet they had bonded so strongly. He would take up friend Tony's offer at some point, of that he was certain.

Clint wanted to stay, but he knew he had to use his short leave from SHIELD wisely. He had a family which none of them knew about, save Natasha of course. He got to spend so little time with them so he had to go back. He missed them so much, and they would be worried after all the news coverage. He'd be back, though - he really enjoyed the time as a team and Stark's company, despite the way he knew they were going to wind each other up. He especially loved all the luxuries of the Tower. He had every intention of making Stark regret that offer!

Natasha knew Clint would be going home, Thor of course was too, Bruce was unlikely to stay so the whole team thing Tony had offered wasn't really going to happen - at least not yet. She would have loved to have stayed, but at this rate it would be just her, Steve, and Tony. Not really a great combination. Steve and Tony would drive each other insane and she would end up moderating. Then Stark didn't really trust her anyway and she didn't like the fact she'd found out she couldn't read him as well as she thought. It freaked her out a little, if truth be told. None of them really knew who he was. It would have been nice to have spent some time with Pepper; they'd gotten along well when she'd worked for Stark, and seeing as she'd been surrounded by men for so long it would have been nice to have some girl time. Still, it just wasn't to be. She'd be the first one back, though, if the others decided to take up the offer.

The 8 hours flew by in the lab before Jarvis notified Tony that it was approaching midday. The Avengers had gathered in the kitchen ready to see off Loki and Thor, and to say their goodbyes before the departures started. There was a quiet bustle of chatter before Natasha decided to start the ball rolling.

"I'm sorry to break up the party, guys but I won't be staying. Places to go, people to see… you get the picture."

"Yeah, sorry, it's the same for me. Working for SHIELD sucks." Clint shrugged his shoulders and joined Natasha at her side of the table.

Steve suddenly didn't feel so bad about his announcement. "I'm sorry Tony, and thank you for your offer, but there's quite a lot of catching up I need to do if I'm going to get myself back in the world."

"That's cool guys, no problem." Tony held up his hands and waved it off. He was disappointed, but it was as expected. "Just an offer, not an obligation. And it still stands if you ever need a B&B."

"Thank you, Tony, though I think you’re underrating your accommodations if you're dubbing the Tower a B&B,” Steve smiled.

"I'll update the info on TripAdvisor. I'm expecting good reviews from you guys."

"Yeah well, 5 stars for the building - just rude staff, really." Clint grinned.

"Well then, you're barred."

"You can't bar me, this isn’t a bar."

"Well seeing as I own the building, I think I can do pretty much what I want." Tony grinned back, there was certainly no hard feelings. He was going to miss having someone to go head to head with.
And Clint was thinking the same thing.

"What about you, Bruce? Can I interest you in first class tickets to the Bermuda triangle or wherever you fancy this time? Strictly top secret, of course."

"No, actually. I think I'll stay - if that's ok."

The room was taken aback. No one had expected that. Natasha was especially taken aback. Why was everyone being so damn unpredictable and making her question her abilities? Maybe she should retire.

"Of course it's ok, it will be nice to have a science bro in the house."

"As long as you're not expecting me to keep up with you, that's fine." Bruce and Tony grinned at each other. Tony already had so many plans to set up the lab for Bruce. Maybe a Hulk-proof room wouldn't be such a bad idea, either. It would make him feel safer in the city. What should he call it?

Steve broke his trail of thought. "Ok, let's get moving. Wouldn't want to keep Loki waiting, he might do something stupid."

"What, like escape and start the next invasion?" Clint moaned.

"Quite possibly, so let's get him shown off the premises, pronto." Tony rubbed his hands together and led the way to the elevator.

The final goodbyes were silent, and afterwards everyone went their separate ways. Even Rhodey's visit had been fleeting and Pepper of course had plenty to do with Tony's new role as Avenger playing havoc on the company's stocks.

Tony would have felt abandoned if Bruce wasn't sat in the car beside him. He was really looking forward to having someone who he could talk with on the same level, he hadn't had that… well, ever. He doubted Bruce would stay long, but the fact he had decided to stay at all was a gift. He would do everything to make sure Bruce had exactly what he needed, to make him feel safe and welcome so that maybe he would decide to stay a bit longer than the 2 weeks he estimated that Bruce had planned.

Tony couldn't describe his relief that Bruce as stayed, not just because he was lonely but because he needed help. This thing inside him - whatever he'd brought back from space - had nearly attached itself to all his cells. He hadn't really noticed any physical effects yet, but when it finished? Who knew what could happen.

He was terrified. It was very rare that Tony came across something he didn't understand. Even though biology wasn't strictly his field, he was Tony Stark, and science was science. He was praying that Bruce could help him with this, because if Bruce couldn't he didn't know who could. Maybe it would all be fine, but he highly doubted that. If there was one thing he knew, it was that nothing in his life was that easy.

….

"Tony, seriously. One lab is enough."

"It's fine, Bruce! I can spare the whole floor, give you plenty of space, peace and quiet. They are yours to do whatever you want with." In truth, Tony really couldn't spare all that space, but he wanted Bruce to have everything he needed. Tony could always take up the R&D workload if they couldn't with one floor less. It would take him a quarter of the time to do than R&D anyway.

"Tony, I really appreciate it, but your labs are huge, I wouldn't know what to do with the space in one yet alone four." Bruce was thrilled to have some space to get on with his research. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had the time or equipment to do some serious work. Tony's labs were just incredible, and he appreciated how much effort Tony was going to to make him feel at home.

"Well, you know, they're there if you want them."

"Thank you."

"I also set you up with full security clearance. Jarvis will give you anything you want, and if you need an extra pair of hands, just come find me in the shop or get Jarvis to call me."

"So, I'm allowed in the workshop." Bruce was still staring around in awe at the labs that Tony was showing him. Seeing all this equipment was giving him more and more ideas for projects and research he could do. Maybe he would need up needing the whole floor after all.

"Yep, no problem, just didn't want the others down there breaking stuff they didn't understand."
Bruce nodded, but knew it was more than that. He felt pretty blessed - he reckoned that workshop was a big deal to Tony, his sanctuary almost. That was a big sign of trust.

They finished the tour and crashed on the sofa for a few minutes.

"Hungry?" Tony was playing the ever-attentive host and Bruce was just a little worried he was over-tiring himself.

"No, I'm good thanks." In reality, he was quite hungry, but he would grab himself something when Tony was busy.

"You can have anything you want from wherever you want - just ask Jarvis, or order it online. It'll charge to my account. You can use the room down the hall you used last night for now, but I'm having the lower floors re-modelled and extending the penthouse so you can a floor to yourself when that's finished."

"Jeez Tony, you don't have to do all that."

"It’s fine, seriously, the others will have a floor each if they ever want it. I'm putting in some training rooms, game rooms... whatever you all want, really. I'll even make you a green room, if you want," Tony added hesitantly. He wasn't insinuating that Bruce wasn't in control, but he knew the man liked to take precautions - hence why he'd lived in the middle of nowhere all his life.

"A green room?" Bruce chuckled as realized what he meant. "I like that. It's a good idea."

"You do? Ok, I'll get right on it."

"For God's sake Tony, take it easy! You don't have to do everything straight away. Let your body have a bit of time to heal."

"It’s fine, I'll get someone else to build it." Bruce put his head in his hands; that's not quite what he'd meant. Tony continued, oblivious. "I need to do some armor repairs and get the suit back in action, so I'll draw up a few designs while I'm at it."

Tony got up and made his way down to the lab, still muttering some ideas and technical specs to himself as he went. "Call me if you need anything," he shouted back as he disappeared into the elevator.

Bruce lay his head back in the chair and relaxed. For once he had a really good feeling about this. It wasn't long before his own work and ideas crept into his mind, so he retraced his steps back to the labs.

Chapter Text

When Pepper got back to the penthouse, she found it eerily quiet. Yes, she knew the other Avengers had left, but Tony and Bruce were still here and the place looked completely untouched.

"Jarvis, where is everyone?"

"Mr. Stark is currently in his workshop and has been for the past 4 hours. Dr. Banner has been in his lab on the floor above for a similar length of time."

" His lab?"

"Yes, Miss Potts, Mr. Stark has dedicated sector 3 of the Research and development to Dr. Banner for his personal research."

Ok , Pepper thought. Great . She was now alone in a house of scientists. It was a good thing she was a CEO. Otherwise she would be spending a hell of a lot of time alone.

"So what else has Tony been up to, then?" Pepper knew all too well that when Tony started something, he ended up with five or six projects going at once.

"He has ordered the extension of the penthouse suite by re-modelling sectors 4 through 9 to accommodate the Avengers and their needs."

"Oh, is that all!"

"He has also ordered the replacement glass for the balcony windows on this floor and a replacement for the Stark sign, with the intention that the Tower will now be known as the Avengers Tower."

"Right." Pepper didn't know what to make of all that.

She threw her shoes and handbag onto the sofa then made her way down to Tony's workshop.

Tony was up to his eyeballs in paper, metal, and tools, currently pulling apart the boot of one of his suits and attempting to get Butterfingers to hold still while he was soldering.

"Hi Pep!" Her arrival was announced by the fact that ACDC was cut short mid-sentence, and the workshop noise was reduced dramatically.

"Avengers Tower?"

"Yep." Tony looked up for a moment and then swore as nearly sliced open his finger.

"Why?"

"Why not?"

Pepper sighed. She was clearly not going to get a lot out of Tony while his mind was on other things.

"I thought you told me that the next one would say “Potts” on the tower."

"Yeah, it will, but this isn't the next one. Technically it's still the same building - just getting a remodel."

Pepper examined the chaos of the workshop. She'd been right in suspecting Tony had got several projects running at once. There was a gleaming set of silver armor in the corner, not yet painted but otherwise complete.

"Is that a new suit?"

"Yep. It was quicker to make that than fix this, but it's not functional yet." He threw a piece of the Mark VIII across the room, clearly having decided it wasn't worth saving. "Get a new one of those made up, J."

"Certainly, sir."

"Can't you have a break, Tony? Only yesterday you nearly died, and the day before, for that matter. Surely fixing your suits can wait."

"Honestly Pep, I'll be up soon. I need to test a few things out on the new model…"

"Tony, it can wait."

"I need at least one fully functioning suit, Pep. Just in case some other nutjob decides to try take over the world tonight."

Pepper desisted - Tony did have a point. Being Iron Man was a big responsibility and he needed to be prepared at all times. It was exhausting, especially at a time like this, but she supposed it had to be done.

"Just please don't overdo it, Tony."

"Okay."

Tony had intended to come up soon, but he'd had a message from Fury that had turned everything on its head.

“As a consultant to the Avenger's initiative,” was how the message had begun Consultant! Was that really still all he was?

Well,he supposed that was fair; the others were the special ones. He was - how had Steve put it? Just a man in a suit. He'd thought that flying through a wormhole with a nuke would have been enough to get him promoted from consultant to full blown Avenger, but clearly not in Fury's eyes. Perhaps that was his role; he wasn't as important as the others, he was disposable, part of the team because Fury knew that if the time came he would be the one to make “the sacrifice play”.

That part annoyed him; not that they felt he was worth less than the others ( that was true) but because he would willingly do that. All they had to do was ask - but no, they were just happy using him whilst thinking that he wasn't smart enough to see it.

As if that wasn't enough, they wanted him to review all the SHIELD tech and weapons directly linked to the Avengers, along with their computer systems. They’d probably want him to mop the floors too, at this rate! He already had so much to do with his armor upgrades, Stark Phone upgrades, all the other Stark Tech, the extra work from R&D… and meanwhile, he was still trying to find out what this damn thing inside of him was.

Well, he supposed he'd had heavier work periods in the past and he was determined not to let anyone down. But today, he was really, really tired. He'd do another half hour then call it a day.

Tony got up and walked to the coffee machine. Caffeine had always been his savior, but today he didn't get to take a sip; he’d sat on the couch to pause for a moment, but before he knew what was happening his body betrayed him and he fell fast asleep.

Bruce was on cloud nine. He'd been so busy and enjoying his work that the hours had flown by. Yet now, he couldn't really avoid the fact that his mind was getting sluggish and even a constant stream of coffee couldn't stop the regular yawns that were his body's reminder that humans require something called sleep. He stifled another yawn and made his way back to the penthouse.

He found Pepper fast asleep on the couch, propped on several pillows with the TV still on quietly in the background. He turned it off and took a blanket off the back of the chair, covering her lightly. He imagined there had been many nights where Pepper had waited up for Tony in vain and supposed that before he turned in for the night he should at least try and persuade the stubborn man to follow suit.

He was pleased to find out that he didn't need to. Tony was flat out on his own couch in the workshop and looked surprisingly comfy despite lying on his side. Bruce winced at the thought of how much his ribs must be hurting. That was probably why he was working so hard - to make himself tired enough to sleep, despite the pain.

Bruce had his reservations about leaving Tony there. It would be much better for him to sleep in a real bed, but he doubted that he would get back to sleep if he woke him now. He was pale; not too much so, but on someone who was already fair skinned it made it look worse than it was. Bruce watched his breathing and was pleased to see it less shallow than it had been the past few days. It was odd, of course, to be seeing an improvement so soon, but maybe it was because Tony had sensibly given in to taking painkillers.

He rummaged quietly around the workshop and found a blanket to cover his friend in much the same way he had just done for Pepper, then manually lowered the bright lights at the control panel as he left the room and headed to bed himself.

…..

Pepper woke up suddenly. It was unlike her to have bad dreams. It hadn't been a horrific nightmare, but it was enough to leave her unsettled. She snuggled up to the blanket as she sat upright on the couch. Hang on. Blanket?

She smiled. The blanket fairy had come - now did that mean Tony, or Bruce? She walked to the bedroom, but Tony wasn't there. That meant he was still down in the lab and it was the small hours of the morning. She sighed. Why couldn't he just come to bed for once? He was injured and tired, so he needed rest now more than ever. She was tired too, but almost by obligation she made the long trip down to the workshop to drag Tony back up to bed whether he liked it or not. She arrived quite annoyed and ready to overwrite Jarvis to lock Tony out for a week, when she smiled at what she saw. The blanket fairy had visited the workshop as well and Tony was sleeping peacefully. She made a mental note to thank Bruce tomorrow and made her own way back to bed.

He was back there, in that terrible waste land of out of space, staring deep into the blue of the wormhole. He couldn't breathe, he was submerged in a tank of freezing water with no way up for air. The Chitauri were advancing on the earth, the bomb hadn't done its work. All he could do was watch as his friends were mown down and slain. Then there was Yinsen's face. "You failed me, Stark. You failed them all."

Tony woke up gasping at the side of the highway. It was a peaceful night. He relaxed, sinking down with his back against the tree he had woken up beside. There was a car coming. He could just make out its headlights in the distance. How had he got here? It didn't really matter, he'd flag down the car and figure out where he was. But there was already someone, stood in silhouette at the other side of the road.

" Hey." The figure didn't move. "Hey, buddy! Can you tell me where I am? Must have been one hell of a party last night because I don't remember a thing!" The figure stepped forward and was illuminated by the car's headlights as it proceeded closer. It was Howard - but how? He was dead. Something grabbed him from behind and forced him down. Obadiah? The man who had once been his friend reached into his chest and tugged out the arc reactor.

Tony reeled in panic and gasped for air. The branches of the tree wrapped around him, digging into his flesh and preventing him from moving. The car got closer and with a sick feeling he recognized the driver. Erica, please no. Howard stepped forward into the road and the car flipped as if on his command, bursting into flames. Tony tried, he fought and flailed against his restraints, but once again he couldn't reach her. Once again, he had to listen to her screams as she slowly burnt to death.

Tony awoke to screams. It was dark and something heavy lay on top of him. There was an explosion, the loud shattering of glass very close by. He jumped to his feet but something tugged at them holding his legs together as he tumbled towards the ground. He hit the concrete hard and the lights flickered on.

He was in his workshop. The scream had been his own and the thing tied around his feet was nothing worse than a blanket.

Tony imagined he looked a mess - he was dripping through with sweat and trembling on his hands and knees on the workshop floor. As far as dreams went, he'd had some pretty bad ones but that… that was just evil.

He hadn't thought of the day Erica died for a long, long time. He'd felt guilty about his feelings for Pepper for so long before he finally gave in and they got together. After so long, it had been time to move on - he deserved to be happy, surely, after everything he'd been through. There was obviously some twisted part of his mind that disagreed enough for him to have had that dream. But that's all it had been - a dream - and now it was over. It was about time he got up and stopped acting like a terrified child.

Jarvis had been monitoring Tony's heart rate and breathing. He'd been monitoring him nonstop since the battle because he had to. In fact, the brief period where he hadn't been able to was when something bad had happened and that had landed his creator in SHIELD medical and could have killed him. It was his job to look after Tony Stark, and Jarvis took that responsibility very seriously.

So, when his sensors picked up Tony's elevated heart rate and breathing rate he had wanted so much to wake him from the nightmare. He knew his creator was suffering, yet he'd equally hoped it would pass so that he may get some well needed rest. Unfortunately, the latter hadn't come to pass. What happened next had shocked Jarvis, if a computer could be shocked. The unknown energy had been building in Stark from the moment before his dream began and when he'd woken up, terrified, it reached a crescendo. Jarvis had immediately turned on the lights, to try and minimize the fear and confusion his creator faced. It had served little purpose. It took several minutes for Tony Stark to regain his feet and see what he had done.

….

There was glass everywhere. Tony remembered having heard something shatter, but he'd been half the way across the room - and as far as he knew glass didn't shatter spontaneously. The entire wall of panels that marked the entrance to his workshop was gone, strewn all over the floor in pieces as fine as sand. He gulped down dread and rubbed his sides for comfort. This wasn't good. And then it hit him. The pain. Where was the pain? He had seven fractured ribs, he'd just landed hard on the floor and all he could feel was a dull ache.

He walked nervously over to the mirror, praying that the real nightmare was still playing out and he'd yet to wake up. Or that he'd lift his shirt and see the horrendous bruising was still there, and that either adrenaline was responsible for the lack of pain or Bruce had secretly drugged him up again. He wasn't lucky on either front.

In the mirror, Tony saw the impossible. It had been only a few days, yet most of the bruising on his chest was gone. It hadn't completely vanished - there were still spots of purple, but now they were mostly brown or green, fading into yellow. He tapped his ribs sharply one at a time. It still hurt, but not enough to warrant more than a grimace and the hollow knock they gave told him they had nearly healed.

"Jarvis show me the data."

His A.I. obliged, putting up the readings of the energy signature for the past 3 hours. So, whatever this was healing him now - that wasn't so bad, but smashing glass wasn't so good. It wasn't a disaster either, though, he mused.

"We keep this to ourselves for now, Jarvis."

"As you wish, Sir."

"I want all your resources looking into this problem." Tony ignored the hint of concern from Jarvis.

"Of course."

Tony was skimming through the readings, analyzing them in detail in the blink of an eye. The energy signature, this semi-living thing inside him, had been placid until now. It had not yet completely spread through his body, but it was getting dangerously close to doing so. There had been no active sign of it until now - and the healing capabilities he certainly wasn't complaining about - but smashing glass… how had that happened? His mind? That was more than a little scary.

"Maybe it's just when I get scared. Maybe I can control it," Tony thought out loud.

"It certainly did seem to be connected to your dream, sir. However, may I point out something you may have overlooked?"

"Go ahead, J."

"Well, the energy levels in you started rising before I detected a rise in your breathing and heart rate, which would suggest that it happened before you started dreaming."

"So, what you’re saying is, the energy caused my dream."

"It would appear so, sir."

"Shit." Tony clenched his teeth. Why did he get the feeling that this thing was toying with him? Here he was, thinking that maybe he could learn to control it and keep it under wraps - but instead, it looked like it was the one controlling him.

Tony looked at the clock and rubbed his head, mentally making a note of everything he had to do before 9am. The list was extensive, mainly consisting of Fury's new demands, but he desperately needed to keep working on this.

"Buckle down, Jarvis. Looks like we are pulling an all-nighter."

…...

Bruce hadn't seen much of Tony for the past week. To be fair, Bruce had been equally busy, and for once the genius seemed to be taking it easy. He'd been popping up for air regularly and they'd had brief conversations in the kitchen. Tony had definitely been eating well. It was a good sign that he had an appetite; with how much healing his body had to do he would be needing that energy. He even seemed to be going to bed every night which was more than comforting.

Towards the end of the week, Bruce had enlisted Tony's help on one of his projects. It had been fantastic having someone to work with, and the pair had richly enjoyed each other's company. The way which Tony had cut through the problems, pointing out the things that, once discovered, seemed obvious but Bruce just hadn't been able to see… This work was nowhere near Tony's specialty, but with a guy like Tony everything seemed to be his specialty, especially after a few hours of reading up.

Tony was glad Bruce hadn't noticed his deception. In reality, he'd been living in the workshop, working flat out. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept in his bed, even if he did go there every night just to convince to Bruce that he was sleeping. Pepper was away, business meetings taking her all over the place, so there was one less person standing between Tony and his work. He had so much to do. Every time he finished a project another one popped up, and if by some miracle he had a few hours spare he was scouring the data for some clue on what this energy was, how he ended up with it, and how the hell he could get it out of him.

Tony was exhausted, and it was more than just his work and lack of sleep. His body was drained all the time, like he'd just run a marathon. He was constantly starving, and no matter how much he ate he couldn't seem to satisfy his hunger. Caffeine was having no effect, either; he just seemed to be burning everything off faster than he could get it down. For the first time since he'd realized palladium was poisoning him, he had no answers, no clue what to do, and was getting too tired to bother doing anything about it. But this one was bigger than just his life. He had a feeling there was a lot more at stake if he didn't solve it. There hadn't been anymore incidents like the smashed glass, but then again he'd barely slept since… and the calm always came before the storm.

……

Chapter Text

Thor just stood in silence and watched as Loki was taken away by the guards. It saddened him greatly that the brother he once knew so well had become like a stranger, so bitter and so angry with the world. He caught his mother's eye as they waited outside the Great Hall. They were full of the sadness that Thor felt deep within his bones. The sting of betrayal was a harsh one, especially when caused by someone that you couldn't help but love, not matter what they did.

Thor longed for some time alone, but as soon as Loki had been sentenced, Odin demanded his presence.

Thor would not have been so concerned about his father's demand had it not been for the deeply troubled expression on his face. It was almost impossible not to notice the extra bustle about the city when he had returned with Loki. Many more guards than normal were armored ready for battle - that had been expected with the return of Loki. But now, Thor wondered, why so many when Loki was defeated?

"What is it, Father? What troubles you?"

"While you were on Midgard, did you see my messengers?  Huginn and Muninn?"

Thor paused in realization. "Not while I was awake."

"What is that supposed to mean?"

"It means, Father, that I dreamt of them several times after the battle but did not once see them while I was awake. Why? Did you send them? Have I missed a message?"

"Yes, my son, I did. This is troubling indeed, but confirms my suspicions."

"Father, please. I do not understand."

"I will explain later." He dismissed his son with the wave of his hand and turned to the guard posted beside him. Thor was just able to hear the rest of what was said before he fell out of earshot. "Tell them to focus their search on Midgard. I want it found now ."

Wanted what found? What were they searching for on Earth? Thor turned back. If whatever this was concerned Earth, it concerned him.

"I'm sorry Father, but if this concerns Midgard I must know."

Odin let out a deep sigh. "Very well. Leave us,"  he commanded to the remaining stragglers in the room. Slowly, it emptied by Odin's command and Thor waited expectantly for his answer.

…..

"Sir, I'm afraid that for the device to work you would have to remove the obstruction, and that would involve cutting the…"

"But that would break it anyway Jarvis, and I'm trying to fix it." Tony had now been in the workshop for going on five days, despite the short breaks he'd had to keep Bruce off his back.

"Yes, sir, I am aware. But what I am trying to say is that the only solution is to replace the part."

"But that would take months - can't I just rip it out?" Tony didn't wait for his AI's response and just started tugging at the lump of metal.

"Sir, to synthesize the part required would only take 3 days and I have calculated the force required to ‘rip out’ said obstruction to be over 2940 Newtons, so unless you intend on asking Captain Rogers or Thor to assist I suggest you stop your attempts before you hurt yourself."

"Nah, nah. I got this. It's coming free." Tony's face was starting to turn purple with the effort.

"I believe you are mistaken…"

"Got it!" Tony looked up at the ceiling triumphantly. "See? Easy, Jarvis!" Tony continued tinkering and started to fix the damage that the offending lump of metal had caused to his armor as his AI fell silent for a moment.

"But, sir. According to my calculations, that should be impossible."

"Well, you must have got it wrong. Happens to the best of us, J," Tony said flippantly. Yes, it had taken some effort, but it was by no means was that an impossible amount of force. He'd probably not taken into account the differing material strengths pulling at a certain angle would involve.

"With respect sir, I have not."

"Well you must have, Jarvis, because there's no way I just lifted 300kg with one arm."

"Sir, could you please draw your attention to the screen to your right?"

Tony dropped the offending metal chunk in shock when he saw the readings.

"What the…" That couldn't be right. He couldn't have applied that much force - it was inhuman!

"Jarvis, how?" Tony very well knew how but couldn't help asking.

"Well, sir, the unknown energy signature inside you reached a new peak level at the moment you removed the obstruction, so I can only assume…"

"What the fuck is this thing, Jarvis? I want it out of me. Now."

"I cannot come up with anything, sir. It appears biological, so perhaps if you were to seek some other expert advice."

"You want me to tell Banner?"

"Well, perhaps not tell him exactly, sir. Present it to him as a reading you obtained while through the wormhole… Sir, are you alright?"

Tony was on his knees. He wasn't quite sure how, or why. A wave of sickness had thrown itself over him and his head felt detached from his body. His chest tightened up, he couldn't breathe. The sound of his AI's questions were faint and misty. Everything seemed far away. He was being sucked out of the workshop to somewhere dark and cold. He wanted to stand, but his legs were like jelly. The air was being sucked away. What the hell was happening? Panic rose in his chest, his heartbeat pounded inside his skull, and suddenly he couldn't breathe at all. Just calm down, he thought, but telling himself that made everything worse. The overwhelming feeling of panic made him want to cry out, but his body refused him anything.

"Sir, it appears you are having a panic attack."

"Jarvis! Just- shut up! I need a minute," Tony gasped out between his manic breaths. He hadn't really heard what Jarvis had said, but suddenly every noise was loud and grating. He just wanted quiet. He tried to concentrate on breathing, on calming down. He was in the workshop, everything was fine. He could feel the panic slowly beginning to subside, but it was painfully slow.

"Sir, I'm calling Dr. Banner."

"NO!" Tony roared. Panic flooded back into his mind. Nobody could find him like this. He couldn't let Jarvis make that call.

Everything went black.

…..

"You remember the tales we told you as a child. Tales of the CAEB."

Thor's blood ran cold at Odin's words. "Father, you surely can't mean that this is more than legend?"

"I'm afraid that is exactly the case. We have had it locked up here since before you were born, deep below the dungeons; a place from which there is no escape."

"How have you concealed a being that we were told had the power to corrupt the greatest of creatures and destroy galaxies with a flick of its hand?" Thor demanded incredulously. He wanted so badly for his father’s words to ring false.

"The details are long winded. All that you need to know is that it - or the creature that it has inhabited for these millennia - killed itself while you were on Midgard."

Thor paused in relief, but when he saw the opposite reaction on his father's face he wondered what he had missed. "But Father, is this not good news?"

"Completely the opposite," Odin confirmed. "While we kept that creature trapped here, the CAEB had no power. We kept it too weak even to stand. But in the death of the host, the CAEB is freed and can inhabit another being. And it will wreak havoc."

Dawning realization made Thor’s blood run cold. "So you believe it has inhabited someone on Midgard."

"Yes. The cruelest part of the CAEB's nature is that it inhabits the body of a being who has shown a great sacrifice at the moment of its liberation. The recent events on Midgard, thanks to Loki,  would have provided such circumstances."

"Yes, but many planets are raging wars, father.  There are many who give such sacrifice - why do you believe it has come to Midgard?."

"Yes, but not wars of such nature, where Midgard's forces were so out-matched. Such wars give rise to great heroes, those who fight knowing they will surely die and in vain as they are so outmatched. And then there is the fact that Huginn and Muninn were unable to reach you. They informed me that they could not get close to you and that even when you gazed directly upon them you did not see. Only the CAEB is capable of such things."

"That is vexing indeed." Thor rubbed his face in dread, with the bifrost gone dealing with any situation was going to be difficult, let alone one as serious as this. "Will you allow me to return to Earth? My friends may be able to help with the search."

"That will not be necessary. The CAEB is pure evil and infinitely dangerous, especially in the hands of a mortal. I will deal with this. I am informing you out of courtesy, nothing more."

Thor resisted the urge to fight back. He knew from experience it only made his Father more closed and stubborn. He bowed his head and left the room. He would have to find another way to gain the answers he sought.

….

Tony opened his eyes groggily. Well, he assumed he'd just opened his eyes, but he still couldn't see anything. Was he blind? No, it was dark, he could just about make out the shape of his desk shift as he sat himself upright.

"Jarvis?" He was met with silence.

"Jarvis what is going on?"

His friendly AI still failed to respond and that was more than worrying. Jarvis was always there. Where was he? Everything in the workshop was dead, the computer screens were blank, and in fact they looked fried. What the hell had just happened? There was a small electric hum and the emergency lighting began to flicker to life.

"Switching to emergency power."

"Ah Jarvis, thank God! What the hell just happened?"

"If you would give me a moment to reboot and process the data, Sir, that would be appreciated."

That was weird. Since when did Jarvis need time ?

There was the sound of footsteps on the stairs as Bruce walked into the workshop - not bothering with the door, considering the glass was already broken.

"Tony, what's going on? Jarvis started to call me down here then the whole tower went black."

"What, really? The whole tower?"

"Yeah, I think so. My lab just suddenly went dark and it was the same all the way down here. The elevators weren't working either - I had to take the stairs."

"Well shit. I thought I'd just shorted something in the lab." Tony had left a lot running that shouldn't have been unattended while he was on the floor panicking, but he couldn't think of anything that could have blown out the whole tower and Jarvis as well.

"Do you know what caused it?" Bruce was looking at Tony expectantly.

"No, not yet. I was working on a few things, Jarvis is just rebooting then I'll have a better idea."

Tony's phone started buzzing on the desk and he snatched it up quickly when he saw Pepper's caller ID.

"Hi Pep."

"Tony, what the hell have you done?! I'm in the middle of a meeting!"

"Why do you assume it my fault?"

"Well, was it?"

"Yes, but that's beside the point…"

"What could you possibly be doing down there that has caused the entire tower to black out?! It's hard enough doing this job when I can see."

"Ok, ok, I'm fixing it, Pep. Did the emergency power kick in?"

"Yes, but…"

"Then what's the problem? You have power, you can carry on with your dull meeting. then I'll have it fixed by the time you're finished."

He hung up sharply. Tony knew he was unnecessarily irate with Pepper, but he didn't need people badgering him right now - he needed to remain objective. He had a really bad feeling he couldn't shake, an anger building up inside. He knew that if the tower had been targeted this could be an attack, and he needed to be ready.

His phone immediately started buzzing again with an unknown caller ID. He had a strong urge to smash that phone, but right now he wanted answers.

"Hello?" Tony answered angrily.

"Stark, why am I getting reports that the power is down for half of New York?" Tony rubbed his temples. Great, now Fury was on his back.

"Yep, sorry, my fault. I'm fixing it." He just hung up. He couldn't be bothered with it.

His phone started buzzing again - Fury clearly wasn't satisfied. He picked it up and threw it at the wall, giving a satisfied sigh when it smashed to pieces and stopped ringing.

Bruce was giving Tony a quizzical look, having only picked up Tony's half of the conversations.

"Well, looks like I've taken down the power in half of New York."

Bruce nodded calmly, not really knowing what to say to Tony's building anger.

"Jarvis, you any further forward?"

"Yes, sir. I have traced the problem, but considering all the electronics in this room have been damaged irreparably I would suggest you go to the upstairs labs to view the data."

Tony started moving. This was just what he needed, with everything else that was going on.

"Do you need any help?" Bruce was feeling pretty useless and was desperate to do something.

"Not till I've figured out what the problem is, but I'll give you a shout." Tony was already halfway up the stairs. "You can check the coffee machine is working, God knows I can't get any work done if that's not functioning."

"Jarvis, why do I get the feeling that we've got a serious problem?"

"I really wouldn't know, sir."

"Thanks for that." Sarcasm really didn't suit Jarvis, Tony thought. He could barely believe all that happened in the past week. Since he'd come back it had all been change - not all of it bad - but right now he was just praying that he'd wake up and it had all been a dream. "You know what, this could be a good thing! Super strength, fast healing... what's not to like?"

"I would agree with you, sir, if it wasn't for the fact that you’ve taken out the power across half of New York and broken numerous other things."

"Maybe I can control it." He'd said it before, he was saying it now more to try and convince himself than anything. Unfortunately, Jarvis was too practical to be a comfort.

"That is highly unlikely.  In fact, the way in which it has spread through your body makes it appear to me that it may be controlling you ." Tony put his head in his hands. His AI was right, but what the hell could he do about it? He hated not understanding things and this in particular was just frightening. At first it had just been a shower door - some shattered glass - but the power of whatever was inside him was growing fast and if it grew any more... who knew what it could do?

"Sir, I really must advise we get help on this. You have tripled your calorie intake over the past week yet have still experienced dramatic weight loss. Your body cannot cope with the strain of sustaining both you and this energy source."

Tony nodded. "But who do we tell, Jarvis? SHIELD? A lot of good they are going to be."

"As I suggested earlier, perhaps we should run it past Dr. Banner. We could show him the energy signature and the way it interacts with cells."

"What, you mean my cells?"

"I would suggest that we do not tell him everything at this point. Perhaps we can inform him that it was residue on your suit that you picked up when you were through …."

"Ok Jarvis, you're repeating yourself, I can remember what happened before I blacked out." Tony's mind and heart were racing. This really sucked, but he'd solved the impossible before with a little help so maybe he would manage it again.

"Jarvis…" Tony started hesitantly. "How long do I have before my body can't cope?"

Even Jarvis paused before answering and Tony knew it wasn't because he was running calculations. "Between eight and ten days, sir."

Tony sighed - like him, his AI was almost never wrong. "And what happens then?"

"I have no idea."

….

Tony sat on the couch and twiddled his thumbs. The TV was on in the background but he hadn't been watching it; instead, he was deep in thought.

Pepper left her meeting ready to run down to the lab and give Tony an earful, but as she thought about it she realized that he had sounded stressed on the phone. She also knew that he'd have been working hard to fix the problem, so in the end she decided it was best to leave it. The last thing she had expected to see when the elevator reached the penthouse was Tony, sitting on the sofa and staring at the ceiling.

"I thought you'd be in the shop. Apparently, you took out half the power in New York."

"Well I fried everything in the shop, it needs replacing and that's going to take a few hours."

"Oh, so your own lab has finally kicked you out?"

"Seems like it."

Oh dear, Pepper thought. It seemed that the tower had acquired a bored Tony Stark and that was never a good thing.

"Are you Ok, Tony? You look…" Pepper paused. He looked fine. But, she just had a feeling that there was something wrong with him. She didn't know why, there certainly weren't any physical symptoms but she just couldn't shake the feeling.

"I'm fine."

"I'm taking it, by your lack of activity, that the problem's been solved?"

"Yeah, power's back up. Jarvis sorted it."

"Why don't you go help Bruce, and I'll cook some lunch?" Tony visibly perked up at the mention of food. Pepper was pleased - she imagined that Tony hadn't been eating properly since she'd been busy. He rarely did and he was still recovering (whether he liked to admit it or not).

Tony couldn't deny that he was hungry. His insides had been screaming at him for days, and no matter how much he ate he couldn't get the hunger pains to leave him. Pepper's cooking was always great. But as for going up to help Bruce… well, he'd been avoiding that for obvious reasons.

Pepper had asked how he was. She had been the first to do so, despite everything that had been happening, and he couldn't help wondering how no one else had noticed. When he looked in the mirror, he was gray - deathly gray - and his clothes were starting to hang off him where 10 pounds of weight should have been. He was hardly a stick, but weight loss this rapid could never be healthy and another week or so of this and he would be looking like a walking skeleton.

Whatever was inside him must be hiding itself from the world, and consequently the effect it was having on Tony's body. Nobody had really asked him how he was because to them he looked perfectly alright.

"Bruce will call if he needs me." Tony needed some more time to think, and in all honesty now he was sitting down the thought of how much effort it was going to take to get back to his feet made him feel shaky and weak.

"Ok, I'll give him an ETA on dinner then." Pepper knew that Tony needed to be distracted, and Bruce being Bruce would only ask Tony for help if he really, really had to - especially if he thought that Tony was busy.

Bruce looked up from his pile of papers as Pepper entered the room.

"I'm guessing that Tony's fixed his little mishap, then."

"Yes, it appears so. I'm just coming up to ask a favor."

"Sure, anything." Bruce smiled.

"Well, Tony's workshop is out of action until his equipment is replaced and he's… well, he's bored. I was wondering if you could call him up to help or something."

Bruce chuckled, "Yeah, sure. No problem."

"Thank you, Bruce. You haven't met a bored Tony Stark yet and it's not something I'd advise putting on your bucket list."

"I can only imagine."

"Ok, I'm making lunch. It should be about an hour so don't get into something too involved."

…..

Tony had been in the lab with Bruce for twenty minutes. He knew a set up when he saw it. Bruce had asked for help but he didn't really need it. Even so, he didn't begrudge it. It was nice to keep busy and he was enjoying the company. Tony knew he couldn't put it off any longer; he needed Bruce's help.

"Actually, Bruce, I had something I wanted to run by you. Jarvis, can you get up the thing we found?"

"Certainly, sir."

Bruce stared at the screens in amazement. This was something he'd never seen before - and if he was honest he wasn't completely sure what he was looking at.

"I'm guessing this is alien in nature?"

"Yep, just something I picked up when I was exploring deep space." Tony shivered.

Bruce nodded his head and tried to take in all the information that Tony had gathered so far.

"This is weird, the way it interacts with cells. It's almost like a virus, but more than that, it's clearly alive - even when outside the host cell. That’s certainly not normal."

"I'm trying to find a way to separate it from the cells and destroy it. It emits a very specific energy signature, so I'm tracing it to make sure that no more of it came back with me."

"Have you found any yet?"

"No, but its early days and I want to be certain. I don't really like the way I don't understand it."

"I have to agree. this is frightening, the way it is draining the life from the host cells without taking them over. It's more of a parasite than an infection."

"Sir, Miss Potts would like me to inform you and Dr. Banner that your meal is ready."

"Ok, J. We'll be right down."

Bruce was still engrossed in the new problem Tony had presented him with. "Can you leave this with me?" Mentally, Bruce had already put all his other projects on hold; he had a feeling that this was far more important and time critical.

"Yeah, sure, just keep it under wraps for now - until we know more. No point in panicking people."

Bruce nodded and turned to follow Tony out of the room. Whatever this was, it was sinister and he could tell that it was freaking Tony out too.

"You've got this well contained, right? I mean, it can't get out." Bruce was considering the damage that could be done if it went unrestricted. He had seen the effects on individual cells, but a whole organism was an entirely different ball game.

"Yeah, I've got it contained. It's the fact there may be more out there that worries me." Tony wasn't lying, though he had to admit he was slightly more worried about himself at this point. Jarvis' scans were conclusive - there was no more of this energy on Earth other than what was inside him. The question was, was that a good thing, or a bad thing?

Chapter Text

It was 5am. 5am and Tony's phone was ringing. Jesus! Who would ring at that time seriously? He should have been asleep. Well he wasn't asleep, he was in the lab as normal but that was no excuse to be ringing him at this ungodly hour.

The thought of sleep made Tony yawn painfully, he hadn't allowed himself to sleep since the nightmare incident since he couldn't afford to be smashing any more glass or worse…

It shouldn't have been possible, after more than a week he should have passed out from exhaustion. He certainly was exhausted but it was as if whatever was inside him was draining him but also willing him to survive, hiding the fact Tony looked like the walking dead, concealing itself from everyone but him.

Tony just started at his phone for a while as its vibrations caused it to jump around the table, until the annoying nature of the noise finally convinced him to pick it up.

"Yes."

"Stark we have a situation." Nick Fury, of course, who else.

"Oh really, why am I surprised. Well it's not my fault this time so what do you want me to do about it?"

"Did I just wake you up Stark?"

"Take a wild guess." Of course, Tony hadn't slept, but Bruce thought he had and he needed to keep up the pretence. He was fairly certain that Bruce was reporting his every move to the ever-worried Pepper, who was currently in Miami doing something that he'd decided that he couldn't be bothered with.

"Well Stark I need to borrow your tower for a day or two…"

"What! Why?"

"Relax Stark, there's some sort of virus going round, came through with the Chitauri and is knocking off people on the island. I want to use your facilities to get the team checked over."

A space virus? Tony was intrigued, was this the same thing that was inside him? "I seem to remember you having your own Med Bay."

"Stark, everyone knows you have the best medical facilities in the city and since you and Banner are already there it makes sense everyone else comes to you."

“By everyone, I’m guessing you mean the rest of the Avengers.”

“Yes Stark, as well as a fully briefed team of my operatives.”

Tony paused, he was talking to the world's head superspy and didn't want to give anything away but he needed to know more.

"What are the chances of one of us having this, and the implications?"

"There have only been one or two cases but you were on the front line so the risk will be higher, you do the math."

"And the implications? Have you got a cure for this thing?"

"You nervous Stark?" Fury's voice was teasing.

"For God's sake will you just give me an answer? I need data." Tony didn't try to defend himself, if he kept up the 'just woken up and pissed' pretence hopefully it would be more convincing than his counter arguments.

"I'll give you what you need when we get to you, we have an antidote of sorts, but an approval from Dr. Banner, and yourself, would be appreciated. We will be arriving in 30 minutes."

The phone went dead. Tony didn't know what to think, could SHIELD really have made an antidote when he and Banner still had no idea what they were facing? He was assuming too much, yet he was praying that this was the same thing that was happening to him.

"Jarvis can you do another scan for this energy signature, targeting specifically places where SHIELD have encountered this virus."

"Sir my processing capability will be diminished by running the scan, so for the sake of time if you could…"

"I'll do the hacking you do the scanning and Jarvis, make it thorough."

"Yes Sir."

…..

"Tony! Man, you look good!" Clint was so glad to be back at the tower, it was just the excuse he needed to return after his leave had ended giving him some much-needed time with his family.

"Thanks feathers, you're not looking so bad yourself."

"That's because he's been sleeping." Bruce came into the room as Clint was dumping his bags on the floor and warmly shaking hands with Tony.

"Brucie! You been enjoying the science time." Clint grinned back.

"Must say I have, what are you doing back and at this time in the morning?" Bruce stood next to Tony and patted him warmly on the shoulder, whilst accepting a handshake from Clint.

"Sorry Bruce I forgot to update you, well actually I thought you were asleep, its 5:30am what are you doing up?"

"Tony do you really need to ask that when it's usually me dragging you to bed." Clint sniggered at Bruce's unfortunate wording, receiving two scowling faces in return.

"Oh, grow up bird brain. Fury called, there's some sort of space virus around and we're all getting checked." Trust Tony to keep it short.

Bruce's face dawned in realization, could this be the same thing Tony had found? Tony's eyes were pleading with him not to say anything and he acknowledged with a gentle nod.

"Do I need to be worried about this virus thingy?" Clint was clearly just as in the dark as Tony felt. "

Don't know yet, Fury has told me zilch, apparently he's going to inform us when he's finished vandalizing my labs."

"Vandalizing?" Bruce raised an eyebrow.

"Yeah SHIELD are setting up their testing facility and making a bloody mess, seriously they are butchers they have no idea what half of that equipment does."

"Sir, the rest of the Avengers have arrived." Clint stared upwards and shivered. Yes, Jarvis was awesome but a voice without a body would always freak him out, especially one a British one that had sarcasm and wit to rival his own. He’d seen enough movies to know the computers always turned.

As if on cue the lift doors slid open to reveal Steve and Natasha, both with a single bag each, obviously used to packing light.

"Rogers, you're 30 seconds late, this is unacceptable behaviour; I'm surprised they haven't demoted you already."

"Nice to see you too Stark." Steve replied darkly, but seeing Tony break out in a smile his mood instantly lightened. The smile became infectious and Steve couldn't help his mouth from turning upwards.

"How you all been keeping? You're looking less bashed around then when I saw you last."

"Yeah Pretty good actually, you're looking good yourself Stark, having Banner around mean you're getting some proper sleep?" Steve was very sincere, he was amazed how different the genius looked when he appeared fully rested.

"It would appear so." Tony glanced over Steve's shoulder as they shook hands catching his reflection in the mirror. He was grey, covered in a glaze of cold sweat and seriously in need of a good feed. He was glad the others couldn't see what he saw.

"Ribs still troubling you?" Clint asked, rubbing the small of his still troublesome back as he sat down.

"Not too bad now, despite Bruce's efforts to demolish them."

Natasha shook her head, but neither she nor Bruce could quite conceal a chuckle. That incident hadn't been in the slightest bit funny at the time and the memory was unpleasant for all of them, but when Stark was in his full flow his body language alone could get a room laughing.

Natasha had greeted Clint with a warm hug. She had to admit both Tony and Bruce looked good, Bruce was obviously suffering from his current all-nighter, but overall, he looked rested. So why was she worried?

She studied them both carefully as they greeted Steve. Seriously what was with all the handshakes? She could tell they were dying for a good old man hug. Everything looked fine at first glance, but the presence of a nagging knot in her stomach warned her otherwise. She knew better than to deny her instincts and on closer inspection Bruce was clearly hiding something, something which he was relating with Tony, but whatever it was Tony was hiding it beautifully. It was probably just some science project or maybe the fact that Tony's ribs weren't as good as he was making out, it certainly wouldn't be the first time. This seemed backed up by Tony's own actions, mainly his subtle surprise when everyone said he was looking good. The way he had cautiously glanced in the mirror over Steve's shoulder was certainly strange, it was as if he didn't believe it and was worried that someone would see otherwise. Maybe it was more than his ribs, was he worried about this virus check? Did he think he had it? She looked again more closely, he was showing absolutely no signs of feeling rough and Natasha struggled to believe that Tony Stark, no matter how good his mask was could evade her observation that well. Maybe he was just so used to looking rough all the time that for someone to be telling him something else for once was a strange experience. She shrugged off her inner monologue of analysis and began to join in with the ensuing banter.

 

Tony had mentally gritted his teeth when he had lied about his ribs. What had it been… 3 weeks now since the battle? If that. There was absolutely no sign it had ever happened, the way his ribs had healed was crazy, you could always tell a bone that had been previously broken, the body overcompensates for the weakness by growing the bone thicker than it had before, but his was a perfect fix, it had even fixed some of the damage caused by the arc reactors implantation. Despite all the nagging thoughts in his head and his eagerness to get his hands on the data Fury had promised, he allowed himself to relax in his present company. They slid back into conversation like they'd never been apart and you certainly never would have recognized this team now with them when they had first met.

…..

0700 hours

"For God's sake Fury what took you so long?"

"Your computers were running slow Stark, we've uploaded your data, if you and Dr. Banner could review it while we start testing the others."

"You, with SHIELD's horse shit that you call tech, are calling my computers slow?"

"Well they were."

"Jarvis…” There was no answer. “Jarvis, Jarvis where the hell are you?" There was another few second's delay before his AI finally answered.

"My apologies Sir, following your earlier request I received some information which I was cross referencing with our current project, the processing is taking some time."

"Well scratch that for now, I need you firing on all cylinders." Tony couldn't thank his AI enough for being too vague. Even Bruce wasn't quite sure whether the current project was referring to what he thought it was or something completely different. The concept that Jarvis might have found something was, well, it was amazing, he had been waiting so long for a breakthrough and was praying that he would finally get this sorted.

"Shall we get on with it then?" Clint was as impatient as always and Fury led the way back to the lab they had set up for the testing.

"Agent Barton is clear." There were four agents other than Fury and the Avengers in the room, two of whom were working with Banner and Stark on the computers and the others were currently scanning and taking blood samples from Natasha.

"Brilliant." Clint couldn't have sounded less enthusiastic if he tried, it had only been half an hour waiting for his results but he was already bored. "Can I go now?" He whined.

"No." Natasha answered simply.

"Why?"

"Because if you think you're bored now, you'll be even more bored on your own in the penthouse with no one to talk to."

Clint opened his mouth to answer and then realized that Natasha as always was being perfectly logical, so returned to sulking instead.

"You should be more relieved Clint, this Virus is nasty and currently no one has survived it." Bruce was still studying the screens intently.

"But haven't SHIELD made an antidote?"

"Yes, an antidote not a cure, it's not guaranteed to work it could still kill the host."

"Oh, great that makes me feel so much better!" Natasha was currently watching them draw blood out of her arm.

"Sorry."

A normal level of chatter erupted but Tony wasn't joining in, he remained silent working on the computer as Bruce analysed Natasha results with the SHIELD technicians and Steve started his tests.

"Stark, what are you doing?" Fury opened his eye from where he had been leant back in the chair when he noticed the absence of the engineer's voice.

"Working."

"Stark."

"What?!"

"If you are hacking SHIELD for more data you won't find any, for once it's on paper where you can't get your grubby fingers on it."

"Fury, how do you expect us to help if you won't even tell us what we're dealing with?"

"You have everything you need for the task Stark."

"But if want us to make your antidote work properly we're going to need more."

"And you'll get it if we decide we need the antidote improving." This perked the heads of the rest of the team, especially Bruce who, already frustrated with the lack of information, stopped working to listen to the ensuing argument.

"Why wouldn't you want the antidote improving?" Steve was always fearless to challenge.

"I have my reasons, which you don't need to know."

"Fury people's lives are at stake, now I'm sat here saying Clint is clear, and you are by the way too Natasha, but I'm only basing that on what you have given me, there may be other blood factors we haven't even considered so how can I know for sure?"

"Are you questioning me?" Fury continued to dig at Bruce and Natasha's Russian Fury was unleashed in the full at her boss. This of course made Clint get stuck in and Steve was already well involved although refrained from the mindless insulting that soon filled the room.

Tony tuned out. Why was Fury doing this? He needed this information, he needed to know if this was the same thing that was inside him and all the shouting was really making him anxious. He knew what had been happening when he got anxious and right now he could feel something inside him building. He'd been trying to formulate a plan to break into Fury's office and get the information he needed but the current Cacophony was stopping him from thinking and therefore stopping his distractions.

"Will you all just shut up!" There was some tangible force in the air when Tony shouted that knocked them all for six. It was like a gust of wind that ushered the room into silence. Tony regained his composure as the falling of silence allowed his anxiety to seep away.

"Sorry guys, but can we just get this over with, and Fury if you're not going to do anything useful just go and wait downstairs or something. The sooner I get SHIELD out of my house the better."

Fury got up indignantly and left the room.

"Well said Tony." Bruce patted him on the back in gratitude, the shouting had certainly not been doing his control of the Hulk much good even though he had it well enough under wraps.

The dynamic of the room went back to its normal cheery demeanour after Fury's departure.

"That's you done Captain Rogers Sir." The SHIELD medic was obviously in awe of meeting his hero which Tony could imagine was getting a bit annoying for Steve by now, but then again maybe not as he was Captain Perfect.

"Thank you." Steve stood up and pointed to the now empty chair. "Looks like you're up Stark."

Tony nodded and plonked himself in the chair lazily, trying to appear as cool as possible though he was aware he was doing a pretty crap job of hiding his anxiety. Natasha noticed his inevitable nervousness and readjusted her mental analysis of the situation.

"If we could do you Dr. Banner at the same time, that would probably be best since we need you both to help with the analysis." Bruce obliged the young medic silently and sat in a spare chair beside Tony.

……………………………………………….

"Mother, may I speak with you."

Thor entered his mother's chambers with caution. There was much he needed to learn, yet asking his Mother to give him information against his Father's word was never a fair calling. Frigga may be Queen and Odin's beloved but she was not exempt from his wrath nor his punishment.

"Of course, my son, I expect there is much you want to know."

"Yes…" Thor began, a little taken aback by his mother’s forthrightness.

"But I cannot oblige you much, you understand?" Frigga said sternly.

"Yes, Mother of course." Frigga smiled and ushered her son to sit next to her.

"I will tell you all that I can and you will listen well and not ask any more of me." Thor nodded in response without hesitation.

"The CAEB is indeed real, it has untold power and is evil beyond all knowledge. We can imprison the host by methods known only to your Father and one day these will be known only to you. The CAEB's imprisonment has been the responsibility of Asgard for the last ten millennia. When the CAEB's host dies, as it did recently by a slip in our defences, it inhabits another, one whom is committing great sacrifice. Your Father believes it to be on Earth and its distinct energy signature has confirmed it to be so. They have confined the search to a single landmass and await the CAEB's next mistake. Heimdall has not yet been able to see it, so we do not believe it has fully consumed the host yet. For now, we must wait." Frigga finished and looked warmly at her son, she could see he had many more questions but as she had requested he refrained from asking any more of her.

Thor was frustrated he kept hitting dead ends. It was his responsibility to protect Midgard, yet he couldn't get the information he so sorely needed to do so. He was immensely grateful for his Mother's words, most of what she had said, had repeated that which he had learned from his father, though the new information was of great help to him. "Thank you, Mother." He bowed his head and began to leave. Frigga shook her head.

"Thor there are those who know as much as I but are less bound to secrecy."

"Would you be able to be more specific?"

"Yes." Frigga smiled softly and paused, "Heimdall and…" Thor wondered why his Mother hesitated so, but he had his answer soon enough. "Heimdall and Loki."

Thor cocked his head in confusion. Why would father trust Loki with information that he had denied his eldest son? After a pause he acknowledged his Mother once more and proceeded to leave the chambers.

Once he was out in the hall he considered his options, approaching Loki wasn't one; he may still love his Brother but he would never have his trust again, he had betrayed him far too many times for forgiveness. Heimdall had been good to him in the past, yet there was always the chance he would refuse to offer him any more information. Still that was his only option and he was hardly going to be idle when Midgard was in danger.

…..

Thor had often made the long trip to the end of the rainbow bridge to talk with Heimdall. His stories had fascinated both he and his brother as a child, so it seemed strange not be visiting him at his usual watch post. Of course, that was because it had been destroyed by Thor himself during Loki's first escapade. Heimdall had a temporary post which was not such a long walk, of course a long walk hardly concerned Thor now that he could fly.

"My liege, to what do I owe this pleasure?"

"I think you know why Heimdall, not much can elude you."

"Indeed, My Prince, you seek knowledge about the CAEB which your father has forbidden. But I see how you care for Midgard and it would be a great disadvantage to have our Prince and greatest warrior ill informed." Heimdall gave a wry smile and Thor relaxed.

"Thank you Heimdall."

"Is there anything in particular you wish to know?"

"All that I do not already Heimdall, why in particular is it of such concern that the new host is human?"

"Humans have an incredibly short lifespan, even once we have caught and contained the CAEB when the host dies, it is again released. Finding the CAEB is difficult and if we do not find it before it reaches its full power it will be nearly impossible to contain."

"How powerful can it become?"

"The CAEB itself has infinite power, but it is limited by the strength of its host. The last host was a Kree, the power he could have potentially unleashed would have destroyed galaxies."

"But surely if the host is human then its power will be greatly muted."

"Indeed, but a human host poses a bigger threat."

"How?"

"A human body is weak, its takes great strength to contain the CAEB, eventually the human form will not be able to contain it. The host body is still a prison to the CAEB, it corrupts the host and bends it to its will, however its ultimate goal is to escape the host and gain its own form, only then it can reach its full power."

"So, you are saying that usually the host form is strong enough to contain it, but with a human the CAEB will escape."

"And cause untold destruction."

"So how close are we to finding it?"

"Very, we have pinpointed its location to within 1000 square miles within the country known as America."

"America!" That news vexed Thor, his friends may be in great danger.

"I will not be any use until the CAEB has fully consumed the host, before then the CAEB is able to conceal its energy and keep the signature faint, so I cannot see it."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"No my Prince I'm afraid there is not. I understand your eagerness to help, but in this instance, I would suggest that you let your Father deal with this. I know how much you care for Midgard but there is only one way to deal with the CAEB and only your father knows how."

Thor contemplated Heimdall words. This CAEB was surely dangerous and he knew not how to deal with it, the last thing he wanted was his interference to end in unnecessary death or suffering. He would step aside in this instance and let his Father deal with the problem. He would be watching closely however, and ready to act if something should go wrong.

"Mr. Stark you are clear."

Tony just stared at the young medic in disbelief. "I'm sorry what?"

"You're clear Mr. Stark, no signs of the virus." Tony's heart stopped dead. So, what the hell was wrong with him?

The others hadn't been paying attention but suddenly all eyes were on Tony.

"Oh, ok sorry I was somewhere else." Tony shook his head slightly as if he were trying to bring his mind back to the real world, but his save wasn't good enough to fool Natasha, and struck a chord with Bruce as he started to put the pieces together.

It turned out the entire team was clear. Tony had re-checked the results as a precaution, or that's what he told them, in reality he was checking his own results over and over again. Bruce stood silently at the door of the lab watching. Tony had been convinced there was something wrong with him, but why? He had a very strong hunch, but it would involve testing the DNA in those cells that Tony had presented him. A few hours of testing later and Bruce had his answers.

When he returned to the penthouse the usual chatter had broken out, Bruce sat down and joined in but couldn't help glancing at Tony.

Tony had sat silently since the tests, he was very still and contemplative, staring into space as if he wasn't even on the same planet as the rest of the room. Natasha had seen that look on Tony's face before when he was dying from palladium poisoning. The deep look of worry and sadness in his eyes when he thought that no one was watching. It was strange though, there was fear in there too and there hadn't been last time. One thing she knew was that Tony Stark didn't fear death, so what was he so afraid of?

It took a long while for the others to notice the absence of Tony's sarcastic remarks and sharp comebacks from the conversation and it was Steve who first turned his attention to the silent Genius.

"Something on your mind Stark?" The genius didn't respond and just kept staring into space so Steve tried again. "Tony!"

"Hmm... what?" Tony looked around slightly dazed. Steve frowned. Tony still looked fine but something didn't seem right. He just couldn't put his finger on it.

"Are you ok? You haven't said a word all day."

"Yeah sorry Guys. Just running stuff up here." He tapped a finger on his temple lightly. "In fact, if you don't mind there's some stuff I need to do before I forget." He got up and with a smile proceeded down to his lab.

The others looked at each other in confusion for a moment, before Bruce got up.

"It's alright guys he does that, that guy's head never turns off. I'll go and check on him."

This was all just a bad dream. It had to be. There was no other explanation for it. Why else would the world dangle the carrot of his problems resolution in his face only to realize the thing was poisoned and leave him with nothing but a bitter after taste or possibly worse. He was well and truly back to square one. Jarvis' scans had proven beyond doubt that the space virus was just that, and absolutely nothing to do with what he had.

Tony went straight for his decanter and started pouring, his hand shaking slightly in rage and fear. He downed the drink in one, and then another and another. Who was he kidding, the drink wouldn't solve his problems nor would it make him feel better about them, he knew that well enough from experience.

"Damn it!" He picked up the decanter and threw it at the wall taking satisfaction as it shattered spilling brown liquid all over the floor.

Tony hadn't noticed Bruce come in.

"Tony, are you ok?" Tony wasn't ok, not by any means and he knew that it was far too late to try and talk his way out of this.

Bruce just watched as Tony sank to his knees in defeat. His shoulders were shaking in pain and exhaustion, there were no physical signs but if Bruce had deduced correctly there wouldn't be.

Bruce sank down next to Tony with his back against the wall.

"So, I checked the DNA in those cells you gave me."

"Hmmm."

"And it was yours." Tony nodded silently and Bruce continued. "So that either means that you used your cells to see how this thing you found in space interacted with them, or you never found it in space at all, you found it in you."

Tony didn't reply. Bruce already knew the answer.

"You were hoping that this virus SHIELD found was it, weren't you?"

"Yes."

Bruce knew how much whatever this was would be completely draining Tony, the man he was looking at was likely in immense pain, barely struggling to stay alive and getting worse with every passing second.

"How much has it taken over."

"Jarvis?"

" 80.1% Sir."

"And how long do we have to it reaches 100%" Bruce turned to addressing Jarvis.

"Approximately 39 hours."

"Shit." Bruce rarely swore but this situation called for it. "How are you still standing?"

"I don't know, I've lost 12kg I'm eating like a horse, when I look in the mirror all I see is grey skin and protruding bones. My ribs healed after 2 days, 2days Bruce!"

Bruce's mouth dropped a little.

"How are we not seeing this?"

"I don't know, there's everyone telling me I look well when that's not what I see, I feel like death and that's not all."

Bruce braced himself, not really knowing how things could get much worse.

"The glass in the lab, taking out the power across half of New York. That all happened when I get stressed, or panicked or angry, not because of a technical glitch or me overloading the systems."

Bruce could feel Tony getting more and more agitated. "Tony…"

"Bruce if this gets any worse….

"Tony…"

"I don't know what to do, SHIELD will have me locked up if they find out…"

"Tony, they are not going to find out."

Tony looked at Bruce quizzically.

"They are not going to find out because I am not going to tell them."

Tony frowned again. "Why?"

"Tony, I know what it like is to have something dangerous inside you. Something you can't control. It may not seem like it now but it's going to be ok, because I'm going to help you. I'd have got a lid on the Hulk years ago if I hadn't been chased all over the globe and I'm sure as hell not going to let the same happen to my friend."

Bruce and Tony just gazed at each other. Tony couldn't believe that someone would agree to help him, someone would consider him a friend in that way. Of course, Bruce was the best person he could have asked for to help him, to learn to control the uncontrollable, but he didn't feel that he deserved his support. Bruce felt exactly the opposite.

Bruce could see the fear and conflict in Tony's eyes, for once it was too much for him to hide. He slipped his hands behind Tony's shoulder and pulled him in towards him.

Tony didn't resist, he just let Bruce hold him and he felt the emotion slowly drain away as it was smothered by the constant wave of pain and exhaustion that was dragging him down.

Bruce had always wished there was someone who understood exactly how he felt. Now he wished that there wasn't. He felt Tony slowly relax, calming down from his alarmingly controlled breakdown. He doubted Tony had ever truly broken down in front of someone, he was too withdrawn for that. He made a silent promise to be there for Tony through all of this, to protect him from whoever decided that he was too dangerous to be left in the world, just as he had wished there had been someone there to help him in the early days.

"When was the last time you got some sleep Tony?"

"Last night."

"Don't bullshit me, I know you've been going back down to the lab, I checked with Jarvis."

Tony glared at the ceiling. "Not since you came down and put the blanket on me, thanks for that by the way."

"Your welcome Tony, but shit! That was weeks ago. That's inhuman."

"I know."

"Right you're going to sleep right now."

"I can't Bruce."

"Sure you can."

"No really I can't!" Tony's voice became desperate very suddenly which knocked Bruce back.

"This thing, it… it gives me nightmares and when I get scared I break shit. The first time it was a door, then the glass, then the power for half the city. I can't risk finding out what it will be next."

Bruce rubbed his temples. Tony had a valid point but he desperately needed that sleep.

"Go on, get yourself on the couch. I'll have Jarvis monitoring you and I'll wake you up the moment any shit starts."

"Bruce, I'm not sure."

"Tony I'm here for you. Just try 20mins."

"Ok." Tony resigned, he was desperate to sleep but so worried about the consequences he wondered if he actually could. As soon as he was tucked up on the couch however, his body overrode his head and he fell into unconsciousness.

…..

Nobody had noticed Natasha leave the room, nor seen her return. She was after all trained to be a ghost and the others had gone to explore their newly finished personal floors courtesy of Tony Stark.

She had followed Bruce and Tony down to the lab, firstly out of concern but when she had heard things smashing she'd decided just to wait and listen.

What she heard shocked her deeply. Something serious was happening to Tony, as far as she could tell he had caused the power blackout just with his mind. He was dying, had lost 12kg yet none of them could see it. But the fear was not for his own life but for everyone else's. If two of the top scientists in the world didn't really know what they were facing then there seemed very little hope.

She knew she was duty bound to tell SHIELD, but Bruce was completely right. It was her duty as an Avenger and Tony's friend to protect him, even if he would never trust her. She couldn't watch SHIELD lock him up or force him on the run because of something they didn't understand, because if Tony and Bruce were in the dark there was no way that SHIELD could help.

…..

Bruce watched Tony sleep, he was disturbingly still and didn't so much as flinch when Bruce, who had been trying far too hard to be quiet, had consequently smashed his mug of coffee when he tripped over a box, creating an almighty clatter.

He watched Tony's vitals with a sick feeling. He was relaxed and asleep yet his heart rate was constantly over 190bpm, it was unhealthily high, his blood pressure was well up as was his breathing rate. Yet, to look at, he appeared completely normal.

The 20minutes passed without incident and Bruce couldn't bring himself to wake Tony. Bruce himself was exhausted, but he would give Tony another 3hours of much needed rest before he gave up and turned his attention to sleep. It was only early afternoon thanks to the early start, there would probably be a lot of coffee consumed before the day ended.

…..

It was growing dark, it had been a long day but on no way a boring one, despite the long absence of two of the team.

Steve had been amazed at the gym facility Tony had set up for them. There were individual training rooms which, according to Jarvis, could be modelled holographically to fit any battle scenario. Steve had spent hours in the new gym, trying out all the equipment, having not seen a lot of it before and was now utterly exhausted. Indoors was never going to be as good as his morning run yet he imagined he would end up spending nearly as much time in here as Tony and Banner did in the labs.

For Clint, there was just so much to do, games rooms, training rooms, an awesome swimming pool; he was living the dream. He had his own personal shooting range, with training programs designed to really test him with near impossible shots, which certainly made a change to the standard 50ft targets he'd been stuck with at SHIELD.

What Clint and the others didn't know is that all the data from their training was sent directly to Tony and he planned on analysing it to the most minute detail so he could see exactly what he could do to improve their equipment. He wanted them to be able to work with it as one, just like he did with the suit.

The non-sciencey trio as Clint had dubbed them sat quietly in the communal living room as the darkness fell outside. Steve was drawing, Natasha analysing every function of the Stark pad and Clint watching whatever inane rubbish was currently on the TV.

Natasha couldn't keep thinking about Tony's current predicament. She had only heard one conversation and yet it filled her with dread. Now she had so many questions, but wasn't sure if admitting to them that she knew was such a good idea. After all, Tony's workshop was sacred, he didn't trust her as it was and him finding out that she had been snooping outside listening in on a private conversation would mean she could kiss any chance of regaining that trust goodbye.

That being said, when the ground started shaking and the tower started swaying she was on her feet and down to the lab without a second's hesitation, leaving the two men behind to figure out what was happening.

……..

"What's going on?" Clint turned off the TV as the rumbling grew louder and cups started jumping around on the table. Steve used his lightning reactions to grab one such cup before it had the chance to fall and smash on the floor and looked out the window to see the rest of the city's skyscrapers swaying slightly.

"Earthquake? In New York, that's rare."

"And that's not good!" Clint said, pointing to the adjacent building which was swaying rather more than the rest.

"No," Steve admitted calmly, "No, It's not." The newly christened Avengers tower was swaying much less than the buildings around it, trust Tony to insist on not just meeting all the standards but exceeding them.

"Should we evacuate?" Clint was getting quite jumpy. They were right at the top of a skyscraper and it was an awful long way down if the building didn't hold out.

"Not sure, this building seems to be holding out well it's our neighbors that I'm worried about, we don't want them crashing our party." Steve was getting seriously worried about the swaying building next door, if it came down there was a 50/50 chance it would be swaying their way when it did and that meant there was a very real danger that it would take Avengers Tower out with it. "Tony will have emergency procedures, we wait for him. I'm assuming that's where Natasha has gone." Clint nodded and gritted his teeth, stepping away from the edge of the building.

Natasha was amazed to find Tony's workshop silent and still. He must have put in some serious damping and protection to keep this room isolated from the rest of the shaking tower. It made sense she supposed, if he caused an explosion the last thing they wanted was it to affect the whole building. Tony was still sound asleep, his heart rate at an immensely high 185bpm, and he had to be having a nightmare which she was guessing was responsible for the earthquake.

Natasha strode over to Tony's couch and knelt quietly beside him, carefully slipping a hand under the blanket Bruce had so carefully wrapped him in and started gently rubbing his arm.

Bruce hadn't heard her come in, in fact he had barely noticed her even when she walked right in front of him, seriously that was just weird!

"Natasha what are you doing?" Bruce's voice was hushed but inflicted with surprise, Natasha held up a hand to silence him.

"Bruce, I heard. I know what's wrong with Tony." Bruce's heart leapt, Tony certainly didn't want Natasha knowing, and in fairness although he was fond of the redhead having a SHIELD agent in on the secret was the worst possible scenario. But that still didn't answer his question.

"Bruce, there's an earthquake and Tony's heart rate is through the roof, he's having a nightmare."

"An earthquake?" Why couldn't they feel it in here?

"Dr. Banner I can confirm Miss Romanov's statement; the workshop is heavily isolated from the rest of the tower so the effects will not be felt.

"But his heart rate, it's gone down."

"Gone down!" Natasha was shocked, but kept her calm tone of voice as she gradually began to put more force into waking up the sleeping engineer. "What the hell was it at before?" "Steady at 192bpm, blood pressure has dropped as well, I thought his body was finally getting a tiny bit of respite from the strain it is under."

"Tony, Tony you need to wake up now."

"You're going to struggle, he's in deep, I made quite a racket earlier and he didn't even flinch."

"I don't want to bring him out suddenly in case he panics." She continued rubbing his arm and gently ran a finger through his hair. She would wake him as quickly, but as gently as possible. She was well aware of Bruce's nervous energy, which although it wasn't a tangible thing Tony would probably be picking up on.

"Bruce, talk to him, he'll respond better to your voice than mine." Bruce nodded and did as she asked, which instantly seemed to calm him down having something to do. "Bruce, it's probably best if Tony doesn't know, I know."

"Yes." Bruce was glad they were on the same page. "Natasha if you sell this to SHIELD or anyone else for that matter I will…"

"Bruce." Natasha looked into his eyes, "I'm not going to betray him. We're a family now and I want to help in any way I can."

Bruce wondered how someone who had trained for so long not to convey any emotion could speak so much with her eyes alone. Natasha was completely sincere, she meant every word of it. These boys meant more to her than anyone else ever had. 'Was this love agent Romanov.' Yes, she supposed it was.

…..

Tony was having a weird dream, it wasn't a nightmare by any means but it wasn't exactly a fairy-tale either. It was too random and completely off the wall to be anything truly frightening but right now it was getting a bit unsettling.

The images started to fade away as the cloud of sleep seemed to be slowly drifting into oblivion. He could hear someone's gentle voice, it was familiar and soothing, as was the sensation of a light hand on his arm and running through his hair.

"Tony Buddy, you need to wake up."

Tony gave a relaxed sigh and rubbed his eyes. Waking up was never easy, especially when he was this tired.

Natasha took this time to leave the room, if Tony didn't know she'd been here he wouldn't suspect.

Clint and Steve upstairs were just about ready to go down and find Tony, Bruce and Natasha when the rumbling and shaking slowly began to subside. It took a few minutes for the ground to grow still and the gentle sway of the buildings would probably take a few more to subside.

"Just a short one then." Clint breathed a sigh of relief.

"It would seem so." Steve agreed. Clint just gawped at him as the Captain sat down and returned to his drawing as if nothing had happened. That guy was seriously too good to be true. He set off in search of someone more human, surely one of the other three must be freaking out as much as he was.

Tony gently sat up and stretched, he had to say he felt better, he still felt on the sunny side of death, but at least it wasn't as bad as before. He gingerly opened his eyes and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of blinding light which usually gave him a migraine for the rest of the day.

"Hey Bruce." Tony smiled. Bruce smiled a genuine warm smile back, he was so pleased that Tony had woken up calm and there was a genuine spark in his eye as if the rest had done him good.

"You look better." Bruce said truthfully. Eyes were the doorway to the soul, or so they said and Tony’s were the only signal he had as to his real wellbeing.

"I feel better, thanks." Tony yawned midsentence and looked around the room. Everything seemed to be in order. "I had a weird dream, but no nightmares thank God! Did I break anything?"

"Well…" Bruce was infinitely grateful that Natasha chose that moment to enter and relieve him from the duty of explaining to Tony exactly what he'd broken.

"Tony, can you come upstairs there's an earthquake and Clint's freaking out." Natasha of course hadn't seen Clint but she knew him well enough. He was great in a crisis, but only when there was something he could clearly fight and you can't really fight an earthquake.

"Oh." Tony winced internally and looked at Bruce, who mouthed back a silent apologetic 'sorry'. Great, looks like sleep was well and truly off the cards for the future, well he supposed it wasn't that big of a deal considering he only had two days left till crunch time.

"Ok, I'll be right up."

Clint bounded down the stairs like an excited puppy dog. "Earthquake's stopped we can all breathe!"

Tony did, very nearly audibly.

"Seriously Tony can you sort out your neighbours, your building was as solid as a rock but I thought there's was going to land on top of us."

"Oh you Drama Queen Clint, buildings are meant to sway in an earthquake, it's part of what makes them not collapse." Natasha shook her head in disbelief

"Not by that much they're not." Clint was disappointed that he was the only one freaking out.

"Jarvis, how strong was the earthquake?" Bruce was glad they had been isolated down in the workshop, earthquakes were certainly not pleasant. "3.8 on the Richter scale, no major damage reported on the news."

Tony nodded relieved. "Is it lunchtime yet I'm starving."

"God, you boys have been down here too long! Its 7pm Tony."

"Oh, well then it's definitely lunchtime then."

They made their way back up the stairs chatting. Tony was immensely glad for the slow pace, although to them it may look like he was taking the stairs easily, to him it felt like he was climbing a mountain.

"Look at Steve, cool as a cucumber. Did you even notice the Earthquake?"

"No, I don't think he did!" Clint replied on Steve's behalf, "he was just like, 'meh earthquake boring.'"

Steve looked up from his sketch book and shook his head. "It wasn't a bad one Clint and I was just as disconcerted by it as you."

"You hungry Steve?"

"I already ate."

"That's not what I asked." Tony raised an eyebrow.

"Well, not if you're cooking."

"The cheek!" The other's started laughing and Tony put on a very indignant look. "Well if that's the way you all feel you can cook for yourselves."

Bruce approached Tony quietly. "Can I have a word?" Tony nodded and they stepped out into the corridor, Natasha made sure she was within earshot of the conversation, and that Steve with his super hearing was not.

"Tony, I know this afternoon didn't exactly go to plan but please tell me you'll try and sleep again."

"Bruce, after today I can't risk it."

"Tony I'm sorry, I was honestly constantly monitoring your vitals, as was Jarvis, it's just your heart rate was so high that it was impossible to tell if you were dreaming. We could start monitoring brain activity, there are other ways..."

"Bruce, I know and I don't blame you. You tried, you were there for me that honestly means a lot, but there's no point trying anything new, you've lost enough sleep as it is and I've got less than two days left anyway."

"Tony, we don't know what's going to happen in two days, you could be fine."

"Bruce seriously what are the chances of that?"

"We don't know Tony, we don't know anything, so whatever is to come we need you to be as ready as possible and that means well rested."

"Bruce…"

"No Tony. Bruce is right." Bruce visibly winced when Natasha walked in on them.

"What... Natasha." Tony side glanced at Bruce and took a step back slightly. "Please, no." Tony got very visibly distressed at Natasha's appearance. "You know! How?" He looked from Bruce to Natasha in a near frenzy, "this can't be happening, this seriously can't be happening!"

"Tony, calm down. Yes, I know, but no one told me, ok? Bruce isn't to blame. I followed him down to the lab earlier because I was worried about you and I heard what you both said. No one else is going to find out, least of all SHIELD you have my word on that and I know that doesn't mean much to you but it's the best I can do."

Tony took a few deep breaths, he studied Natasha intently and it seemed that her words were genuine. Still, she deceived people for a living so he never really knew if she was serious or not.

"If you really mean that Natasha, thank you, but neither of you are going to convince me that trying to sleep again is a good idea."

"Tony, we can come up with a way…"

"No Bruce we don't have the time."

"We could tranq you."

"What!" Bruce and Tony reacted simultaneously.

"We could tranq you." Natasha repeated as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "You don't dream when you're out cold."

Natasha had a point, but Tony still didn't like the idea of being completely helpless in their hands. "Could that work Bruce?" He asked, hoping that Bruce would dispel the idea instantly.

Bruce pondered for a moment. "Yes, I think it could. I'll need to do some checks and make sure I get the dosage spot on, but that might well work."

"Ok, then get busy and tell me when you've finished." Natasha left them just as suddenly as she had arrived and left them both dumfounded.

"You know what guys this is a really bad idea, how would you wake me up if something went wrong?"

"Tony we've been through this, I've set the dosage so it would take us seconds to bring you round."

"Yeah, but what if it goes wrong?"

"Tony, I've seen your vitals you should be dead and we are trying to keep your stubborn ass alive so just get on with it and whatever happens we'll deal with it."

Tony slouched back on his bed, IV line already inserted courtesy of Bruce. He wasn't going to argue with Natasha, it would only end badly and painfully, though he couldn't imagine being in much more pain right now.

"Ok, get it over with."

Bruce nodded and slid the hypodermic needle into the IV. Tony closed his eyes and rolled onto his side to make himself comfy.

Bruce and Natasha waited for a few minutes watching, Tony didn't stir so they made their way towards the door. Just as they were about to leave a voice took them by surprise.

"Guy's if that was meant to knock me out it hasn't worked, I just feel a bit sleepy." Tony rolled onto his back to face them and yawned while Bruce's face twisted in confusion.

"What? I got the dosage spot on!"

"Dr. Banner, the energy signature is causing Sir to metabolize the drug rather quickly. I have recalculated the suggested dosage."

Bruce looked at the readouts Jarvis had pulled up and did a double take. "No way Jarvis, I'm not comfortable with that."

"Dr. Banner, I understand your concern but my calculations are seldom wrong."

"Never wrong!" Tony piped up. "After all I did make him."

"But that could kill him; that could kill a horse!"

"I trust Jarvis, Bruce, give it a go if you kill me, you kill me, I'm going to die in two days anyway."

Tony's flippant and complete lack of care about the fact he might die really shocked the pair of them. Natasha had known of his reckless and self-destructive nature, but he rolled that sentence off his tongue like he was asking about the weather.

"Tony, we don't know that." Natasha stepped in. "I agree Bruce it's not worth the risk."

"Seriously guys, look at what this thing's doing, there is only one way this is going to end and there is no point in denying it. 'Just give it a go' you were telling me five minutes ago, I trusted you, so now trust me, it's going to be fine."

Bruce and Natasha looked at each other hesitantly.

"And if it isn't guys, you are not to blame."

"Tony there is still time to find a solution." Bruce was desperate to convince his friend that there was still hope, but unfortunately Tony had done the math and knew that the prospects were grim.

"Maybe there is Bruce, but when I said I had 39hours, well that's accelerated. You need me rested you said, but at 3pm tomorrow that readout is going to hit 100%." Tony pointed at the screen beside his bed. "I know I have no right to ask this of you, but if tomorrow I don't die and I become something else, if I am hurting people and I can't control it you are going to have to put me down." Bruce looked like he was fighting back tears and Natasha bowed her head. Stark was right, but that didn't make it any easier to think about. That wasn't going to happen, they couldn't let it happen.

"Ok, I'll put you out for 8hours, you'll be awake at 7am at the latest, I'll get some sleep too then we'll hit this problem full force."

Tony nodded. "Make sure I'm awake by 6am. I want to say goodbye to Pepper. She's getting home late and leaving at 7, so I don't want to miss her."

Natasha's heart sank. God if this went badly there was going to be a whole lot of heart break, and a lot of explaining to do to SHIELD, but that was the least of her worries. 3pm tomorrow would big the biggest moment of most of their lives.

Chapter Text

Blinding pain coursed through Tony's every fibre. He tried to open his eyes but the dull light in the room gave him a searing pain which burnt his retinas and made him gasp. The world was hazy around him, he could hear a familiar voice in the background but he had no idea what had happened or where he was. He tried hard to dredge up the answers, but the pain was unbearable, his own tears prickled his skin like his face was being held up to a lighter. He wanted to scream and writhe with the agony of it, but it was like he was being crushed, the heavy weight on his chest stopped him from breathing.

He knew this was the end, with this amount of pain it couldn't be anything else, but he needed to know what had happened and what was going on. He barely had the strength to scream. He tried again to open his eyes and wriggle slightly, the pain caused him to choke and splutter but the haze had started to lift. He was fairly certain he was in his own bed. Yes of course the sedative! The drugs had been very powerful but he'd thought he'd at least have felt some benefit of the 8 hours of sleep he'd gained in return and not woken up in this state. Whatever was wrong, it was more than just the drugs.

As his senses grew less fuzzy he realized it had been Jarvis talking, warning him of something, something had accelerated? Finally, the AI seemed to notice his predicament.

 

"Sir, you are in distress should I call Dr. Banner."

 

'Yes' Tony wanted to scream 'yes, help me Jarvis please!' But what he heard his own voice say next made his heart skip a beat.

 

"No Thanks Jarvis, I'm fine." Tony did a double take. That wasn't him, he hadn't said that! Tony looked down the bed at his own body, it seemed to be surrounded by a blue haze which shifted suddenly. Tony couldn't believe his own eyes as the blue haze began to draw in closer to his body, arranged now in his perfect outline. The blue glow then began to sit up, as it left Tony's body it was no longer just a ball of blue energy but a human, made of skin and flesh and wearing clothes. It gracefully stood up from the bed and in one effortless movement turned to face him. Tony's heart stopped when he realized he was looking at himself. It was like his ghost had just left his body, but surely if he was dead he should be the one standing. What the fuck was going on? Had he just died? Was he hallucinating? It had to be the sedative, it was screwing him over.

He scrutinized the other version of himself. He was dubbing it his evil twin, because well, it looked bloody evil. It was him, exactly the same apart from the fact he was a good 7kg heavier and looking in absolutely perfect health. He was trim and muscular, just like he had been in his teens and early twenties when he was still training like an idiot in the pool. It now dawned on him that this is what the others had been seeing all along. While he'd been getting thinner and thinner, more and more ill with the strain of containing whatever ever was inside him the others had been seeing this perfect version of himself. No wonder everyone had been saying he looked good, he couldn't help but admire himself for a moment, he did look absolutely incredible! But catching the image of his real self momentarily in the mirror quickly sobered him up, reminding him that whatever was happening right now was very, very serious.

Before the others had seen a different Tony Stark but at least it had still said and done whatever Tony had, but now this evil twin seemed to have control over itself.

The evil twin turned to the helpless Tony and smiled. "It's nearly time." It was Tony's voice that spoke but the infliction on it made him shiver in fear, he didn't even know he could talk like that. Tony followed his twin's gaze to the screen beside him and his heart stopped again. 99.7%, but that wasn't possible. He glanced at the clock, 6:00am so Bruce had done the dosage perfectly but the speed at which the energy had taken over his body had vastly accelerated in his sleep. That was what Jarvis had been telling him! He guessed he had a matter of minutes before it took over completely.

Tony, incapacitated or not never moved with so much urgency in his life. He was out of bed like a flash, ignoring the pain in his blind panic and came crashing to the floor as his legs gave out. The evil twin moved too, but not far. Even though it had gained its own voice it still seemed tied to him, like it couldn't go where he wasn't. Tony dragged himself across the floor and struggled to haul himself high enough to open his door. Tears ran in a constant stream down his face, he screamed as finally his hands slipped off the handle revealing the corridor behind and he came crashing back to the hard floor. The lift seemed so far away and all he could manage was a few centimeters at a time as he clawed his way down the corridor on his front.

He had to find Bruce, but he had no idea where he was. It seemed like an age before he reached the lift and when he did he was at a loss. Which floor? Was Bruce still asleep? He could be in the labs, the penthouse, anywhere and he hadn't the strength or time to search them all. He opened his mouth to speak the words but had no strength, thankfully his evil twin did.

 

"Jarvis where is Bruce?"

"On the communal floor." Yes, yes! Tony had no idea why his twin now seemed to be helping him but he was so grateful. He simply had to think the next sentence and the twin obliged.

"Ok Jarvis take me to him."

 

…….

 

Bruce had been talking to Pepper after waking up, he'd felt so much better after that sleep and he was just about to go check on Tony when the lift doors opened. Tony was stood there, still as a statue and didn't move for a good 30 seconds.

"Tony what's going on?" Pepper looked at him in confusion.

"Nothing I'm fine." The reply was instantaneous and almost robotic and Bruce immediately smelt a rat.

"Pepper can you please go get Natasha." Bruce had a really bad feeling that everyone was in danger, whatever was stood before them wasn't Tony.

"Why?" Pepper was hugely confused, there was a dark look on Bruce's face that made worry bite at her stomach.

"Please Pepper just do it and take the stairs." Bruce pleaded with her and seeing the desperation in his eyes she practically ran to the stairs.

…...

 

Jarvis had watched his creator progressively tense as the sedative had worn off and his nerves had started to register the pain. His heart rate was now at 215bpm, Jarvis knew that he would not last much longer under this strain, but with a projected 22.6mins remaining before 100% was achieved he would not have to. The energy signature had been replicating rapidly, beyond anything Jarvis could have predicted and he had been powerless to protect his creator. There was no point informing anyone until Tony was free from the sedative's hold, but as soon as he was Jarvis found he was unable to relay any information to Dr. Banner, or alert anyone in the tower. The energy signature was blocking him, but it couldn't block everything.

Jarvis had seen the twin separate from Tony, the energy signature couldn't influence what a computer saw as there were no neurons for it to interfere with, hence why Jarvis had been able to see Tony as he really was all along.

Jarvis needed to let Tony know that he could see him as well as the clone, if the real Tony could communicate with Jarvis then Jarvis could ensure that the twin was not in complete control.

 

…..

 

"Where's Tony." Bruce wasn't going to mess about.

"In the lift, unfortunately I can't yet stray far from him. But that won't be for long." The evil twin had stepped into the center of the room.

"Get out of him, now." Bruce was now definitely turning an alarming shade of green but it wasn't quite time to Hulk out just yet.

"Believe me I'm trying. You won't have long to wait before I'm free."

"And then what will happen to Tony?"

"Whether he survives or not will depend on how much strength he has left, which isn't a lot. I am surprised a mortal has been able to hold me for so long."

"What are you?" Bruce was watching the screen in the corner tick slowly every few seconds, 99.95%, 99.96% and with-it Bruce's tension rose.

"I am the CAEB and I have waited a long time to be free." The smile that twisted on the CAEB's face was so malicious that made Bruce take a step back. This CAEB was identical to Tony in every way, except the tone of his voice and Tony's usually deep brown eyes were slowly but surely beginning to turn a deep shade of blue.

 

Natasha chose that moment to arrive, she was instantly drawn to Tony's blue eyes and then to the screen in the corner as she analyzed her environment and quickly understood the situation.

"You weren't supposed to show up till after lunch." Natasha wasn't exactly sure what she was talking to, but this CAEB as it called itself was certainly not Tony.

"I'm sorry to drop in early but I was getting impatient. I have waited eons for this moment." The false Tony tilted its head to one side in welcome of the new visitor to the room.

"Well if you've waited that long, what's a few more hours."

The CAEB chuckled, sounding less and less like Tony by the second. 99.98%. The blue glow didn't just emanate from Tony's eyes now but sat in a haze around his whole body.

Tony could do nothing but lay in the lift, sleep was desperate to take him and he was almost ready to let it, even though he knew if it did he would never wake up. All he wanted was for the pain to be over, yet he couldn't leave his friends while there was such a real danger. He had no idea what he could do about it in his current state but he wasn't a genius for nothing and he was hardly going to die without trying everything first. He started to look around the lift for inspiration, there were plenty of electrical wires for him to get at and if he could get his brain to work he could couple it up with the arc reactor to make a decent offensive weapon. That's when he noticed a very quiet beeping sound coming from the speaker behind his head. At first, he thought it was his ears ringing but he started to realize that the pattern bore a strong sense of familiarity. His brain struggled under the weight of the pain but he knew that sound, Morse code, Jarvis! Jarvis was talking to him in Morse code.

'Sir, I can see what you see. I can communicate with the Avengers on your behalf.'

Tony looked to the ceiling and sighed in gratitude, mouthing a silent thank you. Knowing his AI had his back gave him a little more strength to continue with. He started tapping back instructions on the floor, it was stuttered as his brain kept forgetting whilst the world came in and out of focus, but thankfully Jarvis understood him and this ‘CAEB’ or whatever it called itself, was too preoccupied by its little chat with Bruce and Natasha to notice.

'I have called the other Avengers they are on their way.'

Tony put his thumbs up and sagged back into the corner of the lift trying hard to stay conscious while he began finalizing his plans and the pain continued to build relentlessly.

99.99%. Steve and Clint burst into the room, completely unaware of what was happening. They screeched to a standstill when they saw Tony being faced off by Bruce and Natasha. Everyone's body language was off, they were on edge ready for a fight but why? What had Tony done? Steve was praying that this was just a case of Tony putting his foot somewhere it really shouldn't have been but then they noticed he was glowing blue.

"What the fuck?" Clint hissed and stepped back a little.

"What is going on?" Steve managed to come out with a more useful question.

"No time to explain, but I think it's going to become clear very soon." Bruce nodded in the direction of the screen as Pepper peered gingerly around the corner of the stairwell door.

100%

All hell broke loose.

….

 

Suddenly there were alarm bells ringing in Asgard. The whole city was buzzing with armoured warriors. Nearly the whole legion was ready for battle and Thor could only guess that the CAEB had been located. He stayed out of the way as his Father flew past him, followed closely by an advanced party of 30 of the best Asgardian warriors.

Suddenly Sif and the warriors three were by his side demanding answers from their Prince and friend, but Thor had none for them. They were furious. As Asgard's best warriors they should have been the first to be called on a mission of such obvious importance, Thor felt their annoyance but knew it was because they were too likely to betray information to him which Odin couldn't risk. There was a deep knot of worry in his stomach, he hoped that Midgard would be safe from this monster and that his father would succeed in its capture before it could claim too many Midgardian lives.

Odin had the tesseract in hand, without it, it would have taken them centuries to summon enough dark energy to take so many so far away across the nine realms. For all the damage it had caused so recently on Earth it would now be its savior, but that was only if all went well.

 

…….

 

The blue glow burst into life and the false Tony disappeared revealing the real Tony's nearly lifeless form on the lift floor.

"Tony!" Bruce ran forward to his friend's aid but the CAEB materialized in front of him in. It was of human shape, glowing blue yet lacked substance. It was translucent and flickering so Bruce made a decision to try and run it down while it still seemed to be weak and gathering strength. The CAEB sent Bruce flying across the room with a simple flick of its hand, he smashed into the wall and the other guy was instantly roaring in anger.

The Avengers burst into action but nothing could touch it. Clint's arrows melted into thin air in front of it, Steve's flung his Shield and it simply passed straight through it before embedding itself in the wall. Seeing the chaos Natasha began to slow in her attack, realising it was bad idea, but she was too late and she was thrown violently into the glass. Her head whipped back hard and she slumped instantly, laying still on the carpet as blood pooled on the floor around her head. Steve didn't realize in time to be able to stop Clint charging in rage at the CAEB and his stomach lurched when the sound of Clint's blood curdling scream rang through the communal floor as bones crunched and Clint crumpled still conscious to the floor.

The Hulk was swinging punch after punch at the figure, which was becoming slowly more solid. The heavy thud of the impact was causing the windows to shake and reverberate, threatening to shatter. The other guy was throwing everything he could to destroying this enemy, but the CAEB simply watched on in amusement as not a single one caused any damage. The Hulk paused and roared loudly, whilst the CAEB laughed back in its face before swinging a punch of its own, Steve watched in horror as the Hulk too crumpled and fell back to the floor. The Hulk was down, lying unconscious with a gash across its forehead. Steve knew he was out of options and he desperately looked around the room for something better to fight with. He noticed Pepper trying to sneak behind the CAEB trying desperately to get to Tony who seemed to be tapping something on the floor. Steve made eye contact with Pepper pleading with her to run, but then his own world was suddenly snatched into darkness.

 

Tony was trying hard to work faster, but his brain was running hopelessly slow. He could only watch in horror as his team fell one by one and the CAEB gained substance and strength. It had knocked out the Hulk and he was going to try and fight it with a bit of electricity! It was the only hope he had and he had the advantage of having spent weeks analyzing the CAEB's energy, he knew it like the back of his hand and that meant being the genius he was, he knew the best way of disrupting it. Would it kill it, maim it or just give it a headache he didn't know, but he had Jarvis draining power from the whole city and feeding it into the lift cables so he could achieve the perfect current-voltage ratio. Of course, he knew if he had got this wrong he would be giving the most dangerous creature he had ever seen a massive amount of power, but he wouldn't be around to worry about that. This was his one shot.

Tony had been too busy straining to dig the cables out of the lift wall to notice that his whole team was now down. Though the Hulk was stirring and beginning to regain its feet.

 

"Your friends had spirit Stark, as do you to hold me for so long. You have not long for this world but I will leave you with a parting gift."

The CAEB disappeared and reappeared with its fist clamped around Pepper's neck. Her feet dangled and thrashed in mid-air, her eyes wide with terror and pain as she fought hard to draw breath.

"You can watch her die for imprisoning me for so long, I have been inside your mind, seen all your darkest moments, everything which you wish others not to see and I know what you fear most in all the world, is this."

Something stirred in Tony, something deep inside and suddenly the pain was gone. His strength returned in one last act of defiance and he felt powerful. He had a thousand witty things to say at this moment, but his actions spoke louder. He tore the cable out of the walls with a cry of pain, sparks spat angrily from its end as he stood and ran towards the CAEB. It looked at him amuse. What could a half dead human do to it, one of the most powerful entities in the universe?

Tony stood for an instant, face to face with his enemy, before thrusting the cable through its back. The CAEB made itself un-solid, but that's exactly what Tony had wanted. The cable went straight through it and into Tony's own chest, directly into the arc reactor.

…..

 

The Hulk came around angrier than it had ever been. Blue man hurt his friends, blue man hurt Hulk, Hulk crush Blue man! But Hulk's head hurt, he staggered to his feet, he felt… weak. Which only made his rage burn brighter. Hulk never weak!

Blue man hurting Pepper! What tin man doing? Tin man hurt, tin man should let Hulk kill blue man.

When Tony thrust the cable through 'blue man' and into his own chest, however, the Hulks plan changed quite suddenly.

The Hulk was still unsteady on its feet and could only watch as Tony screamed in agony at the impossible current running through him. But even more impossibly, the CAEB was screaming too. It was an unearthly noise that sent a chill through the room and as suddenly as he had appeared the CAEB was gone. The blue form seemed to be sucked into Tony who stood and staggered as the room fell into silence. The cable fell to the floor, slipping from Tony's grip. His shirt was ripped and his chest badly burnt which left the smell of singed flesh hanging heavily in the air. The arc reactor held firm, but Tony's legs did not. He crumpled to the floor. His back arched violently in pain and his arms seemed to spasm sporadically. Choked grunts escaped Tony's mouth and his chest rose and fell at a rapid rate.

Tin man need puny Doctor, so Hulk sleep now.

Bruce was back. He made a quick check of the others in the room. Steve were stirring and so miraculously was Natasha, Clint was writhing in agony and in serious need of medical attention, Pepper was clutching her throat but was already at Tony's side, Tony himself was fitting, convulsing on the floor somehow still alive and semi-conscious.

There was nothing he could do for Tony right now, not until he stopped fitting, though the pain and confusion in his eyes wanted to make him run to him.

"Pepper, don't hold him down, talk to him, try keep him calm." Pepper was panicking and Bruce knew she needed something to do.

"Bruce?" Steve had come around and was looking around the room clutching his chest in discomfort. "What can I do?"

Bruce was already leaning over Clint, his shoulder was dislocated and his arm was broken, maybe in more than one place. "Ermm… Steve help Pepper, just keep talking to him, hold his head and get him a pillow. Jarvis, can you scan Clint."

"I'm ok Bruce, go to Tony." Clint was not ok, the pained expression on his face and the way he had to try so hard to force out the words was more than enough evidence of that.

"Dislocated shoulder, 2 fractures of the humerus and one each of both the radius and the ulna."

"Thank you, Jarvis. Get medical up here now."

"They are on their way." Trust Jarvis to be one step ahead.

"Is Natasha ok?"

"Clint just be quiet for me ok."

"No, I need to know…. ARGHHH!" Everyone turned to look as Clint screamed when Bruce popped his shoulder back into place. "Seriously Bruce give a guy some warning!"

"Is Clint being a baby again?" Natasha groaned and gently sat herself up, her face covered in her own blood. Bruce swore internally, Natasha shouldn't be moving right now, he needed more hands.

"Shut up Tash!" Clint wasn't in the mood for more jokes at his expense, that had really bloody hurt and the pain wasn't going away any time soon.

 

"Where's the CAEB?" Natasha's question made Clint wonder why the hell he hadn't thought of that and how the hell someone who could well have sustained brain damage and certainly a concussion had.

Bruce bit his lip, Tony's fit was clearly subsiding now and Bruce knew what the Hulk had seen. It had gone back into Tony, but what did that mean after being bombarded by the electrical cable and the arc reactor? Tony groaned and twitched as Pepper shushed him gently, running her shaking fingers along his cheek as Steve gently cradled his head. He was so grey and so thin. Bruce had been expecting it, so had Natasha, but the others had been in the dark and even to those in the know it was shocking. His clothes hung loosely from his now slender frame, every bone in his body was protruding, but had not gone so far as to eat into his muscle. The biggest change could be seen in his face. It was almost skeletal, his eyes were sunken, cheekbones pronounced and the greyness of his sweat glazed skin was astounding. It made Bruce want to be sick. Tony's eyelids began to flutter as his consciousness returned.

It was left to Bruce to respond to Natasha's question.

 

"I guess we're about to find out."

…...

 

When Tony felt consciousness returning the pain was still there, but it was different this time. What had happened? He'd sworn he'd just done something tantamount to suicide and the CAEB... if he didn't feel like he was completely fried he'd have said he'd seen it kind of… go back into him. But it felt different than it had before, he no longer had the feeling that there was something inside him trying to get out, he felt like…. Well he felt like him, but something more.

 

He realized his eyes had been open for a good minute now while he tried to process what had happened and there was a tension in the room with all eyes fixed on him.

"Tony?" Bruce was the first to speak, there were still a lot of people in the room who had far more questions than answers but there would be time for that later.

"What the hell happened? Bruce how am I alive?" Tony resisted the urge to groan but blinked several times at the sharpness of the light in an attempt to nurse his immense headache.

"Jarvis who are we talking to here?" Bruce was sensibly wary after their battle with the CAEB.

"Sir, appears to be in control."

"What, what do you mean? It's Tony, you are talking to Tony!" Pepper was on the verge of tears and converting her confusion into anger.

"Pepper, please it's ok we'll explain everything later, I promise. Jarvis, I need more than ‘appears to be’, can you confirm."

"Bruce honestly I know it went back in me but something feels different."

"Ok Tony it's not that I don't trust you it's just that…"

"You don't trust me that's fine, I'd rather you be sure."

Natasha smiled, she was fairly sure this was Tony, all the signs were there. He was clearly trying to hide how much pain he was in and the way he was looking at the distraught Pepper, desperately trying to comfort her with his eyes alone, it was definitely Tony. She couldn't imagine what he had been through since he'd found out about the CAEB, having no way of showing them what a state he was really in and the fear of not knowing, that was what was always the worst.

"Dr. Banner I've have finished scanning Mr. Stark, if you could please turn your attention to the screen to your right." Bruce did as was asked, still trying to splint Clint's arm with the remains of his tattered shirt and parts of the broken coffee table, he couldn't remember how it had been broken, he'd probably landed on it, but he was quite glad of it at this moment not wanting to leave the room with everything that was going on.

Tony's eyes, curious as ever, especially since it concerned himself, quickly scanned the screen. "Well Holy shit!" Bruce glanced briefly at Tony and took a few more seconds to come to the same conclusion. "Well that is not what I was expecting."

"Guy's come on, we're not all scientists." Natasha groaned and gave them an expectant, if not a little unfocused, stare.

"Well its kinda hard to explain in English but…" Tony paused struggling for words and Bruce finished for him.

"The CAEB has merged with Tony."

"Isn't that what has happened before?" It took a moment for Natasha to process what had just been said and she wasn't sure she really understood. Clint, Pepper and Steve just shrugged at each other with no way of following the conversation.

"No, before they were sharing the same body, now Tony and the CAEB are the same person, their nervous systems appear to have integrated."

"How?" Natasha asked

"No clue." Bruce shrugged, Clint just looking between the two dumfounded.

"Please don't say this means I'm going to end up going all evil."

"I don't think so Tony, by the looks of the readings I think you are in complete control."

"Think?"

"Well let's try it shall we. Break that glass." Tony looked at Bruce in confusion of his abruptness. It was usually Tony or Clint saying random stupid things like that, not Bruce, he was supposed to be sensible.

 

"No chance, I'm not replacing that again, I may be made of money but… well it's not unlimited!"

 

"Ok, ok well what about that vase." Bruce said, pointing one out at the other side of the room.

"And how am I supposed to do that? Just wave my hand and…. Holy shit!" Tony's eyes glowed blue and the vase was well and truly obliterated. A stabbing pain shot through Tony's head causing him to clutch it with both hands. The team were too busy gazing at the vase opened mouthed to notice Tony's pain.

 

"Well something like that I'd expect." Steve had let go of Tony's head and helped him up to his feet on request, refusing to let go of the Engineers arm as he was certainly not stable. "Welcome to the superhuman club Stark, but can someone please explain what on Earth this is all about?"

 

Tony gave a sarcastic chuckle in response, not entirely sure whether he like his new situation or not. Steve wasn't either. After watching this CAEB, that supposedly now was part of Tony, take down his team like skittles, he didn't like the way they all seemed to have accepted that this was ok. Nor did he like the fact they were provoking whatever was inside him by getting Tony to test his new powers before they even knew what they were dealing with.

 

"Try something else." Clint had seemed to forget his own pain with the entertainment going on and cut off any hope Steve had of gaining an explanation. "Blast a hole in that wall."

 

"Clint." Natasha furrowed her brow, but was equally curious to see what Tony could do. Steve was about to raise a protest but he caught Natasha's gaze. Her eyes said they needed to trust him, he would oblige for now.

Tony nodded slowly and concentrated on the wall. How had he done it before? He'd imagined the vase smashing, so he drew up the image of the wall in his mind and then imagined it buckling forwards. The wall obeyed his glowing blue eyes in an instant, a cloud of dust and rubble burst into the room leaving everyone coughing.

 

"I said blast a hole in it Tony, not bring the thing down on top of us." Clint was expecting a witty retort but nothing came. "That wasn't structural, was it?" Steve felt Tony shaking in his arms but couldn't quite see him through the dust cloud.

 

"Tony are you ok?" There was no answer. The dust cleared slowly and there was a heavy stream of blood flowing down Tony's face originating from his nose. His eyes were glazed over from the effort and it was only a few more seconds before he crumpled without warning.

"Shit." Steve was quick to react and catch the genius' limp form and lower him gently to the floor.

"Tony!" Pepper instantly had a finger on his pulse though she wasn't sure exactly what she was doing.

"I would suggest you cease from requesting Sir make further demonstrations. The actions seem to take a large amount of energy and his body is already dangerously weak from containing the CAEB these past weeks."

"Point taken Jarvis, I'm sorry." Clint shuffled slightly on the floor to see if Tony was ok, but regretted it as pain shot through his arm. "What did you give me Bruce cos the pain isn't too bad now?"

"Nothing Clint, you’re probably well pumped on adrenaline. Where the hell are the medics they should be here by now?"

"It's ok Bruce, me and Tash will help you get Tony to his room and then…"

"No way, you were both injured and need checking over, we can wait, no one's in dire jeopardy here."

 

The sound of heavy footsteps could now be heard in the near distance. "Great! Perfect timing." Natasha was scrutinizing the sound of the footsteps, they were remarkably in time and seemed to be resonating through the floor of the building. A hazy set of figures could be seen from behind the destroyed wall, they were arranged in straight lines and were carrying long objects that looked far too much like weapons.

 "Bruce, I don't think those are medics."

Before anyone could react, the soldiers had encircled them, dressed in bright golden armour and pointing long sharp staffs in their faces. The Avengers held up their hands but Steve and Pepper kept a firm, protective grip of Tony.

The battle dress had a distinct Asgardian feel to it, and as the circle parted at the far end allowing a lone figure to come into view everyone was half expecting to see Thor. They were disappointed.

"I am Odin, King of Asgard."

"You’re Thor's Dad." Clint never really knew when to keep his mouth shut.

"Yes." Odin answered simply. "I have heard much about you Avengers from my Son, how you have shown great courage and skill in battle and it is a pleasure to meet you. However, you will give up the CAEB."

"I mean no disrespect Sir but you're not taking him." Steve, however uncertain he was about the current situation was not going to abandon one of his own. He knew Odin was Thor's dad, but there was something about him he just didn't trust.

"That was not a request mortal. You could not possibly hope to understand the destruction the CAEB could bring to the nine realms and far beyond. I am sorry it should have taken the life of your friend but what you see before you is no longer the man you knew."

"We know that Odin, but please hear me out something happened, something changed and it isn't evil any more Tony is in cont…."

"Silence." Odin waved his hand and the guards advanced taking hold of Tony roughly. "Do not resist Mortal, I did not come here to harm you but if you defy me I will not hesitate to kill you all."

Steve for one was not going to give up without a fight, but from nowhere more warriors appeared and pinned each of the team down securely. Steve writhed under the grip, Pepper was crying out for Tony and he was torn away from her grip. Clint couldn't move without the weight of three Asgardian warrior's pinning him to the floor, so there was no way he was able to help, thankfully his restraining warriors were being considerate of his injured arm. Bruce was seriously close to hulking out. Natasha hated feeling so helpless, they all did. She didn't struggle as she knew it was futile but she was desperate to escape and kick some ass right now.

There was nothing any of the team could do as something was thrust into Tony's neck, it looked like a super hyped up version of a syringe and he was dragged away from them.

As quickly as they had appeared the Asgardians had gone. Tony was gone and nobody had a clue what to do.

.....

Chapter Text

Steve ached all over, but he didn't stop. His feet just kept pounding on the ground, the steady rhythm he hoped would give him peace for once could not drown out the noise of his racing thoughts. He'd got his answers from Bruce and Natasha and he didn't like them. Tony could have killed them all, well not Tony but… the fact was it should never have happened. They were supposed to be a team and vital information had been kept secret within that 'team' which by omission had nearly got them all killed. Hell, if it had gone another way who knows how many people could have died at the hand of this 'CAEB'. And then suddenly Tony was in control of it, but Steve didn't know whether he bought that or not. Seriously, after weeks of trying to find answers suddenly everything was alright? He wanted to trust Tony, but even if he was in control was that really such a good thing. The power he had in his hands was terrifying and no one could deny that Tony's hands weren't always the safest or the wisest.
Yet that wasn't even his problem at the moment. His problem was that Tony had been gone for three months and now people had started to ask questions. They had searched, they had racked their brains, they had prayed that Thor would come and explain something, but there was nothing. Steve hated to say it but there was very little hope of finding him and that burnt. They'd just sat there and let him get taken. He didn't even what to think about what Odin was doing to him on Asgard, assuming that's where they'd even taken him. One way or another this was on him. Tony could be dead for all they knew, but then again that might be better than the alternative and that's what really scared him, that's why he hadn't slept through the night since it had happened.
"Steve please, you need to stop."
Somehow Natasha was at his side, jogging with him. But he was running flat out, that wasn't possible, she couldn't be there. He looked down at his feet and suddenly realized how much they hurt, how tired he was and suddenly he could take another step.
Natasha watched Steve grow steadily slower and slower as exhaustion finally caught up with him. He'd been running for 6hours straight and he’d started at a sprint. It was as obvious as the nose on her face that Steve blamed himself, the whole team were in one way or another and it frankly sucked. When Steve slowed enough that she could keep up with him she joined him, pleading with him to stop, it took a long time before he finally snapped out of it and noticed her, then very quickly he was dropping to his knees. She let him rest on her, feeling his heavy breaths and shaking muscles against her torso. This was an absolute mess. She strained a little under Steve's dead weight as she reached into her back pocket and grabbed her phone, hitting speed dial. Clint picked up.
"Tash, what's up?"
"Clint, drag Banner out of that lab whatever it takes and get your ass to the park ASAP, bring the car."
At the other end of the phone Clint just nodded and Natasha quickly hung up.
……
Loki tried to block out the screams, but they resonated through him. The other prisoners couldn't hear them, but they were just halfwits, Loki had magic flowing through his veins and whatever Odin was doing to the thing in his basement was sending shockwaves. It was not often that Loki cursed his gifts but despite his flaws he didn't wish to hear anything in that sort of pain and it was bringing back some bad memories of his own. He had heard screams like that once before as a child, voices in the night that no one else could hear. Well his mother… Frigga had and after that they just stopped, he never heard them again. Yet they had etched themselves so perfectly into his memories and this time he was certain that what he was sensing was different.
The power he was sensing was like nothing he'd ever comprehended yet alone experienced. Loki knew Odin thought he knew what he was doing, he had to admit in the past his methods had been effective but there was something going on here that neither of them understood and that Odin in his blindness was failing to recognize. Why was he even debating this in his head, the fate of Asgard or of Odin was of no concern to him, yet something inside him refused to let go of that feeling of needing to act. A grave injustice was being carried out, of that he was certain.
Loki buried his head back into the book he was reading, trying to block out the sounds or at the very least ignore them. They never lasted long, 20minutes at the most and of late it had been getting shorter and shorter. The prisoner was no longer so resilient he guessed, how fragile humans were yet how strong this one had proved to be before. But the screams kept coming, every day at the same time like clockwork. He hoped for both their sakes that Odin would overestimate the load the prisoner's body could bare and he would never wake up, that way he could hope to save his sanity and the other would finally be put to rest.
……
Pepper had been sinking for a long time, but finally she could feel herself being pulled under. Her job was hard on a day to day basis, on the really bad days it was too much for one person to cope with but the one thing she had always been able to rely on was that she had never been alone. But these past three months had been worse than the worst day she'd ever had as CEO thus far. Tony was gone and they couldn't let anyone find out about it. Who knew what SHIELD would do if they did, the company would certainly go under and keeping up the pretense that Tony was fine and well when he hadn't been seen in public since the battle of Manhattan, not knowing if he was dead or alive, it was all just crushing her. Since that day she hadn't stopped to think. Bruce and Natasha had explained what they knew, she'd sat in medical for a few hours with the others while they got patched up and then she had gone to work. She hadn't stopped since. In one way she was glad to be so busy, it kept her mind away from the dark thoughts of what could be happening to him, the worry that never left her and the loneliness she felt inside. The work had been effective at first, but now she was so exhausted with it all that nothing could hold back the wave of emotion that was threatening to drown her should it reach shore.
A young intern knocked gingerly of her office door and she smiled her usual smile to signal for him to come in.
"I'm sorry to bother you Miss Potts but the head of R&D asked me to ask you if… when er…" Pepper smiled again at the intern’s stutters, her eyes sang kindness and understanding which seemed to drain away the intern's nervousness and allowed him to continue with more confidence.
"R&D want to know when Mr. Stark will have finished the Stark phone upgrades, the new product is due on sale in 3 weeks."
"Tell them I'll add it to the list of things I need to kick him about. God knows why he's spending so much time in that lab recently and not getting anything done but he was babbling about a new project which could change the world."
The intern smiled, his admiration of Stark was clear. There had been rumors that Tony was working on something big and he could only imagine what ingenious new technology was being developed above him in Stark's workshop. The smile didn't leave his face as he thanked Pepper and left the room.
Pepper was getting sick of spinning this big lie. Tony was working on something huge, no one had seen him because he hadn't come out of the lab. Bla, bla, bla….. And how she wished the lies were true. She was ready to break down into tears as thoughts and memories of Tony raced through her head when her phone started buzzing.
"Hi Natasha, what can I do for you?"
"Meet us down in the penthouse in 20mins, we all need a serious talk."
"Has something happened?"
"Yeah, Tony got kidnapped by Odin and everyone is falling apart. I've just picked Steve up after running himself half to death and don't think I can't hear the fact you're trying to hold back the tears."
"Ok, Natasha I'll be there."
…..
Rhodey stepped off the plane and just sat in the driver's seat of the car that was waiting for him on the runway. It was happening again. He'd let them take Tony again, but this time he didn't even know how to start looking for him. The number of days had passed as well, the number of days it took them to find him last time. He couldn't bear to think about what was happening to him. The last time they had found him, he had turned a corner, he had decided to do something good with his life again and that was great but there was just another part of him that had broken. Rhodey had seen Tony break far too many times, enough times to make him lose hope that he could be fixed and he wondered how much there was left to break before he just stopped working all together.
Then there was this CAEB thing. Tony had just been through a battle, learnt that there was something inside him that could kill the whole planet, then, and only after it nearly killed him and all of his friends, he gains some sort of control over this incredible power. Tony must be terrified, terrified and confused and… probably in absolute agony. From what he had heard about the way he was taken, about Odin, well there was no point kidding themselves that Tony was on some sort of holiday with Thor and his warrior buddies. It had been too long, he wanted more than anything to see Tony again, be there when he finally returned home and hold him just like he had the last time but he couldn't bear to see Tony break again.
Everyone thought that Tony had the perfect life, spoilt, rich, with everything he had ever wanted. Yes, they all knew Afghanistan had been a blip, but the truth was he didn't envy anything about Tony's life. It had been nothing short of hell. Tony had suffered his whole life, and he didn't want his friend to suffer anymore. He'd rather Tony be dead than alive and in any more pain, it killed him to even think that, but Tony deserved some peace, he deserved to be at rest and certainly not have to keep living through whatever hell life would care to bring his way next.
Rhodey picked his head up from where it had been resting on the steering wheel and slid the keys into the ignition. It was so strange how that just a few months ago he had so much hope for Tony again, that maybe his life was going somewhere where maybe, just maybe he could be really happy. Then all this had happened and bang went the hope. That had been the theme of Tony's life. One bad thing after the other, with everyone telling him that it would get better and that it would be alright, then the moment Tony started to believe them it all South. It was the hope that could be so cruel, if you never hoped you'd never hurt went things went wrong and maybe that's why Tony had stopped hoping and stopped caring so long ago, it made more sense to think of it that way and made Rhodey feel so bad for punishing him about it for so long.
He didn't let his mind wander further, they'd called him in again and he felt that this was more than their monthly 'find Tony' meeting, none the less if he didn't get a move on he was going to be late and although it wasn't that big of a deal, if there was one thing about normal life that still mattered to him it was punctuality.
……
It was Dark. He didn't know where he was only that it hurt. Ice bit into the bare skin of his chest and bones where they pressed into the damp floor. There was no light, nothing to see, not a shadow nor a silhouette and then there were the sounds. He couldn't hear anything, but it wasn't silent, there was just this constant buzzing and the occasional blurred noises which he supposed could be words, but he couldn't tell, he didn't really care anymore. He just wanted it all to stop. The numbness of his mind, the burning pain that ripped through his veins, he was so weak it took all his strength to take a breath. He couldn't move anything, and he couldn't even try. In his life he had, had his fair share of pain, he liked to think he'd dealt with it well, but this time he'd had enough, he couldn't take it anymore. He didn't want to have to take it anymore. It was a never-ending cycle of misery, the fog that sat so heavily in his mind would lift slightly, the burning would subside just that little bit to make it bearable but it would come back all too quickly and he would be sucked into darkness. He had no idea how long he'd been in this pit, it felt like days, but he knew he was missing something, probably a lot. All he knew is that the pain wasn't going to stop. Not unless the Avengers found him. They would be looking, but right now he didn't want saving, he just wanted an end.
……
Thor leant over the balcony with a smile on his face. A good meeting with his friends never could fail to make him pleased and he had no reason not to smile lately. Everything had just been so simple and pleasant of late, there had been battles to fight of course… the nine realms was still in chaos, but it was slowly settling and he could see an end nearing and that end meant a return to earth and seeing Jane again. He had a promise to honour of course.
Thor felt a gentle hand on his shoulder and he turned to see a familiar face.
"Heimdall, it is good to see you." Thor's face was full of joy to see his friend but the expression was not echoed on Heimdall's face which quickly saw Thor's expression change to one of concern. "What troubles you Heimdall."
"The CAEB my liege." Thor heart skipped a beat. He had almost forgotten the whole incident with the CAEB being on earth. His father had gone and returned with a prisoner and the whole matter had simply vanished, the threat was over, or so he had thought.
"What has it escaped?"
"No, my liege, I feel that…" Heimdall's hesitation was uncharacteristic, he knew Heimdall was loyal to a fault, but loyal to Asgard and the nine realms above all else. He would always betray his king if he felt it would serve the greater good.
"Heimdall, you can trust me, I know and respect your loyalty and I will keep whatever is to transpire between the two of us."
Heimdall nodded slowly "I feel that your father has made a mistake."
"With regards to the CAEB? How?"
"That is the problem my Prince, I'm not so sure this is the CAEB as we know it. It certainly was the CAEB when it was reborn on Earth but there are certain discrepancies."
"Heimdall I am struggling to follow."
"I am sorry my liege it is difficult to explain. I feel the energy of this being, from the vaults where it is being held captive, just as I felt that of the previous CAEB before it died and was reborn on Earth. I have never felt two energies that were so similar yet so different simultaneously. Usually I would not have given this as second thought considering one was Kree and the other human, but… There is the prophecy."
"Prophecy?"
"Yes, I know very little of it but it has been foretold that the CAEB will bring destruction to the lives of many but one day, should it truly merge with its host, it can be controlled and this host is the only thing standing between the Universe and its destruction."
Thor pondered this. Heimdall was hesitant, he wasn't sure but Thor knew better than to doubt his instincts, Heimdall's experience was vast and if there was any cause for doubt it needed to be fully explored, especially when the potential fate of the Universe was concerned.
An alarm blared across the city and both Thor and Heimdall's attention was instantly refocused, all questions forgotten. Heimdall used his sight to find out what was happening.
"A fight between the prisoners in the cells."
"Have any escaped?"
"Yes."
Thor was already moving, Heimdall by his side. Without the bifrost there was very little for him to do, so any chance he could get to be busy he grasped with both hands.
…..
Everyone was assembled in the penthouse of Stark tower, but there was still that one empty seat. Natasha paced nervously waiting for everyone to settle. She was perfectly capable of leading in any situation, but in this situation, it didn't feel right. Of the teams two usual leaders one was gone and the other one broken, the whole team was in pieces and she was always the one who ended up putting them back together.
"Look Guys, there is not one single piece of this situation that doesn't suck. We're all still recovering from New York then this CAEB stuff comes down on us like a ton of bricks. They took Tony and every single one of you in this room is blaming yourself for that in one way or another. Guys, it is not our fault! Steve, yes you're the leader of this little gang, you feel responsible for all of us but we are responsible for ourselves too, you do not have to carry everything that happens on your shoulders, we are a team, we share this responsibility. We were all outmatched, maybe we could have put up more of a fight but it would have ended the same way, only with us all seriously injured or dead."
She paused for a moment, looking at Steve especially to see if her words had hit home. She was pleased to see they had, had an effect, it would take a lot more convincing for Steve to let go of his guilt, but she could see that Captain America was starting to reappear from the semi broken shell that had sat in his place just a few minutes ago.
"Bruce, you feel responsible for finding him but I think, guys, that we have to accept at this point that Tony is not just going to teleport back in tomorrow and even if we found him we have no way of getting to him."
"Tash what are you saying?" Clint looked up at her with almost puppy dog eyes, dreading what was going to come next.
"Let me finish…"
"It's ok Clint, Natasha's right." Steve got up slowly and stood with Natasha in the centre of the room.
"Unless we can somehow get in touch with Thor, we have no way of finding out what's happening to Tony or to get him back." Steve quickly raised a hand to stop the oncoming objections. "On top of not knowing where he is, we also don’t know if he’s dead or alive. Guys I am not saying that we stop looking for him, I am the last person to give up on a teammate... A friend. What I am saying is we have to accept that there is going to come a point when we are going to have to move on."
"Yes," Natasha cut back in seeing that Steve was about to start struggling for words. "Our next job is to try and get in touch with Jane Foster or Eric Selvig, they know Thor better than all of us and maybe have some way of contacting him. If we can't contact Thor we are at a dead end. We can't keep SHIELD off our tails for much longer, and the weight of keeping the press and the company under the illusion that Tony's just fine is going to kill Pepper if she tries to keeps this up." Pepper sighed in acknowledgment and defeat, she knew it was true, she was trying her best but she couldn't keep it up much longer.
"Clearly the public can't ever know the full truth, but SHIELD is going to find out sooner or later. I'm going to put a deadline on this. We give it three more months and if we don't have any leads then we stop and accept there's nothing we can do. If a new lead comes up, fine but three months and its case closed. There are other people that need our help and that rely on us. I feel as bad about the possibility of abandoning Tony as all of you, but the fact is we have a responsibility to this planet as much as we do to him and there is only so much we can handle. There is a time to fight and there is a time to accept and move on, and however much we hate it we are getting to the time where we need to hang up the gloves."
The room was silent for a long while. Everyone knew what Natasha was saying was true, but that didn't mean they had to like it, in fact they absolutely despised it. But that didn't change the fact that it was the best night's sleep they'd all had in months and they woke up the next morning feeling like a massive weight had been lifted.
…..
There was chaos ensuing outside Loki's cell, it was beyond frustrating. Far too many guards had arrived to cull the fight in the cell opposite him and as a result they had just made matters worse. How stupid Asgardian soldiers were. The result was that the idiots had lowered the barrier so they could get in to stop the fight and the only slightly less stupid inmates had outwitted them and escaped into the corridor and into the arms of a dozen other guards. Inevitably the alarms had started blaring and any hope Loki had of having a peaceful afternoons reading had gone up in smoke.
Loki growled in annoyance and lay on his back with his forearm resting across his eyes. A few months ago, he would have found great amusement in this predicament, he would have sat and watched it unfold as if were a performance, well what other forms of entertainment was he likely to find from a prison cell? But things were different now. He was tired and drained; the screams had stopped him from sleeping and now he could almost feel this creature's constant pain. He assumed it was reaching out for help, in pure desperation, Odin would not realise until it was too late but the human below him was fast approaching its limits. He could feel it's desperation, it's intense wanting to die, Loki had never felt a connection like it, and it didn't even know that it was reaching out to him. But Loki, and not for want of trying, couldn't sever the connection and bring himself some peace.
He felt himself sympathising with it, he knew what pain was like, he knew too well what it was to pray for death and he hoped it would come soon for the creature below. He could almost see into its soul, he knew about the CAEB, but whatever was suffering in Odin's basement wasn't the evil that the CAEB was supposed to be and that could only mean one thing. Loki hadn't wasted his time in his cell, he had used to expand his knowledge on everything, especially on the CAEB. He probably knew more than anyone in Asgard, and if he understood correctly, the prophecy was coming true. The Universe was in grave danger and there was only one person that could stop it. It was strange that it should be a human, but if there's one thing Loki knew was that Tony Stark was no ordinary human.
Loki gave up trying to ignore the ensuing racket, he lay back on his bed and squeezed the pillow tight over his face, not even slightly concerned by the resulting lack of air. For a moment he thought that he would finally get some peace, but then the noise broke back through his feeble defense as his ears adjusted to their new environment and the muffled nature of the sound in fact just made it more infuriating.
"Would you miserable excuses of guards get your prisoners under control so I can get some peace!" Loki's magic flared green as the table flew across his cell, shattering on the wall whilst both of his hands remained fixed on the pillow.
Thunder rumbled in the corridor and the familiar sound of Mjolnir's swing followed by grunts and crunching bones made Loki toss his pillow onto the floor press his face against the wall instead. Thor was always the last person he wanted to see, so with the mood he was in on this occasion he simply refused to look at him.
"Would anyone else like to try, or will all just get back in your cells?" Thor would usually have enjoyed this, but he had been dragged away from an important conversation and was not in the best of moods himself. Thankfully no one else tested his patience, thankfully for them that is, not for Thor. Heimdall simply helped the strewn guards to their feet whilst Thor escorted the suddenly compliant uprising back to their cells.
Thor glanced at Loki as they left, seeing him screwed up tightly against the wall, ignoring them completely.
"Is that not a thank you I hear, dear brother? I have restored your peace as you requested."
Loki stayed silent for a moment, in two minds as whether to reply but if the prophecy was true, right now he was the only one who could help it come to pass. Was he about to help that human? No, he was going to help himself sleep and that was all.
"Don't call me your Brother, it is not true nor would I wish it to be after learning how you treat your friends."
"I know not of what you speak Loki, I have always treated you and my friends with great respect, which is far more than you especially deserve." Thor turned to leave, not in the mood for being his Brother's verbal punching bag, but Loki still facing the wall smiled in anticipation.
"Oh, so is that why I hear your 'friend' screaming in Odin's dungeon every night." Thor snapped back instantly and Heimdall had a similar response. Thor was suddenly right up to the barrier of Loki's cell, with a face closely imitating the thunder he controlled.
"What do you mean?" Loki didn't stir or even bother to respond, his smile deepening unnoticed by Thor. "Loki! Tell me what you mean!"
Loki rolled over slowly, a look of complete seriousness now occupying his features. He inspected Thor's face briefly which confirmed what he already had guessed.
"You don't know, do you? What he's got down there… Who he's got down there." Loki chuckled "The CAEB was reborn on your precious Earth, but that you know, you didn't know it had taken one of you little friends, oh how Odin has deceived you."
"Who Loki, who is the CAEB?"
"That is not what matters."
"Of course it is! Tell me, which one of my friends has the CAEB infested?" Thor was close to panicking now, but Heimdall was more interested in Loki's other statement.
"Loki do you refer to the prophecy?"
"Finally, someone who is asking the right questions, though that could always be expected of you Heimdall, with you endless sight." He spat with sarcasm.
"Yet you have deceived me many times before Loki."
"That may be true, but know that in this instance my words are truthful. Whatever ever is beneath is not the CAEB, I know it… I am sure of it. I can feel it reaching out inside my mind, its goodness and its desperation are suffocating. What is beneath our feet is no creature of evil as Odin would have us all believe."
"So, the CAEB has merged with a human?"
"Yes. There is no other way to explain the energy I am feeling day and night. And if you want the prophecy to come true you have to move quickly. The suppressant Odin is using was designed for a superior being and that oaf didn't deem it sensible to lower the dose."
"Don't you dare speak of Father so!"
"He is not my father and I will speak of him as I wish, now leave your emotion to one side and listen Thor, the fate of the Universe depends on you getting the human out of here before it's too late."
"Why? Why should we trust any of your words Loki, you have betrayed us all enough?”
"If the CAEB is as Odin says, then why would I help it? It would destroy Asgard and probably the whole galaxy, which is where I happen to be stuck and I don't particularly feel like dying! If the CAEB is as I say, you realise that I am saving my own skin by helping it and the fact that I am also potentially saving the Universe is irrelevant. I know you would never believe that I would have the best interests of this universe at heart and that I only have room for my own agenda. Whichever way you look at it, it is clear that the only sensible conclusion is to believe that I am telling the truth."
Thor looked deeply into the green of Loki's eyes, searching for any signs of truth or dishonesty, but as usual he could not read his brother, that had never been his talent. He gave up and turned to Heimdall for guidance. Heimdall scrutinised the younger God for some time before coming to his own conclusion and turning to meet Thor's expectant gaze. Heimdall nodded curtly.
"Loki's experience matches mine, my Prince, and the cost of not acting would be too high in this instance. The only question is…" Heimdall turned back to Loki "How long do we have to produce a plan."
Loki pondered for a minute, letting his connection with the CAEB below flow into his mind which nearly made him reel as its pain flooded in. It was not nearly so sharp as before.
"I would say you only have hours, it has been weak since it arrived and now I fear it is giving up fast."
"I'm sorry Heimdall but you are wrong." Thor still glared at his brother with distrust. "That it not the only question there is to ask. The other is who is it that we are to rescue?"
Loki looked into his brother’s eyes and resisted smiling, if only to avoid another altercation with Thor.
"Tony Stark."

Chapter Text

"Well, are you going to say something Thor, or just continue to stand there and stare at me?"

Thor did the latter. Man of Iron was the CAEB. He didn't know what to feel. In one way it made sense, Stark had sacrificed himself with great courage in the battle on Earth, the act of which must have coincided with the moment that the CAEB on Asgard had killed itself. It burned him to know what his father would be doing to his comrade, his friend. But was what was down there even still Tony Stark? Was the prophecy true, was Tony in control?

"You have questions." Loki read the troubled look on Thor face during his prolonged silence and slowly got to his feet, edging closer to the barrier.

"Tell me what you know of this prophecy, tell me everything you know Loki."

Loki sighed but obliged his brother.

"The CAEB has existed since the dawn of time and its power was infinite. It could crush a planet with but a flick of its hand, and manipulate time and matter in any way it wished. Legend says it was once its own entity, but was fooled by a trickster and cursed to be trapped inside the body of another. The host was to be the one showing greatest sacrifice at the time of the CAEB's death, in this case this was Stark in his act of stupidity."

"You only say that Loki because that 'act of stupidity 'defeated you and your 'almighty army'."

"How's your stomach Thor? Or have you forgotten how your own stupidity let me twist a knife into it?"

"Please continue Loki, we have very little time." Heimdall stood between the two Gods in attempt to restore some focus to the conversation. Loki sighed and began pacing while he started again.

"The only way it can escape a host is by killing it. The CAEB's power is limited to the strength of its host. Several millennia ago the CAEB gained control of a being with immense strength and caused untold destruction. Since then Asgard tasked itself with capturing and containing the CAEB to protect the universe from its wrath. The CAEB is pure evil, it corrupts its host and bends it completely to its will and its only goal is to control the entire universe. However, when it first inhabits a host it is weak, it takes time to gain control and this is the only time when it can be captured. Your Great Grandfather had his scientists develop a chemical that can suppress the CAEB, but it is incredibly toxic, it would tear through both our veins and kill us in minutes. A strong host with the CAEB inside can withstand it and live a full life, incapacitated in the dungeon below us, but a human… The only thing that is keeping Stark alive is the CAEB and even then, it is failing. He is near death and will not last much longer."

"And what of the prophecy?" Loki rolled his eyes at Thor's constant interruptions.

"I'm getting to that bit." He bit back and then calmed himself before continuing.

"Stark is weak, he is human. When the CAEB inhabited his body it will have drained him completely just to contain it. And he won't have been strong enough to contain it for long. The CAEB will have been strong enough to escape and become its own entity again, which could have been the end of everything we know. If the CAEB had regained its full power there would have been no stopping it."

"So, what has happened instead?"

"That is the part of which I cannot be certain. Somehow Stark must have… re-contained the CAEB within himself, but this time it will have merged with his cells, that's what I can feel. There is no 'CAEB' anymore. Before Tony Stark and the CAEB were separate entities but trapped in the same body. Now, they are the same, they are one. Tony Stark is the CAEB."

"So, does that mean he is in control of it?"

"To an extent."

"What do you mean?"

"As I said I am not certain Thor, The CAEB is no longer controlling him, but I am not aware how much of his new power Stark is able to control."

"Loki, we need more, I need to know what I am facing."

"There is no more Thor, I know all there is to know. This has not happened before, the CAEB has never merged with any being, yet alone a human."

"But what of the prophecy?"

"The prophecy is vague, it merely states that the CAEB will merge with its host and the host will gain control, which it seemingly now has; and that there will be a time where Stark will be the only one who can stop the destruction of the universe."

"Because if Stark dies…"

"The CAEB will die too and it cannot be rebor-…"

"Loki?"

The Pale God had stopped dead mid-sentence and swayed slightly. The colour drained from his face and his lips turned yellow. Without further warning Loki's knees gave way and he tumbled to the floor.

"Loki!" Thor ran forwards to the barrier and was quickly reminded why the prisoners were contained as his body was jolted painfully and thrown back onto the floor.

"My Prince!" Heimdall was quickly by Thor's side as Loki was automatically forgotten. Thor coughed, winded and accepted Heimdall's hand to help him to his feet. Loki too was recovering, sitting up slowly and groaning. What little colour he usually had was returning to his cheeks and he rubbed his temples waiting for the pain to subside.

"Loki what happened?"

"It's Stark, he reaches out unknowingly with his powers. That was the worst I have felt it. Thor, you have to act now, he has but moments before his body fails him."

"Can you tell me how long?"

"At most half an hour."

That was not enough time to formulate a proper plan, Thor's mind raced, he needed to find a way to break Tony out and get him to Earth without the bifrost. The pieces quickly slotted into place and he turned to Heimdall.

"I need you to summon the dark energy and go to Earth immediately, you need to tell the Avengers what we know and that I am bringing Stark home. They need to be prepared for battle, my Father will surely follow with an army when he learns of my treason."

"How will you get to Earth? There will not be enough dark energy for two trips."

"For that I will need a way into the Asgardian vault unnoticed." Thor tuned to Loki who was on the same trail of thought.

"I have a way I can tell you of."

"Good, then I will retrieve the Tesseract and Stark and meet you on Earth." Heimdall left immediately but Thor lingered a while longer.

"Thank you, Loki."

"I did it not for you or Asgard, or even the galaxy, I did it merely because I want to survive."

"Very well, but you have my thanks none the less. Now how do I get into the vault?"

Loki smiled.

……

Clint had been stirring the cup of coffee on the worktop for some time now, just enjoying the way it swirled around the inside of his mug. It was a calming motion and the only relief he had, had from the constant tension that was so thick in the tower you could cut it with a knife. The few days after their little talk had been the calmest in a long time but with Eric and Jane now working downstairs trying to find a way to contact Thor the stress dial had been turned to eleven. They'd had to smuggle the two scientists into the tower to avoid raising SHIELD's suspicions any higher, if it hadn't been for the two superspies on the team they would have been found out a long time ago. Jane and Eric had been only too willing to help, but they had made it very clear that the chances were slim. Clint knew that slim meant impossible, for a start Jane had searched for Thor for two years after he first came to earth and came up with nothing, so why should it be any different this time?

Clint just letting his thoughts swirl silently round his head just like the coffee in the mug. The next thing he knew there was someone touching his shoulder. Clint turned his head expecting to see Tash, well, no one else could sneak up on him so easily, but what his eyes took in made him jump a mile.

"Holy Shit!" Clint jumped clean over the counter and grabbed a gun from one of Natasha's many hiding spots. "Jarvis Battle stations!" Clint loaded the weapon and took a glance, gun first, over the worktop. The tall figure in golden armour hadn't attacked, in fact he had backed off, laying his sword carefully on the glass table in the middle of the room. Clint stood up cautiously but kept his gun trailed on the intruder. Well he was definitely Asgardian, had Jane and Eric succeeded in some way but reached the wrong person? Where the hell had he come from? Stuff that he didn't want to know.

"Who the hell are you and what do you want?" Clint demanded.

"I mean you no harm warrior of Midgard, I'm am Heimdall of Asgard and I come with an urgent message from Thor." Heimdall raised his hands and took another step back to demonstrate his sincerity. Neither took their eyes off the other.

"Oh yeah, so why couldn't he bring it himself?" Clint wasn't backing down, the last time they'd come here they'd taken Tony and there was no way anything like that was happening again on his watch.

"Please, friend of Thor, there is little time, Thor is bringing home your Man of Iron but you and your friends must prepare…"

"Prepare for what? What is going on?" Steve and Natasha burst into the room weapons drawn and shield at the ready but still in t-shirt and jeans. Bruce stood behind the other with a determined look etched on his face, whilst Jane and Eric burst through the door shortly after, brandishing a pair of scissors and a ruler, which had been clearly sharpened by said scissors. Bruce glanced behind him at his fellow scientists and had to try very hard to hold back a smirk despite the seriousness of the situation.

Heimdall broke the silence. "I do not expect you to lower your weapons, in you place I would certainly not, all I ask is that you listen well and do not interrupt, time is of the essence."

Steve looked Heimdall up and down but glanced to Natasha for her judgement. She gave a nod to indicate that he was no threat to them and Steve stepped a little further forward into the room.

"We're listening."

Heimdall told them his story.

……

He had expected there to be more guards, in fact he must have been half way down the tunnels and he had only seen three. Thankfully he had managed to avoid them seeing him. Stealth was hardly Thor's strong point, and he would much rather fight than hide but this was a different battle and these were his people. He didn't want to hurt them, they were just following orders.

There was very little light in the tunnels, most of which was originating as a soft blue glow from the tesseract concealed beneath Thor's cape. He had to acknowledge his brother, his route into the vault had been seamless, taking the tesseract had been child's play, in fact it had been almost too easy. One thing was for certain, he would be informing his father of said route when this was all over, the security risk was far too great.

Finally, the tunnel came to an end and opened out to reveal a single small cell with two men standing guard under the glow of a flaming torch. It was bitterly cold down here Thor mused, the air smelt of damp and the walls dripped like the inside of a cave. They were very deep underground, well below the foundations of the city and there was only one way out should things go wrong.

Thor wished that it would be just as simple as picking up Tony and using the tesseract to escape, but Loki had warned him off using it in a confined space. If it went wrong they could anywhere in the universe, or destroy the city, or both. By the Gods, he hated magic and the like.

Thor peered around the corner again and gritted his teeth. There was no easy way around this, he was going to have to fight these men and he wouldn't be able to sneak up on them either. He let Mjolnir slide through his hand to gain a good grip and stepped out into the small prison. The guards barely had chance to react before they were felled, and Thor proceeded to bring Mjolnir on the Iron bars that separated him from his objective.

Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.

The man before him was barely more than a skeleton with skin so pale you would have been forgiven for mistaking he was already dead. The only sign of life was the shifting of his ribs under translucent grey skin, each breath looking like it took all his courage to muster.

"Stark?" Thor had to swallow back vomit. Tony was lied on his side facing Thor, yet the God barely recognised his friend. The bones on his face were so pronounced that almost all trace of the man he had seen only months ago had wasted away. Thor hurried forward and began to undo the shackles that bound Tony in place. They were completely unnecessary, he realised now that the reason there were so few guards was because there simply was no need. Tony couldn't have escaped if he'd wanted to and the whole way his limp form sagged into the freezing stone floor looked defeated.

Thor found the IV line that Loki had warned him of, a nearly constant stream of CAEB suppressant was being pumped into his veins and killing more slowly and painfully than Thor dared to imagine. Thor wanted to tear the offending needle out of his friends arm in anger, but Stark's fragility stopped him. He took it out with as much care as his large numb fingers could muster and inspected the deep purple bruising the needle had left behind. Anywhere he was touching the floor the same bruising could be seen, right to the bone. There was nothing left to cushion him, each bone could be seen so close to the surface with little more than skin between them and the air.

Thor gently stroked Tony's hair, trying to muster a response. He didn't want to move him until he was conscious so that he could be sure that he wasn't harming him further, but they didn't have much time until someone inevitably figured out that something was going on.

Tony was as cold as ice. Thor took off his cape and gently wrapped the broken man in it, what good its thin material would do him he wasn't sure but it was better than nothing. Thor grabbed the torch from the wall outside the cell, its flame bringing some much needed warm and light in the darkness. A few minutes passed before Tony's eyelids flickered and blinked slowly open.

"Man of Iron, can you hear me?" Thor kept his voice hushed as a precaution.

For a moment there was utter silence. Tony's eyes were open but he made no move to respond, the drug still heavily clouding his mind and body. Thor repeated his question and a little air escaped Tony's mouth as if he were trying to speak but couldn't. Thor was holding Tony's hand in his and felt Tony's finger lift slightly, trembling. That would do for a response.

Thor scooped Tony up as lightly as he could, but could see the pain flash through Tony's eyes as he did so. "I'm taking you home Stark, just hang on." Tony was completely limp in his arms and barely able to keep his eyes open, his mind seemed to be becoming sharper as the drug wore off but he hadn't any strength to return to him.

Thor walked with Tony back up the long, dark, narrow passage, trying to even his stride and avoid jostling his passenger. Tony's eyes searched weakly around him, taking in his surroundings rather than just staring blankly into space as he had minutes before. The journey to the surface was taking a lot longer than had the journey down. It was uphill and awkward, Thor had to walk nearly sideways to avoid brushing Tony against the narrow walls and tried to glide rather than walk as every small bump sent pain through Tony's eyes and made Thor cringe in sympathy.

……

The darkness was so close he could almost touch it. He knew what it meant if he did. There was no way back from death but that was the only way he could escape the excruciating pain that was crushing him slowly. He had tried to reach out and grab it with both hands but nearly as strong as force helping him edge ever closer to the black shroud was the burning blue within him, desperately struggling to keep him alive. But the blue team was losing its strength, in fact it was nearly time. Time for the agony to end and for Tony to finally, find some peace. The darkness had started to advance now, it was coming for him and he didn't even have to try. That made a change, he thought. But then it started to change, the pain was fading, just a little bit, barely noticeable but it was fantastic and when he checked the dark clouds were retreating, specks of light breaking through and warming his face like the summer sun. He missed summer, he missed home and he realised it's the first time he'd thought of either in, well, however long this had been happening.

There was a sudden blur of gold, pink and red and there was a noise, something other than the buzzing that had plagued him for so long. Thor was there, his face became clearer and he could almost make out the words amidst the constant ringing in his ears, the pain just kept subsiding slowly. Perhaps things weren't going to be so bad after all.

…..

Things had turned very quickly in the dungeons below the golden city. One minute, Thor had been stalking through the tunnels in an almost eerie silence, walking with care and grace in protection of his cargo and the next chaos was echoing through the tunnels. There seemed to be a thousand heavy footsteps advancing towards them and there was only one way out. Tony writhed a little in his arms and his face screwed up in pain, still no sound escaped his mouth though it appeared as if he was trying to speak. His eyes were brighter, as if he was now fully able to take in his surroundings, he tried again to speak, but pain stopped him.

"Please do not try to speak friend Tony." Thor lowered him to the ground as gently as a feather falls in still air, the slowness of his own movements pained Thor as the impending footsteps became louder and vibrations began to ripple through the walls which enclosed them. A lump rose in Thor's throat, but still he tried to avoid his friend anymore pain. As Tony's body finally came to rest on the floor the pained expression on his face made Thor feel sick to the stomach. Tony's hand began to twitch and moved slowly into forming a thumbs up, but it was the eye contact that followed that spoke volumes.

Thor couldn't see a safe way out of this one. He would fight his people if necessary, but he doubted if he could kill them as he would a true enemy. He had fought and trained with many of the men that had been sent to stop him, they were his friends and just following orders, but he had to get Tony out of here. He had the tesseract of course, but from what he had learned when Loki had come to earth the opening of the portal had consumed an entire SHIELD base. He had intended to get far away from the citadel before he had used it, because here, deep underground the city was at great risk if anything went wrong. This was truly an impossible situation, he risked killing hundreds of innocents if he fought, millions if he tried to escape, yet only one if he did nothing. But that one was his friend and Thor was not one to give in, if he could get out of this without any blood spilled, then that's what he would do.

The first men reached him and he knocked them down quickly, they were rendered unconscious with as little injury as could be achieved, but an ocean descended on top of him, wave after wave of warriors, each wave hitting harder than its predecessors and Thor was finding it harder and harder to keep his footing. A blade swung in the right corner of his vision and he blocked it with Mjolnir and yelled out as searing pain burned through his left shoulder. The warrior pulled his weapon from the Thunder God's shoulder and came back for a second attack. Thor was forced to his knees as he blocked the next onslaught and sent a few men flying back with another swing of his hammer. He realised now he had made a grave error, he had assumed his father would have given them orders not to kill his only son, but the precision of the warriors' aim had only one purpose, they had been told that the traitor must die.

Thor was taking more and more blows as he tired quickly, for each row he knocked back with Mjolnir there were twenty more ready to crawl over the fallen and launch themselves at their lone adversary. Thor grunted as he was slammed square in the chest, by what or by whom he couldn't tell, all he could see were bared teeth and flashes of silver bombarding him. He landed on his back and regained his feet in an instant, but the barrier had been down and 10 men had broken through and were charging down the tunnel towards Tony who lie on the floor about 70metres from where Thor stood.

Panic clouded his mind now, Tony had no way to defend himself, but Thor could not move to chase them or the whole army would descend upon him. It was over, they were caught and there really was no way out.

….

Chapter Text

There was only one thing for it. Thor let down his arms that had been holding back the marauding army and dived towards Tony. He wasn't going to make it in time. He was catching the soldiers who had broken through but they had nearly reached their target. Tony was helpless. He threw Mjolnir and knocked the pursuing warriors against the wall and into unconsciousness. That was one problem dealt with, but he had no idea how to get the tesseract working and get them both out before the swarm engulfed them. The charging Asgardians were breathing down his neck. An Axe blade whistled through the air, slicing its way through the dark tunnel in search of its target. Thor was oblivious.

Tony's eyes trailed the weapon and calculated its destination. He tried to yell a warning. Nothing. He tried to get up, but his breath left him before his muscles raised him more than an inch. He had to do something. He had to protect his friend.

There was an Earth-shattering clatter and the world seemed to slow down. Thor glanced behind them and all he saw was blue. He turned his head to see that the following army was no longer moving, stopped by an invisible wall and looking perplexed. Thor stopped running to examine the barrier. The warriors crushed at the bottom of the pile were pounding against the shield, each blow sent blue veins shooting through the air and a pained wheeze cutting through the air behind him. Tony!

Thor turned around to see Tony's arm outstretched and shaking terribly. His eyes glowed the same blue as the Shield that had saved him. With every fist or sword that pounded against it another drop of thick crimson liquid dripped from Tony's nose and pooled on the floor.

Thor wasted no more time in running towards him. Tony was barely breathing now, it was taking all his strength just to hold out his hand. More blue erupted into the tunnel as Thor took out the tesseract and quickly got to work, Tony couldn't hold on much longer and Thor feared what would happen if he did. Holding up the shield was visibly draining him, every second that passed more blood oozed from his nose until it was flowing down his face like a river, his skin went from pale to white and then to grey and his breath from a rasping wheeze to non-existent.

…..

He had no idea what he was doing or how he was doing it but it seemed to be working. It didn't hurt; which made a change. In fact, it felt quite good in a way, well he supposed it would have felt brilliant if it didn't feel like it was sucking the life out of him. Every muscle in his body was tense and quivering, his teeth were gritted in effort and his vision grew dark at the edges. His body should have been screaming at him, but it just wasn't, everything seemed calm and quiet. The world was almost running in slow motion as the power coursed through him. He knew his body was failing but he didn't feel it, all he felt was urgency, was Thor going to stand and stare all day or was he going to get them out of here? Oh good. Thank you. The God was finally moving but Tony's vision was just coming in flashes. Thor was running, black, Thor was knelt beside him, more blackness, there was something blue, the tesseract, the blackness took over. The shield was let down and the army descended.

…..

The Avengers were pacing. Heimdall was pacing, which was certainly unlike him. It had been nearly an hour since he had managed to convince the Midgardians he meant no harm and inform them that Thor should be arriving forthwith. It had been too long, something must have gone wrong and he could sense the others were beginning to doubt his sincerity once more.

Steve paused his movement and turned to Heimdall, he wanted to trust his words they all did, but the proverbial elephant in the room had to be addressed at some time. Heimdall met Steve's questioning gaze and opened his mouth to speak before his head snapped to the left and stared at the empty space in the room.

Seconds later the room erupted in blue light, which had everyone's attention instantly. Thor was crouched in the centre of the room with his back to them. But where was Tony? The room was silent as the steaming blue energy surrounding Thor dissipated and he came properly into focus.

Thor raised his head and the room appeared empty. He was definitely in Stark tower, the view of New York from the window in front of him was incredibly familiar. He looked back down at his passenger cradled tightly against body in his silent sleep. His heart leapt for a moment. Was he breathing? He cast the tesseract aside and placed his now free hand in front of Tony's mouth. For several ghastly seconds he felt nothing, but finally there was the prickle of hot air against his palm and he sighed in relief. There was a sound behind him and Thor turned his head to see the room behind him was actually full of his friends.

"Doctor Banner, could you help please?" Thor's voice sounded, well, weak. It was incredibly disconcerting. Bruce pushed his way through the crowd in front of him and crouched beside Thor. Natasha noted the way he moved, like lightning across the room yet his haste went unnoticed due the calmness he exuded. A calmness, thought Natasha, which was the complete opposite of what he was feeling right now.

Natasha was right, Bruce's heart was on overdrive, the anticipation was the worst thing he had ever felt. He had expected it to be bad, he had imagined it would be horrible, but nothing could have prepared him for what he saw. Tony looked dead. A wave of nausea rushed through Bruce's stomach and had him swallowing down bile before he puked all over his friend, or what was left of him. Bruce hated that phrase, but the fact was it was the only fit description of how Tony looked right now, he was barely recognisable as anything other than a corpse. A tear slid from Bruce's eye before he managed to compose himself and work objectively. This wasn't Tony Stark, his best friend, this was just any other patient.

"Guys I need you to get a mattress off one of the beds and bring it to me, someone get me a drip from med bay, my medical bag and well, whatever you can carry from med bay… Oh and blankets, lots of blankets… and pillows."

Clint practically leapt into action. "I'm getting the mattress…." His room was closest only one floor below

"Blankets and pillows!" Jane was admirably quick to follow suit.

"You'll need a hand." Tash offered

Steve tapped Eric on the shoulder, "looks like we're on the medical stuff."

"I will assist." Heimdall followed Steve and Eric from the room.

And in seconds the room was clear.

Bruce turned to Thor.

"What happened to him?"

"I'm not sure Doctor Banner, he has been on some sort of drug to suppress the CAEB inside him and it is certainly not designed for Humans."

"Ok, so any injuries? Did they… torture him?" Bruce swallowed hard at this, he could see Thor blaming himself for this, but Bruce had a very strong hunch that it was nothing to do with him at all.

"Again, I'm not sure but I say that it would be likely." Thor resisted the urge to shudder, in fear of hurting Tony and just hung his head in shame. Bruce broke off from examining Tony and just placed a hand on the God's shoulder.

"Not your fault Buddy."

"How can you be certain of that, you don't know what transpired, I could have…"

"Not now Thor, there will be time later. Let's just get Tony stable, yes?" Thor nodded in response.

"I'm guessing no solid food?"

Thor shook his head "He was given what he needed through a drip along with the drug."

"And how long since he was dosed with that? Have you got any that I can analyse, so that I know what I am dealing with?"

"I have none I'm afraid, but I removed that infernal needle from him about an hour ago. When I first found him, his eyes were open but there was no consciousness. I sat with him 20 minutes before he could respond. It was as if he were paralysed at first, but as soon as he was no longer being fed that poison he became brighter quite rapidly." Thor felt that it was best to answer Bruce's questions as they came, he didn't want to waste time by telling the story with unnecessary detail.

"How did this happen?" Bruce pointed to the strain of dried blood that was covering most of Tony's face and neck.

"There was only one way in and out of the dungeon he was imprisoned in. I was carrying him out when the warriors of Asgard trapped us. The CAEB, he… he made a shield and protected me, but the effort cost him dearly, that is why he fell unconscious just before I activated the tesseract to bring him here."

The lift doors slid open and a familiar voice filled the room. "Jarvis rang me, said there was an emergency and we should all suit up so what's going …. Thor?" Rhodey paused in the lift as the pieces slowly slotted together. If Thor was here then… "Tony!" Rhodey spotted the mass of tousled brown hair he knew so well and dropped his bags to be by his side in an instant.

Bruce wanted to say something, utter some word of warning but there wasn't time and the look of Rhodey's face when he saw the state of his best friend would haunt Bruce for the rest of his life.

After the initial moment of shock Rhodey reached out to stroke his friend's forehead but hesitated, what if he hurt him? He looked so fragile. He bit his lip and looked up at the ceiling, biting back the tears that were stinging the corner of his eyes. Tony was alive, that was the main thing, Tony was still alive. He lowered his hand the rest of the way and gently ran his fingers lightly through Tony's hair. His reward was a pair of big brown eyes staring back at him.

Rhodey broke out into a grin. Those eyes spoke a thousand words, they were just as glad to see him as he was to see them. "Hey buddy." Rhodey's voice cracked and a tear broke free to slide down his cheek. Bruce's eyes were equally brimming. Thor's beaming grin showed his delight, yet his eyes betrayed a deep-set sorrow and immeasurable guilt.

"Hey…" Tony's unused voice was a rasping mess and was followed by a series of hacking coughs which shook his frail body and made his three watchmen cringe. "What's with the waterworks?"

There grins widened, delighted that the same old Tony was in there.

"Tony please don't talk."

"Bruce, it's me, they managed to shut me up for… How long?"

"Four and a half months Tones." Rhodey chuckled incredulously

"Ouch, ok, longer than last time, sorry about that." Tony turned to Rhodey sympathetically. "Well, anyway, they shut me up for that long I've got to make up for lost time."

"Tony, you really don't."

"Don't argue with the poorly person it's not allowed." Tony's voice was a delight to hear, but an agonising one. The obvious pain it was causing him even to talk made them cringe in sympathy. They just wanted to take the pain away, but of course they couldn't.

There was a harsh panting from the emergency stairwell as a mattress opened the door and fell into the room. A red-faced Clint fell atop the mattress, burying his face.

"Sorry," he panted. "Elevator wasn't working."

"Sorry Clint that's my fault." Rhodey glanced guilty at his bags which were blocking the lift door.

"Its fine Rhodey, the fat chicken needed a work out."

"Shut your face Stark." Clint was muffled, face firmly planted in the mattress, the other three grinned and silently counted waiting for it to sink in. one… two… three… four… "Hang on, Tony? Tony!" Clint leapt to his feet and squeezed into the small circle.

"Hey Tony. Buddy! God I've missed you."

"Sentiment appreciated Bird brain, but could you bring that mattress, as much as I like being cuddled by muscles here I'd prefer something soft and squishy."

"Oh yeah sure."

"Right I have pillows and blankets…." Jane announced from behind Natasha who, arms full and a pillow covering her face, proceeded to make like her predecessor and fall face first onto the mattress. "CLINT!"

"Sorry!"

"Clint, will you move Rhodey's bags so the others can use the lift and I don't end up treating the entire team for tripping over your damn mattress." Bruce sighed in amusement.

The bags were moved and the mattress was manoeuvred into place. Bruce gently prized Thor's cape out of Tony's hands, who reluctantly relaxed to hand it over, Bruce realised that Tony had been clinging onto it for dear life, those blankets had certainly been a good idea.

Thor carefully laid Tony onto the mattress with the help of Rhodey and Clint. It was a difficult and delicate operation. Tony was a master at concealing his pain, but it was clear that even the slightest movement was next to excruciating. As soon as he was on his back, Tony tried to roll onto his side. He hated being on his back. A strong pair of hands held him back, but Rhodey placed a hand on Thor's shoulder and then the two gently helped him to get comfortable.

The medical supplies arrived soon after and everything was quite for a little while, Tony's breathing was shallow and fast as he recovered from the pain of being moved. Bruce took the time when Tony was least likely to protest to examine him properly. Every single one of his ribs had been broken at some stage in the recent past, and many were still far from being healed. He suspected his pelvis had been re-fractured as well, though without x-ray he couldn't be sure.

With Thor now free to move, Jane pulled him to one side and they talked quietly. Natasha smiled softly to herself, Thor needed comfort right now. It amazed her in a way that someone who had lived so long and seen so much was traumatised by this, but on the other hand she knew how much Thor cared, how much they all cared about the snarky billionaire who was lying on that mattress. They had all failed to protect him, they all felt guilty, but at least they had him back now.

"Where's Pep?" Tony asked after a while, his voice was even more shaky and tired than it had been before and it made Bruce a little worried.

"Did anyone call her, Rhodey?"

"No, I only came because Jarvis called me so… J?"

"Miss Potts was not on the call list for protocol Battle stations, however I have just made a call suggesting she come immediately."

"Thanks J." Tony coughed again and four sets of hands braced him and agony flashed across his eyes.

"Ok Tones, maybe we should just be quiet for a bit yeah." Tony nodded at his oldest friend and let his eyes slip shut. Well propped with pillows and wrapped in blankets it wasn't long before Tony fell asleep, for the first time in four and half months. And it was good.

…..

"You mean to tell me that my Son, alone and unaided, managed to escape my army in its entirety from a dungeon with only one exit?"

The young warrior that stood before the enraged Odin gulped and tried to conceal the slight tremor that was taking hold of his lower jaw.

"My Liege, I can only apologise for our failure. May I go to offer some explanation for our defeat?"

The young warrior knew better than to try and make excuses to his King, especially when he was as furious as Odin was now. He knew of course that it was not his fault, Odin's army could never have matched what they faced in that tunnel, but reason was not something that Odin would be listening to for a period.

"I think you had better." Odin's voice could only be described as a roar, it shook the very walls of the throne room and the warrior was forced to take a deep breath before continuing.

"Thor was not unaided my liege, he fought admirably but we were overwhelming him. The CAEB with his powers constructed some sort of Shield, which meant we could not reach him."

"Are you trying to tell me that, that monster protected my son?"

"Ermm, no my liege, I believe his actions were selfish. Thor had the tesseract, if we had taken Thor the CAEB would have had no means of escape."

"Please skip to the part where this makes sense to me!" The young warrior bowed slightly.

"Thor used the tesseract to escape with the CAEB."

"And how pray, did he retrieve that unnoticed."

"I do not know My Liege."

"Well find out!"

"Yes, my Liege." The warrior turned and moved as swiftly out of the room as he could.

"Odin!" Frigga was on a war path. Her husband was not seeing straight and she was going to make damn sure that changed.

"Not now Frigga."

"Yes, now husband!"

"What do you want?"

"For you to stop being pig headed and think. Our son would not betray Asgard unless he truly believed in his cause."

"Yes, I know that Frigga, but the CAEB is capable of twisting the mind."

"Yes Odin, but I was listening and why, pray, would the CAEB need Thor and the tesseract to escape when it is well within its power to teleport? Why would he go through the pain of protecting our son who, may it be noted, you ordered stopped at any cost?"

"It is weakened in human form, it is weakened from my drugs and perhaps its human part has not yet realised it can teleport."

"Odin see sense."

"Enough! You are angry because I endangered our son when he endangered himself by betraying his King." Frigga looked at him with a rage that could not be tamed.

"Oh, spare me your filthy look woman! I knew he could not be killed by our warriors I have trained him too well. Your council has proved valuable in the past Frigga, but you would be wise not to disprove your usefulness by continuing on this path."

"You dare treat me such? I am your equal husband, I have proved it enough. I understand what is at stake if the CAEB is left free, but you must also consider what is at stake if the prophecy has transpired."

"That is superstitious nonsense."

"Believe what you will, just know that if you continue on this path Thor will not be the only member of your family that stands against you." Frigga had, had enough, she turned on her heel and marched towards the door.

"This is treason! I should have both your heads for this!"

"Oh Husband, I would love to see you try." Frigga made sure to slam the door behind her and it rumbled like thunder in the Great Hall. The room was left empty, save for a furious and incredulous Odin.

…..

Sleep was weird. He wasn't alone. There were voices all around him, quiet at first but as more and more joined them the whispers turned into a roar that was deafening. There were languages he'd never heard before and yet he understood them. He could see things, strange places, and far reaches of space. It was terrifying and mystical at the same time, but the more he focused on it, the more he saw and the more it burnt through his head. It was too much, it was too big. There was only one place he wanted to be right now, one face he wanted to see, so he focused hard, shrinking down his Universe, making it smaller until he saw the face he wanted to see. She looked tired, he wanted to hug her, and it had been so long. She was in car and getting closer. They would be reunited soon. Tony smiled inwardly, the rest of his sleep was decidedly normal.

…..

Steve was thankful that Pepper hadn't seen Tony with the blood on his face, nor in the shirtless state he had arrived in. Granted he wasn't exactly looking rosy in his sleeping state but the heavy blanket hid the extent of his malnourishment and the oxygen mask which Bruce had sneakily slipped on while he slept was doing a good job of disguising how skeletal his face appeared. It shamed Steve a little that he could barely face looking at Tony, certainly not out of disgust, but it hurt to see him like this, it made him feel sick to the stomach. Logic told him that there was nothing they could have done to prevent this, they had tried everything they could and he was home now, but his gut forced a guilt upon him that he knew would take him a good while to shake free.

Pepper walked in with butterflies in her stomach. Any meeting that she had been called to since Tony was taken had brought bad news or none and she really didn't know how much more she could take. She stepped into the penthouse common room with a heavy heart, before her eyes were drawn to a mass of blankets and dark brown muss of hair piled onto a mattress in front of her.

Steve's heart glowed when he saw the look on Pepper's face, it was like her whole world just suddenly slipped back into place, a great weight lifted off her shoulders and her face lit up like all her Christmases had come at once.

…..

Heimdall was reluctant to interrupt Thor and his beloved, she was of great comfort to him at a time where he blamed himself so heavily. The other human, he who had lost a piece of his mind to Loki's interference was equally close to Thor's heart. He had watched them during Thor's exile, they and the young woman Darcy had been responsible for transforming an arrogant boy into the most admirable man and wise king that Asgard could ever hope to have.

"My Prince, I fear this happy scene will be short lived."

"I hear you Heimdall, but the dark energy needed to send an army from Asgard would be great, and you have already used so much in transporting yourself here."

"I understand that Thor, but you know your father will not give up so easily."

"Yes, yes I know, but he would not underestimate me, he will send a considerable force and it will take time to gather the dark energy, we have days if not weeks to prepare."

"I would agree my Prince…" Heimdall hesitated

"However?" Thor respected Heimdall’s guidance beyond measure and was eager to learn of what he may have missed.

"I just have a feeling that your Father may find his own solution to this problem and that we should be prepared all the same." Thor nodded in consideration.

"Thank you Heimdall, I would indeed do well not to underestimate my father as he would not award me the same courtesy."

Chapter Text

Part II

Tony woke to the sensation of yet more fingers running through his hair, but these were more familiar and even more comforting than any of their predecessors. He opened his eyes to a beautiful glow of red hair and a stunning smile that he knew every inch of.

"Pep." Tony croaked contentedly, muffled under the oxygen mask.

"Tony." Pepper replied tearfully. "Don't you ever do that again."

"I'll do my best."

"You said that last time." She said playfully.

"Well you know, this line of work you bound to come across some crazy shit every now and again and I do have a habit of pissing people off."

"No arguments there."

"Shut up Clint. Hang on…" Tony suddenly noticed the heavy weight that was muffling his voice and wrestled the oxygen mask off his face. Bruce raised a hand to protest but immediately gave up and used it to cover his face in frustration instead. "Why?" Tony looked around incredulously "And who stabbed me?"

"Tony that IV drip is also feeding you, so don't complain." Natasha answered on Bruce's behalf.

"Why can't I just have a cheese burger, I'm bloody starving."

"Because you haven't eaten in nearly 5 months, your digestive system has shut down and eating would provide you with a very painful death."

"But I want a cheeseburger!" Tony whined

"We'll have to wean you back onto food slowly. Start with water, then fruit juices, milk, smoothies then maybe if you keep some soft food down you can have that cheese burger." That all sounded rather slow and boring to Tony.

"What about Scotch?"

"NO!" They all said in unison. He sniggered softly despite the jolts it gave his aching body and the others couldn't help but join in.

"Oh Tony." Steve sighed and chuckled contentedly.

"I was meaning to ask this before nap time, but why are you in spangles, spangles? We expecting something?" The whole team was in battle dress and it seemed quite out of place.

"Ermm well…" Steve turned to look for Thor to explain, but the God was already coming over.

"I'm afraid we may be. It is unlikely my Father will let us go so easily."

"Of course not." Clint threw his hands in the air. "It couldn't just be easy for once."

Natasha for once didn't thump Clint but feeling his genuine anguish placed a hand on his shoulder. "What can we expect Thor?" Steve had his objective head on.

"I would say a small army."

"Ok then, nothing we can't handle!" Clint was getting a bit hysterical.

"Not helping Clint." Natasha's voice was calm in the hope it would rub off on the archer.

"Any way of telling when we can expect this army?" Rhodey was moving away from Tony's side for the first time since he arrived and Pepper took the chance to move the conversation away from Tony's makeshift bedside in the hope he would get some much-needed rest.

"Well that's something I hoped that Jane and Eric could help with, and possibly you as well Bruce. Is there any way you could set up something to detect energy changes, especially the build-up of dark energy." Jane and Eric looked at each other and gritted their teeth.

"Well, err, energy yeah we can set up something… but in terms of detecting dark energy that's a bit beyond us right now." Jane replied.

Tony would have butted in at this point, astrophysics, not 100% his area, but then again, he was a genius, everything was his area. If there was anyone who could make a breakthrough in dark energy detection on a short timescale it was him. But he really didn't feel like talking right now, in fact he really wasn't feeling good at all.

Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead and heat prickled at his skin. Suddenly he was very uncomfortable, the aching pains that has plagued his body started to become very acute and his temples burnt in frustration. He groaned quietly, mindful the others might hear and let a grimace slide onto his face. He was increasingly glad that he was lying on his side and facing away from the intense conversation going on behind him. He could no longer focus on their words, the pain in his temples was roaring now. He groaned again and resisted the urge to shuffle, knowing it would only bring more pain. Now his chest felt heavy and tight, his muscles felt weak, his throat and chest screamed. The air, where had the air gone? He reached a frail, bony hand out from under the blanket and found the oxygen mask he'd earlier discarded, clamping it hard to his face. He should probably call for help now, he just needed more air. His breathing doubled in speed, the corners of his vision were starting to become blurred and dark. This was Shit. He tried to speak, but once again his voice failed him. Now he really was in trouble. Panic ate at his insides and his breathing rate doubled again. No, stay calm, must stay calm. "Bruce!" He almost choked getting the words out, but it was so quiet, painfully quiet. No one heard him above their own urgent voices. "Bruce!" He tried again, but once more it was nothing more than a hoarse whisper, barely louder than his own breathing. This time someone heard.

Steve was concentrating deeply on what was being said, or trying to, it was inherently difficult to concentrate when you barely understood a word of what was going on around you. His mind began to wander and his eyes trailed across the room back to their injured comrade and his fortress of blankets. That's when he heard a whisper, that's when he heard him calling Bruce's name, heard the raspy rapid breathing, noticed the panic in his words and the slight tremor of the blankets.

"Jesus, Bruce, Bruce!" The uncharacteristic anxiety in Steve's voice and the way flew across the floor sent the room into panic mode.

"Tony, Tony can you hear me." Bruce looped the oxygen mask strap over the back of Tony's head and moved his hand away so he could check his pupils were responsive.

"Nmmgghnm." Was all that Tony managed to muster in response, but at least it was a response. His pupils were dilated, and he flinched away from the light swatting the doctor on the nose in the process. He was shaking quite badly now, fever running rife through his frail body, he was burning up but shivering and clutching the blankets tight.

"Bruce what's happening?" Pepper was nearly in tears and Rhodey hugged her tight into him. The Doctor held a hand up for silence while he racked his brains for answer. The truth was he didn't know.

Tony arched his back suddenly, his head forced hard into the mattress, his eyes full of pain.

"It's Ok, Tony, its ok." Bruce soothed, knowing full well it wasn't. The obvious agony that Tony was in was making the team sick with worry. "Shall I get some morphine, anything, for the pain?" Clint couldn't take it, he felt so helpless.

"No, I can't give him anything, I don't know what chemicals he was given on Asgard, and the mix could kill him." Natasha bit her lip. Bruce was right of course. He'd had an unknown drug in his system for months and he'd only been off it for a few hours… Of course!

"Bruce, could this be withdrawal?"

"Shit, yes. Natasha thank you, you are a genius." Bruce wondered how he could have been so stupid. Of course, he was going through withdrawal, and naturally with an Alien Superdrug it was going to be so much worse than any Earthly narcotic could cause. "I'm sorry Tony, you're just going to have to ride this one out Buddy."

"wll… Fuucckkk." Tony somehow managed to curse sarcastically, and the others nearly smiled, nearly.

Suddenly Tony's head started twitching from side to side, as if he wasn't in control. His entire body went rigid, muscles tensed.

"Oh shit." Bruce hissed through his teeth

"Bruce?" Pepper's eyes were wide with terror.

"He's having a seizure. Just stand back and someone get me the AED." Natasha calmly did as Bruce asked.

"The Defibrillator? Bruce, is he…"

"It's just a precaution Rhodes, usually they wake up fine after a seizure but if he needs a helping hand I'll deal…"

There was an almighty crash behind them and everyone jumped out of their skins. A huge metal monster stood in the centre of the room, 8ft tall and glistening in the sunlight that streamed through the glass front.

"Everyone down!" Thor roared. Moments later a burning blast of orange tore through the wall centimetres above their heads. Cap grabbed his Shield, Rhodey fumbled for the war machine case and Natasha grabbed Jane and Eric forcing them out of the room.

Thor swung Mjolnir and sent the monster crashing through three walls, dust and rubble exploded into the air.

Bruce attached the leads to Tony's chest and connected it up the AED. Thor had bought them some time, but not a lot.

"Pepper! You have to go!" Bruce shouted above the sound of the metal giant powering back up.

"I'm not leaving him."

Rhodey in the War machine armour grabbed Peppers arm. "Pep, please come-on!" She shook her head, but the returning Natasha took her arm gently.

"Pepper I'll take care of him, now go!" Pepper caved and Clint led her out the room as fast as he could. Small flames flickered amongst the shards of plaster and concrete that now littered the floor, Thor and Steve stood poised before the gaping hole, waiting.

A dark shadow burst into view followed by orange. Thor dived out of its path and the glass exploded. Clint threw himself over Tony and three shards embedded themselves deep in his shoulder. He cried out. Bruce was looking very green.

"Clint, Natasha get him out of here and do not come back in!" Bruce pointed to Tony, he had no end of respect for the two assassins, but this fight was big and they just didn't have the fire power to help.

"Like hell we're leaving!" Russian fury burnt in Natasha's eyes.

"No, don't move him!" Heimdall bellowed. "The destroyer is here for him, as long as he is in this room we can keep it focused on us and protect your fellow Midgardians."

Bruce nodded and held his hands up in submission. He didn’t like it, but it made sense and they didn’t have time to argue.

Steve ran two steps forward. The destroyer fired again. The blast hit the centre of the shield and he was thrown through the nearest wall.

"Banner code green!" Rhodey yelled, as Thor leapt between the destroyer and the hole Steve had disappeared through. He swung the hammer to deflect the second blast, but much to his surprise the blast nearly knocked Mjolnir out of his grasp and he in turn went crashing through the wall.

"Arrrrghh, Shit!" Bruce started unbuttoning his shirt with one hand and setting up the AED with the other. "Tash, Clint if this, goes red press that button and stand clear." They both nodded curtly. A moment later Bruce was gone and Hulk was roaring.

Thor strode back into the room supporting a slightly worse for wear Steve. Heimdall was dodging the blasts skillfully, keeping them well away from the more vulnerable members of the team. Rhodey was firing shot after shot from the repulsors but was sorely limited by the firepower he could use without bringing the building down on their heads. He kept that option open, it may be helpful as a last resort. It was clear to Thor that the All-father had made some improvements to his most valued protector since he'd destroyed it in New Mexico. This battle was not going to be so easy.

Thor smiled as the Hulk managed to land the team's first damaging blows and the Destroyer's metal body started to buckle, but his triumph was short lived as another blast hit the Hulk at short range and sent him flying out of the building through the broken window.

Natasha was watching events unfurl, feeling utterly helpless. Bruce's words may have angered her but he was right, their biggest guns couldn't touch this thing and even a glancing blow would kill her or Clint instantly. She pressed hard onto Clint's wound, she had one eye on the battle and one eye on that light. Clint was more preoccupied with Tony, the seizure was starting to become less violent, but Tony's eyes were still scarily blank. His head was starting to feel cloudy, each blast made his jump. Blood loss can do that, he supposed. He glanced to his right, Natasha's determined face told him that she was doing enough focusing for the both them, good.

"DOWN!" Natasha shoved Clint away from her, splitting them. War machine slammed into the concrete wall behind them and rolled off onto the floor. The armour shifted slightly, its controller trying to get up but realising he hadn't the strength.

"Rhodes, stay down, give yourself time." Natasha knew there was no point in getting straight back up, he'd be slow and vulnerable and probably end up being put down for good if he was hit again. The armour nodded in response and lay there, momentarily defeated.

Natasha refocused herself after the distraction, Tony was still. The light was Red. She hit the button. Tony's back arched. He lay still, his chest unmoving. She held her breath.

Tony gasped for air and his eyes snapped open. There was another explosion and the sound of Mjolnir whistling across the room. Tony's head flicked from side to side, eyes wide in confusion and his mind moving slowly. The hulk roared viciously as it leapt back in through the window and began its onslaught of rage.

"Whaaa…" Natasha pressed a finger to Tony's lips.

"Odin must have really like you Tones, seems he doesn't want to let you go." Clint slurred slightly, the injury was clearly worse than it had first appeared. He hadn't got back up.

"Hey Tones." Rhodes finally got back to his feet, but had to duck again instantly as another blast headed their way. The searing heat skimmed above Tony's face, he could smell his own hair singing.

Steve wiped the blood from his face where it dribbled from a deep cut above his eye, but it was pointless, he was covered in it. He struggled out from underneath yet another pile of rubble, every fibre ached. The shield and his suit were scorched, and even Thor was grazed. Heimdall was on one knee supporting himself against the wall, with the destroyer about to take its next shot. The Hulk just kept bouncing back, every time he was thrown through the wall he re-emerged seconds later with face full of rage. Thor could not deflect the blasts, and there were rare opportunities to deal it blows. For the second time today Thor could not see a way out of this, well, not without a miracle. Luckily for them a miracle, for the second time today, was exactly what was about to occur.

Tony was on his feet. How it happened, no one really knew, but from the desperate state he had been in just moments before he had never looked stronger. The chaos stopped for a moment. Everyone just stared. Well, everyone apart from the destroyer.

Tony's eyes glowed blue as the burning inferno raced towards him, he held up one hand and a blue shield appeared in front of him. The flaming blast arrived but was stopped dead in its path. Tony stood firm but the effort was clear. He gritted his teeth as the blast kept coming, blood dripped from his nose and he raised a second hand intuitively for support. Finally, the destroyer stopped.

The shield dropped instantly and Tony stumbled back a few steps, putting one knee on the ground and panting heavily.

The All-father watched the Destroyers work from afar, realising the need for a change in tact. He had, had time to think upon Frigga's words and well, perhaps he had been slightly blinded by his rage at Thor's betrayal. Thoughts of the prophecy where eating at the back of his mind, it was time to find out the truth once and for all. Did Tony Stark stand before the destroyer? Or did the epitome of evil?

He sent 8 blasts, one at each of the rooms occupants. He knew the man standing centre stage was not strong enough to stop them all, the question was would he save himself? Or his friends?

Tony barely had time to think, he took a deep breath and the world slowed down. He wasn't strong enough, he knew that. He could barely stand. He could try stop them all but he knew he would likely fail. Yet, he had to protect the people he loved most in all the world. He wasn't sure he could stop more than two or three successfully, was he going to have to choose who to shield? Well, Thor Hulk and Heimdall could take it… maybe Steve too? No! There had to be a clever way out of this one, there always was. He couldn't stop them… but maybe he could redirect them.

The others gazed open mouthed as they realised what was happening. It was like time had paused for a moment, everything ran in a terrible slow motion. The orange blasts one by one changed their path, as if entering a funnel with one clear destination. What was he doing! Tony, blood streaming down his face and shaking with effort, held his arms wide as if to greet them.

"Tony no!" Rhodey screamed, his voice was filled with desperation.

Tony turned his head slightly and winked back at his teams distraught faces. He shielded himself at the last second. A blast of blue and orange met, there was a blinding light, a deafening boom; and then everything went black.

…..

Thor woke to ringing ears and blurred vision. Slowly his mind cleared and the dust cloud settled, he could make out other figures in the room, stirring. There were quiet groans and the sounds of shifting rubble, but no orange fire, no destroyer.

"Thor." The voice was oddly familiar to the Asgardian, too familiar; he had a distinct feeling it should be angry, and yet it wasn't.

"Thor." The voice repeated. Thor looked up into the face of his Father and almost jumped, it was the last face he was expecting to see and the last thing he expected it to do was offer down a hand to help him to his feet. Thor warily accepted and waited nervously for the words that were to follow.

"It appears that I may have been mistaken."

"Father?" Thor was shocked by what he was hearing.

"I was wrong." Odin's tone was calm and sincere. "And you were right to disobey me." Thor didn't answer he just stared dumbfounded. He wasn't sure in all the millennia that he had ever heard his father admit a mistake so openly. "But that does not mean that I will condone it happening again, understood?"

"Of course, Father."

"You can tell Tony Stark that I apologise for his mistreatment, and that I will not mither him again." Odin turned as if to leave. "I have a wife I must apologise to. Please return to Asgard when you are finished here, you are needed." And as quickly as he appeared Odin disappeared.

Thor scanned around the room, or what was left of it. Dust hung thick in the air and made him feel like choking. He coughed slightly as sirens howled in the street below. Thor counted his teammates as he spotted them and sighed in relief as he saw each of them move to dust themselves off. There was only one missing. Where was Stark? He scanned the room again before spotting an arm protruding from under a pile of rubble. Thor dug through the wreckage frantically. Heimdall took off his helmet and brushed it free from dust. Steve was the first on his feet and over at Thor's side. "Thor?" The God lifted out a limp, unmoving body, caked in layers of blood and dust. Steve's heart skipped a beat. Rhodey was quickly by his side, Natasha stayed and held Clint's weak form, pressing hard around the glass in his shoulder. Tony's head hang limp, his arms splayed. Thor looked around desperately for Bruce who sat slumped against a wall, dazed and confused but thankfully no longer green.

There was a clatter from behind them as men in black burst into the room brandishing weapons. But the Avengers didn't notice. They were focused on one person.

Fury stepped into the room. "What the hell is going on here?"

Chapter Text

Fury had been patient. He had uncharacteristically trusted his team, it wasn't that they were un-trustworthy but he didn't trust anyone. It was his job. But there was no getting around the fact that nobody, but nobody had seen Tony for nearly 5 months and it was damn suspicious. Two hours ago, there had been strange energy signatures at Stark tower, he had held back, if Stark really was working on something that could well explain it. He would go there and demand answers from him later. Then, an hour ago there had been some readings that weren't just similar to the tesseract, but an exact match. A team had been kitted up and marched on Stark tower. But whatever had happened was over, that was made clear by the scorched walls and the scattered rubble but distinct lack of an enemy present. Fury was mad, but what at he wasn't sure yet. He was on a war path and he needed answers. That all changed when he saw the team's faces; when he saw Tony Stark.

"Get the med team up here now!" Fury turned away for a second. His stomach rolled in shock and threatened to empty its contents. What on Earth had happened here? Was Stark even breathing? The way Thor was holding him was like he'd just dug a corpse out of the rubble. Rhodey moved forward and took his friends limp head, helping Thor to lower him gently back to the floor.

Medics flooded the room and dissipated across its occupants. Two fingers were pressed against Tony's pale neck, a cheek hovered above his mouth, eyes pointed down his chest, looking, listening and feeling for any signs of life. The whole room held its breath. Clint swatted away a medic who stood in his line of sight. All eyes were in the billionaire's unmoving figure. Tony's medic was a picture of concentration. The room prayed. The medic nodded and sighed in relief, the room sighed with him. "We have a pulse." A cloud of medics descended to Tony's side and gently loaded him onto a stretcher.

"Get him on the Quinjet asap, I want him treated at SHIELD."

"I don't think so Fury." Pepper marched into the room, followed by Eric and Jane. "Tony is not leaving this building."

"Miss Potts, SHIELD has some of the best medical facilities in the country…"

"And Stark tower has the best." Pepper folded her arms and stood firm. "Why would you want to move a critical patient half way across the city when you don't even need to use the stairs?"

"Fine but I want my medics present." Fury couldn't believe it, but he felt backed into a corner. They were hiding something, they all were and Pepper was blocking his every attempt to find out what.

"I think we'll manage fine thank you, now gentlemen if you would please follow me." To Fury's disbelief the SHIELD medics followed Pepper into the elevator without so much as looking back at their boss. Clint had to try very hard not to giggle at Fury's lack of power, but an elbow from Natasha soon put pay to that.

Rhodey jogged a few steps to catch up with the departing party but Pepper turned and placed a firm hand on his chest.

"Pepper, I…"

"I know you want to go with him, but you were in that fight too and if you were stood in this spot you'd be the one insisting everyone gets treated."

"Honestly Pep I'm fine."

"No, you're not Rhodey, get checked over, have a few hours sleep and then you can come and see him." She pushed a button and the elevator doors slid closed.

After a stunned moment of silence Fury turned to the remainder of his team.

"I should be demanding answers from you all right now. The last thing I should be doing is giving you time to get your stories straight. That being said half of you aren't a fit state to be debriefed right now but I will be back here at 0900 tomorrow and I better get the truth, understood?" The room nodded weakly in response. They were all too exhausted to speak, physically but more so emotionally. Clint and Natasha sat still while the medics checked them over. Natasha needed a few stitches, but most of the blood she was wearing wasn't her own. Clint was carted out of the room on a stretcher shortly after, the world had become quite hazy for him as the blood loss became increasingly severe. Now, with strong painkillers running rife through his system, he couldn't keep his eyes open any longer and he slipped into unconsciousness.

Bruce was fine but exhausted, all he needed was his bed and he needed it now. Natasha walked slowly over and slipped his arm over her shoulder. They stumbled across the room a short way, but Bruce's nearly dead weight was too much for the exhausted little spider. Thankfully a stronger pair of arms intervened as Heimdall noticed the struggle of his new comrades.

Steve was in need of a bit more than stitches but he had refused the stretcher. It felt wrong when other members of his team were so badly hurt. He was covered in scorch marks and was beginning to notice the prickling heat of burns underneath his suit as well as the throbbing pain in his head. Thor took the arm of the ailing captain and before long the crumbling ruins of the penthouse communal room were left empty.

….

"So…" Stark Tower med bay was eerily quiet. It was now well into the evening, many hours had passed since the battle and the sun had long since set over the city, but with the harsh white lighting in the windowless room it was impossible to tell what time of day it was. Clint had come around about an hour ago and had already started to get bored, which was really not helping the overwhelming tension in the room. Natasha, Clint, Bruce and Steve were sat, in what was an overly large room for just 4 beds and only Clint's was actually occupied. The others were sprawled across various chairs and prickling with nervous energy. They were all exhausted, but sleep was practically impossible, their minds were all focused on one thing. Thor was saying goodbye to Jane and Eric, Heimdall was god knows where, probably not far from Thor. The watchman didn't half look and feel out of place out of place on earth even next to Thor, which was an achievement in itself thought Bruce. Rhodey had done as commanded by Pepper and they were now both outside Tony's room down the corridor. Nobody was allowed in yet, they were too busy trying to get him stable. Bruce felt like he should be there, but there was really no point. Pepper had some of the best Doctors in the country in that room so Bruce really wasn't needed, which only served to make him feel completely useless.

"What are we going to tell Fury?" Steve threw the question into the room to break the ice. They didn't have an awful lot of time before Fury would be breathing fire down their necks and expecting some answers, but he supposed that's what you need to expect when you've managed to pull the wool over the eyes… eye… of the super spy for near as damn it 5months.

"We can't tell him the truth." Bruce answered immediately.

"Why not?" Steve shuffled upright in his chair and turned to Bruce.

"Because SHIELD can't be trusted." Bruce said the words so calmly and placidly that the others couldn't help but be confused.

"Can't be trusted? When has Fury ever let us down?"

"Steve, no offence but you've only met the man what… three times? And have you forgotten he was trying to make weapons out of the tesseract?"

"Bruce, if this is about that cage…" Natasha understood how Bruce must be feeling and she was the always the first to be mistrusting, but by the large, she had to say that Fury was ok even if he always had a hidden agenda.

"Maybe it is maybe it isn't, the fact is if that Tony is now probably even more powerful than the Hulk, do you really think Fury is just going to leave him alone?"

"But Bruce, that's exactly what SHIELD had done for you, left you alone." Bruce raised his eyebrows. "Ok mostly left you alone."

"I know Natasha, but the fact is even if Fury's intentions are good SHIELD is not secure, Tony has proved how easy it is to hack them."

"Can I just ask, why aren't we waiting to talk to Tony about this? Or at least the two people who know him best? They are literally just down the corridor." Clint had a very valid point

"Because Fury will be here in…" Steve looked around for any means of telling exactly what time it was but couldn't find a single one "well, soon and we have to have something to tell him that's at least vaguely truthful."

"Steve, I'm sorry but this really isn't our decision to make. Its Tony's life!"

"Yes, but as far as I can gather Tony's not going to wake up any time soon." The Captain barked back.

Bruce sighed and put his head in his hand. "Steve's right."

"But there's no reason we can't talk to Rhodey or Pepper?"

"They're too close to this. We are all in truth, but it has to be down to us." Natasha made eye contact with Clint and the two reached a silent understanding.

The room paused in contemplation for a moment.

"Ok," Clint piped up, "What should we do then."

"I stand where I did before." Bruce stated.

Natasha hesitated, it was unlike her, but this was a big decision. "I think Fury will find out eventually…" She took a breath and looked across at Steve who was listening intently. "But I don't think it's us he needs to find out from. Tony may be in no fit state now but it's his secret, whether he keeps it or gives it up is up to him, so for now as his friends it is our job to keep it."

Bruce smiled at Natasha and Clint nodded in agreement. "What she said." Clint pointed at the red head in question.

Steve bowed his head slightly, he couldn't help but feeling that they were making the wrong decision. Yes, he wanted to protect Tony, but he hated dishonesty and there had been more than enough of that these past 5 months. His Team had voted however, and he had to accept their decision. For now. "That's settled then. Now we need to figure out what exactly we are going to tell Fury."

"I vote Natasha does the talking, even Fury can't tell if she's lying." Clint threw his hand in the air like a child.

"Great idea Clint, because that will make it completely obvious that we are trying to deceive him!" Natasha shot back. "It needs to be Steve." The whole room turned and stared her in confusion. "Fury would never expect him to lie and certainly not well enough to fool him."

"Natasha, I couldn't fool anyone even if I wanted to, especially not Fury."

"I can teach you that's not a problem, right now we need to get our stories straight."

"Are we seriously going give Steve lying lessons and then put him in front of the king of spies?" Clint said with a smile on his face.

"Looks like." Bruce smirked. This plan was so utterly ridiculous that it just might work.

"I think I've got it." Natasha pulled her chair into the room further.

"This better be good." Clint pushed himself up on his good shoulder onto the edge of his bed.

"Clint, I am good."

….

"I'm at a loss where to begin." Fury stood in the centre of the room glaring at his Avengers. "Let's start with recent events, shall we? Why did I detect the energy signature of the tesseract in Stark tower earlier today?"

"Well that's how it got here.”

"What got here Barton, it may have escaped your notice but I wasn't actually present during your little escapade."

"The destroyer."

"The destroyer? That thing from New Mexico last year?" Clint nodded in response. "Why on Earth would the Asgardians send that?"

"It was something Tony's been working on." Steve took over as planned. "None of us really have a clue what he's been doing but he triggered something, some sort of weird energy and the Asgardians had seen it before. They associate it with something hostile so assumed that Earth was under attack. Odin sent the destroyer to evaluate the situation."

Fury stroked his chin in contemplation. It was all fitting so far, they had detected an energy not long before the tesseract had come into play. "Ok, so Thor and the other Asgardian, what were they doing here?"

"They were sent through to, I dunno, help the destroyer, like that thing needed any help." Clint threw his good arm up in the air in his usual childish show of indignance. Nice touch Natasha thought, but her face didn't change.

"So why did it attack if it was sent here to evaluate?"

"I think it was Tony, he'd finally come out of his lab and was covered in whatever energy the destroyer was after so it blasted him. I came in to see him flying across the room and called the others into action. Thor and the other Asgardian, Heimdall helped, to be honest I don't think we would have come out of it so well if they hadn't." Fury scrutinised Steve's every word, every facial expression, but all he could see was genuine. There was a deep and real anguish at the previous day's events and a sense of guilt that Fury couldn't quite see place for, but perhaps that would become clear.

"Ok, details I want complete overview of the battle, strategies, any weaknesses of this destroyer." This part was easy for the Avengers, with the exception of the end of the battle they could just tell the truth and even that they could twist and make it nearly so.

Steve did most of the talking from this point, Clint and Natasha chipped in every now and again with details from their own point of view but Bruce really didn't need to speak. He had hulked out and remembered very little of the battle, which as usual made him exempt from answering many questions. It was strange however that Bruce did actually remember an abnormally large amount of the battle on this occasion.

"So, I think we were all down at the end, apart from Thor and Heimdall… right on cue." Steve finished abruptly.

"Apologies for my tardiness director." Thor strode into the room and took his seat with his team mates. "I had some things to take care of."

"Ok Thor, and where is your shiny gold friend? I have some questions I would like to ask him."

"I'm afraid Heimdall returned to Asgard but moments ago, the longer he is away from his post the more danger is posed to Asgard."

"Hmmm. Well, I am told by the others that you were the only one of them to witness the end of the battle."

"Indeed, that was so. After the others had fallen I too was rendered helpless at the mercy of the destroyer, but my father intervened. The destroyer was returned to Asgard and he came but for a moment to apologise for the mistake. The destroyer was under no orders to attack earth, merely the energy source which it mistook for our Man of Iron."

"And why did it take your father so long to notice the fact his destroyer was practically killing my Avengers?" Fury was annoyed and not even trying to hide it.

"I'm afraid without talking to my father I could not comment further."

"Right ok, well you've cleared that all up nicely." Fury's voice was still raised and Steve tried hard not to swallow, praying that Fury had bought they're story. The worst part of lying was the fear of being found out.

"But there is one thing you have failed to mention…" Steve forced himself to breathe normally, nerves ate at Bruce's stomach, but Clint, Thor and Natasha seemed awfully relaxed.

"Why on earth is Stark lying downstairs practically emaciated? And don't even think about telling me that just happened by magic!"

Steve hung his head, half in relief but mainly to continue his act. Natasha put a supporting hand on Steve's shoulder, another nice touch she thought to herself.

"It's not your fault Steve." She said softly.

"It is Natasha, if I hadn't…"

"Yes, yes this is all lovely passing the guilt around but please do skip to the part where I understand." Fury folded his arms and set his eyes on Steve.

"Well Tony was working on something big and before you ask we have absolutely no clue what."

"He wouldn't even give me a hint." Bruce held his hands up in a shrug.

"Anyway, we kept dragging him out of his lab to make sure he got some rest, but it became more and more difficult. He wasn't eating, he could barely stand and I, well, I got a bit angry. I went on at him about the fact he was an Avenger and he had a responsibility to be ready for battle at all times, I told him he was a liability, but I mean, how did he expect to protect the Earth when he was falling over his own feet?"

"I'm assuming Stark didn't take it so well."

Clint scoffed at Fury's response. "Understatement of the century."

"He locked down the lab, turned off Jarvis and well, I don't think any of us saw him face to face for… What? Three months." There was a general nod of agreement

"Face to face?"

"He'd video call me quite a bit." Bruce replied.

"And why then, was I not informed of any of this?" Fury was beside himself, how could this have happened? How could have things gone so far as to put Tony in this state.

"Honestly Nick, we thought he was ok." Natasha piped up. "He looked fine on the video calls and knowing Stark I though having SHIELD down his neck would only make him strengthen his barricades."

"In hindsight we should have blown a hole in the wall and dragged him out kicking and screaming." Clint folded his arms and sunk down in the chair.

Fury was at a bit of a loss, he was furious, obviously, that the team had kept in the dark, that Stark had been such an idiot, but that was nothing new. He could tell that each of them felt guilty about the fact that they had failed to look after one of their own. The problem was, this was Stark and that meant that Natasha was probably right, in all reality there probably wasn't a lot they could have done differently.

"Ok, well it seems that you all seriously failed to the judge the situation correctly. You all know what Stark is like or if you didn't you sure as hell do now. This should not have happened, someone should have smelt a rat when they hadn't seen Tony for a week yet alone 3months! I don't want anything like this to ever happen again, understood?"

"Yes Sir." The room mumbled in response.

"Dismissed. Get out of here."

The room emptied a little too quickly, each Avenger glad but slightly surprised that they seemed to have got away with it. They walked a little way down the corridor in silence before bursting into a simultaneous fit of laughter.

"I can't believe we got away with that." Clint chuckled in disbelief.

"That was some performance guys! Clint, I think you could have won an Oscar. 'Like that thing needed any help' nice touch, it was so you!" Bruce patted the archer on the shoulder as the initial hysterics died down.

"Well, you know Natasha's not the only trained spy. Not a bad effort all round Guys, especially you Cap, I never knew you had it in you!" Clint fist bumped the solider on the arm.

"Yeah, well I had a good teacher." Steve nodded to Natasha.

"Just keep the story as close to the truth as possible, that's the key. That and not blushing every time you lie Steve, it's kind of a giveaway." Steve's cheeks reddened instantly and everyone chuckled at their bashful leader.

"Ok, let's go see if Tony is up to visitors." Bruce injected some

"I'll second that."

…..

Natasha needed up watching Tony through that night, it should have been Pepper, and well it would have been Pepper if she hadn't passed out from exhaustion a few hours earlier. Rhodey was playing a thousand and twenty questions with Thor. Stark's medics had told them that Tony was fine, but even if he was getting better and fast, Natasha looking at him now realised how much of the lie that was. His skin looked as thin and delicate as tissue paper, drawn tightly over protruding bones as the rest had simply been eaten away. Every breath was a fight, and they came as rapidly as the frantic beating of his heart, which was working overtime, its sole purpose to keep him alive. He was so unbearably still and fragile that Natasha barely dared to breathe around him, in case a simple shift the air caused a ripple that would shatter him.

Steve could only glance into the room as he walked past the door. He carried on to the kitchen where he opened the fridge and then stopped, suddenly he wasn't hungry any more, in fact he wanted to be sick, he had only ever seen one man looking that bad before and that had been in a concentration camp in the middle of the war. He barely recognised Tony. That drug had ravaged his body seemed to have destroyed everything he was and turned him into a ghost. He bypassed his meal and carried on to his bedroom. He didn't sleep.

Three more days passed, though to the team it felt like years. Tony had been gaining weight quickly, the pallor of his skin changed slowly from deadly pale to ghostly white and finally some yellow crept in to his complexion. He still looked like hell, but they all knew what was to thank for his quick recovery. They also knew that the same thing was responsible for him being in this state in the first place.

To Bruce this was a pure relief, he was way out of his depth here, the team treated him like a doctor and yes, he was but not of medicine, he was a bloody physicist. He knew stuff, probably enough to get him a most of the way to a medical degree, but this was beyond anyone's comprehension and the fact the person lying on that bed was his best friend, made it all the more difficult to deal with. Tony hadn't stirred once, he'd not so much as flinched. The rising of his ribs was so noticeable under his translucent skin but under the mountain of blankets you could barely tell if he was breathing at all. The only sign that he wasn't dead had been the rapid beeping of the heart rate monitor which had slowly lowered itself from a rapid 190bpm down to a less concerning 130.

They took it in turns to watch him, two at a time on a strict Rota of 2-hour shifts. Bruce, Pepper and Rhodey were the exceptions, they rarely left. Natasha would never forget the look on Rhodey's face when he had finally come to see his friend and realised just how bad things were. Lying amongst the white sheets there was nothing left to the imagination, no dirt or blood to hide the extent of his ailments. Natasha could tell Tony had, had some bad times in his life, more than he would ever talk about. Rhodey's eyes spoke to her, told her unwittingly that he had been there through the worst of it, but this was something else, this was all his worst fears come to pass.

Natasha couldn't believe just how wrong she had been about Tony Stark when they had first met. She had never misread someone so badly and even now, she knew there was so much she still didn't know and perhaps she never would.

Now they just had to play the waiting game, but she couldn't help but wonder if it would be the same Tony that returned to them. There was only so much hell that one person could take, and Tony had, had more than his fair share. Yet if there was one thing she knew about their teammate, their friend, was that he was stronger than any of them could ever know, and if there was anyone who could come through this with his sarcastic wit untouched it was Tony Stark.

…..

Chapter Text

The quiet was the first thing he noticed, he had been trapped in silence for so long, but this time it was different. It was peaceful and calm, not desolate and cold like it was before. He felt the softness underneath his shoulders, he was warm and comfy. But there was pain, a lot of pain. His entire body ached, it spread through him and made him want to gag.

It pulsed through him in cycles, a regular rhythm that had him tensing in anticipation of the next wave. How could he make it stop? There was a brief flash of light as his eyelids fluttered open, he was expecting bright and clinical, but it wasn't. It was soft and oh so familiar, it felt safe. Was he finally safe?

Again, the pain spiked. Sharp, dull, sharp, dull and sharp again. It seemed to come with the rise and fall of his chest, so he stopped it.

Then the beeping started.

…..

Bruce's head was cloudy, he was so very tired. But something was pulling him out of his sleep, something important, but what? It was a noise, something familiar, couldn't it wait? He just wanted 10 more minutes, or 20, hell he wanted a whole day in bed. Yet something told him that he couldn't ignore it. So, he had to wake up. Was that a beeping? But a beeping meant something… Shit!

The alarms at Tony's bedside were ringing. What was happening?

Heart rate? High but yeah that's nothing new. So, blood pressure? Ermm, not too bad… Oxygen levels? Oooh that was low, that was very low. What?

He looked down at his friend brow furrowed in concern. He wasn't breathing.

"Tony!" The bleeping intensified as Tony continued to lay deathly still. His eyelids flickered oh so briefly.

Bruce gently held his shoulder "Tony! Breathe. Tony! Wake up."

Tony let out a gasp and his eyes snapped open. Bruce let out his own breath in relief.

"It's good to see you Buddy." Bruce tried to muster a smile as the shock was still rolling through him.

Tony blinked and panted in confusion. He was in his room, how was he in his room? His whole body was burning, it wouldn't stop, and he wished it would stop. He couldn't bare it, he couldn't take this anymore.

Bruce grabbed his phone and quickly hit dial. Pepper picked up. "He's awake." Bruce glanced back at Tony, he looked groggy and confused. "Well, only just but if you come up and just sit with him that should be fine." Bruce knew what Tony needed, he needed people around him, familiar people. He needed to feel safe. That's why he had moved Tony into his room once his vitals had settled. Tony hated hospitals, Bruce sure as hell wasn't going to have him wake up in one. Not after what he had been through.

The memories came flooding back to Tony as the clouds lifted from the corners of his mind. But the pain wouldn't leave. He wanted to cry out, yet he was trying so hard not to. The room was filling with his friends. Pepper was holding his hand, that usually made everything ok but it didn't this time, it couldn't, not when it hurt like this.

Pepper ran her fingers through Tony's hair. He looked so much more like himself now, no longer as thin as rake and his skin, although still pale, made him look just under the weather rather than the living dead. But something was wrong.

"Tony?" He usually relaxed at her touch and at her voice, but he looked so tense and where were the wisecracks? No matter how bad things got there were always the wisecracks.

"Tony honey, you're ok, just relax." Tony looked at her and pushed his head back into the pillow

"Is everything ok Pep." Natasha was as astute as ever. They had all stayed back for the moment and she couldn't see Tony from where she was, but there was a change in Peppers body language that she could see.

"Ermm I think something's wrong." Bruce snapped back into action from the corner of the room. All the vitals were, well still not ideal, but so much better than they had been mere hours ago. He had no baseline to base anything off.

"Tony sweetie, can you tell us what's wrong?" Pepper looked deep into Tony's eyes, every muscle in his body was tense, and his breaths were quick and shallow. Was he panicking? "Tony its ok you're safe, it's ok."

Natasha pushed her way forward while holding the others back. She took one glance "Tony are you in pain?" She knew the answer, he was trying to hide it but he was in agony.

Tony closed his eyes, his jaw clenched as he tried to form his words. There was silence for a few moments. "It burns." Tony choked on his words, he writhed and panted, no longer having the strength to fight it anymore.

"Bruce…"

"I… I… I can't, he's had so much already. Tony I'm so sorry!"

"But Bruce he's in agony."

"I know… I know, but whatever I'm giving him just isn't working, if I give him more I could kill him. With the CAEB it's an unknown variable."

"Just try something!" Clint clasped his hands to his head. The sight of his friend writhing in agony… again was killing him inside.

"It's fine." Tony choked again and squeezed his eyes closed.

"No, it's not Tony!" Steve shouted and the shock of it silenced the room for a moment. He couldn't watch this anymore. His eyes stung and prickled as he tried to hold back the tears. He turned his back and pushed his way out of the room. Natasha went after him.

Tony groaned and the room's stomachs turned again. The intense bleeping from the monitors instilled further panic as his heart rate began to climb and rapidly.

Suddenly voices were raised and questions flew around the room, bombarding Bruce, for answers he didn't have.

"Get Out!" Bruce yelled and the room hushed instantly. Even the monitors seemed to obey and even looked at him warily for the faintest hint of green.

"Just get out all of you, I can't hear myself think!" The team began to shuffle out of the room, Pepper looked pleadingly into Bruce's eyes and he nodded to indicate that she could stay.

"Not you Thor." The blond god had almost left the room before Bruce called his attention. "You might be able to help." Thor nodded and settled back into a chair in the far corner of the room, eager not to get in the way.

Pepper looked Thor up and down, he looked worn out, drained. Not physically, Of course, Pepper doubted that Thor had ever looked weak, but emotionally there were cracks running through him like they would a shattered mirror just managing to hold itself together.

Pepper let go of Tony's hand for a moment and pulled her hands towards her face, but recoiled in shock at the sight of blood. "God!"

"What, what is it?" Bruce's attention snapped away from the screens, having set Jarvis running another set of scans. He saw Pepper's outstretched hands and saw the blood. His heart skipped. Where was it coming from?

Pepper looked fine, but she had been holding Tony's hand. Bruce took Tony's wrist and gently prized open his tightly clenched fist, to reveal some small but deep half-moon cuts sliced into his palms. His finger nails were stained with his own blood where he had burrowed them into the flesh in an attempt to distract himself from the burning that racked his entire body.

"Oh Tony!" Bruce sighed, filling his friends hands with tissue before letting them snap back into their vice-like clamp. "Tony, you've got to try and relax." Tony was still conscious but far from able to talk anymore, he responded instead by throwing back an incredibly dirty look.

"I know buddy I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry, but if you fight it you are only going to make it worse. Just breathe, ok? Breathe." Tony started panting again, trying to calm himself down. His hands slowly uncurled and the rest of his body gradually sank a bit deeper into the bed.

"Better?"

Tony jerked his head to the side slightly, as if to say 'a little'. "Good."

With his friend a bit calmer Bruce could get back to concentrating on finding the source.

"I'm sorry Bruce," Pepper paused, leaving him the option to ignore her if he needed to, but he turned his head slightly and nodded allowing her to continue. "Are his injuries causing this?" She continued softly.

"Ermmm… No." Bruce replied distractedly. "No Pepper. His injuries are nearly healed, that's why this doesn't make sense. He should be sore, really sore but not in agony. I think this has something to do with the CAEB. If you just give me a …" One of the screens bleeped signifying Jarvis had completed his scan.

"Jarvis what are you reading?"

"The sedative appears to be increasing CAEB activity, Sir's body is recognising the substance as an attack and is trying to fight it."

"Shit." Bruce grabbed the morphine line and pulled the plug.

"Doctor Banner!" Thor jumped to his feet instantly. "Is that wise?"

"Nope." Bruce place his hand on Tony's shoulder. "I'm so sorry Tony, I think this has got to get worse before it gets better."

To make a pleasant change from tradition things didn't get worse. In fact, only a few minutes after the morphine was unplugged Tony could feel the burning slowly leave his body. He wanted to cry in relief. Finally, it was over. For a moment he felt fantastic, then the initial euphoria subsided and he was left with a dull ache, that soreness which Bruce had promised. But it was satisfying in a way, it felt just like it did after a good battle, he was a bit bashed around but no real damage. In comparison to what it had been just minutes ago however it felt like nothing more than an annoying nettle sting.

"Thank you, Bruce." Tony moved to sit up but Thor's two strong arms gently pinned him back into the mattress.

"Don't thank me Tony, I'm the reason you were in pain in the first place."

"Seriously Bruce, you're going to blame yourself?" Pepper looked at him astounded.

"I should have done more checks."

"Bruce nobody understands what the hell I am right now, so any checks you could do would just mean nothing. And seriously Goldilocks get off me I'm fine now."

"You should take it easy, you have been out of it for nearly two weeks."

"Yeah exactly, I've been in bed for two weeks so it's about time I got my ass out of it."

Thor looked at Bruce for instruction as Tony tentatively began to shuffle himself to the edge of the bed, discarding the duvet carelessly on the floor in the process. Bruce's brow crumpled and he let out a sigh of frustration. It looked like Tony was back to his old ways already and there really was no point fighting it. Tony probably felt amazing right now after what he'd just been through, but he was far from 100%. He'd let him figure that out by himself.

Bruce gave a little nod to Thor as Tony paused at the edge of the bed, seemingly testing his legs. They felt ok, he thought? He tried a bit more weight, the last thing he wanted was to end up flat on his ass and prove Bruce right. It took a few seconds for Tony to load all the weight onto his arms and then let go of the bed. He swayed ever so slightly at first but then stood arms outstretched with a cheeky triumphant grin spreading across his face. "See, piece of cake!” Pepper rolled her eyes and Thor stayed close enough to catch the wobbly genius should he lose his balance.

"Hmmm, speaking of cake I'm bloody starving." Tony walked slowly but confidently now into the lift. "Jarvis kitchen!"

"Ermm Tony hang on… You haven't had solid food for 5months."

"Then I think it's about time I had some!"

"Well, yes but No! Tony, No!"

"Which is it?"

"We've been through this, don't you remember? We have to start you off gently otherwise at the very least you'll throw it back up and have horrendous stomach cramps."

"I get it, soft stuff, right? Cake is soft. Jarvis, I want Cake!"

"Yes Sir, but…"

"No but's, order in a ton of cake."

"Tony, when I said start you off gently, I meant…"

The lift hissed softly as the door slid open revealing the penthouse kitchen and a sea of worried faces.

"Tony oh My God!" Clint tried to jump up, but was reminded instantly of his own un-healed wounds.

The last thing Clint and Rhodey had been expecting as they watched the lift approaching had been Tony himself. They hadn't heard anything since Bruce told them to leave and Natasha and Steve still hadn't got back.

"What are you doing up?" Rhodey was more than a bit pleased to see his skinny and slightly pasty friend.

"It's all cool now, they figured out what was wrong." Tony waved his hand in Bruce and Jarvis' direction.

"Tony, you should be resting." Pepper practically ran to him and gently tried to guide him to the sofa.

"Nah Pep, I'm ok I'll sit down I just want to move about for a bit" Pepper nodded in understanding.

Rhodey pulled Bruce to one side and Clint slowly got up so he could hear the conversation whilst Tony hobbled around the kitchen.

"Should he be up?" Rhodey demanded

"There's nothing really wrong with him, most of his injuries have healed, but he'll be sore and feel a bit bashed about…"

"So, what was all that in his room?" Rhodey interrupted.

"It's this CAEB thing, I really don't know what I am dealing with here. It was reacting to the pain relief, fighting it in some way, trying to reject it from his body. It was like a poison to him."

"So that's why he was in pain?" Clint joined in and Bruce nodded in response.

"Will there be any lasting damage?"

"No, I don't think so. Not with his rate of healing anyway. But we'll have to be careful what we give him, medicines, pain relief, alcohol, any of it could be toxic to him or just plain ineffective."

"Thor is there anything that you know about this?" Pepper came back from watching Tony, satisfied that he wasn't going to do anything stupid for now.

"I am so sorry my friends, but all I have learned I have shared with you already."

"It's ok Thor, seems like you've had difficulties of your own figuring out that much." Pepper patted him lightly on the shoulder.

Rhodes was keen to get back to solving the problem, "Right so morphine can be added to the…

"Oi Brucie! I can have water, right?" Tony called from the kitchen, glass poised under the tap in readiness.

"Yes Tony." Bruce nodded to Rhodey to continue

"So, morphine can be added to the no list."

"Yes, I think so."

"But didn't you give him some morphine when he just got back from Asgard?"

"Yes, I did." Bruce pondered "and he was fine then, so what…"

"Are you guys talking about me?" Tony was now sat on a stool spinning round slowly glass of water in hand.

"Yes." Rhodey barked back. "Shut up and drink your water."

"Slowly!" Pepper added.

"So, morphine was fine then, so why was it toxic now?

"Yes Mom!" This time they ignored the bored genius and carried on with their conversation.

"... He got better as soon I took out the line…." Bruce snapped his fingers in triumph. "But Morphine wasn't the only thing in that line."

"Right." Rhodey nodded in anticipation and Clint tried to pretend he was keeping up. "What else then." "A mild sedative and something anti-seizure as a precaution as he was still showing signs of withdrawal."

"And they were…"

"Ermm, Potassium Bromide definitely and the sedative was something weird, I wouldn't normally use it but we were running out of supplies and I wanted to keep him under for a little bit longer."

"Should I get the charts?" Clint asked

"No, wait a second it's on the tip of my tongue." Bruce grimaced and rubbed his head. "Bromine!"

"You said you would not normally use it, why? Is it dangerous?" Thor asked.

"Not really, well, like any drug yes, if used incorrectly and you don't want to prolong the use of Bromine…"

"Bruce." Pepper jerked him back on track

"Sorry, generally it's a bit old school, it's certainly not a mainstream sedative they don't really use it anymore."

"Hang on Bromine, Bromide, are they the same sort of?" Clint asked

"Bromine is a pure element, Bromide is the name of the ion of Bromine which you find in compound form."

"English" Clint asked.

"Yes, kind of."

"So, we've cracked it? Don't give him anything with Bromine in?" Clint asked hopefully.

Bruce rolled his eyes. "Clint, it's really not that simple, as far as we know it could be the pure bromine, the potassium Bromide or the mixture of the two. Or the mixture with morphine for that matter. And we've no conclusive proof that it still couldn't be the morphine. With the CAEB it even could be circumstantial."

"You mean, some things might be toxic at one moment and fine the next." Rhodey was keeping up remarkably well, he wasn't thick and after years of trying to follow Tony Stark's genius ramblings you pick up a thing or two on following complicated trains of thought.

"What the hell?" Clint, however not dumb himself, had not had the same experience.

"Yes Rhodey, it could be, or it literally could be anything."

"Well this conversation got us nowhere." Clint sunk back into the sofa

"Well, I can look into the bromine for a start I suppose, otherwise we are just going to have to tread carefully in future."

….

When Steve had shoved his way out of the room, very few of the other's had noticed and if they had they were more concerned about Tony than they had been their leader. Natasha on the other hand had different priorities. She had seen the tears welling in Steve's eyes, she had seen him biting them back, and she had also seen him that day when he wouldn't stop running. Steve was as guilty as Tony on some days for not opening up about his feelings. Hell, they were all socially impossible people, who just happened to be getting along.

Right now, Tony was surrounded by people and people who knew what they were doing. He didn't need her right now, but Steve needed someone. So, she would have to do.

Steve moved fast, even for an agile little spider like herself it was difficult to follow. She nearly lost him at the stairwell but the sounds made it clear that he was headed for the roof. She held back a few minutes before she joined him, sat on a ledge overlooking the city. It still looked like a bombsite, but at least now the construction workers had moved in and the repairs were starting. Giant cranes looked belittled beside the skyscrapers they were dotted between. There was not so much rubble, now, just the odd pile. The city was recovering, slowly.

She waited a minute before she said anything. Steve would need time to collect himself, to be ready to open up. Eventually she shuffled a bit closer and turned to face him, one leg dangling dangerously above the city below.

"So," she started. Steve continued to stare out across the world in front of him. "What would you be saying to me right now if our situations were reversed?"

Steve smiled and bowed his head. "I'd tell you, that you need to talk about it." He chuckled softly.

Natasha smiled back. "Well then," she said brightly, "are you going to take your own advice?"

Steve stopped for a moment, taking deep breath. "Well I suppose I'd look like a bit of a hypocrite if I didn't, wouldn't I?"

"Yes, you would." Natasha chuckled back and waited for a response.

"I don't know Natasha, this whole thing, it's… I… uhh…" Steve gave up defeated, his words wouldn't come.

"You blame yourself." Natasha offered a starting point.

"Well yes of course I do."

"But you know it's not your fault, right?"

"Yes…" Steve said despondently.

"Well then it's simple. Stop blaming yourself." Steve chuckled at this.

Steve laughed into his hands. "Wow Natasha, you'd make a really great therapist!"

Natasha joined in the laughter. Her eyes really sparkled when she smiled. She didn't do it nearly often enough. "Why thank you." She took a mock bow. "But that's not all is it?"

"No. Honestly I don't feel like I can say it out loud."

"Just say it."

"Natasha…"

"Honestly Steve, there isn't a single one of us who isn't blaming ourselves in some way or another and I know it's a bit worse for you because its effectively your job to take the blame, but we have all just lived through the same thing; the same crazy frightening thing that none of us understand and we all feel like we are alone. We all feel like Nobody else is feeling what we're feeling, so how on Earth can we tell anyone else?" Natasha paused as realisation began to dawn on Steve.

"There is a group of people down there who are all feeling exactly the same way, for slightly different reasons, and who are all bottling it up because they don't think they can talk about it. Can you see how this is going to end?"

"Not well."

"Yes, not well." She put a hand on Steve's shoulder. "You're worried that you're not a good leader, which by the way, I can tell you more honestly than I've ever spoken before in my life, is complete rubbish." She smiled softly and Steve offered a weak smile in return. "But you don't want comfort, you want to do something about it. So, if you want to lead us, start by leading us into this. We all need to do it. Just tell me what is bothering you."

"Ok Natasha." Steve nodded. "You are wise beyond your years, you know?"

"Quit Stalling!" Steve chuckled.

"Honestly? I'm terrified of him."

"Of Tony?" Natasha understood but was a little bit shocked. She hadn't really expected that from Steve.

"Yes. I know it's bad…"

"No, No Steve it makes perfect sense, I'm not judging."

"Well, he has all this power now, and we've already seen it turn him evil. I know he fought it and I know he used it to save us, but there was nothing we could do to stop him. Logical tells me this is Tony, he's in control and hell, it's hurt him far more than its hurt us, but this is still Tony. Even if he has got full control he isn't exactly the person you would chose to have these powers is he?" Steve paused, looking for some sort of response but Natasha decided not to say anything just yet.

"I mean, he's reckless, immature, arrogant, self-destructive… a drunk half the time. The list goes on. I agreed that we shouldn't tell Fury, but I can't help feeling that we've made the wrong decision. I mean, this power in Tony's hands could be so, so dangerous. And I saw what he has done for us, in New York, with the destroyer and I know I shouldn't be thinking this, but…" Steve sighed and caught his breath. "It's like there is two Tony Starks, the one who would do anything to save us and the one that could unwittingly kill us all. It's my responsibility to keep Earth safe, and I feel I have to keep it safe from one of my own team. I hate myself for thinking this way but…"

Natasha could see that Steve was close to breaking down. He cared so much, and he'd also lost so much. That changes you, makes you incredibly wary. She knew that.

"Look Steve, it's not wrong to feel that way. Do not feel guilty about that. When I was undercover with Stark, I came to exactly the same conclusions as you, he is a liability, not a team player, reckless and the rest of it and I mean I'm trained to notice these things, but I missed something."

"You missed something?" Steve looked doubtful.

"Yes. And I still haven't quite figured it out yet, but you were right when you said there is two Tony's. I'm starting to feel, and I say this in confidence, like there is so, so much that Tony hasn't told anyone. I don't think that I can actually read Stark." That shocked Steve, it shocked him a lot. He knew of Romanov's reputation and had seen it first-hand. And for her to admit that to him… well, he didn't know what to think.

Natasha continued, noting Steve's shock. "That first Tony, the reckless, self-absorbed tosser, I think is just a mask and one that he's had for so long I'm not sure even he remembers what he was masking."

"But why Natasha?"

"I don't know Steve, but I'm able to read more off Rhodey than I am off Stark. I think he's been through so much more than just Afghanistan and he's become a professional at hiding it."

"You mean that act, all that wit, it's a defense?"

"I think so."

Steve felt a little sick. So, all those times he'd attacked Tony's actions and he'd responded with sarcasm and arrogance he'd been really hurting the man, so much that he was putting up a defence that made Steve think he didn't care at all.

"What I am saying is, Steve, that you have every reason to be worried, every reason to fear Tony right now, but I think all those parts of him you have seen and worried about aren't as real as they seem. If you give him time and get to know him, the real him, you might find he surprises you and that he isn't so bad after all."

Steve nodded and took a moment to digest those words. "We should head down and see what news there is."

"Yes, we probably should."

…..

When Steve and Natasha emerged from the lift there was quite a discussion going on between the others in the room, which drew their attention. But then a quiet clatter and fast moving object caught Steve's eye.

"Tony? Wha…"

Tony flew out of his stool and hung, doubled over with his head in the sink. It wasn't long before the sound of retching followed.

The conversation ground to a sudden halt as the commotion was heard. Bruce was by Tony's side in an instant while the others resisted the urge to crowd after the earlier outbreak.

A stream of water and bile was all that came out of Tony's mouth. There was nothing else to throw up. He retched painfully for a few minutes before his stomach was finally satisfied that it was empty and then Thor and Steve helped him to the couch.

"You drank it too fast didn't you?" Bruce raised an eyebrow as Tony was lowered, exhausted onto the smooth, soft leather.

"Honestly, I tried not to, I was just so damn thirsty."

"Tony, you've got to be…" Bruce held up a hand to hold Pepper back. "Ok." Bruce understood, the instinct so gulp it down must have been pretty strong.

"If that was going to happen with water you could have at least let me have that cake, then it would have been worth it!"

Bruce chuckled in response and sunk down into the chair opposite. He'd forgotten how tired he was until now, he slid off his glasses and placed them on the chair arm, yawning.

"And hey! I still haven't had that cheeseburger I wanted before the destroyer thingy came."

"Ooh I'd love a cheeseburger right now!" Clint rubbed his stomach with his good arm and leant back into the leathery softness next to Tony.

"No Clint. You're not going to get a cheeseburger just so you can torment Tony with it." Natasha glared at him.

"But Mommm." The whole room burst out laughing.

"Oh there, there feathers, you can always trust Natasha to be the spoil sport." Tony patted Clint on the top of his head.

"Hey tin head I was sticking up for you!" Natasha picked up a pillow and raised it above her head with both arms.

"Nah-ah-ah-ah." Tony crossed his arms defensively across himself, turning his head to the side. "Nope, no throwing things at the injured."

"Give it a week Stark then you're fair game." Natasha lowered her weapon and Tony feigned a melodramatic 'phew', wiping his arm across his forehead and flopping deep into the couch.

"You want to try that water again?" Bruce gently probed.

"Ermm, not particularly." Tony leant forward "but I'm guessing leaving it isn't going to help, right?"

Bruce nodded. "You're a smart man Stark."

"It has been mentioned." Tony grunted as he prepared to lift himself off the couch, but Thor had beaten him to it, handed him a glass.

"Thanks pointbreak."

"I really don't understand that reference."

"Join the Club." Steve patted the seat next to him and Thor obliged.

"That is too much muscle on one couch." Clint whispered to Tony who nearly snorted water everywhere.

"Clint!"

"Sorry."

This time the water went down, slowly, and stayed there. Bruce had fallen asleep on the couch long before it got dark, they had continued to catch up Steve and Thor on life on earth since the 1940's, mainly through film. It was as ever Pepper and Natasha that shepherded the unlikely group of friends to their own floor and saved them from awaking with cricked necks.

They all slept well that night, and it was a trend that continued over the coming weeks. Tony got better and better every day, he started eating, it was a slow and frustrating process but Tony kept in remarkably high spirits.

Natasha didn't know whether to be worried or amazed at Tony's attitude, he was recovering remarkably well, mentally as well as physically. She decided to be the latter, she was going to be optimistic this time and it felt right. With the team tighter than ever everything seemed great. She remembered what she had said to Steve up on the roof, maybe they were starting to see the real side of Tony rather than the mask, and maybe he really was getting through this ok.

It was unlike Natasha to be naïve, in fact, it had never happened before. It was a shame it had to happen at such a crucial time.

With things going so well nobody mentioned the elephant in the room. It felt wrong to, I mean, everything was fine no need to bring it up, right. Why risk ruining a good thing? But they should have, they really, really should have. They didn't realise how badly it would come back to bite them.

Chapter Text

Things had been going well. Too well. Little by little Tony had been getting back onto food. It hadn’t been plain sailing, but no one had expected that. The incident with the water had been the first in a long line involving Tony spewing up his guts, but nobody minded. Everyone was looking out for each other, of course the main focus had been on Tony’s recovery but everyone was sporting wounds of one form or another.

Pepper had returned to work, and was happy enough to leave Tony in the Avengers’ care for a fortnight of conferences in Bruges. As had, Rhodey who had somewhat reluctantly accepted an overseas posting for a month, but with Tony having so many people around him for once the Colonel felt he didn’t need to worry.

Thor knew he was needed at home, but he liked it here, he liked it very much. He honestly felt more at home on Midgard than he ever had on Asgard. Yet the almost constant presence of Huginn and Muninn, demanding to know when the Prince would be travelling home, was starting to wear on him. He knew he had responsibilities on Asgard, he had stayed just to be sure of Stark’s wellness, and he had achieved that. He had lingered on out of sentiment, it was time for him to go home.

“Tony.” Bruce looked over his newspaper and his voice jerked Thor out of his trance.

“Yep Brucie Boy.”

“You Hungry?”

“Always!” Tony looked at the clock. It was only 11am but he seemed to have burned off breakfast hours ago and his stomach was demanding food.

“Well…” Bruce set down his newspaper and got to his feet. “What do you say to getting that long awaited cheeseburger?”

“Seriously!” Tony jumped up like an excited kid.

“Yes, seriously. As long as you…”

“Eat slowly, I know I will. Oh my God I’ve been dreaming of this, I know just the place!” Thor and Bruce chuckled as Tony paced around in excitement. “Clint!” Tony yelled, heading off down the corridor. “Clint! Hurry up Bruce says its Burger time!”

“Seriously.” Natasha emerged having heard the commotion. Bruce nodded and went to gather up some things.

“Clint, Steve, come on you’re keeping us waiting!” Tony was desperate to leave.

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Clint hopped down the corridor pulling his sock on, hair still wet from his shower. “God I can’t believe this is finally happening. I’ve been wanting a burger for weeks!”

“Yeah well I’ve not had one for 6 months so shut up your moaning!”

“What is going on?” No sooner had Steve opened his mouth than his jacket and shoes were shoved into his arms by Tony, who then proceeded to push him into the elevator. “Hang on Tony, wha…” Steve said, thoroughly confused.

“Bruce said I can have a Burger so we’re going to get a burger.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now! Everyone in!” Nobody decided to get between Stark and his food.

………………..

It wasn’t raining when they reached the lobby, it was absolutely pouring it down. A car was waiting out back, away from prying eyes but they were still going to get soaked walking the few steps out in the open.

They practically pushed Tony under an umbrella, the last thing they wanted was him catching a cold, but as soon as he was outside Tony stopped. The smell of the rain, the fresh air in his lungs, it felt amazing. He shivered a little at the drop in temperature, but it was still a warm day. He let the drumming of rain drops hitting the pavement fill his ears and felt the tickle of their splashes on his hands and ankles. The others hurried with jackets over their heads, ducking quickly into the warmth and dry of the low-key limo. With Steve the only one left to get in he stopped, seeing Tony’s hesitation.

“Tony come on! I thought you were starving.” Tony backed away from the driver holding the umbrella and stood there in the rain, rejoicing the sensation as the droplets ran across his skin and soaked into his hair and clothes.

“Tony what are you doing?”

“I’ll see you guys there, I’m going to walk.”

“Tony, its 20 blocks and you’ll be soaked!”

“I’ll be fine stop mothering me! I just wanna breathe fresh air for a change.” Tony turned his back and jogged gently down the street.

Steve poked his head into the car for reinforcements. “Tony’s just run off, says he wasn’t to walk.”

“Is he mad?” Natasha exclaimed.

“Well, yeah we already know that, but this is crazy.” Bruce was about to get out of the car to call him back when Clint spoke.

“Guys, think about it. He hasn’t been outside since the debrief.”

“Oh my God, Clint’s right!” Natasha exclaimed.

“Let him walk, Bruce. Let him enjoy it.”

“Uhh fine! As long as he doesn’t come running to me when he gets sick I don’t care!”

………………..

Screw it, Tony thought. There wasn’t anyone watching, they were all inside hiding from the downpour and he hadn’t seen the sky for real in months. Soaking wet or not this was the best feeling he had, had in a long time. He skipped joyously down the sidewalk, uncaring and stamped in every puddle he could see, sending water splashing up his pant legs and soaking into his shoes and socks.

Before long he could feel a squelch with every step and he loved it. The rain wasn’t going to last long, the sky was already brightening. It was going to be sunny again soon. He didn’t even try to resist the urge to swing around a street light, whooping and laughing as he did.

He waved at two astounded passers-by before breaking into a run. He started off slowly but overwhelmed by the sense of freedom he got faster and faster and faster. His feet pounded away on the concrete, sending up a spray behind and soon he was tearing down the sidewalk in full flight. His lungs and legs burned at the shock of exercise, but he was flying and it felt amazing, he was so alive!

He arrived at the restaurant of choice at the same time the car pulled in and the downpour had begun to break. Tony tried to slow down from his gallop on the wet surface but he just went into a slide, his legs went faster than his body and he slipped flat on his back and landed in a huge puddle with an impressive splash.

“Oh My God Tony!” Natasha jumped out of the car and ran to see how badly he was hurt. What she found however was Tony Stark lying in the puddle and panting hard and sobbing with laughter.

“Oh, you crazy bastard!” Natasha shouted and splashed some dirty water into Tony’s face as the others joined her to see what had happened. “God, you had me worried!” This only made Tony laugh even more and lay back into the puddle which was remarkably deep. The water covered all but his knees, face and chest.

“Oh Tony! Get out of there, you’re filthy!” Bruce’s tone was serious, but his face soon betrayed him as it broke into a smile.

“Honestly Stark you’re such a child!” Steve chuckled.

Natasha leant down to offer Tony a hand up and he took it. What he did next shocked everyone. Grabbing Natasha’s hand Tony tugged on it hard pulling Natasha off balance and forcing her face down into the puddle. “Oh my God you didn’t! Clint gasped, knowing all too well what would happen next.

“Aww is feathers shocked that I’ve got bigger balls than him.” Tony taunted and the reaction was exactly what he had hoped for. Just as Natasha began to raise her head out of the dirty puddle Clint kicked a massive spray of water in Tony’s direction. Tony of course ducked out of the way and the wave proceeded to flood straight into Natasha’s face.

Natasha spat out the dirty water and rubbed it from her fury filled eyes. Clint was stood with his hands clasped over his mouth and nose in horror muttering “What have I done?”

“Stark you b….” Clint started but Tony cut him off

“Feathers… RUN!”

The two of them took off across the square followed closely by a flaming streak of Russian fury and they quickly disappeared out of sight.

Ten minutes and five blocks later Thor, Bruce and Steve found their three comrades down a backstreet. Natasha was pinning Clint face down in a pitifully shallow puddle, who was crying “I’m sorry” over and over whilst Tony was hanging off a ledge on the side of building, a few feet out of reach of the Russian pocket rocket.

“Well I hope you two have learnt your lesson.” Steve said, standing cross armed. Thor grabbed Tony’s legs and lowered him to the ground, earning him a ‘thank you Goldilocks’ and Steve rescued a now thoroughly soaked Clint from Natasha’s grip.

………………..

The restaurant owner was very accommodating, providing the soaked avengers with towels to dry the worst off. The sun had come out in its full glory so they decided to sit outside and dry out in the warmth. The meal was incredible, Tony had to try very hard not to wolf it down, but he knew how that ended and he really didn’t want that today. All in all it was a wonderful day out, a perfect day though they knew that Natasha would have planned something in revenge for when they returned to the tower. Thor had been going to take the opportunity to announce that he would be leaving, but it didn’t seem right to spoil the moment.

“God this is the best damn Burger I have ever tasted!” Tony threw himself back in his chair, almost tipping it but Thor, seated next to him, returned it to rest safely on four legs.

“I honestly can’t believe it’s been 6 months since New York.” Steve shook his head.

“It’s so weird, six months ago none of us new each other, in fact, we didn’t get on at all really did we?” Bruce remembered.

Clint chuckled “And I was bat shit crazy under Loki’s spell and trying to kill you!”

“Seriously though, how did we end up saving the world? The first thing me and Thor did was attack each other, only Natasha really trusted Clint when he came around, Bruce is well… Bruce, I was being an absolute knob half the time…”

“Most of the time.” Natasha corrected.

“Fair enough…” Tony continued “Steve is the only exception, everyone loved him…”

“Apart from you Stark,” Steve reminded

“Yes granted. And yet, despite all of that and the hell I’ve thrown at you in the past 6months now we’re all living together.”

“We must be mad.” Clint nodded.

“Truly.” Thor concurred.

“Speaking of the last 6 months, how on earth did you and Pepper keep the Company running all this time with my lack of appearances. Don’t tell me nobody got suspicious.”

“Ermm well about that…” Bruce began.

“Oh, why do I get the feeling I’m not going to like this?” Tony slumped in his chair.

“Well, the official story is that you are close to discovering something huge, so you’ve been working night and day and haven’t had time for anything else.”

“You are kidding me?” Tony spat out a mouthful of bread and meat back onto his plate.

“I’m sorry. But it was the best cover we could think of.” Natasha shrugged somewhat unapologetically.

“So, I’m going to have to come up with something amazing in a matter of days or people will smell a rat.”

“Pretty much.” Bruce bit his lip.

“Oh great!” Tony exclaimed “I suppose I’ll have to dig something out something I made years ago from the archives.”

“Wait, you have inventions that aren’t out there already?” Clint asked

“Of course I do, not everything I’ve made the world is ready for yet. I have to hold some things back or I’ll start another war.”

The others just looked at him, shocked for a second. Even after selling weapons and having a reputation as being completely irresponsible, Tony had always been thinking about the impact his inventions would have on the world.

“What? Don’t look so surprised!”

Then Tony saw them. He couldn’t place their faces, but he knew that he’d seen them before. Something in his head was telling him he should look away, forget that he’d seen them and not give himself the chance to remember. But it was too late, his interest was piqued and he ignored the little warning bells in the corner of his mind.

There were two faces, an elderly woman and man, obscured behind the frosted glass of the store front across the square. The door swung open and the woman emerged first, her head bowed as her eyes adjusted to the bright sunshine outside. Tony couldn’t see her face, but he was now certain that there was something familiar about the couple.

The man stepped out of the door next, hands full of shopping bags he too squinted into the sunlight. But unlike his wife the man felt eyes watching him and looked across the square to where the Avengers were sitting.

 

Oh God, no. It wasn’t. It couldn’t be. Tony froze. But it was. The hands of age had done their work, lines now crossed the faces of the couple he was watching, but underneath the veil of time they were still the same two faces. Why now? Why? Tony suddenly felt very sick to the pit of his stomach. He had to leave, they couldn’t see him. But it was too late, the man was staring right at him. Had he been recognised? Twenty years had passed and surely that would act in Tony’s favour. But evidently that was not the case. The man gently grabbed his wife’s arm and drew her attention to their observer across the street. She gasped in disbelief and put her hand over her mouth.

Memories started flooding back, more real than ever before, the emotion hit him like a brick wall.

 

“Tony are you ok?” Steve, who was sat directly opposite, had noticed Tony suddenly go deathly pale.

“Oh no, Code 9! I think he’s going to hurl.” Clint’s voice put everyone on battle stations. There had been enough of these instances over the past month for everyone to know what they were doing. It was Steve that this time found a suitable receptacle, grabbing an empty flower pot and pulling the table aside ready for the inevitable.

But instead Tony jumped up and staggered backwards.

“Tony?” Natasha asked in alarm. His chair tipped over sideways and the legs tripped him as he continued to retreat. He landed heavily on his coccyx but didn’t flinch. He sat there stunned for a moment and the Avengers just stared in confusion.

“His eyes!” Natasha was the first to notice and the gasp was involuntary. Sure enough Tony’s eyes were bright blue. The team recoiled and braced, ready to defend themselves instinctively.

Tony’s eyes returned to deep brown and he gasped for air in shock. He stayed on the floor for a second, panting in shock and clearly not aware of his surroundings. Bruce instantly moved towards his friend, but the others stayed frozen, wary of approaching. Tony was on his feet in a flash and disappeared down a nearby street. Bruce was hot on his heels, holding up a hand to stop the others. They just continued to stare in shock, taken aback by what had just happened. And that was the question. What had just happened?

 

Tony curled into the corner of a dead-end alley and buried his face into the wall. He needed to feel something solid, something that was real. When Bruce found him, his panting breaths were close to sobs and he was rocking himself back and forth. For a second Bruce was taken aback, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what exactly was wrong. But he realised that Tony didn’t need him in doctor mode right now, he needed a friend.

Bruce grabbed Tony from behind and pulled him into his arms. He wasn’t sure exactly why, he was acting on instinct right now and it would have to do.

He just held Tony while he came back down to Earth. It’s what he wished people did for him when he was coming back from hulking out and he just hoped that it was right for Tony.

 

“It’s ok, Tony, Its ok. Just breathe. You’re safe. Everything is fine.”

“It’s not fine. It’s never going to be fine, it’s never been fine. Not since that day.”

“Shhh Tony, Shhh.” Tony was still out of it. Bruce was going to ignore his ramblings for now, but he wasn’t going to forget them. How could he? The raw emotion in Tony’s voice frightened him, the utter despair was almost tangible.

 

Tony’s arms were crossed tightly across his chest and Bruce shifted his hand to lay it over his friends.

And then it hit Bruce, like a wave that forced the air from his lungs and pressed down like a heavy weight, crushing him. Bruce gasped, tears welled in his eyes. God it hurt! It hurt so much!

It had just been for a moment, but it was a moment he would never forget. The emotion that overwhelmed him, that pain and despair, was worse than anything he had ever felt. And Bruce knew despair, he knew it well.

Was that what was Tony was feeling? Had it just transferred to him somehow?

“Jesus Tony!” Bruce nearly sobbed. “Tony, I’m here. You’re not alone.” Bruce couldn’t even force himself to say that everything was ok. It wasn’t, not if that was what Tony was feeling. Bruce had never seen the man so vulnerable, and considering what they had just witnessed him go through that was frightening in itself.

 

It was a few more minutes before Tony’s breathing levelled and tried to move out of Bruce’s embrace. Bruce looked into his eyes. He didn’t seem to remember, didn’t seem to know what he had just said. But he evidently did remember what had happened at the restaurant.

“Thanks Bruce.” Tony took a deep breath and put a hand on the ground to push himself up.

Bruce put his hand on Tony’s shoulder before he had chance to stand.

“Can you tell me what happened?” Bruce asked. Tony looked confused like he was trying to figure that out himself. “It’s ok if you can’t.” Bruce continued, his voice calm and level.

“No… it’s… I thought I saw someone, some people I used to know then I remembered some stuff that… I don’t want to talk about it. It was… err it wasn’t nice.” He shook his head and his breathing started to increase. “That wasn’t funny.”

“I know Tony, but it’s over for now, ok?” Tony looked up at Bruce and started to calm down again. “So, I’m guessing that CAEB amplified whatever you were feeling.”

“It had to be, it was like a nightmare, like I was trapped in my own past.”

“Ok, well we’ll look into it, ok? And in the meantime, if you need to talk I’m here, but I’m not going to force you.” Tony patted his friend on the shoulder in thanks. “Tony, I really need you to understand that I will never force you to do anything.”

The two just looked each other in the eye. There was no need for words.

“I want to go home now.”

“No problem.”

 

“Hey guys,” Clint said hesitantly as the others peered around the corner. “Is everything ok?”

“Yes, I’m good, sorry about that Guys, trust me to ruin the day.”

“No Tony it’s…” Clint started

“Don’t say its fine, I freaked you out, and I’m sorry, but hey I kept that burger down.” Tony smiled and it somehow put everyone back at ease. Everyone apart from Bruce. Then as if on cue Tony retched and spilled said burger all over Bruce’s shoes.

“Spoke too soon Stark.” Thor chuckled

“Fuck!” Tony buried his head in his hands.

“Language!” Steve’s voice was quiet. Tony tried to lift his head from his hands but he didn’t seem to have the strength. He was absolutely exhausted and he really didn’t want to see the look on his friends faces again. The shock and nervousness was written there as plain as day. They were scared of him. The Avengers were afraid of Tony Stark and they had every right to be. But it didn’t stop it hurting. The very few people he could call friends trusted him about as far as they could throw him.

 

“That was such a good burger as well.” Tony half-heartedly tried to lighten the situation and there was a quiet rumble of nervous laughter. Thor reached down a hand to help Tony up.

 

“So sorry Bruce.” Tony said, nodding to his shoes, but Bruce knew he meant for a little more than that.

“That’s fine Tony, but I expect a new pair ASAP.”

 

“Deal.”

………………..

As everyone piled into the car Bruce remained in contemplative silence. Tony was already laughing and joking with the others, who had slowly started to relax. But Tony’s recovery from the day’s events was far too quick. In fact, thinking back all of it had been. Nobody comes back from something like that without some sort of breakdown. If it looked too good to be true it usually was and now Bruce knew that what Tony showed on the surface was a mask to hide the scars inside. He doubted anything they knew about their quirky genius was actually real and it scared him a little.

Bruce cursed himself he should have realised all of this from the start and he supposed that the only reason he hadn’t was because he wanted so badly for it to be true. Tony had been getting better and everything in his life was the best it had ever been, better than he could ever have imagined for himself since the accident. But things were going to have to change now. Why did they always have to change?

………………..

It was time to have that talk. That one they had all been avoiding. Natasha knew they should have done it sooner, but there had been no sign of the CAEB, in fact it had almost slipped their minds. That’s why it had come as such a shock, to see it again with no warning, but it was part of him now and it was bound to have shown up sooner or later. She hoped she was right in her new conclusions on Stark. When they had first met she had wanted to hate him, whereas now it was the opposite. Perhaps in both instances she had let her emotions cloud her judgement. This was so unlike her. She wanted to trust Tony, but equally she felt that no one person should have that much power and with what Thor had told them she guessed they had only seen a fraction of what the CAEB could do.

………………..

Steve had already had his doubts. He’d let them slide after Natasha’s talk and the absence of any sign of the CAEB, in fact he’d almost forgotten about it. After all everything had been so great between the team lately. But now there was a knot in the pit of his stomach. A deep and uneasy feeling that revolved around Tony. There was so much power flowing through his veins, they had already seen what it could do and today was proof that Stark was not in control. Everyone openly admitted that they didn’t understand a damn thing about this CAEB, they needed help. It would be irresponsible to keep it to themselves any longer, not after this. But the team had agreed not to tell SHIELD and he didn’t fully trust them either. Steve just didn’t know what to do and he was scared. Never a good combination.

………………..

 

Clint trusted Tony. Unlike Natasha he didn’t dig and probe and search for every piece of evidence that she could find on a person before coming to a judgement. He went on his gut and his gut told him to trust Tony. Granted, his instincts weren’t always right, Natasha’s deductions however were rarely wrong. But one thing Clint had learned over the years was that he should always trust his gut. There wasn’t time to question or doubt himself when things were life and death, and his first instinct rarely let him down, after all, what were instincts if not based on evidence that you are not consciously processing. But this CAEB gave him a bad vibe, a very bad vibe but not for the reasons he was expecting. He felt like something bad was coming, but Tony wasn’t the cause. he felt like things weren’t going to get better for Tony just yet. God, he hoped he was wrong.

………………..

For Thor, what had happened had changed the way he felt about leaving. Now he had many concerns, but mainly how his Midgardian friends would cope. Powers such as Tony’s were not common on Earth. It reminded him of magic on Asgard, it was feared since it was not understood and Æsir who chose to use it had centuries to master it. Stark had not chosen this, nor had he welcomed it. Banner’s own experience may enable to help Stark gain control, but the others could not hope to understand and even then, Banner’s choice was to supress the hulk rather than embrace it. Such an approach with the CAEB could be deadly for Tony. But again he saw the Ravens circling. A bad omen. The nine realms was in chaos with the loss of the bifrost and he was needed back on Asgard more than ever. He would have to leave.

………………..

Tony went straight to his floor when they arrived back at the tower. He told them he was tired and was going to bed, which was true in part. He wasn’t just tired, he was barely able to stand, but the memories and the feelings that refused to go away also refused to let him rest. He rummaged around the drawers until he found a laptop. He never used laptops, it was dated tech after his holographic computers. But this was an old-fashioned sort of a day since he really didn’t want to talk to Jarvis. He dumped the laptop roughly on the table and flipped open the lid. He paused for a moment in contemplation, before standing up again. He began pacing, backwards and forwards, each circuit getting quicker and quicker. His eyes kept drifting back to the device on the table which seemed to stare at him while his internal debate intensified.

He was desperate to talk to someone after what had just happened. And that was so unlike him. But he could feel control slipping through his fingers, the world crumbling around the edges and there was only one person who could understand about what had happened at lunch, or more appropriately who had happened. That was Rhodey, but he was in Afghanistan until next week.

Half an hour of pacing later and Tony finally sat down and opened skype, there was only one contact and he hit the call button. He silently prayed that Rhodes would pick up.

“Hey Tony, buddy how are you?”

Tony breathed a silent sigh of relief. “Hey Rhodes, not too bad, how’s the desert?”

They chatted for a bit, just the inane sort of banter they usually had, but Rhodey could tell something was off, Tony never just called for a chat and more than that there was something dark in his expression, his whole body language was off.

It was a good hour before Tony let up enough for Rhodey to guide the conversation.

 

“So” Rhodey looked hard into the camera. He would have love to have looked Tony in eye but, well they were thousands of miles apart and this was the best he was going to manage. “Are you going to give me the real reason why you called?”

“I screwed up.” Tony barely paused before answering. He had been bursting to get it out there, but reluctant at the same time. He put his head into his hands for what felt like the millionth time that day and for a moment there was silence as Rhodey waited patiently for him to continue.

“I freaked them all out. We were out for lunch, everything’s been going so well, I mean I could finally stomach a cheeseburger, it’s the first time I’ve been outside since any of this happened.”

“Tony, what happened?” Rhodey cut his friends ramblings short, they would be there all day otherwise.

“I saw them again Rhodey and then I remembered and the CAEB amplified everything, it was like I was trapped, trapped in my own past and hurt so much. So, I freaked out, and it freaked everyone else out.” Tony was trying so hard not to lose it, but he couldn’t keep the emotion out of his voice as the memories came flooding back.

“Who did you see Tony?” Rhodey kept his voice perfectly level, but inside he was panicking. His best friend was losing it and he was too far away to be of any real comfort.

“I saw Michael.” Tony paused “Tori and Michael.”

“Tori and Michael?” Rhodey repeated, it took a moment for the names to register. “Oh My God Tony! Erica’s* parents?”

Tony nodded and choked back a sob at the mention of her name, but Rhodey didn’t reply.

“Rhodes?” He looked back at the screen and it was blank. The call had been cut off.

He was on his own. He never should have reached out, on his own was safer, on his own he knew what to expect. Why had he gone and screwed things up again? Now some of the only people he cared about in the world were scared of him. They were bloody terrified, he could see it in their eyes and there was no denying it. He waited, but Rhodes didn’t call back.

He yelled and threw the laptop across the room. The screen separated from the keyboard with a crunch, but it didn’t help. Now he couldn’t stop seeing Erica’s face, even when he closed his eyes he couldn’t escape his biggest mistake, his worst moment.

He bashed his forehead into the wall and bit back the tears, the pain was sharp but faded quickly, but as the pain came the memory faded, just for a second. So, he did it again. And again. Then he started to pound his fists into the wall until he felt the bones crunch and buckle inside. At that point the exhaustion that had been creeping up on him ever since the incident started to win out. He slumped down, back against the wall sliding down onto the floor. The room was already fading from view and his body went limp against his will. He passed out.

………………..

“Erica’s parents?” Rhodey’s heart dropped. This couldn’t be happening again, Tony couldn’t go through this again. “I’m coming back. I’m coming back right now. Tony!”

The screen of his laptop was blank. The battery had died.

“Seriously, Now! You had to go and die now!” Rhodey drummed the power button, over again but all he got was a red light and a blank screen. “Damn it!” He tried Tony’s phone but got no answer. He packed his bag, had a shouting match with his superior officer and got on a plane.

………………..

The Avengers had been sat in silence for a good hour after they returned from the restaurant. They all knew they needed to discuss what had happened, but none of them wanted to, not even in the slightest.

“We can’t just sit in silence all night.” Natasha finally spoke up.

“But I don’t know what to say.” Clint said. “I’d so hoped we seen the last of it.”

“Yes, but that was never very realistic Clint, was it?” Natasha mentioned the archer by name, but the message was directed at everyone. “It’s a part of him now, we knew that and now we have to accept it.”

Bruce was encouraged by Natasha’s move. There was no point in denial, or in tiptoeing round the problem anymore. Knowing what he did, but not wanting to betray Tony’s confidence he sat back to watch, ready to guide the outcome if needed.

“We have got to find a way to control this. It’s just too dangerous to be left unchecked.” Steve started. “But the question is, how? Bruce is there anything Tony told you about today?”

“I think he had a flashback, a bad memory but he wouldn’t say. The CAEB amplified his feelings which understandably was not a fun experience. Nobody was in any danger.”

“We can’t be sure of that Bruce, he smashed things the first time in his nightmares.” Natasha understood why Bruce was trying to defend Tony. Their situations were oh so similar right now.

“So it’s linked to emotions. Perhaps Natasha you can work with him to figure out what is triggering it and Bruce, some of the ways you control the Hulk might help him...” Steve was objectively straight onto the solutions and Clint and Natasha quickly joined in. Bruce listened for a while, but there was a reoccurring theme that was not going to help them in the slightest.

“But you are forgetting a couple of important things.” Bruce stopped them dead in their tracks. “Firstly, you are basing your solutions around me. I will gladly help Tony any way I can, but you have to understand I don’t really control the Hulk so to speak, I contain it. Granted I have a greater degree of control now, but what me and the other guy have is more of a mutual understanding. Tony’s situation, for all its similarities is not the same. Tony and the CAEB are not separate things anymore, so we have to stop speaking like they are. Tony isn’t the old Tony and he’s not the CAEB either. He’s like Tony 2.0. What Tony is doing is like learning to walk again.” Bruce paused to think of the words to describe his interpretation of Tony’s problem. “It’s like having a whole new body that he can’t control yet. We have to approach it differently.”

Bruce paused again for a moment to let the words sink in and there was a general nod of understanding from the others.

“Secondly, and most importantly is, why are we sat here deciding all this? This is Tony’s life, Tony’s future. We not just his teammates we’re his friends and we are certainly not his handler. He should be sat here with us before we make any decisions.” The others bowed their heads in realisation.

“Yes Bruce, I’m sorry. I agree.” Steve suddenly understood how disempowering it would be to have your whole future decided without your input, but he had to ensure this problem would be tackled properly or the safety of the planet could be at risk. “But we have a great responsibility here, where the CAEB is concerned. Tony may not be able to have this all his own way.”

“I appreciate that Steve, so long as he’s part of the process and we don’t alienate him that is fine.” Bruce was happy with the cooperation.

“He must be pretty freaked out as well.” Clint added and it started to dawn on the room that everyone had been so caught up in their own fear that they hadn’t stopped to think about Tony’s feelings.

“That’s settled then, we’ll all meet tomorrow and discuss this properly.” Steve finished.

“My comrades, I am very pleased to see how you are dealing with this. It had been my intention to announce this at luncheon however it seemed wrong to spoil the joyous occasion. I must return to Asgard this night. The nine realms are in chaos and although I would love to stay, we risk war if a solution is not swiftly found.”

“You’re leaving?” Natasha was shocked.

“Indeed, I must, but with a heavy heart. I was wary to do so after today’s events, but your conversation tonight has given me great confidence that you will be successful in your endeavours.”

“We understand Thor, you have your duty as do we all.” Steve nodded to the demi-god as they all stood.

“This is not goodbye my friends, I will return as soon as I am permitted.”

“It’ll be weird not having you around.” Clint punched him lightly on the shoulder.

………………

Rhodey walked into the tower at 0800. Steve was out for his run. It had been a longer one than usual. Natasha and Clint were training and Thor was gone. That left Bruce, who had just sat down with a mug of coffee to see Rhodey arrive.

“Rhodey, why are you…”

“Do you need to ask?” Rhodey seemed pissed, Bruce wasn’t entirely sure why, but he guessed he knew about yesterday.

“He called you?” Bruce put down his coffee and this morning’s newspaper and got up to follow him.

“Yes.” Rhodey replied and that’s when Bruce knew it was bad. Tony didn’t ask for help. “Did anyone check on him last night?”

“No. He went to bed early said he was tired, I thought he needed space.” Bruce was starting to feel like he’d thought wrongly.

“What time?”

“About 14:30 I think.”

“Ok.” Rhodey got into the lift and put a hand on Bruce’s chest. “Don’t follow me Bruce, please.”

“Why Rhodey, what’s going on?”

“Look, I might be making a fuss out of nothing. Just don’t tell the others.” Bruce shoved his arm in the lift door as it tried to close.

“Fine, but what if you aren’t? Making a fuss that is. How worried should I be?”

“I’ll call you if I need you.”

Enclosed in the privacy of the lift Rhodey immediately pressed the button for Tony’s floor and went straight into his room. Tony wasn’t there, but there were small spatters of blood in a slightly dented wall and a smashed laptop at the other side of the room.

“Jarvis where is he?” Rhodey looked to the ever-present being for help, but there was no answer. “Jarvis?”

Rhodey stormed back to the lift and this time headed down to the workshop, after all, there was only one place Jarvis could be shut down from. He heard the blasting music as soon as the lift came to a halt. That was a good sign, wasn’t it?

“Tony?” Rhodey yelled over the music and then squinted as his eyes were met by a blinding light. The music cut off and there was an ear splitting electrical whine. “Tony?” Rhodey edged forward carefully and rammed his fingers in his ears.

There was a loud bang and Tony skidded across the floor bashing onto Rhodey’s legs almost bringing them both onto the floor. The light levels died down, leaving the room in near darkness with the smell of smoke hanging heavily in the air.

“Tony. What. The. Hell!” Rhodey coughed out in choked gasp, waving his hand in front of him to dissipate the smoke. Tony groaned in frustration and looked up at Rhodey, his face covered in black soot.

“Another Fucking backfire! What do you want from me?” Tony yelled at the machine which was just becoming visible through the cloud of smoke. Tony turned over and blinked up at his friend. “Rhodey, you came.” He said quietly as Rhodes helped him to his feet.

“Of course I came.” Tony grabbed him and pulled him into tight hug.

“Thank you.” Tony’s voice was muffled in the shoulder of Rhodey’s uniform.

“No Tones. Thank you for calling.” Rhodey grabbed an old towel off the side and threw it to Tony so he could wipe the dirt from his face. As he did the red and purple bruising on his knuckles contrasted strongly against the white of the towel.

“So you’re coping then.” Rhodey inspected Tony’s hands and dabbed up his forearm to a hiss of pain.

“Clearly.” There was an awkward silence for a moment. “You hung up on me.”

“My battery died.” Rhodey said calmly

“Typical.” Tony scoffed in half amusement.

“It was a Stark model, so it’s your own fault. You should have put in a bigger battery.

“You know, I knew I’d come to regret that.” Tony shook his head and smiled gently.

Rhodey gave Tony back his hands. “You’ll need to get Bruce to look at those.”

“Its fine Jarvis will scan me, won’t you J?” No answer “J?”

“It’s funny that, he wouldn’t speak to me either.” Rhodey said sarcastically.

“Oh, of course, no it wasn’t that. I’ve been turning him off to get more power for this blasted thing.” He kicked the offending, exploding machine. He flicked a few switches and music started back up startling them both.

“Turn that off J!”

“Yes Sir.” Much to Rhodey’s relief the music stopped, but he imagined his ears would keep ringing for a few hours. How Tony survived that racket he would never understand.

“What the hell is that thing Tony?” Rhodey said, prodding the machine cautiously with his toe.

“Ermm, nothing important and probably impossible. I’ll tell you if I ever get it working.” Tony lied. It could be the single most important thing he’d ever made.

“So a distraction then.”

“You know me too well.”

“Yes, I do and we’re going to sort this out properly this time Tony. No easy way out, no shortcuts no burying what’s happened again.”

“Do you think burying it is easy? Because it’s not Rhodey, It’s really not.”

“Tony….”

“I’ve got a system and it works, so why should I change it.”

“You know the answer to that.” Rhodey just stood patiently and let Tony rant. Over the years he’d earnt a doctorate in dealing with Tony Stark.

“Why is this time going to be any different anyway?”

“Because I’m not going to leave you this time.” Rhodey shouted, his own regret finally broke through. “I’m not going to leave you.” He repeated softly, tears in his eyes. “And I never said it, but I’m so sorry that I did the last time.”

“You didn’t have a choice.”

“Maybe I did.”

“Rhodes… It’s not your fault.” Rhodey didn’t reply and just rubbed his eyes. “Who’s coping now, hey?”

“Shut up.”

“Rhodey even if this is something that can be fixed, how on Earth do we do it? It’s not just my past I have to deal with it’s this CAEB thing as well and I’m clearly not on top of that.” Tony threw his hands in the air and came to regret the motion as the pain made him grimace. For the first time in twenty years he actually wanted to sort this out, but he couldn’t see a way out.

“I don’t know Tony. But I’m guessing one step at a time. And let’s make that first one getting your hands sorted.”

………………..

Bruce waited anxiously to hear anything. Rhodey had been angry and secretive. Angry, worried and secretive and that was never a good thing. It had been nearly half an hour and thankfully none of the others had returned, he knew he wouldn’t have been able to hide his concern.

When Tony finally appeared at the elevator doors he breathed a sigh of relief, which quickly returned to concern when the smell of burning met his nostrils and he saw the slight singe to Tony’s face and clothes. Then he saw his hands.

“Jesus, what happened?”

“My new machine blew up on me.” Tony sulked and sat in the chair

“You’re working on something already?” Bruce inspected Tony’s hands and winced, everything else may have fitted with his story, but he couldn’t see any way he’d done this to his hands without hitting something hard, repeatedly. He didn’t say a word.

“Yeah, I’ll probably need your help at some point if you fancy playing with a particle accelerator.”

“You’ve built a particle accelerator in your lab! Are you mad?”

“Its fine I’ve done it before.”

“Seriously?”

“He actually has.” Rhodey nodded, remembering the mess he made of Malibu after he’d created the new element for the arc reactor.

“Well I’d love to if you promise nothing will blow up.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Looks like you’ve done quite a number on these.” Bruce slipped on his glasses and started to gently press on Tony’s knuckles. “Think you’ve definitely broken the metacarpals in both hands, and might have some stress fractures in your right wrist.” He pressed as said this and Tony hissed, instinctively pulling away. “Yep, probably stress fracture. I’ll need to wrap them and you’ll need to take it easy for a while.”

“How long?”

“Honestly, depends how fast you’re healing is right now.” Tony nodded.

The elevator door opened again and Steve, sweaty and fresh from his run headed straight for the fridge. “Hey guys. Rhodey, thought you were posted away.”

“Yeah well got to come back early, some more urgent matters in Washington to deal with.” As Rhodey replied Natasha and Clint also made their first appearance of the morning, causing Steve to glance across the room at them. Noticing Tony’s dishevelled appearance he did a double take.

“What the hell happened to you?”

“Oh Tony your hands!” Natasha exclaimed.

“My new idea blew up on me.”

“And bit you by the look of it! I didn’t know you were working on something.” She said.

“I started on it last night. I thought I’d better since the world is expecting me to come out of hiding with some big discovery. It’s not like I’ve got a lot of time before people really start to get suspicious.”

“Well sorry Buddy, but you’ve probably got even less time than that.” Clint said grabbing the Stark pad and loading up YouTube. A news article from an entertainment website started playing and they all leant in to see.

“Tony Stark has been seen in Public for the first time since the incident in New York six months ago and it seems he and the Avengers were making the most of the recent rainstorm according to this fan’s video.” The reporter’s voice ran over a clip of Tony sliding into the puddle, pulling Natasha in and Clint soaking her before they all ran off into the distance.

“The clip, released online yesterday afternoon, went viral overnight and was received well by most who were happy to see a more relatable side to Earth’s mightiest heroes. However, there were some comments deeming this as unacceptable behaviour from the people who we are trusting to protect us. The scientific community is now eagerly awaiting the surely imminent release of Stark’s latest discovery, which he has been playing very close to his chest over recent months.”

“Oh great, now they’re expecting something, like, tomorrow.” Tony flopped dejectedly onto the sofa.

“Seriously, someone was filming that. That’s all we need.” Natasha threw her hands in the air and proceeded to swear under her breath in Russian.

“Relax guys, I’ve read most of the comments. People are loving it! Apart from the odd Trolls everyone thinks we’re legends.”

“Trolls?” Steve asked folding his arms and not really knowing what to make of the situation.

“Just a bunch of sad, bitter people who feel they have to impart their negative opinions on the world.” Clint replied.

“Yeah, seriously Steve they’d find something negative to say about a video of a kitten.” Tony added.

“Well people will think what they will, one video is hardly going to change that.” Bruce said, wrapping Tony’s hands in bandages he’d just retrieved from his medical bag.

“It’s what Fury thinks of it that worries me.” Steve added

“Oh screw Fury.” Tony gave his typical view on the issue and it only reminded Steve of the huge secret they were keeping from the king of superspies.

“Well seeing as we are all together, now seems as good a time as any.”

“No wait, Thor’s not here.” Tony, unaware of what had transpired the evening before pointed out the obvious gap that the demi-God’s absence was leaving in the room.

 “Ah right, Thor’s gone back to Asgard, I’ll explain that later Tony, but we need a team talk this afternoon.” Steve started, and Tony’s puzzled face went blank. He knew it was necessary, he’d just hoped it wouldn’t be so soon. Rhodey put a supportive hand on his best friend’s shoulder and Steve took the chance to continue.

“Tony, we had a chat last night when you’d gone to bed, it wasn’t our intention to go behind your back but we were all together and we didn’t want to wake you. We all agreed that we need to talk about what happened yesterday and how we’re going to control the CAEB in the future. Is that ok with you?”

Tony nodded. “Yep sure, what time?”

“Say 3pm? Steve looked around and there were nods from all of them.

“Am I invited?” Rhodey posed it as a question, but it was more of a demand.

“Of course Rhodes.” Steve nodded, noting the suspicious and dark glare the Colonel was giving him. He wondered exactly why that was.

Chapter Text

3pm came and The Avengers, plus Rhodey gathered on the sofas.

"Ok. So…" Tony started nervously.

"Let's start by establishing what we know." Steve took the lead as usual and Tony sat back to watch the conversation unfold with a heavy heart.

"Bruce has explained how you and the CAEB are the same thing now, so we're are going to do our best not to keep treating it like it was before you went to Asgard." Steve paused until Tony made eye contact, he wanted his message to hit home. "But equally, we can't keep ignoring it like we have done since."

"You are going to have to bear with us Tony. We can only imagine what this is putting you through, but this is a bit… well it's beyond weird and I’m struggling to come to terms with it, so God knows how you are coping." Clint felt the need to show Tony that they were thinking of him. They couldn't ignore the fact that Tony was living with this and it sure as hell wasn't easy.

"So initially we were trying to make solutions based on Bruce's experience, but Bruce has explained that your situation really isn't like his is with the Hulk." Steve started and then glanced to Bruce for back up in explaining.

"I don't know how you feel about it Tony, but the way I see it that you've got almost a completely new body, and you've got to learn how to use it. It's going to be like you're an infant again, learning to crawl, then to walk etc. So far what we've seen of the CAEB has all been accidental, but you did have some sort of control for a moment when you shielded us, so is it an emotional trigger?"

"I'm not really sure what to think." Tony didn't really seem engaged, this wasn't a conversation he wanted to be having with all the other thoughts swimming in his head.

"Work with us Tony, we want to help. Can you tell us what were you feeling when you were in control? Just describe it as best you can." Natasha took a gentle approach and it seemed to have the desired response.

"Ermmm. Well I just felt calm, like you do when you have a plan and you know what the outcome is going to be. I just knew what I had to do and did it." Tony stopped and Natasha was about to speak, before Tony started again. "Actually, thinking about it, it's the only time during this whole disaster that I was glad I had the powers, you know. So I could do something about the destroyer, cos no offence, you were getting your asses kicked." Tony smiled, but it was a weak one and it was only reciprocated by Clint, the others faces remained stoic and cold.

"And the rest of the time, you've not wanted them?" Bruce asked

"Well, No." Tony scoffed.

"Have you fought against them?" Natasha chipped in again.

"With everything I've got, but I'm not strong enough."

"Why have you fought it?" Clint asked incredulously. Being all powerful sounded scary, sure, but pretty cool at the end of the day. Why wouldn’t Tony want it?

"Why? Because I can't control it, because I don't want to hurt anyone!" Tony replied in the same tone and his raised voice took the room back for a moment.

"I'm sorry Tony, it's just that doesn't sound like that's a very good idea." Natasha backed him down.

"Yeah, I know but has anyone got a better one?" Tony's voice returned to normal.

"Well I think we've found our first step." Steve retook the reigns and Tony looked at him in mild confusion. "You've got to stop fighting them Tony, learn to use them, even embrace them. If you try to fight something like this, you'll explode!"

"Yeah but guys you've seen what I can do and I can't risk the consequences!"

"We know Tony, it's the absolute last thing we want for someone to get hurt. We are all in unknown territory, so we are going to have to take baby steps and it's more than likely we'll suffer a few setbacks, but we are all going to work through this together." Steve looked around to see the nods of agreement from the others. Clint put his hand on Tony's shoulder.

"We've got your back buddy."

"So, if you are up for it Tony can you set up some sort of training room, something that is isolated from the rest of the tower."

"So I don't blow the place up."

"I'm sure it won't come to that, but yes, we have to take precautions. We'll start you off with something small and build up slowly."

"Ok." Tony nodded. "I can deal with that. When do we start?"

"As soon as you can fix up somewhere suitable."

"You could use the green room." Bruce offered to Tony.

"Green room?" Steve raised an eyebrow.

"Do you need to ask?" Clint folded his arms.

"Ok, then we start tomorrow at 0800 hours." Steve rubbed his hands together.

"Fine." Tony's voice was sincere but his blank expression concerned the others. He was just agreeing with very little resistance and although is made things run smoothly, it just wasn't like Tony to take orders. Tony got up and headed to the elevator. "I'll be in my lab if you need me."

…..

Rhodey hadn't said a word during their little meeting. He'd been there to stick up for Tony if he'd needed it, but it had all been so diplomatic, a bit too diplomatic. He was pretty certain that there was a lot being left unsaid on all sides. But there was only one side Rhodey cared about right now.

He followed Tony down to the lab after leaving a suitable gap. The man in question was buried knee deep in wires from his exploding machine, and reams of calculations filled the air in the workshop, projected holographically and slowly spinning. It was quite beautiful really, Rhodey thought, although not a single word of it made sense to him.

"Pretty light show." Tony hummed in response, holding a wire in his mouth while twisting another two together clumsily with his aching hands. He hissed as he pricked himself with the wire and another little spot of blood joined the many others he had clearly gained over the short time he'd been left alone.

"Tony, you should give your hands a rest you know."

"Yeah, yeah but they're a lot better today and I really need to get this working."

"I thought you said it wasn't important."

Tony didn't answer and Rhodey frown deepened. "You were awfully co-operative today Tony and I'm not complaining, I just want to be sure you are actually ok with this."

"It's fine Rhodey."

"Tony, please I want you to promise to be honest with me. As I said I'm not going to force you to talk about anything, or do anything, I just don't want you to pretend that everything is fine when it's not."

"Honestly Rhodey, I'm ok with this. I'm not 100% comfortable using the CAEB, but this is the best chance I have. Besides I already have a backup plan."

"Your machine." Rhodey nodded in realisation. Trust Tony to have a contingency, his cooperation suddenly made more sense if he had a plan of his own. "So, what's it do?"

"It's not the machine itself, I'm going to couple it with the particle accelerator to synthesise a bio-chip that I can use to block out the CAEB."

"So you have a way to get rid of it?"

"I can never get rid of it Rhodes, if it goes I go with it and vice versa. What I have is a potential best-case scenario, a way of suppressing the CAEB within me, so I don't have the powers. I'll just be plain old Tony."

"I'm guessing there's a bit more to it than that."

"Like what?"

"Tony, you know what I mean!"

Tony sighed and dropped the wires. "Yes Rhodes, it is also a way to put me down if things go wrong." He shrugged off his friend's ever deepening frown. "It has to be done and you know it."

"Doesn't mean I have to like it."

"I'm not telling the others for now, it's so far off anyway and I don't want to ruin their little plan so soon."

"So what you're saying with all this, is that you really don't ever intend on using these powers."

"I don't want the power to crush a planet Rhodey, whether I get control or get this working I am not using these 'powers'. I'm a genius in a tin can, the whole super powered enhanced thing, that's for people like Steve not me."

"Fair enough." Rhodey could understand Tony's choice, but he was still worried about his best friend. He sensed that Tony had said all he was going to say on the subject for now, but there was another topic that hadn't been covered. "Anything else you want to talk about." Rhodey of course was eluding to incident which had set all these events into motion. Seeing Erica's parents at lunch.

Tony looked Rhodey in the eye and took a deep breath. "I will Rhodes, just not yet. Give me a week, ok?"

"A week." Rhodey nodded, he could work with that. "I'm holding you to that."

…..

Tony was really not in the mood for this. He took a deep breath and tried to tune himself into the power inside him. But the more he tried to clear his mind the more the memories flooded back, swimming just out of his field of vision. But as they came the power began to surge, the pebble lifted but he couldn't hold it steady. His power kept surging, he couldn't quite grab hold of it. The pebble danced around in front of him, flitting from left to right, refusing to stay still as if it was mocking him. The anger began to build up inside him which just made the pebble shale more violently. He couldn't hold this much longer; his lungs and muscles were all burning and his vision was starting to go dark. He glared at the misbehaving stone and internally cursed it with all he had, 'Fuck you, little prick of a pebble.'

"That's great Tony, you've nearly got it." Natasha chose precisely the wrong moment to speak. Tony snapped. The pebble flew across the room and embedded itself a metre deep into the concrete, causing a small explosion of dust just a few feet away from where Natasha was stood. Tony slumped to the floor in what appeared to be frustration, but was actually pure exhaustion.

There was a moment of silence while Natasha gathered herself after what had unsurprisingly been a bit of a shock. "Tony, come on you need to concentrate." She said with an eyebrow raised and arms folded.

"I'm trying Tash, but I'm tired."

"Stark, we've barely been at this half an hour."

"Yeah, but it was 5 hours yesterday, 6 the day before…"

"Stark, you are member of this team and until you get this under control we can't take you into a firefight. You're leaving us vulnerable, you need to get on top of this now."

She didn't have a clue did she? About what this was doing to him. Steve had torn into him on the first day because he had been late to his second session. They'd had him hovering objects for the best part of 4 hours and given him half an hour break. They'd had more breaks than him, he'd had a different Avenger 'supervisor' every hour and they were handling him with kid gloves. He'd been late because he'd passed out. Just lifting a pebble was for a few seconds was draining him as much as half a day of hammer forging metal by hand. At the end of each day, he'd felt like crawling to the lift. He'd been sleeping 9 hours every night and he hadn't needed that much sleep since he was a child.

Now he couldn't even be bothered to stand.

"Try again." Natasha demanded.

"No, screw this. I'm done."

"Stark!"

"I've been at this all week Natasha and I'm not getting any better. I'm getting worse!"

"Tony stop!"

"Just give me a break Tash! Just 1 lousy hour!"

"Tony!" Natasha grabbed his arm and yanked him to a halt. "Listen to me for one second."

Tony turned around reluctantly. His face was a picture of annoyance, but he waved a hand signalling for her to hurry up.

"Stark, when I said you weren't concentrating I didn't mean you weren't trying to. You've had something on your mind since we went out to lunch and its eating away at you I can tell."

"Tash, I'm not going to talk to you about it." Tony said bluntly. His mask was firmly in place and Natasha could just not get a read on him. His defences were up, and he was starting to shut himself down just at the mention of the incident. She knew she was on the right lines.

"I don't care if you don't want to talk about it Stark, and I don't care if you don't talk to me about it. But you have to talk to someone and I mean it!" Natasha never needed to raise her voice to get her point across, her tone alone could freeze over the fires of hell. Tony clenched his jaw and looked away, but didn't say anything.

"Take your hour off Stark. But don't be late for Steve again." Natasha stormed out of the training room leaving Tony on his own to slump against the wall and slip back into the darkness.

…..

"Sir, Captain Rogers will be arriving in 15 minutes, so I suggest you wake up." But Tony didn't want to wake up. He'd had no intention of falling asleep on the green room floor but his knackered body had, had other ideas.

He knew he had to wake up but it was taking all of his energy just to lift his eyelids and every muscle in his body was screaming. His head pounded and a wave of nausea flooded through him. It took the best part of that 15 minutes for him to scramble to his feet and the moment he was standing his vision blurred and his legs threatened to buckle underneath him. He clung to the wall with every ounce of strength he had and managed to stay upright until the feeling passed.

He had only just regained his composure when Steve walked in.

"Hope you've enjoyed your hour off Stark, seems Natasha was being soft on you." Steve said with a smirk.

"Steve look, I'm not sure this is a good idea I'm really not feeling right." Tony was doing his best to seem fine, but he wasn't, he really, really wasn't. But it seemed his acting was too good.

"You'll be fine Stark, the key to any training is pushing through the pain."

Tony resisted the very strong urge to snap back at that. The condescending prick. The lot of them thought he was a lazy scientist who hadn't done a hard days graft in his life. They didn't know the half of it.

"Natasha said we should try something new, you're probably sick of the sight of that pebble." At least that was true. "And, well unless you fancy digging it out of the wall we're fresh out of pebbles."

"Right, so what then?" Tony trying to hide the fact that he was barely able to stay upright. He panted quietly and casually rubbed his forehead shaking the beads of sweat of his hand and resisting the urge to shiver.

"Well, you seemed to have that shield thing down well, so maybe we should try that again so you can get the feel of it or something."

"I don't know Steve, it kind of has to be in the moment."

"Natasha thought you'd say that. Sorry Tony." Tony looked at Steve in confusion. Then the captain drew a gun and fired straight at him.

Tony drew his arms across himself in defence and the blue shield raised its self instinctively.

"Jesus!" Tony staggered backwards.

"I'm sorry Tony, it was Natasha's idea. She said you'd need the motivation. If it's any comfort they were blanks."

"Oh yeah, sure, great comfort!" Tony was bent over, resting his hands on his knees and panting heavily.

"You ok Stark?"

"Apart from the fact you've given me a bloody heart attack!"

"Want to try that without the impending death?" Tony rolled his eyes at Steve. "Natasha said just try and replicate the feeling you had…"

"When I thought you were going to shoot me? Right yeah, no problem." Tony closed his eyes, partly to concentrate but mostly to stop the room swaying. He remembered the feeling and breathed deeply. His eyes snapped open, glowing blue and the shield came into being around him.

"Yes Tony! That's fantastic." Steve was ecstatic, even if the blue eyes still freaked him out. This was the biggest progress they had made all week. The shield began to slowly shrink away as Tony gave up the grip.

"No, Tony, don't stop see how long you can hold it." Tony nodded gently and raised a hand to regrow the shield. The blue light in the room grew stronger causing Steve to look away. Blood began to drip from Tony's nose, his bruised hands began to shake. Steve looked back too late to see it.

"Tony, God! Tony stop!" Steve just managed to get there just in time as Tony folded in on himself and began to fall towards the floor. Steve grabbed his head and shoulders just before they slammed into the concrete and lowered him gently the rest of the way.

"Jarvis, get Bruce down here!"

"What's going on, what's a code 1?" Bruce was already here, Jarvis had been 5 steps ahead as usual.

"Code 1 is imminent threat to life of the creator. The alarm has been sounded across all floors." Jarvis answered the question.

"Threat to life?" Steve was confused. "He's just passed out."

"Let me through!" Rhodey barged into the room. "What the hell is… Tony!"

"Steve tell me what happened!" Bruce needed.

"He was just getting the hang of the shield, but then his nose started bleeding, I tried to get him to stop but it was too late, he just keeled over."

"Bruce he's not breathing!" Rhodey was knelt beside Tony, going through the checks "And I can't find a pulse."

"What!" Steve exclaimed.

"Jarvis vitals!" The screens popped up on demand and confirmed the lack of a pulse. The ECG was erratic, the heart was trying to beat but failing, the electrical signals were completely out of rhythm.

"Steve, go to the med bay and get me a defib right now!" Steve nodded, he was trying not to panic, but he couldn't believe that this was happening. He got up and ran out of the room.

Rhodey was on the ball, already having started CPR, leaving the doctor time to analyse exactly what was going on.

"Come on, Tony don't you dare die on me!" Rhodey continued with the 30 to 2 praying between each compression and each rescue breath that Steve would hurry up.

"Jarvis has Steve reached the med bay?"

"He is about to leave Dr. Banner."

"Tell him to grab a shot of niacin."

"Niacin?" Rhodey asked.

"He's hyper-secreting adrenaline, it's putting a huge strain on his heart, and the niacin will help to counteract it."

Steve was back in a flash and unusually gasping for air. He hadn't slowed down for anything, not for the questions from Natasha and Clint, nor the demands from Pepper who had been dragged out of a meeting by the alarms. Jarvis was blocking anyone but Steve and the medics from going to the green room floor.

Steve practically threw the stuff at Bruce. The crucial 6-minute window was fast approaching. The shot went in and the defibrillator whined as it charged. One thud, Tony's back arched and everyone's eyes were fixed on the screens. Thankfully it was just a few seconds till the tension subsided and there was a steady rhythm of beeps mimicking the return of a pulse.

Rhodey got to his feet, fists clenched. "I thought I could trust you guys to look after him! How the hell could you let this happen?" Neither Bruce nor Steve had ever heard Rhodey raise his voice and most of his anger was directed towards Steve.

"Rhodey I'm sorry, I thought he was just tired, he was doing so well…"

"And you couldn't just leave it at that, you had to keep pushing him. You do realise that he never gives up don't you, he doesn't accept it himself that he has limits and he sure as hell would never admit to you that he was feeling weak. So if he tells you he is tired, that means he is barely standing! I thought you guys would look out for him, not nearly kill him!"

"Rhodey I…" Steve was taken aback, he couldn't believe that he had let this happen and he was barely over the fact that Tony had just died for a second there and that was on him.

"Rhodey, please stop. We'll talk about this later let's just focus on Tony, Yes?" Bruce's voice broke through Rhodey's protective rage and he realised he was stood inches from Steve's face, pulled up and on tiptoe to try and match the taller man's height. He took a deep breath but the look of disdain did not leave his face, he backed away from Steve but didn't turn his back until he was nearly back at Tony's side.

"Steve, will you update the others with what's happening. They'll be confused." Bruce's eyes were equally as annoyed, but a little more sympathetic that the Colonel's. Steve nodded curtly and left the room as fast as he could.

…..

Rhodey slammed his fist hard into the wall and instantly regretted it.

"Did that hurt?" Bruce asked calmly, still occupied by Tony's vitals.

"Yep." Rhodey hissed through his teeth.

"Better?"

"Nope not really."

"Watch yourself or you'll end up with a matching set to Tony, although I doubt yours will heal as quickly."

"I just can't believe I keep letting this happen to him."

"You are not referring to just the last 6 months, are you?"

Rhodey was silent for a moment but eventually he answered. "No, I'm not." He sighed.

"Rhodey I'm not trying to probe, really, but… Is he alright?"

Rhodey's jaw tensed. "Honestly Bruce, I can't remember the last time he was 'alright'. But it's the first time in 20 years he's admitted it and I think he genuinely wants to help himself this time. That's got to be something, right?"

"Let's hope. I think, he's going to come round soon, we should move him into bed."

"Bed sounds good." A weak voice surprised them both as Tony's eyes flickered open. "Can I have a day off now?"

"Tony Buddy, take the week." Bruce laid a hand on his shoulder, but the genius had already slipped back into unconsciousness.

…..

When Steve told the others what had happened he had a face like a kicked puppy. Natasha remained stoic, Clint's only concern was Tony, as was Pepper's but nobody could miss the orange flame of distinct annoyance in her eye and her tightly clenched jaw spoke volumes. Steve knew he had betrayed all their trust today, especially Tony's and he wasn't going to forgive himself any time soon.

…..

"Tony, you've got reporters bashing the door in downstairs, will you please just go and talk to them." Pepper demanded. She'd stayed in the tower as much as possible since the training failed to go to plan, but after a few days rest Tony had been back to his normal self. The genius soon became a scarce sight as he escaped to the lab at the first opportunity. Training had been suspended pending further investigation into how it was affecting Tony, and if Pepper and Rhodey had their way this situation would become indefinite. Tony's mood might have picked up, but there was an awkwardness in the room whenever the team tried to communicate.

"Why Pepper?" Tony whined. "Share prices are already soaring, why do you need to feed me to the press as well?"

"What's up with you, you usually love showing off your brilliance to the world and you never pass up a chance to outwit a reporter."

"Ughh, fine whatever I'll do it."

"What does the press want?" Steve asked tentatively.

"Tony just released the breakthrough scientific paper everyone's been waiting for." Pepper answered bluntly.

Still not forgiven then.

"Oh yeah, what did you come up with?" Steve asked, genuinely interested. He'd been trying hard to make it up to the genius, but Tony didn't seem to be upset about it in the slightest. Pepper and Rhodey on the other hand, he avoided at all costs.

"I just read it." Natasha joined in. "I could only understand the abstract but teleporting is pretty cool Stark."

"Seriously you can teleport! That's so awesome Tony. When can I have a go?"

"No feather's, teleporting is…"

"Tony, I just read your paper." Bruce walked in Stark pad in hand.

"Oh yeah, what did you think?" Tony was sat back in the armchair, appearing laid back and relaxed, but Pepper could see his eyes light up in anticipation of Bruce's opinion.

"Well you've pretty much blown everyone's minds. I mean teleporting! You've not only proved it's possible but you've outlined the theory of how to achieve it and it looks, well its you it looks flawless. It's such a shame that the technology doesn't exist to actually make one."

"Yeah, well that's what they think." Tony said offhandedly.

"Hang on, what do you mean?" Bruce suddenly went from just excited, to incredibly intrigued.

"I'm not going to publish part II."

"What's part II?" Clint asked.

"Well let's just say I'm not going to just hand them the detailed instructions on how to build one. It's too weaponizable. They'll get there in about 100 years if they work hard."

Nobody knew what to say. They just stared at each other.

"J, get out the expensive suit I've got a pack of hungry wolves to go and face."

…..

The Avengers watched Tony on TV in stunned silence. His presence in front of a crowd was something else. It was a masterclass. Stood in his ridiculously expensive suit, with not a hair out of place he looked like a completely different person. He exuded confidence and no matter what difficult questions were thrown his way he had a perfect answer, thought of on the spot and that rolled off the tongue without hesitation. He had them right where he wanted them, even when they felt they were in control it was in fact Stark who was directing his own interview. They laughed on cue, charmed by his incredible if slightly annoying charisma. He was untouchable.

…..

Tony stood and stared into the mirror. It had been a long time since he'd worn this suit. God, he looked good. But he didn't feel it. He'd just put back on his disguise, the one he hadn't taken off for 20 years but now he felt it was crumbling at the edges. He was letting people close to him, too many people and he'd already paid the price for doing things their way. He was angry, furious even, but he knew it was only like this because he cared about them so damn much. He wanted to take off that mask for them, but how could he trust them now? They constantly misjudged him and in one way he knew that was because they didn't really know him and that was because he wouldn't let them. Yet if they didn't trust him, why should he trust them?

But the real truth was that he didn't know who he was anymore. He'd been wearing a different persona for as long as he could remember, take that away and who was he really? He had no clue. He couldn't even remember the person he was before it all happened, he wasn't sure if that person even existed anymore. He was scared; of everything. But most of all he was scared of remembering.

He could feel the burning bite of the flames, remembered the desperation that tore right through him. He closed his eyes and tried to force the memories back out of his mind. He took deep breaths, clenching onto the edges of the sink and imagining a sea of black. But he could feel the prickling heat, smell the burning metal and fumes. It was becoming so real again. He felt his arms begin to burn, this wasn't a memory, this was too real, and it bloody hurt!

His eyes snapped open and he jumped in horror. He was surrounded by fire, flames that flickered and danced, growing steadily upwards.

"Fuck!" Was this him again, had he done this? He climbed up into the basin and backed into the mirror trying to escape the inferno around him. But the flames kept growing, the smoke clung to the back of his throat and slowly started to strangle him. He gasped and coughed, not knowing what to do.

"Jarvis!"

There was a crackle from the ceiling, but it was barely audible above the roar of the fire. "Shit!" Tony gritted his teeth and covered his head with his jacket. He could just about see the door through the sea of red and orange. He leapt from the sink and sprinted across the room. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he tried to ignore the fact that he could no longer draw air. His shoulders rammed into the door and he fumbled for the handle. He didn't retract his hand when it came into contact with the scolding metal. He pushed through the door and slammed it from behind him. Collapsing into the carpet of his room, choking and spluttering.

"Tony, what's going on? Jarvis said there was… Oh My God fire!" Clint was brandishing a fire extinguisher but was shocked to see the extent of the blaze which was already eating through the door, like it was hunting Tony down. Tony lay back into the carpet as Clint tried to tackle the flames, but it wasn't a carpet anymore it was cold and hard, he was looking up into a black sky and the heat of the fire warmed the side of his face. But he felt nothing, not anymore, he was numb.

Natasha was close behind Clint, she took a quick look at Stark, he was lying very still but appeared unharmed and she was relieved to see that other than flushed skin he didn't have any burns on his face. Hi hand was a little red, as were his wrists, but it certainly wasn’t serious. She attacked the flames with the fire extinguisher, the blaze fought back but between the two of them they managed to get the fire to retreat.

Steve was the next into the room, the two superspies had the fire under control so he dumped the fire extinguisher and went to Tony. "You Ok Stark?" Tony's eyes were open but they seemed glazed, he didn't move at all and just kept staring at the ceiling.

"Tony, can you hear me?" Steve looked him up and down for injuries, but he couldn't see anything wrong. He put his hands on Tony's shoulders and gently shook him. "Tony?" but there was still nothing, he didn't even blink. Steve swallowed hard, what was happening? What did he do? He looked to the others, but they had progressed further into the room, their backs to him as the last little bits of orange began to fade and small amounts of black smoke slowly poured into the room. The smoke caught in Steve's throat and he coughed trying to force it from his throat. He looked back at Tony and it struck him how still he was, he wasn't moving at all, not even his chest. He wasn't breathing. Steve scooped Tony up and pushed out into the corridor and away from the black fog. Tony was rigid in his arms, his body resisting Steve's attempts to carry him and lay him back down. He wasn't breathing and his eyes were open, was he dead? Steve bit back the panic. Pulse, was there a pulse? He didn't even need to check, he could hear the strong thudding of Tony's heart in his chest if he concentrated, it was slow and even, almost mechanical. He breathed a small sigh of relief, but there was still the issue that Tony wasn't breathing. Did he do CPR? How did you even do that again?

"Tony please, snap out of it." It shocked Steve himself to hear the desperation in his voice. This couldn't be happening again. Why wouldn't Tony just breathe?

"Tony! Tony what's going on? Tony please breathe!"

Tony gasped and snapped upright. He was on his feet in a second, gulping in air but seemingly unaware of why his lungs burnt so much.

"Tony, are you ok? What happened?"

"Ermmm, yeah spangles I'm fine." Tony twisted his head back and forth, taking in his surroundings. "Oh, shit." Tony sighed and leant heavily against the wall.

"What is it what's wrong?" Steve jumped to his side and was desperately scanning him head to toe.

"No, nothing Steve Jees, calm down I'm fine."

"Tony you're not fine, you weren't breathing or moving, you couldn't hear me."

"What are you on about, I'm fine!"

"Tony…"

"What's going on?" Bruce came jogging down the corridor and stopped dead at the alarm on Steve's face. "What's wrong?"

"I set the bathroom on fire."

"What? How?"

"I don't know Bruce, take a wild guess!" Tony bashed his forehead into the wall and collected himself. "I'm sorry Bruce."

"Tony its ok, it's not your…"

"Please don't say it." Tony sounded defeated. "I'm going to the lab."

"Tony…" Steve tried to call him back but Tony just kept walking. Clint poked his head out of Tony's room, the fire extinguisher slung over his shoulder in a triumphant pose.

"Wow that could have been nasty. Fire's out! Honestly who let Tony play with matches?" Clint's grin was wiped from his face when the saw the expression of the other's. Natasha, equally sooty and sweaty came out and stood beside her fellow impromptu firefighter. She read the expressions on the others face and drew her conclusions.

"Oh."

…..

"Tony are you absolutely sure that this is the path you want to go down?"

"I don't see any other way. I wouldn't be interfering with my own brainstem, just cutting off the one which has grown for the CAEB, it's safe."

"Wait, you have a second brain stem?"

"Yes." Tony pointed to the screens and Jarvis brought up the scans without a word. "Welcome to a whole new world of weird."

"Jesus Christ Tony. How did you get this scan?" Bruce was astounded by clarity and depth to the picture he was looking at. In all the scans he had run he'd been able to tell very little about the effect the CAEB was having on Tony's physiology but this laid it out like a map. The CAEB hadn't just integrated with Tony's own nervous system, it seemed to have developed a complete one of its own and one which was hugely more advanced than the human evolution. Sure enough there was a second brain stem, not contained within the spine which was perhaps the only physical flaw in its design. It would be easily accessible from the back of Tony's neck.

Bruce ran his eyes across the scan of Tony's brain. It too was extensively invaded by the CAEB network, which was reaching into areas that humans simply didn't have access too. His brain activity was fairly normal for now, well, it was greatly above that of the average human, but this was Tony Stark. He would imagine that when Tony used his powers that his brain activity would fall off the charts.

"It's a live feed. I just had to do a bit of recalibration, as you know conventional scans just weren't touching this."

"Let me see the equation." Tony flicked it up in response. "Tony how did you get the computing power to process this?" Bruce was good at math, but this was like reading a different language.

"It nearly broke Jarvis, I had to most of it by hand."

Bruce just looked at his friend in awe. Genius barely scratched the surface when it came to Tony Stark, this was a once in a millennia level of work and Tony had barely broken a sweat over it. He wondered if Tony truly realised how much he far he could advance humanity if he focused all his efforts into understanding the universe, rather than the comparatively trivial stuff he'd been working on all his life. Then Bruce remembered what Tony had said about his archives, that he had a bunch of stuff that humanity just wasn't ready for. God he wanted to see what was in those.

Then he realised the flaw in Tony's incredible device. "But Tony, you can't just cut off this brain stem it will kill you."

"Well… 'cut off' was the wrong term, I meant more like filter." Tony pulled up another screen of schematics to illustrate how he would fabricate the inhibitor.

"Tony, that's not possible."

"Yeah, that's what I thought when my machine kept blowing up. But if I did this…" He threw up the next screen with a swipe of his hand.

"Oh My God." Bruce took off his glasses and clasped his hand over his mouth. "That is brilliant! That is utterly brilliant! So you use the particle accelerator to…"

"Yep."

"But Tony is you miscalculate with the tolerances by the tiniest of fractions this chip will literally kill you."

"It's the only way Bruce and I don't make mistakes."

"Tony it's not the only way, the other way is that you learn to control it."

"We've tried that."

"Tony we had a setback it doesn't mean that…"

"It's not safe."

"This isn't safe either Tony!"

"Yeah but this way it's only my life at risk, not the entire planet. And even if I got control of this by some miracle we need a contingency in case I go wrong. We need a way to put me down."

Bruce sighed. God he wanted to argue, but he couldn't argue with the logic that he'd believed in throughout his life since the Hulk had happened. He sat down to study the schematics again and noticed something that made his stomach turn.

"Tony!" He pulled the holograph around and pointed to a specific line of the equation. "You can't be serious about this!"

"Bruce…"

"If I'm right this means that the inhibitor will have to disengage on a programmed cycle or it will collapse the CAEB brainstem."

"Yes, B…"

"And when that happens your brain will have to undergo another merge with the CAEB's nervous system."

"Yes." Tony pulled at his hair in frustration.

"Tony, you'll be putting yourself through absolute agony on a regular basis!"

"Not so regular, it will depend on how high I set the filter and how much I use my powers…"

"Tony!"

"Its fine Bruce it will be short lived." Tony scattered the holographs in a vain attempt to end the conversation.

"Only relatively!"

"Bruce, I don't want this thing I never asked for it! I can't risk hurting anyone."

"Tony, I get what you are going through. I never asked for the Hulk, it never should have happened either, but it was you that told me that maybe it saved me for a reason, you that gave me the courage to embrace the other guy and look what good it did. And you have the potential for so much more!"

"I also have the potential to kill everyone on the entire planet. Maybe the entire galaxy. I know you understand Bruce, but no offence I am so much more dangerous that the Hulk."

"But you are also so much more in control. You are not two separate entities like we are and like you were before Asgard. It's just you now. I know how hard it is, I know how scary and hopeless it can feel but think about where you were then and where you are now. It does get better. I promise you."

"You and the Hulk are more linked than you care to admit Bruce."

"That may be the case Tony, or it may not, but that's not my point."

"Even so, Bruce, tell me that if you had a way to fix it that you wouldn't use it. If you had a way to make sure that you would never hurt anyone again, even if you had to endure a bit of pain every now and again, tell me that you would chose to keep the hulk."

Bruce paused for a second. He couldn't lie. "It's exactly what I would do Tony. But I want better than that for you, you are my friend and I want it to be better for you than it was for me." Bruce broke into tears and Tony pulled him into a hug.

Tony sighed. This was hell for all of them. He felt like his life was spiralling out of control and he hated not being in control. He was the smartest guy in every room, he always had the answers… but not this time. Not when it really mattered. But he had come to terms with the fact his life would be shit a long time ago, what he couldn't stand was that this time he was dragging everyone down with him. He was hurting the people that he loved most in all the world.

"I know Bruce. I know and I'm sorry, but I really can't take the risk."

"I understand Tony. Of course I do, but please just, not yet. Give it a couple of months, just give it a couple of months and see. If things get bad before then, then fair enough use your inhibitor, but give yourself a chance of having a better alternative. Please. For me, please." Bruce begged.

Tony was quiet for a moment, considering, but his face didn't give Bruce hope. He held his breath and prayed that Tony wouldn't just resign himself to a grim and painful fate.

"Ok."

"What?" Bruce could hardly believe what he was hearing.

"Ok, Bruce. We'll try it your way." He flipped the lid of the inhibitor's case closed and tossed it into a draw. "One month." He held a finger aloft to illustrate his point as he walked toward the workshop door and the lights began to turn themselves off for the night.

…..

Tony settled in to bed that night and felt uneasy. Apart from Bruce, Rhodey and Pepper, everyone had been tiptoeing around him, treating him like cracked glass. Nobody knew what to say and in the brief conversations they had not one of them would look him in the eye. Steve was the worst one minute he was trying everything to get Tony to talk to him, the next he was acting like he didn't exist. Compared to what things had been like just a matter of weeks ago this was hell, everything was unravelling.

…..

Pepper was pulled from her sleep roughly by a sound. She could feel Tony moving around restlessly beside her and it was getting unbearably hot under the duvet. She rolled over to face him and gently ran her fingers through his hair as she had done so many times before when Tony had had nightmares. It took a few minutes for him to calm and settle but he did. She waited a moment and then turned back over to face the window letting the blanket of sleep envelope her once more.

…..

She awoke gasping, but wasn't sure why. She had heard something, it had sounded like an explosion. She looked around in the blackness but fraught with panic her eyes had not yet accustomed themselves to the dark. Then she winced as she noticed the shooting pains.

"Jarvis lights." Pepper jumped off the bed clutched her arm and face and yelled out as something crunched beneath her feet and sent a stabbing pain through the sole of her foot.

"What's going on! Pepper?" Tony sat up straight glazed in sweat and panting, his stomach turned at the sound of her cries. The lights flickered on and Tony blinked as he was momentarily blinded.

Pepper looked down at her arm and all she saw was blood and broken glass, she felt the cold chill of the night air bite at her as she saw the blown in window. She gently dabbed her face with her trembling hand and she could feel a piece of sharp, cold glass embedded into her skin just centimetres from her eye.

Tony saw the blood streaming down Pepper's face and his heart stopped. "Oh My God." Tony's voice was barely a whisper. "Pepper?"

"Get away from me!" Pepper screamed, tears in her eyes she ran from the room. She barged her way through the door and ran into something hard.

"Woah Pepper are you ok." Pepper looked up into Steve's eyes and he flinched at the sight of the blood. "Oh My God! Pepper what happened?"

Pepper shook her head as Steve's strong arms held her shoulders "Tony was having a nightmare and the glass exploded and…" Pepper couldn't say anymore, she burst into tears and hysterical sobs wracked her body. She clung on to Steve for dear life. Steve was in shock, he couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"What's going on? I heard screaming." Rhodey was in the room next to Pepper and Tony and was rubbing his eyes having just woken up, he perked up instantly at the sight of blood. "Jesus!" Rhodey inspected Pepper's wounds briefly and hissed in sympathy. "Ok Pep, let's go down to Bruce's room and get you sorted ok?" Pepper nodded still tearful and shaking uncontrollably.

…..

Natasha was a light sleeper, she'd been woken by sounds from upstairs, but she wasn't sure what they were. When the whir of the lift started that got her attention, she was on her feet quickly and made a note of the floor it had gone to. Bruce's floor. Something was going on. She took the stairs and woke Clint up on her way. She wanted to know what was happening.

…..

Bruce woke up to a firm but gentle knocking. He hadn't been asleep long having sat up pondering what had happened in the lab with Tony. He got up wearily but was shocked into action at the sight he met behind the door.

He gently removed most of the glass while Pepper told her story, none of the pieces were particularly deep though there were some nasty cuts and the one on her face may well end up needing stitches.

"Will someone go check on him please?" Pepper begged. "I was horrible to him, he's probably in bits right now he can't be alone."

"I'm going Pepper." Rhodey stood up and kissed her on the head. "Are you sure you are ok?" She nodded and put a thankful arm on Rhodey's shoulder before he scurried off.

Now that the glass had been removed and the blood wiped clean Pepper looked one hell of a lot better. The cuts had bled a lot but were fairly superficial, she just looked a little banged up but her face was still as white as a sheet from the shock.

Natasha could see the conflict in Bruce's face. He was torn two ways, he was the doctor and Pepper certainly needed treatment. She was more frightened than hurt but those cuts needed attention. But Tony was his friend and he probably needed him more than Pepper did right now.

"It's ok Bruce it's not too deep I can deal with this." Natasha tilted her head telling him to go.

"Pepper I don't want to leave you unless you are sure you are ok."

"Honestly Bruce I'm fine, I overacted and Tony really needs you both so please, go." Bruce could see the worry in Pepper's eyes that mirrored that which was gnawing at his own stomach, however Pepper was very pale and shaken. He was worried about her too.

"Ok, I'll look after him Pepper. Just please someone get her a blanket and call me if she goes into shock."

…..

There wasn't a lot of light in the workshop, if the door hadn't been ajar and the shouting hadn't been echoing up the stairs Bruce wouldn't have known there was anyone in there. Bruce looked for a light switch but there didn't seem to be one. Typical, Tony Stark didn't do switches. As his eyes adjusted to the dark Bruce could see Tony pacing frantically, tearing at his hair with Rhodey stood a few metres away.

Rhodey took two steps forward and Tony snapped round to face him, holding out a shaking hand.

"Don't come any closer!" Tony's eyes were wild with fear. "Don't come anywhere near me!"

"Tony its ok, we trust you."

"How can you say that? Are you blind? Did you see what just happened?"

"Tony!"

"Get out, just get out all of you!" Tony swiped his hand towards the door and his desk rolled with it making a large clatter causing Rhodey to retreat a little. This just made Tony more frantic.

"Rhodey." Bruce came up behind the taller man and placed his hand over his shoulder, pulling him back. He nodded gently, silently signalling to the Colonel that he would handle this. Bruce calmly walked forward, slowly and gently, just one step at a time.

"Bruce don't!" Tony begged, his voice breaking as he backed himself into a corner.

"You're not going to hurt me Tony." Bruce's voice was completely level, but inside he was shaking.

"Bruce Please! You don't know that." Tony practically sobbed, his breathing was shaky and audible across the room.

"Yes I do." Tony shook his head, burying it in his hands, clawing at his face. "You aren't going to hurt me Tony. You can't, remember? The other guy won't let you." Bruce was just a few steps away now and Tony's strength was failing. He was more bewildered than panicked now, and Bruce decided to pick up the pace.

5 steps away, 4… 3… Bruce's face slammed hard into something and he was knocked back onto the floor. "Ow!" He clutched the bridge of his nose as blood dripped slowly down his face. He huffed in a few deep breaths, pushing back the green demon that roared angrily inside him.

"I told you to stay back!" Bruce looked up to find he was encased in a bubble of blue. Tony was shielding him, stopping him from getting any closer. Rhodey ran forward and suffered the same fate.

"Tony let us out!" Rhodey pounded at the Shield in anguish.

"Rhodey NO!" Bruce begged. Tony was already down on one knee, both hands outstretched, his whole body trembling with the effort. "Tony please! Stop!" Tony's head only bowed further as he gritted his teeth and began to pant more deeply.

"Tony stop! You're killing yourself." Rhodey and Bruce's pleas only seemed to make Tony more determined to keep them safe. It wasn't working. They needed another approach.

"Tony." Bruce waited until Tony looked up and into his eyes. "Do you trust me?" Tony nodded, of course he did. Bruce had never given Tony reason to doubt him.

"Then let the shield down." Tony used what little strength he had left to shake his head firmly. "Tony, do you trust me?" Tony buckled, dropping one hand using it to hold himself up. Bruce took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. He was not going to let his friend kill himself, even if it was a rather extreme and unlikely way of doing it.

"Tony, I know you don't trust yourself, but trust me now. Let. Down. My. Shield." Tony lifted his head again and Bruce held his deep gaze. 'Everything will be ok. Just trust me, Tony.' He thought hard and hoped that his eyes would convey the message.

The shield's dropped and Tony buckled forward onto his hands and knees. Bruce gathered himself to his feet and approached steadily. He knelt down next to Tony, facing the same direction and sat back onto his heels. He slipped his arm gently over Tony's back and he flinched at the contact. "It's ok." Bruce waited a moment and then wrapped his forearm across Tony's chest. He gently pulled Tony's towards him, the exhausted genius barely resisted, his head lolled as Bruce manoeuvred his near dead weight into the same knelt position that he was in.

Tony tried to straighten his neck, but the weight was too much, Bruce quickly and gently placed his palm across the back of Tony's neck to stop his head rolling back. He held it there for a moment as Tony began to regain his strength, he released his arm from around Tony's torso and lightly placed his palm between his shoulder blades for a little support.

"You see." Bruce smiled. "You didn't hurt us."

"I broke your nose." Tony barely whispered.

"Tony, you tried to protect us."

"And I still hurt you."

"No Tony."

"I hurt Pepper and… I killed her."

"Pepper's not dead Tony, she's fine" Bruce was confused, surely Tony knew that.

Rhodey had been edging closer to his friend, not wanting to upset the delicate balance Bruce had struck.

"You don't mean Pepper do you?" Rhodey closed his eyes and bit back the tears. Tony shook his head and rolled forward into his best friend's arms. "Tony you didn't kill her." Rhodey sobbed. Bruce backed away, this was not a conversation he understood, nor one he'd been invited to. As much as he wanted to know what was going on, he wasn't going to eavesdrop just because Tony was in no fit state to ask him not to. "Bruce, would you give us a minute?"

"One step ahead of you Rhodes."

"No." They both looked at Tony confused. "Bruce can stay." Tony looked up at Rhodey. "He deserves to know."

"Are you sure Tony?" Rhodey was completely shocked. "Are you absolutely sure?"

"Yes. I trust him. And he's our friend."

"Ok." Rhodey and Bruce exchanged a glance. "Ok Tony, can you tell me what happened tonight?" Rhodey kept hold of the reigns for the time being.

"I was back there. Back at that night. I was lying on the asphalt and she was still in the car. I tried to get to her, but my body just wouldn't let me... I got to the car, I could smell the gas. I couldn't get her out. But then I had her in my arms, it was going to be ok, but he pulled me out, he took me away from her again. And then it exploded." Tony was shaking. The more Bruce heard the more questions he had, but he bit his lip. Whatever had happened had been traumatising Tony for a long time that much was obvious.

"Tony it wasn't your fault. You can't keep blaming yourself."

Rhodey couldn't believe that he was finally hearing this. Tony had never said a word about that night. Of course Rhodes knew what had happened, but never had he heard it first hand, from Tony's own mouth.

"I could smell it Rhodey. I could smell them burning." Rhodey inhaled sharply and Bruce covered his face, turning away. "And then I woke up and there was blood everywhere, Pepper was screaming and she ran away. I hurt her, I scared her and then everyone was shouting, so I ran." Tony started to sob again and Rhodey held him tightly. Bruce moved in closer and ran his fingers through Tony's hair.

"Tony, its ok. Pepper is ok, she isn't scared of you, and she was just shocked. She understands." Bruce relived their conversation as he'd treated Pepper's cuts. She was more upset with herself for over-reacting, more worried about what that would have done to Tony than she was for herself.

Tony's breaths started to even out, his sobs subsided but as Rhodey felt the weight pressing heavy against him suddenly, he shook his friend lightly. "Woah Tony! Tony you ok?"

Bruce pulled a torch out of his pocket and shone in Tony's eyes. The billionaire had gone very pale, but there was nothing obviously wrong with him. Bruce pressed two fingers to Tony's neck, the pulse seemed regular, but was weak and fast.

"I'm tired." Tony mumbled, it was barely audible and the only thing keeping him upright were his two friends.

"Ok, he's just exhausted. He needs rest. Help me get him to the couch." Bruce and Rhodey lifted him gently and laid him onto the oversized couch.

"On his side." Rhodey remembered. Never on his back. They tucked the genius in with blankets and pillows they found strewn around and sat in silence, guarding his makeshift bedside.

….

Steve had left the room soon after Natasha had finished fixing up Pepper. There was nothing that Steve could do right now, so he slipped back up to the communal floor and sat in the darkness contemplating what had just happened.

This was a wakeup call harsher than any they had, had so far.

The training had failed, Tony had no control. He was dangerous and he'd just hurt the person he loved the most in all the world.

They had failed to get control of the CAEB and by doing so they were failing to protect the planet and everyone on it. They were out of their depth, which they'd known from the start, however this was proving to be more difficult and more dangerous than any of them had imagined.

They couldn't carry on like this. They needed help. Something had to be done about Tony, for his own safety as well as their own.

Steve picked up the phone and hit dial. It rang out for a few seconds but was quickly picked up.

"Captain Rogers, what can I do for you so late?"

"Director Fury, there's something we haven't told you. I'm afraid I've been lying to you. It's about Tony."

….

Rhodey and Bruce had been sat in an awkward silence for some time. Bruce was still a million miles away from understanding what exactly had happened, though he was much closer to understanding exactly how much it had hurt him.

Rhodey could see Bruce's mind working behind his eyes, trying to piece together. He didn't really want to talk about it, but Tony had given him the go ahead.

"So, I bet you have questions?"

"You might say that." Bruce began. "So a car crash?" Rhodey nodded. "And he lost someone, a girl?" Rhodey nodded again. "He blames himself, so was he driving?"

"No, she was… They were running away."

"From what?"

"It's probably better if I start from the beginning." Rhodey sighed and twisted round in his chair to face Bruce.

"He met Erica when he was at MIT. He was about 16 I think, not long off graduating and she was in her first year. Honestly I think it was love at first sight. Tony was a different person back then Bruce, still a genius and still so witty but there was none of the façade, that arrogance that riles us all up from time to time. Anyway, Erica wasn't from a well off family, it took Tony a year to tell his father about her and he disapproved from the start. Howard told him that she was only after his money and the rest, but she wasn't like that, she was… they were completely perfect. It was indescribable, like something out of a movie."

Rhodey couldn't help but smile at the recollection and Bruce could sense the feeling, there was quiet for a moment before Rhodey realised what was coming next and shook his head, the mood gone.

"Anyway, they'd been together nearly 4 years when Tony proposed, but she'd equally surprised him that day by telling him that she was pregnant. Then it was on Tony's 20th Birthday that everything went to hell. Howard found out that Tony had paid for Erica to finish at MIT and of course, for the engagement ring. They both flipped, I had to drag Tony out of Howard's office, but not before Howard had thrown a vase at him and given him a concussion."

"What!" Bruce had heard a lot about the great Howard Stark, he'd never imagined him to be violent towards his own son.

"Yeah and it wasn't the first time, but that's another story."

"Anyway, Howard said that Tony couldn't see her anymore, and Tony wasn't having that. They decided to run away, she drove because of Tony's concussion and the next thing I heard was that there'd been a car crash and she was dead."

The pieces started to slot into place in Bruce's head, Tony had lost a fiancée and his unborn child in one night, and watched it happen.

"So, how did the crash happen?"

"That's where things get bad." Rhodey took a breath. "Tony had been thrown from the car and crawled his way back in to save Erica, but someone pulled him away and the car went up in flames.

There was an ambulance on the scene within seconds and the person that pulled Tony out of the car… was Howard."

Bruce's heart stopped. "Howard organised the crash?" He couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"Yes. When Tony was in the hospital the guilt was written all over his face. Tony wasn't too badly injured, but he wouldn't wake up. He'd lost everything and by the hand of his own father. He blamed himself for not second-guessing Howard, but how could anyone predict that he would have gone this far?"

"So, I'm guessing he never really recovered from that. How could you?"

"I thought he was going to, it took a long time but we finally had a breakthrough, he was getting there but then I was posted abroad and when I came back he had turned into the Tony you all know now."

"Genius, billionaire, playboy, Philanthropist?"

"The very same."

"You implied that Howard had abused him before."

"Yeah, something that Jarvis once said to me made me think that Tony's childhood was far from perfect. He never said it in so many words, but he made it pretty obvious. That's one thing that Tony has never told me himself and I doubt he ever will."

"Hang on a moment, Jarvis told you?"

"Oh God yeah, Jarvis was a real person!"

"Really?"

"Yeah he was the Stark family butler, died when Tony was about 15. I only met him once or twice, and the next thing I know Tony had made an AI named after him. Think it says something about who was his real father."

Bruce shook his head, partly in amazement and partly in grief at what he had just heard. How on Earth could one person go through so much? Abused by his father who then murdered his fiancée and unborn child, then Afghanistan, this CAEB shit and probably a fair amount in between that no one would ever know about. He didn't want to look at Tony any differently but he couldn't help it. He was probably the strongest of all of them and they all knew what suffering was.

"I'm going to go upstairs to check on Pepper, do want a coffee or anything?" Bruce stood up and tried not to appear shaken by what he had just heard.

"No thanks Bruce I'm ok."

….

When Bruce came back down to the workshop Rhodey had squeezed behind Tony on the sofa and had his arms wrapped across Tony's chest. Tony did not look so good, he was incredibly pale.

"I was going to come and find you." Rhodey said in hushed voice. "He won't stop shaking."

Bruce knelt down and put his hand on Tony's forehead, he was warm and clammy to the touch and although Bruce couldn't see it he could feel Tony shaking underneath him.

"Ok. I think he's just got a fever. Hopefully it's just a symptom of his exhaustion." Bruce prodded Tony gently and he started to stir. His eyelids flickered open and he turned his head to look up at his friend.

"Bruce?"

"Sorry to wake you Tony, how are you feeling?"

"Cold. Tired."

"Ok Tony, that's fine, you go back to sleep we're not going anywhere." Tony nodded weakly, he barely needed a moment to drift off again. Bruce was happy to see he was fully responsive, he would be watching him closely nevertheless.

"You look tired yourself Bruce."

"That goes for both of us."

"Hop up, there's room for one more."

Bruce inspected the sofa and realised just how big the couch was. "It seems so. Why does Tony buy his furniture so big?"

"Because he can." Rhodey chuckled.

Bruce was very tempted by the option of sleep, he was exhausted emotionally as well as physically. "I'll stay for a bit, but I'll need to check on Pepper again later."

"Jarvis lights." Rhodey's command was answered and the room fell into darkness.

As soon as Bruce was settled his body decided that he should stay and he fell asleep almost instantly.

It was some time later that Rhodey woke up. He hadn't intended to fall asleep and it took him a moment to remember where he was when all he could see was darkness. His arm had fallen asleep trapped between Tony and Bruce and he wiggled it ever so carefully to bring back the feeling without waking his friends.

Then something whistled through the blackness. Rhodey snapped upright, unable to place the sound. Tony shifted slightly beside him, stirring at Rhodey's jostling of him. There was another whistle and Rhodey felt a sharp stab in the side of his neck. Before he realised what was happening, he was feeling woozy. He couldn't fight the force that sucked him into the darkness.

Natasha had convinced Pepper to take a sleeping pill. She was desperate to talk to Tony, but having read the hidden shock on Bruce's face Natasha had a feeling that something had been happening and something big judging by Bruce's unease. The broken nose wasn't exactly comforting either. Besides, Pepper was exhausted, she was emotional wreck and she needed to rest.

With all quiet and dark on Bruce's floor she wondered where the others had got to. Bruce and Rhodey were downstairs with Tony, Clint was pacing the corridor seemingly on guard and wide awake. But Steve hadn't been seen him since she'd finished treating Pepper and that had been nearly two hours ago now.

Natasha had been trying to calm the thoughts racing through her own mind, but she knew the others would not have been able to do so. Steve would be questioning everything that had happened, trying to find a solution. It was something she had been doing herself, but she had found no solution and she was beginning to come to the conclusion that they never would. Tonight's incident had made the danger of this situation so much more real and as much as she hated the thought Natasha knew they needed help.

As if on cue Steve's figure became visible in the room, and Natasha was instantly put on guard. It was the way Steve was stood, hunched over, barely stepping into the room and head bowed. He was refusing to make eye contact, deciding to stay in the shadows.

"Steve what have you done?" Natasha's heart was pounding in her chest and Clint stopped dead, snapping round to look in Steve's direction. There was a moment of silence where the air hung heavy before Steve slowly raised his to face them.

"Oh God no." Natasha whispered. It was written all over Steve's face, the apprehension, fear and regret.

"I'm sorry guys."

"Steve what have you done?" Natasha had already assumed the answer but she needed to be sure. Steve looked the elevator as the doors slid silently open and a group of heavily armed men dressed in black entered the room. SHIELD agents. And carried between those who remained in the elevator a limp form could be seen.

"Tony! Wait no, you can't!" Clint ran forward but was held back by Natasha

"Stay out of this Clint."

"Natasha you can't be serious!" Clint yelled and tried to push her out of the way.

"Clint think about it for a moment, we've tried everything and it isn't working."

"No Tash we haven't tried everything we can't just let them take him!" Clint shoved Natasha onto to the ground and ran at the agents. He struck down three before they managed to raise their weapons but he didn't get far before a dart whistled through the air and struck Clint in the neck. Its contents took hold immediately and Clint staggered backwards, caught by Steve and lowered to the ground.

"I'm so sorry Natasha but I had to." Steve's eyes were practically filling with tears.

Natasha bit her lip. Half of her knew that Steve had done the right thing but the other half of her despised the decision.

"It's ok Steve." She breathed deeply. "I understand. In fact… I think you've done the right thing."

Nick Fury never needed to announce his presence, the air seemed to run from him. Steve turned on his heel and stood to attention.

"I have no words." Fury paced up and down, taking care not to tread on the unconscious form of Clint Barton. "I expect Stark to lie to me, I expect you and Barton to lie to me hell I expect nearly everyone to lie to me, but for you to get Captain America to lie to me and so convincingly is a whole new level of deception. I'm glad you've become so close as a team, no really I am but do you know how many people could have been killed?"

Neither of them answered.

"Of course you do. And now I have to deal with your shit and you're lucky that I am too busy with that tonight to deal with you, but believe me I will get to you eventually. There will be serious repercussions for this."

Fury turned and left. The SHIELD agents left and the tower was left in silence.

Chapter Text


Agents of SHIELD update for those that didn’t watch it… After Avengers assemble and Coulson’s ‘death’ Coulson believes he was only actually dead for a few seconds and then was taken to Tahiti to recover. He has his own small team and is based on a large high-tech airplane they refer to as the bus. Whenever Tahiti is mentioned his response is to say 'it’s a magical place’ and Coulson is beginning to suspect that Tahiti is not all it appears and that he was dead for far longer than a few seconds.

 

"Coulson, I need to borrow the Bus."

"Of course Director, but we are on mission right now we'll be back on Thursday. Where shall we pick…"

"I need it today."

Coulson paused. "But we can't turn back?"

"No need to turn back Coulson we're coming to you, eta 15minutes."

"Yes Sir, can it wait a little while? I'm just about to have a team briefing and…

"Relax Coulson, I just need the one room. You and your team will go about your Business as normal."

"Thank you Sir. Can I ask why you need the plane?"

"No." There was a little pause as Coulson frowned at the abruptness of the director's answer. "I won't get in your way and I don't want you in mine, understood?"

"Yes Sir."

Coulson put down the phone, slightly puzzled. Why on Earth was Fury coming here? Since Fury had gifted Coulson with the plane he'd been pretty much left to his own devices, picking missions, following leads, building a team. So, what did Fury need the Bus for?

"Who was that?" Skye asked sliding into Coulson's office.

"The Director." Coulson brushed down his suit and stood up from behind his desk.

"Oh my God, really? What did he want?"

"I will update you all in the briefing." Coulson pressed his finger to his ear. "May, prepare for a Quinjet boarding in 15 minutes."

"Already got it on the radar. Can I ask why we are being boarded?" The voice replied in his ear.

"I'll brief you when we land. How far are we from location?"

"30 minutes."

"Ok, keep me posted."

Coulson marched purposefully toward the door but Skye was buzzing around him, walking backwards perilously quickly, which caused Coulson to come to a halt.

"Come on Coulson just give me a clue, is it some secret mission?"

"Skye, I promise you it is not nearly as exciting as you think."

"Really?" Skye raised her eyebrow, disbelieving.

"Yes Skye, Really. Now get out from under my feet and gather the others, we'll have the briefing now."

"Ok, cool."

….

"Coulson why do we need a briefing it's a simple operation."

"Ward, we've been through this, we can't be sure that our information is correct." Coulson was just too tired to argue with his team right now.

"What is there to doubt?" Ward threw back. Coulson just elected to ignore him. He had been behaving irrationally for the past few days and he was hoping that a mission and something to punch would get whatever it was out of his system.

"We are to proceed with caution at every step. This is an ancient temple of great significance to the native people, so please try to leave it intact. May will be with Ward on the ground, and Fitz will be there to deal with the alien tech once we retrieve it. Skye, you will be on the ground organizing communications. I'll be positioned not far from Skye, but Ward you are taking lead on this, do not screw it up. Gemma, if you could monitor things from here and set up some secure containment in the lab before we get back, that would be great."

"Just the same as the last 3 times you've said it." Skye looked at her S.O. in confusion. Why was he being like this?

"There is another thing that I need to mention. Director Fury is boarding in a Quinjet in a few minutes. So, we stay out of his way, understood? Absolutely no interference by his direct orders and that counts making drinks as an excuse to find out what's going on Skye. That area is strictly off limits."

"But what's he doing here?" Ward asked.

"And no questions." Ward rolled his eyes and sunk back into the chair. "Understood?"

There was a mumble of agreement throughout the room and it then began to empty as they started their final preparations.

….

"Simple operation! Simple operation! Ward we nearly got our heads blown off!"

"Calm down Fitz." Ward hissed.

"Calm down! Calm down!" Fitz was an unhealthy shade of red and his voice was pitched so highly it nearly exceeded the human hearing range.

"I'm Agent Grant Ward and I don't need a briefing," Fitz forced his voice into a terrible American accent and mimicked the way Ward was walking. "Well maybe you're happy being action man and barely making it out alive, but I quite like my head where it is thank you!

"Come on Fitz it wasn't that bad." Ward protested

"Fitz has a point you know." May's tone was flat and emotionless as always. She was the only one who seemed untouched by what had just happened. She was calm and cool, without a mark on her, whereas both Fitz and Ward were covered in dust and dirt with several cuts and bruises visible.

"Oh please!" Ward threw his hands in the air.

"What the hell happened?" Skye hissed as she rushed out of the woods where she had been hiding, watching events unfold.

"We had to change the plan a little." Ward answered coolly.

"A little!" Fitz roared again, but May put a hand on his shoulder to hold him back.

"Coulson is not going to be happy." Skye lowered her voice to a whisper.

"No, Coulson is not happy." They all turned on the spot to see Coulson stood behind them. "You just destroyed an ancient Temple."

"Yes… but technically we got your alien gizmo and it all worked out fine." Ward said hopefully.

"No Ward, it isn't just fine. You were all very lucky today, I could have been easily pulling you out in body bags. You have been behaving like a child for the past few days and this time you put your team's lives in danger. What the hell is wrong with you?"

Ward opened his mouth to protest but Coulson stopped him in his tracks. "No, don't bother, we'll talk about this on the Bus."

"What does it even do?" Skye asked. She tried to turn the awkward silence into something more light-hearted, taking the small cylindrical box off her S.O and trying to twist it open.

Fitz quickly snatched out of her hands in annoyance. "That's what me and Gemma are going to try to find out, so don't start playing with it in case it's some sort of weapon!"

"Sorry." Skye held up her hands and shrugged away. Maybe talking to Fitz when he was angry wasn't the best idea.

"Fitz slow down!" Coulson yelled in warning.

"No, I need to get back to the Bus and get this analyzed as soon as possible." Fitz carried on walking looking down at the device in his hand. "Now where did we leave it?" There was a resounding, metallic thud as Fitz ran into something solid and fell backwards onto the leafy ground. Skye ran to help him up but he pushed her off and grumbled to himself. The retroreflective panels disengaged and the plane came into view right in front of them. Ward was trying not to laugh, but a swift jab to the stomach from May soon left him coughing instead.

The hanger ramp began to lower and a worried looking Simmons came running down it towards them. "What happened?"

Fitz continued to grumble in annoyance and marched up the ramp pushing past her without a word.

"Fitz?" She asked in concern, but Fitz ignored her. Clutching his aching forehead, he disappeared through the door into their lab. "Coulson what happened?" Simmons turned to their leader.

"Go with him Gemma, he's had a bad day." Simmons nodded and scuttled off after her friend.

…..

Coulson didn't board the Bus straight away. He sat on the edge of the hanger ramp for a while just to gather his thoughts.

All of a sudden Coulson shivered. The air around him got colder and colder and as he moved it felt like treacle. But it was worse than that. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as they stood on end, he had the feeling that someone was watching him.

"Coulson?" A Strangely familiar voice echoed around him. It was barely a whisper, more like a breath of air but he jumped to his feet. Heart pounding, Coulson whipped his head around, but couldn't see anyone in the hanger. He walked back down the ramp and peered into the forest beyond. But there was nothing. He was met by silence. Utter silence. And there was something incredibly unnerving about it. That's when he realized, there was no sound at all. No birdsong, no sound of the wind through the trees, nothing. It was the middle of summer, yet the air was cold and perfectly still. It was as if time had stopped.

"You're supposed to be dead!" This time the voice was louder, still faint, but this time Coulson knew who it was.

"Stark?" Coulson frowned in disbelief

Where was it coming from? He couldn't pin it down, it seemed to be coming from everywhere and yet, nowhere, it sounded miles away but it felt like it was right inside his head.

Then the birdsong returned, the chill left his blood and the day seemed to start again. He waited for 10minutes, thoughts swirling round his head. Something was weird going on and he didn't like it. He didn't like it at all.

Ward sat in his bunk with his head in his hands. He had to get a grip. He'd screwed things up today, he'd been cocky and arrogant and nearly blown everything. When he looked up May was stood in his doorway, despite all his training he hadn't heard her approach.

"What's wrong Ward." Her face stayed as stoic as ever. "What happened today, that isn't you."

"I know and it doesn't matter now, it's sorted. I'm sorry about today."

"Just be sure it is sorted. And it's not me you need to apologize to, it's Fitz. I came to give you a heads up that Coulson's on his way."

"Thank you." Ward grimaced internally. Coulson wasn't going to be in a good mood.

No sooner had May left than Coulson appeared. Ward got to his feet immediately and held up his hands.

"Before you start Coulson I need to say that I'm sorry. You're right, I've been an ass the last few days, I let something eat away at me, but I've got myself sorted now and can guarantee that it won't happen again."

"I didn't want to have to discipline you Ward. What happened today was far from acceptable. I've built this team from the ground up and it relies on trust. Today you betrayed that trust. Now, some of us are going to be more forgiving than others."

"I'm aware of that Sir, and I can't apologize enough..."

"Save it Ward. As far as I'm concerned, you've admitted you had a problem and if you say you've sorted it then I'm not going to dig any deeper, but if you screw up again I want to make it known that this is your one and only warning. What isn't my problem however, is how the others feel about you right now, I'm not going to fix that. That's your mess, so clean it up."

"Yes Sir."

"So, what are you going to do now?"

Ward sighed. "I'm going to get cleaned up, see medical and then… go apologize to Fitz."

"That's a good start. I'll leave you to it."

..…

"Coulson."

"Not again!" Coulson banged his fists down on his desk in frustration and stood up sharply, knocking off his paper's which floated nosily to the floor. He moved away from his desk, storming out of his office and just started to walk the corridors. He'd been hearing the voice on and off now for the last two hours and having spent a considerable time thinking he was going mad, he had now developed a different theory. Stark was messing with him. He'd heard of course that kid had got them one huge step closer to teleportation, now he'd evidently managed to invent something else which was allowing him to torment his favorite SHIELD agent in revenge for him pretending to be dead. He was honestly surprised that it had taken Stark this long to figure out that he was still alive, after all SHIELD had noted almost 100 breaches of their secure server since the battle of New York, which they suspected to be Stark and those were just the ones where he couldn't be bothered to cover his tracks.

"Coulson… Coulson." Phil just walked faster and tried to ignore it. He wasn't going to let Stark mess with his head. The genius would get bored eventually.

"Coulson, please!" A chill ran down Coulson's spine that made him stop dead in his tracks. It was freezing here and the voice was loud. Louder than he'd ever heard it before. But that wasn't why he stopped, it was he'd said. Stark never begged and the desperation in his voice was unavoidable, in fact he could almost feel it. Now he knew something was wrong, Stark was in trouble.

"Where are you Stark?" Coulson whispered, conscious of being overheard. He realized how mad this whole situation was and he really didn't want to have to explain it to anyone else.

But there was no reply. He waited. Still nothing.

Coulson felt the coldness moving away from him and that always happened before the voice stopped, but he wasn't letting Stark get away this time. As the coldness moved, he followed. It was moving slowly, continuing down the corridor he was on. It was only a minute later that it settled and stopped. Coulson was stood maybe only 30 metres away from where he had been before. So why had it stopped here?

"Tony, where are you?" Coulson spoke louder this time as concern bit at his insides, his own fear bubbling into the background. It remained eerily quiet in the corridor and Coulson feared that he'd lost him.

"Here." The voice was clear and came from behind him. Coulson spun round and fell backwards in shock. Tony was stood there, but was gone before Coulson hit the ground. Coulson staggered to his feet, heart pounding, it was unlike the agent to be ruffled by anything, but he was trying hard to bite back the shock and panic that was whirling uncontrollably in his stomach. He stood and panted for a moment, resting his hands on his thighs whilst his heart rate began to slow. He straightened up slowly and purposefully, wiping the sweat off his brow with a handkerchief and straightening his suit. Composed, he started to formulate a plan. For a start he needed to establish some facts. Had that really just happened? Or was he going mad?

…..

Gemma and Fitz Bustled about the retrieved alien artefact, thoughts and ideas flying about the room as they worked in a chaotic sort of harmony. Fitz seemed calmer, getting lost in his work rather than thinking of the trauma of a few hours ago.

Ward thought now was as good a time as any to approach the pair, but he did so with extreme caution.

Gemma didn't notice Ward at first, but Fitz seemed to feel his presence instantly and his work ground to a halt. It took a moment for Gemma, engrossed in some data readings, to notice the sudden change in her friend.

"Fitz, what's wrong?" She followed the scientists gaze and her eyes met Ward's, who was holding back in the doorway. "Oh."

"Get out!" Fitz said with great hostility.

"Fitz please, I'm not here to fight I want to…

"Just get out, I don't want to hear anything you have to say!" His Scottish tones raised to a shout.

"Fitz, I'm here to apologize!" Ward was trying very hard not to raise his voice, hoping that by adopting a calm tone Fitz would eventually start to mimic it.

"Don't want to hear it." Fitz enunciated.

“The sooner you hear me out the sooner I’ll disappear.” Ward changed tact and there was a moment of silence as Fitz considered the proposal.

"This better be good."

"I know I screwed up today, Fitz. And I'm sorry. I changed the plan, but I also know that's not what you are upset about. Things go wrong in the field, you know that, but what happened today shouldn't have happened. I know that fieldwork is still new to you, you're not comfortable out there and I don't mean that as an insult… What I am trying to say is that you expect to be able to put your trust in me and today I was a complete ass, I thought I knew best, I wouldn't listen and I put you all in danger."

Ward took a deep breath and spent a moment to analyze Fitz's body language. His apology seemed to be going down well, Fitz was more relaxed and his steely Scottish stare seemed to bite less harshly than before.

"I betrayed your trust today and I'm not going to make an excuse, you don't want to hear that, but Fitz I'm sorry. I can guarantee you that it won't happen again. I get that trust is not something easily mended but…"

"Shhh!" Fitz hissed and Ward was taken aback.

"Fitz!" Gemma scorned. She knew Fitz was mad, but that was more than a bit rude.

"No Ermm... Sorry Ward that wasn't aimed at you. You're forgiven, but really just Shush! Can't you hear that?"

"Hear what?" Gemma asked, dumfounded. Ward listened intently, at first, he thought Fitz had been making it up and then he heard it. It was unbelievably quiet and dull, he couldn't even make out what it was, but there was something going on above them.

"There!" Ward and Fitz yelled simultaneously.

"What was that?" Gemma asked.

"I don't know?" Ward answered. "What's directly above us?"

Fitz loaded the Bus schematics "Ermm, it's the interrogation room."

"Isn't that the room the director is using?" Ward asked.

"Yes." Gemma answered, very quickly.

"And isn't it supposed to be…"

"Sound proof, bomb proof everything proof." Fitz answered Ward.

"So why can we hear…"

Ward stopped short as Coulson entered the room and sat down at a computer.

"Can I help you Coulson?" Gemma asked kindly.

"No, Thanks Simmons, just checking something on the CCTV…"

Coulson noticed the awkward silence in the room but elected to ignore it. If he was getting suspicious it was more than likely that his team were as well.

"How was your apology then Ward?" Coulson asked, but Fitz answered.

"It was pretty good actually. Might even get over it today. How long did you spend practicing that Ward?"

"A good while."

Gemma giggled nervously, but Coulson seemed to be distracted by his own project.

Coulson scoured the CCTV of the corridor of where he'd been, it seemed to take forever for the footage to fast-forward. He pressed pause when he saw himself pop onto the screen and then let it play on at normal speed. He watched himself stop dead in the corridor, so far so good, but then he just disappeared. He appeared again on the next camera, further down the corridor and facing the opposite direction, picking himself up off the floor.

He played it again, in slow motion, checking the time stamp carefully. He still just seemed to disappear and reappear. He tried it slower, and slower until he reached the minimum playback speed. Only then could he see something, a blurred streak of movement across the two camera feeds. That must have been him walking, whatever had happened it was evident that time had been manipulated.

The power began to ebb and it grew dark in the lab.

"What's happening?" Coulson was on his feet quickly but Fitz was already on the problem. There was a dull thud above their heads and the power drain intensified.

"The noises are getting louder." Gemma said in alarm.

"Noises?" Coulson asked.

"Yes, we heard something just before you got here." Fitz confirmed

"What's up there?"

"The interrogation room." Ward said. "Which is where the director is doing, well… whatever the hell he's doing."

"Isn't that supposed to be bomb proof?" Coulson asked incredulously and Ward just shrugged in response.

"Is it just me or is it really cold in here?" Fitz asked and Coulson snapped round.

"Oh, don't worry I think it's the Air-con." Gemma replied. "It's done it a few times today, especially when you were all on mission."

"It's been going cold?" Coulson asked in alarm. "When did it start?"

"Ermm…" Gemma hesitated but Coulson answered for her.

"Since Fury got here?"

"Well yes now you mention it, it wasn't long after the Director had his men take all that equipment up to the interrogation room."

"Equipment, What type of equipment?"

"You were all on the mission and Fury's men… well they completely gutted the interrogation room, from what I can tell. I was trying not to pay attention as you asked, but it was hard. They took a table in there, with restraints attached and a ton of medical equipment and... some not so medical equipment."

"Not so medical…"

"Well it looked like it could be used for a more unsavory type of interrogation."

"Did you see him take anyone into the room?" Ward asked before Coulson could.

"No, I didn't, but there were so many other ways they could have got someone onto the Bus and I was trying to ignore them and focus on the mission."

"Fitz." Coulson beckoned him over. "Where exactly is the corridor on these two camera feeds?" Coulson pointed out the footage he'd been working on."

"Ermm, well its, ermm, its two floors up… directly above us."

"So directly above the interrogation room?"

"Yes."

"Coulson, what's going on? Why is the power going weird?" Skye had found her way to the others.

"Not now Skye." Coulson was loading a gun, and it was not the night-night gun.

"Oh my god, what's the gun for?" Skye stepped back a bit in alarm.

"I'm going upstairs, no-one is to follow me."

"Coulson, that room is designed to be impossible to get in or out of, if Fury's locked it down how are you are going to get in there." Ward had his sensible head on for the first time today, but Coulson wasn't deterred.

His advancement was stopped dead when the whole plane seemed to start shaking. Every piece of glass in the lab exploded sending shards flying everywhere. There was a fizz of electricity as all the computer's shorted and sparks spat into the air. Everyone dove to the ground, shielding themselves from the falling glass but immediately their hands scrabbled to their ears as a deafening unearthly scream cut through the air.

It was the same voice. He'd never heard it in pain like this, but Coulson knew who it was and now, where it was.

The chaos was short lived and soon the plane stabilized with the hum of the engines all that could be heard.

"Scratch that last, Ward, get yourself armed I want you with me. The rest of you stay here." Coulson put his finger to his ear. "May I want you battle ready at the interrogation room right now… May confirm."

"Comms systems are down Coulson, most of the electrics have been fried, we're on emergency power." Simmons explained, a little grazed and somewhat in shock.

"Right, well get them back up."

Coulson didn't hesitate a second longer, he was on his feet with Ward at his heels.

Charging through the dark hallways, Ward was hesitant. Coulson seemed to know exactly what he was walking into, but Ward had no idea. He'd heard the questions Coulson had been asking, he was piecing things together and knew a lot more than he was letting on. Contrary to popular belief Ward really didn't like walking in blind.

Coulson marched up to the interrogation room door and put his hand onto the scanning plate.

"Your handprint won't work Coulson, Fury has locked you out." May walked up behind the pair of them. Coulson moved his hand and raised his gun instead.

May sighed. "And you know all too well that shooting it will get you nowhere."

"Great, any suggestions on how to get in?" Ward threw his hands into the air in frustration. "I mean what are we walking into in there, what is going on Coulson?"

"Save it Ward, you know as much as I do."

"Do you expect me to believe that?"

"Ward, someone is in trouble in there can you stop questioning everything I say and try being part of the solution?"

"Who is in there Coulson? Who? If Fury has got someone in there it will be for a reason, I mean what is this a rescue? Are we here to protect an enemy of SHIELD from our own director?"

"Ward you have no idea…"

"Just stop it the pair of you!" May pushed past Coulson and stood next to the biometric scanner. "If you both would have just stopped fighting for long enough to let me explain, then we could have been in that room 10 minutes ago."

"What? How?" Coulson asked, taken aback.

"I've been monitoring what's been going on since we got back on this plane. I know you told us not to, but the energy signatures were threatening the electrical systems, which could have brought the Bus down. I knew Fury would lock us all out, so I rewrote myself back into the system in case something like this happened." May placed her hand onto the biometric scanner and it lit up green. Coulson put a hand on her shoulder. He could always rely on May, even when he least expected it.

May burst into the room hot on Coulson's heels, she could feel Ward at her shoulder gun raised and on high alert. She scanned the room, there were 5 people, all down, scattered against the walls like they'd been thrown across the room. What the hell had happened in here? The director was in the corner nearest them, unconscious, but breathing, no sign of external injury. He was fine. Two heavies in the far corner, unconscious, a threat. Ward moved towards them, thinking on the same lines. May continued her scan. Two scientists, untrained, so not a threat and both breathing, they weren't a priority.

Coulson only had one priority.

He entered the room first. The first and only thing he saw was Tony Stark, lying on a table staring blankly at the ceiling. Coulson ran over to him. As he got closer he could see his face was bloodied and bruised, his eyes were empty and his entire body tense.

May stopped short in the room when she realized just who they were here to rescue. "Tony Stark?"

"What?" Ward looked up from where he had been restraining the unconscious guards. But Coulson didn't even look at them, he carefully started un-taping an IV line that attached to his forearm, removing the long needle that was drip feeding him whatever drug was in that bag.

"Stark?" Coulson shook Tony's shoulder with one hand, carefully peeling off the electrodes from Tony's bare chest with the other.

"Tony, can you hear me" Coulson tugged at his restraints, they were incredibly tight and despite being padded there was a tender purple stain underneath them as he freed Stark's ankles and wrists. Coulson kicked the infusion stand out of the way so could get to Stark's side. The lack of a response from Stark was worrying, in fact, he wasn't breathing. His body was still. Coulson tugged at the strap around his chest in frustration as it refused to come loose.

"Coulson, let me." May started to remove the rest of the restraints so Coulson could focus on the man himself. She gathered up the IV bag attached to the infusion stand, which Coulson had taken such strong offence to, they would need to find out exactly what Stark had been given.

"Stark, come on talk to me." He pressed carefully on Tony's shoulder as he gently removed the strap across his forehead. Tony blinked for the first time and his head twitched as his neck tried to lift it and failed. He gasped a quiet and rasping breath, but it took a moment for him to exhale. He took a few half breaths, but they were labored and irregular. It was like he was trying to remember how to breathe. The concentration was etched on his face, 'in, out, in out', but his body disobeyed him. Taking a deep breath, he eventually he got a good lungful of air and the fear in his eyes started to fade a little. His exhale still came in several stages, with little gasping inhalations disrupting his breaths randomly.

"Stark can you move?" Coulson watched as Tony's hand closed violently, not as he had intended. He couldn't hold it in a fist despite his efforts and his whole arm shuddered involuntarily. Tony's chest tensed and then went into a sharp spasm, causing Coulson to jump and Tony to gasp and groan.

"Ok, Stark, don't try to move." Coulson put a comforting hand on the man's shoulder. There was a deep look of concern and confusion in Tony's eyes and they focused intensely on the only familiar face in the room, Coulson's.

"Fitzsimmons, have you got the Comms working yet."

"Not… ye… Sir, nearly ther…" The garbled reply came through.

"Ward, have you got them secure?" Ward looked at the two guards he'd tied up and nodded, getting to his feet. "Go tell Simmons to prepare medical."

"No." Came a pained response from the table.

"Stark, now is not the time to argue." Coulson said softly, he waved Ward on, who had hesitated at the door upon hearing Tony's protest.

"Coulson really I'm fine." Tony voice was hoarse and quiet, he nearly choked on the last word causing Coulson to put a sympathetic hand on his chest, steadying him whilst his body spasmed again. "Just… need…. To get used… to it. Need… rest."

"Get used to what?" Coulson asked, puzzled, but Tony's strength was failing and his head suddenly lolled back, eyelids fluttering. "Doesn't matter." He slurred in response.

"Coulson can you hear me?" Simmons voice was finally loud and clear over the comms.

"Go ahead Gemma."

"If you need medical come down to the bunks I've started to set something up here. The power's still out across most of the plane but Fitz has rooted some of the emergency power this far."

"That was quick, Ward can't be with you yet."

"Let's just say we were one step ahead, and Ward… ermmm…"

"I'm here Coulson, I've just arrived."

"Good, you get Simmons whatever she needs."

"Understood."

Coulson turned back to Tony, he didn't seem to have control of any of his muscles, he could see them tensing and relaxing, some slowly, some causing him to jerk violently. He was practically paralyzed with pain etched on his face that he couldn't fail to hide.

"Ok Stark, we're going to move you. You ready?"

Tony's head lolled a little, his chin dipping slightly and his eyes closing. That would have to do as a response. Coulson carefully threaded Tony's arm around his neck and placed his own across Tony's shoulders hooking his hand around his ribs. Tony groaned as his whole body jerked violently, his muscles well outside his control. With his other forearm tucked behind Tony's knees, Coulson lifted the man, who he wasn't even as tall as, silently straining as he walked out of the room.

May looked at Coulson as he ran with Stark in his arms. How he was even managing to hold the man like that was incredible, yet alone run with him. She could see the strain in his face and the run soon became more of a shuffle. They rounded another corridor and approached the stairs to go up to the top floor and Coulson paused, trying to figure out how he was going to manage this. Footsteps could be heard on the metal steps, coming their way, much to May's relief it was Ward.

"Ward, will you take Stark up to Simmons." May didn't really ask, it was more of an order.

Ward handed May a list to free up his hand and slipped Tony out of Coulson's arms and into his own. Coulson visibly breathed again as the weight was lifted and the strain relieved.

"Simmons asked me to get the stuff off there." Ward nodded to the list he had given May.

"I'll deal with it." May nodded and disappeared back from where they had come.

…..

Gemma waited nervously with Skye and Fitz for her 'patient' to arrive. Everything had been 'all go' and the three of them had been feeling rather shut out. Gemma didn't know who was coming to her, she didn't know what state they were in and she had so many other questions running through her head making it hard to focus on the job she was about to do. That job was already going to be hard enough with the power out in the medical bay. It was a very strange design flaw she thought. They had enough power for the auto-pilot, but not enough for the medical-bay? She would have to get Fitz to reprioritize things in the emergency protocol... Anyway, that meant that she had limited equipment and limited space. The bunks were barely big enough for a single bed with the smallest floor space possible; this was a far from ideal situation.

"Simmons, you ready?" She heard Ward before she saw him, fast, heavy footsteps and deep breathing approached them from further down the corridor.

"Yes." She supposed, ready as she could be anyhow.

Ward ran toward the bunk ushering Fitz and Skye out of the way. Ward brought Tony into the bunk head first as Simmons squeezed herself into the corner to stay out of the way. The angle meant that Skye and Fitz saw her patient's face first.

"Oh My God." Skye stepped back even more confused than before. How did any of this make sense?

"That's Tony Stark!" Fitz exclaimed. Shocked was an understatement, Fitz had always wanted to meet Stark, as had Gemma, he was after all one of this century's greatest minds, but why the hell was Tony Stark on the Bus? "Gemma, that's…" Fitz stuttered, unable to think of anything meaningful to say.

Gemma's head spun for a moment, emotions flooded her and made her feel dizzy. Ward lay Tony down as gently as he could, but the way he was jerking as his muscles spasmed made it very difficult.' Deep breath' Gemma told herself, 'regain your composure.'

"It doesn't matter who he is." Gemma said to Fitz, he was just a patient, not a genius multibillionaire member of the Avengers and one of her personal heroes… He was just another person and she had one job.

"Ward talk me through what you know."

"Ermmm… well he was on a drip, I don't know what of, May was bringing it but she's getting the rest of your stuff. He's in pain… Obviously" Ward took a breath "he was conscious and talking for a while but doesn't seem to have any control over his muscles.

"Ok, Fitz get that IV bag off May and find out what's in it."

"On it." Fitz was on his feet at the mention of his name.

Simmons inspected Tony, looking carefully for signs of injury. He was currently unconscious, but his body kept twitching periodically which was more than a bit worrying.

"How is he?" Coulson asked, pushing his way into the small space with Gemma and Ward.

"Well, we've got cuts and bruising to the face, a potential broken nose and fractured cheek bone, I'd say caused by one, or more likely more than one punch. There's also the bruising to the wrists, ankles and chest but as far as I can tell there is nothing major. The spasms must be a side effect of whatever drug he had in his system, but I've never seen a reaction quite like this."

"Do you know what the drug is?"

"Fitz has headed down to the lab."

"Fitz, have you any news for us?" Coulson asked through Comms.

"Give us a chance! I've only just found May. I'm on my way to the lab but with such low power it's going to be difficult."

"May are you nearly here, I really need those monitors?" Gemma pushed her earpiece a little further into her ear.

"I'm on route."

"Ok," Gemma breathed. She put the back of her hand onto Tony's forehead and jumped a little in alarm. "Oh, wow he's burning up." In the dim emergency lighting it was difficult to see the glistening beads of sweat that had broken out across his skin.

"Here." Skye reached into the room passing Gemma two bottles of cold water and a handful of flannels.

"Thank you, Skye, you're a Godsend!" Simmons wetted the flannels, draping one across his forehead and another across his neck, using the last to dab across his collarbones and nervously avoiding the arc reactor in his chest. This was not good, she had no idea what his internal temperature was but she had a feeling it was bad. His skin was flushed and burning hot, he was completely drenched with sweat and between his muscles spasms he was clearly shivering. "Can someone get some ice please, this isn't going to cut it." Simmons sucked in a deep breath and tried to calm down. Her hands were trembling slightly as she poured more of the cold water onto the cloths.

"I'm on it!" Skye jumped up and disappeared, glad to be of any use possible.

"He's getting worse?" Coulson's frown deepened, though as usual he failed to show any more emotion than that.

"Yes Sir, his fever is out of control."

"Isn't there anything you can do?" Coulson's tone was harsh and it only caused Gemma to panic more.

"I'm sorry sir but I can't, there I things I could give him for the fever but…"

"But what?"

"They could react badly with whatever he's been given on the IV line, it could kill him."

"Fitz how far away are you from identifying the substance?"

"Minutes."

"Do better!" Coulson was getting quite irate and Gemma felt her chest tightening up.

"Simmons." May announced her presence, her arms bundled full of wires and monitors. She instantly noticed the tension in the room. Everyone was distressed, Coulson was near frantic with worry and Gemma was taking the brunt of it. Ward looked calm, but she knew too well that if everyone else was on edge that it would be making him agitated.

"Ward, Coulson out!" It was bad enough for Gemma without the two men taking up most of the little space she had to work and their presence was not helping in the slightest. As May ushered them out and started to help setting up the medical equipment Gemma mouthed a silent thank you. May put a hand on her shoulder and whispered to her. "You are doing really well."

Coulson had been reluctant to leave and now was lingering right at the door. Gemma kept glancing up at him, buckling under the pressure of his gaze as she started attaching electrodes to Tony's chest.

"Move right back or I will shut this door." May stood up and looked Coulson in the eyes, they pleaded with her to let him stay but she stood firm. "The pair of you just sit in those chairs, you are literally only meters away you are not going to miss anything." They obliged and Gemma could finally start to focus all her attention on Stark.

Finally, the monitors fired up and Simmons could start to find out what was going on, but as soon as the screens flickered into life they started beeping in alarm.

"Oh My Gosh!" Gemma gasped.

"Talk me through it Simmons." May's voice was level and calm, giving Gemma the confidence to carry on.

"Well, his temperature is beyond dangerous, its 42 centigrade! Er, that’s about 107 Fahrenheit… If we don't cool him down now he will die. Heart rate, very high but that will be because of the temperature. It's his electrical signal that's the problem, it's completely erratic, I don't even know how his heart is managing to beat properly."

"Ok, first things first let's cool him down. Skye where are you with that ice?" May asked

"Here, here!" She yelled as she came into the bunk wielding numerous bags of ice.

The monitor started to scream, its rapid beeps making Skye jump and causing Coulson and Ward to snap to their feet. Tony's heart rate flew up to 200bpm, his back arched and wrists curled inwards, his fingers doing the same.

"He's having a seizure." Gemma said as calmly as she could manage, but the strain was evident in her voice.

"What do we do?" Coulson asked

"Just step back." Gemma said calmly. Tony's neck strained and choked noises escaped from his throat, his legs kicked and his chest lurched upward sporadically. Gemma stayed close, keeping a close eye on the monitors. She tried to keep the ice packs balanced on him as he writhed, and was poised, ready to stop him falling off the bed.

Everyone felt sick and helpless. Thankfully the convulsions didn't last long, two minutes later Stark's body grew stiller than it had been so far, though the occasional twitch put everyone on edge.

"His temperature is coming down now." Gemma said quietly, pale and drained from the stress. Coulson and Skye visibly exhaled, whilst Ward just let his shoulders sink further into the chair.

"Err Gemma we have a problem." Fitz's voice crackled in over the radio and stopped Gemma dead in her tracks

"Fitz what is it?"

"The drug in that bag… Well the computer is saying etorphine, but that can't be right so I'm checking again."

"Etorphine?" Gemma exclaimed.

"What's etorphine?" Skye asked.

"Etorphine is an incredibly powerful painkiller and sedative that is completely toxic to humans. One milligram of the stuff will knock out a 2-ton Rhino."

"So, they were keeping him sedated?" May asked.

"Well I assume, but that should have killed him, even the tiniest amount is fatal to humans. If that's what they were giving him, he should be dead."

"Gemma, it's definitely etorphine, there's no doubt. I'm heading back up."

"Ok, thank you Fitz."

"So, what does this mean Simmons?" Coulson asked.

"Ermmm, well, apart from the fact he should be dead I'm not sure… I mean, the drug shouldn't have caused those spasms… the fever, maybe… it just doesn't quite add up… unless his nervous system's been damaged, but then he wouldn't have recovered so quickly, or at all in fact."

"Didn't Stark say he was fine and he just needed to get used to it." May contributed.

"Used to what?" Gemma asked incredulously.

"We don't know, he wasn't making sense." Coulson said.

Gemma's head snapped back to Stark as he groaned and started to come around. His fists started to clench and unclench as his eyes opened, panting for air.

"It's ok Mr. Stark we're just trying to help, please just stay calm." Tony wasn't responding at all to Gemma's voice, he was looking around in confusion and became more restless at the lack of a familiar face. May moved out of the bunk and beckoned Coulson back in.

Tony groaned again and Coulson's attention was immediately drawn to his hands. Having had no control when he'd first found him, Stark was now able to close and open his fist at will and it appeared that Tony was trying to test his finer movement. He turned his hands so his palms faced upwards and pressed each finger slowly to his thumb in turn. It seemed a huge effort and the concentration was written on Tony's face.

"Stark take it easy." Coulson moved further into the room so that he was in Stark's line of sight.

"Is there anything I can help with?" Fitz asked, having returned from the lab.

"Just be on standby Fitz." Gemma said sweetly.

Tony repeated the action, again and again each time getting a bit faster and sharper. Finally, his fingers responded normally and Gemma noticed he was curling his toes and rolling his ankles at the same time, checking that he had his control back. Staring at the ceiling Tony started to grow restless. He reached for the wires attached to his chest, trying to figure out what the unfamiliar feeling was. Coulson took his wrist gently to stop him from dislodging the electrodes.

"It's ok Tony, you're safe, you're with friends."

He stopped moving for a second, gulping in some deep breaths and Coulson relaxed a little, knelt beside the bed. Suddenly Tony pulled his leg up, bending it at the knee and rolled towards them so that he lay on his side.

"Oh no, I'm sorry Mr. Stark I need you on your back, the wires aren't long enough." Gemma exclaimed. Sure enough, Tony's new position was tugging in the wires attached to his chest.

"Come on Tony." Coulson put his hand on Tony's shoulder and tried to push him back onto his back. Tony rolled a little but resisted. "Don't fight me Stark." He pushed a little harder and Tony rolled away from him. But as soon as Tony's shoulders hit the mattress he started to get agitated, his breathing quickened and he shifted uncomfortably. Without warning he rolled back, trying again to get onto his side. He resisted much more strongly this time, gripping onto the edge of the bed to prevent Coulson from turning him. "Ward a little help." Coulson beckoned with his head, while his arms wrestled to try and keep Tony off his side.

Ward jumped off the couch and joined Coulson in his struggle. Tony seemed to realize that he was no match for the two men's combined strength, so instead he used the momentum to roll away from them onto his other side, must to their frustration.

"Ow shit!" Ward was knocked back into the wall as Tony's arm flicked round as he rolled, hitting Ward square in the face. Skye giggled a little, having been looking so hard for some light in this dark situation, but Ward did not look amused. The monitor beeped and flat lined as the wires finally reached their limit and popped off Tony's chest one by one.

May got back up to help but immediately stopped when she saw a flash of silver and blue.

"Coulson wait!" Coulson had been ready to try and roll Tony back again, but turned his head to see the reason for May's objection. On his side Tony instantly calmed down, settling down to be quiet and still for the first time since they'd found him. He was calm, comfortable and his breathing was even. But that is not what had drawn May's attention and once the others saw it the room fell silent.

"What's that on the back of his neck?" Fitz asked

"Don't touch it!" Coulson shouted as Fitz reached out to inspect the device.

"Why, what is it Coulson?" May asked

"I don't know." Coulson admitted. "I just have a feeling we shouldn't interfere."

"Well it's a shame you couldn't have listened to that order earlier Coulson." Everyone turned on the spot as the biblical voice came from behind them. Fury looked unusually disheveled and very, very angry.

"Director." Coulson stood up and walked out into the open.

"I order you to hand Stark back over to me."

"He's not a piece of meat!" Skye yelled in protest.

"Skye stay out of this." Coulson said calmly. "Let's take this upstairs shall we Director."

"Last time I checked I was the one giving the orders." Fury raised his eyebrow.

"And last time I checked we didn't take kidnap members of our own Avengers."

"Are you questioning me Coulson?"

"Yes, Sir I am."

"There are things at play here Coulson that you don't know about."

"Then maybe you could enlighten me. But Tony Stark is not leaving my team's presence until I can be sure of his safety." Coulson said simply. Fury stopped in his tracks and just blinked in bewilderment.

Then he did the unthinkable. Fury rolled over. "Alright Coulson we'll do this your way." Coulson tried very hard not to act surprised, he kept a straight face but Skye couldn't help gawking behind him.

"Right, well, we'll take this in my office." Coulson nodded, but Fury didn't go he just lingered, waiting for Coulson. Fury always had an ulterior motive, Coulson knew that, he had to watch Stark's back.

Coulson beckoned his team closer.

"I know this is asking a lot, but do not let Fury near him, not even for a second." Coulson said, his voice a whisper

"But he's the director." Fitz hissed.

"Yeah and he did this." Skye exclaimed a little too loudly gaining a wince from the team.

"We don't know exactly what he did." Ward said after a pause.

"Regardless, we keep Stark where we can see him." May said, she knew Fury and she knew he couldn't be trusted.

"Do I get a say in this?" A voice came from the bunk behind them.

"Tony!" Coulson exclaimed, the man was already sat up.

"Mr. Stark, Sir you really should be resting!"

"Save it Gemma, he never listens."

"You know me too well Agent. Anyone got a shirt?" Tony said quietly, pulling the electrodes off his chest.

"Well it is my bunk, I should know where I keep my shirts." Ward reached over the bed and pulled open a drawer throwing Tony a shirt, which he put on gratefully.

Ward offered a hand as Tony went to stand up. His legs were barely able to take his weight at first, but no-one said anything. The determined look on Tony's face was evident, he was going to stand and he was going to walk. It took a moment but he took his own weight and stood up tall, patting Coulson on the shoulder.

"Thanks for your help Coulson, but I'll handle it from here."

"Tony…" Coulson said, deeply concerned. The look in Tony's eye was slightly scary, Stark was known to SHIELD for his secrecy, after all he'd been dying and had told no-one, but something was telling Coulson that even though this was far too big for Stark to deal with himself he was going to try it anyway.

"I've got this Phil." Tony said simply. May looked at him in confusion. She couldn't read him, at all. She glanced to Ward and they made eye contact in which they spoke to each other silently. Neither of them could get read on Stark, and that was a first for them both.

Tony walked across the room slowly but purposefully. Nick Fury looked almost nervous as Tony approached. For a moment Tony just stood in front of the taller man, looking him in the eye. Nobody said anything, the room was eerily silent save the thrum of the engines.

Tony's arm snapped out and his fist hit Fury square in the face. Fury grunted and clutched his nose, staggering a few steps backward. Everyone silently gasped. They couldn't believe that had just had just witnessed. What was even stranger, was that Fury didn't say anything.

"Fuck off back to your Helicarrier Nick." Tony spat. "My help is no longer on offer to SHIELD." Fury shook his head a little, still reeling from Stark's left hook. "Now get out of my sight." Fury looked across the room and met no friendly gaze. He paused for a moment and then traipsed back up the stairs, disappearing from sight.

The room stayed silent as Tony didn't move, He seemed to be taking time to gather his thoughts, composing himself and it made everyone nervous.

May could tell that Tony Stark played the fact that everyone thought he was just a billionaire in a suit. He wanted people to underestimate him, but she wasn't going to make that mistake. There was something about him, something that made her certain that she never wanted to test him and that she would probably lose if she did.

"Thank you." Tony turned to Coulson and his team with a great deal of sincerity in his tone. "Looks like I owe you all one."

Nobody spoke for a moment but Simmons broke the silence.

"Mr. Stark are you sure you're all right?" Gemma asked in concern. What had just happened to him, was not normal and she couldn't believe that he was suddenly just alright.

"What's your name?" Tony asked and Gemma was a little taken aback.

"Simmons, Gemma Simmons." Then she saw something dawn on Tony's face.

"And you're Leopold Fitz, right?"

"Yes Mr. Stark." Fitz answered and Tony smiled, he clearly knew their names. He started writing down something on a piece of paper he'd picked up from the coffee table at the center of the room and continued to speak. "You can drop the formalities, It's Tony… And if either of you need something, equipment, labs, an eye to look over your work… anything… this is my private number."

He handed the paper to Fitz who just stood, gawping, staring at the paper in his hand like it was made of gold. "Call me."

Tony made a swift move to leave the room. It may have been full of people who had just risked a lot to help him, but it was, bar Coulson, a room of perfect strangers who had just seen a hell of a lot more than he was comfortable with.

"I better go fix the lights on this thing." He announced as he left the room.

"Did you see that? He just punched the Director like Pow." Skye fist bumped her S.O. on the arm in excitement. "That was so awesome! I bet that hurt so bad, Tony Stark knows how to punch."

"Yes… Yes, he certainly does." Ward said, still cradling a tissue under his own bleeding nose.

"I can't believe that just happened. Did that really just happen?" Fitz whispered, still holding the piece of paper now Gemma was hovering around it in awe too.

"Yes, Fitz it did. Seems like Iron Man just made your year!" Skye went to look at the number and Fitz scooped it away from her and into his chest.

"Don't touch it, you might damage it."

"Wow Jesus, why don't you two just go get it framed so you can worship it."

"That's a brilliant idea!" Fitz exclaimed and the two scientists scuttled off.

"I was joking!" Skye called after them. "Are they for real?" She asked May.

"It would seem so. I'll be in the cockpit if anyone needs me."

"Yes, I want everyone back to work ASAP. Would you please remind Fitzsimmons that we still have a potentially unstable alien artefact on board that needs more urgent attention than Tony Stark's phone number? Although I would like a copy of that, it might come in useful the next time he's trying to ignore me." Coulson pulled out his phone and started looking intently as the screen as he walked away from Ward and Skye. "And there's also a ton of broken glass down in the lab which needs clearing up so get to it."

"Yes boss."

…..

"So Stark…" Coulson had given the man an hour on his own after the power had come back on and was surprised to find Tony still working, despite the fact everything on the plane was in perfect working order. "Are you going to give me anything?"

"Well I'm giving you a much better electrical system for this plane."

"You know that's not what I meant." Tony didn't even bother looking at Coulson, just carrying on with his work. "Simmons should look at that." Coulson said looking at Tony's bruised hand.

"Nah I'm good."

"Tony you've probably popped a knuckle. The director's face is certainly one hell of a mess."

"He deserved it." He said bluntly and Coulson had no doubt that he did. "Is he still here?"

"No, he left in the Quinjet about 90 minutes ago." Coulson saw the noticeable relief in Tony when he said that, so decided to probe further. "You going to tell me how your face ended up a mess."

"Nope." Tony said bluntly. He was no sporting one hell of a shiner and the way he held his face when he was talking told Coulson he may well have a broken jaw too.

"Come on Stark! I hear you calling me in the corridors, I think I'm going mad and then I see you just standing there and you disappear like a flash. My plane nearly explodes, I find you in such a state you nearly die, freaking out my team in the process and then to top it all off you have me piss off the king of superspies to keep you safe. I think I deserve something in return. At the very least I want you to know that you're ok, so please go and see Simmons."

"She's done enough and I'm fine… I'll fix myself." There was something about the way Tony said that last part that made his stomach roll.

"You mean that literally don't you." Tony looked at Coulson but he couldn't get a read. "How?"

Tony just sighed and tried to avoid Coulson's gaze. Coulson deserved an explanation, but he wasn't in the mood to pour his heart out.

"I picked up something when I came through that wormhole." Tony started. "Turns out I got possessed by something that has the power to destroy, well, pretty much the entire universe. To cut a very long story short it went from possessing me to being a part of me. But controlling it… hasn't been going well. Anyway, my 'powers' we're really scaring the Avengers so Steve snitched on me to Fury. One minute I was asleep on my couch the next I was strapped to a table with this in my neck." Tony tapped the implant that they had all been so wary of. "I made it to stop me being able to access the powers, but it wasn't quite ready. Things had got to the point where I was going to have to use it anyway, incomplete or not. But Fury made that decision for me. This inhibitor, it kind of screws with my nervous system, I hadn't got the calibration quite right so putting it in… well it was rougher than I expected, hence the state I was in when you found me."

"You had powers?" Coulson was really taken aback. This was one hell of a lot crazier than he had expected. "What kind of powers."

"Smashing things, causing blackouts, telekinesis and this weird shielding thing, I don't really know what else."

"Telepathy and Astral projection… time manipulation." Coulson reminded him.

"Yeah, you say that I was calling out to you… but I don't really remember that happening. Honestly this thing seems to make up what powers it has as it goes along."

"And healing I'm guessing. You were on a drug designed to knock out elephants. Simmons says you should be dead."

"So should you!" Tony exclaimed. "Chitauri scepter through the heart. I thought I was dead when I woke up and saw you."

Coulson looked into Tony's eyes. "How long have you really known I was alive?"

"I found out about two weeks after the battle when I was digging through SHIELD's secure server."

"I really wish you'd stop doing that."

"I will… when your tech guys improve their security enough so I can't get in."

"So, that would be never."

"Yes." Tony said with a smirk.

"Did you see anything about Tahiti when you were 'digging around'?"

"No… I was after something specific. Why do you ask?"

"No reason." Coulson had let himself have hope for a moment that Stark had managed to find out more than he'd been able to himself. Hoping was never a wise move. He'd just have to keep digging quietly.

"It's really good to see you Phil." Tony patted him on the shoulder in a gesture that the agent really wasn't expecting from Stark.

"Likewise."

"Can I borrow a phone? I've got some things to sort out and Pepper will be frantic I imagine."

"Yes, you do keep getting kidnapped."

"Ha, this is the third time now."

"Third time, when was the second?"

"Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that part. I kind of got taken prisoner by Odin for four months."

"What?"

"Yeah, it gets weirder, but I'll save that for another time."

Coulson handed Stark his phone. "Say Hi to Pepper for me."

"Are you sure? Isn't you being alive supposed to be this big secret?"

"Oh yeah. I keep forgetting that." Coulson said, disappointed.

"Where are we going to be landing? I'll need to get someone to pick me up."

"We'll take you to your place if you want?"

"The tower? That's kind of you Coulson but I'm not going back there."

"Where do you want to go? We'll drop you anywhere you want."

"Let me make a call and I'll get back to you."

"Fine, I'll be outside."

…..

"Miss Potts, I have the mechanic on the line." Her assistant said through the phone.

"A mechanic, I don't need a mechanic. There's nothing wrong with my car."

"He's says it's to do with an Audi R8."

"That's Tony's car not mine and he would never let anyone touch that."

"I'm sorry Miss Potts, he's insisting he speak to you."

"It has to be a scam. Just hang up. Tony would never call a mechanic, he is 'the mechanic'." Then suddenly it dawned on her.

"Ok…" Her assistant said.

"No wait! Put him through, now."

"Hello…" There was an anxious pause as silence met her ears.

"Hello Pep."

"OMG Tony! Thank God! You have to stop doing this to me! Are you ok? Please tell me you're ok. Where are you? We've been looking everywhere, Rhodey and Bruce are out of their minds and it's been chaos in the tower, everyone's fighting I don't want to look at Steve and…"

"Pepper… deep breath." Tony reminded her.

"Ok I'm sorry."

"How long was I gone this time."

"This is a record, it's been less 48hours, you're improving."

"Well I'm glad I've pleased someone… Look Pepper I'm fine, in fact, this whole thing might even be over."

"What do you mean?" Pepper sounded both confused and excited.

"I can't explain right now. I'll talk to you when I get back. Can you set up the protocols to have my stuff moved to Malibu? I'll see you there."

"No wait Tony, I can't do anything!"

"What? Why?"

"Jarvis has gone into lockdown, everything is back to manual."

"Oh God the protocols! Security was breached so he's shut down to protect my files from being stolen." That really put a spanner in Tony's plan, he really hadn't wanted to go back to the tower. "I'll have to do a full set of tests to get back into the system." He groaned over the line.

"Tony, I don't want you to have to come back here." Pepper knew that Tony was trying to avoid coming back to the tower. In fact, Pepper would have got out of there the day Tony was taken if she didn't also work there. She couldn't believe that Steve of all people had betrayed Tony like that. Bruce hadn't come out of the green room for nearly a day and when he had he'd refused to talk to Steve or Natasha. Rhodey was furious, she'd been keeping him away for fear of what he might do. Clint was trying to pull the team together, he could see Steve's distress at the whole situation and kind of understood why he'd done it. They had needed help, things had got well out of control but Steve's timing and his method were completely off. They should have let Tony calm down and talked this through, together, as a team. Tony was untrusting at the best of times and they'd only just really started to build a good relationship between them all, now it was in pieces. Whenever any of them where in the room together it ended in an argument or very nearly a punch up.

"It's Ok Pepper, I'm going to have to." Pepper sighed internally. This was not the position she wanted Tony to be in. She didn't want to have to face the person who had just betrayed him.

"I'll see you in a few hours."

"Take care of yourself Tony."

Tony hung up the phone. "Can I take you up on that lift to New York Coulson?"

"Of course." Coulson nodded and pressed a finger to his Comms. "May, set a course for Stark tower."

"No problem."

Chapter Text

Tony was swimming. He could have sworn it. But it felt different. It took him a while to figure out why. He was swimming, but not in water. He was trapped in the space between sleep and the real world. Every now and then he could feel the waves get stronger and pull him back onto the shores of life. He'd get a glimpse of harsh white lighting but through the veil of a heavy cloud which bore down on him, paralyzing him. There were others present, he wasn't sure who, their voices raised in alarm when they saw his eyes open. Then shortly after there was a flash of pain in the center of his face, before he was sucked back away with the current.

Each time he spent less and less time swimming, falling back to shore more quickly. He could hear more, feel more, but every time he opened his eyes the same thing happened, he was pulled away and he couldn't fight it.

So, the next time he felt the sturdiness of reality unfold around him, he didn't move. He kept his eyes closed and let the world become more solid. He tried hard not to change his breathing or so much as twitch. As he started to piece things together the voices around him became clearer.

The last thing he remembered was falling asleep, safe and warm. But now he was here, wherever here was. He calmed his thoughts and tried to listen to the sounds around him.

"I'm sorry Director but I cannot find a way of separating the energy signature from Mr. Stark."

"There must be something."

Tony knew that voice, he knew it well. Nick Fury. So, he was with SHIELD. That meant only one thing. One of his 'team' had ratted on him, one of them had told Fury. He felt betrayed, he felt furious. He'd trusted them and now he was lying on a cold metal table, he could feel straps digging into to him, holding him down.

"I'm sorry Sir, this is beyond Earth's technology. The only way to purge the energy signature is if Mr. Stark were to die." A young voice cut through Tony's trail of thought. They were trying to figure out how to cure him, how quaint.

"Well that isn't an option, he still has his uses."

Tony nearly scoffed out loud, but held himself.

"Well I'm sorry Sir, but I can't fix the problem."

"You people are supposed to be some of the world's best scientists and you can't find a solution!"

"It's integrated completely into his brain and nervous system."

"Well un-integrate it then! And that's not a request that's an order."

Although it was amusing hear Fury struggle with the same problem he had for months Tony had, had enough. Time to end his little ruse.

"Why don't you check out that little metal box you stole from my lab?" Tony croaked, finally sick of pretending to be asleep. He could feel the alarm in the air, bodies tensed and heart beats quickened. He still didn't open his eyes.

"Up that sedative now!" Fury barked and the medics started to scuttle.

"Don't bother Nick, it hasn't been working for the last three rounds you put in. I'm just burning it right off."

"Try something stronger."

"Sir we don't have anything…

"Why don't you just take my advice?" Tony sighed and relaxed against his restraints.

"Well find something!" Fury's voice rose into a roar. Literally everyone in the room was trying their best to ignore Tony's presence. It was like he didn't exist, well, not as a person anyway.

"For Fuck's sake Nick, I'm trying to help you, you jackass!" Tony's raised voice had the desired effect. The room stopped dead. Tony started to open his heavy eyes. The sedative may not be fully effective, but he could certainly feel it pumping through his veins. Everyone was staring at him in shock and fear, Fury however was as expressionless as ever.

Tony tried to shift himself so he could see the room better, but the straps dug in tightly so he gave up and sunk back onto the hard metal.

"Think about it Fury, I've known about this for months, don't you think I'd have got at least half way to finding a solution."

"So, have you Stark, found a solution?"

"Yes."

"Care to share?"

"I told you it's in that little grey box." Tony was pissed. He'd never been so pissed off in his life and he wasn't going to make this easy for them.

Fury clicked his fingers and one of the medics handed him the item in question. He flipped opened the box roughly, Tony bit his tongue, did he have no respect? It was incredibly delicate after all.

"So Stark, what is it."

"Let me out of these and I'll show you."

"I don't think so Stark."

"Nick, seriously don't you realize that if I want to I could bring this plane down by just thinking about it…

"Are you threatening me Stark?"

"No, For God's sake, No. I'm just making the point that I have all the power in the world at my fingertips and you think that these stupid rubber bands are going to stop me getting what I want. Right now, you have my goodwill, yet you've kidnapped me, drugged me and tied me to a table. Now if I were you, knowing what I can do, I'd be trying to stay on my sweet side, don't you think? Use your head Fury and let me out before you get to see how pissed off I really am."

Fury didn't look convinced, Tony would have torn his hair out there and then, if he could have moved his arms. "Fury, if you think you want rid of this CAEB I can assure you, I want it gone ten times more than you can even imagine. I've found a solution and I can't show you what it is when I'm tied to a table!"

"Fine, release him."

Tony sighed and rubbed his wrists as he was finally allowed to sit up. He ached all over, it was like he'd slept inside a tumble drier. His head pounded, but his nose and jaw were particularly sore. He reached up and touched his face, flinching as pain shot through it, he could feel the wet sticky texture of his own blood as it dripped from his nose and coated the side of his face.

"You punched me?" Tony looked around incredulously. "You had me drugged up and you punched me?"

"I needed to make sure you stayed sedated."

"And you kept miscalculating." Tony said un-impressed.

"Yes."

"So you punched me, in the face?" Tony said very slowly.

"Shall we get on Stark?" Fury sighed handing him the box.

Tony carefully took out the inhibitor, it was small, just slightly bigger than the tip of his thumb and paper thin. He cradled it carefully in the palm of his hand and stared at it for a while.

"So how does it work?" Fury said impatiently and Tony huffed in annoyance.

"It's a neural implant, put it on the back of my neck and two needles will drill into the CAEB's brain stem and basically inhibit the CAEB's electrical signals by producing an equal and opposite signal of its own."

"Can it be disabled?"

"Yes. The effect can be adjusted across a complete spectrum, from my current state, which is having full accesses to the CAEB's power, to cutting off the CAEB completely." Tony neglected to mention the kill-switch, only three people would have access to that.

"What's it set too now?"

"I've calibrated it as best I can to block out all the CAEB and just leave me, but it's not quite right yet, the transition when I put it in needs working on, if you give me 24hours after you drop me off, Bruce and I can have it in and working and you can sleep easy."

"I'm sorry Stark but I can't have you walking around out there unless this thing is on."

"I told you I'll have it working in 24hours, I can only make the alterations from my lab."

"You leave here with the inhibitor in pace or you don't leave here at all." Fury's serious tone was undermined by the clunk of a gun loading. The two-armed guards edged in closer with their automatic weapons.

Tony would have loved to have said he wasn't intimidated, but that wasn't strictly true. He could feel his heart pounding in his chest, although partly in anger that he'd let himself get into another situation like this. Truth be told he was worried, he was backed into a corner and you should never back an animal into a corner and his animal was more dangerous than most. He was also playing a poor set of cards, he wanted Fury to feel threatened by him, so he could have things his own way, but he was very much bluffing about the control he had of his powers and Fury was calling that bluff.

"Seriously. You want to play this game."

"Do you?"

They stared at each other for a moment. You could cut the tension in the room with a knife. Then Fury upped his game.

"Do you think after what happened the other night they are going to want you back there, experimenting? Do you think Banner is still going to want to help you?"

Tony glared at Fury's eye with a rage he'd not felt in a long time, he wanted to grab the man by the throat and slam him into the wall. He wanted to tear the wings off the plane… but somehow he held himself. The last thing he wanted to do was succumb to Fury, the inhibitor was operational, but it wasn't perfect, he wanted to get it right, but he didn't have any more time, he knew that. But this was going to hurt, he just wanted to be somewhere safe, somewhere private and surrounded by the people he could trust. But he didn’t really have those anymore.

There was no other option. But he wanted to know something first.

"Roger's or Romanov?" Tony said sadly.

"I'm sorry?" Fury exclaimed in frustration.

"Who phoned you? Rogers or Romanov?"

Fury didn't answer and Tony sighed and nodded, that said it all. "Steve." He closed his eyes for a moment and Fury didn't deny it.

Tony pressed his thumb onto the surface of the inhibitor and it lit up green. He passed it to Fury very carefully and this time the looming man took it more gently.

"It's activated by biometrically, so far it's just coded to me and Banner and before you ask no, I'm not writing you or any of your SHIELD spies in on this. This stays with me. It has to be positioned perfectly which it senses itself, once it goes green it will deploy with a 60 second delay."

"Hold him." Fury's Guards grabbed Tony and pushed his head down towards his knees. He tried to kick out but quickly realized his legs were still tied down.

"Jesus Fury what the hell!" Fury just ignored Stark and passed the inhibitor to one of the scientists. Why did they have to be dressed in white coats? He could feel them sliding the inhibitor around at the base of his hairline, failing to find the right spot.

"You have to move it lower around the C6-C7 vertebrae." The young scientist obliged silently and after a small amount of wiggling the green light flashed on. The inhibitor made an electronic whir as the needles deployed burrowing into Tony's neck.

Tony shuddered as the back of his neck burnt, but the pain lasted only for a second. The Heavies let go and he slowly sat back up. 50 seconds.

"Well Fury you better strap me down now."

"Why?"

"Is this room bomb proof?" 45 seconds.

"Well yes."

"Then I suggest you strap me down and get your ass the other side of that door in the next 40 seconds."

"Why Stark?"

"Cos I don't know exactly what's about to happen but I imagine it's going to get pretty ugly."

35seconds. "Fine strap him down!" Tony was pressed down onto the table again and the men weren't gentle in their haste to apply the restraints.

"You gonna get yourself out of here? You don't have much time." 15seconds.

"We're not going anywhere."

Tony huffed, he was starting to feel very shaky. 10 seconds.

"Don't say I didn't warn you."

5, 4, 3, 2, 1… deploy.

Then there was nothing but pain. He couldn't stop the primal scream that escaped his lips. It rose up until it blinded him, but even when the darkness folded in around him, the pain did not stop.

"Tony."

Tony's eyes snapped open and it took him a moment to realize where he was. He took a deep, but quiet breath as he tried to force the memory out of his mind. He stumbled to his feet. He remembered having slunk down just for a moment, his legs had been killing him even though he'd barely been walking a few minutes, then, he must have fallen asleep. Even now he felt drained, exhausted. He definitely must have fallen asleep.

"Hey Coulson, what can I do you for." He said cheerily.

Tony's light and happy demeanor did not fool Phil for a second. For start he'd just found the man asleep on the floor, propped against the wall, that was never a good sign. Neither was the way his head was moving restlessly and the sheen of sweat that covered his forehead. Phil knew what a nightmare looked like, he just wondered which one of his horror's Tony was reliving.

"Just letting you know our eta is 0600."

"Perfect." Tony said, and it was, that was when Steve was out for his run. Two hours every morning like clockwork. Hopefully that would give him the time he needed, without the need for un-wanted confrontations.

"Can we land on your roof? It's a big bird and most buildings won't take the weight, but you being you…"

"Yes it will take the weight, I had the whole building reinforced after…" Tony's heart rate quickened, he thought the words but couldn't quite say them. Coulson looked on in concern as Tony's breathing got more and more shallow.

"I thought so, that's ideal." Coulson's words seemed to snap Tony out of it and he straightened up, shaking himself off. "Tony, are you sure you are alright?"

"Yeah, great."

Coulson looked the man up and down. He was exhausted and trying hard to hide it. There was something behind his eyes that was screaming out for help but his body refused to show it. What struck him the most was how much weight he'd lost. He'd nearly say he looked good, but he couldn't, it wasn't Tony. He was lean, very lean, leaner than Ward… too lean. His usually strong and bulky arms looked remarkably reduced, like he'd been trying to morph into a long distance runner.

"Stark I really mean it, will you please just get checked out we have about an hour before we land and quite frankly I'm worried."

"Phil, you don't need to worry about me."

"I think I do, because you don't seem to worry about yourself all too much." Tony sighed in response. "Look Tony, I don't want to pry, but I mean, when was the last time you had a decent meal? How much time are you spending locked up in your lab?”

Tony chuckled. "I'm eating just fine Coulson."

"Why do I find that hard to believe? You must have lost 15 pounds since I last saw you."

"Yeah, well that's about right."

"Are you going to explain?"

Tony sighed again. He was getting far too used to spilling his guts. "Turns out this CAEB thing kind of sucks the life out of you. Before I went to Asgard I must have lost 30lbs, and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Then after 4 months in some dungeon and you get the picture. But it's all fine now, I'm getting on top of it."

"I think I'd like to hear the rest of this story sometime." Coulson said with a serious smile.

"Yeah well, pop round next time your done playing dead and we'll talk."

Coulson smirked. "Well, if that offer is serious I just might."

"I'm serious." Tony confirmed with a smile. He’d never admit he had a soft spot for the Agent, but he did and he could use a friend right now.

….…..

As soon as Tony was back in the tower he stuck to the stairwell. There were two superspies in the tower after all, they'd probably notice if the private elevators started moving with all of the Avengers accounted for. He didn't want to see any of them right now. Not even Bruce.

He just wanted Pepper and that's straight where he headed. He approached the office cautiously. He imagined Pepper would have distanced herself from the others after what happened but the last thing he wanted to do was walk into that office if there was someone else in there.

He stood a listened for a while, everything sounded silent, the whole floor was quiet, but it was early. Then he realized he was trying to hear inside a soundproof room.

Tony took a deep breath and slipped through the door and there she was. The first thing he saw was her beautiful fiery hair, glowing brightly in the early morning sun that streamed in through the window behind her. With her head buried in papers and the near silent way he'd entered the room, it took a moment for her to notice him.

"Tony!" She gasped quietly, her eyes brimmed with tears of joy as she looked up to see his unmistakable outline. She stood up from the desk and ran towards him, heels and all. She stopped a few feet away from him.

"Tony, what did they do to you?" She gently stroked the line of jaw where the bruising was staring to show and the blood had dried and congealed into the stubble on his skin. He swore internally, he'd been avoiding getting help on the plane and now he'd forgotten to get himself cleaned up. The horror and worry on Pepper's face made his own insides churn, he couldn't stand to see her upset.

"I'm so sorry Tony, I... I don't know why I even reacted like that, I trust you with my life…"

"Pepper…"

"But Tony I don't want you to think it's your fault, I know you would never hurt me on purpose but if I hadn't over-reacted Steve wouldn't have told Fury and everything would be ok and…

"Pepper, it's ok, it's not your fault. I'm scared of me it's no surprise the rest of you are."

"But Steve shouldn't have…"

"I don't blame any of them Pepper…"

"What? You don't blame them?"

"No, because it's not Steve's fault, it's not anyone's fault. I asked too much of them to keep a secret like that. There's no way round how dangerous I am, and yes Steve went behind my back when I trusted him but... It was for the right reasons."

"How can you say that Tony? The right reasons… He broke your trust, anything could have happened to you and don't you dare start blaming yourself for all of this!" Pepper's voice had started off softly but was now raised to a full shout.

"Pepper, please. I don't want to talk about this and I really can't deal with arguing with you right now, I just need…"

He pulled her into a hug which stopped her in her tracks. It had only been a couple of days, but it felt like a lifetime ago since she was last in his arms. He rested his head on her shoulder and breathed in the comforting, familiar scent of her shampoo. But he couldn't calm his racing mind. He needed to get to work.

"I'm sorry." Pepper breathed, she was now very concerned about what had happened over the past two days. "Tony are you ok?"

"Pepper, honestly it's fine, I'll tell you everything I promise. I know you're desperate to know but I just need to sort a few things out first, get my head straight."

"Take all the time you need." Pepper took hold of Tony's shoulders, pushing him away and planting a kiss on his forehead. "Oh Tony, why do these things keep happening to you?"

"I don't know Pep. But it's kind of getting old."

"I'll agree with you on that."

"Is Jarvis still having a hissy fit?"

"Yes, yes he is. I never realized how much I relied on him until he just shut down. Nothing in the penthouse is working, the elevator is on manual operation, which means it doesn't work at all seeing as you didn't think to put buttons in it."

"Well it doesn't need buttons if you can just tell it where to go… but maybe I'll install them as a backup in future… I'll get onto that. Guessing that means everyone is using the stairs."

"Yes, if you're in the penthouse you have to walk down 15 flights of stairs to get to the standard elevator system and do you know how hard that is in heels?"

"No, but you always make it look effortless." Tony kissed her on the cheek as he turned to leave. "I'll give you a buzz when it's back up and running."

….…..

Tony stood against the wall of the elevator and put his head in his hands. It must have taken nearly two hours to get through all the security he'd set up, and some of the questions… he must have been drunk when he'd set up that system, well he'd definitely been drunk, he always was back then. Which is why it was fitting that he was just a bit drunk now.

Once he'd done that he'd set to work with the thing that had been eating away at him since he'd woken up on that infernal plane. The neural inhibitor. The whole point of it was that it should be a way to put him down should this CAEB get its control back and if that was the case, it couldn't be activated by his own fingerprint. If he went rogue there was no way that he should be able to have control. So now it came down to who he could trust. Pepper and Rhodey, yes. Bruce had never done anything but been there for him and if anyone understood his situation it was him. But after everything that had happened, he didn't know if he could trust any of his new friends.

He had to stop being paranoid, this was important. He could trust Bruce. So those three would have access, they would be able to give him back his powers, give him some of them, none of them or whatever they wanted. But he didn't think that any of them would have the guts to pull the kill switch, not until it was too late. He needed someone who would make that call. And there was one person that had already proved that they could do that, on two occasions. The same person who'd made the call to close the portal even though Tony was still on the other side, the same person who'd called Fury. Steve could make that call. He was the only one that would make that call.

So, Tony had just handed the control of his life over to four people. In one way he felt sick, in another he felt like a weight had been lifted. It wasn't in his hands anymore, he had no control, which he'd proved he hadn't had from the beginning in any case.

Now he had to get out of here and fast. His private plane was landing any second. A whole army of people were ready to load the stuff he needed and then 6 hours later he'd be in Malibu. On the other side of the country from all his problems. He'd have made it the other side of the world if he could, but that wasn't practical right now. Something was coming. He hadn't told anyone about the nightmares, and they might well just be that… nightmares. But this time it felt different. He was starting to think that the battle of New York was just the beginning. And it was going to get a whole lot worse.

"Tony." Tony had been so absorbed in his own thoughts that he hadn't noticed the lift pull up to the communal floor nor the doors glide open. He also hadn't noticed how he'd allowed himself to slide to the floor and curl up into a ball. He straightened up as soon as he felt concerned eyes on him.

"You're back then." Bruce said quietly.

"Yep."

There was an awkward silence as neither party knew what to say. Bruce could see that Tony was really not in a responsive mood, but he wanted to be there for him. Tell him how awful, how guilty he felt that he'd allowed it to happen… Tony's face was a mess, but other than that he looked fine. Exhausted, but fine. That was a relief at least. He moved into the elevator and sat beside his friend as the doors slid closed again.

Bruce put all his questions aside and just focused on the one which was taking up the most of his mind. "Are you ok, Tony?"

"It's over, Bruce."

"What is?" Bruce turned his head to Tony, who was looking up at the ceiling.

"All of it… The CAEB, this little team we had, all of it."

"Tony, what is going on?"

"I'm done Bruce. I quit. You guys can have the tower, but I'm moving out. I can't say here."

"You put on the neural inhibitor then?" Bruce said as he caught sight of it and the dark purple stain on the back of his neck.

"More like I had it put on for me."

"Fury?"

"It's a long story Bruce."

"Yeah, well, I've got time."

"Can we not go there right now?"

"If that's the way you want it Tony then I'm not going to push, but is there anything I can do to persuade you to stay?"

"No Bruce, I can't look him in the eye knowing…"

"I get it Tony, I really do but I don't want to lose you and I don't want you to lose yourself either."

"I'll be fine." Tony said curtly.

"Tony…" Bruce sighed, there was no point going into this right now so he changed his tact. "Where are you going?"

"Malibu, I've got my place there and it's quiet."

"Well then, if it's ok I'm coming with you."

"Bruce, do you really want to do that? You lot are still happy here, it's just me that's the problem."

"Tony, you might have only been gone two days but a hell of a lot has happened since then. Steve snitching, it has split us down the middle. We can't even talk to each other without having a full on shouting match. We're not exactly a team anymore and I can't look half of them in the eye either."

"Well, you guys can just forget about that now and move on without me."

"No Tony, we can't. Too much has happened. And even if everything was still all fine and dandy, as much as I like the others, Tony, you are the only one of them that I'd call a friend. And I don't want to you to be on your own. Not now, not after what you've been through… and certainly not with what is to come… that inhibitor it wasn't ready…"

"I know.”

"So, you know what's coming next." Tony nodded. "And you can't seriously tell me you want to go through that alone, no matter how much you want to keep it private."

Tony contemplated for a moment and sighed deeply. "Ok Bruce." He conceded, but realizing how reluctant he sounded and knowing how grateful he was for Bruce's offer he added… "I'd love to have you, but give me a few days ok, I know you think it's a bad idea but… I really just need to be on my own for a while."

"Ok, fine, but promise me you won't do anything stupid until I get there."

"Fine. I'll try."

"When do you leave?"

"About an hour, just once everything's sorted."

"I'm guessing you want me to tell the others, so what should I say?"

"I don't see why it matters."

"Tony…"

"Bruce, I quit, I'm not an Avenger anymore… I'm not even sure I want to be Iron Man anymore!" Tony said, his voice was raised but his entire body screamed his dejection.

"Tony you can't…" Bruce put his face in his hand. God this was frustrating. But now was not the time to argue with him, he needed someone on his side right now. "Look, Tony, I get what you're feeling just… don't decide anything right now, ok?"

"Thanks for your concern Bruce, but I'm not going to change my mind."

"Ok." Bruce stood up slowly and offered Tony a hand, which he took. "I'll see you in Malibu then."

"Deal." Tony patted his friend thankfully on the back.

Tony followed Bruce out of the lift without thinking. He'd been heading up to see Pepper, to tell her what he was doing. It was a good plan, he thought. She'd want to come with him of course … and he'd invite her, but with a company to run she wouldn't be able to leave New York. And that was perfect, he loved her and wanted to be with her every second of the waking day, but he couldn't let her see him through what was going to come… it would kill her.

He took a couple of steps into the room before he realized that this wasn't where he was supposed to be. He was on the communal floor, it was 7:50am. If the others weren't about they soon would be.

"Tony!" Clint exclaimed as he walked round the corner. Tony looked up, too late to do a runner now. As Tony turned his head Clint saw the stain of purple and black across his face. Despite having cleaned up the blood and had a shave, the bruising was well and truly starting to flower and he looked a mess. "Jesus, what happened?"

"What happened to who?" Natasha asked, breaking off from her chat with Steve who just returned from his run. The pair rounded the corner and stopped dead in their tracks when they saw Stark standing there.

"Tony… I… I'm…" Steve was startled. He wanted to say so much, but the guilt and shock that was eating at his insides stopped him from forming his words.

"What Steve? You're sorry?"

"Tony I can't tell you how sorry I am. I never thought they'd hurt you…" Steve hadn't expected Tony to be receptive, but even so it bit at him to hear Tony's angry voice directed at him. He was a man hurting. And that was all Steve's fault.

"Save it Steve, I don't really care. And seriously… It's SHIELD it's their job to hurt people!"

"Tony, please I know you're upset…”

"Upset? You are kidding right? I thought I could trust you Steve, I thought I could trust all of you, but it turns out that's my bad."

"Tony, you can trust the others and I know I made a mistake but you can trust me."

"I can't trust any one of you, I never could. And if you're calling what you did a mistake Steve, are you admitting that what you did was wrong?"

"Well in a way… No, you know as well as I do that something had to be done but I shouldn't have…"

Tony scoffed. Of course Steve would never really admit it, he was far too perfect to make the wrong decision. "You didn't make a mistake Steve… not if you considered me the enemy anyhow…"

"What?" Steve was really confused.

"But I considered you a friend and that clearly wasn't reciprocated."

"Tony that's not true… I…"

"Did you think at all Steve, before you made that call? Did you even consider that I, Tony Goddam Stark, might be working on a way to fix this, might have been almost there until you forced me into using something that wasn't finished and now I'm going to have to live with the consequences? Didn't you trust me even that much to talk to me before you went and threw me too the wolves?"

"So great, you found a way to solve the problem, really I'm happy for you, but how was I supposed to know that? Why am I only hearing that now huh? How am I supposed to second guess you when you never tell us the full story? How can we trust you when you always lie to our faces?" Steve finally cracked and the others were taken aback, never having heard Steve raise his voice quite like that before. The room went eerily silent as the harsh words sunk in. Tony just stood there, pulling himself up tall and nodding slowly.

Steve slowly realised what he'd said, or more accurately yelled across the room. "Oh God… Tony! I didn't mean it." Steve's voice was full of pain but Tony just ignored it.

"But that's the thing Steve, you did mean it. We all know I was never right for this team, hell I was never even a real Avenger in the first place, just a consultant called to arms."

"A consultant…”

"But you don't need to worry about the liability I pose anymore, or the CAEB. I was going to get Bruce to tell you this, but since I’m here… I no longer have anything to do with any of you. I quit the avengers, I quit SHIELD and the CAEB has been dealt with. Don't worry I'm not kicking you out, you can have this whole damn building, call it a parting gift. Stark enterprises is moving to a new facility and you won't be seeing me again."

"Stark…" Natasha called to Tony's retreating figure, but she was met by a dismissive wave of his hand and the closing of the elevator doors.

….…..

As the elevator door's slid closed the room was left in a state of shock and dismay. Steve had expected Tony to be angry, but for him to quit, for him to sever all ties with them… that was far beyond what he could have predicted. He'd always seen Tony as confident, most of the time too confident for his own good but now, having seen how much it had taken for him to start to trust the team, to trust Steve, and how little it had taken for it to crumble to pieces, he was finally starting to realize how wrong he'd got Tony Stark. But now it was all too late. Because if there was one thing that Steve knew for certain was that his relationship with Tony had always been fragile and even if somehow, he could make his peace with the others, that good thing they had been building was over for the pair of them. His friendship with Tony was over.

Natasha couldn't say she'd seen it playing out quite like that. Tony was a hell of a lot more fragile than she thought… or was he? If there was one thing that stood out was how Tony knew it was Steve, but was blaming all of them. Well, apart from Bruce. Tony was fair, yet he hadn't asked for the full story, he'd just attacked. Either that meant he'd been told the full story and had changed it to fuel his own anger, or he hadn't been told the correct details. Tony was too intelligent to let anger cloud him, and too cautious to be so easily fooled. There was something about the way Tony spoke, it was like he was trying to make himself angry at them, trying to pretend that he was placing all the blame on them. Yet he'd said it himself before he faltered, 'you didn't make a mistake Steve', he didn't really blame them… but he couldn't trust them either. He was cutting them off well and truly, protecting himself, correcting his own mistake, of letting them in.

Clint hadn't said a word. He felt awful that this had happened, but he knew he had tried to stop it. Maybe he should have done better… but even so this wasn't on him. So when Tony attacked them all his words bit Clint hard and the sting hadn't left. He hated seeing his friend like this… he loved Tony like a brother, he couldn't say he hadn't been scared by this CAEB shit, that he hadn't doubted what they were doing, but selling out a friend, a brother that was never on. And Steve… he couldn't even admit that what he'd done was wrong. He couldn't stand by and watch this happen again.

"Well nicely handled Steve. Nicely handled. Are you all just going to stand there and let him leave?" Clint yelled at the others in the room.

"It's what he wants." Steve said dejectedly.

"Is it, is it really… Or is it what you want Steve? It's what you've always wanted isn't it? Tony was never part of this team in your eyes, you've had it in for him since day one. The moment you met him, you thought you knew him and you never gave him a chance, even after he's risked his ass for us so many times, you still hate him!"

"Clint, take it easy!"

"Why Tash? You can't seriously be ok with what has happened?"

"No it's regrettable…"

"Regrettable… God, you agree with Steve!"

"Steve made a tough call, and with the information we had at the time it was the right one."

"And what about trusting Tony?"

"Clint no one feels worse about this than I do." Steve barked.

"I think Tony might." Clint snorted

"Clint, you're not being objective, you're being emotional." Natasha sighed

"Don't you start that emotion shit with me Natasha…"

"Clint you know as well as me that the situation was way, way out of hand. Something had to be done, it should have never got this far. If I'd been objective in the first place it wouldn't have got this bad and trust is a luxury that we can't…”

"…That spies can't have Natasha… spies! Tony isn't part of that world he's family!" Clint looked around to silence. Steve was just staring at the floor, Natasha had her best indifferent expression. Clint couldn't believe what he was seeing.

"Bruce? Aren't you at least going to try?"

"I have Clint, and… I don't think he's going to change his mind."

"Well great, thank you!" Clint shouted. "And I mean that Bruce, thank you, because the two of you certainly couldn't give a shit!"

"What would you have had me do Clint? Please, tell me. I hate how this has turned out but it was the only option." Steve reasoned, but Clint was well beyond that.

"No Steve, the only option was to talk this through, like you insisted we do this entire time! Tony trusted us and we went behind his back… No actually, YOU went behind his back and I had nothing to do with it!"

"Clint we'd tried the talking and it wasn't getting us any further forward." Steve replied.

"And do you seriously think Tony would have just played along if we'd suggested bringing Fury in on this?" Natasha said plainly.

"You know what Tash, I actually think he would have. He's not been comfortable with anything we've suggested so far and he's done exactly that… Played along. You are forgetting that he is not the jerk you made him out to be in your stupid report."

"Oh, so we're going to go back to that report now are we, just because I made a misjudgment for the first time."

"No Tash, don't twist this back on me. He said he'd found a way to fix it, if we'd have talked to him we'd have realized that this was nearly over and we didn't need to turn him in to that one-eyed maniac."

"Clint, we can't keep waiting around for Tony to tell us vital information. It's not up to him to decide what we know. We took the only course of action we could under the circumstances."

"The course of action Steve took… not we… Not Bruce, not me, certainly not Tony and even though your defending him Tash I know you didn't either. No one had any part in this decision and what sort of team is that? Hey Steve?"

"If I'd discussed it, it would have been too…"

"Save your bullshit Steve… You're so high and mighty with all your all your 'let's work as a team' shit, you are the first to point out anyone's faults, especially Tony's yet you are the one who makes the decisions and this time you didn't consult a single person. You are such a hypocrite. And Tasha, honestly, I know you don't like Stark but I expected something more from you, some judgement perhaps."

"Clint, just go cool off and think this through." Natasha was getting a bit sick of this now.

"No Tash I'm not going to suddenly come round to your point of view."

"This argument is getting us nowhere Clint, let's just talk later when we've all calmed down." Steve tried to add a rational voice but it only made things worse.

"And here you go again. Captain America. Or should I call you Captain perfect!"

"Clint, seriously." Natasha was borderline exasperated now.

"Screw the pair of you! If Tony's gone so am I." Clint stormed out of the room and a door could be heard slamming hard as footsteps retreated into the distance.

Steve didn't hang around either. And then there were two.

"Bruce, you should go after him." Natasha sighed.

"Who Tony? He needs to be on his own Natasha. And whose side are you on exactly, because I'm having trouble figuring it out?" Bruce sat in a chair, reading the newspaper he'd picked up while the argument had transpired.

"I'm not on any side Bruce…"

"Well… you're defending Steve, but now you pretend like you care about Tony."

"Bruce, I'm not playing games… I can just see all sides of this. Steve made a choice, and under the circumstances I really can't blame him for making it. Maybe it wasn't the perfect choice, but Steve wouldn't have made it unless he thought it was the only way and he will never, ever forgive himself for this. I'm not saying that this is fair for Tony, it obviously couldn't have ended much worse, but Tony has you and Pepper and Rhodey and even Clint on his side, right now everyone hates Steve."

"Everyone apart from you it would seem." The way Bruce wasn't looking up from the newspaper when he spoke was strangely unnerving to Natasha. She was desperately trying not to seem like the bad guy here. Strangely she hadn't really cared what Clint thought of her, but she did care what Bruce thought.

"I care for all of you, Bruce. And even though it was Tony who got hurt and it's easy to see Steve as solely to blame, he’s putting himself through hell too and he needs a friend. And right now, I'm the only one who fits the bill."

Bruce continued to read the rest of his page. The silence was killing Natasha, in fact it was really grating at her already raw nerves. Why was he leaving her hanging? She took a breath, it was probably just a coping mechanism, a way to stay calm. There had been a lot of hurt flung around the room, she was happy to see there wasn't even a fleck of green in Bruce's eyes.

Bruce took a measured breath and put down the paper having finished his page. "I can understand that, now you have explained it Natasha. This is a very difficult situation, for everyone. You’re are not the only one who can see Steve's side in this…"

"Well Clint certainly doesn't."

"I think he does Natasha. But that's not his problem. And it’s not mine either."

"Then what?"

"It's not the choice Steve made… it's the way he's acting about it. He's so certain he did the right thing. He has an answer for everything. He won't even consider the fact that there might have been another way. You said yourself just then that Steve's choice wasn't the best. But neither you nor he said that just then, and neither of you showed a shred of remorse for the fact that Stark has up and quit as an avenger. We had something great and well, I'm pretty certain there is no getting that back now."

"Right. I can see that side as well."

"None of us needs reason right now. If we want to patch this up we all need to say out bit, not be told why were wrong, we just need to understand each other. So, you need to talk to Clint."

"I will. But you need to go after Tony, now."

"Natasha, he really does need to be left alone."

"Not this time, Bruce. There's something more to this than what we're seeing."

"You're still trying to read Tony, even after you keep getting him wrong."

"How did you…?" Natasha had never told anyone about her doubts on how she was reading Stark, and she sure has hell hadn't let down her guard enough to show it to an untrained eye.

"You're not the only one in here who has enough trust issues to monitor every move of every person you ever meet."

"Even so… I'm pretty sure this time. You can't let him shut the world out."

"I am trying Tash, and I have something in place."

"That may be the case, but knowing Tony don't you think whatever you might have been planning might have just gone out the window after that shouting match."

Shit. Natasha was right. What if Tony had just decided to bolt and go this whole thing alone?

"I better go find him."

"You go do that."

….…..

"Have I missed him?" Bruce burst into Pepper's office, it made sense after all. If Tony was going to do a runner, there was no way he was leaving without saying goodbye to her.

"I haven't seen him."

"Right, call me if you do." He shouted as he turned to leave the room as hastily as he entered it.

"Bruce, what is it, what's happened."

"It's ok. I'll sort it." He called back.

"Bruce?" Pepper spoke forcefully as she stood up sharply from her desk.

"Trust me Pepper." He said as he flew out the door.

"Jarvis, where is he?"

"You'll have to be more specific Dr. Banner." Answered the ever-present voice of calm.

"Cut the shit Jarvis."

"Sir has asked me not to reveal his location." Bruce growled, but took a few deep breaths to keep himself in control. Think, Bruce… Jarvis won't tell you where he is but…

"Well take me to him then."

"Of course Dr. Banner." God love that AI.

….…..

"Tony."

"Bruce." Tony couldn't have sounded less enthusiastic if he tried.

"We've got to talk."

"I don't have to do shit."

"Tony please don't be like that with me, I'm trying to help."

"Oh, like Steve was just trying to help?" Tony put his head in his hand and huffed at the stupid sentence that just slipped out of his mouth. "I'm sorry that was uncalled for."

"Thank you. Now are we going to be civilized or are you going to let your anger keep talking on your behalf."

"Look Bruce, I'm sorry, I'm just… I'm fucked up right now, but still that's no excuse, you've been nothing but kind to me and I'm… just an ass."

"No Tony you're not an ass, well… not all the time anyway. What I'm trying to say is you're human, and this whole thing sucks so I don't blame you for lashing out, hell knows I would. I'm going to give you your space like you asked, but I just need to know that someone is going to be checking on you. Pepper, Rhodey, hell even your next door neighbor will do."

"Pepper's running the company."

"Well Rhodey?"

"He's applying for leave as we speak."

"How long will that take?"

"I don't know, and whether he gets it or not depends on how much he pissed off his superior officer when he dropped everything and flew half way across the world to check on me."

"Who will be there if he can't get leave?"

"He'll get it… Rhodey'll sort it out."

"Can I have his phone number?"

"Why?" Tony didn't know why he was suspicious of that request, but he was still in a mood for a fight after the arguments downstairs.

"Because I might need to talk to him Tony, if you aren’t picking up."

"Yeah, fine. Jarvis will give it to you." Stark huffed and continued shoving things in a bag

"Ok. One more thing. You told the others a fair bit back there, but they're going to have questions and seeing as I'm stuck here until you're ready for me in Malibu I'm going to have to answer them. Now I don't want to say anything you don't want me to, so how much do you want me to tell them."

"I don't want you to lie for me Bruce."

"I'm offering and it's not an offer I would make unless I meant it."

"Thank you." Tony didn't deserve a friend like this and he was trying hard not to push him away despite his shattered trust. "Tell them about the inhibitor what it is, what it does. Don't tell them about the consequences of it not being finished."

"Fine. Speaking of those consequences when's the first one due?"

"Jarvis is running the calculations but it's complicated."

"Tony, I know that you know when." Bruce was trying not to get frustrated with his friend’s evasiveness.

"Bruce… I don't want you to be there. Not for the first one."

"Tony, you can't go through that alone."

"I won't be alone."

"Jarvis doesn't count."

"No, I mean… Rhodey will be there, if he can get leave… and that doesn't mean I don't trust you Bruce it's just…"

"You don't have to explain Tony, I'm not upset. I understand."

"No, I want to explain. You deserve a reason. Of all the shit that's happened in my life most of it I've dealt with alone, Rhodey is the only one who's seen me at my lowest and if I could change that I would… I don't like people knowing about my problems Bruce, especially those close to me, because I don't want them to have to deal my shit. What I'm saying is I don't know if I'm ready for anyone else to see me like that, not just yet." Tony was very matter of fact, it was clear by the way his shoulders were held, tense and close to his ears, that he was still very much on edge.

Bruce just nodded. He didn't need to say anything. "How bad is this going to be?" He asked.

"I'm not sure yet, but it's not going to be pretty and it's not going to get better."

Bruce frowned. "Does that mean it's going to get worse?"

"The algorithm is complicated, it will get more accurate the more events it has to draw data from, but yes, the initial reading would suggest it's going to slowly get worse."

"Is there any way round it? Any way to improve the inhibitor?"

"I could make it perfect. I've finished the calculations and found the optimum settings. Even synthesized a new element. But none of these improvements can be implemented without taking it out and replacing it."

"And that we can't risk." Bruce banged his fist against the wall hard and sucked in a deep breath to calm himself. Taking out the inhibitor was not an option, partly because letting the CAEB loose again was something Tony wouldn't allow, but mainly because God knows what would happen to Tony if they did. Releasing something that had such a strong hold over the CAEB's brainstem so suddenly could kill Tony as easily as the kill switch would. There had to be a way around this. He couldn't believe this was happening to Tony again.

"Bruce, it's ok. I'll learn to live with this just like I did with the reactor."

"This is a little different Tony. You will be resigning yourself to a life of pain that only going to get worse. When these things happen, it will completely disrupt your life. You'll be exhausted the rest of the day and we don't know how long it will be before they get so bad that…"

"Say it."

"Before it kills you, Tony."

"It's not so different Bruce. The ARC reactor isn't painless you know." Tony waited to see if Bruce was going to say something, but he didn't. His eyes just told him to keep going and for the first time, he did without any further pressure. "It aches all the time. Sometimes it's just like heartburn, most of the time it's like a broken rib, but some days, some days it's so bad I can't do anything. I just go down to the lab, curl up on the sofa and wait for it to go away."

"I never realized it's so debilitating."

"It's not that often. Usually its only if I've used the suit, or leant on it or been hit in the chest… but what I'm saying is that it disrupts my life already, and I can't predict how much it's going to hurt when I wake up on a morning, and sometimes I have to just cancel things at a moment's notice. It drives Pepper and Rhodey crazy. The difference is I can predict this, it's going to be confined to a short period of time and the rest of the time it will be fine. I wish the ARC would do that, I've forgotten what it's like to not be in pain all the time."

"You never told them why?"

"Hmmm?"

"Pepper and Rhodey. You never told them why you randomly cancel on them."

"Of course not. Why worry them when I can put it down to just being Tony Stark? Besides not every time I cancel is due to the Arc, sometimes I really can just not be bothered."

"So, you admit it then. It's just an act half the time?"

"It's a bit more complicated than that. I've been doing it for so long…"

"… that you don't what's you and what's not anymore."

Tony nodded solemnly

"You do realize that this thing is probably going to kill you, unless we find a way to change the inhibitor. It will get worse and worse until your body can't take it anymore. I don't want to see that happen."

"I know Bruce. And if it is going to kill me I want to get things straight. You are one of few people who I consider a friend and I need you to know how much it means to me… everything you have done to help me, especially when I've been difficult… I need you to know that nothing that's happened is your fault, there is nothing you could have done better. I've been able to rely on you through all of this. I know you want to fix this, and please know that I've not given up, not by a long shot… but if this doesn't go my way… it's ok."

"Tony…" Bruce's voice was choked.

"I've been 'dying' before and I made a mess of it. This time I'm going to do it right."

"What do you mean?"

"You are right, I don't know who I am anymore. I have been wearing this mask for nearly 20 years and until very recently I never thought I would find out what I really looked like if I took it off. I didn't think I could take it off and maybe it is welded on, maybe too much has happened but regardless I think I'm ready to face stuff this time and maybe in the process find the person I've been hiding from."

There was a mellow silence in the room. Bruce didn't speak, he could see Tony still had more to say.

"That's all I want to do now, Bruce. Find who I am, find out what's left of who I was. That's the only thing I have left to achieve."

"Tony, you have so much left to give…"

"Maybe, maybe not. The truth is I never really wanted to be a genius. Never wanted to run a company, follow in Dad's footsteps. I just wanted to be normal… But I also wanted to make him proud which is why I didn't get my childhood, maybe I can have that now."

Tony smiled contemplatively. Bruce didn't really know what to say… He had wanted to see beneath the layers of Tony Stark for a long while and having seen what he had the other night, having learnt what he had about Tony's past, he'd never dreamed that someone like Tony would ever be 'ready' to come back from something like that. He couldn't believe it, but he was so happy to hear it. And it seemed sincere.

"Tony… I never thanked you for letting me in that night before SHIELD came. Rhodey filled me in on the rest when you were asleep… I can't even begin to understand… there are no words to say how much it means to me that you trusted me with that and if or when you are ready to work through that, or anything else in your past… or future, I'll be there and I want to help."

Both men had tears in their eyes and the room was silent for a moment.

"Are we gay?" Tony said bluntly.

"Probably." Bruce chuckled. Typical Tony to complete change the atmosphere with a single sentence. Bruce rubbed his face and tried to remember what had sparked the conversation that had lead them to this point.

"But you still haven't told me when this first... 'Event' is going to happen and what are we going to call them?" Bruce frowned

"I don't know, but we do need a name. I reckon at the start they will be once every few weeks, if I'm lucky it'll be less than once a month… but the first one, it's not far away, maybe 9 days." Tony deliberated.

"Ok, so I'll give you two weeks, but you know to call me if anything changes."

"Sure thing Brucie. See you in Malibu!" Tony slung the bag he'd been packing over his shoulder and marched off towards the elevator.

..….…..

Chapter Text

"Clint, we need to talk." Bruce hovered at Clint's door, he was busy packing his things and his room looked like a bomb site, with the contents of every draw and cupboard piled onto the bed.

"How many times have I heard that over the past few months?" Clint groaned. He was still in a foul mood.

"Clint, just please stop for a minute." Clint stopped folding the t-shirt he had in his hand and tossed it his bag with the other crumpled clothes.

"You're not going to convince me to stay Bruce, and you're closer to Tony than any of us so I don't know why we're going to have the conversation I think we are about to."

"That's because this isn't the conversation you think it going to be."

"Then what?" Barton said, sitting himself on the bed and shuffling towards the center.

"Tony is demanding space… he's buggered off to Malibu on the jet this morning. He's not coming back… but he is very serious about us staying here."

"But… you're not staying?"

Bruce sighed and leant his back into the door frame. "No, I'm going to Malibu, in two weeks, give him time to cool off first."

"Good." Clint nodded. "He shouldn't be alone."

"But, that still leaves me with two weeks..." Bruce said bluntly.

"So, Barton please don't go just yet." Clint mimicked Bruce and lay down on the bed so he was staring at the ceiling.

"Well, you know, where were you going to go? You have free luxury accommodation right here."

"Oh, I have somewhere good to go. It's not luxury, but it's… let's just say it's a lot happier than this place right now." Clint folded his arms behind his head and sighed.

"So, I can't convince you to be my back up until I hop over the west coast?"

"Fine Bruce, fine, but when you go, I go… and don't expect me to go anyway near Steve."

"No objections there."

Bruce was just turning to leave when Clint called his attention.

"Bruce… You're pissed with him too right? It's not just me?"

"Clint," Bruce took of his glasses and looked at his feet, "looking at Steve right now puts me the closest to seeing the other guy I have ever been, without actually losing control."

"Right, I thought so… it's just Natasha, her reaction, taking Steve's side, and acting like it's obvious that Steve did the right thing. Its making me question everything."

"If there's one thing I know about Ms. Romanov, it's that she is always holding something back."

"Maybe… I Dunno." Clint pulled his hand out from behind his head and waved it flippantly

"I better get back, I left some things running in the lab." Said Bruce, satisfied he'd laid at least some of the groundwork.

…..

Bruce had been checking his calculations over and over for the last hour and he still couldn't find anything wrong. And for once this wasn't a bad thing. He opened his email and attached a file but paused before he pressed send, instead pulling out his phone and listening to the dial tone.

"Tony Stark."

"Tony, it's me?" Bruce said a little perplexed at the formal introduction. "You turned off caller ID or something?"

"No… ermmm someone has renamed all my contacts and I've decided not to make any assumptions, because they've been somewhat… creative."

"Who?"

"Clint I'm guessing, that's the last time I lend him my phone."

"And you've only just noticed this."

"Well I've been separated from my phone for a few days." Tony said and Bruce instantly regretted stirring the memory.

"Right." Bruce said solemnly and then he grew curious. "What did he change me to?"

"Ermmm…. I'm not saying." Tony said with conviction.

"OK…" That was interesting, he thought. He would find out one way or another. "Anyway. Tony, I was calling to say I might be on to something when it comes to fixing the inhibitor. But absolutely no guarantees, its nothing more than a maybe."

"Seriously?"

"Tony, unlike you and Clint I'm not into wind ups, not with something like this."

Tony went very quiet. "That's… That's brilliant. I wasn't expecting… Well anything good anyway."

"I'll send you it over. It's no guarantee Tony…"

"No of course, but it's a start."

"Has Rhodey got leave yet?"

"He has to finish the week."

"So, what are you doing with yourself?"

"I haven't even looked at fixing the inhibitor yet, just trying to get this algorithm perfected so I can actually get some viable predictions on when and what is going to happen to me in… 4 days and 14 hours according to the latest rubbish this thing is churning out."

"But that's accelerated, it should still be nearly a week. Rhodey won't be there…" Panic edged into Bruce's voice and that sent Tony into a gabble.

"Oh no, no, no… don't worry it was saying 17 days about an hour ago. Precision is not its thing at the moment. It's basing it on interactions of the CAEB energy signature and my brain waves so it seems to accelerate when I get…"

"What Tony?"

"When I get stressed out."

"Are you Ok?"

"Yeah, I'm fine I'm just not getting anywhere. I mean I just don't get what the problem is. Other than drawing data from an actual 'event' I don't think I can improve it."

"Maybe it can't be solved purely theoretically Tony."

"Yeah that's what I thought. But even if it is, the predictions should be a lot more reliable… I mean. It's my math."

"How long have you spent on this?"

"It is slow progress, but I suppose since there was only so far I could get on the plane and I've only been in the lab for a few hours…"

"Actually Sir, you've been in the lab nearly 12 hours." Jarvis could be heard echoing in the background.

"Tony." Bruce said disappointedly.

"Honestly Bruce, I hadn't realized." Tony sounded uncharacteristically down and it made Bruce really worried. It made sense, of course, but he just hadn't expected it, Tony was usually so private when it came to his emotions. Stark had so much hanging over him, so much uncertainty and very little to look forward to. And despite Bruce's best efforts he was alone right now.

"Tony, you sound exhausted. Please just go get some rest, then do something else for a while, something you enjoy."

"Bruce, I really want to keep busy."

"Well then, do something else while letting you head work on something less heavy, like figuring out what we are going to call these 'events'."

"I'll wait till Rhodey gets here for that. His terrible suggestions usually inspire my genius."

Bruce couldn't help but chuckle at that. "Ok, but please, at least consider having a break."

"I'm going upstairs now. I'm not going to get any further today anyway." Tony waved his hand in the air and Jarvis turned off the light. "Bruce can I ask you to do something?"

"Anything Tony." Bruce was a little concerned by the sincerity in Tony's voice.

"I've not told anyone this." Tony started. "But I've been having nightmares." Bruce let Tony pause and breathe. He didn't utter a word. "They're about New York, mainly about the wormhole, or that's how they started. But not long before Asgard they started getting worse, and ever since then I've got more and pieces, fragments…"

"They're not dreams, are they?" Bruce breathed.

"I don’t think so. Not unless my imagination is way more creative than I gave it credit for." Tony whispered. "Something's coming Bruce. Something big. I wasn't sure until that night before SHIELD came. I didn't say anything. I mean, until then they were just dreams…"

"Can you make any sense of the. What is coming, what should we do, do you know how long we've got?"

"I don't think it's going to work like that. And I haven't had one of them since the inhibitor was put on."

"So, we're in the dark."

"Yes. But Bruce, the world is going to need the Avengers again soon. And from what you've told me, right now there is no Avengers."

"If you're asking me if I can fix the team, I've already started."

"Of course you have." Tony smiled to himself. "I'm sorry Bruce, it's a hell of a lot more vital you succeed now."

"I'll deal with it. It'll give me something to do over the next two weeks."

"Thank you."

"Tony, I'll be calling Jarvis tonight and you better not have gone back into that lab."

"Fine. Talk later."

…..

"Was that Tony? Natasha asked as Bruce hung up the phone. He'd not heard the little spider sneak up on him and he was slightly concerned about how much she'd heard of that conversation.

"You know it was."

"Why the hostility?"

"I'm sorry. Difficult conversation."

"So, Tony wants you to fix the team… Hard to do if Clint's gone."

"Turns out he's not going, not just yet anyway."

"You convinced him to stay?"

"Only as long as I do."

"You're going to Malibu?"

"Well, you know, even though everyone is on Tony's side, apart from you of course… “Bruce paused, regretting his words as a frown developed on Natasha’s face. “I'm not getting at you Natasha… What I meant is that no one is actually by his side and whether he likes it or not he's going to have someone there."

"You are annoyed with me." Natasha probed.

"I understand what you are doing, but it doesn't mean I have to like it."

"Even if I can bring him round for you?"

"Natasha did you talk to Steve?"

"Not yet, still perfecting my speech, considering all the variables."

"He's not a mark Natasha. And if he finds out he's being played you are going to really hurt him."

"He is my friend Bruce, but I never fail on missions so if I prepare for it like a mission…"

"Fine, do it your way."

"So, you bring Clint around, and I'll sort out Steve." Natasha offered with a shrug.

"Seems like a plan."

…..

"I expected you to be hiding in your room." Bruce said as he walked into the kitchen late in the evening.

"Well, Steve eats at 7pm sharp then goes to bed at 10pm. He won't be coming up here again before then."

"Fair enough." Bruce sat down and picked up a newspaper that he'd left lying on the counter.

"You're not here to read a newspaper are you Bruce."

"Not really."

"You really aren't good at being subtle."

"I'm not trying to be."

"I don't get why you are trying to get me and Steve back to being Buddy's. I mean… I don't see you talking to him."

"No, your right I haven't."

"You're angry with him. So am I."

"Of course you are Clint. But I'm not angry. Upset? Yes, but I can understand why he did what he did even if I don't agree. The hulk on the other hand isn't so understanding, its turns out he's rather fond of Tony… and rather mad with the guy who betrayed him. So, for the sake of New York I think it's best I don't see Steve for a while."

"Fair enough." Clint said indignantly.

"I get it Clint. Of course, I get it. Steve made a bad choice and Tony's paying for it."

"It's not even that. If I really force myself to… I can understand why he made the decision. I never would have made it, but I can understand it, in a way… kind of." Clint groaned in frustration. “It's that he's so damn adamant that he did the right thing. I mean would it kill him to admit that he could have done things differently?"

"Exactly." Bruce nodded.

"But the thing that I don't get is Natasha… I mean, why is she on his side?"

"I don't think it's quite as simple as that Clint, maybe it's more a case of Steve needing someone on his side, I mean… everyone else is on Tony's."

"So, Natasha isn't really on Steve's side, why would she do that, I don't…"

"Why you don't ask her Clint… at the end of the day you two go way back, you can't tell me you've always agreed on everything. Talk to her. Work it out."

"I can see what you are doing Bruce."

"I know. But you're going to do it anyway, right?"

"Maybe."

Bruce sighed, putting down his newspaper. "Do you want to know the real reason why Tony left?"

"Go on..."

"Yes, he doesn't feel like he can trust Steve anymore, but he felt him and this CAEB was the reason we, the Avengers, were falling apart. Now he's gone, he expects us to just all click back into place."

"Way too much has happened for that."

"Maybe… Maybe not. The fact is that the Avengers will be needed again one day. With or without Tony Stark we are going to have to be able to pull together when we are needed. I'm not saying we can get back to where we were, but we do have to move forward, for the sake of the planet."

"No pressure then." Clint scoffed.

"No pressure." Bruce chuckled.

…..

Rhodey rocked up to Malibu on Sunday evening. It should have been Friday, but his superior officer had not been happy with the way he had abandoned his duty. He was actually very lucky to still have his job, so when they'd needed an extra man for the weekend, he felt he had to offer. Thankfully, this would still give him 2 days with Tony before the 9-day deadline.

It was Tuesday afternoon and Rhodey had been in the lab with Tony for a few hours. In league with Bruce he was making sure Tony was resting and avoiding stress. Bruce had inspected Tony's algorithm and it was indeed flawless, as he had expected it to be, but it was taking instantaneous readings. It takes a relative idiot, thought Bruce, to find such an obvious flaw in the work of a genius. Taking an average over 6 hours of readings made the prediction much more stable, but it was evident that any strain on Tony's mind or body would accelerate the process.

"Oh yeah!" Tony exclaimed suddenly.

"What is it?" Rhodey asked. He'd been staring at the wall in thought for the last half hour while Tony was working on some math that made his MIT Engineering degree feel like elementary school.

"We need an excuse for me to take the day when I need it, or at least half a day when these episodes are going to happen."

“Well you'd need something you could put on the calendar…you certainly can't throw a Tony tantrum every time one of these happens."

"A Tony tantrum? That's what you've been calling them."

"Well it fits."

"I suppose it does really, and you're right, it should be something official, on my calendar then Pepper cannot argue and people won't suspect anything…"

"You're not telling her then."

"Rhodey I know what you're going to say..."

"Tony if you don't want to tell her yet, that's fine, but you are going to tell her." Rhodey demanded.

"I will eventually."

"Soon. You're not going to let her find out like last time."

"What, like when they were arresting Justin Hammer?"

"Yes, exactly, not like that."

"Fine, soon. I just want to know what I'm dealing with first and Bruce thinks he's been getting somewhere with this inhibitor right? So, there is no point in telling her until we know that there's no way out of this."

There was a moment of quiet while Rhodey tried to think of cover stories.

"How about you're seeing a psychiatrist.”

Tony looked at Rhodey with disbelief

"You are joking, right?"

"Well, it would make sense, regular appointments and Pepper would be thrilled."

"Pepper would be suspicious and wouldn't believe me. Come on Rhodey I would NEVER see a shrink.”

"Maybe you should."

"Go screw yourself." Tony said lightly.

"Ok, so not a shrink how about you're writing an autobiography and you're meeting a writer to help you?"

"Nope, she'll think I'm dying.”

"Yes, she probably will."

"Something business related?"

"She knows all the business-related things"

"New project?"

"Not calendar worthy."

"Hughhh, I feel like I'm giving all the ideas here." Rhodey groaned, spinning round slowly in the desk chair.

"You are giving all the ideas." Tony threw another virtual ball of paper across the room. "And they're all rubbish."

"Ok then, what have you got?" Rhodey retorted sitting up straight.

"I'd have had something by now if you'd shut up for 5 seconds." Tony flicked away his screens and turned to face Rhodey. "It has to be related to me moving here somehow. She knows I'm going there to get away but I could have chosen anywhere… Malibu for all the things it is, is still in America. It's not exactly the furthest away I could have got."

"So, what's around Malibu, I mean its LA, party central, hardly project territory."

"I've been approached by a number of colleges since I published my research paper. I could lead a joint project between the applied physics at Stanford and the Jet Propulsion lab at Caltech, I have contacts in both and I don't see why they'd say no."

"Actually, that sounds pretty bomb proof."

"Jarvis make it happen."

"Of course, sir."

There was a pause and Tony started tapping away again on the Stark pad.

"It's happening tomorrow right. The first one?"

"As far as I can tell."

"What's the latest projection?"

"J?"

"You have a meeting to discuss the project viability at Stanford University in 18 hours' time. It is expected to last less than 20 minutes."

"20 minutes!" Rhodey gawped at Tony. "I thought you said the first one was going to be short."

"J" Tony groaned.

"The substance of the meeting is predicted to last just over a minute."

"Skip the euphemisms with us Jarvis please, if there's no-one else around. It's confusing enough without all this nonsense."

"With Sir's permission."

"Yes J, if it's me Rhodey or Bruce stick to straight talk."

"Can you feel it coming?" Rhodey asked nervously.

"No. I don't know if it's something that will happen by itself or if I will need to disengage the inhibitor to induce it."

"If it doesn't happen by itself why do you have to do it at all?"

"Because leave it long enough the pressure will build up, it will crush my brainstem and kill me."

"Understood." Rhodey had so many questions. He'd been trying to keep Tony's mind off what was coming as much as possible, keep his stress down extend the time and pray that Bruce or Tony came up with a miracle and he wouldn't have to go through it all. But in all his efforts he had realized that he had no idea what was going to happen tomorrow or how to help his friend through it.

"Just for the record J, when will the real meeting with Stanford and JPL be?"

"Both parties replied to your proposal email almost immediately and are suggesting a meeting first thing tomorrow morning. I have suggested Friday afternoon to give ample time for recovery."

"Sounds good J."

"Tony… I haven't said anything yet, but I have some questions."

"Shoot."

"What do I do? I mean, how do I know if something's gone wrong? Basically, all I know is that it's going to be tomorrow, last what… a minute and from what I've heard from Bruce it's not going to be nice."

"Ok… Right. You saw the first merge. I know you weren't there, but you saw the footage."

"Yeah."

"So, I don't remember much, but it hurt a lot. One of two things will happen. The CAEB's power in me will disengage the inhibitor, or I'll have to do it. Either way I will have to undergo a merge, before you get worried it will not be as bad as the first. The first time my anatomy and the CAEB's were completely incompatible, now, it's more like they are getting reacquainted after an argument. Then the inhibitor will re-engage, which is probably going to be worse at this stage."

"Ok… So, what do I do?"

"It probably won't happen the first time, but I might have a seizure, I've set up a room, I'll need you to strap me down if things get bad. As they get worse my heart will may stop and eventually might need a bit of help restarting."

"What!"

"Rhodey this is well down the line. The merges will get progressively worse. The longer this inhibitor is on the more pressure will be put on my second brainstem. To fully recover I would need 24 hours off the inhibitor for every few weeks I was on it. These short times off the inhibitor are the minimum that will keep me alive. Tomorrow the whole process will take about a minute, the longer I wear the inhibitor the longer it will have to be disengaged. And unfortunately, this will cause the merges and the reengagement to be more severe."

"But your heart will stop."

"Not tomorrow. Probably not for months, but when we get there everything you need is already in that room I've set up. A defibrillator, adrenaline a ventilator, everything you could possibly need. The fact is for the first few I just want someone with me. You probably won't have to do anything. But unless we find a solution this will eventually get so bad it will kill me."

"So, they will get worse and more regular. Great. Just great." Rhodey bit down hard until he tasted blood. He was determined not to shout at his friend, or make things worse by losing it, but unless they could find a way to fix this he was losing Tony and that thought was killing him.

"Rhodey." Tony whined.

"I'm sorry Tony this is just so unfair."

"I'll fix it Rhodey." Tony said with such certainty, that Rhodes felt reassured.

"How long have you got?"

"I can't tell Rhodey. It's in the months, maybe the years. It's too early to tell, but I have time. I will fix this."

"I know you will Tony. I know you will."

…..

"Steve what are you doing." Natasha asked disapprovingly as she approached the door of his room.

"Trying to avoid everyone." Steve admitted with a sigh, leaning his weight into the back of his couch.

"Not like you to run away from your problems."

"Well everyone hates me and I can't say I blame them." Steve shrugged.

Natasha sighed in frustration. "That's not true Steve."

"Present company excepted."

"Bruce doesn't hate you either. He's not best pleased with you, but he doesn't hate you. Clint hates you. And the Hulk hates you, but Bruce doesn't."

"You're making me feel so much better Natasha."

"I'm not here to make you feel better Steve."

"Then why are you here?” Steve cocked his head and frowned.

"To make you realize your being an idiot."

"I'm being an idiot." Steve chuckled.

"Yes, you are. You're beating yourself up over a decision you made and that you can't change.”

"I regret I had to make the decision Natasha, but I don't see what else I could have done."

"Everyone else understands Steve, that's not their problem… And by them, I mean Clint."

"So, what's Clint's problem."

"He wants you to admit you were wrong."

"Haven't I done that already?"

"No, Steve, you may think you have but, in truth, you've admitted nothing just found a thousand ways of saying that you did the right thing but wished there had been another way."

"I thought you agreed with me Natasha."

"Someone has to make the hard calls Steve. Someone always has to take the decision that no one else wants to. And that person always ends up being you. That's why you lead us. But that isn't always going to turn out as well as it did in New York."

"So, what is it you want me to do Natasha?"

"Think about it Steve. Talk to Clint… sort it out."

"And how do you suggest that I bring him round, admit that I was wrong, have a heart to heart?"

"Sounds like a start."

"It's never going to work Natasha."

"You mean you're not willing to try."

"I can't see much point to be honest." Steve said dejectedly.

"Well Steve, it's your choice. You can sit here and wallow in guilt or you can try and put things right."

"But things aren't going to be ‘put right’ are they Natasha. Even if I can make it up with Clint, Tony isn't coming, back is he?"

"Tony Stark is as unpredictable as they come. But no, I don't think he's coming back this time. That doesn't mean all is lost though."

"I admire your optimism Natasha. But this time I think it is."

“Fine if that’s what you believe then just carry on as you are Steve. Wallow in your own self pity, fix your mistake… it’s all the same to me. I’ll see you around.” Natasha said calmly and walked out the door, leaving Steve to reflect on their conversation.

.….

"Bruce…" Natasha started.

"I'm guessing it hasn't gone well then." Bruce said, unsurprised.

"He's just lost all hope."

"So, you don't think you can bring him round?"

"I'm not sure, I’ve laid the groundwork, but I think I have a much quicker way of solving this." Natasha said uncertainly and Bruce could tell that the idea was unconventional.

"But…" He promoted when she hesitated further.

"I'm not sure you'll like it… and they certainly won't."

"Well right Now Natasha I think anything's worth a shot."

…..

Rhodey had insisted that they turn in early. Tony hadn't objected, he was tired and he wanted to rest the longer he slept the less time he would have to think about what was to come. But as fate would have it Tony wasn't granted a peaceful night.

Tony woke up and his chest was burning. He was gasping for air, adrenaline coursing through his veins. He groaned in annoyance as he realized what a state he was in. His sweat drenched body trembled in shock as the grip of the dream loosened. He'd had some pretty horrendous nightmares in his time, but that had been something else. He tossed off the crumpled sheets and sat on the edge of his bed, trying to catch his breath. This wasn't fair. As his breathless gasps dissolved into sobs he wrapped his arms across his chest and gently rocked himself into calmness. He felt stupid, he always did. But at least no one was there to see it this time and even Jarvis had decided to leave him be.

"Jarvis lights." As the sweat dried on his bare skin the shakes of fear turned to shivers and he gently got to his feet. There was a deep churning feeling in the pit of his stomach and his mouth and throat ached with dryness. He sighed deeply as grabbed a zip up hoody and headed for the door.

He slouched into the kitchen and leant heavily on the sink, reaching lazily for a glass. His head felt unusually fuzzy as his fingers fumbled for the tap. He wondered how long he'd actually slept.

"J what time is it." Tony groaned as the fuzziness started to grow into an ache that spread across his temples.

"3:04 am." Ok so he'd had a good 5 hours, so why did he feel hungover. Maybe he'd been more tired than he'd realized.

"Rhodey still asleep?"

"Yes Sir, would you like me to wake him."

"Nah, I'm fine."

Tony filled a glass clumsily, spilling some as he slammed it down hard into the table and started to rifle through the draws and tossing things onto the floor.

"Sir, the Advil is located in the cupboard to your left." Tony found said Advil and saluted the invisible entity in the ceiling. He sat down on a stool and swallowed two capsules with a mouthful of water that made a chill run down into his stomach. Even with the thick hoody on his shoulder he realized how cold he was. He just wanted to crawl back into the warmth of his bed so he finished the rest of his glass and got to his feet.

He had only taken a few steps before he realized something was wrong. The world wasn't as it should have been, it was… spinning a little. And his legs felt weak beneath him. This wasn't right. He saw the room drop a level, but he didn't feel his knees hit the floor. He didn't hear the glass shatter as his fingers caught it and knocked it from the table. The room seemed very bright but very far away.

"Jarvis?"

"Sir, I regret to inform you that your meeting seems to have moved forward."

"Shit." Tony scrambled to his feet and managed to maintain his balance. But not the contents of his stomach. As he wiped the foul-tasting bile from the corners of his mouth he slowly made his way towards the stairs. "How long J?"

"6 minutes Sir."

"Great.” Tony muttered angrily. It would take him 5 minutes to make it down the stairs at this rate. He took it steady, holding tightly onto the railing and taking just one step at a time. He thought with all his experience being drunk that something like this should be a lot easier, but this was like being drunk and high at the same time, or that's what he imagined it felt like anyhow. As he lowered another toe towards the marble, he missed it completely. As his body dropped and his foot hung in mid-air his hands failed to hold their grip. He tumbled forwards landing on his chest and sliding. His chin and ribs bounced over the sharp edges with quickening thuds. He managed to tuck in his neck and arms. The momentum threw him onto his back and he rolled out of control, until every inch of him felt the jolt of sharp, hard marble edges. Lying at the bottom of the stair on the hard floor, he felt numb. He was grateful, but knew that the pain would come soon enough.

"Well, at least it was quicker than walking." He thought aloud and even though Jarvis didn't say anything he could feel the disapproval radiate from the ceiling.

Tony shuffled along the floor until his back was against the wall and he used the friction between his jacket and the wall panels to haul himself to his feet. Jarvis swung the door to the lab open and almost instantly the back wall started sliding out, revealing the secret 'meeting room' he'd been preparing for the last two weeks.

Dum-E, U and Butterfingers whizzed to the aid of their wobbly creator, buzzing worriedly and as usual being the exact opposite of helpful.

"Guys please let me walk."

Tony shuffled carefully into the room and grabbed onto the object in the center as his legs threatened to fail. He'd picked it carefully, to try and make it feel less like what it was. It was there of course to restrain him when things inevitably got rough but right now, it was soft, comfortable and inviting. It took the last of his strength to crawl into the soft leather of the reclined chair. That was when the pain took hold and his insides started to burn.

"Tony, it's ok, I'm here. I'm here. Just breathe." That voice was all he needed. It was going to be fine.

…..

"Steve."

"What is it this time Romanov?"

"If you want to fix this, come with me." Natasha's tone demanded it of him, and Steve obliged, following her out of the room, hesitantly. He’d had time to think and Natasha was right. He had to at least try to mend things with Clint, he had nothing to lose after all. HE could hardly imagine making things any worse between them. Actually, he realized, that was a stupid thing to say. Thing could always get worse.

…..

"Agent Barton."

"Hey Jarvis, thought Tony had taken you with him."

"I am installed into all of Mr. Stark's personal properties I do not leave, unless I am uninstalled."

"What do you want Jarvis?"

"Doctor Banner had requested your presence in the green room."

"The green room? Why?"

"I was not told this information, I was told that you were required urgently."

"Shit." Clint was on his feet in an instant running for the lift. A million scenarios ran through his head. He arrived outside the green room and the corridor was empty and silent.

He looked around, confused, why was no one else here? He looked towards the green room door. Of course, if that place was Hulk proof it was certainly sound proof. He approached the door warily and pressed his finger onto the intercom.

"Bruce, you in there?"

There was silence for moment, but finally a reply came.

"Yeah, Clint. I'm in here."

"Do you want me to come in?" He asked nervously.

"Yeah, its fine I’m safe… just…” Bruce sighed. “The biometric scanner will let you in."

The door slid open silently revealing the bare room. There was a figure sat in the corner, knees bent and leant forward so his forehead was resting on his kneecaps. But the figure wasn't Bruce, it was unmistakable even without making note of the sculpted blonde hair.

"Steve?"

Steve's head snapped up, and noting who was stood in front of him his eyes snapped to the door. "No, No, No, don't let the door…" Steve's hand snapped to the floor but before his arms could take his weight to lift him, there was a thud and a hiss as the door deadlocked. "…shut.” Steve sighed dejectedly. “Great."

"What, what the hell is going on… where is Bruce?" Clint looked round in confusion as he started to evaluate the situation.

"Hello Boys." Natasha's voice came over the intercom.

"Oh Shit." Clint finally twigged.

"Let me tell you how this is going to work. You two are going to stay in here until you work this out."

"Well then you'll be waiting a long time Natasha!" Clint yelled anger flaring in his eyes.

"Well then so will you. Because the food and water is out here and I won't be opening that door for you to get any."

"Hey, that wasn't part of the plan Natasha." Bruce said to her as Clint went crazy hammering on the door, but no sound escaped.

"Relax Bruce I'm not going to kill them."

"You can't do this!" Clint yelled.

"Why not?" Natasha retorted and Clint just remained silent, accepting defeat. "You boys better start talking." The intercom clicked off and they were alone.

…..

"Colonel Rhodes."

Rhodey snapped to his feet, there was only a handful of reasons Jarvis would have woken him.

"Lights." He demanded, opening a draw and pulling on a pair of pants. "What is it? Is Tony ok?"

"I'm afraid the meeting has been moved forward."

"When?" Rhodey's eyes widened as grabbed the nearest t-shirt and flew towards the door.

“Now.”

He ran down the stairs, pausing momentarily in horror at the sight of blood on the white marble. He pulled himself together and sprinted through the workshop, finding his friend draped over a chair.

"Tony, it's ok, I'm here. I'm here. Just breathe."

Tony's face was glistening with sweat and his face was bloody and swollen where it had clearly made impact with something.

"What happened." Rhodey demanded as he gathered up his friend and moved him into a more comfortable position.

"It's starting." Tony hissed.

"Jarvis when?"

"The inhibitor has disengaged; the merge is 35% complete."

"Urgghh… well this isn't so bad then." Tony groaned as clenched his fist into his hair and let his forearms lay across his face.

Rhodey placed a supporting hand on his friend's shoulder and his eyes turned to the screens that were monitoring everything that was happening. He turned back to his friend, who was trying hard to hide his pain. He noticed the tension across his chest which was failing to rise and fall.

"Tony breathe, remember to breathe." As if on Command Tony took a deep slow breath and blew out again. A grimace spread across his face and the breaths failed to be heard.

"Again, Tony, breathe."

His breath came in pants, shaky but regular. All of Tony's focus went into them, with barely another sound in the room. Rhodey could see a stronger wave of pain hit Tony. His head pressed roughly into the leather and every muscle in his body went rigid. A pained groan escaped his lips. He rolled reluctantly onto his side and curled up tightly into a ball. He raised his fist to his mouth and went to bite down on it, but Rhodey pulled his hand gently away.

"Not a good idea mate."

Tony gasped suddenly and all the tension left his body. His breaths slowed and became deeper again.

"Is that it?" Rhodey asked. He knew it had been less than two minutes, but watching that happen helpless to aid his best friend, it had felt like an eternity.

"It certainly feels better…" Tony's voice was barely whisper.

"The inhibitor will re-engage in 15 seconds. Colonel Rhodes I suggest you leave the room at this point." The false wall separating them from the Tony's workshop began to slide closed.

"Why? No, Tony I'm staying with you."

"Last time this happened I knocked out everyone in the room." Tony rolled onto his back hitting a button on the side the chair and out came the restraints.

"Tony?"

"Just go Rhodes, it's only for a few seconds."

Rhodey nodded and just managed to slip through the gap before the wall shut him off from his friend. He stood at the other side, Body tense insides churning, counting in his head. One Mississippi…. Two Mississippi… time was definitely slowing down. Three Mississippi, four Mississippi, five… There was a dull boom from behind the wall and the ground shook slightly. The lights dimmed, and flickered the glass rattled slightly, but then everything stopped.

Rhodey's heart thundered inside his chest and his mind clouded with panic. He took a deep breath and regained his composure. Five Mississippi… Six Mississippi… seven Mississippi…. Eight Mississippi.

"Thank God!" There was a quiet rumble as the wall began to slide open once more. The moment the gap was big enough Rhodey was back on the room. The chair was facing away from his, blocking his view of Tony. He flew across the room to his friend's side to find the restraints had already disappeared as if they were never there.

"Tony?" Tony's eyes were closed and he lay very still, but on hearing his friend's voice a weak smile spread across his face.

"See, not that bad." Tony croaked.

"Yeah sure. What was with the Earthquake then?" Rhodey smiled back. He still felt sick to the stomach, but Tony was, as ever, being Tony Stark.

"CAEB doesn't like being shut out." Tony coughed.

The billionaire began to try and sit up and instead of stopping him, Rhodey put a supportive hand around his back. "Take it easy Tony."

"Why would I do that?" Tony grinned weakly, but his eyes and body betrayed his exhaustion.

"Where do you want to go?" Rhodey asked, but Tony's lucidity was starting to fade.

"What time is it?" Tony wheezed.

"3:56 am." The voice in the ceiling replied.

"Want to go to bed. I got the day off right?" Tony slurred, exhaustion taking over.

"Yes Tony, you have the day off.” Rhodey smiled.

…..

In the green room there had been very little meaningful conversation. Steve had been trying to make some headway with Clint, but his patience had quickly worn thin. There wasn't any point, he knew Clint would never change his mind, but it was infuriating. Steve knew this was his mess, but at least he was actually trying to do something about it, but Barton was just blocking him at every turn.

"Clint if you are really going to be that stubborn…"

"Me stubborn, what about you?"

"Clint please. We both want out of here, it's clear that you are never going to agree with my decision…"

"And you are never going to admit you were wrong."

Steve gripped the bridge of his nose and forced himself to keep his composure. "Why don't we just pretend like we've worked it out and be nice to each other for while so we can get out of here."

"I don't even want to pretend to be nice to a traitor."

"Clint seriously, a traitor?"

"You are a traitor. You betrayed a friend and that makes you a traitor."

"Oh, for God's sake." Steve's voice cracked a little, but he held himself.

"Language." Clint said indignantly.

"Barton, for crying out loud!" Steve barked and the room fell into silence again.

It was a while before Clint broke the silence.

"It won't work." He said solemnly. "Natasha will be recording this, besides do you really expect to deceive her?"

"Is it not even worth a try?" Steve sighed.

Clint took a moment to consider and then spoke again. "You know what I haven't eaten since last night and I don't want to be starving myself for you, so yeah, it's worth a try."

Steve rolled his eyes. "I'm touched."

"Don't be." Clint spat back.

…..

Rhodey had ended up carrying Tony back to his room. He'd been too tired to protest and there had been far too many stairs to try and to walk him up in this state.

He sat by Tony's bed and watched him sleep. Only now did it hit him how tired he was himself, but that didn't matter. If this was just the beginning, he didn't want to know how much worse it was going to get. Tony looked so relaxed and peaceful now, but Rhodey could not stop seeing the flashes of him in pain as he had been such a short while ago. He didn't know why this was getting to him so much, he'd seen Tony through worse, much worse… but maybe this was just one time too many.

His ran his fingers through Tony's hair and for the first time in the dark he noticed the dark bruise forming on his chin and the rattle to his breathing that he'd dismissed earlier. Concerned Rhodey investigated further, unzipping the hoody and noticed little patches of bruises across his chest and shoulders.

"Jarvis?" He whispered. Jarvis needed no further elaboration. A screen flickered on across the room and text appeared.

‘Sir fell down the stairs attempting to get to the meeting room. All injuries are superficial.’ Rhodey sighed. He wouldn't be leaving Tony's side next time a 'meeting' was near. This one had caught them off guard. It had been so early, but why?

Rhodey pulled a Stark tablet towards him and began typing to Jarvis.

'Why did it happen so early?'

The reply was almost instant, and although it was silent, Rhodey could not helped but hear the voice that usually read it. 'Sir had a nightmare which accelerated the onset. It can now be confirmed that stress hugely accelerates the process.'

Rhodey sighed quietly. And returned his attention his friend who had rolled over away from him, still fast asleep.

…..

"How are you boys doing then."

"Natasha please let us out, I'm starving." Clint whined.

"Not a chance."

"Have you not been listening?" Steve asked. "We've come to, well some sort of understanding."

"Yeah, I can't promise I won't bite his head off from time to time, but, well… we'll survive."

There was a tense pause as the two of them stared hopefully at the door.

"I'm sorry boys I have been listening." Clint bashed the back of his head against the wall in frustration. "You are going to have to do a lot better than that if you want out of there."

The intercom clicked off and once more they were left alone.

"Ok, so what are we going to do now your plan failed?" Clint asked quietly.

"Maybe we should give them what they want." Steve said simply.

"Well that depends on you."

"I'd say it depends more on you and if you're willing to talk about this rather than jibe at me."

"It depends on whether or not you are willing to admit you made the wrong decision."

"Clint, why don't we do this the old-fashioned way? One of us talks, gets everything out, without interruption. Then swap over."

"Sure Steve, start talking." Clint said unpassionately.

Clint's attitude was really beginning to grate on Steve. He'd been trying, he really had; to stay calm, be reasonable, and get Clint to talk to him. But he'd just had enough now.

"Fine Clint, tell me, tell me what you would have had me do in that situation. What decision would you have made if mine was so wrong?"

"I don't know Steve. I'm not saying it wasn't a difficult situation, or saying that I would have done a better job. Hell, I would probably have done nothing. I don't have a problem with the decision you made Steve, well I do obviously… but I can understand the reasons why you made it."

"Then what is it Clint, you're going to have to tell me, because I don't understand."

"It's that you are so damn adamant that you did the right thing. I know you feel guilty and I know you regret the consequences, but my problem is that you would do it all again if you had to."

"Yes, I would, the overall outcome is what we wanted, it was not the best way to get there but at least we got there."

"Got where?" Clint asked incredulously.

"The inhibitor is on and the CAEB is under control." Steve said blatantly.

"Yes, the inhibitor the thing that we didn't even know existed… the thing that apparently wasn't finished. The fact is Steve, the only reason everything turned out as it did, an outcome you deem to be 'what we all wanted' was quite frankly blind luck."

"Yes, luck was involved, but why the snipe about the outcome being what we all wanted… is this not what you wanted Clint?"

"The end outcome, getting the CAEB under control, yes that is what I wanted. What I didn't want was Tony to be handed over to SHIELD, come back with a smashed-up face, be forced to implant an unfinished piece of experimental tech and lose faith in his only friends so completely that he up and quits the Avengers."

Steve didn't say anything for a moment, just sat and considered what had been said, so Clint continued.

"Don't you think that Tony has been through enough with all this? I mean, if we had just waited Tony would have finished that inhibitor sorted the problem and everything would have been back to normal."

"Yes, I know that now Clint, but I was I supposed to know then? Tony had become a threat to the people closest to him, he had no control and we had no way forward… that we knew of."

"Yep, here we go on the ‘how can we trust Tony if he won't trust us’. But that works both ways Steve, he wouldn't tell us because he knew we didn't trust him and because of that he couldn't trust us. Do you see that, do you see what that did to him, to us?"

"Ok Clint I see it. I screwed this up. I get that I should have trusted Tony, had faith. Of course, he was working on something to fix it, it's Tony. I should have known him better than that."

"It's not just that Steve, yes you could have done nothing, but if you had to do something you could have talked about it with us. I know you felt you had to make a decision then and there, but we could have talked about this, I mean Bruce knew about the inhibitor, he would have told us."

"I messed up Clint. I made the wrong decision, but it's hard you know? I'm expected to lead this team, I'm Captain America. When something goes down, you look to me. I should be the one that always knows what to do and quite frankly usually I don't, I just make the best call I can. I have to trust in my decisions, commit to them. When I'm unsure, I look to you guys and a lot of the time Tony has the answers when I don't. But when no one has the answer, or even part of the answer I feel like I'm the one who has to make the call, I feel like it's my responsibility and mine alone. I know it's wrong, I know we are a team… but that was the situation on the day and in that moment, I only saw one option and I had to go through with it."

"That's fair enough Steve. Leadership is not something I would ever ask for, and I know you are always the one left with the tough calls and when it doesn't work out I know you blame yourself, but Steve we are your team just let us help in future."

"Ok, Clint you have deal."

Clint was still angry, he was still sore because after all, none of this changed anything for Tony. But at least now he could stop hiding from Steve. They were hardly best buddies, they probably never would be, but for the time being he could live with him and he hoped that overtime that the situation will improve.

"Can we come out now?" Clint yelled and the door opened swiftly. "Thank God."

"See boys it wasn't that hard now, was it?" Natasha and Bruce were stood just at the other side of the door.

"Yeah whatever, let me past I'm starving."

Bruce's phone started ringing and he look down at the caller ID, but turned the screen towards himself.

"Ermm, yeah ok I've got to take this." Everyone noticed the concern in Bruce's eyes as he turned and left quickly.

The phone stopped ringing before Bruce got to his room. He closed the door and sat down on the bed. He tapped the screen to dial Rhodey's missed call and raised it to his ear. He looked at his watch. It was midday, which with the time difference made it 9am in Malibu. The meeting wasn't due for another few hours at least. Was this just a pre-meeting call to ask a few questions? Or was it something else? He couldn't bite back the tingle of nerves in the pit of his stomach as he waited for Rhodey to pick up.

"Hey Bruce, thanks for getting back to me."

"Rhodey hey, what's up?"

"It happened during the night." Rhodey sighed. "Just thought you'd want to be filled in."

"Oh crap, that was early." Bruce rubbed his temples and felt sick to the stomach. "Do you know what brought it on or was the algorithm off?"

"No, Jarvis has been able to confirm it's related to stress… he woke up from a nightmare in the early hours and it started, I nearly missed it but I got there just in time."

"OK, good. How is he?"

"Still sleeping, out like a light." The tone is Rhodey's voice was painful, whatever had happened it had not been good. "He's going to be sore when he wakes up, He fell down the stairs trying to get to his lab. It's not like we hoped, he can feel them coming… which is a good early warning I suppose but he's so disorientated somebody has to be close to him at all times."

"Rhodey, you sound like you need some rest. It's been a hard night for you as well remember."

"Yeah, I just want to make sure Tony's ok when he wakes up, then I'll get some rest."

Bruce was desperate to ask what it had been like, but he could hear the anguish in Rhodey's voice despite how hard he was trying to hide it.

"It was bad Bruce, yes it was short, but if that is the starting point and they're only going to get worse…"

"If you need to talk about it Rhodey…"

"It's hard to describe, but you'll see it for yourself soon enough, not that I want you too… but then you'll understand."

"Ok, let me know when he wakes up."

"Sure thing."

…..

Bruce put down the phone and sighed. They had just lived through a nightmare in Malibu point. In one way, he was glad he hadn't been there, but in many more ways it was worse that he hadn't. He'd get his wish soon enough though. The boys had fixed things, there was nothing left for him to do here. Tony had, had his time, time to prepare for a long flight.

"Was that Tony?" Steve popped his head in the lab door.

"Steve, Hi, I'm sorry but this really isn't a good time." He said firmly. After the news he had just heard the mere sound of Steve's voice was making the Hulk stir.

"Bruce, you may have got me and Barton to sort things out, but we haven't that chance."

"Steve honestly there is nothing to sort out." Bruce's voice raised a little as he forced himself to control his breathing. He took off his glasses and massaged his temples."

"Well I'm sorry Bruce, but it doesn't sound like we're good. You have a problem with me and I get it, but how can we solve this."

"Seriously Steve, I don't have the issue, my angry green friend on the other hand, is giving me a fair amount of grief right now, and so if you could just give me some space I will come and find you all later."

"Understood," Steve said sheepishly and left the room immediately.

It took a few hours for Bruce to regain his composure, but when he had he found the others on the communal floor.

"Bruce?" Steve asked hesitantly. "Are we good or do you want me to leave?"

"For now, we're good Steve, but I can't guarantee that I won't need to make a sudden exit, so please try not to be confrontational."

"Understood." Steve nodded with a faint smile.

"So, questions?"

"Is he Ok?" Steve asked and Bruce was warmed to hear that, that was Steve's first concern. "I mean, I know he's pissed, feeling betrayed but… is he…

"Is he a danger to himself?" Natasha asked the question Steve was hesitant to speak.

"I don't think so, he's not making very good decisions…"

"What like quitting the avengers?" Clint blurted out.

"Is there any way I can get him to come back?” Steve asked sincerely, but his voice was not very hopeful.

"No Steve. I'm sorry, but that's one thing he won't be moved on. Not yet anyway." Bruce said bluntly and Steve's shoulders dropped. He sighed, it was slowly sinking in how much of a mess he'd really made of things, but now wasn't the time for self-pity.

"Please tell me he's not alone."

"No, Rhodes is with him, he got leave."

Steve nodded.

"Me and Steve may have made things up, for now, but at the end of the day, this is Tony's house, we were only here as his guests, and well, he's not. I now he said he was making this place Avengers tower, but can we really stay here after everything?" Barton offered to the stoic room.

"Tony was really firm on that point. He means it, the place is ours. For the public’s sake we should be together for now, in New York. It may have been a while since the incident, but not everyone is our biggest fans and we need to do our bit to make people feel safe again."

"That's a lovely concept Bruce, but how does that work when you and Tony aren't here."

"You're not staying?" Steve asked, it was the first he'd heard of it.

"Yes, it's not a good idea to be here right now. Steve, I honestly have no problem with you, what happened… it's in the past as far as I’m concerned, but I can't reason with the Hulk. I need a bit of time myself, to get things back to where they should be. Besides, the public don't want to see the hulk, or me for that matter. The Hulk may have helped this time but at the end of the day it's still a monster."

"That's not the only reason though is it." Natasha fired back.

"No, Tony needs me."

"Have you talked to Rhodes?"

"Yes, and Tony is keeping busy, trying to find a way to sort out the problem with the inhibitor."

"Bruce, what is this inhibitor and when he said is not finished what does that mean?" Clint asked, concerned.

"The CAEB has made its own brainstem when it merged and it wasn't well protected. Tony was able to create a device that filters out the CAEB's powers, leaving just Tony. It was a pain to get right though, cut off the CAEB brainstem and it would have killed him, get it too low and it wouldn't have a big enough effect."

"So, when he said it wasn't ready?"

"It was set slightly too high, when Fury put it on him, it was… painful."

"How painful?" Steve asked, feeling sick.

"You don't want to know." Bruce said, his eyes were dark and angry.

"So, what's wrong with it now?" Natasha asked.

"It's still set too high and it makes it uncomfortable at times."

"In what way?"

"Headaches, ringing ears… nothing serious but Tony wants it right." Bruce lied and his eyes spoke volumes. There was a great deal of pain in there, a knowledge that he wasn't sharing, something which made him deeply concerned… and angry. The others saw it.

The room fell into silence for a while as everyone contemplated what had been said. It was Clint that broke the wistful quiet. "When are you leaving?"

"As soon as Tony's jet gets here, it set off a few hours ago."

"Well, we'll miss you Bruce." Clint said with a weak smile.

"Keep in touch." Steve said, leadingly.

"I will."

…..

Steve was no scientist and this inhibitor thing… was a bit mindboggling. Bruce had explained it well, he wondered how a man like him, who worked on a completely different plane of understanding, could always bring it back down to their level. It was something Tony never seemed to manage, or maybe he never tried to, but now that Steve had the general gist he wanted to find out all he could. He picked up the Stark pad and started typing in things, hoping that Jarvis would have some sort of record.

He typed CAEB into the search box and the screen came up blank.

"There are no files of this name on the main server." Jarvis' automated response played through the otherwise unoccupied room.

"OK." Steve said. "What about on the Avengers private server?"

"1 project folder, 279 files access only by Mr. Stark and Doctor Banner."

"Great." Steve put down the tablet and sighed. He knew it was a long shot, after all Tony certainly wouldn't be leaving that stuff around for anyone to find and he certainly wasn't on the trustworthy list.

"Hang on, let's try this." He typed again onto the screen, this time it was the word inhibitor.

"One file on the Avengers secure server. Access key required."

"Let me guess, Banner's or Stark's only?"

"This file is open to Miss. Potts, Mr. Stark, Colonel Rhodes, Doctor Banner and Captain Rogers. Access key required."

"Wait what?"

"You have access to this file, if you would state or type you access key I will open the file."

Access key? Steve didn't have an access key? Or did Jarvis mean that thing Tony had, had them all set up when they first moved in? He couldn't remember that, it was ages ago… But what worried him more is why his name was on that list of people who had access, but none of the others were. Not Clint, nor Natasha, nor Thor… So why was he on that list? He wasn't sure he wanted to know now. Something was going on he didn't understand and if there was one thing he'd learned after this whole experience was he shouldn't just jump into things, but now he remembered the access key… well, he'd only ever had one access key. But Tony wouldn't have given him access to this unless he wanted him to see it, right? Unless he'd made a mistake and he wasn't supposed to be on that list. But Tony didn't make mistakes like that, certainly not about his privacy… There was only one way to find out and he made a silent promise to himself not to do anything rash.

"Peggy." Steve said.

"Access granted." A file popped up on Steve's screen and paused before he started to scroll through it. The more he saw the more confused he got. This was not what Bruce had made it out to be… Bruce had made it sound like it would just cut off Tony's powers, but it was… adjustable? Then his heart dropped into his stomach.

"Jarvis, what is the neutralize program?"

"The neutralize program is a last resort should the CAEB become a danger to life. It will instruct the inhibitor neutralize all electrical signals from the CAEB brainstem."

Steve contemplated that for a moment, he thought he knew what Jarvis meant, but he was praying he was wrong.

"What you are saying that Tony has a kill switch attached to the back of his neck!"

"Sir thought it was a sensible precaution."

"You have to be kidding me? And he gave me control of this!" It was starting to make sense now. "Because I'm the only one aren't I, I'm the only one who'd have the guts to press it. To end him."

Steve was furious. Furious at Tony for even creating this in the first place and even more furious that he was leaving him with the responsibility. Why was he always being made out to be the bad guy? And why didn't Tony tell him about this, he'd just left it there for him to find out. He probably never would have seen it if he hadn't been curious, or nosy as Tony would put it.

Steve took a few deep breaths and tried to let reason take over his angry thoughts. Tony was, for once, being utterly responsible. He knew that and he knew his teammates well enough to know how they'd all keep looking for a way to save Tony, even if it meant people died. All of them apart from Steve Rogers. Captain America.

He turned his eyes back to the screen and despondently flicked through the rest.

"Insurmountable threat response?" Steve read aloud in confusion.

"Mr. Stark realized that despite his wishes, the CAEB's powers may be needed again should the world be posed with a threat that the Avengers are thoroughly outmatched by. In this instant, the level of inhibition can be reduced by mutual decision of all the controlling parties."

"So, I can give Tony his powers back, or I can kill him."

"To return the CAEB powers you must all agree to do so."

"But it only takes one of us to kill him?"

"Indeed."

"Well that's a stupidly unbalanced. What if one of us is I don’t know… possessed in some way, or makes the wrong decision?"

"There are safeguards in place to ensure that the person is acting under their own free will, as for mistakes, there can be no safeguard."

Steve shook his head. This meant one of two things to him. Either he'd been wrong about Tony all along and he actually had placed immense trust in Steve. Tony was placing his life in Steve's hands, but it was more than that, he was placing it as his good grace. Steve could just wake up one morning pissed at Tony Stark and decide to kill him and there was nothing stopping him.

Or it meant that Tony really didn't care at all about his own life, so much so he was unwilling to put up any safeguards against the scenario he'd just envisaged.

Or maybe, Steve mused, it was a bit of both.

Either way Steve had yet another huge responsibility thrust upon him. One he certainly didn't want, but since he had it he was going to make sure he knew everything about this 'God device' he'd been given control of. That was his responsibility.

Chapter Text

Bruce had been waiting for a long time to get out of the city. He was now cruising at 41,000ft somewhere north of Jacksonville at a guess, but he kept the window blinds firmly shut. He was ok flying, of course, but he didn't want to tempt fate.

The flight had been blissful. For the first time in, well, it felt like forever, Bruce had been able to keep his mind from wandering onto recent events. He hadn't worried about Tony, or the avengers, he hadn't thought about the impending doom that Tony seemed to be seeing in his nightmares and the last thing he thought about was the Hulk.

When the tyres touched the tarmac and there was a familiar face waiting on the runway, he felt refreshed, like a weight had been lifted. It amused him really, Tony's presence should have bumped him back down to earth, figuratively as well as literally, but after all but a few peaceful hours alone, he felt ready to face anything… and how he'd missed his best friend.

"Brucie!" Tony's enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by the near grey complexion to his skin. There were heavy bags under his eyes and his cheekbones seemed unusually pronounced, due to his pallor. But his eyes told a different story, they were bright, full of happiness at seeing Bruce walk down the Jet's steps. That at least was a relief.

There was idle chat in the car on the way back, Bruce was pleased to see that Rhodey was in the back of the limo and that Tony wasn't here alone. He hadn't expected him to be up at all considering it was less than a day since his first 'meeting'.

"Hungry?" Tony asked as they pulled up outside the Malibu mansion.

"Yes, I am actually." Bruce admitted. He hadn't been thinking of food on the flight, despite having a stewardess at his beck and call. Tony had really overdone it as usual, the jet, the limo and his luggage already in his room waiting as they entered the exuberant open living room at Malibu point. Bruce instantly loved the place, it was bright open and the view was spectacular. It was relaxing here, truly peaceful and it was so Tony. He could see why he loved it here, and it was the perfect place for him to be at a time like this.

"No, you're going to go sit down and get some more rest." Rhodey grabbed Tony by the shoulders and directed him away from the kitchen that he was heading straight for.

"But the good doctor needs food."

"Yes, I know, but that's not your job right now, besides last time you tried to make an omelet it took you three hours and we don't want to poison Bruce when he's just got here."

"Guy's its fine I'll sort myself out." Bruce called through as he collapsed into a heap on the sofa. He didn't understand how travelling could be so tiring when all you do was sit down for most of the journey.

"No Bruce it's fine, I'm hungry myself so I'll just double up on the portions."

"Thanks Rhodey I appreciate it."

"Tony?"

"Not hungry."

"Eat something?" Rhodey pleaded.

"Rhodey I don't feel like it."

"Look, I'll make extra if you can manage even a few bites I'll feel like I've achieved something."

"Ok Rhodey, I'll try."

"Thank you."

Bruce smiled at Tony's lack of resistance. Bruce could tell Tony wanted to act like everything was back to normal but it was evident by the way he moved, taking great care not to do anything suddenly, that he felt like shit. But already more color was returning to his cheeks and he looked much better than he had on that runway. He’d probably been stood there far too long, it was good that he was perking up quickly, but it was important that he didn't do too much too soon.

"Dare I ask how you are doing?" Bruce said softly.

"Getting there." Tony smiled. "It wasn't actually as bad as I expected, for the main part. I was not expecting the finale to be quite so bad though."

"When the inhibitor re-engaged?"

"Yes, it was, well it wasn't as bad as when it first got put on, so fingers crossed that gets better with time."

"That would make a nice change." Bruce nodded, trying to keep the optimism in his voice, even though his words expressed his skepticism. "What are your symptoms?" Bruce proceeded cautiously, he was pleased that Tony was being so open but he was all too aware of how quickly that could change where Tony was concerned.

"Initially… extreme fatigue, mentally I was, gone. Could barely string my thoughts together. After some sleep, it's just like I'm walking round with a weight strapped to me. Moving quickly gives me the spins, I just feel a bit delicate."

"Noise sensitive." Bruce said with a raised voice. Tony put his hands to his temples in a sharp response.

"Apparently so." Tony grimaced

"And a complete lack of appetite?"

"Yes, that too. But I don't feel sick. Just the thought of food feels wrong."

"Fair enough," Bruce stopped there, Tony was at least going to try and eat something and he had no more questions so it was time to move the topic away from the unpleasant experience that was likely still fresh in his friend's mind.

Rhodey smiled at the light laughter echoing through the house as he stirred away in the kitchen, he couldn't quite help feeling a pang of jealously at how well the two of them got on, after all he had been Tony's only friend for the last 20 years, but any childish feelings were hugely overruled by the joy he felt hearing the excitement in Tony's voice. Rhodey wasn't stupid, he had an MIT degree too, but Bruce could really keep up with Tony's train of thought, or close enough.

The three of them had a pleasant evening. Tony ate a few mouthfuls as promised but that was it. In the middle of the night Rhodey heard the patter of bare feet on tiles and sat up on his bed. He sat and listened for a while. He hadn't slept yet, he was still paranoid that Jarvis would call him for another 'meeting' if he fell asleep even for a moment. It was irrational, the next one wasn't due for just over a week, but after everything that had happened he thought he was perfectly entitled to be a bit of an emotional mess.

There was the sound of doors opening and shutting and quiet rustling. Rhodey frowned and scratched his head as he tried to figure out what was going on. He was about to leave when he heard the feet returning the route they came.

He got up a few minutes later and smiled as he saw a dropped packet of crisps not far from his door and a stray pop tart at the bottom of the stairs. Tony had finally got hungry and maybe it wasn't the most nutritious midnight snack but it was better than nothing.

The next morning Bruce came down and opened the refrigerator and looked inside in confusion. The milk was gone. He could have sworn there had been some the night before. Then he noticed there was a lot more than that missing from the shelves in front of him. The cheese had gone, a tub of yogurt, all the fruit, the packet of cooked chicken. He opened the cupboard and saw that the cereal he had been intending to eat was also gone, as were most of the crisps, a bag of peanuts, a box of pop tarts, some water bottles, a few cans of fizzy drink and a tray of muffins.

"Morning Bruce." Rhodey said cheerfully. Bruce looked at him in concerned confusion.

"What's up?" Rhodey asked.

Bruce "This is going to sound weird, Bruce frowned, "But I think someone broke in here last night and ate all the food."

Rhodey chuckled. "What?" He walked over to Bruce, looking in to the cupboard that was so concerning the scientist and his own brow furrowed in turn.

"Tony got up last night for a midnight snack, but I don't see how he could have eaten this much." Rhodey said incredulously.

"That's not it, look in the refrigerator." Bruce pointed at the offending empty refrigerator.

"Yikes."

The pair made their way up to the room of the still sleeping engineer and carefully opened the door so as not to wake him. The sight before them made it impossible to hold in their laughter. The floor was carpeted in empty wrappers and half eaten confectionary. The milk and the yoghurt were on the bedside table, the spoon still sticking out of the carton were no more than an inch of yoghurt remained. There was an empty bowl on the end of the bed and a precariously balanced box of cereal hanging off the edge.

Tony woke up with a start at the intrusion of his room to see his two friends on the floor beneath his door frame in fits of hysterical laughter. He was initially a little confused, but looking around his room and seeing the extent of the mess he had made in his desperate search for food last night, he too burst into laughter.

….

48 hours, that's all it had been. 48 hours and Bruce was being called by none other than Steve Rogers.

"Bruce, there's something really weird going on in New York and I'm sorry to ask this but could you come back and try to make sense of these energy readings?"

"What sort of weird." Bruce asked bluntly.

"Bad weird, like the sky is warping, weird."

"Warping?" Bruce sat up in alarm.

"Yeah, every now and again it looks like it's moving, right above the tower."

"Jesus." Bruce hissed. Whatever this was Bruce was certain was nothing good. He looked across at Tony who was busy at the other side of the workshop. Headphones on he was oblivious to the conversation across the room.

"SHIELD and JARVIS both picked up these readings but we don't know what they are, they do resemble the tesseract… slightly, but we need an expert." Steve continued when he was met by silence on the other end of the line.

"Can you send me the readings." Bruce said with a sigh.

"Yeah, sure Jarvis should already have them, but I think something is about to go down Bruce. We need you here."

"Steve, I'm still jetlagged, and anything I can do for you there I can do just as well here, I have the equipment…."

"Bruce, I'm sorry, I meant the other guy."

"Of course, you did." Bruce huffed.

"I am sorry Bruce, really, I am, but if that thing is going to open again…"

"I'll call you back." Bruce growled.

He hung up abruptly.

…..

Steve turned around to face the room slightly nervously. "He hung up."

"What did you say?" Natasha said calmly.

"Natasha, you heard the whole conversation."

"So, it's about the other guy?" Clint asked. "I mean he knows the deal right, he was ok with it before."

"No, I don't think it was that…" Natasha said. The Hulk wasn't the reason Bruce didn't want to come back, it was Tony and knowing that Natasha couldn't help but feel a pang of worry bite at her insides. She knew Tony could be self-destructive, and he had been in far from a good place when he had left. Tony hadn't broken down through this whole thing, not really and trauma like that was going to catch up eventually.

"He did say he'd call back… and he's got the readings." Steve offered

"Leave it he'll be here." Clint said with conviction. Bruce wasn't the sort to let down his team, even if he was the sort to put Tony first.

"Maybe we shouldn't ask him to come, unless we really need him."

"Natasha, why?" Clint asked.

"Just a feeling."

"Just a feeling?" Clint raised his eyebrow, knowing there was far more to this than she was letting on.

"Besides, Natasha if we did need him it would be too late to call him he's on the other side of the country, it would take him too long to get here."

Steve had a point. He had a very good point. She would leave the decision to Bruce, he knew what he was doing.

…..

"Tony." Bruce tapped the man on the shoulder and he took off his headphones to listen.

Tony crawled out from under the desk where he had been working. He'd had a smile on his face since he'd been allowed back in the lab, but his face fell when he saw Bruce's unknowingly dark expression.

"Bruce, what's wrong?"

"It's nothing Tony, really… but I might need to go back to New York …."

"Steve called you, didn't he?"

"Yes." Bruce sighed.

"You don't need to tip toe round me Bruce. It was my choice to leave. I'll have the jet prepped." Tony said with a smile

"Tony to be honest, I really don't want to go, you need me here and…"

"Bruce if you are staying for me honestly, it's ok, I don't mind."

"I don't want to go back there right now, for every reason, but I think I'm going to have to."

Tony's brow furrowed as he pointless tried to wipe the oil off his hands. "What's going on?"

"Honestly, it could be nothing… probably just wake from the tesseract... but it could be something and Steve is all paranoid."

"Go, figure it out, call me if you need me. All being well you should be back in a few days."

"Tony, I'll be back in time for the meeting come hell or high water."

"Nice to hear, but don't worry about it. Do what you need to, I've got everything I need here and I'll be fine whatever happens."

…..

"Guy's, you need to get to 57th and 3rd now." Bruce was staring at the laptop intently, but nobody could miss the very real and heavy concern in his tone.

"Bruce what's going on?" Natasha was by his side instantly.

"I'm not sure yet, but, something I'm getting some alarming fluctuations and I could do with some clearer readings."

"Battle gear?" Clint asked.

"Can't hurt." Steve said, ever the over prepared boy scout.

"Bit conspicuous." Natasha said. "Not everyone is our biggest fan right now." Natasha leaned down over the computer Bruce was working on and examined the readings on the screen. "And it might be nothing…" She said hesitantly. "Anything you can give us Bruce?"

"Best case scenario, just an anomaly or some delayed aftermath from the main event… worst case we could be dealing with another wormhole."

"What?" Clint did a double take. "Seriously? How?"

"The energy signatures and radiation from the initial event…" Bruce realized that no-one was going to understood what came next so changed his tact. "The first wormhole could have destabilized the boundaries of space, creating weak points where other portals may open. There are three potential sites I can see so far, spread throughout the city."

"Oh great, just what we need."

"So far only one is active, but I could be wrong."

"Bruce, when are you ever wrong?" Clint retorted.

"Well, you know I made one pretty big mistake a few years back…"

"Ok." Steve drew them back on track. "Let's take a car, cover the uniforms and gather what we can. Bruce, could something come through if a portal did open?"

"Of course, but it could open anywhere in the universe, so the chances are that there will be nothing at the other side. But on the other hand, there is always a chance."

"Right move out…" Steve ordered and the room emptied.

….

"Tony, stop what you are doing, it's 2am, get your ass to bed now."

"Five minutes."

"You said that 4 hours ago, Jarvis woke me up because your stress levels are rising and you know the effect that will have."

"Fine. I'm coming, just got to connect this."

"No, now"

"Seriously Rhodey, if you want to raise my stress levels, forcing me to leave something unfinished is the best way to do it, I won't sleep at all with that hanging over me."

Rhodey considered and sighed. "Right, five minutes, and I'm timing it. After that I'll knock you out and drag your ass out of here unless you come willingly."

"Deal." 2 minutes and 26 seconds later Tony looked up and held up his hands in triumph.

"Done!"

"Thank you, now bed you. And shower first, you stink."

"Brutal, but true." Tony said. He didn't even need to smell the offending armpit, he could feel it.

"What had you so stressed anyway?"

"I thought I'd done the math wrong."

"What?" Rhodey snapped round. "You got the math wrong?" Tony hadn't got a calculation wrong the whole time that he'd known him, since a 15-year-old starting at MIT.

"Yeah, I know… see why I was stressed!" Tony huffed. "Turns out the equation was perfect as always it was the equipment that was calibrated wrong."

"I was going to say there must have been an explanation." The pair of them had a chuckle at the situation as they walked up the marble stairs. Rhodey couldn't let Tony anywhere near those stairs without walking close to him, he'd seen the footage of his fall on the night of the last meeting. Anyone else would have been in hospital, it was spectacular…. And now Rhodey couldn't stop it replaying in his head every time Tony lifted a foot.

"Thank you Rhodey."

Rhodey looked at his friend puzzled. "What for Tony?"

"For not lecturing me on staying up late. I get that I have to be careful with all this going on, but, well normal working hours is something I've never done."

"I get it Tony, I can see you are making an effort." Rhodey patted him lightly on the back. "Besides, I agreed it with Bruce that he's the one giving the lectures and I'm just the enforcement."

"Oh." Tony quipped, "good to know my two best friends are organized.

"What are you working on anyway?"

"The joint project. I have to make sure my cover story is actually real."

"How's it going?"

"You know what, I thought it was going to be boring but it's actually quite fun."

…..

"What have we got guys?"

"Nothing, it's just a street Bruce." Natasha stared at the scene in front of them. They blocked the road and closed down the area. There were SHIELD vehicles everywhere and a dozen people milling about setting up Bruce's stuff. A small crowd had gathered at the barrier at the end of the street and it was only a matter of time before word got out that the avengers were there and the news crews came running.

"I mean the readings, have you got the equipment set up yet?"

"SHIELD techs are sorting it." Clint replied.

Clint and Natasha were in uniform, but they blended right in with the other SHIELD agents on scene, although for the gathering onlookers Natasha's red hair was a tell-tale sign and is why it was tied in a ponytail and partially hidden under a baseball cap.

Clint's bow was with Steve's shield, out of sight but in easy reach on the back seat of the pickup they'd arrived in. Steve himself had resorted to wearing a long trench coat to cover the fact he was wearing the full stars and stripes spandex underneath. There was a very nervous buzz to the air, and anticipation that he could almost taste with his super heightened senses.

"Alright, I'm getting it through now guys and it's off the charts. Whatever is going to happen, it's going to happen, like, now."

"Ok guys action stations."

"Actions stations? Can you get any more corny?"

"Save it Clint." Steve was tired and he wasn't really in the mood for anyone's jibes right now. The tension has been building inside him since the first time the sky had warped above the tower. He hadn't been sleeping, he hadn't been able to shake a terrible feeling that something bad was about to happen and Clint' flippancy was not helping his nerves. The fact is he couldn't bear to lose anyone else and he'd lost Tony. Maybe he wasn't dead, but he might as well have died, he'd seen something in his eyes had left. The hope had gone and without hope there was no life.

"Sorry Captain touchy."

Something snapped.

"You know what Barton…" Steve advanced on the unwitting archer and grabbed him roughly by his collar.

Natasha move fast, grabbing Steve by his hair and wrenching him away. "What the hell is wrong with the pair of you?" She placed herself firmly between them and looked from one to the other incredulously.

"Guys Incoming!" Bruce yelled over the coms.

The air in front of them started to flicker and dance. It looked not unlike a heat haze but suddenly the street started to get very cold.

"What's going on Bruce?" Natasha asked

"It's open, the portal is open."

"Somethings coming through!" One of the SHIELD agents yelled as the sound of scuttling could be heard faintly and the air flickered more violently. Steve and Clint ran back to the car and gathered their weapons. Natasha didn't need any of those.

The scuttling intensified, it was like the scratching of a hundred needles drumming in a metal floor.

"This doesn't sound good." Clint said, veins pulsing in his neck.

"Is this a code green?"

"Standby Banner."

Little sparks of blue erupted in the air in front of them and the world seemed to tear revealing the deep blackness of space behind. Everyone's eyes were fixed on the tear in front of them. The picture on the other side was blurred but Steve knew what they were looking at, it was the surface of another world.

Something brushed past Steve's foot and made his attention snatch away. He staggered backwards bumping into Clint.

"Watch it Steve!"

"Look down!"

Scuttling round the asphalt was a confused, centipede like creature. It was just over a foot long, with a heavily armoured back. It's purple plates where flecked with green and an uncountable number of legs whizzed nervously as it tried to retreat but found itself surrounded.

"Over here!" An agent yelled as another one was spotted disappearing into a pipe.

"And here."

Many more creatures could be seen running around the street, but none of them seemed threatening, more scared. But they couldn't let them get away, it would cause mass panic.

"What the hell are we going to do about these!" Natasha yelled.

"This." Clint yelled as he leapt into the air and brought both feet down hard on top of the nearest creature. There was a sickening squelch as the creature's green gooey innards spooled onto the street.

"Lovely Clint. Just brilliant." Natasha said dispassionately.

"Well come on!" Clint beckoned, stamping om another, "Before they scuttle away. We'll never find them if they separate and spread out all over New York."

"Clint stop it. We should try and catch them, they're harmless!"

"Technically Natasha we don't know that."

"Come on guys, imagine you're just wandering round your planet minding your own business and the next thing you know you've fallen through a hole in space and a fat twat starts stamping on your friends."

"Hey!" Clint retorted before realizing she had a point. "Ok everyone." Clint turned around and started scanning the street. He picked up a cardboard box that had been discarded on the side walk in a pile of others. "Everyone grab a box."

….

"So that was it? There's no more readings?" Clint asked a little suspiciously.

"It would appear not." Bruce said plainly, he'd been there 4 days now, they had, had two other instances which had both been a little more challenging than the space centipedes, but nothing that the three of them couldn't handle. He had been immensely glad of the lack of code green, but now the risk was past, he really needed to get back to Tony now.

"Well that was the biggest anti-climax I think I've ever dealt with." Clint threw his hands in the air. "Bit disappointing really."

"Clint, seriously you want the Chitauri back here?" Steve asked.

"No, but centipedes, all be it big ones, those weird thorny things… and then those cute puppy's."

"Clint, those 'thorny things' were poisonous and those 'mega-wolves' put 4 agents in the hospital."

"Yes, but they were hardly the Chitauri space whales and we've managed to contain the whole thing… If that is it I think we got away pretty lightly."

"Yes true." Steve said solemnly running his tongue over the cut on his lip from the last instance to see if it had heeled yet. The taste of copper told him otherwise. "Call me paranoid, but I don't think it is over."

"I wish I didn't agree with you..." Clint sat up from where he'd been sprawled on the sofa, dumping the frozen peas he'd been holding to his forehead on the table. "But I have been bad vibes for a long time now and well, after today they haven't gone away…"

"They've just got worse?" Natasha interrupted.

"So, we've all been having them?" Steve looked around and Bruce was just staring at the floor. "Bruce?"

"I have too, but it's the Hulk that's really noticing. I can feel him getting… nervous. And that's wrong on so many levels."

The room stayed in a stoic silence for a moment as Steve considered asking about Tony. If anyone was feeling vibes the most strongly, or had any idea what it was they were feeling surely it was him. He couldn't bring himself to form the words and the look in Bruce's eyes said very certainly that he didn't have anything to add.

"Anyway, I need to go. But you know how to reach me."

"Say hi for me." Clint said cheerily. He didn't feel the need to tiptoe round the issue like the others.

"I will Clint. I'll be upstairs packing if anyone needs me before I go."

"Take care Bruce." Natasha smiled.

…..

"It's going to have to be quick Pepper I have a meeting, like, now..."

"It's usually me blowing you off for appointments. It's like you've got an actual real job for a change."

"I used to do your job remember."

"No Tony I used to do my job, even when it was your name on the contract… remember? And before that it was Obadiah. You have never taken the role of CEO seriously."

"I did." Tony retorted.

"When?"

"On the day I signed over the company to you."

"Oh, ha ha. Anyway, if you're so busy I just need to know when you'll be free to sign the paperwork for damage control"

"When they change the things I told them to. Now are we good? I've really got to go." Tony could feel the pain starting to well in his temples and he knew he was going to start getting very disorientated, very soon, but he was down the stairs now, Rhodey by his side and Bruce waiting beyond the wall.

"Yeah ok, I love you Tony. I miss having you in New York."

"I miss you too Pep." Tony smiled, pausing before entering the meeting room. "Come up this weekend." He offered, Rhodey looked at him concernedly and tapped his watch. They didn't have a lot of time.

"I'm sorry Tony, but this weekend I have to look over the paperwork for Roxxon's proposal."

"Yeah, but you don't have any meetings. Just come up. Work somewhere with a view." Tony waved off Rhodey and Bruce who were becoming silently insistent and walked into the room

"That sounds good. I'll talk to Happy and get the jet booked."

"Love you Pepp." Tony hung up and the straps went on.

"Are you sure you want her here Tony, the next one is going to be soon after this?" Bruce asked.

"It's time I told her."

"I'm sorry Tony, I really thought I had the answer…"

"You have part of it Bruce and it's really good, but I don't know if I can make it work in time."

"We'll keep trying."

"Of course. Sorry, I think I better cut the chitchat now, because it's starting to hurt."

Bruce put his hand on Rhodey's shoulder, who had his hand on Tony's and then it began.

…..

Coulson knew he shouldn't be here… If Fury found out he'd be furious. Outside of his team no one was supposed to know that he was still alive. Tony already knew though and he had heard about him quitting the avengers. That was a bold move, even by Stark and not one he was sure was in his best interests. It was about time he dropped round as promised.

Jarvis let him in the front door no problem, it seemed Tony had notified his AI that Coulson had been invited, but he was asked to wait by the door, which is exactly what he did.

It was only a few seconds later that Bruce appeared. Coulson was surprised to see him here. As far as he had been aware all the 'serving' Avengers had still been at Stark Tower. Clearly that information was outdated. Bruce was pale and withdrawn. He looked haunted, exhausted and he didn't even notice Coulson stood there. Bruce went to the sink and turned on the tap, allowing it to run cold as he looked for a glass. Coulson couldn't help but feel concerned by Bruce's appearance and lack of awareness. He cleared his throat but the man still didn't notice him.

Bruce was somewhere else. He'd got back just in time for Tony's second meeting and it had been ok. He could see the pain in Tony's face but it was by his own admission short enough to be bearable. But he’d been back less than a fortnight and Tony had already had two ‘meetings’ and the latest, that had been horrific. Tony had tried not to make a noise, but this time he hadn't been able to stop the screams. Bruce clenched his eyes shut, and squeezed the glass a little too hard as he tried to force the sight of tony tied down ad writhing in agony out of his head.

"Dr. Banner, are you ok?" Coulson said just as a crack began to form in the glass.

"Coulson?" Bruce looked up and Coulson could see whatever thought he'd been having, grow smaller in his eyes. "What are you doing here?" He asked perplexed and alarmed.

"I met with Tony a few weeks ago and he invited me round."

"Oh, ok."

"You don't seem surprised that I'm alive?" Coulson said curiously.

"No, I've known for a while, Tony isn't the only one who can hack SHIELD servers."

"Why were you hacking SHIELD?"

"I wasn't actually, just making a point."

"Then how?"

"Tony just leaves stuff lying around on his desktop and we've been sharing computers for a while."

"Good to know." Coulson said concernedly. It was bad enough that Tony could see everything SHIELD were doing whenever he wanted but now learning that he wasn't so worried about keeping it secure was a little concerning. Still, this was Tony and right now he was more concerned about what the hell was happening.

Rhodey came up the stairs at a run. "Bruce, Jarvis says Coulson's here to see Tony, but I thought you guys said Coulson was… dead." Rhodey stopped and stared at the man in the doorway like he'd seen a ghost, and technically he could say he had.

"Not dead." Coulson said, with a simple turn of his wrists to expose his palms.

"Nice to know… But why don't you seem surprised?" Rhodey looked at Bruce.

"I know, Tony knows. Nobody else knows."

"Ok, so when were you going to tell the rest of us?"

"Well Tony doesn't know that I know, so I was waiting on him…"

Bruce filled up the glass and turned off the tap, which had been running for far too long. Though he realized it would hardly dent Tony's budget.

Coulson saw the same haunted expression in Rhodey's eyes and every nerve in his body itched. If the two of them were here, where the hell was the man in question? If his friends were traumatized, what on Earth had happened to Tony?

"If you're here to see him Coulson, you should have called ahead, he's in a meeting."

"Yes, I heard about that collaboration… it has NASA very excited and the Russians rather worried."

"Yeah, well he won't be back till this afternoon."

"Guys… slight problem." Tony's voice called quietly from the level below. The two of them instantly cringed and started forward.

"Well that's odd, it sounds like he's downstairs." Coulson smirks.

Tony's mess of brown hair just became clear as he took the steps very slowly. Rhodey ran forward. Not the stairs, not in his state. Why the hell had he got up? Tony took another step and his face became visible, everyone's hearts stopped. His pale face and the front of his white shirt were drenched in blood. Bruce dropped the glass and started to run. Coulson was the closest and got there first, just as Tony's eyes rolled back into his head and his legs buckled. Coulson grabbed Tony's arm as he pitched backwards, Rhodey hit the floor and slid down the first few stairs, sliding his body under Tony's before his ribs could smash into the marble.

"Bring him up here, quickly." Bruce ordered.

Rhodey carried up to the ground level and laid down Tony's unconscious form gently.

"Where is all this coming from?" Rhodey asked.

"Ermmm…. Nosebleed, a frigging huge nosebleed." Bruce growled. "Get me something to wipe this off will you, I need to see if it's still bleeding."

Coulson obliged, deciding not to ask any questions for now. He ran to the sink and returned quickly with a handful of damp towels.

Tony started to stir as Bruce wiped down his face and neck. The bleeding appeared to be slowing, just coming in small drops. Tony eyes opened and he immediately tried to sit up. Bruce sighed and hoisted Tony up so he was sitting, back propped up against the wall.

"Rhodey will you go show Coulson the view or something." Bruce suggested.

"Follow me Coulson." Bruce waited until the two of them were out of sight before he placed a clean towel in Tony's hand.

"Hold this under your nose and keep your head tilted forward while I go get you a clean shirt."

Tony nodded gently, trying hard to stay awake. He felt so weak. That one had been something else. He hadn't wanted to scream like he had, but it had hurt so much. He could see what it was doing to Bruce and Rhodey, watching him go through this, he'd wanted to save them from it. But he couldn't be more grateful that they had been there. Tony tried to look around the room but everything was just a colorful blur, he couldn't make anything out or figure out where he was.

"Bruce." He called, the world around him fading. "Bruce."

"I'm here Tony. You ok?"

"Thirsty."

"Yes of course, Sorry." He'd left Tony in the first place to get him some water, he wouldn't be leaving him alone again in future.

Bruce helped Tony drink slowly and finished cleaning the blood from his skin and finally got him into a clean t-shirt.

"What were you thinking walking around in that state?"

"I wasn't really, my head's all over the place."

"I know, but you do realize we're going to have to explain this to Coulson now."

"Coulson's here?"

"Yes."

"Oh yeah I invited him."

"And when was this exactly?"

"When he rescued me from Fury."

"Oh, so that's what happened."

"Yeah, and we won't have that much explaining to do. I told him most of it."

"Well that's some comfort at least. I couldn't see you explaining your way out of this one."

Tony smiled, but he wasn't really with it.

"I'll get Rhodey, let's get you to bed."

"I'm fine." Tony mumbled his head twitching as he jerked himself back from sleep.

"No, you're not. I was in there too you know." Bruce looked upwards, he didn't really feel comfortable leaving Tony alone, even for moment. If he passed out now he would probably slide and hit the floor and he'd seen enough blood for one day. "Jarvis?"

"Colonel Rhodes is on his way."

Rhodey carried Tony to bed as he had done the past two occurrences and stayed with his sleeping friend while Bruce went down to face the questions that Coulson would inevitably have.

"Is he ok?" It was the main thing on Coulson's mind and the first thing that he asked before Bruce had even had a chance to sit down.

"In a manner of speaking, he'll be back to his usual self after a couple of hours sleep.

"So, I'm guessing that this was all to do with whatever he picked up in New York? And I'm also going to take a stab and say that Tony has taking on this collaboration project as a cover for what is going on."

"This will be easier to fill you in if you tell me what you already know." Bruce suggested.

"Yes of course." Coulson took a moment to gather his thoughts. "He didn't give me anything in much detail… but he told me that he picked up something after New York, he had powers, something that could destroy the universe was controlling him, but then became part of him… he was struggling to get control and Steve told Fury, which is when we met up… He also said something about being held prisoner on Asgard? He has telekinetic abilities, shielding, Telepathy and Astral projection… time manipulation."

"Woah, wait what."

"Is that wrong?

"The first two I knew about, but astral projection, time manipulation?"

"Yes, he used them to communicate with me on my plane, he didn't tell you what happened did he?"

"No, no he hasn't, but to be fair our minds have been in other things."

"Do you know about the inhibitor?"

"Yes, I know it blocks his powers and I know it wasn't right, he said something about it screwing with his nervous system."

"Ok, well looks like we've got a few gaps to fill there, but you need to fill me on what happened when Fury had him."

"Deal." Coulson nodded and after a pause Bruce proceeded.

"Well the CAEB is some sort of ancient sentient being, all powerful and completely evil apparently. It’s intent on destroying everything…" Bruce began his monologue, but kept pausing, partly to gather his thoughts but mainly to make sure that Coulson was following. The man in question listened intently.

"The inhibitor was not ready," Bruce was reaching the end. "That means that it can't be left on permanently or it will kill him, but the processes of disengaging it causes him… to merge again and that is hugely painful… and it's getting worse every time. You walked in on the aftermath of number 3."

"How often are these things?"

"At first… a few weeks apart, now less than a week, they are only going to get more regular."

"Right." Coulson paused to take it all in. "My turn?"

Bruce waved him to continue and Coulson told his part of the story. Coulson had to admit he hated the fact that Tony had powers, not because it was Tony Stark and he was a 'liability' but because he'd been through enough without all of this. Tony Stark was Iron Man, that's the way Tony liked it and that's the way it should have stayed.

"We got him out, but he was in a terrible way. It took him a while to get control over his muscles. But when he did he punched the director in the face and then we took him back to the tower."

"Bet Fury was pleased about that." Bruce said with a smirk.

“Yes thrilled. But it was pretty good to watch actually."

"Well I'd hope so, I was really mad." A voice came from above them as Tony trotted carefully down the stairs.

"He wouldn't stay in bed." Rhodey said dejectedly. He was clearly as exhausted as Tony, as was Bruce, but with his bubbly persona fully in tact the only thing that betrayed Tony Stark's fragility in this moment was the unhealthy shade of grey portrayed by his face.

"Well I have a guest." Tony smiled. "Come Agent," Tony beckoned him into another room. "Please tell me you've been to Portland?"

"I'm supposed to be dead."

"Ah, yes… didn't think of that."

"Just a second Tony, I'll catch you up." Tony just waved and carried on, flopping on to a sofa and rearranging the cushions. "I'll keep an eye on him for a few hours." Coulson said turning to Rhodey and Bruce. "Get some sleep the pair of you, you look like death warmed up."

"Thanks Phil, I appreciate it." Bruce said

"Looking at him he won't last long before he conks out again, so hopefully you'll have an easy job." Rhodey patted Phil on the shoulder and jogged off, desperate for a few hours rest.

…..

Bruce woke up warm and relaxed, the early morning sunlight streamed through the window. Shit, it was morning… It had been mid-afternoon when he'd fallen asleep.

He was suddenly wide awake. Tony, he hadn't checked on him… "Jarvis…"

"Mr. Stark is fine, Doctor Banner. Colonel Rhodes and Agent Coulson are with him,"

Bruce heaved a sigh of relief and flopped back onto the bed, allowing his heart rate to slowly settle as his sleepy fuddled mind started to recall the previous day's events.

He got himself dressed and clomped sleepily down the stairs.

"Sleep well?" Rhodey asked, greeting him from the kitchen.

"Yeah, what time is it?"

"10:30, looks like you needed it."

"What about you?"

"I was only up a few hours before you."

"Tony?"

"Coulson's still with him. I'm just making us all breakfast. Apparently, he managed to stay awake till about 9pm before he clocked out, he's still asleep on the sofa."

"He's going to be so groggy when he wakes up."

"And hungry, which is why I'm making breakfast for us all so go sit down."

"Thanks." Bruce patted Rhodey on the back before joining Coulson and the sleeping genius in the sitting room.

Tony had been carefully propped up with pillows to make sure he didn't wake up with a crick in his neck. He was also covered in the duvet from his room which Coulson must have got for him. Bruce smiled warmly at the sight, though there was no avoiding the not unfamiliar paleness to his complexion.

"Thank you, Phil. I needed that."

"No problem, it was good to have a catch up, even if it did take forever to get him to sleep." Coulson was looking surprisingly chipper considering how long he must have been awake. Then again, Bruce supposed, he was trained for stakeouts and the like.

"Yep, it's like taking care of child, a clever devious child that can outwit you in his sleep."

"That's quite an apt analogy."

There was as soft mumble from the sofa as Tony stirred. He shuffled uncomfortably but didn't wake up.

"So, what happened yesterday it was bad right?"

Bruce nodded, biting his teeth together at the memory.

"You know Bruce, Tony's not the only one going through this, you and Rhodes need to talk to someone too and not each other."

"You offering?"

Coulson nodded. Bruce sighed again. "I effectively watch my best friend being tortured yesterday, and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it but observe. And you know the worst part… Is that he's dealing with it better than the rest of us combined. It's like he just forgets about it."

"I don't think that anyone has ever known exactly what goes on in Tony Stark's head, Bruce. And there's not much I can say to comfort either of you. This, of all the crazy I've known in this job, is well, this whole situation is unthinkable. But the way you all are handling it, Bruce you're doing everything right."

"But it doesn't make things any better for him."

"Yesterday, you said you were onto something though..."

"It's complicated… and the more we dig into it the less it looks like solution."

"You'll figure out the pair of you. You are the best minds of our…"

Coulson was cut off as Tony's heavy breathing became audible. He was covered in a sheen of sweat, shuffling periodically.

"Is he…" Coulson started, but Bruce was already knelt by the sofa gently placing a hand on his shoulder. Bruce knew a nightmare when he saw one.

"Tony." He said softly. "Come on Tony wake up." Bruce increased the pressure through his hand and began to shake Tony gently. "Tony it's Bruce, wake… Shit!"

Bruce was thrown onto his back as Tony leapt to his feet and stumbled towards the door.

"What's going on?" Tony bumped straight into the concerned Rhodes who placed his hands firmly on Tony's arms to hold them both up.

Tony felt something grab him, restricting him and lashed out. The full force of Tony's right hook slammed into an unprepared airman's temple. There was a thud as Rhodes was knocked to the floor and lay still.

"Tony! Snap out of it." Coulson maneuvered himself between Tony and the door, holding out a non-threatening hand. Tony stood breathing heavily, the panic in his eyes fading into confusion as he started to register the world around him.

"Coulson?"

"Yes, it's me. You're safe."

Tony huffed in frustration and reached out for something to lean on. Coulson helped him find a seat as Bruce offered a hand to Rhodey as he groaned and stirred on the floor.

"Fucking hell Tony, hit me with a truck next time."

"I'm sorry." Tony whined.

"Don't be Tony, it's not your fault."

"Kind of is." Tony retorted.

"Rhodey, don't get up just yet, let me give you the once over." Bruce offered

"Honestly Bruce I'm fine, just get me some ice would you," He groaned rubbing his aching temple. Bruce got up hastily to oblige. "Oh, and take the pan off will you…" Rhodey called through. "Don't want the pancakes turning to ash."

"Got it." Bruce yelled back.

"You ok?" Rhodey asked Tony.

"You're asking me, you're the one I hit."

"Tony that was some pretty shit nightmare, if that's what is was."

"Yeah, you know, end of the world is kind of scary."

"I thought you weren't having those now the inhibitor was on."

"I get usually get them the night before or after a meeting, guess that's when the CAEB is able to break through a little."

"Why didn't you say something?"

"They're not getting any clearer and you've got enough to worry about."

"Tony…"

"Yeah, Yeah, Yeah I'm sorry ok." Tony huffed again, regretting his tone. "I'm sorry."

"Here you go Rhodey." Bruce handed over a bag of frozen peas which the airman gratefully accepted.

Coulson knew they needed to change the subject there was far too much awkwardness in the room.

"Rhodes that smells great, should I bring it through?"

"Might as well, before it goes cold." Coulson got up and slipped out of the room.

"I'm sorry Rhodey I'm not hungry."

"Well, you know the drill, eat if you can and we'll save it for later when you are."

"I've got to get out of here." Tony stood up and moved swiftly out of the room.

"Tony!" Bruce called

"Let him go." Rhodey said. "Jarvis will keep an eye on him."

There was the sound of the front door slamming which turned heads.

"How will he do that if he's not in the building?"

"He has his phone Doctor Banner and I can monitor him through the satellite grid." Jarvis chimed in.

Bruce nodded and Coulson popped his head back through. "Where did Tony go?"

"I don't know, but we might as well eat." Rhodey said with a grimace as he jolted his fragile head.

…..

"So, does anyone else have the feeling that Bruce isn't telling us everything." Steve burst into the communal space and stood in the middle of the room. He'd been mulling things over for days now and he couldn't wait any longer. Something needed to be done. The vibes he was feeling had only been getting worse since they'd last spoken about them. In fact, none of them had barely spoken at all since Bruce had left, not because they were avoiding each other, more because they were all busy.

"Yep." Clint agreed dropping the P and folding his arms behind his head.

"That's a dead-end Steve." Natasha sighed.

"What do you mean?" Clint enquired.

"So, he does know something?" Steve asked

"Yes, he's not a difficult read. But whatever he knows he's got it from Tony."

"That figures." Steve's suspicions were confirmed, of course the CAEB was vibing out like the rest of them.

"Which means that he won't tell us anything without Tony's permission." Natasha explained.

"But if it was something bad surely he'd tell us, right? He wouldn't keep it to himself… not if the world depended on it." Clint proposed.

"No, Tony isn't stupid. He's pissed at us but he wouldn't put other people's lives on the line." Natasha confirmed.

"Wouldn't he?"

"Seriously Steve." Clint stood up, anger in his eyes.

"I don't mean he'd do it on purpose, but think how these vibes are affecting us, we're all scared, paranoid, on edge imagine what the CAEB is feeling… how strong it must be affecting Tony. Maybe he can't tell anyone."

"It is plausible. But however, as much Bruce is protective over Tony, he won't put him before the entire planet. We just have to trust them."

"So maybe we are over reacting… maybe this thing we're so freaked about isn't going to be as bad as we think?"

"Come on Clint, you know that's wishful thinking." Steve reasoned.

"Excuse me for trying to be the optimist here."

"Maybe Tony doesn't know much more than we do." Natasha sighed at the squabbling that was starting between the guys again. Why did she have to be the only woman? "So, he thinks there is there's no point in telling us till he knows more."

"You think that's what's happening?"

"I think it's more likely, yes Bruce knows something but whatever it is, is no breakthrough he'd have given that away."

"But any detail might be important at this stage, we have to prepare for this, imagine how much easier the incident would have been if we'd known what we were up against before-hand." The others couldn't deny some foresight would have helped, so remained silent. "Right now, all we know is something bad is going to happen and we don't even know that for sure. I mean, what are we up against here? Extinction event, another race of aliens? Anything he can tell us would help, anything at all. We have to find out he knows."

"How do you suggest we do that?" Natasha asked contemptuously.

"I don't know... yet."

"This isn't going to end well Steve." Clint said simply. "Why don't we just trust him, you know learn from your mistakes?"

"I happen to know that Tony is still keeping stuff from us."

"Like what?" Clint asked genuinely intrigued.

"I…" Steve began realizing what he'd just let slip… should he tell them what he'd found out about the inhibitor, or would they just be mad at him for snooping?

"Tony Stark is keeping stuff from everyone Steve, that's who he is." Natasha stated bluntly.

"Why don't you just ring him up and ask him." Clint stated confidently.

"Oh, because you think he'd just tell me everything, all his darkest secrets, just like that?"

"Well at least try first Steve, at least give him the chance before you go behind back again."

"He has a point." Natasha reasoned.

"Ok, you’re right." Steve nodded. "We'll give him a few days then we'll start asking questions, if everyone agrees."

"Sounds good."

"Sounds ok." Clint said dispassionately.

…..

"That wasn't as long as I expected." Rhodey chimed as he heard Tony's footsteps return 2 hours later.

"I'm sorry, but I needed that."

"Tony how many times, you don't need to apologize for anything. You haven't been outside since you got here, so I'm actually really glad you got some fresh air."

"How's your head?"

"I've had worse, but you certainly know how to punch."

"Well you know, Iron man doesn't just walk by himself."

"I know, that War machine suit is hard work." Rhodey smiled. "You need to talk about anything."

"No. But maybe it's time that we tell the Avengers that there's something coming."

"They know," Bruce said entering the room.

"You told them?" Tony asked, a look of worry in his eyes.

"No Tony I didn't say anything, I promise you. We are all having a feeling, a feeling that something is bad is coming, even the Hulk is getting jumpy and that cannot be a good thing."

"A feeling?" Rhodey asked.

"Call it a bad vibe." Bruce explained.

"But I'm not feeling anything." Rhodey said "Why aren't I getting it if the rest of you are?"

"You weren't in New York, weren't around that portal. Maybe that's why?" Bruce hypothesized.

"So, everyone in New York is feeling this?"

"Maybe, I don't know, I don't know anything really Rhodes, other than it can't just be a coincidence. You need to be prepared, I can't just keep this to myself anymore."

"You?" Bruce asked. "You need to be prepared? Excluding yourself from that statement?"

"Yes Bruce, I am not an Avenger anymore, I can't be, I'm a liability like this."

"Ok Tony, you're not, but I'm not going to argue with you."

"So, what are we going to do?" Rhodey asked.

"I'm not sure exactly, maybe we should ask Coulson. Where is he?"

"He was following me around while I was out."

"Oh you noticed." Coulson said, stepping quietly into the room.

"Call me paranoid but I always check the plates of suspicious looking black Chevys. Could SHIELD vehicles be more conspicuous."

"What would you suggest Mr. Stark?"

"A bright orange Pick up."

"A bright orange pick-up?" Bruce chuckled.

"Yeah why not? Last thing people would expect, it's so overt it's covert."

"We might take a pass on that one."

"Anyway Phil, how much of our conversation did you hear?"

"Most of it… I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I'm a spy I can't help it."

"Any advice?"

"Well, I'm assuming keeping Tony out of this completely is the main goal." Coulson began/

"That would be appreciated." Tony confirmed.

"So, you have the option of telling Bruce everything in detail and he reports back to the Avengers…"

"Or?" Tony asked intrigued at Coulson's pause.

"Or maybe it's time I come back from the dead."

Bruce's phone started to ring and he lazily checked the caller ID. "I better take this." He sighed.

"Steve?"

"Yes. I'll be back in a minute."

Bruce stepped out of the room and stared at his phone for a moment debating whether to answer. He finally swiped left on the screen and took a deep breath.

"Steve?"

"Bruce. The readings are back."

"Same as before?"

"I'm afraid so. It looks like whatever this is, it isn't finished with us yet."

"Great. So, you want me back again?"

"If possible, I think it's a justifiable precaution."

"Fair enough." Bruce stopped and thought for a moment. They needed to know exactly what was causing these and how to stop them, or he'd be hopping between coasts like this, well, maybe permanently and Bruce was no fan of flying. "Will you give me a couple of days, I have an idea I'd like to check out?"

"Sure, it took a while last time before anything kicked off, just don't leave it too long."

Bruce walked back into the room of querying faces.

"Ermmm… I never filled you in on why I had to go back to New York."

"I'm guessing that means you'll be leaving us again?" Rhodes asked.

"Probably yes, but look… Tony I was trying to keep you away from this. Coulson you'll probably already know…"

"Are you taking about the sky warping above New York and the three associated SHIELD files of incidences with minor portals?"

"The whaty, what now?" Tony sang, his eyebrows raised.

"The sky was warping?" Rhodey said slowly.

"How do you two not know?" Coulson asked. "It is all over the news."

"We've banned the news." Rhodey stated. "This is supposed to be a stress-free house."

"Which is exactly why I didn't tell you Tony, that and I don't and I know you don't want anything to do with this anymore. But I could really use an extra set of eyes to go over the data."

"Sure Bruce. Minor portals, are we taking faults caused by the initial event from the tesseract?"

"I assume so, but the data is inconclusive."

"So, we need to know what's causing them, why now and not straight after the incident, and how to close them for good or repair the damage?"

"Ideally yes."

"Sounds like a good night's work!" The genius said enthusiastically.

"Hang on Tony, normal sleeping hours still apply."

"God, I haven't had bedtime this script since I was 5."

"You only had bedtimes till you were 5?" Bruce asked.

"Yeah Howard stopped caring after that." Tony said quickly, "Have you got the readings now?"

Bruce paused for a second but decided not to probe. He knew that Tony hated his Dad, best not to add those feelings to whatever mix of emotion he was currently concocting.

"Yes, they should be on Jarvis' server, we can head down now."

"Great, no hang on… I'm hungry. Is breakfast still around or did I miss that when I stormed off."

"It's in the fridge… I'll bring it down."

"Thanks Rhodey." Tony sang, winking at his best friend.

"Yeah, Yeah go and play science, I'll just wait on you hand and foot."

"I will never understand those two." Coulson said dejectedly.

"I don't think anyone does but them, that's why they get on so well." Rhodey smiled. The ego part of him felt he should be jealous of Bruce and Tony's relationship, the part that would protect Tony with his life was hugely glad of it… as was the selfish part of him, which was relieved that he was no longer the only one who had to bear the burden that was Tony Stark.

"Don't you have some spying to do or something…" Rhodey asked then realized how rude he'd sounded. "I'm not asking you to leave, just wondering why SHIELD hasn't been wondering why their favorite agent has been missing for over a day.”

"I have a few days leave, wanted to check on Tony after his impromptu visit and of course there aren't many people I can go and see on my days off, being dead and all."

"What exactly happened? I mean, how are you alive?"

"I don't know Rhodes. I really don't know." Rhodey frowned at that, but decided not to probe any further. "Anyway, don't you have food to prepare Chef Rhodes."

"I suppose I do. "Rhodey rolled his eyes and got to work.

…..

Chapter Text

Tony rolled out from underneath the car noticing one of the wheels on the creeper rattle. He sighed as he gently got to his feet. That had been a frustratingly easy fix, Bruce would happy but Tony was disappointed. He'd really wanted something to sink his teeth into. Standing on the creeper he rode it to his desk like a skateboard and sat it upside down on his knee while he diagnosed it. Two of the wheels needed new bearings. It would probably have been easier to replace them, but he was bored so he removed the offending articles and pushed the creeper out into the middle of the floor.

20 minutes later his phone buzzed and his hand snapped to it. It was Rhodey, giving him the half hour warning that he'd be dragging his ass out of there for a break unless he came willingly. Tony sighed, he couldn't find anything to keep him occupied anyway, his project list was empty apart from the stuff he'd been deliberately putting off… the mundane tasks and he sure as hell wasn't going to touch those with a barge pole.

He stood up, phone in hand tapping at the keyboard, shooting back a message to say he was on his way. He turned around to check he hadn't left the soldering iron on from earlier, soft stepping backwards towards the door. Then his foot hit something and went shooting forward. Tony's found himself thrown backwards as he stepped on the creeper and it rolled violently away from him. Phone flying up in the air Tony instinctively wrapped his arms across himself and tucked his chin into his chest to minimize the injury as he waited for the floor to rise-up and meet him.

But it never did.

Tony opened his eyes and looked around cautiously there was a faint glow of blue underneath him as he realized he was being held in mid-air two feet above the floor. Okay, this was new. How the hell was the CAEB getting through the inhibitor? He could feel its power coursing through him and it felt wrong. More wrong than it had before. He hissed a little as the back of his neck started to prickle and burn. So how did he get down from here without landing on his ass?

He carefully tried to sit up and as soon as his head reached vertical he dropped like a stone, landing with a grunt as pain shot through his now bruised coccyx. Rubbing his tail bone, he twisted round and stopped dead. Right behind him was his toolbox. Judging by where he'd landed, if he'd been allowed to finish his fall the screwdriver would have stabbed right into the back of his neck. It would have almost certainly killed him.

He got to his feet shakily, heart rate throbbing in his chest. Had the CAEB just saved him? He tapped the inhibitor uncertainly, it was red hot to the touch and he winced at the burning on his neck.

"Jarvis. Get me stats, has it failed?" He shouted panic rising in his throat.

"There was a power surge from the CAEB's nervous system far beyond anything we have yet encountered. The inhibitor was unable to contain the surge but is fully functional. All readings have returned to normal, but I would suggest cooling the device down immediately as it has overheated."

"No kidding." Tony strode over to the freezer and pressed an ice pack to the back of his neck, shivering in relief as it touched his skin. He scooped the phone off the concrete, pleased to see that the screen wasn't cracked. Guess he could skip that stage of the testing for the new devices. He finished off the message saying he'd be up in 15 minutes and pressed send. He should probably go get something with a collar to cover the bright red mark on the back of his neck, he'd call Bruce later, when he wasn't so busy in New York, but the inhibitor was going to need some serious tweaking.

Suddenly Tony gasped as a jolt of blinding pain shot through his skull. He crashed to his knees as his vision went blurry and every nerve in his body twitched like it was on fire. Tony screamed as his insides seared.

"Jarvis, what the hell!"

"The CAEB nervous system has been damaged as a result of overcoming the inhibitor, it appears to be healing but the process is…"

Another cry escaped Tony's lips silencing the AI.

"Sir, I'm calling…"

"Will it fix itself?"

"Yes Sir."

"Then keep your mouth shut."

Oh, so slowly the pain started to subside, until he was just left with a bitter taste and a raging migraine. He picked himself up off the floor and here was a text waiting. 'You're late.' He rubbed his temples, biting hard against the ache in his skull and made his way to the door.

"Jarvis, I want to see that data, send it to my phone." Tony spoke quietly,

"As you wish."

…..

5 hours later.

"Steve, we are getting blown to shit down here." Natasha yelled over the roar of the small fighter's engines. Natasha was right. Three Avengers could not hold off an aerial attack, especially when two of them were only human; two of the most skilled and lethal humans on the planet, Steve reminded himself, but still just human. Not supercharged, not a demigod and certainly not wearing any armor.

It had been just over a week. One week since they had been certain it had all been over, but of course life could never be that simple. Bruce had set off back, again, 12 hours after they'd called him and 5 hours after that a shower of lasers was raining down on them from above.

"I can't cover you from up here anymore." Clint yelled over the comms. "There are too many of them and I'm running out of arrows." There was the sound of explosions nearby in the background which made the others jump.

"Ok Clint." Steve acknowledged. "Bruce standby, I think we're going to need some help from the other guy."

"Understood Steve." Bruce said, sighing a little. He was hardly keen on changing shades today. "Clint, I'm sending in a drone with more arrows. But there's only 50… I've got more on the way but they'll be a while."

"Thanks Bruce. Guys if you see any on the ground pick 'em up will you."

"Sure Clint, we'll pick up after you." Natasha teased.

"How many we got left Bruce?"

They'd had plenty of warning that another portal was about to open, but no way of pinpointing where it would be. They hadn't made it to the Bronx in time, arriving to the hail of lasers from the alien incursion and being thrown straight into action. The SHIELD agents had managed to contain the portal on East 230th, nothing else was coming through. But that still left them with clean up; and there were still civilians to evacuate… too many.

"They're fast, it's hard to get a read, but I think we're down to 58."

"Any heading out of the area?" Steve had his hand pressed to ear squinting up at the sky, trying to follow as many as he could in his line of sight.

The area was residential, mostly low-rise buildings with wide streets and far too many schools in the immediate area. Clint had managed to find himself a high vantage point atop a 20-storey tower block a mile or so to the east.

"No, they are focused on you for now. Clint, keep shooting at them like you are and hopefully that'll be enough to keep them away from civilians."

"How can I do that when I have about 12 arrows left!"

"Arrow drop is in less than a minute." Bruce confirmed.

"Just do your best."

Clint fired another arrow in response. It flew with the usual flawless precision, but unfortunately the enemy, unlike the arrow, could curve in mid-air.

These craft were so agile, so fast that they were proving impossible to hit. They were able to turn on a dime, quite literally. The technology was incredible, but the crafts themselves were a thing of beauty. They were small, maybe just under 5ft long and barely 3ft tall; yet the shaping was unbelievable. They were streaks of silver plating, cutting through the air like a knife. The light seemed to bend around them; from the side it was hard to catch a glimpse, but head on they were damn near invisible. Their best way of tracking them was by sound; their jets were immensely powerful and also incredibly loud, roaring and vibrating the air around them. You couldn't just hear them coming, you could feel them.

"I thought you were supposed to be good at this Barton?" Bruce said playfully.

"They are so frickin fast, why do you think I've nearly run out of arrows?" Clint said exhaustedly. The exploding arrows worked well when he could hit the damn things, but he had barely any left. His only shot with the standard arrows was a 3-inch air intake. He usually wouldn't break a sweat over that, but in this case, the shot was nigh on impossible.

"We need to figure out another way to take these things out." Natasha said what everyone was thinking. "Bruce have you got anything?"

"I'm taking apart one of the one's you brought down, but this really isn't my field…"

"Steve get down!" Clint yelled as a small fighter dove towards Steve's position and a storm of laser blasts tore up the ground heading straight for him. Steve could hear it, but could barely see it. He turned and ran, sprinting away from the roar that was baring down on him. He rushed through the cloud of dust as the ground splintered around him and the heat prickled at his neck. He saw an opening and went for it. As he dived the concrete he'd been stood on exploded and threw him into the air. He slammed into the doorway he'd been hoping to gain shelter from, rebounding off the hard structure and spiraling out of sight.

"Steve!" Clint yelled.

"Steve." Natasha said calmly. "Steve are you there?"

A cough came over the comms. "I'm fine." There was a loud explosion overhead and a whoop over the comms as Clint took out the fighter with an exploding arrow.

"57 to go." Clint said triumphantly.

"Guy's, we need to get in air support, if they stop focusing on us and start targeting civilians we cannot stop them." Bruce warned.

"Call Fury, scramble another Quinjet." Steve barked.

"They're too big Steve, the fighters ran circles around them." Clint protested. "There's no point getting more agents killed for nothing more than a distraction."

"Then what do you suggest?" Steve asked, trying to hide the pain in his voice as he winced and held his injured side.

"Something small, fast and agile. Something that can keep pace with these ass holes, with a killer artillery…" Clint began.

"A snide tongue and the occasional good idea." Natasha added

"No!" Bruce snapped.

"Bruce, why?"

"Tony won't come." Bruce said instantly. "Not today."

"Bruce, Natasha's right we need him." Steve said. "Is there any chance you could convince him."

"No Steve, I won't even make the call."

"Bruce…"

"Why can't he come?" Clint asked perplexed.

"If you want to try Steve, you're more than welcome to." Bruce growled. "But I would not recommend you do that."

Steve paused for a moment, certain he could hear more of the hulk than Bruce in those words. But they only had one option. "Patch me through."

…..

Pepper was busy working when she heard Tony's phone vibrate, she looked around, he'd wandered off a little while ago and she still couldn't see any sign of him. She picked it up anyway without looking.

"Pepper Potts." She was met by the sound of explosions which made her drop her paperwork. "What the hell is going on?"

"Pepper? It's Steve, I really need to talk to Tony."

Pepper's face darkened. The nerve of this guy. To be calling Tony, asking for help, after everything that had happened. She wanted to scream down the phone, but, as always, she held her composure.

Pepper straightened up and took a measured breath. "Captain Rogers, Tony isn't on call when you need him. He's not part of your team and he no longer answers to you." Pepper's tone was ice cold and it sent a shiver down Steve's spine, to hear Pepper address him so formally was like a shot to the gut.

"I know Pepper," He said solemnly. "I wouldn't call unless I really, really needed to."

"The answer is no Steve."

"Pepper, why? People are dying."

"He can't he has a meeting." She said casually. The lack of any emotion in her voice was incredibly disconcerting.

"A meeting?" Steve said, taken aback. Firstly, since when did Tony go to meetings and what in hell type of excuse was that? "Pepper lives are at stake, please just let me talk to him."

"I'm sorry Captain Rogers. You'll have to find someone else." Her tone however said that she was not sorry in the slightest.

Steve felt a hand on his shoulder shove him out of the way of another blast, the flash of red hair matching the lasers that had seconds earlier had been trained on him. Steve was desperate now. If he was honest with himself he was in no fit state to be fighting, he was still very dazed and quite frankly becoming a liability. He picked himself up off the hard ground, uniform covered in brick dust and offered a weak smile to Natasha as a thank you.

Natasha nodded at him, asking how it was going. He sighed and shook his head.

"What about Rhodes?" Natasha asked, standing close to Steve so Pepper could hear her.

"Is War machine free for a fight?" Steve asked.

"No."

"Pepper, we're desperate…"

"Pep, why are you on my phone?" Steve heard Tony's voice at the other end of the phone and the breath catch in Pepper's throat. Pepper quickly covered the microphone of the cell and was about to pass it off with a smile when she noticed the look of realization on Tony's face. He'd figured it out. Her eyes had given it away.

"Put me on." Tony's face was expressionless, his eyes empty. Pepper instinctively drew the phone closer to her body.

"I don't think that's a good idea." She said hesitantly.

"Give." Tony held out an outstretched palm, expectantly and reluctantly Pepper obliged.

Tony pressed the phone to his ear and turned away.

"What do you want?"

Steve's stomach leapt at hearing Tony's voice again. He realized how long it had been, and unusually he didn't sound pissed. In fact, he didn't sound… like anything.

"I'm sorry Tony, we need you, we need Iron man, we have a situation."

"Where?"

"New York, the Bronx."

"What are you dealing with."

"Small aircraft, incredibly agile, we have contained the portal but we have now way of stopping them and the evacuation is taking too long."

"Stark!" Steve heard a muffled voice came through the line and it seemed all too familiar, but he just couldn't place it.

"Hang on a second." Tony covered the mouth piece of the phone as Coulson approached him.

"Stark, give me the phone and I'll sort this."

"Coulson, they think you're dead."

"Tony, just give me the phone."

"No, I'll handle this."

"Stark."

"Coulson, we don't have time to explain you're alive and all the rest, they are trying to fight flying alien craft. I will sort it." Tony raised the phone back to his ear, on the other end of the line Steve frowned at the sound of raised voices, what the hell was going on? "Sorry go on."

"Tony, I wouldn't have called if we didn't absolutely need you. So, please, just suit up and get over here."

Tony was silent for a moment, considering his options. "I'm sorry Steve, I can't."

"What? Because of a meeting?"

"It's really none of your business."

"Tony I'm sure that whatever you have is important, but people could die here, people have died… just put history aside and come help us save these people."

"People could die if I don't go to this meeting."

Steve was confused, was Tony just making stuff up?

Tony gripped the bridge of his nose hard. "Jarvis, cancel the meeting and get out the mark 45."

"Tony!" Pepper yelled, both surprise and horror infecting her tone.

"Sir, I would like to remind you…"

"Not now Jarvis!" Tony practically growled, which caused Pepper to take a step back. "I'll be with you in under an hour." Tony hung up and immediately his phone was ringing. It was Bruce. Tony ignored it.

"Tony what are you doing…" Pepper yelled. "The… 'meeting,'" she hissed the word and stomped towards him in her heels, "is in less than 16 hours."

"Exactly, that should be plenty of time." Tony said flippantly.

"But you know that stress accelerates it." Pepper pleaded. She was so glad that he had told her what was going on. She had known something was wrong of course, and she hadn't pushed, she knew where that got them. And although he hadn't let her be there she knew how bad it was from the way Rhodey and Bruce looked at him when they thought he couldn't see them. Glances from across the room, staring at the back of his head or while he was dozing on the sofa, they were all waiting for him to drop, for something to happen.

"It'll be fine Pepper, I'll practice my meditation on the flight over."

"Tony this isn't a time for jokes, think about this."

"Pepper, people are dying."

"Stark, I would really advise against this." Coulson added.

"Tony what the hell are you thinking! Jarvis told me." Rhodey appeared, clearly enraged.

"Look, you are not going to stop me so just coordinate with the people at Stark tower to set something up in case I can't get back in time, would you?"

"Fine, but I'm suiting up too."

"Sorry Buddy you can't, I need the war machine reactor, I'll drain the power flying there at Mach 5."

"Tony!"

"Bye, see you later."

"Stark, at least let me fly you over there. The bus can be ready in 15minutes."

"It's too slow Coulson, I'll be half way there by the time you leave the ground." Tony stormed towards the steps brushing off a frantic Colonel.

"No, No, No. Don't you dare!"

"Just give over Rhodey."

"Tony, next meeting aside, take a look in the mirror. You are still exhausted from the last one. You're grey Tony, you look like a walking corpse! You can't stay awake for more than a few hours and you struggle getting up the stairs… How on earth are you supposed to go into battle?"

"Caffeine."

"Tony can you be serious for one minute?"

"I'm being perfectly serious. I look worse than this when I haven't had my morning coffee."

"For God's sake Tony!"

"You know I have to do this Rhodey, so why are you fighting it. The longer I stand here fighting with you the more people die."

"Tony, you don't have to do anything. You always feel like it's your responsibility and it's not, you don't owe them anything, you don't owe anyone anything, in fact the whole damn planet owes you."

"And I'm not your responsibility Rhodes, so why don't you leave off."

"You are my responsibility Tony and quite frankly I don't care about anyone else right now, all I care about is making sure that you are safe, that you are ok and damn everybody else!"

"I'm touched Rhodey, really, I am. But you can't seriously be putting me before an entire city."

"Yes, I can."

"You're in the fucking military Rhodes, your responsibility is to every citizen of this country not just one, certainly not when that one is a jackass like me."

"Screw it all Tony, you are not going out there, because I know your luck… This thing will come early, it will catch you by surprise and you will be stranded in a fight with nobody to watch your back. If the meeting doesn't kill you, you will be helpless and whatever these things that you are going to fight are, they are not going to hesitate to kill you while you are writhing on the floor!"

Tony took a deep breath. The last thing he wanted right now was to be fighting with his best friend. He knew how Rhodey was feeling and Tony was more than aware of what he was walking into. He very well might not be walking out of that again, but he was Tony Stark and he'd planned for all of that.

"Look, Rhodes, Bruce is there, I have set up back up plan after back-up plan. It's going to be fine and I'm sorry but you are not going to stop me."

"Ok Tony. Fine. Do what you want, but I don't have to like it." Rhodey bit back in frustration.

"Of course, you don't. I don't like it Rhodey. And I wouldn't be doing this unless I absolutely had to."

"Ok," Rhodey sighed defeatedly, "Go. But you call me as soon as its done and you get your ass back here. And if I call you, you better pick up your damn phone."

"Yes Sir."

"Don't piss me about Tony. Just be careful please."

"I will Rhodey, I better go."

…..

"Tony are you mad…"

"Jarvis, why can I hear Bruce when I told you not to pick up!"

"I'm afraid Sir, Dr. Banner has found a way to bypass my communications security."

"…stuff that, I know you're mad, what I didn't realize was that you are completely and utterly insane!" Bruce continued to rant.

"Bruce that is the last time I let you 'have a look' at Jarvis' coding."

"Tony the reason I built a back door was if you couldn't pick up the phone because you were at a meeting and you needed us we could get hold of you."

"Fair enough, but my statement still stands."

"Tony, I'm not calling to convince you to turn around, God knows that's pointless, but I needed to let you know I've been called in. I can't help you if something goes wrong. Just please, don't put yourself into any…"

"Unnecessarily stressful situations. I'll do my best Bruce."

"If you need me, find the Hulk, please…"

"Sure thing, I've got the countdown on the screen I'll be watching the time."

"Thank you. See you in New York." Bruce rang off.

"Jarvis, you fly, I'll try sleep till we get there."

"As you wish, I will wake you when we approach New York."

…..

Tony didn't sleep well, I’m mean how could you flying at full speed across the country? But thankfully 20 minutes after he'd slipped into oblivion Jarvis woke him. He could see the smoke rising in small plumes across the North of the city, it didn't look good.

"Ok Jarvis patch me into the com link." Tony's eyes flicked to the countdown. He lost a bit of time, but 10 minutes in an hour, wasn't much to worry about. 14 hours 48minutes till crunch time.

As he approached the fight zone his display started flashing red. "Sir something is coming in fast."

Tony looked ahead, the targeting system was outlining something small, but he couldn't see it.

"What the…" proximity alarms started blaring as he hovered in mid-air trying to see the thing he was fighting. He could feel his heart rate pounding in his chest, what was coming at him? Was something wrong? Why couldn't he see it? He focused on the display and the target lit up in red as he got closer. He killed the repulsors, dropping at the last second. He felt something roar through the air above him and then he saw it. A flash of silver, a craft so sleek it was nearly invisible. But as quickly as he'd averted the danger the thing was back on his tail.

"Jesus, they weren't kidding about it being agile." Tony didn't hesitate. He had a feeling that this was going to be fun, it had been a while since he'd flown and as laser blasts shot through the air around him he had to use every trick in the book to dodge these incredible machines.

Tony fired a repulsor blast as soon as he got them on the backfoot, but it seemed to bounce off the supremely smooth shell. Hell, he was desperate to get his hands on one of these when they were done blowing them to shit.

"Jarvis, how do we level these things?"

"The craft will disintegrate with a relatively small explosive charge, the air intakes are also a point of weakness." The graphic highlighted the location to Tony and showed him the best places to lay the charges.

"Sir I would suggest terminating this chase as soon as possible." Tony knew that was the sensible, thing, but well, he was having fun. It was the first time he'd found something that could really match the suits agility. Match, but not exceed. He wanted to see what they could do.

A sonic boom was heard over the island and the Avengers looked up to see a streak of red and gold. The first boom was quickly followed by a second as a silver blur careered across the sky.

"I guess Stark is here then?" Natasha said with a raised eyebrow.

Steve nodded thoughtfully, pulling out his Stark phone and checking the screen nervously for a moment before sliding in back into a pocket.

Tony meanwhile, wasn't enjoying himself so much anymore. Ok, so it could nearly match his speed on open ground, in fact, it was starting to gain on him which was more than a little disconcerting, so Tony changed his tact. He went shooting upwards.

"What is he doing, why doesn't he just blow it up?" Clint asked incredulously as he fired again and missed, swearing as the craft dodged again.

"I'm finding out what it is capable of bird brain. It's called tactics, and one of you ass clowns could have let me know these things and damn near invisible."

"Sorry Stark, I might have been able to brief you if you hadn't hung up." Steve said monotone. "Now could you please come down from there and blow these things to kingdom come?"

The sky was beginning to grow dark at the edges but still the craft followed. Ok, so that wasn't working either. These things were good. But they weren't very bomb proof. Tony fired and the explosive charges stuck, obliterating the craft in a ball of flame. Brilliant, designed to evade rather than withstand. To be honest, he wasn't sure these craft were meant for a fight at all. The weaponry looked like it had been recently added, it wasn't quite innkeeping with the design.

Regardless these things weren't going to be easy to pin down if they didn't want to be.

"Ok how many have we got." Tony got straight to business.

"Around 45 remaining If Clint's countdown is accurate."

"45? What is the Hulk playing at he should have smashed these by now?" Tony asked, with raised eyebrow.

"Yeah, well, he like the rest of us is finding it hard to catch the damn things."

"I bet that's pissed him off." As if in answer the roar of the hulk echoed over the streets deafeningly, seeming to shake the very ground.

Tony glanced up at the countdown again. Shit. 4 hours 15minutes. "Jarvis, check that countdown, I think you forgot the 1 before the 4."

"I'm sorry sir, the display is correct. There was a steep acceleration but the display should have recalibrated."

"So those 4 hours should be 4 hours and not another random acceleration?"

"Hopefully."

Hopefully. Tony gulped. Well that was comforting. What had caused the jump? He'd just lost 10 hours in about 20 minutes of combat. He took a deep breath. There was no point worrying about something he couldn't control, it would only make that thing tick faster. "Shut up you idiot!" He yelled at himself and snapped out of it. He'd just have to get this done fast.

Tony got to work, and soon most of the fire was being drawn to him rather than to the rather battered Avengers on the ground… and the one on a roof. They were going down fairly easily at least, but he only had a limited number of these charges to fire. He'd have to get more creative otherwise he was going to run out of ammo.

As he scooted around a building with three craft on his tail he spotted the Hulk shooting between two buildings, trying but failing to grab another craft that was circling and firing at him, causing no damage other than to piss off the Hulk further. That gave him an idea.

"Hulk Buddy, why don't you just go hide around the corner and I'll bring you some toys to smash."

"Hulk don't hide, Hulk fight!"

"Urgghh jees." Tony grunted. "That's not what I meant Buddy. Not hide, just go stealthy so, you know, you can smash!"

"Hulk smash!" was the response as big green disappeared.

"That's the spirit."

Their little plan worked for a while, allowing them to whittle the field down to the final 15 but they wised up, much to Tony's annoyance and stopped following. Instead they returned their focus to the guys on the ground.

"Ok, back to freestyling it Big guy. Guys watch your 6, you've got incoming."

Steve looked back and groaned as he saw three fighters heading for his position. Shield in hand he leapt into the air as a craft brushed under him. His feet had just touched the ground again when it was torn away from him. A laser blast hit him square in the chest, sending a searing pain through him as he smashed into the wall of a building. He curled up behind his shield as the laser blasts bombarded him, the smell of his own seared flesh met his nostrils and he could feel the concrete wall cracking behind him, getting ready to give way.

As the sound of explosions met his ears finally the bombardment stopped, or more accurately changed its focus. Steve tried to stand, bleary eyed he could see Natasha running through the street, dodging the hail of red light that was tearing up the ground around her.

"Natasha!" Steve yelled, he began to run towards the danger but he stumbled over the rubble under his feet. This wasn't good, this really wasn't good.

Thankfully something big and green flew into view and ripped Natasha out of harm's way. Steve let out a sigh of relief as he leant against the building he'd just left a huge dent in and tried to get his breath. His ribs shifted painfully when he breathed and he could hear them rattle under his skin. Thankfully adrenaline was killing the pain, but he knew those burns were going to take more than a good night's sleep to heal.

Tony was frantically covering the two on the ground, but these things were learning… they were getting better at dodging his hits. Clint's arrows were now missing even more often and no one felt like jibing at him for it. The Hulk kept leaping in the air like a child trying to catch butterflies and with each failed attempt he got madder and madder.

Tony heard them too late. With his focus elsewhere, he hadn't noticed the other fighters gather behind him.

"Sir!"

"How many?"

"12." Tony streaked through the streets, but he couldn't shake them and he couldn't outwit them either. Unlike those Chitauri idiots he couldn't get them to make a mistake, even if they did, they were just too good to crash. There wasn't so much as a scratch on their perfect silver paintwork, whereas Tony, was hanging on by the skin of his teeth. He felt the strong prickle of heat as a laser blast skimmed his armor. He tried to dodge the next three incoming blasts, but he felt slow, fuzzy and he couldn't make his ears stop ringing. Oh great. Three blasts of burning light scorched into his side and he suddenly had no control. He was sent spiraling, twisting in the air flashes of sky and concrete merging into one as the rush of air filled his ringing ears.

He smashed into the fourth story of a warehouse and spiraled downwards, slamming through each floor until he hit concrete at the bottom. He felt a sickening crack as he landed and it wasn't the concrete crushing on impact.

"Fuck!" Tony yelled out in pain as his armor burned hot where the blast had hit him and a blinding pain seared through his chest as he breathed. He took a moment to calm down and the pain became clearer to him. There was a strong stabbing in his shoulder and the whole of his left arm was numb and tingling.

"Great! Just fucking great." At least the sounds of the fighters outside were gone. The last thing he needed right now was to have to laser blasts raining down on him.

"Tony, where you at?" Clint came through on the comms. He'd seen the fighters gather on Tony's tail and then disperse, but he hadn't seen Tony.

"Fine feather's, just fine. But I'm going to need a minute."

"Stark?" Steve asked not quite believing.

"Sir, it would appear you have minor burns, concussion, three broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder..."

"Yeah thanks Jarvis, tell me something I don't know." Hissing with annoyance.

"The effect of this trauma has accelerated the meeting schedule considerably. You have 4 minutes."

Tony's heart missed a step. "You are kidding, right?"

"You did not program me to 'kid', Sir."

"Fuck." This was worst case scenario. Bruce was hulked out, he was in the middle of a fight and lives were at stake. This could not be about to happen right now. He knew he had to move fast, get somewhere safer.

"Sir I would not advise moving."

"Yeah that's good advice." Tony groaned as he let himself flop back onto his back. There was a heavy weight crushing his legs where he'd brought down the ceiling with him. "Is the stuff at the tower set up?"

"Stark!" Steve came through again when he received no response.

"Yes, but there is not enough time to get there and the suit is running low on power, I recommend we evoke the emergency protocol."

"Damage limitation." Tony hissed. "Can it take the blast of the merge?"

"The damage to the suit is extensive, it will only be able to absorb 23% of the energy pulse."

"So how much damage will it cause to the surrounding area."

"The EMP radius will be approximately 0.6 miles and the structural damage to this building will be potentially catastrophic."

"So basically, I'm probably going to bring this building down of top of me."

"Tony where the hell are you?" The crackle of the coms just made the panic rise higher in his chest. He could feel it starting, feel the pain rising and he was on his own. The other's, people he'd used to call his friends, people that deep down he still thought of as family, were in trouble and he couldn't help them.

"Sir, please try to remain calm."

"Bit busy right now Steve." Tony sneered.

"We're getting killed down here, can have some air cover?" He could hear the desperation in his voice and it just added to the burning in his stomach.

"Not right now!" Tony knew that wasn't going to be enough for Steve and he needed to get them off his back for the next half hour. "I might have a plan, so just give me some time." Tony lied through his teeth.

"Ok, just please finish this thing." Steve said hesitantly.

Tony didn't reply, he just silently set the comms onto mute from his end. They didn't need to hear the screaming that would be coming very soon.

"Can you try get in contact with the Hulk? Bruce would be kind helpful right now."

"I have been trying to get through to Doctor Banner, but so far I've had little success. Do I have permission to evoke CAEB protocol 15?"

"How long?" Tony didn't really need to ask, he could feel the searing in the back of his skull, every nerve was stinging. This one was going to be the worse one yet. And he was alone. He stared up into the warehouse, it had clearly been abandoned for some time. He was lying in a pile of rubble and filth, the only light streamed in from the hole he had crashed through. And he was terrified. Already the burning inside him wanted to make him tear at his own flesh.

"2 minutes."

"Ok, lock down the suit and put up the shielding with 15 seconds to go." Tony had of course prepared for every eventuality, though he hadn't been expecting to don the iron man armor so soon. The suits robotics would lock and act as a restraint. He wouldn't be able to move. It was crude but hopefully effective, if the suit had full power it would have been able to create a field strong enough to contain most of the blast from the merge, but even on his second core, his power was incredibly low. The holographic screen flashed red in the corner indicating 16% power. When this was over the suit would be near drained. He wouldn't be able to fly and he sure as hell wouldn't be able to fight, knowing the state he'd be in when this was all over.

He was screwed and the others were screwed if he couldn't help them.

He could never have expected the schedule to accelerate that fast in the late stages. He had a feeling he was going to pay for his decision and this uncharacteristic miscalculation. Regardless there was nothing he could do about it now, that was a problem for another time.

The pain had already reached a higher level than it had last time. The countdown hadn't even hit zero when Tony started screaming.

…..

"Hey Hulk what you doing?" Steve asked as the green streak flashed across the street, seemingly ignoring the 'annoying buzzy things' and peering into each building he past.

"Where is tin man!"

"He's busy, trying to find a way to stop these things."

"Where?" Hulk roared. Some laser blasts hit him on the shoulder and he didn't so much as flinch. Nor did he react. Steve took a step back.

"I don't know big guy, he didn't say."

"Must find Tin Man!" Hulk roared and stomped off.

"Hey, wait!"

"Steve what's going on?" Natasha yelled.

"Well, looks like we're down to three."

"What the hell, where is Hulk?" Clint yelled, explosions crackling through the coms.

"He's gone AWOL…"

"What wait, are people in danger?"

"No, no it's… he's trying to find Tony, he's completely focused on it he doesn't even care about the fight."

"What the hell is going on?"

"How long since anyone heard from Stark?"

"45 minutes, maybe more?"

"I don't know how much longer I can hold this position." Clint yelled, genuine despair in his voice.

"This is crazy."

"Stark, talk to us how far off are you?" There was no answer. "Stark, talk to us…. Stark!"

"For Crying out loud, where the hell is he?

"Hang on, where the hell are the fighter's going?" Clint, looked in horror as the remaining dozen or so fighters, that until now had been solely focused on them started to dissipate.

"No, No, No, they're moving out, they're going to start targeting civilians." Steve began running down the street after the retreating vehicles.

"Guy's wait, they're not… they're targeting one building and it was evacuated hours ago." Clint said, observing from his superior vantage point and peering across the smoke hazed streets.

"Clint what's happening?" Steve demanded. Clint saw the blast begin, the shockwave travelling from the warehouse the fighters were surrounding.

"Everyone get down!"

"What!"

"Get down now!"

The ground rumbled and a blast knocked Steve and Natasha clean off their feet. Clint ran across the roof and hurled himself behind the air-conditioning unit. He felt the quiver dig into his back as he landed and everything went black.

…..

When Steve came around his ears were ringing, but when he thought about it they had been before he'd been knocked on his ass. He hoped to God this had been Stark's plan. He struggled to his feet and looked around, expecting carnage, but apart from sparking electrics everything looked pretty much like it had before. Except, the skies were empty, just as they should be.

"Everyone Ok?" Steve asked, pressing his finger to the earpiece and it squealed painfully with feedback. "Yikes." He cried, ripping it from his ear hastily.

"Steve, you ok?" He looked around to see Natasha limping towards him from across the street. There was a deep cut on her forehead that was bleeding profusely. The side of her face was stained with it. Her uniform was tattered and scolded, any bare piece of skin was littered with abrasions. She was a mess.

"Not too bad, You?"

"How do I look?" Natasha said, chuckling.

"Like you need to see medical."

Natasha glanced Steve over. He was remarkably pale, his blond hair stained with a crust of red at the base of his skull. The center of his uniform was a torn and bloody mess of scolded flesh and she could see the pain and tiredness in his eyes. "Yeah, well right back at you." She sighed.

"Are your coms working?"

"No, it was an EMP, its wiped everything out."

"Guy's!" A call echoed from on top the adjacent building. "You all ok!" The small figure of Barton could be seen waving from the roof. Even from a distance he didn't look too good himself. Natasha put her thumb up in response, knowing that Clint could see the gesture.

"What about the Hulk? Haven't seen him in a while, you don't think…"

"Steve he's indestructible, virtually… but we should find him, be nice to have Bruce back." Natasha looked around and noticed a figure stood behind them.

"Hulk here." The Big guy said with a huff. Steve took a step back. The Hulk couldn't half walk quietly when he wanted to.

"So, I'm, guessing this was Tony's plan?" Steve asked, hoping someone would have more of a clue than he did. There was a rumble a few streets over as the warehouse at the epicenter of the explosion folded in on itself, sending a slow rolling plume of dust between the buildings.

"Can't find tin man."

"Relax big guy, he'll be here in a minute." Natasha soothed.

…..

Tony crawled out onto the street. He wasn't sure how he'd managed it. He wasn't even sure it was the street, but it seemed brighter than it had been when he'd woken up. Everything was blurry, his head pounded and he couldn't string his thoughts together at all. It was only a matter of moments later that he heard the concrete structure of the warehouse crumble. He was pinned to the ground while the wave of air rushed over him.

"J, you there?" There was an electronic crackle which Tony nearly missed underneath the fit of painful coughs that wracked his screaming chest.

"S... Sir... Yes…" Tony breathed a sigh of relief as Jarvis began to fix himself.

"Is everyone ok?" Tony wheezed.

"Yes Sir, no fatalities. And I have fixed the Communications line between the Avengers."

Tony sighed. They couldn't find him like this, but every fiber of his being hurt. He couldn't feel his legs and if he was honest he was far from fully conscious.

"Stark, talk to us. Where are you?" Natasha's voice came through, echoing due to the crack in his helmet and making his head spin even more.

"Please tell you weren't in that building." Clint demanded.

"I was, but I got out in time." Tony did his best to keep his voice level. "Did I get them all?"

Natasha cocked her head slightly, there was something wrong, something about Tony's voice wasn't quite right. She wasn't sure what but it made her stomach knot.

"Yep, Buddy, that was one hell of a strike. You ok?"

"Fine."

Stark was lying. Natasha was certain.

"Stark, where are you?" Natasha's concern twigged Tony that she was on to him. Of course, she was.

"I'll come to you guys." Tony gave a small and token groan, there was after all no point in pretending he wasn't at least a bit bashed up.

"Sir I would not recommend moving." The British accent was slightly garbled as the suit sparked and fizzed a little with the damage

"You control the suit then, get me walking. Even out my voice too, I want to appear normal."

"Sir…"

"J, I just want to convince them for long enough that everything is fine so I can get home and pass out, ok?"

"As you wish. But we are on emergency back-up power."

"Ok, get a car here asap."

As the suit moved gracefully Tony was reminded of the injuries he'd sustained before the meeting. He yelled out as the suit moved his dislocated shoulder and the suit immediately stopped.

"Ok J, take it easy on the shoulder."

One arm shut down to prevent further damage and the suit continued on.

…..

The familiar mechanical whir that accompanied a rather mangled red and gold suit was a welcome sight for the four pairs of eyes who had been stood waiting. Natasha had just handed Bruce a coat, all he was capable of at this point was curling up in the rubble on the floor, though his eyes were fixed on Tony with great concern. The hulk had been way angrier than he had in a long time and Bruce was all but drained. He was going to need a minute.

"Clint where are you going?" Clint seemed to be the least bashed up of the lot of them, a few scuffs and scrapes and he wasn't quite standing up straight. But any pain he was in was overshadowed at his joy at seeing Tony.

"Dropped my quiver on the roof, don't leave without saying bye." Clint pointed at Tony as he trotted off in the opposite direction.

"So, am I done clearing up your mess now?" Tony said tiredly, it was a lazy thing to say, he hadn't meant it to cause offence but it ticked something inside Steve's head that flickered a spark of annoyance.

"We're going to want you at the debrief Stark." He said irately.

"Forget it." The suit shook its head, but Tony was limp inside. It felt weird, he was surprised he was still standing, even with the suit. He could taste the blood pouring down his face, he was guessing from another nose bleed. Every second was a fight for consciousness and with every passing moment the wave of pain and nausea grew further past the point of unbearable.

"Stark…"

"I ain't in your boy band anymore Steve, you can't make me do anything." There was no passion in his voice, which only made Natasha's concern bite deeper.

"Avenger or not it makes no difference…”

"Steve, maybe just leave it." Natasha reasoned softly.

"You know what Steve, if I threw a stick would you go away?"

Natasha face palmed. There went any chance of resolving this peacefully.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Steve snapped around, hands on hips.

"I'd have thought that was fairly obvious."

"It's a good job you aren't still an Avenger Stark, because that stunt you pulled, disappearing mid fight and leaving us in the kill box, was a whole new level of stupid."

"Yeah well, I saved your ass and I was busy before you called Steve, I had much better things to be doing, so maybe next time I'll just leave you to sort out your own shit."

"Busy? In a meeting. Not being funny Stark but when did you do an honest day's work in your life?"

"There would be no point in trying to explain it to someone like you."

"Someone like me?"

"Yes Steve, if stupidity hurt it would have killed you by now."

"No, boys. No! We are not doing this." Natasha forcefully stood between them, a fire in her eyes that dispelled the animosity between them. Their attention was diverted as Bruce struggled to his feet. Tony went over to offer him a hand, but Bruce's gaze was fixed on Steve.

"I need to talk to you." The look in Bruce's eyes was a little daunting, so Steve obliged, walking over where they could get some privacy.

"You want to know why Tony couldn't come?"

"Yes, actually that would be nice." Steve started, then checked his tone.

"He is managing a joint project, a project that could change everything we know… It's huge."

"That doesn't explain much Bruce." Steve interrupted.

"That meeting he missed today… they were running an experiment, which if he wasn't there to supervise there was a risk that it could kill everyone involved."

"So, why not just cancel?"

"He did… The financial cost of that however..." Bruce sighed, he was making stuff up on the spot and finding it hard to be convincing. Thankfully Steve was the easiest of the group to fool. "He funded that himself, cancelling it cost him big time. Of course, money isn't the problem, but he's not going to be able to repeat that for maybe a decade, the conditions were perfect earlier, but it’s too late now. He had to choose, between helping us now and potentially saving the world in a few years' time… and he chose us. So, you give him a hard time for even one more second and you are going to regret it, Steve, do you hear me?"

Steve swallowed, he couldn't say he understood how one experiment could save the world, but Bruce's threat was real and it wasn't just from him. "I hear you. Sorry."

"Don't apologize to me." Bruce turned and walked away, leaving him in a bit of a haze.

"Clint what is taking you so long?" Natasha barked over coms.

"Sorry, but 20 flights is one hell of a lot of steps and I'm friggin tired."

"Couldn't we have just sent a drone?" Bruce asked

"Oh, well you could have said that earlier!" Clint paned over the comms.

"Clint just come down so we can get to medical and call it a day." Natasha said tiredly, the pain was starting to grate on her now and the pounding in her head was threatening to make her very irritable.

"I'm pretty much there now so I might as well carry on.

A sudden roar cut through the air. There was another craft. They hadn't all been destroyed. Within seconds the thing was in the air and moving fast, it's silver paneling damaged making it easily visible in the bright sunshine. Clint appeared on the roof and jumped into action, grabbing his quiver. He had a couple of arrows left and he fired them fast. The craft dodged. Shit. Now he was out of arrows and the pissed off alien was heading straight for him.

"Clint, get down its coming right for you!" Natasha yelled, firing off shots but making no impact. Bruce was too exhausted to Hulk out again. Steve's shield was on the ground 50 meters away.

"I'm out of arrows!"

"Get out of there!" Natasha begged

"Oh Jesus." Clint had seconds to make a decision. The craft wasn't firing, maybe it was too damaged? Then a flash of red knocked him off his feet disproving that theory. There was only one option. "Urgghh Tony you better catch me!"

"Clint no… I," But it was too late. Clint was running towards the edge of the roof as the lasers ate up the ground, heat licking at his heels and singeing the hair on the back of his neck. A moment later he was in the air and plummeting towards the ground.

"Sir we have no flight power, autopilot is non-functional…."

Tony stared up at the falling archer in horror, there was nothing he could do without flight power, he had nearly completely drained the core. He was grounded, unless… He had to do it, or Clint was going to die.

"Disable the arc safety protocols, use everything we've got and get me airborne!"

Tony took back control, or tried to at least. He took off but every move hurt with a searing pain. His limbs were moving but there was little sensation, he felt limp and numb. That's when he realized he wasn't moving fast enough, he wasn't going to get there in time. He fired the repulsors hard and felt the acceleration jolt through him as he closed the final few yards.

Clint was falling. The ground approaching fast. He'd spent a lot of time jumping off buildings and he was used to that feeling in his stomach, that lurching feeling of no control. But this time it was a little more sickening. He looked for the streak of red and gold he was relying on, only to see he hadn't moved. What was Tony playing at? Oh shit, Clint had a bad feeling about this. Staring at the rapidly approaching concrete Clint started to imagine how much it would hurt if he hit it. He closed his eyes. It was too late. They couldn't help him now.

Damn it, Tony internally cursed. Now he was coming in to fast, he tried to slow the suit down but he didn't react fast enough.

Clint was hit hard from the side and his breath was knocked from him. Suddenly Clint heard a crunch. His body whipped sideways uncontrollably, he expected blinding pain but he felt nothing. Even as his shoulders slammed into the ground and the skin was torn off his back as he slid to a halt in the rubble, he didn't feel a thing. He saw the mess of red and gold armor in a ball beside him and he felt fear. Fear for himself, but also for his friend who'd tried to save him. Why wasn't Tony moving? He tried to roll but his body didn't so much as twitch. What was happening? Clint gasped for air as concerned faces surrounded him, bombarding him with questions that he couldn't quite hear for the strong ringing in his ears. That's when he realized.

"Oh my God." Clint breathed. The fear grew on his friends faces as Clint's voice broke and he bit back a tear.

"Clint, what is it?" Natasha demanded, an unusual amount of emotion showing in her features.

"I can't feel my legs."

Everyone took a step back. Steve turned his eyes the stirring mass of red and gold metal on the floor. Tony started to slowly try and get to his feet, but the ground was snatched away from him as he felt himself slammed into a wall and held up by his throat.

"What the hell are you playing at?" Steve screamed in Tony's face, to no response. Tony was limp in his armor, he couldn't make out Steve's features but he could recognize his voice.

"Steve, It's not his fault." Clint croaked as Natasha tried to calm him and carded her fingers through his hair.

"Shhh, Clint just stay still Med Evac is on its way."

"But it's not Tony's fault." Clint whined desperately.

She smiled and nodded. “It’s ok. Just hang in there.”

"You are way off the reserve, Tony. First you disappear, leaving us to get blown to kingdom come. As usual you go off on your own and you not only couldn't you be bothered to give us fair warning we were about to get blown on our asses, your little plan didn't even work!"

"Steve stop!" Natasha yelled. She was angry. Hell, she was furious with Tony right now. But she was objective enough to know that rage was no help in the situation and it was only distressing Clint further.

"I knew we couldn't trust you!" Steve's eyes were full of grief and rage. "I never should have called you in, you're a liability… you're a lazy, arrogant…"

Bruce was looking very green and stampeding towards Steve with an unhealthy look on his face. "No Bruce no." Natasha's feet slid across the ground, failing to find grip and she tried to bring Bruce to a halt. "Snap out of it. Clint needs you!"

Bruce stopped in his tracks and his pallor started to return to a more natural shade.

"Get your Doctor head on and look after Clint, I will sort this out." Bruce still looked torn and unconvinced. There was something very angry very close to the surface, wanting to tear Steve into small pieces. "Please, Bruce trust me."

Bruce nodded slowly and did as he was told.

"Steve, you stop this right now." Natasha growled.

"This is his fault!"

"Is it? Is it really. We all screwed up, we let our guard down when we hadn't made proper checks." As the words came out of her mouth the reality of them started to sink in. It wasn't Tony's fault, well it was, partly, but it wasn't all on him. "It doesn't matter anyway, is this helping Clint?"

Steve let go of Tony and the suit landed on its feet with a thud.

"Yeah, that's what I thought." Natasha sighed.

Steve stormed away and knelt by Clint's side, Natasha turning tail to follow. Then she paused. She still couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Tony hadn't lifted the face plate this whole time, none of them had actually seen him. Steve had just torn him a new one, and he hadn't said a word, that wasn't Tony Stark. And the way he was stood now, the way he had been moving, everything was wrong.

"Tony take off that helmet."

"I can't."

"Why."

"Bit bashed up in case you hadn't noticed." That voice, it was being synthesized heavily, much more than normal. But she hadn't missed it. He had slurred his words just then.

"Are you drunk?" Natasha started in disbelief.

"What! No." Tony retorted, but the infliction in his voice was weak.

"Tony, "Natasha scanned him skeptically. "Are you even in that suit?"

There was no reply, but some crackling in Tony's suit.

Jarvis was trying to say something, but the suit was too badly damaged and likely on critical power. Tony felt himself fading, he was done.

Natasha was about to go over there and rip off that faceplate when something caught her eye. Her chest tensed and the air was knocked out of her.

"Tony, the reactor!" The circle of light was out. A small flicker of light is what had drawn her eye to it, but it had been fleeting, momentary. The reactor was dead and that meant Tony wasn't far behind.

Tony realized that the suit wasn't just holding him up, it was completely locked. He tried to move his head but the robotics were fused, the display had frozen minutes ago.

"Oh shit. I thought I felt weird." Tony laughed internally. Perfect end to the perfect day.

"Tony where is your spare!" Natasha was at his side instantly as the suit started to fail completely.

"This is the spare." Tony mumbled. The suit stopped holding him up and his legs certainly weren't going to take over. Bruce looked up from Clint as the medics arrived, eyes laser guided to Tony. He noticed the absence of light immediately and scrambled to his feet as Tony buckled. Bruce and Natasha were now taking the role of keeping Tony on his feet.

The medics pushed Steve away from Clint as they buzzed around him, fitting him to a spinal board and strapping an oxygen mask to his face. In a matter of moments, they were gone, loading him into a SHIELD ambulance, which quickly left the scene.

Steve looked round to see the scientist and the red head struggling with Tony's limp form. His stomach dropped and realization hit. He'd been such an idiot. He swallowed down his regret and embarrassment, moving forward to help, Bruce glared as he approached, but allowed the stronger man to take Tony.

"What do I do?" Steve asked.

"He'll have another spare in the tower."

"I'll get a Quinjet." Natasha started to run, but was distracted by the screech of tires as a car flew in to view. It skidded to a halt alongside them and the door piled open as Happy jumped out of the driver's seat. A spare reactor was thrust into Bruce's hand. He was bundled into the car by Steve who was left in the street with Natasha as Bruce slid in the back with him and slammed the door. Tony didn't remember anything else after that. Finally, his body caught up with him and sucked him into oblivion

…..

"Tony, can you hear me?" The voice echoed around Tony's skull as bright light pierced his eyelids. He groaned weakly, but only a squeak escaped his throat.

"Hey Buddy, welcome back."

Tony felt the sensation start to return. His arm was strapped across his chest and there was something wrapped around his torso. Tony grasped at his chest with his good arm. Well, he thought it was his good arm, but he realized that ached like hell too.

"It's ok" Bruce soothed, seeing Tony's panic. "I changed out the reactor. There's no lasting damage, but you cut it close there." Bruce looked exhausted; worry and a hulk out will do that to a person. "I also reduced you shoulder and taped your ribs so please try not to move too much."

It was silent for a moment as Tony took in his surroundings. He was on his couch in his workshop in Stark tower. That made him feel better. God, he was grateful for the familiar surroundings right now, right down to the smell of the leather and the detergent in the blankets. His head was still pounding, his vision was yet to focus and quite frankly lifting a finger was more than he could manage.

Bruce looked at Tony in concern as sweat started to form on his brow. He was both surprised and concerned by the fact that Tony hadn't even tried to utter some snide remark, or said anything for that matter.

"Tony how are you feeling?" Bruce frowned, gently removing Tony's hand from where it was scratching at his burns and put it back down by his side.

There was a nervous pause as Tony let his eyes slide closed and Bruce became convinced this was just a short-lived bout of consciousness.

"Shit."

Bruce sighed and nodded silently. Of course he did, but he hadn't expected Tony to say it, certainly not like that; so dispassionately. The look in his eyes as they flickered back open was tired and defeated. He tried to tear his mind away from the thought of what Tony had just been through, without him, without anyone there beside him, but he couldn't. This entire day had been a disaster.

"Rhodey and Pepper are flying in, they'll be here in an hour or two." Bruce was uncomfortable with how quiet Tony was, he hated one-way conversations. It was selfish, but he just wanted Tony to tell him that he was fine, like he normally did, he just wanted to hear that usual Tony humor. But that wasn't going to happen this time.

"Clint," Tony croaked, throat dry and sore. "Is he?" Tony's voice was worryingly level. He didn't move, just stared blankly at the ceiling.

"He's in medical downstairs. They've got the best people on him." Tony breathed a little. So, he was alive at least.

"Is he going to walk again?"

"Tony, it wasn't your fault, you know, that right?"

"Bruce," Tony stifled a cough and then continued. "I know how hard I hit him. I felt… I felt him break. I broke him." Tony's eyes were riddled with pain at that memory. It made Bruce feel sick. Why did this keep happening? But at least there was some sign of emotion from Tony now.

"Caught him, Tony. You caught him. If you hadn't he would have died."

Tony sighed weakly. Usually he would have argued. He would have reminded Bruce that it was his fault that he hadn't finished off the fighters in the first place and his fault he was too screwed to control his suit. It was his fault that he'd gone in too fast, hit Clint too hard and fractured the guy’s spine. And all of this because of the merge and the fact it had come early… and that was his fault too. But he was just too exhausted to say anything, almost too exhausted to keep breathing.

"Just give it to me straight Bruce."

"I'm not too sure. He went straight into surgery but it depends how bad the damage is. They didn't know anything until they got the X-rays and we haven't been allowed in since before then. Spinal fractures aren't always as bad as they sound…He could be anything from completely fine…”

"To being in a wheelchair for the rest of his life." Tony finished, swallowing hard at that thought. Nausea ran through him as the picture of Clint's limp form refused to leave his head. He'd done this. He was a danger in anything he did. He couldn't be Iron Man, or an Avenger, even if he wanted to and he could hardly be Tony Stark either, not with the CAEB tearing up his life whenever it felt like it. Even without all that Tony was the definition of a screw up, he always made the wrong decision and it never cost him, it was always somebody else that paid for his idiocy.

"How did you take those fighters out anyway?" Bruce tried to divert attention from the subject.

"I had time before it started. I figured that if I could get them close to me before the merge, the shockwave would fry them, so I had Jarvis send a signal to lure them to me."

"Nicely done."

"When can I fly back?" Tony's face was expressionless, the awkwardness filling the space between them.

"Whenever you feel up to it… and I hate to dump more on you right now but…"

"What Bruce?" Tony's voice was not much more than a whisper as he let his eyes drift shut, he still hadn't so much as shuffled. There was no spark in his friend anymore and he prayed that it would pass. It had been a tough day, Tony was going to be down, but he had to get his fight back again. He had to. He was Tony Goddamn Stark.

"It's probably better to get you on the plane as soon as Pepper and Rhodey land. The next meeting, well, it's less than 48 hours away." Bruce close his eyes and swallowed hard.

"Brilliant." Tony sighed. He wasn't even trying to pretend anymore; the sarcasm lay thick in his voice.

"Tony I'm so sorry."

"We knew that this would happen." Tony said simply.

"Yeah, but not this soon." Bruce was desperate for Tony to open-up, just a little bit, but it was hopeless. He'd shut himself in, well and truly.

"Yeah, well, that's life."

Bruce was desperate to say something, but he just couldn't form the words. Tony was giving up, he could see it in his eyes.

"I'm going to have to wait here then."

"Tony, we have time, we can get you home."

"Bruce if it comes sooner, the EMP will take out the plane, we'll crash and I'll kill all of you. We need a bigger safety margin. Especially after today."

Tony had a very fair point and Bruce nodded sadly. "I'll look in to why that happened Tony."

"Don’t bother Bruce, just leave it. I'll sort it myself."

"Tony…"

"I need to sleep now Bruce." Tony huffed sounding a little annoyed, which stopped Bruce's protests.

"Ok…" He said hesitantly. "You want me to go?" He asked confused. Usually Tony's reaction was quite the opposite after a meeting. He usually wanted company, in fact he clung to it, but he could almost feel Tony willing him away, refusing to even look him in the eye when they spoke.

"Please." He said simply.

"Ok."

Bruce looked back on his friend who'd closed his eyes and lay still. Maybe this was what Tony needed right now. Maybe he'd be better in a few hours. Pepper and Rhodey were coming anyway. They'd know what to do. It was going to be ok.

..…

Chapter Text

Half an hour later after he'd left Tony to rest, Bruce made his way to the medical wing. He'd spent some time on the roof clearing his head in the fresh air, looking out over the city. Thankfully the destruction in the Bronx hadn't been visible from so far away, he could almost imagine that nothing had happened and that's exactly what he needed.

As he sat with the other Avenger's outside Clint's room the tension was so strong it was suffocating. Clint was out of surgery. They'd brought him around not long ago and everyone waiting anxiously for news as the doctors did their tests.

"I'm not going to leave you guys hanging." The doctor left the room and everyone was suddenly on high alert. "He's got some sensation in his legs already. He fractured 3 vertebrae but the damage was only minor. There is still a small amount of swelling round the spinal cord, which is why he felt the loss of sensation and although nothing is certain once the swelling has gone I think Agent Barton could be back to normal within 2-3 months. He has been very, very lucky."

Natasha clamped her hand over her face in pure relief as smiles broke out amongst the other Avengers.

"Can we see him?" Steve asked but Natasha couldn't care less. She pushed past the doctor and was by Clint's side in a heart-beat. When the doctor nodded Steve followed suit with Bruce hanging back a little, conversing with the doctor for a bit more info.

"Hey you." Natasha chirped as Clint smiled seeing them enter. "How are you feeling?"

"I am feeling… which is all that matters." Clint smiled weakly. He was very pale, but there was a glint in his eyes which was incredibly reassuring to everyone in the room.

"Doctor says, it looks good." Bruce said quietly, sitting in the corner.

"Yeah, I've been lucky. What about you guys?"

"Battered and bruised, but all in one piece." Natasha smiled. "But let's just focus on you for now ok?"

"Yeah sure, I am not going to complain." Clint looked around the room, gathering his surroundings. They were in Stark tower, that much was obvious. Best medical facilities they knew. Clint looked to Bruce. "How long till I'm walking then Doc."

"We can start physical therapy in a few days, getting back to normal will take a couple of months."

"Couple of months!" Clint asked incredulously. "Well that's got to come down."

"Clint, don't complain, you couldn't have asked for any better."

"Well you know me Tash, I always ask for better." He smiled softly, though his face was still very pale and he couldn't help but wriggle his toes every few seconds, just to be sure he still could and he wasn't dreaming. Knowing they were in Stark tower made it all the more obvious that there was one person missing from the room and that troubled him.

"Tash, you couldn't get me some soda from the venders, could you?"

"Soda, really, straight after surgery?" Natasha smiled, but got up anyway. Right now, there wasn't anything she would have got for him so she stood up, patting him on the shoulder before she left.

Clint waited just long enough for Tash to get out of ear shot. "Tash, Hang on… Tash? Ah, damn!"

"You want something else?" Steve asked, standing up eager to help. He avoided wincing as the movement irritated the scrapes and burns he’d obtained in the battle and if his head spun a little, he didn't let it show.

"Yeah, just really craving some pie. But it's ok, I'm not that desperate."

"No, it's fine I'll get it." Steve stood up and grabbed his coat. "What type?"

"Lemon meringue if they've got it. Thank you, Steve."

Clint smiled as it was just Bruce left in the room.

"Nicely played." Bruce chuckled nervously. "I'm guessing that means you want to talk to me."

"Yeah, I couldn't eat anything right now." Clint scoffed, noting the slight nausea he felt at the thought of food, especially something so sickly. "What's wrong with him Bruce?" He asked sincerely.

"Who?" Bruce played dumb, but highly doubted that tactic would work.

"Come on, be straight with me. You have a lousy poker face and I just want to know if he's ok."

Bruce paused, considering his options.

"His little plan left him more than a bit bashed up Clint, he'd drained his core the suit was running on fumes, he didn't have enough power to fly."

"So, jumping off the roof wasn't the best idea then."

"No."

"Well I'm fucking glad he did." Clint breathed.

"We all are."

"But, if there wasn't enough power to fly…"

"He turned off the safeguard, he used all the power and the reactor…" Bruce's face fell at the memory.

"No, he's not…" Clint jerked in panic and groaned instantly at the pain.

"Tony's fine, we got a new one in." Bruce rushed over to him and put a steadying hand on Clint's chest in concern. "Does it still hurt."

"I'm fine Bruce."

"Does it still hurt." Bruce said forcefully.

"No, just when I moved."

"Any loss of sensation?"

"No, Bruce, it was the gravel burn on my shoulders that stung, my back is fine."

"I should let you rest, I'll tell the others to come back later." Bruce turned to leave hastily. Clint was at a critical stage and he shouldn't have been getting him worked up.

"Bruce come on Dude, wait. Sorry I freaked you, I won't move again, just finish with me."

Bruce considered sternly. "Fine, but one more stunt like that and I'm having you sedated for the night."

Clint rolled his eyes but accepted. "Is he still here?"

"Clint, let's just worry about you ok." Bruce was keen to change the topic at this point.

"Please Bruce, he's my friend too."

"Aren't you mad at him?" Bruce asked surprised at the overwhelming concern Clint was showing for someone else when he was the one with a broken spine.

"What for?"

"Clint, you broke your back."

"If he hadn't have caught me I'd be dead, I think I got off lightly and besides, apparently I'm going to be fine."

"You are being incredibly level headed about this. If I'd broken my spine, I'd find someone to blame."

"Yeah, well, been there done that in the past. Shit happens."

Bruce shook his head with overwhelming respect for the archer. "You're pretty awesome Barton you know that?"

"Don't feed my ego, it's big enough as it is." The pair chuckled, but it was clear that Clint hadn't forgotten Bruce hadn't yet answered his question.

"He's upstairs in the penthouse resting."

"How bad is he?"

"Oh, he's fine Clint." Bruce said, trying to pass it off.

"Bruce, I can see it in your eyes, something's wrong, something bad has happened hasn't it and I'm not talking about today, it's been happening for while hasn't it?"

Natasha came around the corner slowly. She'd clearly been listening for a while. She offered Clint the soda, knowing he'd refuse it and then sat back down by his bedside sipping it herself. "We're not stupid Bruce, we can see something's wrong."

"I know you're not stupid and I know how awful I am at keeping secrets, but I made a promise and you can't make me break it."

Bruce was right. They couldn't. But that didn't mean there wasn't another way to find out.

"Can I ask him myself?" Natasha asked sincerely.

"He's not going to like it, but I suppose I can't stop you. Let me go check on him, but you should probably come up before Pepper and Rhodey get here."

"They're flying out?"

"Yeah, they should be landing soon."

"Ok. Bruce, thank you."

"Don't thank me yet."

…..

Tony hauled himself to his feet a few minutes after Bruce left. It took a lot of effort, everything he had in fact, but he didn't really notice it any more. He'd had enough of this, in every possible way he was done with this joke of a life.

10minutes ago he had been angry, he'd been furious with the CAEB and with himself… then he'd spent ages deliberating whether or not they were the same thing. He was appalled at the mistake he'd made, just another thing to add to the long list of failures he'd had over the years. He had been filled with hatred, choked full of guilt and self-loathing, it was, after all, his fault that this had happened to Clint and no one would convince him otherwise. They just saw it as an accident and it was… in that it wasn't intentional, but they didn't know everything. They'd hate him if they did.

With Tony being Tony, it wasn't long before he realized that none of these feelings were going to change anything. What had happened, had happened, he’d screwed up so now he had fix his mess.

He'd looked for a solution to all of this and he'd only found one. It should have frightened him. He should have been sorry, he should have been angry. He should have felt something, but he didn't. He was numb and completely indifferent, no longer caring what happened to him and if he was honest with himself he didn't really care what happened to anyone else anymore. He'd done enough damage and he'd played his part. He wasn't there to save people anymore, he could only hurt them and there was only one way he could stop that.

Tony couldn't remember where he'd got the knife from that he was turning slowly in his fingers. Probably the kitchenette in the corner of the workshop, though he couldn't recall ever having used it before. He let out a melancholy sigh as he let the thoughts swell in his head.

There was a time, it was only a day ago but it felt like years, when he had been convinced he would never stop fighting this. With that aside it was hardly long since he thought he'd never be able to do what he was about to. Death was very final, it had always been a tempting way out for him, since he'd been a child he'd considered it, but there had always been something to stop him. Recently that had been the thought of what his death would do to his few friends, Rhodey, Bruce and of course Pepper. He wouldn't destroy their lives just to escape from his own pain. He'd rather suffer, it's what he deserved after all.

But it was different now. He didn't care about hurting them, because he knew what he was doing was for the best, not just for him, or them but the entire planet. He was a danger to them all, because of the CAEB. And there was one very simple way to end it.

As he sat on the edge of the workbench, turning the point of the blade towards his own chest he was reminded that there was always another presence in the room.

"Jarvis."

"Sir."

"Fancy shutting down for a while."

"Sir the inhibitor is detecting worrying changes to your brain chemistry. You have heightened levels of quinolinic acid and adrenaline as well as abnormally low serotonin levels. Regarding your current behavior my protocols prevent me from shutting down and suggest I call someone immediately."

"Don't bother, I'm fine."

"If you could put down the knife, Sir, I would be happy to oblige."

Tony sighed and slid onto the computer chair, discarding the knife on the side ceremoniously. He sighed again, deeply, throwing his head back and allowing the chair to spin in a slow circle. He liked the way the ceiling looked, swirling above him. Breathing deeply, he winced as his ribs protested. He picked up the knife again and used it to slice through the tough, annoying fabric that was restraining his arm. Slings were annoying and his arm would be better in a day or two.

This was stupid. What was he even doing? He threw the knife across the workshop and it dug deep into the wall with a satisfying thwack. He wasn't going to do it now, not here. He was too tired now anyway. He stood up and tried to roll his shoulder, testing his movement. It only brought him pain and a wave of nausea that forced him to his knees. He groaned, breaking the stony silence in the workshop and restlessly made his way back towards the couch. He needed to sleep, he could barely stand anymore and he didn't want to try to.

There was something warm running down his face. As he dabbed it and saw red on his fingers he swore. Another fucking nosebleed. He snatched a couple of tissues out of the box on his desk and gripped his nose angrily, which only made the bleeding worse. It only took a few seconds to soak through the handful of tissues he had clutched to his face and as he snatched up another he could have sworn he smelt toffee apple.

He looked around confused. He was in his workshop. He knew that. So why did it feel like he was seeing this all for the first time? His surroundings looked unfamiliar, and the harder he stared, the less he seemed to recognize them. His arms and legs tingled like an electric current was coursing through him. The lights in the room started pulsing, getting brighter and brighter until his eyes were burning. He felt his muscles tense, his body twitched involuntarily and his throat closed up. He couldn't move. He couldn't breathe. He was choking and that smell was getting stronger. It filled his senses now but it was no longer sweet, it was horrible, like burning rubber. It was so overwhelming he could feel it in his throat and his eyes watered. Thoughts raced through his head. What was happening?

Then he heard footsteps approaching.

…..

"Will you wait here?"

Natasha nodded. They'd agreed that Bruce would check on Tony and text her to come in if Tony was in a good enough state to deal with her. Bruce was fairly certain he wasn't going to be, but if it got Romanov off his back he was willing to go along.

At least he had good news to bring about Clint, but that didn't change the fact that Tony had been through his worst 'meeting' to date, a battle, an arc reactor failure and an emotional trauma all in the same day. Bruce had never seen someone so exhausted or dejected when he'd left him earlier and he couldn't blame him.

That's why Bruce was very surprised to see Tony on his feet, with his back to Bruce, when he approached the door. The sling was discarded on the floor. Brilliant. The surprise turned into a pang of annoyance seeing the discarded fabric, but if Tony was being as ridiculous as normal that had to be a good thing. Right?

"Surprised to see you up." Bruce said cheerfully. "You feeling better?"

Tony didn't react. That was strange. That's when Bruce noticed the strangled gasping noise that was coming from his friend.

Bruce ran towards him. Tony's head began to slowly drop, tucking into towards his chest a few seconds later he began to double over, slowly folding in on himself. He was falling in slow motion, his body giving in. Bruce placed a hand on Tony's back, his heart pounding. He could feel the muscles in Tony's back, they were tense and twitching beneath his t-shirt. The pieces clicked in Bruce's head.

"It's Ok Tony, I've got you. Just relax." Tony's legs finally buckled and his body weight rolled backwards into Bruce's waiting arms. Tony's form stayed tucked and tense as Bruce lowered him to the ground slowly and gently, positioning him on his side. "It's going to be fine, everything is going to be fine." Bruce soothed, his voice perfectly calm and reassuring despite the feeling eating at his insides.

Tony's eyes were blank, staring at one spot as his body twitched slightly, soft squeaks escaping his mouth in place of breaths. "Ok, I gotcha." Bruce looked across the room to the couch that was littered with cushions and blankets as he rubbed slow circles on Tony's back. He was going to need those or Tony was going to get a few more bruises to join the day's collection. But he didn't want to leave him.

"Jarvis. Get Natasha."

"Bruce what's going on?" Natasha appeared but a moment after Bruce's request. He knew this was the last thing that Tony would want, but he may well need an extra pair of hands.

"Tony? Shit!" She exclaimed seeing the mess of brown hair behind Bruce on the floor.

"Grab anything soft and bring it here now." Natasha didn't hesitate, despite her initial shock she leapt into action gathering all the cushions her arms could hold.

She emptied her load onto the floor next to him as Bruce lifted Tony's head. "Slide it under." He demanded softly. Natasha arranged a couple of cushions quickly to support the billionaire's neck.

"Bruce?" Natasha asked her voice uncharacteristically betrayed her fear and confusion. What was wrong with Tony and why did it not seem a shock to Bruce? What had they both been hiding since he'd left?

"He's going into a seizure."

Natasha nodded, breathing out to calm herself and observing the slight and sporadic quivering of Tony's fragile form.

A few seconds later Tony gasped involuntarily. His back arched with painful force and his wrists curled. "Okay Tony, Okay." Bruce soothed, keeping back a little, but hands poised above Tony's writhing frame. His legs began to thrash violently and pained groans filled them both with concern.

"No, No, No Tony don't fight it, just relax. Don't fight it. It's going to be fine." Bruce put a hand on Tony's back to try and keep him on his side to protect his arm and injured ribs, but Tony kept rolling. Bruce gripped him more tightly, fighting against Tony's thrashing to keep him in position. It looked rough, brutal even. It was horrible. Natasha felt sick. How on Earth was Bruce keeping so calm when she felt like she was crumbling? This was too much for one day. Far too much.

Half way through there was a crunch and a pop, followed by a string of expletives from Bruce. Natasha wanted to ask what was happening, if she could do anything, but she knew that she just had to wait and be ready for any instruction from the doctor.

It took a few minutes for Tony to start growing still again, but it had felt like hours. As Tony's body grew still Bruce backed off again, giving his friend space. He just kept talking to him, reassuring him, through the whole thing, relief overwhelming him when Tony finally stopped twitching.

"Tony." Bruce asked as the Tony's eyes started to flutter open. The billionaire was glazed with sweat, his face pale, his body trembling slightly in shock. "Tony, you had a seizure." Bruce stated comfortingly. Tony groaned weakly, confusion and panic filling his deep brown eyes.

"Can you hear me?" Bruce met Tony's eyes, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.

"What happened? What's going on?" Tony's voice broke a little and Natasha covered her eyes to hide the tears she was biting back. She'd managed not to cry all day, after Clint, after everything. She couldn't remember the last time she'd cracked and it took her all of 20 seconds to fix it and straighten her face.

"It's ok Tony, you had a seizure. It's going to be fine, I just need you to relax and stay still for me." Jesus Bruce was good at this. Natasha didn't understand why she was reacting like this, it was just a seizure after all. And it was probably to be expected after the arc reactor incident earlier, but God this was a mess. Tony looked a mess. In every possible way he seemed broken and it crushed her inside. As she moved around to see his face, the stain of crusted blood under his nose and staining the front of his shirt made her stomach flip. The red stood out strongly against the pale, greyness of his skin and made her feel nauseous.

"How do you feel?" Bruce asked, allowing Tony time to get some bearing.

"My head hurts." He whined, the confusion and disorientation clear in his voice.

"Ok." Bruce soothed, gently feeling Tony's shoulder. Shit. "Tony I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to do this sooner rather than later."

"What."

"Let's just roll you onto your back a second. You popped your shoulder out again and I need to put it back." Tony groaned in response, allowing Bruce to roll him gently, cradling his head.

"I know, I know, this sucks. But let's just do this and then we'll get you comfy ok?"

Tony nodded woozily and Bruce lifted Tony's arm out slowly to the side, lifting the elbow and rotating his forearm until he felt it slip back in with a crunch. "Sorry." Bruce hissed as Tony's face twisted in pain.

"Ow!" Tony groaned groggily and drew his arm back in towards himself, cradling it, protecting it from further infliction.

Natasha helped Bruce get Tony to the couch and settle him in. His eyes were open, but he wasn't really conscious. It took very little persuasion for him to fall into a deep and restful sleep. That's how Bruce liked to think about it, but really his friend was practically comatose right now.

"Go back to Clint, don't say anything. We'll talk about this later."

"Bruce…" Natasha said, pleadingly

"Please Natasha."

"Ok." She agreed, leaving one wounded for another.

Bruce sighed as Natasha left the room and rubbed his head. He gently wiped the blood off Tony's face and got up wearily, picking up the sling up off the floor. "What the?" It had been cut clean through on the strap. "Tony, you ass." He noticed the knife dug into the wall. What on Earth had he been doing?

Bruce repaired the cut strap with some Duct tape he found in one of Tony's draws. That would have to do for now, because he certainly couldn't be bothered to traipse down to the medical bay for another right now.

Arm re-slinged and on the couch Tony looked peaceful. The color had returned to his cheeks and the blueish tinge from around his mouth had also faded.

"How long did it last Jarvis?"

"4 minutes 39 seconds."

"Jarvis get me caffeine." Came a groan from the sofa.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea Sir.” The AI responded.

"Tony. How do you feel?" Bruce asked.

"Peachy."

"You remember what happened?"

"Unfortunately, yes." Tony, very gingerly, started to pull himself up rejecting Bruce's offer for help. "and I hope to God that I was dreaming the part where I saw a certain Russian red head." There was something a little dark and dangerous in Tony's eyes.

"Tony…"

Tony's eyes rolled in exasperation. "Just brilliant." He got to his feet angrily, swaying a little as he paced, but carrying in regardless.

"Tony please sit down."

"Now she's going to have questions. How much does she know?"

"Just calm down and let me start from the beginning." When Tony just kept pacing nervously Bruce carried on. "Natasha knows something is wrong, from the way you were in that battle and from my lousy poker face. She was always going to notice, It's Natasha. She asked me outright downstairs what was wrong, but I didn't tell her anything. She wanted to talk to you herself and I could hardly stop her. I was going to see how you were and then maybe let her in, but then you collapsed and I needed an extra pair of hands."

"This can't be happening. This seriously can't be happening!" Tony yelled and kicked the trash can, propelling crumpled paper and food wrappers all over the room.

"Tony, I'm sorry, I really am, but you were having a seizure, what was I supposed to do?"

"Bruce I'm not upset with you. I know you're doing your best and I appreciate it, it's just…" Tony sighed, He hadn't meant to upset Bruce and the look of hurt in his friend's eye really made him feel guilty. "It's just been a really shit day."

Bruce couldn't argue with that. But perhaps he could ease the load slightly.

"If it helps Tony, Clint is going to be ok. The operation went well, he's got feeling back already. It's not going to be too long till he's up and about."

"Really? He's going to be alright?"

"Yes Tony." Bruce said sincerely.

"Thank God." Tony breathed. Finally sitting back down with the relief. "That helps, that definitely helps."

"Actually, the first thing he did was ask about you."

"What?"

"Yeah. He knows something is off too and he doesn't blame you one bit. He's just worried about you Tony. He misses his friend. Natasha does too."

"Bruce, I can't…" Tony said sadly, shoulders slumped, he looked utterly defeated. He couldn't get past what had happened.

"You can Tony. I'm not going to make you do anything, you know that… but if I can get Steve out of the way, will you go talk to Clint?"

Tony breathed deeply, mulling it over. He missed Clint, but how could he look him in the eye after what had happened. How could he trust either of them with the truth?

"OK." It was time. It's not like he had long left with these meetings accelerating like they were. Today's had been bad and if they carried on like this, it was only a matter of time till they finally finished him off. There was always plan B if things went sideways… run back to Malibu and shut the world out. Maybe that sounded petty and childish, but he couldn't care less. "Fine, but not right now."

"I wasn't suggesting now you idiot. Now, you're getting back on that couch and getting some sleep."

"Tony!" A high-pitched voice entered the room, accompanied by the familiar click of high heels and flash of red hair. Another welcome and familiar face was not far behind.

"Hey Pep. Rhodey." Tony smiled for the first time since he’d left Malibu.

Pepper ran forward and pulled Tony into a hug, running her fingers softly through his hair.

"You should be resting." She smiled gently.

Rhodey came closer and clipped him round the back of his head. "You idiot." He scolded, before taking his turn to pull him in for a hug. "Don't do that again."

Suddenly everything was a whole lot better. It was far from rainbows and kittens, but maybe it would be ok.

……

"Tony get your ass in here, I can hear you shuffling about out there."

"Hey feathers." Tony said quietly, stepping into the room from where he'd been hiding in the corridor. Clint smiled broadly behind his tired eyes. Tony still loitered in the doorway, like an animal staying close to his escape route.

It was the middle of the morning, a good 16 hours after Clint had come out of surgery. He'd had company every minute since then, that was apart from the half hour before Tony had walked in.

"Clint, I'm so…"

"Tony don't even go there. Not your fault, whichever way you look at it. We'd have been screwed without you and I'd have been dead."

"But…"

"Tony, just stop. You think this is your fault. If you hadn't have come yesterday, we'd have all been dead and likely half the city. You took those things out, yes you missed one, we wouldn't have got half of them without you. If you hadn't have caught me I'd be dead, yes it wasn't textbook, I got hurt, but rather that than having you all scoop me off the sidewalk."

"But your back…"

"Seriously, my back is going to be fine, I start physical therapy today and could be back walking in a few weeks. And even if it wasn't the case, Buddy, it's better than being dead. It's as simple as that. So, if I hear one more apology I'm going to get mad. Ok?"

"Fair enough." Tony smiled weakly.

"Now, Are you ok?"

Tony looked taken aback. "I'm fine Clint."

"Don't say that, because I can see that you aren't."

"I'm a bit bashed up, broken ribs, dislocated shoulder, but the reactor is sorted there's no lasting damage… I'm fine, just sore."

"That's not what I meant and you know it."

"Clint, I…"

"Tony, you don't have to tell me everything. You want to keep it to yourself that's fine, it's your business, but just stop pretending there's nothing wrong. Just admit it at least, don't lie to me."

Tony nodded as if to confirm it.

"Thank you. Now, you going to talk to me? I know I just said you don't have to… but I'm going to be kind of offended if you don't."

There was a silence in the room for a moment.

"Surely I've proved you can trust me by now. After everything, have I put a foot wrong?"

Tony avoided looking at Clint. He just stared at his feet in contemplation. The silence hung thick in the room as Clint waited patiently for a response. And then Tony got up and went to the door.

"Tony, seriously, come on!" Clint said exasperated.

"I'm coming back Clint, but if I'm going to tell you I don't want to have to repeat myself."

Tony came back a few minutes later with Natasha and Bruce in tow. Once they were all settled Tony began.

"The inhibitor is flawed." He started by covering old ground, and of course for Bruce it was all old ground. "It wasn't done when I put it on and there is no way to fix it without replacing it. That isn't an option for obvious reasons."

Tony took a deep breath and looked to Bruce for reassurance, he got it in spades.

"These 'meetings' are a cover. The project and everything, its legit, but I need a reason to be unavailable at certain times. The flaw in the inhibitor means if it doesn't disengage from time to time it will crush my brainstem and kill me."

"So," Clint asked nervously. "What happens when it disengages."

"It's painful, very painful. I go from being separated from the CAEB to having it all on top of me at once and at the end I have to re-merge with it, which sends out an EM pulse knocking everyone on their asses."

"Hang on…" Natasha said, starting to piece together yesterday's events.

"I'll get to it Tash." Tony stopped her. "I have a room set up at Malibu that contains the pulse. I'd had a meeting a few days before you called Bruce in. I was still weak when I flew out. I thought I had a good half day before the next one, but stress speeds it up. That time I was off coms, I was in the warehouse… busy."

"So, that blast, that took everything out, that was the CAEB, merging again?"

"Yes, I realized I could draw the craft to me by emitting a high frequency pulse from the suit at the right moment. I thought I could make the most of a bad situation and fry them in the process."

"That was a good plan Stark." Clint nodded, still trying to take in what was happening.

"I'm guessing that's why the Hulk was going crazy looking for you."

"Yes." Bruce said. "That was unforeseen. Jarvis tried to get in contact with Hulk, to get me back to Tony, but evidently the Hulk was too concerned himself to let me help by regaining control."

"So, how bad are these… things, what are we calling them?" Clint asked

"We're just referring to them as meetings." Bruce conformed

"They were manageable until today." Tony said, but Bruce butted in.

"They are horrific." Tony glared at Bruce disbelievingly. "I'm sorry Tony but they are. The first one was manageable, after that they had been just horrible."

"So, they are getting worse?"

"Today's was twice as long as much, much worse than the ones before it." Tony admitted, more to Bruce than to the others in the room.

"Could it… Kill you?" Clint asked hesitantly, reading the worry in Bruce's eyes.

There was a silent moment of contemplation before Tony replied.

"Yes." He said simply. "They are going to keep getting worse and eventually, my body, CAEB or no CAEB will not be able to stand it any longer." There was a shocked and awkward silence and Tony looked shiftily at Bruce and then instantly regretted it. Bruce saw it though and turned towards his friend in concern.

"Tony what?" Bruce's voice was dark with worry. Tony never gave stuff away. He felt guilty about something. He hadn't told Bruce everything.

"Jarvis…" Tony started and reconsidered his wording. "My heart rhythm got a bit whacked today, so Jarvis had to give me a shock."

Bruce closed his eyes in shock, blinking a few times. "That's one of the reasons the arc was so low and it failed."

"Lost heart rhythm how?" Bruce asked in horror, seeing in Tony's eyes that that still wasn't the whole story.

"V-fib." Tony admitted.

Breathed sucked in a breath. "How long?"

"Not long." Bruce glowered at the lack of specificity. "… I don't know a few seconds, I wasn't really with it enough to be counting."

Clint felt sick, the lines on the ECG tracing faster than before and the quiet beeps cutting into the room. Natasha stared in disbelief. This was worse than anything she'd imagined.

"And that seizure earlier."

"Just an after effect." Bruce answered. "It's usually a nose bleed, but…"

"I obviously pissed off my body enough today for it to try and exorcize my demons."

"Not funny." Natasha said, eyes still full of the trauma of seeing that earlier.

"Sorry." Tony said sincerely.

"How long?" Clint said abruptly. "How long do you have Tony?"

"I honestly have no idea. The next one is in tomorrow, if I make it through that one we should have a better idea."

"If?"

Tony huffed. "Figure of speech." He said defensively. "I should be fine, hopefully yesterday was an anomaly due to the fight…"

"But it could carry on getting worse." Bruce said despondently."

"Tell me you've got a way to fix this." Clint said, looking between Bruce and the billionaire hopefully.

"I thought I did…" Tony offered, "but, no. I don't think there is a way to fix it this time."

"Then take it off. Whatever the CAEB throws we'll deal with it." Clint said simply.

"That could kill me anyway, Clint. We tried it that way already and no one else is getting hurt because of me."

"Tony, we are not losing you."

"It's me or the planet."

"There's always a way." Natasha said, confidently. They were going to fix this. They weren't going to let Tony and Bruce give up.

"Look, we'll talk about all this later, Tony, you need to rest and so do you Clint. That's enough for today." Bruce stopped them there.

"Before you go… and I'm going to get shouted at for saying this, but, what do you want to do about Steve?" Natasha asked. She was all for respecting Tony's wishes, but Steve being the only one on the team that didn't know what was going on was going to cause problems at some point.

Bruce looked to Tony. He was the only one who could answer this.

"Tell him."

"You sure?" Bruce asked warily.

"Yeah. Captain spangles can't be the only one in the dark."

"Even if it's his fault." Clint snorted.

"Clint, I thought we were over this." Natasha warned.

"Well it is his fault and he pissed me off today so..." Natasha shook her head and ignored their injured, irritable hawk.

"I think you've made the right choice Tony, I know things between you and Steve are crap… What I'm saying is, I wouldn't have said anything if you didn't want me to and I still won't if you change your mind. I'm glad you’ve offered to inform him, but think it over. We won't do anything till morning, and if you reconsider it won't go any further." Natasha said sincerely and Bruce smiled at her in surprise.

"You know I won't say anything." Clint said, fatigue creeping into his voice even though he remained scarily cheery considering the trauma he'd just been through.

"Thank you, guys. Really. But you can fill him in, I just don't want to be there when you do."

Tony stood up and stayed still for a moment. He closed his eyes and huffed as he waited for the room to stop spinning. He really needed to rest and although he hated to admit it, even to himself, he felt awful. He just wanted to board his jet, fly home and leave the bad memories behind him, but he knew that he was too weak to do anything right now and as if he could ever escape his memories. He couldn't risk flying now anyway, not until the next meeting had happened. Looks like he was stuck here.

"Tony?" Bruce asked, concerned, as Tony realized he'd lingered a little longer than he'd meant to.

As Tony felt a wave of nausea wash through him and his legs become weak he slowly lowered himself back into the chair.

"I'm just going sit here for a little while." He said levelly, but no one was fooled, he hadn't intended to fool them anyhow. Natasha moved forward like a cat, quickly but quietly and knelt in front of Tony, putting a hand on his chest, careful to avoid the arc reactor as she felt his weight lean into her. His head bobbed slightly but he rolled it back, catching himself and fighting to keep conscious.

"Tony?"

"Fine Brucie, just a little dizzy." Tony had gone unbelievably pale and a sheen of sweat had broken out across his forehead. Bruce lifted Tony's chin and looked into his friend's eyes with deep concern, his pupils were even, and un-dilated, but he could feel a slight tremor through his entire body, which made him anxious.

"Can you smell anything?" Tony wasn't really showing any signs of fitting again, but Bruce was now paranoid.

"Smell anything?" Tony asked frowning tiredly. He just wanted to lay down, not be poked and prodded with all these concerned faces.

"Toffee apple." Bruce said simply, reminding Tony of what he'd smelt the last time.

"No, Bruce, it's not like before. I'm just… exhausted." He admitted, reluctantly.

"Right, bed now." Bruce said firmly. And Tony nodded and started to take put his weight on the armrests and ease himself back to his feet. "Hold on a second." Bruce turned and breezed out of the room, returning a few minutes later with a vial and hypodermic syringe, drawing the liquid up into the barrel.

"Hey, what the hell is that?" Tony looked a little uneasily at his friend.

"Relax Tony, call it a precaution... it's phenobarbital, an anti-convulsant, I don't want any more nasty surprises."

"Fine, whatever." He flopped his arm out lazily as Bruce flicked the tip of the needle before he felt the familiar sharp scratch of it stabbing into his arm. He huffed in annoyance and rubbed his eyes with his other hand.

"Hey buddy? You ok?" Rhodey came into the room, obviously having been called to help.

"Bruce, you lied." Tony whined a little as his eyes slipped slowly closed and his muscles started growing limp.

"What about?" Bruce sat up sharply in concern.

"You just sedated me, didn't you?" Tony didn't sound too pissed

"No Tony, but drowsiness can be a side effect."

"Huh." Tony grunted.

"You awake enough to walk?"

"I suppose." Rhodey sighed a silent 'Thank God', he would not have minded carrying his best friend, but he was tired enough to wonder if he physically could.

"Right, on three."

…..

Bruce looked over the figures again and realized something wasn't adding up. The evening was approaching, he could see Tony on the monitors, still asleep on the couch downstairs. Pepper was working and Rhodey had gone out for a run seeing as Tony was out to the world.

Bruce had been staring at the screens for hours now and finally he was starting to piece something together. He'd been trying to figure out why the meeting had advanced so suddenly. He had been convinced that something had gone wrong, but now he was sure.

The whole algorithm had mutated, it was orders of magnitude greater than it had been the last time Tony had shown it to him. He still didn't completely understand it, this was math on an unworldly level… a Tony Stark level, but he'd worked his way through half the terms, figuring out what they related to and then he had found it. A set of 6 separate terms that were influenced directly by the strength setting of the neutral inhibitor. A few hours later and Bruce was certain. The inhibitor strength had been increased.

He swung round on desk chair, pushing himself across his lab to another computer. He logged into Tony's secure server and pulled up the inhibitor folder. Permissions, operation, activity log… He pulled up the log and it was a long stream of function tests and brain chemistry reading, but there was one obvious stand out. As he'd suspected, the inhibitor function had been changed, and the strength level had been nearly doubled. No wonder the 'meetings' were coming thick and fast, no wonder the meeting had been so severe.

He checked the time and saw it had happened just about when Tony had arrived at the fight. Bruce knew that he himself had permission to change the function, but he didn't know of anyone else and he sure as hell hadn't screwed with it. Had Tony done this himself? And if so why? They'd been as happy as they could have been with settings, it was the best they could have done to control the CAEB and minimize the regularity of the meetings, so why change it at that moment? The timing was everything. Tony hadn't felt he was safe to fight, had he? He'd felt the need to up the inhibitor so the CAEB wouldn't make an appearance.

Bruce put his head in his hands. Was Tony trying to kill himself? Either way at least know he knew the issue he could put the inhibitor back to its original settings and hopefully set the meetings back to how they'd been before.

"Jarvis, who changed the inhibitor settings, the log doesn't list the user."

"The user asked it was omitted from the log."

"Was it Tony?"

"I cannot reveal the information you require Dr. Banner. But I must note that Mr. Stark does not have permission to change the inhibitor settings."

Bruce cocked his head to the side. "What?" Why wouldn't Tony have given himself permission.

"Mr. Stark did not feel that it would be safe for him to have control over the settings for obvious reasons."

"Obvious?"

"Should the CAEB be in control and not Mr. Stark."

"Oh." Tony really had been thorough. He clicked back a few times and opened the permissions folder.

There were 4 names.

Bruce Banner.

James Rhodes.

Pepper Potts.

And…

Steve Rogers.

Jarvis can you give me the location of the user when they logged on to change the settings?"

There was a moment's hesitation from the voice in the ceiling before it answered. "The log on was from a mobile device which at the time was in the Bronx, New York."

"No, he didn't." Bruce shook his head, shock rolling over him. "He wouldn't have, not after everything."

The shock turned into anger and the anger burned into rage. How could Steve have done this… again.

But it was far too late for that. Bruce may not have turned green, but he was far from in control when he stormed out of the lab. There was one word plastered in green in his mind.

STEVE

…..

Natasha and Steve had finally come re-surfaced from the medical bay after spending the afternoon keeping a very bored Clint company. They were quietly preparing some food in the kitchen. Clint wanted pancakes, typically, but they kept glancing through to Tony, taking care not to wake him. Rhodey and Bruce had deposited him on the couch earlier on request. They'd been prepared to have put him to bed properly but Tony had been insistent.

Natasha had noticed that Tony hadn't so much as flinched since they'd arrived and it was a little disconcerting. She put the pan into the dishwasher as Steve boxed up the pancakes to take down to Clint. Natasha walked stealthily up to Tony's sleeping form and knelt next to him. He was curled up so tightly on his side that she couldn't see the comforting rise and fall of his chest. The quick hover of the back of her hand in front of his face soon put paid to any concerns, she sighed contently when she felt the warmth of his breath tickle her skin. He looked so exhausted, even in the grips of sleep, that she didn't want to wake him just to check he was ok. She decided to settle in the chair next to him, just to keep an eye and picked up a book.

"Hey…" Natasha started cheerily as Bruce entered the room, but as she looked up from her book her stomach dropped. "Bruce?" Concern bit at her voice. The man in question either ignored her, or judging by the green in his eyes, didn't hear her at all. The latter was true. All Bruce could hear was the sound of the blood rushing through his veins, fueling his rage and homing him in on his target.

Natasha snapped to her feet as Bruce rounded the corner into the kitchen.

"Bruce?" Steve looked up from the paper to see the smaller man bearing down on him. Before Steve knew what was happening Bruce had him by the throat. He felt his feet leave the ground and the air leave his lungs as the hand clamped his windpipe shut. Steve's hands scrabbled to his neck in shock and he felt his shoulders slam into the wall accompanied by the sound of cracking plaster.

"Bruce!" Natasha yelled in concern for both parties involved.

"You can't stop can you? You can't stop fucking with people's lives! You have to have control!"

"Bruce what are you talking about?" Steve wheezed.

"So, what?" Bruce roared. "You knew Tony was never going to toe your line so you tried to force him to!"

"B-Bruce." Steve rasped, going a little pale and clutching Bruce's wrist with both his hands. Bruce slammed his head back into the wall in response, making him see stars.

"Bruce, talk to me, what is this about?" Natasha tried to hide the panic in her voice at the sight of Steve's skin turning blue.

Bruce ripped Steve from the wall still holding him by the throat and dragged him towards the couch. He slammed Steve to the ground next to where the pale form of Tony lay resting. Momentarily out of Bruce's grasp Steve scrambled from the floor and on to his hands and knees, gasping for air. He planted a foot solidly on the floor, but before he could stand a fist clasped into his hair, forcing his head up to look at Tony.

"You did this!" Bruce roared before tearing the gasping Steve off his knees and crushed him back up against the wall. Tony woke up with a start, his face grey and his eyes cloudy until he saw what was going on.

"Bruce please!" Natasha pleaded as Tony got to his feet and grabbed Bruce by the arm forcefully. The green eyes snapped round to look at him.

"Bruce put him down right now!" Tony yelled, eyes dark and unyielding.

"Not unless you can give me one good reason not to knock him into next week!" Bruce growled back

"Because it's not his fault."

"Tony…."

"Bruce, I asked him to do it!" Tony roared.

"What?" Confusion snapped Bruce out of his rage. He let go of Steve and he fell to the floor. Steve gasped and wheezed, fighting for air, coughing and spluttering, all the while trembling a little in shock. He felt Natasha's arms around him, soothing and guiding him to his feet. Then there were another pair of hands, larger and stronger, placed firmly on his shoulder. Two dark hazel eyes looked him up and down, checking he was ok. Tony's eyes pierced him, the message clear. 'Are you ok'. Steve nodded, gasping a little at the pain.

"Ok Tash, get him out of here."

"Tony?" Natasha was a little more than confused and even more worried about leaving anyone alone with Bruce in this state. She couldn't help but flash back to the Helicarrier. Natasha didn't scare easily, she could walk into a fight with nothing more than a tingle of nerves, but at that moment she'd been more terrified than she could ever remember being.

"I've got this Tash."

"I'm not going to lose it." Bruce reassured, but Natasha wasn't convinced.

"Oh really, because your eyes looked pretty green a minute ago!"

"Just take Steve to medical and get out of here." Tony said levelly, trying not to project his annoyance into the room at Natasha's unhelpful comment. Finally, she turned her back on them, helping and unsteady Steve to the elevator.

Once the doors slid closed Bruce turned to Tony in confusion. Eyes returned to their usual deep brown, expressing both fear and shock.

"What the hell was that Bruce!"

"What the hell was that? What the hell do you mean?"

"I thought that was fairly obvious." Tony said plainly.

"You asked Steve to up the inhibitor." Bruce said incredulously.

"Yes, I did. I'd spotted he'd been snooping through the files, I could hardly do it myself and I knew what you would say."

"Tony why?"

"Why? Because the CAEB in the middle of New York city is a risk that I'm not willing to take."

"But we were happy with the set-up, there was no risk…"

"There's always a risk. I minimized it."

"But the merge, you knew it would affect things and it happened so early you put yourself in danger!"

"I miscalculated, big time. Yes. I put everyone in danger not just me Bruce and that's why Clint is downstairs in the hospital. I am never going to forgive myself for that, so I do not need any more crap from you!"

"I'm not going to argue fault with you again Tony and I'm not buying this 'minimize risk' crap. We were happy with the inhibitor settings. What changed?"

Tony's jaw went tense and he looked away, the anger in his eyes fading away. There was silence for a long while. Bruce just stood, waiting with folded arms for the other man to speak.

"The other day in the lab." Tony started, walking towards the bar and finding a bottle. "I'd been working on the car and I was typing on my phone, walking backwards and I stepped on the creeper. Of course, I went flying, but I never hit the floor. The CAEB stopped me."

"What?"

"Yeah, it made no sense to me either, until I got back to my feet and realized that if I had fallen, the sharp end of a screwdriver would have stabbed straight through my neck." Tony took a swig of the drink he poured himself and Bruce's brow furrowed, his head rocking back slightly in surprise.

"So, it broke through the inhibitor to save you."

"Yeah." Tony finished his drink and poured another. "And in all honesty, I was fairly grateful for that, until I spent the next 10 minutes on the floor feeling like my brain was being set on fire."

"So, if that happened for one little incident in the shop, then in battle..."

"Exactly, who knows. And yes, it may just have been stopping me getting killed, but what if that means it's getting stronger, what if breaks through the inhibitor?"

"Tony, we can't jump to conclusions like that and why on Earth didn't you down the strength after the battle? that last merge was… well you didn't need to go through that."

"It needs to stay like this Bruce."

"Tony, it will kill you!"

"Yes, it will. But kill me, kill the CAEB, problem solved." Tony downed another glass before Bruce snatched the bottle away.

"You have to be kidding me!" Bruce warned. Tony tried to snatch the bottle back but Bruce gave him a dangerous look that made him back off.

"There's only been one solution to this from the start Bruce." Tony shrugged.

"So, you're going to kill yourself." Bruce threw his hands in the air in frustration.

"No, I'm going to let myself die. There is a difference."

"I can't believe you. After everything…"

"Bruce I'll hang on as long as I can, honestly I will. And if we can find another way then brilliant, but we both know that ship has sailed."

"And what about this big thing looming over us, this big battle you see coming huh. You're going to bail and leave us to clear up that mess?"

"It's not like I caused it!"

Bruce opened his mouth, but decided not to rise to that. He clawed through his hair in frustration while he reconsidered what to say. "Tony, remember before New York what you said to me? You said that the Hulk saved me for something. I didn't believe you then but you were right and the one thing we haven't considered through this entire thing is maybe the CAEB is saving you for something too. Maybe we need you Tony, to save the world or whatever, and maybe you with the CAEB in tow is the only way to do it."

Tony shook his head, reaching behind the bar for another bottle, this time keeping it out of Bruce's reach. "I've had enough of this Bruce. I want out." He said shrugging his shoulders in indifference.

"Tony, I cannot tell you how much I want this to fix itself and things suck at the moment but there's always a way…"

"No Bruce, I mean I can't face one more single day of this." Tony yelled. "Even if I woke up tomorrow and the CAEB was gone and all this was over, I'm just too tired to carry on. Too tired to keep waiting for the next pile of crap to come my way. I've been screwed with for as long as I can remember and someone is having one hell of a lot of fun with it, so I'm calling it. I won't take any more!" Tony spat.

"Tony." Bruce's chest seared with pain at his friend's words. "Tony, I know how you're feeling, Hell I've been there. But just please, pick a reason any reason and then…"

"Don't tell me it gets better Bruce, because I've spent 30 years believing that and look where it got me."

"Tony please, let me help." Bruce begged. The pain in his eyes made Tony look away and bite down hard. He shook his head, breathing loudly through his clenched teeth until his jaw ached.

"Bruce, you guys have helped. You've helped a lot, but I've passed my point of no return. You are right though; you guys are the closest thing I have to family and I'm not going to leave you in the lurch if the CAEB really is the only solution. Turn down the inhibitor, drag me to the 1-yard line and I'll make the touchdown. But please respect that I have no intention of coming out the other side. As soon as the CAEB has done its bit, consider me under a DNR."

Bruce was struck dumb. He couldn't believe what he was hearing and he had no idea what to do. Tony turned his back, taking his arm out of his sling and his body language changed completely. It was if the conversation had never happened. Tony cocked his head to the side, gazing thoughtfully behind the bar, considering his choice carefully. He grabbed another couple of bottles with a satisfied grunt, swigging from the one he still had in his hand.

"Hmm." He mused, realizing he hadn't the hands or pocket space to carry all three he smiled as he slipped the unopened bottles into his sling. "Maybe this thing isn't so annoying after all."

"Tony I'm not going to let you walk away with those."

"You can take it off me Bruce, but I've got 10 more down in the lab, there's the minibar in my room and well, my secret stashes are a secret so I'm not going to tell you where they are."

"Tony." Bruce pleaded.

"Bite me."

"Tony!" Bruce called after him.

"Go make it up with the dear Captain, I've got 30 hours till you'll have to start my heart again and I'm not going to waste it."

…..

"Jarvis, get me a private line to Steve." Tony yelled over the roar of the roar of his repulsors firing him towards the city.

"As you wish sir.

"Stark?"

"Steve, don't interrupt and don't ask questions. I know that you know that you can alter the inhibitor, so I need you to up the strength for me."

"Why?"

"That's a question."

"Tony…"

"Extra CAEB protection. Set it to 150% and don't mention it to Bruce."

"What is going on Stark?"

"Question."

"You can't expect me to…"

"Do it or everyone is in danger. Capisce?"

"Fine. You nearly here?"

"Look up and find out."

Steve was torn from the memory by the sound of a knock on the door

"I think it's my turn to offer a groveling apology in this sorry saga." Bruce sighed entering the room and sitting down in the corner.

"Yeah well it's nice to see some role reversal." Steve croaked uncomfortably. "It's usually me doing the apologizing." He coughed a little, having stretched his vocal chords a little too far.

"Steve…"

"Bruce, you don't have to say anything it's forgotten." Steve reached out for the glass of water and took a tentative sip. "You were protecting Tony."

"I should have got my facts straight."

"Well," Steve smiled," I would have preferred that."

Bruce sighed and sat down. "I freaked Tash out as well didn't I?"

Steve nodded uncomfortably. "I think you did. She went to get some air."

"I'll add it to the list of messes I've made to clear up." Steve couldn't miss the un-usually dejected state of the scientist. Something had happened and it had been hours since the incident upstairs.

"Clint thinks it's hilarious. Captain America knocked on his ass by a scientist." He tried to inject some humor into the conversation, but the result was a failure.

"Well I'm glad someone does."

"You said messes?" Steve squeaked, going back to the water. This was damned inconvenient but with his healing he knew it would only last an hour or two.

"Yeah, Tony's gone on a bender. Thinks getting drunk is a solution to all his problems and this time he sure as hell ain't listening to me."

Steve raised his eyebrow and breathed out. That certainly wasn't good. "Can't really blame him though can we. Can Rhodey help?"

"I think its best we leave him to Jarvis until he's in a better mood."

"Or passed out?"

"Yeah, or that. At least he'd be getting some rest."

Steve nodded. "Did you fix the inhibitor?" He said slowly, voice finding its rhythm.

"Next on the list."

"Go get that sorted, I'm fine, I'm not mad and you have nothing to apologize for."

"You should be resting your voice Steve." Natasha cut in to the conversation.

"Natasha." Bruce breathed.

"Bruce." The pair looked at each other intently. Natasha giving nothing away on her face.

"I think we need a chat."

…..

"Natasha, I'm sorry about earlier, I know what it looked like, I really do and yes I was furious, but, I promise you was in control."

Natasha sighed as they wound they're way through the Medical wing towards the elevator.

"Bruce, I want to trust you and you haven't let us down, in fact, you've done quite the opposite, but…" Natasha was unusually flustered. Bruce turned his head to the side, wondering what was really on her mind.

Natasha sighed defeatedly. "I honestly haven't thought about it in a long time, but when you turned, on the Helicarrier; I'm not ashamed to admit that I can't remember having ever been that scared. So today just reminded me of that and I'm still a bit on edge."

Bruce nodded understandingly. That had not been a good moment and he knew how terrifying the hulk was when you were on the wrong end. Only Natasha and Thor had seen that up close and Thor had very little to fear for obvious reasons.

"I'm sorry Natasha, it wasn't my intention to scare you all… well, maybe it was, in a way…" The scientist stuttered and shook his head, trying to stay on track. "I didn't mean to scare you…just Steve. Right or wrong I shouldn't have let my anger take me that far."

Natasha nodded in acceptance. "I know Bruce, but I still don't get what that was all about, care to explain?"

"The reason Tony's meeting was early and worse than normal was because Steve increased the strength on the inhibitor before the battle started."

"Wait, he can do that?"

"Yes, me, him, Rhodey or Pepper have access." Natasha didn't know whether she should be pleased or offended that she wasn't on that list, she kept her thoughts in check as Bruce continued. "I thought he'd done it to control Tony in the battle without thinking of the consequences, again, but apparently Tony asked him to do it."

"I can understand why you got mad Bruce, I really do. Steve's made mistakes, we all have."

"Maybe, but I screwed it up this time. Tony's my best friend, but the Hulk is complicating things, it's nice we both agree on something for a change but it just multiplies anything I'm feeling at the time."

"So, say if you're mad at Steve, because of Tony then the Hulk wants to…"

"Pull his spine out."

"Balanced response."

"Yes, that's the issue. That stunt the other guy pulled at the fight, just running off like that, it can't happen again. So, I'm working it out with him, or trying to. It's like talking down an egotistical and delusional 5-year-old, but one that has a nuke in his pocket."

"Well you have plenty of experience there."

"How?"

"Sounds just like trying to manage Tony to me."

Bruce laughed at that and was glad of the humor. The conversation had been awkward and defensive from the get go.

"Natasha, what happened on the Helicarrier…"

"It's fine Bruce, I'm over it."

"Please let me explain." Bruce implored to the back of the retreating red head. Natasha stopped and turned around. Maybe it would do them both good to hear this. "There is one aspect I still can't quite control, if 'Bruce Banner' gets hurt then I can't stop the Hulk coming out to play and he comes out pissed. I put a gun in my mouth the other guy spits it out… I get thrown through a window and break ribs in the fall, Hulk takes over and tears the hell out of the Helicarrier."

"We better start wrapping you in cotton wool then." She said slipping into Clint's room while Bruce carried on down the corridor.

…..

Steve wasn't going to sit in medical with not much more than a sore throat all night. Maybe Stark medical wasn't pressed for beds, but all he wanted was a glass of water and some painkillers, which hardly warranted 24/7 care by a full medical team. He had to admit it had been nice to have a bit of time laying down, with nothing to do. He still ached like a son of a… after the battle, but it was his new injuries that were most distracting. As his fingers gently traced the bruises on his throat he made a mental note to go above and beyond not to piss Bruce off again in future. Knowing he could tap the Hulk's super strength while he was still in Banner form was more than a little disconcerting.

He checked on Clint as he passed his door and was pleasantly surprised to see him asleep, Natasha in the chair alongside him. He'd watched the nurses get more and more frustrated throughout the day. Apparently, Clint was nearly as bad a patient as Tony when none of them were around to watch him.

That was were Steve went next. Tony and the bottle, not a good idea under any circumstances and it was about time someone other than a machine went and checked on him. Natasha had filled him on the inhibitor and the 'meetings' after she'd brought him to the med bay. Steve hadn't been able to take his mind off the engineer since then. The guy was going through hell and it only made him feel worse about everything that had happened since New York. How much more crap could Stark take? He'd misjudged Tony at every step, but now he was going to watch him like a hawk for a very different reason… to make sure he wasn't running himself into the ground.

His conversation with Bruce earlier had concerned him. Something had happened after Steve and Natasha had left. There was something wrong between Tony and Bruce, he heard it in the scientist's voice. Whatever had been said had shaken Bruce, that much was clear, and now he felt the need to leave Tony alone.

Steve could barely remember a time where they had all just got on, maybe there had been a fleeting period, but since then it was a constant loop of people falling out or being awkward, then sorting things out just in time for the next problem to split them apart.

Steve and Tony… Steve and Clint, Natasha and Clint, Tony and, well, all of them…Bruce and Steve and now the one ever-stable relationship, Bruce and Tony, seemed shaky. It made Steve miss simpler times, the world he'd left behind a long time ago and the friend he'd lost.

Thankfully, Steve found the door opened when he scanned himself in. He had fully expected for Tony to have the lab on lockdown, but apparently, he hadn't bothered. As he stepped into the room the lighting was low and it took a second for his eyes to adjust. The smell of alcohol was un-mistakeable and hit him immediately. He sighed when he saw Tony's outline sat in his chair, limp, torso buckled over the bench and snoring softly.

Steve quietly wandered towards him, avoiding the broken glass and spilled liquor on the floor, at least that was one less bottle he'd managed drink. He gave Tony a nudge and got no response. The sling was still round his neck, but it looked complex, so the super soldier decided it would be easier to take it off than try and fix his shoulder back into it. He gently gathered up the Engineer into his arms, taking care not to jostle his shoulder or ribs. He held Tony close to his chest as he picked his way round the various trip hazards littering the floor in the darkness. Stark would kill himself one day if he didn't tidy up, the place was like a mine field.

The billionaire stirred a little as they approached the lift, looking up into Steve's blue eyes as the elevator doors closed. Tony took a moment to recognize who was holding him, mind hazed and intoxicated. Tony groaned drunkenly, there was a stern look of indignation on his face and he swatted an uncoordinated hand at his helper.

" 'm not handbag Ssssteve, put m'down." Tony slurred, barely with it. Steve didn't reply, just carried on.

"You're warm." Tony mumbled, nuzzling his face closer as he shuddered a little in Steve's grasp. Steve pressed the back of his hand to Tony's forehead and frowned at the coolness of his skin.

"And you're pretty cold." Steve had to admit it had been chilly in the lab, and resting on the metal bench would not have helped matters. He took Tony to his room and laid him on the bed, wrapping him snuggly in the bed clothes, hoping that he would warm up soon.

Tony was out for the count, un-moving and expressionless. Steve sat and watched him for a while, taking comfort in the rise and fall of his chest, ignoring the rattle of his rib cage as he breathed. Of course, most people wouldn't have been able to hear it, but Steve could hear a bit more than most people. He could hear the slow pumping of blood through Tony's body, the slight scratching of his hair against the pillow as he breathed and the soft hum of the arc reactor, keeping him alive.

Tony was going to have one hell of a hangover in the morning, Steve realized and knowing Tony, Steve was the last person he'd want to see when he woke up, so it was probably time to go. Besides, Steve was tired. Even super soldiers needed to rest, especially injured ones. He ruffled a hand through Tony's hair as he got up to leave. There was no response from him and it gave him an idea. Steve nipped to the kitchen and returned, silently depositing a few things on Tony's bedside table before heading for his own room.

…..

Pepper had, had so much work to catch up on when she'd arrived. She'd put it off as long as she could, but returning to the tower she'd had little excuse to avoid it any longer. She'd worked like a train today, shifting double what she normally would in 12 hours to get back to Tony's side. She'd been surprised to smell the alcohol on Tony's breath as she climbed into bed, but she wasn't upset. If anything could take the edge off and get him to sleep through the night she was grateful for it, God knows he deserved some peace. The next meeting was tomorrow, and if the last one was anything to go by he was going to need all his strength. The thought made Pepper tear up. She would have done anything to save him from what he was going through, but as Bruce had repeated over and over there was nothing that she, or anyone, could do for him. Something in the pit of her stomach told her that everything was going to be ok, she didn't know why and it certainly didn't make any sense knowing the odds, but it was the only comfort she had so she clung onto it.

As she crawled into bed and felt Tony's skin next to hers she frowned at the icy touch. She snuggled up close, allowing her warmth to seep into him and soon they were both cozy and sound asleep.

…..

Tony woke up to the soft stroking of fingers through his hair and a whisper of goodbye. All he could muster was a hum of contentment at the familiar voice and the pleasant sensation since the blackness refused to desert him. It took a long time for the fog to lift and his head pounded in protest of the previous night's decisions. Bruce would be pissed, he thought. But for once he didn't care. There had been more than a reckless mission of self-destruction to his drinking last night, he needed to be out of it, with the meeting today it was usually this sleep that brought with it the nightmares. He couldn't have dealt with that again, especially after yesterday, their battle was likely to have dredged up even more bad memories to add to the cocktail as if it wasn't already bad enough. At least his plan seemed to have worked and he was incredibly grateful for it. It was more than worth the pain and nausea he would probably be reeling from for the rest of the day. He rubbed his temples as he summed up the courage to open his eyes, praying that the room was still in darkness.

"Morning Sir, a reminder that your meeting is scheduled for 5:35pm."

"Shhh Jarvis."

"There is some aspirin and a glass of water to your left. Captain Rogers left it for you last night." Jarvis said, adjusting the volume very low.

Tony sat up very gently. "Steve left me aspirin?" Tony answered his own question as little flashes of his drunken memory pieced themselves together. "Oh." Not what he had expected, but he took them gratefully.

"J, time?"

"9:32am."

Tony gave a three-fingered salute and spent a little time getting to his feet. He was more than used to this feeling, but it had been a while. He was out of practice with the art of hang over recovery. He clumsily fixed his arm back into his sling. His shoulder was aching like hell, so maybe he would put up with the annoying restraint for a few hours.

Coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee. His mind was on a loop, focusing on the one thing that would kickstart his brain and start to blow away the sluggishness that was absorbing him.

There was only one other person in the kitchen and that was Steve. Tony groaned internally, preparing himself for an earful about responsibility and recklessness but instead all he got was a smile.

"Do you feel as bad as you look?" Steve said softly, wary of migraine Tony was likely dealing with.

"Probably worse, not that I've looked in the mirror."

Before Tony could make a beeline for the coffee machine, Steve slid one his way over the counter. Tony frowned at it suspiciously. "What's this?"

"Coffee." Steve said simply, turning his attention back to the pan.

"And that is…"

"Breakfast. Full fry up. Perfect hang over cure."

Tony looked Steve up and down, brow furrowed, eyes squinted and pouting slightly.

"Is it poisoned?" Tony blurted out.

"Tony!" Steve scorned.

"I'm sorry Steve, I just don't trust you when you're being nice."

Steve sighed. "Has it really come to that?" He said with a disappointed smile. Tony shrugged, finally picking up the coffee and downing it. Steve plated up and slid it over to Tony. He picked up a fork lazily and it slipped through his fingers, the rattle as it hit the ground reverberated round his skull causing him to hiss sharply and grab his temples.

"That Bad huh?"

"Waiting for the aspirin to kick in." Tony groaned. "Thank you for that by the way."

There was silence in the kitchen for a moment as neither man knew where to go next.

"Steve, thank you and all, but why are you doing this?" Tony said gesturing to the stuff in front of him.

"Call it a peace offering." Steve sighed. "Tony, I don't expect one hangover-cure breakfast… offering to fix everything that's happened, but this is me realizing how badly I've screwed this up and trying to start making some sort of amends for it." Steve looked at the Engineer who didn’t respond and carried on.

"Natasha filled me in with the inhibitor stuff and I can't imagine how much rubbish you've been dealing with…"

"Steve, I don't need people feeling sorry for me."

"That's not what I'm doing Tony. What I'm doing is trying to make your life a little bit easier. I'm not going to be at your throat, I'm not come down hard on you and I'm sorry I ever did, because you don't need that, you never did. I've misjudged you, gone behind your back and sorry is never going to cover that. I trust you Tony. I trust you to deal with this in whatever way is best, for you. I just want to help ok? Because I'm sorry and you we shouldn't have driven you away."

Steve felt Tony's eyes scrutinize his expression, not unlike when he felt Natasha reading him. The engineers face softened in acceptance and he nodded slowly. "Ok." Tony said, calmly. "I know I'm not faultless in all of this, so let's give it a shot."

"Start afresh?" Steve asked, almost disbelieving that Tony was willing to give this a shot.

"As much as we can." Tony sighed.

Steve waited a moment and asked the question that was burning at the back of his mind. "When is it going to happen?" Steve said tentatively.

"The meeting? This evening… about 5:30 give or take."

"That soon?"

"Yeah apparently that's how it's going to be now."

"Do you want the rest of us there."

"Steve, you don't want to see that, none of you do."

"Of course, we don't, but if we can help then we will be there."

"I don't know… but I suppose I can't stop any of you."

Tony would never ask any of them to be there or admit he wanted them to be, and maybe he really was still unsure but he hadn't said no and that would do Steve as an invitation.

…..

Bruce had been putting off trying to find Tony all morning. At 10am when he finally decided to start looking, he didn't bother to ask Jarvis and stuck to the most unlikely places first. Finally, he sighed, giving in and going to the workshop. It was a mess, Tony had clearly been there, but he wasn't anymore. The place was a bombsite and that was very unlike Tony, stuff got messy sure, but there was always some sort of system, a method to the madness. This was just pure chaos.

There was the click of the door behind him as Rhodey came in behind him.

"No Tony?"

"No. Been looking for him all morning, but I must admit I haven't been trying too hard."

"Why, what happened?" Rhodey looked at him curiously.

"You didn't know what went down yesterday? Didn't Tony mention it?"

Rhodey rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. "Ermm, I kind of only got back a few minutes ago. After seeing Tony yesterday, I flipped out, once we got him settled and I went for a run, I didn't come back. I ended up crashing at a friend's yesterday."

"Oh well you missed the party."

"Care to enlighten me?" Rhodey was a little anxious now.

"Well, I found out why Tony's merge had been so early… and so bad. Turns out that Steve had turned up the inhibitor…"

Rhodey's eyes darkened, hands curling into fists so tight his knuckles turned white.

"Stop right there Buddy, been there done that, put Steve in the hospital…"

Rhodey's rage was suddenly overtaken with surprise and intrigue. "What... How?"

"Ok, from the beginning. I found out Steve had changed the inhibitor. I got mad. I found Steve and nearly choked the life out of him."

"You or the Hulk?"

"Technically me, but I might have tapped the other guy for some extra strength."

"Jesus."

"Yes, quite. The point is Tony stopped me from going too far and he told me that he'd asked Steve to do it."

"What?"

"Exactly my reaction, but there was an incident a few days ago, before Tony got called in. He tripped in the lab and should have impaled himself on a screwdriver but apparently the CAEB stopped him. It broke through and now he's freaked, though he won't admit it. The reason I've been avoiding him is that he told me he's going to let this kill him. He's given up. Even if we can find a fix he doesn't want to carry on… and I… I don't know what to do anymore, what to say. I don't know if there is anything I can do."

Rhodey sighed deeply, sitting down at the desk and noticing the broken glass. "And what's this?" He pointed to the floor, in absence of any solution to offer.

"He went to get himself drunk and I… I couldn't deal with it so I left him be. I thought you'd find him later…"

"But I wasn't there either and I hadn't told you." Rhodey rolled his eyes. This had been one monumental screw up between them.

"And Pepper was working…"

"So where is Tony now?"

"Sir is in the penthouse. Captain Rogers saw he got safely to bed last night." Jarvis interjected.

"Steve?" Bruce asked, surprised.

"Since when where they talking?"

"Since this morning. They seem to have reached some sort of understanding." Jarvis informed them.

"Huh. Well, that's not what I expected." Bruce said slowly.

"We got off lightly here." Rhodey said sternly.

"Huh?" Bruce asked.

"I mean that I know Tony, we were lucky he didn't go on full self-destruct mode last night. I mean we can't both just bail at the same time. We're human, yes. I'm surprised neither of us lost it well before this point, but well…

"In future, let's agree that only one of us is allowed to break down at a time?" Bruce offered.

"Yeah… that." Rhodey nodded.

"Organized breakdowns." Bruce chuckled. "What the hell is wrong with us?"

Rhodey shook his head, a little amused. "God only knows."

…..

People had been popping in and out of the penthouse all day. It had been Clint's first day of physical therapy, which had made the morning quite chaotic, especially for Natasha. Everyone wanted to be there to help, but crowding was not an option so there were a lot of questions to make up for it. Apparently, patience wasn't Clint's strong suit, he'd started the day really well and although he knew that progress wasn't going to be instant, but it still frustrated him when it turned out not to be. Tony could relate to that, really relate and was actually pretty desperate for a chat with the birdbrain, but he'd been put on house arrest by, well, everyone with the meeting so close.

He had been allowed down to the lab briefly by Rhodey, but barely long enough to get anything done, which frustrated him. To be honest the longer the day went on the more he could empathize with Clint downstairs. 'Just take it easy', 'I'll get that for you', 'How are you feeling?' The constant mollycoddling was starting to grate and the headache that was creeping in was doing nothing for his mood. It wasn't long past midday and he was already starting to feel it; a slight numbness inside him coupled with a headache that made him feel simultaneously disconnected from and tied down by, his own body. Then there was the smell of food from the kitchen that was making him nauseous.

Bruce was still avoiding him. That was to be expected. Tony had been pretty straight-up with what he'd said yesterday and none of it was pleasant to be honest he wasn't sorry he'd said any of it. He had meant it and it was about time Bruce knew exactly where they stood on the whole thing. Bruce had obviously told Rhodey, his friend had been giving him concerned looks all day and not left him alone for a moment.

When Natasha showed her head again at around 3pm, she looked exhausted in every way possible. Emotionally, physically and mentally she was done. Apparently, Clint had finally worn himself out and was getting some rest, which freed Natasha up to finally crash on the sofa next to Tony. Bruce started cooking in the kitchen. They'd only eaten a few hours ago, but they all looked like they needed it. Tony set off a movie on the screen that helped the atmosphere slowly relax and as Steve sat down on the smaller sofa, fresh from the shower. Tony let his eyes slide closed. He wasn't tired, he told himself, it was just the headache.

When Natasha looked across at Tony as Bruce brought the food through he was dead to the world. She looked at the clock with dread. There wasn't long to go now. Rhodey had been tense all day, constantly checking his watch, always looking at Tony or at Bruce and it was adding to Natasha's stress considerably. She spent all day dealing with Clint at his lowest and knew whatever was coming later was not going to be fun and she didn't know if she could deal with any more today.

When it hit 4:15 Bruce checked the computer over and over, giving constant looks to Tony who was starting to shift uncomfortably in his sleep every now and again.

"I'm going to go set up. In case it comes early." Bruce huffed, standing up and putting his mug in the sink. The stress lines were etched on his face. Lines that displayed clearly to the room the dread he was feeling.

Rhodey stood up nodding in agreement. "I'll give you a hand." He sighed. "Can one of you wake him up at 5, tell him to come down?"

"Sure, Rhodey." Natasha smiled.

….

Electricity crackled in the air. He could almost taste it. His heart beat heavy in his chest. He could hear his breathes, fast and noisy. The air tickled his chest as it left his nose in short hard blasts. He was trying to keep them controlled, but he could feel the burning in his diaphragm. The led weight in his stomach. The searing in his throat as his eyes locked onto the pile of armour he'd left behind. The thin fabric of his undershirt made him feel exposed. The cold leached into the sweat soaked fabric.

Filled with purpose his ignored the shiver that ran through him, disregarded the hairs that stood on end. His muscles howled with adrenaline that coursed through them as he strode forward. Rubble crunched beneath his feet. His breathing quickened. He knew where this would end. But he knew what he had to do.

He looked up for the last time, glancing at the flames that had been flickering in his peripheral. He searched for a familiar face, but there was none to be found. All there was, was ash. Dancing flames. The taste of smoke. Shattered concrete and twisted metal. Blood.

The sounds were muffled. Explosions in near distance, cries for help, thousands of screaming voices. The terror of a city prickled across his skin, diluted by his own.

Focus.

Then there was a face.

"Tony!"

Tony sucked in the air hard as he was pulled away from the street. He gasped hard, his lungs burning, demanding air. What was happening? Then the pain hit, burning through him. He screwed his eyes shut and cried out.

"Tony, Tony, it's okay, you're okay."

Tony allowed his eyes to open. Red hair and blond filled his vision.

"Steve, Tash… What?" He gasped, but his throat was on fire.

"You were having a nightmare Tony." Steve confirmed.

The voice reverberated through his skull as his senses violently sharpened. His brain felt like it was searing in his skull. He grunted sharply and squeezed his temples, doubling over and trying to bury the pain with his head in his lap.

"Tony, what's wrong?" Steve demanded,

Tony cried out again, back arching as the pain bit into him. His breaths came in rasping pants.

"Ah Hell." Tony moaned, his voice trailing off into more gasps of pain.

"What, Tony?" Steve barked, fright eating into his tone.

"It's started, hasn't it?" Natasha asked, no such panic dulling her observations.

Tony strained a nod as he bit down hard, breathing out hard from his nose. Then he was in the air. Two strong familiar arms lifting him from the sofa and the sound of running feet beneath him.

…..

"Almost time." Rhodey huffed. The waiting was the worst. Actually, screw that, the meeting was the worst. The waiting, just added to the hateful situation.

"Yep." Bruce breathed tiredly, dropping the P a little. He spun in the chair slowly, glancing at the clock. 4:48pm.

"How bad is this one going to be Bruce?"

"I recalibrated the inhibitor back to what is was before, but I don't know exactly how the merge will react. It could be delayed."

"So, this could be…"

"Potentially worse than even last time."

"Or it could be fine?" Rhodey asked hopefully.

"Yes." But Bruce didn’t sound convinced.

The room fell back into silence for a while.

"This sucks." Rhodey huffed, shaking his head and looking at the ceiling.

"Bruce!" Steve's voice shook alarm into the pair of them. They could hear the footsteps but couldn't yet see the first Avenger. The agonized yelp that followed Had them both on their feet.

"Tony?" Rhodey called, sweeping the figure out of Steve's arms the second he became visible.

"He had a nightmare and when he woke up, well he was like this." Steve explained quickly.

"Ok, in there, straps on." Bruce didn't need to remind Rhodey, but he felt he had to say something. Take control.

"Bruce, can we do anything?"

"No, just wait here, please."

There was a deep and pained scream from the other side of the wall. "Bruce, get in here!"

Bruce wasted no more time. Natasha and Steve waited where they were told.

A few minutes past and it all seemed normal. A few soothing hushed voices spilled into the workshop from the other room. Steve rubbed his head nervously and paced. The sight of Tony's trembling frame and the pain etched on his features refused to leave his head.

"Steve, sit down there's nothing we can do." Natasha reasoned. She was sat on the floor, back up against the wall with her knees raised close to her chest.

Steve sighed looking at her with confusion. How could she be so calm?

But Natasha wasn't calm, she'd just mastered the appearance. Really, she felt like a whole nest of Ants were knowing at her insides. She breathed out deeply, measuredly and brushed a strand of hair out of her face.

Steve huffed in frustration and defeat. He sunk down next to Natasha. One eye fixed on the clock and the other on the room beyond the wall.

It was muffled at first, they weren't sure what they were hearing, but each time it grew louder Tony was screaming. Howling at the top of his lungs. The sound was harrowing. Steve snapped to his feet. The noise didn't stop.

"The straps aren't going to hold." Rhodey's voice broke through.

"Hold him." Bruce said calmly as a faint tearing noise was heard.

"I can't he's too strong."

"Steve get in here." Bruce called. Steve didn't hesitate until he reached the door. As he stood and took in the sight, he found himself locked in place. Tony was being pinned down, his body writhing uncontrollable, screeching in pain. Rhodey was practically knelt on Tony's chest trying to keep the smaller man down.

"Steve snap out of it and get over here." Rhodey yelled, voice pained with the struggle of holding his friend.

Steve grabbed both of Tony's arm's squeezing them into his sides and using his thumbs to press Tony's torso back down. He was surprised at the strength of the billionaire as he writhed and quivered beneath him. Rhodey moved down to sit on his legs.

As Steve settled into his job his eyes locked on Tony's face. The Engineer was grey, skin covered in sweat. His face was contorted into a poor display of the true pain he was in. The deep hazel eyes rolled back into his skull, eyelids fluttering from open to closed. He hoped that Tony wasn't truly conscious, that he wouldn't remember this.

"He's in V-fib." Bruce's voice dropped as he looked at the monitors.

"What!" Rhodey barked.

"It's early." Bruce seemed panicked. "Too early."

"How far are we in?"

"64%"

"What are we going to do?"

"Wait a bit, see if it self corrects." Bruce moved in pushing Steve back a little. He took out a pair of scissors."

"He's going to be pissed. He likes that shirt." Rhodey warned.

"Well tough. He can buy a new one." Bruce sliced up the center of Tony's T-shirt and slapped the pads on, connecting the electrodes to the defibrillator.

"Bruce?" Rhodey asked when the Doctor did nothing for a few moments. Tony's writhing was slowing down, a tinge of blue pushing into his face.

"Giving him a chance." Bruce reminded. There was 30 seconds of silence. "No, he's not bringing it back, stand clear."

Rhodey jumped off Tony's legs. "Steve let go."

Tony's frame shuddered, back arching. Hands returned to hold him as he kept trembling. Steve couldn't remember when he'd stopped screaming, but he'd guessed it wasn't a good thing.

"Bruce, is he back?"

"Yes." Bruce frowned, "Just massively tachycardic."

"68%." The voice in the ceiling reminded.

It was a few minutes later, but it felt like hours.

"No, come on Tony." Bruce growled.

"What is it?" Rhodey demanded.

"He back in V-fib. We're going to have to fight through this one."

This time it took 3 shocks to get a stable heart rhythm. A few minutes later and it happened again.

8 shocks later Tony grew still.

"Got him?" Rhodey begged.

"Just."

"He's not breathing." Steve yelped, noticing the lack of movement from the Engineer.

"Shit." Bruce cursed and suddenly the monitors started blaring. "He's flatlining."

"Doctor Banner you must all leave the room immediately. Initiating lockdown." Jarvis stated calmly. Damn that AI.

"No, No, No, not now!" Rhodey wailed.

"99% complete, you have 20 seconds to clear the room."

"What's happening?" Steve asked.

"If we don't get out now we'll get fried like those craft we were fighting." Bruce grabbed them both by the arm, dragging the especially reluctant Rhodey out of the room behind him.

Steve saw that Natasha hadn't moved an inch as they were forced out of the room. The blast door closed and they waited.

"Bruce, we can't just…"

"Rhodey, we've got to wait it out."

"But he wasn't breathing."

"We'll bring him back. He's a fighter. You know he is."

"What's going on?" Natasha asked quietly, her face pale. Steve went over and crouched next to her as Bruce and Rhodes started arguing.

"We had to get out, or we'd have been fried, but Tony’s lost heart rhythm again. He’s not breathing Tash.”

"Again, how many times?" Natasha's eyes widened.

"I don't know I lost count." Steve rubbed his hair in fear and frustration.

"Are you ok?" She asked softly.

"No. He’s not breathing Tash."

There was a clunk as the door started to open. Two men were running towards it at breakneck speed, not giving it the chance to open even half way before they slid underneath.

Steve stood up and wobbled a little.

"Take it easy." Natasha warned, but neither of them intended to. They both walked into the room to see Rhodey, pounding on Tony's lifeless chest.

"Again." Bruce yelled, Rhodey backed off. Tony's back arched. Bruce shook his head. Rhodey resumed compressions.

"And again." Rhodey shuffled back. Tony's back arched again.

"Got him. Thank God, we've got him."

Rhodey rolled onto his back in relief, cupping his face in his hands. Natasha slid down to the ground. Steve sighed in relief, closing his eyes and thanking God.

Bruce went straight to Tony's side. "He's still not breathing."

"Rhodey, tube, now. Let's get him hooked up to the ventilator."

"Bruce?" Natasha asked, getting back to her feet.

"This doesn't usually happen. He's usually comes around afterwards." Rhodey was breathing heavily. Shock and fear running through his system.

It was a matter of minutes before Tony was surrounded by machines and wires. It looked awful. He looked awful. His skin was still grey, the color refusing to return to his cheeks.

There was the click of heels approaching and a flash of ginger hair. Nobody's face turned as Pepper walked into the room, gasping quietly. They were all too exhausted. Her stomach lurched. The body language of everyone else in the room told her everything she needed to know about what they'd just been through… what Tony had just been through.

"Bruce?" She asked nervously.

"He's stable." He said quietly. "He just needs some help breathing for a while."

"Need's some help breathing?"

"Look it's only been a few minutes, he's improving all the time. He should be fine."

"Bruce, you need a rest." Natasha said forcefully. The man was clearly shaken, he was almost as ashen as Tony.

Concerningly, Bruce didn't argue. He just nodded. "Go get some air Rhodes, Steve you too." Natasha's voice did not invite argument. So, the room cleared slowly and she and Pepper stayed.

…..

Rhodey had taken half an hour before he came back to relieve Natasha. Pepper has refused to leave. Steve had joined Natasha in front of the TV after a while. They hadn't spoken. There wasn't anything to say.

It had been hours since either of them had seen Bruce and neither of them felt li