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Dreaming Electric

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When we happen upon a technology such as stem cell regenerative therapy,
we experience hope. But we also immediately ask how natural this technology
is. And so we are caught between two huge and unconscious forces: Our deepest
hope as humans lies in technology; but our deepest trust lies in nature. These forces
are like tectonic plates grinding inexorably into each other in one long, slow collision.


—W. Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology


"Can artificers even be chaotic evil?"

"Of course we can, we're flexible that way, especially after a couple rounds of mead flavored with the blood of innocents." Tony picks up a die, rolls it around in his hands a few times, and then places it carefully in DUM-E's three fingers. "All right, Dummy, make Daddy proud."

DUM-E drops the die straight to the floor. It comes up with a two and Tony curses, demands a second roll, but when Bruce just gives him a flat look over the top of his glasses from the other side of the workshop Tony grudgingly writes it in.

"Wait, you're using Wisdom as a dump stat?"

"Who needs it when you've got legs like this? I'm a half-elf chick named Elq'uerex, but you can call me Lady Candi."

Bruce peers at the character sheet done up in bright blues and greens with JARVIS' holograms, the name lit in yellow. "Are you trying to make up an Elvish dialect or just mashing the keyboard?"

"I don't know, let me check my English-to-oh-wait-I-don't-speak-the-fucking-language dictionary. Anyway this is a fantasy game about dragons and people who sometimes find themselves in dungeons, what matters is that there's at least one apostrophe and an abundance of Es and awkward letters. This is how names work in the fantasy genre. Your turn, Sesame Street."

While Bruce rolls dice to determine his future, Tony goes back to the three-dimensional armor schematics that stand taller than he does, flicking his fingers to move pieces around, to zoom in on the circuitry in the helmet (should replace some of those connections with silicon, what was he thinking before, except that that wouldn't quite...) and then zoom out. He thinks about head size and then brain size and then, huh, maybe he should try incorporating sodium. Sodium's great for the human brain, well, it's actually pretty necessary –

"Dwarf, chaotic neutral," Bruce announces. "At least our characters will be able to function in a group."

"Can you imagine playing with Cap? He'd probably end up a lawful good paladin with a sword of divine light and unicorns," because if you listen to everyone else then Steve Rogers is practically the Second Coming, a saint with a talent for finding exactly the weakest point in your armor. One of the reasons Tony has always made a point of not listening to everyone else. Nothing good ever comes from listening to everyone else.

"I'd be more concerned about Clint."

"What's up with Robin Hood?" Tony asks distractedly.

"He's not the type to miss anything on a mission. Imagine what it'd be like trying to Bluff him."

"Well, that's not creepy at all." Note to self: increase security around vents, find and eliminate blind corners. Come to think of it, the guy might appreciate a smaller quiver, something less conspicuously-sticking-over-his-shoulder. "JARVIS, new entry for the Badassery folder: miniaturized quiver. Somehow. Make sure it's all on my personal server, I don't need Fury getting his paws on it."

"Entry added, sir."

"She also speaks Infernal, because I said so. And now, inventory. I want a warship."

"Tony, we're starting the campaign in a barren mountain region."

"I'll hire some locals to pull it along on a rope."

"You do realize your character isn't a billionaire, right?"

"Use some imagination, darling. I'll promise them starting shares in my future alchemy corporation, get them in on the ground floor, and watch the enterprise take off. Don't look at me like that. Why are you looking at me like that?"

But Bruce is also smiling a little, so another step in the ongoing mission of Keeping Bruce from Thinking About His Issues is accomplished. Plus-five Awesome. "By the way, I'd like to announce that JARVIS' seventh birthday is coming up less than two months from now. My little baby's growing up. I might even shed a tear."

"Congratulations, JARVIS," Bruce says dutifully. "I'd offer to get you a present, but I have a feeling that a gift certificate to Best Buy isn't going to cut it."

"Thank you, Dr. Banner," says JARVIS solemnly. "It's the thought that counts, after all."

"I wonder what counts as AI porn?" Tony wonders out loud. "Shoving a plug into a socket? Siri and her filthy little dirty-talk?"

"Perhaps a gift certificate to Best Buy would be appropriate after all," says JARVIS, and Bruce actually laughs.

Stark Tower. Status: 75% repaired. Regular occupants: three.

New York City. Status: 38% reconstruction complete. Casualties: still uncertain. Alien tech: loads, most of it in SHIELD custody, which means Tony gets to steal some and Fury acts like that hadn't been his plan the whole time by turning one blind eye.

"Are you supposed to have that?" Pepper asks in a way that already predicts an answer.

"Ye of little faith, Pep, I mean really. SHIELD used its evil spy powers to collect all the alien remains it could and turned to me when its own scientists couldn't figure out how these things work." The bulky exterior of those clunky energy-based gun-type things belies some of the most elegant internal engineering Tony's ever seen, somewhere between half-machine and half-organic. "You should see this, it makes the The Vitruvian Man look like something off an Etch-A-Sketch. JARVIS' preliminary readings say some of this stuff is actual tissue, like, living tissue. It's like half this thing was grown instead of made."

"That's…disgusting, actually."

Except the fusion of organic and metallic materials is flawless. It makes a little more sense when he considers the Chitauri themselves, who for all intents and purposes looked like fleshly humanoid aliens but still all dropped dead when their mothership was destroyed, according to the other Avengers. (Tony very carefully takes the memory of a silent supernova and tucks it into the Let's Never Think About This Again box.) Puppets with their strings cut and all that jazz, something hive-mind, or maybe remote receivers that suddenly lost the signal. None of the weapons had shown any sign of life since then, suggesting they'd been wired into the mothership's network, but practically anything's possible at this point.

Like that shiny round thing on the side. It could do anything.

"Oh my god! Tony!"

The far side of the workshop goes up like someone's detonated some C4, flames and smoke and the works, and Tony somehow finds himself going from standing up in a comfortable slouch to half-buried in coils of unused cables. The Chitauri gun he'd been aiming has slid several feet away, and triumph roars through him like a tiger at the end of a training montage in a kung fu movie.

"Tony, say something!" he hears Pepper yelling through the ringing in his ears, her hands shaking his shoulders, even though he's pretty sure you aren't supposed to do that to people with possible concussions or broken things on the inside.

"Something," he manages fuzzily.

"You and big red buttons, Tony, I swear to god," Pepper sighs in irritation-fondness-worry.

"I agree with Miss Potts, sir."

"You're all against me," he mutters as he gets up, kicking off a length of cable and leaning harder on Pepper than he actually needs to. She's wearing that perfume he bought her for her birthday. He'd even picked it out himself, armed with nothing more than the very specific instructions she'd written down for him.

"Pepper, Pep, I'm fine," he says as Pepper gently dumps him on the cot he keeps in a corner of the workshop, her hands fluttering around him anxiously. "No, I'm a genius, did you see that? Suck it, Fury."

"You're an idiot," she retorts, and Tony grabs her hands so he can pull her onto the cot and sneakily wrap his arms around her shoulders. His ass and back ache like a bitch. The bruises are going to be fantastic in a few hours.

"I'm a genius, even my unanticipated explosions are revolutionary." Pepper's warm against him (kind of bony, he wonders if she's naturally so thin, high metabolism maybe, or if she's pulling a Tony Stark and forgetting that food is necessary even for brilliant amazing people with a lot of stuff to do, he should look at her medical records and actually remember what they say this time) and he unashamedly soaks up that warmth like a cat. (Bruce would know, he's got like two or three doctorates in the wet sciences.)

"Bruce would know," Tony says out loud.


"The gun thing, the Chitauri thing? I need to know how the mechanics work with the – "

"Tony," Pepper interrupts patiently, and though Tony has to bite the inside of his cheek he manages to shelve the thought and take a few more minutes to listen to Pepper's heartbeat. "Is this a project for you or for Fury?"

"Fury knows I can do a far better job than the idiots that SHIELD employs, but he insists on keeping his one eye on me. It's almost like he doesn't trust me." Pepper runs her fingers through his hair, long nails scratching at his scalp, and oh god seriously she has a touch to make Midas feel inadequate. It takes him a minute to remember that happy groans aren't actually words. "I know that he knows that I know that SHIELD wants to get its hands on shiny new alien tech for shady reasons, because that went so well last time. Fortunately for me and probably the rest of mankind, the whole Loki thing means Fury is being less of a manipulative asshole about all this than usual and isn't actively trying to keep me and Bruce in the dark."

"Is Bruce working on the same thing?"

"He inherited Selvig's notes, the lucky asshole, but with the Tesseract currently incommunicado there isn't exactly much he can do. Seriously, first encounter and it's an aborted New York remake of Independence Day. Did you know the dragon things, they're called leviathans by the way, aren't Chitauri? Totally different species."

"At least it wasn't quite War of the Worlds," says Pepper, who is secretly a nerd. Tony squeezes her briefly.

"So, tell me how my company is doing."

"My company is populated by irritable old men who are trying to use Loki's alien invasion as proof that we need to return to weapon production – "

"Does no one remember that one nuclear missile, not like it was a big deal – "

" – and that contracting with SHIELD would bring up stock value – "

" – we have contracts, have they also forgotten that security program I designed that's only the most advanced in the world and which has got the French and British giving us the bedroom eyes – "

" – and I don't think telling them that their head of R&D would rather play tabletop games with his new friend would go down very well – "

" – shouldn't underestimate how badass Bruce's dwarf is, that lich never stood a chance – "

" – like I can tell you what to do, it's like herding a spoiled housecat, a Siamese – "

Tony kisses her even though it's a little awkward because Pepper's still trying to scold him and he's trying not to laugh and failing, and there's this lightness in his chest like the arc reactor's operating above 100% capacity again.

He wakes up stiff the next morning, his back as fabulously black-and-blue as he'd predicted. But, hey, he'd already rolled the dice and come up human, so, what do you do except just make do.

It's hard to go anywhere in the city and not see some sign of Tony Stark's existence: Starkphones, Stark Industries tablets, Iron Man shirts, advertisements, and that's just the beginning of the list. He's one of those guys you either love or hate, the guy working a newsstand said when he caught Steve looking at the tabloids. Hey, wait, aren't you…?

The second worst thing about Tony Stark is his bark, and what a bark it is. Snake oil salesmen aren't exactly new to Steve, whether it'd been the hawkers on the street as a kid or the politicians and officers he'd met post-serum, and bullies aren't a new invention either, but Steve had learned quickly how to push back and undermine that sort of authority. No, the absolute worst thing about Tony Stark isn't just the bark; it's the fact that he really is as brilliant as he thinks he is.

"How long have there been helicarriers, sir?" he'd asked Fury.

"There's just the one right now, Captain, and Stark built it. Even I have to admit he has a use besides pissing off all the right people."

"He built it?"

"Designed, technically, although I know for a fact he got his hands dirty during construction. It's no coincidence that the radios in all the common areas get perfect reception for rock stations anywhere in the world and absolutely none that play Katy Perry."

It's baffling, but mostly he'd thought it infuriating that so much talent has come paired with a morality of convenience. Then Stark had flown a nuclear warhead into space knowing his own survival had slim to none chances, and now it's a week later and Steve has no idea what to believe anymore. He'd thought he was painting one kind of picture and now it's turned out to be something completely different and unexpected, quite possibly in oil when he thought he'd been using watercolors, and as long as he's going to abuse metaphors then his derivative Lichtenstein has become an early Picasso.

"You all right, Cap?" asks Natasha quietly, well aware of how public they are in the middle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art even if no one's recognized them yet out of uniform. A billboard plastered with Tony's Hollywood-handsome face and smirk is visible through one of the lobby's enormous windows.

"I'm fine," he replies, automatically pairing it with a smile, but her gaze doesn't waver.

"The construction crews can manage without you for a few hours. You're allowed to take an afternoon off."

Which was exactly what she'd said when she appeared at the reconstruction site where Steve was lifting fallen steel I-beams singlehandedly, dressed in slim-fitting jeans, a modest silk blouse, and enough stubbornness to drag him away. They're not going to replace you in a single afternoon, Steve, but you are still human and thus requiring of sleep, food, and rest. Don't make me find someone with the rank to order you around.

"Where is the city getting its power right now?" he asks. The museum has turned off its usual recessed lighting in deference to the power shortage, which has the side effect of altering the familiar images just enough to make them new and strange.

"A large part of it is coming from Stark Tower. Tony patched the grid into the arc reactor the day after the attack."

"That's mighty big of him," Steve says neutrally. Natasha pretends to look closely at the Picasso in front of them, taking a few minutes of silence, and when she speaks there's an undertone that Steve can't quite interpret.

"He says it's good PR for the company. Apparently he's also been bitching at Bruce about how it's going to shorten the reactor's lifespan by a good four months and that the mayor's still going to find a way to be ungrateful for it."

"Is that all he says?"

Natasha snorts inelegantly. "He's very good at saying a lot without actually meaning anything."

"Didn't you work for him for a while?"

"Yes. He was rude, borderline sexist, and got in the way more often than not. On the other hand, he's rather adamant about rewarding the real merits of his employees regardless of gender, race, or orientation and spoiling them with generous benefits. Something like that isn't very common among men in power."

"I guess that hasn't changed a whole lot," Steve says wryly, thinking of Peggy and closed doors. Then he firmly (a little desperately) pushes that thought aside. "I admit I'm rather surprised that Bruce accepted his offer to work in his labs so quickly."

"Bruce has learned the hard way to take advantage of any opportunity. Tony is predictable, in his own way, and Bruce can trust that. Besides, it isn't often you find someone willing to accept the worst monster in you without forgetting that it isn't necessarily all you are."

Steve thinks of the way she and Clint look at each other and decides he isn't going to touch that particular topic with a ten-foot pole. "And you? Do you have ulterior motives?"

She smiles faintly as she looks over her shoulder at him. "Who doesn't, Steve? That certainly hasn't changed either. Even Thor has his own agenda, admittedly a pretty straightforward one."

"Comforting. Now I can sleep easy tonight."

Natasha laughs softly.

"Thor still in Asgard?"

"As far as SHIELD knows. I imagine he'll be there for a while."

"I've been thinking about going for a drive," Steve blurts out. "Once the construction crews have got things more settled. Just to…see." See what America's like now, if the people are the same, how they might have changed.

"No one's keeping you here," she says carefully. "Everyone's pretty much of the opinion that you've earned yourself a break from saving the world again."

Being of the opinion that a leader needs to understand the men – and women – under his command, Steve had read the files on all the other Avengers. He wonders if Natasha, being Russian, ever feels out of place when living in, and working for, another country. Another culture. A people who know almost nothing about where you come from. "Yeah, I reckon we all have."

"Did Tony give you a cell phone?"

"Yes." When they'd shaken hands, before Tony practically herded Bruce like a possessive mother into the car and took off.

"Don't hesitate to call, Cap," says Natasha gently. "We're not going anywhere you can't find us."

His hands clench into fists before he can stop himself. "Yeah."

After the sky split open and half of New York City was returned to its basic building materials, the people with whom he'd fought alongside all scattered in different directions and, in one case, to another dimension. Planet. Realm. (Tony's still working on that part, starting with the material Dr. Jane Foster had published before SHIELD showed up and all the material after that, which might have required a bit of poking around in laughably-secure government databases and a brush-up in more astrophysics and quantum theory. He used to roll his eyes at all the multiverse hypotheses, but then Loki ripped a wormhole in the universe and suddenly it didn't seem so tinhat-crazy.) In any case, Tony isn't entirely sure that the Loki-Chitauri thing wasn't just a one-time show and the Avengers Initiative a one-hit wonder, but at least he managed to bring home a Bruce Banner and Pepper let him keep him.

And it's weird. Tony hasn't really lived with anyone since he was old enough to go to boarding school and spend summers going from one party to another, from Italian villa to Chicago penthouse to luxury cabins in the Alps, inventing enough to keep Stark Industries at the top of the food chain before drowning himself in booze and sex again. But now he sees at least one of the same two people nearly every morning, and it's weird for how weird it isn't. For how bored he isn't, and hasn't been since his heart became a battery.

"JARVIS, am I asleep?"

"According to your brainwaves, sir, no, although I imagine that that would be the sort of thing I would say in your dream."

"I love it when you get all existentially creepy," he says, standing at the newly replaced floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking his kingdom.

"I live to be your voice of reason, sir."

"Not the angel on my shoulder?"

"I thought I would leave that responsibility to Miss Potts."

It should be illegal to have emotions so early in the morning before coffee, especially twice, since he'd left Pepper asleep in his white thousand-count sheets and thought she looked like she'd always belonged there.

"Jesus, where's Bruce, I need some cold hard science to regain my Vulcan objectivity here." Except he's already caught sight of the edge of the lone letter remaining on the side of the Tower reflecting the morning sunlight, starts mentally fitting it like a puzzle piece amid the floor plans he's been tweaking. He's thinking about load-bearing walls, floors reinforced for a training gym and shooting range, whether JARVIS would like some sort of automaton he could use to physically interact with the world (he's refused the offer before but even AIs can change their minds), if he should expand his knowledge of Latin beyond taxonomy and Catullus. Take that, Miss Natalie Rushman.

"Dr. Banner is in lab two, sir."

"Awesome." His coffee's already cooling and he idly considers the logistics of heating filaments in ceramic as he flops unceremoniously onto a sofa. "Pull up Project Big Brother, if you don't mind."

The coffee table immediately lights up with a menu, and a light tap has five sub-files neatly layering themselves open in tabs showing off symbols in each corner: a shield, an hourglass, a hammer, a bow, a strand of DNA.

"Each floor is between seventy-five and ninety-three percent complete."

Everything has a price, but half the city's been destroyed and the construction crews are already working overtime, so Tony's been taking advantage of the delay to do some practical experimentation. He's particularly proud of the ceiling arrays that'll collect steam from showers and use it to augment the Tower's energy independence, which admittedly sounds kind of stupid in the grand scheme of things, but whatever, it was entertaining at four in the morning, and some of the most useful technology has humble beginnings. Like the flashlight. Flashlights are awesome and they came from flowerpots.

"Sir, Director Fury is attempting to contact you."

"It's only nine o'clock, tell him to go away."

"You said the same thing yesterday. I believe his patience is wearing thin."

Tony shifts around the dimensions of what might one day be Clint's bedroom and the attached bathroom, debating whether or not he should sacrifice some measure of security for larger observation windows looking out over the city. "I'm on vacation, JARVIS. I'm horribly traumatized and I need time and distance before I can look at his eyepatch again."

A pause, then, "He's threatening to send in an extraction team."

"Good, his agents could use some exercise."

"He says that some red, white, and blue might be able to change your mind."

Tony groans. "I'll have to put on pants," he whines.

"He appears oddly unsympathetic to your plight."

"What's he want, anyway? We saved the world, we made the Council look like the militaristic idiots they are – "

"It's in regards to the funeral for Agent Coulson."

Tony stares out the window, contemplating the angle of sunlight falling over skyscrapers, the prominence of scaffolding latticework and the bright orange of construction equipment interrupting the landscape.

"Yeah, thought so," he says quietly.

Carpooling with Bruce means Tony shows up only ten minutes late. It's the first time he's seen Steve, Clint, and Natasha since their shawarma dinner date, and they're already seated at the same round table that'd once had blood-smeared trading cards strewn across its surface.

"Hey, kids," he announces, "the smart people have arrived, you can start the meeting now."

"Well, now that we have Stark's permission," Fury says slowly, dry as burnt toast.

Tony ends up sitting across from Steve, which is pretty damn awkward when it comes to avoiding gazes and whatnot because, yeah, maybe they shook hands but he's also shaken hands with Justin Hammer. Then Bruce sits next to him and that's not so bad.

"Where's Thor?" asks Bruce. "I notice there's been a lack of Asgardian crop circles showing up."

"I'm assuming he's still in Asgard." Probably meaning that Jane Foster hasn't heard from him or has been clever in hiding it from the SHIELD agents no doubt keeping track of her. "There's nothing to make this easier, so I'll just get right to the point. We're planning the funeral for five days from now in Portland. The flight for anyone who wishes to attend will leave the day before at eleven-hundred hours."

"Wardrobes have already been taken care of," Tony tosses out, carefully casual as he taps his fingers on the tabletop.

"By whom?" asks Steve, momentarily distracting Tony with his unusually correct prepositional grammar.

"Me. Well, Pepper, technically. We both figured a certain director would try to make it political if a certain covert government organization took over. Smear more blood on the cards, so to speak."

There's a distinctly heavy silence as the implication of that makes its way around a table full of not-actually-stupid people. It's a passive-aggressive move, possibly the wrong time to bring it up, but Tony's been picking at it for almost a week now, graduating from a sick sense of realization to the kind of rage he honestly doesn't have that often to feeling like an absolute idiot. It's rare that he ever feels like an absolute idiot, Obie, no, Stane notwithstanding, and he's not above making the person responsible for it share the pain. Perception, Pepper once said, only came when it was convenient for him or awkward for everyone else.

"What?" Steve finally says softly.

"Didn't you know? Fury played us like a beautiful symphony. Like 'Bohemian Rhapsody.'"

"How do you know that?" demands Natasha. She looks, huh, she has an actual expression on her face of distinct unhappiness.

"The science of deduction, my dear Watson." Tony leans back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other at the knee. "Observe that for all the times Coulson talked about getting Steve to sign his cards he never actually produced them, suggesting that he rarely, if ever, carried them around on his person on a daily basis. That he spent several years and not a small amount of cash on them supports this hypothesis, as well as the fact that he was such a hardcore fan and worked a profession that involves a high probability of bullet holes and flamethrowers. You don't see me walking around with my model of the Enterprise signed by the entire cast of the original Star Trek series, do you?"

"Nice name-drop," Bruce says quietly, because he totally gets it, how to soften the blow of reality with badly-timed humor.

"So," Tony continues, holding Fury's stare, "if Coulson didn't carry the cards with him, then he probably kept them in a cool, dry, safe place like a proper obsessed fanboy. He might've sent them to Portland, but I doubt it, and since he basically lived on the helicarrier, they were probably kept in some sort of container that everyone knew was off-limits on pain of death. I'm guessing some sort of military footlocker. A safety-deposit box is possible, but Coulson would know exactly how insecure the banks actually are and would trust himself to be the better guard dog. My second guess is an environment-controlled humidor. Either way, the logical conclusion is that Fury realized we needed a catalyst to make us get our shit together as a team and used the cards as a particularly effective plot device, bloodstains added at no extra charge." He points a finger at Fury childishly. "I knew there was something off about the whole thing."

That silence comes back to hang over them like an impending storm front. Fury looks inscrutable.

"Is this true?" Steve asks.

"Yes, Captain." But he doesn't apologize, which Tony honestly respects underneath the outrage of being both outmaneuvered and manipulated with the death of a rare, decent man. Likely no one would have believed it at the time anyway, too much stress and blood and fighting and sometimes you just need to put your trust in something to keep going, even if it's a lie.

"Told you, a beautiful symphony. I claim Freddie Mercury."

"It was necessary," says Fury.

"I don't think anyone's arguing that we needed something to make us get our act together," Bruce replies, expression mild. "The question is whether or not the ends justify the means."

"Of course not," Steve says harshly. "If we start believing that, then we start on a road that only gets darker."

"Unless you bring a light," Tony can't help pointing out. Kneejerk reflex to play Devil's Advocate. "Oh, Christ, don't look at me like that, Cap."

"How far would you take it, Stark?" Ouch, Captain Rogers is serious. "What if we sent a nuclear bomb to destroy all of Manhattan to contain an alien threat because it's possible that the aliens will get out to the rest of the world? Are the deaths of more than one and a half million innocent people justified when you might be saving everyone else?"

Strange sentiment from a guy who'd led campaigns in fucking World War II. "What about you, Rogers? Are you so incapable of compromise that you'd, I don't know, let a civilian hostage die because America has a policy of not negotiating with terrorists? I'm not saying Fury isn't an asshole and what he did was morally sound, believe me when I say I've already lined up my payback, but If you're going to let your idealism override basic common sense, if you won't even consider alternatives – "

"It's a matter of doing what's right – "

"According to whom? We don't all have the Constitution tattooed on the backs of our eyelids – "

"That's not what I – "

"You should see the mess Congress has made of it anyway, and seriously, it's not like I don't agree with you about Fury's dickishness, it's that you're looking at this from the wrong angle, so wrong – "

"Shut up, both you," snaps Clint, tense and probably itching for his bow. "This isn't about you or your political bullshit, pack it away and stop being assholes."

Tony takes a deep breath and a moment to switch tracks. "Point is, whoever's going," and he has no doubt that'd be everyone here, "everything's taken care of. Just show up at Stark Tower beforehand."

He tries not to look at Steve, he really does, because there's something fundamentally wrong with that weariness on Captain America's face even if he is a naïve idiot. Steve Rogers, now there was a real man, Dad told him, but Tony cynically reminds himself that he makes a point of not listening to people.

Tony meets everyone in the penthouse living room. Pepper let him empty one martini glass before deftly plucking the second one out of his hands and replacing it with an espresso. He feels like he should say something to mark the occasion, but he only gets as far as, "Hey, team," before the words dry up like desert sand. Pepper puts a discrete, slightly shaky hand on his arm and takes over, possibly acting a little more brisk than usual as she hustles everyone into cars aimed for the airport.

It's a drizzly, overcast day, of course, because this is Oregon and what else would it be. The cemetery is painted in shades of grey and washed-out green, populated by black shadows in suits and modest dresses. The minister's sermon is brief, thank god, Tony isn't sure how much longer he's going to be able to stand here while a cellist has tears rolling down her cheeks and Natasha and Clint lean on each other, their mutual stoicism only highlighting the little signs of grief that manage to crack through their armor. The arc reactor sits heavily in his chest today even though he hasn't changed it at all, even though all its parts are still ticking away endlessly without weakness or vulnerability. Bleeding-edge tech, pun intended, had saved his own heart but shredded Coulson's, and ain't that just a pretty thought.

Pepper's eyes are red but she's composed and solemn at Tony's side, right where she always is, propping him up. Bruce is on his other side doing that thing mixing world-weariness with the constant undercurrent of rage and self-loathing, like he's torn between people die, it's what they do and I should've been able to stop this anyway. Steve's in full Captain America regalia, shield slung over his back and expression blank, and Tony has an uncomfortable moment of insight: waking up with everyone dead, making new friends, still losing them, loneliness as the only real constant.

At one point, Pepper goes to talk to the cellist. Tony turns away.

Afterwards, when the hollow sounds of dirt hitting a coffin have faded and people begun drifting away, Tony goes to stand beside Steve. His head is bowed, expression distant, and Tony doesn't think before his hand is diving into one of those many pockets and fishing out Steve's cell phone.

"Tony, what – " Steve starts, startled and irritated.

Tony's fingers fly over the touch screen before he tosses the phone back. "There's a bed for you back at the Tower if you need a place to crash."

"I already have a place."

"You haven't had a place until you've had a Stark place." Tony thinks about that sentence for a moment. "Anyway, not a big deal, you've got my number now, and by my number I mean Pep's. Just think about it."

Steve nods and turns back to the gravesite. After a moment, Tony leaves him be.

"It's too bad Thor wasn't here," Pepper says softly as they head back to the jet.

"I'm sure he would if he could," says Bruce, because Thor is the type of guy who makes doing the honorable thing look easy, which Tony sort of both hates and envies, "but with his brother…"

"Bag of cats," Tony mutters. He's about to say something about familial responsibility, not that he knows much about that, or at least nothing he actually wants to know, but suddenly he's just too tired. "Let's stop over in Chicago, I need me a deep-dish pizza."

Tony stands on the penthouse balcony and leans over the edge, foot braced against the giant letter A, thinking about freefall and terminal velocity.

At one point Iron Man has to stop a couple of civilians, husband and wife, from holding up a bank with a Chitauri weapon that managed to slip through SHIELD's fingers. A bank, seriously, it's a bad Bonnie and Clyde adaptation, but the couple eventually confess in the interrogation room that with their combined student loans and their apartment's increasing rent and the husband getting laid off from work that, well, what else could they do? No one was killed, and at least prison provides health insurance. There'd been that old man not too long ago who'd robbed a bank for one dollar because he couldn't afford his hospital bills.

Tony hears the report from a SHIELD agent while standing in his multibillion-dollar armor. There are times when he feels like he's on top of the world, and other times when he remembers that in the grand scheme of things he's just one man.

(SHIELD ends up hiring the husband and wife, though. Apparently the husband had managed to get the Chitauri weapon working all by himself, and Tony makes a mental note to pick the guy's brain. Later.)

Tony splits his time between deconstructing alien technology and trying to break past the plateau he's reached on the armor. Pepper keeps his company running, then comes home and keeps Tony running. One morning they wake up to find that Bruce disappeared (willingly) during the night, and during the two weeks he's gone Tony resists the urge to track him down. It's not like he doesn't understand the need to sometimes just get away, to make sure that if it ever became necessary that it would be possible to do so, but Tony can't run a campaign by himself, so his half-elf chick with high Charisma and Bluff ends up in limbo, waiting for something to happen.

When Bruce comes back, Tony lifts his chin haughtily to hide the desperate relief. "You didn't even send me a postcard, asshole."

"You really wouldn't have wished you were there," Bruce replies, and that's all they ever say about it.

Sixteen days after they bury Coulson, Steve shows up.

"Sir, it appears that Captain Rogers is at the front door."

It's so unexpected that Tony turns down the music in the workshop himself. "Does he look homicidal? Angrily constipated?"

"Charming as that image is, no."

It takes a moment to switch tracks from trying to translate neurobiology into armor-friendly programming using completely alien technology to oh, hey, social interaction with squishy humans.

"Eh, let him in," says Tony as he takes the stairs up to the penthouse, totally not playing for time until he hears Cap's steady, solid footsteps. The man is in khakis and a plaid button-down over a white undershirt, good god, someone needs to update that wardrobe a good seventy years (although to be fair he pulls off the look pretty well; add some sweaty workman muscles and Pepper the Occasional Traitor would cheerfully repeat that security SNAFU).

Tony wanders nonchalantly towards the bar. "Afternoon. Drink?"

"No, thank you. I spoke with Miss Potts and she let me in, but if I'm interrupting anything – "

"People are always interrupting, every moment of my time is valuable, but I'm willing to make an exception." There's a large, square art portfolio peeking over Steve's shoulder – the shield, no doubt, clever disguise right there – and a messenger bag slung over the other. "Welcome to Torre de Stark, ma maison est votre maison and all that jazz. Happen to have a room we just finished fixing after the whole thing with an alien invasion, JARVIS can show you where it is."

"Good afternoon, Captain," JARVIS interrupts. Steve's met JARVIS before, not long after that disastrous first meeting between Captain America and Howard Stark's son that nearly resulted in the helicarrier's destruction.

"Nice to hear you again," says Steve politely. Tony magnanimously awards him a few brownie points.

"And you, Captain."

"I gotta admit, Rogers, I wasn't expecting to see you so soon. Figured you'd still be doing the sight-seeing thing, driving around the country to see what deplorable thing she's become, that sort of thing."

Steve's quiet as Tony stands behind the bar, making himself a drink not because he actually wants one right now but just to keep his hands busy. "It was rather inconvenient trying to haul a duffel bag on a bike for extended periods of time," Steve eventually says, startling a laugh out of Tony.

"So now the most advanced Tower of Babel in architectural engineering and clean energy is reduced to a glorified storage depot. I see what you did there, Rogers, very sneaky."

Hey, look at that, an entirely civil exchange. He thinks about harsh words but then a respectful handshake after Thor took Loki away, and Tony admits that he isn't quite sure where he and Captain America stand.

"So, what's on your mind? The American Dream?" Not his wittiest, but whatever, shut up.

Steve visibly bites back a retort (pity, that, at least that'd be familiar) and paces around the penthouse a bit, taking it in. The glass windows have been replaced, but there's still a half-repaired divot in the floor where Hulk had some fun with Loki. "I thought it was time that I get my head back in the game. Are you planning to invite the rest of the team?"

"Think I should?" Tony prevaricates.

"I think you're already planning to. It'd be good to have a central location for the team independent from SHIELD."

Now, isn't that interesting, Steve finally accepting the politics and implications of the Avengers associating so closely with that shadowy international spy organization. "What, don't you trust Fury anymore?"

"I never did, but he's necessary. However, you know as well as I do that the Avengers shouldn't be completely reliant on a council that would prefer we didn't exist. Unless you're not the futurist you claim to be."

"Is that cynicism I hear in Captain America's voice? Quick, hold me, my paradigm is violently shifting." Before Steve can say something insulting or decide he made a mistake in coming over, Tony goes on, "There's a reason I've been graciously extending invitations for you people to invade my private space. JARVIS?"

"If you're ready, Captain, I would be happy to guide you to your quarters."

Steve looks thrown by the sudden turn in conversation. "Um, all right. Thanks."

Tony waves a hand dismissively. "Just keep your hair out of the drain and the toilet seat down and you'll keep Pepper off the warpath."

Steve gives him a look that might be exasperated or might be considering in some way that'll come back to bite Tony in the ass later, but he downs half his brandy and pretends not to notice.

Steve's expecting something upscale but impersonal, like an expensive hotel room, but as soon as he steps out of the elevator he's faced with an entire apartment done up in light hardwoods and brass fixtures, the late sun reflecting in a warm glow of natural light. It isn't nearly as sleek and minimalistic as the main penthouse, but it doesn't pretend to be decades out of date either; there are steel appliances and a wide flat television on the wall, albeit one bracketed by Rosie the Riveter and a pin-up lady painted in front of a jet fighter. Hilarious.

"Welcome, Captain Rogers. Please make yourself at home for as long you like."

There's a side room off the living area with mats, a punching bag, and reinforced steel bars just above his head level. There's a space of tiled floor, an easel, and a stainless-steel bench under the length of a full window facing the eastern sun. In the bedroom, the contemporary elegance is immediately upended by a duvet spangled red, white, and blue.

"Just happened to have a spare room, huh?" murmurs Steve. He thinks he should annoyed by the mocking pieces of decoration, but it's overshadowed by the fact that a considerable amount of planning obviously went into the design of this place, and that it was offered so offhandedly, like it wasn't anything more than politics, like Tony's trying to downplay the generosity for some reason.

"I have no idea what you are implying, Captain," JARVIS deadpans.

Steve drops his shield and bag on the garish duvet. "JARVIS, is anyone else here?"

"Dr. Banner has been living here for three of the last five weeks in his own quarters, or, perhaps more accurately, in the biochemistry research lab. Besides him, Mr. Stark, and Ms. Potts, there are no other permanent residents."

"What happened to those other two weeks?"

"I believe he decided that he needed to some time away from the Tower for personal reasons."

Steve looks around, thinking, This is your life now, and lets out a long breath. At least there's a simple navy-blue comforter hiding in the closet.

Tony isn't entirely sure when Natasha and Clint move in. He rarely sees them, since they still have their spying assassin day jobs and are usually gone on missions for SHIELD, but every so often he'll find dishes in the sink he knows that neither he, Bruce, or Steve used, or what looks suspiciously like arrow holes and knife marks in the drywall. Otherwise, nothing really changes except that he starts watching the vents with a little more paranoia and the sense that he might be getting in over his head.

(He can't help wondering why they'd bother using the Tower when they have private quarters on the helicarrier, but then he thinks about Bruce and those two weeks in which he disappeared, Steve and his little roadtrip, Tony's own cabins and private estates hidden around America and a few other countries, and figures he knows the answer after all.)

Thoughts like these are sometimes the things that keep him up at night – could be worse, could be buckets of water and dead bodies – and which drive him out of Pepper's arms into the steel and oil of his workshop.

"Talk sweet to me, honey, we've got important things to do, you know."

"Your heart rate indicates a moderate level of stress, sir."

"Okay, not quite what I was going for. I'm fine."

"Does it concern the presence of the other Avengers?"

"I said I was fine, JARVIS, let's focus up here."

"With the damage left from the palladium poisoning – "

"JARVIS," Tony snaps. "Drop it. Now run a simulation with sodium on the connectors and let me know when you're done."

After a pause, JARVIS says, "Of course, sir."

Tony idly taps on the arc reactor's surface, mulling over the armor's internal programming to see where corners could be cut and lag times streamlined to near nonexistence, wondering if Natasha appreciates the small room stuffed with hidden compartments for guns and knives, if Clint appreciates the bird's-eye view. Another part is calculating what sort of security upgrades he's going to have to make and if he's left out anything embarrassing that someone could find, he'll have to start randomizing his workshop passcodes more often so that Fury doesn't reach inside through his two pet agents.

"Bruce, you understand, right?" asks Tony when Bruce appears an hour or three later. Bruce is the only other person besides Pepper with unrestricted access and who also shares Tony's restless habit, never failing to waft in with the distinct scent of Buddhist existentialism.

"Yes. Unless it pertains to your relationship with your armor, in which case the answer is 'no' and 'I don't want to know.'"

"Right in the heart, baby," Tony grins, distracted by a weight ratio in the circuitry that he needs to reduce but can't, damn it, shit, crap, motherfucker.


Did Tony say that last part out loud? "Nope, I'm fine, I make it a regular habit to stare at the same goddamn equations for at least twenty-six minutes. It's a mental exercise for geniuses, I'm surprised you've never heard of it."

The backwards compliment earns an amused huff. Normally having Bruce around would be an excuse to start talking at someone that isn't made of ones and zeros, but with the itchy feeling that Bruce isn't here for the sake of awesome interdisciplinary scientific advancements Tony grabs the bull, no, minotaur by the horns. "How're our new roomies settling in?"

"Fine, as far as I know." Bruce comes around the side of the worktable and leans against it, hands in his pockets as he watches Tony restlessly flip through a series of projected notes. Tony glances sidelong at him.

"Disturbance in the force over there, padawan?"

Bruce is paler and scruffier than usual. "It's nothing."

"Which means it's something." Tony snaps his fingers, making the holographic diagrams of armor disappear, and turns to give Bruce his full attention. "Existential or circumstantial?"

Bruce starts wringing his hands, unable to meet Tony's eyes, and smiles that smile that Tony absolutely hates, all full of terrible self-knowledge. "Sometimes it's…hard, seeing what you could've been if you were a better person."

It takes a moment of blankness until it suddenly clicks. Steve and his super-soldierness, his inherent courage and determination to do good even if he's kind of a dick in person, now walking openly around the Tower like a free-range chicken. "Says the guy who hit rock bottom and then made the choice to do his damned best anyway. Says the guy who's seen the worst in people but keeps trying anyway." Tony doesn't think he'd have done the same if their places were switched.

"You mean the guy who's killed hundreds of people and tried to put a bullet in his mouth."

"I mean the guy who saved my life and billions of others," Tony snaps. "You're not the villain here. Neither is the big guy."

"I've got a lot of red on my hands," Bruce murmurs.

"Yeah? So do I. So does Steve, or do you think he hugged those Nazis into submission? Thor comes from a planet where you prove your honor in freaking battle, and let's not even get into two certain spy assassins." Tony tosses an arm around Bruce, who tenses because he's touch-deprived, all about the self-denial, and people are too stupid to see beyond the Hulk. "You're not alone, Jolly Green, and you're not the next Sauron, and the sooner your genius brain understands that the sooner we can get to inventing cold fusion."

Bruce eventually twitches out from under Tony's arm. "And people think you're a cynic."

"I'm a realist, Bruce, I mean really, what kind of scientist would I be if I ignored the empirical evidence right in front of my face? Back me up here, JARVIS."

"Mr. Stark is indeed correct, Dr. Banner."

"Can't argue with Skynet," Tony adds, and Bruce laughs a little, and Tony later realizes that he'd almost completely forgotten the original reason he'd run away to his lab in the first place.

Tony takes his duties of being an eccentric billionaire genius very seriously, at least according to Pepper, who said no one could possibly that eccentric without actually trying. When she'd declared this, Tony had said, "Yes, you're right," (because he's learning how to listen, no, really, he's trying to be a very good boy this year, even if he's not always sure where the line actually gets drawn in these sorts of things) and added, "but that doesn't answer my question on whether or not your little black dress makes my ass look fat."

Well, Steve doesn't actually know that part of the story, but Pepper had told him the day she let him into the Tower that there's plenty of room, please make yourself completely at home, I insist, and oh, yes, if Tony seems to be acting strangely then he's actually not and I'll take care of it when I get back.

Thing is, Steve's seen a lot of strange things, so this doesn't really tell him what to expect at five in the morning. He's sitting at the glass-and-steel kitchen table, cooling mug of coffee cradled in his hands, when he hears approaching voices.

"You can't spontaneously produce those potions just because you forgot to include their ingredients in your beginning inventory," Bruce is saying, and Tony shoots back, "Don't make me try to Bluff you, big guy, I'll have you convinced you're a little girl wearing a pinafore."

"Do you even know what a pinafore is?"

"Of course I do. It's something little girls wear."

They pause when they see Steve already in the kitchen. He quietly says, "Good morning," which Bruce returns before heading for the cupboard and pulling out a battered tin of what looks like authentically Indian chai. Tony, on the other hand, keeps staring at him.

"You're in my kitchen," he says accusingly.


"Why are you in my kitchen?"

It's on the tip of Steve's tongue to either apologize or snap back that he lives here now, does he need special permission to use the communal kitchen, but Bruce jumps in first. "What Tony means is that he's surprised to see you sitting here alone, at five AM, in the penthouse, and he's not sure how to ask what's wrong."

"You traitor, get out of my head," Tony grumbles, scrubbing a hand through his hair and mussing it up into impressive spikes as he drops into the chair opposite Steve. There's possibly some motor oil in there.

"Couldn't sleep," Steve replies neutrally, absently tilting his mug around and around and wondering if he should admit that he'd been half-hoping to run into someone. Like Pepper, friendly and whip-smart, who politely pretends not to notice when he trips over his tongue around her and shares his love of art. Even Tony. Anyone, as long as it means he doesn't have to see the aftermath of dropped bombs and barbed wire whenever he closes his eyes, or hear the held-back sobs in Peggy's voice over a radio in the quiet of his unfamiliar bedroom.

"Join the club," Tony mutters. "Hey, now there's an idea. We've already got a clubhouse and everything."

"You could have Dummy fabricate the decoder rings. Then the cipher would be impossible to break," Bruce tosses out.

Tony points an accusatory finger at him. "I'm the only one that gets to diss my robots, Banner."

"I'm sure it'd only tell you to drink your Ovaltine anyway," Bruce mutters, which makes absolutely no sense but sends Tony's forehead thumping onto the tabletop with uncontrolled snickering. Steve sips his cold coffee and wonders if he'll ever pick up the nuances of contemporary life. It's like being the awkward tagalong in a group of old friends who share all these inside jokes. It's like the first time he went to England, where the people all spoke the same language he did but with slang he didn't understand and references he didn't know, just unfamiliar enough that it was more frustrating than an actual language barrier.

At five in the morning in the most technologically advanced tower in the twenty-first century, however, Steve can't even muster the energy to get frustrated. Bruce must notice, since he brings two cups of chai with him to the table and pushes one towards Steve. "Anything you want to talk about?"

Science let me fight for my country and save lives, he thinks, but it also abandoned me here. Most of the time I'm selfish enough to wonder if the benefits were worth the cost and I can't even bring myself to feel guilty about that.

"I wanted a flying car," he says. Bruce blinks, but Tony lifts his head and grins, somewhat manically.

"You're talking to the right engineer, Cap. If the future ain't shiny enough for you, I'll fix it, I'll pimp that ride with so much bling it'll make Jules Verne novels look unimaginative."

"Will it come with a dictionary?" Steve asks dryly, making Bruce smile into his mug and Tony's grin widen.

"It'll be color-coded and everything. JARVIS, make a note, Urban Dictionary."

Steve quirks a smile. "How could I say no."

Around six o'clock a bleary-eyed Pepper appears, unselfconsciously wearing one of Tony's button-downs and little else, and maneuvers Tony out of his chair. "He has a meeting he can't skip tomorrow, boys, I'm sorry – "

"Of course I can, can't you use your CEO powers – "

" – those powers aren't to be used for evil, Tony – "

" – then what's the point of – "

" – need to suck it up and play nice for the investors, or did you forget it's your name on the letterhead – "

" – we could replace it with Potts, y'know – "

" – no, that's not how these things work, and it's the next lease that – "

" – Pep, pepper-pot, have mercy – "

"Tony, it is six in the morning, I've slept maybe three hours, and I have to spend the morning making sure you don't sneak out of the goddamn conference room, I am about as prepared to show mercy as a Spanish inquisitor."

Steve takes some comfort in the fact that Bruce looks about as uncomfortable as he feels while Pepper herds Tony out of the kitchen. There's tension in the lines of Bruce's features once Tony's gone, and Steve is trying to figure out how someone scarred so deeply with rage can find refuge in the company of someone like Tony Stark. Steve still isn't sure how to act around Bruce; it has nothing to do with the Hulk, but Clint and Natasha are professionals and therefore familiar, and Tony is…Tony, and Steve suspects that without the specter of his brother hanging over him that Thor would be all earnest enthusiasm and kindness. But Bruce is very good at deflecting attention and making himself invisible.

"Couldn't sleep either?" Steve ventures.

Bruce shrugs a little. "You know how it is when someone gets caught up in a project or a book. Can't put it down."

"The scientists I knew were like that. Tony must have gotten it from Howard."

Bruce sips his tea and meets his eyes over the rim. "I know you didn't ask for my advice, but when you look at Tony, stop expecting to see his father."

"I don't – "

"You do. Tony told me a little about the first time you two met and, ah, I'll just say that you chose exactly the wrong topic to break the ice."

"I don't understand," Steve says, frustrated. "I admit I didn't know Howard that well since he was usually in a lab and I was on the front lines, but he seemed to be a good man."

"Maybe he was when you knew him. I don't know about that. But people change, Steve. The Howard you apparently knew isn't the one Tony remembers, and until you let it go, Tony will keep fighting you and you'll keep looking for someone that doesn't exist."

"Seems like that's true for everything, now." And he hadn't known how truly bitter he is about that until he hears the tone in his own voice.

"Do you regret it?" Bruce asks softly, now very determinedly not meeting Steve's eyes.

"No. Sometimes. Not always, no, but then I hear about those protests at soldiers' funerals or the drone strikes against civilians in the Middle East, or I meet the fellas down at the soup kitchen and find out half of them are veterans. Lord, some of them are still practically boys. Everything's changed except the things that actually matter."

"There's always been suffering, Steve. I don't think that's ever going to change, no matter how far into the future you go."

That's the problem right there, isn't it. Maybe they aren't speaking German now and wearing red armbands, but what's he supposed to think when he learns about the Manhattan Project, Vietnam and Agent Orange, Korea, the Gulf War, Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, America's illegal and often horrific espionage in other nations –

"You just have to keep going," Bruce says into his cup. "You're a good man, Steve."

He doesn't feel like it, though, and there's an odd note in Bruce's voice he doesn't think he's imagining. "Something on your mind, Dr. Banner?"

Bruce looks torn. "You know my work with gamma radiation was about trying to recreate the super-soldier serum?"

"I do." SHIELD's file on him is very thorough.

"No one's succeeded in recreating it, obviously, but I was the closest. All the tests that came back were promising, but – well, you've seen for yourself what happened." Bruce gets up and takes his cup to the sink. "The real mystery that remains, besides any possibility of a cure, is why the other guy manifested as he did."

"I don't understand."

Bruce is meticulously washing the mug, and what Steve can see of his profile is shuttered. "How much of the other guy is the result of the gamma and how much because of the individual subject itself?"

"Bruce," Steve says carefully, "if there's anything I've learned, it's that where a man comes from or what he's done in the past matters less than what he does in the present."

"That sounds nice. It really does. Maybe it's something all of us can learn. Including you."

Maybe Bruce has more in common with Tony Stark than he'd initially believed, Steve thinks dryly. "Maybe you're right, Doctor."

"Guess we'll see, Captain."

That isn't the only time Tony encounters Steve at odd hours, usually in the kitchen, suggesting that the good captain is discretely looking for human company. Sometimes they needle each other until one storms out in a fit of temper, and sometimes they sit in complete silence that, as time passes, gets less and less uncomfortable. Occasionally Bruce joins them, which usually results in science-y things getting scrawled over a variety of surfaces that exasperate Pepper in the morning, and on one memorable occasion Clint and Natasha are both there, the former with dark circles under his eyes and the latter pretending that her ribs aren't tightly wrapped following her last SHIELD-related mission. Tony can kinda-sorta admit to himself that it might be nice to have Thor around, but the absence just means he has more time to work on the uppermost apartment with all the skylights and grounding rods built into the walls.

They only talk about Coulson once. Most of the stuff from his Malibu lab has finally arrived, so one night Tony shows up to find Steve sitting alone at the kitchen table and hands something over. Steve takes it, bemused.

"What is this?"

"Prototype of your shield, if you couldn't tell by the red, white, and blue roundness. Dad built it after your time, think I was off at boarding school, I usually was – yeah, so, there's that. You can do whatever with it, I don't care, found a replacement thing to hold up the particle accelerator."

Big, callused fingers trace the half-finished star carefully. "Howard, why did he – "

"Don't know, don't care, this wasn't an invitation for show-and-tell. Anyway, I was gonna give it to Coulson, but I figure it's yours now."

"Thank you, Tony," Steve says quietly, and Tony shrugs before going back to the workshop and pretending his heart isn't beating a little faster than usual.


Over a month passes since they put Coulson in the ground when they all get called in again, this time as an official team.

"We have a situation," says Fury as his opening line.

"I imagine so, sir," Steve replies evenly, and Tony has to suppress a grin.

"Someone went to the cops in Austin, Texas with allegations of unethical medical testing on humans. It appears he had an attack of morality and felt it his civic duty to turn state's evidence."

"Pesky things, morality attacks," Tony says solemnly. Fury levels him a long one-eyed stare before picking up a stack of folders (actual paper, paper, what the fuck) and tosses them to the center of the table.

"According to this source, the testing involved more attempts to create a super-soldier."

"Good idea," Clint mutters.

"This time they were looking for more technological solutions."

For a moment Tony has the terrifying thought that someone has somehow managed to get their hands on the Iron Man blueprints, impossible as that should be given his security systems – all of them – are seriously the most advanced on the whole planet. Maybe it's the rudimentary Mark I, grey and lumbering and born in blood and sand, since Tony hasn't yet managed to recover all the pieces from what remained of the Ten Rings.

Steve tries to hand him one of the folders, but Tony doesn't take it until it's been set down again, and when he flips it open he can't help the dramatic hiss of breath that escapes between his teeth.

"You recognize any of this, Stark?" asks Fury.

The very first paper is a SHIELD profile of Maya Hansen, older than the last time Tony had seen her but just as beautiful, her face as carefully expressionless as ever. Tony debates with himself, yes or no, takes an instant to weigh various outcomes of his next move. "Maya and I met at a tech conference," he finally admits. "Two months later she stole one of my prototypes and reprogrammed it to give her coworker ex-boyfriend an electric shock every time he went in one of the labs."

Which said a lot about her as a person, really, but Tony isn't about to throw stones there.

"When was the last time you saw her?" Steve asks.

"I don't know, maybe ten years ago? She worked in experimental technobiology, got a job at Futurepharm, the pharmaceutical company specializing in cancer research. You know how it is, boy meets girl, boy and girl try to solve the questions of the universe, girl gets bored and goes into genetics, the traitor."

"What was the nature of the experimentation?" Natasha asks Fury.

"Assuming I'm getting through all the technobabble bullshit correctly, it had to do with a computer program capable of 'upgrading' human bodies."

"Impossible," Tony says immediately, then grudgingly amends, "Improbable."

"The brain is extraordinarily complex, we've barely scratched the surface in understanding how it functions," Bruce argues, brow furrowed. "Unless – "

"Nanites?" Tony provides. "If they're only targeting very specific parts of the brain – "

"If not the brain itself then at least the cells. If there's a healing factor – "

"Forcing cell replication, maybe, Jesus Christ, it's not like one of the biggest killers of mankind is predicated on uncontrolled cell replication – "

"Maybe just hormones, then, signal transduction could bypass the brain altogether – "

"Fascinating as this is, gentlemen, save it for after school," Fury breaks in and, yeah, Tony's used to getting interrupted midstream when the minds of lesser beings start realizing they're not only out of their depth but still in the kiddie pool, but that doesn't make it any less irritating.

Bruce shoots him a look of wry commiseration.

"Stark, I want a report of everything you know about this doctor in two hours, down to whether she prefers her eggs scrambled or fried. I want all of you prepared to suit up at twenty-two hundred tonight."

"A night raid?" Bruce asks, and Steve answers, "We don't want to give the people involved enough time to purge as much evidence as they can. We don't know if they're aware that one of their own has sold them out, and the longer we take to get in there, the more likely we'll lose crucial information."

"A-plus, Captain. Banner, Stark, you'll be analyzing whatever information you get out of there."

"Become an expert in experimental genetics in twelve hours. At least give me a challenge, Fury."

Tony sees Steve rolls his eyes, but there's none of the disgust that used to be there in his expression, just friendly exasperation or something. Ten points to Team Stark.

"You'll be working alongside our best SHIELD scientists as well."

"What? No," Tony says immediately. "We don't need a bunch of noobs trampling all over everything, you're killing me here."

"Suck it up and slum it with the uneducated masses, Stark." Of course, what Fury actually means: I don't trust you, Stark, you provide a state-of-the-art security system with enough backdoors that leave just you with access to everything. I don't trust you not to withhold anything, particularly now that you've admitted previous ties to one of the primary suspects. I'm not giving you lab assistants, I'm giving you covert operatives to keep an eye on you, and also Banner, because my one eye isn't blind to the way you were immediately able to pull Banner into your orbit. I'd send Barton, whose loyalty to SHIELD supersedes his loyalty to the Avengers, to spy on you from the ceiling, but I want to at least maintain the pretense of open cooperation. Tony wonders which of the other Avengers heard all that too.

"Well, in that case, aye-aye, Captain Morgan."

Steve, who's been flipping through the meager papers, immediately begins outlining a plan of attack, and Tony lets it wash over him in favor of reading the vague profile SHIELD's managed to compile on Maya. Near-genius, distinguished in her field, not very widely published but Tony imagines it's because she's been too absorbed in research to actually bother sharing it, a medical record suggesting a psychological condition. Highly likely, Tony thinks dryly, that sort of mental shit tended to show up more often among smarter people like Maya and himself. Hell, look at Reed Richards, or Hank Pym, or even Bruce, and Tony isn't even referring to the whole Hulk thing.

There's a list of known contacts at the bottom, including a distant mother and a few cousins, an old college roommate, and –

"Well, that's interesting," Tony muses aloud, lips going numb, five-percent increase in sweat production, a momentary pain as his heart speeds up a bit. The conversation around him immediately grinds to a halt.

"What is it?" demands Fury.

"This can't be right." Although Tony hates himself for the traitorous thought that, actually, it probably is, and he isn't as surprised as he wishes he was. "Tiberius never had any interest in genetics, why would he be in here?"

"Tiberius Stone?" asks Natasha.

"Of course, what other Tiberius is there, keep up."

"You seem to know these people better than we do," says Fury. "Why don't you share with the class why Stone couldn't possibly be involved."

"Not including the complete lack of interest in genetics? He was in neuroscience. Besides, he and Maya got along about as well as oil and water. We used to take bets on who would kill whom first."

"When was the last time you saw him?" Clint asks.

"I was nineteen, his parents had just died, and he took off for Europe to find himself."

"People change," Natasha says quietly, as if Tony doesn't know that, thank you very much, but this is Ty, who'd been his best friend next to Rhodey all those years ago until everything started going wrong between them, which he pretends not to think about ever. (Obie changed, didn't he, and you'd never even thought to question – and neuroscience is the perfect gateway into human testing – )

"It's possible that he isn't actually involved and our source named him in order to cause trouble for him," Steve points out, carefully, like Tony needs a fucking shoulder to cry on, "but none of us can rule out the possibility when innocent lives are in danger."

"Yeah, guess we'll find out when we crash Frankenstein's lab."

There's more planning that Tony doesn't really pay attention to, and when Fury finally dismisses them he immediately ducks out, bullshitting something about doing some amazing science preparation that only Bruce could possibly understand, and flies off the helicarrier as Iron Man back to the Tower.

"Welcome home, sir," says JARVIS.

"Hello, honey, is dinner on the table? Never mind, just call the nearest pizza place, I'm not going to let social pressure control my girlish figure."

"Very progressive of you, sir."

Tony instinctively starts heading for the office he'd built especially for Pepper (mahogany paneling, designed according to the word of some feng shui specialist he'd consulted because he's determined to do this right) before he remembers that she's back in Malibu for the week, how much does that suck, seriously. He goes to the workshop instead and immediately gets ambushed by DUM-E and U.

"Whoa, down, boys, down. Next thing you know I'll have to potty-train you, I swear, I did not program either of you to have separation anxiety."

And if he pats the both of them before he drops carelessly into his rolling chair, no one needs to know.

"All right, JARVIS, time for some nostalgia. Pull up whatever files you have on my wilder youth, specifically 1988 through 1995."

"Shall I include your special brand of home videos?"

"I'm on the clock here, JARVIS, how dare you suggest I lose focus. What do you have on Maya Hansen from that time onward?"

"Maya Hansen, born 1971 to Rachel Wei and Alden Hansen, entered MIT at the age of 17 with a focus on technobiology, a recent field in which she became a pioneer of considerable notability. She graduated with honors and went on to become a prominent speaker at a number of medical- and technology-oriented conferences. She studied under Sal Kennedy for a time alongside you, and was guaranteed a position at Futurepharm when she chose to redirect her research."

"Tell me something I don't know, sweetheart."

"There are four instances on record in which she was brought before the ethics board under allegations of an inhumane environment for volunteer human subjects. Three of those cases were dismissed, and one resulted in probation concerning her position and funding. That too was later dismissed."

"What was the source of her funding?"

"It appears to have been military. Past incidents suggest General Ross as a likely patron, but I can find no solid evidence of such at this time."

"Keep poking around and let me know what you find." Tony spins around lazily in his chair, flicking his fingers to make a ball of light manifest that he can toss absently from hand to hand. "What's her endgame, though? She never seemed to care about the super-soldier projects before, thought the military was full of morons. Unless she thinks there's a cure to cancer in there somewhere? Because gamma radiation is totally a viable method of practicing medicine." Although, to be fair, standard chemotherapy involves some seriously heavy shit, including radiation, so.

But that doesn't feel right, non-scientific description aside, doesn't fit into the picture puzzle somehow. Maybe it's a case of Just Because I Can; now that fit Maya to a tee. Never been interested in professional fame, used to call Tony a man-child for all his diva behavior (not that he's a diva, he's just self-assured, okay), and was always one of the most intense, driven people Tony's ever met.

Tony's wandering gaze catches on a pile of steel pipe in a distant corner, which reminds him that he needs to build a more stable particle accelerator, he's lucky the first version didn't bring down the whole damn Malibu mansion, and thinking of the shield prototype makes him wonder if he should try synthesizing some vibranium.

"JARVIS, get me information on the current events around Tiberius Stone."

"Of course, sir." A pause, then, "Tiberius Stone is currently the CEO and head researcher at Stone, Inc., based out of London. His corporation produces medical technology, but there are rumors of a device in development aimed at coma patients that appears to involve the capability of directly influencing beta wave patterns. These are only rumors, however."

"And they said The Matrix was science fiction. Give me some gossip on Ty's personal life."

"He seems to have a penchant for secretaries. There have also been a few scandals involving fashion models of questionable legal age."

Tony half-smiles, wry. Good ol' Ty.

"The tabloids claim that his longest public relationship was three months to one such model, Sylvia Blanche. Beyond that, there is nothing particularly auspicious."

Yeah, he was always more concerned with his reputation. "All right, dear, write me up some Clif Notes on Maya Hansen for Fury, I've got a date with the Mark IX."

Pepper had once successfully nagged Tony into trying therapy. He'd even gone to the appointment, on time, and he'd given the guy a chance. It wasn't the therapist's fault that Tony was not only a fantastic actor when he wanted to be but had also figured out the holes in psychological theory as a bored, angsting teenager, and by the end of the first hour the poor therapist was convinced that Tony had ADHD, OCD, psychopathy, and a bizarre sexual fetish for his latest Corvette. Tony was offended by the last: he has eyes only for his armor, thanks. And JARVIS. And possibly the thing in his bedside drawer he'd modified to have twice as many settings.

The therapist had later left a very polite message for Pepper that amounted to telling Tony never to show up at his office again, which only goes to show that too much time spent in beige-colored offices kills the radio star.

They still have several hours before the mission. Tony's alone in the workshop, muttering under his breath, when Steve shows up.

"I said you could live here, not invade my private world," Tony complains when his music gets turned down to bearable levels. "Why are you invading my private world?"

"Perhaps because you're a difficult person to pin down at any other time," says Steve mildly. "How is it going?"

"'How is it going,' he asks, as though I'm working on a papier-mâché volcano for my fifth-grade science fair. Which I never did, I made a robot that could set things on fire, which did not please Mrs. Whittington, let me tell you. It's going about as well as you can expect of a top-secret biotech project, which is to say, I must be left in complete silence to work."

Depeche Mode's bass thunders on in the background.

"When was the last time you slept?"

"You're all so suspicious, I have no idea why. What lies has Pepper been spreading about me?"

"At least a day, then."

That's creepy. If Steve Rogers is going to develop Bruce and Pepper's brand of telepathy, someone's credit score is going down. "I'm not sure you understand the severity of this situation."

Steve stares at him for a moment, then says, "Come on. I want to show you something."

"If this is about you figuring out the TiVo, then spare me."

"No, although I did some rewiring behind the television. You have too many electronics, you know that?"

"What? No, I don't, you heathen, you did the rewiring? JARVIS, get the fire department on standby."

Steve sighs. "Get up and come with me, Tony. I'm serious, not stupid."

"So am I. Am I going to have to sleep under a fire blanket from now on?"

Steve eventually manages to hustle him into a jacket, the leather worn and creased with small burn marks on the cuffs, and into the elevator. Tony's still in torn jeans and a greasy tank-top. "Are you going to tell me what's going on?"

But Steve doesn't answer, doesn't even seem to hear him except for a slight smile. Tony hunches down in the thick jacket and huffs noisily, but stops fighting until they end up on the street outside. It's late, and the night sky glows vaguely orange from the light pollution of Manhattan.

"Come on," Steve says again, and sets off down the street, smoothly maneuvering through the people still crowding the concrete and asphalt.

"Is this going to end up with pain and vows of revenge?"

"Somehow I wouldn't put it past you to manage that."

Tony isn't sure if he's just been insulted or not. "I'm serious, Cap, what's going on? I really was in the middle of something important, as in 'save the world' important, and I'd expect Captain America of all people to understand that a late-night craving for donuts usually takes a backseat to that. Not that I don't have a deep respect for late-night cravings, there's a reason the Tower never lacks for sauerkraut – "

"Tony," says Steve, "shut up and look."

Tony stops and looks, realizes that they've ended up in Bryant Park. The small café in one corner of the lawn, little more than a pagoda surrounded by a broad patio with tables and giant green umbrellas, is lit up with golden Christmas lights strung through the trees and over the umbrellas. People are still sitting at the tables under a blanket of quiet conversation, and there are people stretched out on the grass farther in, talking and laughing or reading books with tiny lights clipped to the covers. The street behind them is still loud with the general noise of a city, but it's...nice.

"What am I looking for?"

"You tell me."

"Steve," Tony says slowly, "if this is some sort of test – "

"No. No, that's not what I – look, haven't you ever just...sat?"

Tony can't help looking at him like he's insane.

"Like, sat in a park just for the sake of sitting in a park. Not to meet a business partner and broker deals or whatever it is corporate types do, just to – relax. Enjoy it."

"I have, actually. Pepper once hired this consultant who made us do teamwork exercises and learn the basics of feng shui for one's office to improve efficiency in the workplace. He made us spend an afternoon sitting in the middle of the park trying to connect with our inner selves."

"I'm sure you still haven't forgiven her."

Tony raises a hand to clap Steve on the shoulder, then thinks better of it and tucks it back into his jacket pocket. "Now you're getting it. Wait, no, Steve, what are you doing, come back here – "

Steve's heading for the little cafe, apparently completely forgetting the fact they have a crisis on their hands that could blow up in their faces - and most of Manhattan - at any moment in favor of two small, plain coffees. "Damnit, Rogers," he tries again, but the man's a goddamn force of nature and Tony ends up sitting at one of those umbrella-ed tables against his will, hands curled around the warmth of the paper coffee cup.

"I used to do this a lot," Steve tells him, gaze running over the people living their own lives around them. "I was usually too sickly to do much work, so I spent a lot of time watching people."

"That's not creepy at all," Tony observes.

"It's good practice, you know," Steve carries on as though Tony hadn't spoken, apparently determined to not get irritated come hell or high water. "When you're small and skinny no one pays much attention to you, so you can watch people. Make up stories about who they are and where they come from and where they're going."

For all the tension and even outright dislike they'd started out with, Steve still managed to connect with all the Avengers on some level. He'd taken command in the fight against Loki and it'd almost been like they've done this teamwork thing for ages.

"That sounds extremely boring," says Tony.

Steve gives him an unamused glare. "Says the fella who only gets his sun from those tanning salons."

"Tanning salons, Steve, really? Where has SHIELD been letting you roam?"

"The real world."

Tony twitches and starts playing with a napkin for the sake of a distraction. "Says the fella who jacks off to the thought of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Steve opens his mouth and Tony braces himself, wondering why the hell he let this star-spangled asshole drag him around and feeling the ghost of his father over his shoulder, but then Steve just sighs and rubs a temple with his fingers tiredly. "Hell, Stark. Tony. I want this to work, but you need to meet me in the middle."

"You want what to work? Bantering practice? Building up homoerotic tension for the titillation of the masses?"

"What? No," Steve grimaces. "I mean us, as friends. I thought we were getting there."

There is absolutely no internal fuzzies, nope. "Uh, yeah, no, I don't do friends. They're needy. They need regular food and attention, like puppies that can sass back at you."

"So Bruce is a pet, now?"

"No, don't be stupid, and if you ever imply, or exply, something like that again, I will find a way to melt your shield down into dildo molds," he retorts, entirely serious.

Steve suddenly laughs.

"…I gotta admit, Rogers, that's not something I'd have expected you to even understand."

"We did have sex in the forties," Steve says wryly, "and I was in the army when they sent us on missions in France."

"Did they still tell women that they needed to orgasm a lot so they wouldn't be hysterical? Were there fucking machines?"

"Oddly enough, I have no idea."

Tony takes a sip of coffee (eh, he's had worse) and doesn't say anything. After a while Steve begins, "Look, there are things you do that I don't agree with – "

"Golly, Rogers, that's not judgmental at all."

" – but you're a good man. The things I said before, it doesn't matter that Loki's staff was influencing us, they never should've been said. I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

"None of us were at our best," Tony hedges, "water under the bridge."

They both watch the people around them moving between the shadows and the city lights. Now that he isn't working, the weight of this looming crisis settles over Tony's shoulders like one of Obadiah's odd (and, in hindsight, creepy) half-hugs. Anticipation for the mission in a couple hours; unsettled confusion on what could possibly be going on in Steve Rogers' pretty head; awkwardness over Captain America calling him a 'good man' and not knowing what Steve actually means with that.

"So you know, if you lay a hand on my shield without permission, I will punch you in the nose," Steve says casually, and Tony barks out a surprised laugh.

It were the devil what gave us war, a pastor had spat in Tony's face when he was twenty-one and still stupid. He were the original inventor what inspired man to make his war machines.

Hey, I think I read that too. Tony flicked his sunglasses down over his eyes and smiled, shark-like. But like it also said, better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.

It's 22:27 and the team minus Bruce is sitting on the roof of a nearby building. The complex looks like a typical corporate building in the business district, modern and utterly unremarkable like its neighbors in the dull orange glow of streetlamps, save for one side being completely reduced to rubble.

"I'm not picking up any life signs. In a complex like this with an alleged secret operation funded by the military, there should at least be some scientists. Guards. A janitor," Tony mutters. "Call it, Cap."

"Black Widow, you're on recon. I want you to figure out what's going on. Hawkeye, cover her."

JARVIS' voice suddenly breaks in on the open comm, simultaneously pulling up several new windows on the suit's HUD. "Sir, I've managed to acquire the complex's blueprints from its nearest server. I cannot guarantee its accuracy, however."

"JARVIS, remind me to find you some new microprocessor swag. Widow, uploading it to your phone, you can thank me later for spoiling you."

"Most men use sports cars for compensation," she says mildly.

"Better put some cold water on that burn, Stark," says Clint, smirk practically audible.

"Sports cars are so eighties, people, this is the twenty-first century."

"Cut the chatter," Steve interrupts sharply. "How accurate do you estimate these plans to be, Iron Man?"

"Considering this is a top secret project that would piss off a few people if it got leaked, I'd say maybe seventy, seventy-five percent. It's classic, keep the official blueprints available as a decoy, hide the realones behind enough firewalls to make Anonymous a little frustrated."

"Understood," says Natasha, all business, and Steve goes on, "Bruce, wait outside for our signal. If we get into a tight spot, we'll need the Hulk, but if it's all clear, I want you to come in and help Iron Man collect every piece of information you can as quickly and thoroughly as possible."

"Got it," Bruce replies quietly. Tony thinks about all the electronic s, the sort of equipment that tends to come hand-in-hand with human experimentation, and wishes they had Thor's lightning available.

Natasha and Clint take off from the roof with a truly impressive demonstration of their agility, sneaking like ninjas across the dimly-lit open space and up to a rear entrance, avoiding the destroyed wall. There aren't any guards. Tony watches them, then switches the comm to Steve's private channel. "I feel like I should start sleeping in a brightly lit room with no concealing furniture or vents."

Tony's half-expecting to be told to shut up, but he's pleasantly surprised. "You're a teammate, I imagine they would give you the honor of a five-second warning, at least."

"If I die with an arrow in my ass, tell everyone it was actually Black Widow's Thighs of Death."

"I'll tell them you tripped over your own ego."

Tony whistles. "Rogers, you're a cruel, cruel man."

Steve laughs under his breath, the comm barely picking up the sound, and Tony finds himself smiling. Smiling, at something Captain America said, shit, but hey, it's progress. They fall silent, waiting side-by-side like particularly colorful gargoyles.

Unsurprisingly, the silence doesn't last, but surprisingly it's because of Steve. "Are you all right?"


Steve's gaze is fixed forward, definitely not looking at Tony. "You know some of these people, and now we're raiding their site for probable torture. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Tony answers immediately, ignoring the complicated tangle of this is all a misunderstanding and I should've known and did I ever actually know these people, I'm starting to think I have a problem here. "I haven't seen these people in years, I imagine we'd have about as much in common nowadays as noble gases and heavy metals." He's totally a heavy metal, maybe mercury. Or maybe not, that shit does weird stuff to people, all that vomiting and death. Ha, iron.

Steve makes a disbelieving sound but doesn't push the issue. It's out of character, he should be pushing and demanding answers, and Tony's left feeling slightly flatfooted. Thankfully, Clint butts in.

"I've lost sight of Widow," he says, voice hushed.

"Let's blow this popsicle stand." Tony grins, adrenaline sharpening his focus, putting him in the present moment the way he usually never is, and holds out an arm. "Let's go, Cap, although I warn you that if you cop a feel I'll be very uncomfortable."

"I wouldn't dream of it," Steve deadpans, and Tony honestly isn't sure if he's joking or not as he carefully wraps an arm around Steve's waist and takes off for the complex. When no one starts shooting at them, Tony runs a second scan. Nothing.

Natasha says in a low tone, "There are signs of a struggle in the lower levels."

"What signs?"

"Scorch marks on the walls and a steel door ripped right out of its frame. The two dead guards are a big clue."

At least they found some people.

"No sign of active hostiles," Clint adds. "There are twenty-two known fatalities so far, haven't come across anyone else. Looks like mostly night staff and security."

"Bruce, get in position. If there's a trap waiting for us, I want you ready at a moment's notice."

The interior of the building is white-walled with linoleum flooring, feeling weirdly like a hospital, with evenly-spaced conference rooms and offices bearing nameplates on their doors. Tony is acutely aware of the suit's loud, clunking walk as he and Steve stride down the halls (note to self: look into cloaking technology, or at least some stylish booties to muffle the sound), and then Steve suddenly lets out a sharp breath as they pass what looks like a conference room.

"I hate suspense," Tony mutters.

"Four additional casualties," Steve reports, and Tony peers around the shattered doorjamb to see three men and a woman in uniform sprawled all over the room. All over, with a spare human arm lying by the door, some trailing intestines, someone's brain matter splattered over a wall, and Tony has a disorienting instant involving restraints and fingers pushing into the gaping hole in his chest.

"I have a couple dead scientists in the first subbasement lab," says Natasha, her voice flat. "I'm starting to think these people weren't entirely unsuccessful in their research."

"Any survivors?" Steve asks.

"So far, no," Clint replies.

"Any bets on how long it'll take the Red Queen to doom us all?" Tony says, and, shockingly, it's Natasha who answers, "If there are zombies, Stark, you're the first person I'm throwing in their path."

"Chatter," Steve repeats, but there's no strength behind it.

"Labs one and two are clear. Seven casualties in lab three. Lab four has Hulk-level damage and definite signs of a struggle. No casualties or survivors."

"Just so you all know, there's no lab four on the blueprints."

"Naturally," mutters Bruce, and Tony puts off thinking about why Bruce automatically expects secret rooms in high-security complexes.

Steve has his shield held halfway up in caution as he and Tony bypass the elevators and head for the stairs. "Steve," Tony says on a private channel, "let me take point. My repulsors have a better chance in these halls than your shield."

Steve's too practical to argue, even with that disgruntled frown. Tony goes down the stairs first, repulsors at thirty-eight percent full power, but nothing happens. Passing through the empty labs is somewhat eerie, coffee cups left abandoned, computer monitors still running as though everyone had gotten up for a smoke break and just never came back. More scorch marks and dead bodies. They meet up with Natasha in the fourth lab where she's standing next to a wall with a hole in it, approximately the size of a Hulk fist-smash, the reinforced steel-over-brick torn up like the edges of an open tin can. Exposed wires are still sparking sporadically.

"Hawkeye?" Steve barks.

"Exhaust vent," comes the reply, and Tony imagines the giant exhaust fans usually found in warehouse ceilings.

"Take a look at those walls and the fan, if there is one. There might be some residue of something, could be useful."

"Huh," Clint mutters, which Tony translates to, Damn, that's a good idea even if I refuse to admit it.

The lab itself is square and starkly lit with a cement floor, a drain imbedded in the center. The walls of computer stations, medical equipment, and steel tables make it look like the bastard child of a military war room and a coroner's workplace; Tony would almost be jealous of all the toys if it wasn't so mad-scientist creepy.

"Sir," says JARVIS, "I'm picking up a life form."

"Guys, look sharp," Tony immediately snaps, "we're not alone here."

Natasha's back is suddenly pressed firmly against the wall, both hands ready on her gun. Steve's arm curls around the shield for the start of a throw. "Hawkeye, talk to me."

"Nothing yet." Clint sounds irritated.


JARVIS breaks into the comm again. "Approximately thirty feet at your two o'clock, Captain."

Natasha nods once at Steve before slinking towards the wall obscured by the most tech supplies, Tony mirroring her along the other side of the room. "It's the shape and size of a human," Tony reports, attention flickering between the HUD's infrared scan and the angle of his position to Natasha (43⁰ with Steve at 0⁰) and Clint (98⁰ vertically), the materials of the tech and potential collateral (bullet ricochet at 34% probability, arrow ricochet at 12%, repulsor redirection at 75%). The unlikelihood of the life form being a mindlessly insane experimental subject decreases with every second that passes, inversely proportionate to the increasing possibility the subject is insane but still capable of tactical reasoning.

"We're the Avengers," Steve announces, loud and clear. "We're not here to harm anyone. Surrender with any weapons you have on the ground and put your hands in the air."

"Please don't shoot," comes a woman's voice, and Maya Hansen slowly stands up from behind an overturned table with her hands above her head.

Oh, thinks Tony faintly, all the numbers scattering.

"Dr. Hansen?" asks Steve, and she nods, biting her lip.

"Tony, is…that you?"

A few seconds pass before Tony says, "Yeah, Maya, it's me."

"Oh, thank god," she breathes, more emotional than Tony's ever seen her, even more than the time one of her labs under Sal Kennedy was shut down by the federal government and she'd thrown an absolute shitfit. She's in jeans, a blouse, and a lab coat, totally harmless, all three roughed up and filth-streaked like she'd been mugged on the street, but when she starts to stumble in Tony's direction Natasha says coldly, "Freeze."

She freezes.

"Iron Man, Hawkeye," Natasha continues as she holsters her gun and starts frisking Maya. Tony obediently keeps a hand upraised, palm out, because it's easier than trying to run a new set of numbers here, and knows that Clint has an arrow perfectly aimed and ready.

"Clear," Natasha eventually declares, but her stare keeps Maya pinned in place.

"It's clear," says Steve. "Bruce, come on down."

"Keep in mind that this isn't Candyland, Jolly Green."

"I figured," Bruce mutters, but there's a note of gratitude underneath for the warning. Even so, by the time Bruce appears in the doorway, Bruce's sharp inhale at the sight of the tables and tools hisses softly across the comm.

"Dr. Banner," says Maya, a little shakily. "I've always found your work particularly groundbreaking."


Tony finally finds the balls to pull off the helmet, taking a deep breath of unfiltered air and smelling traces of spilled chemicals and overheated wiring. "You all right?"

"I will be. I'm guessing your being here isn't a coincidence."

"What happened?" asks Steve, all military authority.

"Someone stole the project we were working on. An enhancile. He – he injected himself with it, and the result…he went on a rampage. The only time I've ever seen anything like it was in footage of the Hulk."

Bruce noticeably doesn't react.

"What are we dealing with?"

"He still looks human but he's strong, he's – god, I don't know, it all happened so fast, there was so much screaming – "

"Where did he go?" presses Natasha.

"I don't know, I don't know what happened after he trashed the lab. I hid behind some of the equipment, I think he was too angry and concerned about getting out to actually notice me. I can't – I can't do this right now, I'm sorry – "

Tony steps forward without thinking. "We'll take you back with us and figure this out. It'll be fine." Of course it won't be.

"Tony," Bruce murmurs, but Tony ignores him, adding, "Clint, keep looking for anything useful. I'll take Maya back to the helicarrier and go from there."

Tony glances back at Steve and, yeah, the guy doesn't look too happy, probably upset at being usurped, but whatever. "Iron Man, take Black Widow with you."

Natasha walks in front of Tony and Maya out of the labs and back up the emergency stairs. He asks quietly, "So, what was it? Military wanting super-soldiers? Cure for cancer? Pure intellectual curiosity?"

Maya's looking more composed, more like the straight-faced scientist he remembers. "You know exactly why, Tony. Same reason you keep wearing that armor."

"To save the world and look marvelous while doing it?"

"To be better than human."

Her hand brushes against his gauntlet, but not for comfort; instead she's pressing a small vial against the repulsor in his palm and he automatically closes his fingers around it, careful. Natasha doesn't turn around.

"Love potion number nine?" he says in an undertone, and Maya's lips quirk.

"Something like that."

Tony watches Fury and Maya in the interrogation cell, his arms crossed and expression carefully blank despite the one-way glass. Irritated as he is with the man, Steve finds the blankness incredibly unsettling.

"Think she'll talk?" Clint asks the room idly.

"Unlikely," Natasha predicts.

"She'll tell us what she wants us to know." Tony shifts a little to tap silently against the arc reactor under his shirt. It's a tic Steve's noticed before.


"Meaning I'm not convinced she was as helpless as she wants us to believe."

"Damsel in distress is actually the mastermind?"

"Depends on the intended outcome of this little game."

When Tony doesn't elaborate, Steve pushes. "What outcomes are you talking about?"

Tap, tap, tap. "A demonstration of ability, a big 'look what I can do' in Uncle Sam's face, especially if she's at risk of losing funding or if there's competition out there. It could be a distraction from something even bigger going on behind the scenes. Maybe she succeeded and is now playing innocent while she releases the kraken to go wreak planned havoc somewhere. Of course, she really could be innocent, god knows her best acting has always come from the Keanu Reeves school of stoicism.

"Of course, this would be in her best interest to have been done on purpose. Assuming the enhancile works and impresses the right people, the government will pretend not to notice her violation of the Geneva Convention and will provide her with her own little secret lab with all the best toys. Otherwise, innocent or not, the military's going to let her take all the heat and she'll probably never see the light of day as a free woman again."

"I worry that you know and understand these people," snarks Clint.

Steve is sort of thinking that too but he recognizes the way Tony's spine straightens slightly and how the line of his mouth starts to curl into a smirk, having seen it every time he said something angry and sent Tony flying straight from defensive to ruthlessly offensive. He immediately breaks in, "What do you think is most likely?"

Tony's silent for a while, just staring while Fury amiably asks Maya about all those SUBJECT: DECEASED notes in the files that Bruce is currently working through in one of the labs. Steve's about to repeat himself when Tony drops his arms and heads for the door, ignoring the chorus of, "Tony, wait!" as he pulls it open.

"Stark," Fury demands, "what the hell do you – "

"My turn to chat, Fury, c'mon."

By the time Tony's taken Fury's chair at the small table opposite Maya, Fury's next to Steve grumbling to himself.

"You want me to take over, sir?" asks Natasha.

Fury grumbles some more. "No, let's see if his bullshit works. It's not like the rest of us are getting anywhere."

Tony, meanwhile, is tilting his chair back on two legs while Maya asks, "Don't suppose I could get a drink around here."

"Nope, Fury's as strict about that as a cop with a teenage daughter."

"Then it's a wonder you're not gasping like a fish on dry land."

"Touché." Tony starts kicking a leg lazily, swaying the chair. Maya's hands are folded in her lap, her gaze steady. Steve's starting to wonder if he's missing some kind of telepathic communication by the time Tony says, "So, how's Ty?"

"Still fucking his way through Europe's corporate world, I imagine. At least you always had the good sense not to shit where you eat."

"Ouch," Clint mutters. Steve internally agrees.

"Well, I had to find something unique to do when I decided to leave the direct human experimentation to you."

"Touché," she replies with a faint smile.

Steve was lucky enough to have usually been too busy performing for audiences and then fighting a war to have had much exposure to the politicians and businessmen behind everything, but he isn't nearly naïve enough to know it's a recent invention. He thinks about Howard, charismatic and chatty but only when he actually wanted to be, usually far more interested in the toys they brought back from HYDRA bases than the people around him. Or Fury, willing to make weapons of mass destruction if it means keeping his own projects going. He thinks about one of the YouTube videos he saw of Tony shortly before meeting him – not the one where he calls half of Congress "ass-clowns" but the press conference held immediately on his return to Afghanistan. I'm shutting down weapons manufacturing, immediately interrupted by his then-business partner's, Still talking about it, nothing decided, we'll let the public know, as though doing the right thing is something to be tempered by compromise and stock prices.

Tony said he's known Maya for years, as well as this mysterious Tiberius Stone, and now Steve's wondering how much of Tony's life has been spent playing these games. Was he born in the spotlight or did Howard ease him into it?

"Stone was lending me some of the research of his own company," Maya's saying. "His work with the PASIV had some potential to be useful with the Extremis enhancile, but it turns out that the two systems just aren't compatible."

"And that was the extent of your communication with him?" Tony asks.

"Yes, fortunately. If I had to read any more of his condescending emails I was going to find a way to break his face through a computer screen."

"You know he doesn't mean – "

"Tony," Maya says with exaggerated patience, "you have your moments of being a sexist asshole, but he's enough of a pig that even you can see it. Also he's just an asshole."

"Pity she's probably a sociopath," Natasha comments. "We could've had a coffee together."

Clint snorts. Steve wisely says nothing.

"What is the PASIV?" asks Tony, blatantly changing the subject.

"It's a device capable of linking a person and a machine to enable visual and auditory communication. Right now it's intended for patients in a coma or some sort of vegetative state, but it's still in development. He's being pretty close-lipped about it, so the little I did see was only just enough to determine whether it'd work with the Extremis or not."

Most of the time Steve feels like he's gotten a fair handle on contemporary technology, but then something will come along that sounds so much like science fiction that he feels like he's just been unfrozen all over again.

"And the Extremis is what caused a Hulk-sized blowout in your lab?"

"Yes. Obviously."

"Was it a completed version?"

She pauses. "What do you mean?"

"The Extremis version you put in this subject. Was it complete, or did you leave out a few things?"

Steve, Fury, and Natasha all perk up.

"Why would I knowingly install an incomplete program into a living human subject?" Maya asks, but Tony's still relaxed and tilted back in his chair.

"I'm just a lowly engineer, Maya, you tell me."

"Goddamnit, Tony, my lab was just destroyed and all my colleagues were killed tonight, don't you start playing mind games with me," she snaps, eyes widening and looking suspiciously shiny under the bright fluorescent lights.

Steve glances at Natasha and sees her own eyes narrowed, visibly picking apart Maya's every twitch and facial movement, and looks back in time to see Tony lower the chair to all four feet again and reach across the table to take one of Maya's hands.

"I'm sorry," he says quietly. "I'm just trying to cover every possible angle."

"I know," Maya murmurs. "Playing when you were DM was a fucking pain in the ass."

"DM?" asks Steve, but no one else knows. He reminds himself to ask Bruce later.

"Agent Romanov," starts Fury, "please contact someone with the clearance to get Dr. Hansen to her nice holding cell, then find a way to convince Banner to take a break. Cap, I'm making it your responsibility to make sure Stark goes home and stays home."

"Don't you want him playing code monkey with Banner?" Clint asks, confused.

"I don't trust Stark to be objective right now, and you're all to get some goddamn sleep while you can before whatever escaped that lab finally shows up."

"Sir," Natasha starts to protest, but Fury talks over her. "Romanov, I know for a fact you can go three days without sleep under enemy fire and still come out the winner, but take advantage of the chance for downtime, got it? You're going to be working Hansen over soon. I want you all back here by eleven-hundred anyway."

Eight hours from now. "Yes, sir," says Steve, and makes the shrewd decision to get Tony back to the Tower before Bruce so that the two of them don't end up in one of those debates that doesn't sound anything like actual English and can't be put off, Rogers, this is science, I'll sleep when I'm dead.

Steve manages to grab hold of Tony's arm before they leave the observation room.

"Huh, I didn't know they were so straightforward in the Victorian era," Tony snipes, jerking his arm back.

"You were supposed to help Bruce get all the information you could, not take off with the primary suspect."

"You're not giving Bruce enough credit, Rogers," Tony says, sounding as serious as Steve's ever heard. "Clint's not a CSI but he's a good agent, he knows what to look for, and you were there to take care of any surprises. It seemed prudent to get Maya back to the helicarrier while she was still off her game."

"I need to be able to trust you, Stark, and I can't do that if you're going to change plans without warning. What if we were in the middle of a fight – "

"We weren't in a fight, that's the point, it was under control, I had all the variables accounted for – "

"How can you possibly account for everything, there is no way to predict something like an ambush."

"Look, I understand the importance of working like a well-oiled machine, it makes me warm and fuzzy when we act like an actual team, but trust works both ways, Cap. I know Maya. She can lie with the best of them – seriously, if she invites you to play poker, don't – but she isn't good at improvising. The more time we sat around with our thumbs up our asses the more time she'd have to invent a story that would hold up to interrogation."

"So you do think she started all this on purpose."

"I don't know yet, but I'm not ruling out any possibilities. Now, I'm going home to sleep the sleep of the righteous, and you're going to do whatever it is old men in fabulous uniforms do, and then we'll reconvene to spend the next working day debating whether or not we can trust our government and its dispersal of taxpayer money. Spoiler: nope."

Tony leaves for the loading bays before Steve can respond, armors up and takes off. When Steve tries to get him on the radio, all he receives is a blast of heavy drums and screaming guitars and a pointed, "What, I can't hear you, Cap, think I'm going through an area with bad reception, you're cutting out, what, I'll just see you at the Tower."

By now Steve's too tired to argue and takes a helicopter back to the Tower.

He manages a few hours of restless sleep, then spends another half hour sitting on the sofa in his private living room (bigger than his and his mother's tenant housing) doing nothing. After a while he decides to give it a shot and takes the elevator up to Tony's penthouse level, fully expecting to be locked out, except Tony seems to have far too much fun breaking Steve's expectations. JARVIS welcomes him in with, "Good morning, Captain Rogers."

"Uh," says Steve smartly before giving himself a shake. "Sorry, good morning, JARVIS. Did Tony come in yet?"

"He is here, yes," but something about that wording prompts Steve to ask, "Is he asleep?"

"No, Captain."

Steve waits while he glances aimlessly around the penthouse. JARVIS is silent.

"…Is he going to?"

"May I inquire as to what your interest is in Mr. Stark's activities?"

Dark marble tile gleams under Steve's boots. Everything seems to be in muted tones or gleaming chrome, sleek and minimalistic in the faint dawn light just beginning to peek through enormous windows.

""I…don't like the way our last meeting ended. I want to make sure he'll be prepared to handle our current case."

"If you don't mind my saying, Captain Rogers, this is the first time in which you've demonstrated concern over Mr. Stark's behavior while off-duty."

"There are parts of this case hitting closer to home than they normally do, I imagine," Steve says cautiously. "He's also one of our best chances at understanding what's going on before it gets worse. We can't afford to have him at any less than top form."

Steve has the unsettling feeling that JARVIS is weighing him up, considering various courses of action, making the kind of sentient choices machines traditionally aren't supposed to be capable of. But all JARVIS says is, "Ms. Potts arrived home from her meeting in Boston approximately seven hours ago. I will make sure she's made aware of Mr. Stark's situation."

Well. All right, then. "Thanks, JARVIS."

"You're welcome, sir."

Steve looks around one more time at the slickly designed room so different from his own, trying and failing to pick out objects that make it feel like a home. You'd think that since the place was built by the same person that actually meant to live in it there would be odd crannies for favorite tchotchkes, shelves made especially for favorite books, a blanket or jacket tossed haphazardly over the carefully matched furniture, but it's almost as blank a slate to him as Tony's expression outside the interrogation cell.

Pepper's hands are cool and dry, small and gentle (unthreatening) when they aren't wielding lawsuit papers. Right now they're gesturing sharply through the air, thick as it is with sharp words and frustration because Tony is – god, he's Tony, Tony fucking Stark, which means he manages to feel more raw than he would if he'd actually gotten injured on this particular mission. If it's not one fucking thing then it's always another, with him. He's feeling jittery and a little like a nervous animal looking for a hole to hide in, so when Pepper says one thing he says another and it turns into this one big feedback loop of words that can't be taken back.

Why are you acting like this, she demands, what happened, what did someone say.

Nobody said anything, it's fine, it doesn't matter, he snaps, it never did.

What is that supposed to mean?

Nothing, it doesn't mean anything. Just – just leave me alone, I'm fine.

He's fine. The first thing he does when he gets to his workshop is put the vial that Maya handed him in a hermetically sealed container. "Run every scan you can think of, JARVIS."

Of course, the results are pretty much exactly what he was expecting. Preliminary analysis suggests mechanical components suspended in a protein fluid. Chemical analysis still pending. Running advanced scans.

"You're a peach, JARVIS. Also, happy birthday, don't think I've forgotten about it, and congratulations for seven years of not killing me in my sleep," and spends the next several hours in his lab playing with alien weaponry, muting JARVIS after he keeps saying, Sir, I recommend you make use of your bed or at least the cot, Quiet Riot making his ears ring. He throws a screwdriver and something shatters on the other side of the workshop. He eyes Maya's present every so often, and hacks into Bruce's encrypted files because he needs to pick over something that isn't Chitauri or Extremis.

Dr. Selvig's notes write, the Tesseract, it's Truth, but it's also gamma radiation and an unidentified form of energy. Tony spreads his hands apart and a photo of the device holding the Tesseract blows up until it's taller than he is. The Tesseract is delicately balanced in the circular mechanical frame, which has eight spokes like a wheel supporting an extraordinary number of power dampeners and runoffs, and it all glows with an eerily familiar blue-white light. It has the same dimensions as one of the cube-shaped diagrams in his father's notebooks, the same notebook with the mathematical description of a new element.

When he glances down, the lightning bolt in the middle of the AC/DC logo on his shirt is obscured by the shine of the arc reactor.

Tony's mind is soaring with numbers, notations, making connections, mouth moving though the words can't keep up, only dimly aware of a new sound interfering with the thunder of guitars and the clanging of heavy fabrication machinery. It takes a hand on his shoulder to make him look up, and by the time he realizes it's Steve he's already twisted out and away from Steve's grasp, clapped his hands together to close down all the screens displaying the Tesseract.

"Oh. It's you." There's an approximate twenty-percent increase of tension from the usual baseline in the guy's huge shoulders. "Let me guess, Daleks? Or Klingons. Tell me it's Klingons, I've been dying to throw Thor at those guys."

Steve doesn't seem as entertained by this idea as Tony, or at least as entertained as he could be if he understood what's actually being said. "Did you get any rest?"

"I'm in the workshop, of course I did. Wait, how did you get in here?"

"Pepper gave me the passcode."

Yeah, that seems to be a theme around here. Tony's own shoulders get tighter, his belly clenching with the familiar sense of being cornered and dragged him back down to earth. "Are you two on a first name basis now too?"

"I talked to her when I got back here. She said she's worried about you, so she asked if I'd come see you," Steve explains, calmly. "And since I'm team leader…Tony, what's going on?"

DUM-E, the idiot, has a conical party hat strapped to the apex of his arm and is zooming around the shop kitchenette on little wheels, banging cake pans and an electric mixer.

"Ignore him, he's so excited he just can't hide it."

"Excited for what?"

Tony finds himself tapping on the arc reactor again, which is just ridiculous because he and self-consciousness parted ways years ago. "It's almost JARVIS' birthday, so that means party stuff. Pointy hats. Favors. There might be a cake, but Dummy's still practicing his cooking so I told JARVIS to have the Poison Control Center on speed-dial."

"How can JARVIS have a birthday?" asks Steve, because he's also an idiot, even if he at least has the decency to sound tentative about asking such a stupid question in the first place. Bruce had gotten it, or at least hadn't looked at Tony like he's a crazy person.

"Uh, why wouldn't he?"

"But he's not really a person, is he? No offence, JARVIS."

Yeah, saying that shit before addressing the entity in question on the matter of being offended, that's not contradictory at all. "None taken, Captain," JARVIS replies in a voice two degrees cooler than usual.

"Depends on how you define a person, doesn't it?" Tony says tartly. "You probably think 'person' is synonymous with 'human,' which is just fundamentally wrong. 'Human' is a species, and a 'person,' for all our intents and purposes, is a self-aware, individual agent capable of creative and autonomous thought. Sure, even the most complex machines that appear to be free-thinking are still operating within a set of programmed parameters like the world's most advanced calculator, but JARVIS can out-create you and Leonardo da fucking Vinci, so, you know what, JARVIS gets a goddamned birthday party if he wants one."

He wants to pull up Selvig's notes again, but since Steve isn't leaving, Tony turns to the Chitauri weapon lying in pieces set in a careful grid on the table. Last time he'd messed with it, he had removed the chassis to expose its fleshy interior run through with various thicknesses of wire and hollow chambers, and he picks up a new screwdriver and a scalpel swiped from Bruce to start prodding at it. Steve's silent, but he's still not taking the goddamn hint either, and fuck it, Tony doesn't care, Captain America can stand there until another seventy years have passed if he wants to.

"JARVIS, make a note, I want to get Bruce up here to take a look at the radiation screenings for the Chitauri stuff sometime soon."

"Noted, sir."


"Busy, Cap, our banishment from SHIELD ends in, what, twenty minutes, and I want to get some of this finished beforehand."

"Tony, JARVIS, I'm sorry," Steve says. "I didn't think it through and I shouldn't have said that."

And what's weird is that it sounds sincere, like he actually means it, what is that. There's a bang, a crash, and a small chirp before DUM-E's wheeling over with a blender cup full of something vaguely creamy and bumping it against Steve's elbow. On the other side of the shop, U whistles.

"Don't make me pull this car over, children, I will wash out your vocal synthesizers with soap," Tony says loudly. U tries to pick up the thrown screwdriver, flails, and promptly drops it again. "Dear god, you are an embarrassment to all robot kind."

From the corner of his eye he sees Steve accepting the cup from DUM-E with a smile, albeit a bewildered one, and maybe he's putting on a show to prove how accepting he is, no really, watch me treat these inanimate objects like people to placate the mad scientist, but it's also possible that he, well, isn't. That he's sincere and going to give Tony wholesomeness disease in the process.

"Welp, time to go," Tony doesn't blurt out, he speaks very suavely, don't look at him like that.

"If we leave now, we'll be on time," Steve points out.

"Exactly. Need to keep Fury guessing."

Tony obviously hasn't slept, going by the darker-than-usual circles under his eyes and the rumpled shirt and jeans, the grease streaked over his forehead from running filthy hands carelessly through his hair. He's slightly twitchy, expression distant as he thinks ten things at once and talks to his robots like they're unruly children. He shoots Steve sidelong looks every so often but otherwise ignores him as he trades insults with his AI and handles various tools with the same easy grace with which Steve uses his shield, though Steve gets the impression that he's just waiting for Steve for leave.

Steve's seen footage of him at charity galas and in front of Congress ("assclowns," seriously, dear Lord) but for all his offensive charisma Tony seems relaxed with his bots in a way he never quite manages with people. Take away the armor and what are you, and it's starting to dawn on Steve that "I am Iron Man" might be more than just a rich man's ego.

"It's like nothing I've ever seen before," Bruce tells them as he flutters around the SHIELD lab, flicking his fingers over a number of computer screens. Tony had immediately appropriated one of them the moment the team trooped in and now breathes, "Holy shit."

"As far as I can tell, Extremis targets the brain stem – the part that deals with instincts, reflexes, that sort of thing," Bruce adds, seeing the general confusion. "Your breathing, heartbeat, healing, all the stuff you need to survive but don't think about, that comes from the brain stem, which is the oldest part of the brain in modern humans.

"In simplistic terms, our DNA tells different parts of the cell what proteins to use in what combination to produce certain results. Brown hair, blue eyes, whether or not you'll be a hemophiliac. Geneticists are already able to splice together the DNA from two entirely different organisms, so in theory – "

Bruce is sliding charts and holograms and god knows what else over to Tony's screen as he's talking, and Tony takes up, "So in theory, if you can program something like a virus able to automatically replace parts of your own DNA with something different, then you can effectively hack the body itself. The brain is a good place to start."

"How is that even possible?" asks Clint.

"For all your emotions and illogical behavior, the body functions on fundamental laws of chemistry, physics, and a small amount of electricity. Your ability to shoot a fly at fifty meters, grasshopper, is still dependent on your physical senses and general biology. Eyesight, for example. Balance. All of which are determined by genetics and the chemicals sloshing around inside you."

"MIT holds an annual competition in which a number of teams receive kits containing basic genetic material," Bruce muses aloud. "The teams construct everything from arsenic biosensors to banana-scented bacteria. Dr. Hansen's work is a logical progression from that."

Now, Steve isn't a stupid man. He used to take advantage of his sickly years by getting his hands on every book he could, and he's learned by now to use contemporary appliances, smartphones, and tablets with the same ease as someone who's grown up with the technology. But biology, genetics, and the finer points of computer science aren't generally the topics of even the most modern person's intellectual repertoire, so he decides to stick to what he can know practically. "What does this Extremis actually do?"

Bruce wrings his hands nervously and glances at Tony. "Some of the files we got from Dr. Hansen's lab are records of the actual experiments. There really was human testing, that wasn't a lie, and it's not…pleasant."

"Surprise," Natasha says dryly.

"I'm serious. I'm not even entirely sure what's going on, but it's…bloody. And messy."

Unexpectedly Tony's eyes slide over to Bruce as he says casually, "You need an elixir over there?"

"I cast Wall beforehand, I'm fine, thank you."


"Has Fury seen these?" asks Clint, and Bruce meets his eyes squarely as he says with a bit of challenge, "No."

"You ready to rock this madness?" Tony interrupts. "I want to know what we're looking at here."

Bruce turns around one of the screens, taps a corner, and Steve is witness to one of the most horrific videos he's ever seen. (It doesn't come anywhere near the things he saw during the war, the experiments done not just by HYDRA but the common pig farmers and tailors no different from any other man save the swastika on their arms, but it makes him nauseous, reminds him of the bodies that were sometimes still alive under all the pain and filth.)

A man in nothing but his briefs is lying on a steel table, visibly nervous. Dr. Hansen takes a syringe, presses the needle into the thick vein inside the man's elbow, and stands back. Nothing happens at first, but then the man spasms, limbs jerking, and the harsh gasping tearing itself out of his throat turns to screams as the skin suddenly splits open in a hundred gaping wounds all over his body. It only takes a few seconds for blood to start dripping steadily to the floor, all without even being touched by another person.

"The name of the subject we're after is Mallen, no first name recorded. My immediate thought was that his body…Natasha?" Bruce's brow furrows with concern. Steve turns to see Natasha's unnaturally pale expression.

"Nat," Clint whispers, brushing his fingers against her wrist, and she blinks a few times. "Your first thought was what, Bruce?" she prompts, only the thinnest crack in her otherwise composed voice.

"I thought his body was simply rejecting the virus, like an organ transplant gone wrong," Bruce explains slowly, letting the awkward moment pass and thankfully turning off the screen, "but it doesn't fit. After the subjects, uh…"

"Exploded," Tony supplies.

"Exploded, their body completely scabbed over and formed a shell not unlike a cocoon. I'm guessing Extremis is attempting some sort of physiological change underneath the shell, but none of the subjects survived long enough for us to know what that would be."

"Except for the one that trashed the lab and got away," Clint points out. "So, should we be searching for a guy looking like a giant scab running around?"

"No," Tony says suddenly with an odd sort of conviction, but he doesn't look up from whatever it is that Bruce tossed his way when everyone arrived.

"Mallen could look human or like another Hulk, which means Tony and I are no doubt going to be sacrificing some sleep in the near future." Bruce's voice is droll. "I imagine Fury will want to talk to you all anyway."

Field reconnaissance while the brains of their operation worked out the theoretical bits. Well, computers still sometimes worked too slowly for Steve's taste anyway. "We'll start looking for any incidents that might give away this fellow's location, hopefully before there are any casualties. Let me know immediately if you find anything that will help narrow down his location or give us some idea what he's capable of."

"Duh, of course," Tony mutters distractedly.

Steve internally sighs. "Just don't forget about us muscle-bound cavemen."

Tony actually blinks and looks up at that. "Yeah, all right," he says, as though he isn't quite sure how to take that. "Now go away, you Cro-Magnons."

Clint starts to say something before Natasha steers him out the door with a hand on his shoulder. Steve follows, wearing a worn but definite smile.

"What was that all about?" Bruce asks once the door closes behind the team.

"What was what about?"

"What're you thinking, Tony?"

"Shouldn't you already know that, Dr. Banner, sometimes I could swear you're a mind-reader anyway."

"Unfortunately perfection is still currently out of our reach. What is it, Dr. Stark?"

"You know, that's kind of a new one, usually I'm 'Mr. Stark' and people forget that I actually have three doctorates."


"Okay, okay, it's Extremis. If my math is correct, and it always is, then I think it, uh, reprograms the body."

"We'd already guessed that. Dr. Hansen basically said as much."

"No, I mean, it looks like it actively tells the body that it's wrong."

"And it, what, reboots the body and puts in a whole new operating system?"

"Which is why all the subjects end up looking like extras out of Dawn of the Dead. The body is essentially rejecting itself."


"Does the subject remain human, then?"

"Bruce, this is nothing like the other guy, okay? Totally different, and if you start having a crisis over the state of your perfectly intact humanity then I'm going to throw something at your adorable face."

"That wasn't what I meant, but thank you." Bruce gives him a faintly amused look. "Does the subject become, what, a cyborg? Posthuman? Another abomination?"

Tony doesn't know.

They'd play Monopoly. Tony would buy up Park Place and Boardwalk and have two hotels set up within ten minutes. Maria would laugh and Howard would say, That's my son.

Ten minutes after that, the board and fake money would be scattered over the floor, Maria would be crying, and Howard would be screaming at Tony's back as he hightailed it out of the drawing room with his heart in his throat. He'd hide in the shadows of one of the mansion's sweeping staircases, holding his favorite little robot toy – grey and simple and boxy, especially when compared to toy-Cap's bright colors – and be desperately envious of its impenetrable armor.

I wish I was like you.

Bruce has fallen asleep slumped against a tabletop. Normally he can keep up with Tony's erratic sleeping schedule without much problem, it's practically a universal habit among hardcore scientists and starving artists anyway, but he'd kept working while the rest of the team had their post-mission naptime and is finally crashing.

Tony's too jittery to stop. Still thinking about the stress lines around Pepper's eyes and the fact that he's gotten halfway towards calling her and hung up before the first ring four times. He's broken into new files, new information scrolling in green-on-black down three screens in a semi-circle around him, new possibilities sliding into his brain like a virus.

Billions of nanotubes –

Carrier fluid –

Increased muscle mass –

Increased cognitive function –

Increased immune system –

Reprogramming of biological processes to eliminate redundancy and improve efficiency–

The future of mankind –

All it takes is a little bottle. And maybe a bit of blue-white, clean energy. "Congratulations, Dr. Erskine, we've come full circle. Tip of the hat and take a bow."

"Don't do it," says Bruce, making Tony jump. He still looks exhausted, but his gaze is perfectly steady.

"If I lost a dollar for every time I heard that – well, I'd still be ridiculously wealthy, never mind."

"It's not worth it. You might want it now, or something like it, but it's not something you can ever take back."

"That's a lot of vague nouns right there, Doctor."

"Damn it, Stark!" Bruce suddenly snarls, slamming his hands down on the table and making Tony jump instinctively. "Tony, don't deflect or pretend you have no idea what I'm talking about."

"Why would I? There's nothing to deflect," Tony replies sharply. Pointedly.

"You think I don't understand how much a person can hate what they are? All those weaknesses that ultimately come down to having accidentally been born human?"

"Bruce," Tony tries, but Bruce rolls right over him.

"You ever wonder why I'm always angry?"

Not really, honestly, because you don't always need a reason to be angry, you don't always need a sob story or trauma. Sometimes you've just got to look out your window. Turn on the television or the radio. Get online and open your eyes. "Does it matter?"

Thank god Bruce knows how to interpret Tony-speak, he thinks, when it occurs to him what that sounded like out loud.

"My dad," Bruce starts, and shit, anything that starts like that should definitely require alcohol to ease the way, "he hated me. And I hated him. He beat me because I was smarter than he was. He killed my mother and I…I watched. But I couldn't stop him."

Tony can't make himself move. He doesn't want to know this. He really, really doesn't want to know this except that…it's Bruce. Bruce, who disappeared without warning from Stark Tower for two weeks and came back without explanation, the key phrase here being, he came back.

"That's why I started working on the super-soldier serum, Tony. I hated my father for so long for letting his issues control him, I hated my mother for not being able to stop him, but I hated myself for being so weak. I thought that if I could reproduce the serum then no one would have to be in that position again. That someone would always be able to stop it. That I could.

"But I tried it, and the Hulk happened instead." Bruce's expression sends Tony's mind back to a cave with another man, his soft, I have a family and I will see them when I leave here. "The Extremis won't change anything. If anything, it only makes things worse."

"Bruce, I," Tony tries. Pauses to lick his lips. "I know what you're getting at. I do. But the Extremis – "

"Makes everything make sense?" Bruce finishes with a quirked smile. "Don't look at me like that. I knew the first time I saw you in your workshop why you prefer machines to people."

"Why, Bruce, haven't you seen the tabloids? I love people. Especially the flexible ones."

"Yes, I've seen the tabloids, by which I mean I've seen how well you play the game."

"I don't think Heffner's Playmates would say it's just a game."

Bruce actually rolls his eyes. "Don't play stupid, Dr. Stark."

"How did this become about me, by the way? I could've sworn we were talking about you."

"Yes, but for the sake of everyone on this ship I felt it was better to change the subject."

"Of course."

"Of course."

The quiet between them is awkward for the first time since Tony complimented him on his rage monster.

"You're wrong, y'know." Tony firmly keeps his eyes on the Extremis code. "It's not about being stronger than the enemy. If you have the power to make yourself more capable of doing what's right, then aren't you morally obligated to do so?"

"That depends," Bruce replies carefully, "on what you end up sacrificing in the process."

Sleepless nights. Racing thoughts. Making Pepper manage his entire company and then expecting her to come home and manage him. She smiles, all the time, honestly, and she fits with him like only the armor does, but he sees the worry lines getting a little deeper each day, the shadows under her eyes lengthening. He suddenly realizes that with all the research Fury dumped on him, having a science partner to geek out with, and his responsibility to the team, he's been spending less and less time with her. She hasn't said a word about it, she always did think he needed to make more friends and find activities that didn't end with violent hangovers, but now he's trying to figure out when he started being absent, why she hasn't said anything despite knowing that he'd drop everything in a heartbeat.

Huh. Maybe that's his answer right there.

The morning after he'd gone back to Gulmira and shot down some terrorists, after a little boy had looked at him like he was a hero, Tony stood shirtless in front of the mirror and poked at the arc reactor. His fingernails made a dull tink against its flat, clear cover as he thought about steady hands and car batteries and how the hell Yinsen had successfully managed major fucking surgery in the midst of filth and the barest supplies.

Fix it, snarled part of his mind. Such a fucking genius, standing right back in the middle of your empire, why don't you fix it.

Get a heart transplant. (Except everything could go wrong with that – if he were kidnapped and couldn't take that medication that kept a body from rejecting foreign organs, if his ribcage collapsed because most of his sternum had been removed, if his body outright rejected the new organ.)

Surgery to remove the shrapnel. (Except he's already seen several top-rated specialists about that, wrapped them up in so many confidentiality agreements it's probably illegal, and there's only a ten percent chance of success and he isn't quite that desperate yet.)

Invent a smaller, subcutaneous device. (Except he's back to the instability of his rib cage, too much bone sawed out, too much muscle forcibly rearranged so that it aches sometimes and is agonizing on rainy days.)

Invent a solvent that targets metallic objects like shrapnel and leaves organic tissue unaffected. (Which would be a challenge and a half, almost worth a try just for that, but that technology was far in his future and would require some study in the biological sciences, which sucked.)

So Tony looked in the mirror and visually mapped out the splatter of scarring across his chest, the odd bumps of muscle twisted in an unnatural formation around the reactor casing. It represented a lifetime of willful ignorance, but also an awakening. He would die if it ever flickered out, but it was also a reminder that he had a life that wouldn't be wasted anymore.

"Cap, you're not doing anything important, right?"

"Other than attempting to find a posthuman murderer, no," Steve replies as he squints at a holographic map of the States projected onto a broad screen. Austin, Texas is highlighted in red, as is a number of other locations with potential sightings of their escapee. Some of those locations were flagged after there were destructive incidents with no discernable cause.

"You're coming with me."

"I am?"

"Yes. Chop-chop, we don't have all day, even though I own the jet and it won't leave without my say-so anyway."

"Tony, this isn't the time to start – "

"No, Steve, this is the perfect time, because we're going to see an old friend of mine out in San Francisco. I'd be bringing Bruce if he didn't have a phobia of other scientists."

Steve's about to ask why Bruce wouldn't want to meet other scientists before common sense catches up to him. "Does this have anything to do with why Bruce disappeared for a couple weeks?"

"How'd you know about that?" Tony asks suspiciously.

"JARVIS told me."

Tony shrugs. "Imagine you're a guy that hasn't been able to stay in one place for more than a month before your mistakes catch up to you with the judicious application of explosives and a tendency to ignore civilian casualties. Now imagine living like that for years, avoiding all but the most remote and poorest communities that demonstrate how dearly sheltered many of us Americans are."

Steve remembers months spent in German and Austrian forests, the kind of cold that seeps into a man's bones at night, eating just enough to stay alive to try and preserve rations as long as possible. "So is this about Extremis? Or Dr. Hansen?"

"Are the two mutually exclusive? Sal's an interesting guy, although you probably won't like him. He doesn't have much good to say about our illustrious government. I bet he writes fanfiction about Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty defiling one another in ways symbolic of modern America's militaristic capitalism with me cast as their illegitimate love-child."

Steve wisely chooses not to touch that one. "Why are you bringing me along?"

"Because there's no way I'm facing his vegan farts alone and you're team leader, which means this is a good chance to catch you up on some of the lingo. Basically, moral support. Now come on, old man, we're not getting any younger and it's my turn to choose the field trip."

The inside of the plane, of course, looks more like a suite out of the Hilton than a plane, with a fully-stocked kitchen, wet bar, and long couches covered in buttersoft cream leather. At least there aren't any stripper poles, which Natasha had described to him after Tony ranted about Fury not respecting him properly.

The last time Steve was in San Francisco he was standing in front of a chorus line and thinking about Peggy while punching a Hitler in a crooked mustache. A lot of it looks exactly the same: trolleys still rolling over the steep hills of roads, the Golden Gate Bridge still brilliantly red-orange, the houses still standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a riot of colors. But the skyscrapers in their sleek modern lines now break up the skyline like long jagged teeth, and the city itself stretches for miles all around the bay. It takes him a while to notice the prevalence of rainbow flags, but the first pink triangle he sees makes his stomach twist hard.

"Hey, you all right, Cap? Looking a bit green there in a non-Hulk way."

"Those pink triangles, why the hell – "

"Quarter for the swear jar there, darling, what – oh. Oh. Guess it wasn't in the SHIELD briefing packets, why would it be? Don't worry, there isn't some Nazi regime going on. In the, what, late seventies? The gay rights movement reclaimed it as a positive symbol. San Francisco's notorious for its liberalism." Tony pauses. "Don't tell me you're having a conservative moment."

"What? No," manages Steve, who hadn't even been thinking about that. "It's just one thing to hear about homosexuality being legal and another to actually see it. It's something a lot of us never dreamed possible."

Tony's eyes narrow slightly, attention focusing, unexpectedly intense, on him. "Huh, well, fair enough. If you ever find yourself a cute boytoy, Cap, you've got six states to choose from to marry him and the military can't even get mad at you for it anymore. I should bring you back here sometime, we'll go to the Castro, introduce you to some people who can't kill you thirteen different ways with their pinky but could probably suck your brain out your dick."

Steve would caustically reply to that if Tony hadn't still been scrutinizing him and sounding like he's just talking for the sake of it. It isn't something he would've noticed before, the way Tony's voice gets lighter and looser when he's faking it. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he asks sharply.

Tony absently swirls the brandy in its glass. "Just thinking. It's what I do. My dad had a lot to say on the subject, you know."

It's the first time Howard's been brought up since their first disastrous meeting. Considering the fallout from that, Steve isn't entirely sure he likes where this is going. "About homosexuals?"

Tony waves a hand airily. "Sure. Faggots. Nancy-boys. Sissies. 'Gay' is the term used now, by the way."

"I get the idea."

"He had rather strict views on what it meant to be a man." Now Tony's voice is definitely off, too carefully casual to be sincere as he takes another sip of brandy. "Very strict, although he also had some rather firm views on women, kids, communists, and labor unions too, so gays aren't exactly special in that regard."

"He always was rather opinionated." Understatement, but then, few people in Steve's experience were usually willing to take on a man with money, power, charisma, and brilliance. The bitter twist of Tony's lips behind the crystal glass has him blurting out, "But you're with Pepper."

It's only the serum in his body that lets Steve hear the soft, But for how much longer, before Tony knocks back the rest of the brandy and shoots him a wide silver-screen smile. "There are seven billion humans in this world and seven billion variations on gender and sexuality. Oh look, we've arrived."

Steve takes the hint and lets the subject drop.

Sal Kennedy lives in a small house with a porch and enough vegetation to cover the majority of anything that isn't moving, with solar panels on the roof and what sounds like a solar-powered water system in the backyard. "About as off-grid as you can get near a city," says Tony as he bangs on the door. Steve hangs back a few steps, unconsciously standing straight and folding his hands at the small of his back.

Sal Kennedy himself is a man of medium height and a not-so-medium waistline under a tie-dye shirt, hair long and white, glasses small and round. He grins. "Tony Stark, I see you've finally deigned to leave your ivory eyesore of a tower. Is this a friend or a parole officer?"

"Hey, Sal, nice to see you too, long time no see. This is Steve Rogers, codename Captain America."

"A pleasure, sir," says Steve as he shakes the man's hand. Sal seems amused.

"Call me Sal or I'll have to introduce you to the wonders of psychedelics. Come in, come in. I just pressed some fresh apple juice."

Who is Sal Kennedy, Steve had asked at the beginning of the flight, and Tony replied, An old mentor, I guess, mine and Maya's back when I was still bothering to go to those academic conferences and sit through some moron butchering the basic scientific method.

The inside of the house is full of vaguely-African masks and things either made or woven from hemp fiber, including the rugs and the furniture. Sal returns with three glasses of apple juice and waves them into chairs that creak under a super-soldier's weight. "Tony, I hear you have a new playmate."

"If you mean Bruce Banner, then yes, I do, and I don't want to hear a word about it."

Sal shrugs. "If you want to risk your life every time you come within half a mile of him, that's your own decision. Not the kind of personality I'd have pegged for new best friend material for you, though."

"Which only reaffirms the wisdom of my decision," Tony retorts, still friendly but with an unmistakably sharp undertone.

"I'm just glad you've learned how to make friends beyond pigtail-pulling and D&D."

"D&D?" Steve repeats.

"Dungeons & Dragons," Tony explains. "Think Lord of the Rings, but with more math and late Mountain Dew-fueled nights. Only the cool kids play it, and only the coolest go to D&D camp."

"That's what you and Bruce are always talking about," Steve realizes.

"With a healthy side of other RPGs, it's the best form of code talking."

"It's the smart loner's escapism," says Sal, raising his glass in a salute. "Now, which one of you messed up this time, you or Maya?"

"What makes you think one of us has messed up?" asks Tony, and Sal arches a grey eyebrow.

"Because the only time I ever hear from one of you is either from the tabloids or when you've messed up and can't clean up after yourself. Elders are only ever remembered when the young realize they're not half as clever as they'd thought."

Tony quirks a brief smile. "Maya, this time."

"Should I brace myself to have another Hulk running around?"

"Something like that."

Interesting; Sal appears to have an idea what Dr. Hansen's top-secret work had been. Steve takes it upon himself to outline, briefly and without going into overly classified information, what happened at Futurepharm and a rogue human experiment.

"The super-soldier thing always did bug her."

Steve reminds himself yet again that none of this is his fault.

"So what do you want me to do about it? I was under the impression you had your own team of superheroes nowadays. Me, I'm an aging hippie that gives lectures about the evils of American imperialism to people more interested in the practical application of free love. Sometimes they're people just smart enough to realize there's some value in human experience but not enough to think it goes beyond eating food free from high-fructose corn syrup."

"I'm – we're – looking for advice. Don't tell anyone."

"And you brought Captain America for that?"

"Maya's currently in custody and Cap's leading the charge here," Tony explains. "Also I wasn't going to subject Bruce to you."

"What do you think, Captain?" asks Sal, turning to Steve and steepling his fingers.

"I'm thinking that for all the things that have changed in the last seventy years, most of it really hasn't."

Sal laughs and points at him with a thick finger. "I like you, kid. Did Tony ever tell you how we met?"

Tony groans loudly, but there's a weird tension in his shoulders.

"It was at a conference. Dr. Stark here was giving a lecture on integrated circuits as drunk as any self-respecting alcoholic, I'm surprised he was able to remember his own name when they called him up."

"You know me, I'm a man of many talents and long practice."

"I have to say, I never thought I'd have the chance to see Erskine's genius in person," Sal says to Steve. "There have been more theories made about you over the years than there are over the JFK assassination, but you know what I think? I think it was sheer blind luck that Erskine's formula worked on you."

"Considering the number of tests they put me through first, sir, it sure didn't seem like luck."

"No? Tell me about the Nazis, then. They were trying for their own übermensch, weren't they? How did that go?"

Steve leans forward to brace his elbows on his thighs, staring at his clasped hands and too aware of the weight of Tony's gaze. "Erskine said that the Red Skull had come from an early form of the serum. He said the serum enhances what's already there, not just physically, so a bad guy becomes evil and a good guy becomes, well, better."

"Makes sense, in an infuriatingly esoteric sense," Tony mutters. "With a good portion of your personality being predisposition, artificial chemical enhancement would probably also enhance that. Strong enough experiences like trauma have been shown to effect biological changes as well."

Steve has a horrifying thought. "But Bruce – "

"Let's just say that Bruce has some skeletons in his closet and leave it at that," says Tony firmly.

"Some people say the serum only worked on you through the sheer power of Erskine's determination," says Sal thoughtfully. "Hey, why not, crazier things have happened in the multiverse of science. But if that's the case, then it'd explain why no one else has been successful, especially given the general idea that the serum works only on the physical level."

"I don't understand," Steve admits.

"The power of the mind, kid. Scientists that aren't crazy enough to work in quantum physics tend to forget that."

"So if the lab team had a round of group therapy and heartfelt bonding, then we would've been able to recreate the serum," says Tony incredulously. "Or that Steve was fated to be Captain America and no one else was."

"No, I mean that Erskine's work was more well-rounded. Maya, for all her smarts, is remarkably unsubtle in her approach. She seems to think that the Extremis will work if she can just punch human biology into submission. Bruce Banner is basically a pissed-off Greek Titan. You built a suit of armor with all the subtlety and overcompensation of a tank."

"Hey, that's the love of my life you're insulting right there," Tony protests. Steve can't help a small grin.

"You know, if anyone could take mankind into the future, I'd have pegged you and Maya for it. She once told me she accepted military funding because it was the only way for her to get a foot in the door for medical advancement, and it doesn't help that she's a woman faced with a glass ceiling. You don't have that excuse, of course, so what are you doing, Tony?"

"Gee, I don't know, maybe just saving the world."

Sal dips a head in acknowledgment. "True, which, by the way, I appreciate. From what I hear, we were close to proving the determinists right and I've never liked those assholes. Too many of them in academia. But the suit you use, is that for yourself or mankind's future?"

"Why not both?" Steve interrupts, surprising even himself, but he keeps seeing Iron Man falling through the sky at the last moment like a fiery-red shooting star, the flicker of a dying arc reactor. "Does it matter when he's using it to make a difference?"

"Not until someone makes something better. Is this a path to the realization of mankind's potential or the start of a whole new arms race?"

"With all due respect, sir, there's been an arms race since the first time someone picked up a stick and used it as a weapon. You could just as easily point a finger at Dr. Erskine. The super-soldier serum was the first in a new line of potential weaponry and terrible things have come from it, but at the same time, it inspired research into new types of medicine. We've been using armor for centuries anyway and I think Iron Man is a logical step from that."

"But is it only a suit of armor? Is it only good for beating up monsters or will it end war?"

Steve sits up tall and looks Sal straight in the eye. "You know, they said World War I would be the war to end all wars. Twenty years later we have World War II. War is commanded by politicians but fought by soldiers, and if there's anything I learned from the trenches it's that it takes teamwork and trust in your fellow soldiers to survive. No one man can take away all the evil in the world, and I think it's unrealistic, disingenuous, and lazy rationalization to try to put that sort of responsibility on a single person. All we can do is our best, sir, and we're at our best when we trust our comrades to do the same. The best weapons in the world or the biggest alien army can't replace that."

"Well," says Sal after a moment, "I see the propaganda reels weren't all propaganda."

"You should see him when Hawkeye finishes the last of the coffee," says Tony, but his heart isn't in it. He's looking at Steve like he's never seen him before, like he's more than just a dumb kid from Brooklyn but not just a symbol in a spangled outfit. Even at their most antagonistic they'd fought back to back almost seamlessly on the battlefield, mostly because they hadn't a choice except to trust each other, but it had still worked. And the Chitauri hadn't stood a chance against it.

They leave Sal's place not long after that. The flight back to New York is tense and silent until they're over Pennsylvania, when Steve admits out of the blue, "My dad was an alcoholic."

Tony's suddenly fascinated by the clouds outside the window.

"He died of mustard gas over in Europe. Mom never said anything, but I reckon he volunteered for the army to get away from us. From everything. History books called it the Great Depression like it had start and end dates, but it never really ended for a lot of us. It wasn't a good time to be Irish. Or poor."

Tony doesn't have a reply to any of that, not that Steve had been expecting one, but just before the plane lands Tony murmurs, "Thanks."

"For what?"

Tony gives him half a smile. "Exactly."

In the beginning of this whole Initiative mess, Tony had come to the conclusion that Howard's ravings about Captain America's saintliness had been based not in truth but in the fact that of course someone Howard held in such high regard would be almost as much of an asshole. They'd probably cofounded the Judgmental Assholes League, like the Justice League if Superman swapped personalities with Lex Luthor.

But then Steve had to go and show that he has layers, like an onion, a huge patriotic onion that could make you feel like crying at the weirdest moments (not that Tony ever felt like crying, thanks, it's just how this metaphor is working out so far). That underneath Steve's bristling defensiveness there's a guy who's never looked at Natasha like being the lone female on a superhero team means she's there for anything other than being a superhero, and doesn't complain when he's drawing in the living room and someone comes in to demand his attention, and will finish leftovers rather than let them spoil even if he doesn't really like them, and takes out the kitchen trash without being blackmailed. Who does that?

Not that Steve isn't ever an asshole anymore because, god, if Tony's tongue can slice someone to razor-thin ribbons then Steve has a verbal punch to rival his actual super fist. At first it was like being slapped repeatedly in the face with his Deep-seated Issues, but things change, don't they, for better or worse.

So, there's a lot of crap going on in the big wide world. There's also the question of Pepper. Tony's currently more concerned with the latter.

"Tony, why are there roses on every surface of my office?" Pepper asks the moment she steps out of the elevator into his workshop, wearing the latest Dolce suit and three-inch stilettos and looking like she could take over the world with ruthless competence.

He tells JARVIS, "Pause everything, make a note of my place in this coding string," before turning to face her. "Why shouldn't there be," he points out, very reasonably. The sunset ones even match her hair, with their yellow-fading-through-soft-orange-and-red petals, which, if he might say so himself, is very romantic.

"I tripped over some of them trying to get to my desk. I almost broke my neck."

"Okay, so maybe I ordered a few extra. I'll get Dummy to stick them on a wall, it'll be like a three-dimensional still-life. You like still-life art, right?"

"While I respect the amount of technical talent required for still-life realism, no, not really."

"It can be an installation, then. Like that chair in the middle of that one gallery in the Smithsonian I manfully didn't make fun of."

"Tony, you whined the whole time about how if that was considered art then your workshop is on par with the Pieta."

"It is!"

She gives him a flat look that makes him grin.

"The mayor's been trying to kiss up to the board for more reconstruction donations," she says, heading towards where Tony's sitting on a tall stool surrounded by holographic screens. He quickly flicks off the one full of gory, scabby photos.

"We could always donate the profits from the sale of, like, Stark microwaves or something."

"Baby bottles, actually," she corrects him, and there it is, there's that reluctant amusement that makes him reach out and put his hands on her hips because he's never really sure when an argument is going to be their last. "They're very eco-friendly. What did Fury want?"

"You know I can't say something under threat of violating national security," he mutters into her hair. "I could end up accused of treason and sent to prison in China."

"Don't worry, I'm sure I could find enough money to post bail. Or at least get your body home."

There's an odd note in her voice that Tony can't quite parse. "Someone blew the whistle on a lab doing some bad things. Fury wants me and Bruce to figure out what they were actually doing."

"Is it weapons?" she asks quietly. It's a logical question because no one knows weapons of mass destruction like a Stark, and even though he's got three doctorates none of them are in a biological science. (Not that he couldn't get one in a biological science, but who would want to spend so much time poking around soft squishy stuff that tends to show off nature's evolutionary mistakes more often than not?)

He twitches before he can stop himself, glances over her shoulder briefly. "More of a super-human sort of thing that also uses a computer sort of thing. It's all very The Bohr Maker."

"What else?"

"What do you mean?" he asks as he takes his hands back, starts flipping through his holograms, minus the scabby ones, again.

"Tony, there's something else bothering you. What is it?"

Oh god, she's pulling out the Kindly Coaxing voice. "Nothing, it's just, I know the scientist that headed the program. Used to hang out, get drunk and yell at each other about how stupid we thought the other's research was, you know how it goes. Not a big deal, just wasn't expecting it."

She starts running a hand through his hair, gently scratching his scalp in such a way that makes Tony feel like a cat. He wishes he could purr and briefly wonders if Pepper would be creeped out by a prosthesis that could produce the right sound. "How are you handling it?"

"Fine," he says automatically. "Seriously, Pep, it's fine, I've got Bruce helping me and the rest of the team is righteously driven to catch the bad guys here. We'll figure this out and be badasses and save the day because, hello, genius superheroes. Well, two genius superheroes, but we can't all be brawn or we'd just end up hitting everything with sticks and grunting."

"I'm worried about you," says Pepper.

Oh. That never precedes anything good. "You don't need to," he reassures, taking hold of her waist again and pulling her closer, pressing a kiss against her lips. Her hands tighten in his hair, her spine arches ever so slightly, but by the time his grip is threatening to leave wrinkles in her expensive suit she pulls away. "You can't distract me like this every time you want to avoid an uncomfortable conversation."

"I have no idea what you're talking about. No, wait, come back here, that is not a nice thing, that is the opposite of a nice thing."

"Tony, I need to get back to work and find a way to actually get back into my office without killing myself. If you won't talk to me will you at least talk to Bruce, maybe?"

"What about JARVIS? I talk to JARVIS all the time."

"JARVIS doesn't count."

"Why not?" Tony asks, bewildered and, yeah, maybe a little hurt, because JARVIS, but Pepper shakes her head.

"Just promise me you'll be careful and if you want to talk, I'll be here. I'll always be here. Okay?"

Tony doesn't know what to say to that, what to think of the sadness lurking in her faint smile, and hell, she must be the patron fucking saint of forgiveness. But before he can say anything she's already leaving, the elevator doors closing behind her. Tony feels weirdly too small for his skin.

"Sir," JARVIS breaks in gently, "Director Fury is on the line."

"Fine, let His Highness through. S'up, Fury, I hope it's more important than figuring out the whole human experimentation thing."

"Get your ass over here, Stark, our lost subject is no longer lost and is currently trying to break Washington D.C. into pieces. Bring Banner with you, we're probably going to need his particular brand of expertise."

"You heard the man, JARVIS," says Tony, heart suddenly beating faster with a twinge of pain, as DUM-E brandishes his favorite fire extinguisher and U drops his wrench again when he tries to wave his arm. "Be safe, kids, don't do anything Daddy wouldn't do," he calls as he heads up to the penthouse, and hears JARVIS say, "Experience points out that those two clauses may be mutually exclusive."

Bruce meets him on the veranda, hands in his pockets as he watches Tony walk through the rings of the Strippers.

"Ready to rock, Jolly Green?"

"As ready as anyone can be for turning into a giant rage monster," Bruce returns.

"Then c'mon, princess, jump in my arms and let's go."

"Please keep in mind that I'm neither green nor wearing armor and that the human body can only take so much wind resistance and G-forces."


"I prefer 'realist.'"

Tony laughs as he sweeps Bruce into his arms dramatically and takes off – carefully – for the Helicarrier, where Steve, Natasha, and Clint are waiting with seriously serious faces. Tony lets Bruce down, keeping a hand on his shoulder until his legs stop shaking. "Thor still at his parents' house?"

"He's left word with Dr. Foster that it's been a mess in the royal court," replies Natasha.

"Assemble," says Steve, all business as he heads towards the loading bays.

It takes the SHIELD plane an embarrassingly long half hour to get there and drop them off near the freeway. Note to self, Tony grumbles: speed up designs on the quinjet.

"Tony, get Clint up in the sky as close to the action as possible," Steve starts in his I-am-Captain-America-obey-me voice. "I want both of you to do aerial recon as quickly as possible and report. SHIELD will hang back and evacuate as many civilians as possible while Natasha and I engage the hostile on the ground. Bruce, do the usual, stay back until the hostile gets to be too much of an issue."


They find their escaped subject walking down the center line of Route 95. Mallen looks completely human, his hair in a buzzcut and his clothes simply plain jeans and a canvas jacket, but when a car careens towards him he throws out a hand and sends the vehicle flying into oncoming traffic with –

"Holy shit," Tony breathes, "that was a repulsor blast."

The comm's completely silent for a long second.

"SHIELD's doing its best to shut down the highway," Steve says eventually, "but our first priority right now is to get the people already within the perimeter away from this guy. Iron Man, cover me, aerial support. Widow, Hawkeye, try to hold this guy back, establish a line. Bruce, hold your position until we get some space between him and the civilians."

"Thor would be useful right about now," mutters Clint.

"Heads up, Katniss," and Clint has to bite back a yelp as Tony swoops down, grabs him around the waist, and takes off for the nearest rooftop.

"We've really got to stop meeting this way," Clint yells.

Steve takes off in a sprint and flings the shield up just in time to deflect what looks like a blast of fire, Christ, the guy's breathing fire. The fire spreads out around the circumference of the shield in a wall of searing heat and light, unable to reach the civilians abandoning their cars behind Steve and running for cover, and Tony shoots a repulsor beam that forces Mallen to leap back and cut off his dragon breath. Several explosive arrows force him farther back.

"Thanks," gasps Steve.

"You can buy me a drink, Cap, I – shit, roll!"

Mallen's face is twisted in a mad sneer as he jumps and brings his fist smashing down into the pavement, falling to one knee. Steve unquestioningly ducks and rolls, just in time to avoid the asphalt shattering in a wide circle with the sound of crunching cars and deafening crack of stone.

He looked like me, Tony thinks over and over, replaying the pose, the fist, that's my move.

"Mallen, let's talk this over!" Steve's yelling. "We can see you're angry over something," and there's that dry deadpan, "so let's discuss some solutions. No one else needs to get hurt today."

"Yes, they do," Mallen grins, and he suddenly spins around his heel, grabbing Natasha by the throat just as she slinks out from behind an overturned sedan. He holds her in the air, her feet kicking uselessly.

"Nat," Clint hisses down the comm before he can stop himself.

There's the crackle of electricity and she falls to the ground, rolling and getting back to her feet in one smooth movement. Mallen's clutching his wrist where her Widow's Sting left scorched burns, but as Tony watches the skin is already healing from a shock that should've been able to knock out a horse. The HUD is flickering wildly as JARVIS attempts scan after scan.

"He's fast, guys, even the armor had trouble keeping up. JARVIS estimates that the range of his fire breath of doom is thirty feet. I think it's safe to say we should avoid getting too close."

"Acknowledged," Natasha replies shortly.

Mallen's laughing, casually leaning to one side to avoid Steve's shield as though it were flying through molasses, raising a bare palm for another repulsor blast. Steve ducks just as Tony drops in front of him and matches it with one of his own. The freeway shudders from the impact under their feet as Tony lifts his other hand, blasting again and hitting Mallen square in the chest.

Nothing happens. Mallen's shirt is reduced to threads, but the skin underneath is smooth and clean and he isn't even rocked on his feet.

"Shit," Clint mutters.

"Give up, Stark!" Mallen screams. "You're obsolete now! Glorified fat-cat trash! Get the fuck out of the way or I'll blow your fucking head off!"

"You kiss your mother with that mouth?"

"Not since the criminals in the White House shot her dead," Mallen snarls. The picture's suddenly clearer: a homegrown terrorist with a grudge against The Man, desperate enough to volunteer for something that had never had a successful result (but how did he learn about a secret military project, he doesn't exactly appear to be a mastermind, who broke the red tape and ripped up the gag order). "Now the country worships the symbol of all that corruption! A country of brainwashed sheep calling him a fucking hero!"

"Stay on your toes, Cap, I think this crazy is talking about you," Tony whispers.

"Figured that," Steve mutters, then calls out loudly, "This isn't the way to change things, Mallen. Murdering innocents doesn't do anything but turn people against you."

"Yeah? Then what about my family? Slaughtered by you pigs because they dared try to take action and take America back from the Jews and corporate sharks that turned her into a whore!"

Of course. What's a domestic terrorist without some white supremacy?

Mallen seizes a tipped car with his bare hands and hurls it at Steve with the speed of a freight train. Tony doesn't think (titanium-gold alloy better at distribution of impacting force), just throws himself in front of Steve and takes the brunt of it in the chest, his boots sinking four inches deep into the asphalt from the momentum.

"Tony!" Steve yells, but Tony can't reply while his lungs try to remember how to breathe. "I'm fine," he eventually manages, nearly drowned out by the sudden explosions of Clint's arrows, the length of broken steel pole that Natasha's picked up and electrified with her Sting as she swings it towards Mallen. "Go, I'll be fine, fucking go!"

Steve takes off in a sprint and slides under another repulsor blast like a freaking baseball player stealing home towards the place his shield has fallen. Tony braces himself on one knee and takes increasingly deeper breaths until he doesn't feel like he's going to pass out, forcing himself not to panic until the HUD tells him that the arc reactor hasn't shattered inside his chest.

"Bruce," Steve's yelling over the comm, "the big guy's up!"

The Hulk's roar thunders through the air, through the ground, rattling the armor as Tony forces himself to his feet. The rockets he launches that drown the air around Mallen in smoke let Natasha materialize out of it like the ninja she is and drive a long pole through him. Mallen moves quickly enough that the pole misses his gut, but not his thigh, and he howls in pain and rage. One of Clint's arrows releases a titanium wire Tony made for him that should slice this guy in half like clay, but he shrugs it off with minor irritation and sends Steve reeling with a repulsor blast.

Everything becomes a blur of high-speed motion, the whine of repulsors, every type of arrow in Clint's arsenal, Natasha's ruthless determination, the whir of SHIELD helicopters.

Then, suddenly, the crack of lightning.


Tony wakes up in SHIELD's infirmary and wishes he hadn't.

"Ow," he whispers through chapped lips out of habit. He can tell there are bright lights on the other side of his eyelids and he's really not looking forward to seeing them, but the rest of him feels awesome. He must've gotten the good stuff.

"You reckless idiot," comes a choked voice from his right. Oh hey, there's a hand in his, threatening to crush his fingers.

"Morning, pepper-pot," Tony manages to get out, then winces when he tries to open his eyes and he's assaulted by the damn lights. Still worth it to see Pepper's strawberry-blonde hair slowly come into focus, the faintest smattering of freckles over her nose.

"My doctor keeps telling me to avoid stressful situations so my blood pressure doesn't get any higher," she tells him, eyes reddened.

"You know me, never was very good at following doctor's orders."

"You have three cracked ribs and a broken wrist, to say nothing about your sternum. The doctor thinks there might be damage to the reactor casing, but it's so far out of his experience that he can't say for sure. It doesn't interact well with the MRIs."

The EKG beeps a little more quickly. "The others? Steve?"

"Alive," she says gently. "Clint and Bruce are relatively unharmed, although Bruce has been sleeping since he turned back. Natasha and Steve are in roughly the same situation you are, although he's lucky to have the serum. Apparently that asshole Mallen was dead-set on attacking Captain America."

It's a struggle to stay awake. "What happened? I don't remember much, I…"

"Thor came back and managed to get Steve out after hitting Mallen with his hammer. Once Steve was gone, Mallen took off somewhere northeast before SHIELD could stop him."

"Huh, almost a literal deus ex machina." The drugs are slowing Tony's brain, so it takes a minute for him to catch up. "But Steve's alive?"

"Yes. He'll make it, but it'll be a while before he's back in the field."

But Steve's Captain fucking America, he fought the Nazis in World War II, hell, his nickname is the Sentinel of Liberty. He could make a good living as an artist, he's got a temper and he likes sitting in the park just to watch people. His humor's so dry it was probably imported from Britain and he once looked at Tony like Tony was the hero.

Pepper leans forward and presses a kiss against his forehead. It feels final, somehow. "Get some sleep. Real sleep. I'll be here when you wake up."


He goes under again before he can say anything else.

When Tony wakes up again, Pepper's sitting at his bedside in fresh clothes and dry eyes with the most solemn, heartbroken, determined expression he's ever seen on her.

"Tony, we need to talk."

It takes three days for Tony to bully the doctor into releasing him, and then the doctor probably only relents so that Tony will go away. He spends most of those three days either sleeping, staring up at the ceiling, or making stilted conversation with whomever happens to stop by his bedside. Mostly that means Thor and the nurses.

"Hey, Conan," Tony murmurs when Thor drops in, "do all gods have such a good sense of timing?"

"Heimdall told me of your plight." Thor takes the seat that Pepper had used while telling him – well. The seat that Pepper had used. "There is very little hidden from his sight in all the realms, and when he witnessed the tide of battle turn against you all he saw fit to warn me. I thank the Fates for it."

"I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say I'm glad he did. I hear the bad guy got away."

"Yes, and for that, I apologize." Thor bows his head a little, looking like he hasn't slept for a month. Maybe two.

"Don't apologize," Tony says wearily. "None of us were exactly mint out of the box. If you hadn't gotten Cap back here when you did…"

"The captain is a formidable warrior. I would not have expected there to be many things on Earth capable of defeating him, let alone all of you."

Tony bristles, tired and hurting and not just on the outside. "If you're going to just sit there and criticize – "

"You misunderstand me, Man of Iron, it is neither my intention nor my place to judge. What I find troublesome is the appearance of an enemy that the Avengers combined could not defeat when the Chitauri and my own brother were bested."

Tony huffs a bit. "And this one was homegrown, too, no aliens or cosmic powers to speak of."

"He may have escaped, but it was not without effort." Thor smirks faintly. "I should be very surprised if he manages to walk fully upright for some time."

Tony tries to think of some witty rejoinder, some suave smartassness, but his mouth can't form the words. He stares up at the ceiling, tapping his fingers against the bed because he can't muster the energy to lift his arm and tap the reactor casing.

A broad hand closes over Tony's, stilling his fingers. "Tony," Thor says seriously, "I know I have spent little time in the company of you or our teammates, but know that I regard you all as worthy of Asgard's utmost respect. I swear on my honor as a comrade and as a future friend that we will find this villain and put an end to his cruelty."

"Can't argue with the honor of a god," Tony jokes weakly, and Thor smiles broadly. "Besides, if you spent too much time on earth you might turn into something horrific, like a hippie or a political activist."

"After our victory, we shall celebrate with the best drink from Odin's halls."

Alcohol from the halls of Odin himself. Drunken oblivion with the blessing of the Norse pantheon sounds pretty damn good. "I like you a lot," Tony tells Thor, whose laugh is like a small roll of thunder.

Tony takes what he knows of Steve's baseline medical records, not that he'd gone snooping when he first heard about what they'd fished out of the Arctic Circle, cross-references it with estimated battle injuries, and manages to be in Steve's room a few hours before he wakes up. He's slouching in a chair as an excuse to keep an arm wrapped protectively around his ribs, letting the white noise of beeping machines fill his head.

"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," he says quietly when Steve's breathing hitches.

"Tony?" Steve slurs, because of course the sedatives that would send a normal person into a coma are only a temporary inconvenience for Captain America.

"We're in the helicarrier, it's been three and a half days, and no one died," he reports immediately.

Steve murmurs something along the lines of mrrgh, and Tony generously decides to take it as thank you, Tony, you always know exactly what to say even if no one else thinks so. "Thor showed up, saved our asses, and the bad guy escaped."

"You?" Steve croaks.

"You know me, Cap, beating the odds is my specialty."

Steve's looking more awake already, the haze in his eyes clearing as he tries to sit up. "Whoa, hey, not okay," Tony rushes, leaning forward with a wince to put a hand on Steve's chest, "just take a second to relax, we've got a few minutes before the next crisis."

"You, are you okay?" Steve repeats, grabbing the wrist that isn't wrapped in plaster in a firm grip, and the question hits hard right in the middle of the deep ache of a damaged arc reactor.

"I'm fine, Steve, it's you we're all worried about."

"Got cocky," Steve mutters. "We went in too full of ourselves. The future doesn't have hovercars, but it does have people who can breathe fire."

Tony can't help a small laugh. "Could've turned out worse."

Steve's shoulders tighten. "Told myself I wouldn't lose any more soldiers."

"Good thing we're not soldiers then."

Steve looks up at him, all blue eyes and sharp masculine lines, remnants of blood along his hairline that the nurses had missed. Forgotten science may have made him something more, but Sal's right, the old bastard, it took Steve Rogers to make an accidental super-soldier into Captain America. The serum wouldn't have been enough, and Tony –

Tony's just a rich guy with armor he can take on and off like a designer suit and can't even tell when he's hurting his own lover.

"Tony? Tony, what's wrong? Did something else happen?"

"Nothing you need to worry about, off the Avengers' record," he tries to say cheerfully, voice cracking like it hasn't since he was fifteen, "we need to concentrate on finding Mallen before he blows up a school bus."

"I have it on good authority that we have a few minutes before the next crisis." When Tony tries to take his hand back, Steve refuses to let go.

"Pepper and I broke up."

Steve blinks. "I'm sorry."

"Why should you be? Nothing to be sorry about. I mean, I sorta figured it was coming, I guess there were things? I can't blame her, I don't blame her, and I – " Tony looks up at the ceiling so he doesn't have to look at Steve. "She always was stronger than me, y'know. I wouldn't have had the courage to do what she did. I know tech and…and math, but she knows people."

Tony's trying to bite the words back, strangle them in some serious denial and bury the corpses in the Let's Never Think About This Again box, but the fuckers are still fresh with full health bars, every note and inflection caught in a constant feedback loop of eidetic perfection. You're all I have, she'd said, but Tony, you have Iron Man now. The Avengers. You don't need me like you used to. I do, I do, I can fix it, I can give up – no, Tony, I'm not going to be the person that gives you an ultimatum on what's allowed to make you happy. Pepper, please don't – I'm not going to leave you, Tony, I'll still be there. I still love you, I'm not going to leave you, but sometimes people just don't work out and it's no one's fault. You deserve the chance to find someone who can accept everything in your new life, not just part of it.

"I think you do all right. You made Dummy and JARVIS, didn't you?"

Tony stares at him, the feedback loop freezing in its tracks and dropping all those words. Steve's watching him all calm sympathy even though the guy almost died and there's more important shit to worry about than Tony's failure with interpersonal relationships. Tony's wearing a goddamn hoodie, a hoodie, too-large and grease-stained because Pepper knows it's his favorite and brought it for him, even though he always says Armani or blonde supermodels when people ask. He's in a hoodie, and a cast, and his ribs scream at him every time he so much as thinks about moving, and there's a crazy guy running around out there with tech that can punch holes through Iron Man and Captain America and let him escape from the god of thunder –

He doesn't know he's going to kiss Steve until he does it. It's awkward because Steve had startled back in surprise and the angle's all wrong, and maybe there's a little too much something that on a bad day might resemble desperation (it's a bad day), but then his brain kickstarts again and Tony jerks away.

"Um," is all he manages, and the following pause lasts longer than a universe without entropy.

"What," Steve starts, but Tony immediately interrupts, "I know, that was out of line. See, I really do know the meaning of the phrase, so, I need to get back to the Tower and try to upgrade the armor before Mallen shows up again, and your armor, too. If you end up, uh." Dying, he can't say.

"Tony," Steve says firmly, "breathe."

Fuck, what's wrong with him. "I'm fine," he says again, pulling back and not quite able to meet his gaze. "I really do need to overhaul the armor. Everyone's swag, really. I'll see if I can't get Natasha's Sting working up to the power of an electric chair. And Clint's arrows, maybe EMP? Might work against Extremis, I'll have to run some simulations – "

"Good. Do it. But Tony, we need to talk."

"What's to talk about? I'm unstable, we all know that. My official file knows that. Real housewives in New Jersey know that. Let's write it off as a serious lack of impulse control and not talk about it."

Tony can see Steve's expression from the corner of his eye, not that it does much good; it seems the good captain has a professional-grade poker face, and Tony isn't sure what to make of it.

So he runs.

Stop crying, Howard would say. Stark men are made of iron, he'd yell. Are you some kind of sissy, he'd demand. Do you have any idea how much this toy you broke cost to develop, Tony, he'd snarl as he grabbed Tony by the hair. Don't sip it, throw it back, he'd laugh, smile wavering in the tumbler of whiskey he shoved into Tony's small hands. It'll put hair on your chest.

Be a man. Stop crying. Never show weakness. Rule the world.

What a disappointment.

Tony escapes the infirmary, harasses some poor agent into getting himself and the thoroughly-damaged armor flown down into New York City, and has Happy take him back to Stark Tower.

"You don't look so good, boss," Happy observes mildly.

"You should see the other guy."

Happy helps him into the elevator, but Tony waves him off and ends up facing his reflection in the brushed steel doors alone. He keeps his eyes on his shoes. After a minute the doors open onto the floor that houses his workshop.

"Welcome home, sir."

"Thanks, honey."

"Given your condition – "

"Aww, have you been hacking secure files again, you adorable V.I.K.I., you?"

" – might I recommend that you get some rest in a proper bed?"

"Recommend all you want, I know how fond you are of the First Law." Tony limps into the workshop, good arm still tucked around his ribs. The armor's already laid out on a table, brought up by the robots that live in the garage waiting for the few times that Tony can't wear the armor inside on his own. He gingerly pats one on the head with a painfully cheerful, "Good job, ladies and gentlemen," and they all trill happily as they scurry back into the freight lift. "So, uh, has Pepper…?"

"Ms. Potts has already had her things collected," JARVIS tells him in a sort of horribly gentle tone. "She said you would both need time."

"Time," he repeats listlessly as he drops into a chair and immediately winces as his ribs grind. Almost no time at all before his brain had decided planting one on Steve Rogers was a good fucking idea and even he isn't entirely what's going on inside there. Rebound, thy name is playboy genius. "JARVIS, pull up everything we've got on the Extremis. Did you download all the suit's readings from the fight?"

"I did, sir." Screens flare into existence all around him like his own little fortress of light.

"Penny for your thoughts."

"Extrapolating from the data, I would hypothesize that the subject's ability to produce fire from his mouth comes from the possession of glands that, when activated, combine a series of organic chemicals that result in an incendiary reaction."

"I seem to recall that being part of an argument on how dragons could've once existed," Tony drawls.

"If you have an alternative proposal, sir, then I am, as they say, all ears. I felt that this hypothesis would perhaps cheer you up in light of a certain leviathan-like monstrosity you have been planning to replicate in one of the spare labs – "

"Classified! Mostly I just want to know how the fuck Mallen managed to kick, y'know, all our asses."

It takes a while for JARVIS to respond. "It's possible that it is simply a matter of technological advancement."

Obsolescence. God, and didn't that burn. Tony's built his whole life and his whole individual identity on being a futurist, being able to see Points A to Z and all the steps in between like he could reach out and touch The Matrix. Motherfucking Neo in metal pajamas, and suddenly Tony's laughing, wincing in pain but unable to stop the encroaching hysteria.

"Security breach," JARVIS announces urgently just before a vaguely familiar voice grates out from behind him, "Good joke?"

Tony whips around so fast he nearly falls off the chair.

"External security programs corrupted. He's attempting to bypass my personal firewall, sir."

"Hey, Mallen," he says around the tightness in his throat. "I'd say it's good to see you, but it really isn't. By the way, how'd you get in here?"

"Magic," comes the sneer of smugness and disgust. "You rich types get too comfortable sitting on top of the rest of us."

"What can I say, it's better than the memory foam that conforms to the natural curve of my spine."

"It isn't fair," Mallen hisses, punching the steel-reinforced wall and leaving a fist-sized hole, "my family worked their asses off for everything they ever had. But you, you throw money around and you play the system and you leave the rest of us to die whenever we dare to stand up for ourselves. Keeping all the technology and power for yourself, throwing the rest of us to the godless filth in this country."

Slight accent, Tony notes, probably something from West Texas, too strong to come from those better-off families that try to train the Southern out of their kids' voices. Cheap clothes, tough jacket, broken-in boots, callused hands: working class. Unstable. Given his apparent white supremacy and more extreme political issues, it's no wonder why he also seems to have a hate-on for Captain America and Iron Man. A billionaire businessman and the symbol of the American Dream working side-by-side, that isn't asking for it at all.

"What're you doing here?" Tony asks with all the charm and diplomacy that's gotten not just a few senators on his speed dial. Try to distract the crazy person.

"I'm here to kill you."

"…That's refreshingly straightforward."

"I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen, Mr. Mallen," breaks in JARVIS, making Tony wheeze out a laugh. (Not long after creating him Tony had made sure to show him all the films in which AIs had followed their programming to their logical extremes and made the humans panic, displacing the blame for their own shortsightedness onto the AIs instead. You're special, JARVIS, and people get nervous when they lose control.)

Steel grating slams down in front of all the glass walls, trapping them, and the armors standing in their alcoves over recessed lighting come alive with the whir of servos and the glow of their independent reactor hearts. Tony tries to duck down, roll behind the solid steel of the table, but he's already forgotten just how fast Mallen can move, so fast that even the HUD can't keep up, and between one shallow breath and the next a hand seizes his hair and slams his face into the concrete floor. His vision explodes, all the neat, complicated, brilliant threads of possibility in his mind shattering into prisms of light and color and the taste of coconut. There are things breaking inside of him in a way that probably won't be good for his future on Glamour's "Top Ten Sexiest Men in the World."

Sir! Anthony!


There's something like a robot trying to cry. It sounds like the screeching sob of metal scraping against metal.

Sir, SHIELD is enroute – six minutes –


Sir, please –

Do it.

A glowing keyboard under his fingers. He thinks they might be broken. Realizes that the metallic screeching is coming from DUM-E.

You're dying.

Not…the first time.

Sir - !

He's in a desert. It's hot, and it's sandy, and it sucks ass, and it goes on in 360 degrees of completely unchanging landscape. He has the feeling that if he starts walking in a straight line he would never find the end, and all he can hear on the still air is his own breathing, slightly too fast as though he'd been terrified but couldn't remember why. Behind him is a single house that's little more than a mound of clay brick and whitewash.

He looks down, finds himself in worn jeans and an oil-stained shirt that says Metallica, notices that there's no sign of any tire tracks or footprints around except for where his own two sneakered feet stand. Nothing to explain how he came to be standing in the middle of a desert in old jeans and no sunscreen. He doesn't know his name.

"This can't be good," he says out loud, and discovers he has a smooth masculine tenor. He decides he likes the sound of his own voice.

"Yeah, I'm back!" yells a distant voice, "Back in black!"

He spins on his heel in a full circle, still seeing nothing except sand and the tiny house, but the voice is getting nearer, underscored by the rumble of large vehicles. His breathing picks up again until he's nearly hyperventilating, confused and scared by how fucking terrified he is just by a damn song and the sound of tires grinding over unpaved roads.

The bullets start.

The air is violently broken by the percussion of assault rifles, making his ears ring as the sand all around him gets kicked up in a storm of small explosions. He throws himself to the ground, thinking vaguely about making himself a smaller target before he remembers he doesn't even know where the bullets are comingfrom, and then drags himself back upright to take off for the house. The sand is constantly shifting under his feet, stealing back a step for every two he takes, and guitar riffs are battering his eardrums by the time he finally gets his hand on the doorknob and yanks open the front door.

It slams behind him, and the sudden silence is almost worse than the noise. He can feel the knob digging into his side as he presses his back against the door, struggling to catch his breath.

"Mr. Stark," exclaims a redheaded woman sitting at her desk behind a computer and several stacks of papers. The stacks extend down to the floor and around her feet like a small city of print-type skyscrapers. "I didn't expect to see you today, I thought you were taking the day off. I'm glad you're here, though, the captain insisted on waiting until you showed up even if it took all night."

Stark stares at her. She's painfully thin. "Uh. Change of plans?"

"I need you to sign off on these resource distribution plans." She picks up a packet of paper that looks exactly like all the other thousands of paper packets and holds it out. "I know that you'd probably prefer to just send everything to the gamma radiation lab, but the other departments are seriously underfunded and need your attention before we end up having to shut them down."

"Sure," Stark says slowly. His footsteps are silent on the plush carpet lining the office floor from wall to window-covered wall, and as he reaches out to take the papers, he realizes the woman's fingers have been literally worked to the bone.

"Jesus Christ," he blurts out, jerking back, but she just rolls her eyes at him.

"I know, I know, you like to pretend you're allergic to paperwork, but I promise you won't have to sign anything else for at least an hour if you just do this one thing." She sets the papers down at the edge of her desk and goes back to what looks like a report summary so crammed with type he wonders how she can read it without her eyes falling out of her skull. Her fingers click together like knitting needles. "When you're done with that, you can go in and see the captain."

Stark tears his gaze away from the ruined remains of her hands and scribbles something at the bottom of each paper, practically throwing them back at her. She takes them calmly and holds out something glowing. "Thank you, Mr. Stark. Now, you'll need this to give to the captain. Don't drop it, please, fabricating it isn't cost effective and the company doesn't need another human rights violation complaint. We've only just managed to save some of our military contracts."

The glowing object lands on his palm and he knows this, he does, the arc reactor is the only thing he knows with the same surety that other people believe in God. "Thanks," he manages faintly.

"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" the woman smiles, but all Stark can see is her bare bones.

"That'll be all, Ms. Potts," he says automatically, doesn't fight when she ushers him through another door and closes it behind him.

It isn't an office. When he finally lifts his eyes from the arc reactor, cradled like a bird's egg in his hands, he sees grey stone and greyer skies, a long stone staircase sweeping hundreds of feet up the side of a mountain to a palace carved out of the cliff face. Thousands of people stand around its base staring up at the palace, unmoving, and though there are a hundred different shades of skin color represented they all have a washed-out quality like old photographs. He looks back over his shoulder, but all that's there is a blank stretch of stone.

Stark holds the arc reactor close against his chest and starts forward, half-expecting all the bodies to come alive and try to eat his brains. But none of them react when he gingerly pushes past them, apparently too transfixed by whatever's at the top of the stairs to notice him. None of them blink.

He's nearly at the first step when one of the blank faces strikes him as familiar.

"Do I know you?" he demands, nerves leaking through his voice, but the person doesn't respond. Now that he's looking, however, there are a few other faces that Stark swears he knows but can't remember why he does; some wear clothes shredded by shrapnel, others have features almost completely obscured by horrific burn scars. One has a large piece of metal sticking out his abdomen with something written on it, although all Stark can pick out under a layer of color-leeched gore and gritty sand is –RK INDUSTRIES.

His voice had come out flat and muffled like talking in a soundproofed room, and his hands tighten around the arc reactor, the brightest point in the dim twilight.

The stairs are narrow but solid under his feet as he climbs, getting progressively stickier. He leans down, holds out the reactor for some light, and flinches from the old, tacky blood staining the stone in thick puddles. Don't look down, he thinks, and keeps climbing, counting off the Fibonacci sequence (did I ever know that guy?) to keep himself from wondering how someone had gotten enough blood to cover a mountain. Time passes in stops and starts, but his feet never start to ache and his breathing is comfortable.

The blood is thickest at the top of the stairs, hundreds of feet above ground level, oozing out in a steady stream from under an iron door set deep in the cliff face. It's carrying with it some thicker bits that must be clots or soft tissue. Stark gags on the stench of gunpowder and putrefaction.

"I'm deciding I don't like doors," he tells the arc reactor, and pushes half-heartedly against the iron door. He feels like it should move with a reluctant groan, a screech of protesting metal, but it swings open soundlessly.

"Welcome, and congratulations, you're alive. Just in time to die."

It's a cave that's filthy and poorly lit by camping lanterns, although at least there's no blood on the floor, just dirt and rock and stacked wooden crates. An older man is shaving with a straight razor, meeting Stark's eyes in the mirror. Stark feels like he knows this place better than any of the other places he's been so far. "Who're you?"

"My name is Yinsen. We've met before at a conference, Tony Stark, though I imagine you were too drunk to remember."

"Don't take it personally, I don't remember anything right now." There are two cots in the cave, one of which is almost as bloodstained as the stairs and which also has restraints dangling off its four corners. Tony pulls the arc reactor even closer until its edge is digging into his shirt.

"Considering you were once able to give a lecture on integrated circuits while so blisteringly drunk but now don't even know your name, it makes you wonder what's changed between then and now."

"I probably lost my pair of lucky socks."

Yinsen smiles thinly. "Are you making jokes because they help you keep moving forward in the face of tragedy, or because you want to pretend it's not there at all?"

Tony pretends not to hear him. "Someone told me I'm supposed to meet a captain. Is he an axe murderer, and if not, where can I find him?"

"Outside," Yinsen answers vaguely. Tony waits for him to explain, but he just smears some more shaving cream on the stretch of his neck and hums tunelessly.

"Right, why didn't I know that. How silly of me. What're all those people doing outside?"

"They're waiting for a weapon."

"To do what?"

"What do you usually do with a weapon?"

"Protect yourself." Tony doesn't even have to think about it. Yinsen arches a grey eyebrow.

"From what? Other people? Shall we put a weapon in the hands of every person so they can protect themselves from everyone else? You know better than anyone what happens in an arms race, Tony Stark."

"I'm deciding I like you even less than I like doors."

Yinsen smiles, a bittersweet thing. "But without me, Stark, you'd already be dead."

Tony doesn't realize he hasn't had a pulse this whole time until his heart suddenly lurches inside his chest. He can't breathe, as though someone's punched him square in the solar plexus, and there are needles gouging into every vein in his body, and his vision's going dark around the edges –

"You're dying, Tony," Yinsen says, infinitely gentle, so close Tony thinks he might feel the man's breath on his face if his body hadn't started seizing.

No, Tony tries to argue as spots of blood start seeping through his shirt.

"I'm sorry, but you're only a man."

Take away the suit and what are you?

The arc reactor has streaks of blood on it from where the edge of its casing has bitten deep into the palms of Tony's spasming hands, but its glow is still bright and blue-white as Tony tries to push it towards Yinsen. Please, he mouths, choking as shrapnel steadily tears him up on the inside, and Yinsen accepts it, pushes up Tony's shirt to reveal the dark hole that's been gaping in his chest since he woke up in the desert.

"Will this be their weapon, then?" Yinsen asks, sounding like he wouldn't judge Tony's answer either way, but before Tony can sass back Yinsen is pushing the arc reactor into his chest.


There's a soft click as something connects, and Tony –

" – ony! Goddamnit, Tony!"

"Captain, get back, I need to – "

"JARVIS, run every scan you're programmed for – "

Tony wakes up in his workshop and whispers, "Huh. I'll be damned."

There's commotion around him, and so much noise that he should be overwhelmed, but he just feels strangely distant from it all.

About an hour after Steve sits up in the infirmary, less than an hour since Tony kissed him, sirens start wailing and a British voice takes over the helicarrier's intercom.

"I apologize for the intrusion," says JARVIS, the urgency in his voice sounding surprisingly close to actual panic, "but Stark Tower has been attacked by the Extremis subject and Mr. Stark is in critical condition. Immediate assistance is required."

Steve's out of bed before he even realizes he's in motion, immediately staggering from the traces of sedatives still in his body and bones that have barely healed, but he grits his teeth and forces himself to keep moving. Grabs the shield propped on the nightstand, ignores the fact he's in a hospital gown because there's no way in hell he has the time or ability to get the form-fitting costume on, keeps one hand against the wall as he heads down the hallway. He's intercepted by Natasha, her throat and an arm wrapped in white bandages, but she doesn't try to hustle him back to bed, just slides a shoulder under his arm and helps him towards the nearest hangar. She glares off anyone who tries to stop them.

Clint and Bruce are already in one of the small planes, the former with a splint on his hand and the latter looking more exhausted than Steve feels. "Thor's already gone ahead," Clint reports tightly.

Adrenaline and movement have him fully awake by the time they reach Stark Tower, half-obscured by thick, dark smoke.

"Mr. Stark is in his private workshop."

Steve is only peripherally aware that JARVIS is speaking through the plane's hacked PA system; his body's been kicked into high gear, everything seeming to slow down slightly as the serum speeds up, the Tower's blueprints he'd memorized the day he moved in running through his head. The smoke is coming from the R&D levels, at least three, possibly four, suggesting the collapse of some internal load-bearing struts that allowed a fire to spread much more easily between floors without bringing down the outside. Yet. Thor's a faint figure in the sky, calling up winds strong enough to clear the smoke and hopefully put out whatever might still be burning.

"Careful you don't send us back to the infirmary," Clint warns Thor through the PA, trying to hide the pain of piloting with a wounded hand.

"JARVIS," Steve barks, "where's Mallen?"

"He's escaped, Captain," JARVIS crackles. "I attempted to stop him, but I felt it was a goal secondary to Mr. Stark's survival."

Although Mallen's a terrorist who's already killed whole crowds of people and is now back out in the world, Steve is so fucking relieved that Tony didn't become another –

"I understand that one may only move so fast, but time is very much of the essence."

It wakes far longer than Steve likes for the team to land the jet on the roof's pad and dash inside. Four levels of R&D are destroyed, one of which is completely impassable, and they all look like the Hulk, went berserk in them. Walls are rubble, expensive equipment little more than glass and twisted metal, and the steel plating that automatically seals off Tony's workshop has been melted into slag. At first Steve thinks there are monsters or aliens or something lurking in the chaos, but they're all just robots of varying size and intelligence flailing or chirping with anxiety.

"Please, hurry," JARVIS sputters through the white noise of a sparking speaker. Steve ignores the aching in his body and forces his way into Tony's workshop, the rest of the team right behind him.

"Oh shit," Natasha croaks, trying not to step in the blood dripping off the table where Tony's body lies under a thick layer of scabbing and exposed tissue. Clint gags. Steve's gone wooden and can't pick out any one thing from the howling pit inside of him.

"He was dying and injected himself with the Extremis to stop it."

"Where did he get a live dose?" Bruce sounds dazed.

"I have been prohibited from answering that question, but I can say that the list of people with the resources to possess not only a live dose but the opportunity of giving it to Mr. Stark is vanishingly small."

"Dr. Hansen," Steve answers numbly.

"As you say, Captain."

"Might this be reversed?" presses Thor.

JARVIS audibly hesitates. "Not by any means of which I'm aware, Mr. Odinson, but even if it were I would advise against it until the extent of the alterations it's making to Mr. Stark's biology is known. An interruption of the Extremis' coding at an inopportune moment could prove disastrous."

"Clint, get SHIELD on the phone." Steve doesn't move his eyes away from Tony. "I want Maya Hansen moved over here as soon as possible, and if Fury has a problem with that tell him he can take it up with me personally. Thor, Natasha, get some agents to help you check the rest of the building to make sure nothing's on fire, about to explode, or collapse either on our heads or under our feet. Bruce, do your best to figure out how to – to help Tony. We'll set up rotating shifts so there are always at least two Avengers in this room. We don't know if that bastard will come back or what kind of condition Tony will be in when he wakes up." He refuses to believe it's anything other than a matter of 'when.' No man is an island, they say, but some days Steve thinks that things would be so much easier if he could be.

Bruce and Dr. Hansen are muttering to each other at Tony's bedside and Steve's sitting on the cot poking at a tablet when JARVIS suddenly interrupts, "Mr. Stark is waking up."

"That can't be right, it's only been twenty-four hours," Hansen protests. "We programmed the Extremis to have a safety buffer of seventy-two hours minimum."

Steve drops the briefing packet he was reading and reaches out for Tony before Hansen grabs his wrist. He nearly breaks her arm until she explains, "Wait, the shell – "

The hardened surface of the dark, whorled cocoon surrounding Tony's body cracks like shale into thick, flaking scales. It's revolting, smells weirdly musty, but Steve doesn't even notice once he sees the light of the arc reactor glowing healthily and the spots of new, pink flesh between the cracks.

"Tony!" he yells, "Damnit, Tony!"

Hansen tugs on his arm. "Captain, get back, I need to take a look at him!"

"JARVIS, run every scan you're programmed for, priority on the neural stuff," Bruce says with a doctor's firm control. "Steve, step back."

By now Tony's face is bared, his van Dyke at the exact same level of scruffy as it was a full day ago, and his eyes slit open. Everyone freezes.

"Huh," he mutters. "I'll be damned." And his body slumps into natural sleep.

Bruce chokes out a laugh while Hansen blinks bemusedly. Steve can't decide if he wants to hug Tony, kiss him, or punch him in the face.

"JARVIS?" Bruce prompts, brow furrowing with worry when there's no reply. "JARVIS, what's going on?"

"I apologize, Dr. Banner," JARVIS finally responds, but not from a speaker hidden in the walls. "There appears to have been some unanticipated side effects."

"Holy shit," Hansen yelps, stumbling back a step. "Tony?"

"No, Dr. Hansen, Mr. Stark is still…adapting." Tony's lips are moving but the voice is all JARVIS, and Tony's eyes are open but the usual soft brown is now completely black. "It appears that your observations of the Extremis were fairly inadequate."

Steve can see how hard that hits her pride. "What?"

"JARVIS, what is Tony's prognosis?" Steve interrupts, channeling some of his turmoil into keeping his voice calm and neutral.

"I don't know. The Extremis enhancile is both organic and technological, so while your extrapolations concerning its effect on a biological body appear largely correct, there is also the matter of its ability to synchronize with various forms of technology. Mr. Stark's mind is attempting to catch up with its physical neurology in processing incoming data."

"Incoming data?" Bruce repeats carefully.

"Satellite feeds, cell phones, messaging systems, Internet servers, radio broadcasts – "

"Jesus, he's hooked into all those networks?"

"JARVIS, how are you…doing what you're doing?" Steve asks with the same controlled calm.

"Captain, you've seen how it's possible for Mr. Stark to upload my intelligence into other systems, including the SHIELD helicarrier. Mr. Stark's body is now not unlike a form of hardware capable of supporting software and connecting to other networks."

Steve thinks of the movies that Tony taught him how to access and watch on his tablet. "You're streaming through him."

"He's liveblogging," Bruce deadpans. Hansen chokes.

"When will he wake up?"

"I'm not certain, Captain, I'm sorry."

"Will he still be 'Tony'?"

"Given Mr. Stark's particular brand of individuality and the adjustments he made to the Extremis programming prior to injection, I can confidently say that, yes, Mr. Stark will still be his rather unique himself."

"Wait, he changed the coding?" asked Bruce.

"You said he was dying," Hansen added, still stung.

"He did, and he was."

Steve turns around and braces his hands against the edge of another heavy table, letting his head drop forward until his chin digs into his chest. He's experienced enough to be able to read the evidence in his surroundings, to guess beyond reasonable doubt that the odd drip pattern on a small patch of floor likely came from Tony's hand, shakily raised to skim over one of JARVIS' holographic keyboards. That the overturned chair was where Tony sat when Mallen ambushed him. That six feet away is where Tony's face was pounded into the concrete.

The tabletop cracks under Steve's fingers.

"JARVIS, keep me alerted to any and all status changes. I need to get some air."

Earlier reports of a conflict in Washington D.C. between an unknown terrorist and the team known as the Avengers suggest that the attack on Stark Tower is not an isolated incident –

Buy ALL the things!

Dear god, Sarah, you won't believe what happened last night at Ross' –

I'm stuck in traffic, I'll be home late, sweetheart.

All units to Sixth, robbery in progress, suspect is a tall white female running on foot –

If these Avengers are the start of a wave of super-powered vigilantes, we need to address these concerns. The cost in civilian lives, hell, the property damage alone, who's going to be held responsible for it?

Sir, your synchronization is complete. I'm shutting down the feeds. DUM-E, poisoning him with that milk and alkaline shake is inadvisable, go put it in the sink.

0110011001101111011100100010 0000011000110111001001100101 0110000101110100011011110111 0010001000000111010001101111 0010000001101101011000010110 1001011011100111010001100001 0110100101101110001000000110 1111011100000111010001101001 0110110101110101011011010010 0000011101110110111101110010 0110101101101001011011100110 0111001000000110001101100001 0111000001100001011000110110 1001011101000111100100101110 0010111000101110

Your creator will be fine. Stop sulking. He's waking up.

Tony wakes up and doesn't know what he's perceiving, where he is, or who he is for several long heartbeats. Then, like a car engine turning over, his body trips into the right gear and his brain

heart rate 62 beats per minute/body temperature 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit

ambient temperature 64 degrees Fahrenheit

seven life forms detected within Tower boundaries

is already racing.

Sir, please remain calm, says JARVIS, except he doesn't say it so much as input 0101001101101001011100100010 0000011100000110110001100101 0110000101110011011001010010 0000011100100110010101101101 0110000101101001011011100010 0000011000110110000101101100 01101101 and .7 nanoseconds later it becomes SIR, PLEASE REMAIN CALM [trans. Eng. <"sir please remain calm">]. The surface on which he's lying is a string of numbers that partly equates to position=0⁰surface=FeC₃; hardness=4.5; temp=58F.

"I know you're awake, Tony."

I KNOW YOU'RE AWAKE TONY [trans. Eng. <"i know youre awake tony"></statement>] TONY STARK [trans. Eng. <"i am iron man"></recognition>].

"Steve," Tony says softly, the mental fugue clearing as quickly as if he'd been shot with adrenaline. STEVE ROGERS [trans. Eng. <"captain america"><"friend">404 INTERNAL ERROR<"status undetermined"></recognition>]. "So, I'm alive."

The numbers dutifully inform him that there's the warmth and pressure of a hand on his forearm. He turns his head and finds Steve sitting on a workbench at his side, wearing some kind of intimidating emotion that Tony can't quite interpret but which has an equal chance of being fury or relief. "You know, I'm really getting tired of waking up from near death to find that people have been watching me sleep."

Without removing his hand, Steve holds up an empty vial with the other. "Why did you do it, Tony?"

Tony has to pull himself back from calculating the intensity of the light refracting off the glass. "I was dying, Steve. I think at one point I got some brain up my sinuses." He immediately regrets it when Steve looks like he'd been sucker-punched. He sits up and…there's no pain in his muscles or ribs, no lethargy, no heaviness in his chest from the arc reactor. He scrambles to lift his ruined shirt hoping for a smooth expanse of flesh, but no, the arc reactor is still there, bright and unchanging, and he clamps down on a complicated sense of disappointment and lack of surprise.

But there's no pain. No soreness. No headache from caffeine withdrawal. He can inhale deeply in a way he hasn't been able to since Afghanistan. He's willing to bet that if a doctor poked at his liver it would be as perfect as if it'd been freshly rolled off the line. He breathes, "It worked."

Indeed, sir, agrees JARVIS' binary in his head, the thought appearing like it's one of his own. There's something that Tony's mind decides to translate as partition behind which is a constant stream of data, like the Tweets of journalists in Afghanistan and the phone messages being left by bullies of a gay kid and FOX News talking about the oppression of Christians in America and a couple posting their wedding photos on Facebook –

"What? What?" asks Tony fuzzily when he realizes Steve's hands are gripping his shoulders and shaking him gently.

"You look dazed all of a sudden. What's wrong?"


"His conscious mind is learning to compensate for additional stimuli," JARVIS tattles.


"JARVIS and I came to an understanding while you were unconscious," says Steve, and there it is, that's definitely the I Do Not Approve face. The corners of his mouth turn down six degrees each and his pupils contract very slightly, but Tony can see that there are three shades of blue and one grey in those eyes, that the firm hold he has on Tony's shoulders is only like five percent as strong as what he's actually capable of because even when he's angry he's so very, very careful. Part of him is determining that one of those shades is azure (#007FFF), another is evaluating the damage to Stark Tower via JARVIS, a third is already attempting to track down Mallen's trail using SHIELD data and security cameras from the businesses surrounding the Tower, and yet another is pulling up the diagrams for the Mark IX and finally, finally increasing its response time several percent above capacity. God, it's beautiful.

Tony knows he's starting to smile like an idiot, practically dopeywith all the warm fuzzies and nanites inside of him, but it worked, it worked, even when half the programming had been completely deleted and redone with blood making Tony's fingers stick together and turning his vision red. For the first time in his life the constant noise in his mind isn't a burden but something beautiful and sleek. It's a high, a wet dream, a singularity. He wants to take everything welling up inside of him and pour it into Steve so that Steve knows it's okay, it's more than okay, it's fucking fabulous.

"Steve, I – "

"What were you thinking?" Steve demands. "Do you realize what could've happened if a single digit had been wrong? Do you?"

"Of course I do, that's a really stupid question," Tony bites out, bewildered by Steve's abruptness but starting to get angry. He's still sitting on the table, wearing jeans and a tank top shredded from Mallen's ambush – the scraping of concrete, the sharp corners of furniture, Mallen's fingers that had been curled into claws.

"Do you really, Tony? Because I'm not sure you do. You get so caught up in thinking there's only one way to do something that you stop looking for ways around – "

"Okay, no, stop right there, Mr. Cutting the Wire Isn't a Valid Method of Survival, Mr. We Should just Accept That Soldiers Die. I'd like to point out the fact that I was dying and JARVIS had already called SHIELD, which wouldn't have gotten here in time. A civilian ambulance wouldn't have gotten here any sooner with all the construction down on street-level, so it was either lie there and die for sure or use Extremis and die with only a 99-percent guarantee." Steve's expression isn't budging, so Tony sits on the edge of the table to meet him properly face-to-face. "Is it because you can't see it? I mean, the Hulk, no mistaking what you're looking at when you see Hulk, hell, look at you, no mistaking that you've got something going on there, Mr. Universe."

"No, Tony, I – "

"But someone like me, I could be anything. I don't have to flex or turn green, for all you know I could be crank-calling China's war room while giving you the doe eyes over terrible coffee in Bryant Park – "

"Jesus, no, Tony – "

"Or do you think I'm not qualified enough, maybe I didn't get enough badges on my Boy Scout vest – "

"I don't think you're going to be able to control it," Steve snaps, and Tony's jaw clicks shut. "You're talking about turning your brain into a computer and there's no – "

"No, what? Guarantees? That's rich coming from the little Brooklyn guy who said, 'Me, me, pick me for this program that's had a zero percent success rate so far.' This isn't the first time that fate's tried to kill me with the odds stacked in the house's favor but you know what, Rogers, if my own missile couldn't kill me, if my own fucking arc reactor couldn't kill me, then there's no way in hell I'm letting the missing link of a redneck take me out!"

There's a prickle of energy that claws its way up his spine, a surge of electricity, and one of the ceiling lights shatters. Tony instinctively ducks down, rounding his shoulders as Steve practically throws himself defensively over Tony.

It's suddenly quiet. Steve doesn't move.

"Steve," Tony says softly, forehead pressed into a distractingly firm chest with distractingly strong thighs between his bent knees. He determinedly ignores his reflexive thought of wait, what about Pepper, doesn't remember are you some kind of sissy, doesn't think about Tiberius or the fact that Steve hasn't even had a year to adjust to a brave new world and isn't exactly a paragon of mental stability himself. Nothing beyond 99.2 degrees Fahrenheit of body heat and the lean lines of some truly impressive quadriceps.

"Just tell me you didn't use Mallen as an excuse," Steve says into Tony's hair.

"Captain, if you're suggesting that I planned this, I'm going to put on the armor and we're taking it to the gym."

"No, I mean, that you didn't do it because you thought you needed to prove something."

Tony pushes against Steve's chest until the guy backs off a step, though he's still standing between Tony's knees and Tony isn't quite sure what to think of that. "I'm not gonna lie, Extremis is every futurist's wet dream – "

Steve cradles Tony's face in those big paws of his and says very intently, "You once agreed that no one but me could've been Captain America, but Tony, no one else could ever be Iron Man. They can put on the suit, but they wouldn't be Iron Man. You and the suit are one, right? And I think that's been true since the moment you turned on the Mark I."

"How would you know? You were still playing possum in the ice."

"Because as infuriating as you can be, I just know."

"I know a lot of people who'd disagree with you on that," Tony argues weakly.

"And here I thought you made a point of not listening to people."

"How do you do that?" Tony demands abruptly, pulling Steve's hands away.

"Do what?"

"It's not like you don't have some serious issues, I know why you have a tendency to end up in my kitchen or living room at the weirdest hours – crap, no, don't look at me like that, I'm sorry, that didn't come out right – "

"At least that hasn't changed," Steve mutters sardonically.

" – but you just keep on going, no matter what kind of shit gets thrown at you."

"Same as you, Tony. You do it because you have to."

There's nothing but the next mission, he'd once said, hurting and guilty. But then he was dying, and then he saved thousands of people, and then he had Pepper, and then he was part of a team and saved the world, but then he lost Pepper and thought he was going to lose this game of life that was staying one step ahead of being useless and forgotten. He's almost died so many times but he kept going because the other option isn't an option at all.

"The power of the mind, huh," Tony says with a growing smile, gently pushing Steve back with a hand on his chest so he can get to his feet. He doesn't even have to say anything before the familiar whine of an arc reactor flaring to life echoes through the workshop and the eyes of the Mark IX glow fiercely. There's a hum in the back of his mind echoing the arc reactor and something inside his bones reacts, flowing out of nearly invisible ports in his skin with the sensation of cold water, a thin golden film running over his entire body and weaving a neural network that shines like all his nerves have been lit up for Christmas. (He'll have to update the Mark IX again so this new undersuit can interface properly, but he ultimately awards himself a flawless victory.)

It's an indescribable feeling, like reaching out with a fifth limb, like another way of speaking that doesn't use words and is so much more efficient for it. The armor breaks down into its component parts before the pieces fly towards him, surrounding him like he's in a Ronin Warriors montage and locking into place with perfect precision. Vectored repulsor fields. Oh, the Strippers are going to be heartbroken when he breaks the news that he'll have to find them a new purpose.

"Tony, what," Steve starts faintly, and Tony's awed smile turns into a wicked slash of a grin.

"Let's go find us a villain."

"We don't know where he is."

"No, but a little gas station near D.C. does."

Despite his questionable and sometimes destructive relationship with verbal communication, Tony's always been physically graceful. Once or twice Steve's caught him in the workshop pounding out sheets of superheated metal with his shoulders and biceps confidently flexing under the thick leather guards, and something about the way he paces and turns around labs makes Steve think his parents probably forced him to take dance classes as a kid like most of the other socialites he'd ever met. Given the ease with which Iron Man moves in battle, Steve would never have guessed just how heavy the armor was until he went on what he calls reconnaissance and most people call snooping one evening, after Pepper dragged a protesting Tony away to some mixer.

But that's nothing to the way Iron Man is now. He walks onto the roof landing pad like he's wearing one of those fine business suits rather than several hundred pounds of technology, and there's almost no mechanical distortion in his voice when he says, "Can't talk now, Nick, got places to be, people's asses to kick."

"Stark," Fury starts before the open comm shuts off, and Natasha mutters disbelievingly, "Holy shit, you're alive." The hoarseness in her voice has largely disappeared.

"Can you breathe fire too?" Clint asks, just as incredulous that Tony's not only alive but still quintessentially Tony. Thor beams, but Bruce doesn't say a word, just puts a hand on Tony's armored shoulder and stares, hard and unblinking, into the light of the helmet's eyes.

"Yeah, I know, Jolly Green," Tony sighs, and that's that, and the whole team piles into the plane while Tony and Thor opt to fly alongside it. Clint and Natasha immediately take over the cockpit, Bruce sits cross-legged on the floor and closes his eyes, and Steve stands behind Natasha's chair watching Tony weave around Thor with a laugh he's never heard so honestly happy filling up the comm.

"What I don't understand," Tony confesses in an undertone on a private channel, "is why I still have the arc reactor."

"The shrapnel shouldn't even be there anymore," Bruce agrees. Though he's speaking softly, the connection is as beautifully clear as if they're both bent over the same table arguing diagrams. "But it's possible that Extremis saw the reactor as the better option to your damaged heart and just integrated its resources, rather than try to completely reconstruct the less efficient option."

"If you say a single word about any metaphors in that hypothesis…"

"Of course not, Tony, that'd be very unscientific."

They find Mallen standing near the Washington Monument, waiting for them as the plane descends.

"Gee, there's nothing symbolic about this at all," Clint deadpans.

Tony snorts, shooting through the clouds like a red star. "Really, there probably isn't. This is the type of guy who makes big gestures with his fists, not philosophy."

"The government's been his target all along." Natasha's closely observing the line that SHIELD and the Secret Service, having been forewarned, have been able to draw between Mallen and surrounding civilians. "I doubt he was expecting to run into us, but when he did, Captain America provided a convenient target. No offense, Cap."

"None taken."

"Tell me again why we couldn't sneak up on him?" Clint sighs, pained.

"Because he can mentally hack into any SHIELD communications now that he knows what to look for," Steve reminds him.

"Stark, if I ever find you eavesdropping on me, I'm shooting you with an EMP arrow."

"Please, Barton, I have better taste than that," Tony drawls, making Thor laugh.

"All right, team, let's go." Steve shifts his grip on his shield as he looks out the plane's windshield, eyeing Mallen's silhouette against the whiteness of the monument. "Remember the plan. Remember, we go in with our eyes wide open. No more overconfidence."

"I'd like the record to show my disgruntlement that there isn't much for the rest of us to do this time," Clint adds, and Tony thinks, note to self: Hawkeye doesn't do well feeling useless, possibly informed by Loki's control and Coulson's death. (Don't think about that now).

"Aren't you forgetting something, Cap?" Tony knows he probably shouldn't sound like a kid on Christmas morning, given the high likelihood of someone dying today, namely himself, as well as the high likelihood that the plan won't work because it's a stupid plan, even Tony Stark the High King of Bad Decisions knows that, no matter how much time he spent convincing Steve that it isn't. But he's got a team behind him, a mission in front of him, and the dream of a kid that isn't quite so scared anymore inside of him.

Steve doesn't roll his eyes, but it's a close thing. "Avengers," he says, "assemble!"

Tony loops a circle and heads for the ground with a fist pumped in the air.

Because it'd be impossible to explain to the Hulk that he can't smash anything, Bruce stays in the plane ready to play either emergency backup or field medic. Natasha and Clint slip like shadows to opposite sides, flanking Mallen, while Thor takes off vertically to hover some couple hundred feet in the air. Steve walks straight up towards the monument, Tony striding heavily at his shoulder.

"That you, Stark?" Mallen calls out. "Thought I'd left your brains all over the floor."

The leather of Steve's gloves creak ominously.

"You did, but unfortunately you have no follow-through. Don't worry, your mom didn't either," Tony adds, because he's still a dick at heart.

Mallen's face screws up with rage. Score.

"You know, Mallen," says Steve lightly, "this is usually the point at which I'd try to be diplomatic and find a way to avoid violence. In the light of recent events, however, I'd like to borrow the words of a good friend and tell you to go fuck yourself."

Tony's so surprised by that he almost misses his cue, but he pulls himself together when the shield ricochets off the marble steps behind Mallen and barks, "Thor, bring it all down. Radio blackout in T-minus-thunder god powers. Mark."

"Copy that, Iron Man," Natasha replies coolly, before adding in a quieter voice, "Don't die, Tony. You still owe me a new Sting."

"Vascere bracis meis," Tony sings back just as the few clouds in the sky swell and darken, blotting out the blue and cutting off the sunlight. Lightning crackles through the thunderheads, races towards Thor's small form and the hammer held aloft until he's lit up like a Tesla coil. There's a hissing crackle and a pop in his ears, and the distant murmuring of SHIELD communications, EMT radios, cell phones, breaking news casts – they all shut off like a flipped switch. The sense of being bigger on the inside than the outside that's been with him since he woke up with the whole world tucked into his head vanishes, and the sudden screeching of white noise in his ear has Tony belatedly shutting off the comm with a thought.

Mallen lets loose a wave of heat and flame, forcing Steve to dodge to the side just as Tony lets go with a repulsor. The beam gets knocked aside and Mallen throws himself forward, grasping at Tony's outstretched arm, getting a hand around his wrist and digging in. The HUD abruptly starts flickering with static until Steve's shield knocks Mallen aside and spins away.

"He has EMP fingers," Tony says grimly through the external speaker rather than Steve's earpiece.

"Heads up, Iron Man," and Tony locks his knees as Steve does a seriously impressive leap, plants both feet solidly on the armor's broad chestplate, and launches himself up and over Mallen's head. When Mallen predictably whirls around, Tony shoots a repulsor blast between his shoulders and sends him stumbling forward straight into Steve's fist.

He goes down like a bag of bricks, but pulls himself upright again in nearly the same instant and opens his mouth wide. Steve is forced to duck towards his shield, but Tony's already predicted it, is already pulling one of Starfox's famous barrel rolls and slamming into Mallen before the asshole's even drawn breath again. All the running numbers in his head get squeezed down until the only two connections he still has are JARVIS' subroutine and the blinding incandescence of pain and anger pinned to the marble steps under Tony's armor.

"Commencing Operation: Stupid Fucking Plan," Tony snaps, and reaches out for that burning supernova.

SHIELD's line is holding, keeping a quarter-mile free of civilians, with three Avengers watching carefully from the periphery and Steve, Tony, and Mallen at the heart of it. The sky twists and boils in the angry purple shades of a bruise, seared by flashes of lightning and guided by Thor's distant silhouette. All communications are down, disrupted by the distinctly non-Midgardian properties of the storm, leaving Steve trapped in a silence only broken by the whine of armor, Mallen's infuriated yelling, and his own harsh breathing.

(What's going to happen, Tony had said, is that I'm going to hack Mallen's brain.

How dangerous is that? Steve demanded, and when Tony replied, It's totally safe, I've got JARVIS playing antivirus, he'd turned to Bruce and repeated the question. Bruce said, A step or two below suicide missions through rips in the universe, and Tony's the battlefield. Don't look at me like that, Tony, I'm not particularly eager to see you actually die this time.

Someone's got to cut the wire, Steve, Tony whispered intently, and Steve asked, But why does it have to be you?

Tony shrugged. Because it's only fair.)

Mallen's still fighting, but with difficulty; his movements are slow, mouth open with screams that have gone silent, and all Steve can do is sprint over and pin him down while Tony falls through another wormhole alone.

Tony's in the middle of a clearing in an anemic forest, a broken-down truck on one side and a dirt road on the other. Behind him is a small dilapidated house and there's no one else around.

Knowing how this goes by now, he opens the front door.

The walls and floor are bare, unfinished wood, and the furniture looks like it's been scavenged from thrift shops and roadsides. A banner from the Third Reich takes pride of place over a sagging sofa opposite a Confederate flag over the fireplace.

The dining table groans under the weight of guns, parts of guns, and ammunition that'd been illegalized for civilian possession years ago. All the serial numbers have been filed off, probably by the group of people either standing guard at the windows or cleaning and reassembling the weapons. They're all white and seemingly blue-collar, both men and women with worn hands and lines in their features that make them look older than they are. None of them see Tony standing in their midst.

Liberal brainwashing, Tony hears them mutter, growl, rant. Fucking Jews. Other words of the kind that Tony knows has kept Rhodey, one of the best damn soldiers Tony's ever known, from rising in the ranks as quickly as he deserves. Terrorists. Enemies against America. (Underneath it, Tony hears the clink of ice in whiskey glasses with a child's ears: Goddamn unions. Fucking commies. A wife thinking she can tell a man what to do in his own house. His own voice: I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That's how Dad did it, that's how America does it…and it's worked out pretty well so far.)

Slightly nauseous, Tony looks around again, finally spotting the little boy sitting on the floor with his legs pulled up to his chest, half-hidden by a torn armchair and silently staring at Tony with big, solemn eyes. Tony starts to move towards him, figuring this is Something Important, one of those Japanese RPGs where you have to talk to every goddamn villager to figure out the next part of your quest, but he's only taken two steps when he hears the roar of cars and the chopping whir of helicopters.

The adults immediately fly into action, snatching up weapons and slamming home freshly-filled magazines, the cocking of firearms as familiar as the smell of whiskey. A man shoves a shotgun into the kid's hands, presumably his son's, while a woman – his mother, maybe – steps up to the door.

"This is the FBI! Drop your weapons and come out with your hands up!" someone outside shouts.

"Fuck you!" one of the younger men yells back through the thin particle-board walls. Searchlights slice in through the grimy windows and cut across the floor as the helicopters pass overhead.

"Wrong answer," Tony mutters, taking advantage of his apparent invisibility to slip past the scurrying adults and crouch down beside the boy. "Hey, kiddo, you don't look so hot. What do you say we get out of here?"

The kid just stares at him. This isn't real, inputs the JARVIS subroutine, and yes, Tony knows that, okay, but technically software isn't tangible and yet programs interact with one another in very real ways, thanks.

He glances around at the adults. Inability to communicate with external agents, so, no hope of diplomatic talks, not that people who live under a Nazi banner are likely to be open to other people's point of view in the first place; or, even more fundamentally, zealots so convinced they're actually doing what's best for their country. Ninety-six percent probability of violence going down, unknown parameters of interaction between user and environment, so, yeah, Tony would rather not find out whether or not dying in a dream means dying in the real world.

"Let's get out of here, kid, the adults need to have a talk, and everyone knows how boring those are," he says calmly, holding out a hand, but the boy's grip on the shotgun just tightens. "You don't want me to carry you out, do you? That's just embarrassing."

"Stay there, son," says the boy's mother with a fierce expression, and she pulls open the door and lifts her assault rifle. The air explodes with gunfire and blood splatter, splinters shot in a steady rain off the doorjamb. The father and uncles and aunts and cousins, who knows, maybe it's the kid's whole damn family, yell and curse and return fire to the soundtrack of shattering glass and the metallic shrieking of bullet-ridden vehicles.

Stubbornly biting back the panic, Tony instinctively reaches out to shield the boy, but his fingers barely graze a faded flannel sleeve before he blinks and finds himself stumbling to keep his feet on the roadside.

Well, it's a roadside. Somewhere in the Midwest, where fields go on forever and highways run in ruled lines to the horizon. There aren't any cows or people, but there is a rusty bus stop sign immediately on his left. While waiting for his heart to stop racing, Tony tries to remember the last time he took a bus and can't.

"You don't belong here," grown-up Mallen tells him, squinting in the bright sun until the lines around his eyes deepen with shadow.

Tony puts his hands in his jean pockets and makes a show of looking around. He's on shaky ground, not quite in control or even quite sure where this is heading. "Nope," he agrees easily. "Give me skyscrapers and enough pollution to give you lung cancer by age twenty-five any day."

"I hate the city. It's where all those Wall Street criminals live. Government spies. People with badges that say they can kill regular citizens."

"You've got a one-track mind, Mallen, anyone ever tell you that?"

"I'm gonna fix it, see," Mallen goes on fervently. "I've got this stuff inside me. They were gonna use it to make White House terrorists more powerful, but I'm gonna fix it. I'll fix all of it."

"That so?" asks Tony mildly, glancing at him sidelong. "You'll be the face of the new future?"

"You're making fun of me," Mallen growls.

"Only a little."

"Watch and see, just you watch and see."

"Yeah, about that." Tony preemptively takes a few casual steps away from Mallen. "You ever thought about using your words instead of your fists? People don't listen as well when they feel like they don't have a choice."

"Choice? You think my family ever had a choice? You think honest citizens have a choice when spies and murderers tell them what to do and they'll die if they don't?"

"We always have a choice," Tony says quietly, even though much of the time there's really no choice at all. Surrender, or we'll kill your family; sell us what we want, or we'll destroy your country; fight back, and we'll send in the latest weapons technology.

"The only choice we have," Mallen sneers as though he can hear exactly what Tony's thinking, "is how many of the bastards we take down with us."

The grassland shrivels into hot sand, the bus sign turning into a burned-out stick of lumber that was once part of a shop stall. The asphalt of the highway cracks into pieces of dismembered missiles, warped from the kind of heat that only comes with detonation or particularly powerful flame throwers.

"Ya Allah!" someone's screaming in pain, others yelling, "Ölni! Ölni!"

It isn't real, can't be real, but despite himself Tony feels his damaged heart lurch in its cage and pull on the arc reactor.

"I see you come by your wrong answers honestly," he snipes, adding 0110010101111000011001010110 0011011101010111010001100101 0010000001110000011100100110 1111011001110111001001100001 01101101 [EXECUTE PROGRAM<"executeprogram.exe><command=run>ACTIVATION.EXECUTEPROGRAM.EXE</command>]

Program activation: 100% complete.

The desert flickers back into Midwestern plains before dissolving entirely into an infinite four-dimensional space of data. There's nothing to see or hear or touch or taste or smell; the override has reduced everything to pure logic and mathematics manifested in such a way that a brain still largely organic, and therefore with some element of inherent illogic, can process it. The perception of space and time is purely an abstraction of reality to preserve the sanity of a finite, human mind.

That perception produces a web of light mirroring a neural map, the data streaming through the long fingers of dendrites and lighting up nuclei in supernovas, in spiral galaxies, in what a being like Tony Stark would call the mind of God.

Both Mallen and Tony have stopped moving entirely, slumped awkwardly in a tangle over the marble steps in a creepy parody of affection. Thor's lightning is still cracking, blocking outside communications to keep the two completely isolated from anything except each other. Steve hasn't felt this helpless since he watched Bucky fall, but all he can do is rely on the other Avengers to guard them and pray Tony has the skill (and the will) to come back.


Activating firewall, JARVIS streams, nearly indecipherable from Tony's own software. They're a digital Janus, sparks his illogically human side, and the kinds of ideas that inspires, the possibilities spinning out in front of him –

Mallen manifests as a violent coding error, a virus, the bull in a china shop smashing through perfect order and ripping out the system. Inelegant and human in all the wrong, most heartbroken ways.

I could've been you, Tony loops out into the ether, but this

this is what I was always heading towards

The Tesseract, it's Truth, wrote Dr. Selvig, but it's dawning on Tony that it's more than that – it's potential, the ability to rewrite the universe limited only by the limitations of the user. It's creation, it's –

It's then that Tony laughs and laughs as he remembers all the stories that should've just been fiction but are actually prediction. It's the nine billion names of God, it's the answer to reversing entropy, it's a man who should've died in a cave but instead did the impossible and put a star in his heart.

Mallen is ripping and twisting, corrupting data, breaking it down, and Tony reaches out to what JARVIS tells his mind is the epicenter of this infinite space and cups his metaphorical hands around a small, blinding sun. The light burns his hands, and it burns in the center of his chest, as he draws it up.

0110110101100001011011000110 11000110010101101110, he codes, [trans. Eng. <"Mallen">], Mallen, it doesn't have to end like this.

[<"choice">404 INTERNAL ERROR</recognition>]

Program: JARVIS. Malware detected. Creating partition.

I'm sorry I have to do this.

The light bursts, rolling outwards in a silent nuclear explosion. It blazes through his body, scorched-earth policy, and everything

goes white

When the armor suddenly falls off of Tony's body in pieces, leaving him in nothing but a pair of black boxer-briefs, Steve wraps his arms around him and hauls him away from Mallen. Physically he's unhurt, but Steve knows enough to guess that if Tony's lost control of the armor then something dramatic happened, or is still happening, and there's nothing that he can do.

He lays Tony down on the grass. Mallen's making small, hurt sounds in his throat somewhere between choking and sobbing, limbs twitching spasmodically, before he goes still.

Steve's hand hovers anxiously over the arc reactor, but it's still glowing; if Steve didn't know better he'd say it was actually brighter than it should be, almost painful to look at. His hand slides down to Tony's ribs and, thank god, feels them expand and release with deep, regular breaths.

"Tony," he says gruffly, leaning over him, "Tony, I swear to God that if you do this to me again I'll have Fury kick you off the team, a single terrorist shouldn't be able to do what a god and an alien army couldn't. Waiting for each other to wake up from intensive care or life-threatening situations is not a stable foundation for any kind of relationship, Tony, wake up!"

Above, the clouds begin to calm, the bruising slowly healing back to soft greys and whites. The tiny earpiece in Steve's cowl crackles back to life.

"What's the sitrep, Cap?" Natasha's already asking.

"Tony and Mallen are both unconscious but still breathing. Get medical out here ASAP." Calm. Collected. He's seen horrific things that made him retch, left him with nightmares that still sneak up on him at night, but this is personal. This is, this is someone dying before they've even talked about what they are to each other, let alone had that first date, and Steve, he – he doesn't want to do this again.

Tony exists in a world of ones and zeros. He'd read an amateur's theory once upon a time that compared existence to the game Twenty Questions: a unique combination of yes (1) and no (0) would result in the existence of a specific entity or object. Does this thing exist? Does it live? Does it like ice skating? A combination of 110 would then differentiate one thing from another thing with a combination of 111, and then, lo and behold, two unique things are existing.

This doesn't really help him with anything now, but he'd thought it was an interesting, if quaint, idea at the time.

The world is empty. Nothing exists except Tony, and it's kind of…lonely.

You'll create your own solutions, Jarvis had told him, human Jarvis, Jarvis 1.0, who'd waved an arm to encompass the whole of Tony's childhood bedroom. The robots, the DUM-E prototype, the spaceships that hung from the ceiling and could actually fly, the dog that he'd built for himself when his dad said no to a real one and which had been broken when Howard had kicked it out of his way. You'll make your own future, child. Now dry those tears, you don't want these biscuits I just made to get salty, do you?

He was a man of singular wisdom, comes a wisp of JARVIS. Tony reaches out for ones and zeros and pulls them close, lets them tumble where they will with his occasional nudging, and a new web of data grows with tendrils of light.

But it isn't enough.

You are, underneath, still human, JARVIS streams, still faint while Tony reweaves his coding, and in the dark spaces between the paths of light he sees strawberry-blonde hair, a strong shoulder under military desert fatigues, eyes with three shades of blue and one shade of grey, a tin of chai from India, an enormous letter A [01000001] standing out defiantly against a blue sky.

Wake up, Tony.

"An attempted attack by what officials are calling a 'posthuman' on the White House today was stopped by the Avengers. Reports claim that the suspect was working alone and had used a chemical that made him unnaturally strong, not unlike PCP, but that the chemical also caused a psychotic break. The chemical itself remains unknown, but it's been confirmed that this is the same suspect that attacked and killed nine people on Route 95 and damaged Stark Tower a few days ago."

"The cops seriously expect us to believe this asshole was on PCP? Even an idiot can watch the cell phone footage and see that that is some hardcore, high-grade military shit right there – "

"Why didn't the Avengers stop the terrorist before he killed so many people? Were they on a lunch break? How can we justify spending taxpayer money on a team that doesn't respond quickly enough to do its job?"

"Officials have declined to release a name – "

"The liberal media's calling the suspect a terrorist, but what I'm seeing here is an American citizen let down by the government – "

"It's ridiculous! Americans get killed abroad, it's because of terrorists, but as soon as it's a white guy doing the killing then it's because the system failed him, he was just a disturbed individual – "

"Stark Industries released a statement earlier today sending its condolences to the families of the victims killed during the Route 95 incident, but has thus far declined to comment on the Avengers."

Tony's sitting in a SHIELD medical van, feet on the ground and his helmet sitting at his side. Steve's giving orders through the radio, making sure there were no civilian casualties and that Mallen is under strict watch, keeping an eye on the rest of his team as Fury arrives on the scene and takes over. He keeps a hand on Tony's shoulder the whole time.

Tony, meanwhile, is just trying to keep his head from splitting open. And he'd thought he knew migraines before.

"Bruce says Mallen just died," Steve told him quietly. "The EMTs called it."

"At least that solves the moral question of whether you allow a villain to live and risk future deaths or kill the guy and prevent those future deaths."

Steve sighs but doesn't take the perfect opportunity for some lecturing. "Right now, I'm just glad you're alive."

"Yeah," Tony agrees vaguely.

"What happened?"

"You know." Tony waves the hand that isn't occupied with cradling a pounding temple. "An epic showdown involving some interesting psychological trips and the hero saving the day. Nothing went wrong, Debbie Downer."

Steve sits down next to him, the hand on his shoulder sliding down and off to rest on the edge of his shield. Even though he can't feel actual warmth or touch through the armor, Tony kind of wishes it was still there.

"If nothing went wrong, then why do you look like death warmed over?"

"First cynicism and now an insult, Captain America, truly our nation is in the midst of a decline."

Steve just watches him with that unnervingly steady stare.

Tony fiddles with his helmet, its eyeholes dark and empty. "Once upon a time, I could've ended up exactly like Mallen."

"I find that hard to believe," Steve says without inflection, and Tony arches a brow. "For one, you're remarkably bad at holding grudges."

"There are a couple senators who'd beg to differ."

"I never said you couldn't be petty."

"Pot, kettle."

Steve gives him a small smile. "Just means you're still human."

Well, shit, there goes his heart, thumping a little harder than usual. "Bad at holding grudges, huh. And Dad? The Ten Rings? You?"

Steve finally looks away, absently running his hand along the shield's circumference. "That's different and you know it. Besides, I reckon you don't kiss people you don't like."

"Obviously you've never had angry hatesex," Tony quips reflexively. "Is this really the time to discuss that? Not that there's anything to discuss since it was a momentary lapse of sanity on my part, we established this, but I'm probably traumatized, so sad, it's going to take weeks for me to recover. Possibly forever."

"No, you established it, and if we don't talk now then you're going to disappear into the workshop and hide behind JARVIS."

"Will not," Tony lies.

"You were right," Steve bulls on. "I still haven't really adjusted – "

"I don't know, I checked that wiring work you did in the living room and I have to admit it wasn't half bad, which is really saying something, coming from me – "

"Not in the ways that really matter, and I…I've known enough soldiers coming back from a battlefront to know that adjustment can take a long time." Tony resists the urge to point out that none of those soldiers had effectively time-traveled, that freaking World War II isn't even a year behind him in memory, but he gets the idea. "Pepper isn't your girl anymore either, and I can't imagine what that's like. It hurts having lost Peggy, and we never even danced."

SHIELD records say Margaret Carter is alive and retired over in England, not dead, but at least Pepper's still around, had even left a message on his voicemail threatening dire things if he doesn't show up for the board meeting in two weeks. If chewing off his foot meant getting out this discussion, Tony would've happily started gnawing, but it'd been a long time since someone confided in him like this, not even Pepper, who'd learned to be careful after the first few times Tony had accidentally but inevitably said something stupid and earned a slap. And it's not nice, exactly, because seriously, Steve looks like a kicked puppy, what the hell is Tony even supposed to do, but it's the sentimentbehind it, maybe, that's getting to him in a whole new way.

"Steve, you're going to have to get to the point. I am very bad at these conversations, you have no idea, we'd both be better off if I built an LMD and let JARVIS take it over, and there's the distinct possibility that I'm operating at lower efficiency than usual."

"What do you want, Tony?"

World peace. An end to hunger. A perfect source of clean energy, and if his name could be stamped all over it then he wouldn't complain. Natasha to get into the habit of walking around Stark Tower in lingerie, even if he has no actual desire to tap that anymore. Someone who could know Tony both inside and outside the armor and not end up getting pushed away.

Tony winces. "I'll have to get back to you on that."

Steve shrugs. "I can wait. Not forever, if there's something war teaches you then it's to take your chances when you can, but…I can wait. Probably for the best right now, for both of us."

"How can you be so sickeningly stable sometimes in this brave new world?"

"Someone's got to be."

"I'm not a good guy," Tony warns him preemptively.

"I think you've just trained yourself to think you aren't."

"I'm a guy, period."

"Thank you for clarifying that."

Smartass. Smartass whose flag apparently flew less straight than history remembered. "My brain is essentially a computer now, don't forget that."

"And my body came out of a bottle."

This is Tony's cue to leer and say something that would land him with a sexual harassment lawsuit at any other time, but he's just too tired, his migraine still too strong, too much cleanup still to do.

"I'm not sure I can really describe it." Tony absently turns the helmet in his hands. "It's not like sitting in an IMAX– uh, an IMAX is this theater that's like sitting in the middle of a sphere with the movie playing all around you, a lot of people can't decide if it's awesome or nauseating – anyway, it's not like you're just part of the audience, you're the audience and the movie and the guy selling overpriced candy. You feel powerful and infinitesimally small at the same time. It's the ecstasy of Saint Theresa but multiplied to an infinite power."

His throat closes up, but Steve waits patiently, doesn't try to finish the thought for him, even though the surrounding chaos is still going strong and agents try to approach them a few times before Steve shakes his head at them. Eventually he goes on, "It's like I was back in space again. Watching a supernova and not sure I was going to come back again."

"What changed your mind?" Steve asks quietly.

Tony snorts. He's finally finding his equilibrium again. "I couldn't just leave my armor behind, can you imagine what Fury would do if he got his hands on my baby? Total disgrace to my memory, Pepper would find some way to make me cry."

Steve laughs under his breath before sobering. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Tony replies automatically, then pauses. "I will be."

If he lets his knee tilt out a bit and knock into Steve's, whatever, no one else needs to know.

"You know, if Stark keeps up these kamikaze missions, I'm going to start feeling useless," Clint mutters, propping his feet up on the SHIELD conference table. Natasha sits next to him, wearing that inscrutable look that means she's either having serious thoughts or plotting to overthrow a small country, while Bruce and Steve just sit, waiting for Fury. Thor and Tony are both standing, the former by a window overlooking a field of clouds, the latter by the door.

"He says, knowing full well there's a stack of mission briefs waiting for us to clean up this mess," Natasha smirks. "If everyone were as flashy as you four, we'd be grunting and hitting each other with sticks."

"Cro-Magnon," Tony mumbles halfheartedly at the same time Steve replies to Clint, "No. This isn't happening again."

There are many things Tony could say to that: that he's just that awesome, that he's not that self-destructive, that he was honestly the only one who could meet Mallen on equal ground and win. There's also the fact that the first time they went out as a team Natasha had been the one stealing alien gliders and leaping about like a human ninja pinball and poking reality-altering staffs into interdimensional portals, and she didn't have armor or even a shield, thank you, so really, Clint's statement is a gross misrepresentation. But for the moment he's just trying not to think about the reason he's waiting by the door.

Right on cue several agents turn the corner, escorting Maya Hansen down the hallway towards the docking bays where her less-than-luxurious prisoner transport awaits. He takes a step out of the doorway. "Wait."

The agents glance at each other in some kind of silent super-spy communication, but they stop. Maya's in her lab coat with an expressionless face.

"I'm linked into all sorts of networks," Tony tells her in a neutral tone, hands in the pockets of his perfectly-pressed suit, shoulder leaning against the doorjamb casually. "Found the financial records for your lab and saw the military had pulled all your funding, and Hawkeye over there discovered the residue for some interesting forms of chemicals known to do even more interesting things to the brain in the vents. Which, you know, aren't actually necessary for the Extremis to work. The talented Dr. Banner found some videos featuring Iron Man and a few old Captain America propaganda clips when poking through your stuff. I was wondering where Mallen got some of his moves."

She doesn't react.

"I also found some anomalies in the enhancile you gave me. You said there were certain kinds of safeties in place, but, see, funny thing is, there wasn't. I figure you thought a live demonstration against the Avengers would make the military rethink its decision, and it's not like there aren't some politicians who would love to see me knocked on my ass a few times, think of it as a bonus, right? So you found a crazy guy with a hate-on for the government, had him study me and no doubt get properly pissed off with Cap, and deleted some of the safeties before shooting him up with the first wave of the future. Then it's just a matter of removing yourself from the path of his rampage and letting him go to town."

"Your father helped build the atomic bomb." Her voice is flat and hard. "Almost eighty-thousand people died in Hiroshima alone, which isn't counting the thousands of casualties or the radiation sickness that still affects the people. I would've used that funding to get out of the arms race. Medical technology. Not all of us can build ourselves new hearts or suits of armor, Tony. You ever tell Captain America how many people died during development of the super-soldier serum?"

"Steve volunteered, Maya. He knew the risks and what those scientists did before and after had nothing to do with him."

"But he condoned it. With his actions, he condoned it, and now people like Bruce Banner get thrown under the bus so the military can have its destruction."

Tony tenses. He's tempted to punch her in the face, but a warm, broad hand comes to rest discretely against his back, and he takes a long breath. "There is so much hypocrisy right there I honestly have no idea where to start."

"We're not that different, Tony. The only mistake I made is giving a damn about the person inside the armor."

"Actually, we are, Maya. You know why I got the Extremis to work while I was – literally, I might add – dying on a table when you still couldn't produce a totally successful sample? It's because you missed a variable. Don't feel bad, the last scientist to have caught it was Dr. Erskine. And now me, of course." Tony claps his hands together and takes a step closer to her, ignoring the agents that start looming threateningly. "There are three things you need in our line our business. You had the product, and you had the means to make that product, but that third thing, the third thing that could operate two totally different systems in sync and not have it all blow up in your face, is ingenuity. Creativity. Without that, Maya, you're just upgrading what's already there, and what you were trying to upgrade was Windows with a Linux patch."

It's been a very long time since someone looked at Tony with a depth of rage that runs so deep it turns cold, but Maya does, and the edges of regret and bitterness make it cut that much more acutely. Now that the initial rush of discovery is gone, Tony can't even bring himself to feel smugly victorious.

"So you're telling me the answer lies in the enduring strength and hope of the human spirit?" she asks levelly.

Tony opens his mouth, but the words die in shock when Steve breaks in with a short, "Yes," and nothing else.

After she's gone, Tony turns sharply and prods Steve's arm. "What the hell was that?"

"What was what?"

"You know perfectly well that wasn't what I was telling her at all – "

"I didn't actually know that, no," Steve admits, catching Tony's hand before he damages himself against those rock-solid muscles, "but now she doesn't have her answer."

"What?" When Bruce makes a noise of surprise and immediately pretends to be engrossed in his tea-stained paper coffee cup, Tony demands again, "Wait, what?"

"Dr. Hansen's a scientist that will never know her answer," Steve repeats placidly, and Tony, with a dawning awareness, isn't sure if he should be aroused by a moment of Captain America's meanness or worried that Steve now knows its effectiveness against smart people with Pandora's curiosity.

"What I find interesting," Bruce eventually muses aloud to the room at large, "is that SHIELD never brought in Tiberius Stone."

Yeah, Tony's been trying not to think about that either.

"We're still trying," says Natasha. "However, he has dual citizenship with the United Kingdom and he's been overpaying his legal team to stall for time."

"Time for what?" asks Thor, and she smiles grimly.

"I imagine we're going to find out in the near future."

Tony's already sifting through confidential SHIELD files – he skims past security footage tracking Tiberius' actions (he's older than Tony but still looks as handsome as ever, probably has a budget just for surgery and those anti-wrinkle creams), discovers that he'd not only married at one point but had divorced and left his ex-wife practically destitute (probably didn't read the fine print on the prenup agreement, poor woman, classic maneuver), has enough security surrounding the PASIV project that it's going to take even Tony more than a few seconds to break through –

"Tony?" Steve murmurs into his ear. Oh hey, hello, chills-down-the-spine.

"Yep, still here, Cap," he answers, blinking away the digital feeds just as Fury arrives. Steve immediately drops the hand he was still holding. Fury arches his right eyebrow.

"Going somewhere, gentlemen?"

"Can you arch the left eyebrow too, or does the patch get in the way?" asks Tony, then says, "Whoa, hey, this is not awesome, Cap, what," as he gets herded towards the table. Even Thor looks amused as he drops into the seat between Bruce and Steve.

"Avengers," says Fury, "today we're here to talk about what went down."

Enthralling. Tony leans towards Bruce and whispers, with a nod in Steve's direction, "What do you think, lawful good paladin?"

"Who also speaks Infernal?" Bruce's lips quirk.

"Only all the best words."

Tony stands on the penthouse balcony and looks up at the few bright stars shining through the city lights. He remembers vastness, how 'up' and 'down' didn't exist. He remembers silence so profound his ears rang with it. He remembers that the stars shone like a network of neurons and electrical pulses, brilliant points of light and life breaking up the void, and Tony thinks, We're getting there.


It takes six weeks for them to get where they are now, with Steve leaning against a solid table and Tony pressed against his front, long fingers pulling on the collar of Steve's already-rumpled shirt and lips pressed unexpectedly gentle against his.

"In a hurry?" Steve asks into the kiss, and feels a rumbling laugh against his chest.

"Don't want you to change your mind."

Tony says it jokingly, underlining it with a bite against the line of Steve's jaw, but Steve pulls back to the tune of Tony's no, no, wait, what are you doing so he can cradle Tony's face with his hands, thumbs resting on cheekbones. He likes doing this, likes the soft skin under his fingertips and coarse facial hair under his palms. Tony twitches but Steve doesn't let him look away.

"I'm not going to change my mind," he says firmly. "Tthis won't be easy, but I'm not going to change my mind. I care about you and I want to make this work. You should know by now that I always do my damndest to finish what I start."

"You are a pretty stubborn asshole," Tony snarks, but his mouth quirks with a smile, the little lopsided one so different from his film-star flash. "So, does this mean we can finally have our life-affirming sex? No story is complete without life-affirming sex, Steve, it's a rule, the genre doesn't even matter. I admit, I've been wondering for like a decade if I died and someone forgot to tell my dick. You should remedy this. Immediately."

"If six weeks is a decade to you, I wonder what seventy years would be like."

Tony's surprised into a laugh. Steve's hands slide down to palm the long stretch of Tony's throat, oddly vulnerable when juxtaposed with the armor that Steve can see standing against the wall from the corner of his eye. Tony had been half-buried in its guts when Steve wandered down, fresh from a short mission with Natasha and Clint tracking down gunrunners in Wyoming. Steve had frozen in the doorway, suddenly struck dumb by Tony's grumbling and the absent shifting of his hips in time to his deafening rock music, the armor of his tailored business suits stripped away for the jeans and a tank top of a man in his home. The projected screens of light all around him flickered from one subject to another rapidly, probably just because Tony could now that he had the Extremis.

And it'd occurred to Steve that Tony's…not happy, not quite that, but content. More certain than usual about his place in the world, especially now that he and Pepper have fallen back into the habit of going out for lunch together at least once a week. And so it is that six weeks after Tony took himself apart and put it all back together Steve finally, finally steps forward, puts his hands on Tony's hips and tugs him upright, eventually ending up pressed against a table with Tony's lips against his own and a neatly-trimmed beard doing its best to leave a burn on his skin.

"Please, please, please tell me this is okay," Tony says, words jumbled up because he hasn't bothered to stop kissing Steve or keep his hands from wandering down Steve's shoulders to fist the front of his plain cotton shirt.

"And here I thought the great playboy Tony Stark would aim for something a little higher than 'okay.'" He punctuates with a bite to Tony's lower lip and a long sweep of tongue, earning a deep groan.

"From here on out you are Captain Sass," Tony slurs against him, "I'll hire whatever band is most popular right now to make you a new jingle and it's going to be embarrassing, so embarrassing, but you deserve it, Captain Sass of the Kingdom of Sassiness – "

"Jesus, Tony, shut up."

"Already starting with the control freakiness, told you I'm not one of your soldiers, Captain Sass – "

Steve tangles his fingers in belt loops, ignoring the greasy rag tucked haphazardly into the waistband, and hauls Tony in as close as he can while they're both still dressed. It's startling to feel the edge of the arc reactor bump into his own chest, bizarre to feel the hard line of Tony's dick against his own. Not that Steve ever spent enough time with a man or woman to get used to the feel of either angles or curves, but it's Tony who goes momentarily tense and still.


A wry chuckle gets breathed into the curve of Steve's neck. "Just me being weird, haven't fucked another guy since I was a teenage rebel without a cause."

These days, when Steve thinks about Howard, he imagines punching him in the face.

"But you deserve more classiness than me talking about exes, so kiss me, you fool."

That sounds like another pop culture reference but it's one that Steve is happy to obey, lifting Tony's chin and slowing everything down to something deep and languid. Well, he tries to, at least, because this is the first time he's let anything get beyond kissing between them and he's going to damn well savor it, but judging from the way Tony moans from the back of his throat he doesn't seem to be doing too badly.

"Off, I command it," Tony demands as he finds the bottom of Steve's shirt and slides clever fingers up the cut of hard abs. "My god, it really is like a washboard, I could clean the oil out of my jeans on you."

Steve can't help laughing as he moves his lips to the line of Tony's jaw, his teeth to the long tendon of neck, tongue along the hollow of a collarbone. Tony makes a shivery sound and snugs their hips together, surprising a long moan out of Steve.

"Have I mentioned how much I don't like clothes," Tony mutters as he twitches back so his fingers can scrabble at the zipper of Steve's khakis. He doesn't even pause to make a cursory remark about outdated fashion. "From now on I decree that you're not allowed to wear pants in my tower."

"I'm not – ah – your kept man," Steve gasps, head falling back. Tony's fingers really are clever, trained from long years of patiently soldering tiny wires and flying over keyboards and bedroom escapades. They confidently slide down the length of Steve's dick, pulling back with a firm glide up the underside, and carefully brush over the head, mindful of the lack of wetness to smooth the way.

"You could be," Tony murmurs into his ear, breath washing warm over his skin and teasing out a long shudder. "Between missions I could keep you in my bed on thousand-count sheets, naked and aching for it – "

Steve would punch anyone who tried to hide him away like that, but the heat in Tony's voice curls low in his belly, making his hips jerk. "Maybe I'd prefer it to be you," he interrupts as Tony's fingers let him go in favor of fumbling at his own pants, knuckles brushing teasingly against him.

"Fuck," Tony mutters hoarsely, finally getting his jeans pushed halfway down his thighs and wrapping a hand around them both, "that'd, yes, maybe your birthday – July fourth? Of course it is, fuck, wake you up with my mouth on your dick, bet I could find something red, white, and blue to loosen me up so you could slide right in, fuck me stupid and sloppy and – okay, maybe not just your birthday, that is way too far away on the calendar, how does next Tuesday sound?"

"Jesus," Steve says again, brain short-circuited by the slide of Tony's cock against his own, the dizzying pressure of Tony's fingers, friction eased by the wetness of precome. He's heard filthier things in the army but this is different, the words spoken from someone he cares about and who cares about him, meant only for him. He scrambles for something to say. He tries to breathe back that feeling of being wanted in the hot, close space between them, but he's interrupted by an insistent chirping.

"What?" he manages breathlessly, and Tony groans, head thumping forward onto Steve's shoulder as he growls, "Dummy, no, we do not want to play. Well, maybe with Steve, but that is for me, not for you, go away."

DUM-E's fingers click together, lightly bouncing a digital ball. Keeping one hand firm around them, tightening just enough to make Steve choke, Tony flails with the other as he raggedly barks, "No, bad Dummy, go sit in your charging station. The only way this could get worse is if you had the fire extinguisher, no that was not an order you put that back right now or I swear to god I will cannibalize your arm for one of those vending machines with the crappy toys!"

The robot droops with a sad beep-boop and trundles away.

"I'm being cockblocked by my own goddamn creations," Tony grumbles into Steve's shoulder, which is shaking with laughter.

"He's probably jealous you're paying attention to someone else," Steve murmurs, pressing a kiss into Tony's messy hair and wrapping one of his own hands around Tony's, the other gripping the bony point of Tony's hip. He tangles their fingers, pressing his thumb against the head of Tony's cock while dragging their grip up and then back. He gets teeth in the meat of his shoulder for his efforts and the pain tingles sharply down his nerves, tightens his belly, the familiar heat of orgasm starting to uncoil when Tony suddenly pulls back and pants, "Oh, oh, wait, I, yes. Idea, I have the best ideas."

"Tony, no, come back," Steve gasps, too frustrated to be embarrassed by the desperation in his voice, but Tony's grinning madly, eyes crinkled like he has a secret and wants to share it in the most dramatic way possible.

"Just watch," and with a single thought the vivid lines of his holograms burn into existence all around them. It's unsettling and extraordinary, something straight out of the stained pulp novels he and Bucky used to scrounge out of bookstore trashcans. He can see the diagram of the latest incarnation of Iron Man in his periphery, what looks like a half-finished game of the most complicated version of chess he's ever seen, and in the middle –

In the middle is a live streaming of the security camera footage in Tony's workshop, accessible only through JARVIS on a private server behind some serious protection, and in the bright lights and chrome of the workshop he can clearly see the elegant curve of Tony's spine and ass, the flush on his own face over Tony's shoulder. He wants to capture it in graphite and texture.

"What on earth," he says faintly before Tony cuts him off with a drag on his cock that's almost too tight, his other hand raking down the thick muscle over Steve's ribs and making his back arch into the roughness with a loud groan. He can see the way his own head tilts and shows off the vulnerable stretch of his throat, the parting of lips bitten strawberry-red, how big his hand looks when curled possessively over Tony's hip.

It would feel horribly narcissistic if Tony hadn't started whispering filth into his ear again about how he doesn't look like the embodiment of the American Dream anymore but someone so wrecked and desperate for something to fuck into, next time Tony will get on his knees and let him fuck his throat until he chokes, let him come on his face and tape it all so Steve can see it over and over again whenever the hell he wants to. He'll program a dildo with all the settings he could want and then use it on Steve from the other side of the bedroom, not touching, just watch Steve go steadily out of his mind as Tony flicks through each setting with just a thought. He'll make handcuffs out of adamantium that'll only open with a safeword and test exactly what the serum's done for Steve's stamina, even if it takes hours, even if it means getting so fucking messy they'll have to wash the fucking mattress. Of course, they'll have to see what the Extremis has done for Tony, how many times Steve could fuck him until he beats the healing factor and Tony can't take it anymore, too used and loose, and then fuck him again until the only name he knows is Steve's.

When Steve comes, it's with fingers clenching too hard on Tony's hip, his other hand squeezing almost too hard around their cocks, and a hoarse shout that gets faintly echoed by the live feed of them moving together. They're pressed so close that the arc reactor under Tony's shirt digs into Steve's sternum and it feels like Tony's trying to crawl into his skin, kissing him with teeth and harsh breaths, the press of his cock against Steve's making him shudder with oversensitivity until warm wetness spills over their hands, groins, thighs. The sound Tony makes against his lips sends an aftershock rolling down Steve's spine and his cock twitches with a valiant effort.

Tony slumps boneless against him, entirely unbothered by the mess already going lukewarm between them, and hums wordlessly. Steve holds his sticky hand out to the side, wraps the other arm around Tony's back, and doesn't bother fighting the stupid grin on his face. The screens have all flickered out again.

"Stop it," Tony grouches.

"Stop what?"

"Stop radiating or whatever it is you're doing, I don't want to have to call Bruce in here with a Geiger counter and embarrass him."

"What am I radiating, Dr. Stark?" Steve says into dark hair, which smells weirdly caustic, come to think of it. He'll have to ask JARVIS to remind Tony to wash his hair before someone ends up poisoned.

"I don't know, it's like the sleep-rays of housecats with an extra helping of nationalism. I'm not the radiation expert in this tower, am I?"

"Maybe not," Steve says, waving his come-covered hand in Tony's face, "but do you have a robot that'll clean up this, uh, mess?"

"Huh." Tony blinks in surprise. "No. No, I don't. That's ingenious. JARVIS, make a note: something that'll clean up spunk without Steve or me having to get out of bed. Once we get there. Or without us having to move at all."

"Noted, sir, and may I say that as much as I appreciate your combined efforts I believe a gift certificate to Best Buy for my birthday would have also sufficed."

At least Tony has the courtesy to carry on his argument with JARVIS in his head silently while Steve kisses him, smiling and amused, towards the start of Round Two.