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Another Thing Coming Undone

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All in all, it could have been worse. Worse meaning dead. After being beaten up by a demigod, thrown out of a window by the demigod’s bastard brother, exploded, and falling back to Earth from space after delivering a nuclear bomb through a portal, the fact that he’s got all his fingers and toes, and his brain is still functioning, Tony is going to count this whole little debacle as a win.

Pepper had been there soon after, giving him an earful and a hug, curving her perfect body against his. Apparently Tony’s latest stunt, albeit heroic, did not inspire confidence in the investors. Questions had been raised about Tony’s mental capability because sleeping with countless beautiful women and getting drunk on a near nightly basis inspired more assurance than sacrificing himself to save the world. Go figure.

Pepper left almost immediately to smooth ruffled feathers and ensure the company was, in fact, not about to crumble despite the alien invasion that had taken out the better part of New York City. SHIELD medical was as magical as Tony had imagined, and after a vague promise to rest and recover, Tony had traded his hospital gown for an unflattering pair of scrubs, disarmed the security system, and was out the back door before Fury had the chance to rope him into a debriefing that would probably be more painful than the cracked ribs concealed beneath his bruised flesh.

Happy is waiting by the curb, the back door of the limo open.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see you, Happy,” Tony says as he slides through the open door. He drops his head on the seat and feebly reaches for the door handle.

“It’s good to see you too, boss,” Happy responds, gently pushing Tony’s hand back inside and closing the door.

Tony closes his eyes, reveling in the familiar leather smell and gentle purr of the engine. His world has been tilted on its axis: there are aliens and demigods and futuristic technology that defy basic laws of physics, but right now, Happy is driving his half-crippled ass home just like any other day. It’s nice. “Take me home.”

“The Tower? It’s kind of… well…”

“Half destroyed and missing a good portion of the western side? It’s fine. I could use some sun. Vitamin D synthesis and all that. It’s supposed to be good for your bones.”

“What about the condo, sir? Or the house in Virginia? Malibu is–”

“Are you offering to drive me to Malibu, Happy? Your dedication and skills are unparalleled.”

Happy sighs, eyes bright as he watches in the rearview mirror. “I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”

“I want to go home.”

“Of course, Boss.”

And just like that, he’s dropped off at the back entrance that’s at least still got most of its door. “Take the rest of the day, Happy. Hell, take the week. You’ve earned it.”

“I’m not sure what I’ve done besides what you pay me for.”

“But you’ve performed your duties with zeal and gusto. I’ll call you later in the week, okay? I’m sure Pepper will have Board meetings scheduled for the rest of my foreseeable future.”

“Sure thing, Boss. Just let me know.”

Tony waves as Happy drives off to wherever he takes the limo before taking his own vehicle home.

Glass crunches under Tony’s feet as he steps around twisted metal and crumbled walls. He thinks a closet used to be over there and maybe someone’s office. Oh well. He’ll just build it again, and it will be better this time. From the ashes and all that jazz.

“JARVIS, you there?”

“Of course, sir.”

Tony closes his eyes, the feeling of peace and home touching his soul.

“Sir, your breathing is faster than normal. Your blood pressure is–”

“Fine. It’s fine, JARVIS.”

“Elevated,” JARVIS finishes, never deterred. “I must say, sir. I wasn’t expecting you so soon. Captain Rogers requested your presence at medical.”

“And I went,” Tony says flatly. There will be hell to pay if his overprotective AI and Captain Follow-My-Orders ever team up together. “Got checked out and everything by a real doctor so get off my back, okay?”

“I’m merely looking out for your best interests, sir,” JARVIS replies.

“I know,” Tony acknowledges. “You just don’t have to be so good at it.”

“It’s a task I enjoy.”

“Let’s do something a little more useful, shall we? Do any of the elevators work?”

“The cargo lift is online which will bring you to the seventieth floor, however, I have not been able to ascertain the integrity of–”

Tony claps his hands together, moving again. He can’t stand still. Too much is broken, too many things he has to fix, and it’s past time to get started. “Great, only have to hike up twenty floors then. Awesome.”

“Most of the top floors have been destroyed. Your rooms are inhabitable at this time. If I can suggest–”

“No, don’t suggest,” Tony interjects as the cargo elevator opens. “Just take me up there.”

“As you wish.” Despite state-of-the-art technology, the elevator moves slowly, as if JARVIS is scanning the structural integrity of each floor as the lift passes. Tony doesn’t say anything because ending up at the bottom of an elevator shaft is not how he wants his day to end. If he can survive a demigod beating him to a pulp with a magical hammer and flying to a nuclear bomb through a portal into outer space, death by his own elevator would be pretty anticlimactic.

The door slides open and the hallway is partially caved in, walls built to withstand earthquakes with nearly indestructible materials, have nothing on a Chitauri invasion. Still, his building is still standing and if that’s not a testament to a Stark’s ingenuity and strength, Tony doesn’t know what will be. He follows the hallway, crawling over debris to reach the stairs. They’re mostly intact and easily climbable, despite sharp twinges of pain every time he takes a step up.

“Sir, perhaps you would like to stop for a moment.”

“No, I wouldn’t,” Tony wheezes through clenched teeth. “Remind me to rebuild my lab in the damn basement.”

“Duly noted.”

His legs are shaking by the time he makes it to the ninetieth floor. He pushes the door open, knees buckling, and barely manages to keep himself upright by his white knuckled grip on the doorknob.

“Made it,” Tony says proudly.

“With grace and ease,” JARVIS responds with thinly veiled sarcasm.

Tony manages to make it out to his makeshift laboratory. At a cursory glance, most of his equipment is intact. And once the broken glass is removed and the windows are replaced, it will probably be inhabitable.

He pushes the metal strut off the desk, wincing as it crashes to the floor. “You know, this would be easier with the suit.”

“It will also be easier with a crew of highly capable engineers and workers assisting you.”

Tony looks around, tapping his finger against his lips. Even that simple movement stings. “Do you see a crew of highly capable engineers? No? I don’t either. Guess it’s just me then.”

“I could have a team here within the hour.”

Tony shakes his head, thinking about the destruction just beyond his missing window. “Every single competent person in the area is going to be needed to rebuild the city. It’s going to take months so having a crew rebuild an indoor swimming pool equipped with my incredibly awesome ThermaSpa is hardly a priority.”

“You’re not going to stop,” JARVIS says, so close to sighing that Tony smiles.

“You know me, JARVIS.”

“Very well, I’m afraid.”

“So you should know by now that if I’m awake, I’m working.” Or drunk or getting laid or wreaking havoc on his investors. All in a day’s work.

“Never let it be said that I don’t assist you at all available opportunities.” A second passes before JARVIS says, as if it’s against his better judgment and programming, “Second closet on the left, next to the Vibranium reinforced liquor cabinet.”

“At least something worthwhile made it out of this,” Tony comments as he opens the cabinet door to see his vast collection of expensive liquor. He runs a busted knuckle delicately across the Diva Premium Vodka label and eyes the half empty Wray and Nephew Rum.

“I’m glad to see your priorities are in order as always, sir,” JARVIS chides.

He’ll have a celebratory drink later because he’s more than earned it. In fact, SHIELD should be sending over Evan Williams Bourbon by the crate. He might even share, with Bruce at least. Of course Bruce wouldn’t drink it because he’s uptight like that. Maybe he would drink some tea while Tony knocks back his hard earned whiskey. “Herbal tea, JARVIS. Something expensive, organic and soothing. Get a crate; something that’s got variety.”

“Are you expecting company, sir?”

Tony shakes his head, eying the remnants of his lab. “Maybe,” he replies noncommittally. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared just in case. They hadn’t talked about the future, if the Avengers were going to become a regular thing. There hadn’t been time with saving the world and all, but Tony has built a formidable career on being prepared for the ‘just in case,’ and he’ll be damned if Bruce shows up and he doesn’t have a decent cup of tea to offer him.

Tony closes the door to the expensive cabinet he had shipped in from Dubai and the closet door slides open. “So what’s in the closet that I just have to–” A shiny silver briefcase is partially hidden behind tools and old tech parts from half formed ideas he never got around to completing. One handcuff is still attached to the handle, the other just waiting for his wrist.

“JARVIS, I love you,” Tony says gleefully as he pulls out the suitcase. “You’re a genius. Make a note.”

“Noted, sir,” Jarvis replies, ever droll. “I would like restate my earlier request that you hire people to help–”

With the push of a button, the suit unfolds, molding itself to Tony’s body like a second skin. Eyes alight as the armor comes online; Tony scans the room, equations and schematics before him. “Let’s get to work.”

Clearing out the room is easy with the Iron Man suit and within three hours, there’s enough space from him to work. The city is bright below him, the vivid lights signaling reconstruction as crews struggle to remove the debris. Construction crews from neighboring states are coming to help with the removal and rebuilding efforts, but it will take months and heavy machinery, a logistical nightmare, as they try to navigate the destructed city landscape.

Tony might be just a man with a suit, but it’s a pretty spectacular piece of machinery. He watches as eight men struggle to remove a piece of metal rebar from a police vehicle. The foundation creeks around them, twisted metal and broken glass as far as the eye could see. It’s not safe for any of them, but there they are with no armor, no fancy suits or shields, trying to clean up a mess they didn’t create, a testament to what the world has become.

“I’ll be back, JARVIS,” Tony announces, repulsors firing as he takes off through the missing window.

“As if I’d leave you,” JARVIS mutters, his voice tinny inside the helmet.

“Best AI ever,” Tony agrees as he grabs the rebar with one hand, offers a half salute to the wide-eyed crew and flies away. When he returns, people are pointing, staring, and Tony simply says, “How can I help?”

With Iron Man doing most of the heavy lifting, they make progress that puts them way ahead of their goals. Once the streets are clear, the big machinery will be able to reach where the damage is the worst.

He moves most of the bodies, too, because the construction crew shouldn’t have to do that on top of everything else. Taking blankets, covers, and bags provided by the NYPD, he carefully extracts the bodies and moves them to the location the Police Chief provided. Tony promises himself he won’t count. He does anyway.

After moving a car out of the way, Tony stands, eyes closing in pain, safely concealed in the helmet. Iron Man is better than him, greater than him. Iron Man can stand up straight, duty bound, when Tony is biting his lip to keep from curling up in pain.

*~*~*

“So he dodged medical,” Steve says as Natasha updates him on the status of the Avengers.

“No, he did go,” Natasha corrects. She has a butterfly bandage above her eye, and her right hand is carefully wrapped. “He just didn’t stay. To be honest, you should count it as a personal victory that he went at all.”

“Dr. Banner,” Steve acknowledges as Bruce approaches. He’s wearing loose brown pants and a scrub top that medical provided. “How are you feeling?”

“Bruised,” Bruce replies. “And tired which can probably be said for everyone right now.”

Clint appears out of nowhere and the only person who isn’t surprised to see him is Natasha. She shifts closer, her shoulder brushing against him. It’s done so casually that Steve thinks it’s an instinctual habit.

“We debrief in a half hour,” Steve says.

“Where’s Tony?” Bruce asks quietly.

“Ducked out of medical, disabled the security system long enough to get out of the building, and no one’s seen him since.”

“Is someone actually surprised by this?” Clint asks. “I don’t know the guy well, but he doesn’t seem like the debriefing type.”

“He’s apparently not the medical type either,” Steve replies.

“Do you blame him?” Bruce says.

Steve has no response to that because to him, there’s just a natural way to things and that involves standard operating procedures and certain protocols that have to be followed.

“It would be nice to know where he is,” Steve says, deciding that’s at the bottom of it, really. “I like to know my team is all in one piece.”

They walk together down the long hallway, passing a bank of televisions inside one of the security offices. Most of the televisions display live security footage, but the two screens in the corner show the destroyed financial district and the meager recovery efforts that have already started.

The slouching guard sits up immediately when Captain America pokes his head through the door and nods once at the screen. “It’s the recovery effort, sir. The news coverage just started now that a few camera crews have gotten through.”

The young reporter is standing at the foot of Stark Tower, waving at the devastation around her as she points out buildings that have been destroyed. There’s a flash of red, and the reporter points, mouth gaping slightly.

“Turn the sound up,” Steve demands.

The rest of the team have pressed in around him, all waiting to hear why Iron Man is out there doing whatever he’s doing and the rest of them are standing here.

“Did we not get them all?” Natasha asks. “I thought after the portal was closed, it stopped.”

“That’s not it,” Bruce says, shaking his head.

“If there’s another threat, we need–”

Iron Man flashes past the screen, clutching a piece of glass three times the size of a vehicle. “–helping with the recovery effort. I’ve tried to get an interview, but the normally vocal Tony Stark has had no comment, citing only that he has work to do. This is Angela Thompson from NBC News reporting live from New York City. We’ll continue to bring you updates throughout the night.”

“At least we found him,” Clint says.

“Yeah, we did,” Steve agrees as they vacate the small security office for their debriefing which suddenly doesn’t feel all that important anymore.

*~*~*

After nearly fourteen hours of working nonstop, even Tony Stark has to admit he’s human, and he’s about two steps from stretching out on the street and sleeping for a few hours. It’s been awhile since Tony’s fallen asleep inside the suit, and he’s not anxious for a repeat performance. Waking up somewhere over the Indian Ocean is not as much fun as it sounds.

The Police Commissioner shakes his hand before he goes, and a few other important politicians step up to make sure they get their picture taken with the notorious Iron Man before they leave. The gutted city landscape as a backdrop will be useful in reelection campaigns for years to come. Tony makes sure to say goodbye to the construction crew he’d been working with, and the foreman, Tom Morgan, whose instructions he’s mostly been following. He signs an autograph for Tom’s teenage son who is apparently a fan of Iron Man’s. It’s his birthday tomorrow, and Tony knows there’s not a chance in hell the much needed foreman is going to be there. A couple of drops of yellow fluid that’s leaking from an axis joint in the suit mar the paper he’s signing, and Tom snatches it away before Tony tries to wipe it off.

“No, it’s better like this,” Tom says, cradling the paper out of Tony’s reach. The ionized hydraulic fluid has leeched across the paper, dispersing part of his signature and the ‘h’ in happy birthday. Tom’s dirty fingerprints have soiled the edges of the paper, and, yeah, it is better like that.

“So, tomorrow, then?” Tony asks.

Tom carefully folds the autographed paper and slides into the back pocket of his jeans. “My team starts at seven.”

Tony nods, flipping the face plate down, and he takes to the air. Not once did Tom question his motives, and Tony isn’t working any ulterior agenda. There’s a certain amount of simplicity to it that’s really kind of refreshing.

*~*~*

There’s a working shower only one floor down from where he lands. The suit retracts easily enough. Unfortunately walking turns out to be a rather impressive challenge without the aid of the armor. Never let it be said that Tony isn’t a complete stubborn bastard because it’s only by sheer strength of will that he makes it.

“Fifty-six hours, sir,” JARVIS says, apropos of nothing.

Tony groans, pressing one arm against the shower wall and letting the warm water pour over his back. “Huh?”

“You’ve been awake for fifty-six hours.”

“Oh. Is that all?” The water heats up a couple of degrees, just this side of uncomfortable. “Hey! Don’t do that.”

“I’m sorry, sir. The heat controls seem to be malfunctioning. I’ll look into it further.”

“Malfunctioning, my ass,” Tony grumbles.

“Your ass is malfunctioning? Shall I schedule a visit with your physician tomorrow?”

“You’re not funny.” This is normally the point where Tony threatens to have JARVIS’ code sold to the local community college, but tonight he doesn’t have the energy.

The shower shuts off automatically as Tony fumbles with the controls. JARVIS is worth his nonexistent weight in platinum. There are a few towels in the bathroom but nothing else, and his closest wardrobe is two stories up. JARVIS already said his bedroom is uninhabitable right now.

“Bedroom?” Tony prompts.

“It’s a floor down, sir. I’m afraid you’ll have to take the eastern staircase.”

Tony presses his back against the wall and slides to the floor, towel wrapped haphazardly around his waist. He spreads two of the towels across the tile and rolls one into a makeshift pillow, gingerly stretching his battered body across the improvised bed.

“Sir, I must insist–”

“No, this is good.” He waves his hand to encompass the small room that’s still bigger than most New York City apartments. “I used to sleep on the bathroom floor all the time, remember?”

“That is usually with the aid of alcohol, and even with that, it’s been years.”

“Shh, trying to sleep here.”

JARVIS sighs, honest to God sighs. “Good night, sir.”

“Night, JARVIS.”

*~*~*

Tony manages three solid hours of mostly decent sleep, but his pushing forty-years-old body is quick to remind him that there’s a reason why humans don’t sleep on floors anymore. The cracked ribs probably don’t help either. He manages to make it back to his lab and into a pair of mostly clean jeans and an old AC/DC tee shirt. He makes a couple of minor repairs to the suitcase armor before he starts designing a new gym for the Tower, one made especially with a super soldier, a demigod, and a couple of assassins in mind. Soon night bleeds way to a hazy dawn, the sun barely starting its ascent.

He joins Tom and his crew on the street, and Tom passes him a list. “Start with this, okay?”

Tony inclines his head, committing the list to memory and to JARVIS, before disappearing in a blast of repulsors. The list flutters to the ground in his wake.

“Think you can teach me how to do that?”

Tom spins on his heel, and Captain America is standing three feet from him looking dutifully impressed. He points to the spot just vacated by Iron Man. “You mean Tony?” Steve nods. “He’s actually really easy to work with. If he wasn’t, you know, Tony Stark, I’d offer him a job.”

“There are several army generals and more than a few politicians that should be taking notes from you.”

Tom shrugs, rubbing the back of his neck uneasily. “I’m just happy for his help. It would take us days to accomplish what he can do in a few hours.”

“It’s good you were able to call on him,” Steve agrees, surveying the construction teams working in tandem with Iron Man dashing around them.

“He just showed up,” Tom corrects. “I wasn’t expecting him, and he said he’d be back this morning. Apparently he brought bagels.” He points over to a massive tent with an array of bagels and other breakfast foods. “Feel free to take some, if you want.”

“Thank you, but I’m actually here to help, if you have a job for me,” Steve offers. Clint and Natasha approach from his left side; they’re out of uniform, and it’s clear they’re awaiting orders.

The last thing Tom was expecting when he rolled out of bed this morning was the Avengers, the honest to God Avengers, that he’s seen plastered over every news broadcast and website for the last three days, showing up and asking him for a job assignment. He was used to politicians trampling through his construction site, there only for pictures and press, rather than to do anything actually useful. He was used to outsiders slowing him down, not offering their services simply to help. Tom has children at home, teenagers to be exact, so he’s used to being resourceful and making things up as he goes.

“Hey, Mitch,” Tom calls, waving a man over who makes Steve look small. He’s all broad shoulders and tattooed muscles, and the person who’s least likely to be impressed by a group of superheroes. “I’ve got a few more workers for you.”

Mitch looks decidedly unenthusiastic once he takes in the size of the new help, but he motions for them to follow because he’s not going to turn down free support. As it turns out, they’re useful and good at following orders. They work hard, don’t complain and don’t have much to say. At the end of the day, Mitch tells them if they’re ever out of work, there’s a place for them on his crew. It means more than a commendation from the Mayor.

*~*~*

Tony spends his days working with the construction crews, his evenings fielding phone calls from Pepper and other crucial investors, fighting to get his company back on track, and his nights are spent rebuilding the Tower, designing new rooms with a particular group in mind. He’s walking a tightrope between what he has to do for his company, his employees, the thousands of people who depend on him for their livelihood, what he has to do for the city he helped destroy (even if they were doing it for a greater cause), and what he has to do to keep himself from slowing going insane.

He’s burning the proverbial candle from both ends, and he might be holding a match in the middle, too, because that’s how he rolls. There are always twenty different fully formed thoughts in his head at any given time, and, in Tony’s warped world, that’s what makes sense, that’s how he works. His body always fails him before his mind does, and when he sneezes and drags his sleeve over his nose, he politely informs himself that he doesn’t have time for this nonsense, and could he kindly reschedule this bout of inconvenient illness sometime during the month of never?

He’s running a low grade fever as JARVIS so helpfully has pointed out three times. Beads of sweat drip down onto the table, and he ignores them, pushing and pulling the holographic image into a cross section of the upper floors of the Tower.

“Sir, you have–”

“No, JARVIS. You’re just going to tell me to go to bed or some other unnecessary drivel, and I really don’t want to hear it right now. In fact, why don’t you–”

JARVIS cuts through his rant. “Nick Fury is on the phone for you.”

“Oh. Why didn’t you just say that?”

“I tried to, sir.”

Tony waves his hand, a ‘put the call through’ gesture. His palms are clammy, and he roughly wipes them against his jeans.

“Stark,” Fury barks. “I see you’ve been a busy man this week.”

“Consulting hours are over, Fury. Why don’t you make an appointment, and we’ll talk next week.”

Fury laughs, as if to say on what planet would consulting hours ever apply to me? That, and I’m not impressed with your rich guy in a fancy suit emo bullshit, because Fury’s a bastard like that and can apparently say a lot with a few low chuckles. “We’re sending someone to get you.” As soon as the words are out there, Tony hears the helicopter in the distance. He’s going to have to replace those windows soon because the last thing he wants is a bunch of unwelcomed SHIELD agents crawling through his Tower. Clint and Natasha, though, they could. If they wanted to, that is.

Tony stands up and starts for the stairs. At least he’s fixed his armor and added a few much needed upgrades after the Chitauri helpfully pointed out where his suit was lacking. “Business or pleasure?”

“It’s always business with you, Stark.”

“You’ve obviously never been with me to Vegas, then. You should take a few days off, Nick. We could hit the tables, the shows. I bet you’ve got one hell of a poker face. In fact, I know these lovely ladies. Triplets, in fact. They could knock your eye patch–”

“Just get here, Stark,” Fury orders, and the call is disconnected.

Just to be contrary, Tony flies by the helicopter, repulsors firing around him, because he’s got his own mode of transportation, thank you very much.

The helicarrier’s location off the Atlantic coast is given to JARVIS compliments of Fury who seemed to expect Stark to come, only not quietly because Tony never does anything the easy way.

Tony makes sure to send a message to Tom, apologizing that he won’t be there to help in the morning. He orders them another truckload of bagels and throws in some danish pastries this time for good measure.

*~*~*

The mission is relatively simple: some would-be evil mastermind is amassing stolen technology parts and decommissioned weapons, and he’s got enough of them now and a few followers sympathetic to his antigovernment agenda that SHIELD is stepping in to intervene. Bruce and Tony are there, as Fury points out, because they actually might be able to make sense of what they’ve got in the field, rather than trying to lug everything back to one of SHIELD’s regional offices.

Tony makes a point to clarify if SHIELD is stepping in because of the revolutionary agenda or the stockpiled weapons.

Fury glares at Tony, arms crossed over his chest. “He’s got uranium, Stark. You do the math.” He shifts, resting his hands on his hips as he eyes the small group around the table. “There’s a reason why I’m surrounded by a team of superheroes instead of local law enforcement.”

Tony leans back, swiveling his chair as he stares at the ceiling. “Uranium? Seems rather crude, don’t you think? There are better methods now.”

Bruce rubs his chin thoughtfully. “Manufacturing of deployment devices depends upon being able to make a large number of dimensional measurements precisely and accurately. Just because he has uranium, doesn’t mean he’ll be able to calculate–”

“Are you willing to take that risk?” Fury asks, leveling Bruce with his beady gaze.

Bruce shakes his head. “No, I’m not.”

“Great,” Tony says, clapping his hands together before Fury can finish the debrief. “Nukes. They’re kind of my thing now. Let’s get this party started.”

This time the location is some no name town in Arkansas rather than New York City, where every other threat seems to occur. Tony takes a moment to be thankful for that, because the last thing New York needs is another war in the middle of the barely reconstructed streets. Highly populated areas are always the first targets, and with so many people coming and going at all hours, it’s easy to sneak in undetected.

It’s the first time they’ve been together since the Chitauri invasion. They had gone out for shwarma, but no one had said anything, and Tony was so exhausted and bruised that he barely remembered the taste of the food. The injuries leftover from the Chitauri are still evident. Clint favors his left leg when he walks; Natasha’s forehead is healing but still noticeable if you’re paying attention.

Thor has returned to Asgard with Loki, and Fury says they’ve sent word to him – however the hell that’s possible, and Steve plans in Thor’s absence, because if Thor shows up later, it will be a bonus rather than someone they’re depending on to be there. Clint and Natasha listen intently, leaning over the table and scratching a few notes here and there. After the schematics are pulled up – it’s nothing more than a worn down farmhouse in backwoods nowhere – Steve goes over their entry and fallback zones. Bruce offers a couple of suggestions on where the weapons might be held given the size of the building and the layout. Everyone looks to Tony, waiting for him to offer his input, but Tony is playing with his phone.

Bruce nudges his ankle underneath the table. “Yes? Did you say something, Bruce?” Tony taps the screen and finally looks up. “Why is everyone so quiet? Are we done here?” He rests his hands on the arms of the chair and starts to push himself to his feet.

“No, Tony. We’re not done here,” Steve says, crossing his arms over his chest. The skin between his eyebrows is pinched in that way that only seems to happen when Stark’s around. “There’s a reason why we plan things before we go on missions.”

“Because you like the sound of your own voice?” Tony replies, face innocent. Bruce sighs, slumping down in his chair, and Natasha and Clint keep looking for one man to the other, silently wondering who’s going to take the first swing and if they’re strong enough to pull Captain America’s hands from around Tony’s neck. “No, it’s good. You’ve got that whole deep commanding officer thing going for you. It’s nice. Really, it is.” He slides his phone into his pocket, a compromise, and motions for Steve to continue. “Carry on, Cap.”

“Right.” Steve pauses to look at Tony like he’s waiting for the rest of the joke. Tony steeples his fingers in front of his chest and stares at Steve, the picture of a model teammate, then Steve finally continues.

They end up with a workable plan, and several backups and contingencies in case the original plan goes to shit. In less than two hours, they’re in the quinjet headed for Arkansas.

Tony is toward the back of the plane, down on one knee, fiddling with the locking mechanism on the armor. He sneezes into the crook of his elbow then wipes his nose on his sleeve.

“Here,” Bruce says, passing him an individual packet of tissues.

“These were a great invention,” Tony muses as he pushes himself to his feet. “Thanks.”

“Sure,” Bruce replies. Tony sways on his feet unsteadily, and Bruce grabs his shoulder, watching him carefully. “Are you okay?”

“Yep. Everything is hunky dory. Peachy keen. A-okay.” Tony rambles on, coming up with every corny catchphrase that’s been used in the last fifty years to describe just how okay he is.

Bruce laughs, hand falling away. “I’ve got it. You’re good.”

His fever is climbing, and JARVIS is quick to give him a rundown of his vitals, temperature provided in Celsius, Fahrenheit and kelvin, the second the helmet is secured over his head. Tony’s low grade fever isn’t so low anymore, but it’s not worthy of drastic intervention. If he can survive palladium poisoning, an ordinary cold isn’t even a blip on Iron Man’s radar. To keep peace in the family, he promises JARVIS he’ll take some Tylenol the second he returns to the Tower.

The rest of the team is changing into their uniforms. Bruce is the only one who doesn’t have to suit up, at least not in the technical sense. Steve returns wearing his suit, and Tony is watching his movements, cataloging the way the nomex and Kevlar fibers stretch over his body. It only provides a medium level of resistance to force impacts, and Tony thinks he can do better, that he can design something that can stand up to heavy impact while still being flexible enough for hand-to-hand fighting.

“Tony?” Steve prompts. His expression is curious albeit confused, and he tugs on the material covering his arm. “You… uh… like what you see?”

Tony barks out a laugh, shaking his head as he refocuses on the person rather than the uniform. “Where did you hear that?”

“Clint. He’s been helping me out with some of the lingo I’ve missed.”

Tony rubs his forehead, head still shaking. “You’re taking current events lessons from Barton? The man lives in an air conditioning duct. Why didn’t you come to–”

“Hey! It’s not a duct! It happens to be a very nice, homey SHIELD apartment complete with my own bathroom and everything.”

“I’m supposed to be impressed by that?” Tony asks.

“It took me five years and a couple of promotions to warrant a private bathroom,” Clint responds. “Don’t knock it until you’ve lived in barrack style housing.”

Tony looks physically ill at the thought, pressing his hand over his stomach as he gags. “No. Just no. I could never… Did I say no? Because I meant it.”

“It only took me six months,” Natasha says, joining the group, “to rate private quarters.”

“It’s a one room palace,” Clint agrees.

“Again, no. When this is over, you all should come to the tower. I’ve got room. Plenty of room, actually. Everyone gets their own bathrooms. No promotions required.”

All eyes turn to Tony, who’s communicating with JARVIS and ignoring their questioning looks.

“Stark, I mean Tony,” Steve quickly corrects. “Are you asking us–”

They all feel the shift as the quinjet starts its decent, and the conversation is tabled as everyone separates to take their positions.

It’s an anticlimactic mission after the Chitauri invasion. The crazed scientist slash vigilante does not come quietly, but he’s no match for the Avengers. Iron Man takes the brunt of some heavy gunfire as he moves in to subdue the perpetrator with Captain American covering his flank. Natasha and Clint are rounding up the few supporters who aren’t as supportive of the cause once they see the Hulk’s car-sized biceps. In the end, it’s just a few more bruises and a couple of scrapes that doesn’t make any of the team’s top ten lists.

Tony and Bruce go through the stockpiled equipment and weapons, pitching what’s harmless and tagging the rest for the SHIELD recovery team to retrieve. Tony fights his exhaustion and encroaching illness because he has to, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to leave Bruce to try to figure out this mess on his own.

Tony finishes his work onsite with Bruce, ducks his obligatory medical exam and debriefing back at SHIELD, and returns to the Tower with hopes to sneak in a few hours of sleep before he returns to the streets to continue with the cleanup efforts. As Tony’s plans often go, he manages to accomplish all of these tasks except the actual sleeping part.

*~*~*

“Stark! I mean Tony. Are you here?” Steve calls. He carefully navigates his way through the workshop, mindful of Tony’s equipment and the various projects that are haphazardly strewn around. “JARVIS said you were–” The words die on his lips when he sees one arm visible from underneath the table. Steve pushes the workbench aside and drops to his knees, instantly relieved to see the reactor rising and falling as Tony breathes. He reaches out to touch Tony’s cheek, flinching as he gently brushes heated skin. “Hey, Tony. Wake up, okay? You’re on the floor, and I’m pretty sure that’s not where you sleep.”

Tony groans, and it’s nothing resembling a comprehensive word.

Steve scoots in closer and lifts Tony up so his head is resting on Steve’s thighs. “I didn’t catch that. Want to try again?”

Tony’s eyelids are quivering, shrouded in dark circles, and even opening his eyes seems like a struggle. He groans again, and manages a broken syllable. “Wha–?”

Steve grabs Tony’s flapping hand, drawing it down to his stomach and threading their fingers together. “You’re in your lab. You’re home, Tony, and you’re sick. I think you’ve been sick for a while.”

Tony rolls his head a couple of times, and Steve isn’t sure if he’s trying to deny it or figure out what the hell he’s lying on. “All right, we’re going to the hospital.”

Tony’s eyes open and they’re red rimmed and glassy as he blinks through a feeble attempt at a glare. He musters the energy to say, “No hospital.” Steve’s gaze travels down Tony’s body. His teammate is feverish and clammy, and even though Tony’s refusing, Steve doesn’t think he’s going to be able to put up much of a struggle if he takes him anyway. “No hospital,” Tony repeats. “It’s just a cold.”

Steve braces for a fight but Tony’s eyes flutter shut and he’s out again. Maybe it’s for the best, Steve thinks, he’ll take Tony to the hospital and that will be that. Except the stubborn bastard chooses that moment to stir and Steve sighs. It’s going to be a long night.

*~*~*

Tony opens his eyes to stare at blue pools gazing down at him. The disorientation is complete. “What’s going–”

“You’re ill, Tony,” Steve explains gently. “We really need to get you checked out.”

Tony tries to turn his head, but it feels heavy, like he’s strapped down. “Not ill. ‘S nothing. Sniffles, that’s all.”

“Tony, it would be best to go to the hospital and have them–”

“Nuh.” It comes out like a croak, like there’s something lodged in his throat. He clears some phlegm away and tries again. “No hospital. I’m not sick, just tired.”

“Your fever is 103.2. Your respiration is–”

“Thank you, JARVIS,” Tony barks, rolling over to cough. It sounds rusty and damp, and Tony’s chest aches like it’s on fire. He collapses back against Steve and calculates how much strength it’s going to take to make it to the couch. Crawling is the only realistic option, and he bends his knees and gathers the strength to roll back over. Steve’s hand is on his shoulder, and he’s not pushing or guiding, he’s just there, like he’s waiting to see what Tony’s next move is going to be. Tony cants his head to the left, eying the sofa that might as well be on the moon for all the closer it is. “Couch.”

Steve looks at the shabby couch and frowns. “I’m not going to leave you on the couch, Tony.”

“’S a nice couch.”

“I’m sure it is,” Steve agrees as he slides his hands under Tony’s armpits. He hasn’t showered in a couple of days, and he’s about to suggest that Steve put his hands somewhere else. Before he can get the words out, he’s moving, being pulled from the floor by power that doesn’t belong to him, and he struggles to get his legs underneath him. Steve slides one arm over his chest, just below the arc reactor, and his other hand moves to Tony’s hip, holding him close when he starts coughing again. “Easy. Just take a minute. You’re all right.”

Tony thinks he should push him away; he should stand on his own two feet. If he does that and then promptly face plants on the floor, that’s not going to do anything for his antihospital stance. He can feel Steve’s breath against his ear, and it feels like a cool summer breeze over his fever-warm skin.

“Don’t fight me, okay?” Steve says quietly. “Not now, and not about this.”

Whatever struggle Tony was gearing up for dies completely, and he sags in Steve’s arms. Steve shifts to take his weight, arms flexing with strength Tony can’t imagine possessing outside of his armor. Steve’s forearm is pressed against the jagged, bandaged cut in Tony’s side, and on some plane Tony registers the pain, but it feels distant, foggy, as if his mind registers it’s there, but he’s far too preoccupied with other things. He’s always been good at compartmentalizing.

“Couch?” Tony says because as fantastic it is to be ensconced in Captain America’s arms, two floors is a long way and his fever-addled brain is already running the numbers and the cost benefit analysis is clearing showing that he doesn’t have the strength to the spare.

“Bed or hospital,” Steve returns. “Your call, Tony.”

“Option three?” There’s always a third option, a plan that no one else thought of, and Tony’s built an impressive career on thinking outside of the box.

Steve, however, is more of a black-or-white type of guy, and he’s relentless and clearly unimpressed by Tony’s freethinking. “Bed or hospital.”

“Bed,” Tony says, trying not to cough as he squeezes the word out.

“Sure, Tony,” Steve replies softly, as if this whole stupid thing is Tony’s idea in the first place. “We can do that.” After two wobbly steps toward the door, Steve hooks his chin over Tony’s shoulder, eyes mapping the glass doorway and the stairs beyond. Tony wants to laugh and say it’s a long ass way, isn’t it? How does the couch look now? “I could carry–”

Tony shakes his head because on no planet is that ever going to be a reality. He cracks his temple against Steve’s cheekbone. “I would die on my workshop floor first. I swear to God, Steve.” He is no one’s damsel in distress, and if his useless legs would get it together, he’d stomp right out that door.

“We’ll just take it slow, then.”

When Steve said slow, he meant glacial speed. The continental drift is occurring faster than Steve’s walking. Tony can’t find the energy to complain because he’s focusing on moving every time Steve nudges him forward, and Steve’s pleasantly cool skin plastered to his back is enough to keep his synapses firing when all he wants to do is fall asleep in Steve’s arms and forget this ever happened.

“Keep going,” Steve encourages. “We’re almost there.”

By the time they reach Tony’s penthouse, Steve is basically carrying him, and Tony’s feet are barely touching the floor. Tony never opens his eyes when Steve lowers him to the bed. Soft footfalls pad away, and a hand is shaking him awake moments later.

“Here,” Steve says as he pulls Tony up until he’s leaning against the pile of pillows. “Take these.” Tony eyes the two pills in his hand. “JARVIS said it’s–” Tony swallows the pills before Steve finishes whatever he’s saying. Tony might not like to be handed things, but this is Captain America, and if he’s going to kill Tony, he’s a decent enough guy to do it when they’re face-to-face and Tony’s mostly lucid. With Steve’s hand at the base of his neck, a cup of water is guided to his lips. Tony takes two swallows, water dribbling down his throat when Steve pulls the cup away. “More?”

Tony’s already sliding down the bed now that his neck’s been released. He tugs infectively at the blanket, and he feels his body being shifted, the cover smoothed out underneath his chin. He’s asleep before he can say thank you.

His body battles the fever, immune system trying to rally after being beaten down for days. Exhaustion is a formidable enemy which makes the recovery process that much harder. Finally, his fever crests and breaks, and he’s shaking underneath the covers.

Tony scrapes together the wherewithal, somewhere in that hazy space between being asleep and fully awake, to try to pull his tee shirt off without lifting his body from the bed. Hands are there again, and Tony’s pretty sure they’re not his, but the shirt’s gone now, and that’s all he cares about.

“Tony! Your side! What happened?”

“Nuh?” Tony mumbles, pressing his face against his sweat-drenched pillow.

Steve’s hand is spanning his ribcage, fingers bracketing the healing cut. “When did this happen?”

“Oh, that,” Tony says around a yawn. “Arkansas.”

“You did this in Arkansas? Why didn’t you say something? You should have reported this immediately.”

Tony’s still exhausted, body fighting the whatever virus he’s caught, and he doesn’t have the energy for another lecture about standard operating procedures and injury protocols. Doesn’t have the energy to tell Captain Super Solider that he’s fine, he’s had way worse, and frankly, being worried about him is a waste of good neural passageways. He should be spending that cranial energy on something usual like being a national hero, and how to keep the Avengers in the public’s good graces.

Steve’s hand ghosts over his side and fingers are grasping at his chin. “Would you look at me?” Tony’s eyes remained closed, and Steve sighs, not quite defeated, more quiet frustration. “You need to rest anyway. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Tony says, refusing to lift his face from the pillow. He should have kept his mouth shut, because opening the door to this conversation has the potential to spectacularly blow up in his face.

“Yes, tomorrow,” Steve says, voice unsure, like he doesn’t know why Tony asked or he even knows what day it is. He probably doesn’t – Tony has people who keep up with that sort of thing for him. “Try to get some rest. I’ll wake you for dinner later.” Steve quietly leaves the room, deceptively inaudible for a man his size. It’s all Tony can do not to call him back and ask him what the hell he’s playing at because this whole killing him with kindness shtick is... well, it’s putting him off.

Tony’s been handled by the best, by people who had raised manipulation to a form of art. Where Thor was trained since birth to be a fierce warrior, Tony was trained to run with the most powerful people in the world, and it’s a kill-or-be-killed scenario. He’s spent time with the sharpest minds in the world, with top scientists and engineers, and with politicians who could wage world wars, sending thousands to their deaths, with only the push of a button. Tony has seen the best and very worst of mankind, and he’s learned how to read people, how to interpret their tells, because everyone is playing some type of angle; everyone has an agenda. Everyone apparently except for Steve Rogers because Tony’s been laying here for the last ten minutes trying to piece together where Steve’s coming from, what exactly he’s trying to gain from all this, and all he’s got for his efforts is a massive headache and a crick in his neck. He’ll have to extrapolate more data before he can formulate a working hypothesis.

After he wakes up, that’s the first thing he’s going to do.

*~*~*

When Tony peels his eyes open, the faint hues of an orange-tinged sunset cast the room in warm shadows. Just like a machine running a diagnostic test, he takes a moment to stretch his legs and his arms, waiting to see what the fallout will be. His headache has receded to a dull hum, more annoying than acutely painful. Tony decides he feels human, marginally so at least. He can quit making a mental list of his funeral music. Pepper isn’t a fan of Black Sabbath, but if he puts the odd indie rock song interspersed with industrial metal, there’s a chance she’ll at least stay until people have finished paying their respects. He imagines it will be grand total of three minutes until they run out of nice things to say about him, and then they’ll either make it up or do the classic ‘I’d like to think…’

Tony flops over onto his back, coughs a few times from the change in position, and stares at the ceiling. A chair creaks, and Tony turns his head and sees Bruce leaning forward, watching him. “Funeral music. Do you think Black Sabbath would be too much? What about Led Zeppelin? Everyone likes Led Zeppelin.”

Bruce, bless him, doesn’t miss a beat. “‘Stairway to Heaven’? That’s a little cliché, isn’t it?”

“‘Highway to Hell?’ Although I don’t think Pepper would appreciate that.”

“What about the classics? A little Eric Clapton and Frank Sinatra.”

Tony mock gags which launches another coughing fit. It doesn’t stop him from saying, “Never. I’d come back, and I would be livid. Ever seen ‘The Haunting?’ Think that, only way worse, like Regan MacNeil worse.”

“Demonic possession?” Bruce leans back, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “An interesting proposition. Anyone particular you’re looking to possess?”

“Not Fury. I have no desire to see what the inside of that man’s head looks like. I already know Pepper’s routine so I’d be bored and wreaking havoc inside of twenty minutes. Maybe the Hulk? The rage monster and I could have some fun. Or, I could hop a ride with the Earth’s Mightiest Hero. I bet I could get him to unclench a bit and live a little.” Tony smiles at the image of Steve in Vegas, partying like it’s 1999, and then he remembers who Steve was close to before he took a nosedive into the ocean, and it’s like throwing a bucket of ice water on his mental party. “Do you think possession comes with a side helping of the person’s memories because if so, Cap is out. As much fun as it would be to go day tripping through my father’s younger exploits, I’d rather not.”

Bruce takes Tony’s long-winded rambling speech in stride. “Since demonic possession is, at least at this point, not a viable option, let’s focus on something more important. How are you feeling, Tony?”

“How is that more important than the possibility of demonic possession? Bruce, I thought you were a scientist,” Tony says, tsk more than implied.

“I am a scientist and most definitely not a psychic medium. We’re both scientists. You just happen to be a sick one who apparently isn’t very good at taking care of himself. You should know better, Tony.”

Tony clears his throat, gaze falling from Bruce to his feet. He does know better. He’s pushing forty, not four. Tony’s not an idiot – he knows how the human body works and has a firm grasp of human anatomy and physiology. He just doesn’t care that much.

Bruce doesn’t harp on it, though, because he either knows better and figures Tony has heard it all before (he has) or he has people to do that sort of thing for him (he doesn’t). “Do you think you can handle some soup?”

Since Bruce is giving up his precious time sitting here and keeping Tony company, the least he can do is try to suck down some broth. “I can try. I think I have some takeout menus. JARVIS, where did I put–”

“No, it’s okay,” Bruce interjects. “Clint is downstairs making some.”

Tony blinks at him, words processing slowly through his sluggish mind. “Clint, trained assassin sharp-shooter Clint, is in my kitchen. Making soup.”

Bruce nods. “Yes, that’s what I said.”

“Which begs a second question: why is Clint, the highly trained assassin sharp-shooter, making soup in my kitchen?”

“Because human biology dictates that we require food to sustain ourselves.”

“Mortal,” Tony mutters.

Bruce chuckles. “Being human is never going to be an insult to me.”

“Point,” Tony concedes even if Bruce’s biology-driven response did not answer Tony’s question namely: why the hell is Clint in his kitchen making dinner and, furthermore, when did Bruce get here? This is probably a question he should have asked sooner, but he was distracted by selecting appropriate funeral music. It happens.

“Steve and Natasha had to do some recon work,” Bruce explains, even though Tony never asks. “SHIELD sent them somewhere, but Steve expects to be back by the morning, midafternoon at the latest. He asked me if I’d drop by and check on you. Clint said he had nothing better to do and came along.”

The fact that everyone suddenly thinks Tony needs a keeper is disturbing and completely untrue.

“Imagine my surprise when Steve told me you were sick,” Bruce says, fixing Tony with a pointed look. Tony doesn’t have a lot of experience with the whole superhero team thing, but he has a feeling they don’t have a sick leave policy.

“Next time I’ll call in,” Tony says, shrugging it off. “Sorry, boys and girls, but Iron Man can’t come out and fight evil with you today.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about.” Bruce doesn’t glare, he just looks disappointed and somehow that’s worse. “I thought we were friends.”

And, ouch, that does sting because he and Bruce hit it off immediately. Tony had found someone who speaks his language, who can keep up with his techno babble rants and appreciates him for more than just the fancy suit and weapons he’s engineered. Tony doesn’t know when his health status became the hot conversation topic for the Avengers, and he damn sure doesn’t like it. Note to self: don’t ever get sick again. There’s got to be a health virus he can engineer. Maybe he can buy off those virologists at the CDC and see if they can come up with something.

Bruce is still in the room, watching Tony through inquisitive eyes, and he expects an answer. An acknowledgement at least that Tony understands the message he’s trying to get across. “We are friends,” Tony says, even though being friends with Tony comes with the paparazzi and death threats. Tony knows this because he only has two, and depending on the day and what dumbass thing Tony’s done, they usually don’t like him very much.

“Are we?” Bruce presses, unaware that Tony’s comparing friendship with himself to contracting a venereal disease before the advent of antibiotics.

Tony’s never asked for anything in his life, so when he says, “I’d like to be,” he hopes Bruce understands the weight of what he’s saying.

Bruce smiles and unfolds himself from the chair to stand. “I’d like that, too.” It’s like being in kindergarten and passing notes to little Susie Meyer. Do you like me? Circle yes or no. That was before the second grade when Clark Dyson stole his science project idea, and Tony realized friends were bullshit anyway.

“I like you more than Susie Meyer,” Tony blurts out. He immediately slaps his hand to his forehead, checking to see if the fever’s come back because Tony does not go around divulging emotional sentiment. He’s warm, but not feverish, although checking his skin temperature using his own hand is about as useful as trying to solve a calculus equation by chewing bubblegum.

“Uh… okay?” He brushes Tony’s hand away and presses the flat of his palm over Tony’s forehead.

Tony pulls his head to the side. “You really don’t want to touch me right now. I haven’t showered in days.”

“Why don’t you do that? It will make you feel better, and then we’ll see what Clint’s been up to in the kitchen.”

“Shower. I can do that,” Tony agrees. He pushes his feet off the side of the bed and on shaky legs, he makes his way to the bathroom. Bruce’s eyes track him the whole way, and Tony figures he’s waiting around to see if he’s going to collapse in a heap on the floor. “JARVIS will tell you if I bust my ass.”

“Indeed, sir,” JARVIS promises.

After he closes the door on Bruce’s stare, his side twinges painfully and he realizes he just gave Bruce an eyeful of mottled bruises and an impressive gash. Whoops.

*~*~*

Tony is rapidly firing off every cooking related joke he knows, until he slides a spoonful of warm tomato bisque into his mouth. “Marry me. Seriously, it’s legal now, and I know this fabulous little chapel on the lower eastside.”

Clint laughs while he pulls apart a roll. “You couldn’t afford me.”

Tony takes another sip, groaning as the tasty liquid slides down his throat. “I’ll take such good care of you. I promise, you’ll want for nothing.”

“You’ll take care of me, huh? When you’ve done such a bang-up job taking care of yourself.”

Tony waves his spoon dismissively. “I’m way better at taking care of other people. Trust me on this.”

Clint nods, eyeing Bruce across the table. “I believe you.”

“What about Natasha?” Bruce asks. “She might have something to say about your union.”

“She can come, too.”

Clint barks out a laugh. “Tasha doesn’t cook, Tony. She eats raw sprouts and whatever I cook for her. That’s about it.”

“She can be our bodyguard, then,” Tony surmises. “No one ever expects the beautiful woman.” Most people look at Natasha and see never ending legs, a flat, perfect stomach, and–

“Finish that thought and you’ll be dead before sunrise. You won’t even see it coming,” Clint says in response to Tony’s faraway expression.

“It’s not a real friendship until you get a death threat,” Tony says.

“You need new friends,” Bruce mutters.

“I have new friends,” Tony replies. “I have you guys.” He lifts his bowl to slurp down the rest of his meal. He refuses Clint’s offer for more, even though he feels like he could easily take down the whole pot. His stomach wouldn’t appreciate it even though his taste buds are eager for more. “So, level with me, Clint. What’s it going to take to get you to cook the occasional meal around here? I have cars and money. I have–”

“A new comm device.”

“A communication device?” Tony says as if repeating the words will make them make sense. “I thought SHIELD outfitted all their agents with the most up to date, advanced– wait, what am I saying? This is SHIELD I’m talking about here. Of course your comm device is shit.”

“It cuts out, and half the time the response feature sticks. Trust me, when you’re waiting for your extraction coordinates with half the Colombian army on your heels, the last thing you want is a comm unit that doesn’t work.”

“I can fix that,” Tony promises while silently hating SHIELD for sending their agents into the field with shoddy equipment. He’d fix it even if Clint hadn’t offered an exchange for his culinary skills.

Clint inclines his head, a silent thank you offered, and the actual words will come upon device delivery.

Bruce nudges Tony’s foot under the table, grinning. “Anything in that black bag for me?”

“You would make a terrible Dorothy,” Tony replies, shivering at the thought of the Hulk in ruby red slippers. Even though Bruce is only joking, Tony says, “Anyway, I got you a lab. What more do you want?”

Bruce’s spoon clatters to the table. “You got me a what?”

“Floor ninety-three. It’s all yours, buddy. Go wild.” Tony stands up to take his bowl to the sink, and Bruce stops him with a hand on his arm.

“You got me a lab.”

“That’s what I said, yes.” Tony points his spoon at Clint. “And before you get all jealous, there’s a range on ninety-two. I wasn’t sure what distance you prefer so JARVIS will help you set the targets.”

Tony sets his bowl in the sink and presses his hands to his lower back, wincing as he tries to stretch. Definitely too soon for yoga. When he turns around, Clint and Bruce are staring at him, mouths agape. There’s a reason why Tony’s donations are made through a third party or through the nonprofit organization step up by Stark Industries. It’s because Tony sucks at thank yous.

“I’m tired. Is anyone else tired? What time is it?”

“6:23, sir,” JARVIS supplies.

“Right, that’s a perfectly reasonable bedtime, isn’t it? Yes, I think it is. Good night, gentlemen.” Tony leaves quickly, hoping his blatant running away looks more like an exhaustion-induced exit.

*~*~*

Tony tries to sleep. He really does. He counts little flying Iron Men. He beats his pillow into submission. He recounts pi to over one thousand decimal places until his headache decides to make a reappearance, and then he thinks of Steve and Natasha in the middle of a warzone with substandard communication equipment. What he’s envisioning is probably way worse than where they actually are, but Tony’s always had a fantastic imagination. In the end, he gives up and meanders down to his lab, all pretense of sleep forgotten.

The schematics of SHIELD’s communication devices are easy to pull up (see also: hack). Tony hadn’t been assigned one of the units because he had JARVIS and could easily link to the communication network. He works with the schematics, pulling the small holographic image and making it larger, studying the intricate design, and deems it worthy of a junior high school student’s engineering project. If this is the kind of equipment SHIELD puts in the field, Tony’s going to have to take apart every piece of tech the Avengers regularly use.

He makes his own device from scratch, carefully modeling the tiny ear piece off the technology he used in the Iron Man helmet. It’s complicated work, carefully detailed, and his hands are aching after the first hour. He’s sweating again, palms slick as he tries to hold on to the small pin vise. He blinks several times, consciously refocusing his gaze.

JARVIS records his progress, making notes when Tony requests it. It takes nearly eight hours, but in the end, Tony has a working prototype. He connects it to a decibel testing device and waits while it runs through the tests.

“Trial testing will take nearly two hours, sir,” JARVIS points out.

Tony nods, eyeing the coffee pot across the room and silently calculates the distance from his current spot. His head is pounding again, and it’s enough to make him ask JARVIS to lower the music. AC/DC hums through the speakers, and Tony sways to the beat, his head throbbing in time with the music. He’ll put his head down for a minute. Just a quick rest for his eyes, to get his headache under control, then he’ll pull up the details of Steve’s uniform and see if he can reconfigure the Kevlar ratio.

A hand is on his shoulder, shaking him awake what feels like seconds later. “Tony, wake up. You didn’t even make it to the couch this time. Come on, wake up.”

Tony opens his eyes slowly and immediately winces when he lifts his head. His neck aches, his back is killing him, and his cold is rallying for a second attack. Steve’s still in his uniform, and Tony doesn’t notice any obvious injuries. He says the obvious because his brain is still trying to wake up. “You’re back.”

“I got back about an hour ago. Silly me went to your bedroom first.”

“Aw, that’s sweet. You went to my bedroom to check on me.”

“Bruce said you were sleeping, and JARVIS confirmed it so naturally I assumed you, still recovering from illness and all, would be in bed. My mistake.”

Tony scratches the skin next to his arc reactor through his shirt and nods in the direction of the sofa. “There’s a perfectly good couch right over there.”

Steve glances at the couch and back to Tony. “And you didn’t use it either.”

Tony cocks his head to the side, trying to think of a suitable insult that’s not thank you, Captain Obvious, because that would be too easy. He’s still tired, so fucking tired that his entire body aches with it. If Steve wasn’t here, he’d drop his chin to his chest again and sleep for another five hours.

“Is that a communication device?” Steve asks out of nowhere.

“Huh?” Tony follows his line of sight. “Oh, yeah. It’s a prototype I was working on last night.”

“Clint just told you about that yesterday, didn’t he?”

Tony yawns, white teeth flashing, and he knows he needs to brush his teeth because even he can’t make morning breath smell good. “Yeah, he mentioned it.” He shrugs noncommittally, unsure of where Steve’s going with this.

Steve nods then shakes his head, like he can’t decide which one he wants to do. Tony’s headache is forming again in the recesses of his mind, and he rests his head on Steve’s hip. It’s slightly more comfortable than his work table.

“So, your couch is pretty amazing?” Steve asks.

“’Course it is,” Tony mumbles. “It’s mine, isn’t it?” He’s moving again, body being lifted, and his feet take a few clumsy strides before he’s collapsing onto the frayed cushions. Tony ends up leaning against Steve’s chest, eyes drifting closed as he yawns. “You don’t have to stay.”

Steve hums an acknowledgement or a disagreement, Tony’s not sure, but he doesn’t move away. His fingers start carding through Tony’s hair, and Tony doesn’t ask him to leave again. “How’d debriefing go?” Tony asks without opening his eyes. It’s not so much that he cares, because he really doesn’t, but Steve has a nice voice and it’s the first sound that hasn’t amplified his headache since it started.

“Haven’t done it yet,” Steve replies. “Natasha and I are going to do a video conference this evening.”

Tony wonders if Steve knows how to do that. “Natasha not back yet?”

Steve’s hand hesitates for a second before his fingers start massaging at Tony’s neck. “She’s here. I think she’s upstairs eating the rest of Clint’s leftovers.”

“Clint is amazing,” Tony mumbles, pressing his nose against Steve’s collarbone.

“So I’m told,” Steve says, chuckling. “I have it on good authority he’s not the only one who’s pretty amazing.”

“Bruce,” Tony agrees, missing Steve’s intent completely. “He’s better than Susie Meyer.”

“Is he now? That’s pretty special,” Steve says, his voice gentling as his fingers briefly slide across Tony’s forehead.

“Thor, too,” Tony rambles on. “He’s got a magical hammer. That’s amazing by default.”

“Thor is very special,” Steve replies.

“So is Natasha. She’d make a great bodyguard. I have a plan, you know.”

Steve chuckles. “You always have a plan, Tony.” He smoothes his hand down Tony’s side. “I have a plan, too. It involves you sleeping.”

“Wanna know a secret?” Tony asks, whispering softly against Steve’s neck.

“Um… sure.”

“Captain America is pretty special, too. Just don’t tell him I said that because we have this thing, and, well… It’s kind of weird.”

“It’s okay, Tony. I won’t tell Captain America you think he’s amazing.”

“I said he was special, not amazing. He’s kind of both, though.” Tony sighs, slumping into a boneless sprawl. “You’d just have to meet him.”

“Hey, Tony?”

“Hmm?”

Steve wraps his arms around Tony’s body, content to hold him while he rides out the rest of his fever. “You’re amazing, too.”

~finished~