"My candle burns at both ends
It will not last the night.
But Ah my foes, and Oh my friends
It gives a lovely light."
- Edna St. Vincent Millay
"Am I boring you, Mr. Stark?" Fury gritted out, the tightly controlled frustration punching through the swirling lines of code that danced before Tony's eyes.
'What?' The engineer glanced up, startled to discover that he was in the middle of a debriefing. He had been mentally reviewing the algorithms for the communications security upgrade that Hill had been incessantly demanding for the last two weeks, and had gotten so wrapped up in the subroutines that he completely zoned out of the bitch-fest he was actually attending. Normally he could easily manage both and upgrade the new Starkphone at the same time, but lately his brain felt like it was wrapped in cotton, all blurred edges, and it took all his flagging concentration to mentally iron out a particularly stubborn glitch in the base code.
The team had only been together for a few awkward months, so sure, they still had kinks to work out. While they were gradually coming to grips with what to expect from each other in a battle scenario, they still weren't flawless, as that morning's mission had proven. Even so, Tony was convinced that Fury reveled in pointing out every little mistake ad nauseum, especially if the error had been his.
The creatures had literally crawled from the ocean with the dawn, violent violet tentacles slithering along brick and mortar and leaving hissing rubble in their wake. Despite the marine scientists' assertions that cephalopods could not possibly reach that size, much less cause such destruction, the Lovecraftian rejects seemed fully both capable and intent on leveling Manhattan. The normal response crews weren't even making a dent in the hoard's assault, so the Avengers were activated.
Cap was a brilliant tactician, controlling the action from street level, with Clint reporting the movements of the surprisingly-agile monstrosities as he unerringly struck from above. Unfortunately, bullets and arrows sank into gelatinous flesh without eliciting so much as a flinch, and one of the monsters tried to eat Cap's shield, so the team ultimately resorted to old-fashioned brute strength to rip the creatures limb from slimy limb. Hulk excelled at this, and joyfully hurled himself into the fray. Clint's explosive arrows would have been useful, but their blast was uncontrolled and at ground level might injure some of the civilians still scattered around the impromptu battlefield. Therefore, the team was left with gross dismemberment. Iron Man was flying to assist Widow with a particularly risky maneuver involving strategically-placed mini-charges when he spotted a terrified kid about to be crushed by one of the creatures. It took just a moment to scoop the boy to safety behind the police barricade, but there wasn't quite enough time to completely clear the impact zone himself. The creature landed a glancing blow on his leg just as he swung back toward the battle, causing him to spin wildly out of control for a few harrowing seconds. By the time he righted himself and got back to his assigned position, Widow had already been bounced off the side of a building. She recovered quickly, but the glare she shot him proved that she hadn't witnessed the unanticipated rescue, and she had been icily professional ever since. He winced as he noted her hiding a limp as well. In apparent solidarity, his damaged boot's repulsor started cutting out for small millisecond bursts, not enough to be observed with the naked eye, but enough to really screw up his maneuverability for the rest of the morning. He'd been working in his lab for a day or two, and, while he'd never admit it aloud, his sleep-starved brain was too sluggish to compensate for the problem. Ultimately he'd reduced speed to keep from doing more property damage than the monsters.
Once all the beasts were finally dealt with, everyone was bone-tired and short-tempered, especially Fury, who herded them immediately into a conference room at the SHIELD headquarters building for debriefing, or 'official ass-chewing' as Tony referred to it mentally. It only took a few minutes of heated rebukes to have the genius concentrating on an ongoing project instead, inadvertently tuning Fury out altogether. At least, until the Director noticed his lack of attention and angrily called him on it.
It took a moment of owlish blinking before he could form a response to Fury's rhetorical question, so he plastered on his best 'know-it-all' smirk and deliberately leaned back in his chair, automatically projecting as much cocky self-assurance as his sleep-deprived brain could muster. 'Never let them see you sweat', he thought, distantly recalling one of his father's directives for dealing with people. Aloud, he drawled, "Actually, sir, yes you are." He mentally rewound the last few minutes of Fury's rant; while he hadn't listened, he had registered every word on a subconscious level and, even exhausted, had a near-photographic memory. "I've got it. 'Follow orders. Let everyone know what you're doing. Don't go off on your own. Be at your assigned position.' You've said it before, so it's a little repetitive."
Nick Fury's eye narrowed as he glared at the industrialist and leaned forward threateningly; Tony wasn't sure, but he thought that there might actually be steam coming from the man's ears, which was always entertaining. "If you've heard these instructions before, why don't you try following them, Stark?"
Tony waved a hand dismissively. "That's all very well and good in the light of a 20/20 retrospectoscope, but in the heat of actual battle, there isn't time. I run the numbers, then do what needs to be done. End of story."
Fury looked like he had a few choice words on the matter; his mouth opened to reply just as Stark's phone went off. 'Saved by the bell,' Tony thought with a relief he refused to show. Glancing at the caller I.D., he was pleased to see the photo of a familiar red-head. He shrugged in mock apology, pointing to the device. "Sorry, gotta take this. Are we done here? We're done here." Not waiting for a response, the billionaire quickly stood to leave, viciously suppressing a groan as his back brutally reminded him of the abuse it had taken from the Giant Evil Air-breathing Octopi that morning. 'Damn. Guess I'm not twenty anymore,' he thought wryly as he opened the door.Fury's eye narrowed in displeasure, but he made no further comment as Tony escaped.
Once safely in the corridor, Stark took a moment to stretch stiff muscles and hit the receive button. A genuine smile edged his voice as he greeted his CEO. "Pepper! Perfect timing as always. To what do I owe the pleasure of your call?" He strode purposefully down the hall towards the elevator; now that he was out of the meeting, wild horses couldn't drag him back. He had better things to do than listen to Fury rage.
"Tony." There was a world of fond exasperation in the single word. "I saw the footage on News 4. Why do you insist on making yourself a target?"
"Hey, can I help it if Iron Man is irresistible to otherworldly menaces?" He vaguely recalled spotting a film crew right about the time he had been attacked by three squids simultaneously, but obviously had more pressing priorities. Guess he'd made the late-morning news. "I think they might like shiny things, and you have to admit, the suit is gorgeous."
"Tony…." There was legitimate affection in her tone, so he knew he wasn't in too much trouble. "Are you all right?", she continued quietly.
"Yeah, I'm fine." He gestured to the air dismissively as he exited the elevator into the lobby. "Little stiff is all; Fury had us sitting around for hours afterwards as he bitched." It really had only been twenty minutes, but still…'time is relative'. "I think we must have taken out his favorite Starbucks or something. I've got no injuries that a nice, long, hot shower and some tylenol won't fix."
"Good." Her voice took on a more professional air as she shuffled some papers off-screen. "I also wanted to remind you about the shareholders' meeting this afternoon."
"What? I thought you attended those things now. Isn't that what a CEO does?" Tony sketched a quick wave at the receptionist in the lobby as he exited, eliciting only a cynically raised eyebrow in return. 'Huh. Guess that eyebrow is standard SHIELD issue,' he considered, then refocused on his conversation.
"You never did," Pepper replied with a chuckle. "However, you don't have to show up; I just need the info on the next Starkpad upgrades. The 'Tru-Art' app for charcoal is so popular that we're having trouble keeping up with demand. And the Tru-Art printer? Back-ordered for six weeks. There are at least a dozen University programs that already 'strongly recommend' the combo to incoming students, and it's only been commercially available for 3 months. The Board wants to stay ahead of the competition and are demanding updates on the pastels app."
Tony snorted as he gingerly crawled into his limo. The wildly successful Tru-Art products had been the offshoot of living with Captain America and Stark's frustration at finding eraser residue and charcoal bits all over the floors and furniture of the common areas within days of the man moving in. The billionaire's initial reaction had been to give the living anachronism a Starkpad and teach him how to draw on it. However, while initially delighted by the technology, within the week Rogers was back to the sketch book, the PC tablet collecting dust on the coffee table.
"Why aren't you using the computer I gave you?" Tony inquired the morning he happened upon Steve digging around under the couch for a lost fragment of charcoal.
Retrieving his drawing implement, the captain had the grace to look shamefaced. "I'm sorry," he stammered, blushing. "It's really very nice…but it just doesn't get the same effect as charcoal on paper; at least, not without a lot of work." He sighed, shrugging, "And even if I get a sketch I halfway like, it won't print up correctly…"
Rather than getting angry at the implication of innate computer inferiority, Tony narrowed his eyes in consideration, recognizing a challenge. "Show me what you mean," he demanded, sitting on the couch next to Steve and booting up the tablet. Over the ensuing hour the engineer learned more about the nuances of drawing with charcoal than he ever dreamed existed, and the problems inherent with trying to replicate the experience on a computer. The next three sleepless nights found him creating a program to reproduce the sketching experience, then fabricating a printer that could reliably duplicate the illustration onto thick art paper.
Steve was so thrilled with the result that Tony ran it by Pepper for possible commercial applications, and she suggested a trial run at small-scale production and release. The rest, as they say, was history. The demand was overwhelming within weeks, and art schools immediately began clamoring for greater diversity. Tony had agreed to try and extend the technology to pastels and other media, but it was slow going as he wasn't an artist, and there was never any time to learn. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, suddenly aware of the incessant vise-like headache that had been lurking behind his eyes for the past several weeks. It was a near-constant companion, never gone but sometimes forgotten when his mind was otherwise occupied. 'I'll have to take some more tylenol when I get home,' he promised himself as he returned his attention to Pepper.
"Right. Sorry, been kinda busy. Tell them I'm working out the bugs, but don't want to show them anything until it meets Stark Industry's exacting standards." It was true to a degree, but he could feel his CEO's skepticism over the silent airwaves.
"Tony, this is important," she finally insisted, stressing the last word.
"I know, I know. What can I say? I really am working on it, Pep." He did his best to be reassuring, and mentally increased the project's priority on his massive 'to do' list. While the Board could just sit on their greedy little grabby hands, he liked to please Pepper. 'And wasn't that the problem?', he reflected. He really did want to please her. She had put up with so much from him over the years. Unfortunately, to keep his tentative status on the Avengers, he also needed to please Fury, SHIELD, and his teammates, as well as keep the Iron Man armor in top shape. That meant that he also had to wrestle with those damned security upgrades for Hill, design and fabricate new directionally-explosive arrows for Clint, devise and build a communicator for Bruce that wouldn't fall off during transformation, and tweak those emergency transponders Coulson requested last week. Then he needed to review the itemized reconstruction bill that the City of New York submitted to SI (following the most recent Doombot incident) before authorizing payment, because he knew they were padding it, the dicks. And there was the report to the Congressional Oversight Committee to edit, the fundraising dinner that he was scheduled to attend tonight, and Fury wanted him at a press conference at 2 PM. Of course, the Attack of the Lovecraftian Rejects and the subsequent critique this morning had cut a huge chunk out of his perpetually-overbooked day, and now he had to add 'suit repair' to the top of his list, as well as write his after-action report. He suddenly remembered that his right hand repulsor had misfired once in tandem with his boot while he was zapping one of the tentacled monstrosities, allowing the thing to pummel him through a paneled truck before he had a chance to compensate with the left. He probably ought to run a diagnostic on that as well…
"I know," she answered fondly, jerking his straying attention back to the phone which he had almost completely forgotten in his musing. "It's OK, I'll cover. Take care of yourself, please?"
"Hey, you know me," he grinned.
"Yes, that's the problem," she responded dryly. "Eat something when you get out of the shower, all right?"
Rather than going with 'What shower?', having already forgotten his prior plan to soak his bruised and aching back, he replied, "Sure thing, Pep", then promptly dismissed both ideas as unimportant. He hit the button to end the conversation, then stared fondly at Pepper's caller ID photo a moment longer before sighing and pulling out one of his ubiquitous Starkpads and getting back to Hill's security upgrades.
Steve forced himself to take deep, calming breaths as he sat, straight-backed and stiff, through the remainder of the debriefing. Four months, and he still couldn't get a handle on Tony Stark. The man was infuriating. Sometimes Steve thought he did it on purpose, like a malicious child striking a wasp nest with a stick just to watch them buzz around angrily. If so, one day the egotist was going to get stung, or at least get that smug grin wiped from his face. Somehow Rogers didn't think that was it, though he still couldn't fathom Stark's motivation. He just seemed to lack any sense of common decency, and it had been getting worse over the short time he'd known the man. The billionaire clearly didn't care about money, throwing his own around in a manner that was almost obscene. He had plenty of status, and frankly treated almost anyone with more authority with an appalling lack of respect. It didn't even seem an issue of morals; he was capable of arguing for hours on petty issues that struck him as questionable, but not even blink at the major subjects making front page news. He was obnoxious, loud, and made horrifying comments to his superiors. But just when Steve thought he couldn't stand one more minute of the man, the genius would turn on a dime and behave so selflessly that it took his breath away. That very morning Iron Man had wordlessly risked his life to save Clint's when one of the squids demonstrated a disconcerting ability to climb tall buildings with frightening speed, firing at the flailing tentacles with one arm and scooping up the archer with the other, before Cap was even aware of the problem. The monster almost struck them both down, but Iron Man hit the thrusters and barely cleared the blow, depositing Clint on a safer perch. Then, less than ten minutes later, Stark was AWOL when he was supposed to be backing up Widow, resulting in her sprained ankle.
The rest of the morning's mission had been just as FUBAR, with Tony noticeably off his game, slewing widely through turns, scraping past veneers, almost striking buildings. Yet, when it came time for the after-action report and analysis, Stark not only didn't help problem-shoot, he didn't even pay attention. Rogers had no idea how the man had managed to parrot Fury's last few sentences when he called him on it, but he obviously hadn't cared about the words' meaning. Then to rudely swan out of the room as if he were too important to finish the debriefing… He was clearly planning to ignore all the Director's 'constructive criticism', possibly to the detriment of team safety.
Roger's lips thinned to a grim line as they continued to analyze the mission without Iron Man's input. When they returned to the tower, he and Stark were going to have another pointed chat about the responsibilities of being on a team.
Tony did decide to take a quick shower to deslime before heading to his workshop, because…Ughh, sticky…but it was nowhere near long enough to relax his spasmed muscles. Still, he felt a little less foggy, so it was worth it. He remembered to snag an apple from the fruit bowl in the kitchen on his way downstairs out of respect for Pepper's admonishment (as well as plausible deniability - see, I even grabbed fruit!), but it soon sat forgotten on a table as holograms of arrows danced before his bleary eyes. God, he was so tired. He snorted darkly; maybe Rowling had a point about that 'time-turner' device. If he had one, he might manage to snatch a quick nap from time to time. Still, 'no rest for the wicked', wasn't that the way the saying went? He reprioritized his project list when he reached the lab, based on that morning's battle, and savagely suppressed his nearly-overwhelming need for sleep. Clint's weapon upgrades were clearly first priority, even over his own suit repairs, since there was no telling when the squids might return and directed explosions were as elegant a 'blunt force' as you could get. They might prevent someone getting hurt or killed if they were effective. He sighed and closed his eyes momentarily, rubbing his hand over them to try and push away the dryness, then blinked them open and stared at the holographic designs. Reaching into a smaller diagram of the current model, he pulled out the central mechanism, enlarged it, and swept the remainder of the arrowhead to the side. Studying the virtual innards of the weapon, his eyes narrowed in concentration. 'If I place shielding here…' Matching action to word, he sketched in a small metal disc. 'But that only pushes the blast in a preset direction; he's going to want to be able to adjust that based on the situation. Plus, the added weight might throw off his aim." He actively ignored the minute exhausted tremor in his hand as he raised his stylus and began making notes.
He was so occupied with the problem that he didn't even notice the appraising eyes staring at him in thoughtful consideration. Cap finally cleared his throat and interrupted, "Stark?"
The engineer didn't jump, but it was a near thing. Shaking his head free of the mass and inertia equations that he'd been formulating, he glanced over at the other man's stern expression. 'Oh, God,' he groaned internally, 'I can't deal with Captain Holier-Than-Thou right now.' Still, no help for it; he knew he'd fucked up that morning, and Rogers was going to chastise him for it since he'd bailed on Fury. Squaring his tired shoulders, he swiveled his chair to face the Captain.
"Hi, Cap!" he replied with forced cheerfulness, dredging up a smile that even he recognized was weak. "What can I do for you?"
"We need to talk." Cap stood firmly on both feet, back straight, arms crossed, the epitome of steadfastness. He couldn't show weakness, although he dreaded this conversation. Reprimanding Stark was like tiptoeing through a minefield; he could never tell what would result in a screaming match. Nevertheless, this was important, and the others were relying on him for their safety. He just had to find a way to make his prickly teammate listen without getting defensive or distracted. He took a deep breath and began, "Director Fury has a point; you weren't in position, and Widow got hurt." He tried to keep any accusations out of his voice, but wasn't entirely successful. Minor as it was, a member of his team had been injured, and Cap had trouble remaining nonjudgmental.
Tony immediately dropped all pretense of a friendly expression at the criticism and his eyes went cold. "You think I don't know that?" he snarled, surprising the Captain with his vehemence. "I may be a genius, but even I can only be in one place at a time." Stark focused his attention back to Clint's arrow upgrades, jerking his chair around in dismissal.
Rogers bristled at the tone but forced himself to calm down, taking another deep breath and uncrossing his arms. The one thing he had discovered over the months since the Chitauri was that the engineer didn't always answer questions completely. His mind jumped from point to point faster than his mouth could keep up, and he expected you to automatically fill in the parts that he'd skipped over. The Captain's brow furrowed in concentration as he dissected Stark's statement, finally identifying the portion that was missing. "Where else did you have to be?" he asked thoughtfully, almost to himself.
"Doesn't matter." The inventor waved a hand dismissively at him without turning around. Tony couldn't allow himself relief at Cap's realization that there were extenuating circumstances, but he was grateful for the man's perception. He could almost hear his father now; 'Never explain yourself. Explanations are tantamount to apology, and therefore a sign of weakness.' He grimaced as he recalled the conclusion, 'Besides, your enemies won't believe them and your friends don't need them.' Well, it was clear which category Steven Rogers fell into.
Deflecting further conversation, he continued, "Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to get this done before the next crisis rears its ugly head." Swallowing reflexively, he tried unsuccessfully to concentrate on the schematics in front of him and ignore Roger's burning stare.
Cap wasn't finished, however. "You should have reported problems getting to your position," Steve stated firmly, only to be met by more pointed silence. 'The man doesn't even show the common decency to face me while we're talking,' he thought in disgust. His eyes narrowed and his mouth set to the habitual thin, grim line that seemed to occur more and more often when dealing with Stark, as he waited patiently for a reply. He could stand here all day.
Tony caved first; he hated silence, always had. Growing up, silences were filled to the brim with Howard's unspoken disapproval, so Tony learned to purge them with distracting babble. It seemed that his father's condemnation was nothing compared to that dished out by the Captain, however, as the silence stretched out painfully. "There wasn't time!", he finally exclaimed, throwing his arms in the air and swinging fully around to face Rogers again. The room continued to spin on its own for a nauseating moment and the engineer shook his head, blinking frantically to clear the small black spots skirting the periphery of his vision. He took a deep, steadying breath and sighed, shoulders slumping forward in resignation as his eyes closed. "Look, Cap, I did the best I could. I really don't have the time or the energy to fight about this right now." His shuttered eyes slowly looked up to face the super soldier, suppressing the shame he felt at being forced to offer an excuse. "It's just…with all the numbers and percentages of battle permutations running through my head during a fight, I sometimes…forget. It's not intentional." He dredged up a weak, conciliatory smile, "I'll try to be more of a 'team player' next time, all right?"
Steve nodded slowly, studying the older man, as he felt his own frustration ease. While it was far from a full account, it was likely all he was going to get from the defensive genius. Now that his sight wasn't clouded by angry determination, he couldn't avoid the fact that Stark looked exhausted and had almost pitched off his stool when he turned around. The dark circles beneath his eyes were cadaverous, and his skin gaunt and sallow. His black hair stuck out haphazardly, as if he had combed it with his fingers and not much else. Stark's whole posture seemed defeated somehow despite the man's steady tone, and Steve's mental alarm bells started going off. He roughly suppressed them; he had finally gotten his point across about teamwork, and he didn't want to sidetrack the conversation and have Stark 'forget' again. He finally settled for, "Fine. 'Team player'. That's all I'm asking." His jaw snapped shut on his niggling worry at the other man's appearance; he'd deal with that after he'd calmed down. Turning on his heel, he practically marched out the door, spine still ramrod straight.
Stark stared after him for a long moment before blinking, shaking loose the mental cobwebs, and swinging around to his schematics once more. "Team player?", he muttered angrily. "I'll show him 'team player!' I'm going to make this team more cool technical swag than Reed has for the Fantastic Four!" The adrenaline from his fury cleared his neural pathways, and his eyes widened as he exclaimed, "Programmable energy shields!". His vision tunneled in single-minded focus concentrated on Hawkeye's projectiles.
An hour later the genius had finally managed to complete the arrow modifications and send them off to the fabricator when JARVIS piped up, "Sir, you asked to be reminded about the press conference."
Tony winced, then rubbed his thumb and forefinger over his aching eyes before carding a hand through his hair and groaning. "One o'clock now. Right." Addressing his AI, he raised his voice, "Hey, JARVIS? Have Happy meet me downstairs in 30 minutes." He pulled up his project list on a nearby monitor and swept "Arrow Upgrades" into the 'done' folder. Then, forcing his aching muscles upright, he stood stock still until the workshop swam into focus before heading upstairs to change clothes.
Steve keyed open Stark's lab for the second time that day. He'd gone for a long walk to cool off, and after enjoying the sunshine and soaking up the normal daily bustle of a city at work, he decided that he was up for another conversation with the stubborn engineer, this time about the inventor's all-too-obvious exhaustion. After all, it might have contributed to the morning's debacle. Besides, he reasoned, he wanted to get to know Stark better, figure out what made him tick, and, with luck, maybe get him to go to bed a little earlier at night. He had the sneaking suspicion that the genius wasn't going to be real receptive to the idea of working fewer hours, but Steve was always up for a challenge.
Unfortunately, the lab was conspicuously empty. After staring around in confusion, Steve addressed the house AI.
"JARVIS, do you know where Mr. Stark is right now? I'd like to apologize to him for my attitude earlier." The Captain had discovered within days of moving into the tower that the AI, for all it was a computer, was temperamental. It was more disposed to be helpful if it thought you had Stark's best interests at heart. Besides, he reasoned, he really had been a little gruff earlier due to his concern for team safety, and expressing regret for undo harshness might soothe feathers and make the touchy man a little more receptive to Steve's concerns.
"Sir is currently in transit to a press conference arranged by Director Fury regarding the Avengers Initiative's recent activities."
Steve closed his eyes and dropped his chin to his chest, mentally whacking his forehead with his palm. "Right. I forgot that was scheduled for this afternoon." He raised his head with a small, rueful smile. "I guess Stark isn't the only one who's tired." Since Loki's attack, the 'super villains' had been coming out of the woodwork, and barely a week went by without a new threat or two that only the Avengers were qualified to deal with. They never seemed to get a chance to catch their collective breath. Maybe he should take his own advice and go to bed earlier; the whole team was exhausted, not just Stark. He shook his head and turned to leave, only to be unexpectedly halted by the voice of the AI.
"Sir has not slept since 4 AM yesterday morning, and only two hours in the 36 preceding that." JARVIS stated dispassionately.
Roger's brows drew together in consternation at the apparent non sequitur. "JARVIS… did you just volunteer that information?" Computers weren't supposed to get defensive, were they?
"I apologize. I understood your comment to be a request to quantify Sir's level of exhaustion in comparison to your own."
"So… you were making certain I knew that he's been awake for a straight 34 hours? And he's only slept…" He quickly did the math and his eyes widened in consternation. "Two hours in the last seventy??!"
"While you have presently been up 9, following your typical 4 hours of sleep, and 14 in the same time period."
Steve smiled at the computer's protective streak, the corner of his lip quirking wryly. "Point taken. I'm not as tired as Stark." He paused, brows gathering in renewed and deepened concern; while he didn't like to pry, this might really be a problem. Even with the Serum, he'd slept 14 hours over the last three days and he could barely walk a straight line. A normal human required quite a bit more sleep than Steve did, but Stark had pushed himself well beyond the typical point of exhaustion. 'But why?' he wondered in confusion.
"JARVIS, may I ask you some questions about Mr. Stark? I'd like to help if I can, but I need to understand what's going on." He himself was frequently kept up by nightmares and a subsequent desire to avoid sleep. Maybe Iron Man had similar issues? But was too private to mention it? "You don't have to answer if you don't feel it's appropriate," he clarified. He would trust JARVIS not to reveal anything that might offend Stark should he discover the inquiry.
"I will answer to the best of my capability, within the limits of my programming parameters."
Steve nodded. "Fair enough." He pondered the phrasing of his first question, as it wouldn't do to offend the apparently touchy AI, and he really didn't want to compromise the other man's privacy unnecessarily. He finally settled on, "Why was Mr. Stark awake for so long?" This was vague enough that JARVIS might have 'wiggle room' to reply.
"He was working, and unwilling to suspend his projects long enough to 'waste time' with sleep." Steve swore he could hear the air quotes around 'waste time'. "It is not an unusual occurrence."
OK, that was pretty mundane. Obsessive, but not the landmine he'd been expecting. "May I ask what he was working on that was so important?"
"I am not allowed to discuss Sir's projects with individuals not designated as 'need to know'."
Steve sighed; well, he hardly expected…
Roger's eyes snapped toward the ceiling as JARVIS paused, then continued hesitantly, "If you would direct your attention to the monitor that Sir left open when he exited this workshop, I could answer specific questions concerning the data displayed."
Steve glanced around, quickly identifying the machine JARVIS referred to. Touching the mouse, the screen saver disappeared, revealing a fairly long list of numbered files. "JARVIS, may I examine these files without damaging any of the data or violating Mr. Stark's privacy?"
"Sir is quite specific about his security protocols. If you are not allowed to see a file, it will not open for you."
"Thank you, JARVIS." Steve flashed the ceiling a brilliant smile; while he knew the AI was ubiquitous, it helped to have a spot to direct his attention. As he began to scroll through the text, it became obvious that it was a list of projects, apparently in order of priority.
"Suit Repair - boot repulsor (mandatory)
SHIELD - Fury - Press Conference - 2PM (mandatory)
SHIELD - Hill - Communication System security upgrades (overdue)
SI/Avengers - Pepper/Steve - Tru-Art Pastels App (ASAP)
SHIELD - Fury - Helicarrier Engine security upgrade (overdue)
SI/Avengers - Charity Fundraiser - PR - 8PM (mandatory)
City of NY/Avengers - reconstruction reimbursement - review itemized list before authorization
Avengers - Bruce/Hulk - communicator for transformation
SHIELD - Coulson -emergency transponders
Iron Man - Congressional Oversight Committee - report - edit
Avengers - Natasha - stunner upgrade
Avengers - Steve - armor scale reinforcement
SI - Starkphone upgrades - Tru-Art app for mobile sketching?
Avengers - Tower - ongoing renovations - revise blueprints for secondary workout gym
SHIELD - Stillwell - improved line agent armor
SHIELD - After action report re: giant squids
SI/City of NY - arc reactor implementation timeline for city power supplementation
Avengers - Bruce/ Hulk - PANTS! - need new polymer/ call Reed?…"
Steve raised his eyes and addressed the AI. "JARVIS, is there any way to see what he was actually working on over the last three days?"
"I can highlight the appropriate files, as well as the time spent on each. While actual battles are not recorded, I can supply time estimates for those, as well as the debriefings. Additionally, as he completes a project, Sir moves it to the 'done' folder in the lower left corner of the screen. You will need to open that folder to access the remainder of the information requested. Any item in the file for more than seven days is automatically moved to long term storage."
Steve opened the indicated file before JARVIS finished speaking, then gave a low whistle. "He finished all this within the last week?" There had to be at least twenty projects listed, and some were fairly complex.
"That is correct." Steve could almost hear a disdainful sniff.
"Would you highlight all the items that have been accessed since 0400 yesterday?"
"Certainly." Over a dozen lines lit up on both lists, including three completed projects, and Steve shook his head in amazement. Out of curiosity, he opened the file labeled 'Clint - arrow upgrades', since that was what Stark had been working on when he'd come down earlier, and it was now marked as done. Holographic projections appeared, floating in the air around him, and the soldier gaped at the complexity displayed. "Is everything he does this comprehensive?" he breathed to himself, awestruck.
JARVIS overheard the rhetorical question and chose to answer it. "As this design is currently in the fabricators, precise detail is mandatory."
Rogers' eyebrows shot into his hairline. "He personally designs down to production specifications?"
"Of course." The AI replied without inflection. JARVIS apparently took it as a matter of course that Stark didn't even delegate the drafting when it came to his inventions. "The computer programming for SHIELD is of similar depth, as Sir is unwilling to risk security compromise by outsourcing even the most basic subroutines."
Steve shook his head in disbelief. No wonder the man worked through the night. 'If you want something done right, do it yourself' wasn't just a motto, it was a way of life with this idiot. Stark was either a perfectionist or a man with severe trust issues; either way, he needed to learn to ask for help or he was going to kill himself.
Captain Rogers sighed and returned everything to its original condition. "Thank you, JARVIS. I think Mr. Stark and I need to discuss the concept of delegation."
He could swear the computer sounded smug. "As you say, Captain." Steve suddenly had the uncomfortable feeling that he and JARVIS were co-conspirators in something, but he wasn't exactly certain as to what.
As he was about to leave, he caught sight of an uneaten apple on the worktable by the door, almost hidden by assorted mechanical detritus, and had another ugly suspicion. Growing up poor, he had just assumed that the billionaire's frequent absences at meals were because he considered himself too good to eat with the riffraff, but if he was too busy to sleep…
Steve picked up the apple and stared at it contemplatively as he addressed the computer once more. "JARVIS, can you tell me when Mr. Stark last ate? And coffee doesn't count." He eyed the espresso machine in the corner with mild distaste.
"He attended a luncheon with Ms. Potts and an investor the day before yesterday; three meals and associated beverages were charged to his business account. Presumably, therefore, he ate at that time."
"Not since then?" Steve was aghast. He knew that he himself required a minimum of three meals daily plus snacks due to his increased metabolism, but even normal humans needed to eat more than once in forty-eight hours; the man must be half-starved!
"Sir gets involved in his projects and forgets to eat unless actively reminded."
Well, at least that might have a quick fix. They would simply insist that he attend the occasional evening meal. 'Yeah, right', he snorted to himself. Nothing with Stark was ever that easy. Still, it never hurt to try. "Thank you for your help, JARVIS." Steve carefully set the apple down where it would be more obvious when the engineer returned from the press conference. Meanwhile, he needed to devise a plan to get Stark to readjust his priorities. Eating and sleeping were not actually optional tasks, no matter how much time they took out of his busy schedule.
There was a reason Fury liked Stark representing the Avengers at press conferences; the man had more skill manipulating the media than anyone the Director had ever met, and Fury had personally spoken to six Presidents. Of course, the billionaire had grown up in the public spotlight, cameras focused in his direction since the day he was born. When he wanted to, he could have the press eating out of the palm of his hand. Unfortunately, he often didn't care enough to put out even a modicum of effort, with disastrous results and the headlines to match.
It was therefore a good thing that Stark did care so very much about the Avenger Initiative, Fury reflected, watching Tony's masterful manipulation of yet another reporter's pointed questioning. The billionaire was ON, in every sense of the word. Megawatt smile with a flash of white teeth punctuated his latest deflection, causing his entire audience to chuckle, even the reporter whose inquiry was being subtly ridiculed. Despite being one of the most abrasive men Fury had ever met, he could be downright charming when he actually tried. When it came to the Avengers, he not only tried, he tried his best. Not for the first time, the director was glad he'd ignored the profilers and gone with his gut instead. Howard Stark's boy was a tremendous addition to the Avengers, and not just because of his Iron Man persona or his press conference skills. Fury would never have admitted it to his old friend when he was alive, but Tony's genius left Howard's in the dust. Too bad the industrialist had been too preoccupied with business to notice his brilliant child. Like his father, Tony was somewhat lackadaisical in regards to deadlines; unlike Howard, he had a deeply buried desire for approval and acceptance. The fact that the billionaire was still unclear as to his status on his beloved team was a nice subconscious carrot Fury could use as incentive for better performance.
One last statement, and Stark was strolling nonchalantly off the stage to the sound of a hundred flashbulbs. He nodded to Fury's impassive visage as he approached, tilting his head and giving a self-deprecating smile. "So, Director, satisfied?" he casually inquired, stuffing his hands carelessly into his pockets. The director wasn't fooled by his unconcerned stance.
Fury nodded, carefully revealing nothing; best to keep him guessing. "It'll do," he grunted. As Stark gave a short nod and began to saunter away, the Director added firmly, "Don't forget about those failsafes we discussed. I expect preliminaries from your R&D department on my desk by Friday." The inventor didn't flinch, but Fury noted the minute tensing of the other's shoulders in response, indicating the barb struck home.
Nevertheless, Stark gave a careless wave as he mentally recited, 'Be a duck; calm on the surface - paddling like hell underneath.' "No problem," he lilted before climbing into his limo.
As the car pulled away, Fury allowed himself a tiny, satisfied smile. He had no doubt that he'd have the programs by the end of the week, even if Stark had to literally light a fire in his R&D department.
Once safely behind the tinted glass of his car, Tony collapsed into the cushioned leather seats with a groan of exhaustion, dropping his 'devil-may-care' facade. Even his bones ached, and he made a mental note to give his make-up girl a raise. He hadn't even looked winded, much less like he'd been pummeled through a truck that morning and hadn't slept in two days. Back muscles wrenched in the conflict now vehemently protested the proudly-straight, self-assured posture Tony had ruthlessly held for the entire press conference. Additionally, the flashing cameras had ratcheted his headache to truly epic proportions; he'd forgotten about it while working on Clint's arrows, but now it was back with a vengeance. He whimpered silently as he allowed his eyes to slide closed. The annoying, nauseating, dull throbbing pulsed worst above his right eyebrow and took all his willpower not to massage. While it might temporarily feel better to rub it, Tony knew from long experience that it always came back ten-fold when he let up pressure. He took a deep, stuttering breath instead, forcibly suppressing his physical complaints and switching to mental ones. 'R&D department, my ass!', he fumed. 'I would never delegate those upgrades to anyone, and Fury knows it.' Another slow inhalation, and he censored his angry reflections, deciding that actually concentrating on the Helicarrier engine upgrades themselves would be a more constructive use of his time.
Computer code swirled before his closed eyes as he considered the craft's complex engine protocols. Damn it, he should have done this the week following the Chitauri attack! Barton had come way too close to crashing the ship while under Loki's influence, and that couldn't be allowed to happen again. There was no absolute prevention for explosive damage, but the arrow-delivered shutdown sequence for the second engine? Not acceptable. It's just….there'd been so much clean-up in the wake of the invasion that the upgrades had gotten placed on a back-burner. Well, he'd take care of it now. He mentally isolated the pertinent subroutines as they drove to the Tower, unable to face opening his eyes to type them onto a Starkpad.
He did forcibly pry his eyes open when he felt Happy kill the engine, then took a moment to enter his data into the appropriate file on his Starkpad before clambering out of the backseat and heading to his workshop, nodding polite dismissal to Happy as he went. The rest of Fury's failsafe programming would have to wait until he'd repaired his boot repulsor, but after that it would be near the top of his 'to do' list, along with the other half-dozen 'needed yesterday' projects he was working on.
"What time shall I pick you up for the fundraiser tonight?", Happy called out before Tony reached the door.
Right, the charity…thing…Pepper had roped him into. 'Good publicity for a change', she had insisted, and he couldn't disagree. He mentally sighed, but stubbornly didn't allow his exhaustion seep into his reply. "Seven thirty. See you then." A smirk, a wave, and an exit. Still, he wondered if he was fooling Happy at all.
Upon entering his workshop, he immediately noted the blinking alert on the fabricator; the arrow run had finished. A tired grin blossomed on his face, honestly delighted that something had finally gone right. "Hey, JARVIS? Could you let Barton know that I have some new toys for him?"
"Of course, Sir. It would be my pleasure."
"Thanks, J." Then, as an afterthought, "Hey, could you crank some tunes? How about playlist number 3? I gotta fix my boot repulsor." Something about the deep base pulsing always seemed to energize him when he was flagging; it ironically tended to improve his headache as well.
"Certainly, sir," came the immediate answer, followed by the opening chords of "Back in Black".
He was soldering a broken connection in time to "Shoot to Thrill" when he heard the lab door open and the archer's puzzled tones greet him. "Hey, Tony, JARVIS says you have something for me?"
"Just a sec…" he replied, holding the circuit board in place as the solder cooled. Satisfied with the weld, he set his boot repairs aside and swung the chair around, launching himself to his feet as he did so. He barely managed not to stagger as he gestured 'come here' with his finger and headed to the fabricator. Picking up one of the new arrows, he handed it to Clint, then pointed at the tip.
"I tweaked your explosive arrows. See that? When you load the head from your quiver, you can now specify range and direction of the blast if you want. If you don't need that much control, or don't have the extra few seconds for programming, the default settings are identical to your current ones."
Hawkeye examined the weapon in his hand critically, visually noting the minute changes. "How'd you do it?" he asked, finally.
"Programmable energy shield. It shouldn't affect the weight or aerodynamics, but I'd appreciate you trying them out on the range and giving me some feedback to be certain. I can do more adjusting if we need to, or can eliminate the modification altogether if it doesn't work out." Tony scooped the rest of the arrows out of the fabricator bin and handed them to Clint, who shot him a pleased grin.
"Great! I'll get right on that. Thanks, Tony!" The delighted archer all but ran from the room in his eagerness to experiment with his new equipment, while the engineer smiled fondly at his retreating back before shaking himself and returning wearily to his own boot repairs.
Steve was walking through the common room on his way to the kitchen when he noticed that the TV was on with no one watching. He rolled his eyes, somehow not surprised. He was never going to get used to the wastefulness of this future world he found himself living in. Just in case someone was returning, he asked, "JARVIS, is anyone using the television?"
"Mr. Barton was watching a program before he was summoned by Sir to retrieve the prototype set of upgraded arrows for trial. He subsequently went straight to the range; I do not believe he remembered the television."
The super soldier shook his head with a rueful quirk to his lip; Clint could certainly be single-minded. Rather than ask the computer to turn it off, he took the ten steps around the couch and reached for the controls himself, only to halt as he caught the words "giant squids".
"JARVIS, is this a news report about our battle this morning?"
Huh. "Leave it on for a moment. Maybe they have some video I can use to critique our battle strategy." As if on cue, the news station switched to some shaky cell phone footage, with the reporter narrating over the images. First were scenes of the giant mutant squids as they crawled from the ocean, followed by the destruction caused as they moved inland. Rogers sank onto the couch, leaning forward in interest. It rapidly became obvious that the film was a composite from a number of different phones, but skillfully edited to tell the story of the attack from a civilian perspective. Next came a number of shots of police and National Guard soldiers unsuccessfully battling the creatures, followed by the Avengers being a little more effective.
Steve suddenly sat up, alert. "JARVIS, can you replay the last thirty seconds?"
"Certainly, Captain." The requested film ran through again, showing Iron Man whipping around the corner of a building and heading towards the water, only to jag almost directly beneath a tentacle slamming towards the ground. Steve's heart caught in his throat as he watched the monster's appendage clip Iron Man's boot as he turned, causing him to spin momentarily out of control before he straightened and headed back in his original direction. Rogers' first impression was that the man had been hotdogging, playing some insane game of chicken with the creature, until the narration sunk in.
"JARVIS, once more? But turn up the sound this time?" The clip repeated, but now Steve concentrated on the reporter's voice rather than the heart-stopping footage.
"…and here is footage of New York City's own Iron Man, Tony Stark, as he saves a boy, later identified as Robert Aikens. According to family, the child sustained some minor bruises and was quite frightened but otherwise unharmed, thanks to…"
Squinting in concentration, Steve now could make out the blurry form of a small child frozen in wide-eyed fear beneath the descending tentacle as he was scooped up by Stark, then unceremoniously deposited behind police barricades just before the limb struck Iron Man's foot. Fortunately he controlled his spin just short of plowing into a brick wall, and headed off as if nothing happened. However, the Captain's mind shot back to Tony's 'to do' list, at the top of which was "suit repair - boot repulsor", so the billionaire had taken a hit hard enough to damage his armor.
"So that was why he was out of position," Natasha commented almost in his ear. Steve barely managed not to jump; at some point the assassin had silently slipped into the room and was watching over his shoulder as she leaned on the back of the couch.
The super soldier gave a huff of frustration as he stood and flipped off the television. "Why couldn't he just tell us? 'Sorry I was late, but I had to save a kid.' One sentence!"
Widow hummed reflectively. "Stark can be like that; it's as if he's embarrassed to be caught caring. I think… he was taught that it revealed unacceptable vulnerability." She shrugged incrementally. "A shame, really, as he is one of the most caring men I have ever met. Hiding that must be difficult."
Steve sat lost in thought as Natasha sauntered from the room. He didn't even notice when JARVIS turned off the television.
Over an hour passed before the Tony drove in his boot's final screw, then sat back and rubbed his aching head with the back of his hand, smearing grease across his brow. "Done," he muttered, then addressed his AI. "JARVIS? Pull up my active project list again, would you?"
The rather lengthy list appeared on the screen to his right, with "Suit Repair" at the top. With relish, he swept the item to the 'done' file before examining the remainder. 'Hmmmm', he pondered, 'I think I'd better finish those engine failsafes next, before Fury blows a seal.' He didn't want to consider that part of his motivation was guilt over not having them already completed and installed, as well as worry about being considered too unreliable to continue on as an Avenger. He'd still have his suit, of course, and could resume being a solo operative, but he found that he liked having other people in his home. Having a team to watch his back when fighting the bad guys was surprisingly reassuring, and having a group to commiserate with after the battle made his heart warm in ways he'd never admit aloud. He wasn't going to let that go without a fight. If it meant a few more sleepless nights, well…he'd done worse in college. He resolutely refused to consider the fact that he was no longer a teenager, and might not have quite the same stamina as he once did.
Before he could adjust the project list, however, his comlink buzzed. "Stark here; what's up?" he barked, adrenaline momentarily washing away his weariness.
"Doombots. The financial district." Fury's clipped tones wasted no breath on pleasantries. "Get your butts there YESTERDAY."
"Got it," Tony replied, heading for his suit. As he hurriedly dressed, he muttered, "I'll show you 'team player', Captain Perfect."
"You know, if Doom wanted to take over Wall Street, there are better ways of doing it," Tony commented as he dodged another blast from a rough-edged droid. "Heck, I could give him a pointer or two."
"Buy low, sell high, right?" drawled Clint from his perch.
"Hey, there's worse suggestions," Tony replied as he twisted in midair, firing his hand repulsors at the bot, blowing it apart. "Hah! That's ten for me. Beat that, William Tell!"
"OK," came the calm reply, behind which Tony could hear the sound of exploding machinery. "That's twelve for me."
"Seriously?" Tony swerved and fired again, taking down two more that had been flying in tandem. So far his boot repulsor had been behaving itself. He'd completed the repairs just in time. He dove after another that was going after a city bus, making sure the civilians were clear before blasting that one as well. "Hah! Thirteen."
His right glove repulsor stuttered slightly, and Tony suddenly recalled the glitch on the bridge that morning that had put him through the truck. 'Damn it!', he groaned mentally, 'I forgot to run that diagnostic!' Still, no help for it now; he'd just have to hope it held up for this fight and take care of it later.
"Chatter, people," Cap's voice admonished. Stark would have responded with something pithy and inappropriate, but his attention was suddenly occupied with the five Doombots that had decided to attack him simultaneously.
"What the hell…?", he squawked on the open comm. He was good, but not that good, especially not having slept for almost two days. Fortunately the machines weren't synchronized, so he could dodge their initial laser attack with some creative and nimble flying as he returned fire. Unfortunately, they seemed capable of learning from their mistakes, and began shooting in tandem from several directions at once. Iron Man managed to take out three before he was hit, the force of the blast slamming him into a nearby brownstone. His world went gray momentarily, spots swirling before his eyes as his tortured back telegraphed its displeasure to every abused nerve ending. He shook his head foggily, blinking to try and clear his vision. He needed to move before the device got in another shot. He needed to move NOW!
Too late. An energy beam caught him from the side, knocking him so hard into the pavement that his breath was driven from his lungs in a whoosh. Something on his right side gave way with an audible snap, the white-hot explosion of agony blanking out his senses momentarily. A dispassionate part of his mind informed him that he'd just broken a couple of ribs…again. Possibly punctured a lung as well, if his inability to inhale was any indication. "Iron Man!" Tony could hear someone yelling, but it sounded so far away. Besides, he had other concerns at the moment.
'Come on, Tony, breathe!,' his inner voice insisted. 'Relax….can't let a doombot get the better of you. Clint will never let you live it down.'
No more blasts came his way; either the robots had been taken care of by his teammates, or they had simply lost interest in a non-moving target. Whatever the cause, he was inordinately grateful. His diaphragm finally recovered from its temporary paralysis, and he gulped in deep breaths to the point of hyperventilating, ignoring the incessant stabbing pain in his side as he did so. Once he was certain that both his lungs were intact, he struggled to his knees, paused, then clambered to stand on unsteady feet. The world tilted alarmingly for a moment before finally settling back to a more-or-less normal orientation. One last deep breath, then he blasted off towards the nearest enemy bot, firing as he flew and blowing it to confetti before he even registered on the robot's sensors. Checking his HUD for his teammates' positions, he raced towards Cap and Widow, tagging as many of Doom's creations as he could on the way. The ones not immediately obliterated gave chase, making a ragtag parade of furious machinery.
"Hey, guys!" he called with forced cheer. "I'm bringing the party your way!" By this time Tony was trailing a good twenty or so bots, and more seemed to be following just to see what all the fuss was about.
"Stark, you and I still need to talk about the definition of the word 'party'," Natasha replied dryly, before leaping, literally, into the fray.
It took over an hour to finally destroy the last of the mechanical menaces, and Tony was so exhausted by this point that his vision had tunneled to just what was immediately in front of him. Still, if he concentrated hard enough, he might manage to make it home. It was either that, or pile on the Quinjet with everyone else. They were all dog-tired. Problem was, since he never rode when he could fly, he knew that Captain Can't-Mind-My-Own-Business would have to know why, and this would ultimately end up with hours he could not spare wasted in the SHIELD medical unit, only to report what he already knew; that he had a couple of fractured ribs, assorted bruises and pulled muscles, and a concussion. They would subsequently prescribe rest and light duty, neither of which he had time for right now, and Cap would browbeat him incessantly when he tried to work regardless. The whole exercise would be one of futility and frustration, but more importantly, a complete and unnecessary waste of valuable time. Time better spent upgrading team equipment or finishing Fury's failsafes.
Best just to fly himself home and take his chances. He wobbled slightly, then fired up his boots, getting JARVIS to help autopilot once he reached a safe altitude.
Steve watched him go in concern. He'd seen Iron Man taken out by the robots earlier, but the genius had made it to his feet unaided and rejoined the fight, so he couldn't have been injured too badly. Even though he'd seemed pretty unsteady by the end of the conflict, surely there's no way Stark would try to fly home if he weren't in reasonably good condition. Pulling back his cowl, he absently wiped the sweat out of his eyes as he surveyed the rest of the team. They were all slumped on the rubble in various states of collapse, tending minor injuries as they waited for the Quinjet to arrive. Bruce had a silver emergency blanket draped over his shoulders, practically asleep where he huddled beneath it. Clint was half-heartedly twirling an arrow as he sat on a ragged chunk of concrete, gazing unseeingly into the distance. Natasha perched impassively at his side, silently supportive, unaware of the bruise that had blossomed on her cheek. Thor was the only teammate still standing, but even he leaned wearily on a nearby wall. Steve himself felt like curling onto the nearest flat surface and sleeping for a year. His worried gaze jerked back to Iron Man's erratic flight path; if he felt this bad with the serum, a good night's sleep, regular meals, and relative youth, how was Stark even upright, much less fighting?
Through sheer stubbornness Tony made it back to the Tower in one piece, and his armor was intact enough for the walkway to remove it with minimal difficulty. A glance at his watch told him he had just enough time for another quick shower to make himself presentable before shrugging into his tux and being fashionably, but not unacceptably, late to Pepper's fundraiser. His ribs and back both spasmed worryingly as he peeled out of his sweat-soaked t-shirt, so he dry-swallowed two Aleve before crawling under the hot spray JARVIS automatically turned on for him. Fortunately Happy was right on time, and the traffic was light on the way to the hotel.
Pepper spotted him within two minutes of his arrival, maneuvering her way smoothly through the crowd to his side. "Mr. Stark," she greeted him warmly, nodding her head with a knowing smile.
"Miss Potts," he answered, internally sighing in relief and relaxing incrementally. For once he seemed to have been close enough to punctual that Pepper wasn't shooting him death glares, or even disappointed looks. She reached up and adjusted his collar, more for an excuse to speak to him sotto voce than for any real problem with his appearance.
"Are you all right?" The genuine concern in her tone startled him.
He blinked at her, confused. "Sure. Why?"
"Well, you're moving pretty stiffly, and you didn't quite cover that bruise beneath your eye…" She reached up and blended the foundation with her fingertips. "There. That's better."
"Thanks," he snorted. "I never used to wear makeup before this superhero gig. Apparently you aren't much of a 'hero' if you can be hurt." His gaze wandered around the room, anywhere but towards her suddenly suspicious face. "We had another call this afternoon, and I'm a little sore. Reed just needs to put Doom down instead of leaving us to clean up his messes."
A waiter wandered past with a tray of champagne, and the billionaire helped himself to two glasses. He handed one to his lovely CEO with a gallant nod, then clinked it with his own, distracting her. "To a quiet night of good publicity," he toasted.
"Hear, hear," she replied, and her smile was dazzling.
Despite the known muscle-relaxing properties of alcohol, Stark limited himself to only two glasses of bubbly that evening, and no hard liquor. He had too much work waiting for him at home, and he knew that if he got drunk, nothing would be accomplished. To that end, he also excused himself as early in the evening as he reasonably could, making sure to politely greet everyone whose attention mattered before he left. He also checked with Pepper before ducking out; Starks weren't known for being stupid.
"Go. You were great this evening. Try and get a good night's sleep." She was still smiling, so he mentally chalked the evening up to the 'win' column of his day.
He gave her a peck on the cheek. "I'll try," he murmured, not quite lying. He wouldn't succeed, since he couldn't hit the sack until he'd at least checked his suit and run that diagnostic on his right hand repulsor, but he could honestly promise to try. He called Happy and headed back to the tower and his workshop.
The Avengers' alarm began to blare, startling Tony awake. He blinked blearily, disoriented, before his weary mind identified the sound. The heel of one hand scrubbed the grit out of his eye, then drifted down to scratch the indentation in his cheek made by the keyboard that had been his impromptu pillow. "JARVIS? Assembling?" he mumbled.
"Yes, sir. There are apparently 'Eldritch Beings' manifesting in Central Park." The AI managed to sound vaguely disparaging.
"Uh…what?" Tony reached for the nearest now-cold cup of coffee, downing it in a single gulp, before repeating the process on the next cup over. He was going to need caffeine for this, no matter how unpalatable. He checked the dregs of a third cup for mold before downing it as well, then asking in what was definitely not a whine, "What time is it, anyway?"
"One Fourteen AM. The team is assembling in the northwest corner of the park."
Huh. He must have fallen asleep for almost thirty minutes. Tony glanced over to where the diagnostic was only half-completed on his glove repulsor, without any abnormality identified. 'It'll have to do for now,' he sighed tiredly, and began suiting up.
Given the speed and mobility of the Iron Man armor, Tony was usually one of the first on the scene of any disaster the Avengers were summoned to. Therefore, he felt justified in a quick flyover for reconnaissance of the northern half of the park, noting the unearthly greenish glow emanating from North Woods. Next thing he knew, a ball of brilliant blue light was hurtling in his direction. He managed to twist just enough to avoid being knocked from the sky, then reflexively dove for the cover of the tree line, trying to get a glimpse of whatever had shot at him in the process. He pulled to a startled hover over what looked like demons clawing through a rip in reality. A brief glimpse of the other side resembled a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, and it definitely wasn't "Garden of Earthly Delights". A grinning, red-scaled visage then popped into view, baring a mouthful of ugly, spiked teeth, before bringing its claws together and blasting energy at him a second time. He shot upwards to dodge this attack, then zipped down diagonally towards the trees again, firing repulsors in reply. The creature was unaffected as it pulled itself fully upright, menacingly waving six limbs attached to a scaled, elongated body. Prominent rills flared on either side of its wide-jawed head, and it roared a challenge as it blasted again.
"Holy Mother of…" Tony cursed, as he rolled away from the third energy sphere rocketing towards him. The beast's aim was improving and, oh joy, some of its friends had noticed him now as well. "That's enough of that," he muttered as he activated his anti-tank missiles, swerving down for a better shot. Once the HUD confirmed a lock, he deployed one at point-blank range.
Mr. Ugly howled as the bomb struck home, a great wound opening in its flank. "Felt that, didn't cha?" Stark crowed, twisting out of range as it collapsed to the ground.
"Iron Man, status!" barked Cap, causing Tony to blink. Huh. Must have left his comlink open. He shrugged as best he could in the suit. At least he knew that the rest of the team had arrived.
"There's some kind of opening here that's allowing Sci-Fi Channel movie monsters to crawl through." He kept moving in a random pattern as a ten-foot-tall blue spider-like abomination started firing short energy bursts in his direction. "Luckily, it's small enough that they can only come through single file. So far I count eight, all different, all huge, but there are undoubtedly more on the way. Haven't seen Godzilla or the Creature From the Black Lagoon yet, so these guys are clearly second string." He made a strafing run at the spider, and this time his repulsors were more effective; no visible damage, but the monster roared in pain. "My repulsors work on some of them, but not others. I did serious damage with an anti-tank missile, so artillery is definitely a plus." He used the repulsors again at the giant blue tarantula, seriously pissing it off. "Hey, Hawkeye! If you have any of those new arrows, now's a good time for a field test." He wobbled in midair suddenly as his glove resumed its earlier stuttering, throwing him off-balance. He compensated quickly, showing no outward distress as the rest of the team arrived.
"My friend!," boomed Thor, swinging Mjolnir rapidly in a circle before letting fly. It struck a yellow, dragon-like monstrosity in the center of its forehead, causing it to stagger, but not drop. In reply, the creature focused a baleful eye on its attacker before retaliating by spitting a fountain of flame.
Tony gave up on the repulsors and deployed a missile into the blue spider, causing a satisfying explosion of its central body. Blue bits rained around a twenty foot area, and Iron Man whooped for joy. "Two down!" he cried with a fist pump, then paused to quickly trouble-shoot his glove mid-flight.
Mr. Ugly, severely but not mortally wounded, lurched to its feet behind Iron Man, unnoticed as Tony accessed a small toolkit secreted in a compartment on the side of his suit. The monster narrowed its three glowing orange eyes at the preoccupied Avenger, aiming carefully before firing another energy ball. Iron Man, who had mentally dismissed the demon as destroyed, caught the blast full in his back.
All the armor's internal and external sensors went haywire, flashing red and blaring alarms. Tony crashed through three trees before slamming into the ground, arms cartwheeling as he plowed a trench that he knew the City of New York would inevitably bill him for tomorrow. As he skidded to a stop, the world disappeared behind a curtain of pain, whiting out his conscious mind momentarily before it stuttered back in bits and pieces. He slowly wrestled himself under control, cataloguing his injuries and concluding that none were immediately life threatening. 'Damn, there went another couple of ribs, though,' he noted as he tried to catch his breath. Gritting his teeth, he panted aloud, "That…was just… rude… mister!"
Sheer obstinacy forced him to his feet, facing the approaching red-scaled demon as it powered up for another round. It was a lot bigger down at ground level, he noted as he stared upward. A lot bigger. Better rectify that.
As his boot repulsors activated, he was again attacked from behind, this time by a multi-tentacled white creature that had just emerged from the rift, hurling him face-first into the ground once more. He seriously needed better padding in his helmet, because he momentarily blacked out again, his active repulsors causing the uncontrolled armor to dig another parallel furrow before they automatically cut off. 'If this keeps up, I'll have the park ready for the spring planting season,' he reflected giddily to himself, shaking his head in a futile attempt to clear his fuzzy thoughts. 'Aaannd… there's the concussion talking…'
Apparently Hawkeye had similar ideas. "Hey, Iron Man! You could always pick up a couple of extra bucks renting yourself out as a plow!" An explosion echoed through the comm. "And these new arrows rock! That's two for me."
While a small part of Tony's clouded mind noted and was pleased that Clint's weapon modifications were working out, he had more pressing concerns to focus his flagging concentration on. The spaghetti-monster, for lack of a better term, wasn't done with him yet. As soon as he struggled to his feet it bashed him face-down again with a crack and enough force to drive the suit an inch into the ground. Mr. Ugly arrived at that point and blasted another energy orb at Iron Man's prone body for good measure. The HUD sparked and sizzled, red lights seizing and alarms screaming, none of which was helping his now-blinding migraine. Stark figured he must have blacked out again, waking to the realization that he was being pummeled by as many limbs as the albino creature could spare. His armor, while not yet breached, was certainly being dented into his body painfully in several locations. He could feel it pinching his left flank to the point of drawing blood, and could feel flesh actually ripping free as he attempted to roll towards his right. The pain spiked unbearably as the monster, noting his movement, increased its battery; he groaned and collapsed prone once more. This….could be a problem.
"Little… help… here?" he choked into his comlink as he struggled to rise again, this time managing to lever himself to his knees. Peripherally he noticed that Mr. Ugly had joined its spaghetti monster buddy, and the two of them struck him simultaneously in the chest, forcing a grunt from his lungs as he was hurled though the air, landing on his back this time. They began thumping the front of his armor in synchrony, apparently trying to match the damage already done to the back panel of his battered suit. His mind drifted hazily, vaguely aware of the pounding his poor armor was taking and mentally tallying the time it would take to repair. He winced and gave an involuntary gasp as a particularly violent blow landed, crushing into his thigh. 'That will take hours to straighten out; so much for finishing those failsafes tonight', he lamented disjointedly. Vision began to fade as his suit became more and more damaged, leaving only the sound of Cap frantically calling his name, then ordering the others to assist. Huh. When had that started?
"Shield brother, take heart!" Thor bellowed in frustration. "I will be at your side after I vanquish my most persistent foe!"
"Hawkeye, Widow, Hulk - any of you in a position to help Iron Man? I'm out of range!" Cap's voice was sounding progressively more tinny; either Tony's hearing or his comm was beginning to fail; either was equally probable. The front of the suit was now compressing his chest as painfully as it did his back; he couldn't even draw a complete breath from the pressure it placed on his fractured ribs.
'Gotta do something - this is like being in a trash compactor.' Prying his eyes open (when had they closed?), he took stock of what was left functioning on his suit, and a slow smile quirked the corner of his mouth. "JARVIS, still with me?", he rasped.
"Only intermittently, sir. Your vital signs…"
"Yeah, yeah, never mind that. I don't trust my eyes right now; it looks like I can still fire a couple of missiles?"
"Four shoulder mounted anti-tank rounds are indeed available at present."
"Then take out these sons of bitches!"
"The targeting system is not online…" began the AI.
"Doesn't matter! They're looming directly over me turning my beautiful suit into ugly modern art. Just fire straight up!" Tony blinked several times, trying unsuccessfully to get his eyes to focus. Man, his head hurt! All that pounding was… not helping.
"As you say, sir." He could feel his shoulder flaps open, then he was pressed backwards into the ground as four armor-piercing rockets fired simultaneously.
The buffeting stopped abruptly. He tried to sigh in relief, but a huge weight suddenly flattened Tony from his chest to his toes, driving his breath out in a huff. It was followed by a second mass that both kept him breathless and immobilized his armor even more thoroughly than before. Maybe he hadn't thought the whole 'fire straight up' thing completely through. He struggled weakly to try and wriggle free from under what must be the carcasses of the creatures, but, panting feebly, gave it up as a lost cause. His suit was trashed anyway…this battle was over as far as the Iron Man armor was concerned.
"JARVIS…" he slurred. He was aware of a warm, thick liquid pooling in the back of his suit that he suspected was blood, but he couldn't tell if it belonged to the demons or to him. Right now he couldn't summon the energy to care. "I'm jus' g'nna close m' eyes for a sec…" Maybe a quick nap would help with the headache…and the vision… and the hearing…
He was unconscious before he could hear the AI's panicked reply.
"Little… help… here?"
Steve's heart leapt into his throat as he heard the strangled words rasp over the comlink. 'What the…?', he thought as his eyes darted frantically around the mayhem, dodging a blow from his eight-armed opponent in the process. Not immediately spotting the armor, he barked, "Iron Man! Status!" as he hurled his shield a little more viciously than normal. One violet arm was severed neatly off, only to be replaced by two more. Peachy.
"Iron Man!" he demanded again, and his stomach flipped unpleasantly at the lack of reply. Suddenly he spotted a flash of red and gold on the far side of the battlefield. In between trading blows with his own opponent, he made out Stark's unmoving form crumpled on the ground being battered by two multi-limbed monsters. "Iron Man, status!" he tried again, with no response.
"Thor! Iron Man needs assistance!" The Asgardian was the closest, and one of their heavy hitters. He gritted his teeth as he heard the demigod's regretful answer, and doubled his efforts against his own enemy. "Hawkeye, Widow, Hulk - any of you in a position to help Iron Man? I'm out of range!" Negative replies, and the SHIELD agents on the scene were too busy working on closing the rift to assist. These brutes were out of the average agent's league, anyway. A final desperate heave of his shield resulted in a satisfying snap of the monster's neck, dropping it bonelessly to the ground. Cap didn't stick around to gloat; he took off at a sprint towards his beleaguered colleague.
Halfway there he witnessed, aghast, four missiles shoot up through the two nightmarish creatures, dropping them like stones. Unfortunately, both of them had been leaning over his injured teammate at the time, so they collapsed directly on top of him like two giant redwoods. Steve impossibly picked up his pace, dodging a three-headed creature that tried to attack him and actively ignoring the babel of his comlink.
'Can he breathe? Did they crush him? How much damage can that armor sustain before Tony gets injured as well?' His mind was overflowing with unanswered questions, so he relied on instinct. As he skidded to a stop next to the silent figure, he noted that Iron Man's head and shoulders, the only parts not obscured by dead monster, were disturbingly still. He viciously suppressed the memory of the same suit lying motionless after destroying the Chitauri. "Iron Man, can you hear me?" he shouted as he scrabbled desperately for purchase on the upper carcass and, with adrenaline augmenting his super-serum, heaved. It didn't even budge. "Iron Man! Open your faceplate! Answer me!" He took a deep breath and bunched the muscles in his arm, pulling on a violaceous limb with renewed fervor. He ignored the protests of his biceps and the dripping ichors oozing over his gloves as he strained, concentrating only on freeing his wounded comrade. After an eternity the slimy, lizardlike creature's disfigured corpse began to slide towards him, finally rolling to the side far enough for Cap to reach the tentacled, pale carcass of the second creature.
"Tony!" Steve grasped three of the fiend's ashen appendages simultaneously and hauled backwards with all his might. This monster was lighter than the first and came free with a jerk, joining the first with a sickening squelching sound. The Captain's breathing stuttered as he finally caught sight of his teammate's limp body and the pulverized remnants of the Iron Man armor.
The suit was a mess; it looked like a piece of aluminum foil caught in a hailstorm. Several of the dents were deep enough to be pressing uncomfortably on the man inside, but Stark didn't shift at all, instead laying deathly still. Butterflies fluttered uncomfortably in Steve's stomach as he noticed the dark red blood dripping from a jagged, creased gash in the armor's flank, and his mind blanked except for the repetitive phrase, 'Please, God, no'.
Steve fell to his knees beside the broken figure, fumbling for the emergency release of the faceplate that he'd insisted on after the Loki incident. Unsteady fingers finally got leverage on a damaged catch and pried it open, unlocking the entire helmet. He carefully pulled it off, keeping the billionaire's neck stable like the first aid classes instructed. His eyes widened in shock; Tony's face was almost unrecognizable. His left eye was swollen and bruised, lower lip split, cheek abraded, and a small trickle of blood ran from his left nostril. Sweat-soaked hair was plastered wetly to his forehead, almost hiding a growing knot on his scalp, and his dark eyelashes stood out in harsh contrast to the unnatural pallor of his skin. Rogers' breath caught in his throat; the man looked dead. Steeling himself, he gently pressed fingertips to his teammate's carotid, searching for a pulse. His own heartbeat pounded in his ears when it wasn't immediately apparent, only to calm slightly as finally fluttered, thready but there, beneath his hand.
"Does he yet live?", asked Thor in a surprisingly subdued tone, peering over his shoulder, clearly getting the same impression that Steve had. Rogers had been so intent on finding a pulse that he hadn't noticed the other man approach.
The Captain swallowed and nodded, not trusting his voice. He blinked rapidly, gathering his fragmented thoughts, then turned his face up to meet the demi-god's. "For now, but he needs medical assistance. How's the rest of the fight going?" He realized that he hadn't heard a word anyone had spoken on the open com channel since he'd seen the monsters collapse onto Tony. He glanced behind himself then, automatically trying to assess the situation.
"It is finished. The foe is vanquished and the gateway closed." The Asgardian placed a reassuring hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve gaped slightly; the battle was still in full swing when he had reached Iron Man. How had it ended so quickly?
He must have spoken aloud, or Thor had previously unmentioned psychic powers, for he answered, "You have been here for some time, Captain. It took you many minutes to unearth our comrade. I was otherwise occupied, or would have assisted."
Rogers nodded. It had seemed both like an instant and an eternity; clearly his sense of time was skewed. 'It didn't matter, anyway', he thought as he hit his comm. "I need a stretcher and medics over here!"
Coulson's unnaturally calm voice echoed in his ear. "What's your situation?" he inquired.
"Stark's down, looks bad. He's still in the suit, so I don't know…"
"Leave him in it," Coulson interrupted. "It'll splint anything that's broken and stabilize his spine. Help is on the way, ETA fifteen minutes."
"Got it." He thumbed off the comlink.
Thor nodded in satisfaction. "I will return to the battlefield, where they are collecting the remains of our foes. Very few besides myself are capable of moving such great bodies as these."
Rogers nodded his agreement. "Sure, Thor. I'll yell if I need any help, but I think SHIELD has it covered." As the demigod departed, Steve produced a worn handkerchief from an inside pocket and moistened it with water from his canteen. Next, he slowly began wiping some of the grime from Stark's face, the better to examine the visible injuries. He knew it was nothing compared to what was probably hidden by the suit, but it was all he could reach and at least it felt like he was doing something while he waited for the EMTs to arrive.
To his surprised delight, Tony's forehead creased in confusion, eyes fluttering partially open at the touch.
"Wha…" The concussed man's gaze was unfocussed, roaming aimlessly around his environment until it finally settled worriedly on Cap. It was clear Tony didn't recognize him, so Steve pulled off his cowl to expose his face. To his horror, the other man's visage contorted in misery as tears began trickling from the corners of his eyes.
"Stark…Tony. It's all right. You're safe now. Help's on the way." He murmured quiet reassurances as he firmly cupped his hands to the wounded man's cheeks in an attempt to keep him from moving his neck, surreptitiously wiping the tears away with his thumbs so the medics wouldn't see them when they arrived. The combination of head injury, exhaustion, and probable blood loss had demolished Tony's usual defenses, leaving deeply hidden emotions raw and exposed. Bad enough Steve was a witness; the proud man would be mortified if strangers saw him so vulnerable. With luck the head trauma would prevent Tony from recalling that he'd broken down. If that were the case, Cap would certainly never mention it, and the fewer people who knew, the better.
He slowly became aware that the genius was continuously mumbling under his breath, quietly enough that Steve had to strain to hear him. His lips quirked upwards slightly at the realization that, even near-comatose, Tony was still talking.
His smile vanished when he finally made out the whispered words. "Can't…" Tony whimpered, begging. "No more, please. Can't do it…" Fresh tears began sliding towards his ears. "So…tired… Too much…can't fight."
Steve leaned forwards, aghast and now praying for all he was worth that the normally arrogant man really wouldn't remember this. He fixed the semi-conscious industrialist with an intense stare, trying to get his attention. "Stark, listen to me. Listen! The battle's over. We're done. You don't have to fight any more."
Fathomless brown eyes finally met his, and Steve's breath caught again at the uncharacteristically unguarded gaze. "…'M dun?… So tired, Cap… C'n I take a nap? Jus' for a min…. not slackin', pr'mise… " His eyes fluttered closed of their own volition, but Tony forced them open and elaborated, "Stark men…made o' iron….Dad always said…" His eyes squinted closed in pain as he drew in a hissed breath, then continued with the mumbling. "R'lly, not slackin'… get back ta work in a min… f'nish upgrades… jusa quick nap…"
With a startled jolt, Steve understood that the engineer wasn't just referring to the current battle, but rather his life as a whole. His eyes widened with the recognition that this man, one of the most wealthy and powerful in the world, was asking for permission to 'slack off' enough to sleep.
Tony's eyes pried open again through sheer willpower. Blinking through fatigue and pain, he earnestly persisted, "Don't tell, 'kay?… Not lazy… jus' not recommended… jus 'sultant… gotta prove…" He gazed up beseechingly, so earnest that it broke Steve's heart. "Jus' a sec?… pr'mise…back t'work af'r… don' tell."
'What the heck? The man's half dead, and he's worried about being caught not working? And who was he worried that Steve would tell? What was he proving, and to whom? Not recommended for what?' Steve had his suspicions, of course. More than two thirds of the inventor's project list involved either his consulting job with SHIELD or equipment for the Avengers, and despite his impressive completion rate, several were marked as overdue. Someone had unreasonable expectations, and he suspected that it wasn't just Stark. Steve and Fury were going to have words.
Right now, though, Steve had an injured, delirious, and concussed teammate to care for. The exhausted genius was still staring at him imploringly with heartbreaking hope. Rogers swallowed, managed a encouraging smile, and nodded. "Sure, Tony," he answered, voice rough with emotion as he reassured the world-weary man. Steve was going to make certain that Stark was never again run so ragged. His heart clenched as the battered face filled with both gratitude and relief before the blood-spattered forehead smoothed and brown eyes slid closed, breath slowing and deepening into sleep.
Steve Rogers had never been so furious in his life.
By the time they reached the medical unit at the SHIELD headquarters building, the entire team had assembled. The nurses patiently escorted them to the waiting room, where they found Ms. Potts and Happy already seated in two of the ubiquitous uncomfortable plastic chairs. Pepper stood as she saw the team, searching their faces for a hint at Tony's condition. Apparently she was reassured by what she found, because she closed her eyes in relief and sank back into her seat. Everyone else settled in as well, but no one really felt like talking. All the Avengers were exhausted by the last two days; Tony was just an overachiever in that regard.
In less than an hour a doctor entered the room and headed straight for Ms. Potts, who stood and extended her hand. "Doctor Johnson. I'm glad you were on duty."
He shook hands as he shot her a wry grin. "Actually, I wasn't, but Mr. Stark has alienated so many of the staff that they pretty much automatically page me if I'm in town. Besides, for once I have a chance at keeping him for more than a few hours, so I'm going to try and get some of those tests done that he keeps postponing."
Steve stood and approached the pair as the rest of the team looked on. "So will he be all right, Doctor?"
Johnson turned to Ms. Potts. "May I?"
Pepper nodded and smiled. "Unless Tony specifies otherwise, anyone in this room is allowed to know his medical status." She smiled and gestured to the remainder of the team, indicating that they could join the conversation. The group lost no time in crowding around them.
Once he had everyone's attention, the physician continued, "Yes, Mr. Stark should be fine, at least in the short term. He's got seven recently-broken ribs in varying states of healing, but at least he didn't drop a lung this time. He's also got extensive bruising, a number of abrasions, and a severe concussion. The injuries to his abdominal wall are mostly superficial; none of the internal organs are damaged, but we had to clean several of the lacerations and stitch them up. There was a particularly severe one on his flank that tore through most of the musculature but barely missed entering his abdomen - that took a while to repair. No broken bones beyond the ribs that we've found so far. No skull fracture, no subdural or epidural hematoma, and only one coup/contra-coup contusion of the brain itself. He's likely to have some perievent amnesia, but otherwise no permanent damage."
Bruce, clad in a generic set of SHIELD sweats, became increasingly concerned as the summary continued. "I'm sorry," he interrupted. "Did you say that he had seven rib fractures 'in varying states of healing'?"
Dr. Johnson nodded. "Yes. Five appear less than forty-eight hours old, but two are somewhere between two and six weeks, judging by the amount of callus formation evident."
Bruce remained silent and dropped his chin to his chest, considering that information.
Steve had a feeling that Tony, knowing from experience ('didn't drop a lung this time') that the treatment of rib fractures was observation and rest, had simply decided that he didn't have the time to deal with them. Something else caught his attention, though. "You said that he'd be fine 'in the short term'; what about the long term?" The qualifier used earlier triggered an internal alarm bell.
The doctor shook his head, brow wrinkling in concern. "Please understand; I'm well aware that Mr. Stark's a workaholic and doesn't take care of himself in the best of circumstances. That said, I've never seen him so exhausted. Additionally, his albumin is 2.9." Steve noted how Bruce's head shot up, eyes widened in alarm. So, not good. "In a man that young and otherwise healthy, that indicates he's not eating. I don't mean that he's not eating well; he's barely eating at all. If this doesn't stop, it will eventually kill him. Given his vocation, sooner rather than later."
Pepper shrugged helplessly. "When he gets caught up in a project he loses all track of time. I've seen him survive on coffee and willpower for days on end. It only becomes a problem when it's coffee, willpower, and Scotch."
"I doubt that he's been drinking much, either. His blood ETOH level was nonexistent, and alcohol has quite a few calories, albeit empty ones. If he were consuming ethanol to any degree, his body would have used that for energy and his albumin would be higher."
Steve's mouth set in a grim line. "So, he's working himself to death, literally. You're saying he needs to eat and sleep more."
"That's about it. It would also be nice if he occasionally sought medical attention when he's injured, but there's a pipe dream." Dr. Johnson snorted, but sounded resigned. "Speaking of which, I'd better get back to my patient before someone accidentally wakes him up and he signs out AMA. I'd also like to avoid any visitors today for the same reason - he really needs the rest." He pointedly stared around the bedraggled group. "In fact, you all look exhausted. Everyone here needs to go home, get some sleep, and come back tomorrow - doctor's orders." He nodded to them once in polite dismissal before returning to the patient care area.
"I'm going to fix this." Cap's voice took on a steely, no-nonsense tone as he spoke to the room at large. Pepper raised an eyebrow inquiringly, so he continued, "I believe he's… overextended at the present time."
The CEO snorted. "Welcome to my world, Captain. Good luck trying to force Tony to do anything he doesn't want to."
Steve chose his words carefully. "I think there are times he wants to rest, but feels obligated to fulfill other commitments instead, especially if they're for SHIELD or the Avengers." His brows drew together in concentration as he continued, "It's just… he was mumbling some stuff when we were waiting for the ambulance - didn't make a lot of sense, but..." He tried to look nonchalant. "He's… proving something? Something about being 'not recommended'?"
Natasha's eyebrow raised imperceptibly and Pepper's hand covered her mouth in surprise, while everyone else simply looked confused.
'Interesting,' Cap thought. Natasha's reaction, despite being barely noticeable, was equivalent to a normal person's gasp. That confirmed it; SHIELD was definitely involved. Of course, there was little chance of getting any information from her, so he concentrated on Ms. Potts. "Does that mean something to you?"
The CEO looked uncomfortable. "Maybe. Or it might not be related at all. Captain, how much do you know about the formation of the Avengers?"
Steve glanced at the others, all of whom were watching the exchange with interest. "Well, I was given individual personnel files when Fury asked me to help recover the tesseract."
Pepper shook her head. "No, that's not what I meant. Before that." She looked up at him, then studied the others as she hesitated with an internal debate. A glance at the door Dr. Johnson exited through, behind which Tony presumably lay, and she came to a decision. She stood straighter, looked Steve in the eye and took a deep breath. "The members of this team were determined long before Loki started wreaking havoc. I don't know much about the others, but Tony was 'not recommended' for the Avengers." She paused again, choosing her words carefully. "He doesn't respond well to rejection. When he was offered a position as a SHIELD 'consultant' instead, he actually shocked me by agreeing to it." Steve recalled the slurred words 'just consultant' followed by 'gotta prove', and knew he was on the right track.
"His typical reaction would have been to tell Fury precisely where to stuff it." Clint snorted in audible amusement as Pepper continued, "However, when the actual emergency occurred and the team was being gathered, Phil Coulson broke into the Tower with petabytes of encrypted information about the mission and the other team members and, I assumed, active status for Tony." She shrugged. "Perhaps I assumed incorrectly." She pinned Steve with a stare, "He'd never admit it aloud, but being an Avenger means the world to him. I don't want anyone to take that away."
"Don't worry," he said to Pepper with a smile. "He's been one of us since the beginning. I'll make sure this gets straightened out."
Happy broke the uncomfortable silence that followed with, "I have the Limo downstairs, if anyone wants a ride back to the Tower. It'll seat everyone here easily, even making," he paused and eyed Thor and Steve, "size allowances."
"Hey, who am I to turn down a ride in a luxurious car?" asked Clint, jumping on the change of topic with both feet. The rest of the exhausted group made small noises of agreement, and were soon all shuffling out except for Steve.
Pepper paused at the door, looking back at him inquiringly. "Captain? Are you coming?"
Rogers gave his head a single shake. "No, ma'am. Someone needs to give Director Fury an after-action report about this mission, and since I'm ostensibly in charge…"
Clint's voice drifted in from the hallway. "Way to take one for the team, Cap! Thanks!"
He raised his voice so that he would be heard by the archer, "You still have to file your written field report, Clint!" Returning to conversational levels, he continued to Ms. Potts, "I'll have SHIELD bring me to the Tower later. It's the least they can do."
She smiled assent, gave a polite nod, then followed the rest down to the waiting car. Steve turned and headed to the small lab Tony had at SHIELD headquarters, used when he couldn't spare the time to return to the Tower. It had a direct encrypted link to JARVIS that Stark, in a burst of serendipity, had made certain Steve could access. That would save time; he had some questions he needed to clarify before confronting Fury with his suspicions. Turned out, once the AI understood what Cap was planning, he was extraordinarily helpful.
"You wanted to see me, Captain?" The Director of SHIELD stood with calm assurance behind his desk, hands clasped loosely at his back in an intentionally non-threatening manner.
"Yes, sir. I'd like to go ahead and give the debrief, if I might. I sent the remainder of the team back to the Tower to get some sleep. We've been busy lately, and they're all exhausted." Captain Rogers stood politely at parade rest as he spoke.
Fury nodded approvingly. "Good idea. Thank you, Captain." Sitting down himself, he gestured to the chair in front of the desk. "Have a seat and we'll get started."
The after-action report was concise and straightforward, with the pertinent points covered efficiently, up to where Iron Man had become a casualty.
"Have you spoken to Dr. Johnson?" Steve took a deep breath as he broached the subject he had truly come to discuss.
"I have." Fury was unperturbed. "I was informed that Stark is in stable condition, will likely be in medical for a week, and will be unavailable for missions for another two weeks."
Rogers was confused. "Nothing else?"
"No." Fury sighed. "Unlike in your day, physicians now are a lot more aware of patient privacy. Unless Stark or his medical proxy, Ms. Potts, authorize disclosure, or unless it is deemed 'need-to-know', that's all he's required to tell me." He fixed Steve with a hard stare. "However, if there is something I should be aware of…"
Cap nodded consideringly. "Yes, sir, I think there is." He took a deep breath, then continued, "Mr. Stark has seven rib fractures and a concussion, as well as the typical cuts and bruises. However, these injuries are more serious in his case due to his baseline condition." Rogers kept his tone carefully neutral for the next bit. "Dr. Johnson states that Mr. Stark is both malnourished and near exhaustive collapse."
Fury continued to train one steely eye on Rogers. "You are certain of this?" At Steve's nod, Fury sighed again, dropping his gaze and giving a small shake of his head in disappointment. "I was under the impression that he was finally acting responsibly. Admittedly, deadlines are more like suggestions to the man, but my sources inform me that he isn't club hopping or taking unannounced junkets to Las Vegas any longer. In fact, the only social events he has attended in the last few months have been either related to Stark Industry or promoting the Avengers." He met Cap's stare directly. "Does he need to be dropped from the team?"
"No! No, sir, not at all." Steve exclaimed, aghast at the misunderstanding. "He's a real asset, both on and off the field."
Fury leaned back, nodding in agreement. "Glad to hear it. The SHIELD psychological profilers didn't initially recommend him for this project, but with Barton compromised, we had no choice." Well, that answered one question, Steve thought wryly.
The Director picked a pen off his desk and studied it, not meeting Cap's eyes. "He outstripped all expectations on that first mission, and, despite being a royal pain in my ass, has continued to contribute above and beyond anything I had hoped for."
Steve took a deep, calming breath. Maybe Fury wasn't an enemy, but he still needed to understand. Cap leaned forward earnestly. "I believe that's actually the problem."
"I don't follow."
"While Stark doesn't like to admit to it, he cares very deeply about the Initiative and loves being an Avenger." The corner of his lip quirked up in a small smile, and he glanced briefly at his hands. "Heck, I think he even enjoys the team living in his home." He looked back to Fury as his face became grave. "Yet, despite four months and a number of successful missions, he's, for lack of a better word, insecure." Rogers took a deep breath, and continued, "I think he believes that he's still on probation, able to be dismissed at a moment's notice."
The Director snorted and waved a hand dismissively. "Stark? He's as much a full member of the team as you are."
Roger's gaze never wavered. "Have you told him that sir? He's aware of the original assessment and his designation as 'consultant'; has that ever been officially altered? I think he's still trying to prove himself worthy of full membership." He paused uncomfortably, then, "And I couldn't help but notice that your first response to his condition was to offer to drop him from the team."
Fury fixed him with a glare. "Stark has a long history of erratic behavior, and if he were a problem, I would trust your judgment." He looked away thoughtfully, "And no, there hasn't been an official conversation regarding his status on the Avengers. It wasn't necessary. If anyone is aware of their own value, it's Tony Stark." The older man appeared quite certain of his statements.
"Respectfully, sir, I disagree." He paused for Fury to interrupt and, when he didn't, continued. "First, he was hired on as a SHIELD consultant instead of an Avenger; that position has never been officially modified, and you admit that he has never been formally offered full team membership."
Fury tilted his head in acknowledgement.
Steve leaned forward, intent. "So, as a consultant, he never turns down any new SHIELD project, no matter how little time he has available to work on it. He not only actively participates in all Avenger missions, but is incessantly repairing and upgrading not only his own armor and weapons, but those of the rest of the team. He attends fundraisers and media events as our representative, as well as going to the ones held by SI. That said, he also continues to fulfill all his usual duties for Stark Industries, to include meetings, R&D, fundraisers and the like. Beyond that, he is directing ongoing repairs to his home; the one that was trashed in our first battle, and he is currently redesigning to accommodate the rest of us." He raised an eyebrow, "He's working himself to the point of collapse, and you don't think he's trying to prove something?"
The Director looked unconvinced. "Admittedly SHIELD has added a few responsibilities to his life, but I hardly think it's enough to exhaust him."
Rogers had expected this. Tony was so good at acting the nonchalant, carefree playboy that Steve wouldn't have believed the sheer quantity of work he did on a daily basis if he hadn't seen it in black and white. "Sir, if I may?" He held up a few sheets of folded paper that he had been gripping.
Fury spread his hands in a 'why not?' gesture, so the super soldier stood and proffered the sheets which contained several meticulously-detailed lists. Even pre-serum his memory had been excellent, so it had taken little effort to organize Tony's recent activities into a more easily understood format, particularly after he had contacted JARVIS to confirm certain details. It was vital that the information be accurate, or Fury might dismiss his concerns as exaggeration.
The top page listed Tony's activities by type: battles, debriefings, fundraisers, press conferences, SI meetings, the ongoing and recently completed projects for SHIELD, Avenger Tower repairs and remodeling, ongoing and recently completed projects for SI, contract and paperwork reviews, training sessions, weapons and equipment repairs and upgrades for both his own armor and that of the rest of the Avengers, even eating and sleeping.
Without looking up from the paper, Fury calmly inquired, "Mind telling me what I'm looking at here?"
"Sir, that is a comprehensive list of Mr. Stark's activities over the last three days." Cap kept his tone professional. "JARVIS assures me that it is representative of the four months since he became an Avenger."
The Director seemed unimpressed. "So?"
Steve gestured with his chin. "The next page lists them chronologically, with the time each activity started and the time expended."
Fury didn't sigh, but it was close. He was clearly humoring Rogers as flipped the page and skimmed the timetables disinterestedly. As he read further, his brows drew together in concern. He straightened, placing the papers on the desk and studied them more thoroughly. After two silent minutes of intense scrutiny, he looked up to examine Rogers, who forced himself not to squirm as he impassively returned the Director's gaze.
"This can't be correct."
"I assure you it is, sir. I confirmed it with his AI."
Fury slapped the papers skeptically with his opposite hand and leaned back. "There's only 2 hours of sleep recorded in three days, and only one dedicated meal, and that was a business luncheon."
"Yes, sir. That's my point. This has been Stark's typical agenda since the initiation of the Avengers." He allowed his face to reflect some of his anxiety. "That's why you needed to be informed."
Fury looked back down at the list, unconvinced. He studied it again for a moment, then frowned and pointed. "See, now this can't be correct. I note a number of completed projects during this period, but no time allotted to reviewing materials from his R&D department."
Cap felt a small glow of inner satisfaction as the Director inadvertently made his point for him. "That's because he didn't review anything. SI Research and Development isn't involved in any SHIELD or Avenger-related project. Stark does all the work personally."
That got Fury's attention. The older man raised his face slowly to meet Steve's, eyebrow arched in disbelief. "I beg your pardon?"
Cap nodded, warming to the subject. "Yeah. That was pretty much my reaction, too. For example, Clint wanted directional control of his exploding arrows." He leaned over the desk, pointing to that time slot on the agenda. "Mr. Stark came up with a solution and reengineered the arrowheads down to complete, detailed production specifications." He then pointed to a short entry following the press conference, "Here's where he gave Hawkeye the new arrows to try out. They must have worked, because Clint was raving about their effectiveness during our last battle."
"How did he produce them so quickly?" Fury frowned.
"JARVIS says that Stark fed the specifications into a 'fabricator' in his workshop that manufactured them while he was at the press conference."
The older man blinked. "Huh."
When he didn't make any further comment, Steve continued, "Also, JARVIS asked me to tell you that every line of computer programming for SHIELD is done personally by Stark as well; no one else touches it. Ostensibly, this is for security reasons."
Fury gave an approving nod. "Reassuring, but unexpected. I assumed that he sketched out the algorithm, then foisted the more tedious details off on junior programmers." He muttered under his breath, "like a normal person", but Steve heard it anyway. Fury returned to the schedule with a great deal more interest. After a moment he pointed again. "What are these?"
Cap leaned over the desk to better see the indicated entries. "Ummm… just what it says? Hill ordered an upgrade of the security protocols for the helicarrier communication systems, Stillwell asked him to develop better field armor for the SHIELD line agent, and Coulson requisitioned the development of emergency transponders for the team." He shrugged his shoulders. "You'd have to ask JARVIS about any previous projects; these were just the ones on the current list."
Fury leaned back with a noncommittal "hmmmm", picking up the list and appearing to study it once again. Mentally, however, he reflected on the past four months, and all the new technical upgrades that had been appearing around SHIELD HQ as well as on the Helicarrier. He hadn't thought much of it at the time; he just assumed that SHIELD Research and Development had gotten a figurative kick-in-the-pants from the Chitauri invasion and had buckled down to work, but perhaps he needed to look into that a little more closely. If Stark had been responsible for the improvements he'd witnessed recently, and had done all the work himself? Maybe the Captain had a point about the inventor's impending exhaustive collapse. He felt a small twinge of guilt at the fact that he had intentionally not clarified Iron Man's status on the Avengers in the hopes of holding a virtual carrot over the billionaire's head. He'd never once threatened dismissal from the team, though. Apparently Stark took it as implied, and produced project after project for SHIELD without question.
Rogers stood back and waited patiently while Fury pondered the situation. Finally, the other man set the paper down and pursed his lips. "This, while quite impressive, is unacceptable. Stark is one of the most headstrong and annoying men I have ever met, but I'll be damned if I'll inadvertently kill him. He's enough of a danger to himself as it is without throwing a misplaced sense of obligation on top of it." He snorted in disbelief. "Who'd have imagined that Stark of all people would suddenly become conscientious?"
Rogers remained silent. As observant as Fury might be, there were layers to the prickly genius of which he was unaware. Steve himself felt he was only beginning to scratch the surface. The Director straightened as he reached a decision, declaring, "Effective immediately, all SHIELD consultant project deadlines are suspended, pending my personal review. When Stark's feeling better, have him schedule a meeting to discuss a revised timeline for each." Steve stood impassively as Fury continued, "Additionally, all future SHIELD assignments as consultant are to come directly from me, and me alone."
'Oops. Hill, Stillwell, and Coulson were assigning him unauthorized extra work without informing Fury, ' Steve realized. Aloud, he only replied, "Thank you, sir. I'll be certain to pass that on. However, I don't believe he'll take it very well."
He had Fury's full attention now. The Director usually knew all the workings of his organization, down to paperclip usage, and now that a lapse of this magnitude had been demonstrated, he was going to aggressively correct it.
Rogers radiated sincerity. "He's going to see this as being told he's not good enough. From what I've witnessed of his behavior, that will just make him work harder, which is the opposite of what he needs right now."
"What do you suggest?"
Steve took a deep breath, then exhaled. "You tell him, officially, that as he's a full member of the Avengers, his consulting duties are to be curtailed so that he can devote more time directly to the team."
The other man assessed him with his one good eye, then steepled his fingers and nodded. "All right, Captain. I'll take care of it."
Rogers quirked a small half-grin. "And if you could slip something in the conversation about eating and sleeping not being optional, I'd appreciate it."
"I'm not the man's mother!", Fury barked, then growled, "I'll see what I can do. Dismissed."
Fury waited until the door closed behind Captain Rogers before pinching the bridge of his nose in frustration. 'That could have gone better.' Of course, it could have gone much worse. Rogers was still too trusting of people in authority, assuming that they took care of their subordinates as he himself did. Concern for the welfare of his men colored every decision made by the WWII soldier, even if it complicated achieving the goals of the mission. For Fury and men like him, the mission was foremost, and the men merely a means to an end, a tool to be utilized. Picking up the lists again, his mouth quirked in an ironic smile. 'Doesn't mean you use a laptop to pound in a nail, though. That's an abhorrent waste of resources.'
The Director was not oblivious to Stark's perception of still being only a consultant; that had been intentional misdirection. He had known Tony as a child, albeit peripherally, from meetings with Howard when they were first putting SHIELD together. He snorted; no one today would believe it, but Anthony had been a quiet boy, desperate for his father's attention and approval. Nick had often noticed him lurking unobtrusively along the periphery of whatever room Howard happened to be in, hoping for an opportunity to impress him. No matter what Tony did, though, the elder weapons manufacturer was too preoccupied to notice his prodigy offspring other than to comment on how the youngster could have done better, or, more often, how Steve Rogers would have done better. The only time Howard ever directed his full attention to the boy was when he was angry or irritated, at which point he shouted. He shouted a lot. Nick had never seen him strike the child, but the verbal abuse was so severe that it often made him uncomfortable to be in the same room. Tony's subconscious, however, apparently finally gave up on the idea of getting approval, so it settled for attention. If the only type he could garner was negative attention, then so be it. The young genius began acting out more and more, hiding his need to be included beneath a bad boy veneer. By the time Howard died, Tony was a firmly established reprobate, behaving reprehensibly just because he could. Nick, however, saw the ghost of a small boy who just wanted to be accepted. By dangling active Avenger membership like a carrot, he used that knowledge to motivate the notoriously erratic and self-indulgent inventor.
Apparently it had worked too well. While he had realized that Stark developed tech for both SHIELD and the Avengers without complaint to prove himself worthy (that was the point, after all), he had been unaware that Stark personally took care of every detail of every assignment without delegating any of the more mundane details to subordinates. He also was unacquainted with the fact that other members of his command felt entitled to assign their own pet projects to Stark without clearing them through Fury first. He shook his head in disbelief as he reexamined the billionaire's schedule for the last three days. 'Genius' wasn't the only descriptor to apply to the man; others would be 'driven', 'obsessive', 'paranoid', and 'insecure'. Fury was well aware that Stark's issues had issues, but he had not appreciated the sheer depth of his need to prove himself until Rogers brought it up. If this accurately reflected the past 4 months, and he had every reason to believe it did, Stark was only staying upright through pure stubborness.
He actually had expected a confrontation about Stark's official Avenger status sooner or later. What he hadn't expected was for Rogers to be the one to call the issue, since Stark was neither stupid nor shy. He had intended to get as much cooperation out of the inventor as possible prior to the man throwing down the gauntlet in disgust, at which point he had planned on making a great show of grudgingly giving in. He never expected the paranoid genius to not only accept the lie, but believe it to be a reasonable response to his reputation. The man was truly killing himself to prove that he was worthy to be an Avenger just as surely as he did when he flew that nuke into space.
Well, Fury was nothing if not versatile. As soon as Stark was well enough, they would have a chat about formal membership in the Avengers, and how his consulting duties would be curtailed. In the meantime, he had a few other conversations pending.
Switching on the intercom, he asked with dangerous pleasantness, "Agent Hill, could you come to my office, please?"
The slow rise to awareness was like swimming through molasses on a winter day. Hazy memories danced just out of reach, elusive as shadows at sunset. Beasts, and demons, and rockets red glare. The pain, however, was real, and grew inexorably. When he tried to nail down the precise source, it remained vague, an all-over agony that seemed to settle in his very bones. Soon it seemed as if pain had always been, and would always be, his reality, blanketing out all other thought. The vague beeping that ran a subliminal soundtrack began racing, followed by low, reassuring murmurs, then blessed relief as he sank again into warm, welcoming darkness.
When the Avengers returned the next day for visiting hours, Fury made certain that the security feed was routed to his office. He knew for a fact that Stark would never authorize his access to any medical data that might reveal weakness, but he would be damned if he was going to get his information third-hand from Rogers, and this needed to be dealt with. What SHIELD medical and Tony Stark didn't know wouldn't hurt them.
Dr. Johnson glanced up from the chart at Tony's bedside when the team entered Medical. "Ah, nice timing," he commented, setting it aside.
"How's Tony doing, doctor?" asked Pepper anxiously, peering at the still form on the bed. If anything, he looked worse than before. His bruises had blossomed overnight, turning his face a mass of purple and red. A tube snaked into his nose, attached to a bag of thick, cream-colored fluid which was continuously being pumped into his stomach. A nasal cannula for oxygen ran from the wall to his nose as well, despite which the group could hear a slight rattle in his chest with every inhalation. Another tube emerged from beneath the covers, attached to a bag that hung from the bedframe containing urine. His arms looked abnormally pale where they lay unmoving on the spotless white blanket, except where they were marred by scrapes and contusions. The standard IV fluids flowed into one arm, and an automatic sphygmomanometer was attached to the other. A pulse oximeter was on his finger, and a cardiac monitor beeped reassuringly above the bed, where the most recent blood pressure and oxygen saturation was also displayed.
The physician smiled reassuringly at the question, pulling Pepper's attention away from Tony's battered, motionless figure. "Oh, he's doing fine. He woke up once or twice last night, but was so exhausted that he settled right back to sleep after we redosed his dilaudid." Pepper suppressed a small flinch which Johnson noticed but didn't comment upon. However, he suddenly looked uncomfortable and his speech devolved into the technical. "His vital signs are stable, and we've got him on supplemental oxygen as a precaution, given the decreased chest excursion from his rib fractures. Also, as long as he's this somnolent, we're augmenting his poor nutritional status with enteric supplementation."
Steve understood about one word in three, but, glancing at the others, he saw his confusion mirrored in their faces. Bruce sighed and dropped his head momentarily before raising his eyes and quirking his lips in mild amusement. He translated, "The doctor said that Tony's fine, they're being careful with his lungs because of the rib fractures, and he's getting extra food through that tube in his nose since he hasn't been eating properly."
Johnson quirked a small smile at that. "Exactly." He glanced at his watch. "Oh. I'm afraid I have a meeting to get to. If you'll excuse me?" He ducked his head and hurried from the room before anyone could reply.
Clint stared, brows furrowed, at the door as it closed behind the doctor. "What just happened?"
"I'm afraid it was me," replied Pepper, chagrined. "Dr. Johnson knows Tony hates to wake up alone in the hospital. When I reacted to his statement, it made him nervous. When he's nervous, he reverts to doctor-speak."
"Oh." Steve looked thoughtfully at Stark. Despite his normally larger-than-life personality, the genius looked small and defenseless lying so still among the crisp hospital sheets. "Do you think they'd let one of us stay after visiting hours, so he wouldn't? Wake up alone, that is? I don't think his body needs the extra strain."
Natasha nodded. "Yes, as long as it's only one person. Clint and I have stayed from time to time after really bad missions."
"We could take turns; Stark's gonna be here a few days at least," Clint suggested. "During visiting hours anyone could hang out, but we can rotate at night."
They all settled into various chairs scattered across the room and began the tedious business of waiting.
The next time Tony woke he heard familiar voices, low-pitched and concerned. He couldn't be bothered to try and make out what they were saying, though. The earlier agony was now just a memory in the back of his mind, present, but somehow unimportant, like background music for a movie. He'd been asleep, he thought. They'd let him rest. No demands, no deadlines, no battles real or figurative. It felt so good to just sleep. His arms and legs were heavy, as if each limb were covered in an armor of lassitude. He didn't have the energy to twitch a finger, much less move an entire extremity. Somehow, he felt he ought to be concerned about this, but the lethargy was pervasive, and he just couldn't summon enough interest to give a damn. The friendly, worried voices were comforting and lulled him back towards sleep. As he drifted off, he felt a warm, calloused hand snake into his, squeeze lightly in reassurance, and just hold on.
There were several more small awakenings, each slightly more coherent than the last. Tony never seemed to remember having woken before, or even much of the battle that had landed him in the infirmary to begin with. After the medical personnel reassured them that this was normal for head injuries, the team took to answering his questions whenever he roused enough to ask any, and otherwise just soothe him that he wasn't alone.
"How is he doing?" Bruce asked Clint as he entered the hospital room, carrying two steaming cups. He handed one to the archer as the other man smiled gratefully and rose from the chair at Tony's bedside.
"Better. He woke up for a few minutes; this time we actually talked a bit." Clint grimaced. "After I got him to stop trying to pull out his tubes." He sipped his hot coffee carefully, grinning as he noted that Bruce had gotten it just the way he liked it. "Thanks for this, by the way." He yawned and stretched, careful not to spill any life-giving caffeine in the process.
Banner returned the smile, setting his own herbal tea on the nightstand by Tony's bed. "Least I can do for the guy on night shift." He sat in Barton's vacated chair and opened his laptop, glancing at the inventor's peacefully slumbering form to assure that all his lines were still in place and running. "I have the feeling that he's going to be a handful as he improves," he sighed. "Right now he's working off his sleep debt on top of recovering from his injuries, so he's practically unconscious. From what Pepper tells me, he's a holy terror once he's well enough to know where he is. He hates hospitals."
Clint shrugged. "Can't blame him there. Not really a fan of hospitals myself. You run by their rules and schedule, and even being here means you have a serious injury."
Bruce hummed noncommittally. While not a physician, he had been a lay practitioner by default in a number of third world countries, and understood the amazing privilege Americans had to be able to go to a hospital. To complain about it just seemed vaguely ungrateful. Still, he understood Clint's and Tony's reticence, so he said nothing. He just smiled as Barton took his leave and settled in to work.
As Tony gradually became aware of his surroundings this time he groaned, recognizing the subtle smell of disinfectant and the steady beeping of a cardiac monitor. 'Damn, I'm in a hospital again. I wonder how much time I've wasted." He cracked one eye open against the painful glare of the overhead fluorescents, trying to get a better handle on the situation. The light stabbed into his skull, spiking the previously-quiescent headache back to life with a vengeance. He winced and quickly shut it again.
"Tony?" a soft voice murmured. "You awake?"
He turned his head incrementally towards the sound and croaked, "Bruce? Why am I in the hospital?"
Dr. Banner padded towards the bed. "Would you like some water?", he asked instead of replying.
Tony suddenly realized that he was parched, so he cracked an eye and nodded. A plastic cup with a bendable straw magically appeared before him, and Bruce held it steady as he took a long sip. He nodded again thankfully when he was done, and Banner placed the cup on the bedside table.
"What do you recall?"
Tony squinted as he tried to access the fragments of memory. "Just…flashes, really. I was attacked by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Then, I think I remember Clint being here…"
Bruce looked pleased. "Hey, that's good. Clint was here the last time you woke up. We've been taking turns at night. You've actually awakened on several occasions, but this is the first time you've remembered any of your prior episodes of consciousness. You might finally be filing a few things into long-term memory."
"What?" Tony exclaimed, alarmed.
The other scientist could clearly read the fear of brain damage flitting across Tony's face, so he hurriedly reassured him. "You had a severe concussion and cerebral contusion from that battle; a little peri-event amnesia is completely normal and expected. You just temporarily lost the ability to convert short-term to long-term memory. The fact that you remember Clint from last night is encouraging; it means your brain is healing."
"Oh." Tony considered this information. It seemed to take unreasonably long. "No long-term damage, then?" he finally concluded, not meaning it to come out as a question.
Bruce smiled fondly, "You'll be back to your mad scientist self in no time, but you're unlikely to ever remember much of the last three days."
Tony released a long sigh, accepting the inevitable, and relaxed back into the pillows. "All right." He tilted his head consideringly. "When can I get out of here? I have things to do."
A fond chuckle came from the door. "Now I know you're improving."
Tony and Bruce both looked over to see Steve leaning against the doorframe, arms folded across his chest, legs crossed at the ankles, and a grin plastered across his face. He pushed off with his shoulder and strode into the room.
Tony blinked and managed a smile, small and tired, but welcoming. "Hey, Steve," he croaked.
"Hey yourself. Seriously, are you feeling better?" Steve pulled up a second chair to the side of the bed and settled in.
Tony thought about it. "Yeah, I am," he finally replied. Hey, it was the truth - at least his head didn't feel like it might detonate, and his ribs only hurt a little if he kept his breathing shallow. That was better, wasn't it?
"Good," Steve replied, giving him a doubtful look before turning to Bruce and asking a more detailed question about Tony's condition.
"Hey, haven't you heard of HIPAA?" Tony grumbled, feeling as if he ought to be offended by their overt discussion of his injuries, particularly since he was right there. Still, he couldn't quite get up the energy, and after a few moments the conversation became a comforting buzz at the back of his mind as he drifted into a dreamless sleep.
The whole hospitalization had an air of unreality. His memory gradually improved, and he began to spend more and more time awake. By the time Dr. Johnson was ready to release him, he had caught up on enough sleep that his long-standing migraine had mercifully disappeared, and he no longer inhaled every meal as if it were his last. He tended to forget his appetite until food appeared at which point he discovered that he was ravenous. As this occurred a minimum of 3 times a day in the hospital, Dr. Johnson had actually begun looking pleased at his lab work each morning. His visitors brought in massive amounts of food as well, fruit baskets and fresh muffins in addition to the traditional candy and chocolate.
It hadn't helped mitigate his sense of unreality when Nick Fury had soundlessly appeared in his room like the shadow of a ghost to have 'a conversation' the morning he was scheduled to be released, and for once didn't even try to be intimidating. If anything, the older man appeared slightly embarrassed.
Tony was instinctively wary.
"I understand you're being discharged, Stark."
Tony eyed the other man suspiciously before cautiously agreeing. "Yes. I'm waiting for my ride."
The DIrector actually looked slightly embarrassed as he pulled some papers from behind his back and studied them. After a moment, he proffered them to Stark. Tony narrowed his eyes skeptically, glancing at the empty top of the rolling bedside table. Nick took the hint, setting the papers down, and with due consideration Stark picked them up. His eyebrows shot up as he realized what they were, eyes flying up to meet Fury's in surprise.
"It seems these contracts somehow got filed without your signature; I have Hill looking for the source of the SNAFU." He actually rocked once onto his toes, then back onto his heels in apparent discomfiture. Tony stared. "These were supposed to have been given to you for review months ago."
The billionaire continued to gape in wide-eyed disbelief for a moment before glancing down again. His mouth went dry when he mentally confirmed what he was holding. "This…this is…"
Fury grimaced, corner of his mouth turning down. "Right. Your official contract for full membership in the Avengers. It actually went through channels right after the Chitauri invasion, but got filed without your approval or, by your reaction, knowledge." He jerked his head towards the papers clutched in Tony's nerveless hands. "The second document is an amendment to your original Consultant contract; given the increased duties entailed as a full-time Avenger, as well as your previously-established responsibilities to SI, all further Consultant work was supposed be negotiated on a case by case basis, with no more than two ongoing projects at a time."
As the genius continued to gawk wordlessly at the taciturn man, Fury raised his eyebrow questioningly. "Feel free to have your lawyers review them; if the terms are acceptable, sign and return them at your earliest convenience." When Tony still didn't move or speak, the Director actually rolled his eye, threw out his arms and snapped, "What?!?"
Tony narrowed his gaze suspiciously. "Who are you, and what have you done with Nick Fury?"
Fury barked out a laugh, then smirked, nodding his head in agreement. "I know, I know. Not very typical. Still, the contracts hadn't reached you in four months; with all you've done for the Initiative in that time, I felt I owed it to you to deliver them personally, along with…" he cleared his throat, "An apology."
It was Tony's turn to smirk, then look back at the contracts with incredulity. Fury winced at the wonder that flashed briefly across the genius' face before he hid it behind his smart-ass façade. A memory of an insecure boy hovering at the edge of his father's planning sessions suddenly popped into mind, and Nick firmly suppressed it. He could allow himself time for guilt later; right now he had to deal with the shrewd man that child grew into. He waited patiently for Stark's typical quip regarding apologies, but it never came. When the engineer finally raised his eyes, there was true gratitude in them. "Thanks, Nick," was all he said.
"You're welcome." Now would be a good time to make a hasty retreat. Fury cleared his throat uncomfortably as he turned to leave. As if in afterthought, he tossed over his shoulder, "All Consultant projects are temporarily suspended. Once the legal paperwork is completed to your satisfaction, contact my office to set up a meeting and we'll go over your current project list and decide on which one or two are the most pressing to resume immediately."
He didn't wait for Stark to reply before he gave a quick nod of dismissal and retreated to the outside corridor.
Maria Hill, who had been watching on a nearby monitor, fell into step at his side as he purposefully strode down the hallway. "I think you broke him," she snickered. "I've never seen him rendered speechless before."
Fury allowed a corner of his mouth to quirk up. "It almost makes it worth all the legal hoops and gray areas it took to back date those contracts."
"You should consider a sideline as a professional actor. You even had me believing for a minute that our legal department needed an overhaul."
Fury nodded. "I just hope he buys it. Rogers has a point; if he thinks he doesn't measure up in some way, he'll only work harder, and in secret. If he believes that he was never meant to do all this work, he'll actually feel righteous indignation at overloaded schedules in the future, and bitch about it." He snorted. "Who would have expected me to be encouraging Tony Stark to complain more?"
"So, you ready to blow this pop stand?" chortled Clint, maneuvering a wheelchair to the foot of the bed where Tony waited, fully dressed. When Dr. Johnson told him that morning that he could return to the Tower as long as he took it easy, he lost no time contacting JARVIS to make the arrangements. According to his rather smug AI, so many of the Avengers had wanted to come along that Happy made them draw straws and the WINNERS got to pick up Tony at the hospital. The inventor had asked JARVIS to repeat that bit, because it seemed pretty unlikely and he still wasn't completely convinced about the 'not having permanent brain damage' thing. Especially after Fury's visit.
Yep. He was gonna have both Bruce and JARVIS redo his brain scans when he finally got home.
Steve stopped dead in the kitchen doorway, towel draped around his neck from his post-run shower. He was normally the only one up and moving at this hour on a Saturday and was planning on making the team a traditional breakfast, but the smell of fresh coffee assaulted his nostrils the moment he entered the room. Tony stood slumped in front of the coffeemaker, apparently trying to make it drip faster by the sheer intensity of his stare. Steve's brows creased fractionally in concern; obviously the engineer had been up working all night, again. Even ignoring the visibly tired curve to the inventor's shoulders, that was typically the only reason he was ever up before nine on the weekends, and accounted for his single-minded concentration on the machine in front of him. Cap knew Fury had severely curtailed Tony's SHIELD obligations, so there was no real reason for him to be driving himself to exhaustion, but here he was, probably awake for over a day, trying to force his body to eke out a few more caffeine-driven hours before collapsing.
The billionaire had only been released from the infirmary four days ago, but was already looking better than he had in a month. Nevertheless, he still had slowly fading bruises and healing scrapes visible over most of his exposed skin and moved stiffly, often limping when he thought no one was watching. Rogers leaned silently against the doorframe, arms crossed, and critically studied the back of the jeans-clad man now pouring himself a cup of fresh-brewed coffee at the far counter. On the plus side, while the engineer still didn't eat or sleep regularly, he had at least resumed his pre-Avengers habits according to JARVIS. And the team, bless them, had made an unspoken agreement to send someone down to drag the inventor out of his workshop at least once a day for meals. He smiled fondly as Tony inhaled his first sacred mug of steaming black coffee for the morning and refilled it before turning around, eyes narrowing as he caught sight of the Captain. Now that Tony knew he was there, Steve straightened and strode into the room, heading for the refrigerator for supplies, starting with a glass of milk.
"Good morning, Tony," he greeted in passing.
"Rogers," Stark replied shortly, attention still fixed on his steaming cup.
"We went over this. Off the clock, I'm just Steve." Pulling the gallon jug off the refrigerator shelf, the super soldier turned to the cabinet and got out a large glass. As he poured the milk, he attempted a casual tone, "You up all night?"
Tony dropped his head with a groan, then pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut in irritation. "Yeah, we're doing this now," he muttered.
Steve raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment. He returned to the fridge, retrieving enough bacon, eggs, bread and butter to feed a small army. Ignoring the previous remark, he volunteered, "Hey, I'm going to whip up some scrambled eggs and bacon for everyone. Want some?"
"No, morning is why God invented coffee," Tony answered, taking another appreciative draught from his mug. He opened his eyes, then shuffled over to where Cap had begun working at the stove. He leaned back casually against the counter, sipping his drink a little less desperately.
Steve worked silently as Tony took a deep breath, apparently steeling his nerve. "Look, Cap…Steve," he corrected himself quickly. "Contrary to what you might think, I'm not actually stupid, and you're not particularly subtle. It doesn't take a genius to add two plus two and get four."
Roger's face reflected his obvious confusion. "Well then, I may be a little thick, because I have no idea what you're talking about." He popped bread into the four-slice toaster and pushed down the lever, setting a saucer on the counter to collect the toast.
A heartfelt sigh, then Tony began counting off on his fingers. "One: since our last fight in Central Park, you and Fury have both acted uncharacteristically. You, Cap, are suddenly alternating between 'buddy' and 'mother-hen', and Fury actually both admitted a mistake and apologized for it. Two: I was concussed and have limited memory of that battle, but am informed be reputable sources that you were the person who got me out of there. I apparently rambled at you to some extent while brain-addled, according to Pepper, based on a waiting room conversation that you had. Three: You accessed my 'to do' list at least once, possibly twice. Don't try to deny it," he hurriedly continued as Steve opened his mouth to object, "I interrogated JARVIS."
Steve shot the ceiling a betrayed glare, but no comment was forthcoming from that direction.
Tony concluded, "And four: Fury voluntarily reduced his demands on my technical expertise and…it bears repeating… apologized." He shook his head in disbelief, pausing once more to sip his coffee and collect his thoughts. "I still find that so surreal that I listed it twice. I actually held onto the contracts an extra day for review since I was 37% convinced I was hallucinating that conversation."
Steve laid the bacon in the frying pan and pressed down the splatter guard. "All right, let's suppose all of the above are true. What's your point?"
Tony rolled his eyes as he refilled his mug again. When Rogers just gazed at him expectantly, the billionaire dropped his chin to his chest and heaved another gusty sigh. "I repeat. I am not. an. idiot." His eyes shot to Roger's face and Steve forced himself to remain impassive in the intense scrutiny. "The only conclusion available is that, for some reason, and I suspect it was something I deliriously mumbled while concussed, you decided that I was some sort of wilting flower and couldn't handle my job."
Steve shot him an incredulous glance before flipping the bacon, taking a moment to formulate a response other than 'are you insane?'. While it was his first reaction, he was certain that Tony would not respond well to that question, no matter how rhetorical. Finally, keeping one eye on the stove, he looked over at the other man. The engineer was now leaning forward aggressively, arms crossed, mouth set in a thin, angry line.
Steve smiled and shook his head in disbelief. "No, Tony, that's not it at all. Of course you can handle your job. And you're certainly not a 'wilting flower'." He paused, scooping out the bacon onto a platter. He added beaten eggs to the hot grease, stirring frequently with the spatula, and continued, "The problem is, you can't handle four jobs. Four full time jobs. It's nothing against you; no one can burn a candle at four ends."
The billionaire picked up his coffee mug again, letting some of the aggression leak out of his stance to be replaced with curiosity. "What do you mean, 'four full time jobs'?" He had to admit, he never seemed to have enough time, always scurrying from one project to the next, but he still had only two responsibilities. "I count Stark Industries and Iron Man. What else is there?"
He seemed actually curious rather than defensive, which was encouraging to Steve, who put four more slices of bread in the toaster, then carried butter and jam to the table. "Have you ever really looked at what you accomplish in a given week? Because, as you know, I did. It's actually almost unbelievable."
Steve returned to the stove to stir the eggs, then counted, mimicking Tony. "One: Head of Stark Industries, including R&D, galas, fundraisers, board meetings and press conferences. Two: Iron Man, including suit maintenance, reports to the Armed Services Oversight Committee, actual battles, and recovery from actual battles to include occasional hospitalization. Three: full time Avenger as well as Avenger tech support, including Tower renovations, development and production of improved equipment for your teammates, sparring, training exercises, debriefings, press conferences, after action reports, damage control with the City of New York, and repair/replacement of half the electronic equipment Thor touches. Four: full time consultant for SHIELD, including cutting edge highly-secret technology and computer programming on demand, all the details of which you handle personally."
"Well, when you put it like that…" Tony considered.
Rogers wrinkled his forehead in exasperation as he placed the eggs, toast, and bacon in the center of the table and set plates and silverware in front of the chairs. "Tony, any one of those jobs would be a handful for a normal person, never mind doing all four! When JARVIS showed me your actual schedule prior to the battle in Central Park, I was shocked. Then, when I found out that you do all the detail work yourself rather than delegating any of it, I got a little angry on your behalf. By that time you were in no condition to speak to Fury, so I took it upon myself, as team leader, to do it for you." He scooped some eggs onto his plate as he continued, "I hope I didn't overstep my authority."
Tony slipped into a chair across from Rogers, eyes distant. He'd never really had it laid out for him like that; he'd just seen a job and done it, then gone on to the next. His initial offense turned to warm regard, and he found himself secretly pleased that someone had recognized all the effort he was putting out and spontaneously defended him to Fury. He waved a hand in distraction. "No, no it's fine. I don't mind the SHIELD assignments, but everyone acted as if their pet project was the only thing on my plate, and got angry when I couldn't pull a rabbit out of my ass." As he lowered his hand, he absent-mindedly snagged a piece of toast and began munching on it.
Steve carefully didn't look at the actual food making its way into Tony's mouth as he snorted. "Yeah, well, I have a few unconfirmed theories about that, if you're interested?"
The engineer relaxed back into his chair and nodded, snagging a slice of bacon as he did so. "Sure, why not?" He smirked slyly. "I seem to have extra time these days."
Steve huffed, but otherwise didn't react. "First, like me, Fury was unaware that you did everything yourself. He truly believed that you sketched out an outline, then threw the plan to your minions to flesh out the details."
Tony leaned forward, snagging more toast as he did so. "That explains a comment he made about my R&D department after the press conference last week. I thought he was yanking my chain."
Steve poured himself some orange juice. "Thought so. Next, he thought you knew that you were a full-time Avenger and only a part-time consultant, not the other way around. I didn't know you before Loki, but I suspect if you look at only the assignments given to you by Fury himself, you'll find that they dropped off significantly after the Chitauri invasion. He thought he'd already reduced your workload to give you more time to work with your team."
'My team. I like the sound of that,' the billionaire reflected. He did a quick mental review of SHIELD tasks allotted over the few months before and following the Battle of New York, and found himself nodding in agreement. His eyebrows drew together in confusion. "But what about all the other jobs? You know, the ones for Hill, Coulson, Sitwell, etc? Those multiplied!"
Steve winced. "Yeah, you may think I'm crazy. This is just speculation…" When Tony tilted his head encouragingly, he shrugged and continued, "I don't think Fury knew about them. I think he believed those projects were coming from his own R&D department. He seemed momentarily surprised when I first mentioned one of them."
"Huh." Tony was staring unseeingly at the wall again. "That would explain his insistence that all future projects have his personal signature before I work on them." He distractedly munched on another slice of bacon.
Steve nodded as he smiled to himself, carefully keeping his pleasure at seeing Tony eat concealed. "Fury may be tough, but he's fair. I'm sure that, once he realized the mistake, he fixed it as quickly as possible."
"I'll bet a few people got called on the carpet for trying to put one over on him." Stark chuckled gleefully. "I'd have paid to be a fly on the wall when he talked to Maria."
Steve grinned at him conspiratorially. He'd never really liked the taciturn woman; she seemed…anti-Avengers somehow, but he couldn't place a finger on it.
Tony went back to sipping his coffee as he pondered further, "Also, Fury is now specifying which tasks he's OK with my R&D people working on, so that supports your theory as well."
"Sounds like a win-win, to me. Fury gets his tech, and you get time to do a few non-negotiable tasks, like eating and sleeping."
Tony smirked, then leaned over and spooned some eggs onto the plate in front of himself. "Anyone ever tell you that you're a bit of a mother hen?" he asked in amusement as he launched into the eggs with gusto.
"It may have been mentioned once or twice. Most notably, ten minutes ago."
The genius snorted. "I'll bet." He smothered a yawn, standing and gathering his dishes, then placing them in the sink. "Seriously, though, and listen closely since these words rarely pass my lips… thank you. I have to admit that I was angry when I thought you believed I was lazy or incompetent. I guess it's really the opposite. I'd just never looked at it like that."
It was Steve's turn to be serious. "I have to admit, until JARVIS prompted me to look more closely at your schedule, I didn't truly appreciate all you do for the Initiative. I'd like to say 'thank you' as well."
Tony waved the gratitude off with a, "Yeah, well….guess we're even", then stifled another yawn. This one threatened to crack his jaw. "You know, a nap actually might be a good idea at this juncture."
"Sounds like a plan." Steve turned his own attention back to his food as the billionaire stretched and made for the door.
He looked up again as Tony paused at the door and turned to make a final comment. "Oh, by the way? If you ever want to burn a candle at four ends, just break it in half and light 'er up."
Rogers arched an eyebrow. "Sounds wasteful; the candle would be gone in no time."
"Ah, but what a light it would make while it burned," Tony mused to himself, a small smile playing on his lips. He snorted, shaking his head. "Yeah, definitely nap time when I start waxing poetic." Turning towards the hall again, he waved a hand casually over his shoulder. "See ya later, Steve," he called as he left.
"Sleep well, Tony!" Rogers continued to chew on a slice of bacon contentedly, finally enjoying the early morning quiet. Maybe, just maybe, everything would be all right. They'd made a start, anyway. Today, Tony Stark was eating and sleeping, the broken bits of his candle melding together, only one wick alight. With any luck, that one flame would be a beacon for tomorrow.