<- Part One
There's some kind of energy monster attacking the electronic billboards in Times Square. Tony braces and digs his heels in for the fight with Steve, and instead gets a cursory, “Suit up, we're moving out in five minutes.”
Tony takes a moment to gape and blink at Steve's retreating back before doing just that.
The energy monster is a bastard
. Clint and Natasha have to keep their distance because nothing in their standard SHIELD-issue catsuits protects them from electrocution. Steve is similarly hampered and has resorted to throwing the shield a lot from a sheltered position behind a municipal van. His efforts are shepherding the monster from moving out of the square but don't actually appear to do be doing it any damage.
Tony would be running with ideas for armour improvements for the three of them if he wasn't having to spend a worrying amount of his attention focussed on keeping out of the monster's grasp. He'd made upgrades to the suit against electrical attacks after Whiplash, but apparently this thing likes to suck energy like a leech as well as striking out with it, and the first time it grabbed Tony it sapped the suit of about forty percent of its juice. He's fought with far less battery than that; that's not the problem. The problem is that it'd only take a couple more tastes like that before it killed the suit altogether. Then, he'd be literally powerless, unable to move, when the monster switched to draining the reactor protecting his heart, like a vampire. Tony's attached enough to being alive
to know when he's outgunned and back off.
Hulk is having a good solid go at smashing it, but even he doesn't seem to be doing much more than distracting it. Every so often he lets out a wounded bellow when he gets zapped particularly hard. His hair's standing on end with the static, but the new pants seem to be staying in place. When Tony's catching his breath, he makes sure to take a picture with the HUD of a slightly pissy-looking student with a smartphone standing a bit too close to the action. He'll think of a witty caption for it when he gets home, then print it out to make Bruce smile. Avengers = 1, Tumblr = 0.
Thor, meanwhile, has been hanging back more than usual, and right now is actually muttering to his hammer under his breath in a sing-song rhythm, almost like he's chanting. It's been going on for a long time; Tony's starting to wonder if Thor is actually doing
anything, or if he's just having some crisis of Hammer-confidence. It's startling, then, when he moves into action almost in a blur, superhumanly fast, and grabs the energy monster round what might be its throat, if it even has one. There's some kind of backwards explosion, which doesn't even make sense, and what feels like only a moment later, Steve is peering down at Tony, tapping on the face plate.
Tony opens it up. “I'm okay,” he says.
“Power at thirty percent,” the HUD intones.
“Shut up,” Tony replies. “Not you,” he says to Steve.
Steve holds out his hand and pulls Tony to his feet, which is always kind of impressive and frightening, given what the suit weighs even without him inside it.
Across the square, there's no sign of the monster. Hulk reaches out to crumple a drunkenly-leaning street sign, and yelps a bit when the static build-up in his body discharges with a flick of light and an audible snapping sound.
Thor is standing in the centre of a recognisable blast pattern, visibly glowing slightly like he's lit from within. Tony's sure his eyes have never been so incandescently blue, and when he gets a little closer there's a faint, almost inaudible hum that Tony can feel in his back teeth, like he's standing under high voltage power lines.
“I negotiated with Mjolnir, and convinced it to temporarily conduct energy in an inward rather than an outward direction,” Thor explains.
Tony bursts out laughing. “You're telling me that you literally
reversed the polarity of the neutron flow.”
Though he hears a little huff of mirth from Coulson through the comm channel, Tony is otherwise surrounded by a sea of blank faces.
“Oh, come on
, even Bruce would have known that one,” Tony bemoans. Unfortunately, Hulk is sitting on the curb, sucking on his stung fingers and casually vandalising a parking meter with the other hand. “So going on the list.”
Thor smiles sunnily, then slaps a broad hand on the shoulder of the suit. “I look forward to viewing this tale of the mastery of thunder from your world's legends,” he declares.
“Charging,” the HUD informs Tony.
“I thought I'd miss my penis more,” Tony says bluntly.
“Are we really talking about this?” Rhodey asks, looking uncomfortable. He takes a large swallow of whatever's in his hand. Tony can't quite remember what's in it; he thinks it might be some kind of fruit-flavoured-tini thing. It's got a little plastic monkey hanging from the side.
“Uh huh,” Tony says, mixing up something new and bright pink. It's got pomegranate and coconut rum in it and a few other things. It looks like an accident but it tastes pretty good, so he beckons Steve over and presses it into his hand. Steve can't get drunk, but his experiences involving alcohol were pretty limited before the serum, so Tony is using his mixology skills to make all of the most ridiculous cocktails he's ever heard of, plus a few that he's not sure have been invented before. He's not really making drinks for himself, but his taste-testing is getting him there, sip by fruity sip. Because of that, it's probably the most protracted time from sober to drunk that he's had at a party that he can remember.
Cap salutes him with the glass, then shuffles back to playing darts with Natasha and Clint. (Clint is playing blindfolded. Natasha is taking her shots hanging upside down from Clint's shoulders.)
“But seriously,” Tony continues. “Everyone goes on about dick; men talk it up and guard it like it's more important than any other limb. Psychiatry argues that women want one of their own, whether they know it or not. We wave it around like it's what makes us real men, but it's total BS. I'm just as comfortable right now with a pair of socks down my pants as I was with my majestic eight and a half inches.”
Rhodey seems unconvinced. “Whatever you say, man.”
“You think I'm shitting you, but I'm not. I mean, mechanically, right now, I can still get off; I tested it. I had to. I mean what kind of a scientist would I be if I didn't?
And multiple orgasms are awesome
; I totally agree that women get the good side of the deal with that. But, you know, sitting down to pee is fine. I miss being able to just shake and walk away, but that's what the paper's for, right?”
“I can never unhear that,” Rhodey bitches.
“Hey, I've got boobs right now, I'm officially genetically programmed to talk about all this shit. We've got, like, nearly thirty years of over-sharing to catch up on.”
“Can't you wait until I'm more drunk?”
“Nope. Awkward confessions now, Dance Dance Revolution later.”
“Noooo,” Rhodey moans, burying his face in his hands.
“Don't be like that, honey bear. You'll love it. With Thor and Clint, it's like a full-contact sport; it's hilarious. Last time, we broke about three pieces of furniture and someone went through a wall. That's when we made the 'No Mjolnir' rule.”
“I hate you,” Rhodey groans from behind his hands.
“That hurts me, sweetie, right here,” Tony says, pressing a hand over the arc reactor. “Here, drink up.” He passes over an immaculately measured Fruit Tingle.
“It's blue,” Rhodey says, looking at Tony like that's a deal breaker.
“It's purple, it's delicious. Don't be such a spoilsport. What, am I supposed to be just making Long Island Iced Teas and G&Ts all night? I'd get bored.”
“I don't drink blue.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “Fine, be that way.”
Clint chooses that moment to rock up for a refill. “Oooh! Blue!” he exclaims.
“All yours, William Tell,” Tony says, mixing up an ironic Cosmopolitan for Rhodey instead.
Natasha is disgustingly
on the ball for someone who drank about a vat of spirits last night. She's not giving him an inch of leeway, and Tony's gasping into the mat again, when he'd only just got back up on his feet.
“If I say you're the best, can I just lie here a while?” Tony asks, pathetically.
“Are you dying?” Natasha asks.
“Debatable,” Tony replies, “but really, I'm more worried that I'm going to ralph all over your feet next time you flip me like that.”
Natasha's nose wrinkles. She doesn't start going any easier on him, but she doesn't flip him again.
“Hah!” Tony says loudly, pointing a finger with glee.
Coulson goes a little paler. He's wearing sunglasses, indoors, and even for him that's a little too much of a caricature to be anything but a necessity.
“You're hungover,” Tony singsongs.
“I blame the bartender,” Coulson says. “Also, I doubt I'm alone.”
Tony flaps a hand. “I had a Bloody Mary for breakfast, after I let Natasha kick the crap out of me for an hour. That's pretty much situation normal.”
“You're like a yardstick of inappropriate life choices. If my head didn't hurt so much, I'd be feeling superior right about now,” Coulson gripes, and that's a serious crack in the bland, unflappable armour he wears by habit. Tony takes a little sympathy on him and lowers the lights by about twenty percent.
Coulson smiles a little, like he's grateful, then says, “We might have a lead.”
Tony actually drops what he's holding; it clatters on the desk and then the floor, but he doesn't think it's broken. Whatever it is.
“Don't get too excited,” Coulson warns. “This isn't a 'wheels up in ten' situation, it's just a connection, but I think it's a solid one.”
Tony makes sure to sit down, anyway. “I'm listening.”
“That incident in Times Square. The field the hostile generated; the signatures are a match to whatever messed with the cameras when you got mugged.”
“Nuh uh. I know I got knocked out and all, but I think I would have noticed an energy monster the size of a Hummer
. I told you, it was some kid with a glowing purple gun.”
Coulson's smile, that smug one he pulls out when he knows something other people don't (which, let's face it, is pretty much always) is on his face. “Oh, Times Square was bigger, much
bigger. But it's the same signature, in a city full of millions of electro-magnetic signals. And it leaves a residue.”
Tony catches up. Last night really did do a number on him, apparently. “Oh. Oh, right
“We're thinking that between SHIELD, Doctor Banner, and yourself, we'll have a trail to follow within the next twelve hours. At the very least, it'll give us a list of names to chase up.”
Tony's kind of glad he's sitting down. “Good. That's really good.”
“It's a start,” Coulson says, with a little shrug. Then he jumps when Dummy nudges him, a smoothie clutched in his claw.
Tony lets a laugh bubble up out of his mouth. “Drink it, Coulson. You look like shit.”
“I'm not the one with ink on my cheek, motor oil in my hair, and a black eye.”
“I can shower. And Clint uses his elbows far more than is normally allowed by the rules of fair play.”
“Clint was limping this morning,” Coulson observes, before taking a mouthful of green gloop. He grimaces.
“He had his foot in my way.”
“You are not well people,” Coulson declares.
“Hush, Agent Fanboy, no throwing stones,” Tony says, smirking. “Hey, I've seen you in casual clothing, now. I mean, it was a polo neck and I think you'd starched and ironed it, which is weird, but I had honestly started to wonder if you slept in the suit.”
“It'd get creased,” Coulson replies.
Tony smirks. “And for someone who seems determined to go through life with a stick up his ass, you have some moves
“I'm a person of many layers. Also, I'm never drinking with you again,” Coulson says, finishing his smoothie with an expression of determination, like it's medicine.
“Your loss,” Tony replies, with a cheeky grin.
For all that he was able to shrug it off and tease Coulson, the possibility, the promise, of the lead nags at him, itches and itches until it's all he can think about. JARVIS is hooked into all kinds of weather stations and satellites and cell phone towers, and he's scanning and compiling as fast as he can while being scrupulously thorough, but Tony can't stand still. He knows that SHIELD are doing the same kind of thing with their (vastly inferior) tech, and Bruce is being clever up in his own lab, modifying some sort of antenna that'll be more sensitive and pick up the little pings they miss on the big sweep, but it just doesn't feel like enough. Coulson had said twelve hours
but it had been three days since then, and they were still scanning, still crunching numbers, still working algorithms to try and map things out.
He'd take the suit out, let off some steam, but then he might not be close enough when (if) they find something. He'd open the liquor cabinet, but then he might (will) be drunk when (if) they find something. He'd go up to the gym and get Natasha to smack him around a bit, but she's off doing mysterious SHIELD things. He'd go up to the living room, but he's so on edge he's liable to start a fight just to relieve the tension and give himself something predictable to do, and that is not best-practice for achieving share-house harmony.
He nearly walks into Steve, because that man is like a cat, and Tony's just pacing frenetically and not really watching where he's going.
“Easy,” Steve says, catching Tony when he stumbles back. He's got his hands right around Tony's upper arms. Though Tony still has nice biceps in this body, Steve's hands are freakishly huge. Tony suspects Steve's thumb and fingertips are touching, and that bothers
him enormously. He knows he's not a big guy, in either body, but he doesn't like feeling delicate
. Steve's like a mountain of muscle, and even without the Super Soldier strength, he could probably just swat Tony like a fly. He doesn't think he's ever been as aware of that as he is, right in this moment.
“Easy,” Steve repeats, and folds Tony into a hug. Tony's so startled, he just stands still and allows it.
Steve is warm and solid and hugs like he's got a degree in Awesome Comforting Hugs. Tony gradually relaxes, just a fraction, lets his forehead drop to Steve's shoulder. Steve strokes from between his shoulder blades up to the nape of his neck, over and over again. It's hypnotic, and, weirdly, not at all sexual. Tony loses track of time a little, and when he comes back to himself, he's got his hands on Steve's hips like that's the only thing keeping him upright.
“Um,” he says, because his brain seems to have checked out.
“Pepper said you'd be freaking out,” Steve murmurs into Tony's hair.
“Look at you talking like the young kids these days. Well, the young kids fifty years ago, but it's still part of contemporary slang, so it totally counts,” Tony replies, his voice coming out oddly hushed. The music's off and the bots are in their charging stations, so the only sounds are the hum of electrical devices and them; their clothes, their breath, Steve's hand moving slowly against cloth, against Tony's skin, and back over cloth again.
“I'm cool; I'm down with it,” Steve says, and Tony can hear the self-mocking smile, can't help but snort.
“That's it, you're officially banned from playing with Clint, he's a terrible influence.”
Steve laughs aloud and squeezes him a little closer. Tony's suddenly very conscious of the fact that he's not wearing the binder right now; that his chest is all crushed up against Steve's in a weird, squishy way.
“You've been awake for about seventy hours,” Steve says, his voice a gentle reprimand.
It's closer to eighty, but Tony isn't going to correct him. “So?”
“So, you need to sleep,” Steve says, like Tony's trailing behind him in comprehension. Maybe Tony would be, if he was a normal person who kept normal hours that weren't dictated by science, his enormous intellect, and a steady flow of espresso.
“Can't do that. I need to be ready,” Tony says, and that's that, as far as he's concerned. If Pepper hasn't yet been able to guilt him into regular sleep, then Steve doesn't stand a chance. Those weapons-grade puppy eyes Steve deploys don't tend to make him feel like behaving himself - quite the reverse.
Steve's hand tickles slightly up into Tony's hair, his nails lightly scratching, and that's wrong, that's good
, Tony's always had a bit of an erogenous zone there. Somehow, with that touch, they've jumped the rails from friendly embrace
, at least, from Tony's point of view, and Tony doesn't know what to do with that, how to deal with the fact that he can feel his nipples tightening, oh shit. He doesn't know how to back out quickly without showing Steve how spooked he is, how wrong his body feels, how betrayed he feels by it. Steve doesn't know what he's done, and Tony doesn't want to hurt his feelings. It's not Steve's fault that he's inadvertently bumping into a whole bunch of Tony's new and previously unrecognised do not want
“Did you bring me dinner?” he finds himself blurting out, because underneath the clean-skin scent of American hero, he can smell some kind of food stuff that's not smoothie or scotch-on-the-rocks.
Steve, mercifully, untangles them from their (increasingly inappropriate) embrace, and picks up something in a cardboard box from the nearest surface. “Dessert, actually. Pepper said it was your favourite.”
It's a slice of pie, full of berry fruits, sitting in a puddle of its own juices and semi-melted ice cream. There's some disposable cutlery tucked in with it.
Tony doesn't feel hungry, but his stomach rumbles loudly, so he picks up the fork and starts to demolish it without any further prodding needed on Steve's part. It is, genuinely, very good pie.
Steve raids Tony's fridge, sits a bottle of water at his elbow. Tony cracks it and drinks deeply, and realises that he doesn't remember when he last ate or drank, or even if he had at all since the hair-of-the-dog the morning after the party.
Still, skimping on sustenance shouldn't have made him this tired, so suddenly.
“You bastard,” he slurs, when he drops his fork.
Tony pushes himself to his feet, gripping the edge of the bench hard when his knees wobble.
you, and you were just... manipulating me into eating your... your Trojan pie
Tony falls, just a little bit, because Steve catches him before he falls all the way with his stupidly big hands, and gathers him in.
” Tony bellows, slapping ineffectively at any bits of Steve he can reach. “No more hugs for you.”
“I'm not going to let you just sleep on the floor, Tony,” Steve says gently. Tony can feel the buzz of his words through his cheek, where it's resting on Steve's chest. There's a great, swooping shift in gravity, and Tony's body's all confused about which way is up until he realises that the firm line behind his knees is Steve's other arm. That means that Steve is effortlessly carrying him out of the workshop and into the elevator like a child. It automatically ranks pretty highly on the list of embarrassing and invasive things to have happened to him this month.
“...hate you now. When'd you get so mean...
” Tony mumbles, whapping Steve once again, clumsily, with the heel of his hand.
“I've been playing with bad influences,” Steve says.
It's the last thing Tony's really aware of; everything sort of descends into a disorienting fuzz. He feels the rhythm of Steve walking, hears a low rumble of voices. He's gently shifted onto something horizontal and squishy; someone slides a pillow under his head and covers him with a blanket.Sweet dreams
, he thinks he hears someone say, but he's too far gone by that point to know what's real, and what is a phantom, conjured by his sleeping mind.
is his first thought. So thirsty
“This isn't my bed,” is his third. He's stretched out on the sofa in the main living area. He's drooled a bit on the cushion that his face had been mashed into a second ago. The mid-morning sun is streaming in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Bruce is sprawled on a floor cushion a couple of feet away, poking at a tablet computer. His hair is a riotous nest of curls, and he's wearing pyjamas.
“You went down pretty fast,” Bruce says. “We weren't sure if we'd misjudged the dosage. We've been watching you in shifts, making sure you kept breathing.”
“What's all this 'we'? This is a conspiracy, now? You're ganging up on me, for the greater good?”
“We're a team, that's what this means. When one of us is doing something stupid, we act,” Bruce says, and Tony knows those aren't his words; that he's parroting their fearless leader.
“That's nice, really nice sentiment. Teamwork, Rohypnol and the American Way. It's catchy; someone should write a jingle.”
Tony sits up and his head whirls. His stomach churns in sympathy. He swallows hard.
“Where's Steve?” he asks.
“He took first shift. He thought you wouldn't want him here when you woke.”
“Well, he thought wrong,” Tony says, and embraces his anger, lets it fill him up.
“It wasn't his idea,” Bruce says.
Tony's heard enough. He doesn't care whose idea it was; he just wants to drink about a gallon of water and punch the shit out of somebody, and he can't achieve either of those sitting here. Bruce is still talking but Tony's tuned him out and is walking under his own steam to the elevator, a hand trailing the wall to assist his shaky balance. He's still wearing all his clothing, thank God
, nothing's been removed or unbuttoned, but he still feels like burying himself in that enormous shirt of Thor's, and maybe a parka or three.
The suit, he needs the suit, right now
“He said if you blamed anyone for this, it should be him, but I don't think you should,” Bruce calls after him, and it penetrates.
Tony lets the PR walls slam down, and laughs, mirthlessly. “You know, what's funny about all this? It's that any of you think that you have a right to dictate what I think or what I do,” Tony says, and the elevator doors close between him and Bruce's stricken face.
“Sir, there is a call for you from Miss Potts on line three.”
“I'm not available,” Tony replies. “I'm not available for anyone. Just keep kicking everything to voicemail.”
“Director Fury is still on hold on line two.”
“Yeah, let him sweat. I've got a bet going with myself about how long he can stand the hold music before he hangs up on his own.”
“Very well, sir,” says JARVIS.
The Malibu house is like a show home. It's clean and full of furniture, but nearly all of his most comfortable things, his favourite cars, and his most used tools are in New York. His three main bots are all in the Avengers Tower workshop, so there's nothing to make him eat or to break things but himself.
What it has going in its favour is that it's familiar, it's secure, and it doesn't have anyone in it who has ever drugged him into insensibility. Apart from himself, of course, but right now, he's the only person he trusts, so that's okay.
It's been a week. A week that started out with him being so mad he could spit, but then, that fell away abruptly, and he's been left by the tide of his rage in an empty house, with nothing but JARVIS and his tools for company. It's like his life after Pepper became CEO, minus the dying and the self-destructive behaviour. He hadn't fled without thought, but he didn't wait for the jet or drive a car away, either. He'd brought nothing with him but the essentials that he could fit in the suit – a binder, and his prescription for the pill. He doesn't know his social security number, and he still can't make an omelette, but he can call for food delivery, and send his clothes out for dry-cleaning when his closet starts to look a bit bare. It's practically self-sufficiency.
“Perimeter br-” JARVIS breaks off abruptly, and the lights dim for a moment as they switch to backup power. Tony grabs the suitcase armour, activates it, and is turning to fly out to find whichever bastard is attacking him now, when Natasha steps out of the shadows.
“Just me,” she says, holding up her hands, showing that they're empty.
It's not like Natasha's ever actually unarmed
, but Tony appreciates the gesture. He raises the face plate.
“I thought I fixed that loophole,” Tony says. In fact, he's certain
he did. “Fury got sick of The Piña Colada Song, huh?”
“Something like that,” she says.
“You here for the welfare check?” He deactivates the suit, snaps the Case shut and stashes it again. Then he does a little turn on the spot. “As you can see, I'm alive, I'm sober, I'm in my right mind, and I showered this morning. I got six hours' sleep last night, which is a lot for me. I ate at least two vegetables at dinner, I've been keeping up with my prototype development work for Stark Industries, and I've left my Batphone on, in case of supervillains. Satisfied?”
Natasha doesn't reply, but Tony's used to that. She doesn't talk unless she has something to say, and Tony can talk enough for the pair of them.
“So, you're here to convince me to come back, right? Stop sulking, slink back with my tail between my legs, admit that they were right to do what they did, that I was a danger to myself and others, and wouldn't have listened to anyone who told me 'no'. I say sorry, and they smile, and I tell them I'll be a good boy in the future. I'm the bad guy, Captain America stops crying guilty tears into his oatmeal, and the team wins. Game over.”
“I told them that they were morons, and that they should have known better.”
Tony stops moving for a beat, rolls that sentence around in his mind, feels out the edges of it.
“I told them that you'd had patterns of this behaviour before, that they're well-documented in your file, and that most of the time it hasn't resulted in serious injury or property damage.” Natasha moves closer, hops up on a stool, folding one leg over the other neatly. “Also, if they'd waited another day, I could have drugged you myself and we wouldn't have ended up in this situation.”
“You sure about that?” Tony asks, because it seems a bit of an assumption.
“Yes. When we first met, I spent a significant amount of time in your life under an alias. I lied to your face, every day, and then, within a minute of you finding out my true objective, I injected you with an unknown chemical without prior consent or warning. You still trust me; as much as you trust anyone on the team.”
“You may have a point,” Tony concedes.
“Also, I'm a woman,” Natasha says. “I'm less of a threat.”
“You terrify me and hurt me on a regular basis. There is nothing not threatening about you, and that includes that ridiculous trick with the bottle that you did at the party.”
“Whatever you are inside, right now, you're living in a woman's body, and you're hyper-aware of the physical differences and limitations of that body,” Natasha says bluntly. “A man you're friends with, that you trusted, drugged that body. He then carried it from the place you feel safest to another area, where he and a handful of other men watched you sleep for sixteen hours.”
Tony swallows. “Well, when you put it like that,” he says.
“You did exactly what your brain told you that you needed to do to feel safe again. You didn't hurt anyone, including yourself. You didn't go out of your way to sow discord in the team or single anyone out. You just took the suit and came here, your old sanctuary.”
She gestures with a hand at the workshop, and she's right
, and he feels it down to his bones in some kind of profound way that he's never going to be able to forget; the certainty of it. And she's holding his gaze, firm and resolute, like she's making sure he understands before she continues.
“You don't have to apologise for anything,” Natasha says.
Tony's breath leaves him in a rush, like he's been holding it for eight days.
“Drink?” he offers, after he's regained some of his composure.
Natasha smiles. “Please.”
“Oh, we found something, by the way,” Natasha says, casually, when Tony's well over the 'flying the suit' limit.
,” he says, stunned and hurt, pushing to stand. “How am I supposed to... I have to go...
Natasha grabs his arm and yanks him back down to sitting.
“It'll still be there in the morning. This was more important. Drink up,” she says, tapping the rim of Tony's shot glass with a fingertip. Tony's well into the suggestible stage, so he does, grimacing.
“More important, my ass. I need new friends,” Tony grumbles.
“No, you don't. You need to catch up,” Natasha says, pouring more.
“How is getting me disgustingly drunk more important?”
Natasha shrugs. “I figure, this way, you'll be so hungover when I pour you into your jet to go home, you won't have the brainpower to stress about walking back into the Tower. You'll just be overwhelmingly grateful to the first person who brings you an Advil and a cold compress.”
Tony drinks his shot and tries to think through the logic of that. “You're terrifying.”
“You're still behind,” Natasha says, and Tony kind of wishes that at some time in his misspent youth he'd learned to back down from a challenge.
Tony spends most of the flight home wanting to die. Natasha keeps handing him bottles of water, and grabs him a sick bag once, when he didn't think he could navigate the walkway to the toilet. She doesn't hold his hand or try to make him feel better, but she also doesn't mock him for being so ill.
Coulson is another matter.
“You're hungover,” he sings under his breath, when he meets Tony on the runway. Natasha had vanished immediately upon landing, in that sneaky-ninja-like way that made Tony suspect her of having supernatural powers, or some kind of teleportation device.
“I hate everything,” Tony mutters from behind his sunglasses. “Especially vodka.”
“Serves you right for trying to out-drink a Russian,” Coulson says unsympathetically.
“I swear, she's not human
,” Tony moans.
“Oh, she is, more or less,” Coulson smiles. “She does, however, have fantastic
“Great,” Tony bitches, “that's just great. Can we get to the point, before I fall over? I have a date with my bed and about eighteen hours of sleep interspersed with self-pity.”
Coulson holds out a file. Tony opens it, blinks at the mugshot inside. “That's... that's not a guy. What- Oh, seriously?”
“Grabbed the gun when we raided the place, but it misfired when he picked it up,” Coulson confirms. Smug
doesn't even begin to describe his smile.
“What an asshole
,” Tony says.
“He woke up yesterday, and I can state for a fact that he's a lot whinier than you were. You're miles ahead on dignity, which I think might be a first for you.”
“You're a cruel man; you're being mean and complimentary at the same time while I'm mentally incompetent. You're taking the worst kind of advantage of me in my weakened state.”
“You know what they say, never miss an opportunity. Our tech and magic divisions are brainstorming; they're going to study the gun, work out if it's possible to reverse its effects, or if they'll need to build a device to do that. It might take a while, but I think you'd agree that it's better for them to do this by the book rather than rushing.”
Tony's never been one for patience at the best of times, but magic
. Just the lack of predictable cause and effect alone is enough to make his skin crawl.
“Of course, catching the guy, rather than just recovering the weapon does give us one very big bonus,” Coulson continues.
“What's that? Is he talking?”
“Not so much, unless complaining eighteen hours a day is counted as a bonus. No, what we have is a test subject. We've got someone we can try a reversal device on who isn't an important member of our team of superheroes.”
“That's incredibly flattering and chilling at the same time. I don't know whether to hide from you or bat my eyelashes.”
“Let's face it, nobody likes a whiner.”
Tony doesn't see anyone when he gets to the Tower. He makes no effort to sneak in or anything; just strolls in like he owns the place (after all, he does) and takes the elevator up to his personal floor.
He strips off, one item of clothing at a time, dropping everything on the floor and letting it lie. The binder comes off last, and the release from constriction is a relief that almost tempers the oh God, breasts why
that's never lessened or gotten any easier to deal with since this whole mess started. He holds an arm across his chest, pressing them flat and obscuring them from his peripheral vision, while he shuffles to the bed, peels back the sheets and climbs in.
He's worried that he might stay awake, chewing the developments over in his mind, but sleep comes mercifully easily.
*I want quesadillas.
There's a long pause, maybe about three minutes, before Bruce replies.There's this new invention called manners.
Tony laughs at that; at least Bruce won't be tiptoeing around him.Proper corn tortillas, none of that wheat flour shit. Chicken. Squash blossoms, too, I know you like those, don't fight it.
Another delay, Bruce is thinking hard about what to say this time. Tony knows he's being difficult, but he doesn't really care. If Bruce didn't want Tony imperiously demanding fantastic ethnic food with quirky ingredients, he shouldn't have started cooking it for him in the first place.What makes you think I have half a day to spare to shop and cook?
I haven't eaten anything but delivered food and coffee in nine days
, Tony replies, and that's enough, he knows it, because if Bruce shrinks from anything, these days, it's the idea of a diet full of nothing but sodium, MSG and processed sugars. You're a statistic waiting to happen
, Bruce replies.
“Captain Rogers is outside, sir,” JARVIS informs Tony an hour or so later.
“Since when does he knock?” Tony asks, poking inside the armour boot he's working on. Maybe he's crazy, but he's thinking some kind of retractable blade or wheels would be awesome, so that he can skate places rather than run if he's on a smooth surface like a highway, or on ice. But maybe he's just watched Airborne
one too many times, or had so many little shits wearing Heelys glide past him during that craze a few years ago that he's been brainwashed into thinking why don't I have that
; who knows. “Let him in.”
Steve strides into the workshop, carriage erect and parade perfect, face grimly determined, like he's reporting for his own execution.
“Your code still works, you know,” Tony says, because something about Steve waiting outside on the doorstep like an uncertain suitor rather than just strolling in like he always does really annoys him.
“It does?” Steve asks, like he's not sure if Tony's being serious.
“Sure. Why not?”
“Look, do you want to do this? Be guilty and self-flagelating, grovel for forgiveness? Because, honestly, it's boring. I mean, you've obviously got some kind of kink for humiliation or masochism or something, but that aside, do you really want to spend the next however long hating yourself?”
Steve blinks, confused and stunned and a bit lost. “I'm... not really sure what any of that means,” he says finally, but the pinking tips of his ears tell a different story. “Don't you want me to apologise?”
“Not really,” Tony says, and he's being completely truthful. “You made a call, you made the wrong
call, and that bites. As a master of poor life-choices and decision-making, your error doesn't even rank in the top hundred of mine. I mean, you didn't even draw on my face, or put my hand in a jug of warm water.”
“Why would I do that?” Steve asks, baffled.
“Because it's cruel. And you're not cruel. You don't do things because they're hurtful. You don't even do it when there's playfulness behind it. You're confused by my sarcastic conversations with Bruce. You watch the prank war between Clint and the rest of us but you don't participate, even if you laugh at us sometimes. You've got some pretty clearly defined boundaries in your head, and you don't step over them.”
“I do sometimes,” Steve corrects.
“You do in battle. Not at home. Not with me.”
“No,” Steve finally agrees, and he looks like there's a storm going on inside his head that he's only just weathering.
“Movie night tonight. My turn to choose,” Tony says, even though it isn't, but he's totally calling it anyway. He's not letting the emotional leverage he holds go completely to waste. “See you there.”
Tony turns away from Steve, back to the boot, grabs his soldering iron and picks up where he left off.
Steve hovers for a minute or so behind him, before Tony hears his carefully-audible footsteps move away and leave the workshop, the door shutting behind him.
Tony goes upstairs early, with the express purpose of hanging around the kitchen to annoy Bruce. Providing he doesn't actually interfere with the cooking process, Bruce tolerates his intrusion pretty well. He even gives Tony some vegetables to chop.
“So long as you don't lose a finger, you can't really mess it up. It just has to be in bits about so-big,” Bruce says, holding up thumb and finger about half an inch apart.
“I can see why they pay you the big science-bucks,” Tony says.
“They don't,” Bruce replies. “Something about being chased by the Army for about eight years makes it difficult to get tenure.”
“I suppose I'll have to be greedy and keep you all to myself for a bit longer, then. I do happen to have better toys; that's not bragging, that's just the truth. Did I ever tell you about the particle accelerator I built from junk in my workshop in Malibu? Good times.”
“You're like the beginning of some horrific cautionary tale in a Health and Safety seminar,” Bruce says, but he's smiling.
“You love it,” Tony says, grinning big. “You'd be bored without the occasional evacuation to a safe distance.”
“I could do with it being less often than once a month,” Bruce says with a grimace.
“Oooh, is this the bribery section of the operant conditioning approach? Do I get cookies, too?”
“No, I think you're beyond help,” Bruce declares, but his smile is fond and he's cooking the chicken for the quesadilla filling just the way he knows Tony likes, so Tony thinks they're okay.
“Dig in or miss out, people,” Tony hollers, and the rest of the team ambles in to grab themselves a serving of dinner. Thor and Steve have a whole platter to themselves.
Tony takes his time; washing his hands, drying them, pouring a glass of juice for himself. He strolls out to the living area when everyone else is just about settled, and very deliberately sits right next to Steve.
Tony had determined that he wanted a stupid move to watch, but one that wasn't too stupid to be watchable
, so he'd gone for Robin Hood: Men In Tights
. Thor's laugh is soon booming out through the room between bites, and Clint's ridiculous giggle isn't far behind it.
Steve is awkward and stiff next to Tony for a long time, but gradually, he starts to unwind. There's a blush across the tops of his cheeks that he always gets when he watches comedy that's a bit blue, but he starts to eat his pile of quesadillas, and he even chokes out a little embarrassed laugh now and again, often when the slapstick is at its broadest.
About an hour in, Tony feels the inadvisable drinking session with Natasha, the red-eye flight, and the weird, through-the-day sleep catch up to him. He puts his empty plate on the coffee table, slumps back deep into the sofa and yawns.
And it might not be the right thing to do, but Steve's just right there, and he's warm and he smells good and he's comfortable, and Tony is bad at resisting the things he wants, so he gives in and leans up against Steve, resting his head on Steve's shoulder.
“Okay?” he asks quietly, when Steve freezes up.
“Yeah, okay,” Steve sighs, and relaxes, and that's that.
“You were a little light on the details, Agent,” Tony says. He's got Coulson on speaker, but he's focussed fairly heavily on the armour boots, which are nearly ready for testing. Dummy is whirling around the workshop excitedly, the fire extinguisher in his claw. Tony just knows he's going to be washing fire-retardant powder out of his hair later. “How exactly did you find this kid?”
“We followed the energy residue. There were traces concentrated around student accommodation near a city college. We narrowed the radius as much as we could with mapping, then took Doctor Banner's antenna for a little drive and narrowed it even further. After that, it was just a matter of some old-fashioned recon and a heavily armoured SWAT team.”
Tony pokes a relay, watches the repulsor-blade housing flick out and snap back. He lubricates one joint, tightens another, make sure the whole thing slides like silk. “SWAT team's a little overkill, isn't it?”
“The kid attacked one of the Avengers. Plus, he loosed an energy monster on Manhattan, that's domestic terrorism just to start with. Getting SWAT involved in the take-down was following basic procedure,” Coulson says smoothly.
“Admit it, you just wanted to scare the crap out of him because he eluded you for over a month.”
“I acted with the full support of Director Fury,” Coulson says, and Tony can hear him smiling with satisfaction.
“Oh, I totally believe you, there. He must have been pissed
. Has he threatened him with keelhauling, yet? Does that work on a flying aircraft carrier?”
“I think we'd have to be be down at sea level, and moving,” Coulson says, as if he's actually pondering the logistics of it. “Also, lacking a keel, he'd probably just end up in the turbines.”
“Shame,” Tony says, meaning anything but
. “So, the energy thing. Connected to the gun?”
“Only through the idiot down in the brig,” Coulson says. “You know how when someone gets hold of a genie or a tinder box or something in fairy tales, they always wish for one of the big three?”
“Sure. Money, sex, or power.”
“Well, this kid found some kind of grimoire that promised power, but he didn't double-check his translation.”
Tony actually stops what he's doing. “This kid wished for power, and conjured a giant sentient ball of electricity?”
“Apparently it started out smaller.”
“Hang on, I thought he wasn't talking,” Tony says.
“He wasn't. I let Natasha take him his dinner last night.”
“Is he still in one piece?”
“Coulson huffs a laugh. “You say that like you think she needs to do major bodily harm to change someone's mind.”
“No, you're right, I forgot who we were talking about. So, ravening energy monsters, cuter when they're little, right? Like tigers.”
“And less hungry. Started out just blowing out his light bulbs. Didn't stay that way. It sucked down so much electricity before it went on its little rampage that by the time we showed up, the kid was facing eviction.”
“So, why the gun? Why me, for that matter? I didn't force him to conjure a really ill-advised pet and ruin his life.”
“The kid had debts, and he didn't want to clear them bussing tables. The gun, it looks like he might have stolen it from one of his occult buddies. Now there's
a sketchy crowd. We're keeping a close eye on them from now on. As for you, well, it sounds like you looked rich enough to have a heavy wallet.”
Tony actually splutters. “I was just a mark?
” he asks, indignantly. “But I'm world famous. I'm Iron Man. I'm an Avenger! I privatised world peace.
“Well, next time you walk down the street for doughnuts, don't wear thousand-dollar handmade shoes and designer shades, you should be fine.”
Tony's still choking on his pride when Coulson hangs up, having had the last word.
“Don't even think about it, I'm fine, do I look on fire to you?” he manages, when he sees Dummy swivelling towards him, extinguisher poised and ready.
“Are you okay?” Steve sounds concerned.
“Totally fine. Repulsor blades, for the record, are awesome
“Like, knives? Have you been baking?” Steve reaches out to brush some of the white dust off Tony's shoulder.
“It's from the fire extinguisher.”
Steve's eyebrows shoot up. “You were on fire?
“No,” Tony says quickly.
“This is a scorch mark,” Steve says, fingering Tony's hem.
“Not for long. I barely smouldered. And the test run was great
“You're bleeding,” Steve sighs, reaching out a hand to Tony's forehead.
, what gives?”
“See?” Steve says, waving a red-stained thumb in Tony's face. “What are you looking for, anyway?”
“Uh,” Tony says, looking down. He's standing in the open freezer door, holding a microwave dinner and a carton of frozen spinach. “I ran out of ice. I think?”
“Sit,” Steve says, taking the stuff from Tony's hands, manoeuvring him gently to a kitchen chair, then moving off with purpose to gather things like a wash cloth, disinfectant and band aids.
“You'd love the boots now, they're so much fun,” Tony sighs, letting Steve dab at his forehead with a wet cloth to remove the worst of the dirt.
“I thought we were taking about cooking,” Steve replies, perplexed. He catches his lip between his teeth now and again in concentration as he wrestles with cotton balls and antiseptic cream.
“No, no, blades
, like ice skates, only with repulsor energy rather than physical runners. They're perfect.”
“You have open wounds,” Steve points out.
Tony flaps an unconcerned hand. “Fine-tuning.”
Steve gets up really close and gazes into Tony's eyes for a minute. “I don't think you're concussed, but you're getting quite a lot of swelling.”
“That's what she said,” Tony cracks, and Steve blushes deep crimson.
“I'll get you that ice,” he murmurs.
“You going to tell me to stop playing because I fell down and done hurt myself?” Tony asks.
Steve comes back with a frosty gel pack. He wraps it in a dish towel, puts it in Tony's hand and guides Tony gently to place it on his head. “Would you listen?”
“Not a chance.”
“Then I'll save my breath,” Steve says with a smile.
“Are you busy for the next few days?” Coulson's voice is unconcerned, casual. Tony is instantly suspicious.
“Are you asking what I think you're asking? Because on one hand, fuck
, it took you long enough, but on the other, I am seriously pissed
at being left out of the loop.”
“Gratitude doesn't even rate?”
“It's coming a distant third. Why didn't you tell me?”
Coulson scoffs. “And have you hovering around all week, making the techs nervous?”
“It's been a week?
” Tony fumes.
“We tested it on some roosters on Sunday. Tuesday, I had eggs for breakfast. Wednesday, we turned them back again. I think someone in the science labs wants to keep them; her sister has some kind of ecofarm in Idaho.”
“And Whiny Guy?”
“Woke up yesterday. Still whining, just about different things. I think Fury's debating the merits of taping his mouth closed.”
“Not making him walk the plank?”
“He's booked out on a flight to the mainland; they're going to be putting him in a deep, dark hole for a few years. If we drop him in the ocean first, he'll ruin the upholstery.”
There's a pause, and Tony feels the weight of it fill him up. “When do you want me?” he asks, aiming for casual and falling short.
“If you're ready, a car will be arriving in the next twenty minutes to take you to the airfield.”
“I'm ready,” Tony says, but his throat is dry.
,” Tony moans when he starts to wake, and his voice rumbles out of his chest like an idling motor.
“Hey,” says Steve.
“Seriously, ow,” Tony replies. His eyes are open, but they're not properly focussing.
“What hurts?” Steve asks, fiddling with some kind of button to Tony's right.
,” Tony says feelingly.
“It's going to be okay,” Steve says, and he's petting Tony's hair, that's nice. “Pepper says feel better soon; she's stuck in Prague.”
“It worked, right?” Tony manages to ask. “I feel... I hurt, but I feel... like, right?”
“It worked,” Steve says, nodding.
“Good,” Tony replies, and falls back asleep.
There's no Steve or Pepper when Tony wakes up and checks out. He fills out about a billion forms, sits through a tedious debrief with Agent Hill, and finally escapes with his girl clothes in a bag and a raging appetite.
It's probably misuse of government resources to make the SHIELD driver detour for doughnuts, but he does it anyway. Tony splits the box with the guy, so if he did get reamed by his superior after, he at least got free baked goods for his trouble.
Tony's just spent two days asleep while his body fixes itself, so he's kind of walking the line between needing more rest and having an over-sleeping hangover. He's never been a guy who needs more than about four hours a night, which is something that made studying in college easier, and meant he was able to party harder and longer than most of the other pretty people. Sometimes, he combined the two.
Right now though, there's an anti-gravity device that's calling to him with a siren's song, and spending about a day and a half poking at something that would be impossible, except it's not, because, science
, sounds like exactly the kind of thing he needs to do to clear his head and re-establish his sense of self.
He's maybe four hours in when Steve appears at his shoulder, watching avidly as Tony flicks a switch and levitates a screwdriver.
“Howard was making a flying car back in the forties,” Steve says.
“Completely different; his design used very early repulsor technology, the great grandaddy of what's in the suit. Like how a stick with a burnt end is the antecedent of the fountain pen. This
, on the other hand, uses magnetic fields. Things stay up because the force of the magnetism holds them there.”
“Like a bird riding a thermal,” Steve murmurs.
“Not really, but I'd need a day to explain the theory to a novice, so yeah, we'll go with that. What's up? Apart from this,” Tony asks, poking the screwdriver to make it spin.
“You're checking up on me,” Tony sighs.
“I can't just be bored?” Steve asks.
“I hate to disappoint you, but I haven't blown myself up all morning.”
Steve smiles. “Well, you're about due, then.”
“Is Bruce using you as part of his sneaky campaign against things that go boom? Because I'm still demanding cookies, no matter how much you pout.”
Steve pouts ridiculously, and Tony giggles, he can't help it. “No, put that away, that's like a lethal weapon of cute. You're impossible.”
Steve grins, then says, “I'm not here for Bruce.”
“I know that, dumbass. You're here to make sure I'm not sobbing in a corner or something. I'm not. I'm fine. I'm finer than I've been in, like, two months.”
“You look good,” Steve says, kind of shyly, then reaches out a hand to run a thumb across Tony's jawline. “Well, apart from this.”
Tony twitches back a little; it tickles. He takes Steve's enormous hand in his own and tugs it down, giving in to the urge to squeeze it gently before releasing it. “Hey, lay off. I'm letting it lie fallow for a while before I shape it. Iconic sculpted facial hair doesn't happen overnight, you know.”
“Doesn't it itch?”
“Of course it itches. It's like I've got a face full of stinging nettles; it's fantastic.”
“You're a strange man,” Steve says.
“I spent the first half-hour down here shirtless, just because I could. But my nipples got cold, so I had to put my undershirt back on. Hey, I was thinking, at the charity launch, we could auction off my binders. It'd be great.”
“But.. they're, you know, um, underthings
,” Steve chokes.
“You've obviously not found the darker side of eBay, yet, my friend. This isn't even close to the first time there's been a bunch of people bidding for something that's been nestled against my privates. Possibly the first time it's been autographed, but maybe not. There are some vaguer moments in my past; I couldn't swear to it.”
“That doesn't bother you?” Steve asks. He looks like the very idea of autographed underwear makes him want to hide under a blanket somewhere.
“Not at all, and this time, the money'll be going to something worthwhile, not just into the bank account of someone I hooked up with while wasted,” Tony says pragmatically.
“That happen often?” Steve asks carefully.
“Not any more,” Tony says, “but the past doesn't just go away, just because you've changed the course you're taking. The tabloids make sure of it.”
“You're a good man,” Steve says.
“I'm getting there,” Tony says, shrugging.
Steve squeezes Tony's shoulder. It's not a hug, but it feels like one, and Tony lets the warmth he feels inside tilt his mouth into a smile.
“Coming to dinner? It's pizzas tonight,” Steve says.
“Sure. I'll be there. Don't start without me,” Tony warns.
“Well, don't be late,” Steve replies, with a cheeky grin.
Tony salutes Steve with two fingers as Steve strolls back to the elevator.
When he's alone again, he just takes a moment to breathe, to feel, and to connect with the skin he's in. It feels like coming home.
Then he goes to wash up, because though he loves his house-mates, he doesn't trust them not to steal his pepperoni if he drags his feet.
Tags: angst, avengers, gen, r, steve/tony, trope-bingo