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“Don’t be late, Stark,” someone says, over the sound of robots, sparks, and that eerie quiet before Tony does something that could knock out the power for three city blocks.  

“Yeah, yeah, up in a sec,” Tony says, waving his wrench at the interruption. Whoever it is slips out the door again without a word, which is suspicious, probably. He clamps the wrench between his teeth and checks the beam. Not quite level, three more millimeters down and it’ll be perfect. AC/DC blares around him, a semi-impermeable barrier of sound.

“Grab this for me, will you?” he says and You raises the metal beam in a whir of servos. “There you go, that’s what I’m talking about.”

He grabs the paperweight that was propping the beam up and swaps it for another paperweight, precisely 3mm shorter, that looks like some modern art sculptor got sick of his job and smashed all his tools together. In the corner, Dummy clacks the fingers of his arm together and moves a few inches forward.

“Uh uh uh! Dummy, you stay put. No, You, not you, keep going, put the beam down.” The robot complies with a whine and Tony checks. Level. He slots the triangle of metal alloys in the receptacle in the middle of the beam, darts behind the synthesizer engine, and flicks it on.  

A brilliant laser of light bursts out, cutting through everything in its path. Only slightly off-target. Tony drags the beam around. Some Stark Industry forms that assistant-who-was-not-Pepper pinned to his wall get in the way. Oops. Their bottom halves drift to the ground, red lines of heat creeping up the paper. The top half of a metal cabinet slides off with a groan and joins them in a final, crumpling crash.

“Overriding the fire alarms, sir,” JARVIS says as the synthesizer sparks, the papers burst into flame, and the cabinet starts ominously to smoke.

“You get me the best presents, JARVIS,” Tony grunts, and then the energy beam hits the triangle. The metal alloy glows brighter and brighter, practically singing as it stabilizes. Tony turns off the synthesizer with another careless flick.

“May I suggest streamlining the process next time to involve fewer flames?” JARVIS says.

“Time is money, JARVIS. Well, time is gin and popcorn upstairs in five minutes, but. That was definitely streamlined, I moved everything important out of the way. Dummy, grab the extinguisher and get to work.”

With metal tongs, Tony takes the glowing triangle and boxes his latest arc reactor core. He puts it in a recessed safe in the wall next to his backup arc reactor, and his spare backup, and for some reason Natasha’s Black Widow design pops into his head- an hourglass, two bright red triangles against a black background. Huh.

“Anything worth doing once is worth doing twice, JARVIS,” he says, sagely.

“Sir?”

“I don’t think there’s anybody who would pick one hot blonde over hot twins, really, it’s what anyone would do,” he says, pulling the box with his shiny new element back out, nudging the synthesizer back into place with his hip.

 

“You missed movie night,” Cap says, over his shoulder.

Tony whirls around, soldering iron held out close in front of him. He jabs it at Cap’s plaid-covered chest.

“Security breach,” he says, and Cap sets his jaw. “What is he doing here, JARVIS?”

After battling the Chitauri together, Tony thought he and Cap might be able to get along. He’d thought that right until Cap got back from his road trip. Battle together, sure. But live with the stick-in-the-mud? Fury was crazy. If it hadn’t meant that Bruce accepted his R&D offer and stuck around instead of running away to Calcutta, and Clint started meeting people’s eyes again, he’d have kicked them all out already.

“You also missed Wednesday,” Cap says, staring at the piles of ash on the floor from the forms. “And Thursday. Your robot’s got enough sense to know when you need sleep.”

Tony snorts at the implied more sense than you.

“JARVIS isn’t a robot, he’s a highly-advanced artificial intelligence that could out-strategize a horde of supervillains. Or one jumped-up super-soldier. Get out of my workshop,” Tony says, turning his back and picking up the reactor framework he’d been working on.

“No,” Cap says, walking around to plant himself in Tony’s face again. “You can’t just lock yourself down here.”

Tony’s grip tightens on his tools. “Who says I’ve been down here? Maybe I was at that club on 4th and Broadway. Maybe I lost my wallet when I crashed Hugh Heffner’s party and had to go back for it."

Or maybe he locked himself in his lab and lost track of time. Cap frowns though. Always ready to give credit to the irresponsible-playboy side of Tony.

“Pepper wouldn’t want you-”

“Don’t talk to me about Pepper. I’m not getting romantic advice from a 1940’s virgin,” Tony snaps instantly, and Cap flushes. Score.

“But you’ll listen to your commander when he says you’re unfit for a fight.”

"Yeah, uh, still not your tin soldier, Capsicle."

“You can’t keep doing this, Stark. You’re on a team now, and-”

“And I’m handling it,” Tony says, throwing his soldering iron down on the workbench. Cap just stares at him. Even after 60 odd hours with no sleep, Tony can tell he's disappointed. Heaven forbid Tony be anything but perfect, anything but useful at all times. Cap takes a deep breath.

“You’re on a team and you’ve got people to pick up the slack. Don’t think we won’t bench you, if that’s-”

“You know, I don’t have to listen to this," Tony says. He storms out of his lab. He won’t be able to think anymore, anyways. He still misses the smell of Pepper’s perfume amid the grease and oil of his workshop, and here's Cap, poking the breakup in his face. Another month should do it though, right? Scent memories, they can't last that long.

“JARVIS, don’t let him out for half an hour,” Tony says, and hears the locks engage behind him as he heads for the elevator.

Six margaritas later at the club on 4th and Broadway, Tony grins as Natasha settles in next to him, wearing one of her ubiquitous little black dresses.

“Didn’ think this was your kind of party,” he says.

“You’re right. It doesn’t have quite the same kick as a flying alien leviathan,” she says with a shrug. “Pepper sent me. You’re going to drop the stock prices again.”

“Hey, I have been- no, I haven’ been doing. Anything,” he says, listing on his stool, elbow skidding on the sticky bar. “Cap’s fault. I was working.” He was. He needed something real to do with his hands, after not-Pepper handed over the forms.  

Tony tries to straighten up and Natasha lets out a breath. The club lights are bright, neon green and purple spotlights flashing around the place, blinding him. He can’t even see the dancers he’s supposed to be hitting on, which is why he’s drinking alone at the bar. He ignores the glittery brunette who smiles and settles in on the stool beside him. Swilling the green liquid in his glass, he takes a sip, and pulls a face.

“You’ve got better alcohol at home,” Natasha says. Tony blinks around at the glitter-lights-confusion for a second, and then he slips off his stool, with a slight stumble.

“Genius,” he says, and lets Natasha drag him home. He doesn’t even throw up in the taxi, because Tony Stark can hold his liquor. And Natasha would disembowel him.

“Traitor,” he whines, when she dumps him in his bed and locks his liquor cabinet. He falls asleep before the sound of her heels have finished clicking across the floor. Clearly, she sedated him. It’s the sort of sneaky thing she’d do.

 

“You know, this was pretty impressive the first time around,” Tony says, eyeing the portal into interdimensional space, the outer edges swirling with constellations of blue and purple clouds, the inside a strange, dull gray, with dark ripples pulsating across the surface. “But I’m kinda getting used to it. What, doesn’t anyone use spaceships?”

Natasha curses in his ear, every syllable crisp through the comm, and Tony drops towards her position by a theater, where about 20 of the shadow things surround her front. Her sting fizzles out uselessly, the electricity fading as it touches them. She’s putting precise holes in their heads with the gun in her other hand, but there are a lot of them. He diverts some power and repulsors the lot with one sweep of his arm, sending them sprawling to Natasha’s left.

“Annnd, strike,” Tony says.

Another group pops up behind them and sends a hail of dark spears his way, their edges trailing black energy. Tony sighs and dodges higher, but one of the spears still dings against his boot. The suit sputters, the HUD flickering on and off. The power cuts and Tony plummets, the ground rushing towards him.

“JARVIS!” he says.

A roar echoes, vibrating through his head, and a green arm wraps around him, yanking him out of the air and against a giant green chest.

“Hey there big guy,” Tony says. “Boy am I glad to see you.”

They crash to the ground. His screens flicker back online a few seconds later.

“Power at 30% capacity,” JARVIS says.

The Hulk grunts and drops Tony to take a swing at the swarming shadows.

“Ow,” Tony says, playfully, and blasts them back again before taking off and leaving the big guy to pound them into the concrete. He joins Cap on the ground, keeping the shadows at bay while Natasha places sensors around the portal so SHIELD can figure out how to deactivate it. Up close, the shadows are vaguely humanoid in shape, but like someone took a bad mold of a person, features barely there. They’re mostly just a dark center mass with that strange dark energy crackle-hissing at the edges.

Another spear grazes him five minutes later and Tony goes down like a sack of dead batteries. Cap shifts position to stand over him, star-spangled shield whirling.

“Power at 3%,” JARVIS says sixteen long seconds later, when the HUD flickers back. “Sir, perhaps it would be best if the other Avengers handled-”

“Save it, JARVIS,” Tony says, pushing himself to his feet.

“Iron Man, go cover Hawkeye,” Cap says. Like the archer can’t handle himself. He gives Tony a flat look when he doesn’t move, and Tony has the sneaking suspicion JARVIS broadcasted his last suggestion on the comm line. Tony bristles, but he’s not going to stand around while Cap looks at him like he’s dead weight.

He grits his teeth and takes off for Clint’s rooftop, isolated on the edge of the conflict. He picks off a total of three shadow things for the rest of the fight. SHIELD eventually figures out how to reverse the portal, Natasha sets it up, and all the shadows are sucked back into it like they’re suddenly magnetized to the thing.

He leaves Clint and sputters down to the ground with the last of his power. Natasha’s got a slice across her forehead, and she’s kneeling over Cap, who’s sprawled on the ground, his cowl half-torn off. He’s panting, blood pooling out from a nasty gash that looks like it goes through his chest, and Tony feels a wave of impotent rage. Sure, he’s seen Cap heal from worse, but it might not have happened at all if Cap hadn’t been covering Natasha alone while Tony sat uselessly on the sidelines.

Big man in a suit of armor, take that away and what are you?

The medics are there in thirty seconds to strap Cap to a board and whisk him off. Bruce walks up half-naked, Clint pulls up in a SHIELD van, and they follow the ambulance back to SHIELD.

Halfway there, Bruce lifts his head from where it was pressed against the side window, blinking back his exhausted stupor.

“What was that?”

“Clint’s brought a friend,” Natasha says, and the wordless conversation she and Clint have been having with their eyebrows suddenly makes sense when she lifts his quiver up. A pigeon head pokes out. Gray, green, purple feathered pigeon, nestled among Clint’s last two arrows, with one wing hanging limp and bloody. The bird coos again, quiet.

“Careful, Nat,” Clint says.

“Is this why we stole a van instead of letting someone else drive us back?” Bruce asks, wry.

“I thought hawks were supposed to eat vermin,” Tony says.

“They are,” Natasha says, and Clint scowls.

“No questioning my life decisions while I’m driving your asses back to base,” Clint says, glaring at them from the center mirror. 

“I’m sorry, what life decision? Are we stopping by the animal shelter before SHIELD?” Tony says, his own eyebrows arching. “Sorry to burst your bubble, Clint, but I’m pretty sure, A, everyone’s fled because of the alien invasion, and, B, they don’t take pigeons. Because they’re winged vermin and we have about a million of them in this city.”

Clint sticks his tongue out, which is pretty much par for the course with Hawkeye, and then they’re pulling up to the half-finished SHIELD headquarters. Clint slips the cover half-on his quiver and admonishes the bird to stay quiet before climbing out of the car. Tony laughs openly, but resolves to say nothing because he wants to see Fury’s reaction. A smile twitches on Bruce’s face too as they head into the tiled entryway.

They avoid the construction zone and head down the hall to the medical bay, which is fully finished in white and gray tile, blocked by three electronic access pads, and humming with machinery. Tony’s bad mood comes back as Cap comes into view, fingers tapping restlessly on a hospital bed. They’ve peeled his uniform back and wrapped him in gauze, and he already looks better, less pale, but still grimacing with pain. Probably because he got a hole punched through him. The medics glance over at the Avengers as the door hisses open, but keep their distance.

Cap’s lips curl up into a smile when he sees them.

“Fury not ready for the briefing yet?” he says.

“No,” Natasha says, folding into a chair beside him. Tony rests against the wall behind her, and watches as Clint steals a splint and gauze. Not very subtly, either, but the medics don’t challenge him. In fact, the medics are filing out into the lab next door, with wary, resentful glances at Clint and Natasha. And people say they don’t have superpowers.

“Well, you don’t have to stick around, they say I can head out in the next hour as long as I rest for the next week,” Cap says. No one moves.

“So-” Bruce says.

A muffled coo resonates from Clint’s quiver, and Cap’s gaze slips to Clint, his brow furrowing.

“What was that?”

“A pigeon,” Tony says. Cap rolls his eyes at him.

The pigeon coos again, and Clint brings his quiver over to one of the sterilized med tables, slips a hand inside and tips the bird out, careful not to jostle its wing.

“Wait, you actually brought a pigeon into SHIELD medical?” Aw. Cap actually sounds confused.

“Got more right than me to be here, Steve. His wing’s broken,” Clint says, as he splints the limb with deft fingers. Bruce drifts over to help.

“Okay,” Cap says, with a bemused smile. Tony rolls his eyes.

 

Fury ignores the fact that they show up to debrief an hour late when Cap’s released, swathed in bandages and moving gingerly. He even ignores the pigeon, even when Clint pulls it out onto his lap and starts stroking it.

“That was the third attack in the last month,” he says. “We need a better response, people.”

“Uh, we took out the aliens, what more do you want, flowers?” Tony says.

“Coulson,” Fury says, and Coulson steps forward to outline where they went wrong, property damage and lack of “sensible” backup plans mostly, but Tony’s mind’s already drifting, because three in the last month is a lot. He slips his phone out and hacks SHIELD’s mainframe, trying to find any data they collected while deactivating the portal. While that’s processing, he loads up Angry Birds.

Eventually Fury leaves. Coulson hovers for a moment, looking at Clint.

“His name’s Eric,” Clint says, stroking the purple feathers at the bird’s neck.

Coulson nods.

“Good work,” he says, and leaves.

“Whoo, let’s go,” Tony says, continuing to ignore the look Cap’s giving him as he tucks his phone back into his pocket. Or- Cap does look pale, fingers tapping, face hollow like when he’s hungry enough to eat half the fridge and then ferret out all the Cheetos Tony hid around the tower. Not cool.

“Pizza’s on me, for everyone except the pigeon,” Tony says.

“Fuck you, Stark,” Clint says, tucking the bird back into his quiver, but he eats half of Tony’s pepperoni pizza while Cap, slouched over to avoid putting pressure on his side, doodles old cartoon characters on the napkins in between bites of cheese. Bruce sleepily builds a tower of creamers that Natasha flicks over when he’s staring out the window, and looks adorably surprised when he notices.

 

Tony steps in front of Clint when he tries to get into the tower.

“Ah ah,” he says. Clint tries to spin-sidestep him, but joke’s on Clint, because he taught Tony that move last week. Tony steps with him, and it devolves into the hallway dance where no one can get through. Finally, Clint just stops and stares at him. Natasha’s hiding a smile in the background. She and Bruce look like a particularly judgmental posse. Cap looks like he’s watching a tennis match.

“You’re serious here, with the bird. The pigeon thing,” Tony says.

“Yep,” Clint says.

“I don’t have to let you in,” Tony says, eyeing the archer’s quiver, where the bird’s head is poking out.  

“True. You could stand here all day,” Clint says, crossing his arms with a smirk.

Fifteen seconds later, Tony’s hot and itchy, he’s dying to jot down some notes, and he needs coffee. Touché.

“Really, I should object, but I guess I set a precedent when I let you in,” Tony says, abandoning the stand-off in favor of the coolness of his lab.

“Don’t worry,” he hears Clint tell Cap when he’s halfway down the stairs. “He won’t make half as much mess as Stark.”

“Hey!” he says. Bruce laughs.

Tony slips down to his workshop and starts fixing the suit. And yes, it needs to be fixed, because Tony Stark is not designed to spend half a battle in his city twiddling his toes.

“JARVIS, run the data from the portals, look for patterns,” he says. SHIELD’s already doing it, but anything they can do, he can do faster. When JARVIS interrupts with the results four hours later- attack paths, portal locations, portal frequency- he skips dinner.

Also maybe breakfast. Maybe more than one breakfast, because Cap really Does Not Look Happy when Tony looks up from the reactor core. In fact, he’s Not Looking Happy so hard that there’s really only one reaction.

“What crawled up your ass and died, Cap?”

Cap’s nostrils flare, and his hand tightens.

“Tony, I thought we got this sorted. Especially after last mission. You need to sleep.”

“Just try it,” Tony says, curling over his workbench. “And what do you mean ‘after last mission?’”

“Who knows.” Cap shrugs, one of those mean little shrugs, tense and contained. “Maybe if you’d been on your toes, they wouldn’t have been able to knock you out of commission so quick.”

“Uh-huh. Does that apply to you too, Cap?” Tony says, abandoning his tools, the better to glare him out of his lab. “Maybe if you ate your veggies and took long walks on the beach you wouldn’t have been gutted by an alien? That’s not how this works. You do everything right, your whole life, and you still go down from some missile some day. Aliens don’t give a damn whether you eat your Wheaties. You’ve got to be prepared.”

“Prepared,” Cap says, looking pointedly at Tony’s stained clothing, his ragged hair, the burn on one of his fingers.

“Can’t cut the wire without wire cutters,” Tony says, raising his chin. 

Cap blinks. He glances down at Tony’s workbench. “Is that what you’re doing? Making wire cutters?”

“I- yeah,” Tony says, wanting to disagree on principle, but he did just say that seven seconds ago.

“Okay,” Cap says, and fixes Tony with big, blue eyes. “But you can’t do anything if you blow yourself up because you’re too tired to follow safety protocols, so at least think about coming up for air?”

Tony ignores this in favor of soldering the reactor casing.

“Just five minutes. Besides, Clint let Eric have run of the place while you’re down here. He built a nest on the TV.”

“The one in the living room?”

“The one in the living room.”

“Son of a bitch,” Tony says, and stomps dramatically upstairs. Cap stands by, solid and silent, while Tony gestures at the pigeon poop on the screen and yells at Clint, who might be able to hear him. Maybe.

“I’ll get the cleaning fluid, you wait here,” Cap says, pushing Tony towards the couch, and walking off. Huh. Tony sprawls out with an air of entitled ease. Of course Captain America’s fetching his cleaning supplies to get pigeon poop off his TV. He’s Tony Stark.

He wakes up several hours later, stretched out flat on the couch with one of Bruce’s fluffy blankets thrown over him. Nice of Bruce. Tony should install a tea-dispenser down in that lab of his. Or maybe he’ll just brew a bunch of that tea he’s always drinking and waft it outside his door. Gotta be sneaky, getting him out of his lab sometimes.

 

On Thursday, Tony emerges from his lab to find Natasha and Coulson in aprons, flour in every corner of the room, and Clint, cooing over his pigeon as he feeds him blueberries.

“His favorite,” Coulson says.

The flour splotches in Coulson’s hair look like polka dots. Natasha looks half-blonde. Clint, as usual, looks deranged. Why is Coulson even here? These cozy, domestic international super spies have too many secrets for their own good. Tony abandons his plans for coffee and flees to bed.

He wakes up the next morning to Eric pecking at his bedspreads, blueberries rolling across the covers as Tony stirs. This sends the pigeon into a frenzy, one gray wing beating the air as he hops from Tony’s knee to Tony’s arm.

“Get your damn pigeon out of my face!” Tony says, and hears Clint’s muffled laugh from somewhere. The ceiling? There’s a few blueberries still left on his floor from what was probably the world’s most irresistible treasure trail for hellbirds.

“Good exercise for him, getting up on the bed,” Clint says, when Tony corners him in the kitchen later. Which isn’t hard, because Coulson made waffles, and you can smell them through the whole house. Clint’s eyes are red and bloodshot, but he smirks up at Tony as Eric pecks waffle crumbs off his palm. There’s still flour on top of the microwave.

“This is my tower. My sleep is more important than your fail-mascot’s calisthenics.”

“Uh-huh,” Clint says.

He’s eating with one hand, tearing off pieces of waffle for the pigeon with the other. Tony goes for the coffee. He groans at the clock, 8 AM, really, and glares back at the pigeon, which meets his stare with a beady eye, glossy purple and green neck-feathers flickering in the light. Hmm, Clint’s armor could do with some upgrades, some new colors…

Before Tony can lose his staring contest with the pigeon on the table of his $20,000 kitchen, Clint sweeps Eric under his arm and abandons the room, snagging the plate of waffles on his way.

“Hey!” Tony says, making a grab, but Clint puts on a burst of speed and Tony’s flailing just knocks the syrup onto the floor, spilling to mix with the flour still caught under the counters. Cap slips into the room after Clint, raising an eyebrow.

“Clint’s being mean,” Tony says.

“Really,” Cap says.

“Those were Coulson-waffles.”

“I’ll alert the officers,” Cap says, straight-faced, going to the fridge, the sunlight catching his blond hair and making it gleam all American-hero-like. Sheesh. Tony doesn’t have enough caffeine for this. He sips his coffee and watches the syrup crawl across the floor, sticky trails pushing out along the lines of the tile. He decides not to deal with it and leaves before Cap finishes making the eggs.

The next call comes a week and a half later. 

Chapter Text

Sunlight’s streaming through the kitchen window. Natasha’s feeding Cheerios to the pigeon while Clint smirks around his glass of orange juice and Tony doesn’t care because sun and stuff and he’s still on his first cup of coffee.

“Bet we could get him to jump through a hoop,” Clint’s saying when Cap slides into the kitchen at full speed, actually crashing into the cupboards. He’s in socks and half his Captain America uniform. Cap picks himself up off the slippery tile floor with an efficiency of movement that has Tony gulping down the rest of his precious coffee, ignoring the throat-scalding.

“Trouble. More of those dark creatures from last week, a lot more,” Cap says, as their SHIELD communicators start to go off, and Natasha’s the first one out the door in a series of fluid movements, actually vaulting the table, but everyone else is close behind.

Tony hesitates when he reaches his lab. The shadow things. He’s upgraded the suit, the wiring, but. He turns and grabs the experimental reactor core he’s been tinkering with off of his workbench, bends a few wires into place, and swaps it for the one in his chest with practiced fingers as he slips his earpiece in.

“Iron Man?” Clint says.

“Go, I’ll meet you there,” Tony says, and starts across his workshop. Metal wraps around him to the sound of the quinjet taking off with the others. Thirty seconds later the helmet clamps down and his HUD flickers to life.

“Power at 300% capacity,” JARVIS says, just a hint of well-satisfied cat creeping in. Tony grins. No time for diagnostics, that’ll have to do.

“Think I’ve been rubbing off on you, JARVIS,” he says as he arches off into the sky after the others.

The aliens are near some little park this time. JARVIS adds the latest data to the portal pattern.

“Yep. They’re definitely spiraling in towards something,” Tony says.

Civilians are still evacuating, some of them screaming, some of them white-lipped with cellphones out as they run. Spears hiss through the air and Tony drops in front of a gawking man, frozen like a particularly unflattering statue, and fires his repulsor. He’s just trying to knock the spear aside, but to his delight, the thing disintegrates into black dust, whipping away in the wind.

“JARVIS?”

“The energies have opposite signatures. With the boost of power from the prototype arc reactor, our energy cancels theirs.”

Tony loves being right.

He takes off again, and sees what Cap meant by “a lot more.” The ground looks like a swarm of ants on a sandwich. Tony knocks off a few shadows that are trying to climb the building Clint’s perched on, and drops down beside Natasha and Cap. They’re aiming for the portal again as the Hulk smashes a path through in front, the spears snapping harmlessly off his green skin. Unfortunately the shadow things look better prepared too, because they’re slashing at them with what looks like dark scimitars, and-

“Oh my god, is that a catapult?”

Natasha goes emphatically silent as she dodges a scimitar, breath controlled and eyes flicking over the structure that appeared out of the portal in between enemy waves. 

“Yes,” Cap says and clocks his shield into a shadow’s face, knocking scimitars loose on the backswing. “Hawkeye?”

“Clint, catapult at my 10-o’-clock, different weak points than usual, aim for the top joints, not the bottom,” Natasha says.

“Than usual? Have you shot at catapults before?” Tony says.

The structure in the distance teeters, then collapses.

“Of course,” Clint says, in his ear, offended. Two more catapults appear, and fall to his arrows. “These ones are weird though.”

“Iron Man, cover him, he’s drawing fire,” Cap says, and sure enough, a whole squadron of shadow things have peeled off from the group and are scaling the hotel Clint’s perched on, hurling spears. “Hulk, smash!” Cap says, gesturing at the catapults.

Clint ducks a spear, and one of the catapults is halfway to launching before he cuts the second joint, sending the black missile hurtling into the shadows’ own ranks instead. Then Tony’s there, spears glancing off him and into the no-longer-fancy hotel. His energy dips by 10%, but that’s manageable, and he repulsors the things straight off the building.

The Hulk roars, and Tony turns to see the big guy break free of the swarm and leap the crowd to smash another couple of catapults into submission, black energy sparking off his chest. The shadows’ attention turns back to the Hulk and Tony abandons Clint.

“Smashing time, JARVIS,” he says gleefully, repulsoring a bit of sidewalk open in the darkness surrounding the Hulk and dropping to the ground with a clunk. He can’t really fight back to back with the Hulk like he can with the others, but he covers the big guy’s weak spots and relies on JARVIS to catch the shadows sneaking up on himself.

He doesn’t see the one that leaps onto the Hulk’s back until the shadow’s stabbing something into Hulk’s neck and pushing down. The Hulk roars and swats the shadow off like a mosquito, but he stumbles, and blood trails down the Hulk’s back, surreal and strange.

“They broke the skin, how did they even do that,” Tony says, and then he’s there, right within Hulk’s smashing radius, which Coulson might give him crap about, but really, it’s the safest place on the battlefield. He blows another chunk of power and spreads his next blast wide. The shadows stumble back into a flower shop, shorting out the electricity and heat lamps there in showers of sparks. He turns back to the Hulk. But in the confusion, a catapult's managed to get a shot off.

“Crap,” Tony says, because he might be able to fry the spears, but this ball of energy is bigger than him. He drops to the ground and the ball hits the Hulk instead, the backlash of the impact scattering more of the shadows. Tony rolls over, pushes back onto his feet, and the Hulk is half his usual size. And shrinking, green fading out.

“Oh crap.” Tony snags his teammate into the air, spinning to protect the now-vulnerable man and also because it’s really hard to balance when someone keeps changing weight. A spear sticks in one of his joints, but it fizzles out. He dodges over the waves of shadow warriors towards the edge of the conflict.

“Cap, Hulk is Bruce again, getting him out,” Tony says, heart racing too fast as he rolls to avoid one of the catapult shots. It crashes into the definitely-no-longer-fancy hotel in front of him instead. He’s pretty sure the building catches on fire behind him. “We have to shut the portal down NOW Cap, they took out our heavy-hitter, they planned this.”

“Working on it. SHIELD’ll have the data soon. Just get him out of range.”

“Safe spot, JARVIS?”

He flies past two Starbucks on his way, they really are everywhere. He puts Bruce on a bench in a tiny park five miles out. He’s breathing fine, not bleeding anywhere besides his neck, vitals stable, but Tony is loath to leave him there unprotected. He radios the location in to SHIELD and hovers. Natasha swears at the other end of his comm, harsh Russian, a sharp inhale of breath signaling injury.

“Sorry, Bruce,” Tony says and takes off back the way he came, heart still pounding. He feels better about leaving his friend behind when he sees SHIELD agents already hurrying around the corner.

Cap and Natasha are almost at the portal. Tony just makes sure they get there more or less in one piece. It’s fine until Natasha has to stop fighting to wire the sensors. His suit actually whines with the power required to cover her. Almost likes it’s overloading. Huh.

Natasha slaps the last bit of technology in place and flips a switch. Again, all the shadows freeze, an eerie silence settling, before being pulled back toward the portal. Tony tries to leap aside, but stumbles, knocked back by the tide until a blue-gloved hand yanks him to the side.

“Thanks, Cap,” Tony manages, sinking to his knees. Wow, his chest really does feel hot. He curls over, panting.

“Tony?”

“Sir, the reactor is running at twice the recommended speed,” JARVIS says. Oops.

“Overloading, the reactor’s overloading,” Tony says, tapping his chest piece and staring up at Cap hovering over him like a worried parent, Natasha’s blank face, perfectly smooth under stress. “Replacement- on workbench.” He blacks out to the sound of Clint swearing at him.

 

He wakes up on the floor of his lab, cement cold on the lower half of his body. He’s slumped against his workbench, the coppery taste of blood in his mouth. Cap’s crouched in front of him, hand hovering over his chest, Natasha to his left.

“Security breach,” Tony breathes, and Cap quirks a strained smile.

“JARVIS had all the doors open,” Natasha says.

Clint dashes down the stairs and skids to a stop with one hand on Natasha’s shoulder, eyes sharp on Tony. Satisfied, he leans back against the wall, crossing his ankles. “They didn’t even warn me, just jumped out and left me to park the quinjet alone. Can you believe it?”

“No. You should always tip your valet,” Tony says, to Natasha. “If you don’t, he’s just gonna take off cackling into the sunset one day.”

“What happened, Tony? You should have mentioned one of them damaged the reactor,” Cap says.

“Nothing, it’s fine now.”

“JARVIS?” Natasha says.

“Sir was trying out a prototype reactor. It malfunctioned, and the safety failed.”

The room shifts from relieved to incredulous faster than Tony could get arrested if he ever set foot in Bolivia again.

“Thanks for nothing, JARVIS,” Tony says, watching Cap’s lips thin.

“Tony, tell me you didn’t wear untested tech into battle.”

“Uh…”

Natasha plucks the prototype reactor from the floor.

“There are two cores in this one,” she says, and there are, two inverted triangles of his beautiful element overlapping each other, almost like an hourglass, but not quite touching. Enough to create a feedback loop that kept the energy going when one half was cut. Which, that part had totally worked.

“Two heads are better than one,” Tony says sagely, a bit of blood bubbling up from his lips, and Clint raises an eyebrow at him, like, really, that’s what you’re going with here? Cap looks coldly, quietly furious, like he’d dress him down right now if he wasn’t injured. Also, kind of pale and shaky.

 “You guys okay?” Tony says.

“Yes, we’re fine. You can’t just. Do things like that, Tony,” Cap says.

“Yes, yes, could have gotten myself killed,” he says, waving a hand. He accidentally hits himself in the face and groans.

“Medical. Now,” Cap says.

 

 “Bruceeee, Brucey my boy, how’s it hanging?” Tony says, strolling into medical ahead of his teammates, aka, earth’s most annoying shepherds.

“It’s uh, hanging,” Bruce says. His eyes are dark and tired as he leans back in the bed, but otherwise he looks fine. “You?”

“Minor mechanical malfunction.”

“Stark nearly fried his heart with untested tech,” Clint says. “We’re mad at him.” He sounds almost cheerful as Cap hustles Tony into a bed. Bruce gives Tony a look, all furrowed brow and confused eyes.

“Hey, I’d just like to point out that everything worked out and we defeated the aliens, because once again, no one seems particularly excited about that.”

“Whoops. Forgot the party hats,” Natasha says. Thankfully, everyone has to step away while the doctors flutter over him, running cardiac tests.

“Hey, sorry I had to take off, Bruce,” Tony says. “Aliens have no sense of timing. They figure out what they injected you with?”

“No,” Bruce says, brow furrowing. “They said it’s inert. It shouldn’t have done anything at all.” Bruce looks half-fascinated, half-longing.

Tony resolves to bring Bruce to that new Indian restaurant on 21st street the next time he tries to disappear into his lab. Maybe poke him a few times with a fork. Remind him that he doesn’t need mysterious alien injections to keep himself under control because hey, they’re probably bad news, but that he should totally share any secret samples he’s taken with a fellow mad scientist.

 

Debrief is brutal.

“Hey, I had to try it out anyways. Totally interesting results, too. We saved the day, I learned a valuable engineering lesson, everyone’s happy,” Tony says.

Coulson stares at him. It’s his ‘I’m going to taser you if you don’t come up with a better excuse for the reports’ face.

“Sometimes you gotta play the game,” Tony says, stretching with a shrug.

The silence after that is endless.

 “This organization doesn’t consider near-fatalities interesting, they consider them two stacks of paperwork,” Coulson says, laying two piles of SHIELD forms in front of Tony. He places a pen on top with a precise click. Tony sighs.

“This is harassment. You’re not making Bruce or Cap fill out any of this stuff, and they were in medical.”

More silence. Someone snorts.

“Look, there was no way I was going to sit on the sidelines again. It’s weird enough that Clint hangs out with pigeons, but if I start doing it, it’ll become a trend. Like owling, or planking, but worse. And it was more likely they’d have killed me without the tech than I’d have died from the tech, so. Logic’s actually on my side here.”

Coulson just looks at him.

“Because last time your arc reactor almost died after coming into contact with the energy,” Natasha says.

“Thank you, yes,” Tony says, slumping in dramatic relief, even though his neck prickles with the vulnerability that apparently everyone here understands a dead reactor means one dead Tony Stark.

“And you couldn’t have tested the reactor before battle, why?” Cap says.

“It’s not like the aliens gave me a timetable. I was busy making sure the pigeon wasn’t nesting in the fabrication units.”

“Gonna have to cut in again with a fuck you, Stark, you think Eric wants your death on his conscience?” Clint says, with a faint smirk, but his eyes are dead. Cap narrows his eyes at Tony.

They move onto other issues, like why the shadow aliens keep attacking, but Cap spends the rest of the meeting just a line of stiff shoulders, not even looking Tony’s way.  

 

Cap comes down to the workshop the next day though, uses his access code while Tony’s beating the dents out of the suit’s side plate. His shoulders are still set, his arms crossed and immoveable, and he just stands there, holding something, who cares, Tony already got his lecture yesterday he doesn’t have time for this.

“What?” he snaps.

“You need to eat,” Cap says, and, okay, he brought a bowl of tomato soup down to his workshop. Tony can smell it now, the scent curling around the oil and grease in the air. It’s actually steaming. Tony’s life is suddenly a soup commercial. Except Cap’s not smiling wholesomely for the camera, he’s frowning faintly, eyes flicking over Tony’s tech. Is he spying on him?

“No,” Tony says, but Cap refuses to move, keeps politely asking JARVIS to turn the music down, and Tony caves just to get him to leave him alone. The soup’s good, at least.

“You can’t pull stunts like that,” Cap says, leaning forward in his chair across from Tony.

“Uh, yes I can,” Tony says, slurping the rest of his soup as obnoxiously as possible, hoping to irritate Cap so he’ll stop looking at him like Tony kicked the pigeon or something. It doesn’t work.

 “Okay, you can, but you shouldn’t. You could’ve just explained, or taken your usual suit-”

“Yeah, and gotten knocked out in round one, or shoved to backup, no thanks,” Tony says, dropping the spoon back into the empty soup bowl with a clatter. He shoves the thing on top of a pile of half-completed paperwork on his desk.

“You had four teammates backing you up. We could’ve handled it.”

Tony snorts. “Fighting aliens is never going to be safe, Cap. Unless you want me out of every fight.”

“This is different,” Cap says, blue eyes drilling into his, but his voice still calm. Like they’re having a discussion. Like they discuss things, now. “You took an unnecessary risk.”

“You worry too much,” Tony says, offhand.

“And you are too damn flippant with your own life. You’re not an acceptable loss, Tony,” Cap says, jaw tight.

“I didn’t say that.”

“Didn’t you?” Cap says, and leaves.

And that, Tony thinks, is that.

Except Cap’s back the next day. And the next, badgering him with soup, so. That’s a thing that’s happening. Tony tries to pretend it's not, but ignoring 200 pounds of righteous super soldier is easier said than done. Especially when he keeps asking questions about Tony’s work. And actually listens, like he’s trying to put the pieces of science together in his head, like a jigsaw puzzle he’s missing 300 pieces to. After two more trips, Tony stops locking him out for half an hour before letting him in, because the soup’s better when it’s warm.

Thursday night, Tony falls flat on his bed, stuffed from visiting the Indian place with Bruce, and pulls up a tech magazine on his tablet. He snorts at some of the robotics “innovations,” and briefly attempts to reverse-engineer a water-powered jetpack before flipping to the fluff pieces. There’s an interesting article about a new app game. Perfect.

Later that night, while Clint’s trying to introduce Cap to Guitar Hero, Tony steals Clint’s phone. Natasha watches him, stretched out on the couch after getting back from some mission in Uruguay, but doesn’t say a word.

This time, SHIELD manages to predict where and when the next portal will be. With a possible error of 5 hours either way. Tony sprawls out on a bench in downtown and pops his visor to wait. Clint claims the top of the Macy’s building. Cap leans against a stone wall. Natasha makes the measly cover of the park tree behind them work with ease. The city looks strange, evacuated and empty at lunchtime. Tony should take pictures, submit them as surrealist art.

Half an hour in, Clint swears over the comms. And then again. In fact, Clint starts swearing almost every ten seconds. Tony smirks.

“Hawkeye, anything to report?” Cap says.

“Negative Captain,” Clint says, his voice low and frustrated. 

Cap scans the air where the portal’s supposed to pop up, and then his teammates. Tony keeps smirking. Cap sighs.

“Iron Man, anything to report?”

“Nope,” Tony says, popping the p. He closes his eyes and savors the thought of Clint, who, on long stakeouts where his eyes aren’t really needed, likes to play games on his phone. His phone, recently wiped of all other games and installed with Flappy Bird. Tony couldn’t have planned today better.

“Oh, come on!” Clint says.

“Seriously. What did you do?” Cap says, and Tony looks up. He’s straight-faced, but it looks like he’s fighting a smile, which makes no sense because he’s a killjoy. “Wait. Is this because of the waffles?”

Clint growls over the comms. 

“Nah, this is because he keeps putting the cereal box back when it’s empty. The waffles I’ll deal with later. Did you know we’re going through Cheerios twice as fast since he adopted the hellbird?”

“Eric is a valued member of our team, providing stress relief and a soothing presence,” Natasha says. She’s propped up against the base of a tree, fingers carding through the grass. “Stark put something on Clint’s phone last night.”

Cap’s smile drops. “Tony, if you put another virus on SHIELD tech Coulson is going to-”

“Chill, Cap, I’m insulted you’d think that, really, I downloaded a game for him,” Tony says, waving a hand. “One of my brilliant engineers developed it on his lunch breaks. Flappy Bird. Lots of fun. You tap the screen, a little yellow bird flaps his wings, you fly him through an obstacle course. Simple.”

“Sweet Jesus of Suburbia,” Clint says.

“Right,” Cap says, giving Tony a long, dry look. “Fun.” But he turns back to watching thin air with a slight smile on his face.

An hour later, the portal pops open, dark purple light and shimmering gray spiraling out- and immediately fading away again, SHIELD’s gear kicking in and reversing the process before it can complete. Exactly like the engineers predicted. No problems whatsoever.

“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Tony says, levering himself up off the bench.

“Hawkeye, meet us down at ground level,” Cap says.

They eat anticlimactic pizza at their favorite pizza place, watching the city trickle back to life as people come streaming back. Clint keeps poking at his phone, a steady rhythm, as his face drifts towards existential despair.  

“What’s got your beak in a twist?” Tony says, watching as Clint dies for the hundredth time. And starts a new game. And dies five seconds later. And starts a new game.

“Damn bird won’t go through the damn poles,” he says, holding his phone further away and squinting at the screen. 

Tony snickers, and Clint looks up, eyes narrowing. Tony’s snicker morphs into a full-on body laugh.

“You, oh, you are going to regret this,” Clint says, placing the phone back on the table.

“What’s so bad about this game?” Bruce says, reaching for the phone. Natasha intercepts him, slipping the phone into her belt.

Tony puts his pizza down to bat Cap’s hand away from stealing another of his fries.

“Hey, c’mon, I may not have your super-metabolism but I have to maintain my leanly muscled figure somehow.”

Cap just grins at him, the traitor. Clint grabs a handful of fries while he’s distracted.

“What was your high score, 3?” Tony asks him.

“Seven,” Clint mutters, eating his fries one by one, staring Tony down the whole time.  

               

On Sunday, a cacophony of alarms wakes Tony from a deep slumber. He flails out of bed, hears a crunch, and then staggers up and out of his tangle of sheets. There’s a weird alarm clock on the floor at the foot of his bed, an old-fashioned ringing metal one. He blinks at it.

“JARVIS? Little help here?”

“Good morning, sir. Regrettably, battery-powered alarms can only be turned off by hand.”

Tony manages to get the thing to stop clattering, but the noise doesn’t end.

By the time he’s found the one in his dresser and the one taped to the ceiling of his closet, he’s a frazzled mess of brown bedhead and woken-dragon rage. He tries to stumble back to bed, but steps on something and ends up flat on his ass instead, a plastic egg rolling away from him across the floor. He pulls back the sheets next to him, and sure enough the crunch he heard was more plastic eggs, smashed open, a rotten smell coming from them. Tony laughs.

“Sulfur in fake eggs so they smell like rotten eggs. Is that clever or lazy?”

He stands and stretches, ambling towards his door, resolving to make someone else deal with the smell later. There’s a banner stretched across the door, reading, “Happy Easter, Stark!” in beautiful pastel colors.

“It’s not even Easter,” Tony mutters. “Wait, is it? No, don’t answer that. JARVIS- make a note. We’re redesigning Clint’s armor tomorrow,” he says, and heads for the kitchen.

There are more plastic eggs scattered along the way, some half-hidden, like on the ceiling fan blades, some just tucked in the corner of the hall. Natasha’s at the breakfast table, picking chocolate m&ms out of a red plastic egg. Cap’s making scrambled eggs. Tony tries to steal one of Cap’s mini chocolate eggs off the counter but Cap raps Tony’s hand with the spatula like he’s five. Bruce slips in looking baffled, nibbling on a dark chocolate bunny.

“This is just blatantly unfair,” Tony says through a mouthful of Cap’s eggs and toast when Clint shows up and starts loading his plate. Everyone ignores him until breakfast is gone, which, okay, Tony can get that. He keeps up a steady whine, but he gets it. Anyways, he can barely hear himself over the sudden rainstorm, so. Bruce breaks off a chocolate bunny ear and holds it out, eventually, lips twitching. Tony accepts it graciously, as a king would his due. Cap lets out a muffled choking noise.

“How many eggs did you hide?” Natasha asks, ignoring the whole spectacle.

“Like, 10. Or maybe 100,” Clint says. “Thought we could do a training thing. Whoever loses has to explain all of this to Coulson as a team-bonding exercise. And do all the PR runs for the next week.” Natasha nods and goes to put her plate away. “Whoever wins gets bragging rights.”

“Question. By ‘this,’ do you mean the ridiculous prank war that you’re going to lose, or just whatever strange impulse in your tiny little brain convinced you to become the Easter bunny?” Tony says.

“Both. Duh.”

“How lucky for you that you hid them,” Bruce says.

“I’d have won anyways. Hawkeye,” Clint says, raising two fingers to do the watching-you gesture. “Come on, guys. If we don’t find them we’ll still be pulling them out of drawers in mid-August. And Natasha already has a head start, she slipped out while you guys were busy slandering.”

Chapter Text

“16!” Tony says, whizzing by Bruce to snatch an egg off the window ledge behind him. Bruce emerges with another from the back of the home entertainment system, dust balls in his hair.

“18,” he says.

“JARVIS, how many eggs does Oh Captain our Captain have?”

“26, sir.”

“This game is ridiculous. Child’s play, quite literally, far beneath me,” Tony says.

Cap ambles around the corner, grinning as he leans up to snag an egg off the ceiling fan, Easter basket perched jauntily on one arm.

“Having trouble keeping up, Stark?”

“You wish,” Tony says, skidding across the wood floor to the top of the stairs and grabbing at an egg there. A crack of thunder breaks the air, something thudding to the ground outside. The house shakes, and, off-balance, Tony slips into empty space.

Cap tackles him to the floor before he can take a header down the staircase, arms wrapping firm around him, one hand cushioning his head. Plastic eggs fly everywhere, rattling down the staircase, raining down on them.

“Ow,” Tony says, trying to squirm away at the same time as Cap jerks back, which just tangles their legs together. Tony freezes, suddenly aware of every inch where they’re pressed together, warm and solid. Cap’s hand is still cradling his head. He can feel his breath on his neck.

“Sorry,” Cap says, blushing as he finally manages to disentangle himself. “You okay?”

Tony nods, winded on the floor as a speckled green plastic egg rolls by his head. Cap holds out a hand but Tony just pushes himself up off the ground, scrambling back.

“Friend Avengers!” Thor booms, emerging at the bottom of the stairs. “I have come to visit on this joyous occasion!”

“Fixed the bifrost?” Cap says, clearing his throat. The tips of his ears are still pink.

“Aye, and I have been given leave to stay here among my SHIELD brothers until we divine the cause of the portals between the worlds,” Thor says, coming up the stairs, cape swishing behind him.

“Awesome, hey Thor,” Clint says, coming around a corner. “By the way, Natasha won, she’s got like, 40 eggs already. You guys are slow.”

“You’re predictable,” Natasha says, handing Thor a pink egg with a handful of m&ms in it. Thor plucks one out and makes a pleased noise.

“Thank you, fair Widow.”

“Come on, briefing in the kitchen. Thor, you’re going to tell us everything you know about those portals,” Cap says, shoving a bunch of eggs back into his basket and leading the way to to the kitchen. They all squash around the breakfast table. Bruce’s lost the dust bunnies, but now has bits of Easter grass in his hair from Tony’s basket. Natasha brushes them out when Bruce isn’t looking.

“These shadowlings are a strange race,” Thor says when they’re all settled and Tony’s flicking pink nerds under the table at Clint. “One we have not encountered before. Heimdall believes they come from the space between worlds.”

Cap looks contemplative. Bruce meets Tony’s eyes, his mouth quirking up in an acknowledgment of late-night sci-fi reruns.

“Right, and I’m sure that’s impressive, but what does that even mean, ‘the space between worlds?’” Tony says, stealing another of Cap’s eggs and tipping the rest of the nerds into his mouth. Cap continues to ignore him.

“Yggdrasil connects all the nine realms, yet little is known about the tree itself. Heimdall believes spaces may yet exist within its limbs that are not quite realm, not quite void. Such creatures may hail from there,” Thor says.   

“Do you know anything else about them?” Natasha says.

“No, or we would have intervened sooner.”

“I wish, just once, we actually knew what was going on. I used to have a job, y’know, where they told me what to do, and I did it,” Clint says.

“No, you didn’t,” Natasha says, blinking. Clint shrugs.

“If wishes were fishes,” Bruce says.

“There is a place of myth where wishes are wound into the fabric of reality. No tales tell of them becoming fish, but I suppose such a thing would be possible,” Thor says, propping his head up on his elbow. “Though it would be a foolish use of belief-magic, when one could wish for a lake of ambrosia or an armory of the sharpest swords in all the realms.”

“Wishing aside, Thor’s theory is better than any we’ve got. Thor, any idea why this is happening now?” Cap says, rubbing his mouth to hide a frown.

“The Tesseract may open portals between realms which have never touched. While here, it may have forged a new connection to these spaces.”

“Loki,” Clint says.

“I doubt it was my brother’s intent to summon such creatures,” Thor says, straightening.

“Why not?” Clint says, hands clenching and unclenching under the table. “He summoned plenty of others. He wasn’t exactly worried about the means to an end. I’d say this is right up his alley.”

Thor’s hand rests on his hammer. “Loki is under watch in Asgard.”

“Guys, it doesn’t matter,” Cap says, standing. “Whoever started it, the portals are there now, and we have to shut them down.” He glances between Thor and Clint. Clint drops his eyes. “Any ideas on your end, Thor?”

“No, but it is encouraging that you have managed to track the portals’ movements,” he says.

“SHIELD estimates we have another week before the next incident. Probably,” Bruce says.

“Then I shall visit Jane, and be back by nightfall for the feast of Easter. There are mead and stories to be shared, and I would have the company of my fellow-warriors before battle.”

“What feast of Easter?” Tony says, without processing, half-engaged in designing a nerd gun in his head, half-stuck on Cap’s command voice. Clint gives him a Look. Surprisingly, Cap does too. “Oh, right, the Easter feast! How could I forget. Party starts at 8, yeah?”

               

Mead is awesome.

“Mead is aweeeeesome,” Tony tells Steve’s elbow. Which is the only part of Steve that he can see, since Tony’s slumped into the corner of the couch. Clint is tapping determinedly at his phone, fortified by liquid confidence, head propped up on his elbow, barely brushing Natasha’s arm as she and Thor swap war stories on the other couch. Tony kind of wants to see him fail, but he doesn’t want to move. Bruce is collecting solo cups together from their last drinking game before more tip over onto the carpet. Tony would tell him not to bother, but he looks like a happy bee, buzzing around in intricate, busy circles.

Steve glances down at him, and he just looks so. Good. He’s leaning against the wall, just outside of the group, but he’s smiling like he belongs, and.

“Steeeeve,” Tony says.

“What, no ‘Cap’ today?” Steve says, pushing away from the wall.

“No. You have confetti in your hair,” Tony says. And he does. This seems like an important distinction. Steve runs his hands through his hair with a rueful smile.

“You should smile more,” Tony says.

“What?” Steve says.

“Or maybe it’s just me. You’re always scowling at me. Like a pirate. Except not.”

“I’m not- I don’t scowl,” Steve says, and he’s smiling again. That’s good. “You’re drunk, Tony.”

“Duh.”

“I don’t scowl at you all the time, I just think sometimes you take stupid risks. You know that. You don’t seem to care.” His blue eyes look soft and sincere. Like basically everything about him. Except his abs. Which are like. Diamond-titanium.

“Hmm,” Tony mulls that over, fingers rolling out a rhythm on the couch. “Nope, you hate me, it’s cool. Don’t scowl too much, it’ll stick that way.”

“Tony, I don’t-” Steve says, brow furrowing, and now it’s Tony’s turn to laugh.

“I know. I know that now.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t hate you either, Steeeeve.”

“Okay, Tony.”

The pigeon flutters over to the couch, and Tony grumbles at it. But then he ends up petting it, because Eric is a soft bundle of love and feathers. Who- ow, who apparently thinks the chip crumbs on his thigh are fair game.

“Hawkeye, get your hell-bird off of me!”

“Sic ‘em, Eric,” Clint mutters, tapping frantically at his phone. “If wishes were fishes you’d be buried in fishes right now because I hate you, Stark.”

 

Tony wakes with a pounding headache. He shuts his eyes again with a groan, trying to will himself back to unconsciousness. He fails, but there’s a glass of water by his bed, where did that come from? He chugs it. It’s probably safe. Anyone trying to poison him wouldn’t have had to go to the trouble, going by his hangover, and it’s not like Clint’s going to be in the shape to prank him this morning.

“JARVIS, time,” he says, slumping back against his covers.

“It is 1:32 pm, sir, and the weather is-”

“Don’t care. Anything I should know about?”

“You had me compile a list of swears starting with C or H.”

“C or H?”

“I believe you intended to alliterate your swears for Clint. His knowledge in such areas was extensive.”

“Find one in a language he doesn’t understand and get back to me later,” Tony says.

He wiggles his toes. His clothes still feel sticky from spilled mead, but his feet are bare. He thinks back and gets a flash of warm arms tugging him around when he tried to head for his workshop, someone tossing him into bed. Steve, kneeling to wiggle his shoes off, grinning fondly up at him through dark lashes when Tony tried to roll back out of bed. And scolding him like a five-year-old, telling him to stay put while he found Thor a room. Tony sighs. He doesn’t remember Steve bringing the water, but that was probably him too.

The scent of Coulson-waffles wafts through the air. Everything else is suddenly irrelevant as Tony stumbles out of bed and down the hall to the kitchen. Clint’s tipped back in his chair, eyes closed, hands resting on his stomach. His phone’s abandoned beside him.

“It’s all about strategy,” he says to Thor, who’s huddled beside him, poking at Clint’s phone with one hand, the other stroking Eric the pigeon, perched in his lap. The pigeon coos and Thor mutters back, brows knit together in concentration.

Bruce and Natasha are both sipping tea mugs, probably that herbal hangover blend that Bruce brought back from Thailand. Coulson is taking two fresh-pressed waffles out of the waffle iron. Honestly, Tony has no idea where the waffle iron came from, but at this moment he loves the waffle iron with a fervor usually devoted only to coffee or minor deities. Like Thor.

Tony holds his plate over the serving platter and Coulson frowns but deposits the delicious, delicious treats directly onto his plate. Tony retreats to the corner housing the coffee machine and eats off the counter there, the better for instant coffee refills.

 Steve walks in not long after in sweatpants and a gray underarmour shirt, hair tousled and sweaty from a run. He raises an eyebrow at Tony. Tony wants to lick his jaw.

“Hey, Steve,” Tony says, helplessly.

“Hi,” Steve says, and raises an eyebrow at Tony until Tony steps aside to allow him access to the coffee machine.

The problem, Tony decides, is that he’s realized Cap is Steve. Cap was easy to dislike, because no one measures up to Captain America, and definitely not Tony. It’s too easy to like Steve, who eats peanut butter out of the jar after his runs every morning and doodles old cartoons on napkins at pizza places. Steve licks his spoon clean of peanut butter and Tony awards his brain a posthumous medal for denial as everything short-circuits. Steve raises an eyebrow at him.

Luckily, a team of super-powered mutants takes that moment to rob a bank.

 

On the other hand, spinning through the air with a hangover isn’t pretty. Tony almost throws up a few times. Clint does throw up, to his never-ending glee.

After the battle Steve shakes his hair loose from his cowl.

“Good job, everyone,” he says, and goes to check on Clint, pale-faced, leaning against the door to the pet store.

Coulson chews them out because part of the bank may have exploded just a little bit, but Steve seems to think it was worth it to stop the neighboring pet store from going up in flames, and actually backs Tony. Coulson caves in the face of Captain America’s Noble Expression.™ Useful that.

After the battle, everyone collapses on the living room couches, which are still covered with chip crumbs from the night before. Bruce makes popcorn and they argue about movies.

“Mission Impossible. No, all the Mission Impossibles,” Tony says.

“Three action movies. We just battled supervillains. Are you really that much of an adrenaline junkie?” Steve says.

“I decided to let you guys move in, so, apparently yes.”

They end up watching Star Wars. Bruce drifts off first, next to Tony, and Tony grabs the popcorn bowl from him, pulling it into his lap before it can fall. Steve grabs a handful and eats it kernel by kernel while the theme music starts. Tony’s heart twists in his chest, and for a second he panics, but no, he can live with this. This crush, or whatever. He just has to not think about how Steve looks when he’s standing up for something. How adorably still he is when he’s trying not to smile. Or how awful it would be if Steve realized. If he realized, and stopped coming down to the workshop and half-smiling, in that infuriating way of his, whenever Tony tries to rile him up, casual and easy.

Tony wakes up in the middle of the night. Bruce is slumped against him, and Tony’s pressed against Steve’s shoulder. Steve’s eyes are half-open, tracking the blue DVD logo as it hits the edges of the TV screen and bounces off at an angle. After a couple minutes, the logo hits the corner, and Steve smiles, a satisfied, sleepy smile. His eyes drift shut and the tension goes out of him, head tilting back against the couch. Tony feels like a gooey mess of overcooked marshmallows.

Okay, so it’s a lost cause, but Tony’s good with lost causes. He just has to not think about Steve. Tony’s spent 43 years of his life not thinking about Steve. He can do this.

Except Steve doesn’t get the memo, because he shows up the next day in the workshop with two bowls of chicken soup and his sketchbook, just like he’s been doing every other day, perching on a chair and arguing with Tony.

“No, intention counts in art. I mean, I might not have considered things like this before, but people seem to find meaning in these pieces. People hang them in museums. They’re important,” Steve says.

“They’re useful for impressing other people, I’ll give you that. It’s like modern day cavemen. Instead of brandishing clubs at each other, people walk into your house and see a giant blue spiky thing on your table, they go, hey, he must be rich. Better watch out for him.”

“Tony,” Steve says, lips curling up.

“JARVIS, pull up ‘Specimen 36.’”

A picture of a museum wall pops up on one of Tony’s glass screens, with a white square projected on it saying “A PAINTING.”  Steve leans forward, studying it.

“Well, it makes you think?” he says.

“Bring up the vomit paintings, JARVIS.”

Steve blinks and looks away. “Uh,” he says, frowning gamely at it. After a few seconds, Tony takes pity on him and swipes the picture away.

“That one actually won a competition.”

“But some of it’s good,” Steve says, leaning forward in his chair. “And just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean other people don’t. Anyways, I kind of like the idea some of them have, of seeing art in everyday stuff.”

He runs his hand over a discarded bit of armor on the table, fingers tracing the grooves and smooth curves, a faint smile on his face, and Tony’s heart twists again.

“Are you implying my one-of-a-kind engineering work is everyday, Cap?” he says.

“Of course not, Tony,” Steve says, still smiling. “I’m implying it’s modern art.”

“Ooh, ouch, I see what you did there. Well, in that case,” Tony says, grabbing a bit of scrap metal torn off from the armor in the last fight. He goes at it with a blowtorch and welder for a second, playing with the shape and smoothing out the rough edges. He dunks it in water to cool, then tosses the mangled bit of metal at Steve’s face.

“Hey look, Steve, art!” Steve catches it easily. “It symbolizes that you’re an asshole.”

 “Thanks, Tony,” Steve says, pulling a face, but he places the metal on top of his sketchbook, and brings it with him when he leaves.

 

They’re hauled in to briefing at way-too-early-in-the-morning. Tony’s eyes drift around the room, instinctively searching for coffee. Natasha kicks him in the calf, somehow remaining dead-still across from him, and he shoots her a betrayed look.

“We’re getting conflicting readings, so we don’t know the precise location, but we know the attack will happen sometime this afternoon,” Coulson says, hands clasped behind his back at the front of the briefing room.

“Given the enemy’s tendency to escalate, this could be serious. If our sensors aren’t picking the portals up anymore, we may not be able to shut them down,” Fury says, his eye boring into each of them. Tony fidgets. “I’m relying on you to get close enough to figure out why they aren’t working.”

“Your job is also to contain the initial attack until a perimeter can be set up,” Coulson says. “We’ll place you in a loose circle in the Central Park area, where the majority of the portals have appeared, covering at least 30 blocks. Once we have confirmed location of the next portal, you get there as fast as possible. Barton, that means you’re on the ground until we know where to put you.”

Clint wrinkles his nose, but nods.

“That’ll be all,” Fury says, and they file out of the briefing room.

“Cheer up, I made you something,” Tony says to Clint when they leave. It’s only 9:00, they’ve got time to kill before they have to set up.

“You did?” Clint says, eyes narrowing.

“Yeah, come down to the workshop when we get back.”

“Okay, but we should all be in the living room by 11:00,” Steve says, and everyone nods.

When they get back, Natasha goes off to sharpen her knives or something, Bruce goes to putter about in his lab, picking up one project, then putting it down, Thor and Steve head into the kitchen, and Clint follows Tony straight down to his workshop.

“Close your eyes,” Tony says.

“It’s a puppy, isn’t it.”

“Hush,” Tony says. Clint sticks his tongue out and puts a hand over his eyes. “No peeking.”

He pulls Clint’s surprise from a corner of the workshop where it got buried under a pile of tires.

“New armor?” Clint says, delighted, shifting a half-step forward.

“I told you no peeking,” Tony says, plopping it on the table. Clint drops his hand with a smirk.

“Wait, why is it so purple?” he says, poking at the armor.

“You’re exaggerating, it’s at least half gray,” Tony says. “And there’s green, too. Under the armpits, mostly.”

“Is that… is that a pigeon decal?” Clint says, staring at the patch where the SHIELD eagle usually went. “Did you make me a new set of armor to match my pigeon?”

“Ta-dah,” Tony says.

“You’re insane, you’re legitimately insane.”

“It’s good armor,” Tony says, with a smirk. “Six times stronger than what you’ve got, but the same weight and build. So you’re just going to have to live with the coloring job.”

“Okay,” Clint says, examining the fabric, which looks like something out of a comic book. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing here, but joke’s on you Stark, because I love it.”

“What, really?”

“It’s custom armor. You really thought purple was gonna throw me, after Coulson came back from the dead to lecture us about not blowing up the tower? Or the week you challenged Natasha’s sneaking powers?”

“Point. Give these to her, will you?” Tony says, tossing over some upgraded electric stings. “I reconfigured the power supply so she should be able to hit the weird creepy shadow things in the face.”

“In the spirit of reciprocation, you should know that all of your shaving cream has been laced with orange dye that takes a day to appear.”

“What- hey, get back here!”

“No takebacks, Stark!”

               

Steve comes down half an hour later, with a bowl of soup. Tony gulps it down between finalizing repairs, and Steve doesn’t sit. He just stands there, a statue of Steve Rogers, and watches Tony work on the double-core arc reactor.

“You didn’t use that last time,” he says, finally. “What’s changed?”

“Besides the likelihood we’ll actually have to fight them this time, and the fact that SHIELD isn’t sure how long it’ll take to lock the portals? I’ve had another week to stabilize the reactor framework.”

“How dangerous is this one?” Steve says.

“Not as dangerous as using my normal power supply. For them, deadly. And, here,” Tony says, tossing Steve two small cylinders, each with one of his normal, spare reactors inside.

“Give one to Clint. He usually stays out of the brawling, it’ll be safe with him. I figured I’d hang onto the other one, so if there is a problem, you don’t have to get a speeding ticket trying to get back here. The cases are modeled after the cage built for the Hulk in the Helicarrier, they should stand up to some heavy hits.”

Steve turns them over in his hands, tracing the twist-off clamp lids.

“Okay, Tony,” he says.

“Thanks, Steve. I’ll be up in a sec,” Tony says, and Steve takes the hint, tosses him back one of the containers and leaves, collecting the empty bowl of soup on his way. Tony slots the container into the shoulder of the armor where he usually keeps his one-off lasers, which are useless against the shadows.

“JARVIS, run diagnostics on the double-core design,” he says.

“The design is still relatively unstable, but there is an 85% chance it will hold.”

“Good enough.”

 

A pigeon flutters over to where Tony’s leaning against a concrete barrier. The Avengers and SHIELD are spaced out in a loose circle. Steve’s somewhere to his left. If he uses the targeting computer it’s not hard to spot the distinctive shield. Natasha and Clint are somewhere to his right. The city is silent except for the wind rushing through, a few belated evacuators, and some resident birdbrains.

“Shoo,” Tony says. The pigeon cocks its head and looks at him, then keeps bobbing for crumbs. “No, really, you don’t want to be here. Are all of you this stubborn?”            

The thing just hops closer, plucking up a pepper from the sidewalk. Tony aims a repulsor near its head and fires. With a squawk it takes off into the air. And then lands about ten feet away and continues pecking.

“Wow. Now I know why Barton likes you guys. Your self-preservation instincts are worse than his.”

The bird pauses, and flies off.

“Yeah, you better run,” Tony says, and the air rocks with an explosion. He slams into the concrete, sees it crack beneath him.

“Systems at 80%,” JARVIS says.

“I miss the days when the arc reactor was an unmatchable power source,” Tony says and flies above the next black energy pulse he sees. “All right, where’s the portal?”

“There are three portals, the closest one is to your left.”

Tony curses, three of them, no wonder they couldn’t triangulate a position. He takes off to his left, where he can see waves of rippling darkness pouring out onto 82nd street. He can see Steve heading for it too, leaping over the waist-high blasts as he goes.

“Natasha and Bruce have secured the North portal, Thor, head to the West one, Iron Man, Captain America, you’ve got the East portal,” Coulson says, voice just as calm as ever. “Barton, find a building near Thor and set up. Contain them as best you can.”

Tony aims one of his missiles at the machine by the portal that’s emitting the dark energy pulses, timing it between blasts. His tech doesn’t fail until it’s too close to miss, crashing down right on target. The machine goes up in a satisfying array of fiery colors and sparks, and the blasts stop. The attention of the mass of shadows swings his way and he grins fiercely as he flies below the first wave of spears and repulsors a few in the front row.

With their attention on him, none of them notice Captain America until Steve’s bulling through them from behind. He skids to a stop below Tony and throws his shield. It bounces funny off the creatures, but by now Steve must have adjusted because he drops five shadows before it ricochets back to him.

“You’re late,” Tony says, and Steve huffs as he ducks behind his shield to block the next hail of spears. Steve engages the ones with cutlasses, distracting them while Tony bottlenecks the portal, shooting repulsor blasts at the entrance, actually managing to knock some of them back through. There are too many already out, though. A spear slips through Steve’s defences, grazing his side.

“Sir,” JARVIS says.

“Gotcha. Steve, firepower coming your way,” Tony says, and drops to the ground, blasting his repulsors at Steve’s shield so it deflects off in a laser-like beam. Steve rotates the shield, sending the focused blast in an arc through the shadows around him, and the shadows fall back again. Literally. Flat on the ground. Very satisfying.

“Iron Man! Captain America!”

A group of agents appear from around a street corner, one of them shouting and waving something in the air.

“Agents should be arriving with upgraded sensor tech to shut down the portals,” Coulson says.

“Copy that,” Steve says, and leaps over half the mass of shadows in front of him, heading for the agents. He lands in the middle of the shadows and bulls his way through again behind his shield. Tony provides a nice shiny distraction by testing out one of his experimental black-energy-seeking shoulder-missiles on the ones that try to stab Steve in the back.

They’re very effective. Too bad he doesn’t have more.

“Is there something ancient buried beneath the stone of this city?” Thor says over the comms, over the crackle of static electricity. In the distance, Tony sees lightning strike the street.

“What do you mean?” Coulson says.

“The shadowlings speak of an artifact they were sent to retrieve, a weapon buried in the center. The center of what, I know not.”

Tony takes a second to process that all the hissing the shadows have been doing is actually speech, and chalk one up for having an alien god on the team with All-Speak, before it hits him.

“The center? Central Park,” Tony says. “They’ve been circling the park. Buried in stone…”

“That could mean anything,” Coulson says. “Thor, let a few escape from your group. Natasha, follow them, but do not engage until their target is clear. You’re looking for something old. Thor, if you hear any more intel, let us know.”

Steve and the agents are driving a wedge through the back of the group now, making slow progress towards the portal entrance. Tony’s itching to help, but if he abandons his post near the front they’ll swarm Central Park, and he doubts letting them get their hands on that artifact is going to help the Avengers any. He contents himself with the occasional blast sent their way, and has JARVIS auto-target the worst of their threats in the back while Tony deals with the front line.

“Heads up, the enemy’s got dart guns,” Clint says. “Some weird blue stuff on the tip.”

“I’d avoid those if I were you,” Tony says, scanning the crowd, and yep- there’s one. He takes down the shadow wielding it. “Sounds like the stuff that took Bruce out last time.”

“Anyone manage to set up the sensor arrays?” Coulson asks.

“They keep taking them out. Something’s jamming them,” Natasha says.

One of the agents shouts.

“Well, ours are working, we’ve got the East portal signature locked,” Steve says. He’s directly in front of the portal now, shield whirling. Tony supposes their shadow things aren’t as smart as the others. They’re not going for the sensors, they’re going for the team defending them. Clearly a tactical failure. Like Steve would let anything happen to those agents.

“Good work. Shutting it down now,” Coulson says, and the dark lights swirling at the center of their portal slow, then start to reverse, draining inwards. The agents pull back from the portal. Two of them are limping. Steve covers their retreat. Tony starts shepherding the shadow invaders back towards the portal.

“One down, two to go,” he says cheerfully, and Steve laughs, a beautiful, exhilarated laugh that trails off abruptly.

“Damn,” Steve says softly, which, whoa. 

“Steve?” Tony says, and turns to see him pulling a dart out of his thigh.

“Oh, crap,” Tony says, as Steve staggers, and rockets towards him, ready to airlift him out. One of the shadows being sucked back towards the portal grabs Steve’s shoulder as it flashes by. Steve’s pulled limply off his feet, eyes already sliding shut, one hand still clamped around his leg. He vanishes headfirst into the blank gray of the shrinking portal.

Tony has .2 seconds to process this, and then he aims directly for the portal, which is now twice Tony’s height across. Half Tony’s height.

“Sir, the chances-”

Tony tucks his arms in and shoots through the gap just before it closes.

Chapter Text

Tony emerges into a gray room, skidding along the ground until he rolls to a stop, staring up into dark endless depths of a ceiling. The lights in his suit flicker out and the arc reactor burns hot in his chest. There’s an endless few seconds of panic. Then the HUD sputters back to life. Tony groans and pushes himself to his feet, repulsors raised. Suit’s still working. Much better than his last trip through an alien wormhole.

On the other hand, the room is empty and endless, a strange, spongy gray floor stretching on into blackness on all sides, not even a trace of the portal behind him. And definitely no hint of an obnoxious blond super soldier from the 1940’s, or a wisp of the shadows that took him. Tony curses, long and loud. 

“JARVIS?”

JARVIS is silent in his ear, his signal probably stuck on the other end of the alien portal, but the HUD flickers and starts scrolling basic information for him. His power’s cut to 70%, but the reactor’s pretty stable. Yeah, the suit is leaking power, but slower than an IV drip, so he’s good. Leaking light too, which is useful in the gloom, but weird, like he’s a miniature blue star. He scans the area but- nothing shows up. Just more black energy.

Tony picks a random direction and starts flying.

 

Everything has to have an end, right? Tony thinks later, hysterically, at 60% power. And there’s a floor, so there’s got to be. Something here. He’s not just in a void. He can’t be. So there has to be a wall. A great big gray wall, probably, going by the floor. Any second now. Any second he is going to come up on a wall, thick and sturdy, and there’s going to be a door, and it’s going to lead to Steve. Anything else is unacceptable.

Tony’s so focused on imagining the wall that he flies straight into it when it appears. Too late, his sensors blare with proximity warnings, and he slams off it and ricochets back along the spongy ground, head ringing from the impact. When he looks up, there is a wall in front of him, with a little gray door built into it, exactly like he pictured it. Exactly.

“Was that there a second ago? I’m pretty sure that wasn’t there a second ago,” he says, but he’s just so happy it’s there at all he could hug the damn thing. Maybe dedicate a plaque to its honor at some expensive college.

Instead, he makes his way over to the door and jiggles the handle. Locked, of course. He wouldn’t expect any less.

He blasts it open with a repulsor. Through it, he can see a short wall and a winding path leading to a low building, long and rectangular, made out of the same gray material as everything else, but with black bars set into the windows. Shadows whirl through the air above him, like more defined pieces of the black energy, and he ducks, but they don’t notice him. Which is weird. They sensed him just fine when they were shooting black energy rocket launchers at him in New York. They should totally be able to see him.

As soon as he thinks this, a streak of black swerves in midair and heads straight for him.

Tony adds two and two together with the suddenly-appearing wall and comes up with too much to be a coincidence.

“Except you can’t reach me because the energy in my suit cancels out yours!” Tony says, fast. He believes it, even, because this place is weird, and he’s pretty sure he just made a wall appear out of thin air, and those shadow things don’t look as solid as they do on earth.

The shadow flattens like a bug on an invisible windshield, three feet from him, at the edge of his little circle of light. 

Tony blinks wide eyes, whoops with delight, and the power in his suit drops to 55%.

“Crap,” he says, realizing his mistake- the energies cancel each other out. He shuts his eyes and pictures his suit, power lasting forever, but when he opens his eyes there’s another shadow flattened like a bug on a windshield, and it’s down to 50%. Curse his logical engineering brain. Because Tony’s got words like Thor’s “belief-magic” bouncing around in his brain, and he’s half-convinced anything he thinks could happen, can happen here- but he can’t quite ignore the laws he’s built his life’s work around.

Still, he’d thought of a door leading to Steve, and it had brought him here.

If I move fast enough, they won’t even see me, he tells himself and sprints across the space between him and Steve’s prison. Except some part of him clearly doesn’t believe it could be this simple- or maybe the shadows do actually have security like he expected- because when he wraps his hand around the bars, the world reforms around him.

Long windows line a great hall, dull gray light streaming through them. The hall doesn’t have the same hazy feel as the rest of the universe, its edges sharp and defined. The walls are covered in intricate patterns of black, creeping like ivy over the surface, shifting slightly. Beneath his feet, the ground is solid black, gleaming like obsidian.

“Welcome to the space between worlds, Tony Stark. It’s been some time since a mortal visited.”

Tony turns, and there’s a throne at the end of the hall in wrought silver, a man sitting on it with dark skin and eyes with pupils only barely rimmed in white, wearing clothes like the black leaves at the bottom of a pond. For all that he looks alien and strange, his expression is exactly that of the bored rich kids Tony went to school with, the ones who had everything, eyes alight with hunger in a dull face. His long gray fingers tap on the arms of his throne.

Tony raises his repulsors, but nothing happens. The suit shimmers and vanishes around him, leaving him in his work clothes.

“Ah, ah,” the man says. “No weapons allowed in this hall. I wrote that rule into this place eons ago.” He reaches out with one finger to tap one of the black vines.

“The suit’s not a weapon,” Tony says, but his suit doesn’t magically reappear.

“You don’t believe that,” the man says. “Not really.”

“It’s a tool,” Tony says, taking in the room again. Nope, definitely no exits, no matter how hard he pictures one, just a little one just for him.

“A weapon is a tool.”

“Look, I love arguing semantics as much as the next guy, but I’ve kinda got someplace to be,” Tony says, thinking of Steve again. For a second, the room blurs.

“Not more than you need to be here,” the man says calmly, and the room settles. “Interesting that you can do that. Are you used to bending the world to your will? Perhaps we’re more alike than I imagined.”

“Nope, just famous. Okay, I’ll bite. Why do I need to be here?” Tony says, his mind racing from hole in the wall like in a Roadrunner cartoon to explosions to teleportation thingy. But the hall doesn’t change.

“In the practical sense? You walked into my trap. Welcome to your new prison. As to why- you and the Captain are valuable hostages. There’s enough of a price on his head that I let you close one of my portals.”

“Yeah, that whole hostage thing? Not going to end well for you. I always escape,” Tony says, and the patterns on the wall leap and shift. Interesting.

“You’re going to try,” the man corrects, with an annoyed glance at the wall. “Your belief is mistaken, the pattern will not hold- you have never been imprisoned by me before.”

The patterns shift back. New plan. The room’s not listening to him when he tries to tell it what to do, which, hey, Tony totally gets, but it’s listening to what he knows about himself. He smirks as wide as he can. If nothing else, he thinks, I’m irritating.

The man’s fingers tap faster against his chair. He rolls his eyes, the too-large pupils still disconcerting, but unable to see the black energy tangling behind his back. “Foolish, to challenge my authority at all. I am Devris. Your will is nothing to mine. I’ve lived here centuries long, dreaming of the day I could walk the surface of a world once more.”

“Actually, I have it on good authority that I’m one of the most stubborn people in the universe,” Tony says, thinking of Pepper, Rhodey, Steve, and the man scoffs. 

“Maybe in yours. Midgardians are limited in mind. You cannot truly alter a place like this.”

“That pattern doesn’t hold,” Tony says, his smile mean. “You’ve never met me before. In fact, you’re wrong, worse, you’re limited for thinking that.”

The ivy shifts faster as Devris’ eyes bulge. Checkmate.

Tell me everything you know, you egotistical bastard, Tony thinks. Villains always do. Tell me your plan, because I am irritating and boastful and you need to put me in my place.

 “You’re delusional. You’ve already lost,” Devris says, smug, settling back into his throne. He flicks his fingers towards one of the windows, and suddenly Tony can see Natasha and Thor, fighting by a stone obelisk. They’re surrounded by waves of shadow warriors, and Natasha’s bleeding from her head and arm. Thor’s cheerful face is grim.

“The portals for my army are woven into this universe, they cannot be closed with your Midgardian tools. Soon, you will be overwhelmed. When we take the artifact, I will merge your world with mine. Everyone will live by my rules, by my command.” His eyes narrow, fingers tap-tapping faster on his throne. “You, however, might be more troublesome than valuable.”

Devris settles back into his throne with a smile, and the air shivers with power.

“Tell me, Tony Stark. How would you like to join my army of shadows? Souls that fell through the cracks and rotted here. No one will miss you. You know that you are useless.”

The shadows creep towards him, long tendrils forming, reaching. Darkness presses on his mind like a physical weight. He fights back, instinctively. Memories come to life, blurring together on the obsidian surfaces around him.

"-why you can't just stay out of the way-" his father says, lab coat swirling behind him as he dodges Tony’s arms.

"-we both knew this was coming, Tony," Pepper says, with a small smile, her hands interlocked in front of herself, like she’s longing for paperwork to clutch.

"-they call you the Merchant of Death, what do you say to that?" the reporter says, recorder held in his face.

"-take that away and what are you-" Steve says, frowning at him like he already knows the answer.

"-it's not enough. Tony, you tried. We tried. But-" Pepper says, leaning back. 

"-goddammit Tony, Maria? Maria, get him out of my-" his father says, picking him up to pass him off.

"-I know men with none of that worth ten of you-" Steve says, every inch Captain America, the embodiment of everything his father had ever told him, disappointed, like his father also told him.

Tony can't breathe through the knot in his chest. He can’t escape, everywhere he turns another reminder of his failures, everything he did backfiring, the blood on his hands. Something wraps around his wrist, and his knees almost buckle as the pressure in his head doubles. He can’t remember why he’s fighting.

He closes his eyes. His fingers itch instinctively for power tools, for the safety of his workshop. His workshop, with his energy projects, his desperate attempts at redemption. His workshop, with its clean lines of tools, and the rings left from soup bowls. Steve, bringing soup bowls. Steve, in his workshop, smiling at him like the sun. Fussing over him, telling him to be careful. Steve, vanishing through the portal.

Tony opens his eyes.

 “Steve needs me,” he says. The arc reactor glows bright in his chest, his curse and his privilege, and the shadows flicker. One tendril, twisted around his wrist, recoils away. Tony flexes his hand, feeling pins and needles as the blood rushes back into it.

“Only for the moment,” Devris says, with a cutting smile.   

“Maybe. But right now, in whatever poorly-decorated prison you’ve put him in, Steve needs me. My team needs me,” Tony says, straightening up with a deep breath.

The shadows try to press closer again, but Tony’s got a fixed point of light that they can’t touch now.

 “But it’s not just that. You’re completely missing the point,” he says, stepping forward. Steve smiles at him now, over food he made and carried down two flights of stairs into his greasy workshop, to visit him. Natasha drags him home, Clint banters, Thor clasps Tony in a bear hug, and Bruce looks at him like he’s solid ground, discussing physics over Indian food. Even when Tony fails, even when he yells, even when he’s a useless mess, there’s a place for him squashed in at the breakfast table.

“You’re wrong. You can’t just decide someone’s worthless.” Tony smiles. “You can’t keep me here, and you can’t have me. No matter how ‘valuable’ of a hostage I am. Because people are more than whether or not they’re useful, you dick.”

The shadows fade, and Devris looks startled for the first time. The room loses some of its crisp edges, gloomy gray gathering in the corners. The flaw in the system. There’s always one.

He’s been wrong about too many things. His rules have no foundation- let them crumble, Tony thinks, and the room shivers again. He is limited, and he is wrong- no way should this guy be in charge.

The patterns on the walls writhe, whole sections unravelling like a loose thread undoing a sweater. Tony concentrates and slams his hand on the wall. A slab of gray cracks open, revealing the gray mists of the universe outside, and the Iron Man suit shimmers into existence around him.

Devris rises to his feet in a swirl of dark clothing. Tony fires his repulsor at him and jumps through the gap, too fast to catch, because Tony’s been running circles around people older than him since he was six, he can outrun this guy. Apparently the universe agrees with this assessment, because the door swings shut behind him and he drops back into the gray void alone. Tony just out-maneuvered some minor god by turning his universe against him. Boo-yah. Also he might have just had some sort of epiphany. That’s probably good.  

Now he just has to find Steve. A yellow brick road pops into existence beneath his feet, and he grins and takes off, rocketing along it. He hums “Shoot to Thrill” to make the moment more appropriately dramatic. Power at 24%. He’s done more with less.

 

Tony reaches the prison again, and this time he avoids the bars altogether, just blasts a hole in the wall. Steve is slumped on a stone bench in the corner in his battle-stained Captain America suit, chained to the back. He’s not moving.

Tony closes his eyes. Steve’s fine, he reminds the universe, because Bruce was fine. That blue stuff wore off, and it should wear off faster with Steve because Steve has a metabolism so fast he ate all three boxes of Tony’s Eggos for dinner once.

Tony opens his eyes, strides across the room, and yanks one chain out of the wall. Steve’s arm jerks and a second later, his eyes flutter open. Tony lets out a shaky breath.

“Tony?” Steve says, and it’s so good to hear him again. Steve blinks exhausted blue eyes at the walls, his brow furrowing in confusion as Tony rips the other chain out. “Why are there neon green Hello Kitty Nazis covering the walls?”

“Because it’s your ‘poorly decorated prison,’” Tony says, also noting the clashing neon-orange dicks painted on the ceiling and wondering at this universe’s sense of humor. Probably his fault. Whatever. He grabs Steve’s shield. “Here, hold this. No time to explain, we’re escaping.”

Steve fumbles his way upright. Tony loops an arm around his shoulders and presses him against his side.

“Hang on,” Tony says, and takes off through the hole he just made, dodging the shadows with ease. He’s still faster than them.

Now they just need to find a way out of here, and a way to shut the portals down behind them before a certain megalomaniacal fairy finds them again.

Well, he thinks. Portals are complicated bits of technology and magic. Things like those need a proper control room. There’s one here, I’m sure of it, I just need a road.

A pretty road. All the best universes have roads. Multiple roads, even.

Obligingly, the universe hums and another yellow brick road appears. Steve blinks down at it.

“Where are we?” Steve asks.

“Not in Kansas, that’s for sure,” Tony says, smirking. And there, Steve pulls that face, the you’re a jerk face.

“No, really, where are we?” His fingers dig tighter into Tony’s armor, grinding together. Which, hey, not good for the suit’s joints, but on the other hand, Steve seems to be gaining back his muscle function, that’ll probably come in handy.

“You fell through a portal while we were fighting the shadow thingies. We’re in their universe right now. It’s kind of a weird place.”

“Weird, how?” Steve says, taking in the endless gray sky.

“Weird like if you believe something hard enough, you can make it happen. Repeat after me: We’re escaping.”

“I got that part,” Steve says, shooting Tony a dry look.

“No, you need to believe it-”

A crackling ball of black energy flies straight at his face. Tony spins to dodge, nearly crashing into the catapult it came from. The catapult, that is, in a long row of catapults, all aimed at them, and backed by a limitless army of shadows.

“Also, I might have pissed off the guy in charge,” Tony says.

“I’m surprised. Truly,” Steve says, hefting his shield. “Anything else I should know?”

“We need to shut down the portals from that building over there,” Tony nods at the silver building gleaming behind the mass of shadows. He’s assuming it’s the control tower because a) there’s an army camped out in front of it, and b) the yellow brick road stops at the foot of the stairs. “Because we won’t be able to do it from our universe, and our team’s getting overrun. Oh, and they’re after something that could destroy the universe, so, you know, stop them, the usual.”

A hiss from the crowd in front of them, and a hail of blue-tipped darts flies towards them. Steve folds his body up behind his shield and Tony vaporizes any that come close with his repulsor. We don’t fall for the same trick twice, he thinks. 22% power, his HUD flashes at him.

“Think we can make it?” Tony says, voice wry, scanning the endless army in front of them. There’s a guy in a floating throne hovering in the back. Two guesses as to who that is.

“Yes,” Steve says, his voice all steel, and wow, Tony never had a chance, heat flaring low in his gut.

“You’re running low on power, right?” Steve says, voice echoing oddly from behind his shield. Tony nods. Steve peers over the edge of his shield as Tony blasts another barrage of darts. “We need to get through them, fast. We’ll make a path.”

He leans forward in Tony’s grip, so he’s near-horizontal, the shield stretched out in front of him. He pushes his other arm through the straps too, and Tony gets the picture, wraps his arm tighter around him.

“On my mark,” Steve says, as the shadows swarm forwards, hefting spears. Tony bares his teeth in a grin, diverting all power to his thrusters.

Chapter Text

“Mark,” Steve says, and Tony rockets forward. They plow through everything in their path, Steve’s shield bulling through, and with Tony’s rockets they’re too fast for anything to get a solid hit. Steve grunts when they knock against one of the catapults, almost jarring out of his hold, and Tony has to wrap both arms around him, destabilizing their flight. They crash to the ground not far from the tower, Steve rolling with the impact and jumping up with his shield already raised, deflecting the worst of the energy away from Tony while Tony switches power back to his repulsors.

Fighting back to back with Steve feels natural, as they press through the last ten feet to the tower. The teamwork is a thing of beauty. When a catapult fires an energy ball at them, Tony pushes them both up into the air and back with a quick blast of his boots. When Devris sends a shining red spear their way, Steve deflects it to explode harmlessly in the middle of the shadows. When the dropping percentages in his HUD start to get worrying, Tony spends more of his power in focused rebounds off Steve’s shield than he sends into the crowd himself. The move cuts a swathe through, a path they can take towards their goal, and conserves his power. Steve’s taking on the brunt of the fighting, and Tony reluctantly lets him.

The whole time, Tony’s also thinking helpful hints at the universe about illusion-copies of them, or everyone else’s weapons failing, but nothing happens. Probably because it’s more wishful thinking than belief. Or maybe because Devris wrested control of the universe back into his own hands. He’s busy making new rules up, Tony can tell.

Tony yanks Steve back just as spikes spear up from where he was standing, blessing his HUD’s warnings. Tony’s blocking another round of darts when Steve drags him down with a hand on his shoulder, a ball of navy blue energy passing by inches away from Tony’s suit, exploding in a fiery burst in the distance. Devris has a hand outstretched in the distance. So maybe the guy wasn’t just boasting about his willpower.

Steve takes the brunt of an attack and gasps, black energy crackling across his front. For a second, Tony panics, but then Steve shudders and shakes it off, lashing out with his shield. Still, he fights just a little more hunched.

Invisible shield of energy, opposite to their energy? Tony thinks hopefully, but nothing. Steve has gashes all over his costume, a nasty bruise on one cheek. Tony’s power is at 7% and he has a massive headache spiking through his brain. Steve hauls him backwards and his suit clangs off the tower wall. The shadow horde presses in on them. They’re so close, but so far.

We always escape, Tony thinks. The gloating villain tells the hero his plan, and then after a long, bloody struggle, the heroes win. This is how it is.

But the army of shadows presses still harder at them, and Steve’s panting, red-faced with effort as he batters them back. Devris fires another red spear at them, and this time when Steve deflects it, his shield burns red hot. He’s forced to drop it with a gasp. Tony throws himself bodily in front of Steve and the clatter of black spears eats at his energy. 4% power. He pulls Steve down to duck the next row instead.

Steve picks up his shield again, which is mostly cooled down, and keeps fighting like he wasn’t injured in the first place, except for an odd hiss and twist to his face every now and then when he moves. The arm of his uniform is melted, a mess on his skin.

We always escape. And you know what would be really funny? A wall. Just like the one that first appeared. In the beginning, and now the end. The laws of irony- beautiful. All good universes should have some. A high, thick wall, better than the one in our universe, the Great Wall. This would be a Magnificent Wall-

A flat, gray wall shimmers into existence right in his face, cutting them off from their attackers, so close that Tony’s helmet ricochets off the surface and he wheels backwards. Tony’s starting to think this universe is less about logic and more about whatever it finds most entertaining at the moment. Maybe he’s corrupting the universe.

Steve snags his elbow, stabilizing him.

“Was that you?” he says.

“Yep,” Tony says, rubbing ineffectually at his helmet. His sensors say the wall encircles the tower completely. Impossibly high. Steve cranes his neck, staring upwards.

Looking good, Tony thinks, and swears he hears a pleased hum. Then a ball of black energy slams into the new wall, and as one, Tony and Steve turn, repulsors and shield up, to see the tower packed with more shadows.

“Let’s go,” Tony says. He lets Steve take point and they fight their way up a spiraling staircase, emerging in a small room of shiny console banks, covered with fiddly levers and marked with alien symbols. Steve throws his shield and knocks out the last two shadows in the room. He pauses, panting, in front of one of the consoles. Tony walks over, but his scans aren’t picking anything up.

“C’mon…” he says, staring at the unfamiliar controls. His headache builds.

Steve closes his eyes. “We just need to find the red button, please,” he says. He opens his eyes, and reaches over to a panel. Tony could swear it was blank before, but now there’s a glass case gleaming over a big, red button, like in movies. Steve flips the case open.

“Pretty sure this one shuts everything down,” he says.

Tony closes his eyes too. “Well, if I was designing a portal control room, I’d have the portal-openers up near the front- better Feng shui, you can defend the destroy-the-portal ones easier if they’re in the back- really it’s just sensible engineering…”

The room blurs and shifts, and Tony walks to a lone panel near the front. Lots of levers.

“Those two need to be on,” Steve says, pointing at two of the levers, walking over with a manual, an honest to god, dusty black and white manual, in his uninjured hand. Tony laughs. Running on Emergency Backup Power, his HUD flashes, which, distracting, not helpful. He puts his visor up.

“Aye, aye, Cap’n,” he says, and flicks the switches. Steve relays more instructions in a steady voice. They’re almost done with the sequence when his power cuts out, and Tony crashes to the ground with a thud, suit suddenly unresponsive, as the light from his arc reactor sputters. 

“Tony?” Steve says, at his side about .3 seconds later, bless him and his creepily-fast reflexes.

“Spare reactor. In the right shoulder,” Tony says, and Steve nods, wrenches the compartment open and pulls out the reactor. “Hey, watch it,” Tony breathes. “There are latches for the chest piece, don’t go all Neanderthal on me with this one, they’re on the side.”

Steve pops the chest piece off and pauses, hand hovering, shaky, over the dying reactor in Tony’s chest.

“Any day now,” Tony says. “Put your hand on it, twist and pull, it’ll pop out…” he groans and lets his head drop back, pain washing over him as the reactor fails. A couple moments of agony later, he feels pressure on his chest, and a few seconds later, something clicks. The pain fades. Tony breathes.

“Better?” Steve says, face drawn, still hovering over him.

“I can’t believe you still need instructions for all this technology,” Tony says. “You can’t figure it out on your own? Geez. I’m going to have to stick around forever to keep you from electrocuting yourself.”

Steve smiles faintly. “All right, Tony,” he says, and stands. Tony levers himself up with a groan. Power: 97%. Steve finishes the sequence of levers and inputs a series of numbers.

There’s a whoosh, and in the back of the room, a portal pops into life. Central Park, overrun with shadow aliens. Home.

Power: 90%. This reactor, the unmodified one, is a wuss, bleeding energy like a baby, surrounded by the black energy holding this universe together, but it doesn’t matter.

“Tony, go,” Steve says, and Tony is all for that, it’s a wonderful idea, best he’s heard in years, and he’s already turning when he realizes there’s something off with Steve’s expression.

Tony glances at the portal. Glances at Steve, who hasn’t moved. His jaw is set, blue eyes hard.

“You first,” Tony says, and Steve shakes his head.

“One of us has to press that button,” Steve says, and tilts his head towards the console in the back. Towards the red button that will seal all the portals, the portals that can only be closed from this side.

“No,” Tony says, eyes going wide.

Steve heads for the console.

“No,” Tony says again, grabbing his shoulder. Steve whirls around, wrenching his shoulder away.

“Billions of people will die, Tony, if we leave that thing open. You’ve got to go, before the reactor gives out again. We don’t have time to talk about this.”

“I’m not leaving you in a universe filled with creepy shadow things! Coulson would have my head,” Tony says, stepping closer. 

“Coulson will understand,” Steve says, steady, staring into his eyes. Tony hates him. He hates Steve, with his noble expressions, and his blue, blue eyes, his hair stained red with blood.

“No he fucking won’t,” Tony says, stepping forward. “He won’t understand. Steve, you can’t.”

“Tony, please,” Steve says.

“Shut up, Steve,” Tony says, and shuts his eyes, because a pleading Steve Rogers is too much, and his HUD keeps flashing power: 67% at him, and he pushes down the panic, and thinks.

When he opens his eyes, Steve is glaring at him, and Tony’s stomach swoops with love for this man, ready to cut himself off from everyone and everything he knows again. He doesn’t look scared, though he must be, just angry that Tony won’t do what he’s told. Ridiculous. Steve should be used to that by now.

“-serious, Tony,” Steve’s saying, “You’re wasting time, just-”

Tony needs to distract him, and he’s pretty sure pointing over Steve’s shoulder and shouting something about Nazis isn’t going to cut it. He could punch him. But Steve’s injured, and he doesn’t have time for a fistfight.

“-there’s still gonna be a ton of shadows on the other side, the team can’t lose both of us, you idiot, Tony-”

Tony pushes him up against a console. Steve struggles, but Tony leans forward and presses his lips to Steve’s. Steve freezes, breath whooshing out of him in a startled gasp. For a second, all he can feel is Steve’s lips, warm beneath his. Then his brain comes back online.

Okay, Steve’s distracted from thinking counterproductive martyr-thoughts, Tony feels like his nerve endings are on fire, now Tony just needs this universe to listen. I always escape, he thinks. And this guy’s like a bad penny, keeps coming back.

He’s got an idea. He just needs a few things to make it work.

Tony pulls back and wrenches a strip of metal off the console. Exposed wires gleam out at him in dull tones. Yes. Yes. Thank you universe, for putting wires in the alien machines.

“Tony, what-” Steve says, eyes wide, heaving in a deep breath.

“Wire cutters,” Tony says, waggling the metal strip triumphantly. He pries the console further open, exposing the wires. He sheds a gauntlet and uses the sharp metal strip to cut them out and strip them, fingers nimble in his work.

“What are you doing?” Steve says.

“Escaping,” Tony says. “Your plan stinks. We’re gonna blow the place up.”

He pulls one of the dead missiles out of the shoulder of his suit, and hooks the wires into it, leaving the other ends free. Tony flips his visor down and pulls off several more strips of metal, welding them together into a thick, long bar. Long enough to reach the portal.

“And that?” Steve says.

“Can’t blow up Central Park too,” Tony says.

There’s a convenient chair in the corner, thank you again, universe. When he puts the bar on it, the end’s almost level with the red button. Tony rips off a few more pieces of metal and stacks them under the chair’s legs. Just a few more millimeters. And there, level. Power: 16% his HUD flashes.

“Grab another chair, put it a few feet back, we need this structure stable,” Tony says, and Steve glances to the arc reactor in Tony’s chest like he can see the percentage counting down, but obeys.

Tony falls back towards the portal, lining the metal up carefully. Steve finishes adding the second support strut. He frowns at the admittedly shabby-looking structure, but Tony’s run the calculations, knows the exact angle and force he’ll have to fire with.

“It’ll work,” he says. Probably. Steve nods.

Tony pulls his chest plate off, and hooks the wires into his reactor, the only power source that works in this place. Energy sparks down the lines, into the dead missile.

“Get over here and grab onto me,” Tony says.

And Steve’s there, wrapping his arms tight around him, thank goodness he’s better at taking orders than Tony. Tony hears the whine of the missile overloading and puts one hand level with the metal bar and aims another at the floor.

He thinks helpful thoughts about physics and equal and opposite reactions, then he triggers the repulsors. He and Steve hurtle backwards through the portal as the metal bar shoots forward.

They skid out onto a dirty New York sidewalk, sparks flying from Tony’s suit.

“Welcome back from another impossible flight, sir. I have alerted SHIELD to your whereabouts,” JARVIS says, familiar tones soothing. 

The portal’s shrinking, the shadows flying back towards its rippling gray light as it reverses. For a second, they start to roll back towards it too, wisps of black energy clinging to them from the other universe, but Steve snaps into action, bodily lifting Tony with a hiss of pain and hauling them both to the side, under the awning of a hair salon. Tony thinks he sees a flash of light, like a missile going off, just before the portal shuts completely.

“Wow,” Steve says, slumping. And then, “How’s your reactor holding up?”

“Fine,” Tony says, at the same time as JARVIS cuts into the comms, “Power level critical at 2%.”

“Hawkeye, location?” Steve says into the comms.

“81st street Hilton,” Clint says, voice shaky. “What happened? You guys just vanished.”

“No time to explain. We’re at the Cut ‘N Go hair salon further down 81st, think you can shoot an arrow with Tony’s spare reactor into the awning?”

“I’m fine, really,” Tony says.

Steve whips his shield around and sends a shadow that escaped the portal reversal flying into a tree 20 feet away. Tony shuts up. An arrow whizzes into the awning overhead. Steve jumps, comes back with his second spare reactor in hand.

“I feel like a tinker toy,” Tony says, as Steve switches them out with brutal efficiency.

“We’ll talk later,” Steve says, not looking at him. “Fly us to the others.”

They find the last stand, Natasha vicious and bloody as she fights, one-handed with a knife, in front of the ancient stone obelisk. Thor’s still going strong, hammer and lightning pushing back the tides of shadows, but it’s clear from the gouges in the obelisk and their teammates that they’ve been overrun before.

“Captain, Stark,” Natasha says, moving readily to open up a space for them to land.

“Your timing is excellent,” Thor says.

The rest of the battle’s easy, by comparison. The shadows aren’t endless anymore, and they keep making stupid tactical mistakes, their strategy faltering now they’re cut off from their commander.

“Bruce?” Tony pants out, as he clears out the east side of the obelisk with a few last repulsor blasts.

“Fine, but taken out by that blue stuff again,” Clint says in his ear, as an arrow thuds into an errant shadow about to throw a spear their way.

And then, between one repulsor blast and the next, the park falls silent. Tony looks around, and all the shadows are crumpled to the torn grass. Natasha slides down the obelisk to its base, face white. Agents break through the trees, and the medics go to work.

“Good work, Avengers,” Steve says, into the comms, and somewhere, Clint lets out a triumphant whoop. Tony echoes him, and then he plops down on the grass.

 

Debrief happens in medical, because pretty much everyone’s fried. Natasha’s got a concussion, Thor’s been stabbed, Bruce is still coming to after the blue stuff they stuck him with, and Clint’s fractured a leg jumping down to a balcony. The medics waste five minutes trying to peel Steve’s melted uniform free as Steve bites back that hiss of pain Tony knows too well now.

“Just yank it off, like a band-aid. I’ll heal,” Steve says, gritting his teeth, and lets out a gasp, eyes watering, when they do. Tony has to look away. His doctors are still running tests on his heart, and they make worried noises about how fast it’s going. Ha. He’s glad for the distraction when Coulson comes in.

Apparently the obelisk was Cleopatra’s Needle, some centuries old thing that was moved to Central Park a while back, and apparently it had a strange artifact embedded in it that acts as some weird universal translator, modifying the rules of one universe to suit another. Tony is really, really glad Devris didn’t get his hands on it.

Thor doesn’t look convinced when Tony explains how they shut down the portals and destroyed the control room.

“Belief magic is tricky,” he says, poking absentmindedly at the bandage on his side. Tony’s the only one of the group that doesn’t look partially mummified. “I should take this device back to our vaults for safekeeping.”

Coulson caves pretty quickly to that. Maybe because if Devris goes looking for it again, Asgard’s better equipped to handle weird shadow warriors. Maybe because even if they can’t, at least no one will be bombing Central Park. Although Tony has a feeling he may have kickstarted the universe’s teenage rebellion stage, so maybe Devris won’t be able to find another way out anyways.

Coulson does have a lot to say about Tony flying through the portal after Steve, but he also kind of looks like he understands why Tony did it, so.

“There was a universe that just, listened to you?” Clint says. “And you left?”

“Admit it, birdbrain, you would’ve missed me.”

Clint scoffs, tapping the pigeon decal on his suit, but Tony knows better. Tony had an epiphany about it and everything.

Steve just looks miserable. Tired, in pain, hand propped up on his forehead like he’s got a headache. And he’s avoiding Tony’s gaze. When they get back to the tower, he perches in one of the armchairs, uncharacteristically quiet, instead of his usual spot next to Tony on the couch. Natasha takes that instead, arm wrapped in a splint, head still bandaged, silently mocking Tony’s taste in movies but going along with his pick. Thor and Clint are squashed on his other side, petting the pigeon, and Bruce has the other armchair.

 

Tony wakes up on the couch, to the smell of smoked salmon. Mission Impossible III is playing on the screen, muted.

“Sorry,” Bruce says, propping his legs up on his chair. He’s got a sandwich, the source of the smell. The others are gone. The sunlight is bright, and Tony feels like he’s been worked over by an angry supersoldier. Everything hurts.

“No, it’s good, I’m up,” Tony says, and staggers over to get his own food.

There’s a bowl of chicken soup in the fridge but Tony feels weirdly unentitled to it, given that Steve probably made it for him. He can’t get the look Steve had on his face during debrief out of his head, as Tony carefully avoided mentioning exactly how he’d distracted him.

He grabs some leftover spaghetti and a bag of Cheetos instead. He hears a coo. Eric the pigeon, perched on a stool in the corner that Clint likes to cover with treats and crumbs. Tony bends down and feeds one of the Cheetos to the bird.

“You know, you’re the kind of strange I like having in my life,” he says. “Not the kind involving black goo trying to possess my soul.”

It’s weirdly soothing petting the bird. He checks the splint. His wing’s almost healed.

“Your, uh, your chin’s orange, by the way,” Bruce calls.

“It is?” Tony says, and ducks his head to stare at his reflection in the toaster. It is. A splotch of orange runs from his chin down to his neck. “Oh, right. Clint,” Tony says.

Bruce chuckles. Tony opens his mouth to tell him off, but then Steve walks in, fresh from his morning run, and Tony freezes. He straightens up, deliberately casual. Steve avoids his gaze, grabbing his peanut butter jar.

“Hey, Cap,” Tony says, obnoxious like he used to. Sure enough, Steve glances over, like he can’t help himself, and sighs.

“Tony,” he says, a faint frown flickering across his face as he notices the orange splotch. “I was going to come find you.”

“Clint,” Tony says, gesturing at his chin, when Steve won’t stop staring at his face.

“Right. Sorry,” Steve says, ears pinking as he pulls a spoon out of a drawer. “Can we go down to your workshop?”

“Okay, why not, love the décor, the basement is perfect for sunny morning conversations,” Tony says, heart pounding manically. He tries and fails not to notice Steve licking his peanut butter spoon. He turns and heads downstairs.

Tony hovers awkwardly as Steve heads over to his workbench, drops his peanut butter, and leans against it, hands curled over the edge. Braced.

“I need you to explain-” Steve says, and Tony can’t. 

“Explain. Like you were going to explain your brilliant plan to leave you behind,” he says.

Steve doesn’t say anything.

“That’s what I thought.”

Steve runs a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think there was another option.”

“You should’ve told me anyways,” Tony says. “Steve. You tried to trick me into abandoning you in another universe.”

“I think it’s safe to say that if you knew, you wouldn’t have left,” Steve says, with a wry smile. “I thought we’d both end up stuck there.”

Tony glares at him.

“Turnabout’s fair play, Mr. ‘You’re not an acceptable loss.’ You had me backing you up. Another Avenger. I think it’s safe to say we could’ve handled it.”

“I don’t know whether to be thrilled you were listening or call you a hypocrite,” Steve says, with a small smile. “You’re right, though. I should have realized who I was stuck with. Of course Tony Stark would come up with a reckless plan to get us both out.”

Steve smiles fondly at Tony.

“Okay,” Tony says, winded. “Okay, good. I can work with that. I’m reckless, you’re a hypocrite, but, we’re aware, so. It’s good.”

“How about we both stop being hypocrites and start communicating?”

Tony has a snarky reply to that, but it dies on his tongue as he pictures Steve, ready and willing to sacrifice himself without saying a word.

“Yeah, okay,” he says.

“Okay. Good. Let’s start now. You kissed me,” Steve says, folding his arms.

“Yes,” Tony says. Communication is overrated. Tony regrets everything.

“To distract me,” Steve says, stern.

“Yep,” Tony says, flashing a million-watt smile instead of hunching over his workbench like he wants to. He slips a piece of metal into his hand and fiddles. “Not much to talk about, really.”

“Actually, yes, there is,” Steve says, shoulders tightening, and Tony’s heart plummets.

“Right. Won’t happen again,” he says, fumbling the metal piece onto the floor. He leans to pick it up, because he’s got to keep his damn hands to himself. Work. He is going to lock himself down here and work for three days. “Don’t worry, Steve, you’re safe from me.”

Steve stares, and Tony has the uncanny feeling that he’s seeing through him.

“Just so we’re clear,” he says, stepping into Tony’s space. “I’m objecting to the blatant emotional manipulation, not the kiss itself.”

“Yeah?” Tony says, backing up until he hits the edge of the table. “Well- wait, what do you mean?”

Steve steps closer.

“Depends,” he says, and leans forward. His breath ghosts across Tony’s lips and Tony shudders, heart kicking in his chest. The space between them is infinitesimal, and Tony wants to chart it with his tongue. He leans forward and Steve steps back with a faint smirk, pupils dark, eyes flicking over his face. “Want to go to dinner?”

Tony groans. “Yes, you asshole,” he says, “Now get back here.”

He steps forward and presses his lips against Steve’s neck, his jaw, his lips, electricity buzzing through him at each touch. Steve's mouth parts silently beneath his, one hand fisting in Tony's hair, and Tony traces the tip of his tongue. Steve moans and deepens the kiss. It's still not enough. Tony pulls Steve closer, fits himself into all the gaps and wraps himself around him. He takes the opportunity to grab Steve's ass, enthusiastically, and Steve laughs, breaking the kiss.

“New plan,” Tony says. “Coffee. Now. Then back here.”

“Okay,” Steve says, pupils blown wide, beaming.

 

 

“The lovebirds have left the nest, kssssh, over, kssssh,” Clint says, looking out the window. Tony and Steve are walking down the street, Tony gesturing animatedly with one hand, the other tucked tight around Steve’s waist.

“Comms don’t make that sound,” Natasha says. “You’re not going to follow them to the restaurant?”

“And suffer through another three years of sexual tension? Are you nuts?”

“You’re the one who put itching powder in Coulson’s suit.”

“Touché,” Clint says, stroking his pigeon thoughtfully. Eric bobs his head appreciatively. Pigeons are seriously underrated for evil stroking, much better than cats. “Anyways, I’ve got to booby trap Tony’s garage. Want to come? We could hotwire a car, Tony wouldn’t even notice right now.”

“You put itching powder in Coulson’s suit. If you steal a car, he’ll have enough leverage to have you lecturing health and safety for the next six months.”

“You’re right, we should take the quinjet instead. Think Tony and Steve would appreciate some aerial paintball?”

“I thought you didn’t want to disturb them.”

“Eh. He redid all my arrows in pastel. Mess with the bow, you get the Hawk.”

There’s a roar, and a phone hurtles out the window above them. Clint recognizes the Flappy Bird screen instantly as it flashes by.

“Oh, man,” Clint says, and dashes for his bow.

Seventeen pastel-pink and pastel-yellow tranquilizer arrows later, Bruce is still the Hulk, half the floor’s trashed, and Clint’s ears are ringing from the roaring.

“Bruce. Don’t worry, the app’s been taken down,” Natasha says, slipping her phone back in her pocket and dodging a piece of rebar. “No more game.”

“No more game?” the Hulk grunts.

Natasha nods.

“What- hey! I was just getting good at that!” Clint says as the Hulk starts to shrink. “I had this whole plan to drag Tony into a rivalry with me and sabotage his sanity.” 

“You asked me what the point of the universe was yesterday, after playing that game through breakfast. You owe me.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Uh,” Bruce says, looking sheepishly around at the destruction in tattered tan pants.

“Don’t sweat it, Stark’ll be too lovedrunk to notice structural damage for a week, at least,” Clint says, nodding at the window.

Tony’s head’s tipped back, laughing at something. Steve’s pleased grin lights up his whole face as they duck into a coffee shop.

“You know, I think you’re right,” Natasha says.