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Out Here in the Deep

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Out Here in the Deep

"I can't move on, and I can't stay the same."
- 45 - Gaslight Anthem

Within a week, Tony had lost the sallow complexion and the dark circles under his eyes were starting to fade. With proper fuel and rest, Extremis was taking over and rebuilding Tony's body at an increased, but not instant, speed. According to the discreet inquiries that Rhodey made to FRIDAY, Tony was sleeping through the night. Apparently his body was so tired that his mind wasn't bothering him with nightmares, though Steve and Rhodey were almost certain they would return. When he was well rested and recovered enough, they would come back with a vengeance.

He spent his time tinkering with various pieces of tech for the team. He upgraded Natasha's stingers and batons' variability of output and extended the life of their power supply. He designed subtle changes to Sam's kit for ease of use, and set Butterfingers and U to supervise the production back at the tower. He ate when he was hungry, but still needed to be prompted for anything other than breakfast. So that was when Steve and Rhodey tried to get the most amount of food into him, making it entertaining by attempting to teach Dum-E how to make pancakes and the like. It made Tony laugh to see them playing like kids and covered in various baking supplies, so Steve figured it was worth the extra laundry.

Dum-E was Tony's constant shadow. Charging at night while Tony slept, next to his bed. Even when Tony requested privacy to speak to Rhodey's mother, Dum-E stayed by his side. Most forms of social media had gone nuts about Tony and his bot, and the sentiment was overall positive. He and Dum-E's work around the Avengers' HQ had reached meme status, but Tony and Dum-E's disheveled charm shone through in the photos and short clips on Vine. The team's use of #RoutineMaintenance had even made entertainment news, and when Tony refused to be interviewed about it, Steve had stepped in and was vague and charming about Dum-E.

Tony still had the presence of mind to get the legal teams to secure all copyrights and social media accounts pertaining to Dum-E's name though, which they were mostly safe given the public attention Dum-E had received when Tony had first built him. He was less inclined to let Dum-E have access to the Twitter account that bore his name now though. "No, buddy, it's not because I think you don't have anything interesting to say. It's more for security reasons. If you want to start using it, fine, but let me supervise at first. I need to keep us all safe, remember." Tony had said as he drank at the coffee Steve had dropped off to him. He had to sneak one regular coffee in over the decaf that Steve tried to get him to drink in the afternoon, in order to ward off headaches. Dum-E beeped plaintively. "Okay. No, you don't have to run it by me. But you have to run it by Rhodey or Steve."

"Run what by me?" Rhodey asked. He walked into the garage area, where Tony and Dum-E were elbows deep in War Machine's weapons systems.

"Dummy wants to start using his Twitter account. Apparently he's already gotten into the Avengers' Instagram. I'm just laying out the social media rules. I don't want anything sensitive leaked to idiots online." Tony explained.

"I think that's fair, buddy. We want everyone here to be safe." Rhodey agreed. Tony smiled. He liked when their parenting styles coincided.

"So, I will give the password to Rhodey and Steve, and you can text them what you want. And no hacking into it on your own." Tony said. Dum-E huffed, but seemed to acquiesce.

"I thought no one said hack anymore, Tony." Rhodey teased.

"Yeah, well, Dummy's somewhat dated. He needs simple language." Tony snarked. Dum-E poked Tony in the shoulder for that one. "Hey, did I say you were obsolete? No. I barely know what Instagram is. You'll be teaching me about it." Dum-E nodded triumphantly. Tony rolled his eyes.

"What are you up to today?" Rhodey asked, changing the subject.

"Increasing the output of the repulsors, tweaking the targeting system for better accuracy with moving targets. Increasing life of power supply. Things I should have done before after Extremis, and before Ultron, really." Tony said.

"Hey, I'm just happy to lay my hands on it now." Rhodey said. "That decaf?"

"Yeah. Steve." Tony said and shrugged. Rhodey looked carefully over his shoulder, and then poured part of the contents of his large travel mug into Tony's, grinning the whole time. "You're so good to me, honey bear." Tony said, and then gulped down a significant portion of what was in his mug.

"Don't tell Steve. He'll kick my ass. But I would rather you didn't have a caffeine deprivation headache all afternoon. You get whiney." Rhodey said conspiratorially.

"No argument there. I am but a mortal man with weaknesses... You're too good to me." Tony said.

"Yeah, sometimes. Not enough lately though." Rhodey said thoughtfully.

"Don't say that, Rhodey. You've always been the best friend I've ever had." Tony replied.

"Could have done better a few times."

"Yeah, well, that makes two of us... You've been talking to your mom and or Steve about when you got the armour, haven't you?" Tony asked, though didn't wait for an answer. "But you have got to keep in mind all the times you've been there for me. You pretty much mothered me at M.I.T. You kept looking for me after everyone else had written me off as dead. You helped me through fights that I picked, even if I was monumentally stupid to do so. You stayed with Pepper when they cut open my chest again, and you were there when I woke up. Hell, Rhodey, you let me borrow your mom for the purpose of trying to heal my lack of nurturing... You don't get to think you're a shitty friend. You're not. I wouldn't have made it through another night wandering in the desert if you hadn't been ready to swoop in after I sent up that giant fireball of a signal. You've been there for me, Rhodey. Exactly when I needed you to be."

"But no one else was... I feel like I've spent thirty years trying to socialize you properly. You deserve to have more friends than just me." Rhodey said.

"I'm not totally inept. There's a reason why the board never filed an injunction to get rid of me until Obie did. I am capable of relating to people. I just don't like to waste my time."

"You're good at relating to other business people and scientists, Tony. You need people who aren't trying to get anything out of you."

"I got you, Pepper, and Happy, for that... I have the team for that now too." Tony said. "I got Steve now... You know, Steve's never asked me for anything. Not for anything that requires me to be wealthy. First thing he really asked me for was to be honest with him about Afghanistan. Which is probably one of the best starts to a relationship I've ever had."

"It's a relationship now?" Rhodey asked and cocked an eyebrow.

"Maybe? We're taking it slow. Which is practically glacial for me. We haven't even talked about the fact that holy shit, he's bisexual, and how was that not in Erskine's, Howard's, or SHIELD's notes? We need to talk more about why he apparently finds me attractive at all, with my myriad of character defects... But I want to talk with him about it. I want to talk with him about so many things..." Tony said. "Dummy, I need some solder here, here, and here, please." The bot leaned in with the spool as Tony raised the iron and made a few connections.

"I'm happy for you, Tony. I really am." Rhodey said. Tony looked up from his work and smiled at Rhodey. He was happy, but it reminded him of seeing him sober for the first time. It had been the morning after Rhodey had pulled him out of a party at the MIT dorms just before Tony was about to slide into major alcohol poisoning. There was nothing frantic about him. No tapping, no twitch, no tics, or bouncing. It was what Tony looked like when the world was hazy around him. Still brilliant. Still remarkable... But something was off. It might have been a peaceful moment, but Rhodey was all too aware that stillness in Tony was worrisome. "What is it?" Rhodey kept his voice soft. "What's eating you, Tony? I can see it in your eyes. You look like you did when you had the palladium poisoning."

Tony laid down the soldering iron with a motion that was too slow and graceless for his usual range of movements. "I got something that I don't know how to fix, Rhodey. And I can't take things further with Steve because of it."

"What do you need to fix?" He inquired, still quiet and gentle. He stepped in closer to Tony and Dum-E to reassure his friends that he wasn't going anywhere.

"It's why Pepper wouldn't come back... I can't fix myself. So she left. She couldn't stand to look at me anymore." Tony said, and his chin dropped to his chest.

"She loves you, Tony. Maybe not romantically, but she's always loved you. Why do you think she couldn't stand to look at you?"

"Extremis... I couldn't... stop. I made it evolve, and I got swept up in it. You and Clint are right. It's basically eating me alive." Tony said. Dum-E set the solder down on the table and curled around Tony, trying to return the support that Tony gave him.

"What did you do to Extremis?" Rhodey asked. He schooled his face and voice to be calm. Years of military combat training came in handy in a surprising array of situations. He laid a reassuring hand on Tony's forearm.

"I wanted to see... See what it could do for humankind... See if I could make it what Maya wanted it to be. It could be revolutionary. I also wanted to see what it could do for the defense of humanity." Tony said.

"But something went wrong." Rhodey interpreted.

"Not exactly. It works too well... But it's screwed me up... I can't control what it does without constantly thinking about overwriting the connection. Luckily, I can think about several things at once, and it doesn't bother me when I'm asleep... But..."

"It's exhausting. Which is probably why you've been sleeping so much. What is it doing to you, Tony? Tell me, please. I'm not going to get angry. I want to help." Rhodey said.

Tony patted Dum-E affectionately. "Take it easy for a minute buddy, it's gonna get loud." Tony warned the bot. He closed his eyes for a moment, and when they opened again, they glowed with the same haunting blue as the arc reactor had. "Essentially, because of the various tech and nanobots in my body, I'm as wired into the internet as Vision." Tony said, but his lips didn't move. Tony's voice came over the P.A. system, Dum-E's speakers, the War Machine and Iron Man armours, and every vehicle in the shop area's radios and com units.

Rhodey's hand dropped away from Tony's arm and his jaw fell open. But he didn't step away. Instead he got closer, and held Tony's face in both hands. A buzzing static came over the speakers and then silence. "Tony, you still here with me?"

"Yeah, I'm here." Tony's voice only came through the War Machine and nearby Iron Man armour this time. "It's gonna take me a minute to get back to wetware mode though."

"FRIDAY, call Vision here please." Rhodey said.

"He's already on his way with Captain Rogers. He felt the boss' presence in the system." FRIDAY responded. She sounded relieved that this fact was now known.

"What happened, Tony? Did you do this to yourself? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I did it to myself. It's my fault. I was looking at ways to better communicate with FRIDAY and the armour. Then Extremis just... took over. I can keep it in check, but if I open it up, I automatically connect with anything with any kind of wireless capacity. It's... overwhelming for a human mind. Frightening... Oh, hi, Vision. Yeah, about that... Little help?" Tony said, and then his voice fizzled out, and made for a few frantic moments for Rhodey, only to return as Vision and Steve came through the door. "So, long story short, I'm an idiot... No matter how justified I felt at the time."

"It will be all right, sir. We'll need to recode Extremis though." Vision said. So much like JARVIS as a reassurance to Tony.

"I've got the code mostly worked out. What is causing me these issues is getting the hardware and software to bend to the will of my wetware brain... Computers are so much easier." Tony said. Vision smiled, his expressions were becoming more and more naturally human as he spent time around Tony.

"So you have always said, sir." Vision agreed.

"I get it, you're playing JARVIS to get me to calm down. But I'm okay. I'll be fine. It's just a fight to get back every time. So please don't fall back to formalities will you, buddy?" Tony said. His head twitched but Rhodey kept a solid hold on him.

"If you say so, Tony. However, perhaps I am attempting to calm myself down." Vision suggested. "I believe I now understand how Dum-E felt when you first arrived. It was quite startling to suddenly feel your presence on the network... There, Tony, I've created a pathway back through Extremis' programming. You should be able to get back to yourself now."

Tony's eyes closed, and his cheeks pulled up into a smile. "Thanks, man." He mumbled out of his own mouth as he sagged against Rhodey and Dum-E.

"All right, who wants to explain what the hell that was?" Steve asked. Rhodey shot him a warning glare, hoping that Steve would interpret the look as a reminder to keep his cool.

"Tony has various pieces of technology implanted in his body. They are the reason he has the capability to call the suit to him. It seems that the tech and Extremis have learned to interact via Tony's mind and nervous system." Vision explained. "How do you interpret the information, Tony? Is it a visual interface?"

Tony nodded. "Sort of. If it's images or text, see it like the holograms I use to visualize my work. I think the nanobots are projecting on to my retina. Sounds I hear like any other noise, so I'm not sure if it's in my brain, or in my actual ear, manipulating what I hear." He said. The episode had overwhelmed and exhausted him, and his voice was softer than he would have liked.

"You want some water, Tony?" Rhodey asked. Tony nodded again. Dum-E was about to move when Steve gave him a gentle touch.

"Stay with Tony. I got it, Dum-E." He said quietly to the bot, and went to the fridge in the corner of the shop. Rhodey was running his hand over Tony's hair, and had his friend braced against himself and Dum-E. Tony didn't say anything before Steve returned, just leaning in to Rhodey and Dum-E, eyes closed once more. He waited until Tony opened his eyes, which had returned to their rich brown once again, cracked open the bottle of water, and offered it to Tony. Tony in his exhaustion made a clumsy grab for it, and got it. Steve tried not to beam at the lack of hesitation on Tony's part. He drank down half of the water greedily and then took a long breath, hunched forward, and pressed the bottle to his forehead.

"What can we do? This is... Is this a problem?" Steve asked.

"It's a problem, but it's not desperate yet." Tony said. "I'm controlling it."

"But it's exhausting you. You said it was eating you alive." Rhodey said. Steve became very still and quiet, all ears now.

"Is that true?" Steve asked.

"Yes and no. Mostly no? It just feels like it sometimes... I'm better than I was a month ago. I'm getting used to it, finally. There are things I need to do to Extremis, and there are things I need to do to the tech in my body. Rewriting Extremis again though is something I am now hesitant to do. I need someone with a better grounding in biology than I do in order to ensure that the tech and programming don't try to take over my mind." Tony said.

"You need Dr. Banner." Vision concluded.

"Couldn't hurt to run things by him. Maybe Hank Pym could help too... But he fucking hates me, so that's probably a no go. Curt Conners perhaps? He's been working on regenerative biology stuff... I don't know. I would feel most comfortable with Bruce. I... I trust him." Tony said.

"And you haven't asked for help from anyone else because of your trust anxiety issue." Rhodey said, the situation clear in his mind.

"My cigars are back at the tower, Rhodey. Otherwise I'd give you one." Tony said, and took another sip from the bottle of water.

"I'll get one when we pick up Sam's new kit, and I am assuming Butterfingers and U since I think you're staying on for the foreseeable future... This goes deep, doesn't it, Tony?"

"Deeper than it's ever gone, Rhodey. You know that already. As does Momma Rhodes I'm sure."

"Yeah, she does... Okay, first thing first... What are you doing here with War Machine? Just tell me and I can finish it up, and you can go take a nap." Rhodey asked. Tony mumbled several adjustments that still needed to be made, but nothing crucial. They were things that Rhodey could handle easily on his own if he had the time to work on his own armour. "Okay, no problem... Now, you get some rest, and we'll redouble our efforts to find Banner."

"I can find him... I just... I know what it's like to be ashamed and wanting to be left alone." Tony said and his chin dropped to his chest. "I know it's stupid. I already know that. Don't tell me."

"I think he would come back if he knew how badly you needed his help... How can you find him?" Steve asked. "We've been searching for months."

"You won't like it... I can do what I just did, but on a global scale. Vision could do it, but I know Bruce. I know how he hides. I know how he stays off the grid. I can find him. I just need to let myself do it." Tony said, and finished the bottle of water.

"And how much will that take out of you, Tony?" Steve asked.

"A lot most likely. It's like all the information out there tries to engulf me at once. I'm getting better at filtering, but I have to fight Extremis at the same time. It thinks that more is better, and I have to teach it that relevant is better." Tony said.

"Perhaps I could be of assistance." Vision said. "If I can make create pathways to help you find your way, I could help you filter, as you say, Tony."

"See, no lone gunslinger act required." Rhodey said and grinned down at his friend.

"That could work... Bless your little hearts." Tony said and smiled a bit.

"Come on, Tony. Let's get you into bed." Steve said. He offered Tony his hands, palm up.

"Not the context in which I wanted to hear those words." Tony said, and waggled his eyebrows at Steve. Steve rolled his eyes, but smiled back when Tony took his help to get to his feet. He didn't hesitate to lean into Steve, and Steve felt useful at being needed, so he wrapped a supportive arm around Tony.

"Not the context in which I wanted to say them. So at least we're both disappointed." Steve teased, and Tony chuckled, burying his face into Steve's side.

Steve took Tony back to his room, Vision followed along just behind them, silently exchanging information with Dum-E and FRIDAY about Tony's condition, trying to get access to Extremis, and managed to get just enough of a hold to let Tony relax and not worry about it taking over again. Steve got Tony into bed, but when he went to leave, Tony snaked his hand out from under the covers. "Stay?"

"Okay, but you really do need to get some rest."

"I will. I... You make me feel safer. More relaxed. I know I shouldn't rely on it, but it's nice when you're around."

"I would like you to have other coping techniques of course, but you're allowed to want and even need people around, you know. Me in particular, because I like you back." Steve said, and sat on the bed on top of the covers.

"Do you? Are you mad? Are you freaked out?" Tony asked.

"I do like you. Even with your mad scientist leanings. I think I understand better what you've been going through now. I know you always have a reason for doing what you do. And I suppose it could be scary, but I trust you Tony. I trust you with my life, and the lives of others."

"Thank you." Tony whispered. Steve picked up his hand and pressed the back of it to his lips. Tony smiled and pulled Steve down to lie next to him on the mattress. "After New York was the worst I'd ever been for anxiety. A lot of my world view was shattered that day."

"By the idea of aliens?" Steve asked.

"No, by the reality of their tech. The fact that they even got here is almost beyond belief. FRIDAY, can you lower the blinds and lights, and bring up a projection of our galaxy on the holotable?" Tony asked. Steve shifted on to his back so he could see, and Tony cuddled up beside him.

"Sure, boss." FRIDAY replied. Vision and Dum-E had settled near the bed, but faced away from Steve and Tony. But they both looked up at projection when it came up. The holotable gave the breathtaking sight of the galaxy, spinning slowly, millions points of light dancing in the air.

"As I'm sure someone who grew up Catholic before Vatican II knows, the Romans called it the Via Galactica; and so we call it the Milky Way. And the basic facts are these: Remembering that 1 light year is equivalent to 6 trillion miles, our galaxy has a total diameter of somewhere around 100 thousand light years." Tony paused and made sure to look Steve in the eye to see if he understood.

"It's big." Steve said. Tony smiled.

"Yeah... That's one way of putting it. Our Sun is located towards the edge of one of the galaxy's spiral arms - about 26 thousand light years out from the central bulge of the galaxy. It takes 200 to 250 million years for the Sun to complete one orbit of the central bulge. Surrounding the galaxy, above and below the disc in a spherical halo, there are approximately 200 globular clusters, which may contain up to a million stars each. The Milky Way itself contains 200 billion stars, give or take. These numbers are essential to understanding what a galaxy is, but when contemplating them, some part of the human mind protests, says "Yeah, no fucking way."... Yet an examination of the evidence brings you to the conclusion that it is reality. So yes, it's big."

"Really big." Steve agreed. Tony smiled, but his eyes were wide and wary.

"I know a small part of what’s out there - the kinds of things, the scale of things, the age of things, the violence and destruction, appalling energy, hopeless gravity, and the despair of distance - but I felt safe, because I know the world should be protected by the very distance that others might fear. The universe screams in your face, "Do you know what I am? How grand I am? How old I am? Can you even comprehend what I am? What are you, compared to me?" And when you know enough science, you can just smile up at the universe and reply, "Dude, I am you." ... We're made of stars, Steve. All of us. We're stardust. Stars are born, then die, and the energy and materials disperse. Hydrogen, oxygen, amino acids all blow apart and smash back together and out of that came our little Earth and us. We stepped out of a supernova... And some day that destruction is going to happen to us, no matter what we do, or even if we're still here or not. Our presently mild Sun will die in an apocalypse so incomprehensible that the wrath of any human-made god is pitiful by comparison. The wrath of Loki is nothing, even if it lasted for a billion years. Loki's entire existence up to now is a blink on the universal scale of time." Tony reached up and stroked Steve's cheek gently.

"So, taking into account the sheer vastness out there, of our galaxy alone, not even taking into account the countless others out there, one has to beg the question... Why would they even come here, Steve? Not for Loki. No one with that kind of tech, that kind of power, would serve Loki blindly. I have a pet theory that an outside force was directing him. He was almost happy to give up when we defeated the Chitauri. What could command a god, Steve? What's out there that could bend Loki or Thor, or even the Tesseract itself to its will?" Tony asked. His fear of the vast unknown was surfacing. The distance that should have made them safe was no longer a protective blanket. All it was now was a cover for the next thing lurking in the dark, waiting to destroy Earth.

"What did you see on the other side of the wormhole, Tony?" Steve asked gravely.

"FRIDAY, give me the last of the video feed before it cut out from New York." Tony requested. But he didn't look at the holotable anymore. He buried his head in the pillow and blanket, against Steve's upper arm.

"Not yet! I got a nuke coming in. And I know just where to put it." Tony's voice said, clear and calm.

"Stark, you know that's a one way trip." Steve's own voice warned.

"Shall I try Ms. Potts?" JARVIS' voice asked, his tone betraying the depth of his concern for his creator.

"Sure, why not?" Tony said. The visual was incredible, baffling. Steve watched Tony's perspective of chasing down the nuclear warhead, and grabbing on to it like it was any old sack of potatoes. He watched the call to Ms. Potts on the HUD go unanswered. And felt a pit in his stomach as he watched the Tower come into view, and suddenly the angle rose as Tony changed the path of the warhead and soared upward into the sky, dodging Chitauri invaders as he went. The Chitauri ignored him for the most part. He was small and innocuous compared to their fleet.

As the wormhole got closer and closer, Steve saw. He saw the vastness on the other side, and the horrific, looming, dark form in the distance from which the Chitauri emerged. Tony released the nuke from his grasp, and he watched it hit, and saw the explosion, which must have caused the chain reaction death of all the Chitauri. The suit's sensors and systems failed, Ms. Potts' photo and all the readings faded from the HUD, and for a moment, Tony was adrift, alone in space, surrounded by millions of stars. Not exactly falling, but not really going anywhere, on the other side of the galaxy. The video cut out finally, and the room was left in silence.

Tony remained curled into the blanket and pillow, refusing to look up. Steve reached over and ran a hand through Tony's hair. "My god." Steve murmured.

"Pretty sure god didn't have much to do with it." Tony muttered into the pillow.

"Little g, god, Tony." Steve said. "I think I lost my faith when I saw Buck fall from that train... It's an expression of somewhat terrified awe. What you saw, wow... I had no idea. Thank you for trusting me enough to share it with me."

"I saw something infinitely bigger than we could have solved if not for a handy nuclear attack, and the fact that Selvig built a failsafe into the device he built to create the wormhole. And I'm pretty sure the Chitauri could have shrugged it off too, but can't get to us now because of the lack of the Tesseract to reopen the portal." Tony said and took a deep breath.

"The stars, Steve. The video doesn't do it justice. I saw infinite stars. Points of light in a grey-blue mist, that when you relax your eyes and really look, you see that the mist is made entirely out of more stars. I saw another suburb of our galaxy, Steve. I never should have seen it. These distances are too enormous for us to cross at our current level of tech. We never should have met the Chitauri, or even Loki and Thor... And as I said, that's only our galaxy. Everything I knew in theory, I saw it in real time. I was there. I was actually there, even if it felt like I was only a few hundred feet above the tower at the time. If there's a god, which I doubt, but if there is, it's infinitely more terrifying than folktales of burning bushes in the Middle East suggest." Tony's face came up from the pillow and he looked at Steve, who was again gazing at the projection of the Milky Way.

"And all I am is a guy in a can, with just enough smarts to understand how big it is out there, and how fragile our little blue pearl is... As a kid, I used to love reading anything I could get my hands on about space. It was one thing that Howard openly encouraged me to explore. Jarvis would take me down to the Hayden Planetarium often. It was one of the indulgences I was given as a child. I still send them a shit ton of money every year, but I can't even enjoy it now because of my PTSD... I miss talking to Neil. I haven't in a few years. But if anyone can understand what I saw on the other side of the wormhole, it's him, and he probably understands why even thinking about it freaks me out now." Tony said. Steve carefully pulled Tony close to him, ignoring the fact that Vision and Dum-E were still in the room.

"Maybe you should call him up." Steve said. "Sounds like that's within your power to do. Talk it over with him."

"He's busy. I think Jane Foster's papers on the Convergence are keeping him up at night these days." Tony said. He let out a sigh and relaxed into Steve's embrace. "I like this."

"I like it too. Though Rhodey's going to give me shit for letting you stay up." Steve replied.

"He won't. This is stuff I need to talk about, Steve. He knows that." Tony replied.

"Good." Steve said, and leaned over to drop a kiss into Tony's hair.

"I'm sorry I was so short with you during the invasion. I misjudged you, Loki's influence or no. I was so ready to hate you that I defaulted to it, because I couldn't let Howard be right, Steve. He used to go on about you when he was drunk. He thought you were really something, and not just the science behind what Erskine did to you. He thought you were a good man, and trust me, he didn't think many people in his sphere were worthy of that title... Because of my issues, I could have missed out on what might be the best thing to ever happen to me. I could have screwed it up. I could have missed out on you, on the possibility of us. I want there to be an us, Steve. And for once in my life, I am not too proud to admit that I need someone else." Tony said.

"I wasn't exactly easy to deal with. I was so used to the world being black and white. The subtlety of now made for a lot of culture shock, Tony. You don't come off as all that nice sometimes, but you were busy, already traumatized, and trying to save the world. I couldn't see past the rich guy putting on a front in order to keep everyone else from freaking out. If you weren't keeping it together, I think a lot more people would have lost it. There was stress and hurt there for both of us. Neither of us were in a good place. But you just sauntered up to Loki like it was nothing. No armour. No backup, you silly shit. And I can't even give you crap for it, or I would have to feel guilty about every fist fight I got into in Brooklyn when I was a kid." Steve said. His voice was soft and quiet and lulling Tony down into a relaxed state, despite their topic of discussion.

"Someone had to distract him while you guys got your shit together." Tony said, and Steve chuckled.

"I didn't know you then, but I think I know you better now... And you're the only guy I know who will lay down on the wire while he's cutting it. You're a crazy kind of brave, Tony. But I hope that you will eventually see that you don't always have to sacrifice. You can ask for help." Steve said.

"I'm trying. I will try to keep in mind. I promise. Remind me if I get weird about it, though, would you?" Tony asked, his voice barely above a murmur.

"You got it." Steve agreed.

Tony drifted off shortly after, and Steve lingered for a time, quietly asking FRIDAY to change the display on the holotable to something Tony would find peaceful to wake up to. FRIDAY brought up the visualization of her own 'thought' process, that looked so much like JARVIS' had, only now in shades of emerald green to JARVIS' golden orange. Steve looked to Vision, who was inhumanly still on the couch.

"It will be all right, Captain Rogers." He reassured very softly. "I am working with Dum-E and FRIDAY to try to create a permanent pathway for Tony to find his way back through Extremis' code to himself when he allows himself to connect. Then I can help him find Dr. Banner."

"Extremis is now inactive in Ms. Potts, correct? Could we deactivate it in Tony if we had to?" Steve asked.

"No." Vision said. "According to old files that JARVIS compiled that are now curated by FRIDAY, too much of Tony's physiology depends on Extremis' continued function in his body. He's been through so much since Afghanistan. His body wouldn't stand up to much strain now. To keep him functioning and healthy, he needs it. And if he has it, he can even continue his duties as Iron Man."

"If his mind can hold up to it." Steve said.

"It can. I believe that he can. He is nothing if not resilient. What I felt over the connection when he opened up was vaster and more complex than Ultron. He just needs to harness that power so it doesn't harm him. I believe he will endure this adjustment."

"What about bringing Extremis back to what it was? Where it was just able to heal him?" Steve asked.

"Now really, Captain Rogers, would you let yourself believe that Tony would shun this idea? He's been looking for something like this since he was in his mid-teens. All we have to do is perfect it, and we cannot accomplish that unless we try." Vision said.

"But he can't come to any harm, Vision. I can't lose him. Not now. Not when everything is so new between us."

"I will make it my utmost priority to look out for his welfare. As my previous incarnation did, and as FRIDAY and Dum-E continue to endeavour to do so. I promise you that." Vision said. Steve let out a quiet sigh and nodded.

"Thank you." He said to the three AIs in the room.

"Colonel Rhodes is in the kitchen. Perhaps you should get something to eat and fill him in on the plan. I will watch over sir." Vision said.

"You're 'sir'ing him again." Steve teased. Vision smiled.

"Coping mechanism. I worry for him." Vision replied. Steve smiled and treaded quietly out of the room.

Steve found Rhodey sitting quietly in the kitchen with Sam and Natasha. "How is he?" Rhodey asked. His face and voice were solemn.

"Asleep. Vision is watching over him. Vison seems confident that he can help Tony find a solution."

"God... He's my best friend, and sometimes, he just can't... Stop." Rhodey said. "It's like what living with Tesla would have been like. So smart and so... thoughtless."

"I suppose I'm used to seeing what are basically miracles now, so it's a little less creepy to me." Steve said, and went for the fridge. He was a nervous eater, fueling up for an upcoming ordeal. It was nice to be able to be a nervous eater. The abundance of food in modern times had astounded him for a while. Now he was just extremely grateful to not have to worry where his next meal was coming from.

"You heard about the idea of the Singularity yet?" Rhodey asked.

"Smart AI's like FRIDAY and JARVIS, right? Ones that have the means to create new machines." Steve said. Rhodey tapped his phone and the screen came to life.

"Also defined as this: The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly non-biological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today - the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity... Tony is now about a million steps closer to that becoming reality, and it scares him, Steve."

"Of course it would. He's the first to do something. That's always scary." Steve said. "He and Vision will figure this out. I trust him, Rhodey."

"I do too. But I'm scared to lose him. Especially in the face of all these new, unearthly threats." Rhodey replied. "He has no sense of self-preservation... That we might need him later, you know? That he has to stick around so he can help us when we really need him."

"Yeah, I wouldn't know anything about that." Steve said dryly. Rhodes shook his head and smirked.

"Jesus, you two were fucking made for each other." Rhodey muttered.

"Think so?" Steve asked, voice bright. That made Rhodey and Sam laugh out loud. Natasha favoured him with a smile.

"Steve, I swear, you're the world's most noble golden retriever puppy some days." Sam cracked, and Natasha's smile widened almost enough to show teeth. Steve set down sandwich makings on the counter then looked around suspiciously.

"Wait, shit... Is this going to turn into a shovel talk? It's called a shovel talk, right?"

"Yes it is called a shovel talk, and no it's not. Tony doesn't really need that much protecting. He took on international terrorists with the contents of a Home Depot. Do you know how many things in this kitchen alone he could eliminate us all with? I am an aeronautical engineer, a legit rocket scientist, and while I have a better idea than most, I don't know everything. But I'm pretty sure he had it all cataloged the first time he set foot in here. But the fact that he uses that knowledge to protect people is a good sign for all of humanity. I will warn against breaking his heart though. I don't know how many more of those he can take." Rhodey warned.

"I'll do my best." Steve said.

"He needs better than your best, Steve. Do everything you can to avoid it... He's difficult, but he's worth it. Even Pepper still thinks that. She just couldn't deal with the stress, the weirdness... She tried. I'm hoping that you will be able to continually remind yourself that he's worth it." Rhodey said.

"You know, I had a buddy I went against orders and followed into an active warzone too because I thought he was worth it. I know a little of what you speak. I would do it again in a heartbeat." Steve said. Rhodey smiled wide this time.

"Good... Now, you gonna hog all that loaf of bread or are you gonna share?"

"I don't know. I might have to be bribed with the promise of biscuits." Steve said.

"You really liked them didn't you?" Rhodey said, surprised.

"Haven't had anything like them since I left Brooklyn." Steve replied and grinned. "Bucky and I may have stolen a few off of window ledges when we were kids by climbing up fire escapes. Bucky would boost me up, and I had to make like an asthmatic monkey to get at them... But they were really good, and we were really hungry."

"I'll call momma and give her your sob story. She might buy it. Might." Rhodey agreed.

"I look foward to that. We'll help him, Rhodey. I know that we will get it done."

"I sure as hell hope so." Rhodey agreed.

-End (for now)