Chapter 1: Hello, I've Just Arrived
Again, no good deed went unpunished. At least, in this case, nobody was left bleeding or dead, but to Tony Stark’s mind, that wasn’t much of an improvement. This deed had involved Steve Rogers, and for once, he had done it with the hope of a second chance to begin again with that man, this time on more secure footing – as equals, partners – friends seemed unlikely, but he felt obligated to keep trying. Trying to catch up with the man as he tried to escape one of the ugliest office buildings in New York under full sail had not been in his plan for the day.
Really - an art gallery would at least have been entertaining. There would have been some variety of things hanging on the walls, some break in the endless hallways. Covered in vintage 1975 wood paneling, broken up only by hollow-core, Formica covered doors with identical stainless steel hasps and levers that led into more hallways and conferences rooms, the walls met floors paved in vintage 1959 grey spotted linoleum, stretching from one end of the hallway to the other. Elevators at one end, doors leading to the outdoor balconies at the other.
Tony Stark hated all of the office buildings built near the United Nations. Greatest hope for world peace, furnished in the absolute bargain basement of style, not a cheery or friendly note anywhere. Miles of impersonal hallways full of unhappy people, posturing and pontificating endlessly – just like they had for over six decades.
Oh, there were galleries, lobbies and meeting areas that were pleasant enough – but when it came time to do The Meeting Thing? There were hives of rooms full of tables, chairs with just enough creature comforts to put human beings in proximity to each other, all alike. Pick one. Send a memo. Text the location to your friends. Hope they show up.
Like this meeting some subset of nozzles had called with SHIELD this morning to discuss new types of power systems – the ones under development, the ones both known and unknown. Possible, impossible and how they could become strategically important, even critical. He’d heard it all before and frankly had forgotten the names of the people he’d spent a very unpleasant fifteen minutes with as soon as he’d heard the word ‘retard’ flung at Steve Rogers. He’d called the meeting over in language he’d reserved like a live asp in glass with hammer labeled ‘break in case of recto-cranial inversion.’ It had been memorable. Rogers, however, had been less than impressed and had left the room with glare in Tony’s direction, and nothing more.
There had been no briefing before the meeting; he hadn’t felt it worth the time really. But before walking in late to that meeting, Tony had yet to even to see Steve Rogers since the Chitauri invasion of New York, and when he had, it was to see a room full of bureaucrats taking him apart. Nick Fury had been on one side of Rogers, Bruce Banner on the other. All of them had stared at Tony like he’d thrown ice water in their faces. Absolutely, he had, pleased to oblige. Well, maybe he’d been more than a little prepared to do that, if he wanted to be honest with himself.
The day after – the very day after settling into the apartments overlooking Central Park, they’d had to drag him into this pointless exercise of information exchange…for things that had already been exchanged, traded like bubblegum cards and discarded. No, he had not been to the tower. He knew Pepper had made going there a priority, but he wasn’t the civil engineer on that project like she was – he’d passed, saying he would go when she needed him to certify power or some such. She’d been happy and excited to go, kissing him soundly on the cheek, then smacking one on his ear leaving the car this morning before he’d been delivered to this bureaucratic designer limbo of an office building. He knew she knew he was dodging that trip, but Pepper loved him enough to give him a pass on it without saying as much.
He wasn’t stupid enough to try that just yet. Tony knew intimately that the panic attacks had reasons, causes – parameters – and they were still very much out of his control, albeit a mite more predictable. He was getting better at riding them out and they were fewer in number, but anticipating when one would trigger? He wanted to get back into the labs there at the tower, get up to his elbows in machine oil, bad code and blueprints – but instead, he had moved into a small set of rooms the family had owned for at least two generations that better allowed one to walk the dogs and pick flowers. Just for a while, he’d temporalized. Some breathing room. They were small rooms, cozy and unremarkable. Stuffy. Boring. Pepper had simply settled into behind the small desk in one corner, plugged in the phone and laptop and went to work while she was there, visiting the Stark Industries offices without him. He had checked all the rooms, fluffed the pillows on the bed, set up the telescope and made coffee, satisfied with what he could do with the smart phone (for now). Stared up at the ceiling and began naming the holes in the acoustic tiles.
Hello New York, I’ve just arrived.
So, when he’d gotten the call from Fury, it had been a simple decision - go. From the little Fury had mentioned (and he had been exceptionally smooth about the request) Tony had expected something completely low impact, even friendly. “It’s all been done before, done to death before, you want to know the truth,” Fury had said. “Nice way to get your feet wet again, and it’s high time you did.”
Tony hadn’t liked Fury’s tone, so he’d arrived late.
When Stark Industries had made weapons, he had explained the possibilities in meetings like these – the endless, endless possibilities to groups of policy-setting bureaucrats. Who then had gone in circles, chased their tails, looked over their shoulders in blatant paranoia, and then pointed fingers. Ought to be an Olympic event. Predictable as the length of an idol singer’s career. Today, it was power systems. On any given day, it could have been tiddlywinks – but none of it within Steve Rogers’ scope, never had been. Tony had expected the focus to come to him, once he had seated himself – but it never had. It was if he had simply been invisible – and that was just out. Right out, you don’t forget Tony Stark when he’s in the room. Bad things happened, and he was more than willing to oblige them.
What had changed? Instead of waiting for him to appear, they’d gone ahead without him – and started in on Rogers. Even with Banner sitting right there at the table, it had made no sense. It was if they hadn’t even noticed him. Or himself. So not only had they not asked him to go over old ground, they had ignored him, ignored the only other person in the room with the expertise to cover the material and then attacked the one guy in the room without a clue for not being an expert on the subjects himself. Really – nuclear physicist, thermionic engineer Steve Rogers was not. It had sounded like Captain America had yet again put both feet in his mouth and gone jogging.
If they had used him for what he’s good for –…eff those guys. All of them.
But that thought almost brought him up short. I’m defending Steve Rogers. Holy crap. No, no – that’s perfectly okay. Those assholes were assholes. He knows that, right?
Taking another deep breath of musty air that might have been tinged with the disinfectant used to mop the floors, Tony lengthened his stride. He’d worn the hard-soled Italian leather shoes today, on Pepper’s insistence that the comfortable high tops would be taken amiss (and she was right, they would have), and they snapped against the tile loud as gunshots, echoing down the hall. Uncomfortable as giddy hell and they slid like mad, slowing him down.
Unlike Steve Rogers, who had worn suede Hush Puppies with what could only be white tube socks. And now, he was making better time getting away from all of them, silent except for the occasional squeak of rubber sole as he turned a corner.
Why is he running away from me? He’s running from both me and Bruce, come on Steve -
Well, running was a relative term. Taking three of Tony’s strides in his one, more like. Looking ahead, he noted Rogers had found the end of the hallway – a glass door, leading to the balcony outside. Hitting the panic bar at full speed, the door flew open with a bang that echoed down the hall and allowed the tall figure a swift exit. By the time Tony had reached the door, it had already closed again.
He didn’t open it right away. Stopped short and didn’t touch it. Okay, he’s not leaving. Yet.
He wanted to take a good look at Steve Rogers through the glass while he had the chance and his back was turned to him. Maybe I’m missing something. Haven’t even seen the man since -
The shoes were only the beginning. Someone had sold him the most hideous camel colored suit he could recall in recent memory. Looked like something had just been grabbed off a rack and thrown it on in the dark, and perhaps that’s exactly what he had done. The shoulder seams of the jacket hung off his shoulders, the sleeves were too wide and hung loosely on his arms, the pants had no idea where his anatomy was – it was all too big.
He never thought he’d see clothing too large for Steve Rogers, well there it was.
White shirt, looked like it was made out of something you could have slept on – and the tie, while tied properly in a good Windsor knot, was a white/camel/navy…stripe. Broad stripes, like a barber pole. Everything wrinkled and creased where he had sat on it during that brief, but mortifying half hour of shame.
He looked every inch a high school kid who’d raided his Dad’s closet to sneak out on a date. Squinting a bit, Tony also came to the conclusion the color was the closest thing to Army khaki without actually being it there could be. He’d have looked better in fatigues, but it looked like he’d tried his best to recreate them and still pass for a business professional.
If they didn’t want to put him in charcoal or navy, why did they go with the one color he’d look terrible in? It looks orange with that hair of his.
Whoever the ‘they’ were – he hadn’t even spoken to him since they had parted ways that morning they’d seen Thor off. Lifetime ago.
How dare they. And suddenly, he was even angrier – but at himself.
A lot had happened to Tony. But he hadn’t been alone. Looking through the glass door, he pitied the man. Oh, that is wrong, wrong, what am I thinking. Taking a deep breath, then another one as he looked back over his shoulder to see Bruce talking to Fury where they had stopped halfway down the corridor. He absently noted that Fury was doing most of the listening, chin idly being stroked by one hand, elbow cupped in the other. Bruce, for his part, was earnest yet humble…but never stopped talking, hands either gesturing or tapping each other, fingertip to fingertip. Nothing to worry about there, the man looked almost happy.
Tony tried to recall if anyone had even mentioned Captain America being at a loss, not ready for the next step or knowing the way. Thinking that because Steve looked lost, standing there at the railing, looking out across the skyline of New York. Nope. Cap always knows what to do, what to say. Always. When he’s doing what he knows, nobody can touch him. But this kind of confrontation isn’t his strong suit.
He pushed the panic bar down and swung the door open. “Hey, Cap.”
The turn he made to face Tony was precise, formal and flawless, head held high, eyes front, center, engaging his own immediately. “Stark.” Nothing had changed. Rogers looked at him as he had before, civil to the point of brusque and not in the least bit impressed.
Blowing air, Tony shrugged and shook his head. “Look, I’m sorry how that went. All my fault, I was late.” But that was as far as he was willing to go as far as apologies went. “Seriously, does that happen on a regular basis? Because if it does, tell me now. Ask anyone – I was ending meetings like that with fire since I was in grade school. Fishing for something they don’t even know enough about to ask for, and then hanging you out to try when you don’t even understand the questions. Foul.”
Steve relaxed a fraction, one hand still resting on the balcony railing. “It happens. Not the first time, and – “ He’d begun speaking, even raising one hand to wave it all away with his face falling into a pleasant expression, mouth quirking into a lopsided smile. But the moment ‘first’ was spoken, Tony was drawing a deep breath.
“Not the what? Seriously, you’re joking. Tell me you haven’t been – “
“Tony, what do you think goes on around here? They want some answers, best I can do is at least show up and listen to the questions.”
“Listen? Listen, are you nuts? You really think that was going to – not the first? The what?”
He didn’t answer, and Tony stopped talking. Almost a year, and he hadn’t known much about what had been going on here in New York since he’d left to go home to Malibu. Hadn’t asked, hadn’t been told. And when I come back, I’m late for the party right off the bat. Missed the memo. Lovely.
“Tony, we handled it. It’s okay.”
He wasn’t sure what that deserved. An eyeroll or a jaw drop. Regardless, he got both. “You have got to be kidding me. Those guys didn’t deserve your time, certainly not to be brought into depression central here and insulted like that.”
It earned him an even more puzzled look from Rogers, and then his face fell as the fact that Stark was truly just that angry began to register. “Insulted - I guess...to you that kind of talk might not have made much sense. But -”
“I can get behind you wanting to do the right thing by these guys, Steve – I really can. But you really want to tell me that was anything close to ‘handling’ them? And why leave the room? Did you think I was going to stay in there and take a chunk out of you like those assholes just did? Really?”
“You certainly took your share before leaving yourself, if I heard correctly.”
“Oh I hope you heard every word. What the hell was that cluster, anyway? A blanket party?” Tony jammed both hands into pockets as he left the doorway angrily.
Stepping through the doorway to the balcony, Tony noted the breeze ruffling clothes and hair as he walked towards Rogers. It was brisk, chilling – swift enough to make one squint a bit. It was not quite spring yet in New York, snow still fell although it didn’t linger and the air was still cold. A reminder the coats were checked downstairs at the door, along with the hats and mufflers.
“They’ve said worse, Tony. Tony?”
There was a definite draft coming up through the floor. Was it one of those open gratings that let you see straight down to the ground? They were at least thirty floors up and the railing was just three bars with posts. Scuffing a shoe against the ‘floor,’ Tony got the answer. Grating, wrought iron thickly painted the same color as the railings. If he looked down, he’d see right through it.
Open. Very exposed. Don’t push it. Stay near the doorway. Stop. Don’t look down. Breathe. Oh, that wasn’t a good idea. Crap. Okay, look up – sky’s not evil and all that, right?
It was a beautiful view, high up above the street noises. You could see the clouds above the rooftops, even the sun seemed brighter.
What it would be to fly in that sky right now. Knowing Steve was watching him, Tony suddenly found himself longing to be up in that sky, knowing how the thermals coming off the buildings warming in the sun would feel, seeing for miles in any direction, able to be anywhere almost as quickly as the thought was formed.
He looked down and suddenly, he was falling. Too high, too exposed…even though a rational streak tried its best to break through, Tony gasped, struggling to catch his breath and composure as panic gripped him, threatening to throw him to the floor of the balcony. The not-a-floor that he could see the ground below through, sure to break under his feet – there’s nothing wrong, nothing at all, calm down – he held his breath, clenching his jaw against a moan and began to count. Closed his eyes only for a moment, throwing them wide open again when all he saw were flames. Vision narrowing to a tube with Steve seeing him, watching him as he crossed the balcony in a few steps, eyes intent on him but not alarmed, or even surprised. I’m not going to let this get in my way, I’m not going to – just stop. STOP.
He knew. Knew it was only a panic attack, but knowing didn’t stop the progression, allow him to unclench his jaw long enough to take a breath. Why can’t I breathe? Come on, this is ridiculous. Vision sparkling, then graying out at the edges, the last thing Tony saw was Steve reaching for him, still completely calm and unaffected and he wondered why that was. Felt Steve’s hands on his shoulders…then, nothing.
“Wow, that’s what one looks like on him?” Tucking his jacket in around Tony Stark’s shoulders a bit tighter, Steve Rogers rocked back on his heels to meet Bruce Banner’s eyes across their friend. “He started breathing again on his own the moment he passed out, but man. He took on Killian dealing with this at the same time?”
Tony sat propped up against the wall on the floor like a puppet with its strings cut, just inside the doorway where Steve had brought him, eyes still open, unfocused and flat. Breathing normally, his skin was still tacky and cold, but his color was good and improving. “He’ll wake up in a moment, Steve,” Bruce said mildly, “I’d step back if I were you – he’ll probably snap right back on his fee – yup!”
They watched Tony nearly jump out of his skin, gasping, eyes wild but aware as he regained consciousness with a sharp jerk, arms flailing out from under the jacket, hands pressing against an arc reactor that was no longer there in the center of his chest, legs failing to get under him then folding at angles as he came back to rest on the floor. It only took a few seconds for him to come back to himself, but he saw both of them staring at him, returning a look Steve felt terrible seeing on Tony’s face. Shame.
Oh my God, you saw that.
“Hey.” Bruce reached over to put a large, awkward hand on the top of Tony’s head to ruffle his hair. “That was impressive.”
Tony turned his head in Bruce’s direction, closing his eyes as he leaned into the caress, expression softening as he did so. “Hey. M’sorry if I scared you two.”
“Scared us, you scared you, goofball. Don’t worry about it. This is what you were trying to tell me about last night?”
Steve wasn’t surprised by Tony’s reaction to Banner; in the months he had spent with Dr. Bruce Banner, he had learned firsthand how steady, thoughtful and kind the older scientist was. Banner had told him the night before he retired about how Tony had wanted to unburden himself a few hours before, but he’d only fallen asleep in response. Bruce had been more than a little guilty, but not too much, welcoming the gentle jibes Steve had used to dispel some of it. He also had been more than a little surprised at Tony’s reaction – it had been anything but angry. This morning, it had been clear – Tony Stark had been angry, very angry - but not at him. It had been odd – an overprotective Stark was new in his experience.
“Take a moment, no hurry,” Steve said slowly. “If there is anything I understand, it’s not being able to breathe.”
The side-eye he got from Tony on that was silent but receptive. “That’s right, isn’t it,” he answered in a soft voice. “Asthma, right?”
“Asthma, right. Everything slams shut and you can’t get any air in.” He didn’t make any moves towards Tony, just stayed still and watched him take one breath after another, eyes still wild and bright. Perhaps he should have been sterner, perhaps that would have been a better strategy but in the face of Tony staring at him with those eyes waiting for him to say something harsh, it made no sense. Sighing, he ducked his head. “Something I remember, something really old. They used to say there was one phobia everyone had - everyone has a fear of heights. Everyone – if someone tells you they’re not afraid of falling, they’re lying to you. The paratroopers, in particular. And they didn’t tolerate liars.”
Tony just kept staring at him, but now with a puzzled expression as he handed his jacket back to him and made to get back on his feet.
Standing, Steve watched Bruce follow his lead but who also didn’t stop watching Tony with bemused concern on his face, hands moving to fidget, fingers steepling under his chin. Reaching down to Tony, Steve offered him a hand up as Bruce did the same. “Tony – I know it’s not asthma. You gotta believe me - it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Certainly nothing I haven’t seen before.”
“What would you know about – “The growl was hardly a warning, more of self-directed complaint but Tony took the hands offered to him, clasping them around the wrists and allowed them to pull him to his feet. The jacket draped across one arm, Steve rolled his shoulders watching Tony dust himself off, settling his own clothing. “Panic attacks. You guys used to call it shell shock and got over it.”
“Maybe. You think you’re bad – you haven’t seen Clint Barton.” That earned him another hard stare from Tony, but at least this time the eyes were focused. “Bruce can tell you, he’s been at the tower the most. Barton’s still on medical leave – guy’s a total box of mixed nuts, but the scary thing is he knows it…and keeps telling me this has happened before, not to worry. It’ll pass, he says.”
“He’s at the tower? He’s been there this whole time?” Curious, Tony hesitated. “I – didn’t….”
Steve nodded. “Kind of moved in, both him and Romanov – though they certified her fit for at least one mission…but now she’s on the list, too.”
“We’ve all been there, off and on – you know, Tony.” Bruce made the statement mildly, shrugging. “I never left, but you knew that. Thanks, by the way.”
Steve almost smiled to himself as he watched the science twins look each other in the eye. “Barton is…interesting,” Bruce added slowly. “It wouldn’t be so bad, but he has this tendency to freeze in place in the middle of an attack. Literally. He doesn’t run, doesn’t move – but he’s strong and when he’s stressed? He’s broken bones fighting himself. Just locks up and wham. Right now he’s got one leg in a hip to ankle immobilizer because he strained the ACL on his knee a few weeks ago. Surgery. A few months before that, he popped the Achilles on the other one. Shrugs it off, says it’s happened before. I hate to think what he considers a significant injury, don’t you?”
That pulled Tony out of himself, Steve watched it happen. “That’s…impressive. I think. Maybe not so much. Nat – Romanov?” he asked, attention split between the two of them.
“Ghost,” Bruce said, hands spreading in front of him. “Like smoke. You can’t get a fix on her. Clint says this is what she’s like when she’s not on a mission, but I’ve got my doubts.”
“Pepper and I were her last mission,” Tony said, biting the words off. “You got the briefing on Extremis.”
“We did. Nasty stuff.” Bruce’s expression hardened and Steve found himself thinking just how much his expression fit how he had felt at the same time. As Steve blew air, he watched Bruce shake his head sadly. “Nice job, by the way.”
Tony only shrugged. “Stabilizing it wasn’t hard. Removing it – that was the bitch. Almost killed Pep. Romanov – “
“Later,” Bruce said, temporalizing and grinned lopsidedly when Tony dropped his eyes and did the same. “We got time, now. You know that.”
“I guess the important thing to know, Tony – you aren’t the only one. You never were.” He’d tried to keep the tone even, but even to his ear it had sounded harsher than he’d intended. Tony’s expression changed, eyes narrowing. Moved to speak, then stopped and looked at Steve. Really looked. First at his hands, the arms folded across his chest, torso, down to his feet, then up to his face. “I wasn’t the what? How did you – wait a minute. I thought that suit was too big for you, and I was actually cursing your tailor, but that’s not it, is it?” he said quietly, almost to himself. “That suit fit when you got it, what a year ago?”
Steve sighed and looked at the floor.
“You’re not well. That’s what it was. You’re not well.” It wasn’t a question. “You’ve lost at least seventy five pounds, if I’m any guess. What – “
“It’s been worse, it’s better now – “
“Really, it’s noth – “ The words were said hastily by both he and Bruce, defensive but also to reassure Tony…who only grew more focused and concerned, silencing them midway through their statements. In all honesty, Steve couldn’t tell if Tony was hurt, angry or both. He didn’t know. He really hadn’t known.
He glared at both of them, then blew air and clapped one hand to the top of his head and rubbed it hard. “Fury calls me out to babysit a bunch of idiots, but he doesn’t tell me jack about this going on. I wish – I would – gods. Well, hell.”
Steve didn’t look away, he couldn’t. “Didn’t your Jarvis tell you? Ours told us – “
“Steve, maybe he didn’t – “
Tony closed his eyes as if in pain. “Why,” he said as sadly as Steve had ever heard him say anything, “I don’t understand.”
“Tony,” Bruce’s voice so very soft, calm and warm as he put a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Of all of us, you had a life to go back to afterward. You went home.”
“Tony, you’re not thinking – it wasn’t your fault. Jarvis even said – “
Elbow went into hand, hand went to face as Tony blew air, dissembling. Bruce didn’t let go, gently shook his friend to get his attention.
“Bruce. You never said.”
“It was handled,” he replied. “Just not by you. Who already had a full plate. Right?”
“And not in New York.”
“And not in New York, right.”
“Jarvis,” Tony said, and stared at a point between Steve and Bruce. “You had Jarvis at the tower – who told you what I was…like. Hey, you asked. I know you did - but I didn’t. “
“You’re not used to doing that yet,” Bruce drawled. “Where the wheels meet the road, you’re not in the habit of intruding in other people’s lives, your own keeps you too busy. But you assume we all know the details – Tony Stark, no private life to speak of and all that. Am I right?”
He had to give Tony credit – he was not happy, but his expression only grew more thoughtful instead of angry. “I never expected you to clean up the messes I made, but – this. Bruce, am I that difficult? You never said – “
“It was handled,” Bruce said, smiling. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. We’re fine.”
The look Tony cut Steve was very clear. It wasn’t fine, not one bit. Sighing, he looked down at the floor again. “I have been so very blind,” Tony said sadly. “I know what I was thinking, but I never checked my work. Too busy, too damn good - ”
“Is it possible, “ Steve started, and then waited for Tony to look up and meet his eyes before he went on. “Is it possible that we didn’t want to burden you any more that you were already? Come on, Tony. None of us really had any better place to go – you were the only one. And you had people waiting for you, folks who knew you better. Needed you.”
“Steve, you’ll have to forgive me – but I’m going to take a moment to process this before going any further. Are you telling me all of you – with Barton being the worst – all of you have been struggling since last year like...like – “
“Like you. Maybe. Not completely. Possibly. I don’t know, it’s been different for each of us.” It was getting harder and harder to look Tony in the eye, he felt some of the shame he had seen on the other man’s face and the voice Tony was using was only getting softer and quieter, not louder and angry. “You were not left in charge, Tony.”
“Neither were you.” Challenge. It was clear in the lift of Tony’s chin as he said it.
Bruce looked at both of them and laughed. “Not even conditionally,” he added. “But that won’t stop either of you, will it? Do me a favor. Relax. You keep this up and you’re going to piss me off.”
That got both of them staring at Bruce for a moment, considering the risk. Weighing it in the face of a smiling, self-effacing nuclear physicist who could level several city blocks with his temper, properly motivated. “I’m sorry,” Tony murmured. “I just – I didn’t know, Steve. And I always know – that’s what I do. Good, bad, indifferent – I thought I knew. Well, enough.”
“Jarvis would have told you if really got too bad, Tony. Heck, Fury probably would have sent for you if there had been anything you could have personally done, wouldn’t he? That’s what he did, didn’t he?”
“What Fury wants out of me any given day can be stuff of nightmares,” Tony said. But the eyes never left Steve. “What happened to you?”
“I could just tell you to get stuffed.”
“I wish you wouldn’t, but yanno. ‘Bout what I deserve, I guess.”
“Be easier. Worry you less.”
“You got a ringside seat today at what’s wrong with me, pal. And it didn’t even surprise you. Why?”
“Barton,” he said, and shook his head as he closed his eyes. “You’ll see what I mean when you meet him. Barton. Romanov. You’re not even scary, and they are.” Opening his eyes, he tried as hard as he could to will reassurance towards Tony as he made his next statement. “Tony, I swear to you, I have no idea why it was – I wasn’t even stressed. But one night, I stopped being able to swallow anything. Not even a glass of water. Choked. And it wouldn’t let up.”
He watched Tony’s face pale, the eyes widen as he took that in. “You’ve gotta eat, or – “
“Things go wrong,” Bruce finished. “And they did, pretty quickly. The best part was when we couldn’t tranquilize him out of it. Tony, maybe this would go down better over coffee elsewhere – “
“You almost starved to death.” So soft, so quiet. “How long?”
There wasn’t any quarter left to give him. “Months.”
“We put a pick line in and started TPN support, Tony. We wouldn’t have let him go long enough to be in any danger – “
“You didn’t tell me,” he said, soft and dangerous now. “You knew what I was like, and you didn’t tell me. Because you were afraid of setting me off. Tell me the truth, so help me –“
“Honestly. There wasn’t anything going on in New York that wasn’t going on in Malibu. Tony, you weren’t here. That’ll have to be enough, there isn’t anything else I can give you.” Steve put as much steel into the statement as his heart would allow, but for the first time – he reached out a hand to Tony but stopped short of touching him. “I didn’t know myself what it was, how could I tell you? What was I going to say?”
“Say, I’m in trouble Tony,” he spat, eyes huge, dark and shining. He could almost see himself in them.
“Did you? Did you tell me you were in trouble, Tony?” Steve felt himself clench his jaw, and just as deliberately released it. “At any point along the way?”
“No. You asked Jarvis. I didn’t even do that.” Dropping his eyes, Tony swallowed hard and looked away.
“Then we’re even,” he said firmly. “And for the record, we handled it. Just like you handled your end of things. Nothing more to say about it. We good now?”
He didn’t answer, just looked away, anywhere but at him. Looked beyond the two of them with an expression both incredibly sad and old at the same time on his face as he turned his head to look through the glass of the door to the balcony outside again.
“Fury’s long gone, I take it.”
“Oh, he had a handful of choice words for me,” Bruce replied, “But yeah, he’s gone back. Didn’t even think we needed to call in an EMT response on you – not that bad. Next time – don’t hold your breath.”
“There will be a next time.” The eyes didn’t focus, didn’t come back to meet Bruce’s.
“Yup,” Bruce said, bobbing his head, as if Tony had just asked him to come wash his hands. “Clint says it passes, but if he’s any expert, it doesn’t pass on any kind of predictable timetable. It’s a safe wager – next time, don’t hold your breath. Tuck it away someplace.”
Tony didn’t say another word, just squared his shoulders and walked between the two of them, opened the door and stepped outside on the balcony again, raising his face to the sun and closing his eyes while he took a deep breath, and then another.
Then sat down, pulled his knees to his chest and rested his head on them, wrapping his arms around them. Bruce looked up at Steve, his mouth quirking into a wry grin as he ambled out to join him. When he heard Bruce push the panic bar on the door, Tony opened his eyes and smiled up at him as he sat down next to him, taking one hand in his own and interlacing the fingers.
“You won’t fall,” Bruce said, drawling it out a bit as he looked Tony in the eye. “I’ll catch you if you do - I don’t need any special equipment. I’ll always catch you, you know that.”
“You would too, wouldn’t you.”
Steve followed them, leaving his jacket off but loosening the tie before he sat down with his back to the both of them and then leaned his head back to rest on their own, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said, “Sun feels good.”
“It does,” Tony said. “If this is the new normal, I intend to get used to it. Give me a minute.”
“Take all the time you need.” Felt Tony lean back into him as well. That was good.
“Steve, Fury says no more for a while.”
Blowing air, he slumped and closed his eyes. “Don’t ask me to be surprised, and really? I can’t say I’ll miss it all that much.” A small chuckle escaped as Bruce reached back to awkwardly pat him on the head with a broad hand.
“You tried,” he said roughly. “Not your fault. I didn’t think they were going to go for you like they did either, but Fury has a point. You’re not – how did he put it again? – engendering trust in the Avenger Initiative as – and I quote – so fucking behind the curve as you are right now.”
“He thinks I’m an idiot.”
“He thinks you’re unprepared and sound stupid because of it,” Tony snapped, growled. “Those people were the idiots. Not you. Last thing you are is stupid. I know stupid, they’re my competitors.”
Bringing his own knees up to rest his hands on them, Steve turned his head to talk more towards Tony’s ear. “Well, I’m glad to hear you say that, Tony. I can’t say I’m entirely in agreement with you, though. I feel stupid. I feel completely unprepared and whatever they said in there? They were holding back. They’ve been wanting to throw me out of there for months now, they just didn’t want Banner to take my place, and they didn’t have you.”
Both of them felt Tony stiffen at that, but he only frowned. “Hey, new kid,” Bruce said, nudging him in the shoulder. “Steve’s been called to these meetings for the past nine months, about once or twice every two weeks or so. Topics change, so do the people but he’s gone out and done his best song and dance, bringing back all the notes for me to write up for Fury to use to reassure them that we really do know what we’re doing. Not that we’d want to inadvertently blow shit up or anything, but you know.”
“And I had Romanov, so she couldn’t have gone in your place either.” Turning his head, Tony looked at Bruce, who tapped one finger against his chin, looking skyward thoughtfully.
“Now that, I hadn’t thought of. When she’s here, she’s with Barton nearly 24/7 – didn’t even think of it. Don’t want to split them up, if you know what I mean.” Bruce yawned, dropping the hand to his knee idly. “They thought today I’d be safe – you were going to be there, after all.”
But not with Steve. “They really are idiots, “ Tony murmured softly, feeling Steve take one deep breath, then another but not saying anything. “You’ve spent all this time at the tower together, nothing has happened. And I do mean nothing – not so much as a broken plate, Pepper would have told me about it. She’s very protective of her towers, you know.“
“I’m safe with Steve,” Bruce replied quietly. “We’ve gotten on okay together, just a couple of old bachelor types knocking around in that huge place of yours.”
“I can see that. It’s kind of reassuring. I’m glad…that worked out.”
They sat in easy companionship, enjoying the sun and the cold breeze still blowing over the balcony and when the metal groaned a bit from time to time, Tony listened to it without feeling threatened. “This is so fixable, “ Bruce said, shaking his head and smiling at himself. “Steve, I told Fury this is completely fixable. I got an idea. And you, Tony – are going to help me. It’ll be fun, and it won’t take long at all.”
“Fix me? I wasn’t aware I was broken.” The tone was light, an easy banter. “What are you planning to do, give me some crib notes and hope I can fake it?”
“Oh no, I wouldn’t waste my time with something like that. Don’t need to – you’re plenty bright enough to catch up, just nobody has made an effort - or paid much attention, to be blunt. As long as you were doing what you’re good at, who cared your physics education probably ended at Newton? I mean really, talking with you about string theory the other night was more fun than I’ve had in years. Tony, I’m serious – we can do this, you and me. We’ll bring him along, give him what he needs to keep up with the idiots and shut them the hell up.”
“We’re going to school Captain America. You actually sold Fury on that. That’s what you were talking to him about, back there in the hall.”
“It’s something I’ve had rattling around in my head for some time. This is so fixable – and best part, it’ll be fun. We have the downtime – it’s not like any of us is going to be doing much for the foreseeable, right? So let’s take advantage. It’ll keep our hands and minds busy while…it passes.”
Tony just laughed. “Steve, how old were you when you started trying to join the Army, anyway? Seventeen?”
“Um. Taking the fifth.” But couldn’t help but grin himself at the memory.
“You didn’t even finish high school, did you?”
“You know, the last thing I recall ever hearing about you was how much of a bullshit artist you were.”
“I just tried, Tony. I just did my best – and things kind of just worked out the way they did.”
“So very fixable,” Bruce just added. “You just need the knowledge, the rest will take care of itself. I’m sure of it.”
“Great, I’m going to be doing homework again. You both going to tutor me?”
“That’s the general idea,” Bruce replied as Tony gave him his best ‘you have got to be kidding me’ side eye. “I’ve been thinking about it a while – thought you got a raw deal when nobody thought it was even important once they woke you up, just left you to muddle along as best you could alone. Nasty.”
That’s very kind of you. The thought went unsaid, but both Bruce and Tony felt it as Steve leaned back a little more, sighing deeply. “You’ve been doing it already, all these months. You’ve never refused me an explanation for anything at all, no matter how small.”
“Jarvis confused you more than helped you, anyone could tell that. You had no point of reference for the answers.” Looking to Tony, Bruce continued. “It’s been an education for me too, don’t forget. Your perspective is refreshing, to say the least.”
“How good’s your algebra?” Tony asked, still looking Bruce in the eye.
“Lousy. My geometry’s better, I actually still use that.”
Raising eyebrows, Tony’s expression brightened. “Maybe. Hey, Bruce – you might have something here. It might actually be fun, after all. How far do you think he could go, calculus, trig?”
“Oh, I think anything’s possible – maybe a standard assessment battery first, just to see what he knows, right?”
“Sure, sure – “
“Gods, the twins are plotting and scheming again. I’m doomed.”
“If I know my girl, she’s baking cookies.” Rearranging the sleeves inside his winter coat, Tony then looped and settled the muffler around his neck before he put gloved hands in his pockets, waiting for the other two catch up with him. Tony knew Bruce was only wearing his second or third best wool coat without either a hat or muffler, tucking his hands under his arms to keep them warm. The fact they could share a lot of his wardrobe never failed to please him - Steve hadn't been far off when he'd called them twins. Same coloring, just about the same height and weight - the clothes were there, why not put them to good use? He could wear a few more things, though.
But Steve was beginning to look decidedly rocky, swaying a bit on his feet and looking pale. “The CEO of Stark Industries is spending her morning baking cookies?”
“She went over to the tower this morning to do an inspection after dropping me off here,” Tony replied, pulling the edges of Steve’s long coat together, buttoning it for him as he looked up into his face with growing concern. “We talked about it a lot on the drive out here, what she wanted to do to properly inspect the place. Said if she had designed the quartermaster properly, anyone should be able to prepare a meal suitable for any time of day on the spot – and bake cookies if they wanted to.”
“That’s - an interesting way of approaching it,” Steve replied. “M’sorry, getting a little hungry. Cookies sound amazing right now.”
“You can buy cookies,” Tony said, shrugging a bit. Bruce had taken up a post on Steve’s left shoulder, quiet but the eyes were on the super soldier. “Pepper says baking them perfumes the air and makes the place smell too good not to bake them yourself.” Finding the muffler, he looped it around Steve’s neck for him. “Are you okay?”
“Don’t think breakfast was anything to write home about,” Bruce answered for him. “And too long ago now. There a vending machine or anything around here – ah.”
There was a bench outside, near the loading zone. Leading Steve to it, Tony sat with him as he saw Bruce amble off, counting change he pulled out of a pocket as he went.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this. Certainly never heard of it. “Just hungry, Tony. Nothing serious. What do they call it now, low blood sugar?”
The hand found his shoulder all by itself, and he didn’t stop looking at him until Bruce came back with a container of apple juice. “Only thing they had without carbonation, but it should help. Think you could manage it?”
“I can try,” Steve said quietly as he took the drink and looked at it hard before he took a sip. A very careful swallow later, he downed the entire thing with such a visible sign of relief it was palatable. “Better,” he said, wiping his mouth. “But wish I had a clue why – it just doesn’t matter. One moment it’s fine, the next I can’t swallow anything and I’m choking on it. Hungry as hell and I can’t swallow.”
Tony said the only thing he could think of. “Breathe. It’ll pass.”
The smile Steve returned was wry. “It always does, right?”
“We need to get back,” Bruce added. “You coming?”
Looking from one to the other, Tony took a breath and squared his shoulders. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m ready to go home. It’s time to get on with this.”
The smiles were reward enough, he would remember later. “Do you think she’s making grilled cheese sandwiches too?” Steve asked wistfully.
First meals, first looks, first guesses - all of them only adding credence to Tony Stark's initial impression that things really weren't as he thought they had been in New York.
But it's right to return to the tower. And it's right to break bread with your friends. And try to get down to the bottom of things.
I am so very sorry not to have had this update ready sooner - my initial estimate of +/- 7,000 words in two weeks was ambitious, and this update is not quite complete yet (will be adding to it over the next few days, but wanted to put this much into your hands tonight before I went to bed).
I'm doing this largely as an exercise in increasing daily word counts, getting into the routine of sitting down to put these words on paper. But a new job, getting sick and decades of experience finding *anything* else to do more urgent took its toll this round.
Working hard to overcome it. Hope you enjoy this bit - there's more, and I'm aiming for two weeks for the next full update. Enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“C’mon, Boss – have a heart. Leave ‘em alone.” Happy Hogan easily threw a look over one shoulder, still working at navigating New York traffic at the same time he roughly tapped out commands on the tablet mounted on the dashboard of the town car he was currently driving. “You haven’t been looking at the security records from the tower yet, you wouldn’t be saying things like that.”
“Happy, they’re asleep. At eleven o’clock in the morning.” Checking the records appearing on the tablet at his own elbow, Tony still kept his voice down while trying not to stare. The town car, while not as large as a limousine, carried something of the same interior configuration; one bench seat facing forward, one facing backwards with a small island separating them with cup holders and charging ports in it. Currently, Tony was seated on the bench facing the rear, talking to Happy through the opened window between the passenger compartment and the driver’s seat. “It was a rough morning, but I’m wondering if I should be insulted or not.”
Bruce had gotten in first, tucked himself into the corner of the opposite bench, fastened his seatbelt, folded his arms in front of him…blinked owlishly at a few things Tony had said, then his eyes had closed and his head had rolled to his chest, the long, slow breaths of sleep taking over. Steve, for his part, had noted this as if this was a completely routine occurrence, looking back to Tony to shrug before leaning back in his seat to watch traffic and people outside the car.
A mile or so later, his eyes had closed too. Then his head had fallen back to rest on the back of the bench, his mouth dropping open in blissful slumber. He wasn’t quite snoring, but close. Watching them both, Tony had almost laughed out loud when Bruce had shifted to get more comfortable, dislodging one of Steve’s arms, who then had only thrown it around Bruce’s shoulders and drawn him to his side, both of them still very much asleep.
“Boss, it’s quiet, it’s warm, it’s safe – I’m tempted to go around the block a couple of times, yanno? I’m kinda touched.”
Sending Pepper a message, Tony smiled to himself and watched. Pep, I wish you could see this. Cap’s asleep in the car and using Bruce as a teddy bear. Everything okay over there? Happy says his job is an interesting place this morning. What can you tell me? Shhh. Don’t call, don’t want to wake them up. And then he attached a picture.
The return message popped back immediately. That’s Steve Rogers? And what happened to Bruce’s HAIR? That’s so cute it should have a warning label, but kinda weird, right? Everything looks good here, the repairs and changes we made before going home all sound. I forgot there was a Starbucks on the ground floor! :) Don’t want to go out for lunch, making some sandwiches here. Haven’t seen another soul, though. You sure Nat is here? Place is empty and a little scary. Love you.
“Love you too, beautiful.” Steve was asking about grilled cheese. Cookies? Noting that Happy was indeed going around the block one more time, Tony looked through the moon roof at the spire of the first Stark Tower sparkling bronze and black in the morning sunlight, all of the letters put back where they were, all of the glass replaced as if nothing had ever happened. Taking a deep breath, Tony indulged in a moment of pride – it was beautiful, proud and strong. Pepper’s senior project for her degree program – just a whim, a fancy. Until he’d taken one look at it and knew they had to build it.
I like that man. He can stay. Of course there are cookies. With and without nuts, I might add. Including you. You almost here?
“C’mon, Hap. I’m getting hungry.” Happy feels sorry for them. Almost there. Miss me?
“Ask Ms. Potts to check the repair logs, would you Boss? Also, the way they’re going through electricity – I don’t think anyone sleeps over there, if you get my meaning.”
Like a worn out recording of my favorite song. Get here.
“Ma’am, yes ma’am – “ Locking the screen, Tony stowed his phone. “Tell me this, then. When did they get up this morning?”
Knowing he didn’t have to answer, as the reports came across both tablets at the same time, Happy concentrated more on looking for a way through the midday hustle and bustle, often gritting his teeth. There was Los Angeles at rush hour, and then there was New York all the time. It was taking some accommodation on his part not to completely lose his good nature over it. It’s wasn’t far, exactly, between the UN and Stark Tower…it was just extremely crazy.
Jarvis couldn’t tell Tony when the last time Bruce had slept in his own bed, but also it would appear Bruce didn’t stay awake much longer than two or three hours at a time as it was. He reported where Bruce napped – mostly in the largest rooms in the tower, if he wasn’t in his lab where most of the hours awake were spent. The amount of time asleep appeared to be nearly the same amount of time awake, a bit more. He’s got the sleep schedule of a well-fed cat.
So when did Bruce get up this morning? He’d gotten up over half a dozen times already.
Steve’s quarters were occupied at night, but he’d left them around ten, again at one something, again at two something, four something…what the - …cross checking the rest of the tower’s occupants, it was immediately clear.
Barton. In the gym. In the kitchen. In the showers. In the gym. Any of the places with windows? – no. The kitchen, again. The galley kitchen below his apartments on the workshop level. Place barely had room for two people to sit in it, but there they were. Most of the time, Steve was with him. He noted Natasha often, Bruce, often. But Steve was always awake when Barton was, and Barton had woken him at least four times overnight. There were no mentions of injuries or security issues – just awake. Eating – or cooking, it would appear.
“Happy, quit checking. I got it – you drive.”
Sighing, he cut the feed and sat back, cupping his chin with one hand, a finger tapping pursed lips. Remembering how impossible sleep had become for himself, the wanderings his nights had held, he easily substituted himself in the place of Barton, letting the concern go. There were other people here to note the comings and goings, and it would appear Barton could actually wake them and had been engaging them. Tony hadn’t had a crowd living in the same house with him, and he was immediately relieved and grateful at the thought. What would it have been like, designing and tweaking over forty different suit configurations with Bruce underfoot? Not sleeping nights with Steve – as he was. Did he hover? That sounded frightening all by itself. Thank God Pepper didn’t believe in that sort of thing.
What was waking Clint Barton over and over again anyway? And why wasn’t Bruce staying awake or asleep? Clint wasn’t waking Bruce – they intersected at random, it would seem. But if Clint was up, so was Steve. Had he – yup, told Jarvis to wake him when Clint awoke. Wow.
Natasha looked the most normal. Well, that was something at least. Something completely out of character. She was very close to a sixteen hours up, eight hours down configuration – just which order it came in, that was the whole story. When she was awake, she was in close proximity to wherever Barton was, Steve or Bruce nearby notwithstanding. What are you doing, Nat? Haunting them?
“Boss, we’re here now. Everything is going to be just fine. You’ll see.”
“Are you telling me you’re going to put Captain America out of a job, Happy?”
“Yup. Soon as possible. He’s gotta have better things to do, right Boss? Instead of running after a bunch of noodleheads like some building super or something.”
Turning a corner into the underground garage had caused Steve’s head to roll back even more and he’d begun to snore lightly.
“At least get him a good night’s sleep,” Tony murmured, shaking his head. What if we had to do it all over again? Today, right now today. The idea made him feel almost as exposed as standing on that balcony again, and he shivered a bit before he took a deep breath and thought about grilled cheese sandwiches, Pepper and cookies with nuts in them. Deliberately, consciously with a great deal of focus. Distance, you idiot. That was then. This is now. Had no idea what we were going to do then, and we did okay, right?
“And look, the queen has returned to her castle.” Cold weather clothing stowed in their respective closets, Tony and Bruce stepped out of the elevator together to see the CEO of one of the largest multinationals put the finishing touches on a stack of grilled sandwiches at the bar. Tony didn’t stop until he had reached the side of Pepper Potts, twining one arm around her waist, stretching a bit to peck her on the cheek. For him, the world had just gotten ten times easier to navigate, all of the strangeness of the morning behind him.
“Tony.” The tone was warm, her expression a bit wry as she turned to draw him into her arms for an embrace, ruffling his hair a bit before stepping back for a quick buss on the lips. He was so glad she hadn’t planned on going into the offices today, dedicating the day to a thorough once-over of the Tower instead. He wouldn’t get this much of her time again for any kind of foreseeable future, but he ignored that internal voice for the moment.
It meant she wasn’t wearing one of her endless wardrobe of creamy white suits, stockings and heels; today, she was wearing wool tweed pants paired with a roomy silk blouse under a sage green dolman sweater she had knitted herself on the drive from Malibu as a learning project. Not very fancy, but it was largely angora and alpaca – utterly scrumptious to hug. Warm, fleece-lined low boots on her feet, hair brushed to a golden luster but not pinned back, the only makeup a touch of blush on her eyelids and cheeks and a bit of gloss on her lips. For Pepper, totally casual and undone. On anyone else, it would be too polished for a day spent at home.
“We sent Steve to go change out of his good clothes. It was pretty scary.” One more touch, a hand cupping the back of her head and Tony stepped back as Pepper looked beyond him, her face lighting up to see Bruce behind him.
And then twist into a query. “What did you do to your hair?”
Turning, Tony watched as his friend actually looked down at his feet, shuffling a bit before picking his head up again to look away. “Hiya, Pepper. Uh, things – kind of had a bit of a lab accident a while back and – mphrrf!”
Pepper wasn’t wearing heels, and she wasn’t wearing a fitted skirt. Pepper cleared the distance between the bar and where Bruce stood in three strides, one arm around his waist, the other drawing him close. “Thank you,” she said quietly. Bruce, for his part, looked stunned. Eyes wide, he looked up to see Tony standing where she had left him, one hand cupping his chin, propped up by the other, eyes dancing. Help me. What do I do now? “You answered the phone every time I called. That meant a lot.” Finishing the statement, she stepped back, the hand lightly scrubbing the top of his own a quick mirror of what she had just done with Tony with an equally warm smile. And then, just as swiftly, she was on her way back to the bar.
“No problem,” Bruce blurted, hands first touching the top of his head, then scrubbing each other in his confusion. “Glad I could – help?”
“We don’t know many people who’d understand the experience of turning into a monster against their will.” Tony only shook his head, amused at his discomfort. “I thought of you immediately, of course.” There were plates of cookies already lining the edge of the counter. Idly taking one, popping it into his mouth, Tony found the empty plates and took two of the sandwiches off the top.
“Thanks a lot – I think.”
“Big fan, I told you – didn’t I?”
“So you did.” It was if Bruce actually found the attention uncomfortable, physically so – ducking his head, ambling over to where the food was, his posture remained closed – back hunched, eyes directed toward the floor. Then he stopped for a jaw-stretching yawn. “But really. It was no problem. I’m just a little - was it really that helpful?”
Plating a sandwich for herself, having poured a glass of iced tea, Pepper carried her lunch over to the conversation group near the fireplace and sat down. “You just made it easy,” she replied, shrugging. “Get some food. I hate eating alone.”
“I told you. Queen. She who will be obeyed and all that.” Taking his own glass, Tony followed suit. “It has my name on it, but it’s her house. Remember that.”
That earned Tony another wry look, but she still smiled. “The top ones are cheddar and muenster, but towards the bottom there some with ham, some with bacon and I can put some together with tomato if anyone wants them.” She lowered herself to one of the armchairs gracefully, placing the dishes on the coffee table before turning her head to look back towards the bar. Setting his own plate down next to hers, Tony sat in an armchair of his own, leaning back to look up at the ceiling before taking a bite of the first of his sandwiches.
Raising eyebrows, Bruce’s face brightened as he gingerly poked at the stack of remaining sandwiches, fishing two out near the center with an obvious smile of anticipation. “I’m flattered,” he murmured. “You really didn’t have to do this.”
“There’s really not much to do, everything is fine here,” she said, taking a half off her plate and biting deep. “I was getting bored. I do think, however, I may just convert this floor into more of a common area, though. Add some more appliances to the bar so you can really stay here and work instead of going downstairs when you need kitchen facilities. It’s fun. And it’s a break from what I have to do the rest of the time, which frankly wears holes in me.”
“This is wonderful,” Bruce said as he seated himself across from the two of them, raising one sandwich in salute before tucking in.
“This is a portable grill on the counter. It’s a good test of the quartermaster, but nothing to write home about.” Pepper ate her sandwich with much relish, smiling. “Boy, I was hungrier than I thought. Bread, cheese, heat. No brainer.”
A simple meal eaten in relative silence; with only a small question occasionally asked by Tony, a small murmur from Pepper in answer. What’s your plan for the rest of the day. Do you need me to – no? Okay. I’m going to – oh, that’s right. Bruce watched the two of them recap the morning, even though they had likely been apart only hours.
“Quartermaster. That’s an interesting way to put it.” Bruce deliberately ignored the attention from the other two people in the room as he took a bite out of the sandwich he held in one hand. “Jarvis told me, early on – just ask. And if I needed anything. ‘Bout six months later, the fun began when he started asking me if I needed more of – um – this or that. And then it started showing up on its own.”
“That bother you?” Tony watched for Bruce to turn and look at him, frowning when he didn’t immediately do so. “I wanted everything here to get used to all of you – do for you what I had it doing for me. And that includes writing up grocery lists, once J’s learned what you’re like.”
“I’ve asked for a million dollars, world peace and a good death, just for the hell of it,” the scientist murmured, still far more focused on his plate than his conversation partner. “I got notified that a million dollars had been donated in my name to a number of charitable organizations dedicated to ending war, building right relations…and oh, yeah – the Neptune Society. Ha ha, Tony.”
“That’s what you get for being cute, big guy. Next time, ask for something you actually want. I insist.”
“Oh, I do. I do. I just don’t think you’ve noticed what it is yet.” Bruce put down his plate, leaning back into the club chair with the glass of iced tea in one hand. Yawning, he looked at his glass but didn’t really appear to see it.
“And that would be?” Pepper was the one who asked, but when he did look up, Bruce found himself looking into a pair of concerned, interested faces. “Come on, I put stupid things like Ivory soap and blue-cheese-stuffed olives on mine. Can’t be much worse than that – “
“I wish I could get the knowledge I’ll never level this place to the ground.” Bruce snapped forward to put his glass on the table abruptly, letting his hands fall between his knees. “That I’ll never wake up and realize I’ve destroyed something - or someone – because I was here…and shouldn’t have been. Y’know?” Bruce did turn to look at Tony then, eyes glittering. “Staying in one place has its own dangers, when you’re me. Where I was – things weren’t changed much if…something happened. Already wrecked. Here, it’s – “
“You’re not thinking of leaving – “
“I’m always thinking about leaving, Tony. C’mon, you had to know that – one way or the other,“ he finished lamely.
Of course he had. But that didn’t stop Tony from dropping the half-eaten sandwich back onto the plate, plate to coffee table - and then froze halfway to standing before slowly seating himself again. Don’t crowd Bruce, first rule of dealing with the man. Never sleeps in his own bed. Never sleeps for more than a few hours. Never awake more than a few more. “I’ve needed you here, still do,” he said quietly. “Need, with the capital letter N. My best go-to man. Turn my back on and know everything is going to be right where I left it guy. I just know. If you’re here, that is.”
“I know. Believe me – if this morning wasn’t proof of that. But – it’s…been uncomfortable. Best way I can put it, and I’m sorry it’s not more, but. I’m trying…things…but I can’t be sure. If things – get away from me? ”
“You’re saying that like it’s never happened before.” Pepper’s voice was dry, but she continued to eat her sandwich, looking over her hands at Bruce. “This very room, even. That was imported Italian marble on the floors, mister. Had to repour the molding on the back wall there. Few other things. No offense, but can I put this to rest? Honestly.” Finishing her lunch, daintily licking her fingers, she folded her hands and hugged a knee with them. “As you can tell, I’m absolutely bereft.” Blinked at him. “Ask me about Malibu sometime. Piker.” She gave Tony a hard look out of the corner of her eye, but didn’t offer any more.
Clearing his throat, Tony leaned forward, resting a hand on Bruce’s shoulder as the other man smiled and shook his head. “It’s fine.” Giving it a quick shake, he only smiled back. “As you can see, not even on the radar. Been there, done that. Expected. Nothing’s happened. Period. Bruce - ” But the question what are you trying to tell me exactly didn’t make it out of his mouth.
“That again, you old worry wart?” Steve Rogers had entered the floor from the elevator, striding easily to the couch to pick up a throw pillow, his face bright, eyes dancing. “I keep telling him, over and over again. The place is in better shape almost a year later with him living in it than the year before he didn’t. Better. He doesn’t believe me. What do you do with a guy like that, I tell ya.”
Bruce jumped, face brightening with a smile as he tracked Steve’s entrance. “It would only take once to convince you otherwise, blondie.” Tony would have said it was a guilty start, except Bruce literally had switched mental gears right in front of him. The tension had evaporated, leaving an almost eager expression on his face. There’s something you’re not telling him…but trying to warn me about. Something you don’t want him to know.
Steve only pulled a face. “Oooh, scary.” Noting the two of them, he nodded at Tony, then a quick bob of his head and a “Ma’am,” towards Pepper before he gently swatted Bruce on the head with the pillow, tossing it back onto the couch, his head raising as he did so, sniffing the air. “Is that –“
“Lunch. Get food, you big goof.” Bruce chuckled, rubbing his head idly as his previous mood completely changed in the face of Steve’s arrival. But Tony watched Bruce spread his hands and shrug when Pepper turned back to look at him once Steve’s back was to her, eyes pulled wide. Dressed in winter weight woolen pants, good sturdy shoes and a thick hoodie over a sweater and undershirt, Steve looked far more comfortable than he had in the suit, moving easily about the room.
Lightly, on the balls of his feet with speed and confidence, but not the overwhelming power they remembered. He was lean, lithe in a way that made him look almost ethereal – but he was painfully thin and not even three layers of clothes disguised it much. Pepper had blanched, her mouth working in question, but not certain what to say. A hand on her arm, and a quick headshake from Tony was enough to keep her from blurting out her concern. Later, he mouthed. “Take the whole plate, we’re good.”
“We ought to save a few for Barton,” Steve said, taking both the plate of sandwiches and one of plates of cookies from the bar to bring over to the table. “Anyone heard from him this morning?”
“He’s here?” Pepper responded. “I thought I was here all by myself until you guys got here.”
“Oh, no. He doesn’t come up here during the day. And probably didn’t notice you were here unless you went down to the gym. He’s here, alright. Him and Romanov are having fun – they’ve set up a full trapeze trap in the gym and are taking turns playing with it.”
“Trapeze…like in the circus?”
“Yup. You knew he grew up in a circus, didn’t you?” Three bites and one sandwich was gone. He examined the next one a bit more closely, noting it had something besides cheese in it, took a bite, raised his eyebrows at it and it followed the first just as swiftly.
Four more sandwiches had followed before he noticed three pairs of eyes on him. “You never saw a guy eat before?” Smiling, he took up another one and kept going, toasting Bruce with it. Tony stopped watching Steve, and watched Bruce instead. It was clear the man loved watching Steve eat. It was relief, plain and simple.
“I’m sure we can make more of those things ,” Bruce said, his voice a low, pleasant rumble. “You’re certainly in a good mood. Glad to see you’re hungry, I was beginning to think we’d have to feed some of them to the pigeons.”
Steve only looked at them over his sandwich and rolled his eyes.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone talk to their lunch quite like that before.” Collecting the dishes, Tony stood and took them back to the bar, retrieving the other two plates of cookies. “Let me guess. Snickerdoodles and toll house – “
“With and without the nuts,” Pepper added, smiling up at Tony as she collected their plates and took them to the counter, bending down to open the small fridge for the milk. “They use a lot of vanilla, that’s one of the reasons everything smells wonderful.”
All the sandwiches gone, Steve eyed the three plates in front of him while Pepper brought the milk and glasses back to the table. “Barton taught me a neat trick – you ever hear of grilled peanut butter and honey?”
“I’ve heard of grilled poutine and brie recently,” Tony said. “The pictures were scary.”
“Sounds like something that would seal your mouth shut,” Pepper added, looking askance.
“It does!” Steve answered, smiling. “Best thing in the world for dealing with Barton, and lucky for me, it’s one of his favorites.”
“Food is love,” Bruce murmured, eating neatly from the handful of cookies he had collected. “Least, that’s what they tell me.”
“Maybe we should call those two up here,” Tony said, leaning back. “They’re missing out on all the fun.” He kept a weather eye out on both Bruce and Steve, and didn’t miss the stiffened expressions both of them wore as they stopped what they were doing to look each other in the eye.
“No, not right now,” Bruce responded, coming back to an alert stance to trade looks with Steve twice before looking back at Tony.
“It’s daytime,” Steve offered, his expression turning thoughtful though the speed he was eating didn’t diminish. “Man, am I glad this place has electric appliances. Cooking over a gas flame would get interesting in a hurry.” But he started parceling out cookies, combing all three types onto each plate. “We can take some of these down to them, though.”
“You lost me, “ Tony said. “Come on, you two. What’s up with Barton?”
“He doesn’t do well with the color blue.” Steve answered, ducking his head and that was when Tony noticed the man wasn’t wearing any. ‘It’s probably one of his biggest triggers, and can you blame him?”
Looking towards the fireplace, wood still neatly stacked inside it, Pepper laid one hand on Tony’s arm, but looked back towards Bruce. “I’m still not great with fires, remember?”
“But still – “ It wasn’t good to accommodate triggers, but avoiding them gave you space enough to think. Remembering the security log that had no activity in any room with a window, Tony looked around the room with a new perspective. The color scheme had never had many cool colors in it to begin with – some whites and creams, but black was the accent color up here.
Except for the windows, showing bright blue skies over the Hudson river.
“The sky is blue, “ he said slowly. “How the hell do you avoid a whole color?”
“You never see the sun,” Bruce answered. “Simple. And just as horrible as you think it is.”
Why didn’t you call - He shut it off with a hard shake of the head. “So, he’s down in the gym. And stays away from windows.” Fury didn’t need to call me, he knew I’d see this for myself right off the bat. “He’s an archer, for god’s sake. What the – “
“Tony – “
“He’s been seen. Both by SHIELD Medical and the folks over at Walter Reed.” Steve blurted it out as if Tony had accused him somehow, seeing him raise his chin, eyebrows knitting together as he sat up just that bit taller. “The best we could find. I know, you consulted them yourself as well.”
“I still do,” he answered, feeling an odd sensation. Steve Rogers didn’t trust him, and somehow that worried him more than anything else. He’s still expecting me to take a piece out of him. “Steve…they saw you too, right?”
The mouth worked, eyes dropping. “Of course. I took him.”
“I didn’t let them get a very good look,” Bruce said. “I’m not all that hot on them keeping anyone for observation, you might understand.” He waved a hand around his head in an all-encompassing gesture. “Any and all of them. It’s enough they were able to confirm what I already knew. What we’d already discovered ourselves. And they didn’t have anything better to offer; we were already doing it all, all on our own.”
“He’s a little protective,” Steve said softly.
“I gathered that.” He knew the look he was giving Bruce was harsh, and he was probably staring a hole in the man but he found himself unable to care. Bruce, for his part, only looked up to meet his eyes for the briefest of moments before his face twisted, hands balling into fists before he looked away and deliberately closed his eyes, taking a few deep breaths.
“The word for Steve is dissociation. And pseudo-dysphagia,” he growled. “Thankfully, mostly behind us. Later,” he neatly snapped off the word, raising one large hand before Tony could interrupt him. “I read the reports you sent ahead on yourself – thank you – but Barton is. Is – oh, enough.”
Eyes flicking over to watch Steve, Tony watched Captain America flinch and drop his eyes to the floor.
“You need to see this for yourself,” Bruce said bluntly, standing up. “We’re done here, right? Come on. Let’s go see if they’re up for some lunch.”
Rising as abruptly as Bruce had, Tony stood ready, noting Pepper and Steve rose more slowly from their seats as Bruce strode to the elevator. Punching in the lift request, watching the door open, Tony watched him rethink entering it before turning to look to the rest of them. “I’m sorry but this is still a bit of a touchy subject with me.”
“You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Both of you. I don’t get that at all.”
“Romanov…has not been exactly kind, lately,” Bruce said, “And you, you’re the consummate mechanic right now, always trying to fix things. I can hear the relays snapping over in your head right now trying to figure this all out. Well, don’t. Please. You don’t have all the information yet and I – we – have tried telling people about this, and nobody believes us. Worse, it sounds crazy to our own ears.”
“You want to take the stairs instead, Bruce?”
“Maybe I should,” he answered, still visibly trying to calm himself. “Shake this out a little. It’s not – you. It’s just been so damn…frustrating.”
“You can’t help but like the guy. And he just plays through the days, telling us all not to worry and that’ll pass – and it doesn’t.” Bringing up the rear, Steve’s face was a study in concern, eyes narrowed and focused on Bruce, coming to rest on Tony once and again. “Our resident expert, and he’ll be happy to share his credentials – he has them, sure enough.” Walking into the elevator, he stood at the back, clasping his hands together in front of him. “Times like this, I really miss Thor.”
Chuffing a sigh, Bruce joined him as he shook his head. “What he knows about that tesseract would really come in handy right now, I’m sure,” he murmured, one hand patting Steve on the shoulder as he turned to face forward, shrugging at Tony. “We say this at least once a day, Tony.”
And Thor was the only other one of us that had led a company of soldiers before. Reaching behind him for Pepper’s hand, interlacing the fingers, Tony stepped inside the elevator, punching in the request as the doors closed. “Pepper can get Nat off your backs, that much we can do right now,” he said. “As far as sounding crazy goes…you do know you’re talking to me, right? The total inventor of lost-my-mind-sorry and take a hike if you don’t like it? Look around you. Everything you see is the result of two people losing their tiny little minds one night and thinking it might be fun to build something this big and shiny and crazy because nobody had done it before. Now look at it.
“I sincerely doubt a new pair of eyes is going to make all the difference in the world, even if they’re my eyes – but I brought two other people with me. And they can take over a lot of the bird-watching duties you guys stuck yourselves with. Breathe. Show me your problem child.”
Bruce’s expression went from troubled to amused, then distant. “Hope you had your Wheaties this morning, Tony.”
“Matter of fact, Brucie – I did. Thanks for asking. Bring it,” he said, taking the first strides out of the elevator as the doors opened.
Everybody knew any gymnasium worth the time to build needed a fifty foot ceiling. You could have a fitness center with a normal eight foot ceiling, sure – put it on one of the top floors that had floor to ceiling glass for motivation, if you want. But for the basketball courts, anything where you needed to reach above your head, throw above your head, look up from where you had fallen and dream of flying in the rafters – you needed fifty feet.
In a building slated to have over ninety floors, one floor fifty feet tall didn’t make sense. Also, heating and cooling that space in a design demanding the absolute in energy efficiency demanded that floor go one place – underground.
Safety considerations and second thoughts put it below the arc reactor. With systems ready to flood the gym with leaded concrete, should it ever become necessary – they’d just drop the core into it.
The elevator took a bit longer to reach that level from the mezzanine. It took long enough for the silence to get thick and heavy, with no one willing to breach it even for small talk.
“J, who’s in the gym right now?” Last one in and ready to be the first one out, Tony shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, sparing a glance at the display counting the floors down, one by one. “Has Happy shown up there yet? Just checking…”
“Currently, the gymnasium has two occupants, Sir, Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov. Mr. Hogan is currently on floor 51 in his office. Shall I ask him to join you?” The AI had automatically matched tone to Tony’s – quiet, calm.
“No, leave him be – sounds like he’s getting moved in. We’re good,” Tony replied, throwing a look over his shoulder at Steve. “I’m sure you’ll notice him more than anyone else, Cap. Said on the ride over he was looking forward to letting you get a good night’s sleep – “
Eyes moving to meet his, Steve cocked his head slightly as he answered. “Hope he likes midnight snacks.”
Elevator doors opening – he stepped through.
The trap wasn’t large enough to cover the entire 84 foot span of the gym, and it didn’t quite reach the ceiling but it dominated the otherwise unused space. Pushing by him, Steve strode to the edge of the device, looking up into the swings above him. Quickening his stride to catch up, Tony both dropped Pepper’s hand and lost track of Bruce as he joined Steve at the edge of what appeared to be a thickly knotted net stretched across the entire span of the trap, attached to the free-standing frame.
Looking up, his eyes traced the lines of steel cables mated to carabineers, bars and more steel cables, webbing, ending where they attached to the exterior frame sandbagged, bolted and screwed into the hardwood floor. His eyes kept travelling up, impossible to resist as he both saw and heard the swings in motion overhead. “He sees best at a distance,” Tony murmured under his breath, finding Natasha first on one of the two raised platforms, holding one of the flying trapezes, her entire focus on the other one currently in motion. There were two rope ladders, one attached to each platform, and Tony noted Pepper appearing at the bottom of Natasha’s platform out of the corner of his eye.
Remembering Pepper mentioning not seeing Natasha all morning, he noted her posture as she stood underneath the other woman, looking up. It was one Tony knew well; Pepper wanted something from Natasha, and it was probably an explanation. Pepper just stood there, hands folded neatly in front of her, feet together, head cocked. Natasha, for her part, just stared at her without moving, then returned to watching Clint in action on the trapeze.
Steve, having done much the same as Natasha, slapped the net with one hand, smiling broadly, eyes crinkled against the lights shining down on them. “Hey… Asshole!”
“Whaaaat!” The shout came from directly above him, and shielding his eyes against the glare of the overhead lights, Tony got his first look at Clint Barton.
Sitting on the trapeze, dressed in close fitting black pants and matching t-shirt, Tony noted not much had changed from what he remembered of the man; same closely cut, brushy hair, distinctive features and well-muscled build. With his left leg sticking out at a direct angle to the rest of his body in a white hip-to-ankle immobilizer, and as he flipped backwards to hang upside down from the bar, Tony saw his right arm carried a cast from elbow to palm, covered in screeching lime green acrylic wrap. “You got company!” he yelled up into the trap, looking to Steve before adding “Asshole!”
“Stark?” Twisting himself around to look directly down at them, Tony saw his face light up, eyebrows climbing into his hairline. “Holy crap, you’re here already? You made good time!”
He looked fine. Casts and immobilizers aside, he looked better than anyone else he had seen at the tower so far. Giving the trapeze a good swing, he flipped over backwards, letting go of the device, falling to the net below to land on his back. Before he landed, Tony found Steve’s hand on his chest, gently but firmly pushing him back away from the edge just in time as Barton landed and the net snapped up several inches towards his face.
Eagerly rolling to hands and knees, Barton half crawled, half dragged himself over to the edge of the net towards them. “Hey,” Clint huffed as his face nearly met nose to nose with Tony’s. “Hi there.” Tony found his jaw dropping open as the man he only knew as a trained assassin huffed hot air and smiled impishly at him. “I’m the one you don’t know very well yet, so let’s begin this again from the top, okay?” When Tony didn’t respond, Clint’s expression darkened, falling back into the serious cast that was at least more familiar to him. Okay, genuinely glad to see me, and I wasn’t the same. Sorry, Clint.
Gray eyes, the exact shade of a cloudy sky, looked Tony up and down as Clint cocked his head at him. “You look good,” he said, a slight frown creasing his brow. “You look great, actually. You’re the company, huh? Lose the jacket, the tie and the shoes and get up here.”
Tony barked out a laugh, then reconsidered, looking up. “Me? Uh, don’t mind if I just watch you kill yourself instead? You’ve already busted two limbs, that’s not much a recommendation – “
Clint only waved it off with a grimace. “Nah! No big deal, and I didn’t do it while playing around here. Come on, I can see you got the guns for this stuff.” Okay, flattery that worked a whole lot better than it should, but why not. Feeling his eyebrows raise in curious amusement, Tony did as he had been bade, handing the jacket and tie to Steve, losing the hated hard-soled shoes to stand in stocking feet at the end of the net. But it was the mischievous grin that returned to Clint’s face that sealed the deal for Tony. “And I know you wanna fly,” he added softly. “You know it too, don’t you.”
Looking up to see the trapeze still swinging lazily above them, Tony grinned. “Sold. On my way.”
Somehow, it didn’t occur to him to be concerned about the height. It looked like playground swings on steroids. It looked like fun. It looked like something that would definitely void the warranty on the suit Tony was wearing, and suddenly he couldn’t be asked to care.
If Tony had asked Bruce to come play with him by offering access to the R & D labs, Clint had just asked him to come play by offering him a hand up into the trap. This is scary? It’s ballsy but –
What the hell. Let’s learn something new today.
Someone really glad just to see me. For no particular reason. Huh.
The first thing Clint had done once Tony had stepped onto the net was demonstrate how to fall properly, and then had Tony do it until he was satisfied he would be safe. “You’re drunk, come on pretend you’re drunk – there you go…that’s more like it. Flop on down there like a dead fish, don’t even think about it. High school bed test! What, you never had that?”
Safe meant always landing on your back, as boneless as possible. The net gave some, but it still smarted. Tony tried to keep a pleasant, that-didn’t-hurt-you-asshole expression on his face but after knowing where the knots were by feeling them dig into his back, he began to lose interest in trying. But he wanted to stick this exercise out with Clint. Show me what they’re scared of. I know scared, right? Steve, receiving a page from Happy, had left the gym first after pulling a chair over for Bruce to sit in, Tony’s discarded clothes stacked in a neat pile next to it, cookies besides that. Seating himself with a small grin on his face, Bruce had stretched out his legs, folded his arms across his chest and watched Tony get pushed back into the net over and over again.
Natasha remained on her perch, a silent hunched figure on the platform. She was the only real indicator that this was anything but some random hours in the gym with Clint. If Tony thought he felt her eyes boring holes into his back, he didn’t let on. Looking up at her, she had looked back at him with one of the coldest expressions he could recall – I see you but I don’t care about you right now – before her focus shifted back to Clint.
It was when Pepper started calling up to Natasha that Tony stayed on his back in the net to listen. Frowning, Clint had opened his mouth but stopped when Tony placed a finger to his lips and looked up. Craning his head around to look over his shoulder, Clint uttered a small “oh,” before flopping back on the net himself, folding arms behind his head.
“I wouldn’t do that, if I were her. Nat’s not fit for human consumption right now.”
She had been polite, she had waited patiently for some kind of response – getting nothing but a cold stare, Pepper had begun climbing the rope ladder to get to her. Immediately, Natasha had climbed down the ladder herself, shaking Pepper off with a vicious jerk of the ropes before descending.
Stepping back, Pepper had waited, eyes watching as Natasha approach her without making a sound. The moment Natasha’s last foot was flat on the floor, however, Pepper had snatched her into an embrace, like a snake striking its prey.
Natasha had gone stock still, arms to her sides, her eyes wide. “What are you – “
“Shh. Shut it. What the hell, Nat. What the hell.”
“I don’t understand. Let go.”
“You’re not being fair. Or you’re just being purposely obtuse. Probably both.”
“You are still too easily dazzled. You’re mistaken.”
“You wish.” One hand crept up to cradle the back of Natasha’s head. “I’m not done with you yet, lady. We will have a moment, and soon. Just know this.” A gentle stroke of the brightly colored red hair, and Pepper released her, cupping Natasha’s chin in one hand while she looked her in the eye. “You are one of the most dear, worthy creatures I’ve ever had the luck to cross paths with. Next time, say goodbye. It’s not like we weren’t going to meet again.”
Pepper didn’t argue with her, just tossed a look toward Tony as her jaw tightened, lips pressed tightly together. Stepping back, she turned on her heel and strode to the elevator.
Natasha only tracked her with her eyes, her head turning as Pepper left without looking back. Clint had whistled softly, but hadn’t said any more. Looking over at him, Tony noted the look of concern on his face as Pepper had spun on her heel.
Hearing the doors slide shut, Tony levered himself on his elbows. “You know I’m going to need a word with her, right?”
“Hope you need it really, really bad,” Clint said wryly. “Nat’s been looking for a target for days now, and I’d hate to see either you or your girl get in her way.”
“Pepper can handle herself, I’m fairly sure. She’s just not used to having a master assassin for a bestie. One that disappears without saying goodbye at a moment’s notice? I do that, even I pay for it later. ”
“Ah, she’s one of those,” he said. “She likes having her chicks under cover at night, safe and sound.”
“She’s a little quirky that way - made her a great personal assistant.”
“Yeah? Shit like that’ll get her ass kicked with Nat. Only person who got away with that was Coulson, and she never shut up about it.” Mentioning the man’s name made Clint close his eyes and sigh, but little more as he opened them again, looking up into the ceiling.
Tony stretched out and followed Clint’s example, arms behind his head, crossing his legs. Saying nothing, the sound of Bruce gently snoring reached him in the quiet. Natasha just kept looking down at them. She’d heard everything. She just didn’t give them the satisfaction of reacting to it. “What the hell is she looking at?”
“Like a ticking package. All the time.”
“Doesn’t creep you out.”
“Nah. It makes her feel better. Least I can do.”
Turning his head to look at Clint, Tony saw what the voice had implied. Clint was totally calm, matter of fact about Natasha sitting on a platform high above their heads watching them like a cat watches goldfish in a bowl. Not even to check out Bruce snoozing peacefully in the chair.
“She could give gargoyle lessons,” Tony said with a sneer. Clint only chuckled.
“Word,” he replied, “She knows. Just don’t care. Gimme a hand up?”
Rolling to hands and knees, Tony stood up, balancing carefully before he offered Clint his hand. Bracing the left leg against a knot, Clint bent the other leg, clasping the proffered hand around the wrist before pushing off to stand upright.
“Okay, rest break over. Up you go – let’s give her something to do, eh?” Seeing the other man looking him in the eye, Tony watched him try to put a pleasant face back on, failing. “Maybe…maybe I should explain,” Clint added.
“What’s she waiting for you to do anyway?”
Gesturing with the arm in a cast, sweeping the other against the leg in the immobilizer, Clint shrugged. “Waiting for me to try killing myself. Again. I guess.”
Tony only clapped him on the shoulder, putting himself in motion towards the ladder. “Keep talking. Listening here.”
“They said something, right?”
“What, Rogers? Him?”
“Yeah. Well, no. Those two are scared, but they won’t talk. Don’t want to upset me.”
“Don’t have time for that, but I know the feeling.”
Clint motioned Tony to go ahead of him up the ladder, which he climbed with some trepidation – the platform was easily fifteen, twenty feet up and not large enough for more than standing room for two people at one time. “Go ahead, sit down on the edge facing in. Get used to it.”
It hadn’t looked that high from underneath. It wasn’t that high up. Yet reaching the platform, Tony fought down the urge to cling to the ladder and not make the last push up. “Stark, it’s like getting into the swimming pool. It’s just cold water. You know how to fall. It won’t hurt you. It’ll pass. You’re safe.”
Of course he was. Absurd. Gritting his teeth, biting back any number of smart retorts, Tony climbed onto the platform, crawling to the edge to swing legs over the side, gripping the edges with his hands. The net looked like graph paper from this point of view, and the whole rig swayed gently as Clint gained the platform behind him.
“See? You can handle this. You’re already doing it.”
And then Clint dove over his head and fell off the platform. Landing on his back in the net below, he waved up at Tony before scooting over to the edge. “Okay, you do it. Hurry up, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”
“Only way out is through – turn a little to your right and push off. Easy.”
“I thought we were going to play with the swingy thing.”
“Nah, you gotta be able to fall first. Come on – throw yourself to the ground and miss!”
The worst part was he knew the other man was right. If this is the new normal, then I’m going to get used to it.
It won’t kill me.
I’m not going to let it scare me. Sure as shit not stop me.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself off the edge of the platform, twisting to make sure he landed on his back, willing himself to go limp as he fell. As he hit the net, wincing at the sensation of knotted webbing hitting him from the top of his head to the backs of his legs, the first thought he had was I should really try that again with my eyes open.
So, he did. With complete disregard for Clint stuck in the net like a turtle on its back, Tony got himself out of the net, back up on the platform and with only a look across the way at Natasha, making sure Clint wasn’t underneath him, jumped off the platform again to land on his back in the net below to the sound of Clint’s applause, then the sight of him leaning over him, resting himself on his elbows.
“By the way – just so you know? I’m a real asshole. Clint Barton, complete asshole. Fair warning.”
“I…gathered as much. Tony Stark – “
“Corporate asshole.” His face might have been serious, but the eyes were sparkling. “Come on, let’s fly, Tinkerbell.”
“Corporate genius asshole to you, punk,” he retorted, “And you ain’t cute enough to be Peter Pan, so don’t get any ideas.”
“You’re not supposed to be doing shit like this with your leg in that thing, I’m fairly sure of it,” Tony had called across the trap to Clint. “They kind of frown upon self-sabotage, asshole.”
“Eh, it’s been worse. Look who’s talking! The guy who gave an engraved invitation to the biggest psychopath – for this year and the next, mind - to blow the shit out of his house on national television. And they think I’m nuts! You didn’t even invite me to the party, man!”
He gaped like a fish out of water for a moment. “I’-I’ll keep that in mind the next time. Next time someone wants to blow all my stuff up - ” Clint had only grinned at him like a maniac and swung the trapeze over to land him next to Tony on the platform, flopping down to his left so he could allow the immobilized leg enough room.
“You’ll call me. You. Will. Call me. I want in on that shit like nobody’s business. Nobody gets to kill my favorite asshole but me, okay?”
“Wait a minute, now I’m your favorite asshole? I’m the one you don’t know very well yet, wasn’t that what you said?”
“My favorite corporate asshole.” Clint looked up at him again with a toothy smile. “The one I never had to convince. All I had to be was right.” Blowing air, he looked away. “The one that left me the best padded cell I’ve ever had to live in…” Gripping the platform, he sat beside Tony instead of motioning for Natasha to toss him the trapeze again. “…and I do know what padded cells look like. This isn’t bothering you anymore, is it?”
No, it wasn’t but that last was designed to bother Tony and he knew it. “Padded cell? Wha – Clint.” He looked around the gym again, beyond the trap. There were fabric-covered baffles to keep the sound controlled, perhaps it made the walls look padded. For the first time, Tony also noticed how many arrows were stuck in them as well, and remembered how much of the security logs centered on him and this room. “You’re not crazy. So far, you’re the least crazy person I’ve seen today.”
“Then I have to wonder what you’re using for comparison,” Clint replied. “You’re a little jumpy, a bit nervy but nothing you can’t break yourself out of given time.”
Bruce snorted in his sleep below them, a pleasant ‘scup scup scup’ sound before settling back into slumber.
‘You kept him up last night,” Clint said.
“He fell asleep before I could tell him much.”
Clint chuckled, shaking his head. “He got plenty out of you, asshole. I think he told me most of it trying to cheer me up.”
“In what way – nobody’s told me anything, Clint. Not a damned word.”
Clint looked at him quizzically then, a bit of sly side-eye with quirked lips. “Can’t blame them. They don’t even call 911 anymore, just wait until I stop spazzing out and pick up the pieces. I don’t even like talking about it, hell thinking about it much gives me the willies. But – “
Natasha shifting on her perch made some of the cables groan, both Tony and Clint looking up at the sound. “See? She doesn’t even do that with Banner anymore.”
She made Tony think of some kind of wild cat, ready to pounce, staring at them. Smoke, Bruce had called her. Well, he wasn’t wrong.
“They’re pretty worried about you,” he murmured quietly. “What the hell do you do, anyway? Rip off your clothes and go roll in the snow screaming epithets or something?”
“She stopped hitting me in the head – told me she couldn’t do it anymore.” Swallowing hard, Clint picked at a thread that had come loose on the cast on his arm. “Steve – Rogers…I swear, that guy is the kindest man I’ve ever known. He won’t touch me. Every time it – happens, he’s right there when I come out of it, won’t let anyone else near. And then Doctor – him down there – shows up, looking at me thinking what the hell is this, I have no idea what to do all over his face and I just want to crawl off someplace and open a vein. Over and over. I don’t know how to stop it.”
Placing a hand over the one fretting the wrap off the cast, Tony moved to sit as close to Clint as possible without throwing an arm over his shoulders. “I thought I was dying,” he said into the quiet. “I thought I was poisoned. I thought – “
“I’ve seen the films from when it – Loki - took me,” Clint blurted. “I didn’t even try to get away, over quick. They won’t let me see what I do now, they just tell me it’s worse.”
“There’s footage, I’m sure I could find it – but tell me what am I supposed to be looking at?”
Clint went still, paling a bit. “Me, being undone again. Everything – just going away, down a deep, black hole. Except now – nothing. Nothing comes to take its place. I – just sit at the bottom of the well, looking up. Until it ends – all goes black, and I wake up with something else broken. Hopefully, on me – not the rest of the room, or something. Steve sitting there, waiting. Looking like he punched a puppy in the face because he can’t figure out why it’s happening or how to make it stop.”
Yup, that qualifies as scary. Sighing, Tony did lean into Clint then. “They said you’ve been seen. Got anything useful out of it? Talked to anyone else with your experience yet?”
“What, who got taken like I was? No – who’d want…no. Nobody.”
“Nobody even suggested it? Hell, even Jarvis knew better than I did at first. First mistake, don’t reinvent the wheel,” he said quietly. “Remind me never to trust SHIELD Medical with anything worse than a paper cut. Scratch that – anything.” Taking a deep breath, he straightened up and looked across the trap where Natasha still rested on the platform, watching them. “Jarvis, can you tell me of all of the survivors of tesseract – hell, call it poisoning for lack of a better term - which ones are like Clint here? Struggling with – the after effects?”
“Have a care, Stark.” Natasha, with the first words towards him since his return to New York and it was a growl.
“You have too many,” he snapped back at her. “How small is his world going to become in the name of not making it worse?” Then, almost to himself he muttered. "Wrong tactic – but why would you think otherwise.”
“There was a concern that if two of them came together – “ It was a low, soft voice she used but Clint shivered next to him, and Tony briefly considered biting Natasha’s head clean off at her knees before he remembered who this was to her. She’s protecting him, best she can. Like I would Pepper, and boy did I.
“J, got anything?”
“Yes, sir. Not very good, sir. The vast majority are dead, with survival rates fluctuating between thirty days to nine months past the event. Most died during the Chitauri invasion itself.” Okay, then. Have a care, indeed. “Not many of the causes of death after the event appear to be directly related to tesseract exposure, however.”
“We’re talking SHIELD personnel, after all,” Clint said softly. “And he took the young, stupid ones after snatching Selvig and me.”
“Even so, “ the AI added. “A very key observation. Of those identified still living, it would appear that Dr. Selvig is at the highest level of functioning again – he’s currently back with his team, at work with no reported ill effects. And has been for some time.”
“I’m the one who hit him in the head, really hard. Not because I was trying, but – “ He blew air. “Jarvis, any correlation between age of the victim and current status? Hey, you said young and stupid – you’re neither, and Selvig definitely not…so.”
“That would appear to be anecdotal, Sir.”
“Hrm,” Tony muttered. “Tell me this, then. What have they tried with you? Medication? Electroshock? Big hairy dog?”
That got a smile, even if only a wan one. “Oh, sure. First six months, new prescription every two or three weeks. All the side effects, none of them touched – it,” he spat. “If you want to know about the drugs though – you’d better look at Banner. He’s the one who actually took a stab at cobbling something together just for me. Actually – for Steve. Actually – “
Tony watched both Clint and Natasha stop and look down at Bruce. Still asleep. Him. He tried it first, then didn’t stop. Stoned to the wide, right in front of me. “Actually…for himself, didn’t he Clint?” He tried to tell me. He did -
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you?” Again, he began to worry the stray fibers on the cast, his eyes unfocusing as he looked away. “You’ve heard him. He’s scared. Even knowing he stood right next to all of us after we finished up that fight, no problem. Big, green, mad as hell and completely safe – if you were us. He knows. We’ve shown him the tapes. Then. He had a few nightmares – hell, who wouldn’t. Told him not to sweat it. He got scared. I made it worse. Nat left to catch up with you two in Eureka. Steve was…sick. He tried to put something together, didn’t work – Steve just burned through it.”
“But he tried it out on himself first, didn’t he.” It wasn’t a question. I said strut, big guy. Not walk out into traffic. “Nat just showed up and went to work, never said a word.”
“She told me before she left – you’d asked for her specifically.”
“Yeah. She knew the company almost as well as Pepper – just walked in, took over and nobody knew the difference. Scary. Saved the company. Gave me time to get Pepper well, get myself put together enough to – “
“She tell you we missed you?”
“No.” Throat suddenly tight, Tony hugged himself. “And I didn’t miss you guys. Too busy. Wrapped up.”
If I thought about any of you, I built another suit.
If I thought about any of you, I found a way to avoid needing your help. Because I knew I couldn’t count on it. I was right, see?
If I thought about any of you, it was in fire. And I was too late.
If I thought about any of you, it was to make sure you didn’t see me sweat.
If I thought about any of you, it was because I was certain you couldn’t protect me. Or would want to. Can’t blame you.
I can’t protect me. Didn’t. Even. Notice. You.
He was up too high again, it was too high, going to fall, no way to stop – nobody looking, nobody knowing, nothing – what do I do, what can I do, what how why NOW –
Arms wrapped around him, pulling him away from the edge. Pulled him in tight, his cheek going to rest against Clint’s shoulder, his chin resting on the top of Tony’s head. “Whoa, whoa – pull up. Not going to get hurt, you know how to fall. You’ve done it here a bunch of times – breathe – we missed you. We did. Asshole,” Clint’s voice had gone warm and soft. “Breathe. It’ll pass. Let it pass. Drop the reins, take your hands off the wheel, back away from the controls. We missed you but we know you. Group hugs ain’t your gig – it’s okay. We’re okay. So are you. Didn’t forget you. Didn’t forget us.“
He felt sick, shook his head but Clint didn’t let go. “Let the asshole drive, come on…just hang here for a moment, catch your breath. You’re just a little rattled.”
This close, this tight, he could only smell Clint – soap and water, some sweat, plaster and rope. Most broken of all, but he still had him.
“Can’t fake it this time, can you?” Soft, calm and very, very Natasha. Cracking his eyes open, he saw her sitting on the trapeze, one foot hooked around the underpinnings of the platform, holding onto the sides with both hands, bent at the waist to breathe in his face and look him in the eyes. “You remember now? Remember you told no one? Thought you had it all under control?”
“Not dying any more,” his voice light even to his own ears. “Harpy.”
“Nat. He don’t know any better.” Clint’s voice rumbled in his chest. “Guy does that, isn’t going to ask for help with anything. Think you would have?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“Yeah, so shut up. I taught you better than that. Have a heart, poor slob.”
”You think he has one? You might be mistaken.”
“Nah. He’s my favorite asshole. He actually plays with me.” Another tug to ensure he was securely seated, and Clint released him. “Unlike some people who like to stare…that I could name.”
An eloquent shrug and Natasha let go, swinging backward on the trapeze as she pushed off.
Hang in there, more to come -