DISCLAIMER: The Avengers is the property of Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Studios, and Marvel Studios. This work was created purely for enjoyment. No money was made, and no infringement was intended.

RATING: T (for language, violence)

THE LAST LEVEL

10

When Tony woke, he found himself in a very (and unfortunately) familiar place: the infirmary aboard the SHIELD helicarrier. He groaned, both against the pain and against the sad fact that he was yet again regaining consciousness in a hospital. He closed his eyes against the bright, bleached glare of fluorescent lights and wrinkled his nose at that distinct smell of sterility. He couldn't (and wasn't sure he wanted to) remember how he'd landed himself in the medical ward this time, and he was fairly certain that awareness would bring with it a mess of some pretty intense pain, so going back to sleep was the better choice. Slumber drew him back into its sweet embrace.

"Tony?"

Ignore it.

"Tony, can you open your eyes?"

Don't. Don't answer.

There was something of an exasperated sigh. "Tony, I know you're awake. I can see it in your vitals."

Busted. He chanced cracking open his left eye and saw a blurry form looming over him. The cloudiness was stubborn, and he gave up any pretense of trying to sleep, opening his other eye and blinking repeatedly until the mist cleared. Bruce's worried gaze was unwavering as the physicist waited patiently for Tony to come around. "Welcome back. How do you feel?"

Tony licked dry lips. His throat felt like he'd swallowed a mouthful of sand. "Like shit," he answered, unable to manage much more than a raspy whisper. His head was stuffed with wool, and the entirety of his body ached. He suspected immediately that he was on some pretty potent painkillers; everything seemed a little hazy, a little distant, and his nerves were numb. Things came back then in a rush. Zemo. The silo. The hellish nightmare. Clint's blindness and Steve's fall and waiting and waiting and waiting to die. He sighed gently, battling the burn of tears. He wasn't going to surrender. He was past that. "But I lived, so it's all good."

Bruce looked pained. "You almost didn't," he said softly. "You were in rough shape."

Tony grimaced. He wasn't sure he wanted to hear this. But his mouth was moving before he really decided to continue the conversation; the drugs were making it difficult to concentrate. "How bad was it?"

"You almost bled out on the operating table. They nearly didn't get you back." Tony closed his eyes. "You were in the ICU for three days. It was touch and go until last night when things started to stabilize."

It was difficult to understand that. To accept it. Even though he'd barely survived, even though he knew in his heart how fortunate he was, it still hurt to realize how near he had come to death. It never got any easier. He saw the dark circles around Bruce's eyes, the tight lines of worry engraved in his face around his frown. He knew then how hard Bruce had worked to save him. To save all of them, in all probability. Clint and Steve. He needed to ask about them. But a different question slipped from his lips. "My arm?" he whispered with a wince.

"It's more metal than bone now," Bruce explained quietly. Tony darted his eyes down to the numb, heavy lump draped across his chest. It felt unattached, not his. The length of the limb was in a plaster cast to keep it immovable and protected. All he could see were his fingers, still so swollen and bruised to the point of hideous. Bruce was talking about how they'd replaced sections of his broken bones with metal rods, how they'd battled infection, how they'd fixed him. Tony made himself pay attention. "Your hand was in better shape. The surgeons managed to reset the bones. But I'm not going to lie to you. It'll take a lot of time and therapy before you get full functionality back." If I ever get full functionality back. The unspoken fear was there. Bruce met his gaze and offered a faint smile, laying a comforting hand on his good shoulder. "Hey. Don't worry about that now. You'll get it back."

Tony tried not to. The memory of the pain he'd endured battered him, like some sort of sadistic ghost, overcoming the warm barrier the analgesics were creating to torment him. But he wouldn't surrender to that, either. "What about Clint? And Steve?"

Bruce's eyes said what his lips wouldn't. "They're okay, Tony. Barely. Steve fractured his back in two places and had enough internal injuries to kill a normal man a few times over. That kid has got some fight in him… He ran for four hours until he got to a little village in eastern Latveria. People there aren't too friendly, but he was lucky and found someone willing to let him make a phone call and keep him alive until we got there." Tony swallowed thickly, not wanting to again consider the image of Steve running himself literally to death that Bruce's tale was eliciting. He didn't want to consider the other possibilities: if Steve had died in the wilderness, if Steve had been captured again by Zemo, if Steve had just happened to fall upon the some unfriendly citizens… He was lucky. And so were we. "He'll be alright if he rests and takes it easy. And Barton, too. He had a high fever and the worst concussion I've ever treated. The doctors relieved the pressure around his brain. That's restored some of his vision. The rest will come as he heals." Again, the unspoken doubt. I hope. "I was kinda wondering for a while which one of you would be the unlucky one, but none of you were. You're all too tough, I guess. Would have to be to make it out of there. I can't fathom how the three of you managed to climb up there as bad off as you were."

Neither could Tony, and he'd lived through it. "What about Zemo?"

Banner's face darkened into a scowl. "Got away," he said unhappily. Tony hadn't expected anything else. "By the time we got there, it was over and you three were gone. We only found Steve's shield and a hell of a mess. We searched, figuring he'd kidnapped you guys, but needless to say we didn't find any sign of where he'd taken you." That only yet again brought to bear how lucky they'd been. "We don't know what happened to him. But he didn't drown Europe in Adhesive X, and he didn't kill you three, so I think we should call this mission a success. At least, that's what Fury's calling it."

A success. It didn't entirely feel that way, but maybe it would. It could.

"Tony!" The gasp from the doorway drew his hazy attention, and he shifted his weary gaze from Bruce to his visitor. By the time he focused enough to see Pepper, she was already rushing across the room. "Tony! Thank God, thank God!" With surprising gentleness given the desperation twisting her pretty face, she gathered him into her arms. Tony closed his eyes and breathed, inhaling the flowery scent of that perfume she wore that he'd come to associate with her. All at once, the stink of rust and metal and dank air and blood was gone. She was warm and soft and strong as she held him as tightly as she dared and combed her fingers through his hair. "I was so scared…" she whispered, pulling away slightly before pressing a firm kiss to his sweaty brow and then to his dry lips.

Tony sank into her, fighting the newly rejuvenated press of fatigue. "I'm alright, Pep," he promised. He couldn't think of anything else to say. It didn't seem real, like this was a dream and he was really back in there, alone and dying in the darkness. A hallucination conjured by his deteriorating brain to ease the suffering of his spirit. But she felt so firm, so true, that he decided to hell with even considering that he'd never been rescued. "I'm okay."

She laughed at that and pulled away, wiping at her teary eyes. "I know," she said. "I know. I'd tell you to never frighten me like that again, but you're you." She hadn't meant that to be painful, had said it without even a speck of heat in fact, but Tony still felt terrible for worrying her again. "You got out. That's all that matters."

All that matters.

It felt good to think that.

Bruce smiled warmly at the couple. "Well, if you're doing alright, Tony, I'll go check on the others. Steve has developed a nasty habit of ignoring sound medical advice and getting out of bed when he really should be resting."

"He has a nasty habit of ignoring all advice," Tony said wearily. But that "nasty habit" had saved his life, so he couldn't begrudge it too much.

Bruce laughed at that. "I've noticed. So has Thor. I think it might come to blows if he tries to get up again. Anyway, I'll be back a little later. Sleep." At that, Banner patted Tony's unwounded leg and left.

Tony closed his eyes and sighed, feeling sleep come for him. He was extremely tired, his leaden body sinking into the uncomfortable hospital bed as the morphine being pumped into him worked its wonders. He felt Pepper climb up on the bed beside him and spooning her slender form in between his side and the rail of the bed. She laid her head against his good shoulder, stretching her arm tenderly across his chest, mindful of his wounds and soreness. Tucking her head beneath his chin, she softly breathed with him, and that sweet smell of her filled him completely.

"It must have been horrible," she whispered. He felt wet warmth soak into his hospital gown and realized she was crying. "Trapped there. Alone."

Tony swept his hand up and down her back. "Wasn't so bad," he murmured.

She lifted her head to look at him. "Really?"

He smiled, truly and genuinely. "Really." She kissed him, and he kissed her back, and there was no reason to be afraid anymore.


The next time he awoke, Pepper was gone. He realized it was much later in the day and he immediately spotted Steve in a plush chair beside his bed, covered in a blanket and sleeping in the golden rays of the setting sun. Tony pushed himself upward in to a more comfortable position as best he could and winced against the deep-set ache. "Rogers," he groaned hoarsely, wincing at the gravelly sound of his voice. Steve didn't stir, chin dropped to his chest. His hair fell over his forehead, a forehead still marred by fading bruises and cuts, but his skin had a healthy color to it. He looked too young, sleeping so soundly, and Tony couldn't really stand the sight of so much perfection. He cleared his throat loudly. "Rogers!"

"Huh? What?" Steve gasped as his eyes shot open and he leaned forward in his seat. He winced and groaned, his hands crossing his midsection protectively, before coming to his senses and settling his cloudy eyes on Tony. "Oh. Hey. You're awake."

Tony cocked his head slightly. "Could say the same of you."

"Me?" Steve said, as if he didn't understand for a moment. "Oh, no. I'm fine. Been up for days." He offered something of a sheepish smile. Tony didn't completely buy his assurances. Super soldier or no, Steve had nearly died, same as him. It had only been a few days ago, after all, even if it seemed much closer thanks to spending most of that time unconscious. Enhanced healing and vitality could only do so much to restore him. Knowing Steve, he'd probably been frantically trying to assure Tony and Clint would be rescued from the operating table. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay," Tony answered. He frankly didn't feel like complaining about it. "You?"

Steve smiled slightly. "Okay."

They fell into something of an awkward silence. The memory of it all, of dark moments and desperation and panic, lingered between them. Tony explicably felt embarrassed for his doubt and his fear and his weakness. Truth be told (and he wasn't about to tell it), if it hadn't been for Steve and his constancy and confidence, they would have died. "Look, this acting like nothing happened crap doesn't sit well with me, so I'm just gonna say it." He met Steve's gaze. "Thanks."

Steve seemed surprised. They'd been in tough situations before, more than either cared to count, and they'd even thanked each other before for fast reflexes and quick saves. But this was more, and they both knew it. It wasn't just pulling a teammate from the line of fire or taking a hit to spare another. Steve had literally carried him from the bottom of the silo to the very top. His strength and stamina had become Tony's, and Tony hadn't even wanted them. The filth of pessimism had really poisoned him; he didn't blame himself, because given the pain and the bleak chances, giving up had been inevitable. Clint had lost it, too. But Steve hadn't.

Steve Rogers was built of pretty stern and tough stuff. Tony knew that now more than ever. And he was damn sure (although he'd never be able to prove it) that that stuff had been there before the serum.

Steve's face seemed perpetually locked in a reddened expression of shock. Tony grunted and closed his eyes. "Quit blushing like a girl, Rogers. Not like I'm proposing to you or something. I'm not even admitting that I have a man-crush on you, which I don't, by the way."

"What's a man-crush?"

"Did you really just ask that?" Tony shook his head. "Hasn't anyone taken you under wing to teach you the glories of the twenty-first century?" Steve looked annoyed and flustered. "I'm just trying to express my gratitude. You saved my ass. All of our collective asses."

"I didn't single-handedly get us out of there," Steve insisted. "I needed you guys just as much as you needed me. I wouldn't have been able to do it alone. There was more than one occasion where you pulled us up, where you took care of me. If it wasn't for you, we would have never gotten those launch doors open. And you saved Clint." Steve's voice grew a little rough at that, and Tony knew immediately he was still kicking himself for tossing the archer into the catwalk back during the fight with Zemo and causing the head wound. Never mind everything he'd done to ensure Clint's safety. Never mind that. "You shouldn't be thanking me. It was my fight with Zemo that got us trapped down there in the first place."

"Just say 'you're welcome'. Can you just do that for once, Spangles? Just once. Take the goddamn compliment."

Steve's mouth hung open, like he wasn't certain how to react. Then his expression softened and he smiled slightly. "You're welcome," he softly said.

Tony felt immensely relieved, the proverbial burden lifted from his chest. He released a long, slow breath, sinking back into the pillows a bit before closing his eyes again. "Good." That awkward quiet was quick to slip back into its place, though it was significantly less sharp than before. They'd seen each other at their weakest, their lowest. In that hell, everything had been stripped away. Weapons. Shields. Armor. It had been them and their flesh and bones and blood and hearts against sharp metal and rust and seemingly insurmountable heights. Tony wasn't entirely comfortable with that, that Steve had seen him so exposed and shaken and vulnerable. Naked, in a sense. He figured Steve probably felt the same. Clint as well. "How's Barton?" he asked.

Steve sighed, grimacing a bit as he did so. Tony didn't think it was wholly due to pain. "He can see some shadows. He says everything is very blurry. Doctor Banner thinks it will improve as he recovers. It's already better than it was yesterday." Again, the guilt. Steve wore it so plainly. "He's been sleeping a lot." What he didn't say was obvious. He was worried Clint was trying to avoid the fact that his vision might be permanently damaged.

Tony felt an inexplicable drive to make Steve feel better, even though that wasn't his typical response to someone's annoying and illogical emotional needs. He leaned forward and reached over his broken arm to grasp Steve's knee. "He'll get better."

Steve was surprised, his eyes shooting from Tony's hand to his face. "I should have been more careful," he admitted morosely.

"God, Steve. What, it isn't enough that you saved his life? He had to emerge unscathed, too?" Steve looked ashamed at that and averted his eyes. Tony let go of his knee. "And I can't help but notice you're not tearing yourself up about me." A hurt gaze shot to him. Tony raised his hand in defeat, trying his best not to smile. "Kidding." It was too easy to rile Rogers. It always had been. "Just let it go. If it were my choice, I'd rather be alive and blind than dead."

"Who said anything about being blind?"

Clint stood in the door, leaning on the frame, his hair sticking up in a spikey mess. He was dressed in a hospital gown and loose-fitting pants, and his pale face was covered in perspiration. Steve was up and out of his chair with surprising alacrity for a man who'd broken his back a few days before, racing over to Clint's side. Clint limped into the room, toward Steve, and his eyes focused. "Got it, Cap. Don't need your help."

Steve stopped in his tracks, eyeing Clint doubtfully. "What are you doing here?" he asked, incredulously shaking his head. "How did you…"

"I walked," Clint declared with a sly smile. He clasped Steve on the arm, pulled the bigger man against him slightly in what could have passed for a hug (they were Avengers – they didn't do hugging), and then staggered to the other chair. Steve stared at him with his mouth unabashedly hanging open, shocked. "It's better," was all Clint said after he'd plopped down in the chair. He smiled warmly at Rogers. "No worries."

Steve seemed too alarmed, too flabbergasted, to move for a moment, staring at Clint with an obviously mounting sense of joy and relief. Then he broke out in a smile and limped back to his own chair. He sat gingerly. "No worries," he murmured thoughtfully.

"Except for Zemo," Clint commented. He looked between Tony and Steve. "Nat told me he got away. You were right, Stark."

Tony shrugged neutrally; it was sort of a sad gesture because it was so damn lopsided. "Always am. I'm sure he'll be back, though, the vindictive bastard that he is. We'll be ready when he comes for us, right, Cap?"

Steve clenched his jaw slightly before giving a curt nod. There was something dark there, something Tony had all but forgotten about in the desperate struggle to stay alive in the silo. Steve screaming as Tony'd been drug down the hallway. The wounds painting his back. The bruises and lacerations he'd suffered at the hands of Zemo's men. Those horrible things tormented the edge of his consciousness, nearly demanding their due, but he wouldn't acknowledge them. He knew what it was like to be tortured, and he'd be entirely content if nobody ever brought up his dark months in Afghanistan ever again. He'd do Steve that honor, at least. Whatever happened between him and Zemo, when the time came to it, Steve would be the one to get the kill.

Clint realized the unmentioned. He was perceptive, even if he hadn't been able to see what had been done to Steve. The dark scowl that affixed itself to the archer's face was tense and unyielding, and suddenly everything that had happened was too close to bear. So Tony changed the subject. There was no need to go back. They were free, and they should stay that way. "Guys, I gotta say that this experience has really taught me something about teamwork. About sticking with one another, through thick and thin. Friendship is really the glue that holds us together, isn't it?"

Clint groaned. "Damn it, Stark. I swear to God. If we ever run into that Adhesive X stuff again, I am gluing your mouth shut. That subtle enough for you?"

"You know what your problem is, Barton? You never have a good laugh. I go out of my way to make you smile, and all I get is grief."

"I do laugh, just not at your stupid puns and lame references."

"Stupid? Lame? I'll have you know that I come up with these on the fly for your benefit. It's not easy to conjure up comedic gold on a moment's notice! I didn't even tell you how, in true Bond fashion, we lived to die another day, and now I'm not going to because you're such an ungrateful jerk." He shook his head. "I just… I could really use some lovin'. You know. From the spy who loved me."

"God damn it, Stark!"

Even though he didn't get it, Steve laughed. It was good to hear.


Two days later, the three of them were back at Stark Tower. They would continue their convalescence at home, mostly because the SHIELD medical personnel had pretty much had it with Tony's constant whining and Steve's constant refusal to stay in bed and Clint's constant insistence that he was fine and didn't need any help. As it stood, the doctors and nurses there were content to leave them to their own devices, frustrated and irritated enough to potentially ignore sound medical practice and certain oaths they had taken about doing no harm. Nobody blamed them. Thus, with the help of Bruce, Thor, and Natasha, the injured Avengers were airlifted back to New York.

Tony was easily the worst of them. His arm would remain in the cast for weeks, and after that months of physical therapy would be necessary to regain his range of motion. His overwhelming joy that his arm and hand had been saved quickly wore off in the face of an itchy cast and the impending strenuous, difficult work, and he'd taken to complaining about anything and everything. He couldn't really walk, either, thanks to the healing wound in his leg. Immobility never had suited him well, and he quickly started driving Pepper crazy. Her immense elation at having him home was therefore short-lived, as it was a double-edged sword if there had ever been one. He used his lower lip and puppy-dog expression to get her to wait on him, which she did without complaint, even as she gritted her teeth at his tenth or eleventh request in an hour. She was an angel, and Tony was just about the worst patient in the world.

Steve was undoubtedly a close second. He didn't complain. He didn't bemoan his state. In fact, he refused to acknowledge that he was hurt at all. The super soldier serum had made him so resilient that he was almost able to maintain this nonsense, but it wasn't potent enough to make his assurances that he was well and ready to be active anything more than well-rehearsed lies. Hypovolemic shock had nearly turned to refractory shock, and he'd been on the verge of death when Banner and the med-evac team had reached him. Repairing the internal damage had required hours of intensive, dangerous surgery. The serum was working its wonders in full force now; his injuries were nearly healed, the bruises and cuts and scrapes long gone. But he was weak and fatigued because his body was working ardently to repair itself, and he needed to rest above everything. And he utterly refused to do so, claiming staying still too long when he could be needed drove him crazy. Thor didn't buy it, and neither did Bruce, and since sedatives and analgesics had basically no effect on him, the only effective treatment for his stubbornness was equal and opposite obstinacy. Thor was more than happy to oblige, and Steve was begrudgingly staying put in bed with an angry god of thunder standing watch.

And Clint was just about as unreasonable as Steve. He was weak as a kitten, due to the infection he'd barely survived, and his sight, while improving, was still far from normal. He could identify people easily enough now and walk without too much trouble, but things were still quite blurry, and he needed far more assistance than he would readily accept. Natasha was with him almost constantly; it was fairly obvious how worried she'd been at Clint's capture and close brush with death, even if she would never admit it. Her demeanor was cold and firm, and she tolerated none of his assertions that he wasn't a "goddamn invalid". She helped him with tenderness the others found surprising. She aided him in dressing and eating and generally taking care of himself, always at his side but never smothering, and as the days went on, he needed her less and less. His vision was coming back, bit by bit.

Soon enough, everything would be back to normal.

About a week after their rescue, they sat in one of Tony's spacious living rooms. Spread across the table was a load of junk food: potato chips, dip, pretzels, cookies and brownies and popcorn. Tony sat in the leather recliner, dressed in his oldest, grungiest sweats, covered in an electric throw with his bandaged leg propped on a pillow. Steve was laying on the couch, munching on popcorn; half his bowl was gone already, and the movie hadn't even started. Clint had sprawled himself on the loveseat. He looked more relaxed than Tony ever thought possible of him.

Time to hang out, as Tony had called it. Back in the silo, this had seemed unattainable.

"What is it we're watching again?" Steve asked as Tony fiddled with the remote.

"Everything, like I said. Bond. Star Trek. Might as well throw Star Wars in there, too. But first and foremost: a Lord of the Rings marathon," Tony declared triumphantly. "In honor of our recent exploits. Victory against all odds. Climbing the proverbial Mount Doom. Casting the ring into the fire, well, as long as that's really a euphemism for Steve nearly falling to his death a few times." Steve shot Tony an irritated glare, which won him a cheeky grin in turn. "What? It's kinda like throwing yourself into the fire, anyway."

"And how long is this? I'm kinda tired," Steve said. "Can't we just call it a night?"

"That's exactly why we're doing this, Rogers. You find no value in modern pop culture. It's time for you to integrate into the real world."

"And I need to watch a bunch of elves and dwarves and pixies or whatever from a fake world to do that?"

"Yes, you do," Tony answered. "And there are no pixies in Middle Earth." Steve shook his head. "Come on, Cap. Remember what I told you? The next time we find ourselves in trouble, you'll have a lot more fun if you get all my movie references."

"Oh, yeah," Clint said, rolling his eyes as the first movie started to play on the humongous flat panel television before them. "I loved being compared to a Hobbit in the last moments of my life."

Tony huffed. "They weren't the last moments. And I'll have you know that Hobbits are extremely resourceful little buggers. I don't mind being compared to one. If Hobbits were real, I'd replace my entire robotic staff with them. Like my own little resourceful army of Oompa Loompas, only significantly less… orange."

"Shut up, Tony," Steve said. He looked up and over the arm of the couch and offered a warm, knowing smile. "You talk too much."

The movie started. About ten minutes later, Tony realized Steve was right. It was late, and he was tired. And he had work to do with Bruce tomorrow in the lab (even if it was just sitting and talking science). And Pepper would be back from her meetings on the west coast soon, and as much as he wanted to lay around and pig out of junk food and watch movies, he wanted her more. He thought of that, of how sweet she smelled and how patient and beautiful she was and how wonderful she made his life… And then he thought back to those dark hours, and how much he wanted to show her the depth of his feelings for her. How much he wanted to make things right. How afraid he'd been that it had all been too late, and he was going to die alone.

But he hadn't died. And he'd never been alone. He'd had Steve and Clint with him, and they'd carried each other all the way to the top.

He jerked awake when the score of the movie rose in a warm crescendo. Apparently he'd dozed, and he blinked the sleepiness from his eyes for a moment before glancing at the other two men. Steve was fast asleep on the couch, the bowl of popcorn forgotten on the table before him. And Clint was out as well, snoring softly and turned on his side.

So much for movie night.

It was all okay, though. Predictable, definitely, for their first hours alone without the care and company of the others, back in real life and away from the hell they'd survived. There was tomorrow and the day after and the day after. Even if nothing was for sure in their line of work.

"All's well that ends well," Tony said. "Right, guys?"

Peaceful and contented and lost to the world, they didn't answer. He yawned, watching the bright images dance across the television screen and hearing the triumphant music and feeling warm and safe and happy. He closed his eyes again.

There were dark places in the world. Evil men. Horrors. Hell on earth.

But there were also bright things, even in the darkest of places. There was hope and faith. Strength and loyalty. Bonds true and steadfast. Trust. Friendship and brotherhood.

All of that made what they'd gone through completely and utterly worth it.

THE END

Thanks to everyone who read, alerted, favorited, and reviewed this story, both the first and this time :-). I really appreciate all your support and comments. Also, special thanks to my beta-reader, E, for without her, none of this would have been possible.