Tony Stark danced from his main workstation to another keyboard on his left, moving more to the music in his head than the music that was playing in the background, bouncing on his toes with excitement. He finished with this project well before he'd anticipated. Finishing ahead of schedule meant he'd surprise Pepper with being not just on time, but early for their dinner date. Even better than surprising Pepper with dinner, was getting the drop on Reed Richards.
"Mr. Fantastic is gonna be awfully surprised when the Avengers show up at every emergency call they get."
"Surely you have something better to do with your time than tap Dr. Richard's phone, Sir."
"Tap his phone? What am I – S.H.I.E.L.D.?" Tony walked backward with his arms thrown wide addressing the main computer console. "This has nothing to do with phone tapping, Jarvis. This has to do with professional integrity."
JARVIS' silence spoke volumes. Tony ignored it.
"I get that the 'Fantastic Four'" Tony emphasized the name with air quotes, "was on the scene before the Avengers, but that doesn't mean that every call from Commissioner Gordon on the Batphone should go to them!"
"You're mixing your metaphors, Sir," JARIVS advised.
Tony waved impatiently at the air and turned toward another console. "It is not my fault that the Baxter Building has virtually no security encryption. I mean, Reed practically uses public wi-fi!" Tony made a face that clearly implied 'he deserves what he gets' as he typed the last few lines of code into the keyboard and inserted a flash drive into the computer.
"I just think that the important jobs should go to the better team, not just the team that's been around longer – the team with the better leader…"
"Captain Rogers is an excellent strategist," JARVIS agreed.
Tony pushed on because JARVIS clearly missed the point. "The team with the bigger Big Guy…"
"Of course, Sir."
Just as Tony initiated the program giving him access to communications to and from the Baxter Building, a call came through. However, the screen remained blank and there was no audio.
Tony tipped his head to the side and his eyes squinted slightly. "That's interesting," he mused as he moved to the keyboard of the main computer. "This message is encrypted from the sending side."
"Perhaps that means the message is private, Sir," JARVIS offered. But Tony's curiosity had been piqued; like a dog with a bone, this was not something he would easily let go.
It took less than a minute for Tony to break through the encoded communication, which was still about thirty seconds longer than it should've taken. Whoever was on the other end of the call knew a lot more about technology than Richards.
A live video feed sprang to life on the monitor where Tony had inserted the flash drive. It took him a second to match a name to the face, but when he identified the smarmy, condescending voice it came together in a flash. "Von Doom," Tony stated as he stepped toward the display. His expression became serious and all of the bounce had gone out of his step. It looked like he might be late for dinner after all.
Victor was clearly in mid-monologue when Tony tuned in to what he was saying. The deranged scientist was addressing his remarks to Reed, and Tony focused to catch up with the conversation.
"…I'm sure you understand that I'll be long gone once you arrive. All good things must come to an end and it is time for me to move on, but don't worry, I'll leave you my notes…"
The image of Victor Von Doom took up most of the video monitor. After his encounter with the Silver Surfer he appeared as normal as ever, but it was clear that the humanity had left his eyes. He was sitting very close to the camera to impart his message to Reed.
"Jarvis, are you getting this?"
"Yes, Sir," the AI promptly replied.
"Track down the source," Tony commanded.
"Already in progress, Sir."
"…just a few more housekeeping things to do, and then I'll leave the clean up to you, Reed…"
Victor stood up from his seated position and moved out of the camera's range. Tony squinted to make out the scene that was revealed behind him and took an involuntary step forward. With Von Doom out of the picture, the camera showed the expanse of a bleak warehouse. Much of the space was lost in the distance, but the center of Von Doom's twisted melodrama was very clearly displayed.
Under the harsh lights which created a wide circle on the floor, stood an imposing array of machinery surrounding a large glass tank filled with water. There was a figure confined in the tank, surrounded by water to the height of his collar bone. He was unable to float in the fluid surrounding him due to shackles that kept his feet attached to the bottom. The shackles around his wrists kept his arms floating down near his sides, unable to reach high enough to break the surface of the water. A mechanism from above the tank released a bucket full of water on the head of the man trapped in the tank below. The man was semi-conscious, but the falling water provoked a response and he raised his head far enough for Tony to get a look at his face.
"Oh God," the words poured out of Tony in an appalled whisper. "Jarvis, where's Rogers?"
"Captain Rogers and Agent Barton are en route back to the tower." Jarvis promptly replied.
"Are you sure?"
Tony knew JARVIS was sure. He knew for a fact that Rogers was with Barton because they'd checked in not long before Tony started working on his "Intercept Communications from the Baxter Building and Stick It to Richards" project. If something catastrophic had happened, JARVIS would've alerted the team long before this.
"I am certain, Sir. Both Captain Rogers and Agent Barton are on the Quinjet." Tony let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. Steve might be safe and sound, but the man in Von Doom's water tank o' torture had Steve's face, if a slightly younger version. Pieces of the puzzle were rapidly falling into place and it made a very unpleasant picture – Johnny Storm was the man in Von Doom's trap.
While Tony was connecting the dots, Von Doom wandered back into the frame, but this time he was standing by the machines, almost as though he was giving a tour or a lecture. There was a mad gleam in his eye that was even more unsettling contrasted with his cheerful, conversational tone. "What do you say, Reed? Up for a little Chemistry 101?"
For a moment Tony had forgotten this wasn't The Von Doom Crazy Hour; it was a live video feed and the link was open both ways.
"Victor, what the hell are you doing?" Reed demanded anger and alarm at war in his voice.
Victor shrugged nonchalantly. "It's just a little case of what goes around comes around."
Tony could hear both Reed and Ben both shouting over the link but it was Susan Storm's desperate "Johnny?" that kicked Tony in the teeth. Sue's voice broke through Tony's paralysis.
Tony was running for the exit and shouting orders to Jarvis before he was aware of doing it.
"Jarvis, get me a solid lock on the source of that signal and reroute Barton and Rogers. Tell Cap he's gonna need to jump if Barton can't land."
"Narrowing down the source of communications…"
"Not narrow, Jarvis…PINPOINT! Victor's crazy, but he's not stupid. He's going to keep them focused on him until he pulls the plug. There's no way Reed's team can get to Storm in time, but I'm pretty sure Von Doom didn't factor the Avengers into his master plan."
By the time Tony had sprinted across the penthouse of the tower formerly known as Stark and thrown open the door to the outside he was encased in the Iron Man armor. "Jarvis, keep that audio link open. Give me the coordinates for the location."
"Triangulating the signal, Sir."
Tony didn't bother yelling at Jarvis for more information. Venting his frustration at the AI wouldn't do him any good. At the very least the suit would take him toward the general area where Von Doom had set up shop; he'd be precious minutes ahead of the remaining Fantastic Four attempting a rescue.
Over the comm. Tony listened as Von Doom continued talking. "Now, now…" Victor responded with false cheer, "don't you worry yourselves about any of this. I'm going to leave everything just as you see it here including all of the detailed notes and observations I've made over the last sixteen hours."
"Oh my God," Tony heard Sue breathe, "sixteen hours…"
"Didn't you realize your little brother was unaccounted for, Susan?" Victor asked with false sympathy. "Johnny has made a wonderfully exciting test subject, but don't feel like you've missed out, Reed; I recorded each experiment. After all, I wouldn't want to be accused of being a 'strip-mall scientist'."
Ben grunted as though he'd been punched in the gut. Victor was pulling out all the stops and that meant Johnny Storm was running out of time.
"Jarvis…" Tony urged. He scanned the landscape as he flew away from the city. Von Doom was set up in a warehouse district, but which one?
"Pay attention, Reed," Victor continued, clearly following the script he had neatly planned in his head. "Just a little review - we know what happens when plastic and metal are super-cooled…but what do you have to do to freeze a flame?"
"Victor, please don't do this," Reed plead uselessly.
Victor was playing to two captive audiences – the literal captive in the tank behind him, and the three trapped watching the horror unfold – like a magician leading them inexorably toward the conclusion of his most masterful trick.
"I've pinpointed the location of the transmission, Sir. I've already rerouted your GPS and sent the coordinates to Agent Barton." Tony's confidence soared and he prayed that Von Doom would continue to ramble long enough to give them time to interfere with his big play.
"How long?" Tony asked.
"Ninety seconds, Sir."
"One hundred and twenty seconds."
Tony nodded inside his helmet. Plenty of time – they had plenty of time as long as Victor kept talking.
"It's been quite a fascinating experiment," Victor continued, "and your young friend here has tremendous recuperative abilities, but it is clear that the test subject is nearing the end of his usefulness."
Tony ignored the slow roll his stomach made at Victor's casual dismissal of his "test subject's" viability.
"What I've found most interesting is that even in the deepest freeze, the subject's core retains enough heat to melt the ice closest to his exposed flesh. I've detailed the results of the freeze and thaw cycles for you to review later, Reed. It's all in my notes – intriguing stuff." Von Doom sounded like Bill Nye the Science Guy sharing cool facts about the water cycle. Tony found it deeply disturbing.
"But I realized the flaw in my experiment was in leaving the subject's head exposed. With even one body part uncovered by water the subject was able to generate enough heat to keep all of his vital organs functioning." Victor was in full-on lecture mode.
"So for this last trial the subject will be fully submerged."
"Jarvis! More power to the thrusters!"
JARVIS rerouted more power and Tony could feel himself surge ahead.
"We'll do this in two stages," Victor explained for his audience. "First the freeze, so as to recreate the conditions of the earlier trials, and then the subject will be submerged. It will be exciting to see the results on that…will he drown before the water freezes or will it be suffocation that is ultimately the cause of death?"
Tony ruthlessly tuned out the increasingly frantic reactions of the team in the Baxter Building, but he couldn't tune out Johnny. For the first time since this psychotic episode began it was more than Victor's voice coming through the warehouse side of the transmission.
"Victor. No." Johnny's voice was harsh and raspy, barely audible over the cacophony of noise being raised by the Four through the other comm. "Please."
"I can't miss this time, can I?" Victor sneered in response.
A clear "snick" indicating the press of a button preceded a guttural scream. The sounds of pure agony emitted by Johnny raised gooseflesh on Tony's arms. Victor conscientiously recording his actions stated, "Stage one - flash freeze."
Under most circumstances Tony enjoyed making an entrance, but right now he was all about putting an end to what was happening in that warehouse.
"The warehouse has only one level. You are flying directly toward the west side entrance. Scans indicate heavy machinery and heat signatures there."
With no finesse, Tony raised his gauntlets and shot twin blasts of energy at the warehouse doors. Debris went flying as he sailed through the wake of the destruction he caused.
"Iron Man, this is unexpected," Von Doom said as he regained his feet using one of the machines near the tank as a lever. It gave Tony a little satisfaction knowing he'd knocked the crazy scientist on his ass.
"End this. Right now!" Tony demanded, gauntlets raised and weapons at the ready. He braced himself for a counter-offensive, but wasn't overly concerned about Von Doom's electroshock ability; if his suit could handle a direct strike from Thor, he could handle whatever Dr. Doom threw at him.
"Not when we're so close to the end," Victor said with a smile.
In retrospect Tony realized that he should have kept him mouth shut and just taken a shot at the tank. No matter what shape Storm was in, the heat from an explosion would cause him minimal damage and at the very least he would have been free of the ice. However, in waiting for Victor to go on the offensive against Iron Man, he forgot that the Avengers weren't part of Victor's contingency plan – but the Thing was.
Von Doom aimed a lightning strike at the ceiling and unleashed a load of steel beams that fell from the above and crushed Tony under their weight.
The resulting crash knocked Tony onto his back and all the air out of his lungs. For a moment the world went black. Tony clawed his way back to awareness quickly and Jarvis immediately began calling out diagnostics and precise instructions to deal with the metal deadfall he was trapped beneath.
Over the audio link, Tony could hear that Victor had resumed talking, but he didn't give that his attention. Johnny's screams from the flash freeze had ebbed into low, painful groans and unsteady, ragged breathing. Tony determinedly used his gauntlets to melt through the beams where Jarvis directed while he ignored his aching lungs and racing heart. It was painstaking work, like attempting to crawl out from under the world's deadliest jumble of pick-up-sticks.
Suddenly, over the comm. Victor's words became clear again. "Stage two – submersion."
Tony could hear Johnny choke and gasp as water doused his head. Von Doom must've done something to the bucket set-up because it sounded like there was a steady stream of water falling instead of the intermittent drop from earlier.
"Chin up, kid," Victor mocked. "Not that it'll help you for long."
Tony frantically began blasting the beams around him indifferent to the damage he might do to himself or the suit. Then the unmistakable sound of vibranium connecting with something metal caused a change in the pattern of the falling water; instead of rushing like a river, it sounded more like a spattering sprinkler.
Tony managed to get one arm free and with the force of a thruster roll the beam he cut in half off his head in time to see the warehouse light up as Doctor Doom unleashed all of his power directly at Captain America. Steve crouched like a dark shadow, his navy suit in striking contrast behind the glowing red, white and blue shield, but he never stopped advancing toward the tank. Von Doom managed to put some distance between them as he backed into the recesses of the warehouse while he kept up his barrage of lightning.
When Victor released his power, the warehouse lost its hyper-light glow and he was on the edge of where the darkness was complete. "Come, Captain…" Victor taunted with his arms open in challenge, "let us dance as heroes and villains do." Victor tipped his head, a knowing smile on his face. "But you can't leave the boy in the ice, can you?"
With a wave of his hand, as though tipping a hat, Victor stepped back and vanished into the darkness. The man knew how to make an evil exit.
With a few more judiciously placed blasts, Tony worked himself free of the mountain of steel he lay under. He staggered to his feet and was dismayed when he got a good look at what Von Doom had left behind. When the deranged scientist threw the power surge at Steve, Von Doom fried the equipment around the tank as well; there was no way they'd be able to use the machinery to reverse the freezing process and heat the water in the tank.
Steve had backed up a number of paces and was preparing to hurl his shield again.
"Wait!" it came out as more of a croak than a command. Steve ignored him. Tony snapped open his face plate. "Cap! Wait!"
The glare leveled at Tony stopped him in his tracks. Captain America was unshakable, cool under pressure and unbeatable in combat situations. But this was Steve Rogers, horrified and enraged beyond comprehension. In a heartbeat the circumstances changed and Tony knew that he had to be the one calling the shots.
"Storm can't take the vibration the shield will make when it hits the ice, Cap. It would probably kill him."
The blue eyes narrowed, digesting the information.
"We've got to heat him up or dig him out," Tony explained as he stumbled closer. "But first we've got to stop that water." Tony pointed to the pipe above the tank.
Steve's gaze snapped to the pipe. With no warning, Steve executed an amazing vertical leap. With his feet on the steel rimmed edges of the tank, Steve wedged his shield in the ice behind Johnny's shoulders and tipped it forward as a makeshift umbrella. He leaped again; with his left hand he held onto a solid pipe, with his right he grasped the pipe he'd sheared earlier. Then, dangling in mid-air and with no leverage, Steve crushed the water pipe with his right hand until no more fluid could pass through it. Tony was a little bit awed by the display of raw strength.
Steve released the pipe and lithely landed on the warehouse floor. While Steve addressed the water supply, Tony went to work on the tank itself. He shunted the power from his gauntlet to the index finger to use as a spot welder on the edges around the front face of the tank.
"Cap," Tony ordered, "move your shield around to the front. I'm gonna break this glass."
Steve made another vertical leap and landed like a cat on the frame. He wedged the shield in the ice, but this time kept it strapped to his arm. Steve crouched low and protective around Johnny's head and shoulders. With an assist from JARVIS pinpointing a weak spot, Tony kicked the glass which sheared off from the front of the tank. Now they could get to work.
Even with the water no longer pouring directly in the tank, enough of it had fallen to collect and freeze above the ice where Johnny was trapped. The droplets that had fallen on Johnny's head created an interlocking web of icy snowflakes that spread from his shoulders up his neck to the bottom of his close-cropped hair. The skin beneath the ice veneer had taken on a waxy pallor.
Jesus! Reed and the rest were still on the video link!
Similar to what Von Doom had done earlier, Tony approached the camera so he would be all that the others could see. "Richards, listen to me…"
"Stark, what's Johnny's status?" Reed demanded.
"We're on our way," Ben said simultaneously.
"Belay that!" Good God, why did he suddenly sound like a naval officer? "Richards, we're working in an extremely confined space, adding three more bodies to the mix will not be helpful."
Behind him, Tony could hear Steve using the shield as an ice scraper. His movements were becoming increasingly frenzied. "Ben, you come to us; Jarvis will give you the coordinates. Reed, you and Sue get over to the Tower."
"Copy that," Ben immediately responded; he turned and headed for the door, while Reed and Sue yelled dual denials.
Tony ignored their protests and talked right over them. "Reed, there is no one who knows Johnny's physiology better than you. Don't waste time here when you can get everything ready to help him when we bring him in. You know there is no time to lose." And then, because there was no way he could address Sue – as much as he wanted to say they'd bring Johnny back to her, he couldn't promise it would be her brother and not just his body – Tony ordered, "Jarvis, cut the link."
Tony took a deep breath. What decision Reed and Sue made now was out of his hands. He turned back toward the tank where Steve had made significant inroads on the ice around Johnny's shoulders and chest. It didn't look as though Johnny was responding to all of the activity around him.
Tony relayed further orders to JARVIS. "Allow Reed and Sue access to anything they need at the Tower – equipment, staff. Contact Pepper and let her know the situation. If there's anything Reed needs that we don't have, tell Pepper, and she'll get it."
Tony approached the tank and appraised the work Steve had done. Steve had kicked two footholds in the ice at about Johnny's mid-calf to allow him to stand above the highest level of the ice. He had obviously taken Tony's warning to heart and was careful not to cause undue vibrations with the ice, but scraping away the block of frozen water would take far too long even with Steve's strength and "I could do this all day" attitude. Johnny just didn't have that kind of time.
"Cap, stand down."
Steve kept digging.
Tony should've known that wouldn't work. He got close enough to grasp Steve's left arm; not to pull him away, but just to get his attention. The glare leveled at him had frozen much stronger men in their tracks.
"Cap, I just need you to step away so Jarvis can scan for weak spots in the ice. This will go much faster if we have a better plan." Ironic, oh so ironic.
Tony could see the gears spinning in Steve's head as he processed. Usually Cap was quicker on the uptake, but this situation understandably pushed all kinds of buttons, and he wasn't thinking clearly.
It became evident that stepping aside to step aside wasn't going to work for Steve. It occurred to Tony what he needed was a job.
"While I scan the ice in the tank, use the edge of the shield to clear as much of the glass from around the sides as you can. Use it to cut, not to shatter. Understand?"
Finally, a glint of reason came back to Steve's eyes. He had logical orders to follow; something productive to do. For the first time since his arrival Steve spoke.
"We have to get him out of the ice."
Anguish and desperation overcame the reason that had so recently surfaced. Tony could feel a tremor through the arm he held in his grip. Stepping closer, Tony looked up; he needed Steve to see his face.
"We'll get him out, Steve. We're gonna do this together. Let me get a better picture of what we're dealing with and we'll make a plan. Okay?"
Steve nodded once and jumped down from the ice. He stepped to the right and immediately began to work on the pane of glass on that side of the tank. Tony closed his faceplate once again.
"Jarvis, scan the ice and give me an image of pressure points and fault lines." JARVIS swiftly compiled a schematic of the ice Johnny was trapped in. Tony walked counter clockwise around the tank to avoid interfering with Steve's work. By the time the scan was completed, Steve was in the process of clearing the glass on the back of the tank and Ben Grimm had arrived.
"Oh God." Ben hustled over through the gaping hole Tony had blown in the side of the warehouse. It always amazed Tony how quickly Ben could move once he built up some momentum. Ben moved right past Tony until he was directly in front of the block of ice. He used the foot holds Steve made earlier to hoist himself onto the ice, and then raised his left hand and laid it tenderly on Johnny's head. "Jesus, kid…what'd he do to ya?"
For the first time since the flash freeze, Johnny's eyes fluttered open. "Ben?" he asked brokenly.
"Yeah Johnny, I'm right here," Ben looked over his shoulder at Tony. "How do we do this?"
Steve, finished with removing all of the glass, made a wide circle around and came to stand on Tony's right. Tony gestured for Ben to join them, and though it was clear he was reluctant to step away from Johnny, he stepped back down to the floor. Steve hefted his shield, Ben raised his fists; both of them were ready to attack the ice. Tony examined the schematic. "Jarvis, overlay the display on the ice."
A holograph of blue fault lines with red pressure points coalesced around the ice. The outside edges of the block, where the water met the sides of the tank were the most solid and showed the least amount of weakness. Blue lines radiated outward from Johnny into the ice closest to his body; there were far more lines near his torso than his hands and feet which was a little worrying. The red points lined up mostly along the chains that prevented Johnny from raising his hands out of the water; the addition of the metal to the fluid disrupted a solid freeze in those areas.
"Ben, you and I are going to work our way in from either side. We need to crush the ice to get to those chains attached to his wrists. That'll give us the best access for dislodging big chunks. Ben, we've got to be careful about sending shockwaves through the ice. No haymakers – crush, don't punch. Cap, you get back up on those footholds you made and keep working from the shoulders down."
Grimly, all three of them got to work. Ben's arrival seemed to have awakened Johnny to his surroundings. From what little first aid Tony knew, he thought that was probably a good sign, but he hoped that what they were doing wouldn't cause any further damage to his already stressed system.
"Ben? Ben!" Johnny called.
"'m right here, kid," Ben grumbled reassuringly from Johnny's right side as he methodically began crushing ice. "We're gonna get you outta there, just hang on."
Tony could see that Johnny was straining to keep a visual on Ben; it seemed like now that he had a connection he was desperate not to let it go. Steve recognized what Johnny was doing too; he knew better than any of them how important it was to keep Johnny calm so he could reserve what little strength he had.
"Johnny? Hey, Johnny," Steve said softly. Tony watched as Steve stopped digging, tucked the shield between his legs and the ice, and placed his hands on Johnny's shoulders. Johnny left off looking for Ben and oriented on Steve. Something in Steve's face changed and Tony could see his frantic distress drop away. Tony imagined that this was the face his men saw on the battlefield when the fight was over and they needed to get the casualties home.
Steve smiled encouragingly. Johnny blinked and Steve waited. "Cap'n 'Merica?"
With a twitch of his lips, Steve freed one hand and pushed off his helmet. "It's Steve," he corrected gently.
Johnny squinted like he just couldn't process what was going on. His shoulders twitched and it seemed to Tony that Johnny wanted to reach out not remembering that the ice inhibited his movement. The understanding that he was restricted seemed to bring a greater level of clarity followed by panic. Johnny sucked in a deep, gasping breath and began to look around frantically.
"Flame…on…" Johnny closed his eyes desperate to call up the power at his command. He choked out a strangled sob when he failed.
"Johnny, listen to me. Listen to me!" Steve grasped Johnny's head between his hands and waited for the younger man to focus on him once again. "You need to stay calm, okay?"
It was a long heartbeat before Johnny nodded. Steve nodded with him. Ben and Tony relentlessly continued crushing ice.
Steve kept up a running monologue demanding Johnny's attention. "We're working as fast as we can. We're not going to leave you. Do you understand me?"
Johnny nodded, more quickly this time.
"I know it's hard, but you can help by staying as calm as possible." Johnny's eyes were glued to Steve's face as he made a concentrated effort to reign in his fear and get his ragged breathing under control.
"That's good," Steve encouraged. "You're doing great."
Instead of taking up the shield again, Steve worked on dislodging the ice around Johnny's shoulders with his hands. "Are you hurt?"
Johnny huffed out a breath. "Cold. Fuckin' cold."
"You let us know if anything we do hurts – understood?"
Johnny nodded but added, "Can't be worse than the cold." Steve grunted a noncommittal response.
The clank of dropped objects to his left surprised Tony. A large box containing blankets, tools and a first aid kit from the Quinjet settled on the warehouse floor. "Jarvis whipped up a list of anything I had on board that you might be able to use."
Tony grinned behind his mask and asked, "What took you so long?"
"Couldn't find a place to park. Then Jarvis told me the warehouse next door also belongs to Von Doom Industries and I used that as my landing pad." Clint's dark expression contrasted with his light words. He looked grimly at the tableau and lit up the blowtorch he held in his right hand. "Where do you want me?"
Steve, hearing the voice of a newcomer twisted from his perch. "Barton. Give me your hat. And pass me those hand warmers and a blanket."
Clint swiped the black knit hat from his head and handed it over, unquestioning. He then grabbed a standard issue army blanket and a bunch of hand warmers and passed them over as well. Steve placed the hat on his own head, and then used the blanket to vigorously rub Johnny's hair. When he was satisfied, Steve transferred the knit hat to Johnny's head and pulled it down low over his ears. Then he positioned the hand warmers on Johnny's neck and secured them in place with the blanket.
Barton looked at Tony, still waiting for orders. "Use the torch to cut in low under where Ben is working. I've already got the heat from my gauntlets to use on this side." Tony pointed at the warehouse floor. "Watch the glass."
Barton immediately moved around Steve and crouched below where Ben was making good headway toward the chain binding Johnny's right arm. For a few minutes the only sounds were Steve's patter of questions, Johnny's one word answers and ice hitting the floor.
"I got it!" Ben announced. "I reached the chain."
Tony paused and stepped back. "Everybody clear out. I need to get a look at this again."
Ben and Clint moved away, but Steve looked mutinous from his perch. Then, with a gymnastic twist, Steve launched himself up and around Johnny to land with his feet behind the trapped man's shoulders. Steve settled crouched behind Johnny with a hand on Johnny's right shoulder. Apparently Steve intended his statement about not leaving Johnny alone to be literal.
"You need to see the stress points, right? Well, I'm not in the way." It wasn't exactly an argument. And the implied order of "get to it" was loud and clear.
"Jarvis, display the graphic again," ordered Tony.
Ben had a good eye. He'd carved out a path directly to the heavy link chain that kept Johnny's arm immobile when it was immersed in water. His digging had naturally increased the stress fractures in the ice.
Barton had a good eye too. He examined the ice schematic, looking at it for the first time and Tony could tell he was seeing things a little differently. Tony recognized the calculating head tilt.
"What if we…" Clint pointed and drifted around to the right side of the ice where Ben had been working. "Do you see it?" he asked shooting a glance at Tony.
"We'd need an explosive to make that work," Tony responded.
"Hey! You said vibrations were bad…how can an explosive…?" Ben burst out.
"Look," Clint gestured to Ben stepping closer to the ice. "If we could get these three spots to crack at the same time…" Clint gestured to three red dots situated on a diagonal along Johnny's right arm.
"With you, me and Steve creating pressure along the fault line…" Tony pointed out a large blue fault line that was expanded by the digging and the foot holds Steve had kicked into the ice face. "We could shear off virtually the entire front of the ice block in one swoop."
"That sounds great. It's the 'explosive' part I'm worried about," Ben argued.
"Just a small one," Clint assured him. He reached behind him to draw an arrow from his ever present quiver. He made an adjustment to dial up the arrow head he wanted and displayed it to Ben. "This is a tip I would normally use to disable a computer or electrical system. Very low charge."
"We just need something inside the ice to get the reaction started," Tony explained. "Then we will exploit the fault lines and do the rest."
"Do it." The men standing on the warehouse floor looked up. Tony would've sworn it was Steve who spoke, but Ben responded like it was Johnny.
"We've gotta…" Ben began.
"Please," Johnny begged. "Please, Ben…" He was doing his best to hold it together, but even a glimmer of a plan was too much for him to let go. Ben was made of stone, but he couldn't stand in the face of that plea.
"Do it," Steve urged; this time it was an order.
Tony raised his gauntlet and melted a tunnel the width of the arrowhead through the face of the ice to the manacle on Johnny's right wrist. Clint nodded in agreement with the placement and whirled to stride away, giving himself room for a better shot. Tony retrieved Steve's shield from where it had fallen when he leaped to the top of the block. He lit his boot boosters and hovered at Steve's eye level to hand it back.
"When Barton hits that spot - Cap, use your shield to crack the fault right here." Tony etched a line in the ice very close to Johnny's chest. "I'll add downward pressure. The Thing will push from left to right. If we do it right, this whole front piece should slide right off."
Tony hovered and twisted in mid-air. He nodded at Hawkeye. "Ready?"
The archer nodded back and raised his bow.
If Ben had further reservations he didn't share them as he took up his stance. "Don't move, kid." Johnny couldn't help coughing out a laugh.
The plan was perfectly executed. When Hawkeye's arrow connected with the manacle it produced the anticipated chain reaction. Once Steve's shield forced the fault line from above to combine with the left-right fault, he let the strength of Iron Man and Thing move the mass while he protected Johnny from splinters and debris exploding from the protesting ice. The resulting crash echoed through the emptiness of the warehouse.
"Okay? You okay?" Steve demanded of Johnny. Steve jumped down so he could look Johnny in the face. Johnny mumbled an affirmative.
The surface of ice that was revealed was shiny and clear as glass. Whereas the outside edges of the larger cube were milky and difficult to see through, the sheen of the cut from the inside was blinding under the harsh overhead lights. The fault cut through the ice on a steep diagonal leaving Johnny's torso almost completely clear of the ice, while his calves and feet were still completely enclosed.
It seemed to Tony that this was an added torment to the younger man. When Johnny had been fully encased, he was more patient allowing the others to scrape and dig around him. But the explosion that removed the majority of the ice that surrounded him in the front left a thin but strong veneer like clear glass; clear enough to see how close they were to freeing him, but strong enough to continue to be an obstacle. Never had the phrase "so close and yet so far" held so much meaning. It looked like he should be able to push forward and break free. But he had little strength and was still held by the chains inside the ice that wasn't broken.
Work began again at an accelerated pace. Tony felt very encouraged. "Ben, now that we've removed the ice from the front, vibration isn't as much of an issue. Concentrate the force of your blows from front to back and smash that ice behind Johnny. Let's get his hands free."
Johnny began to struggle anew trying to add some momentum to the effort of the others.
Steve had once again abandoned his shield in favor of digging by hand. He kicked himself lower footholds and applied himself to tearing through the thin ice wall by Johnny's torso. Steve alternated between pulling ice chunks away and rearranging the army blanket to cover the skin that he exposed.
Steve had given up questioning Johnny looking for responses and taken up vocalizing a string of encouragements instead. "We're almost there" and "We're gonna get you out" were in heavy rotation along with "We've got this, let us take care of it".
Tony noticed that Johnny's face increasingly showed that he was registering pain. As cold as Johnny had been when he was encased, it was a single, sensory input to process, and so overwhelming that it was too much to take in and became like white noise to his overtaxed system. The explosion, movement in the ice and gradual exposure to the warehouse temperature was becoming too much for his body to handle.
Tony noted a change in Johnny's breathing pattern as well; not because he was reactive or afraid, but because it was simply becoming to exhausting to do. Ben heard it too. He started to use his feet to kick the ice along with crushing it in his hands.
"Ben..." Johnny rasped.
Barton severed the chain holding the right wrist as Tony finally cut through the one on the left.
"Right here, kid. Just hang in there," Ben encouraged.
"What am I, your messenger boy? You got something to tell Susie, you tell her yourself." A huge chunk of ice exploded off the back of the cube under Ben's furious assault.
"She's gonna be mad if we're late…" Johnny's words were slow and slurred. He started to waver as the ice holding him upright weakened.
"Not gonna be late," Ben replied. "We'll get you home in no time." Another swing from Ben demolished what remained of the back of the cube.
Without the ice or the chains to stabilize him, Johnny collapsed. Steve abandoned digging altogether and gave his focus completely to keeping Johnny from giving in to shock. Tony didn't see how Steve managed it, but somehow he'd removed the top of his uniform and undershirt. Steve tucked Johnny's head into his left shoulder, cradled him close to his chest and directed Clint to swaddle the younger man with his arms tucked in between the two of them. Clint wrapped the blanket around Johnny and then drew the blanket under Steve's arms secured it behind his back leaving Steve's hands free to keep Johnny steady. Clint then threw a second blanket over Steve and secured it behind Johnny adding an extra layer of warmth to aid his struggling system. Johnny gasped broken whimpers of pain into Steve's shoulder as he shivered uncontrollably.
"Ben," Tony directed, "legs and feet."
Steve held Johnny upright as Tony and Ben worked to smash the last few inches of stubborn ice and release Johnny from the chains that bound him to the floor of the tank. With Johnny almost completely free, Ben was unrestrained in his actions and the remaining ice was quickly obliterated, while Tony focused on severing the chains.
"You're okay…you're okay, I've got you," Steve murmured over and over.
One final smash from Ben, and Steve staggered backward, unsteady with the ice underfoot and unbalanced with Johnny's additional weight.
"Whoa…steady! I got ya, Cap!" Tony straightened up and secured Steve and Johnny within the arm span of the Iron Man suit. As he was working out the best way to transport them, Barton came running over with a dolly. Steve stepped on the dolly and Ben tipped it back making it easier to transport both of them. It was quick work to hustle everyone back to the Quinjet. Clint immediately ran forward and prepared for an emergency takeoff. With no reasonable place to lie out, Ben held Steve and Johnny upright during the short flight.
Steve had been so focused on Johnny for so long, that Tony was surprised when Steve addressed him. "S-Stark...we'll need Thor at the Tower. Tell him to suit up."
"Cap?" Tony didn't understand what it was Steve thought Thor could do, particularly in his Lord of the Rings costume, but he was more concerned about the stammer when Steve tried to say his name. Steve had been practically in the ice with Johnny as he worked to break him free and now he had the human ice cube strapped to his chest.
Steve shook his head in the negative, unwilling to have any discussion about his own well-being. "Call him in." Steve tried, and failed, to look around the blankets surrounding Johnny. "His f-feet. I'm worried about his feet."
Tony removed his helmet and placed it on a nearby bench and turned his gaze downward. Clint had securely wrapped Johnny in the blankets he had tossed in the box of supplies, but the length had been used to cocoon him chest-to-chest against Steve leaving his legs and feet unwrapped. The grey and blue hues in his skin did not bode well.
"It doesn't look good, but I don't know…"
Steve interrupted. "If there's another blanket, or anything you can use, just wrap them as best as you can. It's more important to warm the core first, but frostbite in the extremities is a danger."
"You sure know a lot about treating hypothermia, Cap," Tony replied as he knelt and wrapped an extra blanket around Johnny's calves and tucked it under his feet. "All that personal experience?"
"Stark!" Ben growled, offended on Steve's behalf. But it was Tony so Steve ignored him.
"It gets pretty cold in Germany in the winter," Steve replied. "Sometimes the river isn't as frozen as it looks. That's no way to lose a good man." Steve's gaze drifted down toward the knit cap tucked into his shoulder. "We're not going to lose this one."
Tony exchanged a glance with Ben. "No, we're not."
The return trip to the Tower was swift. When they arrived it was quickly apparent that a number of things were not going to work. The white-coat wearing, well meaning, medical professionals were not going to be able to separate Steve from Johnny. It just wasn't going to happen. Although they needed to assess Johnny's condition they were hard pressed to unwrap him from the Captain America burrito he was in while Steve insisted the blankets needed to stay in place to retain the body heat that had been generated. They were unwilling to push the issue with Ben looming.
Additionally, as Tony noted earlier in the warehouse, there were just too many people trying to do the same work in a very small space. Although Tony designed each medical suite in the Tower to be about twice the size of the typical emergency room setup, Ben, Steve and Johnny took up about half the space just by themselves. Add in most of the Avengers, the rest of the Fantastic Four and various Stark medical staff and it made for confusion which was not easily sorted with emotions running so high. The idea of getting the Steve and Johnny combo up onto a gurney, even a Captain America sized gurney, was laughable.
Clint wryly observed the scene and stated, "We need a bigger boat."
Barton was a genius.
Tony threw up his hands. "Okay! If you get a paycheck from Stark Industries, stand down but stay here. Dr. Richards will ask for you specifically when he needs you. The rest of you," he indicated the Avengers and the Fantastic Four with a wave "follow me!"
Tony led the way toward a different suite. Bruce nodded in approval and rushed ahead to open the wide double doors. Tony nodded as well when he walked in; this would be perfect. This particular set of rooms was Hulk-sized. The Hulk didn't need medical assistance per say after a fight the way others on the team might, but he did need a place to wind down that wasn't in the public eye or prison cell. It had become a habit to get the team back to the Tower as swiftly as possible after an engagement, and the Hulk would use this room to transition. There was medical equipment for monitoring, kept mostly in storage along the sides of the room, but most importantly there was an extra wide, extra long, steel reinforced bed for the Hulk to relax in and for Bruce to wake up in.
This time Steve didn't argue when Reed and the others tried to get him situated. With Ben's assistance, Johnny and Steve were transferred from the dolly to the bed with the army blanket cocoon loose enough for Reed to insert heart and blood pressure monitors to his satisfaction. In lieu of superfluous medical staff, Bruce and Sue served as Reed's underlings, gathering equipment and tending to the men on the bed.
Tony tried to answer Reed's questions as accurately as possible, but there was a lot going on in the warehouse. He was pretty sure Johnny had been unconscious since before they left the warehouse and had been unresponsive since they'd arrived at the Tower. Ben backed him up and added that though Johnny had been shivering when they first got him out of the ice it had stopped by the time they got to the jet. That bit of information made Reed look very concerned.
In all the time he'd been administering first aid to Johnny, Steve hadn't stopped talking. Steve mumbled encouragements which had changed from "we're going to get you out" to "you're safe now" – not that Johnny gave any indication that he heard any of it.
The doors to the medical room swung open wide as Thor arrived on the scene. Sometimes Tony wondered if the Asgardian created mini wind gusts to make his cape flutter when he entered a room. Thor looked battle ready with Mjolnir in hand.
"What happened?" Thor asked as he took in the scene. His eyes scanned the room and landed on Bruce with confusion. "Banner?" Tony kicked himself a little bit. In all the excitement he hadn't composed a very informative message for JARVIS to pass on to Thor. Chances were good that the only information Thor had was to suit up and to meet in this particular medical suite; he probably thought he was needed for some Hulk wrestling.
Bruce stepped toward Thor but gestured toward the bed. "It's Johnny. Extreme hypothermia."
For the first time, Steve acknowledged someone in the room other than Johnny. He raised his head up off of the pillow and looked at Thor. "Trapped in ice," was all Steve said.
Tony didn't comprehend what passed between Thor and Steve. It was unspoken, but there seemed to be an understanding between them. Thor nodded as he placed Mjolnir, head down, on the floor at the food of the bed. "This 'hypothermia'," he replied to Bruce, "this is when one has been exposed overlong to the cold. Correct?"
"This is familiar to me." Thor unhooked the bright red cape from the clasps on his shoulders and laid it on the foot of the bed. He continued to speak as he shucked himself out of his tunic and armor. It was an impressive maneuver. It was a good thing the majority of Stark's staff were in a different room because semi-naked Thor was sure to induce group swooning.
"This is not the first time I have had occasion to warm a comrade; blizzards on Jotumheim can be fierce." Thor swiftly removed his boots and whatever passed as socks on Asgard. Tony was highly relieved that that was as far as Thor's striptease progressed, and that his leggings stayed on; the Asgardian was extremely casual about nakedness, and it wouldn't have been surprising if he'd gone completely au natural.
Thor walked around the bed on Johnny's left side and faced Steve, but addressed his question to Bruce. "This does not look like a comfortable arrangement. Can we remove those blankets they are swaddled in?"
Reed approached the bed, walking from behind Thor. "Steve has been reluctant to let us unwrap them…"
"S'okay now," Steve mumbled from the bed. Tony could see that Steve had started to push against the outermost blanket, but had no leverage and was hindered by Johnny's weight as well.
Thor reached across the bed and laid a hand on Steve's shoulder to still him. Again, something passed between them. "Then let us rearrange them more satisfactorily," Thor proposed.
With assistance from Ben on Steve's side and Sue and Thor on Johnny's side, they unwrapped the army blanket cocoon. Thor climbed onto the bed and lay down on his right side facing Steve with Johnny sandwiched between them. It surprised Tony that before Thor allowed Sue to cover the group with a heated blanket he pulled his cloak up and over Steve and Johnny. The vibrant red cape was an abnormally bright spot in the medical room. Tony didn't miss how Steve's face visibly relaxed when the cloak settled around his shoulders and covered the length of his frame. Before Sue arranged the additional covers, Thor reached across Johnny to grasp Steve's arm and pull him closer.
Once the three men on the bed were relatively settled there was nothing to do but wait.
Tony had never been particularly good at waiting. He caught Clint's eye and motioned him closer with a raised eyebrow. "I need you to get back over to that warehouse. Von Doom said he was taking notes and left data for Reed. Grab anything that can be salvaged – video, hard drives, flash drives." Tony glanced over toward where Reed, Sue and Bruce were consulting. "Don't bring it here. Take it down to my lab."
"It's not for you or your team, Stark," Ben's growled whisper caught Tony by surprise. How could an animate pile of rocks walk across the room without making any noise?
"I'm not trying to take ownership, Ben," Tony explained keeping his voice low but urgent, "but right now everything Von Doom did is all out in the open. Anyone could walk through that hole I blasted in the wall and take off with whatever we left in that warehouse."
"Natasha and a team have secured the premises," Clint interjected.
Tony look at him in surprise. Barton gave a casual shrug. "You had a lot on your mind, so I called it in."
"Good thinking," Tony nodded in approval.
Clint turned toward the door and then he looked over his shoulder at Ben. "You coming?"
Not for the first time, Tony was surprised by how expressive Ben's face was. It was obvious he longed to go with Barton – whether to secure the data for his team or to provide muscle in case Dr. Doom presented himself, wasn't clear – but his heart was with his team and with Johnny's condition still unstable there was no way he was going to leave. Ben opened his mouth to answer, but Clint raised a hand forestall him. "Understood."
As Barton made for the hallway, Ben returned to his post on Steve's side of the bed. Tony walked over to where the others were talking.
"Actually, Steve's insistence on calling in Thor makes a lot of sense," Bruce explained to the Richards. "Both Thor and Steve have elevated body temperatures due to their unique metabolisms. We could have any two people in a bed helping Johnny warm up, but those two people are the best."
"How does this work?" Tony asked.
"In cases of hypothermia it is most important to bring the patient's core temperature back to normal slowly. That's where the skin-to-skin contact and heated blankets come in. It's also very important to monitor cardiac activity; any type of physical stress can cause tachycardia." Bruce took a deep breath and glanced at the others. Tony could see he was carefully editing his comments for the benefit of Sue and Reed. "The good news is if that was going to happen, most likely it would've happened when you were getting him out of the ice. Steve was very smart to start administering first aid before Johnny was completely free."
Reed nodded absently listening to Bruce. His face was still pinched with concern as he scrutinized the data on the StarkPad he held in his hand. "The problem we're facing is that Johnny's core temperature is not that of a normal person. Generally his resting temperature is a little above two hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Even with Thor and Steve's higher body temperatures, we may have to take stronger measures if Johnny doesn't respond to this treatment."
"And that's bad because…?" Tony prompted.
"More aggressive treatment can cause shock and trigger a cardiac arrest, like Bruce was saying." Sue's expressive blue eyes were filled with worry and she reached for Reed's hand. He squeezed it reassuringly though his features still looked grim.
"Hey!" Ben's gravely voice called, breaking up their conference. "There's something going on here!"
Ben loomed over Steve's side of the bed. He unconsciously reached out to help, but he didn't know what to do. It was difficult to see anything under layers of blankets and superheroes, but it was easy enough to hear Johnny's distress. He had begun to groan softly. His teeth started to chatter and he sucked in air at irregular intervals. Sue knelt on the bed behind Thor's back and reached over to place her hand on the hat that still covered Johnny's head.
Tony's attention was divided between Bruce and Reed who had their heads together and watching the shaking mass on the bed. Both Steve and Thor attempted to soothe the increasingly agitated young man trapped between them with assurances that he was not alone and that everything was going to be fine. Johnny's moans escalated to involuntary whimpers as his body continued to attempt to readjust.
For the first time, Reed actually looked encouraged. "As bad as it sounds, this is actually a good sign."
"I don't know, Reed," Tony responded sharply, "it sounds pretty freakin' bad!"
"The shivering, the muscle spasms…it's all a way for his body to regulate after being subjected to the cold for so long. Almost like a computer doing a hard reset." Reed's eyes remained fixed on the tablet displaying Johnny's vital signs, but Tony saw him flinch when Johnny gave a particularly piercing yelp of pain. Reed passed the StarkPad over to Bruce. "At least we can make one thing a little easier for him," Reed stated.
Reed wheeled a tank closer to the head of the bed and removed a mask that was attached with a thin tube. Any other doctor would've needed to ask Sue to or Thor to move, and any other doctor would've had great difficulty getting to Johnny the way he was curled into Steve's shoulder, but Reed simply stretched out his arms until he could easily work the mask around Johnny's nose and mouth. Tony would never admit it, but of all the super powers he had witnessed in his time as a hero, Reed's plasticity was the one thing that completely freaked him out.
"What's that?" Sue demanded. She knelt straight up, using Thor's shoulder to steady her.
"It's just humidified oxygen," Reed responded. "One less thing he has to make his body fight for." Before he pulled his arms away, Reed rested his hand on the top of Johnny's head like Sue had done. He exchanged a glance with his wife and gave her a slight smile, much more confident now than he'd been just a few minutes earlier.
Unfortunately for Johnny, his body's attempt to get itself back on track also brought him back to consciousness; he was awake enough to feel and react to the pain he was in. Agonizing minute stretched into agonizing minute as his nerves fired pins and needles into abused muscles forcing them to spasm painfully. At the same time he was wracked with uncontrolled shivering and would've curled into a miserable ball without the bookends of Thor and Steve.
Tony could see his own frustration at his helplessness to do anything but listen empathetically to Johnny's pain echoed on everyone's face. Johnny must have been making some attempt to keep himself in check because Thor spoke through the thick, anxious silence of all the observers.
"Do not be reluctant to release your tears, shield-brother, they will bear you through your pain, as will we."
The wrecked sob Thor's heartfelt words elicited from Johnny galvanized everyone else in the room. Reed, Bruce and Tony all stepped away from the bed and gathered near the computer by the wall; it was only a token gesture, since Johnny had no real privacy for his breakdown, but it made them feel better to afford the moment what distance they could. Similarly Ben stepped away, but not before he brokenheartedly whispered, "Oh, kid."
Sue climbed around Thor and repositioned herself at the foot of the bed. Though the blankets were pulled taut around the sides of the bed, she wormed her legs underneath until Johnny's twitching feet rested against her folded legs. Steve shifted his legs and tried to make room for her, but she shook her head and patted his leg. Sue's eyes were bright with tears and she made no effort to hide the ones that had fallen. She pulled Steve's legs back to rest against her left knee and restlessly petted Johnny's feet with her free hand as he cried himself out.
It felt to Tony like the Johnny's torment would never end. Every time it seemed like that worst was over, he would be taken over again by teeth-chattering shudders or bone-cracking cramps. When Johnny was in the throes of pain, the familiar patter of reassurances spilled from both Steve and Thor. But when the pain had ebbed and Johnny apprehensively awaited the next unpredictable storm, Thor and Steve traded off telling tales of heroic comrades. Even Ben got in on the act, perching on the edge of the reinforced bed and regaling the others with some of Johnny's more outrageous stunts.
Meanwhile, Reed obsessively monitored Johnny's body temperature and heart rhythms; his temperature was slowly climbing, and his heartbeat stayed strong and steady. Bruce stayed busy coordinating information with Reed and Tony fretted because he had nothing to do. Tony wasn't overly self-analytical, but he recognized that in the past he would've run away to his lab and convinced himself it was to everyone's benefit, but now he felt compelled to see this through.
Without a job and no reason to join the pile on the bed, Tony found himself perched on a stool near the door with a view of the bed and the medical equipment. Johnny was experiencing an extended period of calm, though no one said anything about it aloud, not wanting to jinx it. For the first time since Clint had wrapped him against Steve, Johnny made a voluntary movement. He sighed deeply and tried to roll away from Steve onto his back. Steve was surprised by the motion, and having lain in the same position for so long, was slow to react. On his side, Thor had more room to maneuver and pushed back slightly to give Johnny more room.
"Johnny?" Sue asked, immediately on alert. "You okay?"
With his eyes closed, Johnny landed on his back but he didn't stay there for long. He continued his roll, taking the now visible red cloak with him until he crashed into Thor.
"Warm." he mumbled.
Steve and Sue shared a smile as Johnny snuggled closer to the god of Thunder and Thor welcomed him into his embrace. Johnny sighed again content in his new position; it looked as though he fell directly into a deep sleep. It was the first time Thor got a good look at Johnny's face. He pushed back the knit cap, and then removed it completely. There was wonder in his expression. "He could be your younger self, Steven."
Steve mumbled something about 'a strong resemblance' as he pulled his left arm under his pillow and scooted in closer to rest against Johnny's back. "Imagine me seeing that face in a block of ice when I got to the warehouse." Then Tony saw it again; the look that passed between Steve and Thor. He still couldn't put his finger on what it was, but it was poignant and painful and very, very personal. It was hard to see from across the room - it was difficult to be sure under all the blankets – but Tony was pretty sure Steve had started shaking.
Heedless of the others on the bed, Thor reached across Johnny with his left arm and gently grasped the back of Steve's head. He pulled Steve's blonde head closer to his own and whispered something Tony couldn't hear.
Ben and Sue, satisfied that Johnny was settled and unwilling to encroach on what was happening between Thor and Steve, each extracted themselves from the bed and made their way over to where Reed was working. Bruce studiously ignored the scene behind him and pretended he didn't hear the heartening words Thor murmured to Steve. Tony would've pursued it – he would've marched right over and flat out eavesdropped – but that was the moment Clint returned with Natasha in tow.
Before Barton could give him a rundown on what had been retrieved from the warehouse, Natasha self-assuredly approached the bed. Tony's initial impulse was to warn her off, but she would just ignore him anyway. Natasha gracefully peeled off her boots as she walked and let them fall on the floor. Gently she pulled back the uppermost set of blankets revealing the bright cape underneath and insinuated herself against Steve, wrapping her arms around his torso and tucking her legs up behind his. Just like he had earlier when Thor's cloak settled around him, Steve noticeably relaxed when Natasha curled against him and pulled the top blankets over them both.
Tony looked to Clint for some sort of reaction, but his expression was inscrutable. Paying no mind to the pile on the bed, Clint gave his report. "Tasha and I scrounged all the tech we could find, anything that looked like it could hold any data. One of the hard drives was completely fried, but we grabbed it anyway. There was no sign of Von Doom."
Tony grimaced. "He's like a bad penny, he always shows up."
Barton nodded. That was a problem for another day. Together they made their way over to the group that had formed around Reed.
"This is encouraging. Very encouraging," Reed pronounced.
Sue's head was bent over the tablet in Bruce's hands as he softly explained the readouts. "His temperature is already up to ninety-seven, which is still very low for Johnny, but much higher than when he first came in. The climb has been slow but steady, just what we're looking for."
"And it looks like the worst of the physiological reactions are over. There may be some moderate discomfort or aftershocks, but nothing at the level of what he's just been through." Reed's expression was contemplative, and as per the norm he didn't share what was on his mind. Normally Tony would at poke him until he gave it up, but he figured Richards had been through enough for one day.
"Okay, so we're in 'sit-around-and-wait' mode," Tony stated. "Obviously we'll order in – any preferences? Italian? Chinese? Pot luck?"
"Definitely pizza," Clint chimed in. He gave a nod toward the bed. "Pretty sure Thor and Steve will be starving later."
"What's Johnny's favorite, Sue? He'll be able to eat later, right? Or do we need to give him chicken soup?" Sue looked overwhelmed by the amount of information Tony was spewing at her.
"Actually, soup is a great idea for Johnny," Bruce tossed out.
"How about the rest of you? Sue? Ben?" Tony cocked his head and peered at Ben. "Do you eat?" He waved a flat palm in the Thing's direction. "I'm not clear on how all this works."
"Yeah, I eat," Ben grumbled.
"He eats a lot," Reed absentmindedly added eyes still on the screen in his hand. Tony smirked.
"I'll take care of it!" Tony declared. The relief of having something to do that was close to normal put a bounce back in his step. He strode toward the door intending to make a private call to Pepper before he ordered the food when something occurred to him. Wheeling around, Tony addressed the group again while walking backwards.
"Ben! Whatdya think of the bed? Good right? You want one? I can make that happen."
Ben blinked and exchanged a look with Bruce. Bruce nodded and gave a one-shoulder shrug. "It's really comfortable in spite of all the reinforcements. Never had a problem with it taking Hulk's weight."
"Huh." Ben looked intrigued.
"Done deal!" Tony declared. "What about the mattress? What do you like, hard or soft?"
Ben rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "That doesn't matter to me. Really, I should ask Alicia…"
Tony stopped dead in his tracks. "A-leeee-cia?" He waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "Alicia needs to make the mattress decision? How does THAT work?" He waved his hand again, this time a little lower.
"Stark…" Ben's voice was a warning growl. "Let it go."
"Oh, I'm not letting it go…got to call Pepper and make sure everyone gets fed. I'm gonna design the best bed ever…and then we'll talk about mattresses. I'm so not letting it go…" Tony breezed out of the medical suite with a grin on his face, happy that things seemed to be back to as close as they ever got to normal.