Chapter 43: Infiltration
After the couch fort explosion, which was a direct result of Steve getting completely stoned and sleeping in the living room the day before, Clint let Tony off physio for the day, sort of. He looked pretty tired himself, and there was an owl wearing a Captain America tie on the end of Tony's bed, but Tony wasn't gonna judge a guy for his choice of bedtime partners; it'd be the height of hypocrisy.
"You've done enough range of movement and strength exercise, I think..." The archer's hands were firm and comfortable, comforting, as he manipulated Tony's shoulder. The incision was well on its way to sealing, the stitches nearly dissolved as the healing capillaries brought resources in, so the stretch across it wasn't painful. The bones underneath would take their time -they did ache, horribly- but the surgeon had wired the ribs into his sternum and the breaks had started to form calluses. Tony could feel it in his breathing; it felt more natural, he didn't have to think about it so much. The extra solidity made using his shoulder much less arduous, hence the fort construction, and Tony had found himself under-dosing on his morphine. Bruce was very smug about it and had started dialing down the oxygen in response; Tony was down to a few puffs of 50% on stairs, now.
"Yeah, that's good and free, little bit..." Clint muttered, pressing the pads of his fingers into the muscles that had been damaged during the surgery. The squeeze bordered on real pain and Tony let Clint know with a quiet whimper. The pressure eased immediately and Clint started rubbing over the skin in soothing circles. "Pass me the- yeah, thanks," Clint said, one hand leaving Tony's shoulder and accepting the bottle of mineral oil from Steve, who had fished it out of its bowl of hot water on the nightstand.
Since Tony couldn't lie on his front, it was a little awkward, but Clint had clever hands and braced Tony's chest with one of them, managing to avoid putting pressure on anything that would protest. The other set to the task of rubbing the ache out of the overcompensating muscles of Tony's back, squeezing the tension out of him. Tony could admit to being half asleep anyway, after untangling Dummy from their foray into interior design (Dummy's idea, all of it), and Clint's careful massage, his hands hot and sure, was going to send him the rest of the way as it pickled his brain in endorphins.
This was always the best part of physio, when no one expected him to be coherent and there was plenty of touching. Almost as good as sex. But only Pepper sex, not-Pepper sex was dull and-
Steve's voice started rumbling in the distance, and Tony lost the thread without really minding. He heard something about ordering food, which sounded like a fantastic idea, but Steve was also no longer in the room, so, big negative there.
"...Clint?" Tony mumbled, picking at a loose thread on Clint's habitually ragged cuff and missing it repeatedly in his daze.
"Thank you. I… just, thanks..." Tony closed his eyes and turned his face towards the pillow, frustrated and so terribly grateful that he wasn't in some ridiculous private clinic somewhere, where couch forts would be frowned upon and Dummy couldn't come and Steve wouldn't order the most comforting food and some stranger would have their hands all over him.
"Yeah. Well. You do the same for me," Clint said, present tense.
"...'ve never... What?" he asked, baffled.
"I sleep at the bottom of your bed, man. There's reasons."
Tony's hand clenched around Clint's wrist, because fuck. He'd noticed, of course he had, and it was ...better, when Clint was around, even when you barely noticed he was there, things were better. Tony hadn't thought about why Clint did it, but now he was remembering a night in Malibu, when Clint had asked him what it felt like to die. So Tony nodded, and stayed silent, and clung to Clint's wrist.
Steve brought them dinner in Tony's room, later, after physio was long over and Tony was messaging Rhodey horror stories about camel spiders in an attempt to stay awake. Tony didn't want to move, so they didn't, not even when Natasha sauntered past with a quip about teenagers and sleepovers. If Pepper minded coming home to a bed filled with male superheroes, she didn't wake Tony up to complain.
Tony dozed a long time the next morning. With the pacemaker fixed, he didn't have to get up every few hours to clear fluid from his lungs, and his breathing was easiest when he was resting, so when Pepper and Steve got up, Tony stayed where he was. With sunlight streaming in the big windows, oblique because of the approaching winter, he was plenty warm enough for it to be soporific, and Bruce had topped him up the night before, so he was good for pain control and-
Something dark and too close to his airspace blocked out his sun.
The windows rattled with the slipstream of a SFEF rocket, then shuddered with the resulting impact.
The Tower was under attack.
JARVIS screamed alarms, jerking Tony out of his disbelieving shock; codes for workshop level, outside assailant, airborne. He could have howled, he really could've. Best night's sleep since- when-the-fuck-ever, and Clint was gonna do the breakfast thing with the duck eggs and some bastard attacks them?!
Footage popped up on the window screens just in time to watch violently purple flames leap up from the projectile buried in his workshop floor.
"SHIT! JARVIS! Fire-protocol CHEM-4, sectors 16 to 24, now," Tony barked, kicking his way off the bed, his heart sinking in a way that was purely emotional. His feet touched ground for the first time in almost twelve hours and it was glorious to feel his heart ticking up, speeding up, taking the strain, but... Pain ripped into his chest and he stumbled, because he had five broken ribs and a fifteen millimeter slice into the heart muscle and what the fuck was he thinking he'd only just gotten the all clear to shower let alone- but he couldn't stop; chemical fire could liquidate the bots' motherboards in seconds, fumes drawn in by the coolant system and chased by the oxidation cascade. Every quirk, every code violation, everything that made them and their stupid solid-state hardware actually alive could go up in acrid silicone smoke.
Someone propped him up on his right, and the pain dimmed enough for him to hit the morphine and actually see where he was putting his feet. As his hearing came back, the raucous noise of too many people used to being in charge swelled and bounced from person to person over the intercom, but he focused in on the beeping and whining of the bots; [fear] and [guilt] and the frantic spinning of tire tracks. Panic crept in; he wasn't fast enough and DUM-E didn't have his extinguisher -his code for [retrieve] shrilled loudly - and Tony fought his way over to the hallway, pulling against the gentle hold of whoever was keeping him steady because they weren't going fast enough.
He accepted the O2 they pressed onto his face as they clattered down the emergency stairs, slipping the elastic irritably over the back of his head and gulping down the supplemented air.
"JARVIS, how far'd it get before vent lockdown? No, fuck that; switch server coolant to clean reserve, anyway. I want you stable and safe. Do it!" he barked, clean over JARVIS' protests. J hated losing control of his internal environment.
Tony had his eyes fixed on the purple-tinted orange light spilling out of the lab, along with the blue sweep of JARVIS' frantic active sensors. A scum of acrid yellow-orange smoke poured into the stairwell, sticky and dense with the color of burnt rubber.
"Dummy! You!" Tony yelled between panting, tucking in close to his support, and it was Clint, of course it was Clint; round shoulders and a strong back and the knowledge necessary to cradle Tony's ribcage just so. "Get out here, right now!"
A gout of cold white mist belched from the fire-suppressant system, into the corridor, out from which rolled a despondent DUM-E, camera drooping to his chassis but blessedly, beautifully whole. Tony sagged against Clint, deeply relieved, and turned his face to the archer's shoulder to hide his expression for a second. The mist beeped questioningly and Tony's chest tightened.
"You too, boltbucket, come on, out of the intensely dange-" He stopped and hacked, the extra metabolic demand of adrenalin and action clogging up his lungs. Clint steadied him, pressing against his sternum to help ease the pressure on the breaks, and Tony sagged as the pain dissipated. You crept out, whining and guiltily holding one of his tracks off the marble, failing utterly to stop the slagged rubber leaving big, black smears on the surface.
"Shit... Alright, we're good... someone," Tony let his knees go and slid down to the stone in front of his bots, Clint's hands easing him down more gently than he'd have bothered on his own; his knees would thank him later. "Someone... get that door. Seal it. JARVIS?" Clint's hand lingered on his shoulder, and Tony nodded at him in thanks, eyes focused on the scorch up You's side.
"Done, sir. Mr. Barton, if you would- oh dear..." Clint's hand left, sliding over Tony's shoulder then falling limply away.
Tony froze; You was fine, no sign of venting or corrosion, Tony was fine, so what the hell was going on?!
Clint crashed to the floor.
"Fuck!" Tony swore, fixing his mask on tighter and checking the canister. "Bioactive substance scan, J. Up alert to category six and call in SHIELD."
Shitshitshitshit, Clint-! He scrambled over to Clint, leaving You and Dummy crouched over each other, their wheels barely functional and their programming shot to shit by the loss of their home environment. Clint was breathing, at least, but still getting doses of whatever this shit was.
"Steve Rogers is down, sir, on the gallery level."
Tony shuddered; because Steve's metabolism was so fast, he'd build up breakdown products the fastest. Poison or sedative. "Hardline failure detected: outgoing calls unavailable, routing through satellite backup."
Tony winced, hand fisting in Clint's vest; someone must have cut the subterranean cable trunk. The backups would have to do, but it'd be slower, JARVIS wouldn't have off site backup capability.
A hand on Clint's throat gave him a pulse; slowing, but not... not stuttering, or failing, and Tony ran a careful hand over Clint's buzz cut; marble was unforgiving, and he'd gone down hard. There was no blood though, no dent in the archer's hard head, and Tony shuddered in relief; Clint must have been able to control his fall, just about.
"Agent Romanov, down. Armory, west entrance; locking down, now. Connection to SHIELD reestablished." Thank fuck for small mercies. Tony rubbed at his eyes; the smoke was dispersing and filling the hall with slightly acidic haze. Clint couldn't stay out here in the open; the smoke inhalation would bench him, minimum, and he'd be wide open if this attack was an infiltration, completely vulnerable. Tony gestured the 'bots over, and they limped towards them, voices small and afraid.
"You stand guard, boys; get Hawkeye to the panic room, keep him on his side, and you close the door. Understand? You hold your ground. Close that door and guard it." They nodded, whirring.
"Neurotoxin identified, sir; non-lethal." JARVIS announced, his tone relieved but his speech a touch too fast. Tony sagged, hand relaxing on Clint's vest and the breath punching out of him.
"Supersoldier suppressant 1812. First created by Hydra in the latter years of the retreat, formula disseminated through HYDRA following the disappearance of Schmitt, against whom it was highly effective. Leaked to general black market in 1978 and picked up by multiple potential threats. Medium-term sedative, bypass of metabolic-rate dependent clearance due to pathway disruption. Effects will level at 189 milligrams per kilo at this concentration, 59 at the concentration on the upper levels; unconsciousness, reduction of metabolic rate and respiratory depression. Half life at cessation of exposure: eighteen minutes."
Tony screwed his eyes shut, rubbing at one with the back of his hand. Shit. Even if he could clear the Avengers' environmental unit without risking civilians in the lower levels, he wouldn't be getting any help from the others; they'd be sick for hours. Bruce, maybe, if he could get pissed off enough while unconscious god damn it, but it was a drug keyed to the serum. There was no telling.
This was... wow, a weakness he should have planned for.
"Alright... Someone get me a pen." Dummy, the little hoarder, obliged, and Tony scribbled on Clint's hand in blocky ballpoint.
'Clint: Dummy and You are damaged. Gave 'em guard duty. Stay put. Took your stuff. J'll want a neuro exam; cooperate.'
"JARVIS, route extraction to the roof, it's windy, it'll be fine, what with the short half-life," Tony ordered, shoving the pen in his back pocket and pushing Clint into something approaching the recovery position while rifling through the contents of his tac vest.
"Of cour- Error: mechanical failure of environmental controls,-! I am being infiltrated. Sir, they're in the central vent trunk! Unable to deploy defences, Sir!"
"Fuck. Fuck." JARVIS was supposed to be safe. Nothing should be able to touch them here, inside his walls, not bad weather, not bad press- They were the- the big guns! You didn't come to the big guns, they came to you!
Fuck. He didn't have time for this.
Tony shoved the rappel handle stolen from Clint's tac vest into his pocket and tipped him onto his side. He made a handle by tugging the collar of his shirt out from under his vest and Dummy grabbed it and started pulling, dragging him to safety over the smooth stone without hesitating; the bots liked Clint; he'd be fine. You limped along behind, pushing uselessly at Clint's boots. They'd all be fine. Hopefully.
Tony shook himself out of his worried daze, reminding himself that the others were out in the open. "Where?"
"V-vent access foxtrot whiskey hotel eight."
Tony powered to his feet, saving his morphine and running primarily on adrenalin as he made for the stairs. "You bugging out on me, J?"
"N-... No Sir. Recalibrating for battle conditions."
"Good man. Get Ranger up, get in the air and blow these bastards out of the sky before they drop any more assholes on our heads."
"Of course Sir. Powering up now."
Tony nodded, pressing his mask to his face and starting up towards the roof; he had a vent to kick in.
The hostiles were coming down as he was going up and the rattling in the elevator shafts started - some kind of motorized rappelling gear which made the one he'd borrowed off Clint look like a toy - as he hit the gallery. They were going for other side of the floor, the kitchen and some storage, their evidence locker. Also laundry, but he couldn't imagine them having a use for that. Natasha would be safe, at least, locked in the armory proper with the gun cage. Steve, on the other hand...
The supersoldier was neither super, nor soldier, and was doing a fantastic impression ofa coma patient, breathing soft and mercifully even. His cheeks were pink and he was a long way from the nearest brain-damagingly hard surface... Or any cover. Tony needed to hide him, somehow, so he pulled him behind the sofa, where he was out of sight of the exits. And when he said 'pull', what he actually did was roll, kick and bully Steve's ridiculous bulk into a hidden spot. Each push and heave made Tony's head swim, but Steve's body was warm and sleep-loose under his hands and it was ridiculously comforting. If only the fort was still up; you could have hidden the entire team in there, and who would look for grown men in a couch fort? Once they were out of sight, Tony flopped down on his side with his hand wrapped around Steve's wrist and tried to control his breathing; easier was not exactly easy.
A chirp from the vents gave him his escape route and he smiled at the grate, relieved.
"Abby! Look after this massive lump, would you? And get the vent covers off for me, that's a good girl." He rolled back up to his knees carefully and stuck his head up out of cover; the elevator doors at the other end of the space were shuddering; they were trying to lock them open against JARVIS' will. So, vent climbing wasn't his first choice of transportation, but he'd manage and it looked like he wasn't going to have a choice. It'd take him straight to the source of the blockage, at least. His chest could take it, if he was careful, but he'd have to leave his sling behind. That, he was not looking forwards to.
A boom from outside rattled the windows and Tony grinned, glancing up in time to see a billow of jet-fuel smoke blow past the window.
"Good boy, JARVIS. Parking lot?"
"Indeed. It was clear of civilians. The aircraft appears to have been Latverian in origin, though a serial number may now be... irretrievable."
Tony laughed breathlessly. "Yeah? Good for you." He grunted, getting Steve's legs further behind the couch, and ducking back down behind it himself, just in case someone looked the wrong way. He rested his hand on Steve's chest for reassurance, even though he was envious of those deep and even breaths right now, then tipped the blanket off the back of the couch over him. Steve was fine; whatever this stuff was doing to him, it was stable. They'd have to get a sample for SHIELD medical; maybe they wouldn't have to worry about setting broken bones without anaesthetic ever again. A guy could hope, especially after sharing his own illegal drugs with Captain America.
"Sir, a storm is approaching, reaching the edge of the city now."
"Thor?" Tony asked, settling Steve's head more comfortably on the carpet and stroking his fingers through Steve's hair. Being dragged along carpet had made it staticky, and Tony smoothed it back down carefully.
"Presumably. ETA: five minutes."
"Great, keep me posted...well, eventually. Don't panic, J, but I'm going off bioscan for a bit," Tony said, easing his arm out of the sling to leave the mess of straps and buckles with Steve; it'd be a catch hazard in the vents, more of a pain than a help.
"But, sir-" JARVIS exclaimed, scaring Abby back into her vent.
"What did I JUST SAY?" Tony barked, pulling her back out by her battery pack and putting her by Steve's shoulder. "Stay. Use the lasers if you have to. JARVIS, use the holograms to fuck with them as much as you can. Make them think I'm watching. Do not give yourself away."
JARVIS subsided, a vague, low-bandpass white noise hissing out of the speakers.
"Grumble all you like, I'm still going," Tony grouched, fishing the pen out of his back pocket and scribbling on Steve's hand.
"If your mask becomes compromised, sir, or if flow volume becomes insufficient-"
"Send Abby after me if I stop using my codes at the security gates. This stuff'll knock me out, same as the rest, I won't feel a thing." He flipped the blanket over Abby's head, tucking Steve's hand out of sight too. It wouldn't stand up to inspection, but if JARVIS could keep them, whoever 'they' were, distracted enough with the holos, it might just keep him out of harm's way until he woke up. "I'll keep out of the vertical shafts as much as I can, anyway; climbing with my chest like this? Not my definition of a good time."
"SHIELD ETA: twenty minutes, sir, I will inform them of the need for masks."
"Good boy. See you in twenty minutes."
Steve knew this feeling.
This was what being hit by a tank felt like.
He tried to stay quiet; he was tucked into a small space, hiding maybe? Warm, secure, familiar smells, but...smoke too. He couldn't... nope, he hadn't got recall of... maybe half an hour? At least his sense of time was still working. Probably? He felt stiff and sore and... less muddy than he half-expected, but that wasn't exactly a ringing endorsement. His head was... ugh.
He gave up on the self-issued roll call and groaned, lifting a sausage-fingered hand to push something off his face. A metallic whirr and the rustle of a brush came from his left, then a gentle chassis-bump. Abigail.
"...hey, you. There was... gas?" Steve rolled his head blearily to face her, squinting through a rising migraine. Her head swayed back on its arm to avoid bopping him on the forehead.
"Remain still, Captain; the hostiles have yet to find you," JARVIS said into the earpiece he'd only barely managed to get on before ignobly passing out. He clumsily pushed it all the way on, and JARVIS' voice came clearer.
"We successfully vented the toxin into the atmosphere, Captain; you should feel better soon, but I advise that you not attempt to engage hostile forces for a minimum of eight hours. Sir left you a message; right palm."
Steve muzzly lifted his hand, wondering how you could leave a message on a hand, then painstakingly read off Tony's spider-scratch scribble:
'Steve: gone to ground. Will keep them on the move until SHIELD get here. Stay down, and look after Abby.'
"But... T'ny's hurt..." Steve mumbled, shifting restlessly until Abby lifted a wheel-tipped limb and poked him with it. He rocked back, ear and balance confused. Brain confused.
"So, I feel the need to say, are you."
Steve grumbled, but made no further move to get up, nursing his headache and shielding his eyes from the light.
Tony didn't have the energy to be discreet when he reached the armory, and once he'd keyed in his code, he kicked the vent open. It landed on Clint's arrow chest with an unpleasantly off-key ringing and Tony slithered out. Natasha had managed to get inside the gun cage, but only barely, a good six feet away from the breathers in their boxes. He was impressed; she must have held her breath for a long time after noticing the gas' effects.
Tony crouched down to check her pulse, just in case, then slid his hand under her hair to look for head injuries; much more difficult a task than Clint and Steve, and Tony worried when he found a lump behind her ear, but-
Natasha sprang to waking with uncontrolled violence as his fingers brushed over the bruise, her fists snapping out and stopping just short of clipping Tony in the jaw. Just his luck that it'd taken almost twenty minutes to get to the armory after fixing the venting.
He backed off quickly, getting out of range in case the drug had nasty, violent side effects beyond Nat's usual instant reaction times, but she just blinked at him and his dusty clothes, then looked up at the kicked-in vent.
"Yeah. 'Ah'. Remind me never to wake you up with anything shorter than a yardstick. How you feeling?"
She looked good, eyes tracking and picking up on details like the numbers scribbled on his forearm (gas concentrations and a rough half-life graph). Pupils were even, her color good. The armory was the lowest concentration in the house; she'd followed procedure to get here, before passing out. Hope was, she was only sli.. slightly... affected. Damn.
Tony watched, despairing, as Natasha slid back into a half-conscious but unfortunately high-alert state. Couldn't really call it a 'doze' when she looked like a perfectly poised spider, waiting for something tasty to come along.
"Natasha, Tash, Natalie, c'mon, Black Widow..." Tony muttered repeatedly, hoping recognition would get him through the next thirty seconds without losing either his head or a testicle.
He managed to slip off one of her Widow's Bites without dying OR setting off the trigger mechanism, all with one hand.
She mumbled at him, something about looking after the weapon properly. It was very typically Natasha, but also rather sweet; Tony'd put a lot of work into these weapons, good to know she appreciated it.
"How're we looking, JARVIS?" he asked, fishing for a comm unit to take with him when he headed back into the vents; he still had to secure Bruce, who JARVIS hadn't had a fix on at the last check-in. There was one of the prototype mini-HUDs in the box, as well; anything that would let JARVIS communicate more clearly was a bonus at this point.
"No sign of the doctor as yet, sir. SHIELD have successfully screened and evacuated the corporate levels, and are en-route to the security bulkheads." The HUD lit up once he slipped the headband on and there... maps, JARVIS' sensor data, team status display. Much better. It showed Thor as an over-active dot, circling the building with the Iron Ranger and battering down little red drone markers.
"You didn't say they had drones..." Tony muttered, rummaging in a crate.
"I am handling it; we are at fifteen to seven. I am winning."
Tony huffed out a laugh. "Tell Thor to keep up the good work; I could use his help in here, but we need the skies clear first."
"...agreed," JARVIS said, reluctantly, and pinned a readout of Tony's vitals to the HUD in lieu of voicing his objection.
Tony managed to find paper (an old-fashioned contents inventory sheet, Tony had no idea why it was even in the building), so Natasha's note didn't require further risk to life and limb. She'd be waking up properly soon. He was running low on morphine, only one or two doses left, and she was considerably better at this stuff than he was. At least his ribs hadn't rebroken; that he was actively trying to avoid.
"Alright, hang tight, 'Tasha, few hours and you'll be ri-"
The tower shook, a deep booming rumble that Tony didn't recognise. And Tony could recognise more booms and bangs than anyone on the planet.
"Bruce Banner located; workshop 16-24, status: Hulk."
Tony grinned, fumbling his earpiece. Right hand, left ear; bit of a contortion, but he was getting used to the reduced range of movement from the pectoral damage. He should look into non-handed earpieces. Maybe hyperflex silicone, with the Nex-10 grip surfacing- oh, zip-ties. He grabbed a handful and stuck the bundle in his back pocket.
"Copy that, J; keep me posted. Going back off sensor grid, comms on channel... fourteen, keep the HUD on three." Tony clicked through frequencies until the three-long sounded for #14.
"Channel fourteen sir." JARVIS' voice shifted from intercomm to earpiece and Tony gave him a thumbs up to confirm.
He took a deep breath, testing the strain on his ribs, then scooted back into the vents, pushing himself along with the grippy rubber of his well-worn Converse and cradling his sore arm against his belly. "Now this is much better," he muttered to JARVIS, twisting through a bend then scrambling upright in the main trunk. "Got any idea what Bruce is up to?"
"Concentrations of gas in the extraction path are dropping, sir; I suspect he has dealt with the source." A blink-flick got him the building wireframe on the HUD, the gas a red haze through the peripheral extraction ducting. Clearance rates were climbing steadily; they'd hit 100% in a few minutes and the vent system would be hazard-free.
Tony grunted approvingly, leaning against the concrete that separated him from the elevator shaft and fumbling for his morphine button. Adrenalin was keeping him sensible, stable, and the morphine kept him mobile, so he was having to trade off. "Make a note: hulk-sized pizza order."
"That is, if he has not eaten already."
"Oh, now that is not gonna be good for his digestion," Tony muttered. "Alright... Anyone near the kitchen?"
"No sign of hostiles in zones four through sixteen, sir, kitchen clear. Nearest grouped hostiles, zone eighteen, sentries in seventeen and twenty one." The HUD populated with markers, little yellow diamonds, and a counter appeared in the corner of the map; 0/16.
"You're hilarious, JARVIS," he muttered, analysing their distribution. "Have to assume they're after the shield, then. Pity they're looking on the wrong floor." The Captain America kit room didn't actually contain most of Steve's kit, since he liked having the shield with him overnight. "You remember the non-lethal knockouts Tasha showed me?" Tony made a left, following the sector-zone system's numerical code to make it to the kitchen.
"Of course, sir. It would be hard to forget such a ...thorough demonstration."
"I hear you, buddy. Clint's tough." He'd need to use JARVIS' sensory trunk, with its maintenance ladder, to get up to level; kitchen vents were in the ceiling. He took a left, made sure not to step on Abby's stash of Barton food, and started pulling himself up. "Fucking ladders- Okay, I'm going to draw some fire, see if I can't get a few hostiles into the kitchen. You've got the arms; use them. Knock out and restrain, JARVIS."
"...whatever happened to 'not giving myself away'?"
Tony hauled himself over the final rung and collapsed into the crawlspace for JARVIS' kitchen arms. Wow, that's uncomfortable, he grouched internally; Clint was going to murder him for this tomorrow, ninja rescue aside. Tony was going to murder himself for this tomorrow.
"It'll look... like I'm... in control," Tony panted. "Cover's safe."
"Of course, sir. Would you like to take a moment? I may be able to do a little luring of my own."
Tony waved a hand in the air negligently. Not that J could see it, but, what the hell. "Sure! Pipe 'em my voice or something. You got this," he mumbled, shuffling over onto his side and letting his system catch up with the exertion for a bit. When he was quiet, he could just hear the distinctive whine of a safecracking drill as they tried to get into Steve's strongbox. It was too small to take the shield, maybe they were after something else after all... They'd better not damage Phil's cards, the bastards. An over-loud whisper played over the kitchen speakers, a recording of Tony swearing under his breath, and a babble of distant voices cut off the drilling. Sounded like he'd dropped a wrench on his foot or something. It'd certainly caught their attention.
In the kitchen below, which had a good set of holojectors because breakfast newspapers, a smoky emulation of the distortion produced by retroreflective panels started walking around.
"Looks good... Bit more of a crouch?" Tony commented under his voice as the apparently poorly disguised armour turned a corner. Its feet slid on the ground slightly; very nineties-gaming-graphics. J corrected, added in the crouch, and it could have been an almost-invisible Suit. If only RR panels were actually small enough to use...
"Great, knock 'em dead," Tony muttered, heaving himself back onto his hands and knees. "Alright, let me down."
"Decoy in place. Applying 'fuzz'."
JARVIS shifted and the ceiling panel under Tony slid back, leaving him holding onto a limb for dear life, mostly with his knees. He slid off it, to the floor, and his feet fuzzed, like he was being projected into the floor slightly. Tony pressed his hand to the counter and it happened again.
"Nice... I like it. Fake bait and switch?" JARVIS hummed in agreement and Tony arranged himself behind the kitchen table, Widow's Bite pointed unobtrusively at the door and most of his body covered from casual gunfire.
"HEY, JERKFACE!" he yelled, taking his mask off to do so, then taking a deep draw on the dialed-up oxygen, just in case.
The swarm of people came through the door, dressed in bright yellow. Not exactly what he'd expected; so much for this being a Latverian op.
"Since when are AIM and Doom in bed together?" Tony asked, incredulous, without coming out from behind his cover. "Sorry to say, but, that green and that yellow? Not a good combination. Volatile."
The clatter of assault rifles was distinctive, and not unexpected, and Tony snorted, keeping the Bite primed but not making his move yet.
"Come out, Mr. Stark, and tell us where you have hidden your friends, or we will destroy this building, with all of you in it."
"You and which army? Your drones aren't gonna be blowing anything up, soon!" Maybe they were in denial about Thor, devout monotheists? Who was he to judge. Either way, these guys were full of themselves, arrogant. That, he could use. Slowly, Tony raised his hands in surrender, letting his wrists touch the counter. The 'fuzz' holo did its thing and made it look like his hands were passing through the wood.
"Shit! He's not here!" one of them yelled: just clever enough to be really, really stupid. They splintered, losing their focus as they dismissed Tony as a hologram. JARVIS played a rising repulsor whine from the corridor, and they turned their backs on Tony, and more importantly, on the kitchen itself.
Before they opened fire on the imaginary 'invisible' suit, big, clever arms unfolded from the ceiling, taking up position behind the group, looming. Tony lined up the Widow's Bite and they moved together. The Bite took down two, its taser cartridges punching through the yellow jumpsuits exactly as specified, while JARVIS took the rest. Overpowered claws, designed for handling heavy machinery with only minor modifications for kitchen use, grabbed the four remaining attackers by the backs of their necks. Claws wrapped around to press against carotid arteries and struggling turned to limp twitching.
"Easy..." Tony muttered, and JARVIS let them down, easing off on the choke. The goons stopped struggling and Tony crouched to restrain them before they could do more than groan. In the corner of his eye, the enemy counter flicked over from '0/16' to '6/16'.
"Alright, smartass, where're the rest?" Tony muttered while he forced his left hand into cooperating.
"Contingent of four sweeping the building in an as yet unsuccessful attempt to locate the other Avengers, the remaining six are guarding the bulkhead to the Corporate levels," JARVIS reported, providing appropriate visual aids. Tony grunted as he pulled a zip-tie tight, glancing at the map, which was now showing a little flotilla of SHIELD symbols on the other side of the bulkhead.
"Great. How's the SHIELD break-in going?"
"I have disengaged the electronic locks, but Agent Hill is waiting for confirmation of gas dispersal and evacu- sir, one of the prisoners is awake."
"OVER HERE! STARK'S IN HERE-" the AIM agent yelled, struggling against the zip-ties until JARVIS grabbed him by his jumpsuit and shook.
The grunt passed out when his head hit the cabinet, but it was too late; the markers on his heads-up changed their pattern; two from the barricade split off, and the four sweeping residential homed in on the kitchen.
There was no way Tony could take another six guys without the element of surprise, and the holos weren't gonna protect him from blanket fire if they didn't fall for it twice.
"JARVIS, you got me a route out?" Tony barked, backing up against he cabinets and hoping he wouldn't have to hide in the fridge.
"With your ribs, sir? I'm afraid not."
"Fuck. Options?" Tony went for the fridge door after all, boosting it off its hinges with a careful lift-twist. Yes, he had modified their fridge to act as a shield, no, Pepper did not know. JARVIS threw a pre-play on the HUD: nothing good, nothing that wouldn't make Natasha hurt him for reckless endangerment.
"Surrender, Stark! You are not getting out of this," minion number seven yelled, staying around the corner and out of sight. If Tony had been willing to use one of the six assault rifles he'd accumulated, that'd be one thing -half an inch of drywall wasn't gonna stop a bullet- but he wasn't and the Bite wasn't gonna cut it.
"You sure? The last guys who held the Great Tony Stark didn't exactly have a good time!" Tony yelled back, checking the cartridge's capacitor; not quite enough for an undirected taser grenade, but enough to take down six targets sequentially, if he let it charge up between three and four. He probably wouldn't get that chance. He stripped it out, power cell still attached, and hid it in his clothes.
"Oh, we don't intend to keep you."
Well that was ominous.
"Great! Fire exits are directly to your left, end of the hall!"
"Come out Mr. Stark. Enough of this."
Tony tossed the disembowelled Bite over the counter; he wasn't going to take a risk like rifle fire when he had at least four downed team mates littering the tower. He hit his morphine button, just in case they took offense, then raised his good hand. The other... they were going to have to put up with it being a little limp.
"I'm unarmed. Don't, y'know, perforate me."
"Wise decision, Stark. Restrain him and take his tech," Top-notch ordered, and a pair of low-level grunts with guns started stripping off his HUD and searching his pockets. They missed the capacitor, which was a plus, and his skin-matched comm, but the loss of the HUD and his phone was gonna be galling.
"I'm on... two different kinds of life support, I wouldn't do- okay, we're doing that..." The grunt on his left took his mask, then the oxygen canister on his belt.
"Sir?" Grunt on the right turned Tony's wrist, showing the brace holding his IV in place.
They dragged him to his feet, gently enough, but, still dragging, and bound his wrists with his own zip-ties. "SO! Party del Stark? After specs? Tech? You can't have it, you know."
"Oh, no, we're aware of your defenses. No, we want the shield."
"You'll open that safe, Stark. If you value your Captain's life. Debatable, with a man like you, but I have confidence in Fury's hold on you." FUCKING BASTARDS I'LL END YOU SEE IF-
"Sir," JARVIS murmured into the earpiece, and thank Thor they had left that in, for whatever reason. They'd seen it, he knew, when they took off the HUD. The air Tony had been sucking in to yell with, rushed out of him at the AI's calm tone. "I can confirm that the Captain remains undiscovered."
"T'ny? just give it to them, 's fine..." Something unrelated to the surgery fluttered in Tony's chest as the sound of Steve's sleepy voice; tell him Pepper was evacuated safely, and he'd be just fine, now.
Tony took a deep breath, letting terror show on his face and clutching tight to the relief of hearing Steve's voice, hiding it. He could do this, without surrendering Steve's precious shield, no matter what the idiot said.
"Well it's sure as hell not in that safe," he sneered, tossing his head at the foot and a half square cube. "Did your brief not contain specs? Because that is an amateur mistake. Seriously, I'd look into the quality of your minions, becau-" They cut him off with a harsh jerk on his collar.
"We are aware." The bastard pressed his fist against Tony's left side, just under his monitoring vest. "We are aware of a number of pertinent facts, Mr. Stark. Need I continue?"
Tony seized up, unable to breathe without his ribs grinding together. Clint is going to kill me. He really is. "Fine!" he wheezed. "Stop! I'll open it!"
The pressure eased off and the guy, leader, whatever, smiled. Like Obie: slime and slick confidence.
"Always the businessman, aren't you, Mr. Stark?"
Tony resisted the urge to snap and insult someone until they hit him. Just. "So what do you want out of his safe?" he asked, stumbling along behind as they hauled him towards the safe.
"His file. The serum is so interesting, after all."
Tony bit his tongue, because there was nothing in that file but a few old pre-serum photos and Peggy's signature on his intake docket. Paper; of historical interest only. They might get something out of the fact that Steve was immunocompromised when they pumped him full of whatever it was, but there was nothing else of scientific or tactical significance in there. He promised himself, even as he was typing in the code and providing his thumb print, that those precious, seventy-year-old scraps of dead tree wouldn't leave the building.
As the locks hissed back, they dragged him away and rifled through the contents, no care or finesse at all. Coulson's cards fell to the floor and if anyone stood on them Tony was going to maim them terri-
"Now. Show us the shield."
Tony's head snapped up, glaring at Top-notch balefully. He opened his mouth to snarl, but Steve came over the radio and it cut him off, mid-breath.
"...'s in my room. Haven't had a chance to... wax it... since the portal, thing."
Tony screwed his face up, thoroughly pissed off, mostly at Steve, and spat; "End of the hall, take a left. Don't shoot anyone, and we'll be gold."
"I will hold up my end, if you hold yours, Mr. Stark." The grip holding Tony in step loosened; wow, they really didn't have a bead on Tony's abilities, did they? In the corner of the ceiling, a security camera blinked red-green-green.
Good boy, JARVIS.
Top-notch held a hand to his communicator -who even used press-to-talk anymore?- as they rounded sector seventeen, passing the door to the living room, and agreed with someone on the other end.
"Your friend the heresy seems to be making trouble, Stark; scream for him," he ordered, unhooking the radio from his ear and holding it out towards Tony.
"What? No. Don't listen to them, Thor! We don't negotia- NGH!" A fist to his gut drove the air out of his lungs in a blast of pain and dropped him, heaving for breath, to the carpet. have to stay quiet, can't let Steve hear, too sick, too weak, they'd take him- opportunistic, couldn't hold him, would they kill him? maybemaybetoomuchrisk... His vision greyed out, his ribcage unable to compensate for his stunned diaphragm, and at least he was quiet, because Steve had to stay put.
"Breathe to my count, sir; in, four, three, two, one... hold,-" JARVIS talked him down from the edge of hypoxia and Tony's awareness narrowed to the rushing in his ears and the throbbing pain in his gut. His ribs... well, he was gonna need x-rays, minimum.
"So you see, Thor; he has no value to us, give us one good reason to kill him, and we will. Retreat."
Tony listened with half an ear, barely able to focus, as thunder boomed outside. The air throbbed with it, once... twice, then silence. This wouldn't 'sit well' with Thor, not even a little bit, and Tony cringed, pressing his forehead into the carpet.
"Get him back up, five minutes until extraction."
So... so much for their vehicle being down... Tony thought to himself, eyes screwed closed as they hauled him to their feet; hostage now, not prisoner.
"Where is it, Stark?" they asked, giving him a shake. His brain felt two sizes too small for his skull and rattled uncomfortably.
"Elevator, two floors up," he said, strained for oxygen. The forced-march pace was going to suck.
"I am not climbing in an elevator with you, not in your own building." Top-notch casually slammed the butt of his weapon into Tony's back; low enough not to break his delicate ribs, but hard enough to knock the air out of him again anyway. Tony stumbled and the pain spread, like ink dropped in water, overriding the morphine. "After all, look what you did with your kitchen! Rather shown your hand, I'm afraid."
Tony gritted his teeth and managed to pull in a long, steady breath. With the elevators out of equation, they'd have to take the stairs; this was not going to be fun. This was, in fact, going to be horrible.
Each step, individually, was doable, but by the tenth, he was heavy-headed, and by the twenty-fourth, Tony was back in Malibu, 2011, with Obie's promise to kill Pepper ringing in his ears. Pain, lack of oxygen and a cold sweat... He must've looked like shit.
JARVIS' calm voice kept his breathing steady through the associations, and in a way, it was a blessing that Obie had knocked him out, because now, his voice was like a balm, no real associations hitched to it except safety and... okay, yes, comfort. If you were going to be sappy about it.
What was really telling, though, was when the pain started to fade again as they finished the second flight of stairs; the hypoxia was hitting the thresholds for conciousness. He fell to his knees in the hallway outside the bedroom, gently as he could make it, wanting to heave for breath but restrained by the pain in his ribs, and nodded towards the open doorway.
"There. Keeps it... by his bed," Tony gasped, taking advantage of the moment to cradle his ribs and pull the cannibalised high-end capacitor from its hiding place. It took nimble fingers to keep his skin from shorting the contacts, and Tony wasn't exactly feeling nimble, with the heavy weight of his still-healing heart crushing his chest; he needed them distracted for this, and the shield was perfect. The AIM goons sure as hell weren't watching, now; Top-notch had the shield in hand and they crowded around, firing off technobabble at a fair pace. Most of it was wrong, but enough of it hit home to make Tony deeply disturbed about their intentions.
"Hey..." Tony mumbled, head hanging between his shoulders. "Hey," he croaked again when they ignored him, "Daddy- Daddy's talking. Pay attention."
The goons frowned and, in a reaction straight out of the Conventions handbook, closed ranks around their prize, shutting him out, and focused on their shoddy science. He'd guessed, when they'd named their leader the 'Scientist Supreme', that they were recruiting a certain type; this was just confirmation.
"S-suit yourselves." Tony tossed the capacitor into their circle over their heads, its terminals trailing two naked wires, and closed his eyes. The flash when it touched the shield was still blinding.
"Fuck you; the shield can take at least eighteen tons..." he muttered at the twitching bodies and promptly keeled over onto his back.
"J'VIS, put me through to Hill... 'n Thor..." The comm clicked. "...four goons, other side of that door, everyone else's down. Lifting biohazard pro... protocol, code: eighteen, seventy two."
"Copy that, Stark. We'll be there in no time."
Thor reached him first, rain-damp and windswept; a sight for sore eyes. "Iron Man! They played me terrible- are you well?" Thor's hammer hit the floor with a ringing boom and he went to one knee by Tony's right side. Tony flopped his hands towards him and made grabbing motions, but couldn't really move with his hands still bound.
"Hey. Yeah, I'll keep. Skies clear?" he asked, relaxing at the tingling of static on his skin as Thor leaned over him.
"In a manner of speaking; the storm... may last some days."
Tony grinned and let his eyes close, trying not to laugh hysterically. It'd be unfun, he was sure. Around him, kinda distantly, the sound of SHIELD-issue boots rattled past. "You should get the shield," he mumbled at Thor, trying to blink his eyes back open, and only managing for a few seconds at a time. JARVIS' voice was distant, hall speakers rather than his earpiece, and business-like, talking with Hill. He'd get the intruders sorted, there were protocols.
"It is safe; these Agents are friends, are they not?" Thor said, touching the side of Tony's face and not quite making him startle. His hand was damp with rain water, but warm, and he tilted Tony's head to peer into his eyes. Very... blue. Seriously blue. Like... edge of the atmosphere blue...
Tony squinted balefully up at him. "...'shield's electrified, needs grounding, Mr. Supernatural Lightning Rod."
"Ah, that explains a great deal," Thor muttered, amused. He patted the top of Tony's head soothingly and strode off to touch his hammer to the shield. Tony liked the attention too much to protest, despite all the SHIELD not-Agents stomping past. Tony's comm crackled as the spark between the two weapons kicked off a few radio waves, then quieted and there was the crunch of the makeshift shock grenade meeting its end. He'd make Tasha a new one.
"What'd you do to my shield, Tony?" Steve mumbled over comms as they cleared, his voice-activated earpiece picking up an EMT's voice in the background.
"I won." Tony grinned up at nothing while Steve's grumbling filtered through, and let himself drift a bit. Just enough to relax back into the controlled breaths he needed to protect his ribs. If they were re-broken, he was gonna bash heads-
"-set to 75%, please, Agent Sitwell."
"...tn'ks, J," Tony mumbled, lifting his head off the carpet so Sitwell could loop the elastic around it. A couple of steady breaths on the O2 and his head felt much lighter and more sensible all 'round. Bashing of heads remained a tempting prospect though.
"You're welcome, Mr. Stark," Sitwell said, patting him on the shoulder and smiling down at him. Tony squinted at him, flicking his fingers in his direction dismissively, slightly surprised to find his hands still tied up.
"... not you, Not-Agent. ...can I have more morphine?"
Sitwell spluttered confusedly, then pressed the remote into Tony's hand and backed off. Tony sniggered at him.
"Those guys... should be down for a few hours. It was just Nat's... bite. That sounded better in my head..." Tony reported, clicking his morphine button twice and shuddering as the sweep of analgesia cleared out most of the pain, leaving him utterly exhausted.
"We'll have them out of your hair in no time, Stark."
Tony nodded vaguely, head rolling on the end of his neck as he looked for Thor. "...'d you get to Clint yet?" He mumbled, distracted by the sight of Thor polishing sooty fingerprints off the shield with the edge of his cape.
"The docs are on their way now. First report says everyone's waking up as predicted."
Tony nodded and waved imprecisely in Sitwell's direction, watching curiously as Thor tucked the shield onto his back and made his way back over, stepping around SHIELD agents as they tied up the AIM operatives. "J'VS, ...stand the boys down, for me... Mmm, bring 'em up stairs f'r now."
"They remain quite concerned about Mr. Barton, it would be wise to keep them in contact," JARVIS advised in the privacy on Tony's hidden comm.
Tony nodded to himself. "Triage, gallery l'vl. Converge on Cap. 'vengers aren't goin' anywhere."
JARVIS made an affirmative and rather comforting hum, and Tony closed his eyes again. Thor's bulky shadow loomed over him, though, which discouraged naps.
"You have been done no favours, friend. May I?" Thor asked. Tony wasn't sure what he meant, but Thor was good, whatever it was, so Tony nodded for him to go ahead. There was a soft 'ping' noise and pain prickled up the back of Tony's hands, radiated out from his wrists, and Thor's big, warm fingers rubbed at it gently. He must've broken the zip-tie.
"There, that is more fitting. Away with us, now, I would see our friends well, also."
"Mmnnn... nope. Not moving..." Tony mumbled, clutching weakly at Thor's hands so they wouldn't stop with the massaging and the warm. His hands were cold. "-need someone to check my ribs."
"Ah, I see..." Thor said. Sitwell, off to one side now, was calling for an EMT, but Thor was frowning down at Tony's shirt.
"...alright there, Point Break?" Tony asked, squinting up at the god.
Thor seemed to shake some thought or other off, his damp hair swaying. "I am well, but I would see that you are, also, for myself."
Tony's heartrate picked up a bit at that, because Thor was so honest about things, way too open. "..sure? I mean, you're... old, right? You know what busted ri-. Whatever. Make yourself at home."
Tony let his head thump back to the thick carpet and closed his eyes, letting Thor do what he wanted. At least his hands were warm.
And gentle; he hadn't thought they could be so delicate, but Thor pushed the mask's tubing out of the way and eased his t-shirt out from under his belt. Warm, blunt fingers touched his carotid pulse, and lingered for eighteen seconds. Tony'd have to ask what base Asguardian math worked in, how long their base unit of time was...
Monitoring vest went next, the back of Thor's knuckles skimming down the skin on the right hand side of his chest as he pulled the hidden zipper. The air was cold around the dressing as Thor pulled the vest open a little way, and Tony only just resisted shivering.
"Damn... J, can we turn, ... ugh... turn the heating up? We must've vented all the warm air, it is freez-"
"Hush, Tony, it is but for a moment."
Tony licked his lips and nodded, trying to stay relaxed as Thor's fingers ghosted over the dressing.
"You have not bled, at least..." Thor commented, voice a quiet rumble.
"...didn't expect to, stresses were all... inside. Structural." Thor's palm, warm and broad and gentle, settled over the place where they had broken his ribs and warmth sank into the bones like liquid into a sponge.
"I see them..."
He... did? Tony's ribs stopped aching, warmth suffusing down into his chest, along the lines of rib and muscle, then reaching towards his shoulder.
"You are well, Friend; no worse in this, at least..." Thor's hand drifted down past his floating ribs, which for once didn't feel ticklish, and over to his solar plexus. "Here... bruising, over muscle. And deeper, from behind. Your... vital force, outthrow? I know not the word. Slowing, turning to rest." Thor struggled with the words, but not the concept, confidence and surety in his voice.
"Vital... oh! Latin: metabolismos. Metabolic rate," Tony supplied. "I don't speak latin, so...allspeak doesn't figure it?"
"Aye. Jane and I fell to this problem. I will learn." Thor took his hand away and closed Tony's clothes back up, sealing the borrowed warmth inside. "Come now, you will not do yourself further harm in being moved, though I admire your caution."
"...don't think ... anyone's ever said that to me before. Huh."
"You need warmth, and rest. And I would see our team whole again." Carefully, carefully, Thor helped him sit up, then hoisted him into his arms with slow deliberation that spoke to just how effortless carrying Tony's gangly weight was. Thor's biceps were thick, warm bands, holding him as secure as Steve ever had, and resting against Thor's chest was like sitting in the blazing sun after freezing your toes off half-inside a freon-cooled server tower; deliciously liquid warmth that diffused right into your muscles.
Yeah. Tony was going to sleep for a week.