Tony clenched his jaw to muffle a groan as Thor laid him out on the couch. Steve, groggy and blindfolded with his own shirt, was in Tony's usual seat, in the grips of a migraine. Tony wasn't going to let him move, not when he was disoriented -his stitches from the portal event were nearly healed up and didn't need knocking- so he kept his aches to himself.
"My apologies, Tony, at ease..." Thor muttered, easing his arm out from under Tony's legs.
"Okay, yeah, I got this..." Tony stretched out flat, his back screaming almost as much as his ribs but not as much as his stomach. Fucking AIM goons. His breath hitched as his spine eased into the cushions; the bruising was deep, no thanks to the weight and muscle he'd lost since everything, and the rifle's stock had been unforgiving. Pale and clammy, he ran a hand over his face for the moment he couldn't keep it straight, hiding the flash of helpless misery. He let himself have three seconds, one long breath, before putting his game face on.
"Roll call, guys. Break it down," he groaned, cracking an eyelid to peer over towards Natasha.
"I expect a new Bite by the end of the week," she said, flapping a hand at him without uncurling from her lethargic huddle.
"I made spares. Side effects?"
She groaned softly, turning her face into the couch. "Been through this once already, do not make me speak again."
"Fair enough..." Tony said, wincing. "JARVIS?"
"I have the reports sir, you need not concern yourself," JARVIS supplied. "There will be no lasting effects."
"Okay, 's good... Clint?"
"...'m awake," the archer groaned. Tony rolled his head in the direction of the noise, unable to see him, and a corner of Steve's blanket flapped open to show Clint's wiggling fingers, his arm flopped over Steve's waist. Tony's stomach clenched because he was on his own on the sofa and it was cold. But at least Steve had a warm body to hug, he'd do better like that.
"Okay, everyone in the room; check... Pepper?" Tony asked. He was dreading the answer a little bit, mostly because he was afraid she would- It was a lot to ask of a CEO. Of anyone.
"Returning with the first wave, sir. She is meeting with Deputy Director Hill now."
"Okay, woohoo, great, coordinate on the lab decon, ok? I don't want the boys in there un-" He cut off as the slow unclenching of his muscles put pressure on sore spots. "Until I get a few repairs done. Also, Bruce."
"Indeed. The Hulk is making noises about your promises of pizza; he may be unable to change back until he has ah... digested, I believe is the closest term."
Clint made a vaguely disgusted sound from behind Steve's chest.
"Hah... great. When I said keep him occupied-"
"There is only so much 'Connect Four' Dr. Banner can be convinced to play, sir; it felt appropriate to shift to bribery."
Tony choked on a laugh, grinning at the ceiling with his eyes closed. Connect Four, huh. They were gonna have to revisit the 'rage monster' definition. "Alright, okay...bring him up on the freight elevator. And order pizza."
JARVIS asked around for preferences, but only Steve changed from his usual; he mumbled something about nausea and wanted a plain margarita. Tony cringed a bit; Steve had to feel pretty terrible to eat less than his usual quadruple portion of protein-heavy food.
Pepper. Tension that was physically painful to hold eased off and the morphine-dulled ache faded into unimportance.
He craned his head over towards the elevators and there she was, unruffled and full of energy. She was in her emergency shoes, little things without a heel that she kept in her purse, but she'd never needed heels to give her poise, she just liked being tall. She was beautiful.
"Hey, Ms. Potts," he croaked, returning her frown with an upside-down smile. She pointed at him sternly, mutely ordering him to stay where he was while she did a visual headcount. He saw her double take for Clint, before spotting him under the blanket. He let his head roll back, taking her out of view but easing the strain on exhausted muscles. He could picture it anyway, her face. She'd check Steve first, Clint while she's there...
He heard the mumbles of an unhappy supersoldier and watched his mental image of Pep press her hand over Steve's eyes and kiss his forehead. Steve sighed, like he was letting go of something; Pep was magic like that.
Clint would get his hair smoothed back, the blanket tucked around him...
Nat, he wasn't sure, because she wasn't sleepy, but wasn't comfortable either, and if he could predict Pep's ability to sort stuff like that out, he'd be a lot better at ...life. In general. He cracked an eye; they were talking inaudibly, their heads close together in transposition of rich red and strawberry blonde.
He closed his eyes again out of self preservation and gave up on predictive-tracking; it could only distract him for so long. He wondered whether Pepper would accept Thor's judgment on the state of his internal organs, wondered whether he'd feel better back on muscle relaxants. Bruce wouldn't be around for a while, but they could call his surgeon for a prescription.
"Hey," Pepper said, softly, in a tone meant for bedrooms and sleepy Sunday mornings.
"I cleaned the house, honey." He braced as she sat next to his hip on the couch, the tilt of the springs distantly uncomfortable, then relaxed against her hip.
"I saw. You showed them. We're going to need a new parking garage."
Tony suppressed a chuckle and blinked up at her. "That's on JARVIS! Make him take… stock records, or… man the helpline."
JARVIS played a faint hiss of white noise in protest.
"He had help. You think I can sue AIM?" she asked, tilting his head to get the HUD off.
Dear god, he'd forgotten how the headset itched until she ran her fingernails back through his hair, turning a damp, sweaty, dusty mess into a spiky dusty mess. "Good precedent..." he mumbled, his voice like syrup in his throat as he leaned into her hands.
"Won't always work; couldn't sue the Chitauri."
He groaned as her fingers worked back to the nape of his neck where the muscles were like suspension steel from crawling. "...'s still better than suing the Avengers."
"That was never an option."
He flailed a hand until he had a hold on her blouse. "Liar," he murmured, looking her dead in the eye. "I know you... ah, headed it off. Please don't stop with-" She dug her fingers in again and he let out a long gust of air. "Headed off municipal charges with the reactors."
"It was like Christmas, only with more me," she drawled, his words rolling off her tongue like they were born there. Oh boy.
"...kiss?" He was too sore to lean up and ask for one properly, but Pepper was awesome, and leaned down to kiss the corner of his mouth anyway.
"You need a shower," she mumbled into his beard, her nose tracing along his cheekbone and her hands wringing tension out of him like a sponge.
"In case it escaped your notice," he replied, tilting his chin enough to kiss her jawline and pausing to breathe carefully. "I'm not-"
She hushed him with a deep press into the muscles of his shoulders. "Not on your own, no. Choices are Thor or the Hulk, boss. Choose wisely."
"...you're hilarious. I'll take a bath. 'be fine," he lied, just to prolong the sensation of her body looming over his, her hands balancing her against the cushions and still working magic in his muscles.
"Sure you will." He could feel her smile against his cheek, and he realised this was a hug, one made out of the heat of a body millimeters away from his, from the stirring of another person's breathing on his ear. It didn't hurt his ribs, or his bruises, and it felt... Pepper was amazing. That's how it felt.
They didn't leave until Bruce, still green and missing a few grammatical structures, was settled in the squishy circle in the middle of the floor. He looked sleepy, and vaguely uncomfortable around the stomach, but he was peaceful in the same way he had been after the Chinese sub incident. Tony guessed Bruce would remember this, like he had before, and Tony took the chance to hold the Hulk's hand for a bit. His palm was massive, engulfing Tony's entire hand like a kid holding a doll by the arm, and he was hot, fever-hot, which felt fantastic.
"Don't wait for me, okay buddy? Pizza'll make your belly feel better, give it something organic to work with." Tony babbled quietly while the Hulk blinked at him with a sad frown. Pepper was talking to Thor; he hadn't been around all that long, he'd missed Tony's long, slow descent into weakness, so he needed filling in on a few things.
Maybe he'd join in the Avenger's slumber party after this? Tony'd like that, the guy was a furnace of Steve-like proportions.
"Tony dirty, wash?" the Hulk asked, ponderously. He was listening in to Pepper's conversation, apparently, which was interesting, because it certainly wasn't pitched for general consumption.
"You can hear them, huh, buddy? Good ears," Tony commented, giving the Hulk's finger a squeeze.
"Loud. Everything. Yes, I hear."
Tony winced, he should definitely take some readings on the Hulk's acuity; if they ever wanted to get him an earpiece, it'd be no good if it screamed his head off. "Smell too?"
The Hulk grunted, his breath whuffing out in a big gust. "Shower."
"Hey, I'm not that bad... am I buddy? Not much... muck in the vents, these days."
Abby trilled from behind the sofa and a faint vibration propagated through the frame under the cushions as she bumped into the back in some kind of pleased ridiculousness. Hulk was watching him from under heavy eyebrows, leaning in.
"Smell like pain. Epi-" he cut off in a huff, looking at Tony pointedly.
"Adrenalin," he finished. "Yeah, I guess I do." He shifted, uncomfortably aware that he needed to get clean before he passed out.
"Did good, Tony. Lots of smash."
"Yeah, you could say that. Little smash, like, baby smash. I haven't-" he waited out a cramp that pulled his ribs tight and made his chest really ache. "Haven't got the knack for it, like you."
"Hulk best at rubble," he rumbled, actually shrugging those enormous, green shoulders. "And smash rockets."
"Yeah, that was good, Hulk, thanks, man. How's the belly?"
Hulk grumbled, but didn't answer. Maybe they'd used up his words? Thor was coming back, anyway.
"Help me up?" Tony pulled against the Hulk's hand, using it as leverage to turn onto his good side.
The movement hurt like all hell, but it wasn't that much more than the throb of lying still, not as a fraction of the whole. "Okay, up we go..."
The Hulk was surprisingly helpful, his big hand gently lifting Tony's legs down, giving his torso enough time to catch up. "Slow," Hulk commanded, balancing him when his tanked blood pressure made him lightheaded.
"My thanks, Hulk; I will take it from here," Thor interjected, while Tony was still leaning heavily on the Hulk's hand; it was really, deliciously, warm. Smaller, more confident hands picked him up before he was fully back from the grey fuzz, and Thor lifted him smoothly away from the Hulk. He'd taken off his armor since last time, and Tony leaned into his chest, chasing the warmth of skin. He was so cold.
"Come on, Thor. We'll use the master bathroom." Pepper's hand landed on his ankle briefly and Tony opened an eye when did that happen to smile at her. He was a weird mix of embarrassed and relieved, that Thor was- Everyone else had seen him at his worst, Steve, Clint, they'd seen the inside of his chest, his naked heart, and Natasha he'd known the longest, and Bruce had helped with the pacemaker itself. It was like... It felt like Thor's turn, felt appropriate. And, y'know, incredibly weak. He felt weak, he meant, not Thor's carrying skills, or Pepper's organizational decision making, because this was going to be fine. Hot shower; great.
Thor was quiet and slightly solemn as he eased Tony to his feet on the warm stone of the bathroom. Tony'd been standing a lot, walking and almost running, so his heart was tired, and didn't exactly keep up with this development. He felt too heavy to stay standing for long, even with Thor's bulk keeping his balance for him, but he managed to get his sling off all on his own, and his pants with Pep's help.
The water was warm, and the room filled with steam around him, making his breath come easier and making him aware of just how cold he was. Exhaustion was creeping in on the edges of his vision; it was going to be easy to let Thor help out, he'd barely notice.
He registered the soft rumblings of Thor's quiet voice, and Pepper's, but didn't catch the words, too busy shuffling towards the shower stall with Thor holding half his weight.
The first touch of the hot water was almost painfully good, and things just kept getting better. The heat washed away most of the aches, and Pepper's fingers helped with the rest, at least for now. Thor was like a lighthouse; solid and immobile, keeping him steady when his legs didn't have the fine-control to keep him on his feet.
The dust and sweat washed down the drain, along with Tony's motivation to stay awake, and he fell asleep somewhere between being shampooed and conditioned.
He woke up briefly to shovel down some low-sodium chinese food and tell Pepper about the vintage Captain America cards their attackers had disturbed, then settled in for the night, one hand curled possessively around Thor's wrist.
Later, after Thor had emerged from the master bedroom looking faintly bemused, fetched a Tupperware from the fridge and disappeared again, after the lights stopped hurting Steve's brain, he had a thought. Just one; he didn't think it through, it just appeared, fully formed.
"I think... I want to reinstate him."
Clint jerked against his side, his head coming up in bleary confusion. "The doctor said-"
"I know!" Steve said, cutting him off. "But... look what he did, what he had to do! We..." He failed to find the right words, but that was okay; Nat had his back.
"We can trust him to be the judge of what he can and can't do."
And that was it, that was the thing that no one had expected. They'd figured it'd be scraping Tony out of the lab for PT, drugging him to keep him from hurting himself. Withholding drugs to keep him from hurting himself. But instead, he'd... played along? No, that wasn't quite right... He'd managed himself. Worked lying down, taken his meds, slept without complaining. Even before the surgery, he'd been prepared, a little reckless, but ready to be incapable. He'd shown them all that the day he'd brought out the Ranger, for all that he'd fainted on them after.
"We need him," Steve continued, "He's been on comms anyway, let's just make it official." He sat up, levering Clint upright along with him. "I'm not saying we put him in the suit, or even on the quinjet, it's just- he's more than just Iron Man. Tony Stark's an Avenger, in or out of the suit."
Steve met everyone's eyes, one by one. Even the Hulk. They were smiling, begrudgingly, subtly, ferally, but they agreed, all of them; Tony Stark was back on the roster.
Tony was asleep. And determined to stay that way. He was in his own bed, it was warm, there was sunlight on his back; he wasn't going anywhere. Nope. Request denied.
"I brought you food, Tony, come on, man..."
Tony didn't care if Clint had brought him Naked Pepper, in a Kiss the Cook apron, along with the pancakes he could smell. He was asleep, and thus oblivious. Obviously.
It had been a long week, okay? And PT didn't agree with him.
"Look, I even brought coffee." The bed dipped behind his back and Clint's shadow got in the way of his solar massage. "I know it sucks, okay? You know I've been there; vent crawling isn't easy." Clint's hand was big and warm on Tony's shoulder, which ached from hauling himself through duct work and service hatches. "PT's going to help, Tony."
"Damnit Clint, can't a man sulk in peace?" Tony grumbled into the pillow, relaxing back so he was leaning on the archer, who was already in therapy-appropriate clothes, damn him.
"Yeah, if he's eating. Come on, they're Steve Pancakes."
His back throbbed where the rifle butt had impacted, right over the spine and missing his kidneys by sheer luck. His stomach muscles felt worse. Tony let Clint help him sit up, because his abs screamed at him, and the archer made him sit right back against the pillows. It wasn't much better than lying down, but he could eat.
He sat and munched diligently, frowning and serious despite the deliciously sweet, buttery, Steve-generated foodstuff. Though it was making a valiant effort to cheer him up. "I'm... yeah, I'm on this, Clint, I'm not giving up. I just-"
Clint nodded, turning his back to hide from the feelings. "Yeah, man. Bed's good and yesterday was a crapshoot. I get it."
Tony tore another pancake into little pieces, frowning at his plate. He felt terrible. More than just the bruises, he felt like he'd been poisoned. Overdosed, hungover, something systemic. He fidgeted restlessly, identifying the bruise-like ache in the muscles of his legs, his toes, even the back of his neck, where it made his head feel heavy and too big.
"I feel... J, do I have a temperature?" Tony asked with trepidation, knowing that Clint would latch onto that without hesitation. The archer's back tensed up and Tony got a steely eye-over-the-shoulder.
Clint turned around, shoving his fingers in Tony's face.
"Gerroff," Tony grumbled, but it was half hearted; he just didn't have the resources to devote to being a pain in the ass right now. Clint probed his lymph nodes, under his jaw, then in his armpit, near the surgical scar.
"You don't look like you've got a bug... Talk to me, buddy."
Clint pinned him to the bed with his eyes; Tony could lie like a champ, but this was beyond him.
"I'm... feels like I've been poisoned... Everything's sore," Tony admitted grudgingly. He'd stopped eating a while ago, his stomach didn't like food right now, and he let his hand drop to the comforter when Clint took the plate away. "Reminds me of the..." He tried to say it, really, he did, but he couldn't. The word 'palladium' wouldn't leave his mouth.
"Okay." Clint was looking at him with his cross-hair stare still, and Tony couldn't bear it, so he closed his eyes and slumped into the bedding. Clint's fingers sought out his pulse, then squeezed one of his fingernails. "It can't be, though. That's actually physically impossible."
"I know that!" Tony snapped, tugging his hand away and immediately regretting it. The sharp jerk sent stabbing pain through his ribcage, which in turn set off his bruises. "Fuck... Fuck!"
He gritted his teeth through the aftershocks, doing his best not to tense up, set it all off again.
"I think I know what this is."
Clint's hands were on his shoulders and it was easier to focus on him. The trembling faded back to the point where Tony could actually relax, and he opened his eyes again. Everything was... swimmy, now. Blurred.
"Wanna... share with the class?" Tony mumbled, rolling his head towards the archer.
"Lactic acidosis. Or, its kid brother, anyway."
"C'n you fix it?"
"Yeah, man. No problem," Clint replied. Tony did not for a second believe that it was as easy at Clint was trying to make it sound, and squinted at him distrustfully. "It's a kind of post-exertional malaise due to poor circulation. You're gonna be fine, okay?"
Tony grunted in disbelief, but nodded anyway. Clint knew his shit.
"You just... lie there. Don't do anything with your muscles." He felt the bed shift as Clint stood up, and there was an industrious rustling from the direction of their physio supplies.
"That... that I can definitely do," Tony mumbled distractedly. He was cold again, which was what made him think he had a fever, considering the massive amounts of direct sun his room got in the mornings. That and the all-pervasive ache.
Clint made a loud 'pop' sound and Tony cracked an eye to look in his direction; he had two big gel packs in hand and was rubbing them vigorously. The blue gel was clouding up as it solidified and Tony made an aborted gesture in their direction. Heat of crystallization, gimmie.
Clint waved the packs at the ceiling for a second, which Tony resented because my heat, and addressed JARVIS. "We're gonna need at least four more of these."
JARVIS pinged a response wordlessly and Clint finally handed over the warmth. "Here we go... gonna feel like crap for a few minutes, but it'll help get it to your liver."
Clint packed the two gels around his left forearm and the liquid, delicious, heavenly warmth soaked into the muscle. While they sat there, with Tony in a kind of pained stupor at the contrast between horrible ache and lovely heat, Clint started rubbing his hand. He worked each knuckle until the ache was a memory, then dug his thumbs into the meat of Tony's palm. The raw press was fantastic, but it made the buzzing in his gut worse. Threefold once Clint pushed the heat packs up to Tony's bicep and set to work on his forearm.
"...what...oh fuck, stop, that's not-" Tony gasped, his gut roiling in protest.
"I know, I know. You're alright..." Clint forged ahead ruthlessly, pushing something up Tony's arm, his hands slick with some kind of oil. "We need to shift the lymph, dump the lactic acid into your blood so your liver can metabolise it."
"That- my blood does not appreciate this!" Tony growled, only barely managing to stay limp under Clint's hands.
"Wait 'til I get to your legs, man. This is gonna be crap."
Well, at least he's honest.
By the time Clint reached his shoulder, Tony felt hungover and punishingly thirsty; Clint let him take a break and tipped water into his mouth. Abby had delivered more heat packs in the mean time and they packed his calves with them, letting them sit and heat while Clint shifted to Tony's other arm.
The one Clint was finished with felt like an over-loved tube of toothpaste; wrung out and empty. His muscles hummed with the ghosts of the massage and Tony didn't think he could move it if he wanted to. Which he did not, because finally, it didn't hurt. The burning, grinding ache was gone.
"Clint, you're a miracle worker."
"Yeah. You're gonna be just fine. Oh! Did JARVIS pass on the paperwork yet?"
"What? No-" Tony whined. "I like the bench, the bench has PT, and heat packs and-"
Clint dug his fingers into Tony's tricep and cut him off. "Yeah, you're not getting out of therapy for a long time. Reinstatement or not."
Tony couldn't decide what the confused jumble of sensations in his chest meant, because his first thought, that he wouldn't get Avenger-piles anymore, was ridiculous for a grown man. And also, the 'return to the field' was obviously significantly more important. "I can't."
Clint's hand's fell still around his shoulder. "We're not gonna make you do anything, Tony. You know that."
"But you're asking." Tony turned his head away, tension ratcheting up until it felt like his stomach was trying to crawl up his throat. This wasn't fair.
"No, that's not- Bruce doesn't always suit up, either. We need you, we've been using you as a member of the team, even when you're drugged up."
Tony's heart was thumping away, a little too fast, and he swallowed down anxiety. He wanted to get back in the suit, wanted it like breathing, but he couldn't yet, it would hurt so much.
"Shit, I'm sorry, I should have had someone better at explaining, I'm gonna get Steve and Nat," Clint said, untangling his hands from Tony's limbs.
But, Tony didn't want Steve, Clint would do just nicely, right now, and he felt like he might shatter into pieces if Clint left so he grabbed the hem of Clint's shirt before he could get up.
"No, c'mon, I thought I wasn't getting out of this?" Tony whined, mustering a cocky grin that quickly broke into something dreadful that stung his eyes. He couldn't let go of his deathgrip on Clint's clothes, even when he tried. "You want me on comms, right? I don't have to be on active duty for that."
Clint sat back down and Tony relaxed again, breathing a little easier with the press of their legs together. The sting behind his eyes receded and he resisted the urge to sniff.
"You fought off an invasion alone yesterday; even your worst day is unbelievable," Clint muttered, repositioning the heat packs against Tony's leg muscles without dislodging Tony's hand, which was great because it was the only thing keeping him together.
" 's my house. Not gonna let anything happen to you guys in my house," he grumbled, voice thick.
"That's exactly it though, right? Everyone thought, at first, that you'd evade the shit out of us, Nat briefed us on the palladium, and how messed up it was and-"
Tony turned his face away and tightened his grip, because Natalie.
"Shit, I'm terrible at this. You proved us wrong, alright? Played inside the lines."
Of course he had, he'd had people relying on him, he couldn't just-
"You're reinstating me for good behaviour?!"
Cint laughed at him, big shoulders rolling off tension. "Yeah, I guess. Mostly it's because you never really sat on the bench."
Tony shot him his best 'what the fuck' face, because he distinctly remembered lying on his stupid lounger while the Team did their thing at the portal site.
"I mean, uh..." Clint fussed with the heat packs, measuring the temperature of Tony's thigh with the back of his hand while Tony gave him the stinkeye. "Uh... People usually lose their clearance when you get benched, but... we might have neglected to tell Steve?"
"Like you could have kept me out of my own system," Tony said, dismissively. "Consulting is one thing Tony Stark has always been good for."
Clint pinned him to the bed with his stupid eyes again, and Tony pushed his head back, wary to break eye contact in case Clint pounced while he wasn't looking.
"You don't get it, do you? 'I am Iron Man', Tony! You know it's not the suit." Clint's hands were tight on Tony's knee, still for a second. "We'd never have closed that portal without you. Steve wouldn't have had pain relief without you, AIM would have killed us all, without you."
Tony blinked, mouth hanging open and chest doing that weird thing, with the warmth, again.
"Aww, fuck. Stupidest genius I've ever met. C'mere." Clint leaned over him and- yep, that was a hug. Tony's shock eased off enough to close his mouth and drop his head against Clint's.
"How many geniuses do you know anyway..." he grumbled, ignoring how tight his voice was. "I'm fantastic at people stuff, I will have you know."
Tony huffed into Clint's collar, gripping the hem of his shirt tight. It was as close as he could get to returning the hug without screwing up his injuries; see, he could do people stuff. The quiet dragged on and Tony's emotions slowly settled back down. So, he was an Avenger. He hadn't... hadn't really given up on it anyway, but it was really good, really good, to know that no one else had either.
Eventually, Clint pulled back, and Tony felt up to giving him a real smile, only, Clint's eyes were suspiciously bright and you could have shelled walnuts on his jaw muscles.
"What? What's wrong, did I-"
"No, shut up, shut up and never mention this again, alright? Clearance level twelve, or some shit, alright?"
Tony blinked in confusion; he'd seen Clint cry before, but only ever over Phil, and- and Clint was still talking.
"'Cause I don't need Steve thinking I'm any more of a sap, alright? 's bad enough already, but..." Clint paused and covered his face with a rough palm. "C- Phil would have been proud, all right? Of you, and," Clint made a round-up hand signal, meaning the whole Avengers Initiative, maybe. "And everything. He'd be proud."
Tony understood the red eyes after that.
The next time the Avengers were called out, Tony piloted the Ranger himself.
The control system was flawless -Tony had been working on it since before the surgery- and his chest was finally up to the strain of haptic feedback controls. He settled into the chair, thrust his hands into the control surfaces and began tooling up for takeoff. The tactile inputs in the chair registered thrust, the gimbal gave him pitch and yaw, while the screen gave him a 180 by 270 degree viewing angle filled with a digital wireframe of the launch chute. It rushed past in a flickering of countdown markers until the screen opened out with HD, binocular footage, streamed direct and wireframed in realtime, of the Manhattan skyline. The 3D display provided instantaneous distance data, spatial orientation, false horizon, but the reason it had Tony grinning like a madman had nothing to do with the HUD.
He was flying.
He let himself loop around the tower once, diving under the helipad then twisting up between it and the gallery window, with the excuse of testing the control chair's gimble. It swung and turned in perfect synchrony with the images on the HUD, giving his brain one-to-one vestibular to visual mapping.
"JARVIS, binocular is clean, mapping at zero latency. Give me six-point and armament HUD- thank you." The wireframe mapping flicked over to red as they switched modes from visible spectrum binocular to IR range hexocular, the resolution snapping down to a square decimeter. Icons flicked up from the taskbar in response to his gaze direction; missiles, taser shot, directional repulsors... "All check. Control surfaces on my mark-" He pulled to a stable hover over the Tower. "Mark."
The chair shuddered in a controlled wave as each flap and aileron opened and closed. The sequence was bilaterally symmetrical, but not fore and aft, so Tony kept the pitch stable with a gentle roar of power into the main thruster bank.
"Preflight complete sir, we are clear for engagement."
"Thank you, JARVIS, patch me into the command line, with secondary lines as Team on one, all-call on two and private lines in rank order."
"Yes sir, augmenting presets." The comm panel, bottom left, shuffled; local ATC and emergency services were permanent interface fixtures in the top slot, as was SHIELD's tower. The rest, JARVIS configured as per his instructions, adding a sly Pepper-pot symbol on the bottom rung.
"Hah, hah. Call in to air traffic control to confirm, J." He switched over to the team channel while JARVIS was busy and dropped enough altitude to look in through his own living room window. "Cap, we're looking good, how's mobilisation going?"
"Nearly there. Do we have the airspace?"
Tony flicked radar over to the stream JARVIS was getting from ATC. "One helicopter, on its way out of the zone, otherwise we're clear. Bogies are inbound, north by north-east, ETA holding steady."
"Alright. Coordinate with the SHIELD fleet, I don't want to be wasting you on the perimeter again."
"Copy that; coordinate the perimeter," Tony reported, dipping Ranger's nose at the blue blur of Cap's uniform on the other side of the bulletproof glass.
He pulled the nose down, dropping vertically under the Ranger's weight and using the wingtip stabilizers to rotate around the Y-axis in the five seconds it took to fall 12 floors, until his belly was to the glass. He pulled up and away from the Tower in a parabolic arc, kicking out the flaps to generate aerofoil lift and swing him back skyward before he hit the thrusters and pelted up into open air.
"Tower this is IronMan," Tony said into the comm, using his callsign for the first time in too long. "Requesting comm with 'jet four."
"Recieving, IronMan, 'jet four; Williamson at the stick."
Tony tagged 'four with Williamson's file, running it by JARVIS to get a skill assessment. The little graph was promising, he'd do. "Copy, Williamson; take position alpha," Tony ordered, swiping the screen and sending a ping to their flight computer with the formation data. The Avengers would keep the bogies off the island as best they could, but the 'jets would be their backup.
"IronMan to 'jet three."
He got them lined up along the shoreline in an intimidating array of purring engines. Agile flyers with F15's on record took the edges, and the boys and ladies with proverbial balls of steel took front and center. "'Jet six, you'll be right on top of the National guard's shiny new railgun! Do not get in their way. I repeat! It will shred you. Don't get shredded."
"Copy that, sir. Not getting shredded is priority one."
"That's the spirit. Contact in two minutes! Avengers are inbound to contact point." He turned his nose towards the oncoming opponent just as the Avenjet roared over his shoulder, falling in on their left flank, while Thor took the right.
"Alright, Avengers, Iron Man," Steve called over the comm, "Let's light 'em up!"
Thor's excuse for returning to Earth had him in and out of political circles of breadbasket countries and big grain corporations, buying up leases to grow on the grain SI's Intellicrops division had invented. It was a running joke that raspberries were grown alongside, and Thor demanded a crate of plants to take home, as the berries were a fabulous compliment to mead.
Tony's middleman fee, which was an Asgardian custom that Tony wasn't going to argue with, went into the Avengers' armor. Vibranium made excellent bulletproof vests, and they kitted Steve out in scale.
During the back and forth, Thor made a point of bringing 'guest's gifts' back from his home, and Tony ate fruit grown on another world that left him feeling glowy for days and gave them a baseline reading for Asgardian 'so-advanced-it-looks-like-magic'.
Tony should have know it'd be quantum based, given the sub-dimensionality of the portal, and the shift in the Higgs-Heisenberg caused by the spear, and then there was the-
Yeah. Tony had plenty to keep him occupied.
He kept getting better.
Clint was replaced by Natasha in his daily routine eventually; he went from muscle stretching to muscle building over a careful few weeks, as the incision faded from blood-red to sunburn-pink.
The oxygen tank gathered dust, and his IV bruise healed over; OTC meds were his new best friends but he forgot to take even those after a while, particularly when Pepper was in town.
Their collective concerns over addiction dissipated when one, then two, then four weeks moseyed on by without so much as a craving. Bruce was very smug, but never actually said 'I told you so'.
The Avengers saw action in Seoul, Petrozavodsk, and Brazil, and Tony flew, or ran simulations, or generated hurried applications of theoretical physics as and when it was needed. If anything, he was more useful back in New York than he was on the ground, because when the WSC and Putin butted heads, he was able to defuse the situation with cleverly-timed video conferences.
The political types talked over each other so much that they missed half the action, so everything was neatly buttoned up and the vaguely horse-shaped aliens sent home before they could be declared either illegal immigrants or threats to national security. Salvage rights were moot when the 'salvage' could walk off through Yggdrasil, anyway. It did put Putin in the rather unusual position of having to set up a border patrol over the mouth of a cave halfway up a mountain.
Very careful transcripts of the 'meeting' gave Steve's command decisions legitimacy, and they even brought Tony zaedkami, which turned out to be sweet and delicious, after careful inspection ruled out the presence of cabbage.
Brazil was uneventful in comparison, but Steve came back with a set of red, white, and blue tailfeathers sewn to the back of his uniform and a spectacular blush.
Tony decided not to ask.
Tony spent a lot of time in the workshop, usually with company.
After weeks of the constant, comforting presence of the Avengers and Pepper, Tony pulled away into the workshop and locked himself in. He needed time to reestablish some personal space, wean himself off some of the dependence they'd slipped into; no one needed to bump shoulders with someone every meal time.
He lasted about an hour before calling Clint down to test the new hydro-oligophobic coated eye gear.
Then, it was Steve, to try and soak the glasses. Soon, the beta-test area, with its reinforced chest-high-walls and carefully graduated floor markings, was dripping wet and host to a ferocious mess of Super Soakers and super-soldiers. When Natasha turned up, eyes glinting and kitted out in her Widow's Bite, it turned into a mad scramble to climb the armour assembly platform, which was electrically insulated. Once Clint and Steve were hanging from the rubber claws, Natasha muttered quietly to Dummy and he turned the milling machine's oil-water coolant on the two men, dousing them both in a drenching mist of emulsified oil.
The glasses didn't have so much as a drop on them, even after everything, and Tony didn't bother trying to 'reestablish his personal space' again; the workshop door ended up propped open with a cylindrical lump of titanium that slowly gathered dust.
The Marks Ten through 'Add One To Whatever That Last One Was, JARVIS' were things of beauty, despite the constant stream of distractions, workouts and raucous team dinners. All of them had concealed handholds, just like the Iron Ranger.
The first time he took out a suit after the surgery, it was in the dark, with just JARVIS to see him struggle. It still hurt, a bit, but he could take off, maneuver, hover. It was a start.
When he landed, only ninety seconds after taking off, Pepper was waiting with a smile and had cleared out the penthouse.
An evening without interruptions was apparently in order; Tony wasn't about to argue with that. Though, when they woke up in the morning, there was a somnolent archer slumped at the foot of the bed, anyway.
At least he was discreet.
"Colonel Rhodes, it's good to meet you in person."
"It's an honor, Captain. Tony made me promise not to salute, but..." Rhodes held his beer bottle up anyway. "To Captain Rogers of the Howling Commandos."
The colonel drank to it, while Steve leaned on the railing and looked out over the water, adding 'to Bucky' silently before taking a drink himself. "You looked good out there, gave Tony one hell of a workout."
"Upgrades'll do that to him," Rhodes said, shrugging off the responsibility. Steve frowned slightly, trying to keep the itch of disapproval of his face while the Colonel continued. "He's always been like this; it was a shock when nothin' new came out of the 'shop after Manhattan."
Steve agreed with a quiet sound; they hadn't thought much of it at the time, but as they'd knitted together as a team, they had worked out just how much Tony was holding himself back from mad work benders, trips to far-flung places, Iron Man missions. He'd even let Natasha clean up the black market in Chitauri weapons, which was traditionally Iron Man's arena.
They stood there in silence for long enough to empty their drinks, but there was one thing that was bothering Steve, and it sat in the air between them, making it hard to talk casually. Eventually, Steve got up the nerve to ask, even though it felt beyond rude.
"Where were you, Rhodes?" he demanded, rolling his bottle between his palms. "The surgery, the drugs, he needed-"
"He needed his team," Rhodes interrupted, "He didn't need this." Rhodes gestured out over the water, pointing out the smoking remains of the obstacle course. "I'm his military liaison, Captain. And his frat brother. Sort of. We don't lick each others' wounds, we kick each others' butts until we get our heads on straight."
Steve couldn't say he understood, exactly, not the words, but Rhodes' tone was easier: old and a bit world-worn.
"He didn't need a butt-kicking this time and that's on you." Rhodes, Rhodey, clapped him on the shoulder with a broad grin. "Nice meeting ya, Cap. Don't let him overwhelm you, you'll do fine."
The colonel strode off into the milling crowd of SHIELD agents and Avengers, leaving Steve with the weird feeling that he'd been congratulated. For what, he couldn't quite say.
He turned his back on the smoking ocean and looked for the guy in question; Tony was with Pepper in the carpeted tent pitched on alpha runway, grinning like a shark at an intimidated-looking senator.
He was still wearing the Mark 42.
AN: THATS ALL FOLKS! :)
Thank you for sticking with me this whole time, its been fun!
If there's anything more you would like to see in this verse, head over to rose-on-the-mountain at tumblr, where i'll be taking requests for shorts/omakes/post-credits scenes.
Thanks to the ever awesome Kadigan and Szzzt for getting me though ending this giant piece of my life by beta'ing, prodding and generally being amazing while I whined and moved commas around.
New fics (i'm planning a merfic, it's going to be amazing) and my recent works can be found on Archive of Our Own, now under 'MountainRose', I hope to see people there, it's a really lovely archive.
Concrit and comments still appreciated and feel free to leave AT related prompts in the comment box and I might just write you a thing, ;)