Summary: While struggling to evade the authorities, save Barton's life and cure Tony from radiation poisoning, the Avengers discover that Loki had a backup plan, and earth is still in danger. A sequel to the movie, featuring Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner, also Clint, Natasha, Thor and Loki. Friendship, angst, drama, lots of hurt / comfort.



Chapter One

Tony Stark hesitated before knocking on Erik Selvig's hospital room door. It didn't use to be so hard to fake a smile. Even in the weeks following his captivity in Afghanistan he pulled it off. But since the Chitauri attack, he found few reasons to, even around the Pepper. And soon, he knew, there would be more to rob him of contentment.

"Come in!" a meek voice called after Tony banged his forefinger on the wooden door. Beneath breathing tubes and electrodes, Dr. Selvig smiled when Stark walked to the foot of his bed. "Shouldn't you be at the courthouse?"

Tony looked at his watch and shrugged. "It can wait. They can't start the party without me."

"And by 'party' you mean 'angry mob.'"

"Most likely." Tony glanced at the beeping monitors scattered about the white room. "How are you feeling, Doc?"

Selvig's lips matched his white skin. "I don't think I'll make it to Coulsen's funeral tomorrow... In fact I doubt I'll make it to tomorrow tomorrow."

"They have no clue how to treat the seizures?"

"The physicians here? No. The physicians at S.H.I.E.L. D? No." Erik sighed. Speaking wore him out fast. "A Norwegian God used an alien scepter to rearrange my brain. Side effects were unavoidable." He tugged on a blanket near his waist. "How's the Hawk?"

"The same. Same symptoms. Only one seizure so far, though." Tony walked around the side of the bed and gently pulled the blanket up to Erik's chin. "Banner is working on him."

"Didn't you tell the police that Banner is in the Himalayas?"

Tony winked.

"Speaking of side effects, how are you feeling?"

"What do you mean" Tony folded his arms against his chest.

Selvig's eyes narrowed. "Don't play dumb, Stark."

"I hosed down the minute I returned to Stark Tower. I'm not radioactive."

"Anymore." Erik shook his head. "You should get a CAT scan, at least."

Tony shrugged. "What do you want me to say, Doc.? I feel perfectly fine."

"You're lying," said Selvig, "but I don't have the energy to argue."

Tony didn't deny anything. "I'll let you get some rest."

"Good luck today."

Tony gave a lazy salute. "Thanks, I'll need it."

Erik's face drooped. For the first time he looked as sick as he felt. "Goodbye, Tony."

Tony didn't like that word. He nodded and left.

The sun set on a New York evening three days after the attack. What was left of the Avengers holed up in a bomb shelter beneath Stark Tower. The authorities, S.H.I.E.L.D. and the media thought they were all long gone. Hawkeye and the Black Widow, hypothetically on another mission, most likely dyed their hair, changed their names and blended into a low-profile government office. Captain Steve Rogers most likely set off to track down long-lost relatives and friends and, meanwhile, Tony Stark and Pepper Potts spent most of their time at heated press conferences and long court sessions. The NYPD slapped an ankle cuff on Tony the second he entered court.

That evening Captain Steve Rogers lay on Tony Stark's couch with a weathered copy of Lord of the Flies up to his nose. Dr. Bruce Banner sat on a barstool in front of a gurney on Cap's left. He stared, rarely blinking, at Loki's dead scepter. Every half hour or so he stood up and opened his mouth so wide that Steve expected a jubilant "eureka!" or a bellowed "dammit!" But, each time, Bruce's face fell. He sat back on the stool, rubbed his eyes and sighed. The two extra-large pizzas JARVIS delivered for dinner sat unopened on a leather lazy-boy.

Steve finished chapter six right before Natasha yelled. He dropped the book, leapt over the couch and sprinted across the cement floor to the other side of the room. Clint Barton lay unconscious in a bed in a makeshift infirmary wearing nothing but boxers. His face was paler than the white wall beside him. His back arched and his joints stiffened and a dark red drop of blood limped from his nose to his upper lip.

"Hold his legs still!" Natasha ordered Steve. She put her entire body weight down on Barton's shoulders to keep him from rolling off the bed. "Bruce, he's having another seizure!"

Banner appeared beside them with a syringe as long as his hand. He emptied the entire contents into Clint's neck with one quick thrust. "Steve, hand me that stethoscope." Rogers plucked it off an instrument tray and put it in Bruce's hands. "Dammit," Bruce whispered after he listened to Clint's pulse and respiration. "His heart is beating faster than a rabbit's."

A soft cry preceded one last convulsion, and then Clint went still. Natasha wiped her short red hair out of her face and cupped his cheeks with her petite hands. "His fever's worse, too." She looked at Bruce with wide eyes and whispered, "How much time do you think he has?"

Bruce looked at Steve and saw the same question in his eyes. "I, uh…" Bruce cleared his throat and folded his arms against his chest. "I've learned as much as I can from the scepter. Without the Cube to power it I can't begin to understand what it did to Barton's body and mind. There is one experiment I want to try but, uh, I'll need Tony's help with it. But, listen, I'm sure by now Erik Selvig's doctors have figured out something –"

"Selvig is dead," said a new voice that echoed in the narrow room. Steve, Natasha and Bruce pivoted to see Tony Stark exiting the elevator. He wore a simple black suit and tie, and twirled the disabled ankle cuff around his forefinger. "He died an hour ago."

Steve stood up straight and raised his chin. "What happened?" he asked.

Tony tossed the cuff onto the couch. "All I know is he had another seizure. The docs had no clue how to treat him. Barton has the same symptoms, so it must have something to do with that damn scepter." Tony joined their half-circle around Clint. "How's Legolas doing?" he asked.

Natasha looked fragile in her civilian clothes: dark jeans, red t-shirt, black boots. She didn't reply, just briefly stroked Clint's cheek.

Tony shared a look with Bruce, and then Steve, who kept his gaze for a long moment. Tony's nose wrinkled – briefly – and he turned on his heel toward a cabinet beside the elevator. He returned with a bottle of clear liquid and four shot glasses. He poured silently, passed the shots silently, raised his own glass silently. "To Dr. Selvig," he said, "and Phil Coulsen." The four Avengers clinked their glasses together in the center of their small circle, then downed the shot.

A minute passed and then Bruce asked, "How did the court session go today?"

Tony took their glasses and walked over to a sink. He kept his back turned as he said, "Pepper and JARVIS are packing up a couple SUVs with supplies. You all need to leave tonight. Right now."

"What?" Bruce and Steve gasped.

"Why?" Natasha asked.

Tony ran the water. "I'll give you plenty of supplies: food, weapons, medical. Meet up with S.H.I.E.L.D. if you feel safe, but stay out of sight."

"Stark," Steve snapped, "what's going on?"

Tony stopped washing the glasses. He turned off the faucet and leaned heavily against the sink.

Steve's face and voice softened. He put his hand on the back of Stark's shoulder. "Tony?"

"The FBI got a warrant to search and seize everything I own," Tony said low and deep in his throat. "You have to get out of here or they'll find you. First thing tomorrow they're taking me to County."

Steve frowned. "Jail? How can they – they can't…"

"They're making him the scapegoat," Bruce explained. "New York was attacked by aliens. Hundreds of people died and the culprit is on another planet. They need someone to blame."

"That's not fair," Steve growled. He looked at Natasha for confirmation.

She mirrored his concern, his frustration. Every line on her face tightened. Her fingers were splayed, unmoving, across Clint's pale face. "Tony," she said with a hint of her usual granite, "the company, your inventions…"

"Pepper will take over. We already discussed it. She has legal power."

"But after Loki… Stark, we still don't know who helped him, who gave him the scepter in the first place. This might not be over."

"It is for me." Tony whirled around and met their furrowed brows with an iron expression. "And maybe if they have me in custody then they won't go after any of you."

"You're no good to us behind bars."

"I'm…" Tony met Steve's eyes and held them. "I'm making the sacrifice play."

The muscles around Steve's jaw vibrated. "Tony, we need you."

"Weren't you the one lecturing me about lying down on the wire? That's what I'm doing, Steve."

Rogers took another step closer, right into Tony's personal space. "You laid down on the wire when you carried that nuke into space. You don't have anything to prove." Steve put his left hand on Tony's right shoulder, and his right on Tony's left. "We're a team now. Let's cut this wire, Tony. Together."

Tony shrugged Steve's hands away. He started to speak but, suddenly, his face turned white. His eyelids drooped, then snapped open. Alarmed, Bruce called, "Tony?" Stark looked up at the sound of his name, but his eyes squinted as if he couldn't see straight. He didn't even realize that he'd begun to teeter to the left.

"Steve he's passing out!" Natasha warned.

"Tony-" Steve grabbed Tony before he completely lost his footing, and pulled his arm across his shoulders. "Banner!"

Bruce grabbed Tony's other arm and the two Avengers guided him over to the couch. They sat down on either side of him while Natasha scurried over with a bottle of water. Tony didn't put up a fight but allowed the guys to hold him steady while Natasha helped him drink. He took a deep breath and leaned back, limp, into the cushions.

"Tony, what the hell was that?" Bruce demanded.

"Nothing," Tony whispered. "Long day in court… I'm just tired. I feel fine."

"He's lying," Natasha diagnosed.

"I'll be fine in a minute."

"Still lying."

"Tony, why haven't these started to heal?" Bruce used the soft pad of his thumb to press gently on the untouched skin above a cut on Tony's forehead – a cut from his encounter with Loki three days before. The second his skin touched Tony's, Bruce recoiled from shock. "Oh my god…"

"What?" Steve asked. "What's going on?"

Bruce's voice shifted from stern to defeated. "Tony, why didn't you tell us?"

Tony's white lips barely moved when he spoke. "I rinsed in a radiation lab. I scanned myself. I took precautions. I'm not irradiated anymore."

"That's not what I mean." A Hulk-like growl rose from Bruce's chest. "If you told me – if I knew – maybe there's still time. I can help you, Tony."

Tony shook his head slightly. For a moment, as he stared up at his friends, his eyes became wet before they returned to neutral once more. "There's nothing you can do. I'm already dead."

Steve gripped a cushion so hard that stuffing leaked from the seams. "Dammit, Banner, what's going on?"

"Radiation…" Natasha whispered. "The nuke…"

"Tony was too close to the nuke when it went off. The suit couldn't protect him from the radiation. Especially in the vacuum of space there was nothing to slow it down." Banner nodded at Tony. "He has radiation poisoning. That's why he doesn't care that he's going to jail."

"A lethal dose?" Steve murmured.

Bruce's eyes dropped to his lap. "He might have a couple days. Seventy-two hours, if he's lucky."

"Like I said," Tony whispered, "lying on the wire, Cap. Lying on the wire."

To Be Continued