Chapter Three:

He didn't know how much time had passed before he was coming to on the concrete floor of his lab, JARVIS' voice in his ear, "Sir, Dr. Banner has been standing outside the door for over forty-five minutes now. He has asked me to communicate his frustration to you over the fact that the codes you entrusted him with are not working."

Tony responded gracefully with a groan.

"I think most of his alarm is coming from the fact that he can make out your unmoving feet on the lab floor from the doorway. Despite my reassurances that you are alive, I detect high levels of concern for you wellbeing." The AI's voice sounded almost chiding.

Tony rolled himself onto his back, dropping the screwdriver that had been glued to his hand. "What day is it?"

"Monday, 1:33 in the afternoon," JARVIS informed him. "In the sixty-three hours that you have refused phone calls you have received seven messages from Ms. Potts. I believe you missed a rather important meeting that was taking place in Philadelphia this morning."

He grimaced, forcing himself to sit up. That was going to put himself on Pepper's shit list for a good long while. He dragged his hand over his face, disgust forming at the bristle that covered his face outside of the trimmed goatee, "Ugh, JARVIS, on a scale of ten how bad do I look?"

"A frightening seven, sir." JARVIS gave his answer honestly. "I would have gone with six, except my sensors detect that you are beginning to pick up quite the unpleasant aroma."

Tony wrinkled his nose. That was a considerate understatement, showering always fell down his list of priorities when he went on a mind-numbing inventing rampage. His eyes scoured over his lab, brightening a fraction when he saw the metal form shining on the charging platform, "Hey! I finished the drone prototype," he allowed himself an accomplished grin.

"Indeed sir. And I believe you have finally cracked the code on the synthetic material for the pants needed to allow Dr. Banner to transform without fully revealing himself."

"Hell yeah," Tony said victoriously, pushing himself to his feet. Science blackouts were a scary thing, but rarely were they without awesome results. He impressed even himself sometimes.

"Sir, how would you like me to handle Dr. Banner?" JARVIS reminded him.

Tony hesitated, restraining the urge to look over at the weary figure standing behind the glass doors to his left.

"He bears several items of food," JARVIS nudged, "And I should remind you that it has been well over two days since you have had a substantial meal."

His stomach growled in agreement. Tony sighed, rubbing a hand over his tired face and wincing at the stubble. "Fine, fine," he said, making his way to the back of the lab where he'd smartly put in a bathroom. "Let him know I'm jumping in the shower, he can drop off the food on one of the tables."

"Of course, sir."

He came back out ten minutes later rubbing a towel through his hair to see that Bruce had made himself at home. He was standing with hunched shoulders in front of the terminal Tony had fondly deemed the Jolly Green Giant Pants Problem-solving Station. More importantly, he spotted several boxes of Chinese takeout laying spread out on the table behind the kind doctor.

Tony worked his way to them, groaning in satisfaction at the orange chicken that greeted him from the first box. He grabbed the fork, bypassing the chopsticks because he was far too hungry for anything other than shoveling the mess down. Before he got lost in the tangy heaven, he tossed out, "What do you make of them?" Honestly, he couldn't even remember the compounds he'd decided to blend together in the end, that long into the no sleeping contest and things got pretty fuzzy.

Bruce straightened from the computer, pushing his glasses back to the top of his nose as he hummed in approval, "Nice. I never even considered what polyheptadol would add to the fabric's structure. Looks like it quadrupled the strength of the bonds already in place."

Tony let out his own hum in agreement, leaning back into the chair he'd fallen into as he tried to control the oversized bite of food he'd put into his mouth at once. Bruce turned to him, walking up to the table and grabbing one of the smaller boxes Tony knew must be chow mein, before sitting down in a wheeled chair himself.

The man that could turn into a raging green monster on a whim cleared his throat awkwardly as he opened the box. "So," he said pointedly as he deftly grabbed a good portion of the noodles with his chopsticks, "You've been down here a while."

Tony finally managed to swallow, taking a swig from the bottled green tea Bruce had brought down with the food, "You know how it goes. Projects start stacking up, Fury gives you the Eye of Death glare a few times, and you decide it's better to just burn through it all before you end up in some Slovak prison with nothing more to your name than the bar of soap they gave to you at the door."

"It's been nearly a week, and your sleeping on the floor apparently," Bruce pointed out dryly. "Do you even remember what natural sunlight looks like?"

Tony scoffed, leaning forward to find the rice, "Sunlight's for the weak."

"For the living, you mean," Bruce continued, chewing slowly. "Pepper gave me a call this morning," He added, and Tony had a sinking feeling that was most probably guilt. "She tells me you missed a meeting that you've both been looking forward to for months. Something about expanding your energy infrastructure to Philly? She sounded pretty upset."

She would be. It had taken a countless number of forms, and phone calls, and favors begged to set up a meeting with the city commissioners, several of the wealthier business men, and the mayor himself. Switching to a new, practically unknown form of alternative energy, even on the small scale of a few buildings was a pretty big deal to a city. And that was with the Stark name going for him, or maybe it was because of the Stark name. He couldn't lie; things with his name on them tended to blow up at the first sign of trouble.

He cleared his throat, "Was that today?" he asked, going for nonchalance. "I'm sure we'll be able to reschedule. And sorry about Pepper, I'll let her know not to bother you with stuff like that."

Bruce rested his hand, balancing his chopsticks over the carton, "I don't mind Pepper calling me, Tony. She needs someone to talk to," he said gently, his eyes scrutinizing. Tony made sure not to squirm under the gaze, trying not to let that statement hit him like a punch to the gut. "But maybe these are things you should talk about, you know, instead of bunkering down and locking yourself in here for days at a time. That doesn't help, Tony. It never does."

Tony didn't pause in eating, mouth half full when he replied, "Things? What things?" He pointed his fork resolutely the fellow scientist, "I don't have things, Bruce. I'm just a genius head of department slash SHIELD consultant that has too little time on his hands."

"I suppose that's why JARVIS told me at the door that while you are not dead, your functioning capabilities are estimated at 35% due to emotional distress?" Bruce asked lightly, wiping his mouth with a napkin.

Tony turned his glare on, looking to the ceiling, "JARVIS, what the hell? Whose side are you on?"

JARVIS answered innocently, "I merely provided Dr. Banner with what I calculated might best alleviate some of his concerns. The information was acceptable within my current parameters. I apologize sir, I had not been made aware that the situation warranted 'sides.'"

Tony huffed, feeling cheated and not at all liking the trapped feeling he was beginning to feel again. He turned back to Bruce, cracking a smile, "Yeah, well, despite the inaccurate assessment made by that shoddy piece of programming, I'm fine okay. I fixed your pants, didn't I? So don't worry about it."

He could almost feel the affronted air of the AI. Great, now he was on JARVIS' shit list too. That made three people –Steve, Pepper, Jarvis— he cared about so far, maybe he should aim for setting a record.

"It's hard not to worry when you're looking like a small town hobo, Tony," Bruce countered, his calm tinged with a hint of concern.

Tony's face twitched, "Low blow, Brucie. Maybe I'm going for the full beard look?"

"Don't," the other advised.

Tony laughed at that, hand scratching the rough terrain on his chin. "I sorta want to now. Might be worth it."

Bruce's eyes narrowed in on his hand, wrapped lightly in the gauze Tony had hurriedly wrapped around it.

"Got a little excited around a broken mug," Tony explained, dropping the hand down again.

"Please tell me you at least sterilized it properly," Bruce asked tiredly, like he already knew the answer.

"You're nitpicking now, Bruce," Tony waved a hand dismissively "It's just a scratch. No, really, Bruce, c'mon, you don't need to, gah," he rolled his eyes as the doctor unwrapped the gauze carefully. "Seriously, you're more of a worrywart than Pepper and JARVIS combined. And that's saying something," Tony said pointedly.

Bruce sighed as he examined Tony's hand, "This isn't just a scratch, Tony. If I didn't know any better I'd say you wrapped your hand around several shards of that mug and squeezed."

Not entirely inaccurate. Tony admitted it was his smartest moment.

"Some of these could use stitches," Bruce continued, his voice a little tighter. "And you should probably know that contrary to popular belief, grease, metal shavings, and dirty shower water are not conducive to healing."

"Yeah, well. I'm sure if I looked hard enough I'd be able to bribe a doctor to disagree with that," Tony continued lightly, eyes travelling the lab once more.

Bruce dropped his hand, pinching his nose with a sigh. "You can't treat your hands like this, Tony, it's dangerous. Do you know how easy it is to lose hand function? You could wake up one day and find out your nerves are deadened, your response time cut down, and your range of mobility dropped to finger twitching and a loose grip. You want that?"

Doom and gloom via their resident Eeyore. Tony supposed all of the work in third world countries had given the doctor a pessimistic outlook on medical problems.

"Geez, Bruce. Your bedside manner needs some work," Tony said, eyeing him uneasily at the sudden weight he'd forced into the conversation. "I'm fairly confident I would know if my hand was about to fall off." Okay, so he wasn't the most observant, Tony admitted under Bruce's stare. He added in a weaker tone, "At least, JARVIS would probably tell me."

"You need to take your health more seriously," Bruce underlined heavily, not even blinking at Tony's tendencies to skirt around the edges of everything that had cropped up in the conversation so far. He stood up, staring hard at Tony, "Don't move, I'm going to grab my kit."

"Don't have to tell me twice," Tony grumbled, pouting even as he grabbed another carton of cheap stir fry. Ooh, beef and broccoli. Score.

And Hawkeye dropped from the ceiling. Tony jumped up and beef and broccoli flew everywhere, which was such a waste. He couldn't even begin to think about how delicious it would've been, "Holy shit-faced fuck, Barton. What the hell is your problem?"

The archer smirked, not even a little ashamed. Because he had no soul, Tony thought bitterly, "Just thought I'd drop in. Hadn't seen you in a while. Thought maybe Cap had killed you and hid the body. Which hurt, because he didn't ask me to help with the digging."

"Liar," Tony called out, "You sneak around in the ventilation like a squirrel on psychosomatic drugs. You can't tell me you don't spy on me at least once a day. I won't believe it."

"Like you don't watch us with those camera's situated all around the tower," Clint rebutted with a shrug, looking around the lab curiously, "Fair game, as far as I'm concerned."

"I told you, that's for JARVIS' visual input. It's a direct feed into the AI's server, not my own personal creep show," Tony grumbled, settling back down in his chair.

Clint's face lit up, "Is that Chinese?"

Tony kept his stare flat, knowing full well that Clint knew it was Chinese. Damn spies.

"MY Chinese," Tony corrected, only to watch Clint snatch a carton in blatant disregard. The archer settled into it with happy munching.

He rolled his eyes, "Seriously, this is my lab, Clint. You come into my lab, eat my food. . . Is nothing sacred anymore?"

Clint shrugged, taking a cross-legged seat on one of the higher tables behind him, "Eh, thought I'd keep you company while Bruce was away."

Tony's eyes narrowed suspiciously, because Clint didn't just keep someone company unless there was an X Box 360 involved, "What is this, some kind of intervention? No more inventing, or some shit?"

Clint shrugged again, holding up a suspiciously shaped piece of chicken with his fork and eyeing it warily, "Call it what you want, Stark. But Bruce is far too passive to handle a mess like you on his own. Though I can't really blame him for his mood choices when he has the pretty good chance of exploding into a giant rage monster at the wrong moment. Point is, you'll be down here for at least another month if we leave this to him and his non-aggressive way of handling things."

His eye twitched, "What, you going to hog-tie me and drag me out of here?"

Clint popped the chicken into his mouth, chewing as he gave Tony a look, "If I have to."

Damn super spies, Tony was 90% sure Clint was dead serious.

"Fine," he huffed, crossing his hands, "What do you want?"

"What do you want, Stark?" Clint countered, pointing at him with a fork that had another piece of breaded chicken dangling from its grasp. He sounded a lot like the shrink Tony's mom had made him go see as a child, despite the unorthodox appearance. "Do you really want to sit down here and spend your time moping around because life sucks and Cap has the same capacity to understand morally grey issues as a small field mouse? Left all alone to sit here and stew in your own shit because you're such a stubborn bastard?

Or, do you want to get up and be a part of a team? A team that works together, trusts one another, has each other's back no matter what. A team," Clint dragged out, making sure the hint hit him square in the face, "that can work out its disagreements in a timely fashion and go out on any given Tuesday and save the fucking world because we're awesome and that's what we do? Because I'll tell you right now," he said, stabbing his fork back into the carton with a dead seriousness, "You're pretty shitty if you think you can have both. Life doesn't work like that."

Tony stared blankly at the archer for a moment, considering that was perhaps the longest - motivational? – speech he'd ever heard coming from the man. Rehearsed? Definitely.

Still, the accusation was a little unfair considering the source. Clint had spent his fair share of time moping around at the beginning of this Avenger's team thing– more than one god damned week that's for sure. It wasn't until Coulson came back from the dead that the archer had popped back up into the snarky, bitchy asshole that he was today. Maybe he had a little more reason for it, being possessed by an angry, adolescent god and all, but really. Kettle, meet pot.

"I know which one I chose," Clint said after a moment to let it sink in, "And surprisingly, I don't regret it at all."

Tony stewed, Clint ate. He put down the carton after another moment, brushing his hands off as he stood up on the desk, "Welp. I'd say my job here is done. Looks like you have a choice to make, Stark." The archer turned slightly, eyeing the billionaire with another smirk, "And know that if you make the wrong one, I'llhogtie you and drag your ass out of here myself." He jumped up, hands catching on the opening in the ceiling, and heaving himself of quickly. "Remember, I'll be watching," his voice echoed metallically through the lab as a ventilation grate slid back into place.

Tony eyed it narrowly, "Creep," he muttered. He was tempted to call a priest to get this place exorcised when this was all over. Or pest control.

Bruce came back in to see Tony stewing in the pile of beef and broccoli, and was smart enough not to ask. He didn't even vengefully poke harder than he could have at Tony's injured hand when he cleaned it up, for which the billionaire would be eternally grateful.

"So," Bruce began again, as serious as he always was, "I don't suppose you want to talk about it?"

Tony scowled, hand spasming when the doctor dabbed at it again with a cotton swab, "That quota's already been filled for the week, Doc, thanks though."

Bruce sighed, "I'm guessing you're talking about Steve?"

He bristled, "Why? The Cap been spilling his guts over coffee again?"

"No," and for once the doctor sounded brittle, "he left two days ago, we haven't seen him since."

Tony stilled, going for nonchalant once again, "Hm? Maybe he found himself a lady-friend, and their getting frisky—"

"Tony," Bruce cut him off wearily, pulling out a wrap from his bag, "Please don't."

He snapped his mouth shut.

"Whatever happened between you two, it's between you two," Bruce continued, wrapping Tony's hand gently. "But the team can't function like this. You two are what hold this whole mess together. We lose that," Bruce stopped for a moment, his grip tightening, "then I don't see this working for much longer."

It was only because they were such awesome science bros that Tony even felt his throat tighten up. Anyone else, Barton for example, would've been met with his normal scowly exterior because he didn't do touchy feely shit. Or honesty.

"Look," he managed to piece together after a moment, "It's been a shitty week for me. A real shitty week. An sometimes it takes me a while to turn myself back on. I'll," he rubbed his free hand through his hair, "I'll talk with Steve, or something. And stop rubbing metal shavings into my hand, whatever."

Bruce finished his work, and stood up. "That would give your hand a fighting chance. And I think Steve would appreciate an honest talk."

Tony's stomach curled in on itself again. Steve had probably had enough honesty for a lifetime, "Yeah."

Bruce pushed up his glasses, offering a gentle smile, "Steve's a good man, Tony, and he wants to be your friend. You can work this out."

Working it out was exactly what Tony was worried about. Tony made it a habit to bury issues like this under years and years of repression, he didn't want to work it out, and he definitely didn't want Steve to try and fix him. That is undoubtedly what the super-soldier was planning to do the second they were within talking distance of each other.

Despite his inward turmoil, he let himself smile for the other scientist clapping his hand down on Bruce's shoulder lightly, "I'm sure we can, Big Guy. I'm sure we can. Now, uh, not to jump ahead of myself here, but why don't we sneak a peek at that polyheptadol pants prototype?"

Distraction technique initiated. It was countered not so subtly a few minutes later by his own AI.

"Taking into consideration your discussion with Dr. Banner, I took the liberty of contacting Captain Rogers, sir." JARVIS' voice was perfectly stoic, "He agreed to a meeting for tonight at six o'clock."

God damn it. Looks like "shoddy piece of programming" had come back to bite him in the ass after all.

Bruce answered for him, smart enough to keep the amusement out of his voice, "Thank you, JARVIS."

To make it worse, he could hear the faint whisper of chuckling drifting down from the ventilation shaft. And Tony was pretty sure another carton of stir fry had gone missing up the grate while both the scientists had their backs turned.

Tony kicked the trashed carton of beef and broccoli out of his way as he walked towards another computer with hunched shoulders, "It's a damned conspiracy."

Whatever. He wasn't about to let it get to him. He was Tony Stark, damn it. Holding himself together on nothing but coffee, booze, and hardened snark had been a personal copyright since the early nineties.

He'd march up to Steve, tell him that nothing had changed, they were fine, let's just all keep moving forward, whatever shit he needed to say to make sure everything had settled back down, and then maybe he could finally sweep this hell of week behind him.

AN: And Chapter Three! A little more team interaction, some banter to lighten the moment.

On another note, polyheptadol and any other weird science things that are discussed anywhere in any of my work is completely made up. No idea what I'm doing when it comes to this stuff, just trying to make it impressive enough that you guys forget to question it for at least a second.

Thank you to all my reviewers, you guys are awesome! Past awesome, you got me to derp smile more than once this week, which is much appreciated during midterms. Comments on the latest addition is always welcome, advice sorely needed.

Thanks for reading,

StrictlySomething