So, this is it... Or mostly it. But this IS the last BIG part of the series. Anything else added to this series won't be as large or as plotty. It's been a blast writing this, and I'm forever grateful for all the support I've received ever since filling that initial prompt. Before posting this, I also posted The Dating Game, that dating fic I promised you guys ages and ages ago.

This story is my Big Bang for the year, and art is by the fantastic digitalwave. Working with her was an absolute pleasure, and her art has really captured the majesty and magnificence of the scenes she chose to illustrate. So go check it out! Link's on my profile if the one in here doesn't work.

digitalwave dot livejournal dot com slash 571754 dot html

This story would not be what it is without the work of ellex42. She helped me a great deal with smoothing out passages I had difficulties writing and making sure that some of the logistics made sense and weren't too far in the realm of whacky. And physics. And quantum science. So, yes, thank you, ellex42!

I would like to thank the mods for the fantastic work they've put into running this challenge. It's a ton of work to organize an event like this, and it's been an absolute blast.

It's All in the Mind: Tony is 100% normal. Tony is not a mutant. Tony is Iron Man. Tony is an Avenger. just fooling himself.

Telekinesis 101 (Or A Guide to Readjusting Perceptions): Tony is a mutant. Tony is Iron Man. Tony is an Avenger. Tony…has some unresolved issues. Namely, the problem called Steve. Or maybe his overactive brain. Pick either.

Telekinesis for Dummies: Tony is not an idiot. Tony built the arc reactor in a cave with a box of scraps. Tony built Iron Man with cannibalized weapons. Tony is a bona fide genius. Tony…can admit that even geniuses need help, especially when it comes from the X-Men.

A State of Mental Extremes: Tony is protective of his own. The Avengers are off limits to Fury and his lackeys. But maybe he should be more concerned with his own safety. Oops.

An Alternative State of Mentality: Tony Stark does not have time for this junk. Someone outed his secret to the public. No, not the one where he's dating Steve. Yes, the one where he's a mutant. Yes, he's mad. Yes, his life sucks. What else is new? Oh, hi, Extremis.

Brain Freeze: Tony wouldn't change a thing. Honestly. He might've gotten shot and almost killed, but it was all good. At least, until he gets kidnapped. Again. Maybe he should put up a sign saying he's no damsel, but that would belie the truth because right now? Right now he's completely alone, and it's so cold…

What Remains the Same: Set during It's All in the Mind and Telekinesis 101 (Or A Guide to Readjusting Perceptions). "The Talk" hasn't changed much over the years, which is probably why Steve should have realized what was coming when he began to surreptitiously date Tony.

The Dating Game: Set during It's All in the Mind and A State of Mental Extremes. Five times Tony didn't know he was out on a date, and the one time he knew exactly what was going on.

Brain Freeze

Part I

Maybe he'd jumped the gun a little by saying he wouldn't change anything if it landed him right where he was (which was with Steve, thank you very much), because where he was right now he absolutely hated. He'd gladly turn back the clock a couple months if it meant not being here.

And where "here" was he wasn't entirely certain. It was cold, it was dark, and the natives weren't friendly. It might've been Antarctica, but the polar bears he'd seen here weren't exactly the cute and cuddly type. (Or was it the Arctic with polar bears and the Antarctic with penguins?) Suffice it to say that he was cold, tired, and just pissed. He wanted to go home. Home with Steve. Home with Pepper, Rhodey, JARVIS, Dummy, Peggy, Spike, Butterfingers, You, Bruce, Clint, Natasha, Thor, and Steve.

Stumbling to his knees in the deep snow, he blinked blearily into the distance, unable to see much given the blizzard that was howling in his sensors and blurring his visor with snow. Pain from a fierce headache pounded through his skull.

In the distance he heard a fierce roar, Extremis quickly feeding him the data for how far away it was and the current speed it was traveling.

Maybe it'd be a polar bear this time.

It was the middle of the night, and Tony was bored. Or maybe not bored exactly because he had Clint watching him like a hawk (pun intended), but he'd been lying here for the past two weeks plus four days, just itching to get out. And considering how much he'd already slept, he was too full of energy to sleep more.

Why wasn't he in his workshop? Oh right… Because he'd been shot. Not that it was anything to joke about considering how Steve continued to hover over him whenever the slightest wince crossed his face (he'd hit his hand against the railing; not exactly a deadly injury) and that the Avengers, sans Thor, were camping out in his hospital room. It was kind of weird if also comforting.

As of right now, Steve had been forced onto the couch for at least six hours of sleep, as he'd apparently been getting by on cat naps for the last two weeks. Even Tony waking up from a healing coma four days ago hadn't done much to quell his worries until Bruce and Rhodey had ganged up on him. Now Rhodey was stretched out on the floor by the couch, and Bruce's head was pillowed on his jacket as he slept by Rhodey. Natasha had left several hours ago, leaving Clint behind to watch over Tony.

Or talk his ear out in a low whisper as he rambled about the god-awful food, force feeding Steve, Logan being an ass, Fury popping in to be threatening, Coulson subtly threatening the nurses…

Tony was about ready to doze off just listening to him ramble when Clint took a breath and said, "I kept offering to kiss you and see if that did the trick."

Tony's eyes snapped up to Clint's darkly amused face, though his eyes were serious. "I accept coupons," he whispered for the first time since Steve had gone to sleep.

Clint snorted. "You'll give those to Hulk and tell him to lay one on me."

Tony flashed a smile. "You know me so well."

"And since I actually have a sense of self-preservation, I'm not doing it." Clint leaned back in his chair, imperiously folding his arms.

"And I don't?"

Clint pretended to think about that for a moment. "Eh…no. Anyone who walks up to Hulk after he's just torn apart a giant octopus and offers him a high five has no sense of self-preservation at all. And let's not forget that time you threw Steve into him with no warning."

Tony's eyes darkened at the memory. "It was the first option on my list."

"What was number two?"

Tony's grin was dark. "Dumping him on a roof. Three was clocking him over the head with his shield. One was the fastest."

Clint winced. "You don't play around, do you?"

"No. And neither do you."

"I prank people," Clint pointed out, glancing up at where Peter was sleeping in his web by the ceiling.

"Your pranks are juvenile."

"Says the man who colored my arrows pink with heart-shaped tips."

"It was Valentine's Day," Tony said, affronted. "Should I have made them purple?"

"I like purple," Clint said. "I'd've liked a purple uniform, but Coulson wanted black. We compromised."

Tony couldn't stop the smile from flashing across his face at the obvious fondness in Clint's voice. Evidently, sometime over the last two weeks Clint had made peace with what Coulson had done. His eyes drifted over to Steve's slumbering form, the smile slipping off his face as he watched him breathe.

Clint's quiet voice had Tony snapping his eyes back to him; the archer was still looking at Steve, having evidently followed Tony's gaze. "He went kind of nuts."


"The last couple months," Clint repeated, looking back at Tony, "he went kind of nuts. He wasn't really sleeping. Or eating." He sighed. "It was worse these last two weeks."

Tony said nothing, unsure of what he could say that wouldn't trivialize what the others had gone through these last months. He just kept his eyes fixed on Steve, wondering when it would all fall down around his ears again. They hadn't fixed everything, not by a long shot. Lack of privacy was one deterrent, and Tony dreaded the day when they'd be able to talk.

When had he begun to actually consider communication without someone else prompting him?

"Did you know Spider-Man's been stuck in that costume for the last two weeks?" Clint said suddenly, breaking Tony out of his thoughts.

Tony blinked. "You're kidding."

"Nope." Clint grinned cheerfully. "He doesn't really complain, but when he does it's about how hot it gets with the mask. I offered him a paper bag"—he held up a brown bag with two circular holes cut into it—"but he declined."

"He doesn't have to be here," Tony said, looking up at where Peter was snoozing in his web.

"Newsflash, Tony: None of us have to be here. We want to be here."

Clint dropped the paper bag/mask on the bed. "And, of course, Steve would probably kick us off the team if we'd rather play video games than hang out in a room with machines that are beeping nonstop."

"Annoying," Tony conceded, grateful that the machines had been cleared out by the second day after he kept turning them off in irritation. He'd received a lot of glares for that from the medical personnel, but he hadn't really cared.

"But he hasn't been here nonstop," Clint added. "Keeps going out to deal with burglars."


"Same as before," Clint said, shrugging. "It was what he got famous for, aside from the Lizard."

"Eurgh." Tony couldn't imagine taking care of burglars.

"We can't all be billionaires taking out illegal weapons caches halfway around the world."


"How's it going on that front anyway?" Clint asked casually.

Tony shrugged, leaning back into his pillow to look up at the very bland ceiling. "Been quiet. Fighting's still going on, but not with my stuff."

Clint made a noncommittal sound and reclined in his chair, head tilted back to also observe the ceiling.

Frankly, Tony was sick of it (the ceiling, not Clint, just in case there was any doubt as to what he was sick of). "I'm checking out tomorrow."

There was a snort of laughter from Clint, which he quickly stifled as he checked to make sure no one had been disturbed. Satisfied, he whispered, "You're going to be released tomorrow anyway."

Tony stared at him. "Why's no one telling me anything?"

"Because we all know you'd jump the boat a day in advance if you knew when you were going to be officially released." Clint grinned. "So we kept quiet."

Tony huffed, but gave it up as a lost cause, just rolling his eyes to show what he thought of it. "Steve told me you caught the shooter," he said to change the subject.

"Logan sniffed him out," Clint said, eyes shuttering at the memory. "I'd never seen him so pissed before. Kept barking at me to shut up, even though he was following me."

"You know why he did it?"

"We're gonna be briefed on that," Clint said. "It's why Nat's not here. After you're checked out we're heading to the Helicarrier. Steve's not happy with it, but that's what we're doing."

Tony turned his head to the side, eyes sweeping up Clint's too relaxed form. "You guys weren't too hard on him these last few months, were you?"

"Me?" Clint cocked his head to the side, an innocent expression on his face. "I told you, man, I'm Switzerland."

"Uh-huh." Tony looked over at Steve, viewing the stress lines around his fiancé's eyes in a different light now. "It wasn't his fault, you know."

"Yeah, and it wasn't yours either," Clint said, echoing what Bruce had told him.

"It was stupid."

It hadn't felt so stupid while Tony was going through it. He'd made mistakes, but he wasn't actually sorry for them because they'd gotten the job done. He would apologize, though, if only because his experience with Pepper had told him that when in doubt, apologize first. He could keep his opinions to himself, even if it grated against every bone in his body to keep his mouth shut like that.

"But, you know," Clint continued, getting Tony's attention, "we do stupid things. It's in the job description."

"Our stupid mistakes are what blow the world up."

"But they haven't, Dumbledore," Clint pointed out, satisfied. "We're still spinning, and you got your shit together, so I figure we're good."

Tony licked his lips, mouth dry. "What about the next time it happens?"

Clint looked at him, eyebrow cocked. "Will it?"

Tony thought about the last few months of agony and uncertainty, Rhodey and Pepper being the only things holding him back from flinging himself over the edge; he thought about Steve's broken voice as he said he couldn't do it anymore, about power coursing through his body as he blew a man's head off, about Killian saying it was in his genes, about a courthouse and a possible assassination, and he knew.

"No," he said, "probably not."

"Then it won't," Clint said simply, as if that was that.

If only things were that simple. He had a habit of screwing things up even when the going was good, and he could only hope that it wouldn't happen again.

If only because Rhodey had said he wouldn't be held responsible for his actions next time Tony did something epically stupid.

By the time Tony checked out the next day, Natasha had brought him his favorite pair of jeans, T-shirt, hoodie, and sneakers. He wondered for a short moment where she'd gotten the clothes since they'd been in his closet, but a sharp look from her had him keeping his mouth firmly shut as he changed out of the hospital gown. She'd probably gone rooting around his closet. He didn't know what was more disconcerting: that she knew what his favorite clothes were or that she felt comfortable enough to go in his closet and find those clothes.

Maybe it was JARVIS…

In any case, Tony ended up on a Quinjet heading to the Helicarrier practically immediately after checking out. Steve had looked disapproving, but hadn't said anything. He didn't let go of Tony's hand, though, even moving to wrap an arm around Tony's shoulders once they were sitting.

Tony didn't really complain about it (nor did he want to) because the last couple months had been bad enough without him creating a fuss when there was no need for one. Everyone in S.H.I.E.L.D. knew they were together, but it still unnerved Tony to reveal such an obvious weakness like needing to be hugged by his partner.

But since he was Tony Stark, it was easy enough to plaster a blank look on his face that didn't give anything away. He wanted to break the silence with some sort of chatter, but it was uncomfortable enough that he didn't try. Starting up a conversation when S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were in hearing distance was not what he wanted.

When they landed on the Helicarrier, they were swept away to a very private conference room that had a large screen taking up one wall. A look from Fury had Tony shutting off all the surveillance devices as Hill and Coulson walked in, closed the door, and took seats by Fury.

Fury remained standing, hands clasped behind his back. Tony took the seat on the opposite side of Fury, Steve sitting on his right and Bruce on his left. Clint and Natasha sat next to each other, and Peter shifted uncomfortably in his seat next to Bruce. Rhodey had gone earlier that morning to confer with the military about his extended leave of absence. Tony missed his reassuring presence; they hadn't exactly been separated a lot the last few months.

"Now," Fury began slowly, dark eye scanning over each Avenger, "if we're all ready?"

Tony bit back the response he wanted to make (something along the lines of "I was born ready, baby") in favor of quirking his eyebrows.

Fury's mouth twisted slightly, possibly because he could guess what Tony wanted to say. "I don't think I need to go over what happened over the last several months, but I will say that the agent responsible for attempting to assassinate Stark is in custody."

Tony was unable to resist asking, "It was A.I.M., right?"

"Surprisingly," Fury said, "no."

"He was wearing an A.I.M. uniform," Clint pointed out.

"Further investigation has revealed that to be fake; he was a HYDRA operative."

"Aren't the two organizations linked?" Bruce asked.

"Usually not that closely." Fury crossed his arms. "When HYDRA went off the map after the Captain's attack in nineteen-forty-five, A.I.M. was what filled the power vacuum several years later. We know now that HYDRA had simply been operating in secret since then. Red Skull wasn't the only leader the organization had."

"Who?" Steve's tone was sharp.

"She calls herself Madame Hydra," Hill said. "She's a shadow in the underbelly of the intelligence community. We haven't been very successful in getting much information on her identity."

"What a surprise," Tony said.

Fury glared at Tony for several seconds before saying, "In any case, we don't have much information on her goals. They did kidnap you last year, but you blew up their compound. We think that stalled them, but they've since recovered."

"Why try to kill Tony?" Bruce asked. "They've only been trying to capture, not kill. What changed?"

"SHRA," Fury said.

"I think they've realized that it's a bit dangerous to go after a man who's repeatedly told them no," Coulson said mildly.

"That's never stopped them before," Clint pointed out.

"They're not done," Hill said. She tapped a spot on the table and the wall behind Fury lit up with a map focusing on Russia.

"HYDRA's base of operations has moved," Fury said. "As best as we can tell, they're somewhere in northeast Russia. Unfortunately, something seems to be blocking our best surveillance tech from getting more information."

Natasha had stiffened slightly at this new information.

"What do you want us to do with this?" Steve asked.

"Nothing for now." Fury gave a brief smile. "Our contract specifies that we keep you informed on any relevant information that threatens national security, while you do the same."

"Are they staying in Russia?" Peter ventured to ask.

"For now." Coulson smiled genially at the kid.

"Then why are you telling us this?" Bruce asked. "Russia doesn't feel comfortable having us on their turf, so we can't exactly go over and investigate."

"There's something else," Hill admitted. She tapped the table again, and the map changed to a dark picture of a snowy street. The quality was horrible, but by squinting Tony could make out the figure that the camera had focused in on; he was dressed in all black, and the light was glinting off of something that looked like a gun.

Natasha didn't move, but Clint narrowed his eyes. Neither of them said anything.

Fury observed Natasha for a moment before he scanned the rest of the occupants of the table and said, "Avengers, this is the Winter Soldier, HYDRA's best assassin."

"For a super villain," Peter said, "that's a surprisingly creative name."

Hill did not seem amused at Peter's wit. "He's been active on and off for the past sixty years in some capacity. He's a sniper, never misses his mark." The image on the screen changed to a hand drawn picture of a young man with dark hair and a black mask covering the lower half of his face; his eyes were cold. "S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn't have much information on him beyond his capabilities and that he first went active in 1950."

"He's been active for the last six decades," Bruce said. "You're telling me that you don't have anything on him? You told me I never went off the radar; how is it you can't keep track of a single sniper?"

"You were alone," Natasha said suddenly, grabbing everyone's attention. "Despite your genius, you were still one man. The Winter Soldier has the entire HYDRA organization at his back."

"S.H.I.E.L.D. isn't omniscient despite the image we promote," Coulson said, a small smile twisting at his lips as he flicked his eyes over to Tony. "Black Widow was an unknown agent until we sent Hawkeye in. She didn't come up on our radar until some particularly high profile assassinations occurred."

So Tony was usually an ass anyway, but even he couldn't resist saying, "That seems rather negligent of S.H.I.E.L.D."

"Believe or not, Stark," Fury said, glaring at him with that one eye of his, "we didn't always have the technology we do today. There were a lot of things that went on underneath our noses that we didn't know about."

"Suddenly, I don't feel so safe," Peter said.

Tony opened his mouth, about to say something on the merits of having JARVIS watch over everything, when Natasha spoke, her voice quiet. "We met each other in the Red Room."

"Nat…" Clint's voice was a mere murmur.

Natasha shook her head once, then wet her bottom lip and continued, staring straight ahead. "It was in Russia – a training program for people like me. Assassins." Her eyes flickered over to Bruce. "We had no names, no identity. We were weapons to be used. Having an identity beyond that would only breed weakness."

Her eyes dropped to the table. "Still…we became…acquaintances." The weight the word was given was the same as if she had said "friends." "He told me his name was James. I never learned more than that. He never stayed long." She exhaled slowly and lifted her eyes again. "The only defining feature he had was his cybernetic left arm. It was continually being updated as time passed and technology improved."

Fury didn't sigh or do anything else that would show he was at all sympathetic, but Tony would swear that his one visible eye softened just the tiniest bit. Then again, he could just be delusional considering that this was the spy they were talking about.

"Black Widow is the only agent in the whole of S.H.I.E.L.D. who has ever been in contact with the Winter Soldier and is actually alive," Fury said. "All others have unfortunately expired."

"Do you mean 'expired' as in 'they met their expiration date' or 'expired' as in 'they retired'?" Peter asked.

Fury didn't bother gracing that with an answer. "There was an assassination attempt on Putin not forty-eight hours ago. There were no eyewitness, but cameras do place a man meeting the Winter Soldier's general physical description at the scene."

"You said he doesn't miss," Steve said.

"He doesn't." Coulson's tone was even.

"It's a message," Hill said. "The Winter Soldier has never missed a mark since he first appeared. That he does so now at this point means there's something they want to tell us."

"Great," Tony said. "Any chance you know what?"

"S.H.I.E.L.D. has no official jurisdiction in Russia," Fury simply said.

"Unofficially, Fury. You can't tell me you don't have people over there."

"The Avengers don't have jurisdiction there either," Bruce pointed out.

"And as Stark points out," Coulson said, "that doesn't mean we don't have eyes over there. At the moment, this isn't a mission for the Avengers."

"It's something you're being informed of," Fury said. "It's a potential security risk here in the States, and the Avengers are the first line of defense against security risks. The Winter Soldier has been seen here in the past."

"We defend against abnormal threats," Steve said. "Assassins don't count as abnormal."

"When it's HYDRA, they do." Coulson had that small "what-can-you-do?" smile on his face.

Considering what HYDRA had done the last time they'd had full reign under the Red Skull, Tony could certainly see why S.H.I.E.L.D. would want the Avengers to be informed of anything related to the organization. The Winter Soldier failing to kill the Russian president would certainly be on that list, especially if he'd never failed to kill a mark before.

What kind of message it sent Tony wasn't sure about, but it was probably the kind that meant "We're still here." HYDRA had to know that S.H.I.E.L.D. knew who the Winter Soldier was associated with. They also had to know that there was no way S.H.I.E.L.D. wouldn't know that A.I.M. hadn't sent the assassin who'd tried to kill Tony, so it was probably their way of subtly announcing their presence. But the bigger picture eluded Tony for now, probably because of the last two weeks of lying in a hospital bed and recovering from near fatal bullet wounds.

HYDRA had kidnapped him initially about a year ago, but that had been small scale compared to what they were potentially gearing up to do now. The fact that they'd actually tried to pass his would-be assassin off as a lackey of A.I.M. might mean they were doing something with the technological think tank.

Or maybe they'd just gotten their hands on one of those god-awful suits and decided to use it for kicks. Weirder things had happened.

Whatever the reason for HYDRA's activities, Tony thought it wouldn't be long before it revealed itself. Considering the timing, there was no way they'd be keeping quiet for much longer.

They were bad guys. Bad guys never seemed to have much patience.

The ride back to the mansion was silent, each of them absorbed in their own thoughts. Some strange looks were sent Tony's way, though he couldn't decipher their meaning.

Steve kept his shoulder pressed up against Tony's the entire time, and every now and then he would shoot him a look and break into bright smiles. Confused, Tony would smile back, only for Steve to look away. Then it would happen again.

Needless to say, Tony was by now very bemused at the state of affairs. Was something going on that no one was telling him?

Even Peter, who could be counted on to fill the air with nervous chatter or ridiculous jokes (and had helped alleviate the boredom during Tony's hospital stay), was quiet. Tony could tell it was difficult for him since his legs kept bouncing up and down in nervous excitement, and he kept moving as if about to say something and then cutting himself off.

Tony wasn't telepathic, but it was times like this that he almost wished he was.

A pit of worry settling in his stomach, Tony waited anxiously for touchdown, when whatever was going on would come to a head.

Clint landed the Quinjet expertly, the landing so soft it was almost unnoticeable. Natasha opened the door by flicking the lever over her head, revealing the manicured green lawns behind their mansion. There was nothing suspicious out there to justify Tony's unease.

"Home sweet home!" Clint said, sounding far too jovial.

"Oh, thank God," Peter said fervently. "This is really starting to chafe."

"I offered you a paper bag," Clint said, turning to look unpityingly on the teen.

"I refuse to look like a Charlie Brown cosplayer."

"It's not a bed sheet."

"Which makes it worse," Peter said as Tony made his way to the door, Steve shadowing his every move like a worried mother hen.

"I'm not going to fall over," Tony hissed.

"Who said anything about that?" Steve's tone was maddeningly cordial.

Tony squinted at him, unconvinced with his innocent act. "You're acting like I'll keel over any minute."

"I'm just staying close in case you trip or something. Clint waxed the floors."

"I did not!" Clint shouted indignantly from his seat.

"Then what was that earlier?" Bruce asked. "You had a mop and a bucket and a bottle of wax polish."

Clint glowered menacingly but didn't elaborate.

"He was polishing his bow," Natasha said bluntly. "And, no, that wasn't an euphemism."

"Natasha!" Clint complained.

"What was the mop for then?" Tony asked curiously.

"Can't you guess?" Clint said peevishly, shooting Natasha a quelling look. She gave him an amused one in return but said nothing.

"It was a ruse. No, wait…" Tony made a show of screwing his face up in thought. "It was to mop up the mess you made while you polished your bow. Euphemism intended."

"Tony…" Steve groaned, though his face was fond.

Peter had his mask off now, his hair tousled. "That tone doesn't work if you stare at him sappily like that."

"Peter," Bruce said completely seriously, "they're always like this."

"No, it's Steve," Natasha disagreed. "Tony's usually more discreet."

"Are you kidding?" Clint said. "You're talking about the guy who gave a red, white, and blue themed birthday party, right? And rented out an entire hotel in Paris only for Doom to crash it because he had a grudge against Tony for destroying all his robots last time?"

"Really?" Peter asked, sounding fascinated.

"Yes, really, kid."

"I'm leaving," Tony announced to absolutely nobody before spinning around and walking down the ramp to the lawn.

"It was a nice thought," Steve said behind him. "But it didn't work out."

"My plans usually don't," Tony admitted mournfully, gazing up at the sky.

"I wouldn't say that," Steve said. "They usually work to get us out of a tight spot in the field."

"Well, that, yeah. But my everyday plans tend to blow up in my face."

"Sometimes literally!" Clint shouted, clearly eavesdropping.

"No one asked you!" Tony shouted back.

"Let's go inside," Steve prompted before they broke into a snipe-fest that would take hours to dissolve and maybe break into a prank war that would last even longer.

Shooting him a wary look that went unnoticed, Tony followed Steve into the mansion, silently wondering if anything would happen now.

Nothing did, and the pit in his stomach softened just a tad.

"You look like something's about to eat you," Steve observed.

"What? No, I don't." Tony quickly put a peaceful expression on. "I'm cool. Totally cool."

Steve's look was painfully fond. "Whatever you say."

It is good to have you home, sir, JARVIS greeted him. It has been quite a while.

Whatever Tony would have said to that was cut off by Peggy's ecstatic screaming. He's here? Tony's back? Quick, JARVIS! Tell him to come here! No, wait, he can hear me now. Tony!

DADDY! Spike's screech was particularly loud, if mental speak could be called that. But then his voice rung though the mansion as well. "DADDY!"

Tony had enough time to brace himself before an exuberant coffee machine collided with his chest, wrapping a cord around his shoulders and squeezing tightly. "Spike," he managed, wincing as Spike dug into the sensitive energy source in his chest. "Easy, kid."

"You're home!" Spike squealed, pulling back only to spin circles around Tony's head.

"I am."

His bots in the workshop were rousing themselves now.

He's here now? Dummy asked. Tony?

Shh! Butterfingers shushed him.

I'm not saying anything! Dummy sounded indignant.

He can look!

He wouldn't.

Guys? Tony asked.

All three bots gave squeaks of surprise before falling completely silent.


"Apologies, sir," JARVIS said. "They are all rather excited."

"Aw, don't apologize, JARVIS," Clint said, having watched Spike spin around Tony's head for the last minute. "He's been gone for a while."

At this Spike stopped spinning, drawing slowly to a stop and hovering by Tony's ear, the whir of his little repulsors unusually loud both technologically (humming wise) and physically. If Tony didn't know better, he'd say Spike was almost mad.

Steve was looking rather pained now. "Spike—"

"No!" Spike shouted, cord lashing at him furiously. "Not listening!"

"Spike!" Tony scolded instantly, shocked.

"No, don't." Steve laid a hand on Tony's arm, shaking his head and looking weary. "I deserve it."


"I do," Steve said firmly.

"He shouldn't shout like that," Tony insisted.

He hurt you! Spike said. And you were gone for ages and ages and ages!

Months, Peggy added quickly. Can you come into the kitchen?

Just a sec, Peggy. Tony gently pushed Spike out of the way before saying, "Gotta check on something in the kitchen."

"Peggy's been a nightmare," Clint proclaimed, drawing glares from everyone but Tony. "Just telling it like it is!"

Deciding not to say anything, Tony slipped away in the direction of the kitchen. The moment he walked in, a few chords of a beeping Titanium announced his entrance before shutting off due to Peggy's overexcitement. All the lights on her were flickering and her arm was waving frantically.

I can't believe you're really here! Peggy sounded so excited that if she were human she would've likely been bouncing off the walls.

"I'm here," Tony said, smiling down at her. "Not likely to leave soon either."

We missed you! Peggy's lights were dimming slightly. Next time don't leave. Please?

Tony swallowed slightly, glancing back at where Steve was hovering in the doorframe. "I can't make any promises, Peggy."

You shouldn't have left! Peggy beeped furiously, and Tony could hear Steve shuffle back for some odd reason.

Peggy, calm down, please, JARVIS said calmly. There will be time for this later.

Fine, okay. There was a faint hissing noise from her. I'm just glad you're back.

Me, too! Spike chimed in.

From behind Tony, Steve asked, "D'you wanna head down?"

Just the way Steve asked the question, all innocent and puppy eyes, had Tony's bells ringing. What was down in the workshop that he needed to see?

It was with an effort of will that he refrained from checking the cameras with Extremis, instead choosing to trust that Steve had a reason for his behavior. It was weird enough that the others were no longer there, giving them some much needed privacy.

"Yeah, why not?" Tony said instead, shrugging lightly. "Need to say hi to the boys anyway."

As Tony left the kitchen and Peggy behind, feeling her link into the cameras so she could keep an eye on them, Steve stepped close to him. "Okay?"

Tony shot him a look, ignoring the way Spike buzzed unhappily by his head. "Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

"Just checking." Steve's smile looked rather forced. "You haven't been home in a while."

Whose fault is that? Spike asked sulkily.

Spike, Tony warned, eyes flicking over to him.

Spike said nothing more, but Tony could sense his continued resentment. There was nothing he could glean from Steve's expression other than a faint impression of resignation.

It bugged Tony because nothing that had happened had been Steve's fault. He hadn't overreacted or done anything else that would warrant such behavior. Tony had expected Steve would be angry after he'd gone after Mallen like that (he hadn't predicted Steve saying he couldn't do it anymore), so it wasn't like he'd been caught off guard. Tony could admit he'd been reckless, but he would do it again given the same circumstances.

All further thought regarding that peculiar state of affairs was driven out of his mind once he saw the workshop.

Surprise! Dummy, Butterfingers, and You shouted, their combined voices turning into Extremis-red in Tony's head.

"W-what…" Tony didn't finish his sentence, too stunned by this turn of events.

"Surprise," Clint said, grinning cheerfully.

Hanging off of the ceiling, Peter belatedly tooted a party horn.

The entire workshop had been decorated for a party. Balloons floated everywhere (Spike was poking one rather gleefully) and colorful steamers decorated every surface. There was a large banner directly above his head proclaiming CONGRATULATIONS. There was another on the other wall saying WELCOME HOME.

In the middle of the workshop was a large cake rather clumsily decorated in red and gold and had some candles stuck in it, two of which were upside down.

We made the cake! Dummy proudly announced.

"JARVIS," Tony started, unsure of the cake's edibility.

"The baking was closely monitored," JARVIS assured him. "All ingredients are safe for human consumption."

"I notice you didn't say if it was any good," Clint noted.

"That would not be within my prerogative, Agent, as I do not possess taste buds."

"But they made cake!" Peter said before anyone could get too hurt at Clint's lack of tact.

"When did you guys pull this together?" Tony asked, unable to stop a note of wonder from creeping into his tone.

"I stopped by last night," Natasha said. "S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't the only thing I did. Your boys did most of the work." She shot the bots a fond look.

"I asked them to do it," Steve said, drawing Tony's attention. "It seemed appropriate considering…"

"Congratulations for not dying, you mean?" Tony asked, instantly regretting the joke when a stricken look crossed Steve's face. "Forget I ever said that."

A balloon popped, eliciting a shriek from Spike, and he zipped behind Tony to hide.

"I did warn you, Spike," JARVIS said reprovingly.

"Who wants a slice of cake?" Bruce called calmly, holding a knife and a plate.

"I do!" Clint said, turning his back to Tony and Steve and beginning to harass Bruce while Peter said something about the recipient of the party being the first to get a slice.

Steve made to brush past Tony, but fingers grabbing hold of his sleeve made him pause.

"I'm sorry," Tony said quickly, unable to meet his eyes. "That was insensitive of me."

"No, it's…" Steve sighed. "That's normal. You not thinking, that is."

"I should," Tony said guiltily.

"Look…" Steve cupped his neck, making sure Tony was meeting his eyes as he continued, "You can be thoughtlessly insensitive and cruel, but that's just who you are. I'm used to it."

"I hurt you."

"And I hurt you, too." Steve glanced down momentarily before meeting Tony's eyes again. "It's okay."

It isn't, Tony wanted to say. But he didn't, because he could tell Steve wasn't having it.

"Cake, guys!" Peter interrupted, brown eyes wide as he handed both of them slices of what looked like vanilla and chocolate cake. He had a third plate balancing on his head.

"Smooth, kid," Clint called.

"Thanks, Pete." Tony took his slice.

"I have a small question," Clint said loudly, catching Tony's attention. He was standing in front of the couch. "Is this thing safe to sit on? Or did you guys do some fondueing?"

"Fondueing?" Peter asked, brow furrowed.

"Don't ask," Natasha advised him, taking a bite of her slice.

"I dunno," Tony said, smirking. "It all gets kinda blurry after round three. We did do it against that table"—he gestured at the table the cake was on—"and the wall"—the one Natasha was leaning against—"but the couch?"

Steve was blushing rather furiously now and looking down at his slice, refusing to meet anybody's eyes.

"Come on, honey." Tony dug an elbow in his side. "I thought I fucked the nervousness out of you?"

"TMI!" Peter yelped just as Steve groaned in mortification, "Tony."

"The short answer, Clint," Bruce said, "is yes. They did fondue on the couch. I saw them."

"Bruce, you voyeur!" Tony waggled his eyebrows at him. "I never!"

"It was an accident," Bruce said long-sufferingly. "And not one I'll repeat."

"If you ever want a threesome—"

"No," Steve said, still blushing but now speaking firmly without a hint of embarrassment. "I'm a twosome kind of guy."

Rhodey's voice sounded from the door, "What's this about twosomes?" He blinked upon seeing them all; Pepper was standing next to him, a long-suffering look on her face. "I thought we agreed no starting without me?"

"It wasn't my decision," Steve said.

"Have a slice," Bruce offered, holding up the knife.

Rhodey furrowed his brow as he looked at the cake. "Is it edible?"

"Yes," Steve and Tony said, already halfway through their slices.

Pepper spoke this time. "Is it good?"


"I like the speaking in synchrony thing," Peter said, gesturing at them with his fork. "Can it be a new thing? I think you'd creep villains out."

"It's a bad thing," Clint said, fork waving teasingly at Spike. "Because it's a thing that'd irritate us."

"But it's a cool thing."

"I vote we stop calling it a thing," Rhodey said, taking the cake slice from Bruce, "and call it what it is. Marriage."

Tony glanced at Steve, only to find him already looking back. Mouth twitching slightly, Tony returned his attention to his cake, which really was quite good.

They eventually relocated to the couch, being the only two who felt comfortable about sitting there. Tony caught some grumbles from the bots while they sat there, but none of them actually said anything.

Eventually, Steve put aside his and Tony's plates and turned to him with a completely serious face. "This wasn't just for welcoming you back, Tony."

"I won't repeat my earlier joke," Tony quipped.

Steve's lips twitched slightly. "I had an ulterior motive," he admitted, shifting to slide off the couch and down on one knee before Tony. "You said I seemed like the romantic type who'd do it on a knee and with a ring. And…" He chewed his lower lip, eyes shuttering as he reached into his pant pockets to pull out a small black box. Glancing up almost shyly at a dumbstruck Tony, he continued, "I can't really picture my life without you anymore."

"Not the greatest reason for this," Tony pointed out, mouth dry.

"Tony," Steve said fondly, "shut up." He cracked open the box, revealing an elegant gold ring with gleaming geometric red lines running through it. "Will you marry me, Tony?"

Tony kept silent for a moment, aware that no one else was speaking or even seeming to breathe right now. It would be horribly insensitive of him to crack a joke now.

He inclined his head, giving a small smile as he said softly, "Yes."

A brilliant smile broke out across Steve's face, and he took the ring out to carefully slide it onto Tony's finger directly before he leaned up and forward to kiss Tony deeply.

That seemed to serve as the catalyst for everyone to burst into excited chatter.

There was a outraged cry of "Dummy!" but Tony wasn't looking, too busy focusing on the kiss.

Then he pulled back, brushing his lips against Steve's as he whispered, "You didn't have to do this."

"I did." Steve rubbed his nose against Tony's, eyes still closed. Then he opened them, smiling helplessly against Tony's lips. "I really did."

Over Steve's shoulder Tony could see the cause for the outrage, as Dummy had apparently unfurled another banner that read JUST MARRIED, only the "married" was crossed out and ENGAGED had been scrawled rather messily next to it.

Steve had caught sight of it, too, and was grinning broadly. "I asked them for permission," he told Tony quietly.

"They said yes?"

Steve's smile turned faintly disbelieving. "Yeah."

"How'd you get the ring?" Tony looked down at it, barely able to believe it was there. "It looks custom-made."

"It is." Steve ducked his head. "Um…I might have…ordered it before the whole SHRA thing."

Tony blinked. "What?"

Steve looked obstinate. "I knew from the beginning I was in this for good." He rubbed a thumb over the ring. "I just never found the right time."

"Steve…" Tony was at a loss.

"It's okay." Steve smiled softly. "I'm just really happy right now."

"I…" Tony swallowed lightly, flipping his hand around to interlace his fingers with Steve's, squeezing tightly. "Me, too."

As Steve leaned in for another warm kiss, Tony caught sight of Rhodey and Pepper with worried expressions on their faces as they watched.

It reminded him that there were still some issues he needed to talk about, and not just with Steve.

Three hours later found Tony upstairs in the kitchen with Peggy and Spike, having been kicked out as the team cleaned up the mess in the workshop. He'd tried to argue that it was his space and so it should be his responsibility, but Spike had been shoved into his arms by Natasha and then Dummy had pushed him out, JARVIS locking the door and refusing to let him in.

Able to take a hint, Tony had skulked off to the kitchen, curling up next to Peggy with Spike in his lap. He'd since then carried on an entire conversation in his head, enjoying being able to communicate on this level with his AIs.

About half an hour into it, Tony heard two pairs of footsteps that he was easily able to identify as Pepper and Rhodey. He looked up expectantly, eyebrows lifting when he saw the set expressions on their faces.

"Did I mess something up?" he asked. "Because you only look like that when you're about to lecture me."

"We're not going to lecture you," Pepper said, sitting down on a chair facing Tony.

"Really," Rhodey added, sitting next to Pepper.

Tony gave them both skeptical looks. "Then why the faces?"

"It's just…" Pepper's eyes darted down to the ring on his finger.

"We're worried," Rhodey said bluntly, not looking away from Tony's eyes. "We're worried that you're making a mistake."

"Saying yes to Steve's proposal?" Tony couldn't stop himself from sounding confused.

"After what happened the last several months," Pepper said, "tell us we don't have a right to be worried. Because what happened wasn't in any way okay."

"I don't get it." Tony straightened up against the cabinet he was leaning back against. "Why are all you guys ragging on Steve? What happened wasn't his fault."

"If you're going to say it was yours, I will not hesitate to punch you," Rhodey warned.

"Bit violent there, Rhodey," Tony said calmly.

"He's right," Pepper said firmly. "It wasn't your fault, and it might not have been Steve's fault either, but what he did afterward wasn't at all right."

"Get angry with me? He had every right to, Pepper."

"Freezing you out?" Rhodey pointed out. "Not talking? You can get angry, but giving your partner the cold shoulder isn't good, Tony."

"I was just as cold as he was," Tony protested. "This isn't just on him!"

"No, it's not." Pepper thinned her lips, resting a hand on Rhodey's shoulder to stop him from saying anything else. "But we're not going to achieve anything by going round and round in circles like this, trying to figure out who's guilty. It was a bad situation, and it's over now, but what we're worried about is that this all seems just a little fast."

"You almost died, Tony." Rhodey's voice was carefully even. "That kind of experience does things to a man, whether or not you're in a romantic relationship. Are you sure you're not moving too fast?"

"Honestly? No." Tony offered a quick smile, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. "But that's me, guys. I'm impulsive. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn't."

"This isn't something you can gamble with, Tony," Rhodey said sharply.

"I'm not. I'm really not. I wouldn't gamble on something like this, Rhodey."

"We're also concerned about Steve," Pepper continued.

"Poo!" Spike grunted, sounding disgusted.

"Shush," Tony reprimanded him, rapping sharply against the glass of the coffee pot.

"You didn't see him before," Pepper said. "We had to force him to sleep and eat."

Tony couldn't help giving a small grin. "So you're wondering if he's jumping into this without really thinking about it?"

"Yes," Rhodey and Pepper said simultaneously.

"Ha, that's a riot." Tony snickered. "You guys, Steve has always thought things through." He waved his left hand around, flashing the ring. "He told me he ordered this ring months ago, way before he knew about SHRA. Tell me this is an impulsive decision if he'd already decided on it before the whole mess started."

Pepper blinked, looking slightly taken aback. "Well…that's slightly more reassuring."

"Than if he'd decided to propose just as an apology?" Rhodey asked, settling back in his chair. "Gotta agree with that."

Tony arched an eyebrow, dropping his hand. "So…we good?"

"Just about," Rhodey said. "But we're still keeping an eye on you both."

Groaning softly, Tony bumped his head lightly against the cabinet. "Jeez, how old do you guys think I am? Ten?"

"It's not that we don't think you can take care of yourself, Tony," Pepper said gently. "It's that we care. And we wouldn't be very good friends if we didn't make sure that both of you were making the right decision."

"If you ask me, you guys are just ridiculously nosy."

"Pot, meet kettle," Rhodey said dryly. "Who's the one who always hacks into my account to spy on my missions?"

"Who says hack anymore?"

"We're not going to stop, Tony," Pepper said lightly, reaching down to pat his knee. "Better get used to it."

Tony snorted, folding his arms against his chest. "Do I have much of a choice?"

Rhodey and Pepper both smiled sweetly and answered "No," an eerie sight since they performed it simultaneously.

Tony widened his eyes. "Now that's just creepy. How much did you have practice that?"

"We'll see you later, Tony," Pepper replied, patting him once more on the knee before she got up and left.

"I'll phone," Rhodey added, also pushing himself to his feet. "I'm being called back now. Can't really push it anymore considering how much more leave I got than originally granted."

"Blame Pepper," Tony said entirely seriously.

"She is frightening, isn't she?" Rhodey chuckled lowly, nodding his head once before leaving as well.

"Well, then…" Tony relaxed back against the cabinet. "Not entirely unexpected."

We're keeping an eye on him, too, Peggy informed him.

Tony blinked, considering what he should say to that before he gave it up as a lost cause. "I'm not going to bother with that."

Good, Spike said, satisfied.

If his AIs were behaving like this now – now that Steve and he had made up – Tony didn't particularly want to know what life had been like for Steve these last few months.

But something told him he would soon find out.

"You didn't need to do it," Tony told Steve later as they were getting into bed.

Sliding under the covers, Steve blinked at him, looking rather confused. "Do what?"

"That thing we did earlier today. The party." Tony propped himself up on an elbow. "You didn't need to do it."

Steve hummed lightly. "I didn't need to do it, but I wanted to. Besides, the others wanted to welcome you home."

"I wasn't expecting a ring."

"I know." Steve smiled up at him. "I didn't have it on me in the hospital."

"I don't have one for you," Tony said, letting Steve tug him down to lie down comfortably.

"It's fine." Steve laid his head on Tony's chest, sighing lightly as his arm wrapped around Tony's waist. "Just glad you're here."

Tony half-noticed Steve completely melting into him; he stroked the hairs at Steve's nape absentmindedly, wondering out loud, "What was it like while I was gone?"

Steve was already half-asleep as he mumbled, "Nothin' I didn't deserve…"

"What?" Tony picked his head up, blinking down at Steve. "What do you mean?"

Steve didn't respond, already asleep.

"Don't think this gets you out of answering that question properly," Tony told him, a warm feeling spreading through him.

Huffing lightly, Tony let his head sink back into his pillow. He'd spent so much time sleeping over the last several days it'd be a miracle if he could even manage a few hours now.

Closing his eyes, Tony linked into Extremis and into the computers in his workshop. Ignoring JARVIS's air of disapproval, Tony began tweaking the coding of his prototype tablets, smoothing out the glitches he had noticed during his time at Richards's. If all went well, he could have them out on the market in two months or so.

He didn't even notice when his real-life coding faded into dreams.

Two gunshots cracked through the air. He didn't even feel the impact, only conscious of the pain ripping through his chest a moment later. He couldn't breathe; blood was filling his mouth from his failing lungs.

Forcing his eyes open, he tried to beg for help from Steve, who was just standing there as if Tony wasn't dying right in front of him.


Steve furrowed his brow, shaking his head once. He opened his mouth, and his voice – distorted – said, "You brought this on yourself, Tony. Why couldn't you have listened?"

He spluttered out blood, desperately trying to catch his breath (his lungs hurt, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe). "Steve, I'm sorry. Please…"

Steve said nothing more, turning his back and walking away (he'd promised he'd stay).

"Steve. Steve." Blood was filling his throat and mouth no matter how much he tried to clear his airway (he couldn't breathe and his lungs hurt and why was Steve leaving?). "Please."

With a broken gasp, Tony woke, Steve's name on his lips. Startled, he bit it back, instead opting for deep breaths (he could breathe, he was fine, he was fine).

Steve was lying practically on top of him and hadn't stirred. It was a testament to how sleep-deprived he'd been over the last several weeks (and months) that he hadn't woken up even though his pillow was a trembling mess.

Focusing on his heartbeat and the pace of his breathing, Tony managed to calm himself down. Still, he could do nothing about the sick feeling his dream (nightmare) had left him with. That was something that would only fade with time.

Sir? JARVIS asked. Are you all right?

Yeah. Tony was relieved he at least sounded calmer in his head than he would've if he'd tried speaking out loud. I'm good, JARVIS.

If you say so, sir. JARVIS didn't sound at all convinced.

I do, I definitely do. Tony focused on the weight of Steve, letting it ground him in the present. He wasn't dying or bleeding out on the courthouse steps. He was perfectly fine and so was Steve.

Still, he wouldn't be able to get back to sleep. That much was for sure. And he couldn't slip away from Steve either, not without waking him up. That wasn't something Tony wanted to do at all. Steve needed the sleep, but Tony had more than enough of it to last him for weeks on end.

And that's what he had Extremis for.

I'm going to work, he said.

JARVIS gave off a distinct air of disapproval again. Are you certain that is wise, sir?

Oh yeah, definitely. Tony scowled up at the ceiling, giving JARVIS's disapproval the mental finger. Let me work myself into a frenzy after I haven't been able to in weeks.

JARVIS gave a silent sigh. We have missed you in the shop, sir. What will you work on now?

Was I done with the coding? Tony didn't wait for a reply, instead checking on the work himself. To his relief it was entirely done. Check that off the list. Ooh, I know… Let's work on a deflector shield.

Shall I prepare the workshop for testing tomorrow, sir?

Hey, why not. Can't hurt. Tony pulled open a new file, closing his eyes and settling back as he absorbed himself in the process of engineering.

Two hours later, Tony was roused from his engineering haze by Dummy tentatively saying, We did miss you, Tony.

Tony blinked, confused at the unexpected statement. What brought this on?

We told Steve it was all right… He could ask you about the engagement… But he hurt you, and you were gone for ages.

Tony's heart sunk. Guys…

He did! Butterfingers insisted heatedly. And no one would tell us anything!

That is not entirely true, JARVIS chided gently. I informed you of the details.

Hey, Tony said firmly before anyone else could speak. It wasn't Steve's fault, okay? I hurt him, too. It went both ways.

But you left, Peggy said, joining the conversation. He didn't.

It was complicated…

That's human talk for 'you don't want to admit we're right,' Dummy pointed out, sounding rather peeved.

No, it's human talk for 'that means that it's complicated.'

Then explain!You demanded.

It wasn't black and white, kids. It was a very big gray area. Someone was going to get hurt one way or another. We both ended up hurting each other, and we needed some space to think things over.

That's not true, Spike said. Big people 'think things over'—Tony could practically see the quotation marks he was using—without being gone for months and months!

This was a difficult situation Spike. It doesn't change the fact that Steve did nothing wrong. He was mad, and he had every right to be.

He promised he wouldn't hurt you, Dummy said. And then he did.

Relationships are painful. Doesn't matter what you're looking at, sometimes you're going to end up hurting each other one way or another. It's a fact of life, and it's something you guys need to learn, too.

There was a small hesitant pause, and then Dummy cautiously asked, Obie?

Tony's breath left him in a sharp exhale, and he quickly checked to be sure Steve was still sleeping. Assured that he was, he returned his focus to the conversation. Bit of an extreme example, but yeah. Like Obie.

This situation was, however, entirely different, JARVIS added. It would be akin to comparing apples and oranges, Dummy. What Obadiah Stane did was entirely different to what happened here.

He almost died, Peggy said.

I'm still here. Tony let that sink in for a few moments. But this has got to stop. Steve didn't do anything wrong. If you're going to be mad at him, you have to be mad at me, too.

Everyone shouted then, their codes running together into Extremis-red. No!

Tony refrained from wincing. There. If you can't be mad at me, don't be mad at him.

I still don't agree, You said.

That's fine. Just don't give Steve a hard time anymore, okay?

Fine.Dummy gave the impression of sighing. I'll let him back in here.

Tony furrowed his brow at the implication that Steve had been entirely unable to enter the workshop until yesterday.

He can cook, Peggy added, further startling Tony.

No coffee, Spike said sulkily, obstinacy radiating from every piece of his coding.

Tony refrained from sighing in case they could hear it. Whatever suits you, Spike.

And since JARVIS had been silent for the majority of the conversation, Tony asked, JARVIS?

The response, when it came, had a different frequency from the rest of the conversation. Startled, it took Tony only seconds to realize this was completely private. I apologize, sir. I fear that I may also not have been as entirely forgiving as I should have been these last few months. I will rectify this situation immediately.

JARVIS, I get it.

Do you, sir? Because – please pardon my impudence – I realize that when it comes to personal matters, you can be somewhat blind. And Captain Rogers is a particularly large blind spot.

I'm not an idiot.

Far from it, sir. But everyone requires the view of an outside party in situations such as this. Yet in this case, I fear we may all have lost sight of the larger picture.


It is no matter, sir. JARVIS didn't elaborate further. Do you believe you can possibly sleep now?

Tony didn't respond immediately, reviewing how he felt physically. He wasn't tired, but that could also be explained by the conversation he'd just had. He'd also been working for a while before it, and that always got his heart pumping.

A quick look at the clock showed that it was now four in the morning.

Steve snuffled softly, shifting slightly before resettling his head, tucking it directly under Tony's chin, a few stray wisps of blond hair tickling his nose.

Mind made up, Tony said, I'll give it a shot.

Very good, sir. Then, as it is no longer night, I shall wish you good morning.

Smirking lightly at JARVIS's snark, Tony closed his eyes with the aim of sleeping this time. It would only be a few hours this time, but at least Steve wouldn't give him a disapproving look upon realizing he'd spent quite a few hours engineering.

The next morning found all of them in the kitchen eating a large breakfast courtesy of Peter and Bruce. Tony found himself saddled with a plate of fruit, eggs, yogurt, and toast with cheese while Clint gleefully poured maple syrup over his pancakes.

"Why don't I get any pancakes?" he asked, sullenly poking his scrambled eggs with a fork.

"Because you're just coming out of the hospital," Steve answered smoothly, setting his orange juice on the table and planting a kiss on top of Tony's head. "Besides, sugar isn't very good for you."

"My aunt always said that," Peter said ruefully, stabbing a strawberry with his fork. "But then I was always fonder of peanut butter." Sure enough, his bread had been slathered with peanut butter.

"It's got proteins," Bruce pointed out, settling back in his chair with a mug of steaming tea. "Considering your abilities, I'm not surprised."

"I liked it before I got bitten by a spider."

"I still can't get over how screwed up that is," Clint said. "Who gets bitten by a spider and then gets spider powers?"

"Stranger things have happened," Tony said, tearing apart the Swiss cheese he'd been given. "Mild-mannered gamma physicist turning into a huge green rage monster?"

"That wins," Peter said.

"Perhaps," Bruce agreed calmly.

They settled into a comfortable silence for the next twenty minutes, eating their breakfasts. Tony occasionally snuck bits of food off Steve's plate considering he had gigantic portions as usual; Steve retaliated by stealing Tony's grapes, which were his favorite fruit and the cheat knew that full well.

At one point Clint ended up making enough lewd faces as he was eating his pancakes that Tony hid his maple syrup at the top of the kitchen cabinets and all the way in the back against the wall when he wasn't looking. Then he hid the flour for good measure, as Clint wouldn't be expecting that.

Natasha just stared at him as he was discreetly lifting the aforementioned objects, both eyebrows lifted disapprovingly. Tony stuck his tongue out in retaliation, eliciting an eye roll.

"You know," Peter said slowly after he'd finished his food, "I'd kind of like to know when I can get back to my normal life."

Clint made a face. "You don't like it here?"

"I do. It's just that I've got a life, you know?"


"He's pulling your leg," Tony said, kicking Clint in the leg under the table. "He knows."

Clint gave him one of his infamous blank looks. "No, I really don't. I've been a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent for most of my life. That doesn't give you a life outside of missions."

"That seems kind of sad," Steve said.

"It's life," Clint said, shrugging noncommittally.

"Seeing as how Agent Barton can't understand, let me go on the record as saying I do," Tony said to Peter. "How's your girlfriend doing?"

"Gwen's fine." Peter smiled fondly. "Just wondering when I can get back to school."

"A.I.M.'s still out there," Natasha said slowly. "And so is HYDRA."

"It's not like they're going to go away," Peter protested. "HYDRA's been around since World War II at least. A.I.M. only a few years less."

Tony spoke, "The point is that while they're as capable as they are now – which is terrifyingly capable for a bunch of bozos"—Steve frowned slightly at that—"we can't risk it. We need to hit them hard where it hurts – cripple them so it takes a few decades for them to regroup." He scowled. "You'd think doing M.O.D.O.K. in would do that."

"But he has a son." Clint paused dramatically to let that horrifying fact sink in.

"I don't want to know how he got one," Tony said, grimacing at the memory of that monstrous man.

"Through sex?" Bruce proposed.

"Bruce, if you saw this guy, you'd know why no one in hell would ever have sex with him. I don't think he even had the equipment. Or maybe he did, but it might've not been in working condition considering the size of his head." Tony made to approximate the size with his hands but reconsidered upon realizing his arms weren't long enough.

"We gathered it was through science," Natasha said evenly. "But as it didn't interest us much beyond knowing what he was using it for, I don't know the exact details."

"Then what?" Peter asked. "Not that I don't appreciate the break from school, but I do still have things to do."

"Your aunt knows where you are?" Tony asked.

"I told her once on a secure line, but I haven't had any contact beyond that." Peter grimaced slightly. "I don't have a clue what she thinks about the whole thing. I still haven't told her I'm Spider-Man. Gwen knows, so at least I don't have that to worry about."

"You told your girlfriend you're a superhero, but your aunt knows nothing?" Clint sounded incredulous.

Peter looked rather ashamed now. "It…was kind of spur of the moment? Besides, I don't think Aunt May would like it. Too dangerous."

"I'll be honest," Steve said. "I don't like it. Kids your age shouldn't have to worry about going out and stopping the kind of things we fight. But you're going to do it regardless of what we say, so the best we can do is make sure that you go out protected and knowing what you're doing."

"Thanks," Peter said softly.

"And that means no spandex," Tony added. "Because that offers you absolutely no protection."

Peter flushed lightly. "It was the only thing I could afford. 'Sides, I wasn't exactly expecting to go up against something like the Lizard."

"I'll whip you up something that'll give you more protection," Tony said. "It's the same material that everyone else here has."

Clint held up a hand, ticking off his fingers as he listed each of the qualities Tony's exclusive material had. "Fireproof, bullet proof from a distance and even close-up depending on where you're shot, doesn't tear easily, stretches"—he gave a pointed look at Bruce—"and hides body heat so you don't show up on cameras. It's saved Natasha and me a lot of grief on S.H.I.E.L.D. missions."

"That…sounds pretty damn awesome," Peter said, eyes wide.

"Great!" Tony grinned broadly. "So why don't we head down later and I'll get it sized for you?"

Spike made a loud show of sneezing, getting everyone's attention. Then he went back to being a regular coffee machine.

"Bless you," Bruce said implacably.

Peggy gave a little snort of gas before quieting.

"Is there we something we should know?" Tony asked, eyebrows raised.

Neither AI responded, and Tony assumed it was something they'd been talking about privately.

Huffing lightly, Tony turned back to Peter. "Wanna do it now?"

"Oh, go ahead," Steve said. "Leave us behind while you science."

Tony gave him a concerned look. "You okay? That wasn't even a proper sentence."

Now Steve rolled his eyes. "I'm fine." He leaned in to kiss Tony's cheek. "Go make sure Peter won't get himself killed by a stray bullet one day."

"I'm hurt you don't trust my reflexes, Cap," Peter said.

Steve raised an eyebrow at the kid, and the sight was apparently imposing enough that Peter put up his hands in surrender, saying, "I get it! Going now to science." He darted away in the direction of the workshop.

"That's my cue." Tony snagged an uneaten piece of melon from Steve's plate, darting away before anyone could say anything.

Peter met with him outside the workshop, following him inside after Tony entered the code.

"Sir," JARVIS said as Peter sat down in a chair by the table in the middle of the room, "I would like to remind you of your request for a material for a suit compatible with Extremis."

Tony frowned slightly, trying to remember when he'd requested that. It hit him then: he'd done it after the Wrecking Crew (so long ago). "What'd you get?"

"I presumed that the material for your previous suits – while high tech – is not advanced enough for Extremis to absorb. As such, I set my goals a little higher." A hologram lit before Tony, listing the details of the material JARVIS had selected. "These are nano-fibers, sir."

"Nanites?" Peter asked.

"Better," Tony murmured, studying the structure of the fibers. "Only way we can see if Extremis will take this in is if we give it a shot. Put an order in, JARVIS."

"I have already done so, sir. It arrived last week and is currently awaiting inspection."

Tony laughed. "Good man, JARVIS."

"Should I come back later?" Peter asked.

"Nah." Tony waved a hand to indicate he should stay sitting. "All I really need is for JARVIS to scan you so I have your size and measurements. After that I just need to manufacture the fabric and have you put it on to make sure there aren't any adjustments I need to make."

Peter stood then, raising his arms. "I'm ready?"

"Thank you, Mr. Parker." JARVIS's humming peaked as he began scanning Peter and storing his measurements in the system.

"I guess this is different from shopping for clothes?" Peter joked.

"For sure," Tony confirmed, following Dummy's motions to get to the nano-fibers JARVIS had ordered. "This needs to fit a lot better than a regular old shirt and pants. Means I need exact measurements, not approximations."

"Can't argue with that," Peter muttered, blinking as his head was scanned.

Tony whistled lowly as he opened a box and revealed a sleek black fabric. He picked it up, running it through his fingers. "Seems a bit delicate."

"I was assured it is much stronger than conventional materials," JARVIS said, finishing up with Peter.

Squinting down at the material, Tony began pulling at it, using his Extremis-enhanced strength. When the material didn't give even with that, he flicked his fingers and retrieved one of his sharper tools. He then tried to cut through the cloth, tongue sticking out slightly as he grunted with effort.

"Should I give it a shot?" Peter offered.

"Why not." Tony tossed both sharp tool and cloth to him.

Raising both eyebrows at the feel of the material, Peter took the tool in one hand and began attacking the cloth. After several seconds of this, he held both things up. "I think we're good."

"Hang on." Tony pulled over a blowtorch, holding a hand up to catch it midair.

"Wait…" Peter shifted nervously. "Are you sure about this?"

"Yeah. Aren't you?" Tony gave him a manic-looking grin, the blowtorch turning on with a low hiss seconds later.

"Not very," Peter admitted, holding the cloth as far away as he could from his body.

Tongue poking out slightly, Tony held the blowtorch to the cloth, frowning as the material actually caught fire.

Peter yelped, dropping it to the floor and brushing his hands off on his shirt.

"Shame." Tony stepped back to let Dummy put the fire out with his fire extinguisher.

"I did not say it was fireproof," JARVIS said, his tone disapproving.

"That'll have to be rectified."

"Maybe without me holding it?" Peter suggested, looking at the foam-covered floor.

"Don't want a repeat with what happened with Bruce," Tony agreed absentmindedly.

Peter froze. "What happened with Bruce?"

"Nothing much."

"He was set on fire," JARVIS answered genially. "Dummy was thankfully on hand before any damages occurred."

Peter looked disbelieving. "Was this before or after you created the fireproof clothes?"

"Before. You think I'd do something like that now?"

Peter looked pointedly at the ruined piece of cloth Dummy was now holding up to Tony.

"Accidents happen." Tony took the cloth, running the material through his fingers thoughtfully. "JARVIS, get me all the specs you can on this material. I think some adjustments need to be made before anything else."

"Can I… I'll just…go…before there's anything else…you set on fire." Peter edged out of the workshop.

"Is there anything else, sir?"

"Nah, JARVIS." Tony grinned brightly, tugging at the burnt and soggy cloth excitedly. "I think I'm good."

Two days later, Tony, Steve, Charles, Richards, and Fury met in a private room in Westchester to discuss the status of SHRA as it stood now. The original proposal had been scrapped thanks to the Supreme Court. Still, Congress had been discussing the proposal that Steve, Richards, and Tony had come up with.

It was similar to the UN in a lot of aspects, except that this council would be restricted to the U.S. It would also be smaller. It would be called the Superhuman Advisory Committee (or SAC for short), and its purpose would be to keep an eye on the superhuman community of the U.S. and make sure that any problems would be promptly and appropriately handled when they cropped up.

There was no registering, no infringement on people's rights; it was just a way of letting the superhuman community know that they would be held accountable for their actions and that they could ask for help if they needed it.

It was actually a lot more complicated than that, but Tony was satisfied with the basic intent behind the proposal. The point was that Congress was willing to consider it, and that was a long way from SHRA on the brink of being made law.

Once they were all seated around the round table Charles had given up for this meeting, Charles nodded at Tony and said, "I'm pleased to see you're back in good health. It was rough for a moment there."

"I'm good now," Tony said truthfully.

"You weren't for a while," Steve said quietly, his ankle nudging Tony's.

"But he is now," Richards said reasonably. "Which is the point."

Steve shot him a look but said nothing.

"We all know why we're here," Fury said finally, eye meeting each of the other men around the table.

"The SAC," Richards said calmly, nodding.

"Exactly." Fury leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table and interlacing his fingers. "It's safe to say that it's a shoe-in, so now we need to figure out who to put on the council."

"The conditions were outlined in the proposal," Steve said. "A person representing each side of the superhuman community: a superhuman and a mutant."

"And a human just to add another perspective," Tony said.

"The size of the council is going to increase," Fury said. "They want more humans on it, but we've got the leverage to demand more super humans. The question is who we need."

"Steve Rogers," Tony said immediately. "Captain America. He'll be great for the average superhuman."

"I don't think I'm the right guy," Steve objected. "I know nothing about politics."

"Which is what you've got the other members and me for," Tony said. "But I think it's safe to say that you're guaranteed a slot."

"Agreed," Fury said. "Professor? Doctor?"

"I concur with Tony," Charles said. "Steve Rogers is an excellent candidate."

Steve's eyebrows pinched unhappily.

"The skills you have exhibited while leading the Avengers are only a small part of the reason you should be part of the council," Charles said, his tone soothing, evidently in response to whatever he had picked up in Steve's mind.

"Captain," Fury said, catching his attention, "this is only a possibility. You're our first choice on the table because Stark is right. The likelihood of Congress approving you is very high."

"What about the mutants?" Richards asked.

"The professor," Tony said.

"I was going to suggest you," Richards said.

"And I'm not a good option," Tony said. "Professor Xavier's got the connections in the mutant community that I don't. Besides, I'm a bit too much of a hot button to have on an important council like the SAC."

"I was intending to suggest Ororo Munroe," Charles said. "She has many of the connections I do."

"Both of you," Fury said firmly. "Professor, you're the first. Ororo Munroe is our second option. Now about the humans…"

"They're very likely to take a politician," Richards said.

"I nominate Fury," Tony said.

Steve looked inquiringly at Tony. "I wouldn't have thought you'd suggest him."

"I'm an ass, but I'm not an idiot. He's our best option."

"How so?" Fury seemed genuinely curious about Tony's thought process.

"You're a spy. You've got eyes in places most other people don't. You're also a big picture kind of guy. We need that on this committee, especially with the kind of people Congress is liable to try to shove onto it."

Fury snorted. "You trust me with that kind of authority, Stark?"

"You? No." Tony smiled, pointing over at Steve. "I trust in him to reel you guys in."

"You're placing a lot of faith in me, Tony," Steve said, sounding slightly dismayed.

"No, he's right," Richards said. "You've got quite a strong moral compass." His eyes were looking at something not in the room. They cleared a few seconds later. "You just need someone to show you the gray areas."

"Very astute," Charles said. "Then we have Captain Rogers, Director Fury, Dr. Richards, and myself for our first options. Ororo Munroe is a second. That said, it is highly likely that they will push for another human on the council. Since this is the Superhuman Advisory Committee, we need more super humans. I think at best it would be ideal for two humans, three super humans, and three mutants. If not that, we can hope for two of each."

"Worst case, we're outnumbered by humans," Tony said.

"Not very likely," Fury said grimly. "I do have connections."

"Considering who the second human will be is likely out of our hands," Steve said, "what are our other options?"

"I know of several other super humans in New York who might be interested in a job," Charles mused, pressing his fingers together. "It's assumed that those who have a secret identity will keep it secret. If that does turn out to be a problem, we'll be more restricted in our choices."

"Tony and I are always options," Richards offered.

"You, maybe," Tony said in a tone that meant more fat chance of that. "Me, not very likely. I'd say Natasha. She's got the diplomacy and skills."

"We'll have to ask her," Steve said.

"If not myself," Fury said, "we've also got Agents Hill and Coulson for potential candidates. Both are not as familiar to the government and more likely to be accepted."

"Would the Council"—Tony looked pointedly at Fury—"go for that?"

"They don't really have a choice," Fury said. "Not if they don't want to be linked to the shooting at the courthouse."

Steve inhaled sharply. "What?"

"We don't have hard proof," Fury continued, "but there's enough to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Council."

"Let's leave aside the shadowy machinations for now," Charles said, sounding stern. "Let's focus more on keeping this entirely legal. When it comes to the government, we must always be careful to adhere to the rules."

"I'm more of a gray kind of guy," Tony said.

"Trust me, Stark," Fury said evenly, "no one who knows you would think any differently."

Steve opened his mouth, only to be cut off by Fury saying, "You don't count, Captain."

"I was actually going to say I agree."

"I consider that a compliment," Tony said cheerfully, bumping Steve's shoulder with his own. Underneath the table his leg pressed against Steve's.

"Does that cover everything then?" Richards asked.

"I believe we have covered everything of note," Charles said. "We'll keep in touch of course."

"I'll make sure to keep my information the same," Fury said.

"You mean it changes?" Tony asked, making sure to sound shocked.

"You would know, Stark. You've got that worm in our system."

"JARVIS isn't a worm. He's more of a ghost."

Fury rolled his eye but didn't comment any further, evidently giving it up for lost. He nodded to the rest of the table before turning and leaving the room with a dramatic flick of his coat. Richards followed suit a few moments later.

"Before you leave," Charles said, stilling both Steve and Tony, "I wanted to congratulate you." He smiled at them. "It's a most auspicious event."

Tony glanced down at his ring. "Thanks."

"Have you set a date yet?"

"Not yet," Steve answered. "We've still got a lot on our plate."

"Take it from an old man," Charles said. "Don't put it off. You'll find that if you do, it's never likely to happen."

"You're not exactly old," Tony objected.

Charles's smile was wistful. "When I was young, World War II was raging and Hitler was rounding up the Jews. My closest, dearest friend…he was a Jew. We left many things to the future, expecting that some day they would come to pass. We never…we never expected to be at such odds now."

"Professor?" Steve sounded worried.

"It's nothing, Steve." Charles gave him a brighter smile. "But, please, remember what I said. Don't put it off."

"We won't," Steve promised.

"Charles," Tony began slowly, frowning slightly, "your friend… Is he Magneto?"

"As I said," Charles said quietly, "we never expected to be at such odds."

Tony swallowed. "I'm sorry."

"Think nothing of it." Charles's smile was noticeably weaker now. "I have long since come to terms with the mistakes the two of us made. I can only wait for a brighter world to form now with a new generation of heroes to usher it in.

"And that, gentlemen, falls to you."

A week later, Tony had made steady progress on his nano-suit after scrapping the original nano-fibers because he couldn't modify the original fabric. This particular nano-suit was Tony's own invention, weaving in energy conducting fibers with the nano-fibers that would work with the power source in his chest.

Since Extremis had modified his DNA and absorbed the arc reactor, Tony had a highly potent energy source just sitting in his chest that was doing practically nothing when he wasn't suited up. It was spread throughout the rest of his body much like a circulatory system, though he hadn't yet figured out what the purpose of that was. The best he could theorize was that it had to do with powering his suit when it was in his bones and making sure it wouldn't be too heavy, though that was a ridiculous theory so he kept it largely to himself.

The point with the energy source was that since it was in his body, Tony wanted some way of harnessing it. At this point using the suit meant going naked and that meant the metal of the suit interacted directly with his skin and thus the energy of the former arc reactor. If he wanted to have a undersuit on (and he did), that would mean making the fabric conductible with vibranium so the Iron Man suit could still interface with the energy coursing through his body. The fabric also needed to be stored alongside the suit, but there was nothing Tony could do about this but trust that Hansen had gotten the coding right for something like that to work.

And the fact that he had to trust in someone else was really disturbing him. Especially since that other person wasn't even that trustworthy to begin with. Tony couldn't exactly go up to Hansen and ask her how it worked. He suspected that she wasn't entirely certain of all the finer details of Extremis herself because working with human DNA always guaranteed a certain degree of unpredictability. And since human DNA was so unpredictable, that meant Extremis had to have some flexibility in order to adjust accordingly. If it was too rigid – if the coding didn't allow for any leeway at all – it was more likely to kill the user than keep them alive.

That was part of what Tony had done when fixing Extremis. Hansen's coding had made Extremis so rigid that when it interacted with human DNA, the whole thing spiraled into a vortex of self-destruction.

Then again, he'd been working under the presumption that Extremis would work with humans regardless of genetics. What Killian had told him had blown that belief out of the water. If a little quirk of genetics indicated whether or not Extremis would actually take, Tony had been far luckier than he'd ever realized. If he'd had the wrong combination of genes, then all the coding in the world wouldn't have saved his life.

Even then, look at Mallen. He'd been half-crazy with the amount of data Extremis was feeding him. Tony was used to it now (somewhat), but it had been awful in the beginning (he wouldn't think about 350,000 dead) and it was only because of treating himself like a computer (which he was now no matter what Steve said) that it was even manageable now.

Tony didn't know if anyone else was likely to survive Extremis, genetics or not. The amount of data it fed the human brain was too overwhelming for the average human to take. Then again, wasn't that what the 2% success rate was about? Weeding out the ordinary? Making sure that only the extraordinary remained?

If one considered Tony the 2% success and Mallen part of the 98%, that drastically reduced the possibility of Extremis working for someone like Steve. Mallen had survived the procedure, but then he'd gone mad afterward. That wasn't exactly a success, and Killian had evidently noted that when he'd told Tony about the different versions of Extremis and a little quirk of genetics.

Philosophizing aside, Tony was resigned to being a computer now.

At least Extremis hadn't changed how he felt physically, because he could at least pretend he was human.

Outside of the nano-suit and Extremis, Tony had also gotten a call from Richards about fixing up the Bifrost. They were stuck now without a way of solidifying vibranium so that it could channel the power needed to make a bridge that could traverse entire worlds. Jane hadn't had much success either, so that meant that unless Tony somehow managed to contact Asgard with their findings, they couldn't get much further.

They'd gotten 90% of the data; the other 10% would have to be provided by Asgard.

Ten days after the meeting with Charles and the others, the team was watching The Bourne Legacy and throwing popcorn at the screen during particularly improbable stunts and at the cute actor waltzing around the set who looked an awful lot like Clint.

"Not to burst anyone's bubble," Peter said lazily during one of the exposition scenes, "but when are we doing anything about HYDRA?" He was sitting on the floor in a lotus position.

"HYDRA's in Russia," Natasha said, stretched out on the couch with a bowl of popcorn on her stomach. Spike was sitting on her feet, slapping the popcorn bowl in excitement whenever an explosion happened. "Russia's not too fond of us on a good day."

"She means we can't go there just on the off chance HYDRA's base is in Russia," Steve said. He was relaxing on the loveseat with Tony, who was sitting in-between his legs and curled up against his chest.

"Isn't it?" Peter asked.

"Could be a trap," Clint said, sitting on top of a tall cabinet, another bowl of popcorn on his lap. "They were a bit obvious with failing to shoot Putin."

"That could be a trap, too," Tony pointed out. "A trap within a trap… But wait, that's giving them a bit too much credit."

"Don't be mean, Tony," Bruce said mildly, sitting in the only other armchair in the room. "That's hardly an ingenious trap."

"Actually, that is pretty ingenious," Natasha said, screwing her nose up as the Clint-lookalike performed some fancy tricks with a motorcycle. "Not something HYDRA is known for thinking up."

"Red Skull was the brains," Steve admitted. "I'm not sure about now."

"Madame Hydra?" Tony suggested.

"We don't know enough about her to say," Natasha said.

"Isn't that a point for her being clever?" Peter pointed out.

"Not that hard to evade S.H.I.E.L.D.," Tony said dismissively.

"For a genius, Tony," Bruce said. "And I was still on their radar."

"Your perception of the world is skewed, Tony," Clint said. "If someone like Madame Hydra is able to keep off S.H.I.E.L.D.'s radar to the point that we only know a name, it means she's good. She's really good."

"In summary, we're not going to Russia," Peter said, sighing.

"Just about," Natasha agreed.

"I am, however, going to Mongolia," Tony said, blinking as some headlines made themselves known to him courtesy of Extremis.

"What?" Steve looked down at him. "Why?"

"Reports of my weapons being used there." Tony flicked his fingers, letting a tablet he'd stashed under the loveseat come floating into his hand. He pulled up the relevant news articles, letting Steve read them.

"It's worrying that you have a tablet like that just stashed under your seat," Clint observed.

"It's called being prepared."

"I call it tech-addicted."

"I am tech."

"I am Iron Man," Clint mimicked him from several years earlier. "What's next? I'm Twilight Sparkle?"

Tony straightened as much as he could while wrapped up in Steve's arms. "I knew you were a secret Brony!"

Clint didn't hesitate. "What does that say about you since you knew who I was talking about?"

Natasha threw popcorn at both of them. "Shut up."

"When?" Steve asked Tony quietly, fingers still resting on the screen of the tablet.

"Tomorrow," Tony said, snuggling back against Steve's chest. "I've got the nano-suit ready; just to need to try it out."

"You mean you haven't even put it on?"

"I was a bit busy making sure that it would protect me." Tony shrugged lightly. "Just in case. If all else fails, I can always go naked with clothes stashed away."

"You're not going naked."

"I said I'll have clothes stashed away."

"In what? Your helmet?"

"I think I've got some space in a leg for a tight pair of pants and a shirt."

This time both of them were pelted with popcorn by Clint, the kernels hitting them in the foreheads. "I can hear you, you know. And that sounds just wrong."

Tony lifted a few popcorn kernels out of the bowl in Clint's lap and stuffed them down his shirt without even looking over.

"Are they always like this?" Peter whispered to Bruce.

"Yes." Bruce peered through his glasses at Tony and Clint, the light of the TV glinting off the lenses.

Tony fired off a mock salute and settled back against Steve, ignoring the small groans Clint made as he tried to fish popcorn from his shirt.

Tomorrow he'd have to get back to work and be Iron Man. Tonight he could just be Tony Stark, Avenger.

The next morning Steve joined Tony in his workshop to see if the nano-suit actually worked.

"Now the question is if I should first take the suit out and then put this one on, or if I should put this on first before taking out the suit," Tony mused, fingering the nano-suit.

"You mean you don't actually know?" Steve asked, alarmed.

"Unknown territory, Steve," Tony reminded him. "We don't know how Extremis works with these kinds of things. It might decide this isn't high-tech enough, and then I really will be naked."

"You're not going to be naked. You're taking clothes."

"I'd rather not since I'd prefer to have something like mini-bombs in that leg." Letting the soft black material sift through his fingers one last time, Tony sighed lightly. "Okay, here goes nothing."

"What?" Steve watched in alarm as Tony stripped methodically out of all his clothes.

Take it alllll off! Dummy cheered, claw clacking together excitedly.

"Calm down, Dummy," Tony said, shucking off his boxers last of all. "Steve, here." He thrust the nano-suit at Steve.

"What are you doing?" Steve asked.

"Taking the suit out first; I'd rather do this right from the beginning." Tony focused on the feeling of the suit in his bones, calling it forth so it seeped out through his pores and solidified over his skin. Once the entire suit was out, he focused on taking it off outside of his body.

The suit disassembled itself and reformed several feet away, its visage imposing.

"Victory!" Tony grinned, reaching out for the undersuit Steve was letting hang from his hands. "Come on, Steve."

"You're sure about this?" Steve asked nervously.

"Absolutely." Tony began pulling the undersuit on, slipping his ankles in and then tugging it over his legs. The suit slid on easily enough, only snagging in a few places before he straightened it out. "Help me with the arms."

Steve pulled lightly on the cloth, heaving it up over his shoulders and zipping it up in the back. "Good?"

"Great. Let me just…" Tony adjusted it so his groin wasn't so cramped. "Okay, it's good now. Now the big question."

"Will Extremis absorb it?" JARVIS said for him.

"Bingo." Tony moved around, stretching a bit to be sure the undersuit was fitted correctly. It was the same size as his previous undersuits so it wasn't like he'd sized it wrong, but one could never be too careful. "Let's go."

Focusing on the feel of the suit, Tony sunk back slightly into Extremis, letting its buzzing come more to the front. Then he focused on drawing in, willing the suit to come into him.

He felt a weird tickling sensation for a few seconds before it entirely disappeared and Steve let out a low gasp.

"Did it work?" Tony let Extremis go, looking down at his body to find that he was once again naked. "Okay, that answers that. Let's see if I can pull it back out."

The nano-suit came out easily, melting out of his pores and reforming smoothly over his skin. "Yahtzee!" Flushed with success, he reached out for the Iron Man suit, settling into a fighting stance as the metal pieces flew to him and assembled around his body.

As soon as the faceplate clicked into place, Tony whipped around to his testing area of the lab and fired a repulsor. It worked without a hitch, and since he was focusing, he could even feel the stream of power from his chest as it fed into his repulsor.

"Sweet!" Tony gave a fist bump, uncaring of how it would look in the Iron Man suit.

Turning, he saw Steve giving him a fond grin. The bots were dancing little circles behind him, evidently just as gleeful as Tony.

He focused on drawing just the Iron Man suit into his bones. A few seconds later he looked down to see that it had worked and the power source was glowing blue through the cloth of the undersuit. Then, uncaring of his nakedness, he pulled the undersuit in, too, testing to see if he felt any different with both the undersuit and the Iron Man suit in his bones.

"Everything registers as normal on my sensors, sir," JARVIS said. "Of course, that is with regular parameters."

"I feel good," Tony said, bouncing up and down slightly on his feet. He drew the undersuit back out, letting it cover him from ankles to neck to wrists. "Look good?"

"Always," Steve responded.

"The Captain is biased," JARVIS said, "but I find I must agree with him on this."

"Shush, JARVIS," Tony said, grinning at Steve. "Let us live in the moment."

Steve grinned back, stepping forward and leaning down to give him a warm kiss. He pulled back a moment later to plant another one on the tip of Tony's nose. "You'll stay safe, right?" he asked quietly.

Tony reached up to squeeze the nape of Steve's neck. "Do my best." He reached out to the side, taking the silver chain Dummy was holding out for him.

"Tony?" Steve watched in confusion as Tony took his ring off and strung it on the chain before putting it around his neck and locking the clasp.

"Just for safety," Tony said, smiling softly. "Don't wanna lose it."

Steve laughed lowly. "You are amazing." He drew Tony back into a deeper kiss, sucking on his lower lip.

Tony pulled back slightly, breath coming heavily. "Don't start something you don't intend to finish," he chided.

"Who said I don't intend to finish?" Steve went for another kiss, only to meet with Tony's cheek when the other turned his head.

"Lovely sentiment," Tony said, breath hitching as Steve nibbled on the tip of his ear, "but not the best"—his breath hitched again as Steve pulled lightly on his earlobe—"time for this. I'm leaving soon."

Steve pulled back, reluctance etched over his features. "Right."

"I'll make it up when I get back," Tony promised.

"With interest."

"With interest," Tony agreed charitably. "Not that it's much hardship."

Steve stooped down for another kiss, sucking on Tony's tongue for a minute before he pulled away and said hoarsely, "I'll stop now. Go and take care of what you need to. Just stay safe."

Tony cleared his throat, forcing himself to think about Nick Fury in a bathing suit. "Absolutely."

Steve studied his face. "You're thinking about Fury in a bathing suit, aren't you?"

Tony screwed up his face. "Got it in one."

Once he was in the air, Tony let loose with his suit, pouring on the speed. He broke the sound barrier within seconds, faintly hearing the boom it made.

He whooped in excitement. It had been months since he'd managed to do anything like this, and he'd missed it.

After the first three hundred miles, Tony slowed down, the worst of his restlessness left behind. There was no need to go full speed to his destination; it wasn't like they'd move far. Besides, it'd be night in Mongolia by the time he arrived, and while he was usually one for ostentatious entrances, this wasn't time for it.

Some hours later, he tamped down on the speed even further as he reached the site where the media had reports of fighting.

"JARVIS?" he asked, eyes flickering across the HUD and the different readings it was showing.

"Everything clear, sir."

Tony hovered over an oddly quiet village. "No civilians?"

"I am picking up several heat signs, but not enough to indicate that the village is fully occupied."

Which meant that the bad guys had made this their base. Without any civilians to terrorize or persuade to keep quiet, they didn't have to waste ammo.

Unlike Gulmira… Casting the memory aside, Tony focused on the present. If he was quick, he could be done with this in an hour and then head back home.

"Give me the specs if you've got 'em."

The blueprints of the different weapons that the men here were using popped up on the HUD. These weapons were older than what he usually ran into during these forays. It meant they were less stable. He'd have to be more careful when destroying them.

Slowly cutting power to his repulsors, Tony flew closer to the ground, eventually cutting power altogether and landing lightly.

There was no indication that anyone had noticed his arrival. The heat spots indicating human presences blinked slowly on his HUD, unmoving. Some were close to the weapons he was going to destroy, but he had no qualms about injuring or possibly killing them. If they were using Stark weaponry, they knew full well the possible ramifications of that; the last several years should have been enough proof of what he would do to contain their use.

The first house he destroyed was empty of all but caches of guns and bullets. It went up in a brilliant display of orange fire that lit up the night sky and the surroundings. It also alerted the men to his presence.

Ignoring the shouts that filled the night, Tony moved on to the next house that held weapons. This one held bombs, and he put a little distance between himself and it before blowing it all to hell with a few high-powered rockets.

The explosion it caused was immense, blowing apart nearby houses. There was screaming now, but no one was actually dead according to his sensors.

The last thing he destroyed was a heavy artillery tank, and for that he used a combination of telekinesis and Extremis, carelessly flicking through the machinery and electronics before completely crushing the entire thing with a mental hand.

"All weapons have been destroyed," JARVIS reported.

"Looks good." Tony worked his hand a few times, shaking off the feeling of crushing the machinery of the artillery tank beneath his fingers as if it was just paper.

Angry shouting came from behind him, and Tony turned to show the men the terrifying blank stare of the Iron Man mask. Noting the guns they were sporting, he ripped them out of their hands and threw them into the fire that still raged from the bombs he had set off.

"Oops," he said, shrugging. "I'd say sorry, but I'm really not." He grinned behind his mask before firing his repulsors and taking off into the air.

He was almost out the village when his sensors registered a pinging off his armor. The HUD sensors showed it had been a bullet fired at him (and whose bright idea was that? A bullet against the Iron Man armor?).

"JARVIS?" Tony asked, frowning.

"It appears to have been shot from a sniper rifle, sir."

Mention of a sniper rifle had the memory of the recent briefing they'd just had about the Winter Soldier flash through his mind. But this was Mongolia, not Russia…

But hadn't he just suggested it was possible HYDRA had set a trap within a trap? By failing to assassinate the Russian president, they had shown that they were present in Russia and also hinted that their base was in Russia; yet the assassination had failed, and that indicated the base wouldn't be in Russia because that would've been too obvious. But since HYDRA knew S.H.I.E.L.D. would come to that conclusion, they had gone and set up base in Russia after all.

But what if they hadn't? What if they'd gone and laid a trap within a trap within a trap (confusing, yes; he was getting dizzy himself)? With HYDRA thinking it likely that the Avengers (and Tony) would believe that HYDRA's actual base was in Russia after all, they could easily put their base elsewhere to throw them off. Like, say…Mongolia (fucking A.I.M.). Maybe they'd even supplied a terrorist cell with obsolete Stark weaponry and told them to go crazy with it.

And put the Winter Soldier right there, too.

"Fuck," he muttered finally, eyes sweeping over the rooftops. He couldn't see anything, but that didn't mean much.

There was another ping as a bullet ricocheted off his chest plate.

Was the guy stupid? If regular bullets had ever threatened Iron Man, Tony would've hung up the suit a long time ago.

"Sir," JARVIS said, "I would advise not going after the Winter Soldier."

"I know, I know." Tony let the repulsors propel him straight up into the sky. "Still…it doesn't seem right."

Famous last words, because at that moment there was a spike in the humming in his mind. Used to the sound as he was, Tony almost didn't register it.

But then something hit him in the shoulder. And it stuck fast.

"What—" Tony broke off into screaming as whatever had been shot at him disabled Extremis and sent him plummeting to the ground like a stone.

Mind wracked with pain, it was all Tony could do to soften his landing with a short burst of telekinesis. It still hurt when he hit the ground, and he registered that his suit was gone.

No, not gone. It was in his bones.

And yet he couldn't access it. Extremis wasn't responding. It was crippled, and the device that had done it was still attached to his shoulder like a leech.

Tony rolled onto his stomach, one hand futilely gripping his head as the other groped for his shoulder. He needed it off.

That was the last thing he thought before he felt something else prick him in the neck and he fell into darkness.

When he woke up, it was absolutely silent. There was no humming, no data feeds, and no buzzing where Extremis should be.

What he did have was a terribly dry mouth and an awful headache.

Repressing a groan, Tony put a hand to his head, pressing it into his forehead as he tried to will away the pain. Unfortunately, he wasn't Charles and couldn't just isolate the pain to a small corner of his brain to forget about. He could push it back, but it would continue to pound dully at his temples, slowing down his thoughts and making it difficult to move.

Inhaling deeply, Tony opened his eyes, blinking as he was met with dimmed lights in a barren room that was just cragged rock save for the bed he lay on (which was just a mattress really, and not even a very good one). Breathing deeply in through his nose and out through his mouth, Tony carefully sat up, swallowing back nausea as his stomach threatened to revolt.

Whatever they had tranqued him with was a doozy.

Slumping forward to press his hands together tightly, Tony tried to organize his thoughts. Whoever had him (probably HYDRA) had suppressed his telekinesis with the same kind of medicine that had been used when he'd been captured by A.I.M. They'd also suppressed Extremis, but thankfully without pain this time.

Furrowing his brow, Tony focused on where Extremis usually was, trying to bring it out. He regretted it immediately when blinding pain tore through his mind and lights burst into stars behind his eyelids.

Letting Extremis go immediately, Tony breathed a sigh of relief as the pain subsided slightly.

That wasn't something he'd be repeating.

But speaking of Extremis… Tony glanced down, amused to find that he'd been given thin, flimsy clothes. Inhibiting Extremis would mean that his undersuit would also retreat into his bones. And his ring… His ring was gone.

Tony's fingers pressed tightly against his sternum at the exact spot where the ring had been touching his skin. He couldn't get rid of the dazed realization that they'd taken it. The one thing of Steve that he had on him, and it was gone.

Thinking of Steve had Tony cringing, and not because of the lost ring. Steve wouldn't be pleased with this entire situation. Tony had promised to do his best to stay safe, and this wasn't exactly being safe. In fact, what he should have done was hightail it out of Mongolia the moment he'd destroyed the weapons. He shouldn't have stayed behind while bullets pinged off his armor; that had just given the Winter Soldier enough time to hit him with that Extremis-inhibiting device.

Then again, hindsight was always 20/20.

There was nothing he could do about it now. He had to focus on how he was going to get out of here without telekinesis or Extremis. He'd done it before with only his brains, but it wasn't very likely these people would give him the materials he needed. They knew full well what he could do with a simple box of scraps (build an arc reactor).

Swinging his legs around so he was sitting properly on the mattress, Tony squeezed his eyes shut tightly, swallowing convulsively as if he was sick. He wasn't – not really – but it was better to keep his cards close to his chest. To further the illusion that he was sick, he scooted backwards (and for the record, ow – the mattress had some really poky springs) and leaned heavily against the wall.

The sicker they thought he was, the better his chances of escaping.

Focusing on breathing and keeping his mental fingers off Extremis, Tony waited.

It didn't take long before his patience was rewarded and there was a click at the door as it was unlocked. It would seem that his hearing was still above average even with Extremis inhibited. That hopefully meant his enhanced strength and speed were also still there.

He didn't move, waiting to see what the other person would do.

"Get up."

Not startling, Tony opened his eyes slowly, dropping his chin down to look right at the speaker. A HYDRA goon stood there, his mask looming down at Tony.

"Mind giving me a pair of shoes?" Tony asked congenially, wiggling his bare toes demonstratively.

The HYDRA goon didn't sigh, but Tony got the impression he wanted to. A minute later someone from outside handed the goon a pair of flimsy flip-flops that wouldn't give his feet any protection at all.

Giving the flip-flops a disdainful look, Tony took them from the goon and slipped them on, standing up from the bed.

The goon gestured for him to step outside. Once he did so, two other goons grabbed hold of his arms and made sure he wouldn't be going anywhere.

Not that he'd intended to.

Only an idiot would go running off with absolutely no data.

"I feel so special," Tony quipped, relaxing his arms as one goon tightened his grip warningly.

None of them responded, and they pushed him forward to begin marching through the rocky tunnels. The floor gradually sloped upward, and soon they reached a door that led to a normal looking room. The goon that input the code to open the door made no move to hide his motions from Tony.

That alone sent nervousness skittering down Tony's spine. They hadn't blindfolded him or done anything else to impede him from making note of his surroundings and possible escape routes. The fact that they hadn't done so either meant they didn't feel at all threatened by him or there was no need for them to feel threatened by him.

Tony hoped it was the former and not the latter. He could deal with them underestimating him. He couldn't deal with them killing him.

They pushed him into the room. It was large and completely windowless. There weren't any electrical lights, only torches and candles. It gave the entire room an eerie glow.

As they passed a torch, Tony saw the chillingly familiar insignia on the wall behind it.

The Ten Rings?!

Desperately trying not to give away his trepidation, Tony had to struggle not to remember foul water and electricity sparking through a car battery and shocking his body. He tried not to remember working by flickering lights and hammering metal into a mask that would form part of the first Iron Man suit he had ever created.

Distracted by his thoughts, Tony almost missed checking where he was being led. He was startled out of his thoughts by metal enclosing his wrists and clicking shut, cuffing his hands behind his back. Then rough hands shoved him to his knees. The two goons remained standing by his shoulders.

Breath quickening, Tony looked up at the table where two people sat at opposite ends, apparently engaged in a game of chess. It was all for show, though; Tony could tell that neither of them was actually as engaged in the game as their faces would suggest they were.

Another man stood in the shadows behind the table. Torchlight glinted off a mental arm, and Tony's breath caught at his first viewing of the Winter Soldier in person.

Then his attention turned back to the two people at the table as the one on the right moved. She cast off her cloak, letting it fall back onto the chair as she stood. Her long black hair shone in the torchlight, and her eyes glittered with menace. Her mouth curved into a sultry smirk as she looked at Tony; her clothes accentuated her curves and the weapons strapped to her thighs.

The other person sitting at the table didn't move, but Tony saw ten rings glinting off each of his fingers. The reminder that his engagement ring was missing had his breath catching in his throat, and his eyes went back to meet the woman's.

"Tony Stark." Her voice was soft. "Iron Man." She went up to him, trailing her fingers through his hair teasingly. "I wondered when I would meet you."

"Hope I satisfy," Tony managed, thankful his voice revealed none of his fear.

"Oh, you do." She sounded gleeful. "You do." She looked down at him. "Do you know who I am?"

Tony chanced a guess. "Madame Hydra."

Her grin was pleased. "You do know then! This makes it so much better."

"What exactly?" Tony asked. "You've got me here, but I haven't a clue why."

"In two thousand nine, the Ten Rings captured you by order of Obadiah Stane," Madame Hydra said smoothly, ignoring the faint twitch Tony was unable to repress. "That it was you they had captured was a surprise. They were unable to keep hold of you. In two thousand twelve, HYDRA tried again. You escaped once more. And in October and November, A.I.M. failed yet again."

Her lips curved into a smug smile. "But then you helped us, fixing the Extremis program so we could use it."

"It doesn't actually work," Tony objected. "There's only a two percent chance anyone survives. Besides…" He gave a small grin. "That little program I wrote back then…you really think it was a one-shot kind of deal? Doesn't matter that it's been months now; you plug Extremis into anything, it's going to be wiped out."

Madame Hydra's face twisted slightly, evidently displeased. "That may be," she said lowly, "but the point is that we have devices that can cripple Extremis. Or have you not noticed?"

"I noticed," Tony said. "Kind of hard not to."

"Now," Madame Hydra said, "I'm aware you don't 'negotiate with terrorists.'" Her lips twisted as she said the words Tony had spoken so long ago to M.O.D.O.K. "I know that you will never cooperate with us; as such, it is useless for us to keep you here alive. But then," she continued, "it was not my decision to bring you here." She gestured back at the person still sitting at the table. "The Mandarin would speak with you."

"The Mandarin?"

Tony's question went unanswered as Madame Hydra returned to her seat, reclining in it with an air of carelessness. At the same time, the person at the other end flipped his hood back, revealing harsh Chinese features and black hair tied back into a ponytail.

"Oh." Tony refrained from saying he'd expected some sort of fruit; that sort of quip wouldn't get him anywhere right now.

"The Ten Rings," the Mandarin said slowly, standing up as he did, "falls under my purview." His fingers clenched and unclenched, the rings glistening in the torchlight.

"Okay." Tony swallowed dryly, his hands twitching nervously behind him.

"I am aware you have a great distaste for magic," the Mandarin said, a smirk curving his lips. "Yet you fight with a god, a god who wields the power of thunder and lightning."

"Technically," Tony said, "magic is science up on Asgard."

"And yet their science is magic down here. Strange, do you not think?" The Mandarin locked his hands behind his back, glowering down at Tony. "I have traveled much of the world in my quest for power. On one of my journeys, I found these." He brought his right hand up, fingers curling in the air to display the five rings on that hand. "Strange, marvelous things… Wonders of science, and yet they are magical."

"Only because we don't know how they work."

"We will never know how they work." The Mandarin's voice was sharp. "Such things are not for us to know."

Tony inhaled slowly. "You mean you don't want anyone else to have what you do. Because with knowledge comes power, and we can use that power to recreate what you're wearing."

"A man of science to your core. And yet I wonder why you will not release your arc reactor to us."

"Might be because you'll make a weapon out of it." Tony was unable to keep the rebuke out of his tone. "I'm out of that business, have been for a while."

"Yet you are a weapon." The Mandarin sounded wondering as he looked down at Tony as if he was a particularly intriguing specimen. "What you hate, you now are."

"I consider myself a shield." Tony smiled flatly. "A shield against men like you." His eyes flickered to Madame Hydra, who was inspecting something in her hands with a bored look on her face. "And her."

"Your Captain America…" The Mandarin snorted lightly. "He has a shield. And you would purport that your suit and your power are shields? You wield them as weapons – swords. I do not think kindly of liars."

"That's fine. I don't think kindly of terrorists."

"No, you wouldn't," the Mandarin conceded. "Not with your history. Despite your history of warfare and bloodshed, you are a man of science. Even now, you seek to recreate the Bifrost."

Tony stiffened slightly.

"It cannot be done," the Mandarin said. "It is a fool's errand, Iron Man."

"We're close," Tony said evenly. "You keep saying I'm a man of science. You mind if I tell you what I think you are?" He didn't wait for an answer. "You're a man of terror. You shroud yourself in mystery and like to call it magic." He cast the ten rings a look of disdain. "In the end all you do is strike fear in the heart of others. You don't actually accomplish anything because humans will always rise above what you try to do to us. Fear can only stop us for so long. When it doesn't anymore, we strike back hard."

The Mandarin said nothing for several minutes, his dark eyes simply studying Tony.

Tony kept his breathing calm, his eyes meeting the Mandarin's defiantly.

"I see." The Mandarin's voice was quiet. "You are the heart."

Tony frowned, confused. "What?"

"What is a body without its heart?" the Mandarin mused. "Shall we see?"

"If I may," Madame Hydra said, coming up behind the Mandarin now. Something dangled from her fingers: Tony's engagement ring.

The Mandarin gestured dismissively.

Tony's breath caught as Madame Hydra stooped to clasp the chain around Tony's neck, lips brushing his ears as she whispered, "Such a lovely ring. Your Captain is a handsome one." She drew back to look into Tony's eyes. "You are a very lucky man."

Tony kept his voice even through sheer force of will. "I know."

"Step back," the Mandarin said. "We shall see what the Avengers are with their heart dead. We failed once, but now there is no possibility of failure."

Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

"You sure killing me is the way to go?" Tony rasped, leaning back as far as he could considering he was kneeling.

"Believe me, Iron Man." The Mandarin's smile was dark. "Death is a mercy. You are what holds us all back."

"Funny thing that. I consider myself more a futurist—" Tony broke off as one goon whacked him warningly with the butt of a gun. "Point taken," he gasped, wincing.

"Goodbye, Iron Man." The Mandarin's hands hovered directly before Tony's face. "I regret that it has come to this."

A faint sound of distress escaped Tony's lips as the Mandarin's fingers dug directly into the skin around his energy source. Electricity blazed across his senses, tearing a scream out of his throat.

And then he was spinning through a vortex, something roaring in his ears. There was nothing but blue around him, and he was hurtling through it so quickly he was having trouble breathing.

This wasn't death, was it? Reports of people suffering near-death experiences all said it was peaceful. It was just a light at the end of the tunnel. It was painless in the end.

This wasn't painless at all. This was screaming in his ears; this was power tearing through his veins; this was him being thrown about by forces he had no control over.

Maybe the Mandarin had lied. Maybe he didn't want to kill Tony. Maybe he'd drugged him.

It wasn't actually killing the heart of the Avengers (and seriously, what?) if he was drugged to the gills. And why the hell was he the heart? Steve was more hearty than Tony, especially since he'd never had heart trouble! Or, at least, not after the super-soldier serum. Tony was a pain in the ass; he wasn't exactly the heart of the team.

Suddenly he was spat out of the vortex into freezing cold air. He was aware that he was screaming, but couldn't seem to make himself stop.

Then he crashed into freezing snow.

Although cold, the snow was soft enough that he felt no pain from the landing. Wheezing and gasping for air, Tony flailed, trying to right himself (somewhere, somehow, he'd lost the handcuffs).

He ended up slipping and sliding down the snow bank he'd landed in, eventually coming to a stop on a flat plain of ground that still had a foot of snow covering it. Snow was down his shirt and in his pants and he'd lost his flip-flops (no great loss, really).

Still gasping, Tony brushed snow out of his hair and shook his shirt out, tingles running through his fingers and making it difficult for him to grasp hold of the thin cloth. He shook out his pants, clearing as much of the snow as he could.

"Jesus Christ," he muttered, rubbing his hands together. They were tingling with energy and his chest wasn't much better, the energy source burning hot and warming the skin around it.

Slowly running his fingers over his face and then checking to make sure his ring was still there, Tony breathed out a sigh of relief. "Well, still alive. But in Antarctica from the looks of it." He squinted out into the darkness. "It's Antarctica, right?"

Unthinkingly, he reached for Extremis. He cringed a second later, expecting pain. When none came, he slowly prodded at Extremis again, cautious now.

No pain.

Tony took a breath and jumped into Extremis, frowning when absolutely no data met his senses other than his own bodily functions (cold and rather shocked but otherwise fine). Further inspection showed that Extremis wasn't damaged, there was just nothing there for it to pick up.

Yet if Extremis was working now, he could at least wear something other than these clothes. The moment the undersuit went on over his skin, Tony could already feel the difference. The only problem was his feet.

Rubbing his hands over his arms, Tony looked down at his bare feet, frowning. A moment later he exhaled in shock upon seeing how the undersuit looked through the papery clothes he was still wearing. It wasn't exactly black anymore. In the center was the energy source, but blue lines were creeping out of it and trailing down his arms and his legs and across his chest. And they were moving.

Running light fingers across the material, he found that it still felt normal. It was only how it looked that was throwing Tony for a loop. Frowning, he took his hands out from under the shirt, rubbing his fingers together.

He had wanted it to conduct energy…

Blowing out another cloud of air, Tony focused on seeing if his telekinesis worked. He narrowed in on a bank of snow, firing a mental blast. It was gratifying to see the snow spray outward when he succeeded.

Whatever the Mandarin had done, Tony now had full control of Extremis and his telekinesis. The only issue now was where he was.

Uncaring of the ridiculous clothes he wore, Tony pulled out the Iron Man suit, exhaling slightly in relief as the metal enclosed him, shielding him from the cold. He couldn't feel the biting wind anymore, and snowflakes no longer hit him in the face.

The HUD flickered to life around him, giving him a night view of his surroundings. He wasn't very surprised to see nothing but snow and more snow around him.

"JARVIS," Tony said, "mind giving me a sit-rep?"

When no reply was forthcoming, Tony repeated his request. When JARVIS still didn't respond, Tony didn't want to admit he panicked (which he did, just a little bit), but he wasn't okay by any stretch of the imagination. He inspected the suit's circuitry and systems, only to come up empty handed when everything came back green.

JARVIS…just wasn't there anymore.

"It's okay, it's okay," he muttered to himself, blinking rapidly as he shifted through his options. "Let's just try and find home. Where are we?"

The suit's sensors didn't give him any answers no matter how much he adjusted them. Finally, scowling, he stretched out with Extremis to access the satellites.

Only to end up floundering when there was nothing there. He drew back into his body, shivering slightly as he desperately tried to figure out what it all meant.

There were no data feeds, and this was likely due to the fact that there were no satellites. There was nothing else either. The only humming Tony could sense was his suit, and there no words for how comforting it was. But the suit was coming up blank on his location, and that was impossible because he had maps for every single location on Earth stored in its memory banks. If the suit couldn't pinpoint his location, he wasn't in a place that humans had discovered.

Or maybe he wasn't even on Earth anymore.

Unlike the months when he and Tony had been…estranged…Tony's absence now wasn't as noticeable as it had been before. It was still there – Steve still missed him – but it wasn't as bad. Steve knew he'd be coming home, so it wasn't like he missed him like he'd lost an arm (or his heart actually).

In fact, it had been about a year since the last time Tony had to do anything weapons-related on the other side of the ocean. Steve had thought that was over and done with, but apparently he'd counted his chickens too soon.

"No sulking," Clint said an hour into Tony's absence, poking his head into the living room where Steve was most definitely not sulking.

"I'm not sulking."

"No, really?" Clint sounded skeptical. "Because it kind of looks like you're sulking. You've got that brooding thing going on."

"I don't brood."

"You do." Clint sat down on the armrest next to Steve, looking down at him. "Wanna talk about it?"

Steve shook his head. "There's nothing to talk about."

"Oh right. You're just sulking because it's the new thing to do."

"There's nothing to sulk about."

"Your fiancé's flitted off to Mongolia."

Steve felt a thrill run through him at that word: fiancé. "That's fine. He has work to do there."

"Funny thing," Clint mused, folding his arms and staring off into the distance. "Mongolia's awfully close to Russia, and these reports coming so close to Putin's attempted assassination…"

Steve looked up at him, alarm streaking through him. "You think it's a trap?"

Clint considered the question. "Honestly? I'd say no. It's just my paranoia speaking. Some things are just coincidences."

"There aren't many of those in our line of work."

"Also true." Clint made a face. "But I'd rather just give this the benefit of the doubt. Tony's done stuff like this before and nothing's happened."

"That was before everyone knew he was a mutant and had Extremis."

"He was also a desired billionaire with a brilliant brain." Clint hummed appreciatively. "Seriously, Steve, I don't think you know just how amazing his brain really is. If you ever tell him any of this," he said suddenly, "I will end you."

Steve shook his head. "I won't."

Clint nodded, then continued ruminatively, "There aren't a lot of people with Tony's IQ. Bruce is one, but he's kind of focused on just one area. So's Reed. Tony's all over the place. If he wants to learn something, he'll do it. My point's that with that kind of a brain, Tony's been on a lot of lists ever since he built that first circuit board at four years old."

"That doesn't make me feel any better." Steve slumped back against the couch. "Learning he's not going to be safe regardless of what happens doesn't help at all."

"It wasn't supposed to. Consider it info." Clint shrugged lightly. "You can always use it."

Steve had already known his boyfriend – fiancé – was a super genius. Charles Xavier admitting he couldn't get a clear read on Tony's brain was just more evidence of that. But that didn't make it any easier knowing that Tony was out there in Mongolia without Steve. Especially now that Clint had pointed out how close Mongolia was to Russia.

The last time Tony had to take care of rogue Stark weapons had been before Steve and Tony had started dating. That was over a year ago. Considering that, Steve was getting a bad feeling.

"Probably nothing to worry about," Clint said consolingly, patting Steve on the head like a dog. "JARVIS?"

"He is still currently en route to Mongolia," JARVIS said. "I will, of course, inform you if his status in any way changes."

"See?" Clint patted Steve again, ignoring the evil eye he received. "Nothing to worry about. We're good. Wanna see some Top Gear?"

Steve knocked Clint's hand away. "I prefer Mythbusters."

Rather than any of those choices, JARVIS turned the TV onto some cartoon show about a kid with ghost powers.

Taking the hint for what it was, Steve settled down to watch some mindless cartoons with Clint.

Several hours later, Steve and Clint had been joined by Natasha, Bruce, and Peter. Peter had exclaimed softly upon seeing the show – Danny Phantom – and settled down to watch it eagerly. Apparently it had been a show he'd seen when it was still airing.

They were on an episode where the main characters were facing a ghost that controlled technology when JARVIS spoke, sounding anxious, "Mr. Stark has been attacked."

Steve jolted upright. "What?"

"Extremis has been fully disabled. I cannot see what is happening."

"Get your equipment," Steve ordered, already on his feet. "We're meeting on the Quinjet in five."

In five minutes, he met the rest of his team out on the lawn directly before the Quinjet. Peter was also there in his uniform.

"I'm coming with," he said resolutely, face forbidding any arguments. "I can't do anything useful here."

Steve had neither the desire nor the energy to argue with Peter, and apparently neither did anybody else.

"Taking off in one," Clint said, already buckled in and checking the status of the engines and computers. "JARVIS?"

"Present," JARVIS said through the speakers at the front. "I will lay in the trajectory to his last known location."

"Do you know happened?" Steve asked, fingers digging into the straps of his shield now that he was buckled in.

"We were unable to track the attacker, but Mr. Stark and myself were of the opinion that it was the Winter Soldier."

"Shit," Clint cursed from the front.

"There's no such thing as coincidences," Steve muttered bitterly.

"There is," Bruce said evenly, picking at the plain white shirt he wore in case of a Hulk out. "We're just very, very unlucky."

"This was a trap," Natasha said, glancing back. "It might've been a joking matter before, but HYDRA's upped their game."

"I hate to say this, Steve, but even at our top speed, we're not going to make it to Mongolia until four o'clock our time," Clint said. "We're going to need a plan. Tony's not going to still be where JARVIS last had contact with him."

"If I may," JARVIS said, "I overheard one of Mr. Stark's and Mr. Logan's conversations. They were discussing a device Professor Xavier possesses that has the capacity to sense mutants."

"It'll pick up where Tony is," Steve said, relieved. He pulled out his phone.

"You get reception up here?" Peter asked, surprised.

Steve didn't grace him a reply, scrolling through his contacts until he came across Charles's.

"I forgot," Peter said after a moment of silence. "Stark-made."

"Exactly," Bruce agreed, sounding amused.

Charles answered on the fifth ring. "Steve?"

"I heard you have something that can sense mutants," Steve said without preamble.

Charles didn't sound at all bemused at Steve's knowledge. "I do. Has something happened?"

"Tony's in Mongolia, and we think HYDRA got to him. I – we were hoping you could pinpoint his location."

"Of course, Steve." Charles sounded concerned. "I'll get back to you within the hour. Am I right in assuming this is the number to reach you at?"

"Yes," Steve said. "Gets reception anywhere."

"Of course it does." Charles's tone had turned amused. "One hour, Steve." He hung up.

"We good?" Clint asked.

"Yeah." Steve laid the phone on his thigh, returning to clutching his shield. "He'll call in an hour."

"Okay then." Clint's breath left him in a low whoosh. "Settle back. This is gonna get bumpy."

There was a brief jolt, and Steve was vaguely aware that they had just broken the sound barrier. "You couldn't do that before?"

"Not over a residential area, Steve," Natasha said. "We're out over open sea now."

"I'm pretty sure I heard Tony breaking the sound barrier when he left," Peter observed.

"Tony makes his own rules," Clint said. "I'd rather not have the Air Force down on my head for violating airspace regulations."

"It is a law," JARVIS added. "It is just one Mr. Stark pays attention to only some of the time. This was not one of those times."

"Not unexpected," Natasha said. She glanced over at Clint. "Wanna see if we can break the record for crossing the Atlantic?"

"I think that's held by Iron Man," Clint said, "but hell yeah."

"When did that happen?" Peter asked. "I think I would've noticed a change in the books."

"We don't talk about that time," Bruce said. "It was a drunken bet."

"Tony bet he could fly faster than Thor," Clint said. "Through cheating, he did."

"I thought you couldn't get Norse gods drunk."

"You can't. But a drunk Tony Stark isn't one you want to go up against," Natasha said. "Which is why we don't talk about it."

"Just that he broke the record," Clint said. "Man, that was epic."

"We don't talk about it," Bruce said evenly.

"He used Hulk, didn't he?" Peter asked. "And Hulk went along with it."

Bruce pinched his lips together, not answering Peter's entirely too accurate guess.

Steve found himself incapable of joining the lighthearted banter. His stomach was twisted up in knots and he was finding it difficult to breathe. He'd just gotten Tony back. Couldn't they have a break? Was it too much to ask for?

"Don't put it off. You'll find that if you do, it's never likely to happen."

Steve really hoped that he wouldn't regret waiting.

One nerve-wracking hour later, Steve picked up Charles's call, heart pounding painfully against his ribs.

Charles spoke before Steve could say anything, "He's still in Mongolia, but underground. It appears to be an old facility in the steppes. It's not one that any legal authority set up."

"Just like November," Steve said, mouth dry.

"Indeed," Charles agreed somberly. "I'll keep an eye on him, Steve. Should I assume a communications blackout from here?"

"I'll call you," Steve said. "Can you send the coordinates to my e-mail? JARVIS will pick it up."

"Already done, Steve. Good luck."

"Thanks." Steve hung up, tucking the phone into its pouch. "JARVIS, did you get that?"

"Indeed, Captain. The new coordinates have already been input into the navigation system."

"I've got it," Clint confirmed.

Steve could feel the Quinjet shifting slightly as it adjusted its course. "How long?"

"ETA still hasn't changed." Clint sounded apologetic.

"We can't break the laws of physics," Bruce said. "It'll be fine, Steve."

Steve smiled wanly, leaning his head back against the headrest. "One can hope."

Despite Steve's nerves, he managed to get some sleep on the flight. He also made the others sleep, having Clint and Natasha trade off shifts so they could both get some rest as well. Peter and Bruce slept deeply for the few hours they caught; Steve's sleep was restless. Clint and Natasha treated it with the cold ruthless efficiency they treated everything on a mission with.

A cold blue sky greeted them as they touched down in the Mongolian steppes close to the coordinates Charles had given them. Clint had set the Quinjet down a mile away from their actual destination, not wanting to give the game away too early.

"Probably useless anyway," Clint said as he unbuckled. "Still, can't hurt to be safe."

Steve tugged on his cowl as he stepped outside, unflinching as the cold air nipped at his nose. Peter already had his mask on and was tugging nervously at the top, adjusting it so it rested smoothly over his head.

"I'm just gonna hang back," Bruce said, gesturing at his very human body. He wore the stretchy pants Tony had given him. "Not much use 'til the other guy's needed."

"I guess we're walking?" Peter said.

"Watch your step," Natasha said, stepping besides Steve.

"Planning on it," Steve murmured, looking down at the GPS his StarkPhone was displaying. "JARVIS, still here?"

"As always, Captain," JARVIS said from the phone. "Shall we continue?"

"Yeah." Steve glanced back to be sure they were all here before he turned and began walking.

They walked in silence across the mountainous terrain, eyes peeled for any sign of HYDRA or the base that Charles had mentioned.

"We're getting close," Steve murmured, tapping the screen to zoom in.

"Should I take point?" Natasha asked.

In answer Steve handed her his phone, letting her step ahead and lead them on.

They continued slowly for another five minutes, stopping every now and then to reorient themselves and make sure they weren't missing anything.

"Shouldn't we be seeing the base by now?" Peter asked softly.

"I doubt they have it just above the ground," Clint responded. "That's not HYDRA's style."

"They're more the type to have a window peeking out of a mountain," Steve said, remembering Red Skull's base.

"I keep forgetting you're a font of historical information," Peter said. "Maybe you wouldn't mind helping me with some papers? If I ever get back to school, that is…"

"You're going back," Bruce said firmly. "If anything, Tony will tutor you at home."

"That'd be kinda cool…"

"I would deem it inadvisable," JARVIS said. "Mr. Stark does not have the best temperament for teaching."

"I can see that," Clint said, snickering. "He'd threaten to donate you to a community college."

"Shh," Natasha hushed them, stopping in front of Steve. "We're here."

This came as a surprise to Steve because there was absolutely nothing around them to signal that they were at all near a base. There were mountains and rocky outcrops surrounding them, but they all looked perfectly natural to his untrained eye. Maybe he should take up geology.

"Next time I'm picking up geology," Bruce muttered from behind him. "Would be at least useful."

"I don't like it," Clint said quietly, one hand twitching at his side as if he wanted to notch an arrow to his bow. "We're too exposed out here."

Steve shifted his shield off his back, slipping his arm through the straps. Clint was right. Their position was far too vulnerable.

Natasha handed him his phone, her hand now going to her gun. "Stay close," she ordered softly. "I've been to these sorts of bases before. They're usually hiding in plain sight."

"I'm definitely studying geology," Peter whispered as he crouched slightly.

What happened next Steve wasn't entirely sure of. He heard something similar to a gunshot, only it was much louder – probably magnified due to the rocks surrounding them. Seconds later Peter jumped into the air, spinning slightly before he landed on all fours in front of Natasha, looking so much like a spider Steve blinked.

"I was almost shot!" Peter said, pushing himself up on his hands.

There was another gunshot that echoed through the mountains, making it impossible for Steve to pinpoint where it came from.

But this time pain burst through his shoulder and he stumbled, hissing in pain. He kept his balance and whirled, putting up his shield defensively. The bullet had hit him but failed to pierce his uniform.

Clint had an arrow notched and was aiming it behind him. "I've got him," he said quietly, letting the arrow fly a split-second later.

And not a second too soon because there was a third gunshot, and this time the bullet struck Clint in the shoulder – his uncovered shoulder because he kept insisting that covering it with the kind of material Natasha wore would be too restricting. Blood sprayed through the air, and Clint grunted with pain, gasping quietly as he hunched over, fingers clutching his shoulder.

"Clint!" Natasha had her gun up.

"I got him," Clint bit out through gritted teeth. "I got the bastard."

There was an explosion moments later, and the spot Clint's arrow had landed billowed with smoke.

"Your shoulder?" Bruce asked, one hand resting on Clint's arm below the entry point.

"Fine." Clint hissed in pain as Bruce pried his fingers off to inspect the wound.

"It tore through the muscle," Bruce said quietly. "You're not going to be able to shoot anything for a while."

"Been through worse." Clint stooped to pick up his bow.

"And then were laid up for months because you overstrained yourself," Natasha snapped.

"Last resort, Hawkeye," Steve commanded.

"I don't think they're done," Peter warned, standing now. "My spider sense is tingling like nuts."

"Winter Soldier isn't the only sniper they have," Natasha said grimly. "Just the best."

"Where's the base?" Steve demanded. He felt his phone vibrate in his pocket, probably JARVIS calling to get his attention. He tapped his cowl to get the earpiece on.

"JARVIS," he said quietly.

"I am here, Captain." JARVIS sounded relieved to hear his voice.

"Can you tell me where the base is?"

"My sensors are rather limited in that regard, Captain. You are standing directly where Professor Xavier said Mr. Stark last was."

But there was nothing here.

"Captain!" Peter's alarmed scream was the last thing Steve heard before there was another deafening gunshot and the back of his neck was hit.

This time he slammed into the ground, extremities tingling with the force of the impact.

"That was the Winter Soldier," he heard Natasha hissing. "The other was a decoy."

"Shit," Clint groaned. "Damn it."

There was another groaning sound from Bruce, and Steve heard him hit the ground seconds later.

"Oh shit, they took him out!" That was Peter.

"Tranqs," Clint said, assured.

Steve pushed himself to his feet, shaky with the shot to his spinal cord.

"I'd recommend covering your exposed areas," Natasha said.

"I'm screwed." Clint's fingers tightened on his bloody shoulder.

"Let 'em take us," Steve said, catching their attention. "We have to get in."

"Not one of your best plans, Captain," Natasha said, her gun lowering slightly.

"It's the only one I've got." Steve gave her a grim smile. Then, unflinchingly, he lowered his cowl.

"I'm not taking my mask off," Peter said. "I'll play dead."

That was the last thing Steve heard before he felt something prick him in the neck. Almost instantly he felt woozy; his legs buckled beneath him and he hit the ground again, slumping forward.

He was dimly aware of someone else also hitting the ground before he succumbed to the sedatives.

Definitely not one of his best plans.

When Steve drifted into awareness an unknown amount of time later, he was aware of a throbbing in his temples and a dryness in his mouth. To be blunt, his tongue felt like cotton and there were hammers pounding away in his temples.

Groaning softly, Steve brought both hands up, pressing his palms into his eyes to alleviate the pounding. It was a few minutes before it subsided enough for him to uncover his eyes and sit up.

He wasn't the only one in the barren room that looked like it was a cave. The rest of the team was also inside, though they were all awake with the exception of Bruce.

Natasha saw him looking over. "He's out like a light," she said quietly. "Whatever they gave him is still working."

"Or they pumped more into him," Clint said, his shoulder bandaged and the cloth stained red. "Can't say much for their hospitality."

"They did bind up your shoulder," Peter said.

"You're still masked," Steve said, vaguely aware he sounded surprised.

"I know. Color me surprised." Peter shrugged lightly. "To be fair, they didn't manage to knock me out." He picked at the cloth of his uniform. "This thing is really fantastic."

"Don't remind me," Clint said. "This is the last time I refuse his offer to make me a catsuit."

"You wore one for that mission earlier," Natasha told him. "It was fine then."

"Stealth missions require different uniforms. This wasn't stealth."

Steve looked down at his own uniform, not surprised to see that he was missing his utility belt. He had no idea where his shield was, but it was unlikely that they had destroyed it. Vibranium was too rare a material, never mind that Tony could apparently manufacture it in his basement with nothing more than a particle accelerator or whatever that thing was.

His breath hitched slightly at the thought of Tony. If he was right, this was where Tony had been when Charles had checked up on him. They were that much closer to getting him out. Though Bruce being sedated put a damper on any plans he could cook up. Carting an unconscious man around HYDRA's base wasn't something he wanted to do. Especially since Clint's arm was completely out of commission.

"Any plans, Captain?" Natasha asked, her wry voice implying that she was well aware of Steve's train of thought.

"If I might make a suggestion," Peter said, "I vote we wait for someone to get us out. Then we bust past them."

"We should wait," Clint disagreed. "See if we can get any information on the base."

"Not very likely," Natasha said. "They know full well what we're capable of."

"Then why are we all in the same room?" Steve asked. "They're either a bunch of idiots or they don't think we can manage it."

"I vote for them being idiots," Peter said. "Please."

"It's not up for voting," Natasha said dryly.

Steve tilted his head to the side, frowning as he heard footsteps outside their room. "I think someone's coming."

"We'll make sure to look completely harmless," Clint said, huddling by a wall and suddenly looking so weak it took even Steve aback.

"Hmph." Natasha crouched next to Clint.

"I'm just a kid." Peter sounded plaintive, though Steve couldn't be sure if this was an act because of the mask.

Bruce was out cold, so that just left Steve to sit on the bed and feel silly. Tony had told him once that he either looked like a giant teddy bear or the most threatening man on the planet. But since this had been post-sex, Steve didn't know how accurate this was.

The door opened then, revealing maybe a dozen HYDRA goons out there. Probably not stupid after all then, but since Natasha alone could take out two dozen men without breaking a sweat, they were still seriously undermanned.

"Move and we'll tranq you," the one in the front threatened, showcasing his gun.

"You're not going to kill us?" Steve asked.

There was no answer to this, but the goons marched into the room, three of them surrounding Steve. Four went to Clint and Natasha. One stood by Peter. Then another three planted themselves by Bruce's bedside. The twelfth and the leader remained standing by the door.

Steve was unable to keep from stiffening as another man appeared in the doorway. This one wore a dark brown cloak and each of his fingers was adorned with a ring. His dark eyes glinted cruelly, and his sleek black hair was tied back in a tight ponytail.

"Avengers." His voice was soft, dangerously so. This was a man used to getting what he wanted when he asked for it. "This was an expected surprise."

"Not a surprise if you expect it," Steve said evenly, ignoring the looks Natasha and Clint shot him. It was well-known among HYDRA operatives that he was a smart-mouth. If he kept quiet, they'd be more suspicious than if he was mouthing off.

"Well," the man said, "we had your teammate. We were wondering when you would show."

"Where is he?" Steve asked, barely able to restrain his anger.

"Where is he?" The man hummed noncommittally, tapping his fingers together. "Life's greatest mystery is perhaps where one goes after death, don't you think?"

Steve's heart twisted painfully in his chest, and he hoped he was able to keep the pain off his face as he said, "What?"

"He's dead, Captain," the man said bluntly. "It was a rather magnificent display if I do say so myself."


"You're lying," Natasha said, voice soft.

"Am I, my dear?" The man gave her a dismissive look. "Tony Stark is dead, and I have the Avengers in my grasp. I think now the question is what exactly I should do with my most fortunate luck."

Tony couldn't be dead. It just…it just didn't seem conceivable. That Tony would die now, after having survived two gunshots to the chest not even a month ago?

"You really think you can hold us here?" Steve asked eventually, his voice quiet. Grief was roiling in his stomach, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He had a team to take care of, and he needed to get them out. Once they were all safe…then…he could fall apart.

"I don't think, I know, Captain." The man smiled, the expression seeming friendly though it didn't reach his eyes. "Now, Tony Stark would never have answered our questions, but I believe his teammates would not be so disinclined now that they have seen what we are capable of."

"We already knew you were murderers," Steve said.

"Small-time murderers perhaps. But killing Iron Man? The first Avenger?" The man's smile turned chilly. "We have – as you Americans would say – entered the big leagues."

"So what? You want to play ball?"

"We have questions," the man said. "About the bridge your deceased Tony Stark was building."

The Bifrost? All this over a bridge?

Inhaling deeply, Steve managed to put on his best "Oh, golly gee" expression. "I'm just a guy from the forties. Science isn't really my bag if you get my meaning." He smiled now, flashing his teeth. "You'd do better to ask Bruce over there." He gestured to the still unconscious doctor.

"We do know who he is, Captain," the man said, not sounding at all impressed at Steve's posturing. "I don't think it would be in either of our best interests to let the beast out."

Steve didn't say that Hulk was well able to tell friend from foe now and that the only people who would be in danger were HYDRA goons. Especially if he heard that Tony was dead. "I see." He kept his tone calm.

"I am certain you do, Captain." The man smiled genially. "Perhaps you require some time to consider your options? I can come back later if you so choose. We have nothing but time on our hands."

"Perhaps that would be best," Steve conceded, flashing the smile he'd always given on his tours in the war. It had never failed him before. "Until then?"

"Absolutely, Captain." The man inclined his head, drawing back through the door. The HYDRA goons followed him out, locking the door shut with a loud bang.

Now Steve was able to let his chin drop to his chest, breath coming in quick gasps. He fought to get control of himself, push the grief back until he could better focus on it. He couldn't break down now.

After a few seconds, he managed it, straightening with dry eyes.

Natasha studied him carefully. "Are you all right?" Her question was soft.

"Yes." It was a lie, and a bad one at that, but thankfully none of them pointed it out.

"This complicates things," Clint said, his head pressed back against the wall behind him.

"I can probably make something up," Steve said quietly, not addressing the issue Clint was calling "complicated." "Tony's talked enough science to me."

"The problem's that it'll sound false," Natasha said. "You're not fluent enough in that language to be able to pull it off. Neither am I."

"I am," Peter said.

"I won't put you in that kind of danger," Steve said, fixing him with a hard stare. "Not now." Not with Tony dead.

"You might not have a choice." Peter's tone was steady.

"I'm definitely going to try." Steve thinned his lips. "But we've still got some time."

"Not much," Natasha noted.

Steve didn't answer, his focus on the door the man had walked through.

Maybe by the time he came back, Bruce would be up.

It was bitterly cold here. Encased in the suit, Tony couldn't physically feel it, but the temperature gauge on the HUD showed that it was far below freezing and dropping rapidly.

In an effort to scout out the area, Tony had flown in small circles around the spot he had landed in. He was reluctant to get too far from it in case something else dropped in courtesy of the Mandarin. It was a long shot, but hey, anything could happen.

Still, after an hour Tony had to concede that he was the only one who had ended up here. At least his body had stopped tingling from whatever the Mandarin had done; that had just sucked.

Given that the likelihood of anything else coming here seemed infinitesimally low now that an hour had passed, Tony was getting restless. He wouldn't get home if he didn't start moving.

Huffing lightly, Tony muttered to himself (not to JARVIS because he was gone), "Better get going or I'll just freeze in the air."

It was highly unlikely that the suit would freeze, but Tony hadn't designed it with such cold weather in mind. It could hold up in Arctic weather, but this was beyond that. If he didn't start moving, the chance that the suit's joints would stiffen would increase.

Picking a random location (north, because north was always better), Tony fired his repulsors and blasted off.

The direction he'd picked was also with the wind, meaning he didn't have to pour as much power into the repulsors. It also meant snow wasn't hitting him in the faceplate. It hadn't stopped snowing since he'd crash landed, and another foot had settled on the ground while he'd drifted in not-so-lazy circles.

Tony couldn't help the small hope that maybe Extremis would pick something up now that he was moving. And as it continued to lie silent except for buzzing softly in the back of his mind, that hope slowly dwindled further and further until it vanished altogether.

"I better not spend another damn three months here," Tony muttered. "I'm not building another suit just to jump planets."

There was no response, but then he wasn't talking out loud for that anyway. He was too used to JARVIS responding, and without him Tony floundered. Talking was the only way Tony could reassure himself that he wasn't alone. That he was physically present.

"Not that I'm not here, because then I'd be dead. Or maybe I'm unconscious in that snow bank or in the Mandarin's lair, but that'd still mean I'm here."

It was at this point that JARVIS would say something vaguely snide or snarky.

"I'm pathetic."

Tony kept his head up to watch where he was going with the night vision on the HUD. There was otherwise no light due to the terrible flying conditions, and he wasn't in any mood to try and fly higher in case he missed something. Then again, maybe there was better reception higher up.

"If this doesn't work, that's my next move." And if he didn't get home soon, he'd be forever talking aloud to himself as if he was crazy. "Aren't we all?"

After another two minutes of flying, Tony ran into obstacles that he liked to call mountains. He angled himself up to fly straight over the peaks. Once he was over, he flew across some of the craggy peaks and – just for fun – kicked one with his boot to watch the rocks fall down the mountainside.

"Next stop: Himalayas."

He'd delete the suit's recordings later; there was no need to have a memento of the time he'd spent talking to himself like a loon. "Just keep the scientific blabbering. Never know when there's a gem in there and not just equations."

Feeling brave, Tony poured on the speed on his repulsors, accelerating so he was powering through the air even faster. He wanted to get home.

That thought was promptly derailed when he collided head on with something that his night vision had not seen (it wasn't warm and was just standing there) and spun through the air to land on the icy ground with a pained cry.

"Ow, ow, ow, ow." Tony flailed dramatically, stopping his spinning with a mental hand. Having stopped, he found himself face down on the ice. Pushing himself up to his knees, he shook his head before looking up to see where he'd landed.

It looked like the middle of a courtyard. There were also what looked like giant blue people with red sclera and black pupils.

"Oh, hi." Tony managed a wave as he got to his feet. He was definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. "Mind telling me where I am?"

One of the giants stepped in front of him, glowering down at his (rather insignificant) form. Considering they were definitely taller than Thor (by three feet at least, his mind added), he was feeling really puny now.

"I come in peace?" Tony tried, hoping he looked peaceful. He hadn't made the suit with this in mind, but he could always hope his body language was readable.

The giant spoke, but it was in no language Tony recognized.

"Sorry?" Tony gave a wavy gesture with a hand, only to drop it when the giant growled. "I don't understand. You speak English?"

There were more indistinguishable words, and Tony really wished Extremis came with a translator.

"You guys don't have Allspeak?" Tony kept his voice light. "Might be easier if you did."

The giant roared then, startling Tony into taking several steps back. He collided with another giant's legs, and he flailed as the giant picked him up by a leg.

"Careful with the suit!" he yelped, flailing slightly.

The giant paid him no need, continuing to carry him somewhere Tony couldn't exactly see since he was swinging. All the HUD was registering that the giants were very, very cold, and Tony was lucky the suit was on because the metal was actually icing over, and he hadn't had that problem since the Mark II.

Then he was thrown into an icy cavern, hitting the other side with a heavy thud and sliding down. Grunting slightly as he made sure all systems were still relatively green and he could move, Tony sat up, letting his faceplate slide back. He inhaled the bitterly cold air, noting that it wasn't quite as cold in the cavern as it was outside.

Maybe he could actually get some sleep in here. It was somewhat more protected than being out in the open, and he could do with protection considering he was no longer on Earth. The giant blue monsters had definitely driven that point home. No wonder he couldn't access anything with Extremis.

Glancing down at his leg, Tony hit the ice with a gauntlet, shattering it. Shaking it so the rest of the ice fell off, he looked back up at the large ice door that he'd been thrown through. He could probably melt it with his repulsors, and even then he wasn't powerless without the suit.

He would be fine.

Exhaling slowly, Tony settled back against the icy wall, letting the faceplate slide back down so his beard wouldn't ice up (it wasn't that warm in here).

Sleeping in the Iron Man suit wasn't what he preferred, but it was his only choice.

Making sure that Extremis would sound an alarm in case something showed up that shouldn't, Tony closed his eyes and tried to get some shut-eye. Who knew how much longer he'd be here for?

He startled awake three hours later as Extremis warned him that something was outside the door.

Tony shifted into a fighting position, repulsors up as the door opened.

A giant poked its head in, bared its teeth at Tony, and kicked something into the room. It then withdrew, closing the door.

Tony stared, unsure of what had just happened.

It looked like a tray of food. Though he couldn't be sure since it didn't seem to be anything he could actually eat. It looked kind of blue in some places (maybe it was frozen?) while other places were so pink he swore there was still blood seeping out of it.

"I like the thought behind it!" he called, putting his hands down now that the threat was gone. "Too bad I can't eat it."

He wasn't about to try it just on the off chance it was edible. He wasn't that demented.

"Considering I'm in a metal suit," Tony mused, sitting back against the wall, "I'm surprised they even think I need to eat. Do they even have metal here?"

The tray would indicate they did. But then on closer inspection with his HUD Tony realized it was actually ice. Then again, the giants had been wearing jewelry and he'd also seen things like staffs and spears on the way into this cell, and they'd clearly not been ice. They did have metal, but it was probably only used for important things like looking pretty and fighting.

Maybe he should hide the food. He wouldn't want the giants to think he was putting up his nose at their hospitality.

"Is it hospitality?" he wondered. "Or am I a prisoner?"

The question was idiotic, seeing as how he was in a room with absolutely no furniture. Who put up their guests in a room with no furniture? Prisoner it was.

"I need work," he lamented at the food. "Especially if I'm asking stupid questions."

He walked to the tray, stooping down to pick it up with a hand and supporting the rest with his mind since it was ridiculously big. Now that he was up close, Tony was even more repulsed at the food.

Screwing up his nose, Tony was really glad for his helmet. The food probably smelled awful.

He brought the tray over to a wall, setting it down and then beginning to burn a hole in the wall with a repulsor. It took a minute before he had a decent-sized hole he could shove the food in. Then he pulled over a large rock and shoved it in front to hide his handiwork before returning to his designated sleeping spot and sitting back down.

He was going to get some more sleep if he could.

The next time he awoke it was again due to Extremis. This time the giant stepped inside and stretched out to grab his leg, presumably to haul him out.

"I can walk!" Tony scrambled out of its reach, getting to his feet and putting up his hands, placating. It wasn't like the giant knew this was actually a threatening gesture in this suit. He made as if to walk forward. "See? I can walk."

The giant glowered down at him suspiciously.

"Walking." Tony slid slowly toward its side, trying not to slip and make a fool of himself, setting his head down in his best impression of a demure guest (prisoner).

The giant grunted and seemed to roll its eyes before taking hold of Tony's shoulder and steering him through the building he was in. There wasn't much light, but there was definitely more than there had been before. Everything was cast in a bluish sort of light, making Tony feel sort of blue.

"Nice interior design," he said under his breath. "Who was your designer?"

The giant didn't respond, but then Tony hadn't expected it to.

If Tony was right, then he was probably in one of the realms Thor liked to talk about. Unfortunately, his Norse mythology was shoddy enough that he didn't know which realm. Only that it was populated by giant blue people with red eyes, which Thor had mentioned once or twice. Tony kind of wished he'd paid a bit more attention to the names.

The giant brought him to another door, and Tony was shoved through it and into what seemed to be an arena.

"Don't tell me you guys are into gladiator fights," Tony groaned, getting up onto his knees.

There was roaring from around him, and Tony did his best to seem as innocuous as possible. Another giant appeared from the opposite side of the arena. With huge scars marring its face and chest, this one seemed worse off than the ones Tony had seen before. It was also missing teeth as it snarled something at Tony.

"I have no idea what you just said," Tony said, "but I'll assume it was something sporting."

A mace was thrown into the arena, and his opponent jumped on it.

Tony pushed himself to stand, spreading his feet so he'd be less likely to slip. "Ooh, sweet. Bludgeoning it is."

There must have been sort of signal that the fight would start, though Tony didn't know what. Either way, the giant let out a deafening roar and attacked.

It didn't take Tony more than a second to decide what he needed to do. Conserving energy was an absolute must because he had no idea how long he'd be here for. He also didn't know what would happen if he ran out of energy, especially considering it was in his body.

Telekinesis it was.

Tony wrenched the mace out of the giant's hands, flipping it around with a wave of his hand and then swinging it directly into the giant's face. It made impact with a sickening crack, and Tony winced at the sound. Still, he didn't drop the mace, instead pulling it over to where he was standing and keeping it afloat next to him.

"Want some more?" he asked.

The giant's nose was quite evidently broken, but that didn't seem to stop it from rushing to attack Tony with nothing more than its fists.

"I guess that's a yes." Tony swung his arm again, making sure to sweep the giant's legs out from underneath it with the mace. Then he lifted the mace even higher before letting it drop directly onto the giant's head. He didn't stop there, pushing the giant deeper into the ice, which let out an ominous cracking sound.

There was howling and thrashing from the helpless giant, but Tony didn't stop. He needed some way of getting out here, and if defeating his opponent would help him with that, then he'd do it.

Leaving one hand facing the ground, Tony moved his right and made a scooping motion with it, lifting up some of the ice that had been uprooted. Then he brought that down on the giant's head, grinding it even further into the ground.

After a minute of this, the giant fell still. Tony kept the pressure up for about five more seconds just be certain before he let go. He felt vaguely ill with the knowledge of what he had just done.

He turned to the side, facing an entire wall of spectators. "Is that it?" he asked.

There was a loud roaring from behind him that his HUD told him was shaking the air and the ground. Unthinkingly, Tony whirled, only to find his feet sliding out from under him. He hit the ice hard, a shocked gasp escaping him before he could stop it.

Another sound rang through the air, and it didn't take Tony much time to register it as laughter.

"Glad I'm amusing you all," he grumbled, propping himself up on his elbows as he caught sight of the source of the tremors. "Jesus Christ."

It was a monster. A very furry monster that didn't seem to have any eyes but did have two nostrils directly above an absolutely enormous mouth with very sharp teeth. It boasted incredibly powerful legs and terrifying claws.

"Screw Jabba the Hut," Tony muttered, pushing himself up to his feet. "I bet this is where Lucas got his inspiration from."

The monster dug its claws into the ice, the ground splintering beneath its feet as it ground backwards much like a very aggressive dog. It seemed to be getting ready to eat Tony.

"Screw this." Tony executed a perfect about face and spread his arms, focusing intensely on the body of the monster.

It made a questioning sound that was more a growl as its motions slowly ground to a halt under Tony's mental force.

Bending over slowly, Tony screwed his eyes shut as he focused on lifting the thing. It was ridiculously heavy, but he believed in the concept of mind over matter.

Grunting with effort, Tony swung his arms up and over his head as if he was throwing down a heavy bag. He let go of the beast's body a second later, looking up to see it fly over his head and smash into the ground with a pained screech. Its weight hitting the ground nearly made Tony slip again.

"That's that." Tony straightened up, giving a jaunty salute to the shocked giants still watching. "And that's my cue to exit."

He looked up at the ceiling and punched a hole through it with a combination of repulsor fire and telekinesis. With shattered and melting ice falling around him, Tony blasted off into the open sky.

He unhesitatingly set course to the south, leaving behind his former prison as fast as he possibly could. He had little doubt that the giants would soon be after him and he had to do his best to put as much distance between himself and them as possible.

Tony was about fifty miles and several mountains away before he touched down on the rocky ground. There wasn't as much snow here, but whether that was because it had all melted – which seemed unlikely given the low temperatures – or for some other reason he couldn't tell.

Either way, it was no longer as dark as it had been before. There was some sort of light illuminating his surroundings, but it wasn't anything he was familiar with. It still seemed like nighttime, but there was enough light that he could see without using his night vision. Everything just had a very bluish tint to it.

"When I get back, I'm outlawing blue," Tony muttered, picking a random direction and beginning to walk.

Flying everywhere wasn't an option. He'd run out of power in absolutely no time.

"What I need is a cave. A nice warm cave." Tony puffed lightly as he hit a steep slope and began walking uphill. "Or maybe I should just make an igloo. I hear they're very warm."

He continued walking uphill for several minutes until the slope leveled out. The temperature had now settled to a nice and toasty 29 degrees, which was a lot warmer than last night (if it had been night when he'd arrived).

Inside the armor was getting to be rather warm with him exerting so much energy. The suit hadn't been designed with extended walking in mind, and although it wasn't necessarily uncomfortable, it was incredibly inconvenient.

Since he could now breathe the air outside without freezing his tongue off and it was really getting to be rather toasty inside the suit, Tony lifted the faceplate, recoiling as the cold air hit his flushed cheeks. He blinked into the frigid wind, inhaling deeply.

The wind swept into his helmet and through the rest of his armor, cooling him down enough so that he felt more comfortable. It only took a couple of minutes before he began getting chilly and lowered the faceplate again.

He wished he could feel his face with his hands, but he didn't dare take the armor off. His undersuit had some heat-retaining abilities, but without shoes he'd be freezing in no time.

"Note to self: make shoes."

Tony stumbled upon a sheer drop when the ground he was on suddenly fell away to nothing. Randomly deciding to turn left, he continued walking, eyes fixed on the abyss to his right as he maintained a careful distance from the edge.

After about five minutes of walking along the same crevasse, Tony gave in to his curiosity and stopped, turning to examine it. Upon closer inspection, it almost looked like some sort of laser beam had come down and gouged it out. It was too perfectly made to be natural.

But that was if Tony was prone to fits of fancy. Which he really wasn't.

Huffing lightly in exasperation at his thoughts, Tony shook his head and continued walking. If necessary, he could fly across it to dodge his pursuers.

After a few more seconds, he deemed this to be a good idea and took off to make his way to the other side. He landed a minute later, turning his back to the crevasse and continuing further onto flat land. He had no desire to spend his time here walking next to a really deep crevasse and risking toppling over when he got too tired.

"I so need a cave."

He walked for about an hour more before the little light there was began to fade. Not wanting to get caught in the pitch dark with only his night vision to help, Tony quickened his search for a cave.

It was almost completely dark when he hit the jackpot. Giving the area a quick check with his sensors, Tony decided the cave was safe enough and went inside. There were signs that something had made the cave its home at one point, but there were no current signs of the animal, and Tony was really getting tired of walking.

He pressed on deeper into the cave, aiming to get away from the opening and the cold wind that would doubtlessly make its way in at some point. After rounding a turn, Tony found that the cave was rather deeply carved into the mountain and sincerely hoped that the animal that'd carved it out wouldn't be coming home at any point.

"I can always fry it."

Decision made, Tony flumped down, making himself as comfortable as he could considering he was still stuck in his armor. As the cave was far warmer than outside, Tony lifted his faceplate, inhaling the stale air deeply. It smelled a bit foul – probably because of the animal – but it was better than breathing the filtered air his armor gave him. With a reluctant sigh, he closed the faceplate before his face could freeze off.

"If only there was wood." There hadn't been any trees or anything else he could use to start a fire.

Making himself comfortable against a groove in the wall, Tony rested his head back on the wall, closing his eyes. Extremis pinged softly in the back of his mind, the signal that it was ready to sound an alarm if necessary.

Still, Tony felt like he'd barely closed his eyes before he was startling awake with the loud alarm Extremis screeched through his mind. And a bit too late, too, because there was a gigantic furry monster with a mouth that separated into four parts (Just like a flower, Tony thought hysterically) that wasn't at all pleased to find an intruder in its home.

It looked an awful lot like a monster from that Star Trek movie that had come out a few years ago, but Tony couldn't think much more on that because it was about to eat him.

Blurry with sleep, Tony fired both repulsors directly into the beast's mouth, sending it careening backwards. It screeched with pain, its mouth smoking and blood dripping down onto the cave ground. The blood steamed, hissing as it touched the freezing ground.

Tony pressed himself up against the wall he was lying against, unable to get by the monster. It was blocking the exit and tromping all over the floor in agony. Unless he wanted to get squashed (and he really didn't), slipping by wasn't an option at the moment.

And several seconds later it still wasn't because the monster again lunged for him regardless of its bleeding mouth. Tony reflexively fired his repulsors again, not bothering to limit the power he put into the shots.

This time the reaction was much more violent. The monster reared back, colliding with the top of the cave and causing the entire structure to shake. To Tony's horror, cracks started to form in the rocks, spreading out from the point of impact. They spread even more as the monster's tail whacked against the walls, further destabilizing the mountain the cave was in.

It must not have been that stable to begin with if it was destabilizing this quickly.

Tony struggled to his feet, not exactly eager to be trapped beneath a hundred tons of rock. He wavered on his feet, desperate to dive past the monster but unable to find an opportunity with the way it was staggering back and forth and snapping its tail into the walls.

Its head hit the top of the cave once again, and this time Tony heard a terrifyingly loud cracking sound.

It was the last thing he heard and saw before a mountain fell on top of him, burying both him and the monster alive.

Don't kill me. Not yet. Next chapter should be up as well! *points to button*