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Del Rion [userpic]

Can't Break Me (2/2)


- - -

Bruce was still experiencing a rather spectacular hangover when they sat down in Tony’s private jet and took off towards New York City. He knew that on a normal day, Tony would have just put on the armor and flown on his own, but since Bruce didn’t have a suit, this was what they had opted for.

Tony kept offering him remedies to ease his condition, many of them highly questionable, but those distractions provided Bruce marginal relief from the pounding in his head and the unease in his stomach.

The flight went smoothly and soon enough they were speeding towards Midtown Manhattan – taking a detour to grab some cheeseburgers, which Tony insisted were necessary. Bruce admitted they were pretty good, although he almost suffocated on his second one because Tony’s driving style required two hands on the wheel, and he only used one while eating his own burgers, almost crashing the car.

“I wasn’t even close to totaling the car!” Tony claimed when they got safely to the parking garage of the Avengers Tower and Bruce was still shaking with adrenaline.

“Just our lives,” Bruce muttered.

“You’re being a worrywart, again,” Tony pointed at him, then flashed him a grin in the next instant and pushed his sunglasses into his hair as they waited for the elevator to arrive. “You should get your blood pumping more often.”

“When it pumps too much, things tend to go… boom,” Bruce stated lamely.

“Was that before or after the Hulk?” Tony enquired, seriously, although his eyes were dancing.

“Wouldn’t you like to know.”

“You’re a tease,” Tony complained as they stepped into the elevator. “I’m thinking more drinks once we get upstairs,” he went on after they had moved up a few floors.

“Seriously?” Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I think we’ve had enough to last a… well, a while.”

“No, you see, this is just the beginning,” the other man rolled towards him, leaning his side against the elevator wall. “We’re just getting started, immersing ourselves. It will get easier.”

“I thought Steve informed us that Thor’s in town,” Bruce hedged. He didn’t think his liver could take more alcohol anytime soon – well, his emotional liver, because the other guy probably made his liver just as indestructible as the rest of him.

“They can join us,” Tony dismissed the point. “You and me, though – we need to get your merriment scale raised before you go back to destroying my property.”

Bruce knew, intellectually, that Tony didn’t really care about the broken mirror. In the past, he hadn’t been all that worried about the Hulk breaking things, either. All of this had more to do with Bruce’s internal issues, and Tony’s attempt to draw him out of the dark musings that periodically claimed more space than usual in Bruce’s mind.

Maybe a distraction was what he needed.

“How about you drink, and I just… hang?” Bruce suggested. “Or, I can drink a little of something,” he amended, because being the only sober person in the room was often less than worth the effort.

Tony just gave him a mischievous look, as if he weren’t buying it for a minute, and then he guided them into the penthouse’s living room, ordering J.A.R.V.I.S. around to provide lights and music. Bruce sagged down on the couch and took off his jacket, then wordlessly accepted the drink Tony thrust towards him a minute later, placing it on the table and leaning back, closing his eyes.

The steady thrum of music, the room darkened from the late afternoon sun, and smoothly rotating lights that weren’t too bright eventually lulled his headache a comfortable distance away from the surface of his mind, even when Tony turned up the volume slightly.

Air left Bruce’s lungs rather violently and his thigh muscles tensed when a weight suddenly settled across them, and he blinked up to find Tony straddling him, his jacket gone, shirt open at the neck. A light flush was on his cheeks, either from the drink in his hand, or maybe he had just been dancing by himself again.

“You’re not having fun,” Tony observed, looking comfortable in a position that was seriously breaching Bruce’s personal space.

“So you’re going to give me a lap dance?” Bruce shot back, unsure where to put his hands. Why had he moved them from his sides? If he had just stayed still, maybe Tony would’ve lost interest like a dog would in a toy.

Tony’s smile was bright and he took a long, deliberate sip of his drink. Something strong and ridiculously expensive, no doubt. Bruce watched, because if he didn’t, who knew what Tony would come up with next. Ignoring him didn’t always mean he would be ignored back, as Bruce had learned several times.

As his eyes remained fixed on Tony’s face, relentlessly, to not lose whatever game they were playing, Bruce noted that Tony hadn’t swallowed. He saw his cheek muscles twitch, maybe from the burn of the alcohol, and then Tony leaned forward, face aligned with Bruce’s. If he didn’t want to end up wearing a mouthful of Tony’s expensive drink, he had to act fast so Bruce kept his face still and opened his mouth a fraction just before Tony did.

The rush of warm liquid burned and made him want to cough and pull to the side. A little bit dribbled across his lip and down his chin, and Tony’s tongue chased it, intercepting the liquid. A hint of teeth pressed against Bruce’s lower lip, informing him of a smile he couldn’t currently see.

He knew Tony was about to speak – there was no way he wasn’t going to gloat or tease – so Bruce simply lifted his face a bit higher, catching Tony’s lips with his and lifted one hand to Tony’s chin, anchoring it in place with a hold that would have been easy to break, but Tony wouldn’t do that unless he was unprepared for this, and Bruce knew Tony prepared for a lot of outcomes in whatever he did.

One outcome included a dragging kiss traded between them, tasting too sharply of alcohol and not enough like a person.

Tony was the one to break it, leaning back, and Bruce’s hand followed, as if magically attached to his face. His thumb shifted, across soft skin and carefully trimmed facial hair, ending up on Tony’s lower lip and across it, pressing slightly against the seam of his lips.

The song changed.

Bruce let his hand fall, and Tony leaned further back, still smiling but not grinning, and got off his lap, emptying his glass as he moved across the room to the bar, already pouring himself another when Bruce reached out for his own glass, needing to move in order to banish the empty feeling in his lap.

Tony returned, clinked glasses with him and settled down on the couch, flush against Bruce’s side but it still felt less intimate compared to earlier. Bruce threw an arm around the back of the couch, shifting, then brought his hand down a little, behind Tony’s shoulders. His innocent gesture was rewarded by another smile and Tony leaned a bit closer. “I didn’t plan that, just so you know,” the other man admitted eventually, breaths warm on Bruce’s neck.

Bruce wasn’t certain whether he believed it – or wanted things to end with that statement. He didn’t bother to lament how lonely his life was, how he couldn’t let anyone get close, and how a single kiss with the potentially wrong person might further complicate things.

But Tony wasn’t the ‘wrong’ person; he might not be ideal, but there was a reason why Bruce had decided to get drunk with him last night, and why they had sort of awkwardly danced, and why he hadn’t hulked-out when Tony ended up astride his lap without a warning.

It was the same reason why he was probably going to end up hammered again tonight, with some club music blaring from the speakers and knowing full well that this wasn’t even really a party in Tony’s book.

“Maybe I did,” Bruce replied at length.

Tony laughed and sipped his drink, resting the cool glass against Bruce’s thigh afterwards. “Going to get me drunk off my ass and take advantage?”

“I need to get you drunk for that?”

“If you’re going to take advantage, then yeah. Or tie me up.” A dark eyebrow waggled suggestively.

“I’m not that kind of doctor,” Bruce replied – not that he knew what kind of doctor did those kinds of things.

But, as long as Tony kept smiling, giggling, snorting with laughter, and smooching Bruce’s cheek in passing when he went to fetch them another round of drinks, things were good, and there were no nightmares about the blood on his hands.

‘The party don’t stop,’ sang Ke$ha, and Tony took to those words like a religious exaltation, once again creating a gravitational pull that Bruce was helpless to avoid or escape.

- - -

They weren’t nearly as shitfaced as last night in Malibu. Tony supposed they maybe should have learned a lesson, which was to drink more liquids – of the non-alcohol variety, like water. He decided to leave that until later, but before ‘later’ reached their current whereabouts, Steve and Thor arrived.

Tony was fairly certain J.A.R.V.I.S. had mentioned the two Avengers were in the building, but between that and their actual arrival to the penthouse, it felt like forever, and Tony had forgotten they were coming.

“Hey!” Tony greeted them from the floor where he was currently seated, feet bare, inching the toes of his right foot up Bruce’s pant leg. “Pull up a chair,” he ordered. “Drinks are on the house.”

Steve gave the room a judgmental look, while Thor looked ready to join their party. “Is Bruce drunk?” Steve finally asked.

“Just tipsy,” Bruce replied, lifting a beer bottle in the air – and promptly dropped it, spilling some on the couch before lifting the bottle upright again. “Shit… sorry, I’ll…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Tony waved it off.

Steve was still looking at them with disapproval and Tony made an effort to push himself up, by rolling backwards over his shoulder, which he could do just fine on a good day, with a little momentum, but he hadn’t been sober for hours and ended up in a tangled heap on the floor.

“What are you doing?” Bruce asked, in a rather drunkenly amused inquiry, and Tony gasped and rolled onto his back, managing to straighten his legs before they started to cramp.

“Nothing,” he responded and looked over at the two blonds in the doorway. “Seriously, lighten up. This is a party! Don’t be party poopers. I’m sure you got that reference.”

Steve rolled his eyes. Tony was pretty sure the super-soldier had copied that from him, and he felt strangely proud. “Could we have a word, please?” Steve asked a moment later, looking pointedly at Tony. “In private.”

Tony picked himself off the floor, a bit unsteadily, but he had years’ worth of experience with this and eventually led Steve to his office, closing the door behind them. Thor had been moving towards the kitchen when they left the room and would no doubt join Bruce on the couch.

Steve, on the other hand, looked prepared to ruin the night for everyone.

“Why on Earth would you think it’s a great idea to get Bruce Banner drunk?” Steve demanded after what had to be his version of a steadying breath. It came out exasperated, and Tony felt himself going on the defensive, which he hated, because deep down, he rather liked Steve.

And respected him.

And had once upon a time thought they would be buddies, and even though they were, sort of, it had never really gotten to that level that Tony’s younger, more innocent self had dreamt of.

His adult self, on more than one occasion, had dreamt of something more than a buddy-buddy relationship between the two of them, in the secrecy of his own mind. It was healthy to fantasize, and it was even healthier to have a sex life with one’s own hand – and an assembly of appropriate toys – instead of getting creepy around the source of said fantasies, but Tony still disliked how Steve so blatantly ignored him whenever Tony actually tried to get along with him.

“You’re not listening to me, are you?” Steve snapped finally.

“Sorry,” Tony murmured.

“What if there’s a situation?” Steve pressed on, clearly still zeroing in on their drunken teammate.

“I highly doubt that Bruce’s lack of sobriety will affect the Hulk in any way,” Tony responded.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You’re too drunk to walk straight. What if you’re needed?”

Tony stared at him, blinked, then tried to cock an eyebrow, draw his hand across his face and groan at the same time. The three movements, in his current state, became a rather disastrous mix which left Steve frowning at him even harder, and Tony felt like punching him in the face. “You think I can’t suit up if I’m drunk? Shall we test that theory? Besides, there hasn’t been a single disaster in weeks! I can’t live my life by hanging onto the idea that the world’s going to fall apart at my next breath. Maybe you should try that, too, for a change.”

“It’s irresponsible,” Steve informed him.

“It’s productive!” Tony argued vehemently. “Bruce needs a distraction, to loosen up. We’re achieving that.”

Steve didn’t look convinced. “This isn’t helping him. You are not helping him.”

A response almost burned off the tip of Tony’s tongue, but he swallowed it. “He’s a grown up. He can make his own decisions. If he wants to get drunk with me, I’m not going to push him away.”

Steve could hardly argue with that, and it wasn’t as if the Avengers were on call constantly, either.

Unlike Iron Man.

But as Tony had stated, being drunk didn’t stop him from getting the job done in a suit.

“Come have a drink with us,” Tony finally asked, softer, more genuine. Personal. It was his twisted version of the ‘please be my friend’ –speech.

Steve nodded tensely and left the office, heading back to the living room; he hadn’t really heard Tony, only the words, but Tony guessed that was good enough. Steve would sit with them, doubtlessly to keep an eye on Bruce, and Tony could pretend there was more to it than that.

- - -

As fate would have it, a call came in the early morning hours, when the party wasn’t going nearly as strong but Tony and Bruce were still plastered to furniture in fits of giggles as they threw physics riddles between them, each more ridiculous than the last. Thor and Steve had stopped trying to comprehend the inside jokes hours ago, until J.A.R.V.I.S. informed them there was a disturbance in the subway.

“Alligators?” Tony guessed.

Bruce scoffed, head shifting where it was resting on Tony’s stomach as they lay sprawled on the same couch for a change.

“No, sir. I believe the term ‘hyper-inflated pufferfish’ was mentioned, although I cannot see how a fish could be causing a mass-evacuation of the subway system.”

“Huh,” Tony mused, then giggled uncontrollably.

“Let’s go,” Steve said from the side and stood up. Thor followed, and then Bruce rolled off the couch, onto all fours before standing up and straightening his clothing.

“You coming?” the scientist asked, looking down at Tony.

“Sure,” Tony smiled. “Let’s go fishing.”

Tony was fully aware that Steve was giving him dirty looks when they gathered at the landing pad. Thor was grasping Mjolnir, Steve had found an extra outfit of his uniform somewhere – or had brought it with him, because he had the shield, too, and Tony sure didn’t have a spare one of those lying around. Bruce was still dressed as he had been before, tugging at the waistband of his pants as if trying to calculate how long they would be staying on his body if he had to transform into the Hulk.

In the suit, Tony’s gait was as graceful as always, and he grasped Bruce around the waist, deciding that Thor could take Steve. Bruce started, then turned and placed his arms around Tony’s shoulders, clearly trying to anticipate where to place his hands and not get burned by the repulsors. “Ready?” Tony asked him.

“Are you sure we cannot wait for a Quinjet from S.H.I.E.L.D.?” Bruce asked back.

“The flight will help you sober up,” Tony offered cheerfully and then took off, not too fast but knowing that if the Avengers were called in, the situation warranted some haste. Thor and Steve followed, and the sunrise painted Thor’s armor and Steve’s shield with a bright glow that hurt Tony’s eyes until J.A.R.V.I.S. adjusted the screen in front of his face.

‘Hyper-inflated pufferfish’ wasn’t too far from the truth when they finally got to one of the stations that had already been evacuated. There was water everywhere, leaving them knee-high in it, and there were some kind of fish-men hybrids that would have been rolling faster than walking. They also shot poisonous spikes from their bodies, which wasn’t funny at all after Thor got one stuck in his shoulder, the spike sinking several inches into skin and muscle.

Tony proceeded to electrocute them, but clearly they were more resistant to it than his teammates – or rather, the Hulk, who happened to be standing nearby, and got electrocuted as well because he hadn’t listened to Tony’s ‘all clear!’ command. That was why the rage monster proceeded to punch him through the nearest wall.

It took Tony several minutes to recover from the blow, then try not to drown in his suit which had been breached somewhere and was letting in water – not to mention half a dozen pufferfish-men who were trying to sumo wrestle him and not making the not-drowning any easier.

By the time Tony managed to get his feet under him and punch and blast his way through the huge, round, spike-covered bodies, his suit was spitting sparks, he tasted blood, there was a Hulk-fist shaped dent in his side and he was fairly certain the spikes were poisonous and he may have stabbed himself with a few.

“Iron Man!” Thor’s voice called. “Are you able to carry on?”

Since his comm wasn’t working anymore, apparently, Tony just groaned and waded through the water towards the sound. The emergency power was on in the subway tunnel, but half the lamps were destroyed, leaving them in semi-darkness which reminded him uncomfortably of space.

He found Thor smacking the fish-men further away while holding Captain America up with his free arm. A quick scan of his half-functioning HUD informed Tony that their leader was suffering from severe anaphylactic shock. While the super-soldier serum probably immunized Steve against anything and everything, being repeatedly stabbed by poisonous spikes would affect anyone.

“Get him out of here,” Thor ordered, shoving Steve’s sagging form towards Tony, and all Tony could do was brace himself, trust the armor to hold him upright and drag them both in the direction of the nearest station. Steve’s breaths were labored, his grip on Tony’s shoulder painfully tight, but at least he was conscious and holding on.

They must have gotten turned around at some junction; Tony’s HUD continued to flicker in and out and while there eventually was less water at their feet, the station wasn’t coming up fast enough. “Goddamn it,” Tony muttered and kept walking, because he couldn’t just turn around and go back; they would come to a station sooner or later, or he would blast his way out of here. Not that he was certain how deep they currently were, or what was above them, but he liked to think it was an option anyway.

It felt like hours before they reached a station. Tony was dragging Steve along – would have carried him if his armor was fully functional – and a murmur of voices greeted their arrival from the tunnel. Clearly this station was still being evacuated, confused people milling around, looking annoyed and making angry gestures. Tony didn’t give two shits about how the current battle was affecting their lives, and instead hoisted Steve’s rigid form to the platform and then pulled himself up with some difficulty.

No one approached them, but a dozen cell phones were raised to snap pictures and get video.

“Could someone please call an ambulance?” Tony asked, because his comm was still down.

“No reception, pal,” someone shouted.

“They told us to evacuate.”

“What’s going on? Is the train coming soon?”

Tony felt like rolling his eyes, if only his head didn’t feel like it was splitting in two. Maybe it was the drinking, or the poison he might have been exposed to. Maybe the Hulk had actually broken bones and he just didn’t know it yet. Either way, he needed to get Steve to an ambulance and then to a hospital; the man was hanging on, but his breathing sounded horrible and if his body hadn’t dealt with the poison by now, then it was bad. There was blood smeared on his blue uniform; in the light of the platform, Tony could finally see several holes from the spikes that pierced his uniform, and some of the wounds were still bleeding.

Which meant Steve wasn’t healing.

Which meant something was wrong and Tony didn’t have time to catch his breath.

He forced himself up to his feet and then dragged Steve up. People moved aside, still filming, muttering angry words at how the Avengers had yet again messed something up, and how inconvenient it was.

Clearly these people hadn’t seen what happened at one of the other subway stations, were people got skewered by spikes and cried and screamed for help until the police contained the situation and Cap led the Avengers down to the flooded tunnels to deal with the situation.

Tony stumbled up the endless steps until he found the first police officers chatting up the subway security. “Hey!” he called out. “A little help here? Man down?”

Having Steve’s weight removed didn’t actually make him feel any lighter on his feet, but at least things were finally moving forward.

When they finally got above ground and Tony caught a glimpse of the city, he could see smoke rising into the sky a few blocks down and imagined he heard the Hulk roar in annoyance. When a bolt of lightning flashed, he was certain the fight was still going on, but he trusted S.H.I.E.L.D. or someone to send reinforcements if Thor and the Hulk needed any.

Probably not, now that the more fragile members of their team were out of the way.

“Are you hurt, sir?” an EMT asked him as they loaded Steve onto a stretcher and tried to open his uniform at the chest, probably to help him breathe. “Mr. Stark?” the man prompted again as Tony just stared.

“There’s a…” he started, then moved over, and even with armored hands he found the fastenings and helped part the top of Steve’s uniform. “Let me get out of the suit and I’ll join him at the hospital,” Tony decided, and proceeded to threaten a young police officer with dismemberment if anything should happen to his suit while he was gone. He would have J.A.R.V.I.S. reboot it, or have someone from his own staff pick it up, or even S.H.I.E.L.D., but right now he felt like he needed to lie down as well and the EMTs seemed to agree.

- - -

By the time Bruce resurfaced and could comprehend actual sentences, the battle was over and half their team wasn’t there.

“Banner?” Thor enquired softly. He had been talking, then probably realized Bruce didn’t understand, and had waited a moment before going on again; clearly patience wasn’t his strong suit even after all this time.

A somewhat blurry hour later Bruce had been given clothes that mostly fit him, S.H.I.E.L.D. had arrived to contain what was left of the pufferfish-creatures, and he and Thor had headed out to a hospital. They made it to the lobby before Bruce was made aware that they were there to see Steve and Tony.

They were given directions to Tony’s room and Thor entered without knocking. People looked up; Tony was sitting on a bed, three nurses and a doctor surrounding him. Tony’s brown eyes blinked at them and something like relief washed across his face. “My saviors arrive,” he declared. “Well, technically, I’m here because of the big dude,” he nodded at Bruce. “There better be a big bag of weed ready and waiting because my ribs hurt like a bitch.”

“Mr. Stark,” the doctor started.

“A joke,” Tony snapped his eyes briefly at the man before returning them to Bruce, as if simply looking at him were a lifeline. “Self-medicating is very inappropriate. Also, I think I’m detoxing from… whatever those spikes had in them. Where’s Cap?”

It was clear Tony was not comfortable, blabbing almost nervously. “Everything’s okay,” Bruce told him, although he wasn’t sure whether that was a lie. Tony, however, sucked it up like a sponge and nodded, then told the hospital staff that he was fine, that Bruce was a doctor, and that they could go hover around someone who needed them more.

When the extra people left the room, Bruce got an eyeful of the heavy bruising on Tony’s body. There were also a few wounds that had been patched up, no doubt from a tear in the suit or the spikes. His hair was sticking every which way and he still carried an air of someone who might currently be having a mild panic attack. Maybe the nurses and doctor hadn’t picked up on that, or considered it a normal reaction in the aftermath of a fight. It wasn’t as if there were any scientific studies to the stress syndromes of post-superhero activities.

“Thor,” Bruce looked at the tall Asgardian, “could you go and find out where Steve is? I shall stay with Tony.” Thor nodded and left, his cape hanging heavy and wet, but he still carried the weight of it effortlessly, although his gait was slower.

Bruce approached the bed Tony was still sitting on and looked at him. “Did the other guy…?” he started to ask, but wasn’t sure what had happened, or if he should feel guilty about it – although he would, of course, feel horrible if the rage monster had attacked one of his teammates.

“I tried electrocuting the ugly fish-men. The Hulk got zapped while standing in the water. Clearly he didn’t like it, so he punched me through a wall, where I almost drowned in my suit beneath a pile of sumo wrestlers,” Tony replied, and while the last part didn’t make that much sense to Bruce, he knew it was a deliberate hint to the answer of Tony’s current uneasiness. They hadn’t talked about Afghanistan at length, because Tony never talked about Afghanistan at length, but Bruce knew Tony had a special relationship with drowning. This was a belated reaction, clearly, now that he was running out of adrenaline.

“And Steve?” Bruce pressed, to divert Tony’s attention from the obvious memory.

“Got spiked, repeatedly. Clearly the serum didn’t keep up. He’s… he wasn’t doing so well.” Tony twitched and slid off the bed, almost landing on Bruce’s feet when the scientist didn’t move back in time, but Tony kept hovering in Bruce’s personal space even while trying to relocate his clothes, one hand clutching the side of Bruce’s ill-fitting shirt.

“Thor will locate him, and we’ll find out how he’s doing,” Bruce promised, voice even, because he might as well try to calm both of them at the same time. He still felt uneasy after the battle, although the other guy was no longer skirting the forefront of his thoughts. His body ached terribly and he wanted to sleep for a year, but Tony’s hold on his shirt was desperate and he knew the other man needed him more, although subtly.

They found Tony’s shirt, wet and torn at places, stained with blood and something that could be oil from the suit or some of the poison from the spikes – or something that simply leaked in from the subway while he was underwater. Tony pulled it on either way and followed a slightly unsteady path out of the room, and Bruce had never been so happy that Thor was easy to locate, because he wasn’t sure how long he or Tony could spend walking around the hospital hallways.

“I have found the Captain,” Thor announced when Bruce spotted him, standing a head taller than anyone else a few floors above where they had found Tony. “He is still being treated.” A frown was deeply etched into the thunder god’s features. “Your medicine men seemed worried and told me to wait for news.”

So they waited, finding the person in charge of Steve’s treatment and letting him know they were there, then settled down in a waiting room. There were a few other people there, giving them odd, hushed looks, but for once no one came forward to ask for an autograph or a photo. Tony remained jittery for another hour, then curled up on the small, hard couch, legs drawn up, and leaned towards Bruce.

Seeing as this might take a while, Bruce tried to embrace the chance to rest, but sleep was hard to come by save for a few minutes of dozing before coming back at the first sound, or a start from Tony, or a scrape from Steve’s shield across the floor when Thor shifted; someone had handed the shield to them, for safekeeping, and the Asgardian had taken it upon himself to not let go of it until their leader could hold it once more.

People came and went. Some of them didn’t return. A small TV droned on in the corner, the news flashing some images from the destruction to the subway tunnels. Bruce looked at it for two seconds and decided they would see it all and more in the next debrief at S.H.I.E.L.D., so he didn’t bother to turn up the volume or focus on the version of events that was offered to the general public.

Thor kept shifting in his seat, a chair that had to be uncomfortable for someone his size, still wearing the battle armor. Tony kept trying to wrap his arms tighter around himself, to pull his legs up, and at some point he started shivering, so Bruce got up long enough to fetch a blanket from one of the nurses. He knew it would have been better if they went back to the Tower, but he wasn’t entirely certain Tony had been formally released yet. Maybe they should ask someone about that.

“Try to get some sleep,” he urged Tony instead, knowing how much he disliked being here. The whole confession about doing up his own stitches… Bruce looked down at his hand, noting that the stitches had disappeared along with the wounds. At least the other guy was good for something…

“Can’t,” Tony murmured.

“Just try,” Bruce urged him, knowing that Tony was worn out.

“Will you help me count the sheep?” Tony asked, rolling towards him as Bruce sat down, head settling on his shoulder.

“I’m not sure it works like that.”

“Do you think they counted sheep in the forties?” That question was no doubt a reference to his concern for Steve. It was sort of adorable, and sad, because Bruce was fairly certain it was something Steve would never learn about – mostly because Tony seemed determined to not let the other man know the truth in a manner that wasn’t overly complicated. How many future arguments could be avoided if Tony simply admitted he was a Captain America fanboy and not his antagonist, which seemed to be Tony’s only alternative to spilling his guts on the matter.

“I’m pretty sure they did,” Bruce mused, returning back to the topic of sheep and sleep.

Tony seemed content with his answer for a moment, and Bruce even dared to hope he may have fallen asleep, but soon enough Tony jerked, sat up, breathed heavily and unevenly for a moment, letting air out through his mouth, and Bruce debated fetching a paper bag for him to hold if not use.

“What are these… sheep you are so keen on counting?” Thor asked. “Are they an important possession?”

“You haven’t seen sheep yet?” Tony asked, attacking the subject so fast it had to be a way to distract himself. “We’ll have to take you to the country when this is over. I’m sure Steve would like that. He must have had a dozen allergies before the serum.”

Bruce tried to envision the team trekking across mud and manure, but he didn’t shoot down Tony’s monologue of all the things Steve had or hadn’t done, and which Thor probably hadn’t done either, because it helped them to kill time and not dwell on how long it was taking them to deliver good news about Steve’s condition.

- - -

Steve was fairly certain something was off. Everything was too quiet. The world was… never that quiet.

He looked around his apartment, the stillness of it unnerving. Not even the clocks were ticking, and he took a step just to make sure he could still move.

He could.

Slowly Steve walked across the stretch of room, and then back. He looked around, frowning, feeling heavy and uneasy. As if he needed to leave, to be somewhere, but he couldn’t recall where.

On the table laid a laptop computer and nothing else. All the surfaces were clean, not that he usually cluttered them with things.

His frown increased and he moved over to the table and caressed the touchpad of the laptop. The screen flickered to life, and he jumped slightly at his own face greeting him, with a fake smile plastered all over it. The image was cut at the chest, but he could tell he was wearing that dreaded costume he had used when touring with the USO show.

“Hey, buddy!” his face told him from the screen, with that same, practiced cheer that had only been genuine for about five seconds, the fact always gnawing away at his mind that he was wasting his time and Erskine’s gift to mankind. “The best and bravest need your help,” his voice kept talking, teeth catching the light like one of those ridiculous toothpaste commercials. “Volunteer now and become part of something greater. If you can’t, that’s just too bad, and we’ll see you on the other side.” The man on the screen saluted him and the image flickered out.

Steve blinked in confusion. “What the hell?” he muttered, but said it out loud to make sure he could still speak.

Nothing else happened for a bit, so he poked at the touchpad again. Nothing happened then, either, so he pressed the ‘enter’ key, and started when the screen came back to life. This time it wasn’t his face that greeted him, but a series of images that kept slowly appearing and reappearing: bombed streets, soldiers he had fought with, the Howling Commandos, Bucky. As the images went on, they grew darker and bloodier; torn bodies, agonized faces, Bucky’s knuckles white as he grasped onto the handle a second before falling to his death. The images moved faster, each more horrible than the last, and Steve hit the keyboard in order to make it stop, but nothing happened. He finally located the ‘Esc’ key in the top corner and pressed it – and the images vanished.

Instead, a woman with golden hair and a proud, beautiful face stared at him, sitting in a blank room and looking at a camera, or whatever was recording it. He knew she was familiar, so familiar that he had met her more than once, in person. “Hello, Captain,” she greeted, and he knew that voice. Private Lorraine – the woman who had almost caused him to fall out with Peggy Carter after… well, kissing Steve rather unexpectedly. “Fully adjusted to your new life?” she went on, cocking her head and brow, challenging him. “From all of us here in the past… I think it’s time you came back.”

“Came back?” Steve asked.

“Time’s up, Cap,” she said, face darker, almost as if she were mad at him. “Time to join the rest of us, here on the other side. Your end is here.”

Steve recoiled from the computer, but her eyes kept following him.

“You can’t run away!” she shouted. “You may have cheated death once, but you won’t do so again.”

Much as he had debated with himself on the subject, Steve was fairly certain he wasn’t ready to die. Not yet. He looked to the side, but didn’t see cables to pull out. In desperation, he lifted the laptop from the desk and threw it across the room.

Private Lorraine’s laughter was cut off as the machine fell to the floor in pieces after smashing into the far wall.

“… and then there’s this whole thing about unpasteurized milk; I’m pretty certain that’s all they have in Asgard, which could actually explain some things. We’ll have to study that when we take you up to that farm. They keep yammering about its health benefits, although I remain skeptical. Pepper keeps saying I might be mildly lactose intolerant and – holy shit!” There was a crash as Tony jumped up from his chair and simultaneously tangled his leg around one of the chair legs, sending himself down into a half-crawl on the floor and the chair on its side next to him. “Don’t do that!” the other man yelled.

“Do what?” Steve croaked, then cleared his throat. His mind felt clearer than it had been… well, whatever the hell he had just seen before coming to.

“Open your eyes,” Tony breathed out and straightened himself. He winced, pressing his right arm against his left side, and straightened the chair, then plopped back down onto it.

“Sorry,” Steve replied half-heartedly.

“That’s okay; we’ve only been waiting for you to open your eyes for about 24 hours now. A little over-due, don’t you think?” Tony cocked an eyebrow at him, and Steve tried to decipher why Tony was here. Where were they?

A quick look around showed Steve the unmistakable interior of a hospital room, and he spent the next couple of seconds debating his reason for being in one while Tony caught his breath to speak again. “Now that you’re awake, we can finally leave. About time. They keep taking my blood. Fucking Draculas. I bet they don’t really need it; it’s a conspiracy,” Tony lowered his voice a bit. “I think we should put this place under S.H.I.E.L.D.’s watch, just in case they’re conducting some inhuman experiments in the basement.”

Tony went on rambling, but for once it sounded like he wasn’t doing it just because he enjoyed the sound of his own voice; Steve didn’t pay attention to the words, but he tethered himself to the fact that Tony was there, alive and breathing – both of them alive and breathing – and that everything was going to be okay.

- - -

“That goat is giving me the evil eye,” Tony declared.

Thor did not understand the term, but it felt like the Man of Iron considered the horned animal his enemy. The two of them were staring at each other through the wire fence. Tony looked out of his element, even though he was not wearing a suit and tie. It was as if he had been thrown into a setting that he could not adapt to, and was at constant war with himself to not show it.

“He’ll eat your sunglasses if you lean any closer,” Bruce laughed and moved on.

Steve was off on the side, feeding apples to a brown horse. He was of a healthy color once more, fully healed from their spat with the strange fish-people in the underground tunnels. He had given the three Avengers a good scare, but the Captain was not that easily taken out, which he had proven once again.

And once he was released from the hospital, they drove out here, to the midst of nature. Thor liked the place, although it was alien to him as well, with all its animals and smells.

“Do you own a farm, Tony?” Steve asked, fishing another apple from his pocket.

“No,” Tony replied sharply. “Why?”

“I hear rich people own farms these days – especially the kind who don’t know a thing about animals.”

“What gives you the impression that I don’t know a thing about animals?” Tony was at once on his feet, ready to face the challenge, and Steve grinned, good-naturedly. Sometimes, it seemed Steve knew exactly what to say to engage his teammate in a battle of words. “I could be a horse-whisperer for all you know,” Tony went on.

“You do know the animals can tell, right?” Steve mused, leaning his cheek against the muzzle of the horse he had been feeding.

“I’m still saying you were allergic to anything with a hair attached to them…” Tony muttered.

Steve looked at him – and then down, rather pointedly. Tony’s eyes followed, and Thor’s did as well. A baby goat was by Tony’s feet, munching on his shoelaces.

“Hey!” Tony snapped, moving his foot, but the small animal followed, tugging on its catch and chewing slowly. Tony looked conflicted, his fingers opening and closing.

Bruce finally rescued him, walking over decisively and picking up the small, cute animal, forcing the shoelace from its mouth before carrying it over to the fence with the other goat and lowering the wayward baby back inside the enclosure. “Let’s hope ‘Black Sheep’ never happens in real life,” he commented.

Thor guessed this was some imaginary tale the humans shared with one another, and perhaps included black sheep which may also be dangerous.

Tony narrowed his eyes at the two goats, as if telling them that he would be ready next time. “I’m watching you,” he added, pointing his finger at the baby goat.

“Come on,” Bruce said softly, looping one arm around Tony’s waist and pulled him away. Steve gave the horse one final pat and joined them, leaving Thor to trail behind. “So, I was thinking about tonight’s dinner,” Bruce went on, and the subject of food was always within Thor’s interests.

“Goat?” Tony suggested.

“That’s immature, even for you,” Bruce chastised him.

“As long as it isn’t fish, I don’t care,” Steve noted.

“Seconded,” Tony agreed. Bruce’s arm was still around him, and neither man seemed to mind or notice.

“We should celebrate our victory,” Thor offered.

“I can get behind that,” Tony chimed in at once.

“No alcohol,” Bruce argued. “I just… can’t. And you can’t either,” he added at Tony. “How about we get some old-fashioned American food from that family-run place on the drive back to the city, watch a stupid comedy with no sewer monsters, and have a good night’s sleep?”

“Not even a night cap?” Tony pouted a little, widening his eyes, making them tear up just a little. “To celebrate that we’re all still here, alive, to fight another battle. You can’t say no to that. And neither can you!” he added, pointing at Steve.

“We’ll grab a case of all-American beer on the way home,” Steve acquiesced.

“To America,” Tony toasted the air with an imaginary drink in hand. “To the Avengers!”

“To the Avengers,” Thor, Steve and Bruce echoed, with matching smiles on their faces.

The End