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The Core (page 1)






Story Info




Title: The Core

Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)

Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)

Era: Post-Avengers movie

Genre: Erotica, drama

Rating: MA / FRAO

Characters: Bruce Banner (Hulk), J.A.R.V.I.S., Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man), Thor (also: Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Nick Fury, Pepper Potts, Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow))

Pairings: Bruce/Tony, Bruce/J.A.R.V.I.S./Tony, Steve/Tony, Thor/Tony (brief: Pepper/Tony)

Summary: Tony almost sacrifices himself to save his team – which awakens some of the Avengers to the fact that they’re not done becoming a team. After this they decide they must become more in order to survive and support each other. Consulting Tony about this change isn’t strictly necessary.
Complete.

Written for: Kink Big Bang 2012
Also responding to an avengerkink (LiveJournal) prompt by blindheresy, “Self Sacrifice”

Art: Enk (AO3 / DW / LJ)

Warnings: Sexual m/m content (slash) of kinky variety (including: bondage & restraints, object insertion (sounding), masturbation, oral sex & cock worship, orgasm denial, unprotected (anal & oral) sex), implied het, minor injury. Spoilers for The Avengers movie (and other random spoilers for the rest of the movies in the Avengers cinematic universe).

Disclaimer: Iron Man and Avengers, their characters and everything else belong to Marvel. The movie versions belong to Marvel Studios, Joss Whedon, Jon Favreau, Louis Leterrier, Kenneth Branagh, Joe Johnston, Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures… in short: everyone but me. This is pure fiction, created to entertain likeminded fans, no profit made.

Beta: Mythra

Feedback: Appreciated and cherished.


About The Core: The main body of the story was written for Kink Big Bang 2012. A section of the story, the catalyst of sorts, was inspired by blindheresy’s prompt at LJ’s avengerkink.

A list of some of the included kinks, tropes, clichés etc. (more or less alphabetically): anal sex, barebacking, BDSM, beards & stubble, biting, bruises and other wounds, (minor) conditioning, electricity, fingering, first times, foreplay, frottage, fucking machine, hand-jobs, masturbation, nipple play, oral fixation, oral sex, orgasm denial & frustration, pillow biting, power issues, multiple orgasms, restraints, rimming, clothed sex, rough sex, shower sex, sounding, cock/body worship.


Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.

The Core








Written for King Big Bang 2012. Furthermore, partially inspired by an avengerkink prompt by blindheresy, “Self Sacrifice”.





The Core




The Avengers


Some called them superheroes – and at that point Tony Stark often found himself looking in the mirror.

Some called them legends, which was all the reason in the world to look at Steve Rogers, whether he was or wasn’t in his Captain America suit, carrying his shield and oozing all that was good and just in the world.

Some even called them gods – which wasn’t that far-fetched after witnessing Thor on his best days when he lived up to every single tale ever associated with his name.

And then there were some who called them monsters and while Tony didn’t want to, he kept thinking of the Hulk – although at the forefront of his mind he always recalled Bruce Banner, a man who didn’t deserve the curse of the beast inside him but Tony was convinced that one of these days the beast and the man would meet half-way and it would be amazing. He fully intended to be there that day, to witness that moment.

What Tony called them, however, was more complicated than one word – mostly because they were all incredibly different people from fucked up backgrounds and most times those differences worked as the adhesive that kept them all together. There were occasions, however, when something more was needed; when they were falling apart at the seams and if Tony wasn’t the first one walking or flying out of the room then something was wrong.

But he always came back, hoping that would be the case with the rest of them, too – even if he had to go the extra mile to make that happen…

- - -

The call came late at night, which usually meant trouble in some shape or form. Tony rolled over in bed, moaning. There was no phone vibrating against the nightstand, but the familiar sound J.A.R.V.I.S. played jarred his brain just as much out of much-needed sleep. “Who is it?” Tony asked, voice rough.

He had actually been enjoying uninterrupted sleep for a change, without a whisper of nightmare in sight. It couldn’t have been more than four hours since he got back from a mission in the Middle East, trying once again to calm down the increasing hostilities in the area. After spending almost three days straight in his suit, it had been a relief to get out of it, go to the bathroom, eat actual food and then pass out in his bed.

“Director Fury, sir. He says it’s extremely urgent,” his AI notified him with a voice that was equally pleasant and annoying. One of the reasons Tony had first selected it, although J.A.R.V.I.S. had honed it to perfection over the years.

“Was he crying?” Tony asked, pushing a hand across his face, trying to wake up.

“No, sir, don’t believe he was.”

That was good; not that he had ever seen Fury cry or knew the man to be capable of such emotional release, but when the day came that the Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. cried to him over the phone… that would be the day when Tony refused to pick up since he was incapable and unqualified to take care of whatever needed to be done.

He sat up in bed, trying to look more awake, then nodded. “Okay, connect him.”

“Stark,” Fury started at once. “We have a situation.”

“Can’t someone else take care of it?” Tony started complaining. “In case you didn’t know – and I know you do know fully well – I just got back from –”

“The Avengers have been captured,” Fury rudely interrupted him.

“What?” Tony blinked dumbly. “I’m here. I’m not…” His brain tried to find another gear. “Which of the Avengers?” he asked, dreading the answer. Natasha Romanoff and Clint Barton – Black Widow and Hawkeye – had been on a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. mission for weeks now and were unlikely to return anytime soon by the sound of it.

“Rogers, Banner and Thor.”

Tony just sat there, ready to fall back on the bed and go to sleep because it was likely this was a dream. “Seriously?”

“Don’t I sound serious enough?” Fury demanded.

He did. “How the hell did someone accomplish that? Were they taken at the same time? Who has them?” Tony was already getting up out of bed, calculating in his head what he would need to shoot into his body to stay awake until this was over.

“We’re not certain who has them. They were sent out to investigate a possible Hydra sighting while you were taking care of business in the Middle East. We’re not certain whether it’s actually Hydra who has them.”

“Have there been demands?” Tony asked, pulling on a fresh undersuit. He tapped a screen on the wall and saw J.A.R.V.I.S. was already preparing the armor; so much for airing it out and doing a few updates he had thought of while out there.

“None yet.”

Tony wasn’t certain whether he was glad that was the case; he could only imagine what kind of ransom someone would ask for three superheroes.

- - -

Tony wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry when the actual ransom demands arrived. They were fairly simple although a few rules were stressed carefully: they wanted Tony to come alone to a pre-disclosed location, alone and without his suit or any kind of back up.

“What is this, a ‘Collect All Avengers’ game?” Tony asked, reading the short message over once again. The kidnappers had sent it through Stark Industries, clearly not caring whether S.H.I.E.L.D. got wind of it or not, yet they seemed aware that the shady organization would be hovering over Tony’s shoulder.

“We haven’t been able to track down the other Avengers yet but there’s still a chance they’ll manage to break free,” Fury noted.

“The meeting’s tonight,” Tony waved the piece of paper at the man. Who used paper these days?

“There’s a chance –”

“I’ll do it,” Tony sighed, throwing the note away although it landed only a foot from his hand.

“You don’t have to agree to their terms,” Fury reminded him, as if Tony didn’t know it. “For all we know they’ll capture you as well.”

“Then you better find us all and fast,” Tony retorted, standing up. “I don’t handle captivity very well.” He didn’t need to remind Fury about that but he felt like telling the man he didn’t like the idea of throwing himself to the wolves. His three captured teammates, however, were counting on him, so he would at least try.

The location was at the docks, unsurprisingly. When Tony drove out there he felt like rolling his eyes at the whole setting – then at the dark van parked in a dark alley between two buildings. He cut the engine and stepped out, adjusting his leather jacket then stepped forward.

“Mr. Stark,” one of the men beside the van greeted him. He had a soft, honeyed voice for a man. “I trust you have come alone?”

“Do I look like I’m not alone?” Tony shot back, impatience and anger seeping into his voice. “I’m just letting you know right now that capturing four Avengers is probably the stupidest thing you’ve done in your entire life and you’ll come to regret it sooner rather than later, no matter how far ahead you think you’ve thought this through.”

“We only have three Avengers,” the man replied.

Tony tried not to feel insulted.

“You are free to leave right now if you want to,” Honey Voice went on. He looked quite normal in every way, no accent suggesting where he was from. His clothing was tasteful yet smart, his looks suggesting that he liked to take care of himself. “If you choose to come with us, however, we will let you see your friends. No harm will come to you before you hear our terms, and if you wish to tell us no, you are free to return here in the same condition as you’re in now.”

Tony tried to find a catch. “Terms?”

“I believe the note we sent you mentioned an exchange.”

“I thought you just forgot to fill in the digits for the amount of money you wanted,” Tony snapped.

The man gave him a small smile then stepped to the side, raising one hand to gesture towards the van. “This choice is yours alone. Do you wish to see your friends?”

“I can see them and still leave if I want to?” Tony frowned. He didn’t like this. It was too… uncomplicated.

“Yes.”

“And how are you going to prevent me from seeing them, then leaving and coming back with my suit?” he challenged the logic of their unknown enemy.

“We will, of course, have to sedate you for the journey, but I assure you we have thought of all possibilities.”

Tony liked it even less but what choice did he have? They had found no sign of the captured Avengers and that concerned him; if something wasn’t horribly wrong, they would have already seen destruction wherever the Hulk appeared or a lightning storm reflecting Thor’s mood. His hammer was, however, still in the location where they had been taken, which left a bad taste in Tony’s mouth.

“How do I know they’re not dead?” he asked, surprising himself a little.

Honey Voice smiled again. “That is the risk you must take. I give you my word they are still very much alive and almost unscathed, but if you cross us or they try to escape, that will change very fast.”

Tony guessed he had no choice. He started tugging up one sleeve but another man stepped around the first, with a cloth in hand. “You’re some old-fashioned people,” Tony commented as the cloth was pressed over his face and the world began to tilt until he no longer felt his body and everything went dark.

- - -

Tony came to inside the van. He was shockingly comfortable, slightly slumped on a seat, and he did a quick check; arc reactor still in place, his clothes still on him – his own clothes, too. He wasn’t tied, the only thing holding him in place was the seatbelt.

“Good, you’re awake,” the familiar honeyed voice greeted him. “We are here.”

“Where’s here?” Tony asked although he knew no one would tell him. It was worth a shot, though.

The side door of the van was slid to the side and Tony released himself from the seat, getting out. They were inside a building of some sort, a warehouse type of area yet it could be a dozen other things; a lot of empty space around them, no windows, several large doors along one wall.

For a moment Tony thought he had been tricked – not that he had expected anything else – then was led ahead. None of the men carried weapons, far as he could see. Sure, they probably had at least one each holstered underneath their clothes but he wasn’t threatened or pushed around, as had been promised.

They stopped before a service elevator set into the wall. Once inside, the elevator went down, at least three or four floors before the door slid open again and they walked forward towards the end of a hallway opening before them. Tony tried memorizing it all, every step, each change in direction.

Another door was opened and they stepped into a room which didn’t look spectacular at all at first glance. It wasn’t large, computers mounted on the walls, and one wall looked like an aquarium. That caught Tony’s attention.

The ‘aquarium’ was split into smaller areas. Inside one room of invisible walls was Thor, tied in a seated position to a metal chair that seemed to be welded to the floor itself. He seemed slightly out of it and Tony noted a drip that disappeared into the skin near his collarbone. Finding a drug to subdue a demi-god was a feat these assholes could celebrate as long as it took S.H.I.E.L.D. or the other Avengers to find them. Tony met Thor’s eyes then moved his own to the left.

Bruce’s eyes met his next, worn out yet not showing signs of a drug in his system. The man was standing in a sort of a tube which was just large enough to let him turn around and maybe crouch down uncomfortably.

Beneath the tube was a horizontal space that may have made even Tony claustrophobic and gave him a whole new meaning for Cap-sandwich; Steve lay on his back between two thick layers of steel. He was directly beneath Bruce and seemed to be fully awake as well, craning his neck to look at Tony and shaking his head at him.

“Let me explain,” Honey Voice spoke again. “Your Asgardian friend is heavily medicated. A steady flow of a special blend of drugs keeps his powers at bay and it should leave no permanent damage after the drip is shut down. Since we couldn’t rely on a similar mechanism to contain the Hulk, we gave Dr. Banner an option; to remain as his human self – or unleash the beast and kill Captain America. You see, that tube is very pressure sensitive. If Dr. Banner’s shape or weight begin to change, those steel slabs will crush your leader between them before the Hulk can smash his way through the protective walls.”

He looked at Tony next. “Are you satisfied at the condition of your friends, Mr. Stark?”

Tony looked at them all, worried expressions meeting him. “Guys?” he called out.

“Whatever he tells you to do, don’t do it!” Steve ordered unsurprisingly, the material between them muffling his words.

Thor just grunted unhappily, his expression as dark as a storm cloud.

Bruce didn’t speak, didn’t move, clearly afraid even breathing the wrong way would crush Steve where he lay a few feet beneath him – or unleash the other guy. He had to be on edge.

Tony looked at their host. “What do you want?” At this point he had to wonder if there was a room reserved for him somewhere.

“The arc reactor in your chest,” the man replied.

“What?” Tony frowned, not getting it at first, then his sleep-deprived brain caught up. “And what happens when I give it to you?”

“Your friends will be released, as unharmed as they are now,” he was promised. “We could take it from you by force, but as was promised earlier, you have the right to say no and we will return you to the docks.”

“And the others?”

“Will suffer the consequences.”

If they had gotten this far in subduing his team, Tony didn’t want to know how much suffering would be involved if he said no – and saying ‘no’ had never really been on the menu. “How do I know you’ll keep your word once I give you what you want?”

“No!” came Steve’s muted shout. “Don’t do it!”

“This could all be a trap,” Tony seemingly agreed with Steve although he was certain that wasn’t the only reason why he shouldn’t do this in their leader’s opinion. Well, it wasn’t just Steve’s life on the line so he couldn’t make that call right now. They could argue about it later if Tony lived through this.

“Once we have the arc reactor, I disrupt the signal that operates their containment. We have enough time to leave to be out of your way and your friends will be released.”

“I’m supposed to buy that?” Tony arched an eyebrow.

“I’ve been a man of my word so far, Mr. Stark,” the other replied pleasantly, as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

Tony knew he really didn’t have a choice. Chances were this place couldn’t be tracked and he would never find the others if they took him back to the docks. They would be back to square one with the added bonus that Tony had denied these people what they wanted and perhaps pissed them off. With his teammates held hostage, he didn’t want to piss off anyone with a trigger finger.

“If I had known what you wanted, I would have brought a spare with me,” he mused as he raised his hands and started undoing his shirt.

“We couldn’t risk you tampering with the arc reactor and we know the one in your chest is special. Perfection, if you like the term better; what you put in your suit may be top quality but it will never surpass what you would put in your body to keep you alive,” the man observed.

Damn right, Tony growled inside his head and finished with the top buttons of his dress shirt. The arc reactor seemed more prominent in his chest now that he was being asked to part with it and Tony knew the odds of surviving this. They weren’t very good. However, his life in exchange of three others – most of them better men than he would ever hope to be? He was confident the Avengers would avenge him post haste and his death would be celebrated as the self-sacrifice it was.

There were worse ways to die – ways he had often entertained in his mind before becoming Iron Man. At least now it would mean something.

“Tony, don’t!” It was Bruce, his voice shaking, hands in the air, one fist clenched tight. He looked small and frail – of which he was neither – and Tony gave him a reassuring smile. Maybe let them think he had a plan, to calm them down. Tony always had an ace up his sleeve, right?

Right.

“I hope you know that if you go back on your word, you’ll burn in a special hell – sooner than you might think,” Tony told the guy.

“Of course.” There was no smile, which indicated the man could imagine just what Tony was hinting at. Tony’s death would put certain things in motion, he had ensured that, regardless of what happened to the three captured men. Well, he was pretty sure Bruce might unleash the Hulk at any second, Steve’s life be damned, yet he hoped he had better restraint and put the common good before their friendship.

Tony moved one hand to his chest, releasing the arc reactor with a practiced ease, ignoring the jump in his insides which wasn’t as much a physical reaction as it was emotional. He had just pushed the trigger. Very soon he would know where the barrel was pointing.

He tugged the device free of his chest and then tossed it at the other man. Their captor hurried to catch the arc reactor, not letting it hit the floor, holding it gently yet firmly, turning it over.

Tony steadied his breathing, willing to appear calm and unaffected for as long as he could. He knew it would start soon, though, and the façade would drop like a curtain, exposing the pain and fear he knew would come. Not for a second did he think he had made the wrong choice, however. He had promised himself to make the world a better place and if that meant he wasn’t in it after saving three heroes, then it was worth every painful moment.

“It was good doing business with you,” Honey Voice said pleasantly. Tony didn’t know his name, didn’t know whom he worked for or what they were planning to do with the arc reactor that had kept him alive for the last few years. He didn’t care. It was unimportant.

The man pulled a small remote from his pocket, pressed in a code of some kind and a few new lights began to flicker in a panel on the wall above the transparent wall between Tony and the other Avengers. With that done, the man and his companions left, leaving Tony alone in the room, staring at some point between the three men. From the corner of his eye he saw Steve struggling, trying to push himself in some direction, to get the weight off him. Bruce was inhumanly still, staring at him and Tony found himself looking back, the seconds stretching between them. It was one of those meaningful moments that couldn’t be put into words and which probably meant different things for both of them.

A grunt came from Thor’s direction and his muscles bulged as he ripped himself free of the restraints. It looked like the drip had stopped working. How long had Tony been standing there? His chest felt like there were flames licking across it, a constricting feeling poking at his heart.

Thor, finally free, yanked the IV out of his skin and stood up, almost crashing down and landing on one knee. He breathed there a moment, collecting himself, then with a mighty roar he plunged into the wall between them which shattered, not exactly like glass but leaving ragged edges in the broken material. Thor didn’t seem to care, tearing the hole wider and then stepped through, several bleeding wounds on his skin, a long trail coming down from his collarbone. He looked at Tony, blue eyes uncertain, then whirled back and proceeded to break the wall holding Steve and Bruce captive.

Tony swallowed, watching as Steve was pulled free and Thor went to release Bruce next. The scientist was still standing like a statue, with a force of will that Tony had envied from the beginning. A tint of green floated in his eyes but he held off the transformation although he was probably free to do it now.

“Tony,” Steve said urgently, walking over to him while the wall cracked beneath Thor’s rough ministrations, shattering the tube holding Bruce captive.

Tony offered him a smile when he felt himself sag down, legs no longer holding him up, turned to jelly at the kneecaps. Steve was there in a flash, making the fall less painful, kneeling in front of Tony. They were almost at eye-level like this.

“You have to tell us what to do,” Steve insisted, shaking Tony slightly. It didn’t feel good.

“Don’t shake me,” he managed.

Steve went absolutely still and nodded, trying to keep his expression in check; to remain the firm shoulder to lean on, a leader, the man with a plan. However, there was fear in his blue eyes and Tony felt he should do something to wipe that away. “You’re not going to die,” Steve told him, determined, as if by those words alone he would make it so.

“Okay,” Tony agreed because it was easier.

He recalled Malibu, regaining control of his body after Obadiah Stane temporarily paralyzed him; stumbling down to the workshop, attempting to get to the arc reactor he had constructed in the cave then momentarily thinking of how he was going to die alone, in pain, curled up on the floor and leaving this world with a pitiful little whimper. This time was much better than that, especially when Bruce was there, right there, touching his face, calling his name. Tony wasn’t certain if he had ever touched him like that – if any of them had.

“Should have done this sooner,” Tony decided.

Steve gave him a strange look. “Is he losing it?” he asked, clearly directing the question at Bruce.

“Doesn’t matter. We need to stop the shrapnel from entering his heart, right now,” Bruce replied and his head whipped around as if searching for something in the room to replace the arc reactor. He was smart but engineering wasn’t his strong suit and Tony wouldn’t blame him for that.

“Perhaps we should get him to a hospital,” Thor suggested, one hand raised to the side almost comically. Well, it was comical until Mjolnir came smashing through the ceiling and into his hand, dropping concrete and dust on top of them as if it were raining.

“They might not be able to treat him. Our best chance is to get him back to one of his labs,” Bruce decided.

“We don’t even know where we are,” Steve said, a note of desperation creeping into his voice.

“It’s okay, Cap,” Tony told him. The pain was getting worse, he was sweating and while he knew there was nothing wrong with his lungs it hurt to breathe.

“No, it’s not!” Steve hissed. “Why would you say that?” It seemed to take some restraint for Steve to not shake him again, but Tony plopped forward anyway, leaning against his shoulder, guessing that being a dying man allowed him to take some liberties he hadn’t allowed himself before. Steve seemed to agree because he didn’t move him. “Bruce, you need to let the Hulk out; he’s the fastest right now.”

“I can’t trust him to take Tony where we need –”

“I’ve seen him save Tony before.”

“He saved Iron Man. He might not even know it’s Tony without his suit and could drop him in the middle of nowhere!”

“I can take him,” Thor offered from off to the side. “With Mjolnir back in my grasp –”

“It’s better than the other guy crushing Tony to death,” Bruce agreed quickly.

“I love you guys,” Tony murmured against Steve’s shoulder, followed by a painful little chuckle.

There was silence.

It may or may not have been because Tony blacked out.



Pepper

“He did what?” had been the only reaction Pepper had given them the first day.

She hadn’t looked as shocked as she sounded, however, which should have said something about what was going on in her head.

They didn’t tell her about the precious minutes they had wasted while arguing how to get Tony to a place where he could be saved. When they had finally left the underground base they found themselves close to a suburban area and could almost see New York City’s skyline. They had called S.H.I.E.L.D. who knew exactly what to do and didn’t ask unnecessary questions, yet it took almost too long and Steve had a hard time breathing as he held Tony’s unconscious body in his arms while waiting for a S.H.I.E.L.D. aircraft to pick them up.

There were more things they told Fury, aching for revenge. He promised to pull Natasha and Clint away from their current mission if necessary but it never came to that; a mere five hours after Tony had been stabilized and it looked like he was going to live, satellites picked up an explosion in a remote area. The blue flash shown in the images indicated it wasn’t just a random event and a certain satisfaction filled them all.

When Tony regained consciousness the next day he didn’t seem surprised by this bit of information.

“You planned it,” Steve allowed himself to smile.

“A failsafe; if the arc reactor is removed from the suit or my chest without certain actions on J.A.R.V.I.S.’s or my part, it will self-destruct,” Tony explained. “The suit has a similar function. Neither of them will ever end up in the hands of anyone but me.”

Steve wasn’t certain if that was something he liked to think about, seeing the determination on Tony’s face. He wondered if the man had ever thought of activating that failsafe while he was still in the suit.

He decided he would make sure it never came to that.

- - -

Tony demanded to be allowed back in the suit before he was even cleared to go home. That went over exactly as well as anyone could have imagined, especially with Pepper.

When he finally got home – still denied access to the suit and straining himself and his injured heart – the argument broke out almost as soon as the door was shut behind them. To be precise, it had already started in the car on the way to the Tower but they’d shown some restraint there.

Bruce and Thor were currently staying at the Stark Tower so they had a reason to be there. Steve had come to visit, liking to get out of his small apartment S.H.I.E.L.D. had gotten for him; Tony had offered him his own space at the Tower and Bruce knew their friend and leader was contemplating taking him up on that offer.

They sat in the living room, Thor surfing through channels and Steve and Bruce attempting not to listen in on the voices rising in the other room.

“I believe the doctor said Tony should remain calm and rest,” Thor mused after a moment, revealing that he, too, was listening.

“He did,” Bruce sighed, glancing towards the hallway leading to Pepper’s office area.

“I need you to be Tony Stark for a moment – not Iron Man. I need you to be the man I entered a relationship with!” Pepper was saying – shouting.

“I was Iron Man when we got together. Nothing’s changed!” Tony replied just as passionately.

“Everything changed after you joined the Avengers. I barely see you, the company has even less interest in your life and you just almost killed yourself – again. You have no regard for your own safety –”

“I made a decision, Pepper. I chose to save three men better than myself in a situation where their survival was conditional upon my actions. I’m not going to regret that and you’re not going to guilt me into it either.”

“Guilt you? You mean I could actually affect you enough to do that? It’s like talking to a wall. You’re not listening. You just do what you want, for the reasons you think are right. None of them wanted you to risk your life for them!”

“It wasn’t their choice to make! Besides, please tell me how Captain America’s life isn’t more important or worthwhile than mine? How I should have let them kill Thor who is more noble and dedicated to protecting Earth than most of our own leaders?”

“You didn’t mention Banner.”

“I don’t need to mention Banner because we all know why I saved him!”

Bruce cringed. Steve and Thor both looked at him with a mix of sympathy and questions. Honestly, Bruce didn’t know why Tony would think he – and the other guy – was better for the world than the combination of Tony Stark and Iron Man. Tony’s math was seldom flawed but Bruce had a feeling their friend wasn’t being entirely objective right now.

“We are hardly better men than he is,” Thor mused.

“We’ll tell him that once he’s… done,” Steve decided.

“This isn’t the life I want, Tony! We should both be committed to this but all I get is you committing a suicide attempt dubbed as a ‘heroic save’ every other week. I’m done –”

“Then go!” Tony’s reply was hot like boiling acid. “We’ve been over this before. I won’t stop being Iron Man and we’ve both seen what comes with that. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, sweetheart.”

“I will.”

They heard angry footsteps, the trail of Pepper’s high heels leading to a slammed door and a deep silence that followed. Fifteen minutes later the elevator went up one floor then sunk down to garage level.



Tony

Tony knew better than to be truly shocked by Pepper leaving him. They had argued after he almost killed himself in a space portal above the Stark Tower, which was only the beginning of their problems. In between arguments, things had been good, but it wasn’t going to last.

He had thought they might be more mature about it instead of shouting at each other. He had also hoped Pepper wouldn’t be crying. Well, she wasn’t, literally, but there were tears in her eyes and Tony knew he had put every single one of them there.

Their relationship shouldn’t be in vain. If he lost Pepper – personally, not from his entire life because she still had the job as CEO she was holding onto – he should make the most of it. He should make it mean something. Lose one thing, gain another. Someone may have called it positive thinking.

With her still mad at Tony, he knew he had no business in SI related matters, although she may have appreciated him showing interest in his company. Of course said interest could also have been seen as a way to worm his way back into her life, without directly apologizing, and Tony didn’t want to make that impression.

He loved her, but he knew it was unfair to put her through this time and time again. Tony wasn’t above throwing away his life and she shouldn’t have to live with that.

Tony’s obvious choice for coping was Iron Man. Putting on the suit, becoming the embodiment of strength and confidence. As soon as the mask snapped into place the first time after their break-up, Tony knew what he was going to do – and he would keep doing it for as long as he could.

- - -

“You should shower,” Bruce commented.

“I’ve designed the suit for prolonged usage. I don’t need a shower for another… 86 hours at least,” Tony calculated. “In fact, I think I can push the shower away for another hundred hours, although there are certain other things I might have to do when the 86-hour mark comes by.”

Bruce just hummed something that didn’t sound like approval or understanding. “I would like to see more of you these days,” the scientist commented then.

“I’m right here.”

“No,” Bruce shook his head, stood up, walked over, then jabbed a finger at his shoulder. “Iron Man is right here. I have no idea where the hell Tony is.”

“I like it when you get all snappy with me,” Tony grinned. His face-plate was up so it was as good as him being there, but he had a small voice shouting in the back of his mind which translated what Bruce was actually saying. He opted to ignore it for now. There were things he needed to do, and while there were no big missions anywhere, there were always criminal to catch. Iron Man could throw himself at that when the bigger perps were in hiding.

“Take off the suit,” Bruce insisted. He was no longer hiding beneath the excuse of a shower or a change of clothes.

“I have things I need to do.”

“Let the cops handle that.”

Tony shot him a look. “Don’t you think they would like a day off?”

“Frankly, you cause more trouble than it’s worth,” Bruce deadpanned.

“I’ve really started minimizing the damages. You could take a few pointers.” He regretted that as soon as he said it, but Bruce’s face showed no indication that he had taken the jab to heart. Didn’t mean he hadn’t, but at least he had the grace not to blow up at the comment.

“You have to take the suit off at some point,” Bruce reminded him. “You need to sleep. You can’t live the rest of your life as Iron Man.”

“Sure I can,” Tony replied, standing straight, snapping the faceplate down and turning towards the door.

- - -

Thor looked around the main floor of Tony’s Malibu home. He had never been there before but he liked the place already.

Music was blasting, lights flashing, people dancing and drinking in celebration of an occasion he was not aware of as of yet. There was food, too – some of those small bites the Midgardians seemed to enjoy at their feasts. That was something Thor didn’t comprehend but he was happy to learn more.

Beside him Steve and Bruce looked less thrilled. “Where is he? Can you see him?” Bruce asked.

“Not yet,” Steve shouted over the music.

“We should go find him,” Thor agreed and strode inside, still in full armor which immediately gained him attention. He grinned, looking at beautiful women and men who approached him, some bold enough to touch and grind against him. For a brief moment he felt like he should gainsay them such freedom, thinking of Jane, but she had been distracted lately with her work and Thor with his so they had barely had time to see each other. He felt a spark of loneliness and the familiarity of another body next to his raised his spirits.

“Goldilocks!” someone shouted and he looked over to find Tony. Being a head taller than anyone else in the room helped him to navigate over and greet his fellow Avenger.

“What is the reason behind this celebration?” he asked.

“No reason,” Tony smiled. He had that easy, wide smile on his face which suggested he had drunk too much already. “Just have fun, enjoy it.”

“Bruce and Steve are looking for you,” Thor remembered.

Tony’s expression went sour so fast it was as if he hadn’t really smiled at all. “Yeah? I better… go see what they want.” He moved to the side and Thor grasped his arm to stop him. Tony started slightly then took a step back. “What?”

“You will not find them if you go in that direction,” Thor said pleasantly.

“It’s my place, I’m sure I’ll bump into them at some point,” Tony gave him a quick smile. “Did I ever tell you that you have quite a grip?” he added then. “We should… test it some time.”

“I am always happy to spar with you,” Thor grinned.

“Spar… Yeah… Look, I have to –”

“Disappear?” Steve’s voice cut in.

“I sent you guys an invitation to join the party,” Tony shot back in defense.

“After you had been hiding in your suit for almost a week,” Steve leaned closer.

“I wasn’t hiding. Testing new features was more like it – and fighting crime. You know, superhero stuff?”

Steve glared, reaching out to grasp Tony’s other arm – the one Thor wasn’t holding. “We need to talk.”

“After the party,” Tony insisted.

“Now,” Steve snapped.

“I have people over.”

“It’s either them or us, Tony. Your call.”

Tony’s features froze and Thor felt like cutting in; he didn’t understand how their visit had suddenly turned into an argument when the mood was so fine.

“That’s unfair, even for you,” Tony narrowed his eyes. “At least I didn’t throw this party at the Tower.”

“The terms are the same. Either you straighten out, right now, or we’re going to walk out of your home and out of your life – just like Ms. Potts did.”

Thor felt the arm beneath his fingers tighten. Tony stood his ground, staring back at Steve, as if waging war between their minds.

“What’s it gonna be?” Steve asked after the song in the background had changed to another.

“This is my life,” Tony started.

Steve dropped his hand and motioned Thor to do the same. “We’re going. Enjoy your party.” He turned to walk away and Thor assumed he was meant to follow. They barely took a step before Tony’s voice reached them:

“Wait. Okay, I’ll… Give me a minute to get everyone out.”

Steve didn’t smile or look satisfied. He merely stood there, arms crossed over his chest as the lights came on, the music stopped and the people left with odd looks thrown at the Avengers and grumbled comments flying between them. Bruce joined the two of them, looking around nervously, then glanced over to where Tony was filling another glass with amber liquid, his hand not as steady as usual. In the aftermath of the music and the mass of people, the house seemed hushed and empty.

“You know this needs to end, right?” Steve spoke up.

“Yeah,” Tony said then threw back his drink, all at once.





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