What annoyed Tony, really, was that he wasn't even in this situation because he was Iron Man or Tony Stark or anything that could genuinely be traced to him. Oh, to some extent those things mattered, but really only peripherally. He was in this situation because some people were born with more screws loose than DUM-E's first incarnation, and sometimes, Tony's luck blew.
It wasn't that Tony didn't understand the desire to own things. Tony enjoyed cars and toys and all kinds of material goods, liked being able to do as he wished with them. But appearances aside, Tony had always known, on some level, that there were responsibilities to ownership, which was perhaps why the ownership of other sentient beings had never appealed to him. Even JARVIS, once created, became more part of him than owned by him. Tony had elements of control-freak in him, but only during the process of creation. He knew how to let go. He might not like it, but he knew how to do it.
Having his captors—a ninety pound whisp of a girl with a sense of style that would satisfy the Amish, and a two-seventy five brick shithouse of a man who was probably actually named Harley Davidson—explain that they were collectors, and that he was the first one in a set, Tony had to remind himself that rational and sane mental processes were a gift, not to be taken for granted.
He said, "I'm too much of an original to be part of any set," even as he was busy trying to remember how the hell he'd ended up here. The last thing he could recall was a party, something for Rhodey. Oh, right, he'd been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for the whole thing where he saved the President's life, and all. Tony, predictably, had thrown him a party.
Tony knew, though, that he hadn't been drinking that much. He had been drinking, yes. Pepper and he had shared a glass of wine during the last hour of set up. And he'd made a toast to Rhodey about two hours into the party. He'd sat with Bruce and Steve for a bit, nursing a whiskey. But he'd been stealing hors d'eouvres off passing waiters, and he'd been one of the first to take a piece of the rum cake with cream cheese frosting.
All in all, Tony'd had a lot more to drink, in a shorter amount of time, with less to eat, without blacking out and ending up in an environmentally controlled plexi-glass box. Between that and the not-quite-a-hangover headache he had, Tony could only suspect drugs.
Harley was explaining that the Avengers as a set had been just too much for them to pass up, with their taste for the unique. Tony was only half-listening, mostly to see if any clues as to location or anything were given up between the crazy. The other half of his brain was considering the clear cage he was in, the room around it, and what his options were.
Allowing the others to be taken wasn't really on the list.
He had to give it to his captors: they'd evidently picked up on the fact that giving Tony anything—no, seriously, anything—would result in a jailbreak and death. He was served protein shakes twice a day. He'd held out on actually drinking them until he couldn't any longer. They weren't drugged, but it wasn't enough food to keep him particularly energetic, either. They came up through a small elevator lift in the ground.
The lift didn't have enough space for one of Tony's legs, but he'd thought if he could take it apart, he might be able to work with what that gave him. As of yet, he'd been unable to get the cover off to get to its guts. The toilet system worked similarly, and like the shakes, was only offered twice a day, or, well, what Tony assumed was twice a day. He had no way of marking time.
The only consolation he had at the moment was that the other five "display cases" were empty. Realistically, without the suit, Tony was the easiest one of them to take, which was also reassuring. Normally he was the hardest one to keep, excepting The Other Guy, but they were about even in that department, and all things being equal, Tony thought that still made him pretty bad-ass at the escaping. Not that it was helping him at the moment.
His captors liked to goad him. In the first couple of days, they played him non-stop footage of each of his teammates out in different places, going about their lives. Tony almost immediately fell back on his devil-may-care playboy persona. In the back of his mind, he could hear Steve sneering, "What are you without the suit?"
Genius, Tony reminded himself. He was a genius, and he was going to get himself out and end these people and they were never going to touch so much as a hair on any of his teammate's heads. He just had to figure out how.
Tony wasn't sure how long it took before he found himself looking forward to trading barbs with his captors, if only to have some interaction. He knew it was a bad, bad sign.
Harley's real name was Fred. Upon finding this out, Tony informed him, "I don't know why, but I expected better of you."
Fred had rolled his eyes and left. At the time, it had felt like a minor victory, but these days, he was doing his best to cut his jibes just short of what would make them leave. He didn't like them, but they were better than the silence and the nothing of his glass cage.
Amish Wisp's real name was Emily Ann, which Tony thought was appropriate, and she was one hundred percent pathological, not to mention the dominant of the team. When he'd figured the latter out, he'd attempted to find some chink in her persona that he could exploit, some semblance of humanity, but the only human emotion he'd found in her so far was possessiveness. Every once in a while he thought he noticed cruel amusement, but that was the end of the range he'd been able to observe. It wasn't a lot to work with.
Still, he was thinking of ways to manipulate those emotions when her plan to capture Natasha failed. Fred had told him the plan. Tony had refrained from mentioning all of its myriad weaknesses, not the least of which was that Natasha was almost completely impossible to trick in any way, shape or form. Also, she was immune to a number of poisons and less-fatal drugs. Tony was pretty sure she'd built up those immunities, but he tried not to think about it, because it kind of freaked him out.
Tony was more than pleased by the fact that Natasha was still loose and kicking other people's asses, but it took him less than a minute to realize that this outcome had kicked Emily Ann's possessive needs into overdrive. And right now, there was only one Avenger to take that out on.
They released a sleeping gas into Tony's cage. Even knowing he couldn't outlast it, he fought not to breathe for as long as he could manage. When he woke, he was strapped down to some kind of unpadded, metal table. The straps were digging into his skin and making his breaths come in short gasps. The arc reactor was lodged up against the unyielding surface and pressing back against already compressed lungs.
He forced himself to slow his breathing down and take a deep breath. It ached, but it helped him think. "I take it we're moving on to the main event? Can I at least get popcorn for this? I appreciate how you're helping me to watch my superstar figure and all, but a guy's gotta indulge now and then, you know?"
Emily Ann, in her precise, schoolmarm voice told him, "Perhaps, if you still want a treat later, Mr. Stark."
Tony did not like the sound of that. "If this is some kind of rough-him-up-so-the-rest-of-the-team-will-come-to-the-rescue plan, I have to tell you—"
"It's not," she interrupted. "Just a little something to tide me over until I can collect the others. I had planned on doing this all at once, but I find it hard to wait."
A familiar scent wafted over Tony. It took him a second, but he placed it: she was heating iron. Quickly, Tony considered all the options as to what could be done with heated iron by someone who was obsessed with ownership and came up with only one. Trying to control his panic, he said, "Just as a scientific observation, I would like to point out that cowhide is considerably thicker and more durable than human skin. It's among the reasons we don't wear ourselves for coats."
"That, and the taboo," she agreed, seeming unconcerned. Tony hadn't really expected her to think about what he was saying, but he had long ago learned that hope sprang eternal. He had also learned—not as long ago—that sometimes all the brains in the world couldn't stand up to Pure Crazy.
He tried to be glad it wasn't water. He tried to tell himself all the kids were doing it these days. He tried to anchor himself in the feel of Pepper's skin against his, Bruce's quiet laughter, and Steve's confused expression. He tried everything, but when the iron touched the side of his hip, he screamed and brought up the last shake they'd given him and prayed, prayed, to pass out.
Tony woke slowly into a haze of pain. It took him several moments to remember where he was and why he hurt so badly. When he remembered, he shut his eyes again. He was allowed to take a day off of fruitless planning, really. He'd take it easy, spend the day keeping Crazy 1 and Crazy 2 from thinking about the other team members, and get back to conjuring up a way out tomorrow.
It was a plan. He'd get to it when he wasn't ready to pass out again.
Tony was cold, really cold. He wondered if they'd suddenly decided to freeze him, like Cap. Only…that wouldn't work. Tony wasn't like Steve, he wasn’t, he didn’t have—oh, right, the serum.
His brain felt slow. Was he drunk? He didn't remember drinking. He tried opening an eye to figure out what he'd done, then shut it when he saw the plexiglass. Cage, yes. Okay.
Despite the rest of him shivering, his teeth clicking together with a force that hurt, Tony's hip burned. Had he fallen? Maybe when he was drinking he had—
No. Cage. Cage and brand and he had to get away, had to warn the others. He pulled his knees to his chest and bit his lip against the spike of agony that ran from his hip up his entire side. Gingerly, he wrapped his arms around himself as best he could, trying to regain some warmth. If he could just warm up he'd be able to think clearly, be able to come up with an idea.
He rubbed his arms where he could, but even that motion was painful. He squeezed his eyes shut as tightly as he could, blocking off tears. He just needed to warm up, that was all.
The earth was shaking. An earthquake? But he wasn't in Malibu. New York didn't… Oh fuck, they were under attack. He needed his armor. "JARVIS?"
His tongue felt thick, like he was thirsty. The earth shook some more, but it was weirdly silent, and nothing was falling on him or even around him. He needed to find Pepper. If she was in the office, she wasn't safe, he needed to make sure she was safe.
He forced his eyes open, but the world shook again and his stomach flipped over, causing him to wretch. Nothing came up. Had he forgotten dinner? Sometimes he did that.
He really didn't feel good. Maybe he had caught something. There was another shake of the ground and Tony tried to focus, because he needed to find Pepper. He tried calling JARVIS again, but the AI wasn't answering. Had the earthquake interfered with the systems? Fuck. Wait, not earthquake, attack.
Just then, Tony's head exploded as something shattered, too loud and too close and he couldn't get away, didn't even know where to go. Sharp and dull pain coalesced and Tony was breathing too fast. Someone shouted, "Tony!"
Tony forced his eyes open. "Cap." Then, "Pepper."
Steve was shaking his head, talking too quickly and Tony knew he needed to tell him something, but he couldn't remember what, couldn't remember—it hit him. "Go! Go! They'll, they're looking, you can't, you have to—"
But Steve just carefully swept Tony off the floor. Tony was frantic to get him to safety, but the motion of being taken up in Steve's arms, of the too-hot skin at his hip making contact with anything sent him over the edge of what he could handle and he tumbled back into unconsciousness.
Tony awoke to the sound of JARVIS quietly responding to something. Tony wasn't thinking quickly enough to make out the words, but he knew the sound of JARVIS settling someone's curiosity. He must have moved in some way when he'd woken, because someone said, "Open your eyes. Come on, just let us know you're in there."
Oh, Clint. Clint, who saw everything. Tony wondered who else was here and if he—
Tony's eyes shot open as he realized Clint was there, they'd gotten Clint, fuck, had they gotten Natasha?
As his vision began to focus, he saw that, indeed, Natasha was there, sitting pretzel-style on the bed, a crossword puzzle lying abandoned in her lap. Wait, bed?
Tony glanced around. The surroundings were familiar and not in the way his cage had become. Steve was standing by one of the windows, as if to give Tony room, Clint was fiddling with the mechanics of his quiver—Tony was going to have to check on that later—in a chair, Bruce was snoozing on the nearest sofa, and Thor was…playing cat's cradle? While sitting on the floor? Whatever.
Next to him, safe and warm and right, was Pepper, her expression still and cautious, as though waiting to see if he was really there with them. He said, "Hey Pepp." It was more of a croak, really.
She slipped an ice cube between his lips, having been handed the cup by Clint. Tony let it dissolve for a moment, before trying again. "I had this terrible dream. And you were there—"
She said, "Yeah, yeah, welcome back," and cemented the sentiment with a kiss.
"We had to clean so much of it out that the medical team figured just clearing out what was left of the skin and regrafting the area was the best thing to do. Pepper gave them the go-ahead. We all figured if she didn't know about it, it wasn't something you'd done before capture," Bruce told Tony, when he caught him looking at the bandage on his hip a few days later.
"It's gone?" Tony asked, trying to keep his tone even, but he was pretty sure some of the relief he was feeling leaked into it.
Bruce nodded. "Shouldn't even be much scarring. Grafting technology is pretty advanced, even out in the real world, where people don't have access to science fiction machines."
Tony smiled. "How pedestrian."
Bruce laughed a bit in acknowledgment before asking, "Wanna talk about it?"
"With that temperament of yours?"
Bruce took a seat on the bed Tony was still confined to, at least for another 24 hours, and said, "I'll stay awake, promise."
Tony raised an eyebrow. "And The Other Guy?"
Bruce shrugged. "Might have to peek out to reassure himself you're okay, but you reinforced the floors."
Tony felt something settle in his chest. "You've become shockingly blasť about your alter-ego, Doctor."
"I'm surrounded by bad influences."
Tony sneaked out of bed when the pain of everything had muted to a dull roar and the dizziness the fever had left him with was 98% gone. Really, he'd been very patient. He made his way to his workshop not because he was feeling particularly industrious—a few stray ideas had percolated in captivity and while weaving in and out of sleep, but nothing that wouldn't keep—but because being in the space always helped him understand he really was home and safe.
DUM-E rolled over, beeping in a pattern that was half-worry, half-scold. Tony soothed a hand over him and said, "I know, sorry."
Tony spent a few hours reassuring the 'bots, and letting JARVIS pamper him. He was just starting to think about laying his head on the console and sleeping when Steve appeared outside the door. Tony murmured, "Let him in, JARVIS."
"Hey," Tony said. "It wasn't much of a jailbreak."
"We were a bit concerned it took you so long," Steve told him, smiling.
Tony wasn't going to mention that it was the first time he'd woken up alone since his return. It was more than a little embarrassing even just knowing himself that he'd had a moment of panic when he hadn't been sure if he'd been taken away again or not.
"Missed the terrible twins," Tony said, nodding his head toward DUM-E and You.
"We're sorry it took so long. We, uh, we each said it while you were—"
"Cap." Tony resisted the urge to take the out, to say something sharp and funny and distancing. Instead, he shook his head and said with an ironic smile, "I had a plan, you know?"
Steve, with his fucking earnest face, said, "Don't doubt it for a second."
"JARVIS, ask Clint if he plans on coming down. Ever." Tony'd been thinking about some kind of skin coating that could melt plastic, glass and anything in between, but he wasn't getting anywhere. When he had the right questions he'd go and poke Bruce, but until then, it was gestational.
Clint dropped through the vent on the far side of the lab. "Can't blame a guy for having habits."
Really, the fact that Clint hadn't stopped following Tony discreetly around since he'd begun being mobile again was kind of sweet, in a creepy way. Tony was hardly one to judge social graces.
Clint asked, "How long've you known?"
Tony shrugged. All things being equal, he preferred not to lie to his team, but he wasn't going to tell Clint he'd felt a little safer with the constant companionship. "Can we have a moment where I'm serious and you don't tell anyone later?"
Clint raised an eyebrow. "You're giving me blackmail material and robbing me of my ability to use it?"
Tony rolled his eyes. Clint said, "Shoot."
"That's your job." Which, actually, was a good segue way into what Tony wanted to ask. "How do you—I mean, you watch us, tell us what's coming."
"Also my job," Clint agreed.
"But you can't always help."
Clint's eyes darkened. "No."
"How do you deal with that?"
Clint slid onto one of the tables and seated himself. "Just, I mean, because I'm a curious guy: what's this about?"
"My usual desire to be god-like."
"What was that about being serious?"
Tony ran a hand over his face. "Well, the answer wasn't dishonest."
"Yeah," Clint said. "But."
Tony swallowed down the fear that rose up when he allowed himself to say, "They were collecting us. Like…action figures. And I kept thinking I'd wake up and another one of you would be there, because I wouldn't have gotten out, gotten to you in time."
"I might not be the best guy to answer this question."
"Yeah, well, you're what I've got, Barton. Suck it up."
"Mostly, Phil and Natasha have to talk me down every time something happens on my watch. I blow at compartmentalization and letting blame fall where it should, so." Clint shrugged. "I wasn't even there when you got taken and it still felt like my fault, like I wasn't keeping watch when I should have been."
Which explained why he'd been stalking Tony from the vents. "So, basically, dysfunctional guilt complexes are the new black in this little family of ours."
Clint blinked. "It's…really taken you until now to realize that?"
Tony accidentally burned most of the skin on his palms off while in the testing phase of his new project. Steve yelled at him a whole bunch about ignoring safety protocols, and Pepper yelled even more. Natasha said, "You're basically the stupidest genius I know," but stayed with him while he went through his second grafting process within a month, and when the drugs wouldn't let him stay alert any longer.
This time, when Tony got back to the Tower, Coulson declared it would be easiest to make sure Tony didn't immediately break himself again by situating him on the shared floor. Tony pouted a little, but was genuinely too drugged and sore to put up much of a fuss. He'd escape when the time came.
And right then was not the time, since Bruce had made garlic naan and it was delicious. Pepper was working on something, but her head was in Tony's lap, warm and the perfect weight. Thor was sitting with a mixing bowl and a serving spoon, eating Pop Tarts that he'd broken up and poured milk over, while Jane leaned against him on the loveseat, holding a mug the size of her face between her hands.
Natasha and Clint were having a quiet argument with Coulson about what to put on the television. Tony hoped the Wonder Twins won. Watching Coulson watch trashy TV had its moments, but the actual programming made Tony despair for humanity. And Natasha and Clint had the bizarre ability to find the weirdest and most fascinating documentaries ever filmed.
Steve settled himself next to Tony on the couch, making sure Tony wasn't jostled too much. Softly, he said, "Sorry about the lecture."
"No you're not," Tony slurred a little, but he smiled. He hated it when Cap got imperious, but it also reminded him he was part of something. Good with the bad, and all that.
Steve laughed. "No, but—but I should have said that you scare me when you do these things, that I can't concentrate on keeping myself safe, the way you seem to want, if I'm always worried about you blowing yourself up. Instead of just yelling."
"You're already too perfect, Cap. Anything more would be creepy."
"I need to do this." Tony bit his lip. It was hard to think on the drugs, but he forced himself. "I have to…protect what's mine. But not, not with cages." He frowned. Everything felt confusing. "You have to be able to get out."
"I know, Tony. I get it. But as much as you need that, I need you not to end up dead because you forget that we may be yours, but you are also ours."
Tony rubbed at his face, his bandaged hands not providing much friction. Steve took them carefully away and said, "Tony."
"Told me I was theirs." Tony's chest hurt when he said the words, like he'd swallowed his own fear.
"But they lied. And we came and got what was ours." Steve swallowed. "They lied."
Tony's glance rolled around the room to find that the others were all looking at them; even Pepper had stopped reading from her tablet and was gazing up at him. Tony said, "I didn’t want to be theirs."
"Nor were you ever, Anthony," Thor told him solemnly, going so far as to set his spoon down.
"Nor will you ever be," Natasha said, her tone casual, but her stance like a promise.
"Never ever," Clint agreed.
"Mm," Bruce murmured, a growl lying just beneath the sound.
For a second Tony expected to feel the confinement of plexiglass and pain and despair at the team's own brand of possessiveness, but all he felt was a little sleepy, and like he wanted to eat all the naan, every bite. He said, "Yours," like it was a fact, and let his eyes droop closed when nobody looked as if they wanted to disagree.