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Anthropos Polytropos, Chapter Eight

Anthropos Polytropos
By: Memory Dragon
Disclaimer: I do not own the Avengers movie-verse, nor do I make any claim to.
Characters:  Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Clint Barton, Natasha Romanov, Bruce Banner, Thor, Amora the Enchantress, Pepper Potts, James Rhodes, Happy Hogan.
Warnings: PTSD. Mentions of past torture. Temporary character death that the characters are aware is (probably) only temporary, though it still takes it's mental toll on them.  Mentions of potential child abuse.  Mind fuckery.  Minor self-abuse.  Cliff hangers.  Implied bullying.  Generally dark fic, though there is a happy ending and no one actually dies.  Not Iron Man 3 compliant in the slightest.  If you have any questions about the warnings, I'd be more than happy to clarify as best I can.
Rating: I think I'm just going to leave this at an M due to how dark it gets and some of the themes.
Summary:  He doesn't remember much from before he woke up, but he does know two things.  He doesn't like being called Tony Stark, and he hates Captain America.
Thanks: Many thanks to narwhale_callin for the beta, despite how I confuse you with Avengers canon.  Special thanks to pagen_godess, Teyke, NightmareShinigami, Wildmage+of+galla, EternalSheWolf, Redrikki, CJAndre, Gadhar, mistersilver, and Merbef, along with everyone who left kudos.  It has been a very rough week, and seeing the comments cheered me up a lot.
Notes: First of all, for those of you who were wondering, the non-Shakespeare quote from last week came from Revenger's Tragedy.  The line was "When the bad bleed, then is the tragedy good."  There is an excellent movie version of the play with Christopher Eccleston, Eddie Izzard, and Derek Jacobi if there is anyone interested in seeing it.

Second, I hate to do this, because after this is the final chapter, but I'm not entirely sure if I'll have internet next week.  I'm not entirely sure I'll have a place to live next week.  There are a few things I'd like you to take note of in light of this.  One, the final chapter is written.  Two, I will not leave this fic without an ending.  You can look through my past chapter fics to know that I always finish what I post.  Three, I will try to get this up in a timely manner, but please be understanding that a timely manner may not be possible at the moment.  There's a lot going on and it has not been a good week.  It doesn't look like it's getting better any time soon either.  Just keep in mind that life does take precedence over fic.

Finally, enjoy the chapter and all the warm fuzzies.  After all of that angst, you guys deserve it.


Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven

~

Chapter Eight: Young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more

Pain. Lots of it. He was blinded by white lights as he opened his eyes briefly. He'd have screamed as the memories flooded through his mind, but there was something in his throat that forced him to breathe. He tried thrashing, pulling out whatever it was, but a pin prick in his neck pushed him back under.

The second time he woke up, there was still a lot of pain, but it wasn't as bad. Tony Stark made a mental note to never drink whatever it was that put him here again, because this was the worst hangover he'd ever had.

"Tony?" he heard Pepper say. The way her voice trembled made Tony wonder just how much he'd had to drink. He hadn't had that much, had he? The one time he'd done that had been before Afghanistan, and Pepper had threatened to quit if he did it again. Rhodey had punched him after he'd gotten out of the hospital and his jaw had ached for days, and that was after he'd assured both of them that it really had been an accident. He'd mostly kept his promise not to let it get that bad again, but Tony didn't put it past himself to slip back when things got too rough, even if he had been doing much better recently.

Time to face the music. Tony opened his eyes to see not just Pepper, but Rhodey and the Avengers crowded around him. Huh. "Hey, Pep," he croaked, wincing at how hoarse he sounded. Hadn't he been hooked up to something last time he'd woken up? How bad-

Pepper launched herself at him as he tried to sit up, hugging him tightly. Hadn't they been taking a break? And Rhodey, Rhodey should be officially in LA, unofficially off doing whatever classified stuff Tony had promised not to hack into. Another promise he'd mostly kept, since he'd been busy with the Avengers...

Thinking back, the last thing he remembered was yelling at Thor not to give in to her demands, and the Enchantress throwing him into a wall as he took a hit meant for Cap. So maybe not a hangover after all. "What happened?" he asked.

Okay, when Rhodey was sliding next to him and hugging him tightly, something bad had to have happened. "You've been in a coma for three weeks," Rhodey said. "Don't you dare even think of doing that to us again."

Tony got a light thwap on his head (which, ow, not helping with his headache), and a tighter hug from both Pepper and Rhodey. The looks he was getting from everyone made a lot more sense, but what was he, their personal teddy bear? He was tired of being hugged constantly and...

Wait. Teddy bears? It all came tumbling back, whether he wanted it or not. Pepper Potts - no strawberries - though he still couldn't remember why, he did know that they were bad - stable, brilliant, and frighteningly efficient, someone just out of his reach that he couldn't help but try to reach out for. James Rhodes, a safe haven, comfort, protection - all those things Tony had convinced himself that he didn't need anymore and yet he still ended up under the desk waiting for Rhodey to find him.

Tony looked around at the other Avengers who had been inside his mind, learning things no one should know about him. They knew all those things, and he'd killed all of them, unconsciously or not. They knew.

"Tony," someone... Bruce? repeated a few times before it registered. The others had backed away to give him some space. "Hey, you're alright, Tony," Bruce said reassuringly, rubbing small circles into his hand. Tony realized he was shaking pretty badly. Pepper was now sitting back, wiping her eyes, but Rhodey refused to let go, just like on the plane ride home from Afghanistan after he'd been cleared by medical.

"Just breathe," Bruce repeated a few times.

"I killed you," Tony said, looking from Bruce, to Natasha, to Clint, to Thor. "All of you. It was my fault. Why did you go there in the first place? You shouldn't..."

"We knew the risks," Natasha said. "It was the only way to get you out of the spell Amora placed on you."

"I authorized it," Pepper said, much of her composure regained. Tony glared, feeling betrayed. She'd just let the other Avengers go running around in his head!

"We were greatly worried," Thor said. "It took time to locate the apples that would allow us to join you in the dreamscape, and Lady Pepper and Colonel Rhodes were both needed elsewhere."

"Besides, Thor told us about that suicide dive you made," Clint said with a scowl, crossing his arms over his chest as Thor looked down. "You don't have any high ground after that to lecture me for jumping off buildings!"

"It was a forty percent chance of death, and a sixty percent chance that I'd be able to hold on as she teleported out," Tony said automatically. He didn't mention that he hadn't expected waking up again after that gamble.

"Forty percent! Tony, I've seen you gamble. You overestimate the odds," Rhodey snapped.

Tony looked around again, ignoring Rhodey's protests with long practice. Someone was missing. As Bruce tried to calm Rhodey down, Tony kept looking around, his panic growing.

"Tony, calm down," he heard Natasha say. "We're all still here. You didn't actually kill-"

"Cap," Tony said, figuring out the missing face. He tried to get out of bed, but Rhodey's hands forced him back and he got a look of pure murder for trying. "Steve. Where-"

"I'm here." That was Steve's voice, but Tony still couldn't see him. Steve had been sitting by himself from what he'd seen through Amora's portal. Steve shouldn't be by himself.

Thor moved aside as Steve moved closer, and Tony relaxed against Rhodey at the sight of him, arm still cradled against his side. Tony was still trembling, but seeing everyone here helped immensely.

"Your arm-"

"It's just in my mind," Steve said. "It's not really hurt. I just need some time for the rest of me to remember that." Steve smiled weakly at him as Natasha pulled him next to her. He was still farthest away from Tony, but now part of the group. That was better.

Suddenly exhaustion hit, though Tony couldn't have said why. He'd been sleeping for three weeks already, hadn't he? But Rhodey's shoulder was comfortable and safe, and he'd slipped away quicker than he'd realized.

It was dark when he woke up again. Rhodey was gone, which, okay, that was a disappointment. Not unexpected though, given the other Avengers together would be enough to bully Rhodey home for some proper sleep. Alone, Rhodey could take any one of them, but not even War Machine could take the full team.

What did surprise him were Natasha and Clint - Romanov and Barton? Where did this put them on formalities? Tony was bad with those on a good day, but this dreamscape business had really messed him up - anyway, they were playing cards at his bedside. Natasha (too scary for nicknames, unused to touching, surprisingly protective, and just as deadly) made a displeased noise as Clint (Legolas, Cupid, guilt and anger, still needs reassurance that the team needed him) put his cards down and passed Tony a cup of water.

"Thanks," Tony said after a sip, glancing down at their winnings to ignore how weak he felt. "You're playing poker with goldfish as chips?" he asked.

"I've already cleared him out of two months' paychecks," Natasha said with a shrug, glancing down at her bountiful winnings and the ten goldfish crackers Clint had left.

"Not true," Clint returned. "I just eat my winnings. Why waste them by saving things?" he asked, popping one of them in his mouth as proof.

"Remind me never to play poker with you guys," Tony said, glancing around the now empty-feeling room. There were five other beds and a curtained off area in the corner, but the beds were all empty this time. It was unnerving.

"Please, you'd be counting cards the whole time," Clint said, shuffling the cards. "The others are back at the tower. They're safe. It's our shift to watch over you."

The casual tone Clint used kept the words from burning. He supposed Clint knew a bit about waking up and needing to know everyone was still alive after turning against them. It didn't stop him from being unable to meet their eyes. Not only had he effectively killed them, but now they knew... Clint knew about his fear of water, and the loneliness that led to Tony building his own friends. And yeah, Tony knew how pathetic that was. He didn't even want to think about what Natasha's revisions on his file would look like after that tower.

He started, nearly dropping the drink as he felt Natasha's hand running though his hair. "But you had to learn this whole 'casual touch' thing like I did," he said before he could stop the words from tumbling out of his mouth.

"That doesn't mean neither of us enjoy this kind of contact," Natasha said, continuing the petting. Which - point. With his memories, he knew enough that he could lean into the touch without it being totally inappropriate. He let his eyes fall shut for a moment just to take in the feeling of her fingers. Then he looked up at her uncertainly, trying to figure out her motives. It was much harder to do in the world outside his mind. He almost wished he'd taken more advantage of it there, because Black Widow was a mystery ninety-five percent of the time.

"Remember what I said about us liking you, despite everything? You'd have been able to tell if I was lying," Clint said, stealing a goldfish from a third pile of crackers. It wasn't as big as Natasha's, but it held a decent amount. "I meant that," Clint finished, tossing the goldfish back in his mouth. "You're a pain in the ass, but you're our pain in the ass, so don't forget it."

The problem was that if he deflected or tried for sarcasm, the two trained spies would know and Tony would just feel pathetic If he asked them why, which was a fairly pertinent question and one he was still debating if he wanted to know the answer to, he'd also feel pathetic. He ran a few probabilities, but Natasha ultimately took the choice from him. "Just accept it, kotyonok. We don't blame you for what happened, and we like you. Think of it as a universal mystery that will never be solved."

"Or would drive you mad to know the truth?" Tony added. He waved it off when they both looked up at him in confusion. He needed to stop quoting, though it was good to dip into science fiction instead of just the classics this time. "Never mind, but the Chitauri space whale, which sorry for that, by the way, and the rats... which, also sorry about the rats. I've just remembered I was terrified of the Rat King in the Nutcracker when my mother took me to see it. In my defense, I was six."

"They were in your mind, yes," Natasha said, her lips quirking with just a hint of amusement. "And don't think I've forgotten being turned into a swan. But if it were just a defense mechanism, they would have backed off when you tried to protect us. Amora was using her influence with the spell to keep us from helping you."

"Though we need to have a talk about suicide dives," Clint said, pouting. It was enough to know that Clint wasn't holding a grudge for the whale, and Tony gave a mental sigh of relief. "If I have to sit through talks about suicide dives, so do you."

"Only a forty-percent chance. Much better odds than you jumping off buildings and expecting one of us to notice and catch you," he reminded Clint. He looked down as Natasha brushed his bangs aside. "And she was going to kill all of you no matter what I did. It was the best plan."

"Aye, you are one of the bravest men I have the honor to call my friend," Thor (bigger than life, divine biceps, Blondie, Goldilocks, alien, warm) said, coming into the room. It immediately felt less empty, and Tony relaxed a little. It still wasn't everyone, but it was enough to ease his remaining doubts.

"I did kill you," Tony said, hiding as much of the broken tone from his voice as he could. Not only that, but Thor had watched everything. It was terrifying, to have someone know that much about him.

While Clint had not made a move to touch him as he had done in the dreamscape, and Natasha was... still Natasha (despite the hair-petting that Tony could get used to), Thor had no qualms about plopping down on Tony's bed and pulling him into a massive hug. Thor's biceps were really something else. "The dreamscape would have killed me when you left it, had you not done so. You knew this."

Tony swallowed. "I thought it might." Amora had confirmed it later, but he'd been guessing at the time. He was really going to have to have a chat with Steve, who'd offered to stay with him under the desk (waiting for Rhodey - working on small, delicate circuits in his safe haven) until the reactor went out.

"Then you saved my life, rather than kill me, and for that I owe you my thanks," Thor said, his voice brooking no arguments.

"But if you saw everything then-"

"I saw a very brave, resilient, resourceful, and kind mortal whose sufferings and deeds should be sung and celebrated for all new generations to revere," Thor said. "You have suffered greatly, my friend, yet you still push forward. That is an admirable quality."

Tony blinked. Thor said all of that with a perfectly straight face, like he'd meant every word. How was he even meant to respond to something that ridiculous? And no, he wasn't going to admit to the warmth that felt like it was spreading through his chest. "Uh, thanks big guy. Sounds great. I think." Time to rest, enjoy his godly body pillow, and hope that this topic didn't come up again. Yeah, that sounded like a good plan. "But why did she go after me?" Tony asked, trying to change the subject. "Did I get the Avenger short straw or something?"

Thor looked thoughtful at this, while Clint shrugged. "She was aiming for Rogers," Natasha pointed out. That made a lot more sense. Steve probably would have fallen for her helpless goddess spiel in a heartbeat.

"Nay, Lady Widow," Thor said. "Amora sides with my brother and has learned to be clever. I believe her target was always Anthony, and she found a better way to hit him than to target him directly."

"Yeah, but Cap would have been a lot more receptive to the story she came up with about being a goddess in distress," Tony said, wondering if it was an Asgardian mind set thing. Maybe she had thought he was the weakest link and the easiest to take out? Thor could not be implying that Tony was easier to hit by aiming at Captain America, because that was just ridiculous. If it was true, then it was Steve's fault, because he was always throwing that stupid shield around and leaving himself open, and Tony couldn't just let a national icon die no matter how big the stick up Steve's ass was.

Okay, maybe it had become a bit of a habit.

"I do not think it mattered if you believed her lies, just that you were no longer a threat."

So instead of the weakest link, he was the strongest? Not that he wasn't, because hey, the Iron Man armor was that awesome, but most people didn't seem to agree and Tony Stark out of the suit was the least deadly of all of them.

Natasha nodded, staring at Tony in a curious manner. "Hit us where we can't recover from," she said, an admiration for the tactic slipping into her voice. "If she'd gone after the head, Steve, we'd have rallied and fought back. Instead, she went after the heart, and we would have taken longer to recover. With Rogers still adjusting to this time period, the Avengers would have fallen apart. You were the logical choice."

"You've lost me," Tony said after a moment. "Which, bravo, you've confused a genius, provided that made any sense and wasn't just rambling. You don't need me to keep the Avengers together. Besides, Steve's a strategic genius, even though I can still beat him at chess, so he'd-"

"You bought a tea set," Natasha said simply.

"Yes?" Now he was really baffled.

"You bought a tea set with all of my favorite teas after we all moved in, then did the same for Bruce. But you only got one tea kettle, making sure we'd have to share it. To give us a common ground without recriminations. And you 'forgot' to get another kettle until we talked about our mistrust for each other. Not to mention you destroyed the other four kettles Bruce or I bought."

"That was completely accidental," Tony said defensively as she stopped petting him to tug his hair gently in warning.

"No, it wasn't," she said. And yeah, she had a point, but it had been worth it to see Bruce and Natasha playing backgammon one night while waiting for the tea to brew, both of them finally at ease in each other's presence.

"You asked about Loki," Thor said before Tony could start a childish argument. He looked at Clint briefly, who stiffened at the name, but nodded for Thor to continue. "He wronged you and your world grievously, but you asked me what my brother had been like before."

"Understanding the enemy," Tony said easily. It was the same excuse he'd given at the time, because that was better than admitting he knew quite a bit about family betrayals and relentlessly going over every interaction with Obadiah in his head as he tried to understand if Obie had always been that way or if Tony had done something wrong somewhere along the line and never noticed.

"An excuse," Thor said. "You helped me work through Loki's betrayal and grieve."

"I-"

"You gave Banner sanctuary, Rogers a home, the rest of us something to come back to. The Avengers could have been made up of any number of people, but it wouldn't have worked without you or Rogers. You're a balanced equation. You take one side out, and the rest falters," Natasha said.

"You make us sound codependent." Which was a terrible thought, since depending on Tony was always a bad idea. And anyway, if there was anyone Tony couldn't live without, it was Pepper. Natasha was implying that Tony and Steve needed each other. They had a truce, yeah, but it was a fragile one at best before this whole mess in his mind had started.

"I do not think anyone else would have convinced you to leave your desk sanctuary," Thor said. "Just as you convinced him that he had to keep going after Lady Widow fell."

"He falls, you catch him," Clint added, speaking for the first time in a while. "And he keeps you from going too far over the edge. Fury hoped the two of you would even each other out."

Tony's eyes narrowed. He wouldn't put it past the scheming, one-eyed bastard, and he hated the fact he'd been that easy for Fury to manipulate.

"And while we're on the topic, don't think I don't know about the viruses that have been going around SHIELD HQ lately," Clint said.

Tony's head shot up in surprise. "How did you know I-"

"I didn't, not really. But you just confirmed a few long-term suspicions," Clint said smugly. And damn, Tony should know better than to fall for that one.

"What is this virus you speak of, honorable Hawk?" Thor asked curiously.

Natasha, on the other hand, was nowhere near amused. "Stark, that virus wasn't child's play. If Director Fury knew-"

"No one should have been able to trace that back to me," Tony said, glaring at Clint who just laughed.

"Relax, Stark. No one else will," Clint assured him. "The only reason I knew was because some of the worst hit were all openly hostile to me coming back to work after what Loki did to me. If I was the person who fixed it, they'd have to thank me. So I tried something I overheard you talking about for viruses, and funny enough, it cleared the virus right up. That, combined with who got the virus, tipped me off."

"They were irritating," Tony said, unable to come up with an excuse for that one. "And I thought I was being subtle about mentioning the fix."

"Actually, I was impressed with you on that one. I didn't even know you knew I was in the vents," Clint said. Tony wasn't going to tell him about the heat sensors he'd installed in the vents, because hey, one-upping a spy was kind of awesome. Clint could find out on his own. "Suggesting that I fix their computers though? Not so subtle."

"I didn't do that." That he could deny flat out. He hadn't.

"So that long, drawn-out story about Senator Sterns and how good it felt to one-up him and force him into thanking you wasn't a suggestion? While complaining about a virus the finance department got?" Clint asked.

Touché.

Thor laughed heartily, patting Tony on the back a little too hard. Even a god had to smile sheepishly at Natasha's glare, cowed for jostling Tony too much. Tony wondered how long he'd have to put up with her protectiveness. It was, admittedly, better than wondering how long she would put up with him before killing him and/or why the hell she was being protective in the first place.

"You are indeed the heart that keeps the Avengers going," Thor boomed, smiling brightly down at him.

Tony didn't meet his eyes though, looking down at the arc reactor. It gave off a faint light under the shirt Rhodey or Pepper must have insisted on. Hospital gowns only made Tony try to check himself out sooner. "You might want to pick another metaphor, big guy. I don't know if anyone told you, but I've got a bad heart."

"I think it's apt," Natasha said, resuming petting his hair to stall Tony's argument. Now that was playing dirty. "Your heart was broken, so you found a way to patch it up and keep going. And you do the same for us, because you know how it's done. It's like kintsugi."

"What?" Clint asked as Tony raised an eyebrow. Thor was intrigued.

"I know you've studied Japanese during your business deals with Fujikawa, Stark. You know what it means."

"I don't, someone explain," Clint said as he crossed his arms over his chest.

"To repair with gold," Tony said. "It's when you repair pottery with a lacquer resin sprinkled with powdered gold. Old Japanese art. I might have dabbled a bit with it on a business trip, because it sounded interesting."

"And there's the understanding that the piece is more beautiful for being broken," Natasha added.

"You have thought about this way too much. And that is way more poetic than I can handle right now," Tony said, turning into his godly body pillow and hiding against Thor's chest. Number Six: Cowardly. He was more than willing to hide in those pectorals.

"You were the one being poetic in the dreamscape," Clint said.

Tony stuck his tongue out, and Natasha ignored him. "There is one thing I didn't get while we were in your mind," Natasha said, saving Tony from the awkward, but not before privately laughing at his expense, he was sure.

"Only one thing? What about those quotes I just mentioned? And the ridiculously low tech dreamscape?" Clint asked.

"Amora couldn't block everything, so some memories of archetypes and novels from his early days must have been deemed unimportant enough to let through," Natasha said, rolling her eyes. "Though you're a lot more well-read than I would have guessed, Stark."

"I'll get you and Steve The Dark Is Rising sequence. You can thank me later. Also, genius," he reminded her absently, a bit preoccupied with petting Thor's biceps, because he was taking advantage while he still could. "Not exclusively for math and mechanics, and I did have to sit through regular school for a while before they let me skip ahead too much. I got bored."

"I'll remember that," Natasha said dryly, and he could tell she was making a mental note of Tony's distractions as well, but that wasn't overly important. "All of the people in your life were represented by objects. The boxing ring for Happy, the Castle for your father. Steve mentioned a desk Colonel Rhodes said he recognized from the description and a pepper-shaker you wouldn't let go of. There was even a taser that you'd lost." Coulson. Comforting, with a bit of sorrow. Tony bit the inside of his cheek to keep from reacting to that, because he didn't think he could live with Natasha if she ever figured that one out.

"We were the only ones actually there," Natasha continued. "But there was another man there too, dressing your wounds after Clint was forced back here."

"A man?" Tony asked, not remembering anyone else there.

"Steve said there was someone else while he fought a Hydra, but it seemed like he was trying to help, so Steve concentrated on the fight," Clint added.

Tony winced. The last thing Steve needed to go up against was a Hydra, regardless of the irony. That was almost worse than throwing the space whale back at Clint.

Thor looked thoughtful; he wasn't gripping Tony as tightly. "My brother spoke of such things when he researched the fruit as a child. Sometimes, mortal souls already passed may visit a dreamscape to give aid to those they were close to in life."

It took Tony a moment to sort through that, because really, who spoke like that? He could understand Shakespeare, but Thor's phrases sometimes took a moment before the brain synapses started working. Or maybe that just came from the fact that he had the body of a god. "You're saying a ghost helped me?" he asked skeptically. "I don't believe in ghosts." Or magic, but he'd been forced to recognize that recently, which he didn't appreciate in the least. "Besides, who would come back from the dead to help me? Don't try to run that BS about my parents either." Howard may have made a video about how proud he was, but it was several years too late and would it have killed Howard to say it to his face just once?

"I saw the man as well, helping you through the mist," Thor said. "He was tall, wearing Midgardian spectacles and..."

Thor went on describing the man, with Natasha adding a few details, but Tony had stopped listening. Steady, ghost-like hands. The feeling of pride at the end when he...

"Hey. Hey, Tony. Look at me. Are you alright?"

Clint. Tony blinked, and suddenly Clint was in his face, trying to get his attention. Tony's eyes were surprisingly wet, and he had to blink a few times before it went away.

"Fine," Tony croaked out, forcing himself to drink the water from his nightstand, since his throat was so obviously dry. Clint gripped his shoulder lightly, just enough to remind him that he wasn't alone.

"Someone you know?" Clint asked casually, as if he wasn't actually interested in the answer.

Tony nodded, not willing to trust his voice again just yet, and he took Clint's feigned out. It was a lot harder to deflect than usual, or maybe Tony had gotten used to being in his own mind where it was impossible to hide these things, especially from himself. Either way, it sucked, and there was no way he could talk about Yinsen yet. He should have more control than this. Even if Yinsen was proud of...

Thor started to say something, but a sharp look from Natasha cut him off. He looked a bit lost for a moment, before wrapping Tony back in a hug.

"Really, I'm not everyone's personal teddy bear," he groused, though he didn't try to break the hug.

Clint shrugged, leaning back finally and shuffling the cards before he dealt a new hand. It wasn't until Natasha passed one of the piles to Thor that he realized who the third pile of Goldfish crackers had been for. It was a welcome distraction. "You're doing pretty well, Goldilocks," Tony said as Thor looked over his cards while still not letting Tony go.

Thor looked down at his goldfish, a small frown on his face. "Nay, I thought my winnings were greater."

"She stole more than me," Clint said, hands in the air at Thor's suspicious glance.

"Thor is unbelievably lucky," Natasha grumbled, ignoring Clint's accusation. Tony was willing to bet that meant she was just as guilty.

"Don't I get to play?" Tony asked.

"Card counter," Clint and Natasha said at the same time.

"I resent that," Tony said. Just because he was banned from all card games in Vegas (there was a reason he kept to dice), didn't mean he meant to count cards.

"I brought you something to keep you occupied though," Clint said with a grin. He tossed something at Tony.

Tony caught the thin tablet, turning it over and on in a smooth motion. At least he'd be able to get some work done while he was waylaid in the hospital. He needed to come up with something good for Pepper before he'd get in her good graces again, and he wanted to start looking into alloys for the Avengers' body armor. Dreamscape or not, the Avengers had gone down far too easily and that was going to be number one on his priority-

"Good evening, Sir. May I say it's a pleasure to have you awake again."

"JARVIS!" Tony looked down at the tablet in surprise, then up at Clint, who shrugged.

"I just asked if there was anything he could uplink into or access so that he could visit too."

Tony's throat closed as he caressed the side of the touch screen. It was far too good to hear JARVIS's voice, especially since he'd counted on doing quite a bit of hacking to allow JARVIS to connect here in the heart of SHIELD medical. His panic on the ship had left a tension that had never quite gone away, but now it was soothed. And this was way too many feelings to be dealing with in such a short time. Still, Tony smiled at Clint, a real, genuine smile that got him a lopsided grin in return. "Vacation's over, JARVIS. Time to get back to work," Tony said, bringing up SHIELD's network to access the current designs.

"That is most disappointing, Sir. I was rather looking forward to Greece."

"The last thing we need is Dummy using a fire extinguisher on the Parthenon."

"Of course, Sir. What was I thinking?"

Tony spent the rest of the evening working on a new alloy while stealing from Natasha's winnings (number Thirteen, still in effect and still just as lucky), curled up against Thor as Clint continued to lose. It was an odd sensation, having everyone surrounding him, but Tony found he liked it. Maybe Natasha was right. Accepting that it was an unsolvable mystery might not be so bad.

* * *

It turned out that Rhodey, Pepper, and Happy had all been unavailable when Thor had come back with the fruit. Rhodey had still been trying to get leave, and Pepper and Happy were on the west coast trying to keep the board from doing anything drastic, and Steve had deemed it too dangerous to wait. Which was why they hadn't come into the dreamscape as well. In a way, Tony was glad. He wasn't sure he could have handled killing the three of them. The Avengers had been bad enough. It meant that he was a bit clingy when any of his favorite triumvirate were visiting though, even if he'd deny that fact to his dying day. He'd missed them.

He was showing Rhodey some new designs for War Machine he'd just drawn up when Bruce cleared his throat, standing in the doorway. "I'll go find you lunch," Rhodey said, ruffling Tony's hair.

"I expect burgers," Tony demanded, not wanting Rhodey to leave. He wasn't clingy enough to pull Rhodey back down though, because that would be embarrassing. That didn't mean he wasn't tempted. "Nice big, fat ones without onions. And coffee."

"I don't think your stomach's ready for that much grease after three weeks on life support," Bruce said.

Bruce. Hulkster, friend, genius. The first person he'd genuinely liked. Cookie, short for Cookie Monster, because Bruce liked Sesame Street and Tony had caught him stealing chocolate chip cookies at three am. And that was the mark of a true monster, stealing the last cookie. Not the Hulk. The Hulk knew how to share.

"The Doc knows what he's talking about. I'll see what's on your approved list," the traitor said, ducking out before Tony could threaten to put back all of the Hammer tech.

Tony kept his eyes on his tablet, not looking at Bruce. "JARVIS, could you run-"

"Tony," Bruce said, his voice low. "We need to talk."

Tony did not wince. Instead he saved his work with a flick of his fingers and forced himself to look up. He really hated that phrase. "What's up, Cookie? How's life been treating you? Any green surprises recently, or have you still been keeping the Other Guy in time out after-"

"I hulked out when I woke up after the mirrors. The Other Guy wasn't happy."

This time Tony did wince, looking over at the corner covered by sheets. He assumed there was a flattened bed under the mess that the hospital staff hadn't been able to clean up with all the guests he was having. He'd wondered, but scratched the thought because that wasn't near the amount of damage the Hulk could create. They must have really been lucky this time, or maybe the Hulk hadn't wanted to hurt the equipment keeping Tony alive. He felt oddly touched, but the current conversation was with Bruce, whom he didn't need to have the link to know what the other man was feeling. "You're angry."

"Yes," Bruce said, taking a seat by Tony's bed. "I'm always angry, remember?"

Tony brought up a game of chess on his tablet. JARVIS made the first move, after a polite text reminder that Dr. Banner would like his attention. Tony ignored it.

Bruce sighed. "Tony there's something I want you to promise me."

"What's that, buttercup?" Tony asked, moving a pawn.

Grabbing the tablet from Tony's hands, Bruce glanced over the set-up. Then he made a few disastrous moves that allowed JARVIS to checkmate within seconds. Then he glared back at Tony, who raised his hands in surrender, debating whether he should hack his scores or leave it as a monument to Bruce's anger management. He might leave it, then see if the Hulk was up for a game and compare scores. Provided the tablet wasn't smashed first.

"Tony," Bruce sighed again, shaking his head as he took a deep breath. Tony briefly saw a flash of green, but he wasn't scared of the Hulk. Hell, it'd get him out of a conversation on feelings, so Tony would welcome the Other Guy. Sadly, he had no such luck.

"Promise me you won't try to protect me like that again," Bruce said finally.

"So do you want me to stop blocking General Ross or-"

"You know what I mean," Bruce growled. Tony stopped talking. He wasn't used to having that anger directed at him, no matter how much he annoyed Bruce, which made this conversation all the worse. "You never should have put me in that mirror. Tony, you put me in a cage."

Tony felt his eyes widen, guilt squeezing at his damaged heart. "I didn't know-"

"I know," Bruce waved him off, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths. "You couldn't have known, without your memories. I just... I need you to promise me, Tony. You said when I agreed to stay here that there'd be no cages."

"In my defense, you were skeptical of that at the time," Tony said, not meeting Bruce's eyes. He wished he still had the tablet, if just to have something to do with his hands.

"I never realized how much that trust meant until you took it away," Bruce said quietly.

Tony flinched. He couldn't even deny that, since it was essentially what he did. But no matter how much Tony trusted Bruce, he couldn't...

"You were afraid of me in the end," Bruce said.

"I'm not-"

"You were afraid I'd leave you if I saw too much. You thought that of all of us."

"Sounds really pathetic when you put it like that," Tony said, staring down at his hands. There should be a scar there, from when he'd held the mirror shard too tightly. A brand of his guilt, and how he'd failed Bruce. It wasn't there, but he could still feel the cut.

Bruce's hands came into view, taking both of his and trailing his thumb along the phantom scar. "We're all still here," Bruce said. "We haven't left after what we saw, and you know more about us now too. I know you saw about..."

"Your dad puts mine in perspective," Tony said, wishing platitudes didn't always fall so flat. There was nothing he could do to help Bruce with that.

Bruce squeezed his hand gently. "And do you want to stop being my friend now that you know?"

Tony snapped his head up at that. "Of course not, Bruce. That wasn't your fault! It's different from..."

"None of us are completely virtuous, Tony. We've all done things we're not proud of," Bruce said, smiling shyly as he let go of Tony's hand to push his glasses up. "Most of your faults we already knew about. It doesn't change who you are now, though. And who you are now is someone we're all proud to have as a friend and teammate."

Tony stayed silent as Bruce moved from his chair to sit beside Tony on the bed, pulling him into a hug. This time, he had his memories of learning how to respond to that kind of affection, and though he still felt a little awkward, he buried his face against Bruce's neck. He couldn't feel the pride from his friend or know if Bruce was telling the truth, but even if it wasn't... He'd already failed to trust Bruce once. For now, he'd go along with it.

"I'm sorry," Tony said, his voice breaking suspiciously, but Bruce was kind enough not to mention it.

"Just promise me that there'll be no more cages, not even to protect me," Bruce said.

"I meant that. No cages," Tony promised. "I swear I did. Still do. I'm sorry I didn't-"

"It's okay." Bruce hugged him tighter, almost painfully so, but Tony didn't mind. Bruce's laugh was a little strained as he clung on. "You know, it's one thing to be told you aren't afraid of the Other Guy, but it's so hard to tell when it's just a show you put on. But you really..."

"Never had a reason to fear the Hulk. I am a genius. Why does everyone keep forgetting that?" Tony asked, smiling against Bruce's neck. He'd had too many people put him down after he'd tried to change. He wasn't going to let that happen to Bruce too.

"Yeah," Bruce breathed out. They sat like that for a while, Bruce slowly relaxing as he held on to Tony. "The Other Guy is still going to yell at you the next time he comes out, ya know," Bruce said as he pulled away finally, still keeping hold of Tony's hand. "He thinks you're pretty stupid for a genius."

"I'm brilliant. If he says otherwise, I take back the polymer that makes your Hulk pants stretchy," Tony groused, though he was smiling broadly at Bruce.

"You're something else, Boss, I'll admit that."

Tony looked up, nearly standing before Bruce held him back down on the bed. "Happy!" Comfort. Safe. Trust. Tony thought back to the boxing ring and smiled. It's where he'd ended up after Clint's death, and that meant a lot.

Happy walked in, taking one of the chairs by Tony's bed. "Good to see you awake, Boss. You had us worried. You know how Ms. Potts hates job hunting." There was teasing mixed with relief in Happy's tone, as he nodded at Bruce, who still hadn't let go of Tony's hands. "Dr. Banner."

"Bruce, please," Bruce said, eventually letting go of one of Tony's hands so that he could shake Happy's, but he did so almost grudgingly. Like he didn't want to let go. "And doesn't Pepper technically run the company?"

"The rest of the R&D department are too low maintenance. Ms. Potts would be bored within a week," Happy responded with a gentle smile.

"I resent that," Tony said.

"So when do I get to bust you out of here?" Happy asked, ignoring Tony's glare.

"Tomorrow," Tony said at the same time Bruce said, "A couple more days."

Bruce glared at Tony, who grinned back. "Come on, who are you going to believe, Happy? Me, or a green rage monster who's not even a real medical doctor?"

Happy shifted uncomfortably, then nodded to Bruce. "I'm betting on the green guy. Sorry, Boss."

"Traitor!" Tony said, throwing a pillow at an amused Happy. It was good to have his friends back.

Now if only he could talk to Steve.

~TBC~

Memory:  Steve, why must you be so difficult when Tony is the one being the emotionally mature one for once?  XD  Good thing that's what the epilogue is for.  The quote of this chapter is more because I couldn't go a whole fic with Odssey references and not use this poem.

Quote of the Chapter:

"Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Lord Alfred Tennyson, "Ulysses"