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Looking After America

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The moment it happened was straight out of the climax of an action flick. Not that Tony had never had "this is a bad buddy film from the eighties" moments before, but the craftsmanship of that spontaneous moment was truly admirable.

In the wake of Hydra's fall, a lot of technology had gone missing and a couple of splinter groups had gone rogue; there were the Sons of Schmidt, the Nine Heads, the Hydra Skulls. The FBI handled most of the in-country Hydra cells, and some shadowy agency or other, probably at the behest of Coulson from a shadowy bunker somewhere, handled the international ones. Most weren't worth the Avengers rolling out of bed for.

Spydra was different, aside from having a super dumb name, Tony thought. Spydra had been formed primarily out of one of Hydra's more far-flung heads, the one that dealt with scrubbing their presence from records, repainting Hydra agents as eager soldiers and law officers, and gathering blackmail material. They'd spent most of their blackmail capital squeaking past Steve's hurricane of fury in the wake of the battle over the Potomac. Now they were trying to bill themselves as a guerrilla band of freedom fighters, stomped down on by SHIELD and Captain America, victims of a new liberal form of fascism.

But they were also really clever, and they knew how to strike.

The battle was the first time the Avengers had caught up with them, laying in ambush as they tried to rob one of Manhattan's larger banks. Civilian casualties would be minimal, Tony thought, as he circled the former combat zone, and property damage was almost nonexistent except for a couple of cars.

Down below, cops were handcuffing Spydra agents, firefighters and EMTs were treating the few wounded, and Steve and Natasha were engaged in a little friendly chat with one of Spydra's top brass. Tony touched down and lifted his faceplate just as the Spydra agent spat, " -- can't oppress us forever, Captain America!"

"You hear this guy, Tony?" Steve called. Natasha twisted her arms, which were tangled in the Spydra agent's arms in a complicated knot, and he let out a whistling breath, gasping for air. "He says that the laws we have in this country about bank robbery are oppressive."

"I have rights!" the agent shouted.

"Sure, and I've read the Geneva Convention," Steve replied. "Natasha hasn't, but she's read a lot of manuals about human anatomy."

Natasha shifted her weight and the Spydra agent flinched in anticipation. Steve grinned.

"I actually have," Natasha said in his ear. "That's why your arms are still attached. Tell the nice man what he wants to know."

The agent seemed to subside, going limp in her grasp.

"Where's your home base?" Steve asked, clearly not for the first time.

"There's a tunnel," the man admitted. "Under the Hudson. There's a subway train that Spydra runs. It stops in a couple of the abandoned stations, then under the river -- "

"He's lying," Tony said, watching his body temperature and heart rate on the HUD.

The Spydra agent glared at Tony, then surged upwards against Natasha's restraints. "Hail Spydra!" he yelled, snapping his teeth at Steve. Steve danced backwards, surprised, and Tony saw the glint of metal.

"Steve, your four -- " he called, and Steve turned just in time. There were two sharp cracks in quick succession, and blood blossomed on Steve's uniform. He staggered, and Tony caught him around the waist with one arm, firing back with the other. A body tumbled out of a third-floor window.

"You okay?" Tony asked, as Natasha put her prisoner down, punched him unconscious, and began ziptying him. She took off to deal with the sniper as Steve sucked in air.

"I'm fine, I'm fine," he said, shuddering.

"Yeah, you sound fine. I gotcha, sniper's down," Tony said. Steve was bent over, blood dripping slowly onto the pavement, but he was still standing.

"It'll be okay in a minute," Steve said.

"Steve, you've been shot."

"I shook off worse during the war. It's a through-and, right?"

Tony leaned up to check; the wound on the back of his uniform matched the one on his front. "Yeah, bullet's out."

"Just gimme a minute. It's like -- " Steve grunted, "when you stub your toe really bad and you gotta...huhgh....wait for the pain to die down."

"Take your time. Tasha?"

"Secured," Natasha said, tapping her comm. "Nice shooting, Tex."

"Take Clint and any cops that look bright enough to find their ass without a roadmap and clear these buildings," Tony said. "Thor, you on radio, buddy?"

"I'm here," Thor replied.

"You got air?"

"Indeed, I do have air," Thor said, amused.

"Find Bruce and get him home. I'm taking Steve to the quinjet."

They made slow progress; Steve stopped bleeding after a minute and was walking all right after two, but it took them long enough to get to the jet that Natasha and Clint came running up as they boarded.

"We're cleared to leave the scene," Clint said. "They want statements, but that can wait. Hey, Cap, how's the bullet-riddled body?"

Steve grinned at Clint. The color was back in his face -- a little flushed, even -- and he was sitting up straight on the bench. "Think I'll live, Hawkeye."

They made it home, and most of the way through the post-battle meal, without much incident. Clint and Natasha chatted with Thor about Spydra and where their base could possibly be if it wasn't under the Hudson, and what the FBI were likely trying on the prisoner to get it out of him. Steve, shirtless and with gauze taped over the fast-healing wounds, was quiet, but then he usually was after a fight, body recharging and mind -- he'd admitted as much once to Tony -- replaying the fight to study the flow of it.

Bruce fell asleep face-down on the table, and when the others got up to at least move him to the couch, Tony rose to head down and have a look at the suit, do a post-flight check and work on any repairs he needed. It was soothing, after combat, and it helped tire him out enough to sleep.

He was at the elevator doors when he paused. Steve had still been sitting at the table, head resting on one closed fist. He hadn't gotten up to help them with Bruce, and he hadn't ordered Tony to take no longer than an hour in the garage. Usually he'd come down within the hour anyway, to drag Tony upstairs and to bed, but the order was standard, and he hadn't done it.

Curious, he ducked back towards the dining room and arrived in the doorway in time to see Steve half-stand, grab the table in a startled motion, and then make a strangled yelp and stumble, tripping over his own feet, sprawling on the floor.

"Steve?" Tony called, and Steve's head jerked up.

His skin was chalky again, lips pale, blue eyes dark and huge. Tony hurried across the distance between them as he tried to get up.

"I think I got a bullet in me," he gasped, as Tony tugged on his bicep. With a huge heave that nearly pulled Tony over, he got to his feet, then staggered back into the chair.

"It went right through you, though," Tony said, lifting the gauze to study the wound. It was closed over, skin puckering, still raw and scabby but not in any danger of reopening. The wound in Steve's back was the same.

"There were two shots," Steve managed. "I think one didn't make it through. It feels like..." he clapped a hand over his side, well below the bullet. "I think it's moving."

"When did you start feeling it?" Tony asked, kneeling next to him.

"About three minutes ago, I thought it was a muscle cramp," Steve said.

"Okay, okay -- JARVIS, I need the helmet," Tony said.

"On its way, sir. May I also suggest -- "

"Yeah, the Handy too," Tony agreed.

"What's the Handy?" Steve asked.

"New tool I'm working on. Hold tight," Tony told him, heading for the kitchen sink.

Dummy arrived in the kitchen a second later, one of Tony's spare helmets in a basket hung on his arm, pulling what looked like an old television hooked up to a pair of Iron Man gauntlets behind him. Tony unhooked him, took the helmet, and pointed at Steve. "Gimme some light."

The LEDs in Dummy's fingers lit up. Steve gave him a weak smile.

"What're ya gonna do?" he asked, chest heaving. Tony put the helmet on. "Cute."

"I'm always cute," Tony replied, lighting up the HUD. "I've been working on a new tool for combat trauma. Jesus," he added, as he switched over to sonar mode. It built a map of Steve's body on his screen, bones coming into focus as increasingly dense dots, muscles as ghostly lines, organs as undulating masses. And the bullet, a packed cluster of dots --

He tilted his head around, staring at Steve from the back.

"Tell the truth, Doc," Steve said, voice breathy. "I got six months to live."

"The bullet's moving," Tony said. "It looks like your body's trying to eject it but doesn't know how."

"If you got a knife I can go in and get it," Steve said. Tony looked up at him involuntarily, seeing his smile more as the light drift of muscle over his skull. "Don't be shocked, I done it before."

"We're not in the middle of a field in Germany," Tony said, pulling the gloves on. "It's pressed up against your spinal cartilage."

"What are you going to -- ooooooh," Steve sighed, as Tony lit up the gloves and flexed his fingers carefully. On the screen, the bullet drifted a quarter of an inch towards him. "That feels better."

"That's because I just pulled it back from your spine." Tony disengaged the gloves briefly and waggled his fingers. "Magnetic."

"Like your chest."

"Yeah. The hope is, with a tool like this, we won't have to cut in at all to get the bullet. We can guide it..." Tony focused, activating the magnets again, and tugging the bullet between two lines of muscle gently, "...out of the body in the least damaging way possible."

Steve's breathing came short and fast. Tony paused. "I can pull it out now but we can also try and sedate you first. We'll need Bruce and his horse tranqs for that, but -- "

"No, just get it out," Steve said, voice uneven.

"There's no organs between the bullet and the skin, but I'm going to have to pull it between two lumbar muscles," Tony said. "You're going to walk like an old man for a couple of days."

"Please take it out," Steve replied. "My body does...not...like it and it's...not coping well."

Tony nodded, carefully pulling the bullet into alignment, trying to move it as little as possible and still get it where he needed it. When it was at just the right angle, he focused the magnetic beam, upped the power --

The bullet came out clean, leaping into his hand, and Steve let out a bellow of pain, hands tightening on the dinner table until the wood creaked.

"It's out, you're fine, you're good," Tony assured him. dropping the bullet onto the table and resting a gloved hand on his back. Steve caught his breath, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes. Tony tore off the gloves and disinfected the wound -- smaller than the others, a neat little circle, but bleeding harder -- and taped a patch over it while Steve got his response under control.

"Funny," Tony said, pulling the helmet off, "usually you're the one dragging me to bed."

"Why's that funny?" Steve asked. He still looked pale, unnaturally so.

"Oh, just that it's me doing it this time."

"I'll be fine."

"Sure you will," Tony agreed, tucking the bullet into his helmet and handing it off to Dummy. "Take this stuff downstairs and plug the gloves in, let's do a diagnostic," he told Dummy, who beeped agreeably and began reversing out towards the elevator.

"I'm okay, now that it's out," Steve said.

"Then this shouldn't be an imposition," Tony informed him, pulling his arm on his uninjured side over his shoulders. Steve leaned heavily on him as he stood.

He helped him out to the elevators, and JARVIS took them smooth as could be down to Steve's floor. His apartment was always clean, floors gleaming, a blanket folded over the top of the couch, books neatly organized on their shelves. Steve started towards the couch, but Tony gently guided him past it, jabbing him lightly in a tender muscle when he tried to resist. Steve grunted but let him do it, then looked pleased when Tony settled him in the big overstuffed chair in the bedroom.

"I got a book -- " he began, but Tony gave him a look, and he subsided. "There's no need to fuss over me like a hen with one chick."

"As you should well know by now, I am king of fussers," Tony told him, stripping the bed neatly and going to the closet for fresh sheets. He laid down the black linen ones he'd bought Steve as a joke -- a few rose petals and you've got a bed fit for a gothic debauchery! -- and the soft flannel topsheet.

"Hospital corners," Steve murmured, as Tony neatly tucked the topsheet and Steve's thick blue-and-white quilt over it.

"Boarding school was big on having us do our own chores," Tony told him, as he replaced the pillowcases. He fluffed up the pillows, pulled back the sheets, and manhandled Steve into the bed, sitting up, propped on the pillows. Steve watched him, eyes a little glassy.

"Ma used to change the sheets first thing when I got sick," he said. "Haven't had anyone put me to bed like this since the Serum."

"Well, emergency surgery in the dining room earns you perks," Tony told him. He headed for the kitchen to pour a glass of water, and when he got back, Steve was reaching for the bedside table. Tony put the water in his hand instead, pushing him back, and dug the tablet he'd been reaching for out of the drawer.

Steve sipped meekly as Tony pulled off the sweatpants he'd changed into after the fight, climbing in next to him in his t-shirt and underwear. As soon as he was settled, Steve huffed a happy sigh and slid down a little, leaning heavily into him. Tony wrapped an arm around his shoulders and patted the side of his head, tucking it into his neck.

"Better?" he asked. Steve nodded. "You want Netflix, or one of your dumb cooking shows?"

"Cake decorating tutorials aren't dumb," Steve mumbled. Tony grinned.

"Cake decorating it is," he said. Steve was already logged into youtube on the tablet, and his cake decorating playlist wasn't hard to find. It took exactly two videos of people pouring ganache over cakes or folding fondant on top of them for Steve to pass out. Tony moved to switch over to Netflix, where a couple of documentaries were waiting in his queue, but as soon as he started, Steve grumbled in his sleep.

Tony resigned himself to watching Man About Cake make unnecessarily gendered cakes, and kissed the side of Steve's head fondly.