“Mr Stark? I, uh, I'm still not entirely sure how to do this, but the gentleman told me to leave a message, so I guess...” A sigh rattled over the phone line. “Look, Tony, I'm going to level with you – they told me I had one phone call, and you... you're the first person that popped into my head. So, yeah, I, uh... I've sort of been arrested, and I know we don't always see eye to eye, but I – if it's not too much trouble, that is – could really use some help, if you... you know what? It doesn't matter. Sorry for bothering you, Mr Stark.”
Tony's eyebrows, by the time the dial tone began blaring through his workshop, were up past his hairline. It had been a few months since the battle of Manhattan, and he hadn't heard from any of the other Avengers (apart from Bruce, but, hey, the guy was living with him now) in all that time, so, why had Rogers of all people decided to contact him now? And for being arrested, of all reasons; the last thing Tony knew, the guy was travelling the country – getting to know his beloved homeland again – and now he was calling from a New York number saying he was in jail? It was all a little hard to believe.
Captain America did not get arrested, and certainly not at Christmas time – season of goodwill, and all that.
But, despite the obvious trap he seemed to be getting himself into, Tony couldn't help but feel just the slightest bit intrigued. It had certainly sounded like Rogers' voice, and even something Rogers would say, but he still couldn't get over why, why the guy could possibly have been arrested. It must have been a misunderstanding.
“JARVIS,” he sighed, throwing down the wrench he had been holding, because he wasn't going to get any more work done until he figured this out. “Can you trace the origin of that number? Where have they got Rogers shacked up?”
“It appears that the phone call did, indeed, come from a police station in Brooklyn, sir. I am sending the address to your GPS.”
So, not only had Rogers actually managed to get himself arrested, but he had done so in Brooklyn of all places. Good God. Restlessly tapping his fingers on the workbench by his keys, before – taking a deep breath – grabbing for them and standing up, Tony came to a decision; he was going to go and see what sort of trouble Rogers may or may not have gotten himself into, help out, and then be on his way. It wasn't like they were best pals, after all – quite the opposite, and the Captain's harsh words still rang in his head every once in a while – so the man couldn't expect any more of him, surely?
He would bail his team-mate out, because – despite what people said, he actually did have the capacity to be the bigger person every once in a while – and that would be that.
“Don't wait up for me, honey,” he called to JARVIS, before making his way to the elevator and hitting the button for the garage. “This might take a while.”
“- no, don't care, just get out of my way right now and let me take care of it.”
“Mr Stark, you can't just -”
Steve sat up a little straighter in his holding cell as Tony Stark's familiar drawl filtered through to him, and, before he knew it, the man himself was standing in front of the bars that kept him with his arms folded across his chest and a chastising look on his face. Steve hadn't told the police officers that he could have easily broken through the bars if he had wanted to, but Stark's expression seemed to suggest that he was thinking somewhere along those lines.
“They told me you've been fighting,” he said, sounding completely uninterested, “at Coney Island.”
Steve said nothing – bit his tongue to avoid lashing out at the one man who, despite Steve's reservations, had come to help.
“You're not going to deny it? Tell me it was a mistake?” Stark sounded surprised.
“He was being a bigoted, homophobic asshole,” Steve replied instead, and, when he looked up defiantly, the genius seemed genuinely shocked for a moment.
“Yeah, well, he's in the hospital now, so go figure,” he sighed, righting himself after his momentary slip. “But it's fine, whatever – I've got lawyers, and your bail has been sorted, so let's get you out of here, okay, and get that head seen to.”
Steve had almost forgotten about the cut on his forehead in the anxiety that had been his evening, but now it had been brought to the forefront of his mind again, he remembered that it hurt like a bitch. Blood wasn't dripping into his eyes any more, though, so he thought that was probably a good sign.
“Okay,” he nodded, getting to his feet as a young officer in a Santa hat came to unlock the door. “Thanks, Mr Stark.”
“Please, enough of the Mr Stark, all right? We fought off aliens together – Tony is fine,” the brunet snorted, stepping back to let Steve through, and he realised, suddenly, that this was the other man's way of apologising for the words exchanged on the Helicarrier before the mission.
“Fine,” he smiled, “thank you, Tony.”
“Much better,” Tony nodded, before, with a tut, he reached out and knocked the hat from the young officer's head. “It's December third, for God's sake. Get that shit off your head right now.”
Resisting the urge to snort out a laugh at the kid's disappointed expression, Steve followed along behind the genius as he headed for the door, and – just for a moment – let himself believe that what he had thought as he saw the other man go through the portal was really true.
“So, I didn't even think you were in town, never mind putting the fear of Captain America in people,” Tony mused as he drove them back to the tower. He had planned to just bail Steve out and scram, he knew, but the guy was injured, for God's sake, and Tony was actually kind of impressed that he had taken it upon himself to take that homophobe down a peg or two.
“I, uh, actually only got back into town today,” the blond muttered, scratching the back of his head bashfully from his place in the passenger seat. “I've seen my fill of the rest of the country – wanted to see if there was anything left of my hometown.”
“Yeah, New York's still in pieces after the battle, but it's getting there,” Tony shrugged, eyes fixed on the road. “You, uh, have a good trip?”
He wasn't very good at this.
Beside him, Steve just shrugged, and replied, “It's different than how I remembered it from the USO tour, but I kind of... I guess I expected it, of course, but it's weird, actually seeing it.”
“Already repulsed by what your beloved America has become?” Tony asked, only half joking.
“No, actually, not at all,” the soldier replied, and Tony couldn't help but glance incredulously at him. “I'll admit, some things are a little hard to get my head around – like some of the technology – but human rights have come a long way. I mean, there's help for the poor and needy, and the advancements in medicine – oh my goodness -”
“Okay, I know you're still pretty new here, but did you really just say that?” Tony all but cackled. “Jesus, one minute you're cursing some homophobe you don't even know out, and the next it's all gee wizz, good golly -”
“I don't sound like that,” Steve tutted, but he was smiling a little despite himself. Tony decided – on a whim – that he liked it when the old fart smiled. “Hey, Tony?”
“Uh, yeah?” he replied, because – even though he'd asked the guy to call him that – it still felt weird to have Captain America being on a first name basis with him.
“I'm sorry for what I said on the Helicarrier,” Steve continued, and wow, okay, that wasn't what Tony had been expecting. “I won't say I didn't mean those things because, at the time, I did. But I don't think of you like that anymore; you know that, right?”
“I, uh... sure?”
“I, honestly, don't think I could have been more wrong about you, actually,” the blond continued, frowning down at his knees. “The way you flew that bomb up into the portal -”
Tony froze in place, and it was all he could do to keep them from swerving off the road. He had been avoiding thinking about the portal since, well, since it happened, to be perfectly honest. The idea that he could have been trapped up there, slowly suffocating to death, still fuelled his nightmares, months later.
“- and I honestly didn't think you'd come help me tonight – that's why I hung up like I did – but you... you're okay, Stark. In my books, at least.”
Steve's voice swam back into his head, and he managed to get a full breath in again to calm himself down a little. He wasn't anywhere near the portal – he was in the car with Steve, and he was safe.
“I, uh, you okay, Tony?” aforementioned Steve asked, and, in his peripheral, Tony could see the other man reaching out as if to touch him. He flinched, and Steve drew his hand away.
Tony regretted it.
“I'm... I'm fine,” he stuttered, taking in another deep breath. “It's just... it's nothing. Just felt a little dizzy, there.”
“Do you need to pull over for a while, catch your breath?” Steve asked, and Tony hated how concerned he sounded.
“No, no, I'm fine now,” he replied, shaking his head firmly. “Everything's fine, just... let's get you back to the tower and let Bruce take a look at your head.”
“I...” Steve seemed unsure, and Tony refused to look at him now, after his moment of weakness. “If you're sure...?”
“Okay, then,” he sighed, leaning back in his chair.
The rest of the drive was spent in silence.
When they got back to the tower, Tony steered Steve quickly past the parts that were still in absolute ruin and went straight up to Bruce's floor, where he knew the scientist would be up.
“Brucie-poo?” he called into the man's lab, and got a grunt from over near the back in response. “Steve needs patching up.”
“Steve as in... Captain America Steve?” was the muffled response, before Bruce appeared in all his shabby glory, complete with a thermometer stuck between his teeth. “Steve! When did you get back to town? And what happened to your head?”
“It's superficial, really,” the soldier tried to insist as he was tugged over to sit on one of the few unoccupied stools in the room by Bruce, “and I, uh, only got back today, actually.”
“I had to pick him up from the police station, of all places,” Tony told his friend, and Bruce scoffed disbelievingly as he gently examined Steve's head. “I'm serious! He was caught fighting, of all things. Honestly, we try to raise the kids right, Brucey, and they go and do this. God knows what Barton and Romanoff are getting their fingers into these days, and Thor -”
“But Steve is the well behaved one,” Bruce replied reasonably, going along with Tony's skit because he was the greatest man in the whole of creation. “He's the one we picked to go to college, honey; he can't have been fighting -”
“He is still in the room,” Steve announced, but he was smiling – if a little bemusedly – so they were totally off the hook. “Is this how you two normally communicate?”
“No, we normally speak in binary, but we thought we'd dumb it down a little for you because you're obviously a layman,” Tony replied, grinning cheekily.
“So, you got into a fight, huh?” Bruce asked a little more seriously, pulling out a few medical swabs from a nearby drawer to clean the blood from Steve's face.
“It wouldn't be the first time, so you can both stop worrying now,” Steve huffed, eyes fluttering closed as Bruce gently wiped around his face.
“Pfft, speak for yourself, Rogers,” Tony tutted, even as Bruce sent him a fond, if slightly exasperated look. “He sure thinks highly of himself, huh, Brucey?”
“It's good to have you back, safe and sound,” was the scientist's placating reply, to which Tony discreetly stuck out his tongue. “It'll be nice to have someone else around the tower more often.”
“Uh, no, Bruce, Steve's not...” Tony flailed momentarily, decidedly not looking at Steve's confused face, before he realised - “... unless you want to, of course?”
“I have literally no idea what's going on right now,” Steve shook his head, eyes flicking from Tony to Bruce, and back again. “What am I supposed to be wanting?”
Tony sighed, and cursed himself for running his mouth, because – seriously – where had that come from? “Where are you staying, Steve?”
“Uh...” Steve frowned again. “I hadn't really thought of that. Usually I just check into a cheap motel and live out of my duffel bag... which is still on my bike in Brooklyn -”
“I can get that sent over – it's no problem,” Tony waved away his obvious concern.
“But you've got nowhere to stay?” Bruce prompted gently, sending Tony a look, for some reason.
“I guess I could check in at SHIELD, see if they've got a room for me,” the blond shrugged, careful not to jostle the scientist as he stuck a butterfly bandage across his forehead. “It's not really a big deal -”
“It kind of is, though, because you're Captain America, and we're not going to let you bunk at SHIELD when there are perfectly – if a little battered – rooms for you here,” Tony shrugged, biting the bullet, because that's where this whole evening had been headed from the beginning, hadn't it?
“I – Tony, you don't have to do that,” Steve insisted, shaking his head a little. “I mean, I appreciate the offer, but -”
“Steve, don't fight him on this,” Bruce chuckled, and Tony frowned, because he wasn't that obvious, was he? “He's been designing a floor for all the Avengers, anyway. Yours probably isn't quite done yet, but it'll still be better than anything SHIELD can offer you – trust me.”
So, apparently, Tony really was that obvious.
“But you don't have to stay here, if you really don't want to,” he insisted, because he felt like someone should be fighting in his corner, even if it was only himself. “It was just an idea, really – I'm not going to kidnap you and force you to stay -”
“No, actually, would that be all right?” Steve asked earnestly. “I mean, if it's not too much trouble? It's just, I have a feeling SHIELD will want to do more tests on me, and it's not like I wouldn't help out around here – I could lift heavy things for you and clear some of the rooms out. I -”
“Steve,” Tony stopped him, feeling a little overwhelmed, “I'm the one who offered you a place. You don't have to justify why you want to stay here to us. There'll... there'll always be a place for any one of you here, should you ever need it.”
It was too soon to say something like that, he knew, because he hardly knew any one of them, and he was still wary – of course he was – but he... he needed this right now. He needed to be around other people who understood what he was going through, and wouldn't walk out when things got a little rough.
He needed support now Pepper had left.
It had been a long time coming, really – Pepper had never truly been comfortable with the idea of Tony putting himself directly in the path of danger on a bi-monthly basis – and, after the portal happened, it didn't take very long before she decided she couldn't do the romance thing with him anymore. He didn't blame her, really, because she was perfect, and deserved so much more than he could ever, possibly give her, but that didn't mean it didn't still hurt, the fact that she had moved halfway across the country to manage his business from Malibu and get over him.
So, yes, now – more than ever – he needed to be around people who understood that he had nightmares, sometimes, and he was a little paranoid, and that he needed to build bigger, better suits to protect him in the future.
“You'll always have a home here,” he concluded, hoping nothing of his turmoil was showing on his face, because – while he had pretty much accepted he wasn't doing too well at the moment – he didn't think he was quite ready for that conversation yet. “If you'll, uh, excuse me, I have some work to be getting on with.”
And, before either Bruce or Steve could utter another word, he turned tail and fled to the safety of his rickety workshop.
The next few days were a bit of a blur, and the reason for that was because Tony got caught up in trying to perfect the arm implants to aid mental summoning of the mark 42. That was probably why – as he finally came out of his work haze after not being able to blindly find a cup of coffee in his immediate area – he felt a little light headed and weak as he glanced blearily around him.
“- even listening to me, Tony? I'm trying to help -”
And that was about the time he fell straight out of his chair.
“Steve?” he gasped, gripping the arc reactor protectively as he struggled to his feet. “What are you doing? How did you get down here?”
“The man in the ceiling – JARVIS, I think – was worried. He says you've been in here since I arrived, and that you've not eaten properly -”
“Yeah, well, JARVIS likes to exaggerate. It's fine, Steve -”
“- so I brought you a sandwich and – no, Tony, I don't think JARVIS was exaggerating, because you look like you've gone a few rounds with a hungry tiger – and I'm not leaving until I see you eat it all, okay?” Steve continued, holding out a plate, as though Tony hadn't even spoken at all.
They seemed to have come to a stalemate, then, because Tony wasn't going to take the sandwich from Steve, and Steve really didn't look like he was going to budge – jaw set and posture defensive as he waited.
“I... fine,” Tony sighed, hanging his head. “Put it on the table.”
The blond frowned down at him for a moment, before – seeming to acquiesce to his small victory – he took a step forwards and put the sandwich on the table. It was a shame, really, because it did actually look really good, but Steve just so happened to put it down right next to the bottle of Tony's anxiety meds, and they both froze in realisation.
“I... is this why...?” Steve didn't seem to know what to do with himself, all of a sudden, as he cautiously reached forward to pick the orange bottle up. “In the car, the day you picked me up from the police station...?”
“I get panic attacks, sometimes; it's no big deal,” Tony shrugged, trying for casual as he grabbed the sandwich and took a huge bite – hoping it might distract the other man.
It did not.
“... and you went a little funny after I mentioned the wormhole...”
Tony tried to brace himself – he really did – but the mere mention of it made his chest tighten and all the breath leave his body at once. His knees felt weak, all of a sudden – as images of darkness, of stars blinking out, flashed before his eyes – and he had to tip forwards and clutch the edge of his work table to avoid falling altogether.
He couldn't breathe.
“ - okay, you're safe, Tony. It's me, Steve, I'm right here -”
He gasped for breath, feeling a pair of strong arms wrap around him from the side and pressing him into a warm, solid chest. Shuddering, and trying desperately to cling onto reality, he focused solely on the feeling of Steve's embrace – of how safe he actually was, and that he wasn't going to die, alone and unceremoniously.
When he finally managed to raise his head a little – feeling his cheeks heat in shame and embarrassment – Tony still couldn't find it in himself to uncurl his fingers from where they clutched in Steve's shirt, and – instead – managed to mutter out a small, “Sorry.”
“Don't apologise – I shouldn't have mentioned it,” Steve replied softly, still stroking a soothing hand up Tony's back, and he hated how much he needed it. “But that was bad, Tony, I – why didn't you tell me? Or Bruce?”
“It's fine – I have the medication, don't I?” Tony snapped, but it came out half-hearted and unsure, and he hated himself all the more.
“But are you actually taking it?” the blond responded quietly, and Tony's answering silence seemed to be all he needed to know. “This... the hours you're spending down here, Tony, they're not normal. It's not healthy. I mean – is it even safe down here?”
Tony glanced across the wrecked room, from the L-beam currently propping up a good third of the ceiling, to the rubble and debris that he still hadn't cleaned up from the battle of Manhattan. Now he was actually looking at it, he realised, no, it probably wasn't safe at all.
But it was safe to him.
“It's fine,” he shrugged weakly. “Could do with a new paint job, maybe, and I should probably sweep the floors, but there are plenty of other places in the tower that need work before this.”
“But you're in here all the time,” the soldier sighed. “What if something gives way and the whole thing comes crashing down? I can help you if you need -”
“I don't need your help!” Tony yelled, much stronger this time, as he finally pulled himself away from Steve's comforting warmth. “You don't know anything about me, Rogers! What gives you the right to come into my personal space and insult the way I do things, huh? Do I do that to you?”
Steve's jaw hardened as he obviously swallowed back whatever biting remark was on the tip of his tongue. Instead, he took a deep, steadying breath, and replied, “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you, and I didn't mean to insult anything. I'm just trying to help. I understand this, Tony – I've seen men come back from war -”
“Oh, here we go again with the damn war,” Tony snorted, throwing himself back down in his chair. “Please, do tell me all about your magical mystery tour, Cap.”
“I'm sorry for wasting your precious time,” Rogers ground out, and Tony didn't reply.
The next time he turned around, the other man was gone.
“So you're still alive, then?”
Wow, okay, ouch. “Do we not even greet each other on the phone like normal people any more, Pep? I'm hurt. And you could give me a little more credit, if you wanted.”
It had been a further week or so since his fight with Steve, and Tony hadn't had any visitors into his shop since. He was not going to have another repeat performance, and, sure, JARVIS might have started bitching him out about three days in about eating and hydrating himself, but he had enough dried fruit packs in his cupboards to last a few years, and – despite the fact that Dum-E was at the Malibu house, and therefore incapable of making him smoothies – it wasn't beyond his capabilities to fill a glass with water.
He had work to do, and nothing – or nobody – was going to stand in his way of doing it.
“Please, I don't think you've ever greeted me with a simple hello in all the time I've known you,” Pepper's begrudgingly amused voice echoed around the room. “And I know you think I should give you more credit, but you and I have very different opinions when it comes to what counts as taking care of yourself.”
“I can take care of myself,” Tony protested, reaching out grab a screwdriver so he could adjust the calibration of the repulsor on his left gauntlet. “I'm doing just fine. Who says I'm not taking care of myself?”
“Oh, so you're in cahoots with Bruce now, huh? I knew it was a bad idea to let that pesky chemist in here. Seriously, Pepper, chemistry. I was basically asking for trouble -”
“He's worried about you, Tony, and he says Steve has been beside himself -”
“Yeah, well, Steve can go fuck himself,” Tony scoffed.
“Tony!” she gasped, before a sigh rattled over the line. “When did Steve being around even become a thing? I thought you hated each other?”
“The guy got arrested for beating the shit out of some homophobic asshole in the middle of Coney Island, and I – being a model citizen and all-round good person – went to rescue him, and somehow accidentally offered him a place to stay. We had about three days of perfectly civilised behaviour,” he explained, tightening a couple of screws under the gauntlet's surface plating, “and then we actually talked to each other.”
“Oh, Tony,” Pepper sighed again, and the sound made his chest ache a little in bereavement.
“Technically, I don't think you're allowed to sigh at me like that anymore,” he murmured, stilling his hands and glancing up at the ceiling.
“I'm always going to care about you, Tony, whether we're together or not -”
“How the fuck do you keep getting in here!” he all but screamed, whipping around in his chair as Steve strode towards him. “I'm having a private conver-”
“Yes, and I apologise to Miss Potts,” Steve tutted, but his expression gave away just how much he had heard, “but this is very important.”
“No, it's fine, Captain – I have to get to a meeting with Aldrich Killian any minute now, anyway, Tony; I'll speak to you later, okay?”
“No, Pepper, you don't have to hang up -”
The sound of the dial tone rang around the room.
Suddenly angry for reasons he couldn't quite express, Tony sprang to his feet and rounded on the other man. “What the fuck do you want now?”
“You need to come and see this now.”
And, despite the hate churning in his gut, Tony couldn't help but pause for a moment, because Rogers had used his Captain voice. Letting out the trembling breath he had been holding, and – once again – deciding to be the bigger person, he waved his hand to signal Rogers to lead on, and followed up the stairs after him. In what he had dubbed the communal living space, Bruce was perched on the very edge of the dirty, tattered couch Tony had managed to save after most of the room had been blown in, watching the television with wide eyes.
“Bruce, can you start it from the beginning?” Rogers asked, practically steering Tony over to the couch and placing him down beside Bruce, before taking up the spot on his other side.
With a nod, and never taking his eyes from the screen, Bruce reached blindly for the remote and quickly rewound whatever is was that had put him in such a state of shock-horror.
“Watch,” Rogers instructed, voice and body alike brimming with a tension that Tony really didn't understand.
And then the recording started.
“Some people call me a terrorist... I consider myself a teacher.” On screen, a man in a set of robes wandered through desert towns, handing out weapons – shooting - “America... ready for another lesson? 1964, in Sand Creek, Colorado -”
On and on he went – about the massacre, about the terrorist attacks in Kuwait that he had orchestrated under the same duress – until, finally, he made a direct threat to the President himself.
“You know who I am. You don't know where I am... and you'll never see me coming.” And, with that, there was a flash of an image of two, crossed swords inside ten interconnecting rings, and then the scheduled programming continued.
“Well, shit,” Tony sighed.
SHIELD had no idea what was going on, and neither did any of Tony or Bruce's various contacts when they called. Even Rhodey called to ask if Tony had any idea what was going on, to which he replied in the negative. It was, admittedly, nice to speak to his best friend again – to whom he hadn't had a conversation with since he'd wigged out at that dive bar and had to fly home to the tower to calm down – and, as far as everything on his side of things were going, he seemed to think the President was perfectly safe.
“They're going to put out an official announcement about Iron Patriot soon enough,” he told him as Tony wandered back down to the safety of his workshop in the hours that followed the transmission. “I think they're hoping it's going to scare this guy into submission, or something.”
“Yeah, sorry, Rhodey-bear, but that paint job isn't scaring anybody,” he scoffed good-naturedly, throwing himself back down into his chair again.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Rhodey replied, and Tony could practically hear him rolling his eyes. “But how've you been, man? We didn't really get to talk about stuff before – how you holding up without Pepper?”
“Why does everyone automatically assume that I'm falling apart? I can hear it in your voice, Rhodey; you think I must be depressed, or something,” he tutted, drawing the gauntlet towards him to continue where he had left off on repairs earlier.
At that, Tony actually paused to think. Was he depressed? He didn't think so – a little more neurotic than usual, sure, but that wasn't really Pepper's fault. “I miss not seeing her every day,” he admitted, staring determinedly down at his work, “but the relationship came to a natural end, and I don't begrudge her for taking the final step. I'm doing okay, Rhodey-poo; I've got Bruce, and Steve, and I'm keeping busy.”
“So I've heard,” the other man replied wryly. “A little too busy, the way Pepper puts it.”
“So you're in cahoots with her, too?” Tony asked, feigning hurt. “Everyone's turning against me, these days.”
“Please,” Rhodey snorted. “I couldn't get rid of you if I wanted to. Besides, Pepper needs looking after just as much as you, dork.”
Tony hummed non-committally, fiddling with some fried wiring he had missed earlier. That would need changing.
“So, I hear you're living with Captain America now,” Rhodey continued in that way of his that Tony knew meant he was poking fun of him. “What's that like? If I remember correctly, you had quite the crush on him in college.”
Tony laughed incredulously. “I wasn't the one with his picture in my wallet!”
“He was my idol! It was there so I could remind myself where I wanted to end up, and nothing else.”
“So you're honestly telling me, if Steve Rogers ran up to you one day and demanded you sleep with him, you'd turn the guy down?” Tony asked, still grinning.
“Well, now wait – what's the situation? Is this a fuck-or-die kind of thing? Because, if so, I'm pretty sure I could lie back and think of America, if I really had to.”
“Sure, if you had to,” he snorted, beginning the rewire.
“Would you? Sleep with him?”
Tony shrugged, before remembering that the other man couldn't actually see him. “Sure, he's pretty, but that doesn't make up for his less than sterling personality.”
“Wow, Pepper has really ruined you for one night stands, hasn't she?” Rhodey laughed, but Tony realised that he was probably right. He had no desire for meaningless sex any more – he wanted someone to kiss and cuddle; he wanted someone to love.
“Well, someone had to,” he sighed, aware of the change in atmosphere all of a sudden, and finding he really wasn't in the mood for conversation any longer.
“Shit, Tony, man, I didn't mean -”
“I'll talk to you later, huh, buddy? I'm, uh, just about to start some important trial runs, so...”
“No, man, come on; I'm sure you -”
“Bye, Rhodey,” he called, before waving for JARVIS to cut the connection. He felt terrible for it, of course, but he felt terrible anyway, so it wasn't like a little more would do much more damage. With a sigh, he turned back to finish the last of the rewiring. “JARVIS, drop my needle.”
As Jingle Bells began to filter through the workshop, he fitted the last wire into place, and then got to his feet. He had tests to do.
As it turned out, testing the capabilities of one's suit in a barely held together workshop had not been one of Tony' better ideas. By the time he was done, he was bruised, bloodied, and at the end of his tether.
The workshop wasn't doing much better.
On top of that – upon realising that he didn't actually have anything left in the medical kit he kept under his desk – it became apparent that he was going to have to venture upstairs if he didn't want to slowly bleed out and be found in about a week's time when he started to stink up the place. With a sigh, he saved and shut down all the programmes that were currently running, took a final glance around what had essentially been his home for the past two weeks (months), before leaving and heading up the stairs.
He wandered through the dark “communal” area, cataloguing the still – frankly – huge amount of things he needed to do to get the place back in working order, and was so preoccupied that he didn't notice the fact that there were already lights on in the kitchen. He was already halfway to the ice machine in the fridge when a soft gasp drew him out of his head.
“What happened?” Steve gasped, already halfway out of the chair he had been sitting in, tucked away in the corner of the room, before he caught himself and paused. “You're bleeding!”
“S'no big deal, Cap,” Tony sighed, waving away his concern, because he really wasn't in the mood to get into another fight with the guy tonight. “Took a couple of spills ironing out the bugs in the new suit.”
“You're making another suit?” Steve frowned, but stayed where he was as Tony filled a towel full of ice and pressed it against his shoulder. “What happened to your other one?”
Tony didn't necessarily laugh out loud, but he was cackling in his head. One suit. He hadn't had only one suit since... well, since he'd made the first suit.
“There's nothing wrong with it,” he replied instead, grunting as he tried to reach the top cupboard to pull the first aid kit out. “Can't be too careful, though.”
“Here, let me -” Steve sighed, moving over and easily grabbing the first aid kit for him. In doing so, Tony came face to face with some very firm pecs, and he cleared his throat a little, before taking a step backwards.
“Uh, thanks,” he mumbled, looking down at his feet.
“No problem,” Steve replied quietly, placing the kit carefully down on the kitchen counter, then, sighing, he patted the top. “Will you let me – can I help?”
He gestured from the kit to Tony's face, and – for a moment – he was struck a little speechless and he didn't know why. After their fight, he was sure Steve would hate him, but here the guy was, talking to him like he hadn't – once again – spouted such horrible words at him, and was even asking to help patch him up.
Tony didn't understand.
“I... uh, sure,” he shrugged, and thenwinced when it pulled his shoulder. That made Steve frown again, which just confused him further, but he decided to go with it and see what happened, because he was nothing if not an engineer, and this equation was interesting.
Steve carried the first aid kit back over to the table, then pulled out a chair and gestured for Tony to sit down. He did so, groaning a little as his back protested, and then watched a bit warily as the soldier rummaged around in the bag and pulled out what he needed.
“All right, this might sting, but just sit still, okay?” he murmured, pouring what looked like antiseptic onto a swab, and then – gentler than Tony thought he was capable of – cleaned the cut just under his bottom lip. “It's probably best you don't swallow any of this, by the way.”
“Said no man, ever,” Tony replied before he could stop himself, and ended up with half a cotton swab in his mouth for his trouble. Steve snorted out a laugh.
“See, now I feel like that was my fault, because I – unintentionally – provoked you,” he sighed, but he was still smiling, so Tony knew he wasn't angry. “I know this'll be hard for you, but maybe you don't speak until I'm done?”
Tony huffed and rolled his eyes – because he could be quiet when he wanted to be, despite what people seemed to think – but then Steve reached out and gently held his chin up with his spare hand to look at his split lip better, and that... Tony didn't really know what to do with that. Their eyes met for the briefest of moments, and he realised suddenly just how close they had gotten, but then Steve cleared his throat and pulled away a little, and the moment was over.
“I'm, uh, I'm sorry,” he muttered, seemingly very interested in the packaging of the band aids by his elbow all of a sudden. “Again. Your workshop is your space – I get that – and I shouldn't have kept swanning in without your permission. You've obviously got enough on your mind at the moment, and I don't want to add to that.”
Normally, Tony's hackles would have instantly risenat a comment like that, because enough on his mind? Who did Steve think he was, to judge him when he didn't even know him? Hell, he expected to get angry at Steve's words, but, instead, found the strangest sense of contentment settling behind his reactor, and he didn't know why.
“But... you're okay, right? I mean, not that I would really know – and, again, sorry I overheard – but breakups have got to be hard, right? It's just, I know you really loved her, and after everything that's happened, I... I'm going to stop talking. Sorry.”
“It's...” Tony sent him an assessing look, and tried to remain calm, because they were going to talk about this? He didn't know how to really feel about Steve's sudden interest – but not in the breakup itself, necessarily, but Tony's welfare. “It's fine. I'm fine.”
“As long as you're sure,” Steve murmured, gently placing a tiny band aid over Tony's wound and then glancing up at him again. “I just... you can talk to me, you know?”
This conversation was odd.
“I know we're both a little quick to rise to the bait, but I... you're a good person, Tony, and I think we could be friends if we both tried a little harder, and I... I want to. Be your friend, that is.”
“Uhh...” Tony had obviously hit his head harder than he had initially thought, because there was no way he was actually having this conversation. “Sure?”
The replying smile Steve flashed his way could have rivalled the brightness of the sun, and it left Tony feeling a little dazed as the blond suddenly got up and went back over to the cupboards. He rummaged for a few moments, before coming back with a bottle of vinegar, and – grabbing a clean dish cloth from the sink – sat back down again.
“What, now we're friends you're going to marinate me?” Tony asked, only half joking as he eyed the way Steve poured some of the vinegar onto the cloth.
“My mother used to do it,” the soldier replied, smiling. “Apply vinegar to bruises and they'll be gone in no time. She, uh, had a lot of reason to know about this stuff, really.”
“So you've always taken it upon yourself to beat the crap out of miscreants, then?” Tony asked, scowling half-heartedly, but allowing Steve to apply the vinegar to his face.
“Well, yeah, but she was a nurse, too,” he shrugged, pressing gently against the worst of the bruising around Tony's eyes. “And you're lucky we don't have any parsley, because that works, too.”
“See, but at least that's a little festive,” Tony grinned. “This is just making me smell.”
“You've not been out of your workshop in days. You don't need the vinegar to make you smell,” Steve replied, flashing an honest to god smirk at Tony as he continued on with his task.
“Is that... is that sass I hear, oh great Captain?” he gasped, feigning shock-horror. “Can it be?”
“It's like you were expecting me to be made of stone,” Steve tutted, still grinning as he rolled his eyes. “I'm not Captain America all the time, Tony – I'm allowed to be human sometimes, too. Sass and all.”
But it's harder for me to hate you when you're like this, Tony almost said, before catching himself in time. It was harder, though, for him to find faults in the other man when he was like this – happy and loose and settled. He could deal with Captain America, because it was a simple case of you push me, I push back, but he didn't know where he stood with Steve.
Steve was... nice. It was all very confusing.
“All right, shirt off.”
And also very forward, apparently.
“You'll have to buy me dinner first, Cap,” he quipped. “I'm a classy dame.”
Steve just rolled his eyes. “Your shoulder could be dislocated – I need to take a look at it. Besides, I'd expect at least dinner and a movie before that, but I guess I'm just old fashioned.”
Tony laughed at the pure absurdity that had become his evening, and a little at the fact that Steve was actually funny when he wanted to be, before, with a one shouldered shrug, threw his home-made icepack onto the table and attempted to get his shirt up and over his head. Of course, then his aching shoulder really decided to make itself known, and he ended up with the collar of said shirt half caught in his mouth, and half over his ears. It was fine, though, because his stunt made Steve guffaw with laughter, and then there was a pair of gentle hands on him, easing the shirt up and free of his aching shoulder and fat head.
As the shirt fell away, the first thing he saw was the piercing blue of Steve's happily dancing eyes, which were only inches away from his own face. The smile slowly faded from the soldier's face as he, once again, caught Tony's eyes and stared back, before – catching Steve glancing down at the reactor in his chest, and feeling his heart flutter a little as a result – he leaned in a little, not really sure what he was doing, but knowing Steve's lips looked soft, and inviting, and -
And then his phone was ringing, and he hated everything, and wanted to die as, with a growl of frustration, he pulled away again to tug it out of his pocket and check the caller ID. Of course Pepper would be cock-blocking him.
“I should probably get this,” he mumbled, frowning down at the phone, because he was nothing if not a victim here.
“It's fine,” Steve murmured, nodding. “I still need to check your shoulder, though, so sit still, okay?”
Tony nodded his agreement, before hitting the answer button and raising his good arm to press the phone to his ear. “Is it really important, Pep, because I'm sort of a little busy -”
“Happy's in the hospital, Tony; they're saying it was a bomb, and -”
Tony felt the phone slipping from his hand, but he didn't hear it hit the ground – the world seeming to slow right down around him in the space of seconds. Happy was hurt. One of his dearest, only friends was in the hospital – had been caught in an explosion of some kind – and Tony hadn't been there to protect him, to keep him safe when he needed him most. He had to get to him – he needed to see for himself that he was okay – and he needed to go right fucking now.
Steve was talking urgently on the phone with Pepper when Tony managed to raise his head, but he couldn't hear what they were saying, as acutely focused as he was. He felt strange – as though he was simultaneously made of stone and lighter than air – and it was difficult to get to his feet, but he managed it, only staggering once. It was harder, still, staying on his feet, because the world was starting to sway dangerously around him, and it was all very confusing, and -
He didn't see Steve move, but – the next thing he knew – he was on the floor with his back pressed to the soldier's chest, so he must have moved at some point.
“- panicking, I think, but he's okay, I – yes, ma'am, I will... Yes, we'll be there as soon as possible. Goodbye, MissPotts,” he heard, distorted, next to his ear, and realised Steve was still on the phone.
“Steve,” he panted breathlessly, because he needed the other man to understand. “Got to – suit is fastest – Happy's hurt -”
“Shh, Tony, it's okay,” Steve cut him off, wrapping his – now – other free arm around him, but, in doing so, his hand came to rest over Tony's reactor, and it felt wrong, felt confining, so Tony scrabbled almost blindly to slap it away. “Hey, hey, okay, sorry, I didn't -”
Tony couldn't breathe. Logically, he knew that Steve hadn't been trying to tamper with his reactor, but it still felt like his hand was on it, was twisting it out of his body, and he couldn't – he needed -
“- lay us down, okay, because you need to spread out, or you're going to hyperventilate,” Steve was still speaking calmly in his ear, and then he was being tugged down to lay on the floor in a loose fetalposition on his side – Steve still spooned up against his back, and rubbing grounding circles into his tummy. “You just need to breathe with me, okay? It's fine – everything's going to be fine, Tony, but you need to take some deep breaths, all right, because it's important. Just concentrate on breathing -”
On and on he went, talking to Tony as he continued to – essentially – cuddle him on the kitchen floor, and, surprisingly, it was doing a good job of calming him down. If he focused on Steve's voice, and the slow, soothing circles being rubbed into his clenching stomach, he found that the world stopped spinning quite as much, and he was able to get a full breath into his lungs.
“That's it! See, I knew you could do it; just keep breathing, and it will pass, I promise. Everything's going to be all right.”
With a final, shuddering breath, Tony let the last of the tension ooze out of his body and soaked up the heat radiating from Steve's chest behind him as he went limp in the other man's arms. He felt humiliated.
“I don't care what you say, Tony; you aren't okay,” Steve breathed out on a sigh, and Tony couldn't even find it in himself to argue. “I'm wor- me and Bruce are worried about you. You don't take care of yourself.”
“Have to protect myself,” he replied softly, and swallowed thickly past the lump in his throat, because he'd never actually spoken aloud about this before. “Have to protect the one thing I can't live without.”
“And what's that?”
“You,” he whispered, eyes flickering closed to hold back his tears; he had at least that much dignity left. “All of you. The team, Pepper, Rhodey... H-Happy -”
“It's okay,” Steve soothed, hugging him a little closer as his breath rattled in his chest again. “He's going to be fine, Tony; you'll see.”
“You experience things,” he continued, because now he'd started, he had to get this out, “and then they're over. You're a super solider. Thor's a genuine god. I'm just... a man in a can. The suit and I are one -”
“It's a distraction, Tony,” Steve disagreed softly.
“But they're still a part of me,” he sighed, rubbing a shaking hand over his eyes. “It's all I've got.”
“Now that's a lie, and you know it,” Steve tutted, jostling him gently. “You have so much more than you realise, Tony. So much more than you'll let yourself have.”
Because I don't deserve it, Tony thought sullenly. “I don't – I need to get going. I'm going to take the suit over to Malibu, and -”
“You're doing nothing of the kind,” Steve cut him off, though he did let him go as he pulled out of his embrace to push himself up onto shaky legs.
“Please, Steve, I don't want to argue with you -”
“And I don't want to argue with you, either, because you're my friend, Tony, and I care about you,” the blond replied firmly. “Now, you are in no fit shape to be flying in your suit at the moment. Pepper suggested we take the company jet, and -”
Steve gave him a look that Tony could only describe as mulish. “You don't think I'm letting you do this alone, do you?”
“Steve, I'm not a child!” he snapped, the beginnings of a stress headache forming above his eyes. “I don't need you to hold my hand and -”
“But what if I want to?” Steve asked quietly, and that certainly stopped Tony in his tracks.
He was aware of the thing that seemed to be bubbling between them – hot and new and electric – but he hadn't, honestly, thought that Steve was replying in kind on purpose. He was from the forties, after all – a time in which the mere mention of two men even holding hands would have put someone in jail – and, even if he weren't homophobic (and, to be fair, he had punched that homophobe at Coney Island), why would he go for someone as fucked up as Tony? Steve deserved someone who could love and nurture and protect him, and Tony couldn't even protect himself.
“I'm not stupid, Tony,” the soldier continued, taking a step towards him, “and, despite what people seem to think, I'm not naïve, either. I see what's going on here, and I know you need help, whether you're willing to admit it or not. There's no shame in that.
“So,” he continued, bridging the remaining gap between them and, tentatively, reaching out to take Tony's hand in his own, “you're going to go get the suit loaded up into the jet, and I'm going to pack a couple bags, and then you're going to eat and sleep on the flight over, and we'll be with Happy in a couple of hours. Sound good?”
Tony looked down at their linked fingers – trying not to think about how nice it felt, to be connected to another human being in such a simple way again – and then back up again to Steve's open, earnest face.
“Okay,” he relented quietly.
Steve finally managed to get Tony settled on the jet after a brief argument over why the genius could possibly need to take six suits of armour with him (“Because I've been meaning to ship them over into storage with the other ones, Steve, and this saves the trouble of another trip. Think of all the nature I'm saving by not speeding up global warming. All the cute kitties that you save from trees will live to see another smog-filled day because of me.”), and in the end relented only because he could tell how antsy the other man was getting again, and didn't think he could bare to see him go through another anxiety attack.
He hadn't understood, at first – as he'd taken his trip across America – why his thoughts kept straying back to the end of the battle of Manhattan, and Tony Stark's prone, Iron clad form lying, motionless, on the street. He hadn't understood why he kept feeling the urge to call him, as he'd sat in a dingy hotel room, night after night.
But now, watching the man, curled up in his seat – breath shallow and eyelids fluttering as he fought off a nightmare – Steve was pretty sure he understood. His unnatural need to protect Tony had come from watching the genius fly that missile up into space. The guilt he felt, now, after having ordered the portal closed, still churned in his gut at every moment of the day, and seeing Tony's still, lifeless form on the cold, unforgiving concrete had chilled him in a way he hadn't felt since Bucky had died.
He had almost lost the man, and he wasn't prepared to do it again – whether it be to actual death, or mental illness. He was pretty sure he needed Tony alive and well to keep his own mental health in check, and if he had to help him along himself, Steve was more than willing to do that. Telling Tony he was a good man hadn't been a lie, after all.
“Tony?” he murmured, taking pity on the suffering man as he got up from his own seat and crossed the plane. “Tony, wake up.”
Crouching down in front of the minutely jerking genius, Steve reached out and cupped the side of the man's face, because he had noticed how grounding physical contact seemed to be for him, and wanted him to be as comfortable as possible.
“Tony, you're okay; you're safe,” he murmured, stroking a thumb across the dark bruises under the other man's eyes, and then stilled when – with an honest to God whimper – Tony came awake all at once, panting and wide eyed.
“Hey, hey, it's just me – it's Steve,” he continued softly, smiling encouragingly as recognition dawned across Tony's features, and the other man leaned into his touch. “They're just dreams, okay? You're safe.”
Tony nodded jerkily, catching his gaze and holding it for a moment, before dark eyes flickered down to glance at Steve's lips, and -
“Sir, it appears there has been another transmission broadcast by the Mandarin,” JARVIS announced loudly, making them both jump, and Steve sat back on his haunches – withdrawing his hand from Tony's face.
“I, uh, yeah, JARVIS, play it,” Tony bobbed his head in some resemblanceof a nod, clearing his throat of any remaining sleepiness.
As a large, holographic screen appeared from nowhere, Steve got up and wandered back over to his chair again, already dreading what they were about to witness, and the effect it would have on Tony.
“True story about fortune cookies -” Images of war and children, intermingled with flashes of an elderly face, flashed across the screen, “- they look Chinese, they sound Chinese... but they're actually an American invention, which is why they're hollow, full of lies, and leave a bad taste in the mouth.” A hand came down squarely on a stack of fortune cookies, and Steve saw Tony flinch in his peripherals as new images of a destroyed building – of injured people – appeared. “Insurgents just destroyed another cheap, American knock-off. The Chinese Theatre. I know this must be getting frustrating, but this season of terror is drawing to a close. Don't worry – the big one is coming; your graduation.”
And, with the closing frames showing a bullet going through a picture of President Ellis' head, the transmission cut out and the holographic screen disappeared again. The silence was suddenly deafening.
“Why was he there?” Tony whispered suddenly, and Steve looked up. “Why was Happy at the Chinese theatre? What possible reason -”
“I don't know,” he soothed quickly, because Tony had brought a hand up to rub over his reactor, which wasn't a good sign. “You can ask him when we get there, huh?”
“If he's still -” Tony cut himself off, skin growing pale. “Let's just get there.”
Tony refused, point blank, to let him accompany him to the hospital when they finally set down on Tony's private airstrip a few miles from his house. Of course, Steve didn't like the idea of leaving the brunet alone when he was already in such a fragile condition, and especially with the new transmission from the Mandarin obviously still playing around in his head, if his subdued manner was anything to go on. But Steve trusted Tony, and trusted – whether he was used to the fact that he wasn't alone or not – that he would tell Steve if he really needed help.
At least, he hoped he would.
And so, leaving Tony at the sports car that Pepper had sent over for him, Steve got into a taxi and headed back to the address that Tony had given him for his Malibu beach house. From an artist's point of view, as they pulled up to the front gate, Steve thought the building was beautiful – all smooth curves and bright, open glass structures.
JARVIS let him in when he buzzed at the front door (and he took a moment to marvel at the fact that the AI was here, as well as New York at the same time), before he dragged his and Tony's bags into the Christmassy warmth and closed the door behind him. They hadn't thought to decorate the tower yet, but, as he glanced down the corridor to the open-plan living room and noted the tree, as well as the decorations on the walls, he vowed that he would get to it as soon as he was back in New York, because they made the place look a million times homier.
“Hello?” he called, dragging the bags over to the foot of a curving flight of stairs, and then spinning slowly in a circle to take more of the house in. The view out of the ceiling to floor windows across the room was – even in the darkness of night – gorgeous. The way the huge, full moon rippled across the seahad Steve itching for his sketchbook and a pencil.
“Is that you, Captain Rogers?” came a voice that he had only ever heard on the phone before, but then who could only be Miss Potts appeared from the stairs and walked over to him.
“Steve, please, Ma'am,” he replied with a smile, holding his hand out for the woman to shake.
“Only if you quit it with all this Ma'am business,” she replied, smiling back warmly. “I get enough of that at the office, thank you.”
Steve decided, pretty much straight away, that he liked Pepper, despite her having broken up with Tony. She seemed like a nice, extraordinarily well put together lady, and he had always admired that.
“Is Tony not with you?” she continued, frowning a little as she led Steve over to sit on one of the immaculate cream couches.
“He went straight to the hospital from the airport,” he explained, taking the seat she offered him, “but he wouldn't let me go with him.”
“He can be... a little funny, when it comes to showing his emotions,” Pepper nodded, taking a seat beside him. “It's always been all or nothing with him, and they're both as frustrating as the other.”
“Is that why you broke up with him?” Steve blurted, before slapping a hand over his own mouth in shock of what he had just done. “Miss Potts, I apologise – I didn't mean to be so rude -”
“No, it's fine,” she gave him a strange, assessing smile that he didn't quite understand. “There are a few reasons why I broke up with Tony – some a little selfish, and some not. The main reason is because I couldn't stand to see him throw himself in danger every two seconds, not knowing if he was going to come home. It... the sort of lifestyle he leads – you all lead, really – puts strain on a relationship, because I was the one expected to pick up the pieces when he came back in an ambulance.
“I can see it, even if he can't – he gives too much. He's always given too much of himself to things he believes in, and that's an admirable quality, sure, but with this... one day, that too much will leave him open, and vulnerable, and that's when they'll bring him back in a coffin, rather than an ambulance. I can't ask him to stop being who he is – because he is Iron Man – but I won't be his widow, either. That's not fair.”
Steve didn't know what to say. He had never experienced things from Pepper's point of view – had always been in Tony's shoes, really – and he had never had a proper relationship to think about these things, but he found he could empathise a lot better than he was willing to let himself believe. If Tony hadn't come back through that portal, Steve... wouldn't have known what to do with himself. He had known the man for less than a year, and already he couldn't imagine his life without Tony Stark in it -
He was in so much trouble.
Of course, Steve had always been sort of aware that he was attracted to men as well as women, even all the way back in the forties. He'd never done anything about it, because that would have gotten him sent to prison or court martialed, but there had been men who had caught his eye, both before and during the war. When he had woken up and been informed that, not only was it not illegal to love someone of the same gender any more, but, in some states, gay people could even get married, he had been ecstatic, and that's why he had been so damned angry with that man at Coney Island for shouting obscenities at those two young women holding hands.
Love was love, no matter what form it took, and Steve wasn't afraid of admitting that any more.
But now, now, he had feelings for Tony – his team mate, his friend – and he didn't know what to do about it. He and Pepper stayed up the whole night, chatting and watching the news for any further information on the bomb as they waited for Tony to come back from the hospital, and, though he asked questions – about her meeting with that man she had mentioned when Steve had barged in on hers and Tony's phone conversation, and her work, and so on – and replied in kind when she asked him questions, he couldn't keep his mind off Tony, and what he was doing, thinking, right now.
When the sun finally rose, hours later, Steve didn't think he had ever seen a more beautiful sight, and finally gave in to the urge to draw it. He rummaged around in his bag for a moment and then brought a sketchbook and set of pencils over to the couch by the window, and decidedly put Tony at the back of his mind as he focused on the way the rising sun set the sea flickering like diamonds below him.
“Oh, God, Tony's on the news,” Pepper sighed from across the room, and Steve immediately looked up from his... God dammit.
Somehow, the sun had morphed into an eye without him realising, and he had been sketching half of Tony's face basked in sunlight this whole time. Fantastic.
“What story have they fabricated now?” he sighed, flipping the book firmly closed and then padding over to sit beside Pepper. He had learned, pretty early on, that journalists these days were not to be trusted.
But, instead of some crackpot story about Tony fathering twins, or being in a relationship with the Queen of England, or whatever else these people seemed to find amusing, Steve watched an actual live feed message from Tony himself, and immediately felt dread begin to churn in his gut.
“Here's a little holiday greeting that I've been meaning to send to the Mandarin,” he started, and Pepper put her head in her hands beside Steve. “I just didn't know how to phrase it 'til now. My name is Tony Stark, and I'm not afraid of you. I know you're a coward, so I've decided that you just died, pal. I'm gonna come get the body. There's no politics here; it's just good, old fashioned revenge. There's no Pentagon; it's just you and me. Now, on the off chance you're a man, here's my home address: 10880 Malibu Point, 90265. I'll leave the door unlocked.”
And, with that, Steve watched as Tony snatched a phone from a bystander's hand and threw it aggressively at the wall, before climbing into his car and speeding away.
“Did he just...?” Pepper didn't seem capable of forming a full sentence. “He doesn't even live here anymore! I – I think I have some calls to make. Excuse me.”
With a sigh, and a nod of her head in Steve's direction, Pepper got up and went back upstairs. Steve was under the impression that was probably for the best, because Pepper seemed like the kind of person that would tear the nearest person to her in half when she was angry and/or stressed, and – at the moment – that person just so happened to be him.
When Tony arrived home, the sun was already fully up, and Steve had a cup of coffee waiting for him when he staggered into the kitchen, which made him genuinely well up.
“So... you gave a villain Pepper's home address,” the blond started as Tony gulped down the beautiful, sweet coffee in his hand. “Did it sound like a good idea in your head, or -”
“To be fair, I own the house,” he defended, draining the last of the mug and then pouting when Steve drew the pot away from him.
“Yes, but you don't live here.”
“Steve, I don't have time for this, okay? Yes, I'm sorry I handed out our location to the whole world – it was a dick move – but I have more important things to be focusing my time on right now, so give me the coffee and let me figure this out, all right?” He was aware, but the time he was done, that he had been shouting, but – instead of looking hurt – Steve just send him a pitying look that he absolutely hated.
“It's good that you're taking a stand over this, Tony,” he murmured softly, “but this reckless behaviour? It's got to stop. You've got to realise that you're not alone in this anymore– that you have a team -”
Tony couldn't do this. He'd spent the night trying not to break down and sob all over Happy's unconscious chest, and now he had a reason to finish this once and for all, so he didn't need... he didn't need Steve caring about him.
“Yes, sure, whatever – not alone, got it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to my workshop.”
Not waiting for whatever protest Steve was obviously about to make, Tony turned on his heels – forgetting about the coffee pot altogether – and left the room.
Hours later, he was pleased with his progress. Using his holographic technology, Tony had been able to recreate the scene and explosion as it happened, and, therefore, had picked up on what Happy had been looking at before they'd shipped him off in the ambulance.
The man had been a mess, when he'd visited earlier, and seeing him – actually seeing the damage that had been done – had startled Tony into the present. He couldn't fall apart now – not when he had his friend to avenge, and the Mandarin to stop.
As busy as he was, compiling a list of places that had had similar explosions with similar heat signatures as the one at the Chinese Theatre, when the doorbell rang, it took him completely by surprise.
“Really, we're still at ding dong? We're supposed to be on complete security lock down!” he grouched, watching a car pulling up the drive on a monitor JARVIS had helpfully just brought up. “Come on – I threatened a terrorist!”
Grumbling under his breath to himself, he summoned the suit and clambered up the stairs with it still assembling around him. When he arrived in the living area, Steve was already showing a woman in; he wasn't in uniform, but he did have the shield on his arm, and Tony was inexplicably proud of him for reasons unknown.
“Right there's fine,” he called as a scanner went over the woman, stepping towards them before they could get too far into the house. Reluctantly, he raised his face plate. “You're not the Mandarin, are you? Are you?”
The woman huffed out a laugh. “You don't remember. Why am I not surprised?”
“Don't take it personally – I don't remember what I had for breakfast,” he shrugged.
“You didn't eat breakfast,” Steve muttered under his breath.
“That'll be why.”
“'Kay, look, I need to be alone with you,” the woman continued, glancing around anxiously. “Some place not here, okay, it's urgent.”
Tony gave her an assessing look, before turning his heel and heading back into the living room. “Normally I'd go for that sort of thing, but I just got out of a committed relationship -” A pair of bags came hurtling out of the sky and landed either side of him, “- with her.”
“Tony, is somebody there?” came Pepper's voice from the floor above.
“Yeah,” he replied, activating the release button on the suit and stepping out of it. “It's Maya Hanson; old botanist pal, who I used to know... barely.” As Pepper came trotting down the stairs, and Steve wandered over to join them, Tony leaned in and whispered, “Please don't tell me there's a twelve year old kid waiting in the car that I've never met -”
“Tony!” Steve gasped.
“He's thirteen.” Tony couldn't suppress a shudder of total panic - “No! I need your help.”
“What for – why now?” Steve asked, frowning.
“Because I read the papers, and, frankly, I don't think you'll last the week.”
“I'll be fine -”
I'm sorry; with Happy in the hospital, I didn't realise we were expecting guests,” Pepper drawled as she finally met them in the centre of the room.
“We weren't -”
“Or old girlfriends -”
“Oh, no, not really. It was just one night,” Maya shrugged, and Tony was pretty sure he would prefer death to continuing on with this conversation.
“Yep, that's how you did it,” Pepper sighed, and Steve flashed him a strange look.
“It was a... good night,” Tony replied weakly, kind of at a loss.
“Well, you saved yourself a world of pain -”
“What?” he asked, affronted.
“We're going out of town,” Pepper told him instead, giving him that look she had.
“Okay, we talked about this – nope.”
“Tony,” Steve sighed. “Maybe you should listen to her.”
“Yes, Tony, maybe you should listen to me. We are leaving immediately, and indefinitely.”
“Great idea – let's go,” Maya nodded, waving for them all to follow her.
“No, that's a terrible idea – please don't touch her bags,” Tony snapped as Maya went to lift them, and glared at her until she backed off over towards the TV.
“Tony – Tony – this is how normal people behave!”
“You need to listen to us, Tony,” Steve agreed.
“I can't protect you out there!” he snapped, glancing from one to the other, and then down at his shoes. “We're staying here, and that's final.”
“Tony,” Steve murmured, taking another step towards him, “it's not safe here. There are swarms of reporters recording your every move, and now everyone in the country knows where we are. We need to hole up somewhere safe.
“But what about Happy?” he disagreed quietly. “We can't just leave him by himself. And the Mandarin's still out there – we need to fight -”
“Uh, guys? Guys, can we – do we need to worry about that?” Maya asked from behind them and, when Tony peered over Pepper's shoulder to look at what she was pointing at on the TV, he felt his stomach lurch painfully.
When he turned, it felt like the world was slowing around him, until his entire focus was on the rocket heading straight for the window. There wasn't time to get out – to move -
The world exploded around him, and, as he was thrown backwards in a burst of colour and heat, he had just enough presence of mind to send the suit over to wrap around Pepper. Steve had the serum – he would be fine, he would – and he could protect Hansen, but Pepper was in direct line of fire, and Tony had to protect her.
He hit the wall hard, knocking all the breath out of him. Squinting up, he realised the ceiling was crumbling around him; it was going to fall, and he wouldn't be able to move in time. A large crack sounded, and then part of the ceiling was falling, so he closed his eyes, and – and then Steve appeared out of nowhere, protecting Tony with his own body as rubble rained down around them.
“I've got you,” he panted, face only inches from Tony's. He could only nod in return – momentarily dumbstruck by the way Steve's eyes shone in the low, murky light.
“Get the girls,” he managed, finally. “Go – I'm right behind you.”
Steve nodded, then bodily lifted Tony back to his feet before racing over to where Pepper was already busy helping Maya to her feet. Tony, instead, took a moment to stare around the remains of his home, and then out of the window, and there was... were there helicopters outside? They certainly didn't look like news helicopters, and, when a series of heavy artillery guns unfolded from the depths of the vehicles, Tony knew he had been right.
“Steve, go!” he yelled, racing for them across the room, but then another explosion rocked the room, and the floor cracked and opened like the bowels of hell, and he had to skid to a stop before he fell right through into the destroyed workshop below.
“Tony!” Pepper cried.
“Stop stopping!” he cried back. “Go – I'll go around and meet you outside!”
“Go, Cap!” he snapped, and Steve seemed to jerk into Captain mode at the use of his rank. With a nod, he steered both of the women towards the exit.
Tony watched to make sure they all got out, before he looked around for a way across the cavern that had been created in his living room. God, the place was a mess, and – BOOM. Another explosion almost knocked him straight off his feet, and then the rest of the ceiling was falling around him, and the floor was tipping over the edge of the cliff, dragging him with it, and -
Yelling aloud in fear and frustration, he threw his arms out and summoned the suit back to him, because he had no chance without it at this point. It came in parts, wrapping around him like a second skin, and – with every part that appeared – Tony found he could breathe a little easier. He focused his attention on getting rid of the helicopters, because they were his main concern at this point.
“JARVIS, where's my flight power?” he screamed, desperately trying to blast free of the debris.
“Working on it, sir. This is a prototype.”
A loud beeping went off in his helmet, and that... that was the proximity alert -
He had just enough time to roll out of the way before his grand piano went rolling past, and, improvising, he sent a repulsor blast after it. The piano went soaring through the air and straight into the path of the first helicopter, which began to spiral and fall.
He rolled to his feet, sliding a little further towards the edge of the cliff, and – spotting the second helicopter above his head, tried to fire one of his rockets at it. Only... that didn't work.
“Sir, the suit is not combat ready.”
He really was going to have to improvise, then. Taking a deep breath, he sprinted to the side, using his momentum to keep him upright, because – by this point – he was running on a sixty degree angle to avoid being caught in machine gun fire. All the while, he was fiddling with a compartment in his arm, and, once he'd managed to tug the rocket free, threw it towards the second helicopter, and sent another repulsor blast after it. The resulting explosion was immensely satisfying
His victory was short lived, however, because the remains of the second aircraft were suddenly hurtling towards the house, and, when they impacted, what was left of the mansion quickly deteriorated. Tony fell with a scream down through the floor and into his workshop – watching in horror as Dum-E fell helplessly into the murky depths below – and everything around him was suddenly ablaze; his suits, his cars, everything was falling, and he tried to hold on for as long as he could, but – eventually – the ground beneath him gave way and sent him, too, plummeting towards the water below.
The following couple of hours were, quite possibly, the worst of Steve's life since Bucky had died. Both Pepper and Maya had to physically hold him back from diving into the water after Tony when the house gave way, and he had been using the time since to help lift heavy debris for the emergency services.
He wanted to punch something. Or someone.
As the shock of what had happened died down, ahollownesssettled into the pit of his stomach, heaving and churning. He felt jittery – as though he simultaneously had too much and not enough energy – and it left his skin feeling too tight around his bones. But, all the while, he never allowed himself to think the worst – couldn't, because he was already so close to breaking down, and he had to be strong for the girls. Tony was alive – he had to be – because he had drawn the suit back to him, so he was protected, and -
He was alive. End of story.
“Not now, Pepper,” he sighed, hefting half an L-bar up.
“Steve, we're not safe here. Maya thinks we should leave, and I agree with her -”
“Not without Tony,” he refused, still not looking at her.
“Steve, Tony's -”
“Don't say it,” he hissed, throwing the L-bar away from him. Slowly, he lifted his head to look at Pepper's tear stained face. “Just... don't.”
With that, he looked back down again and went back to his task of clearing the rubble. At least he didn't feel so helpless, that way. It also made it easier to avoid Pepper's sudden, assessing glare.
“You have feelings for him, don't you?”
That was the straw that finally broke him, because he dropped the hunk of rock he was holding as his shoulders hunched up around him, protecting from the pain and heartbreak. Willing himself not to cry desperately, he took a deep breath, then looked up again, hoping Pepper would understand.
“Or...” she looked confused, for a moment, before horrible comprehension dawned across her face. “It's more than that? You're... Steve, are you in love with him?”
Before he could stop it – before he could get a handle on himself – a sob escaped his lips. He tried to cover it by holding a hand over his mouth, but that wasn't enough to keep the tears away, and, snuffling gently, he nodded his head. It felt strange, admitting it to someone else.
“Oh, Steve, honey.” Without another word, Pepper reached out and pulled him towards her for a hug, which he all but sank into.
“I don't know what to do,” he whispered, burying his face against her neck like he used to with his mother when he was a child. “What if he's -”
“We'll get through it,” she replied, rubbing a soothing hand up his back. “We're going to get through this, but we have to go, okay? We can't stand out here all night.”
Steve knew, logically, that she was right – that standing here, hoping Tony would scale the side of the cliff and yell at them all for not going in after him was unhealthy – but that didn't mean he wanted to stay any less. If anything, it was the hope that was killing him.
“Okay,” he nodded jerkily. “Yeah, we should -”
But then he stopped, frowning. In the rubble over Pepper's shoulder, there was a small, blinking, red light radiating light out over the dark rocks submerging wherever it was coming from.
Silently, he let Pepper go, and ducked his way over to the light – drawn to it like a moth to a flame. Heart seeming to stop in his chest for a second, he tugged one of Tony's helmets free, staring down at the eyeslits for a second and wishing, more than anything, that Tony's face was behind it. Alas, it was empty apart from the light flashing inside it.
Shooting a glance at Pepper, who shrugged, he took a deep breath, then slid the helmet over his head. It was dark inside, for a moment, before the whole thing lit up and came to life before his eyes.
“Pepper? Steve? It's me.” Steve laughed aloud, heart soaring at the sound of the genius' voice. “I've got a lot of apologies to make and not a lot of time, so... first off, I'm sorry I put you all in harm's way. It was selfish and stupid, and it won't happen again. Also, it's Christmas time, and I've been a little weird – I'm done, sorry. And I'm sorry in advance, because I... I can't come home yet. I need to find this guy. You've gotta stay safe; that's all I know.” A sigh sounded over the comm. “I just stole a poncho from a wooden Indian. Just... stay safe, Steve – I, both of you. Just do that for me.”
When the transmission cut off, Steve pulled the helmet off and didn't even attempt to hide his tears, because they were joyful now.
“He's alive,” he breathed, then ran forwards to scoop Pepper up and spin her in his arms. “He's alive!”
The elation at finding Tony alive was soon diminished by the fact that – in the car, as they drove over to a hotel – Maya expressed her worries about her boss (the still elusive Aldrich Killian – and Steve was starting to get a bad feeling about him) potentially working for the Mandarin.
They checked into the most inconspicuous hotel they could find, and then Steve carried what little possessions they had with them in suitcases up to the room while the girls went ahead, and locked the door behind him when he arrived.
“- what happened? Fun fact; before he built rockets for the Nazis, the idealistic Werner von Braun dreamed of space travel,” Maya was saying as he took a seat near the desk along the back wall. “He star gazed. Do you know what he said when the first V2 hit London? The rocket performed perfectly, it just landed on the wrong planet. See we all begin wide-eyed – pure science... and then the ego steps in, the obsession. And then, when you look up, you're a long way from shore.”
“You can't be too hard on yourself, Maya. I mean, you gave your research to a think tank,” he replied, smiling sympathetically.
“Yeah, but Killian built that think tank on military contracts.”
“That's exactly what we used to do,” Pepper shrugged, “so don't judge yourself.”
Maya sighed, staring down at her knees. “Thank you, guys. I really appreciate that.”
Suddenly, there came a knock at the door, and Steve immediately sprang to his feet. He was halfway across the room to his shield before Pepper reassured, “It's fine, Steve – we ordered room service.”
“Oh,” he frowned, pausing. Now he thought about it, villains didn't usually knock. “That's actually a good idea.”
Pepper smiled at him as though he were a lost puppy, and he didn't know how he felt about that. “That's what I thought. I'll get the door -”
“No, don't get up,” he waved her back down, wandering over to open the door and let the young man with a cart of food in. “Good evening.”
“Good evening, sir.”
“Come on in,” Pepper beckoned, and, reluctantly, Steve stepped out of the way.
Before the young man could even get all the way into the room, however, another man appeared behind him, and – before Steve could even react – he had grabbed and twisted the boy's head until there was a crack, and he went limp.
“It's Killian, Steve! Maya, run!” Pepper screamed from behind him.
With a roar – because this man had been involved in Tony's home being destroyed – Steve sprang forwards and towards him, aiming to take him out immediately. Killian immediately pulled a gun, though, and didn't even seem to stop and think before, aiming for Steve's knees, he pulled the trigger.
He could hear Pepper and Maya screaming, but all he could focus on for a moment was the agonising pain rippling through his legs. Killian had shot him in the knees. He staggered forwards one more step, before he lurched forwards and dropped to the ground, gasping at the blinding pain of it all.
“Hi, Pepper,” he heard Killian say jovially, and managed to pull himself around to at least view the scene before him.
“Run!” he gasped, but Killian was quickly backing Pepper into the corner, and, before she could escape, he had scooped her up by the neck and smashed her into the wall.
Turning to Maya, who had backed away into the other corner of the room, Killian growled, “So you want to tell me why you were at Stark's mansion?”
“I'm trying to fix this thing!” she snapped in reply. “I didn't know you and the Master were going blow the place up!”
Killian sneered. “Oh, I see. So you were trying to save Stark, when he threatened us?”
“I told you, Killian – we can use him!”
Steve and Pepper seemed to be working on the same level by this point, because, at that admission, they both yelled aloud in anger, and tried to scramble for Killian and Maya.
“Pepper, Pepper, Pepper,” Killian laughed, before, lashing out wildly, his foot connected with Steve's legs, and he screamed out in agony.
“Look if we want to launch the product next year, I need Stark,” Maya continued earnestly. “He just lacked a decent incentive. Now he has one.”
When she looked down at him, Steve didn't immediately understand what she was talking about in his pain addled brain. Killian seemed to be just as confused, because he, too, frowned down at him.
“Him?” he laughed, disbelieving.
“Potts and Stark aren't together anymore,” she continued, and Killian's eyebrows rose past his hairline. “He arrived with this guy. I thought they were just pals, or something, but... Killian, this guy is Captain America.”
“This guy? The guy bleeding out on the floor?” he scoffed. “I find that somewhat hard to believe.”
“It's true!” Maya insisted. “He's got the shield and everything.”
That caught Killian's attention. “Really?”
“In the bag,” she nodded. “But do you understand what this means? Imagine what we could do with the serum -”
“You leave him alone,” Pepper choked out, and Steve could have cried at her courage. Killian just laughed, though, and tightened his grip.
“Oh, I can't do that, sweetheart,” he sneered. “Maya, change of plan. Call the guys; get them to come pick up the dear Captain, here.”
The Mandarin wasn't the Mandarin.
The few days since Tony's house had been blown up had been... interesting, to say the least. He owed his life to JARVIS, really, because the AI had gotten him out of the water and away before he could drown. He'd ended up in Tennessee, of all places, but Harley had made sure he hadn't starved to death – even if he'd had to wait a full half hour for that tuna fish sandwich.
He'd figured it out, eventually – how the Mandarin was using the excuse of bombings to cover up the fact that people were overheating after taking the Extremis serum; how AIM – Aldrich Killian's company – were involved. He'd also managed to get in touch with Rhodey, break into the Mandarin's compound, and find out that he had been an actor all along.
Things had gotten a little hairy after that, and... well, the next time he woke up, he was chained to a bed frame. Not the first time that had happened, of course, but never in such diercircumstances.
“Just like old times, huh?” came Maya Hansen's voice from nearby, and, when he looked up, he spotted her on a platform across the room.
“Oh yeah,” he replied sarcastically, “with zip-ties. It's a ball.”
Maya at least had the decency to look ashamed of herself as she murmured, “It wasn't my idea.”
“Okay, so you took Killian's card,” Tony shrugged, because he could understand being forced into something against your will all too well.
“I took his money.”
“And here you are, thirteen years later, in a dungeon,” he replied.
“No,” Maya shook her head, and Tony frowned.
She shook her head again, adamant. “No, you're in a dungeon. I'm free to go.”
Tony snorted, because he really couldn't help himself. For an award winning scientist, Maya could be ridiculously short sighted. “Yeah?”
“A lot's happened, Tony, but I'm close,” she insisted, moving across the room to stand in front of him. “Extremis is practically stable.”
“I'm telling you it isn't!” It was his turn to insist, because, if there was one thing he had learned on his travels over the past couple of days, it was that Extremis was dangerous. “I'm on the street; people are going 'bang'; they're painting the walls. Maya, you're kidding yourself.”
“Then help me fix it.” She held up a small card with a series of equations on it that looked vaguely familiar, with the words you know who I am written in Tony's own messy scrawl.
“Did I do that?” he asked, genuinely confused, because he didn't remember doing it.
“Yes!” Maya replied indignantly.
“Hey, I remember the night, not the morning,” he defended. “Is this what you've been chasing around?”
Maya looked genuinely crushed. “You don't remember?”
“I can't help you,” he murmured as truthfully as he could muster, before sighing heavily. “You used to have a moral psychology. You used to have ideals. You wanted to help people; now look at you. I used to wake up every morning with someone who still had her soul. Now I wake up and have the most perfect man in the world waiting with coffee for me, and I don't even thank him.”
Because it was in that exact moment – staring down at all that he could have become, and thinking of all that he had lost – that a sense of perspective settled in front of his eyes. He might never see Steve again – he might never get the chance to tell him – a chance to thank him.
“Get me out of here,” he pleaded, because there was suddenly nothing more important to him than telling Steve that he loved him, and he was grateful to have him, even as a friend. “Come on.”
But Maya just shook her head – tears in her eyes – and walked back across the room again to sit on the platform. Her head came up almost immediately and glanced at the door, and Tony followed her gaze, anxiety churning in his gut all of a sudden.
“You know what my old man used to say to me?” Killian grinned, swanning into the room as if he owned the place. Hell, Tony was pretty sure he did, at this point. “One of his favourite of many sayings: The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”
“You're not still pissed about the Switzerland thing, are you?” Tony asked, trying for light and mocking, but not sure how entirely successful he was.
Killian laughed hollowly. “How can I be pissed at you, Tony? I'm here to thank you. You gave me the greatest gift that anybody's ever given me: desperation.” He stalked up to him, expression hard. “If you think back to Switzerland, you said you'd meet me on the rooftop, right? Well for the first twenty minutes, I actually thought you'd show up. And the next hour, I...well I considered taking that one step shortcut to the lobby, if you know what I mean.”
Tony really didn't have the energy left to process half of that. “Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out what happened to the first mouse.”
“But as I looked out over that city, nobody knew I was there, nobody could see me, no one was even looking,” he continued, as though Tony wasn't even there anymore. “I had a thought that would guide me for years to come. Anonymity, Tony. Thanks to you, it's been my mantra ever since, right? You simply rule from behind the scenes. Because the second you give evil a face – a Bin Laden, a Gaddafi, The Mandarin – you hand the people a target.”
Tony could feel the beginnings of blind rage begin to stir in his stomach, because his hunch had been proven right. This was all down to Killian. “You're something else,” he growled.
Killian just grinned. “You have met him, I assume?”
“Yeah, Sir Lawrence Oblivier.”
“I know he's a little over the top sometimes. It's not entirely my fault, he has a tendency...” Killian shrugged helplessly. “He's a stage actor. They say his Lear was the toast of Croydon – wherever that is. Anyway, the point is, ever since that big dude with the hammer fell out of the sky, subtlety's kinda had its day.”
Oh, what Tony would have done to have Thor fly in and knock Killian to fucking China with Mjolnir.
“What's next for you in your world?” he asked instead.
“Well,” Killian grinned, “I wanted to repay you with the same gift that you so graciously imparted to me.”
Reaching into his pocket, the man pulled out and held up three small, metallic spheres for Tony to see, before – rolling them across the floor – they came to a stop in front of him and a holographic screen appeared. On that holographic screen was...
“Steve,” he whispered, feeling the burn of tears in his eyes and knowing he had to hold them in at all cost.
On screen, Steve was strapped to a table and obviously doped out of his mind, but the drugs weren't enough to hold back the pain of the numerous knifes and scalpels cutting and picking at his skin, it seemed, because he was whimpering like a dying animal as the surgeons leaned over him. Tony watched, horrified and with an aching heart, as samples of skin and blood and all manner of other things were taken from Steve.
“Now, this is live,” Killian continued, pointing to the screen. “At first we were going to take your precious girlfriend – give you a reason to be truly desperate – but Maya here kindly informed me that the dear Captain is your new beau. From what I overheard you telling her about him a few minutes ago, I'm more inclined to believe her now, too.
“Not that it really matters, though, I suppose,” he shrugged, grinning maniacally. “There are so many things we can learn from the Captain's body, apparently, so it's not even like we need you for anything other than to gloat, at this point.”
On screen, Steve let out an agonised yelp and tugged helplessly against his leather bounds as one of the surgeons flashed a knife dangerously close to his face. Tony felt sick just watching, so he couldn't imagine how it must feel for Steve himself.
“But, on the other hand, you could tell me all you know now, and we can go a little easier on Captain Rogers,” Killian smirked, pacing forwards evenly – flicking the screen off again as he went – before coming to a stop with his hand around Tony's throat. “We haven't even talked salary yet. What kind of perk package are you thinking of? Hm?”
Tony watched, horror and fury battling for dominance inside him, as, suddenly, the other man began to glow a sick golden colour. That was – had Killian -?
“Let him go!” Maya called from across the room, and Tony watched as Killian's eyes flickered closed for the briefest of seconds.
“Hold on, hold on,” he murmured, before – letting go of Tony's throat – he turned on the spot. “Maya...”
“I said let him go!” she replied, holding something that looked awfully like a pen injector close to her neck.
“What are you doing?” Killian snapped, taking another step towards her.
Maya just grinned. “1200ccs. A dose half of this size, I'm dead.”
“Maya, give me the injector.” Killian held his hand out for it.
“If I die, Killian, what happens to your soldiers? What happens to your product?”
“We're not doing this, okay -”
“What happens to you?” she continued passionately. “What happens if you go too hot?”
That made Killian pause for a moment. He had his back to Tony, so he couldn't see the expression on his face, but the defiance on Maya's was all too clear. She knew she had leverage, and she knew she could use it to her advantage.
Tony had never been so proud.
And then, in the space of about five seconds, Killian had drawn a gun and fired upon her without even a thought. She cried out in agony – and Tony, fear – before dropping to the ground and going still.
“The good news,” Killian continued, as though he hadn't just killed someone, “is that a high level position has just been vacated!”
“You're a maniac,” Tony croaked, unable to take his eyes off Maya's pale, shocked face.
Killian just laughed humourlessly. “No, I'm a visionary. But I do own a maniac, and he takes the stage tonight.”
With nothing but another maniacal smirk thrown in Tony's direction, the other man left the room.
They'd shot Steve in the shoulder when he'd tried to fight them off. Thank God, Killian had let Pepper go, and – at Steve's own insistence – she had got away as quickly as possible, but that left him in a dingy hotel room with two ruptured kneecaps and at least half a dozen goons.
That's when they'd shot him in the shoulder.
Things got a little hazy after that. The serum fought to keep him awake, but the debilitating pain radiating throughout his body was trying to drag him under, so, by the time he felt hands on him – moving him – he could barely move from it all. He thought he might have thrown up in pain, but he couldn't be sure.
Maya's voice disappeared sometime after that, and he couldn't find it in himself to care for a woman who had sold him out, so he didn't dwell on it. He tried to focus on counting away the seconds – figuring out how far they must have gone based on the length of time they had spent in the van he had been thrown in to – because they had blindfolded and cuffed him as soon as they'd laid hands on him. In his weakened, agonised state, he found he couldn't break free.
They drove for about an hour, and then he was moved again. The sounds around him told him they were at an airfield, and, for a moment, he struggled and panicked, because they could take him anywhere in a plane. A swift punch to the bullet wound in his shoulder had him sagging again, and left him feeling dizzy as he was thrown into the back of a plane.
Again, he focused on figuring out what he could with what he had. The same voices of those who had been dragging him around were easily distinguishable somewhere to his left, which told him the plane was small – probably private. He shifted a little as they set off – moving into a more comfortable position with his hands tied behind his back – and began counting again.
The average speed of a small plane like he was guessing he was in, he remembered from a book he had been given at SHIELD, was between one hundred and twenty and one hundred and forty knots, so around one hundred and fifty miles per hour. By the time they finally landed, over eighteen hours had passed. Steve hadn't slept, he hadn't eaten anything, since before Tony had fallen into the water, and that, along with the copious blood loss he had sustained, left him feeling light headed and weak as a newborn lamb.
Perseverance was the only thing that was going to save him now, though, so – as he was dragged from the plane – he allowed his body to go limp so what blood he had left could move to his brain. If they had been doing an average of a hundred and fifty miles per hour, and they had been flying for around eighteen hours, that meant they had gone around two thousand seven hundred miles. Still in America, then.
Tony would be proud of his math.
As soon as he thought about the brunet, his heart squeezed painfully in his chest. What if they had caught Tony, too? What if they were hurting him; what if they... what if they had shot him? Tony didn't have the serum – Tony was so much more breakable, and -
He barely felt the needle prick into his neck through the bag on his head, as worried about Tony as he suddenly was, but the effects were immediate. He staggered – head suddenly feeling much too heavy for his body – and would have fallen if not for the goons still carting him along.
“Tony,” he mumbled, before, in the next moment, he was unconscious.
It took an explosion going off nearby to finally draw Steve out of the darkness. He didn't remember much more than a constant, throbbing pain rippling through his whole body, and the odd flash of a masked face looming over him.
There was no-one in the room with him now.
Another explosion rocked the room – dust and bits of plaster raining down on him – so he quickly took stock of his injuries. The shot to his shoulder had gone through and through, and was now no more than a puckered scar that, in time, would heal, too. His knees, however, were more of a problem. Aesthetically, they looked okay, but, as Steve shifted within his shackles, pain stabbed – sharp and crippling – through his legs, and he realised that shards of shattered bone and tendon must still be in there.
His chest was bare, and littered with numerous cuts and blood. There was a squared layer of skin missing from his left pectoralthat stung horribly. In short, he was in a bad shape, but he felt stronger, at least. Still a little light headed, sure, but whatever they had been pumping into him seemed to be working its way out of his system – and a quick glance to his left showed the explosions must have knocked the IV drip trolley over, because it had torn out of his arm and skittered halfway across the room – so, with a grunt, he tugged at the cuffs binding him to the table. After a few moments, the metal bent and snapped, and he sat up, rubbing his wrists.
Another explosion sounded nearby as he was working the shackles from his ankles, and he didn't know what was going on, but he wasn't about to stick around and find out. He was going to find Tony, and – whether the man wanted his help or not – he was going to help.
Standing up was agony, but the rehealed bones held, and, after a few, staggered steps, the pain died down to a dull throb. It would be fine, for now; he could get them looked at later, when the threat of being blown up wasn't so prominent. Yet another explosion – this time so close that a crack shot across the ceiling – only furthered his resolve, so, limping over to the only door he could see, he threw it open, and –
- And laughed aloud joyously, because there were Iron Man suits everywhere. Never before in his life had he been so glad to see the toils of Tony's obsession come together all at once, because it meant their creator must be here, too.
“Ste -? Steve!”
Sure enough, as he turned on the gangway he found himself on, a very much alive Tony Stark was racing towards him at top speed, and he didn't think he'd ever been so happy in his life. He was running for him before he even consciously made the decision to do so – all pain and anguish momentarily gone, because Tony was here.
“Are you okay?” the genius asked, palming every inch of Steve he could reach when they finally came together, but Steve wasn't focused on that – didn't care about how much he was aching – when Tony was there, solid and real, in front of him. Without even a seconds thought, he cupped the brunet's bruised, bleeding face and drew it to his own for a wonderful, breathtaking kiss.
Tony seemed surprised for the briefest of moments, before his eyes fluttered closed and he all but sunk into Steve's embrace. He kissed him, again and again, until there was no air left in his lungs – until his very existence revolved around the smell and feel and taste of Tony Stark.
They had to pull away eventually, but Steve only let the other man go far enough that they could still rest their foreheads together. Tony's eyes opened slowly, revealing the beautiful, rich, chocolate brown orbs that Steve had never been able to emulate in his sketches, and he looked so vulnerable, all of a sudden, that he just had to press a kiss to the end of his nose.
“You terrified me,” he whispered, holding Tony yet closer. “I thought you were...”
“Yeah, well, snap,” Tony replied, before, sighing heavily, he allowed his arms to come up and wrap around Steve's back. He immediately felt a million times safer as a result. “You're a mess, Cap. Are you okay?”
“Been better,” Steve shrugged. “Been a lot worse, too.”
“That's not exactly reassuring -”
An inhuman scream had them falling away from each other, immediately battle ready as a man and a woman – both glowing a strange golden colour – came hurtling from either direction. After making sure Tony had drawn a gauntlet towards him for protection, Steve turned to theman heading straight for him, brought his fist up, and watched as the guy ran straight into it. He collapsed to the floor, but Steve didn't stop there – kicking out at him again and again as his anger over what had happened in the past few weeks peaked, and the men went limp under his ministrations.
“So, what's going on?” he asked, panting, as he straightened up.
“Well, Killian's a maniac.”
“The Mandarin is actually just a crazy actor,” Tony grunted, and the woman went down, too. “Killian's been using human experiments for this new drug, but they've been exploding, which – y'know – is not what drugs are supposed to do. Not literally, at least.”
Steve grinned – couldn't help himself – because it was so good to hear Tony's rambling again.
“Now Rhodey's around somewhere trying to save the president, because Killian wants him dead, and I came after you, so -” Steve tugged him forwards for another kiss, and – for a moment – Tony kept talking into his mouth, before, with a sigh, he gave in and kissed back.
“I've missed your voice,” he grinned as they pulled away again.
“This is... so weird,” Tony breathed, wide-eyed. “Good weird – very good, in fact – but -”
“Let's talk about it later,” Steve pleaded, sliding what he hoped was a reassuring hand up the genius' arm. “Let's go kick Killian's ass first.”
Tony had managed to get his shit together and break out of the Mandarin's compound, meeting up with Rhodey on the way, and had figured out the last pieces of the puzzle – the puppet president, everything – before flying out to the docks to get Steve back.
Thank God, the blond seemed okay. More than okay, if he could manage to kiss Tony's breath away like that.
He wasn't happy with Steve fighting, though, because – despite what the other man had said – his movements were stiff and painful even to watch, so he couldn't imagine how he was actually feeling. Tony was going to slaughterKillian for hurting him.
They worked their way along the gangways together – kicking ass and taking the Extremis soldiers down quickly and effectively, thanks to the additional suits (and Tony knew he would need them eventually).
“Tony? I got the president. I'm getting him out of here,” came Rhodey's voice in his ear.
“Okay, good, and I got Steve,” he replied, flashing the soldier a grin as he knocked yet another goon unconscious.
“Dude, I saw you guys making out from halfway across the dock. You have got to stop it with the whole 'in public' thing.”
“You're just jealous it's me and not you.”
“Yeah, totally,” was the sarcastic reply. “I'll talk to you later, man.”
“Love you, too, Rhodey-poo.”
Still grinning to himself, he ducked back into the fight and wrestled with another glowing soldier who had been gunning for Steve while the blond was busy with someone else. He bobbed downwards as a punch came flying his way, then – laughing to himself – dived backwards off the edge of the platform and landed squarely in one of the passing suits, before jetting back up and knocking the soldier straight off her feet and over the edge, herself.
He whipped around at the sound of his name, and immediately spotted Killian stood at the top of some stairs leading to the next level of gangways. With a howl of rage, he threw himself forwards and went running for the bastard, but, before he could get there, Killian yelled out, “Kill him, boys.”
But he wasn't looking at Tony. Suddenly terrified, he span on the spot, just quick enough to see one of the soldiers pull out a blade and plunge it into Steve's stomach. The blond grunted, eyes wide in shock and agony, as blood began to seep down his still bare abdomen.
“Steve!” Tony screamed, but it was too late – he couldn't get to him – because Killian had thrown himself down the stairs and tackled him from behind. As he went down, the last thing he saw before his HUD short-circuited was Steve being thrown bodily over the railings by five soldiers, and hurtling to the ground below.
“No!” he cried out, struggling desperately against Killian's grip. “JARVIS, eject!”
He immediately shot out of the suit and skidded along the gangway – knocking the startled soldiers off their feet and straight over the railings, too – and came to a stop around a hundred feet away.
“It's a pity,” Killian drawled as the forced himself to his feet, even though, by this point, he wanted to just lie down and take whatever was coming to him. “I would have saved him.”
Anger boiled in Tony's gut so quickly that it left him feeling a little dizzy, and, suddenly, all he wanted to do was destroyKillian in the most brutal, vengeful way possible. Heart aching horribly in his chest, he screamed aloud in frustration, before, sprinting forwards, he threw himself at the other man and they went toppling backwards onto the metal floor.
“You,” Tony punched him in the face, “fucking,” he did it again, and again, “murderer!”
Inexplicably, Killian grew insanely hot underneath him, and then his skin began to glow again. “You thought you killed the Mandarin,” he growled, throwing Tony off him and bouncing to his feet. “I am the Mandarin, Tony!”
“Oh yeah?” he yelled, then threw his hands forwards and watched as the suit built itself up around Killian's body. “JARVIS? Blow Mark 42.”
“No!” the other man screamed, but Tony just turned on his heel and ran as, with a metallic click, the suit exploded and made the whole platform give way. He jumped, timing it just right, and slid down one of the platforms as it gave way like the others, and then jumped and rolled as he hit the floor.
For a moment, he allowed himself to just sit and catch his breath, as the true weight of his horror and heartbreak slowly settled in around him. He should have saved Steve – should have been fast enough to dive after him and catch him in the suit – and he should have told him, before it was too late, just how much he meant to him -
His head immediately snapped up, despite knowing his mind must be playing tricks on him, because there was no way Steve could have survived that fall, serum or not -
“T-Tony, over here.”
There his voice went again, so Tony sprang to his feet and was immediately running, despite his own injuries, and – sure enough – Steve was waving weakly, half covered by a large chunk of debris. Tony could tell immediately, as he neared the fallen soldier, that he was in a bad way – his face was covered in blood, and his chest was still bare, for God's sake – but, as he threw himself down beside him, the blond's smile was still the most breathtaking thing Tony had ever seen.
“Hey, Cap,” he whispered, kneeling by the other man's head. “Boy, am I glad to see you -”
“I love you,” Steve mumbled, eyes fluttering closed for a second, before reopening with tears in them, and Tony felt himself still.
“No, no, shhh, honey, save your strength -”
“I love you,” Steve murmured again, smiling still. “I love you, Tony, so much. I couldn't bearit, thinking you were dead, and then you weren't, and I promised myself that I would tell you – tell you I love you, because I do, Tony, I love you so much.”
“I – I love you, too,” Tony choked, bottom lip trembling. “Can – can you move, Steve? Can you help me lift this rock?”
“No,” Steve shook his head, seeming quite content. “Lost a lot of blood. Think I broke a couple bones falling, too.”
“It's a goddamn miracle you're alive at all, you big moron,” he snuffled, rubbing the back of his hands over his eyes to clear the tears.
“Hey, Tony?” Steve asked.
“Kiss me again?”
Tony chuckled despite himself, before leaning in. “Gladly.”
He had always hated hospitals. They seemed, to him, to be a place of death, rather than a place of healing, and gave him a sense of foreboding that he had never quite been able to shake.
But he had promised that he would be here for Tony's surgery, and Steve was going to stick to his promise.
The few weeks since their battle with Killian had been... stressful, to say the least. Steve had been in the hospital for a week with a shattered ribcage and numerous bruised (though, thankfully, not pierced) organs, so the start of his and Tony's relationship hadn't exactly been the best. He was healing nicely, though, and had had his knees taken care of, like he vowed he would, and now it was turn to return the favour for Tony, because the man hadn't left his side once.
The surgery itself had been a success, and the reactor had been removed without a problem, so now they were just waiting for the brunet to wake up and he should make a full recovery. It was about three hours, however, after they brought him out of surgery and into a private room before Tony showed any signs of waking up, but – once he did – it only took a few moments for him to come awake completely.
“Hey, hey, you're okay,” Steve murmured, scooting further forwards in his seat as Tony's confused, groggy eyes landed on him. “You had surgery, remember?”
“You're Steve,” the genius slurred, obviously not completely aware yet, thanks to the pain medication he had already been started on.
“Yes,” Steve smiled, because Tony was adorable like this, “I'm Steve.”
He looked into the face of his lover, his best friend, and – past the haziness of lingering confusion and the drugs – there was a genuine vulnerability set into Tony's eyes that he just couldn't stand.
“Yes,” he nodded, leaning in to press a gentle kiss to chapped lips. “Always.”