It was a little thing, barely noticeable at all. During a battle with a Hammer drones, there had been a radio silence of just under five minutes between Steve and the rest of the team. It was only in retrospect that it became clear that those five missing minutes would be the most crucial five minutes in any of their lives.
Later, Bruce would say, pushing back his hair with one weary hand, "Completely irreversible. Even erasing his memories wouldn't erase the… tendencies. Perhaps the best we can do at this point is--" But Tony wouldn't, couldn't accept that, even after the first, second, twelfth, seventeenth innocent that Steve had killed because he was bored. Because it was fun, because he had a headache, because they were in the way.
In five minutes, life as they knew it ended, and a new one started.
("Death is easy," Steve crooned. "I swear, you'll like it once you try it. Tony. Oh Tony, you shouldn't doubt me. After all, I am Uncle Sam. You called me that once, didn't you? I am Uncle Sam, Uncle Sam I am. Try my green eggs and ham." And he laughed, like a child, and despite his fear of the hand gripping his throat, Tony wanted to smile back.)
Death numero uno: Hallie.
Did the first death matter, considering how many would follow, and how little it truly meant to Steve? It hadn't taken more than one for the team to realize, though, exactly what was going on.
A Skrull had gone, gun a-blazing, into a mall. SHIELD had tried to evacuate, but they hadn't gotten everyone. The Skrull had pulled a little blonde girl (Hallie Darlow) in front of him, right out of her mother's arms. She couldn't have been more than six or seven. "Keep back, or I'll kill her!" he shouted.
Tony could see the expression on Steve's face, the mild annoyance in the twist of his mouth. Hawkeye was already moving into position; the Skrull had left himself wide-open on one side.
"You're going to make me late for dinner. I can't afford to go around missing dates all the time," Steve scolded, and before anyone had time to react, he threw the shield, hard. It sliced clean through her neck, and the Skrull's, before anyone knew what was happening.
Her mother screamed.
Steve did not make his date that night, but Tony didn't begrudge him that, really. He was too busy throwing up in a bathroom in SHIELD.
It took precisely three hours for Steve to escape. (Deaths two and three happened in the halls of SHIELD, Agents O'Grady and Vries.) Over the next two weeks, he left a string of bodies across the cities, but after the seventeenth, Tony stopped caring. After the seventeenth dead body, Steve came back for him, braving the other Avengers, the SHIELD guards, JARVIS, and the entire security system to reach Tony, asleep on the couch in his workshop.
It was the sweetest thing anyone had ever done for Tony.
Tony had woken with a start to a hand around his neck ("Death is easy," Steve had crooned then), but quickly fell into unconsciousness again. When he woke up again, they were alone in what looked like a warehouse. Tony was tied to an armchair and Steve was straddling him, a smear of blood on his cheek and his eyes bright.
"Are you comfortable?" he said, voice soft as he stroked Tony's cheek. "That's why I chose the armchair. I didn't want you to be uncomfortable, or bring up any bad memories."
"Just create new ones?" Tony asked, hating the flash of hurt in Steve's eyes.
Ever the noble serial killer, Steve said, "No! I would never involve you if I thought you would be hurt at the end of it!" He sighed, leaning his forehead heavily against Tony's. "No. I…." He was so warm, almost hot against Tony, like he was burning up under his skin. It wasn't the drug that had turned Steve into… this, this warm presence. It was just how he was, and it was familiar. Steve cupped the back of his neck, fingers curling in Tony's hair, and pressed his mouth wetly to Tony's. His hands were so big they felt like they were enveloping Tony. They hadn't even kissed, before. Steve had killed a little girl instead of them having their first real date. "I like you so much more when you're alive than when you're bloody," Steve explained. "Moving. Inventing. Scolding your robots and ignoring the world. You would be damn handsome with blood on you, but only if it wasn't your blood."
Tony hated that it made sense.
"Steve, why am I here? Way I see it, there are only so many ways this can go."
Steve laughed, kissing Tony's cheekbone. "I originally planned to make you just like me. But then I saw. From the Mandarin, when I was in your lab. Or from Maya Hansen, I suppose. It was a foolish risk, Tony," he said, sternly, "but I will forgive you. Extremis will bring us together."
"Extremis could kill me, Steve!" Tony tried to say, but Steve was already smothering the words with his lips, feeling so warm when Tony had felt so cold for the past weeks.
"Not with the adjustments you made. I only need to make a few more, so that we can be together." Steve smiled shyly. "I'm no good with computers, obviously, but JARVIS has been helping."
Smiling, Steve said, "You never revoked my access, Tony. I thought--" He hesitated, looking suddenly dubious and flushed. "I thought it meant you wanted us to be together. If you didn't, I will let you go. Just tell me.
And some part of Tony… had wanted that. As long as Steve wanted him, he was there. He had to be there. Having no conscience, no morals, no superego telling him what was right and wrong-- it would all be worth it, if he had Steve.
So he stayed silent, and Steve held him as he injected him with Extremis, and everything was fire.
When he regained consciousness, he saw everything through computer screens. Everything as if it was grayed, except Steve, as if Steve was the only bright thing in his new world.
Steve had put Tony in a bed at some point and was sitting in a chair, his legs crossed under him, sketching. When Tony spoke, he threw everything down and strode over. "Did everything go okay? Are you all right? There was convulsing. You were definitely convulsing."
"Everything's… fine," Tony said. It was weird, the numbers slotting into place, but not much worse than being surrounded by his holographic displays and JARVIS. The blood was still on Steve's face, such a sharp contrast to the blue of his eyes, and Tony reached up, rubbing his thumb against it.
What would it taste like, he wondered. He had tasted his own blood, animal blood in steaks, but never anyone else's. After a moment, he popped his thumb in his mouth, testing. Extremis ticked on, still not fully online as it identified the blood as A Positive. Presumably, one of the upgrades to the cells in his tongue enabled that.
It tasted like green tea, but a little metallic. Tony was fairly certain that blood wasn't supposed to really be palatable, though it was probably another of Extremis' interferences. He would need a wider sample to be sure, and his own blood would still probably be distasteful, for simple self-preservation reasons. Steve's would probably taste amazing.
Steve, once Tony dragged his eyes back to meet his, was looking at him, pupils blown wide and eyes dark. His fingernails were biting into his palms. Tony reached over, coaxed his hand open. "It doesn't hurt anymore," he said, staring up at Steve. "You're not going to break me if you touch me, soldier."
It doesn't take more than a second for Steve to be on him, and oh hey, that's what making out with a supersoldier is like.
The best part is that Extremis had helpfully made his bite stronger than before, and when he bit down on Steve's neck, he tasted blood: apple pie. God damn.
They dropped off the radar after that. They left town, headed to the various and multitude properties that Tony had funneled through various names not his own. Though they spent most of their time in bed, or with Tony in one of his workshops as Steve drew, but sometimes, they got an itch, or Steve did and proceeded to try to hide it, not ashamed so much as trying not to wreck the peace. Tony doesn't mind the blood, the death, the killing, but he doesn't want it, doesn't need it, the way Steve does.
He was curious, though. Steve just wanted to kill them. It was all he needed. But Tony wanted to see how they worked, how they ticked, the splay of their intestines over the floor and how many times he could wrap it around the room before he got tired or decided he wanted Steve. And of course, their blood. The blood splatters on the walls were glorious, some of his favorite of Steve's work, he said. Steve just laughed, and mixed a little blood in with his paints. Not enough to ruin them, but just enough so that they had a secret between them.
Still, though, Steve was hesitant in a way that didn't make sense. He had made it so that Tony didn't care, and Tony let him, so why would he think it hadn't worked?
It bothered Tony sometimes, staring at Steve's body sprawled out over the bed, the angry twitch beneath his eyelids and the shudder of his muscles a sign of what he needed. Steve needed something more than Tony. That was all right. Other people needed clothes, and water, and food, and to take a shit. Steve needed to kill. It didn't necessarily have to be little girls named Hallie. He just didn't care anymore if it was.
Tony wasn't like that, which was probably a good thing, since it was what made it so they could slip under the radar. Steve, Tony decided, needed playmates.
Good thing Tony had chosen some after Loki's little invasion, wasn't it?
When Tony brought the idea up to Steve, it was like Christmas had come early. And not shitty Stark Christmas, which was full of starched suits and people who touched him too much and tried to hand him things, or shitty 1930s Brooklyn Christmas, which had apparently been poor and sad and Tony was going to make next Christmas better for Steve damn it. No, this was the real deal. Big tree, tons of presents, all just waiting to be unwrapped.
"You are the best boyfriend ever," Steve said, only flushing a little at calling Tony his boyfriend.
"I really am," Tony said, and set Extremis to plotting their best course of action.
It had been surprisingly easy to kidnap Clint. Clint had an apartment in Bed-Stuy when he wasn't actively on duty, and half the time he left the door open so that anyone who wanted could waltz right in.
"How many times have I told you that you need to keep that door locked?" Steve said later, when Clint woke up, tied to a chair in Tony's condo in D.C. "Anyone could walk in there. You could be robbed, and I might not know much about entertainment systems, but your television is gigantic."
Obviously still dazed, Clint slurred, "C'mon, Cap. What kind of supervillain would give a shit about me? I'm the baseline normal of the group, not a superhero."
"Supervillains aren't the only robbers. And you're a superhero," Steve insisted.
Clint's eyes gradually sharpened. "But you haven't been a superhero lately, have you, Captain?"
Steve shrugged uncomfortably. "I've been taking a vacation. Fury has other groups taking care of things, I heard. Besides--" His voice grew distant and he licked his lips. Tony thought he saw Clint shudder; he knew that he did. Steve was beautiful like this. "--killing is fun. It's easy to do, but hard to master, so you have to keep practicing. You can't kill anyone if you're going to be an Avenger."
(In a few months, he would be laughing at his own dubiousness, because this was fun. Killing was fun in a way that he had never gotten to have, because what the one truth of the normal world had been was that Clint Barton couldn't have nice things. They would break and burn, and he would have to keep going as everything died around him. But killing was fun, and it would always be fun, and no one could take that away.)
Tony cuffed him on the back of his head, ignoring his betrayed look. "Don't give me those eyes, and don't snark when Steve's going all dark and smoldery. No one wants to miss seeing that."
"Have you killed anyone lately, Stark?"
Tony shrugged. "Lately? A couple people, just to see. I've killed a bunch from the suit-- terrorists, mostly, though I didn't particularly care about the security guards when I was after the Mandarin. But no one by hand. Not my thing, but I like it when Steve's bloody." He knew his voice dropped an octave when he mentioned blood, and Steve obviously knew as well.
"We only managed to get one more vial of the drug Hammer's men tested on me, since apparently SHIELD flushed the rest," Steve said seriously. "Tony analyzed it and copied the specs, but he doesn't think he can replicate it."
"Engineer, not biologist," Tony chimed in, holding up his hands. Clint snorted.
"We want to reunite the Avengers, and I think the only one who we can't logic into this is you."
"And Thor, probably, but we haven't even seen Thor since the battle, so who gives a shit. He's fun, but he's like a bad date. He never calls, never writes, and sometimes leaves for years on end without a word." Tony laughed. "It would be funny, except that's exactly what he did to Dr. Foster."
"So you want me to join your little psychopathic family."
Steve nodded, eyes intent on Clint's face.
"Ignoring the fact that I left more than one psychopathic family before I even got recruited by SHIELD. The original family, various foster families, Carson's."
"We figure they weren't right for you." Tony shrugged. "We are. They didn't want you. We do. Hell, I'll be honest. Bruce is my science bro, but you call me up for tech support, and stick darts in my walls, and ride the Hulk into battle-- who does that?-- and sometimes I would come downstairs and find you crashed on my couch even though I hadn't seen you in a week. I want the others too, but I don't think this will work if you don't say yes, Clint."
"So please say yes," Steve said, and put his hand on Clint's shoulder. (Don't let me down, son.) "The family that kills together stays together."
Clint swallowed, hard. "Where do I sign up?"
Steve was almost too quick in how he killed. He didn't really care who it was, he just needed to kill someone. He had rare occasions where he went all out, but that was usually a private show for Tony's benefit. Clint was the opposite. He would carefully choose a target, watching them for days. And then he would seduce them, and when he got them alone, vulnerable and shy, he would tear them apart. Tony watched how he would lean in close, as if to kiss the girl, right before he ripped her open from her pelvis to her throat. With his bow, he was clean, never in the action, never touched. But now, he would come home, covered in blood and deposit the body before Tony to study like a proud cat. He was lethal grace just barely leashed. He always had been, but now the leash was longer and the collar looser, and Tony liked it.
Steve liked it, too. Clint was happy, bounding around room of wherever they were staying, almost always with some stray speck of blood on him. He was quiet in a different way that he had been before. Before, he had been withdrawn when he was silent, obviously guarding some pain that they couldn't see. Now, it was just peaceful, like he had finally been released from whatever had hurt him before.
When that hurt did show, Steve had taken to pulling Clint down in front of him, the smaller man resting easily against his chest. When Tony would finally wander in, he would find the place waiting for him to walk forward and lean his head down right between Clint's shoulder blades.
There had been people in Clint's life that didn't want him, had rejected him, had said that he wasn't good enough. They were wrong. Steve and Tony wanted him, and he was more than good enough. He was perfect.
Whether graceful and pristine behind his bow or covered in blood from a thirty-year-old woman who had found him a little too tempting, he was perfect.
It was almost inevitable, the feeling of his mouth under Tony's, under Steve's. The moans that rose up in the back of his throat, keening like a hungry hawk, the scrabble of his hands on their backs. It was surprising, though, but perhaps not as much as it should have been. It was more comfort than anything else, though. Clint was family, but was not, quite, for them.
Even less surprising than their closeness was walking in one day to find Natasha sitting there, her long legs crossed and a duffel bag at her feet. Because of course Natasha would come eventually.
"I'm not here to harm you," she said, uncrossing her legs in a way that made all three men gulp. "We have searched up and down for an antidote to the drug and there isn't any way to recover from this anymore than Bruce can recover from the Hulk. Your cells are changed on a fundamental level. We could fix Stark, but why bother. He isn't going on any killing sprees." She stood.
"So then why are you here, Tasha?" Clint asked. Tony reached for him and Clint grasped his hand, hard.
Natasha sighed, her eyes clear. She wasn't lying. When she was straight lying, Tony could tell. Whether she was conning them or not, though, had yet to be discerned.
"I want in. The family that kills together stays together."
"That's what I said!" Steve yelled, then flushed.
Tony chuckled, leaning his head against Steve's shoulder, still holding Clint's hand. "Dork." Clint went over to hug her, and she didn't knife him, so they're probably good to go. "Welcome to insanity, Natasha."
She smiled thinly. "I've long been a resident."
That was that. Natasha's morality had been dubious to begin with, and now she just went pale and quiet at witnessing their insanity, not exactly happy but seeing it as a necessary evil to keep her team together. They kept it away from her, for the most part. Unlike the other three, Natasha had the ability to regret, to doubt, to wonder if what she was doing was wrong.
She still reported back to Coulson. She did it openly, and no one was surprised. Tony directed Steve and Clint to the grayer areas of murder (mob bosses, mimes), and Natasha kept Tony from deviating. It worked well.
Natasha didn't radiate pain. She wasn't a broken doll; she wasn't a shell of a woman in any means. Calling her any of those things might have made it easier to handle what she was, which was competent, private, and naturally withdrawn. Thinking her broken might be easier, but the truth of it was that Natasha was power. Tony had seen it ever since she had stuck a needle in his throat, and that power was what brought them back to themselves when they were spiraling out of control.
She and Clint were always in each other's space, the way they had been ever since Tony had first seen them together. Her legs over his on the couch, his head on her shoulder. She was beginning to be comfortable with Steve and Tony as well. Tony watched her private smiles grow more frequent, her bubble of personal space grow smaller, and deemed life good.
"Bruce will never be what we are," Tony said flatly when Steve brought it up.
Natasha nodded in agreement, hands folded pensively in front of her. When Steve moved to speak again, she held up a hand. "Bruce will never agree. Like me, the line is too thin for him to cross it at will. He has to be even stricter than I am. I have no compunction about killing if necessary, but Bruce could never consciously cross that line for whatever reason."
"What about unconsciously?" Steve asked. He seemed to regret it the moment he said it. All three of them stared at him, but it was Clint who said it.
"We aren't making the Hulk kill and using it against Bruce."
Steve nodded. They sat in their living room in silence, faces grave.
"What does SHIELD think? Do they have opinions? No, I know they have opinions. What are their thoughts. No, they don't have thoughts, do they? It's more of a militaristic hive mind--"
"--Tony," Steve cut in gently, and Tony stopped to allow for Natasha's reply.
She gave them a long, slow look from underneath red eyelashes before beginning, each word carefully weighed against the loyalties she had given. "SHIELD is divided. Fury's faction and supporters, which include Agent Sitwell and Coulson, can see the benefits to your situation provided it doesn't go too far out of control, which was why I was allowed here. Agents Hill and Woo, who have the backing of the World Security Council, would like to kill us all. They were allowed to believe I betrayed SHIELD, and like you, I'm to be killed on sight, since capture has proven impossible. Coulson said recently that Banner is making noises about fleeing the country. He hardly has any reason to stay anymore. The World Security Council won't allow that, though, and have threatened him with imprisonment."
They were quiet again. Tony felt an ache in the middle of his chest, right where the arc reactor sat, and rubbed it absently. He missed Bruce, missed the steady flow of conversation and stimulation, just as much as he missed Pepper and Rhodey. He wondered what they had been told, because Pepper would never have taken silence as a decent answer. Steve grabbed his hand to make him stop, and gradually he quieted, setting Extremis to hacking SHIELD and chatting with JARVIS as he went.
"We can't make him choose us," Clint said finally, staring at the ceiling as he absently traced his fingers along Natasha's thigh. "But we could try to give him what every person in his kind of situation wants."
"Who's in his kind of situation?" Tony asked, snorting.
But Steve was nodding.
"Control," Natasha said. "It's what he's been trying for all along. You were working on it with him before. We should give him control, and let him make his choice."
"I am an expert in gamma radiation now." Tony put hacking SHIELD on the back-burner and pulled up the files he had on the Hulk. "I'll see what I can do."
Weeks later, Bruce's eyes went green and so did his veins, but his skin didn't. He looked at himself in awe, then at them, and gasped like he couldn't catch his breath. Tony went to touch him and Bruce flinched back momentarily before allowing it, letting Tony hold him up as he shook.
"Still a giant greenish rage monster," Tony warned.
Bruce shook his head, smiling briefly before it faded. His gaze went to Steve. "You killed a little girl. Agents. Innocent people."
Steve hung his head. "I'm trying to be better."
Bruce's gaze turned inward. "So am I." He smiled that sheepish smile, pushed up his glasses, and maybe he wouldn't join them then, but that certainly wasn't a no.
SHIELD was still a problem. Natasha and Clint skirted around the issue of how much they missed Coulson like it was a landmine, and Thor had yet to come back from Asgard and realize what happened in his absence. But they were a family, if blood-stained, and they were happier for choosing to kill together rather than die apart.