Unsurprisingly, it had started with Tony mouthing off.
"Is that really the best you can do?" Tony's ability to make even the armor's emotionless voice seem obnoxious and mocking had to be his one true super power, because the witch's left eye was twitching slightly as she glared at him from her position on the ground.
The 'best she could do' was actually quite impressive, judging by the general disarray of the scene. Several cars were overturned, and the water gushing from the hydrant burst in the crossfire was already beginning to flood the street. A good sized hole was left in one of the buildings after Hulk had been thrown through the wall--and a matching hole had been created when he'd returned to the fray. The last of the flames were starting to lick out, though, when the Avengers finally knocked her off her broom and down to the pavement. Things had been a lot more even-sided after that.
The witch sat up slowly, and adjusted her black-brimmed hat to peer closely at Tony. She looked like something out of a children's book, all wizened and craggy, white hair poking out from under her hat like straw. "No," she said, her voice even and deliberate. "I can do so much more."
Something happened then, something too loud to hear and too bright to see, and when the spots had cleared from their eyes, the witch was gone.
Steve swallowed hard, willingly his ears to stop ringing. "Is everyone all right?" he asked, surveying the damage. As far as he could tell, that last spell hadn't done any damage.
"You mean other than the fact that my eyes feel like they're gonna fall out of their sockets? Fine," Peter answered, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes, "Seriously, do all supervillains need to be this dramatic?"
Jan shrank back down to a normal size. "Of course she was dramatic, Spider-Man. She was a witch out a week before Halloween. And that icky black dress--ugh! Could you be any more of a stereotype? And I'm fine, Cap," she added before Steve could ask.
"I am well," Ororo said, touching down to stand next to Steve. "Hulk, are you all right?"
"Hulk's ears hurt!"
"Yeah, yours and mine both, buddy." Tony shifted his muscles awkwardly. Something felt off about his armor. "I'm fine, but I think something's--" He popped off one of the gauntlets and a piece of paper fluttered to the ground. "Yeah, something got caught in my armor when she flew the coop."
"What is it?" Steve asked, striding over to peer over Tony's shoulder as he bent to pick it up.
Tony frowned. "That's weird. It looks like a page from a children's book or something."
Jan and Peter crowded close as he examined the page, reading over his shoulder.
"At the first prick of her finger, she fell into a deep, deep sleep," Jan read. Her brow began to furrow.
"And the whole kingdom knew that naught but true love's kiss would wake her," Peter finished. "Wow."
Wolverine snickered from where he was leaning against one of the few intact walls. "And does that make you Sleeping Beauty now, Iron Man?"
"No," Tony said, pointedly crumpling up the page and stuffing it into a spare compartment in his armor. "In case you haven't noticed, we don't exactly keep a lot of spinning wheels around the Tower."
"Notice that he didn't protest the princess part," Peter pointed out in a stage whisper to Jan.
"Oh, he doesn't have to," Jan whispered back. "We all know that Iron Man's a pretty, pretty princess. It came from being born into all that money."
"Ha ha, very funny. I seem to remember you being born with a solid gold spoon in your mouth, too, Giant-Girl," Tony replied dryly.
Jan straightened up to her full non-powered height. "Are you saying I'm not a princess, Iron Man?" she asked, a dangerous tinge to her voice.
Tony put up his hands in surrender. "Never." Superhero or not, some things were just dangerous.
Later that evening, after dinner was long finished and most sane people had gone to bed, Tony Stark was settling into his lab. A few emails had to be sent off, but then he had as much time as he wanted to fool around with his armor and check it over for damage.
As he set out the first piece of armor, something caught his eye. It was the page, poking out from the compartment he'd sealed it neatly inside, waving slightly in the air conditioning as if for attention. Tony paused in what he was doing and pulled the paper from the armor, smoothing it out on the worktable to take another look. "Huh. Sleeping Beauty."
It really couldn't be anything else. Even without the inscription, there was an illustration to go with it, a finely detailed drawing of a beautiful woman fast asleep in a bed. He ran his fingers over the drawing. It was ridiculous, he knew, but somehow the woman looked...sad? Idly, he wondered how long she'd been waiting for her 'true love' to come find her. Probably a good long time, considering how rare true love seemed to be nowadays. He was sure he had never known it, at least.
Tony pushed the page aside and reached behind himself to grab a screwdriver. No, he'd never put much stock into fairy tale romances. He'd had far too many bad relationships and worse break ups to believe in that kind of thing anymore. Besides, the person to which his eyes kept returning was hardly going to offer him a fairy tale ending.
He frowned slightly as he flipped up a piece of shielding to expose a bit of broken wiring. He knew he'd felt something snap in there when that witch had hit him with the first car. He poked at it half-heartedly with the screwdriver as he remembered it. Not one of his finer moments. Sure, the way that Steve had called his name had been a little gratifying, but not enough to make up for the embarrassment that came when Hulk lifted the car off him like a tonka truck and hurled it at the witch. Steve, of course, had been the perfect hero. He'd led his team bravely into battle, and was the one who'd finally managed to knock her off her broom. (And a broom? How cliche was that?) His mind wandered a little as he thought back to how the leather had stretched over Steve's--"Ow!"
Tony cursed and pulled his finger from inside the armor. "Way to get distracted while surrounded by dangerous weaponry, Stark," he muttered to himself, sticking his finger in his mouth and scowling at the taste of blood.
He turned his attention back to the armor and was about to dig back in with a mind clear of any inappropriate crushes when he became abruptly aware that the world was at an angle he distinctly remembered being...not right. In fact, his mind felt kind of...not right, too. He blinked heavy eyelids, wondering when he started getting tired this early on a Saturday night. Then suddenly, it clicked. He blinked down at his steadily bleeding finger blearily and said something filthy. "I hate--"
When Tony didn't show up for breakfast, no one was particularly surprised. It was actually more unusual for Tony to wake up in the morning like a normal human being and consume anything other than a liquid diet. When Tony still hadn't shown up for dinner, though, Steve started to worry. It wasn't exactly unusual for Tony to skip three straight meals, but that didn't make it healthy.
After everyone else had finished their pizza, Steve threw a couple pieces on a plate and went down to knock on the door to the lab. There was no answer, which was a bit odd unless Tony had fallen asleep on the worktable again. Steve wished that was an unlikely scenario.
Shifting his weight so that he could hold the plate more securely, Steve punched in the security code and wandered into the lab. Sure enough, there was Tony, fast asleep on the table.
Steve huffed an affectionate sigh and put the pizza down on the table. He was probably never going to convince Tony that tables were not actually beds, but Steve had always been the optimistic sort.
"Tony," he called softly, going to shake his shoulder softly. When the other man didn't move, the corner of his mouth started to dip down into a worried frown. "Tony?"
All that met him was silence. Steve eased around the table so he could look at Tony's face. Some of his apprehension slipped away as he got a good look. Tony was breathing--that was a good first step. And he looked utterly relaxed, eyelids unmoving. He wasn't even dreaming. That was another good step. Steve had never gotten the impression that Tony's dreams were all that restful.
Steve just watched Tony sleep for a moment, lulled by Tony's even breaths. Still, though. As content as Tony appeared to be asleep, that didn't prevent him from needing to eat.
Steve was reaching down to grab at Tony's wrist when he noticed that Tony's hand was resting on the drawing from earlier. Moreover, there appeared to be a spot or two of blood on it, almost as if Tony had...
"Oh," Steve said, and reached for the communicator.
Wolverine looked like Christmas had come early. "So let me get this straight. Stark came home, went to the lab--"
"Yes," Steve answered rubbing at a temple tiredly.
"Then pricked his finger--"
"And then swooned?"
"Ye--well, I don't know about that, Logan. I wasn't there." Steve frowned. Perhaps he should have been. At the very least, he should have made sure that Tony had seen a doctor before he let him go play in his lab. In fact, the whole team probably should have been examined. Now, though, now it was too late. The doctors had looked Tony over up and down in the medical lab, but nothing seemed to be wrong--other than the dreamless sleep that they couldn't wake him up from.
"Oh wow." Steve looked up to see Janet and Peter come in to join the rest of the Avengers in Tony's room. "Tony really is a princess," Janet finished, looking awed.
Tony did look a bit...regal, Steve had to admit. He was laid out on his absurdly big bed, hands folded neatly over his chest and long lashes still on his cheeks. Steve strongly suspected that the spell had affected those eyelashes somehow. The whole thing was just far too picturesque, and those eyelashes, full and luxurious, were absolutely the last straw. It was something right out of a storybook, and it made Steve vaguely uneasy.
On the other side of Tony's bed, Storm looked pensive. "I believe our best option at this point may be seeking out the witch that performed this spell. Surely yesterday's display of force was not her last attempt at chaos," she said slowly, as if turning the idea over in her mind.
Peter snorted. "It never is just once, is it? It's like potato chips. You try your hand at unfathomable evil just once, and you're addicted." The other Avengers turned to look at him and he shrugged. "What? It's true."
"Spider-Man may have a point," Steve conceded, "But what do we do in the meantime? We can't just leave Tony here and wait. What if this sleep is affecting his body somehow? We would never even know."
Storm's face softened as she took in the tense lines of Steve's shoulders and the furrow in his brow. "Captain, we are doing all we can. Both Dr. Banner and Dr. Pym are working with the medical bay doctors just in case anything abnormal shows up in the scans they took, and we have made Iron Man as comfortable as he possibly can be," she said.
Steve opened his mouth to argue that point, but then he noticed the worry beginning to cloud her face. Storm liked this helplessness no more than he did, he realized, and he would be a poor leader indeed if he took out his frustrations on his co-captain. Instead, he set his lips in a grim line. "All right. In that case, I believe some patrols are in order. We can't let this witch get the jump on us again," he announced, walking to the door. He purposefully didn't look back to see Tony's too-still form. He may have needed to leave behind a fallen comrade, but he didn't need to like it.
It took surprisingly little time to find the witch. As it turned out, old crones on flying brooms didn't tend to blend in, even in New York. They found her floating high overhead, scribbling arcane symbols on the back of a brownstone.
"You know that vandalism's a crime, right?" Spider-Man asked, webbing up the building to get a closer look. "I mean, sure, it's just chalk, but in a nice neighborhood like this? Folks are sure to get angry." He paused as he took in the drawings. "Wow, this stuff is really ugly. Maybe you should practice a little before you start defacing half of New York."
The witch screeched in surprise and skidded back a few feet on her broom. The look in her eyes when she saw the rest of the Avengers was pure venomous shock, but after a moment her expression turned smug. "Only five? What on earth could have happened to the rest of your party? Especially that rude one, the metal monstrosity that you keep around?" she cackled, eyes full of malicious glee.
Steve gripped the shield a bit more tightly than the situation warranted. With forced calm, he shouted back, "You know very well what happened to Iron Man, witch! Tell us what you've done!"
"Oh, I thought I was quite clear," she replied. The broom began to bob back and forth as if she were dancing. "'At the first prick of her finger, she fell into a deep, deep sleep'... Surely a group as intelligent as your own knows this story?"
Steve frowned. It couldn't be--she wasn't saying...
"You seriously turned Iron Man into Sleeping Beauty?" Giant-Girl gaped at her until her expression became fierce, and she made a grab for the witch's broom. "You turn him back right now!" she demanded.
The witch merely cackled, easily swinging back out of Jan's reach. "It isn't me that you need to turn him back. You need that tinheaded idiot's true love, if he even has one," she said coldly.
At this, Hulk stamped his feet angrily on the sidewalk, not noticing when the sidewalk began to splinter under the onslaught. "People love Iron Man! Hulk love Iron Man! Iron Man is Hulk's friend!"
"Yikes!" Peter jumped aside as a tree very narrowly missed squashing him like...well, like a bug. "Not that kind of love, buddy. She's talking about the kissy kind."
"But I bet Iron Man has a lot of 'loves' like that, too," Wolverine snickered.
"Kissy? Eww, Hulk does not want to kiss Tin Man." Thankfully, Hulk seemed to have been confused enough by this mental image to stop jumping. The county commissioner would be pleased about that later.
"Someone needs to, and in a hurry, too," the witch interjected, looking wholly pleased by the conversation.
The planning portion of Steve's mind was working feverishly Someone? But who? Who on earth could be Tony Stark's true love? Moreover, how would the Avengers even be able to find her when--"Wait! In--in a hurry? What do you mean?" he asked, his frantic thoughts stuttering to a stop.
The witch smiled like the cat who'd gotten the cream. On her old, haggard face, it was a very worrying look indeed. "Not all of us have a hundred years to sit and wait around for a prince, Captain. For my purposes, a week is much better. You have just one week before the curse fully takes its hold."
The confused outcry this announcement brought was almost enough to bring the sky down, but Steve somehow managed to be heard above it all. "Wait!" he shouted again, willing the others to quiet down. "So we have one week to find this kiss, or else--?"
"Or else the curse will be complete. Your friend will never wake up again," she finished, eyes sparkling with triumph.
Steve's stomach dropped like lead. The Avengers all shouted as one, but he couldn't bring himself to quiet them, not even when Hulk started swinging his tree around again. He opened his mouth once to call out to her once again, but nothing came out.
The witch surveyed the chaos with satisfaction. "And that," she hummed, "Is what this old witch can do." With that, there was a loud crack like the sound of a branch breaking, and she was gone.
The Avengers looked at each other morosely until Spider-Man finally broke the silence. "At least we can still see this time."
An hour later, the Avengers found themselves sitting around the meeting table, a small black book sitting in the center of it.
Wolverine reclined back in his chair and looked at the book with some amusement. "So what's that, Stark's diary? Did you find any entries in there about his 'true love'? 'Dear diary, roses are red, violets are blue, who knows about love, but I sure like to--'"
Cap cleared his throat pointedly and gestured to the book on the table. "Actually, Logan, this is Tony's address book. Jan found it in his room and we were thinking that it might be a good place to start."
"That's not a bad idea. I mean, how many prospective true loves can Tony really have?" Peter said. He webbed the book over closer so he could take a look inside, ignoring the look of vague disgust Jan sent his way. His jaw dropped beneath the mask. "Oh my god, there have got to be like five hundred names in here! I think my spider sense actually went off. How are we supposed to figure out who's who in here?"
"We've sent this list of names to Ms. Potts, Iron Man's assistant. She said she would be happy to tell us which of these names belong to his business partners," Storm announced, then paused. "Ms. Potts could not promise that none of Tony's business partners are his true love, but I got the impression that she would make him very sorry indeed if one was."
Steve nodded. "Ms. Potts promised to bring us the list of names as soon as possible. In the meantime, can any of you think of anyone else who we might want to investigate?" he asked.
Around the table, people shifted uncomfortably. "Um," Jan hazarded, "I guess there's always us?"
Steve frowned in consternation. "Us? What do you mean, Giant-Girl?"
"Well, I mean, Tony's good friends with a lot of the Avengers, right? What if it was one of us?" she pointed out. "I mean, I doubt it, but it couldn't hurt to try, right?"
"Uh, no. I'm pretty sure kissing Tony could scar me for life," Peter interjected, giving an all-over body shudder.
Jan gave him a withering look. "Not you. I meant the girl Avengers," she said.
"Oh." Peter gave an awkward shrug. "Good. Because the mental image of Wolverine kissing Tony was really weird, and--" He cut himself off hurriedly at Wolverine's growl.
Jan ignored them both and grinned at Storm. "Hey Storm, wanna go try out the whole Prince Charming thing?"
Storm slid from her seat at Steve's side and got to her feet with the kind of grace that made Jan's insides go green with jealousy. "It couldn't hurt," she said, a small smile slipping over her face.
Jan linked one of her arms through Storm's and tried not to laugh at Cap's face, which was still utterly confused. "Away to the highest tower, then!" she said, leading the way.
When the two of them reached Tony's room, Jan shut the door gently behind them and let the smile fall off her face. Tony looked like a photo from one of her magazines, beautiful and delicate and so still.
"You don't truly think that one of us is the one to break the spell, do you, Giant-Girl?" Storm's asked, as calm as always.
"No, not really." Jan shook her head. "I mean, I've got Hank and I've never seen you look that interested in Tony before. I just--I don't know who it could be. Tony's never talked about any steady girlfriends before." She contemplated Tony, asleep in bed, for a minute before continuing softly, "I know that most of the Avengers don't believe in true love, and I know Tony doesn't, but...I do. That person's got to be out there somewhere for him."
Beside her, Storm sighed. "The problem is finding her. Tony Stark knows so many people; it's difficult to be able to tell who among them is actually important to him."
Jan gave her a wry grin. "Knows in the Biblical sense, you mean. Yeah, it's hard to tell which, if any of them, he actually cares about."
Storm nodded. "We have less than a week to find the person who is right for him. Some people go their whole lives without figuring that out..." She trailed off.
Both of them were silent for a moment, watching the steady rise and fall of Tony's chest.
Finally, Jan stepped forward. "Then I guess we better get a move on, huh?" She walked to the edge of the bed and hesitated for only a few seconds before dipping her head to press her lips chastely to Tony's.
A few moments passed in silence before Jan pulled back with a small, sad smile. "well, I guess Hank will never have to worry about me cheating on him with Tony," she said, forcing levity into her voice as she stepped back from the bed.
Storm took her place, gently tilting up Tony's unresisting chin so she could press a quick kiss to his lips, and then pulled back to survey his face. It stayed smooth and unmoving.
"Yeah," said Jan behind her, "I didn't think so."
They walked back to the meeting room in a companionable silence, each left to her own thoughts. When they opened the door, though, a barrage of sound interrupted their reverie.
"I think Spidey should talk to her," Wolverine growled.
"But I don't even know what I should say," Peter whined. "What if she just thinks that I'm some creeper?"
Jan walked back up to the table and plopped herself in a seat. "Well, you are a spider...man...thing. Those are pretty creepy." She rearranged herself so she could look at what they were passing around. A woman's telephone number, it looked like.
Steve looked up from the black book he was currently poring over and perked up visibly when he saw that the women had returned. "Well?" he asked expectantly. Both women could hear the tension underlying his voice.
Storm shook her head. "Neither I nor Giant-Girl appear to be Iron Man's true love."
"Figures," Peter muttered, looking back at the slip of paper in his hands. "That would have been way too easy."
"I'll talk to her," Steve sighed, and plucked the paper from his fingers. He took a deep breath and dialed the number, then waited for her to pick up. "Hello, Ms. Abbot? I'm--a colleague of Tony Stark's." He paused for a minute, obviously struggling with what to say. He couldn't say that Tony had been in an accident; it might cause an international incident in the business world. At the same time, he couldn't exactly ask her what she was doing in Tony's address book--that would just be rude. As he opened his mouth to speak, however, the decision seemed to be taken out of his hands. His eyebrows rose as the voice on the other side of the line started to speak very quickly, and the other Avengers were left to wonder what exactly Ms. Molly Abbot had to say about Tony Stark. "What? I--Ms. Abbot, I'm sure--no, no. Yes. No. No. Ma'am, I'm very sorry. I must have pulled the wrong phone number from T--Mr. Stark's address book. Yes. You too." Steve hung up the phone, looking shaken.
"Not Stark's true love, I take it?" Wolverine asked, grinning at Steve's discomfort.
"Um...no." Steve's cheeks pinked very slightly. "It seems that Tony isn't always...polite to his um. His guests."
Wolverine crowed with laughter. "I knew it! Iron Man, you dog."
Steve didn't dignify that with an answer, but instead looked at the list of numbers with renewed apprehension. "Storm, maybe you should call the next person on the list. Hopefully she and Tony will be on better terms."
She was. In fact, the specific terms she used were so glowing that even Storm's cheeks appeared to be tinged red by the end of the phone call.
After that, it seemed like most of the phone calls fell into one of those two categories. Despite the fact that Tony had the numbers of what seemed like every woman in New York (and more besides), it seemed like he had very rarely called any of them. When Pepper showed up a few hours later with the files, they had still made barely any headway. They had one number in the maybe pile, Ms. Megan Flagg, but that was only because she'd been out with Tony four times--which seemed to be a record. Pepper had looked over their notes and clucked disapprovingly.
"Not this one or this one...and definitely not this one. And don't call this one, I don't think Tony wants her to know his new number. Normally, I'd let him fend for himself, but I seem to remember her being extra clingy," she said, crossing out name after name, sometimes even full pages. She was incredibly helpful and when Steve said so, she only smiled. "Why do you think Mr. Stark hired me?"
After getting rid of a good half of the names in the book, Pepper took her leave, stating that she did actually have to get some work done, even if Tony wasn't there. She took a quick pit stop in Tony's room, though, to give him both a kiss and a lecture. It wasn't exactly easy to run a multibillion dollar corporation all on her own, you know. Unfortunately, neither one seemed to do much good.
"Yes, Ms. Boniadi, I understand." Storm's voice sounded clear and confident. She'd been talking to this one for a particularly long time, and she was taking notes as they spoke. On the other side of the table, both Steve and Jan were speaking to potentials of their own. Peter swore that there was just something intrinsically awkward about asking women about their sex lives, but after three different phone calls where the women had hung up simply to put him out of his misery, he had been pleased to be put on paperwork duty. Logan was on 'please don't say anything' duty, and that seemed to suit everyone well enough.
"Yes, of course. Actually, I think that we should speak more on the subject later tonight," Storm said, setting her pen down. "If you could stop by Stark Tower around seven, that would be perfect. Yes, thank you. Goodbye." Storm hung up the phone and smiled.
Steve hung up his own phone and raised an eyebrow. "Did something happen, Storm?"
"Yes. I just got off the phone with a woman who has known Tony for years. They meet charity functions often, and though they've only gone on specific dates once or twice, she was very dismayed to hear that Tony was feeling under the weather, so to speak. Unless I'm very much mistaken, I think Ms. Boniadi has been suppressing her feelings for Tony for years," Storm said. "I can only guess at Tony's feelings for her, but this is the first one I've spoken to who knows more about him than--" She stopped herself. "That knows much about him as a person," she corrected.
Steve was relatively sure that he knew what she had been about to say, but he didn't press it. "So she's coming here?" he asked. He glanced around. They couldn't meet her looking like this. Tony's secret identity would be history.
At Storm's nod, Peter tilted his head. "If a lady's coming here to see Tony, shouldn't we call that Pepper Potts woman back? She's kind of terrifying, but she knows Tony and I bet she can handle anything. Considering we're about to show someone a genius superhero billionaire under a witch's spell, that could come in handy," he said.
"Yeah," Jan agreed. "Besides, I think that Pepper knows more about Tony's personal life than Tony does."
Pepper did indeed know how to handle everything. Before she'd even arrived back at the Tower she had a privacy statement drawn up that would swear Ms. Boniadi to silence under fear of death and lawyers. It was terrifying just to look at. And when Ms. Boniadi showed up, Pepper very neatly explained the situation (of a sort--a mild coma that doctors hoped a familiar face might pull him out of sounded a bit more plausible than 'horrible witchy curse') led her up to Tony's bedroom, and waited until the proffered kiss didn't work before escorting her back out of the penthouse. It was all very businesslike and civilized.
Pepper sighed at them after she saw Ms. Boniadi out. "Next time, just forward the list of women to me. There are much better ways to do this," she said, giving them all very exasperated looks. It was an expression that seemed very at home on her face.
Wordlessly, Storm gave her the information on Ms. Fayne, Ms. Flagg, and Ms. Fenton as well.
That evening, after it finally got to be too late to call any of the people on their list, the Avengers settled down to relax a little. There was still tension in the air--how could there not be?--but things seemed to wind down. Jarvis prepared them a dinner with hands that shook only a little and after their meal, the Avengers split up. Jan and Peter went to go kill things on the TV, citing it as the best way to get rid of pent-up aggression, and Hank seemed content to watch them squabble, sighing intermittently when Jan paused to give him a grin. Wolverine declared that he was getting itchy, so he went to the training room with Storm and Hulk. Steve knew that he should have gone with them, that he needed to be in top shape in case they encountered the witch again, but instead his feet seemed to carry him elsewhere.
When he first found himself at the door to Tony's bedroom, Steve shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, hand unsure on the knob. Even though people had been in and out of the room all day, now it seemed...different. It was quiet now, all of the urgence gone, and suddenly Steve felt almost like he was trespassing. It was silly to think of it as invading Tony's privacy when all he wanted to do was check on him, he told himself. He had to tell himself that twice more, though, before he could open the door.
Tony lay unmoving on the bed. Steve wasn't really sure what he'd expected, and cursed himself as a fool as he stepped inside the room and closed the door. He noticed a chair against the wall and moved to take it. Perhaps Pepper had brought it up. Once seated, he let his eyes fall on Tony. He looked no different than he had that morning. He didn't appear to be in any kind of pain; he was just...asleep.
Steve sat back in his chair and took in the gentle rise and fall of Tony's chest, his own breath unconsciously starting to match his friend's as he watched. To his surprise, he felt the tenseness in his chest start to ease as he sat. Maybe just sitting there, keeping Tony company, was enough to quiet his thoughts.
He let those thoughts trickle from Tony's predicament to Tony himself. They'd already spent so much time trying to find Tony's true love. How would Tony feel about that? He'd never exactly seemed like the romantic type. Sure, he dated--in fact, he dated prolifically--but Steve had never seen him get truly close to anyone before, not like in storybook romances. It was too bad. Tony deserved something like that. Tony seemed cheerful enough most of the time, but there were sometimes when his eyes would go far away and his shoulders would tense... Tony deserved someone who could take those worries away.
Steve's mind wandered from there. What kind of person would Tony's true love be when they found her? Would she be clever, like him, able to follow all of his technobabble with ease? Or would she be fun? Would she match barbs with him and pull him out to play when he was working far too hard? Would she be caring? Maybe she could draw Tony out from himself, make him realize that he was so much more kindhearted than he gave himself credit for. He certainly hoped so. Tony had never been able to see what a wonderful person he truly was.
Steve didn't know how long he sat there pondering silly things like that. When he finally got up, hours later, his back ached and he felt stiff--but somehow he felt better than he had all day.
Peter was starting to scrawl out a new name for Jan to call when he paused. "Hey Jan, I think Pepper made a mistake with this one. It says 'Micah'. That's a boy's name, right?" he asked, showing her the page.
Jan shook her head. "Micah can be either, Spider-Man. Give me the number." He passed it to her and she dialed with fingers that were really, really starting to get tired of hitting keys. "Hello, may I speak to Micah Hauptman? It's about Tony Stark...yes...yes. --wait, a what? ...oh. O-oh um. Thank you for your time." Janet put hung up the phone and then stared at it blankly.
"Whoa, G-Girl, are you blushing?" Peter asked, craning his neck to stare. It wasn't often that Janet van Dyne was at a loss for words.
Steve looked up from his own phone call, and the sides of his mouth turned down at the shell-shocked expression on Jan's face. "Yes, thank you, Ms. Hooper. You've been a great help to us." He set down the phone. "Giant-Girl, is something wrong?"
Jan shook her head slowly, red flushing over her cheeks. "Not really wrong... This just may be a little more difficult than we thought."
"How so?" Steve gave her his full attention. The last thing they needed at this point, two days into their search, was more complications.
Janet swallowed. "Well...that was Micah Hauptman's girlfriend--"
"Oh, so it was a boy Micah," Peter nodded.
"Ye-es," Janet hedged, "Apparently, the two of them broke up recently." She paused. "After she found out about his one-night stand with Tony."
The table was silent for a moment as that information sunk in.
"Wait--Tony's gay?" Peter squeaked.
"I don't know about that, bub," Wolverine said. He patted some of the stationery on the table. "I've got two full notebooks of names right here that say different."
"Tony's bisexual, obviously," Jan cut in. "Which isn't a bad thing, it's just--"
"Now we have twice as many people to check," Storm finished.
"Exactly." Jan worried at her lip as she thought about all of the male names they'd already discarded. "Cap, do you still have those names that we skipped over?"
Jan blinked and looked up at Steve. He looked slightly dazed. Confused, even, she added mentally. "Cap, are you okay?" she asked.
Steve closed his eyes and gave his head a firm shake, and when he opened them again, his eyes were clear. "Fine. What was it you needed?"
Jan cleared her throat, willing the discomfort in the air to ease. "The discarded names," she repeated.
"Oh, right. Yes, they're right here." He passed her a few papers and the silence settled again.
When the door opened and Bruce stepped in, they all looked up eagerly at the distraction. "Hi guys! Hank said he had everything covered downstairs for a while, so I figured that I'd come down and help you. Has anything new and interesting popped up since I was left?" The Avengers gave each other sidelong looks. "Guys?"
Over the next few days, the auxiliary Avengers started to arrive. They'd sent out feelers a few days before, but most of the Avengers who didn't live in the tower couldn't exactly drop everything to come visit.
If the preliminary explanations over the phone had been awkward, the ones in person were excruciating. Some were easier than others. Tigra certainly didn't mind giving Tony a kiss. She giggled as she planted one on him, not seeming to be bothered in the least that he didn't wake up. "It's not every day that a girl gets to kiss Tony Stark," she'd said.
Others were more difficult. Ms. Marvel spent a good five minutes yelling at an unconscious Tony before giving him a quick peck and stomping off, and Emma Frost phoned to politely decline before they even called her.
Most of the experiences, though, were simply awkward. More than that, they were fruitless.
Steve couldn't help but sigh as Spider-Woman walked out of Tony's room. He could tell without even asking her how it had gone. He let his head fall in his hand, and massaged tense muscles as he tried to calm down. No matter what hope the Avengers were holding out, the simple fact was that the possibilities were trickling down. There were only a few more names in Tony's book and even fewer Avengers left to come visit. And after that...not even Pepper knew what to do after that.
Even if he were able to forget Tony's predicament, there was still the witch to think about. There had been at least three reports of an old crone on a broom, but every time they'd gotten to the scene, there was be nothing but the remnants of chalk drawings and some very rude notes. It was enough to drive a man crazy.
He lifted his head to look at She-Hulk, the last of the day, as she emerged from Tony's room. He must have looked more hopeful than he felt because the look she gave him was gentle. "Sorry, Cap."
Steve just shook his head in reply. "It can't be helped," he told her, trying to sound convincing. From her expression, it didn't appear as if he was particularly successful.
She reached out and patted him on the shoulder, a little awkwardly. No one seemed to know what to say to each other anymore. "Bye, Cap. Take care of him, okay?"
Steve nodded. "Of course," he replied. And he would.
After another moment's hesitation, Steve sighed again and walked into Tony's room himself. Maybe sitting with him again would ease his nerves.
The next day, Steve was sitting in what had become his usual spot in Tony's room, reading some of Storm's notes, when he caught a brief snatch of conversation from the hallways. He frowned and turned to glance out the door. No one was supposed to be coming to see Tony now. There were precious few left to do so.
After realizing that craning his neck wasn't going to do him any good, Steve stood and placed his papers on the chair before going out to explore the hallway. He heard the low, fierce tones before he could make out actual words.
Steve went a little closer, but froze when he placed the voices. He was relatively sure that he was not supposed to be hearing this conversation.
"I can't believe you're even asking me to do this, Pepper!"
"Why not, Rhodey? I did it."
"But you're--no way. It's not gonna happen. Tony may be my friend, but--"
"But nothing!" Even from where he stood, Steve winced at Pepper's tone. "He is your friend, and you're his. In case you haven't noticed, all of Tony's friends have tried to wake him up."
"Yeah, his girl friends!"
"Oh, you know as well as I do that Tony likes men!"
"Yeah, but I sure don't."
"Then this shouldn't bruise your fragile masculinity. Just try, Rhodey. That's all I'm asking you to do."
"...you can't tell anyone. Especially Tony."
"Fine. Good luck."
Steve heard grumbling that had to be coming from Rhodey, and then realized a split second later that it was coming his way. He stepped into one of Stark Tower's many empty bedrooms and out of sight. If it was embarrassment stopping Rhodes, he certainly wasn't going to add to it.
He leaned against the wall and tried not to think about what was happening in the room a few doors down. For some reason, he had butterflies in his stomach. There was the typical hopeful nervousness he'd felt every time someone had gone to kiss Tony but there was something more this time, something he couldn't put his finger on.
The swift scuff of shoes on carpet signaled Rhodey's return, and Steve felt himself holding his breath.
"He's still asleep, Pep."
Oh, thought Steve.
Somehow, Steve had believed that the last person's arrival would be a momentous occasion. Maybe there would be crying, or laughing. Whether she was the one or not, it just seemed right that it would be a big deal. Judging by the rising tension in the others, he was pretty sure that they all felt the same way.
That's why it felt so very bizarre when they woke up early Friday morning and met in the conference room only to find a small note on the table.
No one cried, and no one laughed. They just passed around the note, willing it to make sense until it did, and then everyone was very quiet. Peter tried to make a joke, and Jan tried to laugh at it, but no one's heart was in it.
Steve went back to Tony's room.
Jan picked at her pizza. Jarvis hadn't felt up to cooking a real meal, and no one had really blamed him. No one else felt like doing much of anything, either. Usually, Friday nights meant that it was time to let loose in Stark Tower and have a fun time, good food and better company going together hand in hand while they did things together. Just silly things, like a video game tournament or seeing how many magnets they could stick to Wolverine before he'd notice. Tonight, though...tonight Friday night just meant that Tony was only a few hours from an everlasting sleep that no one knew how to pull him from.
Jan looked up from her food morosely and glanced around the table at her friends. They all looked to be feeling pretty much like she was, except... "Where's Cap?" she asked. Usually he was right there with them, as gung ho about team bonding as he was anything else.
Storm shook her head, clearly wrapped up in her own thoughts. "I believe he's in Tony's room."
"Again?" Peter asked. "Wow. If Cap spends much more time up there, he's going to be sleeping there."
"I think he already is," Janet answered without thinking. She pursed her lips. "I'm worried about him, actually. He's been so upset this week that you'd think--" And then she froze.
"Jan? G-Girl? You okay?"
Jan ignored Spider-Man's hand waving in her face and thought about things, really thought about them. "I never even really thought about it before this week, but have you guys ever noticed the way that Cap and Tony spend like all their free time together?" she asked, the wisps of an idea coming together in her head.
Peter rolled his eyes through the mask, not that anyone could see them. "Well, yeah. They go on patrols together, they always go together when we split up--sometimes I feel like this is the Cap and Tony and everyone else team," he listed, ticking things off on his fingers as he went. "Seriously, those two bring whole new meaning to the word 'bromance'..." He trailed off as he realized that the rest of the table had stopped what they were doing to stare at him. "What? What did I say?"
Storm turned wide eyes on Jan. "Giant-Girl, are you suggesting..?"
Jan nodded. "No, it makes sense! I mean, even if they weren't BFFs, just look at the way Cap's been this week. Even before we knew it was serious, he was upset, remember?" she asked, excitement beginning to color her voice.
"You're right," Bruce answered, eyes beginning to light up as understanding dawned. "He was nearly frantic."
"Wait, wait, what are we talking about here?" Spider-Man interrupted. He looked wildly from Avenger to Avenger. "What happened?"
Wolverine smirked at him, the closest they would ever get to relief from him. "G-Girl here thinks that we should try and get Cap to kiss Iron Man."
Peter stopped and stared. "What? Really? Cap and Tony?" He looked to Jan to confirmation, and she nodded. "Oh my god, no wonder they were pushing all known definitions of bromance!"
Jan pushed back her chair and got to her feet, the beginnings of a hopeful grin starting to play over her face. "I'll be right back." She spun from the room and started to jog to Tony's, already formulating a plan in the back of her mind.
When Jan walked into Tony's room, she was unsurprised to see Steve sitting in the chair by the corner looking pensive. "Hi Steve," she greeted, coming to stand by his chair. "No change?"
"No," Steve murmured, eyes not leaving Tony. "He hasn't moved at all. It's like he's not even dreaming."
Jan looked from Steve to Tony, and then back to Steve again. Now that the idea was lodged in her mind, she wasn't sure how she'd ever missed it. It was just so obvious. The long walks in the park, the easy camaraderie, and those lingering looks... She fought back a shiver. So obvious. "It's almost midnight. Only a couple more hours."
A deep shudder went through Steve, and she almost felt bad. "I know."
She assumed a thoughtful stance. "I think we've gone through almost all the Avengers it could be. I mean, I kissed him that first day, and so did Storm, not to mention Tigra, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Woman, and that's just for starters," she said, keeping her tone light.
Steve nodded along with her list. She could tell that he wasn't really listening. After all, who knew all this better than he did?
"And you've kissed him, of course, right?" she finished. She looked at the other side of the room casually, trying not to let the breath she was holding in show.
Steve started to nod, still lost to his own little world, when the words finally penetrated. "I--wait, what?" he asked, head snapping back to stare at her.
Jan blinked down at him, all wide-eyed innocence. "You've kissed him, right? I mean, both of you spend so much time together that you've got as much chance as anyone," she said matter-of-factly, as if this was a basic fact instead of what was probably a mind-blowing suggestion.
Steve's mind certainly seemed to be blown, anyway. He was staring at her wordlessly. "Jan, I don't--I--what?"
Her mouth narrowed to a thin line. "You have kissed him, haven't you?"
"W-well, no, why would I kiss Tony?" he stammered out, clearly dumbfounded.
Jan put her hands on her hips and looked down at him. She didn't need to grow to be intimidating, and she knew it. "Because you two spend all your time together, and you know everything about each other, and you're best friends, and you've spent this entire week worrying over him like a mother hen!"
"But I never--"
"And don't you give me that, 'but I never even thought about it' line! Tony only has two hours left. Are you seriously going to let him sleep forever without even trying to wake him up?"
Steve's mouth snapped closed. "But--I don't think Tony would like it very much if I..." he started.
Jan gave him a cheeky grin. "I won't tell him if you won't." Then her face softened. "Seriously, Cap. Every time I come in here, it's like your heart's breaking a little more. At the very least, you could try. It's not like it would hurt anything. And if it works..."
If it worked... Steve's heart sped up at that. He really never had thought about it before, despite what Jan said. As far as he knew, he and Tony were friends, best friends, but just that--friends. But if there was a chance, any chance at all...
He rose up out of his chair, then walked to stand next to the bed. He hovered there for a minute, indecisive. It really wasn't a big deal, right? He was just the last in a long string of kisses, a last ditch attempt that no one but him and Jan would ever know about. There was no way that this could ever ruin his friendship with Tony, and--no. It wouldn't matter if this did anything to their relationship if Tony never woke up. All at once, Steve felt deeply guilty at his reluctance. There was a fallen comrade here, and not just that--a fallen friend. If he had any chance to help, no matter how slim, it would be foolish not to take it just because he was uncomfortable. Selfish, even. Since when had he ever shied away from helping a teammate?
He sat down on the edge of the bed and looked at Tony, unsure of what exactly he should do now that he'd made his decision. Theoretically, it shouldn't have been any different from kissing someone else, but this was different. This was Tony. Steve considered it for a moment, thinking about what kissing Tony should be like, what it might feel like to run his hands through soft black hair, how his goatee might scratch, how soft his lips might be against his... He swallowed hard, something hot and unfamiliar in his throat.
This was for Tony, not him. It didn't matter what it was like. This was to try and help Tony. He braced one hand on Tony's other side and lowered his head to brush his lips against the other man's. It wasn't amazing or magical, or even pleasurable in the least. Tony's lips gave under his, soft and yielding and far too pliant. It was like kissing the dead, and Steve couldn't help but shudder as he pulled back.
One beat, then two. Steve studied Tony's face with an intensity that he'd given to very little else in his life. He wasn't even sure what he was looking for, but whatever it was, he didn't see it. Moments ticked by and nothing happened.
Disappointment rose up like bile in his throat. His heart clenched painfully in his chest and the breath he'd been holding left him all at once. He tried to tell himself that it was just disappointment that he had not saved his friend, but lying had never been Steve's forte. When had he started wanting this--wanting Tony--this much, he wondered. Perhaps he'd never noticed before because this, their trust and teamwork and friendship all rolled together into something indefinable, this was as easy as breathing. When had he not wanted this?
He slid his hand slowly along the bed until he could squeeze Tony's fingers gently, taking one last bit of comfort before leaving. And if his fingers lingered just a bit too long, who could blame him?
Jan heaved a sigh behind him, small and sad, and that knocked Steve from his reverie. With regret, he started to pull his fingers from Tony's only to feel some resistance, a faint touch of skin against his. His eyes widened, and he looked down sharply at their joined hands. Had he imagined it? Maybe it was just the power of wishful thinking...
But then no, wishful thinking couldn't cause the soft, rough sound in Tony's throat, and it definitely couldn't cause the racking cough that shook his body, that forced him to sit up for air. Steve could only watch in stunned silence as Tony shook his head dazedly and brought up his free hand to rub at his eyes.
Tony blinked open his eyes, and then squinted at him as if unsure whether he was truly awake. "Steve?" he rasped, and then Steve was taking in one deep, relieved breath and tugging him close, burying his nose in his hair and gripping at his hand more tightly than ever because this was Tony and he was awake and alive and--
"Tony," he muttered into Tony's hair, voice more broken than he would have liked to admit, "Tony."
A hand slid up Steve's shoulder and slipped into his hair, petting it awkwardly, but comfortingly. "Steve, what--" Tony croaked, but Steve was shaking his head, pulling him even tighter against his chest, and Tony went quiet.
The minutes extended in silence, the only sound Steve's ragged breaths as they calmed. Tony's thumb moved in small circles on the back of Steve's neck to facilitate this. It seemed backwards, Steve mused, to have Tony comforting him when Tony was the one who had been ensorcelled. A small chuckle escaped him, then another, and then he was shaking with silent laughter against Tony, who stilled his hand's motion against Steve's neck.
"Steve?" The tone was low and questioning.
Steve pulled back, though he kept their fingers laced. For a moment, all he could do was grin at Tony, who was healthy and awake and his true love, apparently. "Good morning," he said, somewhat dopily.
Though his eyes were unsure, Tony began to smile back. "Morning. How long was I out?"
Steve's grin faltered. "Almost a week." So close to a week. "We were almost afraid that we'd lost you."
Tony winced. "That long? Geez, those magic spells really pack a punch, don't they?" He sighed a little and tipped his head back, rolling his shoulders. God, he was stiff. "How did you manage to break the spell, anyway? I mean, I really doubt that you managed to scare up a handsome prince to get the job done," he murmured, sighing in contentment as he heard his neck pop.
Steve didn't say anything. He couldn't. It wasn't just that long expanse of skin Tony was displaying distracting him; he just...couldn't. It was easy enough to have a spell say that you were destined to be with a person (or whatever 'true love' entailed) and quite another to actually confess to him. What if the spell was wrong, and it was really just random after all? What if it was all a mistake? What if Tony didn't want to be his true love? He swallowed hard. "The spell called for your true love, actually."
Tony laughed and tilted his head back down to grin at Steve. "And that's so much easier to find?" he asked, his rough voice teasing.
Steve found himself smiling back despite himself. "Only if when you say 'easy', you mean 'like finding a needle in a haystack'."
Tony's brow furrowed slightly in confusion. "Wait, you actually tried?" he asked.
Steve nodded. "We went through your entire address book, trying to figure out who you'd dated. It was a lot of them, as it turns out," he said, shaking his head at the memory.
Tony stared at him for a minute as he tried to gauge the sincerity of that statement. "Do you seriously mean to tell me that you called every person in my address book to ask them if they were my true love?" He sounded faintly horrified.
Steve shrugged. "Well, not every person. Just most of them. And we didn't tell them all about the true love thing. We only asked the really promising ones to come and try."
"Try...what?" Tony asked warily.
Steve felt himself going slightly red. "To kiss you, obviously."
Tony looked at him blankly. "Steve, just how many people have kissed me in the past week?" he asked slowly.
Steve shut his eyes to count through them all, acutely aware that now he was definitely blushing. "Twenty...six. No, seven," he amended. He'd forgotten to add himself.
"Twenty-seven?!" Tony yelped indignantly. "Steve, I swear to god, if I get mono--"
Steve rolled his eyes. "It's not our fault it took so long to find the right one." Honestly with all the choices he'd given them, it was a wonder that they'd ever found the right person, and--Steve's thought process stuttered to a stop as he realized what he'd said.
"Wait." Steve raised his eyes to meet Tony's only to find them staring levelly back at him, keenly interested. "You found someone?"
"I--" He glanced back to Jan for help only to find her gone. Part of him felt a little betrayed, but most of him felt desperately, intensely grateful. He wasn't sure he'd be able to do this if there was someone watching. He swallowed. "We did."
Tony shook his head. "So where is this mythical person, and why aren't they here now? It seems like if they're my true love and all, they'd at least have the decency to be around when I woke--" Tony's eyes widened as the words died in his throat. His eyes darted across Steve's face frantically, asking a question he couldn't manage to verbalize.
Steve steeled himself and stared back steadily. He could feel his heart beating hard in his chest, but he forced his breaths to stay regular as he waited.
When Tony finally spoke, the words were small and quiet. "Steve, you--"
"I--" Steve finally allowed his eyes to drop. "I--I had to, Tony. We kept trying and trying, but you weren't waking up, and the witch told us that we only had one week before it was too late, and I had to try, Tony, I couldn't lose you--"
Steve sucked in a breath as Tony's voice cut into his ramblings. "Yeah?"
Steve looked up at him then and only had a moment to notice the dark, wondering look in Tony's eyes before he hooked his free hand into Steve's shirt and pulled him down into a kiss, and yes, oh yes, this was exactly what that first kiss should have been. It was slow and sweet and warm and alive, unhurried and languid. Neither one of them did much to deepen it, but instead simply reveled in that first touch.
Eventually, Steve pulled back with some regret. He ran his thumb over Tony's knuckles once before finally disentangling their fingers so he could rest that hand on Tony's hip. "So...you don't mind, then?" he asked.
Tony blinked at him hazily. "Mind? Of course I don't mind. I've wanted this for--god, for ages."
Steve should have been focusing on the words, he knew, but all he could see right now were Tony's lips. "Really?" he asked, running his thumb gently over the gentle line of Tony's hip, visible even through his pjs. "Then you won't mind if I do it again?"
Tony's sucked in a breath. "I'd mind it a lot more if you didn't," he said, flashing him an inviting, flirtatious smile.
And really, after the week he'd had, how was Steve supposed to resist that? He leaned in again, capturing Tony's mouth with his. He experimented a little this time, letting his tongue dart out to run along Tony's bottom lip, slipping inside when Tony opened up obligingly. And as Tony eased a hand up to lie flat on Steve's back, used it to pull Steve down with him on the bed, Steve was suddenly acutely grateful for the privacy Jan had given them. He and Tony definitely had some things to talk about.
When the sun dawned on a beautifully crisp Halloween morning, Tony Stark wasn't seeing it. Instead he was holed up in his workshop working on some last minute repairs to his armor. It made sense, he'd argued last night. That witch was still on the loose and was obviously planning something big for Halloween. And besides, he'd added when Steve had glared at him, it wasn't as if he needed to sleep anymore.
No, he promised himself as he screwed a panel back into place, he wouldn't need to go back to sleep again for a week. Possibly a month. He stepped back to admire his handiwork. The armor looked as good as new--better than, even. He'd added a few improvements while he worked. His mind felt sharper than usual, which was something he was never going to divulge to his teammates. They'd make him sleep more often, he was sure.
He was just beginning to contemplate getting a new cup of coffee when the Avengers alert started blaring. He glanced at his watch. "Wow, evil's getting a head start today," he muttered. The coffee would have to wait.
By the time he suited up and reached the command room, the rest of the Avengers had assembled, albeit sleepily.
"It's Saturday," Peter whined pitifully. "Why are we awake this early on a Saturday?"
"Because," Steve answered, giving him a stern look, "Evil never sleeps."
Peter stared at him. "You did not just say that." He glanced around at the other Avengers for help. "I'm just sleep-deprived, right? He did not just say that."
Jan giggled at the irked expression on Steve's face. "Oh come on, Spider-Man, give him a break. Cap's just in a good mood because Tony's back," she said, nudging Peter meaningfully.
"And for other reasons besides," Wolverine drawled from his position sprawled out on one of the chairs. The words themselves were innocent enough, but the salacious tone was more than enough to make up for it.
A deep blush started to spread over Steve's face, clashing horribly with his cowl. He opened his mouth once to defend himself, then closed it, too flustered to speak.
The night before had been...embarrassing, to say the least. Things had been very nice for a while, very nice, but both of them had been forcibly reminded of how long Tony had been asleep when his stomach loudly voiced its displeasure. Tony had been all for ignoring it in favor of make-outs, but Steve didn't see much point in waking him up if all he was going to do was pass out from hunger. It was like that that they made their way down to the kitchen, hair disheveled and clothes askew, only to find the entirety of the Avengers deep in conversation at the dinner table.
In retrospect, Tony wasn't sure who'd been more embarrassed, Steve or--well, no, it had definitely been Peter. Tony thought back to the expression on Peter's face when he'd noticed the not-so-subtle mark on Steve's neck and grinned so hard his face hurt, knowing full well it would be hidden by his armor. He probably would have done it either way, though. Shame was for people who didn't wake up from an enchanted sleep in the arms of Captain America.
Storm cleared her throat, bringing all eyes back to her. She was looking as professional as usual, without a trace of morning hair and only a small twitch of her lips betraying that she'd been following the conversation at all. "If I could have your attention, please, we do actually have a problem," she said. "Strange things have been happening all over New York all morning."
"What kind of things, Storm?" Steve asked, straightening into business mode.
She looked perplexed for a minute, a strange look for her. "Odd things. Animals behaving unusually, clouds of colored smoke coming up from street grates, abnormal weather conditions... The events seem to be focused on Central Park, where the trees are said to be moving," she said slowly.
Jan cocked her head to the side. "Moving? Don't trees always move? I mean, it's been pretty windy lately, hasn't it?" she asked.
Storm shook her head. "No, the reports have stated that they...they appear to be uprooting themselves and walking around," she corrected.
"What, like Ents?" Peter interjected, eyes wide.
Tony groaned. "Didn't we fight moving trees last week?"
"Two weeks ago," Steve corrected absently. "Either way, we should move out. If things have progressed this far by this point in the morning--"
"--they'll only get worse," Wolverine finished grimly.
All things considered, it really wasn't surprising to see the witch floating high above Central Park when they got there. The trees were indeed walking, their roots snaking out in front of them as they lumbered along with great, heaving groans. The witch seemed positively gleeful at this development as she directed the trees with broad sweeping arm movements, like some mix between a general and a composer.
Peter groaned. "Not you again. This is, what, the third time in a week? Don't you have anything better to do? You know, carve a pumpkin, drink some cider, have a party? Something?"
The witch started a little as he swung into view, but the shock on her features smoothed out into something far more menacing. "Oh no, my dear boy. I can't think of a single thing I'd rather do on All Hallows Eve," she cackled, and turned to face him on her broom.
It was enough to distract her from the rest of the Avengers as they arrived behind her. "Storm, her broom!" Steve commanded, but Storm was way ahead of him. The wind was already swaying through the trees' leaves, confusing them enough to stop in their tracks. They looked towards the witch for guidance, but she had her eyes fixed on Storm as the other woman rose to be face-to-face with the witch.
A brief rumbling overhead was all the warning there was before a bolt of lightning snaked down from the clouds towards the witch's broom. It was enough for the witch, however, and the lightning slipped harmlessly off what appeared to be a bubble around where she flew.
"A force field?" Steve murmured to himself, quickly trying to factor that new information into his plans.
The witch bobbed and weaved as the wind picked up. "Of course. It isn't just Avengers," she sniffed, disdain dripping from the word, "That can learn from fights." She gestured the trees away again, and they lumbered off in the direction she'd indicated.
Jan, who had been steadily growing since the start of the battle, hesitantly reached up to pick up one of the trees. It scrabbled and squirmed in her grasp, squalling like an angry child. "What are the trees for? You're not going to attack New York with them, are you? Because that was so last week."
"Two weeks ago," Tony reminded her from the ground next to Steve.
The witch's head snapped around at the sound of his voice. Tony felt faint annoyance that she hadn't noticed him before, but he had to admit that a spider, a weather witch, and a giant may have been a bit more eye-catching than his armor, no matter how flashy this new incarnation was.
"You!" the witch gasped. Her eyes narrowed and she, for the first time, looked vexed. "I thought I took care of you."
"Sorry," he shrugged, "I guess I've never been much for naps. Maybe next time you could sing me a lullaby."
Steve nudged him in the side even though they both knew he couldn't feel it through the armor. "Don't antagonize her, Iron Man. That's how we got into this mess," he muttered.
"Oh no," Tony replied with a grin that he could be heard rather than seen. "Not this mess. I'm not taking responsibility for this one. My mess is all cleaned up. I'm awake, I'm alive, and I've got a true love. Crisis averted."
Steve colored very slightly, thankfully not deeply enough for the witch to notice, and he very purposefully turned his attention back to the witch. "You never answered Giant-Girl. What do you want with these trees?" he asked forcefully.
The witch glanced at where Jan had herded the thrashing gaggle of trees and shrugged. "Nothing. I just wanted them out of the way."
Steve's features barely had time to start screwing up in confusion before the ground started to shake and strange symbols appeared on the ground and walkways. He studied the light that was starting to pulse through the grass, trying hard to ignore the way that Hulk was stomping on the symbols on the ground around them so he could place where he'd seen them before. His stomach began to sink as it clicked. Each and every bit of graffiti they'd found--they were identical to the symbols dancing in the grass.
He shared a stunned look with Storm, knowing from her wide eyes that she'd realized it as well. Those symbols were all over New York City.
The witch smirked. "You've figured it out, hmm? I've been preparing all week for this day, and planning for months before that. Soon the line between realms will waver, and then, then..." She gave all of them a very evil look, old eyes glinting with something just a bit manic. "We will not be alone any longer."
"You didn't tell me she was crazy along with evil," Tony murmured in a low voice.
"What," Wolverine growled in return, "The fairy tale hex didn't tip you off?"
Tony gave him a hard look through his face plate, almost positive Logan was laughing at him. Now was really not the time for bickering, though.
"But why are you doing this?" Steve asked, frustration leaking into his voice.
"Yeah," Peter added, swinging down from his perch to join them. "You guys always have a reason. Is it world domination? That really seems to be the in thing right now."
The witched just grinned at them, something fierce in it, and alien. "Oh no, nothing so fancy. I'm old, children. I have no use for that kind of power. Sometimes, you simply want to go out with a bang."
"A bang, huh?" Tony muttered to himself, mind working feverishly. Storm's lightning hadn't worked to throw her off, but maybe if it was more than just lightning...
Without another thought, he pushed up off the ground, just this once ignoring the way that Steve was calling his name, to draw up even with Storm. "Hey Storm, you know how Cap's always talking about teamwork?"
Storm looked at him blankly for a moment before a sly smile began to steal across her face. "Of course--and we would not want to disappoint him, would we?"
Both of them turned to face the witch, who was wholly focused on her own task.
"Ready?" Tony asked.
"Ready," Storm replied.
With an almighty crash of thunder, a bolt of lightning slashed towards the witch, and Tony was ready for it. He fired off a blast from his repulsors, assigning a degree of energy to it that was perhaps dangerous, but it wasn't as if he'd need it anyway if this didn't work.
The witch shrieked in surprise as the twin lights crackled around the shield. The air around her flickered once, twice, before the shield crumbled. The force of their attacks had mostly dissipated against the force field, but their impact was still enough to send both witch and broom catapulting towards the ground. As if by a divine stroke of luck, she fell square at the Hulk's feet.
Hulk looked down at her in surprise for a moment, obviously trying to compute how she'd arrived there. A second later, though, he remembered exactly what she'd just been doing and his expression went dark. "Hulk wants to smash," he said, glaring mutinously at Steve.
Steve looked from the witch, just beginning to move, to where Storm was helping a slightly dazed Iron Man back to the ground. "Go ahead, Hulk."
Tony had barely gotten changed out of the armor and was putting the last piece away when he felt warm arms slip securely around his waist. "Steve," he acknowledged, feeling a smile tugging at his lips. He hadn't even noticed him come in, but it wasn't as if he was going to worry about what that meant for his security now, not with a super soldier pressed up against his back, strong and steady. His super soldier, his mind amended, and yeah, that was a full-blown grin now.
Steve nuzzled against his jawline, and Tony could feel the smile there. "Tony," he returned, sounding deeply satisfied.
Tony opened his mouth to speak, found he had to clear it, and then started again. "So can I help you with something?" he asked, hoping his voice didn't sound as rough as it felt.
Steve hummed against his neck. "Jarvis asked me to fetch you for lunch." He trailed his lips down the side of Tony's throat, and Tony swallowed almost subconsciously. Steve's lips hesitated after they'd made their return trip and he huffed a breath of laughter somewhere below Tony's ear. "I think he wants his turn to fuss over you. He didn't get a chance last night."
Tony turned in Steve's arms and eyed him mischievously. He was still in his uniform, only his cowl pushed back. And frankly, his cowl-hair was hilarious. "Did Jarvis say how long it was until the food is ready?" he asked, looking up at Steve through his eyelashes, and grinning when Steve laughed.
"About fifteen minutes, he said," Steve replied, giving him a tolerant look.
Tony considered how to upgrade 'tolerant' to something much more. He leaned up to brush his lips against Steve's and mumbled into his mouth. "That's good enough."