They were fighting wolves.
When the call came, their first reaction was disbelief. Peter, for one, was sure there were people better suited to it. When they got to the scene, well. There were ambulances there already, and police were trying to secure the area, but they didn't seem to be doing too well. Tony couldn't blame them.
He was pretty sure normal wolves weren't nearly his height. Or able to stand down a repulsor hit. Or –
“Cap, behind you!”
Steve swirled around, but Tony's warning came a second too late. Powerful jaws closed on Steve's arm, and the shield fell from his hand.
Tony loaded the repulsor to its maximum capacity and fired at the wolf until he let Steve go. Tony landed next to him, looked around for more wolves, but fortunately all were engaged with the other Avengers.
“Steve? How bad is it?”
Steve didn't reply. He was staring at the wolf. At the wolf, which slowly was morphing, and moments later they were looking at the body of a man. There was a hole in place of his heart, a repulsor-made hole.
Tony felt sick.
Sure, they had met werewolves in their career, but –
“Don't kill them,” he said over the comms. His own voice seemed distant to him.
The man had attacked Steve. Had hurt Steve. But the Avengers did not kill.
“It's all right, Tony,” Steve said, even though it wasn't. He bent down to pick up his shield.
“Uh, no,” Tony shook his head, focusing on Steve instead. “You're swaying on your legs, just, stay here –”
“Shut up and go help Luke,” Steve cut in.
“Luke won't get bitten,” Tony noted. He shot at the wolf Spider-Woman was wrestling with and then glanced at Steve again. The wound on Steve's arm seemed deep and was bleeding.
But they couldn't really get a time out. And though there were only three wolves yet – Tony couldn't just stay there and watch over Steve. No matter how much he wanted to.
“Be safe,” he said, and flew up to help Spider-Woman. Luke wasn't in any danger and Spider-Man and Wolverine seemed to have the third wolf handled.
Spider-Woman flew up, and the wolf jumped after her. Tony fired two low power repulsors at it. Enough to knock out an adult man, but not enough to kill. It fell down. Moments later, though, it got back up and growled at Tony, its long canines looking as if they could tear through the armour. That wasn't something Tony wanted to test. Spider-Woman used her venom blast, and hit the wolf between eyes. It swatted with its front paws in pain, trying to hit Spider-Woman, blindly. Tony shot another repulsor at him, and he went down. Tony didn't take his eyes off of him for a few long seconds, and when it showed no sign of morphing into a human nor of waking up, he looked around.
“Keep an eye on him,” Tony told Jess, ignoring her annoyance, flew to Luke. The wolf had his jaws around Luke's arm, and Luke was steadily punching him in the head, to no avail. Tony shot at the wolf's side. Luke hit him once more, and the jaws loosened. He freed his hand in a sharp movement and glanced at the drool, disgusted.
Tony looked around. Steve was near Spider-Man and Wolverine. They were chatting. The wolf they were fighting was tangled in Spider-Man's webs, unable to move.
“Well, that's it then?” Tony said.
“Seems so, Iron Man,” Steve answered.
“What was it?” Peter asked.
“Werewolves,” Tony said, darkly. “The wolf was on Steve, I had to do something. Fuck. I killed him, and then he changed into a damn human!” He knew his voice was shaking by the end of it. He hoped they wouldn't hear it, not with the voice filter.
Steve stood behind Tony and touched his arm. “You didn't know.”
“I should've!” Tony shrugged his hand off angrily.
But would it change anything? Steve or himself, Steve or another human, Steve or anyone really. Tony's choice would always be Steve.
Steve would never approve of that.
“Not your fault, Iron Man,” Steve replied, slowly. Tony took a deep breath, turned around to face Steve, not wanting to face the disappointment he knew would be on Steve's face despite his words, and froze. The wound was still bleeding. Steve was very pale. His voice seemed strong, but he was leaning on his shield, and his eyes were hazy.
“Okay,” Tony said. “Okay. Luke, care to contact Strange? Jess, can you get a hold of SHIELD? Maybe their cells will hold the wolves. Peter . . . no, don't talk to the police, I'll do that in a moment.”
“What are you doing?” Peter asked.
“Making sure he gets some medical attention,” Tony said, gesturing at Steve. He took a step closer to him and lowered his voice. “Come on, Cap.”
“I'm fine,” Steve insisted.
“You really aren't,” Tony sighed. He put an arm around Steve's shoulders and tried to steer him towards the ambulance. The EMTs met them halfway.
“Patch him up,” Tony said. “And don't listen when he tells you he's got a healing factor.”
Steve didn't even glare at him, and frankly, it was worrying.
“Sure, Iron Man. Come on, here –”
Tony sat Steve down on the floor of the ambulance. Steve seemed to be out of it, and Tony didn't think he'd lost that much blood, but maybe . . .
“Come on, I'll take care of her,” he said, and Steve turned at him and nodded, gave him his shield without arguments.
Tony's throat tightened at the show of trust.
He took a step back to allow the medics to poke at Steve. “Were any civilians hurt before we arrived?”
One of them glanced at him and shook his head. “Luckily, no. Some were shocked, that's it.”
“Thanks,” Tony nodded. That was good. Seeing Steve that affected, well, there was no telling how a normal person would react to being bitten.
Tony pushed away the thought that seeing everyone else hurt was better than seeing Steve hurt.
He forced himself to walk away and deal with the police.
“You shouldn't be up,” Tony said without looking up from his gauntlet. It didn't really need repairing, but he had to take it apart. To see for himself one more time just how he hurt – killed – people with it.
“The doctors let me go,” Steve noted, and Tony could hear the grin in his voice.
“Because you were being a nuisance,” Tony said. “And people say I'm bad in hospitals.”
“That's because I'm fine,” Steve said. Tony heard him come up closer, and stop a few metres away. “How are you?”
“For one, I haven't been bitten by a giant wolf,” Tony said. “A giant wolf that was a man.”
Steve came even closer, and a moment later Tony felt a warm hand on his shoulder. “You couldn't have known.”
“And what does it change?” he asked quietly, staring at the gauntlet and not seeing it. “I killed him.” And you wouldn't be here, trying to make it better, if we'd known he was human, and the lack of knowledge doesn't excuse mistakes, Tony didn't say. “Strange is unavailable and SHIELD couldn't identify him,” he said.
“And the rest of them didn't turn human,” Steve said. “I know.”
Tony turned back to glare at him, pushing all the guilt away for now. “You should be resting, not worrying about the fight.”
Steve stared at him. “Have you ever thought of taking that advice?”
“I'm always better with giving it, haven't you noticed?” Tony quipped.
Steve touched his cheek, gently. “Stop beating yourself up. You excel at it, but stop.”
Tony looked down. He knew Steve's hand was bandaged under the long-sleeved shirt he was wearing. That if Tony hadn't done anything, Steve might just have lost his arm.
He should have known. Regular wolves weren't this big.
“Come on, Tony. Jarvis is making dinner.”
“I . . .”
“Tony.” Steve looked at him, and Tony got a distinct impression that if he declined, Steve's eyes would go sad and he'd look so damn hurt Tony would never stop feeling guilty. He did that sometimes. Captain America, the manipulating bastard.
Tony spared a look at his gauntlet. He'd finish with it later.
Tony was in his bedroom, working on various designs on his tablet just so Steve wouldn't give him that sad look he had when Tony worked in the garage too much, when he heard the door to his rooms rip open. He frowned, set the tablet down and stood up. He could navigate every part of the Tower in the dark, his own rooms included. He slowly stepped forward – the door between his bedroom and another room he used sometimes was open and he stepped through it quietly.
At first he relaxed, because it was Steve. But something stopped Tony from calling to him.
Yes, it was Steve. But it was also Steve who had just opened the door hard enough to tear it from its hinges, and he stood there, absolutely, terrifyingly motionless with his face up, as if he was smelling something. His wide eyes were gold.
Tony took a step back, but it was too late; it was probably too late ever since he'd moved to the room.
Steve jumped at him, faster than he should be able to, even with the serum. He threw Tony to the ground, and pinned him down. Tony fought back a scream of pain – he was pretty sure his arm was cracked now. Sure, Steve was strong, but he'd never used that strength on Tony, before.
His nails – claws, Tony thought. He had claws now and he had them at his throat.
“Steve,” Tony gasped. “You don't . . .”
“Don't I want to kill you?” It was still his voice. Still his smile. “Why, I think I do.”
He clenched his teeth and tried not to scream as Steve stabbed him in his chest, just under the collarbone. Tony's eyes were foggy with pain, but he saw how Steve smiled at him, almost sweetly, and then pulled his claw out and stabbed him again, in the arm.
He tried to kick Steve – no, it wasn't Steve, he tried to kick him away, but couldn't, this not-Steve was too strong, too cruel; he didn't move an inch.
Tony tried to think against the pain – what was happening? A Skrull? No, they wouldn't bother . . . Mind-control? Steve wasn't that fast himself . . . Tony wanted to hit himself, it was so obvious.
The wolves. The wolves, one of which had bitten Steve.
They needed to stop him from harming anyone else – if he'd harmed a civilian, he'd never forgive himself, but Tony couldn't very well fight him now.
Steve stabbed him again, lower on his arm, and he yelled. It hurt, and it was Steve and – werewolves were responsible for their actions. They did have control over what they're doing, as far as Tony remembered.
Which meant, it was mind-control.
Which meant, someone was making Steve hurt Tony, and Tony had killed an innocent man.
He thought briefly of just lying there. Of letting Steve kill him. He deserved it. Except Steve still wouldn't see him as the murderer he was, and Steve would feel guilty for something he had no power over, damn that man.
“Steve,” Tony whispered. “You're hurting me.”
“That was the point, Tony,” Steve smiled.
“Why?” Asking that hurt.
“You killed one of ours,” Steve snarled at him.
“Steve, please,” Tony whispered. He had to stop him, because Steve would never forgive himself. Steve shook his head. Suddenly he got off Tony and hit him in the side, stabbed all his five claws in Tony's flesh, not deep enough to kill, just to hurt. Tony arched up and coughed blood.
He had to stop him.
Steve was authorized anywhere in the Tower, but . . . Tony still had his watch on. He could send an alarm to the other Avengers. Let them stop him.
If only . . . he tried to move, and it hurt, it all hurt, he couldn't move his hand.
“You want to fight with me?” Steve mocked. “Well, go ahead, stand up.”
They both knew he wouldn't be able to kneel, much less stand.
Tony closed his eyes, bit his lip, and forced himself to move his hand, just enough to grasp his wrist and press the button in. He wasn't sure if Steve really didn't notice or if he ignored it, but the silent Assemble call was sent. Now he had to stay alive before they arrived.
Easier said than done. He rolled to his stomach, tried to get up like this – if Steve expected it, maybe he would give Tony time. Tony took a few shaky breaths that didn't help and tried to lift himself up. Pain flashed in his side and he fell down.
“Pathetic,” Steve – not Steve, he should remember it – said. He kicked him in his ribs and Tony felt them breaking.
“Steve, it's not you,” he gasped out. “You won't –”
Steve kicked him again, and Tony curled up, unable to speak.
He heard someone arriving, but it was all foggy; everything hurt and he was pretty sure he was coughing up blood.
He blindly reached out, he had to tell them –
Someone was leaning over him.
“Don't hurt him,” Tony gasped. “He's . . . mind-controlled,” he managed to say, and then he passed out.
He knew he was in hospital even before opening his eyes. He knew the smell way too well. He knew the sounds. He opened his eyes, and Steve wasn't there –
Of course he wasn't.
Tony's whole body ached, which wasn't surprising. It also wasn't important. He had to make things right, and . . . He tried to sit up and someone pushed him back down.
“Let me,” he said. His voice was rough.
“Um, no,” Peter said. “You are not standing up. There was so much blood we thought he killed you!”
Tony winced. Minute by minute, he discovered new pains in various parts of his body, but he couldn't let it stop him. “How is Steve?”
Peter looked uncomfortable. “Closed in a cell in the Baxter Building. We thought you wouldn't like SHIELD having him. Neither would he, when he comes back to himself.”
So he was still a wolf. Or half-so; he'd been mostly human, after all.
“They were being mind-controlled,” Tony said. “It makes sense.”
He took a few deep, painful breaths – ah, broken ribs, long time no see. “Someone – I don't know. Someone told them to attack New York. Steve . . .” Tony's voice broke. It wasn't Steve. He just had his face and his voice. “He said killing me was revenge for one of them. He was right.”
“That's bullshit!” Peter said, incredulously, and oops, had Tony said it all out loud? Fuck.
“I killed a wolf. Who turned out to be a werewolf. I killed a human. A mind-controlled human, Peter,” he said.
Peter shifted from one leg to the other. He looked as if he'd rather be trying to get Wolverine to stop drinking now.
“Cap would tell you it wasn't your fault,” he said.
Tony tried to shrug and abandoned the move halfway when pain flashed in his right arm. “He would.”
He forced himself to stand up. The doctors had done a good job with him – every broken bone was settled, the cuts bandaged – they must have transfused blood as well. They could only tell him to wait, and he didn't have the time.
He was also swaying on his legs and his vision was foggy.
Didn't matter. He'd fought in worse conditions.
Peter seemed afraid. “I'll go find the guy responsible,” Tony promised. “So you don't have to help. Just don't stand in my way.”
It was a bluff, really, out of the armour Peter could take him any day, but he seemed to think for a moment before nodding. “The doctors will be mad,” he said, but he helped Tony up.
“It's my hospital,” Tony said. He was pretty sure it was, too. If it wasn't, he'd buy it later.
He was leaning on Peter more than he would care to admit to, but slowly, they left. “The team will kill me when they hear about this,” Peter complained.
Getting into the armour hurt, but at least when he was inside, it could take care of his bones and block pain receptors.
He could also breathe much easier inside his helmet.
“Okay, Peter,” he said. “Any intel on who might be controlling them?”
“Um, Stephen came by –”
“And you're only telling me now.”
“I'm not supposed to tell you anything, Tony. Don't kill yourself, okay?”
Peter looked uneasy, but he said, “Stephen said there must be an alpha wolf gone mad. He can control the actions of his pack.”
“So we have to find another werewolf, then?”
“Basically yes,” Peter said. “He might be dangerous.”
“I can do it,” Tony said, walking to his console. He woke it up and started putting in parameters. Werewolves didn't emit any special radiation, but they had a certain . . . aura, like all shapeshifters. Strange insisted it was magic. Tony knew better. Pym particles allowed their users to change size and left residue, too.
He let his scanners run. His heartbeat was wild, but there was nothing he could do to help it. At least he had stopped feeling pain and could think straight for the moment, and that was a big improvement.
The application beeped once, and Tony looked at the coordinates. A forest, just west of New York. Great.
“Wait, you're not going alone, are you?” Peter asked suddenly.
Tony fired up his boots. “Actually, I am.”
He hated magic and he might just hate nature too. There was an elegance to computers that simply wasn't present in forests.
He had to hurry up, though. His vision was slowly becoming foggy again, and he wasn't sure how much longer the suit would be able to keep him conscious.
He switched on the infrared scanner. The wolves were enormous, they should leave big signs – and yeah, just to the right and down from where he was flying . . .
He landed, and the wolf – werewolf was there. And in a second, he was a man. A very naked man.
“Iron Man himself,” he said. “So you lived.”
“I'm not easy to kill,” Tony said. “Let them go.”
“Why would I do that?” The man looked around. “You destroy – everything. It's just time to remind you, you're not the only species on this planet.”
Tony could laugh, if he wasn't afraid of jostling his ribs. “Is that it? Eco-werewolf?”
“You kill,” he continued. “You don't even care. A month ago, a poacher killed a young wolf here. He shot her. And then when she changed into a girl, he ran away.”
A cold shiver ran down Tony's back. That struck too close home.
“So, if humans can just kill us, we can return the courtesy.”
An alpha wolf gone mad, Tony remembered, and couldn't disagree.
“Do you think your pack – they want to kill?”
“Does it matter?” the man laughed, and then, in a blink, he was wolf again.
Tony was afraid he might have to kill him. One more death.
He shot at the wolf, jumped up and fired another two times. The wolf was fast and dodged the latter shots before jumping after Tony. Jaws closed over his armoured leg, and Tony tried to shake him off, hit him, or even just fire at him point blank, but then he felt a sudden pain and lost his concentration.
The wolf let him go and landed safely, as if he were a cat and not a fucking wolf. Tony only stayed in the air by some miracle. He could hardly breathe for the pain he was in. The HUD was blinking up warnings – the armour compromised, med systems off, seek immediate assistance. Tony was pretty sure he'd see blood seeping through the armour where the wolf just bit through it.
He tried to level his flight, get back in the fight, but he couldn't think, the pain everywhere too much for him.
“Told you not to go alone!” Spider-Man shouted, and swayed straight from the Quinjet. Tony saw Spider-Woman landing it and Wolverine and Luke coming out, and he took a sigh of relief.
They would take care of the wolf and they would save Steve.
He wasn't even on the ground when he lost consciousness.
It wasn't a new situation.
“I know you are awake,” Carol said. “And you're an idiot.”
Tony blinked a few times, but couldn't make his vision any less blurry. There were machines attached to pretty much every part of his body.
He hated hospitals.
“Carol?” he said. His voice was rough, dry. “Is Steve . . . ?”
“Yes, he's all right. Human. The serum took care of that. And you should've called me! Don't you think that's what friends are for?”
She might have a point, Tony thought. “I wasn't thinking clearly,” he admitted.
“Tony,” she said, seriously. “Flying like that? It's not better than flying drunk.”
He closed his eyes. As if he needed to hear that.
“I had to help Steve,” he said.
“Of course you had to. You couldn't, I don't know, wait. He wasn't in any pain. You couldn't let your team handle it.”
“It was Steve,” he said, as if it explained everything. Because it did.
“Yeah, Tony. Maybe you should tell him that.”
He was on pain meds. He could ignore her.
“I've got a press conference about my new book in an hour. I'll try to make it short, but meanwhile Luke will come make sure you stay in bed. Peter isn't allowed on Tony-sitting duty anymore,” she said.
“And probably happy for it,” Tony said.
Like that, with closed eyes . . . He could rest until he was able to walk out of this hospital on his own. And sleeping beat thinking about why Steve wasn't here.
Going back to the Tower was awkward. The New Avengers were glaring at him for taking risks, even if technically that was his call to make. Jarvis was disappointed. And Steve wasn't even looking at him. He avoided him when Tony tried to talk to him, left the room when Tony entered.
How could he take Carol's advice – not that he planned to – if Steve wouldn't talk to him? He knew he'd screwed up.
“Steve,” Tony said during one dinner, because that was pretty much the only time they were in one room together. Everyone fell silent. He hated to do it in front of the team, but Steve didn't exactly leave him a choice, did he? “I know I screwed up. I'm sorry. Someone might have gotten hurt. And I'm sorry for not checking up on you – I should've scanned you. And I'm sorry I haven't noticed what was wrong with the werewolves. It was really obvious they weren't behaving normally. I'm sorry. I apologize. Can you – can you forgive me?” He took a deep breath. “And I killed a normal human, who only attacked you, because he was mind controlled. And that's unforgivable and I know it.”
He bowed his head down. He didn't want to actually hear Steve's answer, because he knew it already.
“Everyone,” Steve said, seemingly calm, “can you leave us?”
“Tony, you are an idiot,” someone said, Tony couldn't tell who, focused on Steve as he was.
Steve walked over the table to him and stood two metres away, safely out of arm's reach.
“Tony,” he said, seriously. “You have nothing to apologize for.”
Tony looked up at him. “But I –”
“Nothing,” Steve interrupted him. He still wasn't looking at Tony. “I, on the other hand. I almost killed you. I'm not asking for forgiveness. I know there isn't anything – but I'm so, so sorry, Tony. I would never – I'd never hurt you if I could help it. I'd rather kill myself.”
Tony froze. He couldn't . . .
“Steve, it wasn't your fault,” Tony said. “You were mind-controlled. You couldn't help it.”
“But I did it,” Steve said, quietly. He looked up at Tony for the first time since they fought with the wolves. “The bruise on you cheek? My fault. That you can't take a full breath because of broken ribs? My fault. That you can't work in your workshop because of injuries in your arms? My fault.”
Tony shook his head, helplessly. “It's not, Steve.”
Steve gave him a small smile. “It is. But you, attacking that wolf to help me – that wasn't your fault. And it's not my place to, but I can forgive you for everything. But please, don't be such an idiot again, don't rush into a fight injured.” He sounded so sincere. Tony didn't know what to think. But he couldn't let Steve go on, blaming himself.
“I forgive you,” Tony said. “If that's what you need to hear. I've never blamed you, but I forgive you, okay? Just – stop. Stop avoiding me, stop looking at me like that; it's – I can't stand it, Steve, from anyone, especially from you.” He cut himself off before he said too much. Steve was staring at him, surprised. “And, Steve, one more thing.” Tony took a deep breath. “I had to go fight this alpha. I had to. Because it was about you. And that's the truth.”
He walked out.
Steve didn't stop him. Maybe it was for the best.
He was in his workshop when Steve found him. He met his eyes easily this time. “Did you mean it?” he said.
“Did I mean what?” Tony challenged.
“Yes.” He closed his eyes. He didn't want to know what Steve thought about him now. But moments later two warm hands carefully, so very carefully, touched his face. Soft lips found his and pulled back almost immediately, before Tony really had a chance to react.
“Me too, Tony. If it's about you, I'll do everything. If that's okay with you.”
Tony took a shaky breath.
He kissed Steve back.