“The Temple of Venus,” Tony said, pausing at the base of the mountain to let his companions catch their breath.
Tall spires of rock and foliage stretched out in front of him, a pattern not immediately recognizable within the stones. The temple was never intended to be easily found, and time had not been kind to the area without anyone to care for it, but Tony could still pick out the encouraging characteristics in the rocks that made his heartbeat climb in anticipation.
He wasn’t interested in the public area of worship though. For what they were after, they needed to dig a little deeper.
Tony had heard of this particular treasure entirely by accident, but the legends certainly seemed promising. The story told of a powerful artifact that protected the temple. According to the historical records, the anecdotes of this shrine seemed to align perfectly with the formation of a mystery cult in the area, dedicated to the goddess Venus and predating even the Roman Republic. Tony had a couple of copies of the writings of the time. A few more references had been found only recently in the curse tablets discovered in the area.
After that, the trail had gone cold. And without any further evidence, there was nothing left to do but investigate himself.
Pepper and Rhodey, at least, seemed willing to humor him (and why shouldn’t they? This sort of expedition was old hat to them). With them also was the esteemed Doctor Killgrave, a man who Tony would have just as well preferred to leave behind in the city, but who had insisted on joining them personally in their expedition. Honestly, Tony had never even heard of the man before, but when Killgrave had offered to fully fund their next expedition, he’d had the good sense to keep that to himself. Tony wasn’t in the habit of denying his benefactors such simple requests as accompanying them on the trip, even when they clearly trusted him so little that they brought along their own private security.
Killgrave had introduced them as his graduate students, but Tony was fairly certain that graduate students in history and anthropology were not nearly so athletic, and judging by the matching expressions on Pepper and Rhodey’s faces, they questioned the introduction also.
Killgrave and his companions did not seem quite convinced that they were in the correct place, likely because they didn’t know what they were looking for, so Tony waved them forward.
“Not immediately remarkable. There are temples scattered all across Europe, but this one is special.” The incline was steep but luckily intended to be travelled despite their rough appearance, and so Tony chose to forgo their climbing gear altogether.
“As I understand it, there were two types of practice in ancient Rome—religion, and magic. It would all seem foreign to us, but to your average, upstanding Roman citizen, the goings on of this temple would be entirely strange.”
“There’s nothing here, Mr. Stark,” one of the graduate students so kindly pointed out—and Tony hadn’t caught either of their names, mostly because Doctor Killgrave hadn’t bothered to introduce them.
“Well, they wouldn’t want it to be easy to find, would they? The temple was founded by a magic cult...an offshoot of your typical followers of Venus, and the entrance to the shrine itself was supposedly sealed magically to protect both the priestesses who inhabit it and the magical relics that they used in their rituals.”
“And who was your source for this information?” Killgrave cut in, noticeably breathless. Tony had warned him that this sort of journey wasn’t really cut out for a scholar of history. Tony applauded his determination.
“Legend and hearsay, mostly,” Tony said. At Killgrave’s noticeable silence, he turned back to gauge his expression—stony and entirely unamused. Tony winked and reached into the inside lining of his jacket to pull out a rolled up piece of paper. “But every rumor is grounded in truth.”
He handed him the paper, crisp and white as if it had been freshly printed. “Now, that’s not the original copy,” he said. “Apparently, you’re not allowed to take priceless papyrus on dangerous excursions into the mountains of Europe.”
“What is it?” Killgrave asked. Tony braced a foot against a protruding rock in order to free up his hands, slowly and unsteadily unrolling the paper. Killgrave made a face when he saw that it hadn’t been translated from it’s original text.
“A journal entry,” Tony said, “from a soldier who encountered the temple on his travels, on the night of the Veneralia,” he pointed to the word. “A festival in Rome, dedicated to Venus.”
“And this man recounts some kind of treasure?” Killgrave asked.
“Not at all,” Tony said. “This man recounts some kind of monster. A guardian. Says he barely made it out with his life.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Killgrave said, “and that tells you that we should go there?”
“That tells me,” Tony said at length, “that there is something worth guarding. Now fan out. We’re looking for anything that might resemble an entrance.”
Tony started off to the right, confident that the others would be thorough in their own search. Killgrave followed him, and Tony kicked aside the brush as he walked, paying the man no mind.
“Now, when I invested in this little expedition, I was under the impression that you had a little more—basis for your search,” he said. Tony nodded but didn’t deign to respond. He knew full well that Killgrave was interested in taking some credit in the discovery—what reason was there for the scholar to accompany them in their travels otherwise—but he was certainly far from an experience explorer. “Are you sure we’re even looking in the right place?” Killgrave asked.
“Have faith, doctor,” Tony said. “They don’t exactly print guidebooks for our line of work. A little bit of...interpretation is required—”
“Rhodey, Tony,” Pepper said. “I found something.”
Tony raised an eyebrow at Killgrave, smirking.
“After you,” he said. He could see what she was looking at from his point above—a small round hole, large enough for a person but certainly not door-sized, concealed just below a patch of bushes.
“It looks too small,” Rhodey said, as Tony leaned down to get a better view.
“Not for a hidden entrance,” Tony said. “It’s too dark to say for sure.”
“Give me a match,” Pepper said. Rhodey pulled one out, striking it for her, and Pepper dropped it down the hole. It dropped for a short while, maybe twenty five feet at most, although the light of the match barely radiated more than a couple of feet before it was swallowed by the darkness around it, so it was hard to say for certain.
The light winked out a moment later, and Pepper shrugged.
“I’ll check it out,” she said.
“No,” Rhodey said, at the same time both Tony and Killgrave agreed.
“Relax, Rhodey. If it’s no good, the rest of you can just pull me back up,” she was already rifling through her pack for their rock climbing gear. “And if it is good, then the rest of you can follow.”
Pepper looped the rope around the base of the bush, fastened it, and clipped on the rappelling gear to her harness. She climbed down onto her stomach, so that her legs were dangling into the hole, and then slid down further until she could hang from the edge. After a short moment to settle, she motioned for them to start lowering her down.
After a few moments, the rope went slack. “I’m down,” she said, and Tony peered down the hole to see their lantern cutting a circle around her. “There’s a tunnel,” she sounded triumphant, more so when she added: “Tool marks on the walls. It looks man-made.”
“If it was meant to be an entrance, there would be some way of getting inside without leaving another person or a rope behind,” Rhodey called after her.
It was quiet for a moment. “Can’t be sure, but there are notches in the walls. Could be meant as a ladder.” She paused. “They’re pretty worn. I’d stick to the rope.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Rhodey said. “Why don’t you go down first, Boss? I’ll help the rest of them down.”
“Fine,” Tony said, grabbing hold of the rope. Tony took less than a minute to maneuver down the hole. With the three of them combined, Killgrave and his companions took nearly twenty minutes to rappel down. Rhodey followed less than a minute later, looking annoyed even in the dim lighting, and Tony had to suppress a laugh.
The tunnel wound deeper and deeper into the mountainside, the walls seeming to close in around them, until the party was forced to walk single-file down the corridor, Tony taking point with Killgrave eagerly behind him, and Rhodey taking up the rear of the party. The only light was the dance of the torchlight on the walls, casting eerie shadows that the priestesses of this temple could have once used for divination.
Tony didn't need an oracle to tell him that their mission was going to be a rousing success. He could practically feel their target beneath his fingertips, the so called Heart of the Temple. Maybe they would even find some indication of the guardian that the soldier had recounted. He had quite a few friends in universities around the world who would be delighted for further information. Delighted enough, he was sure, to fund many of their future expeditions.
"How much further?" Tony heard the quiet echo from what seemed like far behind him. He turned his head so that his reply wouldn't be swallowed by the cavern walls.
"There's a bend up ahead. Can't be much longer now."
Tony hurried forward, eager to see what would follow. He was quickly proven right—it wasn’t much longer before he came up on the blank face of a wall blocking their path.
"Congratulations, Stark," Killgrave said. "You've led us down a dead end."
"Turn around," one of the graduate students said, sounding like he was only just containing a rising panic. Claustrophobia perhaps, Tony thought. "We have to go back."
"Relax," Pepper snapped, exasperated.
Tony eyed the wall, unnaturally smooth compared to the rest of the tunnel. They'd encountered their number of sharp corners, remnants of an ancient culture attempting to tunnel through stone, but they had yet to encounter anything that looked quite like this.
"Rhodey," Tony said, holding a hand up to silence the worried mumbling behind him. "Kill the lantern."
The student made an outraged noise behind him, and then the lights winked out. For a moment Tony stood blinking blindly into the darkness. Then, he caught sight of the spotted patches of dim light peeking through the edges of the flat-faced rock in front of him.
"'The caverns glowed with an unnatural light, such that I put away my torch to conserve it'," Tony quoted from the papyrus entry, bracing a shoulder against the rock in front of him, "'and so I did not see the guardian approaching me in the darkness until it was nearly too late.' Rhodey, Pepper, help me push."
Killgrave stepped up beside him, intent to help as well, and even with the addition of Rhodey and Pepper's efforts, the rock only wriggled in its place, being long accustomed to staying where it was. It wasn't until the rest of Killgrave's companions stepped up to help that they managed to budge the rock, an inch at first, and then two, until they'd made a hole large enough for a man, and the strange glow from the cavern had spilled into the tunnel.
There was more than enough light to see by once the rock had been shifted aside, even without the lanterns. The cavern itself was obviously not man made, but rather adapted to suit the needs of the cultists. There were still tall, intricately carved columns scattered throughout the corridor, probably to help prevent a cave-in. Tony paused a moment to inspect them, and to search for the source of the unnatural blue glow.
Thin pieces of moss clung to the etched-out hollows of the column’s carvings, climbing spider-like between the cracks. The moss glowed with an ethereal light, and Tony scraped a piece off with his fingernail. It was likely why the priests had chosen the sight as their holy ground in the first place—taking the bioluminescent mosses as some sort of sign from the gods.
Pepper and Rhodey had wandered on ahead when he’d stopped, and Tony jogged to catch up with them at the end of the hallway.
“Jackpot—woah,” Pepper said, staring up at the walls in wonder.
Her voice echoed in the empty expanse of the room. The same strange moss covered the walls here. The engineers who’d decorated the temple had designed the walls so that the carvings directed the moisture dripping from the ceilings into the grooves, spawning more of the glowing moss. The effect was a beautiful glowing mosaic of the cultist’s pantheon. Venus was featured prominently in the center, a marvel of engineering for their time.
There were grooves in the floor where temple pews would have once stood, directing the eye up to the raised platform at the center of the room. One statue stood against the back wall, face solemn as though there to watch over the proceedings. He looked like any ordinary Roman infantryman, except that his shield and arms were much more ornate. Tony didn’t recognize him as a specific god, or at the least not one he was familiar with. This was a temple of Venus, after all, and it was possible that he was meant to be some variation of the god Mars.
Tony was much more interested in the pedestal standing at the center of the platform, with a beautiful blue jewel shining at the center of the display.
“Doctor Killgrave,” Tony said, gesturing as though giving an introduction. “The Heart of the Temple.”
Killgrave moved as though to approach the pedestal, and Rhodey stopped him with a hand on his shoulder before he could so much as step into the room. “Better not,” he warned. “Stealing ancient treasures from temples isn’t exactly the safest work.”
“It’s hardly stealing,” Tony said. “Liberating, borrowing...take your pick. Whatever sounds best.”
Killgrave looked irritated for a moment, and then his features smoothed. “Of course. Gentlemen?” he said, gesturing for the two students to hang back with him.
Tony skirted around the edge of the room, avoiding the most obvious path toward the platform’s stairs for the sake of caution. He wasn’t sure that it would be necessary, but he’d had enough close scrapes with crude explosives and spring-loaded guillotine traps for a lifetime. He took the stairs slowly for the same reason, but still nothing happened, so he approached the shrine a little more boldly.
The artifact looked like it was carved from blue opal, roughly cut and unrefined. The bottom of the gemstone was decorated with delicate gold leaves, and the light cast off the torches made them glitter like stars, reflecting off the stone and casting slippery shadows across the pedestal’s surface. The outer edge of the display was etched with the words May our tribute to Venus release us, and delicate runes intertwined with the phrase, a relic of the old mystery cult’s practices.
As far as he could tell, the artifact wasn’t on any sort of pressure plate. He stalked all around the pedestal, inspecting for any sort of seam or trigger that might indicate that trying to take the gem would lose him a hand and found none.
Must be his lucky day.
He picked it up carefully, and the gem grew instantly warm in his palm, a blue light to match the moss’s glow shining from within. Tony nearly dropped the thing, surprised, and then broke into a grin.
“Hey, Rhodey, come take a look at—” Tony froze when he heard the hammer of a gun click behind him. He stood stock-still for a moment, and the hammer click seemed to echo in the silence of the room, “...this,” he finished lamely.
“Damn,” Tony said, half-turning toward the noise. Killgrave had his own pistol trained on Tony, and each of his companions had guns trained on Rhodey and Pepper. Tony scowled at him.
“Bring me the artifact—slowly—and I won’t shoot you where you stand,” Killgrave said.
“You’re not actually a professor, are you?” Tony asked cheekily, slowly raising his hands above his head, and the artifact with it.
“Don’t be cute, Stark.”
“Well, I suppose your money is still good, treacherous bastard or no—” Killgrave looked murderous, and Tony quickly added. “I wouldn’t shoot me, if I were you. This feels… fragile.” He waved the artifact again, to make a point.
“So does Miss Potts,” Killgrave said cooly, and his goon waved his gun in the same way, mocking.
“No need for violence,” Tony said, as much to Killgrave as to Pepper, who looked absolutely murderous. Tony took a cautious step toward him, trying to navigate the stairs without taking his eyes off of Killgrave. “I’ll—”
“Jesus christ!” one of them shouted, turning to aim at Tony. Tony yelped and ducked down as the man fired three rapid shots.
The shots went over Tony’s head, missing him by a mile. Tony blinked, looking down at the crystal and then up again. Where the hell was he aiming?
“Tony!” Pepper screamed in warning, pointing over his shoulder, and then slammed into Killgrave’s back, throwing off his aim. Tony spun around just in time to dodge the spear arcing toward him.
He couldn’t say the same for the shield that came after it. It slammed into him hard enough to throw him onto the stairs. Tony turned as he fell, tucking the jewel to his chest, and kicking out blindly behind him. He connected with something, the quiet wuf of air suggesting that it was something important and Tony didn’t pause a moment before scrambling up the stairs and onto the platform.
Tony dodged behind the pedestal—he should have brought a gun—and turned on his attacker. The man was just recovering on the stairs, spear planted in the ground to help him stand.
He glared, glowing eyes fixed not on Tony but on the jewel in his hands, and Tony had one hysteric moment to wonder what kind of clown would explore a Roman temple in costume before he pointed his spear in Tony’s direction and shouted at him.
Whatever that was, it wasn’t English.
Tony wasn’t sure what it was that compelled him to turn around and scan the back of the room—maybe just the fact that whatever strangeness they encountered, he’d probably seen worse—and he wasn’t disappointed.
The statue was gone.
The statue was trying to stab him.
“Rhodey,” Tony shouted, as the soldier advanced up the stairs, almost unnaturally calm. “I need a gun!”
“I’m—,” Rhodey grunted, and Tony could see him wrestling with one of the hired security, his gun pinned between them, “using it.”
The soldier raised his spear, and Tony was already prepared to dodge it, ducking behind the pedestal as best he could. He stepped back, preparing for another strike, when the soldier drew back his shield instead, smashing it into the pedestal and shattering the stone at the base.
Rock exploded over the ground, and Tony jerked back, lost his footing, and stumbled over the edge of the platform. The artifact nearly slipped out of his grip, and he twisted to keep from landing on it, curling his arm around it and holding it against his chest to keep it safe.
He landed hard on his back, his head smacking hard against the stone floor. The soldier gazed down at him, his lips twisted into a snarl, and his eyes glowed.
Pinned against his chest with one hand, something clicked, and the artifact glowed, too.
The jewel cracked down the middle and burst open, edges peeling away from the center like the segments to an orange. The light that shone from within quivered, now exposed, and then melted away, winding over metal and skin like ivy. The patterns of light burned almost impossibly hot, streaking up his arm and shoulder to his chest like a branding iron. Tony gasped and tried to drop it, but the artifact folded backwards up over his wrist and arm, scorchingly hot like liquid metal.
His chest felt like it was on fire, and Tony pulled jerkily at the front of his shirt. His hands froze as he realized that repulsor pump was glowing, but no, it wasn’t just the pump, it was his heart, and he shuddered and retched and clawed at the gauntlet, trying to pull it off.
Tony stumbled to his knees, remembering the soldier, and looked up.
He wasn’t looming over Tony anymore. He was on the other side of the cavern, grappling with one of Killgrave’s thugs. He slammed the edge of the shield into the man’s temple, connecting with a wet sound that Tony could hear even across the room, and the thug went down in a heap. The Roman turned then, completely unfazed, as though he’d forgotten the thug was there entirely, and raised his spear to Rhodey’s back.
Rhodey couldn’t see it coming, he was busy with Killgrave’s other man, he wasn’t going to have time to get out of the way—
Before Tony could even call out a warning, the soldier froze, spear poised for the strike, and turned look at Tony. He stared, breathlessly, as the Roman slowly lowered his spear, watching Rhodey lay the thug flat with a solid punch to the jaw, his gun having been dropped some time in the scuffle. The soldier turned purposefully back toward Tony. Pepper was tucking her handheld radio back into her bag when Tony looked to her next, and he hoped she’d had the good sense to radio for backup. She rejoined Rhodey on the other side of the room.
The soldier trotted over to stand beside Tony, and for a very brief moment he expected violence. Instead the soldier just stared at him, expression unreadable.
“O—kay,” Tony said, glancing between Rhodey and Pepper and then back. “Thanks for... not killing me, I guess—”
“Stark,” Killgrave said, drawing Tony’s attention back. His gun was still drawn, and Tony took a reflexive step back. The soldier shifted beside him, probably picking up on Tony’s anxiety, and eyed Killgrave and the gun with the first sign of unease Tony had seen from him. “Give me the jewel.”
Tony didn’t really think he was in a position to demand anything, outnumbered now without his thugs. Killgrave seemed to at least understand the gravity of his situation, eyes darting between Tony and where Rhodey and Pepper had paused uncertainly, not wanting to aggravate Killgrave, but ready to take action if necessary.
"If you won't give it to me, I'll have your arm," Killgrave spat. “You don’t need to be living for that.”
The soldier turned lightning-quick, positioning himself between Killgrave and Tony and snarling something angrily in Latin.
“Hey,” Tony said quietly. “Don’t antagonize the guy with the pistol.”
“Move out of the way,” Killgrave said. “I will kill you, and I won’t lose any sleep over it.”
With a display of the most personality Tony had seen on the man since the statue came to life, the soldier scoffed, looking at the little weapon like it was the least impressive thing he’d ever seen, and stepped forward.
“Don’t—!” Tony shouted.
Killgrave shot him.
The bullet hit the soldier in the shoulder, and he staggered, surprised, and landed hard on his knees. Tony gasped and dropped beside him, pain lancing down his own arm, and clutched his shoulder on instinct, trying to staunch the wound—
That wasn’t right.
Tony pulled his hand back, and there was no blood. That was—he’d been shot. He could feel it—
Killgrave sneered, cocked his pistol again and stepped forward to finish him off. Instead, the floor clicked hollowly under his heel, followed by the scrape of stone-on-stone as the ground depressed beneath Killgrave’s boot.
There was a moment of silence as nobody moved.
“Ah, hell,” Rhodey said.
The wall behind the dais began to shudder and crack, spitting dust and chips of rock into the air. The temple was coming down around them.
“Time to go,” Rhodey said, pulling Tony up off the ground.
“I’m fine,” Tony hissed through clenched teeth. “Help him.” Rhodey hesitated briefly before he nodded, stooping down and dragging the man’s good arm across his shoulder and hauling him to his feet. Tony staggered after him, trying to keep his feet under him him, clutching his arm as well, and Pepper lent him an arm to keep him from falling.
He’d lost sight of Killgrave once the pillars started coming down. Tony didn’t look back.
The ground shook violently when they made it into the hall, and Tony stumbled forward, dragging Pepper with him to throw them both out from under a shower of debris from the ceiling. The Roman muttered something unintelligible but not very friendly-sounding as Rhodey half-dragged, half-carried him through the hallway.
“That’s what I was gonna say,” Rhodey muttered.
The entrance was already resealing with rubble, and judging from the shower of dust from the ceiling there was no guarantee that the tunnel wouldn’t collapse as well.
“I radioed Jarvis,” Pepper said, “During the confusion. Thought we might need to make a quick exit.”
“Good thinking,” Rhodey said, gladly accepting Tony’s offer to help him drag the soldier along, though Tony didn’t miss the suspicious look. “Tone, are you all right?”
“Fine. Just...dizzy,” Tony said.
“What happened to your arm?”
“Besides the obvious?” Tony asked, raising his left arm to inspect the gauntlet in the dim light.
“Your right arm,” Rhodey said, because of course he would notice that Tony was favoring it.
“That’s the thing,” Tony mused, looking at the wound on soldier’s right shoulder. “Nothing.”
“It was obviously not nothing,” Rhodey said.
“Well if it makes you feel better, it sure didn’t feel like nothing,” Tony agreed, “but I couldn’t tell you what happened. I’ll be happy to discuss theories with you—later. For now,” Tony helped Rhodey ease the soldier to the ground, and reached out to grab the rope they’d left dangling at the entrance, “you should go first.”
He couldn’t see the zeppelin from the small window of sky above them, but he could hear it, even muffled through the walls. Jarvis was probably looking for them now based on Pepper’s rough description of their location, and he wouldn’t appreciate being kept waiting. “Then pull him up. He needs medical attention, and I don’t know if I can pull him up myself.”
“Fine,” Rhodey said, “but after Jarvis looks him over, you’re sitting down for inspection.” He didn’t wait for Tony to answer, just wrapped a hand around the rope and scaled the wall, only using the grooves there for minimal assistance.
It took Pepper and Tony only a moment to strap the soldier into one of the sets of climbing gear, and Tony did his best to guide him up as Rhodey did (most of) the legwork.
The soldier disappeared from view, and almost immediately a wave of dizziness came over him, stronger than before. Tony reached out for the wall to steady himself, but there was nothing there to grab on to.
“Tony?” Pepper asked, muffled, like his head was submerged underwater. “Tony, what’s wrong—”
“I—don’t,” Tony clutched at his chest, pain radiating down his arm, and oh god, he was having a heart attack. Pepper rolled him over—when had he ended up on the ground?—and Tony watched her mouth moving, the words forming but somehow not reaching him.
That was what he was focused on, when his vision tunneled, and the next thing he knew was darkness.
Tony woke up to the familiar hum of his zeppelin’s engines and the scratchy and unforgiving sheets that covered the medical bay’s beds beneath his fingertips.
“He’s waking up,” Jarvis said, cool as ever, although Tony had known him long enough to know that he was angry. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately—for Tony, he couldn’t remember what he’d done to land himself here.
“What’s going on?” Tony asked mouth dry but lacking the thick, cotton feeling indicative of a long hospital stay. He blinked his eyes open and was surprised to find the lights dimmed. Oddly considerate for them, so either Tony had really gotten into trouble, or—
He turned his head, enough to make out the form on the adjacent bed, and suddenly it was coming back to him: the cave, Killgrave’s betrayal, and the strange… statue that had somehow animated, attacked, and then taken a shine to Tony...
Although… maybe he’d hit his head. Hard. Because frankly, that seemed more plausible.
His arm felt heavy, and he flexed his wrist. He was going to ignore that for now.
“You passed out,” Rhodey said, obviously accusatory. “You’re lucky. Pepper had to drag your sorry ass out of that hole—”
“Frankly,” Rhodey cut in, silencing him before he could get another word in, “I would have left you there. Would have served you right. Just dizzy my ass.”
“I was just dizzy,” Tony said, then continued when Rhodey gave him a look, “When you asked, anyway. One second I was fine, and then… and then suddenly I couldn’t breathe.”
“You were barely breathing when I got you on the ship,” Pepper said. “You didn’t stabilize until… well, until we brought you here.” She nodded toward the other bed. Tony rolled up on his elbow to get a look at the adjacent bed, and the man laying beneath the thin infirmary sheets.
It took Tony much longer than he should have to understand her meaning. “You think it has something to do with…” he pulled his arm free from the bedding, and the crystal was still there, fused to his arm in a strange imitation of some jeweled bracer.
“Well, your friend was speaking Latin and trying to kill you,” Rhodey said, “and then suddenly he understands modern English and is trying to protect you, so. You tell me.”
“One way to find out,” Tony said, throwing back the blankets.
“Sit your ass down, boy,” Jarvis said, when Tony pushed himself to his feet.
“I feel fine,” Tony said, and it was true. The only indication that he’d been hurting at all was a faint but persistent pain in his shoulder.
Or maybe not his shoulder. Tony walked over to the other bed, leaning to reach the arm furthest from him, and before anyone could stop him, jabbed the soldier in the arm. The phantom pain in his shoulder flared, and Pepper slapped his hand away.
“What are you doing?” Pepper demanded, but Tony ignored her, rubbing absently at the spot where his shoulder ached.
“I can feel it,” Tony said. When Pepper just looked confused, he pointed at the soldier’s bandaged shoulder. “That. I can feel it. And when he was shot…”
“You went down,” Rhodey filled in. “I thought you’d been shot.”
“So had I,” Tony agreed, “This is just getting better.” Tony paused. “And I’d bet anything that if I tried to leave this room…”
“You’d end up unconscious like before,” Pepper guessed. "How do you always find yourself in these situations?"
"It's a gift," Tony replied.
“Or a curse,” Rhodey said. He walked over to the soldier’s bedside. “Let’s not forget the guy was trying to stab you with a spear up until that thing latched on your arm. I’m not saying we can’t trust him. But—” He reached out, to adjust the comforter or to grab the shield leaning against the bed, Tony wasn’t sure, but in a flash the soldier was sitting up in bed, good arm outstretched to grab Rhodey by the wrist.
Tony had a split second to panic—not even a conscious thought, just the desire for him to leave Rhodey be—before the man was flinching back again, eyes darting between Tony and the rest of the room. Rhodey took a step back, looking… well, not upset but certainly unsettled, which Tony was pretty sure could be chalked up to how completely hunted the soldier was looking.
He’d obviously hurt himself more from the sudden movement—Tony could feel as much in his own shoulder, and yes, poking him earlier probably hadn’t helped—and he could feel a panic building in his chest that wasn’t entirely his own.
If Tony could feel that, there were pretty good chances it was a two way street, so Tony focused on being as calm as possible. He wasn’t really sure how to project that feeling, but it seemed to be having the desired effect, anyway.
“Relax,” Tony said, raising his hands in a placating gesture. “You’re among friends.”
“We’re—” the soldier glanced around, and seemed to calm considerably when he realized where he was, but there was still a definite underlying panic there. “We’re no longer in the temple,” he said simply. Tony snorted. This guy was about as serious as a heart attack, and frankly it looked a little silly with the infirmary’s floral bedding playing backdrop.
Jarvis had pulled him out of most of his armor in order to treat the wound, but the pieces were still piled beside the bed. The soldier reached out to grab the shield, now, and pulled it stiffly toward him with his injured arm.
“Where are we?” he demanded.
“A zeppelin. My zeppelin,” Tony said. When he just looked confused, Tony added, “it’s like a ship.”
“This doesn’t look like any ship I’ve ever seen,” he said, looking around the room suspiciously.
“Well, to be fair, how many ships could you have possibly seen from the inside of a temple—”
“I wasn’t always in the temple,” he said sharply.
“Right,” Tony said. “Of course not. And you weren’t always a statue against the wall, either.” Tony added, and the silence that came after was telling enough.
“What’s your name?” Pepper asked. He eyed her warily, and she ignored the look. “I’m Pepper. This is Jarvis, Rhodey, and Tony.”
“Stephanus,” he said, and Tony could tell that he was judging their “strange” names about as much as Tony was judging Stephanus.
“Okay, Steve,” he said, ignoring the soldier’s annoyed look at the nickname. “How long have you been in there, exactly? You look like you were wearing a Halloween costume.” Tony motioned to the stacked armor, and the shield covering the blankets above his knees.
Steve’s face scrunched up in uncertainty. “I don’t know. Last I remember it was The Year of the Consulship of Marcus Servilius Pulex Geminus and Tiberius Claudius Nero.”
Steve shrugged, then looked at him like he expected Tony to fill in the rest.
Tony frowned. “That is not remotely helpful—”
“The Roman Republic,” Pepper said. “Jesus, it’s—it’s been a long time.”
“That much I knew,” Steve said. It sounded like it pained him to say it. “The last man who came into the temple told me I had been asleep for nearly a century.”
“What happened to him?” Tony asked, already suspecting the answer.
“He tried to take the Heart of the Temple,” Steve said, “and I was compelled to stop him.”
“Compelled,” Tony said. “Right. Like you were… compelled to attack us? Earlier?” Steve nodded, and the next question, Tony could tell, was in the forefront of all of their minds. “Then why did you stop?”
Steve shrugged, and leaned his forehead against his knees. “I can’t explain it. I don’t know.”
Tony drummed his fingers against his heart compartment softly, drawing Steve’s attention to it.
“Don’t suppose you can explain this?”
Steve’s eyes widened a little, and the light flared briefly. His eyes flashed to Tony’s new gauntlet, as though he’d only just noticed the thing. To Tony’s surprise, anger took over his expression, but when he grabbed the arm that the gem had moulded itself around, his grip was surprisingly gentle.
“How did this happen?” he demanded.
“I was hoping you could tell us—” Tony began, but Steve shoved him aside before he could finish and threw the covers from the bed.
Jarvis sighed heavily and fixed him with a look he’d reserved for when Tony was being particularly irritating. “You shouldn’t be moving,” he said. “You’ve been shot.”
Jarvis didn’t move to stop him, probably because Steve looked two seconds away from going for his spear, and he still had the shield clutched in one hand. Steve was careful not to turn his back on any of them, and Tony felt his hands go up on automatic. This time, when he tried to project calmness, a wave of anger was the only answer.
“Why have you brought me here?” Steve shouted, backing through the door and down the hallway. There wasn’t anything important that direction—the engine room and the bridge were both through the other door—and if Tony’s experiments earlier were any indication, he couldn’t get very far, anyway, so Tony didn’t try to stop him.
“Well, we didn’t really have a choice,” Tony shouted back, “I can’t go thirty feet without feeling like I’m going to throw up—”
Steve screamed in rage, and when his fist struck the wall it punched straight through the plaster. “I’m not free,” he accused. “I’ve just changed prisons.”
Tony could see that he wanted to storm away, could see it in the halted step he tried to take out of the room, but they were already reaching the maximum distance that he could comfortably be apart, and Steve must have been able to feel it too, because he stormed back a few steps and slammed the door between them.
The was a solid thud against the door, as though he was trying to block them from following. He didn’t need to worry, because Tony wasn’t going to follow anyone who could put his fist through his wall when they didn’t want to be followed.
“Great,” Tony said, dropping down onto the bed closest to the door. He wasn’t feeling dizzy anymore, at least, but that didn’t fix things. “I take it he doesn’t know how to fix this, either.”
“That reaction seemed a bit extreme,” Rhodey said. He was eyeing their new hole in the wall, and Tony had to agree.
“How would you feel if you’d been magically bound to a temple for centuries?” Pepper asked.
“Can’t say I’ve ever thought about it,” Tony said. “Do you think he’s really from Ancient Rome?”
“Well, he speaks perfect English,” Rhodey said, “but that was definitely Latin in the temple. And he certainly seems to believe that he’s been trapped in that temple for centuries.”
“It is a little ridiculous,” Pepper agreed.
“Today, I saw a statue turn into a man, and then I had that man magically bound to me by a magical rock. I’d say nothing is too ridiculous in this scenario,” Tony sighed. “I don’t suppose he’d be willing to move to the workshop?”
“I’ll bring you some Marvels manuscripts,” Pepper said happily. “You need to sign off on them, anyway.”
Tony groaned. “Aw, Pepper, there’s a reason I haven’t read through those yet.”
“It needs to be done someday,” Pepper said, “and I’ll keep you company for a few hours, while I write up this issue of Marvels.”
“We’re going to sell so many copies,” Rhodey said.
“No one’s going to believe this horseshit,” Jarvis said.
Tony shrugged. “Half our readers already don’t believe. They just want a good story.”
Jarvis looked unenthused. Of course, unenthused was his default expression. “I’ll be on the bridge,” he said.
“Well,” Tony said. “...I’ll be here, I guess.”
Tony let Steve brood for almost an two hours, because he was nice and he figured he should at least give him some time to calm down, but Tony had never spent this long in the infirmary even when he was sick, let alone when he was perfectly healthy, and he was starting to go a little stir crazy.
“Listen,” Tony said, up against the crack in the doorway. “I’m not happy about this either. It sucks.” Steve didn’t respond, but he pressed on. “But you moping in there is pretty shitty for the both of us. For one thing, I just ate and I’m still starving, and I’m pretty sure that’s because you’re starving.”
There was still silence on the other side of the door, so Tony knocked twice just to be sure that he was listening. “Also, I think we should put your arm in a sling, because it hurts like a bitch. You probably shouldn’t be out of bed, actually, and—”
The door opened before he could continue. Steve glared sullenly at Tony like he had caused all of the world’s problems, never mind that he was the one who’d gotten himself trapped in magical temple long before Tony was born.
Tony stepped aside, and Steve walked carefully over to the bed. He was holding his arm somewhat awkwardly to his chest, and Tony could feel the phantom pain throbbing in his own shoulder, just enough to annoy. He didn’t doubt that it was much worse for Steve.
“Rhodey made hamburgers,” Tony said. “And we still have this,” Tony lifted the sling for Steve to see, “from when he dislocated his shoulder a couple months back. It should fit you.”
“Hamburgers?” Steve asked. Tony pointed to the plate he’d left on the nightstand. It was probably getting cold at this point, but he didn’t think Steve would mind, either.
“It’s meat on bread,” Tony said. He tossed him the spare sweatpants and t-shirt that Rhodey had brought down for him. His other clothes were a little… worn, to say the least. “You’ll like it. Put those on.” Tony waited patiently for Steve, who was very obviously favoring the one arm, to change into the sweatpants and shirt, and tried to give him as much privacy as he could given their circumstances.
“Okay,” Tony cleared his throat, pointedly not thinking about the article of clothing that Steve was obviously lacking, “now let me help you with this.”
“I don’t want it,” Steve said, eyeing the sling with disdain.
“Well, I don’t really care,” Tony countered. Steve glared at him. “It will heal faster. Pepper brought you some pain killers, too. Being shot sucks. Trust me, I know.”
Steve looked wary, still, but shuffled aside on the bed so that Tony could settle beside him. Tony wrapped the sling around his shoulder, careful not to jostle him,and pulled the strap in place. Steve rapped quietly against his shield while Tony was busy trying to figure out how the clasps were supposed to work.
“What was that thing?” Steve asked. At first, Tony didn’t know what he was talking about, but it didn’t take long for him to figure it out.
“A gun,” Tony said.
“A gun,” Steve echoed, obviously not understanding how it had worked, but cataloguing the effects regardless.
“Yeah, you probably don’t want to stand in front of one,” Tony said. “Not that I anticipate that being an issue. This wasn’t exactly a typical day for us.”
Well, that wasn’t entirely true, but he didn’t think that admitting to Steve how often he found himself at gun point would be particularly comforting.
“You know what?” Tony reached over Steve, and grabbed the plate off of the nightstand. “Come on,” Tony said, already heading for the hallway. “I want to show you something.”
At first, Steve didn’t get up to follow him, and Tony was preparing himself for the same dizziness that he’d felt earlier. Instead, he reached the doorway and Steve sprang up from the bed, taking three steps towards Tony as though compelled to follow before stopping, looking dazed.
Tony took another step away, and then two. Somehow the artifact was leading Steve along after him, keeping him from being left too far behind. Interesting. Tony hadn’t had the same reaction when it had been Steve moving away from him, just the dizziness...but maybe the rules were different for the person holding the artifact than the person bound to it? Maybe he—
“Stop,” Steve shouted, and Tony froze.
He instantly felt guilty, from Steve’s expression alone. Tony hadn’t considered what it must be like to be compelled to move, with no way of controlling yourself.
“Sorry,” Tony said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“You weren’t,” Steve agreed, and then, seeming to accept the apology, added, “That’s never happened before.”
“Well, you were trapped in that temple to, what, protect this jewel?”
“No,” Steve said. “The temple itself. The Heart of the Temple was only the means to bind me there.”
“Right,” Tony said, trying not to think about what that meant for him, now that the heart of the temple had bound Steve to Tony. “Well, I can’t imagine a temple trying to walk away from you,” Tony said.
“That is true,” Steve said. He seemed hesitant, when he added, “Where were you taking me?”
“Up on deck,” Tony said. “I thought we could use the change of scenery. And the flight back to New York is going to take some time.”
“Flight?” Steve asked, now obviously confused.
“I’ll show you.” Tony grinned, nodding toward the hallway where the deck access was, and this time Steve followed, curiosity getting the better of him. Tony let Steve climb the stairs first, and when he opened the door at the top, he stopped dead in his tracks, blocking the way.
“Relax,” Tony said, when he felt his own heartbeat rising, “It’s safe. Now move it.”
Steve took a couple more steps onto the deck, but would go no further. When Tony tried to press past him, Steve latched onto an arm, grounding him in place. Tony tugged at the grip, turning exasperated toward Steve.
Tony stopped when he locked eyes with Steve. The same ethereal glow he’d seen before in the cave, and coming from the crystal, now hooded his eyes. Tony took a few careful steps back toward the stairs, away from the open air, and watched the glow slowly fade. Steve looked dazed, and Tony took the opportunity to tug his arm free.
“Compelled to protect me, huh?”
“Cursed,” Steve amended, somewhat bitterly, when he realized what had happened. Tony tried not to take offence.
"Well, if this is a curse, there's got to be some way to break it," Tony said. "How did you end up bound to the temple in the first place?"
“I was traveling,” he said, “and I stopped in the temple for the night. It was already abandoned, but there was… a man there. The previous guardian. We fought. I defeated him. I took his place.”
“And fast forward two thousand years,” Tony said. “Now you’re here.”
“I should have let him kill me,” Steve said bitterly, and Tony could tell from the twist in his gut that he meant it.
“Hey, no,” Tony said. “I mean, now you’re here. On a flying ship. You have,” Tony lifted the plate between them, waggling it enticingly, “hamburgers to try. And before you know it, we’re going to figure out how to break this curse, and you’ll have your whole free life ahead of you.”
Tony handed him the plate, and nodded toward one of the sets of deckchairs, far back from the edge. “We’ll figure this out. I promise.” Tony tapped his fingers on the patio table. “In the meantime… tell me about yourself?”
Steve looked wary at first, either because he was a private man or because he was afraid Tony would judge him. Eventually, Tony managed to coax out a simple story. He was an enlisted soldier from a small town Tony had never heard of, and that probably no longer existed. Before he’d enlisted he’d lived in a house with two other families. After he’d had a few friends, brothers in arms mostly, and many of them as well as most of his family had died before he’d been trapped in the temple.
Life expectancy was, apparently, not very high in ancient Rome.
In exchange, Tony told Steve about his parents—or what he was willing to divulge, in any case—as well as his adventures. He tried to tell him a little about the future, what had changed in the years Steve had quite literally lived in a cave, but even through their link Tony could tell how uneasy the mention of anything too modern seemed to make Steve, and so he steered the conversation toward more neutral topics.
Steve was quiet as they flew past the statue of liberty, eyes fixed on the little island, and after that point, he very steadfastly kept his gaze on the confines of the ship, even as they drew closer to the ground and the private docks where they were planning to disembark.
There were two cars waiting for them when they arrived, and Tony led Steve down to the bottom of the Zepplin where they could disembark completely.
“Pepper is driving separately,” Rhodey said, as though reading Tony’s mind. “So Jarvis is going to store the Zepplin and meet us later.” Rhodey wandered over to one of the cars, and took the keys from the man standing patiently beside it. The lights blinked when Rhodey started the engine, and Steve jumped.
“What is that?”
“It’s a car,” Tony said. “You sit inside, and it moves. Like a chariot without the horses.”
Steve eyed the thing, distrust apparent on his face. He looked like he was seriously considering the possibility that Tony was lying to him. “How does it work?” he challenged.
Tony sighed, “It’s complicated, but if you get in the car before the photographers show up and start snapping pictures, I’ll explain it to you.”
“Photographers?” Steve asked, and Tony groaned, planted a hand on Steve’s shoulder, and pushed him toward the car.
Tony slid into the seat beside Steve, and Rhodey turned back to look at them when Tony slammed the door shut.
“So, what do you think?” he asked. “Wanna take a spin around the city? See some sights? I’d bet everything has changed.”
“Home,” Tony said.
“Aw, come on, boss, you don’t think the guy wants to do a little sight-seeing? He’s been cooped up in a temple for a thousand years. I’d—”
“Rhodey,” Tony cut in, sharply enough that he stopped mid-sentence. Tony could feel his anxiety climbing, in the not-so-pleasant buzz at the back of his mind that told him that the feeling wasn’t entirely his own. “Straight home. No stops.” He glanced over at Steve, who was staring resolutely at the back of the driver’s seat, jaw clenched so tightly Tony was a little worried he would break teeth. “And maybe keep the radio off.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve said, quietly enough that only Tony heard him. Tony hesitated a moment, not sure if he’d he overstepping, and then thought to hell with it and reached over to squeeze Steve’s hand reassuringly.
“It’s fine,” Tony said. “Just try to relax. My heart doesn’t need the stress.”
“You could say that again,” Rhodey said, obviously accusatory. Tony ignored him, and he was blissfully quiet for the remainder of the trip, although Tony was sure that that was out of respect for Steve (and perhaps desire to avoid an incident while he was behind the wheel) and not for Tony’s sake.
When Rhodey pulled into the driveway, he stopped well before the garage.
“Pepper gave me a list of people I’m supposed to talk to about that,” he pointed to the gauntlet on Tony’s wrist. “Apparently, she doesn’t want you leaving the house,” he added with a slight smirk. Tony was fairly certain what she didn’t want was Steve leaving the house and causing an incident, but he was willing to let it slide. “So I’m gonna drop you here, and I’ll be back tomorrow to check on you.”
“Fine,” Tony said, popping the door open. “Thanks for the ride, Rhodey. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“No problem, Boss,” Rhodey said, as Steve moved to shuffle out after him—apparently not having grasped that the door on his side opened just as well. Tony made sure that Steve was back enough that Rhodey could pull out of the driveway, and then watched the gate shut securely behind him.
“This is your home?” Steve asked, eyes sweeping over the mansion’s lawn.
Tony nodded. “Yep, home sweet home. I’ll give you a tour. I want to test where we can and can’t go. I’m guessing that our options are limited...twenty some feet isn’t a very workable distance in a mansion.”
“It’s enormous,” Steve agreed, following Tony down the sidewalk. He scanned the outside of the mansion, and when Tony opened the front door, he scanned the inside as well. “And very secluded.”
“Secluded?” Tony asked. Parked right in the middle of Fifth Avenue wasn’t exactly Tony’s idea of secluded, and he’d kind of expected Steve to feel crowded in the populated New York City.
“Where I’m from,” Steve said, pausing only a moment, as though deciding whether to amend to when, “the homes of the wealthy are open to the public. Visibility is important. Otherwise you seem… dishonest.”
“Well, frankly,” Tony said, shutting the door behind Steve, “that sounds awful. Luckily today, everyone knows that we’re dishonest, but we get our privacy anyway.”
Steve frowned, obviously not understanding that Tony had meant that as a joke. Mostly.
“So you stand here,” Tony said, “and I’m going to walk around. That way, I can show you the mansion and we can find out if any of these rooms are close enough together for us to reach,” he paused, remembering Steve’s reaction to being “guided” on the Zeppelin, and added, “If that’s all right?”
Steve seemed to consider it. “That’s fine,” Steve said.
“Great,” Tony said. “We’ll start with the bedrooms.” Tony led him up the stairs and into the west wing. He already knew that none of the bedrooms were even remotely close enough to each other that he and Steve could occupy adjacent rooms, but he had to try. The closest they got was if Tony was lying down in one of the guest rooms, Steve could reach the linen closet and the bathroom in the hall—but only so far as the sink. The toilet itself was just out of reach.
In the mean time, Tony showed Steve the wonders of electricity and running water, both of which Steve seemed to take to very well. He explained how they worked as best as he could knowing that Steve had literally no prior knowledge, and threw in an explanation of how their car had worked as well.
From the kitchen, they discovered that most of the dining room on one side was within reach, as well as a good stretch of hallway and the outer edge of the den (only so far as an armchair by the door, but far enough, in Tony’s mind).
When Tony showed him the library, Steve looked suitably impressed by the walls and walls of books. There wasn’t much to see in the library beyond that, so Tony was already moving on when Steve stopped him.
“What’s that?” Tony followed his finger to the little table beside his favorite armchair.
“A radio,” Tony replied.
“Like from the car,” Steve said. He picked it up, turning the wood over in his hands. Tony reached out to flick the dial, and instantly the sound of a baseball hitting a bat burst from the speaker. Steve jumped, fumbling the thing, and only barely managed not to drop it.
He did set it down very gently on the table looking… actually, much less put off than Tony had expected him to be. Maybe it was the tour of the building, maybe Steve was warming up to the novelty of living in a brave new future, but he seemed enraptured with the radio. Tony reached over to change the stations a few times—a radio news show, a music station, a radio drama—and then turned the thing off.
“Come on,” Tony said. “One more room to test.”
Steve reluctantly allowed Tony to coax him away from the radio. He led him down to the workshop next, because at the end of the day finding a way to free them was paramount, and if Tony could figure out how to remove the gauntlet, they’d be well on their way to doing that. Failing that, Tony would have to hope that he could get in touch with the right people, scholars well versed in the lore, and maybe one of them would have an idea on what to do.
He’d never felt so claustrophobic in such a large house, and for the first time in his life Tony was wishing that the mansion was just a little bit smaller.
“This,” Tony said, as he lead Steve down the basement stairs, “is my workshop. Don’t be intimidated—most of the people from my time don’t know what half of this is.”
Tony paused to glance over at Steve, who was looking around with interest, but not at all anxious like before. Tony grabbed one side of the couch, and started dragging it over to the middle of the room.
The workshop wasn’t that much larger than fifty feet across, and if Steve stayed in the middle of the room, it wouldn’t hinder Tony’s movements too badly.
“So I’m thinking that we’ll be spending a lot of time down here,” Tony said. “Since I’m going to be working on getting this thing off my arm, and you’re kind of stuck for the ride.”
“That’s fine,” Steve said, with great finality. “The faster, the better.”
“Well, I’m glad I have your permission,” Tony said, laughing quietly, “but I was actually asking what you wanted to do for fun while you’re stuck down here. I could get you some books? Or—”
“I don’t read,” Steve said.
“You don’t—right,” Tony said. Latin was a largely spoken language. Those who wanted a formal education needed access to a tutor and the free time to use them. That wasn’t always an option, especially outside of Rome proper. Steve probably hadn’t had the opportunity. “Well how about… uh.”
“I draw,” Steve offered, “Or I used to. Sometimes. When there was papyrus to—”
“Really?” Tony asked, surprised. “Okay! Well,” he wandered over his drafting table, and pulled out a stack of paper and the set of pens and pencils he used when he was drafting his designs. “Here,” Tony said, setting them on the couch, “or you can use the table, but you’ll have to get up every time I need to go to that half of the room.”
“The… couch, is fine,” Steve said, turning the paper and pencils over in his hand like Tony had handed him a treasure. Steve dropped onto the seat, testing the springs and looking a little shell-shocked, and Tony allowed himself to watch for a second.
Only for a second, though, because there was work to be done.
Tony sat with his forearm resting on the lab bench in front of him, angling the bench lamp to better light his work space. Tools were strewn around him, discarded haphazardly after each failed attempt to remove the artifact. Tony sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face, willing away the tired ache he’d been fighting for the last couple hours, then stood from the bench to stretch his legs.
Steve had fallen asleep on the couch some time ago, and while Tony felt a little guilty about making him sleep there instead of a real bed, he wasn't willing to give up the time in his lab to waste on sleeping.
He’d nodded off in the middle of sketching one of Tony's cars. There were scraps of drawings piled in the neat stack on the floor next to him, and Tony placed the unfinished sketch on top, smiling. Steve had been blown away by the quality of the paper, even more so when he'd told him how much of it Tony had, and he was completely enamored with the ballpoint pen Tony had given him.
Steve was shivering slightly. The colder weather in New York must have been a shock, coming from the Mediterranean. Tony paused long enough in his work to toss the Afghan hanging over the back of the couch over him, before getting back to it.
The material of the gauntlet was like nothing he'd ever seen before. It felt like solid crystal. The artifact had, as well, and until it had opened up it had looked like any other stone. Tony traced the articulated joints of the wrist up the forearm, trying to find the seam where it might pull apart, but it looked as though there wasn't one. Any cracks that might have been in the bracer seemed to have disappeared, almost as though it had resealed itself into one solid structure.
When the artifact first latched onto his arm, it had burned excruciatingly hot. Had it welded itself closed, somehow?
Tony had very briefly entertained the idea of using his welding torch to get it off, but... well, he was sort of fond of his arm fully attached and without the third-degree burns, and not quite that desperate to be free of the bracer, yet.
Tony glanced up when he heard the door at the top of the stairs open, surprised that anyone would still be awake at this hour. It was late, wasn't it? Jarvis had gone to bed hours ago.
Tony glanced at his watch and bit back a groan. It was morning already.
He let out a frustrated sigh. He'd worked through the night and made absolutely no progress toward getting the bracer off, or even figuring out how it worked.
Pepper came down the stairs, heels clicking on the cement floor of the lab. Steve shifted on the couch, either pretending to be asleep or stubbornly refusing to be woken up.
Pepper wasted no time with preamble. "These are the invitations you've received from the investors you've been ignoring," she said, handing him a stack of irregular envelopes. They tended to pile up whenever Tony was away on an adventure, and...Tony was mostly inclined to ignore them, honestly, if he could get away with it.
Tony shuffled through the first few, seeing an assortment of fundraisers and galas, invitations to speak at various universities on the topics of archaeology and engineering, and one very personal invitation to dinner with a senator which he plucked from the stack to toss on the floor. No, thank you.
"That's not even all of them," she continued. "Just the ones they've started sending to me, now, at my Marvels address, since you never respond to yours. I've got better things to do than sort through your mail, Boss, so pick something and go be your usual charming self and smooth things over before they start pulling your funding."
"That may be a little difficult, considering our newest development," Tony said, flipping quickly through the pile and tossing the rejected invites onto the floor.
“You’ve been gone too long already, Tony. If you don’t start making appearances the company’s going to start to suffer for it.”
“Okay, fine, fine,” Tony said. “I’ll get back to you tonight.”
“Good,” Pepper said, handing him the rest of the stack. When she reached the doorway, she flicked off the light to the workshop, so that only the stairway was still illuminated. “And go to bed, Tony. It’s six in the morning.”
“You’re awake,” Tony accused.
“I got seven hours last night,” she said. “Go to bed. I can’t believe you made Steve sleep on the sofa.”
Tony scoffed, but Pepper was already gone. And yes, he did feel a little guilty for making Steve sleep on the sofa, especially now that he was wide awake and staring at Tony expectantly.
“We should go upstairs,” Steve said, when it became apparent that Tony was going to go back to work.
“How are you still tired?” Tony asked.
Steve shrugged. “I’m not. But you are. I can feel it,” he added, before Tony could protest. “I’m just going to draw. I can do that anywhere.”
“Yeah, okay. Not for too long, though,” he said.From the speed at which Steve agreed, Tony could tell that he probably wouldn’t be waking him once he was asleep.
He waited for Steve to gather up his things before turning out the lights in the lab and heading upstairs.
Tony hesitated when he reached his bedroom. He could always let Steve sit around in his bedroom, but he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep with someone watching him, even if Steve would probably be more interested in his sketchbook than him.
Steve didn’t seem to notice Tony’s conundrum, and took the decision right out of his hands when he sat down beside the bedroom door, pulling out a pencil. Tony considered a joke about guarding the door, but figured it would be a too little close for comfort.
“Good night, Steve,” he said. Steve hummed acknowledgement, already sketching out the skeleton of what would probably be a person, and Tony only hesitated a moment before pulling the bedroom door closed behind him.
Tony woke something like seven hours later, feeling like a new man. He found Steve exactly where he’d left him. An empty plate sitting beside him indicated that Pepper or Jarvis had taken pity at some point throughout the day. Tony invited him inside so that he could actually reach the en suite bathroom, and he quickly showered and shaved.
After sleeping on it, he already had a good idea of what kind of appearance he wanted to make, but Tony still took the stack of invitations with him to the library to mull over, in part because he could use the change in scenery, but mostly because he felt guilty for making Steve wait so long for him to wake up and join the living. He could tell how intrigued by the radio Steve had been when Tony had first showed it to him, and sure enough Steve made a bee-line for it when they entered the room.
Tony paused long enough to show Steve how to tune in to different stations, before dropping down into one of the armchairs across the room by the bay windows so that he could start in on the stacks of invitations.
The stack had already been weeded through once in the lab, and Tony quickly went through to remove the remaining offers for guest lectures and seminar talks. He wasn’t very eager to choose anything that would involve more preparation on his part than getting dressed in the morning—especially since he was already facing down the somewhat daunting task of getting Steve at least moderately prepared to be seen with him in public.
That left a small pile of fundraisers and banquets—some too soon or already passed, and some hosted by people Tony had no interest in playing nice with or showing his support for.
Pepper found him in the library later that day, long after he’d moved on from sorting through invitations and into listening companionably to a radio drama with Steve. When Tony handed Pepper the invitation to a gala, she stared at him incredulously.
“Tony, when I said pick one, I was thinking something more along the lines of the lecture at Empire State University. Or the engineering conference. Something where we can park Steve in the front row, and he won’t have to interact with anyone.”
“Right, and that would smooth things over with one person. Two, tops. If we go to this, we’ll be able to meet with at least ten of our investors, and then I can come home again and focus on getting this thing,” Tony waved the gauntlet between them, “off of my arm.”
“I’m not sure that’s…Tony, the object is to get on the investors good side, not ruin their party and make a spectacle of ourselves.”
“He can handle it,” Tony said. Pepper looked unconvinced. “What?”
“He seems...well, he is a little out of his depth,” Pepper said.
Tony glanced over at Steve. He was sitting balanced on the armrest of the sofa, looking completely enchanted by the radio as he clicked slowly through the stations, having lost interest in the last station once the episode of the show he'd been listening to ended. He ticked the station over once, and the sound of gunfire exploded through the speakers from whatever radio drama he’d happened upon. Steve slammed his hand down on the knob to turn it off, startled, and nearly fell out of his chair.
He chuckled, embarrassed with himself, and turned the volume down a bit. Tony couldn’t help the little spike of fondness in him at Steve’s bewildered expression, and he tamped it down immediately. Still, Steve glanced his way curiously, and Tony tried his best keep an innocent face.
“It’ll be…fine,” Tony said firmly. “Anyway, that’s part of why I picked this one. The gala is three weeks from now. Plenty of time! We’ll work on it.”
“You’d better,” she said. “I’ll… RSVP to this for you.”
“Do that. In the mean time, cancel all my appointments,” Tony said.
“You don’t have any appointments,” Pepper countered. “And I’m not your personal assistant. I have my own work to do.”
“Well then what are you bothering me for? Go do your own work,” he quipped.
Pepper hummed. “Anything you say, Boss,” she said a little gleefully, and dropped an enormous stack of manuscripts into his lap.
"What are those?" Steve asked once Pepper was gone. He fiddled with the volume dial on the radio before clicking it off.
"Marvels manuscripts," Tony explained, then at Steve's confused expression added: "They're for my magazine. Stories of what I've done and places I've been. She writes them up, I read through them to make sure they're okay for print, and then we send them off to be bound and distributed so that everyone can read about our adventures." He lifted the stack and pulled the pages from the bottom. "See, here's the first draft of our little escapade, though I don't think she'll be finished until we get this thing off me..."
The working title on the manuscript was Pepper needs a vacation. Tony pulled the cap of the pen she’d left with him off with his teeth and scribbled Italy is a great vacation spot underneath. Steve shifted up on his seat to look at the draft.
"Everyone reads them?" Steve asked.
"Well, maybe not everyone, but..."
"Do you think—" Steve started, then trailed off, shaking his head dismissively.
"Steve?" Tony prompted.
"Do you think you could show me?" he asked. "I, uh, understand if you're busy..." he added quickly.
Tony cocked his head to the side, not understanding what he was asking for a moment, before he followed Steve's gaze and it clicked. Steve was staring at the letters on the page as though determination alone would let him read them.
And Steve needed to know how to read, right? Tony needed to get through the manuscripts one way or another, so why not kill two birds with one stone and start catching Steve up on the future?
"Sure," Tony agreed, before Steve could stumble on, and Steve smiled at him then, so blindingly bright and eager that Tony couldn't ever imagine saying no. He gathered the stack and moved to sit next to Steve, and the Tony leaned into Steve's shoulder just slightly as they started slowly working their way through the first page, taking their time. They had all night.
For a guy who was born over two thousand years ago, Steve picked up on the modern world surprisingly quick. Tony wondered if maybe their bond had something to do with that, if Tony’s understanding of the world around him helped Steve to grasp it in the same way that it had taught him English.
Still, three weeks wasn’t much time.
But he could at least cover the basics.
“Come on, we need to get you some clothes,” Tony said, rousing Steve from the couch by tossing open the window curtains to let the sunlight in. It was early yet, and it had rained sometime that morning, leaving a cool chill in the air despite the sunshine.
“I have clothes,” Steve protested, but stood all the same, following Tony easily.
“Unfortunately, the gala isn’t a costume party,” Tony said. He tried to imagine Steve braving the socialites and politicians in his armor, and the image made him smile. Steve glanced down at what he was wearing now. “This calls for something a little more formal than a borrowed t-shirt and jeans, I’m afraid.”
Now Steve’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “How formal?”
“You’ll see,” Tony said. “Either way, I promise it’s more comfortable than what you’re used to.”
Tony took Steve to his personal tailor. After all, he had a reputation to uphold, and this was the best place in the city to set Steve up with some new, modern clothes.
The shop itself was only a few blocks from the mansion, nestled in the middle of the street between two specialty stores. Compared to it’s neighbors, the shop was completely unremarkable on the outside, with only a small sign on the door to indicate what it was, but the Starks had been loyal customers for as long as Tony could remember.
They had made it about six steps away from the driveway, with Tony leading the way, before Steve grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back. Realizing that was wasn’t going to work, he followed along patiently as Steve guided him away from the “danger” before trying again.
Positioning Steve between Tony and the street seemed to do the trick, though (and really, Steve found the strangest things threatening... even if the the city drivers were a little reckless), and while Steve frowned grumpily when he came back into focus, he was over it quickly once there were sights to see.
Tony could feel a little buzz of interest in the back of his mind, and though Steve did stick close to him he felt none of the anxiousness that he had when Steve had seen the city for the first time.
The shop wasn’t busy. They generally didn’t take many customers, preferring quality over quantity (and charging plenty enough to make up the difference. The owner was a kind old man, and very efficient. The little bell over the door dinged when Tony pulled it open, and they were hardly inside the building before he was shooing Steve over to stand by the mirrors.
The tailor had been entirely professional as he took Steve’s measurements, but Tony was still a little surprised by how unfazed Steve seemed by the man getting up close and personal with his inseam. They looked downright offended by the sweatpants Steve had on, and Tony chuckled at his bemused expression.
Tony had already called ahead to explain what sort of event they would be needing the suit for, so once he was finished with taking Steve’s measurements down, he called one of his assistants over and left them to browse through the different styles on the racks along the wall.
Steve eyed the clothes uncertainly.
“What’s wrong? Don’t like it?” Tony asked.
Steve frowned. “Fashion now is...strange,” he said.
“Were you hoping for a toga?” Tony asked.
“Only prominent Roman citizens wore a toga,” Steve answered absently, not catching the joke, “...and prostitutes. I wasn’t...For me, it would not have been appropriate. Besides, soldiers wear a sagum.”
“They don’t have one of those, either,” Tony said.
“They’re uncomfortable, anyway,” Steve said, as though that was ever actually an option.
“Okay, so what’s wrong with this then?” Tony asked, gesturing to the shirt in Steve’s hands. His fingers tightened around in involuntarily.
“It’s purple,” Steve said, as though that explained everything. He looked at Tony like he expected him to snatch the shirt out of his hands now that he’d pointed out the color. Tony smiled to mask his confusion. It was a nice shirt, a deep plum color that would go well with the gray suit the tailor had picked out. “Is...am I allowed to have this one?”
“...Yes?” Tony said, not really understanding Steve’s hang-up on the purple shirt. It wasn’t the strangest thing he’d dealt with, though, and he was willing to roll with it.
Steve looked skeptical, but he selected three more purple shirts (one of which was hideous, and Tony had promptly vetoed) to go along with the ones the tailor had picked out for him.
Tony picked out a few more shirts to go along with it, since Steve very well couldn’t go wearing only purple for the rest of his life (someone was bound to find that odd and make a fuss about it. The gossip rags were never any more shy about ripping into the people in Tony’s life than they were about Tony himself, and he didn’t think Steve would appreciate the attention).
He allowed one of the associates to pick out the ties, since he wasn’t sure that Steve had fully understood when Tony explained the different styles to him.
Tony plucked one of the ties out of her hands now, the one meant to go along with Steve’s plum shirt, and shooed him toward the back. “Go and try this on, now,” he said, pressing the garments into his hands, “and if it all fits we can wear it out of here.”
Steve nodded and followed the assistant to the dressing room. He took far too long wrestling with the clothes, though Tony was willing to chalk that up to a learning curve on the whole “modern fashion” thing.
Steve stepped out of the dressing room wearing the gray slacks and the purple shirt. The shirt was a little too tight for him, maybe, but it was the closest fit they could get straight off the rack. The others would be tailored exactly to fit him later, but this would do for now, and the way the fabric pulled across his shoulders was something else. The top three buttons of the shirt were left undone, like Steve wasn’t sure how far up the buttons were supposed to go.
Tony really should have remembered to suggest he wear an undershirt, but he couldn’t regret the slip up.
“Wow,” Tony said. “Um. You look good.”
Steve held up the tie a little helplessly. “I don’t know how this works,” he admitted.
Tony thought it would be a shame to button that shirt up the rest of the way, but—yeah, that was—
“Right,” Tony said quickly, “Let me, I’ll just...” he reached over and quickly did up the remaining buttons on Steve’s shirt. Steve frowned and tugged at the collar, while Tony hooked the tie around his neck. “Here,” he said. “Hold still and I’ll show you.”
Tony looped the tie around deftly. Standing this close, he could feel Steve’s breath feathering his hair. He forced himself to go slowly so that Steve could follow along. When Tony glanced up, Steve was watching him, not the tie, and he immediately glanced down again to Tony’s hands.
He cleared his throat. “I think I got it,” Steve said.
Tony half smoothed the tie down, stopped, and let his hand drop to his sides. “Good. That’s good,” he said. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and nodded toward the door. “Well, let’s go then,” Tony said. “A look this good deserves to be shared.”
It’s for practice. Tony had insisted—and would continue to insist, for as long as Pepper was going to question him. Practice was important—the last thing they wanted was for Steve get get caught off guard on the big night by something entirely avoidable.
He wanted to find as many “new” things that Steve might perceive as threatening before the gala, and while they’d done their best to bring Steve up to speed on the modern world, there was only so much they could do without actually exposing him to it first-hand.
They’d already taken care of cars, at least, and Tony shooed Steve over to the passenger’s side.
Steve had taken the proposal for a practice dinner at face value. It was a good idea, and yet Pepper still sighed and rolled her eyes and gave him that look, pity or exasperation Tony didn’t know, that he steadfastly ignored.
Tony chose the restaurant, an upscale Italian place, partly so Steve’s new wardrobe could get a workout, but mostly because he knew the owners were very discreet. He didn’t think he wanted to worry about overwhelming Steve any more than he already was, and frankly he was hoping he could avoid the photographers altogether. Considering how dull his daily life was in comparison to his adventures in Marvels, they really were much too interested in his personal affairs.
At least the food was good. It was worth putting up with the buzzards to see Steve’s expression when he’d tried the Risotto.
"This is very...luxurious," Steve decided, as one of the waiters came through to offer them refills on their wine, then fresh baked rolls for the table. "Is this normal?"
"Sure. Well, normal for me," Tony said. “But I’m sure that even something simple like getting groceries seems like a lot less work than you’re used to.”
"It seems lazy," Steve said, then blushed, quickly adding, "Not to imply..."
Tony laughed and waved him off. "It's fine. You call it lazy, I call it progress."
“Progress,” Steve agreed. “Everything has changed. I’m not sure if I’ll ever catch up.”
He had meant to say it lightly, Tony could tell from his expression, but he just ended up sounding… lost. Steve cleared his throat, and shrugged. “Definitely not by this party of yours.”
“You’re doing fine,” Tony assured. “Great. Much better than I would have expected, given the circumstances. I think that this—connection plays a large role in that.” Tony laughed. “And as for the gala, I can personally guarantee that you’re will not be the oddest person at that party.
“I find that hard to believe,” Steve said.
“Well, you’ll certainly have the most interesting story—which you are telling no one, by the way. But as far as being a well adjusted individual goes, you’ll be—oh, great,” Tony said, cutting off entirely with a barely concealed scowl.
Steve half-turned in his seat just in time to see Tiberius Stone invite himself over to their table. He clapped Tony on the shoulder, gaze tracking down his left arm in interest, as though he knew exactly what he was looking for.
Tony kept his gauntleted wrist hidden carefully under the tablecloth, just to frustrate him.
“Tony,” he said, all false cheer and sharp teeth. “I didn’t know you were already back in town.” He most certainly had, judging by his tone, but Tony knew it was just a flimsy excuse at an introduction, anyway. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Steve,” Tony said, equally pleasant. Steve had picked up on his distaste, if the sudden unease at the back of his mind was any indication. “He’s something of an expert on ancient Rome—” Tony could see the feigned interest on Ty’s face, and went to cut him off at the pass, “What are you doing back in America? London isn’t your scene, after all?”
“Business,” Ty said. “As usual. Too bad about Killgrave,” he added, much too casual, and Tony didn’t even blink, because of course he’d heard about that already.
“How long can you keep that up, I wonder, before you go and get yourself killed on one of your little outings,” Ty mused. His grip tightened on Tony’s shoulder enough to ache. “It would certainly be easy for something to happen—”
Tony could feel the little flare of possessive anger in his chest, and he reached out on instinct.
“Steve,” Tony snapped, grabbing him by the arm to keep him from lunging at the man. Steve blinked, coming back to himself, and then fixed Ty with a venomous stare.
Ty smiled, having no idea how close Steve had just come to breaking his nose.
Another person might have been unsettled by the dark expression Steve continued to send his direction. Knowing Ty, he was probably reveling in it.
“We’ll have to catch up some time,” Tony said, trying to imply some time that isn’t now as clearly as he could without outright saying it to his face.
“Of course we will,” he agreed. “Give my assistant a call some time, she’ll set you up with a meeting. It was nice meeting you,” he added to Steve. Tony resisted the urge to scoff. Not likely.
“Who was that?” Steve asked darkly once he was out of earshot, eyes boring into the back of Ty’s skull as he walked away.
“We, uh, have a history,” Tony explained. He picked up his napkin to wipe his mouth nervously, then set it down when he realized he was fidgeting, “and by a history, I mean he tried to kill me once. And...some other stuff, but mostly the killing thing is the important part.”
Steve was gripping the edge of the table so hard Tony though he might tear straight through the tablecloth, and he reached over to gently pry his hands free. Steve look surprised, like he hadn’t realized he’d been doing it.
“Ready to go?” Tony asked, Steve looked about two seconds away from springing out of his seat and going after Ty, and Tony really didn’t want to have to deal with the soldier when steak knives were involved.
And on that note, Tony reached out and edged that away from Steve’s plate, too.
Whether he was second-guessing his own self control as well, or simply exhausted with socializing for the night, Steve nodded gratefully.
“Then let’s get out of here,” Tony said.
He tossed a handful of bills on the table and gestured for Steve to follow him. The waitress nodded politely as they left.
It had been crowded when they arrived, and they’d had to park in a ramp a ways down the street. Now the street was mostly empty, and Tony was thankful for it. He could feel how weary Steve felt. Tony lead the way down the sidewalk, letting Steve fall into step on the side facing the street, headed for the parking lot.
Tony nudged him with his elbow. “All right?” he asked.
Steve nodded. “Fine,” he said, then, “Sorry.”
He really did feel sorry, too. Tony grasped his forearm and squeezed reassuringly. “No need for that,” he said. “Anyway, it’s not your fault. Ty is...just like that.”
Steve nodded, thankfully willing to believe that was the truth.
There were only a few cars left in the ramp, and Tony would guess that most of them were still enjoying meals at the restaurant they’d just left. There were quite a few nice cars (though nothing too expensive—everyone knew that leaving anything too tempting parked for too long was just gambling for an empty parking space when you returned.
There was a car parked along the driver’s side door of Tony’s car. It looked like the driver had wanted to double-park in the spot, realized that another car was already parked there, and then valiantly attempted the feat anyway.
Tony bit back a groan and started around to Steve’s side of the car instead, because he was a grown-ass man and he could climb over the gearshift if he wanted to, damn it, he sure as hell wasn’t gonna suck in his gut and squeeze past the other car—
Tony felt the fear first, and he ducked instinctively.
A bat sailed over his head and smashed into the passenger side window. The glass exploded inward, pebbling the seat with tiny shards, and the wood clanged solidly against the metal on the doorframe as they followed through on the swing.
He heard the scream next, and it wasn’t Steve screaming.
A chilling sense of focus settled in his gut, the same feeling that Tony had felt in the cave, when Steve had been raising his spear to Rhodey’s back, and Tony turned immediately to see if Steve was okay. There was one body on the ground already, the man with the bat, but no Steve in sight, so he whirled around, looking for where he'd run off to.
Tony was nearly too late to see the man approaching him from around the other side of the car. He swung at him, and Tony wasn’t quite fast enough to dodge entirely out of the way. Tony staggered back as the man’s fist clipped him just above the eye, back slamming into the car. He had a solid hundred pounds on Tony, and the force behind the swing was dizzying, but Tony was used to it, and more importantly Tony was stubborn, so he kept his feet under him and grabbed the man’s arm instead, dragging him forward and slamming him into the car door.
He had a hunting knife on his belt—the kind used for skinning big game—and he shuddered to think what he was planning to do with that. Tony grabbed it and tossed it away before the man could think to use it, and then kicked him strategically, because he was not above fighting dirty.
(He'd leave that little detail out later, when he was recounting the story for Pepper).
The man went down, smacking his head against the car door as he fell, and Tony quickly stepped over him.
"Steve?" Tony called. His voice echoed off the walls, shattering the silence. He walked toward the back of the van slowly. "Where did you—"
Someone grabbed him from behind, and Tony yelped in surprise.
Steve watched him placidly, the same blue glow in his eyes. He reached out to cup Tony's cheek and gently turned his head to the side. He stared at the spot for a long moment, expressionless, and then gently trailed his hands down, over Tony's neck, his arms.
He was just checking for injuries, Tony told himself. He cleared his throat.
"I'm fine," he said. Steve ignored that. He probably already knew that Tony was fine, he'd be able to feel it if he wasn't, but he's not entirely sure how rational Steve's thinking is when he's like this, or if he's just acting on autopilot right now. Either way, when Tony edged away so that Steve wasn't quite so close, Steve just gently but firmly steered him back to the spot.
After a while he seemed satisfied, and the blue glow faded out of his eyes. Tony grabbed him by the elbow to steady him as Steve shook off the residual haze, feeling dizzy. Someone had ripped Steve's sling off in the struggle, Tony noticed, probably thinking that they could use the weakness to their advantage. Well, a lot of good that did them.
The injury didn't hurt much, though, so he must have kept his shoulder well guarded.
There were four other unconscious bodies lying around the other side of the car. Steve's sling was pinned half-underneath one of them, and Tony rolled him over to pick it up. He checked for a wallet as well, just out of curiosity, but there was no identification to be found. He wasn't surprised.
Other than his arm, Steve looked completely unscathed, and Tony wondered if Steve had always been so fierce a fighter, or if the jewel had something to do with it. Tony stood and offered the sling to Steve, who glared at it for a moment, put out, as though he'd been hoping he could get away with "losing" it. He obediently stooped to let Tony hook it over his neck all the same.
"What did they want?" Steve asked.
"Can't say for sure," Tony answered, though their motives weren't very hard to guess.
"They seemed really interested in getting to you," Steve said.
"To my arm," Tony corrected. "Something tells me that Killgrave had a buyer back home who wasn't too happy when he didn't deliver."
Steve was quiet for a moment.
"Tony, is there any chance that man in the restaurant..." Steve said.
"What, Ty?" Tony asked. "He...no, that's not—"
"You said he's tried to hurt you before," Steve said fiercely. "But I don't care who it was. I won't let you get hurt."
Tony swallowed thickly, then threw on a carefree smirk, gesturing to the artifact flippantly. "Don't have much of a choice one way or the other, huh?" he asked. "Curse and all that..." He swiped the back of his hand across his brow, wiping a smear of blood from the cut on his forehead away from his eye. Bastard was wearing a ring.
Steve was frowning at him sadly, looking terribly concerned, and he felt...
Tony couldn't identify that emotion.
"We should get out of here," Tony said. "Pep will want to hear all about this. Another shocking chapter..."
"You need a medic," Steve corrected.
“I’m fine,” Tony said, stepping carefully over the scattered men. “I can do it myself. Let’s just get home for now.”
Steve nodded, willing to choose his battles.
"You're an idiot," Rhodey said, trying to sound stern but falling somewhere into fond exasperation instead.
Steve had stared at Tony disapprovingly until he'd finally agreed to let Rhodey look him over, but Christ, he had one tiny cut and a bruised hip... How long was this going to take?
"I'm exciting?" Tony suggested instead. Tony was sitting on the kitchen table, shirtless from when Rhodey had insisted he prove that he wasn't hiding any injured ribs, despite Tony's insistence that if he was Steve would have known. He drummed his fingers impatiently against the glass cover of his heart compartment. The inside of the compartment glowed softly with the same light that Steve's eyes did, and every now and again a little flicker of blue would leap down his arm toward the gauntlet, like electricity. "I'm—ow."
Tony cut off when Rhodey pressed a rag to the wound over his eye, dabbing the blood away. It wasn't nearly as bad as it looked—hardly a scrape, by Tony's standards. He hadn’t even needed stitches, and the suture kit Rhodey had grabbed sat unopened on the counter.
Stung like a bitch, though. Or maybe Rhodey was going overboard on the antiseptic to teach him a lesson.
“So much for your practice run,” Rhodey said. “Hold still.”
“Well, I think it went well,” Tony said as Rhodey taped a butterfly bandage to his brow, already moving to get up before he could even get it fastened properly. "A few more murderers than I'm used to, but all in all—" Rhodey grabbed his chin to keep him from squirming.
“Tony, I will kill you,” Rhodey grumbled.
Steve’s eyes glowed.
“Figuratively,” he amended quickly. “Not in a literal—man, just don’t be difficult for once in your life.”
“No promises,” Tony said, as he gently guided Steve back to sitting in the chair next to him.
“Sorry,” Steve said once he’d come back to himself. “I’m a little worked up tonight.”
Rhodey shrugged it off, probably immune to the insanity by now. “How’s your shoulder?” he asked.
“Fine,” Steve said gruffly.
Rhodey turned to Tony, seeking confirmation. He shrugged, rolled his own shoulder as though it could somehow test the phantom pain. “He’s telling the truth. Just a little stiff.”
“Yeah, well,” Rhodey said, leaning back to admire his work. “You’re lucky that’s all you got. I’d tell you to stay out of trouble, but I guess I’d be out of a job if you did.”
“Well, lucky for you then,” Tony said. He stretched, barely suppressing a wince. “Gotta keep you busy.”
“Which reminds me,” Rhodey said. “I went to talk to a couple of our sponsors. They sent some copies of examples of curses along—I just dropped them on your desk in the workshop—but they all seem to agree that if this thing really is magical, and if it follows the, uh, rules of magic during the Roman empire, then there’s probably some sort of ritual to cancel the curse. Unfortunately, it was probably written on the walls, somewhere in the temple—”
“May our tribute to Venus release us,” Tony said. When Rhodey gave him an odd look, he clarified. “It was written on the pedestal where the Heart of the Temple was sitting.
“Well what the hell is that supposed to mean?” Rhodey asked. “Sacrifice a goat and call it good?”
Tony shrugged. “There were some runes carved into the stone, too. I couldn’t read them…” He turned to Steve. “I don’t supposed you ever…”
Steve shook his head regretfully. “Well, that’s all right. It’s a start. I’ll read over those curses.” He hopped down from the table. “The goat can be Plan B.”
“It’s one in the morning,” Rhodey pointed out flatly.
“He’s exhausted,” Steve added, and Tony shot him an exasperated look.
“What, you’re ganging up on me now?”
“You’re tired,” Steve said.
“I’m not tired,” Tony lied. “It’s too early to—”
“Tony,” Steve said, and Tony very clearly felt the concern radiating off of him.
Tony sighed. “Fine. But I’m setting an alarm.”
Steve followed Tony down the hall. He dropped down onto the floor outside the bedroom, in the same spot as always, and Tony paused in the doorway. Up until now they’d been sleeping on sort of...offset schedules, since Tony slept odd hours and Steve didn’t seem to sleep much at all, so the awkwardness of sleeping arrangements hadn’t really come up. Right now, though, it seemed a little cruel to leave Steve out here on the floor.
“The bed is big enough for two,” he said casually. ”Not to be—it would just be for sleeping,” he added. “It’s better than sitting out in the hall waiting for me.”
When Steve hesitated, he sighed. “Come on, you’re telling me you lived in a house with two other families and you’re not used to sharing a bed?”
Tony offered Steve a hand and pulled him up without another word.
In the bedroom, Tony shucked his shirt and started to throw it in the laundry, hesitating only when he noticed the spattered blood on the collar. Tony threw it into the trash instead—he had plenty of shirts, and this one was probably ruined.
Steve pulled the covers back and sat down. He made a little pleased sound as he sunk into the plush mattress.
“Little more comfortable than the couch?” Tony asked. He grabbed a new shirt out of the closet, because he’d never be able to sleep with the light show from the repulsor pump dancing across the walls.
“I wasn’t even sure that was possible,” Steve said. He flopped onto his stomach and stretched languidly. “I may never move again.”
“Well,” Tony said, flicking on the lamp beside the bed, and then crossing to the lightswitch for the overhead lights. “I’m sorry. For making you sleep on the couch.”
“I didn’t mind,” Steve said. He looked… extremely comfortable, with a calm open expression, like he was already beginning to dose. The kind of expression Tony imagined he might wake up to, or encounter after a really great round of—
“Actually,” Tony said, sharply enough that Steve lifted his head to look at him. “We should go get a mattress from one of the guest rooms. I don’t know why we haven’t already—opposite schedules I guess. I mean, you probably want a bed to yourself and—”
“Tony,” Steve interrupted, and then when Tony turned to look at him, he simply pulled the covers back from the other corner of the bed. “You’re being odd. And I’m tired.”
Tony hesitated for only a second before switching the light off, and then hurrying over to switch the lamp off as well.
This would be easier in the dark. He was the one making things difficult, anyway. Before he could angst about it further, Tony climbed under the covers on the other side of the bed—and really, the bed was more than large enough for both of them without them ever needing to touch. They were practically sleeping apart, anyway.
Steve hummed, sounding pleased when Tony joined him, and Tony forced himself to ignore his hand, resting loosely between them as though reaching out to touch.
Tony wasn’t quite sure what woke him the first time—perhaps the uncomfortable warmth beneath the blankets, or perhaps some noise that had made its way through the open window.
Steve was half-curled around him, Tony’s head tucked beneath his chin. His breathing was slow and even, enough that Tony was certain he was fast asleep. Tony could have wriggled free, moved them back to the position they’d been when they first laid down, but…
But Steve looked so peaceful, and he really was comfortable.
Tony let his eyes drift shut again, rolled over, and the next time he woke, the bed was empty and had long grown cold. The curtains were open to let the sunlight stream in, and Steve had taken up a place in the armchair in the corner, doodling on the same piece of paper he’d been messing with yesterday.
He glanced up when Tony shifted, and he didn’t look uncomfortable—only smiled and went back to his drawing, as if nothing were out of the ordinary, and Tony almost wondered if he’d dreamed the whole thing.
Tony could hardly sit still in the back seat, Steve was so nervous, and really, he needed to get that under control, because the reporters that were likely swarming the gala entrance could practically smell fear.
“Here,” Tony said, motioning for Steve to slide closer to him in the back seat. “Let me fix your tie.” Steve obediently slid over, and Tony worked the knot apart with his fingers. He waited until he’d relooped the tie around Steve’s neck before adding. “You’re nervous.”
“A little,” Steve agreed, although both of them knew that was an understatement. “I’ve never been a fan of parties.”
“Well, don’t be,” Tony said. “You don’t even have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to.” Tony pulled the tie knot tight again, smoothed the fabric out, and patted his chest reassuringly. “And you look great. The ladies will be eating you up with a spoon.”
Steve pulled a face, and Tony laughed. “You might as well stick with me tonight, anyway,” Tony said. “If you don’t, someone’s going to notice you following me around and they’ll think I hired a bodyguard. The last thing we need is to offend someone.”
“If I was your bodyguard, I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone,” Steve pointed out, rather sullenly.
“You’ll be fine,” Tony said. The driver was pulling up to the curb now, and Tony took a quick second to straighten Steve’s collar. “Remember, find a common interest. Don’t tell anyone you’re actually an ancient Roman magically bound to protect me. Everything will be peachy.”
Tony leaned over Steve to open the curb side door, and motioned for him to climb out. They were a little late, so there weren’t nearly as many photographers as there would have been—which was part of the reason Tony had made the decision to be late—but Steve still blinked, startled, when the flashbulbs of the photographers’ cameras began to go off.
Tony climbed out quickly after him, grinning for the camera, and put a hand on Steve’s back to guide him toward the stairs. Tony passed by the coat check without stopping—easier that they didn’t, in case they needed to make a hasty exit—and steered them straight toward the food.
Steve, for his part, was looking fairly calm, and was taking in the grand decorations with an expression of polite interest that Tony was almost positive he’d stolen from Pepper’s repertoire. Externally, he looked completely at ease. If Tony couldn’t feel the nervous tension himself, Steve could have even fooled him.
“How long do we have to stay here?” Steve asked quietly.
“I’ll say hello to a few people. Shake a few hands. And then we can leave.”
“And what do I have to do?” Steve asked.
“Nothing,” Tony said. “Eat food. Hold up the wall. Whatever you want. I’m going to go talk to our host,” Tony pointed toward the crowd that had gathered around her, and Steve eyed it uneasily. “Want to join me? I’ll introduce you.”
“No,” Steve said, after considering it for a long moment. “I’d rather stay here.”
“I can introduce you to someone else. There’s got to be a historian or something around here that you have something in common with. We’ll tell them you’re an expert on the Roman Republic from Europe. They’d never know the difference.”
“I don’t want to talk to anyone,” Steve said definitively.
“Suit yourself,” Tony said. “I’ll be right back. Come over if you get bored.” Tony waited for Steve to nod, before he made his way over to their host. She wasn’t extremely eager to talk—and Tony understood, hosting an event like this was a lot like being pulled in ten directions at once—but there was no shortage of other guests (some scholars, most fans of Marvels) that wanted a word.
“That’s an… interesting piece of jewelery, Mr. Stark,” one of the ladies said, though the expression on her face said everything about what she thought of the piece.
“It’s not a fashion statement, ladies. I broke my wrist on our last adventure.”
“Oh,” she said, instantly switching to a sympathetic pout. “What happened?”
“Pepper would kill me if I told you,” he said. “You’ll have to pick up the next issue of Marvels to find out.”
“Well,” she said, batting her eyes exaggeratedly, “have you got any stories that you can tell?”
Tony laughed, and she grinned wider. “I could probably think of one or two.”
It was nearly an hour later before Tony realized that he hadn’t seen Steve in quite a while. He wasn’t particularly worried—there wasn’t much trouble Steve could get into with only a thirty foot radius to access, let alone trouble he could get into without Tony noticing. A quick scan of the ballroom showed that he was nowhere in sight, so there was only one place he could reasonably be.
Tony nodded out of the little group of people he had gathered, making for the balcony, and one of the women he was entertaining trailed after him. For the sake of not offending her, he let her follow, and sure enough when he stepped out onto the balcony Steve was there, staring at the street below them.
“Looking for somewhere a little more private?” she teased, and Tony didn’t miss Steve’s double-take when he saw Tony standing there.
“Actually, yes” Tony replied, turning back to look at her. She put her hands on his shoulders, and his hands went up immediately to meet her, because that was not where he was going, and she’d probably had a little too much champagne anyway. “Would you—”
Before he could say anything else, Steve was there, wedging himself between them and breaking her hold on his shoulders. Tony had a moment of panic, because they’d done very well on avoiding attacking other guests, before he caught a glimpse of Steve’s face.
He looked determined, sure, but not at all under the spell’s control.
“Hey, what’s your problem?” she snapped.
Tony studied him for a moment, and then turned back to his companion. “Can you excuse us?” he countered.
The woman gave Steve a pointed look and began to nod, before she realized that Tony was talking to her. She looked at him as though he’d grown a second head, pulled a face, and then snatched the drink from his hand. “Take your time,” she snapped.
Tony took Steve by the elbow and backpedaled, tugging away from the door. Tony parked him next to the railing and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Those assassins get more charming every time,” he joked. Steve didn’t laugh.
“Steve, seriously. What was that about?” Tony asked.
Steve sighed. It was much more quiet outside, and Tony appreciated the cool breeze on his face. Instead of answering, he made his way over to the edge of the balcony again, peering out at the sky this time.
“Steve?” Tony prompted again.
“The stars look wrong here,” Steve replied.
“Somehow,” Tony said, “I don’t think that’s the problem.” Tony paused. “If you wanted to go home early, you just had to ask.”
“That’s not it,” Steve snapped.
“Then what?” Tony asked, exasperated.
“She was… touching you,” Steve said.
“Well, I think I could have taken her,” Tony said. “Besides, she’s harmless. She—”
“No,” Steve interjected again, “I mean to say that I—” He sighed, frustrated, and before Tony could just tell him to get out with it Steve had a fist in his collar, pulling him in for a kiss.
Tony barely had a moment to think, to start to raise his hands up to grip Steve back, before pain flared up his arm, sharp and hot, and Steve flinched away in sympathetic pain. The bracer flashed in white hot light, cracking once more along a seam that Tony knew didn’t exist, and the edges peeled and folded back onto themselves, resealing in an instant.
Steve caught it before it could hit the ground on instinct, and then seemed to realize what he was holding, nearly dropping it again.
“Oh my god,” Tony said. Before they could have another disaster, or it could choose to latch onto something else, Tony yanked off his jacket and wrapped the thing tightly inside it. He laughed a little hysterically, and said, “Our tribute to Venus. Jesus.”
“We—are donating this to a museum,” Tony said forcefully, almost afraid to grip it too tightly even despite the jacket between them. “And they are locking it in a box forever. And—and...” He turned back to Steve. “You kissed me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said immediately. “I—”
“Do not apologize,” Tony said. “Don’t even think about it. Or I’ll—”
“Or you’ll what?” Steve asked quietly.
“Or I’ll kiss you again,” Tony said.
Steve leaned in, just a breath away from Tony’s lips. “I’m sorry,” Steve said, and Tony did just that.