Tony rubs his head and blinks to focus his eyes around the light spots that the explosion gifted him with. Of course testing the scope of an Omega-level mutant would cause something to detonate spectacularly. In retrospect, he feels silly for not having expected it. Next time he and Reed even attempt to test Franklin, there's going to be some precautions in place. A few meters of radiation shielding will be a good start.
Clearing his vision doesn't do much to help. It looks like he's in his lab in the Tower sub-basement, but the lights are on the lowest setting possible. They'd probably been triggered by his movements. At least, his lab has motion-activated lights; he assumes that any copies of it would be the same. A thin layer of grime under his hand suggests that it hasn't been used in a while. Nothing else gives him any clues about where—or when—he's been transported to.
Extremis helpfully lets him know that his arrival triggered a silent alarm and security forces will arrive in three-point-two-eight seconds.
Exactly three-point-two-eight seconds later, the door slides open and dark-clad troops trot in. The lights are still too low to make out details, but they look a lot more professional than the high-end forces he usually employs. Tony's been a hero long enough to recognize extensive training when it points a gun at him. He levers himself to his feet, rubbing the bruises he'd gotten when he fell.
"It's a really, really long story," he offers, trying to ignore the guns pointed at him. Move slow, act normal and he might not end up as Swiss cheese. "I'll go voluntarily, but I need to speak to Captain America or Reed Richards. Hell, or even Tony Stark." If he can't even explain things to an alternate version of himself, then he really is well and truly screwed.
"Stark is dead," someone says near the back. Even in the dark room, Tony can see the troops straighten, taking on an extra sharp professional aura. "You'll have to settle for me."
"Sir!" One of the men near the front looks torn between keeping his eye on Tony and turning to salute the person coming up from behind. Tony won, which somehow fails to make him feel special. "He said he'd come voluntarily, if he can—"
"I heard him, Lieutenant. Let's see what we've caught. Lights." High-powered florescent light flood the room, nearly blinding Tony after he'd had time to adjust to the lower levels. He shields his eyes and squints, then drops his hand when he realizes who's in front of him.
Even half-blind, half-dead and completely in a different universe, Tony would know Steve Rogers.
The soldiers—and they're definitely soldiers, American Army if Tony knows anything at all—are too professional to gasp, but he can hear them shuffle in surprise. That makes sense, if he's dead here. "Steve," Tony sighs in relief. "Thank god you're—"
Tony doesn't even see the punch coming.
Dusty tools scatter everywhere as Tony falls backwards, rolling over the work table behind him. He keeps rolling, landing on his feet when he hits the edge and backing away. Pain shoots down his jaw where the punch landed, but the blow hadn't actually been that strong. It doesn't feel broken. If Steve really wanted to, he could have shattered it.
"Skrull!" Steve shoves the table aside, advancing. "You think you'll use his face to disarm me? Maybe rally the pro-Registration side and start the war back up? Not in my America!"
"Cap, what the hell?" Tony keeps backing away, until he bumps up against a wall. "It's me— what do you mean, war? Registration?" Does he mean the SHRA? They haven't even talked about that yet; Tony knows it's going to go badly and he'd been hoping to put it off. They still have months before it becomes unavoidable, anyway.
Another punch rocks Tony into the wall, but there's nowhere left to retreat. "Cap," he gasps, spitting out blood and raising his eyes to Steve's. The face behind the cowl is twisted in barely contained rage, bordering on bestial. "I swear, I'm Tony Stark. I'll prove it any way you want."
"You'll get your chance." Steve gestures the soldiers forward, and Tony does his best to stand up without wobbling while cuffs are slapped on his wrists. At least they've cuffed him in front; it's easier to balance and just slightly less demeaning. "Check him with the Skrull detector. If he's clean, run a DNA comparison."
"Yes, sir, General Rogers, sir!"
Captivity isn't too bad. For one, it's not really a cell Tony's locked in. They'd just cleared out one of the better offices, which means there's carpet and a window. When he looks outside, New York still looks like New York, which is reassuring in a way. If some sort of apocalypse struck this world, Tony would expect New York to be the first place to be destroyed. It's quiet for mid-afternoon, and there's more American flags in evidence than usual, but the lack of destruction is definitely a good sign.
The soldiers who guard Tony don't really seem to know what to do with him. They refuse to speak, but when he asks for water some is brought in a paper cup (purified and undrugged, according to Extremis analysis). A pair of doctors show up to take a swab of his mouth and then he's left alone. He connects to the security cameras, but all it shows is what he expects to see: soldiers, some scientists—likely working on his DNA sample—and a few office-types working at computers. What he doesn't see are any Stark International logos, and the Penthouse systems have been hidden behind a series of firewalls he's not familiar with. Tony doesn't doubt for a second that he can let himself in, but after tinkering with it for a few moments he lets it go. There's no telling his status, and breaking through network security isn't a way to build trust.
If anyone other than Steve were in charge, including himself, Tony would already be planning to blow something up and escape. But it's Steve, and nothing in Tony is capable of believing for a moment that Steve will really hurt him. The DNA will prove his identity and he'll go from there. Tony Stark might be dead, but Steve hadn't said anything about Reed Richards, and Reed is the one who put him in this position.
Tony's thoughts are interrupted when the door swings open. He doesn't move from where he's leaning against a wall, other than to lift his eyes to the towering figure in blue leather that's framed by the door. There's no sign of the guards that had been there a moment ago, but he doesn't really need guards. Steve is more than capable of bringing him down if needed. His cowl is off; without it he looks more like Steve and less like someone who'd attacked him not three hours past.
The door closes with a barely audible click, leaving them alone. "How are you alive?" Steve's voice is shaky, but Tony has to be impressed by the way he doesn't let it stop him. He steps forward to kneel at Tony's feet. This close, there's no missing the sheen of tears in his eyes. "I saw you die. Your skull was crushed. I saw it. How?" It almost seems as though he might wait for an answer, but Tony doesn't have time to breathe even a word before Steve crumbles, falling forward into Tony's arms like he'd been shoved. "No, I don't care—you're back, you're back."
Thinking at least it was quick has to be the most depressing thought Tony's had all day. Dying doesn't worry him so much as the mess he'll leave behind. Previously, he never would have expected Steve might be part of that.
"I..." Tony rubs Steve's back, keeping mind of the scales of his armor. He feels horrible, but he can't stay here. Stark International alone needs him. Maybe no one else does, but SI has too many patents that the government would love to get their hands on for him to abandon it, no matter how guilty he feels. "I don't know what happened here, but I'm not your Tony. I'm from—"
"I don't care." Steve's hands dig into his coat, gripping it tight. "I don't care where you came from. I just... I missed you. God, I missed you."
There's dampness against Tony's neck, and it takes him a moment to realize that Steve's crying. "I have to get back home." As soon as he says it, he feels like the biggest ass to ever walk the planet.
"No." The word is so quiet, Tony almost misses it.
"Steve, I have to—"
"I said no." Tony barely has any warning at all before Steve's grip moves to his wrists, pinning them behind him with one hand. His grip is gentle, but Steve's strong enough that Tony's panicked tug doesn't even loosen it. Tears still stream down Steve's cheeks, but he's smiling, a fond little grin that sends chills down Tony's spine. "No. I won't lose you again. I fixed America for you. No need for Registration. No politicians making you do the wrong thing. No SHIELD to enforce unconstitutional laws. No Congress to pass them. All for you."
It doesn't feel real, even when Steve reaches behind him and pulls out a syringe, thumbing off the cap. He tries to kick him, but Steve just shifts his weight casually to pin his legs. "No—no, Cap, you can't do this—I'm not your Tony!"
"You will be." The syringe plunges down into his thigh, and immediately Tony begins to feel dizzy. As the world fades away, the last thing he sees is Steve stroking the hair back from his face. "I'll take care of you."
Reed clucks around the machine sitting in the middle of the floor, busily doing something complicated that involves dials and random mumbled numbers. It looks almost like a microwave, if that microwave happened to be four feet tall and contained a whole keyboard and a viewing screen.
It seems like every time Steve sees Reed at work, he ends up confused. The rest of the Avengers agree, so he doesn't feel entirely alone. Tony's the only person able to translate the man's mutterings into English, and Tony's been missing since the accident in the lab a week prior. All Steve had been able to make out of the explanation is that some sort of dimensional rift had been involved, and that Tony is probably only in a neighboring reality, which means that he should be safe. Then the explanation had deteriorated into equations and probably meaningful gestures that left Steve nodding along until Sue had taken pity and offered him cocoa.
God, he misses Tony.
They've gathered in Tony's lab because that had been where the accident took place. Reed thinks it might make it easier to find the right reality, and Steve isn't going to argue with anything that might raise their chances up getting Tony back. Logan and Luke linger back towards the door, guarding it against both intruders and the five-point-six percent chance of dinosaurs Reed predicts accidentally retrieving instead.
"It's ready," Reed finally announces, standing up straight and bringing most of his limbs back into their usual locations. "Are we ready?"
Luke cracks his knuckles with a grin. "Bring on the dinos." Wolverine just unsheathes his claws and manages to look bored.
It's probably the best they're going to get. Steve nods to Reed. "Let's get Tony back."
After all the fixing, tinkering and adjusting Reed had done, Steve's surprised that turning on the machine only takes pressing a button. The machine hums and, like all good super-technological devices, starts glowing green. Reed stays close, watching the tiny monitor fixedly, so it probably isn't radioactive. At least, Steve hopes so. Overhead, something that he can only describe as a tear starts appearing, inching steadily wider. He fidgets silently, waiting for Tony—or possibly a T-Rex—to come through.
"A-hah!" Reed shouts, smacking a small green button exultantly. "There he is!"
The hum hits a fever pitch and then, without fanfare, Tony drops to the center of the floor like a sack of potatoes.
Tony stays on his back, staring up uncomprehendingly as the rip mends itself neatly. He's dressed in a set of pale blue drawstring pants and absolutely nothing else. They ride low enough on his hips that it's obvious he's not even wearing underwear. Steve swallows and tries to think about more important things, like how pale he is, or the way his hair feathers over his forehead. It had been cut much shorter a week ago.
How long has he been gone?
"What, no triceratops?" Luke complains loudly. "Man, I feel cheated."
Tile slaps against skin as Tony scrambles to his feet, head swiveling towards Luke's voice. When he sees Steve he goes still, still half-crouched, blue eyes wide with something that makes Steve squirm uncomfortably.
"Sorry about that," Reed starts apologetically. "Franklin was a little over-excited, and—"
Tony doesn't even notice him. With a small moan, he launches himself past Reed and throws himself at Steve's feet. Steve tries to back away, but Tony's arms lock around his legs with a death grip. He rubs his cheek against Steve's chest, not seeming to mind the chain mail.
"I missed you!"
Behind them, Logan starts laughing.
Steve tries again to free himself, but Tony's grip is so strong he'd have to hurt him to do it. "What are you—"
"Did you come home early?" Steve's uniform leaves red scrapes on Tony's cheek as he looks upward to meet Steve's eyes, but Tony doesn't notice. He's too busy gazing at Steve adoringly. "I was good. I ate what Peter fed me and I completed the plans for the lunar defense system..." When Steve can only gape at him in horror, the worship in Tony's eyes fades to a worried frown. "Master?"
Logan finally seems to realize the seriousness of the situation and stops laughing. "Stark, stop screwing around."
No one says anything while Tony peeks around Steve like a frightened child, staring at Wolverine for a long second before hiding his face in Steve's stomach. Steve looks back and forth between Tony and Reed, whose normal cheer has been replaced with a gravity that makes Steve go cold inside.
Reed meets Steve's eyes across the room. "I think something is very wrong," he says quietly.
Luke snorts. "No shit, ya think?"
One Month Later
The movement of the bed wakes Steve, gently pulling him from the doze he'd been drifting in. Blearily, his eyes crack open, taking in the dawn-grayed bedroom, with its white walls, blue sheets and Tony. It feels like he just barely drifted off, but that can be explained by the nightmares. Ever since they got Tony back...
God, he just hopes they find some way to fix him. He doesn't know how much longer he can stand any of it. There's no other way though. Tony needs him. Tony won't even eat without Steve's order. Tony...
Tony just nuzzled his thigh.
Steve's eyes pop open just as Tony's lips settle around the head of his dick. A shudder wracks through his spine as that talented tongue slides around him. Desperately, Steve tries to lift the man off of him, but Tony whines high in his throat and stretches for it, fingers digging into Steve's thighs.
"Please," he whimpers, rolling his eyes in a way that resembles nothing so much as a heartbroken puppy. Knots twist in Steve's stomach at what's happened to his best friend. "Did- Did I make you angry? Please, I'm sorry, I won't do it again, just let me..."
He lets go, falling back to the pillows as Tony surges forward, as if afraid Steve will stop him again. Tony's mouth is hot and wet, practiced at its art, and if Steve closes his eyes he can almost forget that this isn't really his best friend. Old fantasies that he's kept tucked away rise to the surface of his mind, fueled by the certain knowledge of what it feels like to have Tony's hands and mouth and body wrapped around him.
Stamina is a curse right now. It takes Tony forever to bring him off with tongue and hands alone. Steve knows he'd use his body, but they'd spent a week laying down the rules against that. He seems to enjoy the work, even so, humming as his jaw stretches. Steve bites back his groan as his orgasm finally shoots through him. His head pounds back into the pillow to keep from thrusting up into the soft heat of Tony's mouth. Just because Tony doesn't mind doesn't mean Steve's going to do it.
Tony hums in pleasure and suckles at the head, working out every drop with his tongue. When there's nothing left, he pillows his head on Steve's hip, looking up at him with a lazy smile.
"Good morning, Mast—" He catches himself with a guilty look, but it doesn't last very long. "Steve."
Super villains aren't strong enough to keep from smiling back when Tony looks so content. Steve cards his fingers through Tony's dark hair and tries not to think about how nice it is when Tony leans into the touch. "Good morning. Did I leave the door unlocked?"
The smile vanishes. Tony lowers his eyes, flushing. "Not exactly... I picked the lock."
Picked the lock. Of course.
Steve sighs. He can tell Tony not to do that, but the small chance that it might stop a repeat performance isn't worth having to talk Tony out of the bathroom. "I'll have to install a new lock then, huh? Let's just... go get breakfast."
Tony grins. For the first time this morning, he actually looks like himself, cocky and self-assured. "Breakfast is overrated." Then the look fades back into the hesitance Steve is learning to hate. "Unless you want me to eat?"
Another piece of Steve's heart chips away. "No, just coffee's fine."
Dressing doesn't take long; after Tony's woken him up he's surprisingly easy to talk into clothing, though he asks Steve's opinion on everything. Steve tries to pick things he thinks Tony would have worn before, but he's never paid much attention to clothing and half of the designer labels in Tony's closet he can't even pronounce. His own choice of jeans and a button up shirt meet with Tony's approval, or at least no indication that he disapproves, which these days is close enough.
The kitchen is disturbingly silent, even though there Peter and Logan are there. A month ago, before the accident, just Peter could have kept it lively, but lately the whole penthouse feels like the long-term care wing of a hospital. No one makes much noise any more, and everyone avoids it as much as they can. Except for Steve. He can't leave Tony alone for long during the day, and taking him out in public is out of the question.
Steve pours himself a bowl of cereal while Tony gets his coffee, and it's another slice of normalcy that almost makes Steve relax. But then he sits at the table and Tony takes the floor at his side, resting his cheek against Steve's thigh, and the illusion is snatched away.
Logan glares at them, then picks up his plate of bacon and eggs and stalks away without a word. Peter's head swivels back and forth between Steve and Logan's back, spoon clinking against the side of his cereal bowl nervously. "Logan..." Peter starts, fidgeting. Wolverine ignores him, so Peter turns back to Steve with a cheerful, if forced, grin. "You know how he is. Grumpy Bear! Except not so blue. And with claws. Actually, he's not really like Grumpy Bear at all because Grumpy Bear would let you hug him sometimes and the last person who hugged Logan died and—"
"It's okay, Peter." Wolverine's attitude is just another thing to deal with.
The spoon picks up speed, almost vibrating against the thin glass. "... He thinks you're not trying hard enough with... you know."
Anger burns in Steve's chest, tempting sharp words, but he feels Tony shift away slightly and he tamps it down. It doesn't vanish, but Steve's learning control. Little things have big effects, and the last time he'd lost his temper Tony had hid for a whole day. "He'll change his mind."
Peter stares at him like he's turned green, and who can blame him? Logan changing his mind about anything is as likely as Nick Fury prancing through a field of daisies. Technically, it's happened before, but it's not likely to again, and mentioning it usually results in death threats.
Silence reigns again as Peter returns to stuffing his face with Lucky Charms and Tony slowly relaxes into Steve again, sipping his coffee. Steve catches himself smoothing back Tony's hair and almost stops, but the hopeful look Tony gives him tears through his objections like wet paper. Demeaning or not, if it makes Tony feel better...
"Oh!" The table rocks as Peter smacks it. "I forgot to tell you! Jarvis is coming!" He completely misses Steve's grimace and cut-throat motions, because he keeps babbling. "He says that he doesn't trust any of us to clean the Tower by ourselves and to remind everyone that he'll know if there's any broken dishes. How does he do that anyway? Is it some sort of secret super power or—"
Tony's choked-off noise of pain finally shuts Peter up. He shoves his face into Steve's hip, shaking his head. "Jarvis can't come to visit. He's dead."
Steve glares across the table and Peter hunches his shoulders, sinking down into his chair guiltily. "Sorry. I forgot."
Most of Steve's focus is on rubbing Tony's shaking shoulders, but he saves some time for scowling across the table. "He's not dead, Tony, that was the other place, remember? He's just visiting with Pepper." The shaking doesn't stop. If anything, Tony looks even smaller and more pathetic. He still hasn't regained the weight he'd lost while he was away, and his tan is faded from so long indoors. It makes him look fragile, even though he's probably the strongest person Steve knows.
He wishes he'd told Tony that before. "Look, you don't have to see him. You can work in your lab while he's here, okay?"
"You can." Jarvis had been kind enough to move out when they'd figured out why seeing him caused Tony so much trouble. None of them had thought it would be for long, but a month had passed without any real change. "And I'll talk to Reed again. Will that be okay?"
For a second, Steve thinks Tony's going to refuse, but he nods slowly. The lab is the one place Tony can handle by himself. Maybe it's because Steve doesn't know tech well. Whatever the reason, it's a good place to leave him for a little while.
Hopefully, Reed will have an idea. He's had a month, and Steve is at the end of his rope.
"It's definitely Tony." Reed looks pleased with himself as he continues to type in commands to the computer behind his back. "Everything matches up with what we have on file, even down to his brainwaves. He's a few years older, but other than that he's in perfect health. No injuries. Not even any old injuries. Extremis makes it hard to tell, but I'd estimate that he hasn't been in a fight in at least two years."
No physical abuse, at least, but that hasn't really been in doubt. "Can you tell me something new?" Steve shifts forward in his chair, sneakers squeaking against the tile floor. He's been there for five minutes, and the walk had taken ten. That's fifteen minutes away from Tony, forty-five minutes until he has to be back to make him eat lunch. "How do we fix him?"
The typing stops. Reed's head turns all the way around so he's looking at the enormous screen behind him rather than at Steve. "I don't think we can."
Steve's stomach lurches. The world might have dropped out from under his feet, but there hasn't been much world to lose for a month. He grips the arms of his cheap office chair, not letting up even when the metal dents under his fingers. "What do you mean?" His voice shakes. "He can't stay like this forever. We have to fix him."
Reed still doesn't turn around, but the typing starts again, much slower. Diagrams appear on the screen, detailing a human body and three points on it—the base of the skull, the jaw, and the small of the back. The points rotate and enlarge into exploded diagrams. "I studied the chips they implanted. They're years ahead of anything we have now, which I rather expected since he said it was 2013 there. The one in his jawbone is a GPS tracker, which is fairly useless since we don't have the codes for it. I can take it out at any time—"
The scientist's shoulders slump. "The other two are linked to Extremis," he explains reluctantly. "Tony must have made them, or someone who knows the Extremis system had. I don't know anything about it—you'll need an expert to be sure, but it looks like the Extremis has adapted to them. They're... entwined, for lack of a better word. If we take them out, Extremis will fail and... He'll die."
The chair arms cracked under Steve's hands. He can't be sure which is worse; that Tony will die, or that he did it to himself to some extent. "What did I... What do they do?"
A few taps of the keyboard and the computer focus in on the chip in Tony's head. Lists of features and components in tongue-twisting technical jargon scroll by so quickly that Steve's eyes hurt. "As you can see, this one affects his long and short term memory. He'll have a hard time accepting the difference between the past and the present, which explains why he doesn't understand where he is."
Steve didn't see, but he nodded along, figuring that anything he could understand would be better than nothing at all.
Reed continued blithely, not even noticing Steve's nod. "I could be mistaken, but it appears as though it may take six, perhaps seven months for contradictory information to be processed and accepted. His captors—the General—most likely did it to keep him confused, but it affects his learning abilities as well. He simply doesn't store experiences the same way any more."
And that would explain why Tony never believes that Jarvis is alive, no matter how many times he sees him. "The other one?" Reed perks up, and Steve hopes that's a good sign.
"Actually, that one's rather fascinating. It balances out the negative effects of the first chip to some extent. No use having a slave who can't learn, I suppose." Reed's head finishes turning so he can smile brightly at Steve, leaving his neck twisted like a washrag. He doesn't seem to notice Steve's glower at the term slave. "It's specifically for positive reinforcement. Taps directly into the central nervous system, actually. Emotions are amplified to a physical level. When he feels emotionally good—from praise, for example—he quite physically feels good, and vice versa for unpleasant stimuli. Absolutely ingenious design—it by-passes the conscious mind almost entirely, so he learns mostly from sensory information."
It's not Reed's fault he gets carried away. Steve tries to remember that before he breaks more of the chair. "That doesn't explain why he's... like this. Following orders. Dependent." And trying to convince Steve to sleep with him, and waking him up with oral sex, and... "What's causing that? Can we fix it?" That's all he wants. They can deal with the rest of it, but he needs Tony to be strong again. To be Tony again.
"Perhaps Professor Xavier or Emma could—"
"No. He'd hate that. What else?"
"A good psychologist." When Steve opens his mouth to argue, Reed holds up a hand for silence. "He was a prisoner for four years. There's no technical reason for his condition, so I can only theorize that it's psychological. With help, Tony might be able to regain independent function, but that's completely out of my field of expertise." Pity rises in Reed's eyes. "I'll keep studying it, but science can't fix everything."
Steve doesn't bother checking the penthouse when he arrives back at the Tower, heading straight to Tony's basement lab instead. Reed had given him some printouts, which he'd tucked into a folder. Most of them are the specifications for the chips implanted in Tony. If Tony had designed them, it stands to reason that he might know how to remove them. But one of them is a list of psychologists that specialize in superheroes. He hadn't even known they existed.
If the labs are barred to visitors, there's no sign of it on the plain metal doors. The identity scans approve him with a cheerful chirp, followed by the click of the doors sliding open.
Tony's back is the first thing he sees, hunched over one of the work tables. What had been a respectable white button-down is stained in at least three places that Steve can see. The slacks are probably just as bad, though the probable damage isn't visible from behind. He'd forgotten to tell Tony to change before leaving for the Baxter Building. One more outfit ruined. It's not much comfort that Tony's been destroying clothes since long before he'd even met Steve.
Some sort of tool too tiny to be identified drops to the table as Tony whirls around. With the goggles on Steve can't read his expression, but his body language is tense and hunched in, more than enough to tell Steve he's upset. "Mast— Steve, I didn't hear you come in." Tony lifts the goggles off his head and lets them dangle from his wrist. Everything about him is tense, ready to jump at the tiniest reason.
Moments like this make Steve wonder what kind of person the other Captain America is—bad enough that he turned Tony into this, but the way Tony's attention is so constant makes Steve think jealousy. Memories of the times he's envied the attention Tony gives his work makes self-disgust squirm in his gut. "It's okay. I like watching you work." At Tony's doubtful expression, he smiles. It's more fake than the red hair on the girl Tony had taken out for New Year's Eve, but it does the trick and takes the hunted look from his eyes. "We need to talk about something. Something technical," he adds quickly, before Tony's good mood can fade. Conversations with Tony are minefields, and a month isn't enough time to learn where the bombs are. A lifetime might not be enough. "Reed told me some things I need you to explain."
Tony's eyes dart to the folder under Steve's arm, then back at his project. The struggle only lasts a second before he drops the goggles to the bench and looks up at Steve with a smile. "Yes, sir."
There's a faint flush to Tony's cheeks that could come from almost anything. It's familiar, though, and distracting enough that Steve doesn't notice the determination in Tony's stride right away. It takes three steps and a shirt button for Steve to figure it out. He's dreamed about having that expression turned on him. Now that it is, he would give anything to have Tony be able to give it to someone else.
What was it Reed had said about the third chip? Pleasant emotions equal pleasant sensations... Steve catches Tony's hands before he can undo another button. "Stop."
Tony freezes, flinching as if Steve had hit him.
Unpleasant emotions produce...
Steve's heart sinks to his sneakers. "You need to eat lunch first," he blurts out. The bewildered stare he gets in return is a thousand times better than the kicked-puppy look. Bullets hurt less than that look, and Steve knows what being shot is like. "We'll have lunch first," he repeats, like it might ease the rejection."
He feels like an absolute heel, like the lowliest scum on the bottom of some fourth-rate villain's shoe for not realizing what was wrong with Tony's reactions sooner. Reed hadn't said it straight up, but Steve's only experience with unpleasant stimuli is an experiment where scientists shocked the lab mice to teach them to avoid the food. Tony's never been exactly stable, but if that is what he's lived with for years...
Maybe it's not so surprising he broke.
While all this is going through Steve's head, Tony watches him through lowered eyelids. His hands tangle in Steve's shirt, but he's not trying to take it off anymore, at least. "Lunch?" he asked, already sounding resigned.
"Lunch," Steve agrees, and hopes Tony's forgotten about the other by the time they're done eating.
Tony seems content enough to just rest his head on Steve's shoulder during the elevator ride up. With what Reed told him still heavy in his head, Steve's not sure he'd have the heart to turn Tony down again. The sort of disaster that would turn into doesn't even bear thinking about.
Which would be worse? Taking even more advantage of Tony than he already has, or hurting him with rejection? Worse yet, what kind of damage could either option do to Tony's questionable sanity? Steve isn't trained for these sorts of questions. He doubts anybody could be.
The penthouse is deserted; every Avenger who can found somewhere else to be for the day. Signs that Jarvis has been and gone are everywhere, in the little corners of dust that magically vanished and the fresh arrangement of flowers on the coffee table. Steve doesn't have to look to know that there's an unsigned get well card in the flowers addressed to "Master Anthony". Jarvis always leaves one.
When Tony tries to detour to the bedroom, Steve puts a hand on the small of his back and gently pushes him back on course. "Lunch," he reminds firmly. The only response is a sigh, but Tony lets himself be guided to sit at the table. "Stay here. I'll make lunch." Tony gives him the forlorn look Steve's starting to privately think of as his "I'm not wanted" expression, so he puts the file on the table. "Look at that while I'm cooking. It's what I wanted to ask you about."
Leaving Tony to flip through the diagrams and Reed's notes, Steve turns his attention to the refrigerator. As usual, Jarvis stocked the freezer with a supply of heat-and-eat meals; he's said more than once that he suspects superheroes would attempt to survive on cereal and fast food if left to their own devices. Remembering meals past, Steve has to concede the point. Neither Jessica cooks, MJ doesn't have enough time, and Logan can only manage food if it's fried to a crisp. On a good day, Steve can bake and manage plain meals. The rest of them are better off out of the kitchen. Peter still swears he hadn't meant to ruin the toaster, but that hadn't stopped Jarvis from leaving a very sarcastic note when he'd left the replacement.
Deciding to save Jarvis' fare for later, Steve starts pulling out what he'll need for sandwiches. There's some canned tomato soup that they'd smuggled in behind the giant-sized peanut butter jar in the pantry. Between the two, he should be able to get Tony to eat.
Behind him, Tony makes a noise of surprise. Steve turns to see him touching the back of his head tentatively. "These are... Why do you need to know about them? You told me to make them. Did I do something wrong?"
Steve really, really hates himself these days. If he could go through that dimensional rift and drag the other Steve back to justice, he wouldn't even stop to think about it. "They're fine. Perfect. I just need you to refresh my memory. Why did you make them?"
"You told me to." The reply is prompt, and the alert, submissive expression on Tony's face makes Steve feel ill.
To keep from thinking about it, he turns back to the food. "I mean, why did I have you make them? Why not someone else?"
"Extremis rejected the first ones. It's not plug and play friendly. I don't..." Tony's voice trails off. Steve forces himself to focus on slicing the tomatoes, not wanting to distract him. "I don't remember well," Tony finally says, his voice soft. "It was when I was still misbehaving. They implanted them and then... it hurt and no one could get it to stop. You promised that it would if I redesigned them." Steve can imagine Tony's shrug without turning around, the one that's full of self-deprecating acknowledgement of something best forgotten. "I... didn't, not right away—I was misbehaving—I didn't want to be good..." Steve risks a glance over his shoulder to see Tony's fingers tracing shapes on the table. "I don't know why. It was so much better after I fixed them."
How long did he hold out? Steve stirs the soup and tries to keep from dwelling on the implications of that. Maybe Reed will have an idea what happened, besides the obvious. "Did you design a way to remove them? Just in case?"
"Remove them?" Something smacks to the floor. Steve drops the spoon and whirls to see Tony hunching over, arms wrapped around his stomach. At his feet, the file folder and its contents have spread out over the marble tile where it had fallen. Already pale skin loses what little color it has as Tony starts shaking his head in denial. "You don't want me any more? I'll— I'll be good— better than good! I promise! I promise I promise I—"
"Tony!" Steve abandons the soup to drop to his knees in front of Tony. He grabs him by the shoulders to force him to straighten. "I want you, I swear I want you. You don't have to do anything."
Shudders wrack Tony's body, but he lifts his head to meet Steve's eyes. "You don't touch me," he accuses, voice wavering. "You don't say you love me. You lock me out of your room and now you want to take the chips out."
What can he say to that? "If we have to replace them," Steve tries, knowing he's lying and not giving a damn at this point, "we have to be able to disconnect them. That's all I meant. I still want you."
"You don't touch me."
"I'm touching you right now." Exasperation, at least, is a familiar look on Tony. Steve strokes his cheek, and his skin only crawls a little when Tony leans into the touch gratefully. He hates how good it feels to have Tony's affection. "You can share my bed tonight. Will that help? And I won't lock the door anymore. But I need you to work on a way to disconnect the chips from Extremis. Will you do that?"
"Yes, Master." Steve doesn't correct him this time, and it's worth it to see Tony smile.
They stay close for several long, wonderfully peaceful minutes before Tony lifts his head away from Steve's hand. "The soup's boiling over," he announces helpfully, just moments before Steve hears the distinctive hiss of a culinary attempt gone wrong.
The soup only boils over a little and Steve's able to talk Tony into sitting in the chair, using the files as an excuse, so he considers the meal a small success. They seem like the only ones he has any more, but that just makes them more satisfying. About half-way through his meal, Tony grabs a pencil stub out of his pocket and starts editing Reed's notes. By the time Steve notices, Tony's soup is already congealed and the sandwich has gotten soggy, so he just grabs the leftovers and starts to clean up the mess. It's good to see Tony wrapped up in his work again and he doesn't want to disturb him.
The grit from where the soup fried itself to the burner is stubborn, so Steve doesn't look up when Tony asks, "What's this?"
"What's what?" The cleaner Jarvis keeps under the sink is working, but only slowly. Maybe if he lets it soak...
"These people. Dr. Gerald Phips, 926-7604. Dr. Karen Weaver, 662-5102... Psychotherapists?" For a second, all Steve can think is that he can't believe he was stupid enough to leave that list in there where Tony can find it, much less give it to him. When he turns, Extremis is painting lines of data across Tony's eyes, but he doesn't look upset. Instead, there's a worried crease on his forehead. "These are therapists for superheroes. And one for 'recovering villains'."
"Are you having the nightmares again?"
Steve's positive he never told Tony about those dreams, the ones where he's been yanked away forever, or where he's on a leash like a dog. Tony had caught him retching once, but he hadn't explained anything and Tony hadn't asked. "Yes?"
Tony abandons the table and slinks across the kitchen on his hands knees, ending with his arms around Steve's hips and his cheek against his stomach in what Steve's starting to think is Tony's favorite position. It's a fight for Steve not to slide away from the embrace. A sick feeling roils in his stomach as Tony looks up at him anxiously. "This is why you should let me sleep with you all the time," he murmurs. "You don't have them when I'm there."
"I..." Steve leans back into the stove, putting a couple of inches between himself and Tony. His hands latch onto the oven handle, as if he can use it to gain another inch of space. "The list isn't for me. It's for you. To help you."
The few inches Steve managed to win for himself vanishes as Tony buries his face back in Steve's stomach. The desperation of the move takes away anything sexual that might have been in it. "I don't need to be helped."
"I don't want it! I'm happy. I have you, and you take care of me." The words are muffled by Steve's stomach. At this angle, Steve can see the bumps of Tony's spine. They'd always been visible before, but now there's less muscle to soften them. "You always take care of me. Why do I need to be helped?"
It's humbling and terrifying to have someone place themselves so completely into his hands. Captain America gets that sort of trust, because he wears the flag on his chest and Stands for Something, even if sometimes no one agrees with him. Steve Rogers has never even kept a plant. He gropes for words, mouth forming them silently and then shutting when everything comes up short. Because you can't stay like this will just bring more questions, and it's not very accurate. Tony very well can stay like this. He just shouldn't.
Desperation makes Steve look farther afield. "What about Iron Man? Stark International?" Tony just presses closer to him with a quiet sound of denial. "You can't be Iron Man or run your company like this. Pepper's handling things, but..." Pepper won't be able to control the media storm brewing forever. They only suspect that Tony's injured, or ill. If the public finds the truth, God alone knows what will happen. Steve swallows a growing tightness in his throat and loosens his grip on the oven, threading his fingers through Tony's hair. "The Avengers need old Shellhead. Captain America needs his partner back."
"Iron Man is gone. The suit was slagged and SHIELD funds—"
"That's the other place." A harsh noise, almost a sob, makes Tony shake against him. Steve lets his fingers ease over Tony's scalp, not quite petting him, but closer to it than he's really comfortable with. "The armor's in the lab, remember? Under the sheet in the corner. You can still be Iron Man, but you need to be fixed."
"Is..." Tony's voice is so subdued, Steve almost misses it. "Is that an order?"
"I don't want it to be." Tony doesn't answer, and Steve can only hope that's a good sign.
Tony hides in the bathroom for the rest of the day. The bedrooms all have en suite bathrooms, so he's not getting in anyone's way, but Steve still tries to stay view of the door as much as possible. He doesn't want to find Tony at three AM passed out in his lab because he'd snuck out to the elevator while Steve's back was turned. Tony's been doing that for as long as Steve's known him, but that doesn't make it healthy.
The list of psychiatrists isn't actually long, but calling them takes the rest of the day anyway. He can't manage to get any of the doctors actually on the phone to listen to him. It's a lot more complicated than "just a breakdown"—as if anyone with powers could be said to have had "just" anything—but the secretaries are distinctly unimpressed when he won't even give them Tony's working identity. Saying he's Captain America receives disbelieving scoffs. Pepper would have been a better choice, since she has experience dealing with irritating professionals, but after what happened in the kitchen Steve doesn't want to let anyone else do it.
A faint, mechanic whir from the hidden security cameras follows him around the Tower the few times he leaves the main room. Even so, the bathroom door stays closed and locked. One by one, the other Avengers wander in, except for Logan, who Luke informs Steve is staying with the X-men for a while. Steve hates to think it, but at least it's one more difficulty he doesn't have to handle. The plate of dinner Steve leaves on a tray outside remains untouched and congealing until Steve finally takes it back to the kitchen.
Come eleven that night, Steve checks the bathroom again to find the door still closed. He'd taken as much time as he could, using a ridiculous amount of hot water to drag out his shower, triple-checking the premises and even going down to Tony's lab to check the doors there in order to put off sleep. He'd hoped Tony would be ready to come out, but the quiet bathroom tells him otherwise. The cameras are still following him, at least, so he knows Tony hasn't fallen asleep in there. He almost wishes he had. It would have to be better than sitting on the tile brooding. "Tony?" No response. Not even a shuffle. "I'm going to bed. Please don't stay in there all night."
Sighing, Steve turns and trudges down the hall to his room. Guilty relief that Tony isn't going to hold him to his promise weighs heavy on him, but as long as Tony's locked himself away there's nothing Steve can do about it.
His relief lasts exactly until he opens his bedroom door and sees Tony curled up at the foot of his bed.
Tony's eyes are open, the blue of them barely peeking out behind the shadows created by his arm. Black leather loafers rest in a pile on the floor where Tony had kicked them off, along with his socks and belt. Those look like the only concessions to comfort he'd made. Even his shirt is still tucked in.
Out in the hall, the cameras hum and shift back to their normal positions.
"I thought you were still hiding," Steve says numbly. Belatedly, he closes the door, before one of the others can wander by and get the wrong impression. Not there's much of a right impression to be had. At least Tony's still dressed.
There's no movement at all from the tight ball of Tony. "I came in when you took away the tray."
That had been an hour ago. "I was waiting for you to come out." Steve settles on the edge of the bed, next to Tony's shoulders. He should probably go find Tony something to sleep in, but maybe just his undershorts will do. Designer or not, what he's wearing won't be comfortable.
Slowly, Tony uncurls until the tips of his fingers hook into the loose cloth of the pajama bottoms Steve had decided to sleep in, just in case Tony came out of the bathroom overnight. Tiny pops sound where Tony's joints unlock after having been held in such an uncomfortable position for so long. "I didn't want you to lock me out," he confesses, keeping his eyes fixed on the wall across from them.
"I promised I wouldn't," Steve reminds him gently. Tony only shakes his head, which Steve takes to mean that he'd either forgotten or thought Steve would lock it anyway. He settles his hand over Tony's, running his thumb along the back of it soothingly.
Even as pale as he is, Tony's skin is still darker than Steve's by a few shades. The contrast makes the artist in him itch to reach for pencils to capture the differences. It had been easy to miss the two inches and fifty pounds that separated them, or how long and delicate—dare he say, feminine—Tony's fingers are under the calluses and scars. He's always been good at projecting himself as bigger, tougher, stronger than anything he faces, except when the enemy is in his own head.
Finally Tony sits up, but his eyes stays lowered and his shoulders rounded meekly. Blunt nails dig into Steve's thigh where Tony's grip had tightened, even though the man himself doesn't seem to have noticed. "Do you want me to go?"
"No." The disgusting thing is, he doesn't, and Steve can't even tell himself that it's for the best any more. Not when Tony is already miserable just expecting to be sent away. "I want you to stay. Strip down to your shorts and get comfortable up on the pillows. Please."
Tony looks at him warily, like he might change his mind. When Steve just waits expectantly, his eyelids droop and he shudders so slightly it's almost invisible. Steely blue eyes stay on Steve's as he unbuttons his shirt, with much more care than he usually displays.
Seeing Tony so casually sexual sends something warm and possessive down through Steve's stomach, where it burns. He swallows and turns his head before Tony gets any ideas. No matter what Tony wants, or thinks he wants, it would still be taking advantage of him.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the dress shirt drop to the floor by his shoes. The bed shifts, and Steve turns his head a little more, expecting Tony to stand for the rest of it. Instead, it shifts more and Tony's slacks slap against the far wall brutally when he throws them.
Two warm arms wrap around Steve's shoulders from behind. "I'm sorry." The words are breathed into his ear, but they might as well have been a shout for how Steve focuses on them. He stiffens, and Tony nuzzles him, hands tracing down to the front of Steve's shorts. "I know I was bad, hiding from you today. I'm so sorry." The hard press of Tony's erection against Steve's back doesn't do much to support his apology. Neither does the little kisses he's leaving along his neck. "Still love me?"
It takes Steve three tries to grab Tony's wrist and lift his hand from his crotch. God help him if the bad guys figure out that all it takes it Tony's voice in that tone to completely kill his coordination. "Tony," he mutters, ashamed to realize that his voice is thick with lust. "Tony, please stop it. I'm not having sex with you."
The word "stop", which usually brings a complete halt to whatever Tony happens to be doing, only pauses Tony's hands this time. Sharp teeth bite down on the curve of his ear. "Say you love me?" Tony begs. His hips rock once into Steve's back. "Please? Just tell me?"
Steve grips the quilt so tightly that he feels some of the stitches pop. He'd like to tell himself that it's disgust, or pity, but he's never been good at lying to himself.
He can feel the new landmine under his feet, but Tony deserves to hear the truth about something this important. "Yes, I— I do. I love you."
The hold around his shoulders tightens as Tony buries his face in Steve's neck. "Steve," he moans, voice mangled and low with pleasure. His whole body convulses, hips grinding shamelessly into Steve's back. Then he sags, drooping forward like a robot whose power supply had been cut. Damp heat sinks through Steve's shirt to his skin where Tony had pressed into him.
"You..." Steve's voice is low and blank with shock. He can't believe Tony actually...
A last kiss lands against Steve's ear before Tony pulls away. Steve turns to be graced with a lazy, pleased smile and a very naked Tony. Most of the mess had been caught in his shorts, but a smear had managed to go as high as his ribcage.
Tony scoops some of it up with a finger and pops it in his mouth, then rolls off the bed. "I'll get a wash cloth," he mumbles around the finger.
Even muffled, Steve doesn't think he's ever heard Tony so cheerful. "What just happened?"
The newly cleaned finger leaves Tony's lips as he pauses in the bathroom doorway, turning to back at Steve. "You love me," he says, as if that explains anything at all. "And I love you, too." Then he vanishes into the bathroom, leaving Steve to wonder what the hell he's stepped into now.
Villains have the worst timing possible. They never strike during lunch hour, or on a slow day. Steve's learned to accept this as a basic fact of life, but it doesn't lessen his annoyance at all when the his communicator starts beeping just after midnight, less than a half an hour after he finally got Tony to sleep. He manages to slip out of bed without disturbing Tony, grabbing it off the bedside table and heading out into the hall.
"What is it?"
"Hey, Cap." Peter's voice is far too cheerful for the hour. "Guess what's made of metal, blows things up and chants 'Doom, Doom, Doom'. Three chances and the first two don't count."
What else? Things had been quiet for a while. It was bound to happen eventually. "Just tell me where you are."
Somehow, Peter manages to sound offended and cheerful simultaneously. "Bryant Park. You know, behind the Library? With those weird little statue things on the roof that look like they're supposed to be Greek but they're wearing too many clothes? MJ and I just happened to be in there area—fully dressed and in the area—well, above the area, I mean, but anyway we don't do that sort of thing and don't listen to her if she says something else because she's just pulling your chain, you know?" Peter laughs nervously, and if Steve never has to hear about Spiderman's personal life again he'll be happy.
"I know where the New York Library is. We'll be there ASAP."
"What about Iron Man?"
Steve glances back at the bedroom door. "He's in no condition to fight right now. We should be able to handle a few Doombots on our own."
The silence on the other end of the line is somehow sulky, in the same way that Peter can make his mask emote. "Tony would want to help. And he'd laugh at my jokes."
Tears are a sharp burn behind Steve's eyelids that he refuses to admit to. "... I miss him too, Peter. Rogers out."
We should be able to handle a few Doombots on our own.
The voice through the communicator echoes with a static hiss that makes Tony's ears ring. He doesn't understand why they're doing that again, when he knows he'd fixed that problem. His Master had been so pleased that he'd told Tony that he loves him three times in a row. Extremis had taken care of the bruises, but just like everything Steve gives him, he can still feel them just under his skin.
Maybe the communicators need to be upgraded again.
Tony watches Steve through the security cameras as he heads down the hall. Luke and Jessica Drew are already coming out of their rooms, Jessica pulling down her mask and Luke still buckling his belt. An extra suit of Steve's mail is in the Quinjet hanger. The one in his bedroom is closer, but clearly he doesn't want to let Tony know he's leaving him.
Doombots are nothing new. Captain America can handle them. He can handle anything.
It's hard to believe that when he's being left behind, when he can't protect him the way he wants to.
Steve killed his suits. He killed all of them, even the old ones, the golden one and the one that gleamed like polished silver. Tony had felt the new ones die, one by one, the connections being sliced away to leave gaping wounds like amputated limbs. The Extremis armor screamed when it dropped into the smelter. Tony had cried over them, and his Master had held him and told him it was better this way.
You're not allowed to fight any more. It's too dangerous, and I won't lose you again. I won't kill you again. Iron Man is dead.
The suit is in his lab. The one that ties in to Extremis, that feels like his own skin. He put hours into building it, before Steve was his Master, when everything was murky and he'd been miserable and hadn't even known it. Steve hasn't destroyed it, he'd taken care of it the way he does Tony. It hums in the back of his mind, confused because he's been telling it that it's a ghost.
Captain America needs his partner back.
The contradiction hurts his head, makes it swim with nausea. He can't follow both orders. Steve's not cruel. Steve loves him—takes care of him. He wouldn't give Tony two conflicting orders. So one of them has to be right, but he can't tell which.
Gold slithers out of the modified glands Extremis gave him, sliding over his skin, under the loose shorts he's borrowed from Steve. Tony keeps his eyes closed, feeling like an itch he's ignored forever is being eased.
He's not becoming Iron Man again. Iron Man is dead. The air's chilly without Steve to keep him warm. That's all. Just like he's only going down to the lab to work on the new communicators. Steve allows him to play in the lab while he's gone. It has nothing to do with the faintly man-shaped thing tucked under a sheet in the far corner.
Tony's very good at lying to himself. His subconscious doesn't catch on until he's face to faceplate with the armor. Then the crushing misery of directly disobeying Steve—of making Steve unhappy comes down onto him, burning through his marrow like shots of molten lead. Metal rattles and flies through the air.
And then it's too late.
We should be able to handle a few Doombots on our own.
Famous, hopefully not-last words. It's not just Doombots, which they've dealt with dozens of times before, but a new type of bot. They're more unstable than the usual fare, and they make up for it with power. Electricity bounces all over the place, spiking high where the bots are grouped closely together. Some of them have already exploded from their own overload, but there's plenty to take their place. Iron Man's out of it, Wolverine isn't available, and Luke's already been knocked out by the voltage. Spiderman's webs are non-conductive, which helps things a little, but the bots are still managing to gain ground.
Steve ducks out from behind a building and hurls his shield, slicing three bots in half before it finishes its ricochet and returns to him. Up above, Spiderwoman hurls the remains of a Buick at a cluster, tumbling backwards midair from the force of the explosion. She crashes into Steve's chest, only her ability to fly keeping them both from hitting the pavement.
"These are prototypes," she pants. "Some of them are still half-assembled. I don't think this is deliberate." Then she shoves off from his chest to find something else to throw at the bots.
He curses under his breath and flings his shield again, as a piece of exploding Doombot slams into one of the ornamental trees and starts a fresh fire. Even accidental villain attacks have bad timing.
"Doom!" At this hour of the night, their ridiculous chanting is more annoying than usual. Steve takes the head off that one with a toss of his shield, then barely manages to avoid being grabbed by another by rolling out of the way before it can electrocute him.
Spiderman swings by overhead, using the street lights to keep himself away from the electricity. Webs smack into a handful bots, including the one that's focused on Steve, pinning them to the street. They thrash around before self-destructing with a joined cry of kneel before Doom. Forty-Second Street is littered with shrapnel and small fires, and there's still more bots left than Steve can conveniently count.
Peter's warning shout reaches Steve just before the roar of jets overhead. Familiar red and gold armor touches down in the middle of the street, stumbling over the remains of a Doombot. It's so much unlike Tony's usually graceful landings that Steve almost misses the bot taking aim to his left.
He slaps his communicator on and dodges the blast. "Tony, you're not supposed to be here!"
"I know, I know, I'm sorry." Even through the computerized synthesizer, Tony's voice is high and sharp with pain. Steve can't imagine what's causing it; he'd been fine less than an hour ago. More than fine, he'd been nearly ecstatic. "Where's Luke and— never mind, I see them on the roof. Pe— Spiderman. Get Master off the street. You'd probably better use a web to hold onto the lamp."
Peter sounds as confused as Steve feels. "Master? Who— oh, wait, you mean Cap. Creepy pet thing, right!"
Tony barks, "Just do it!" at the same time as Steve yells, "Spiderman!"
Webs tangle around Steve's waist, yanking him up before he has a chance to fight it. "Alleyoop! Webslinger Air, at your service. Our in-flight meal today will be Doom a la flambé with a garden salad and a side of lightly grilled yellow squash."
"Put me down!" Steve snaps, grabbing the web to try and break it before he gets too high up. It's like trying to break one of the lines on a suspension bridge.
"No can do, Big Man. Let the genius do his job and figure this out." Another webline wraps around Steve's shoulders, making it even harder to struggle. "We weren't really doing a good job anyway."
Spiderwoman hovers overhead. "Iron Man! Is there anything we can do?"
The suit rises and lurches to a standing position. "Just stay off the ground." One of Tony's arms lifts, the repulsor unit in his palm flashing incandescent just a moment before four precision blasts fire off. Almost simultaneously, four jets of water fountain into the air from the shattered remains of fire hydrants, flooding the streets.
Instantly the remaining Doombots—a rough fifty, now that Steve can see them all—freeze in place. Smoke rises as their own over-charged current flows along the water, connecting them to each other. Sparks leap off the robots as they convulse, exploding one by one. Overhead, glass rains down as the water spreads, carrying the electrical current to the street lamps.
Electricity crawls up the Iron Man armor, outlining its edges obscenely. Unlike the bots, it doesn't shake, showing no sign that it's even affected until the last bot gives a booming cry of Doom and detonates.
In the faint firelight that's scattered up and down the street, Steve barely makes out Tony's figure as he topples face-first to the asphalt.
Reed Richards hums happily as he does six different things at once on a total of four computers, none of which Steve can follow. The tune is inordinately cheerful for the circumstances. Steve tries not to glare at him too hard for it, even though he knows Reed probably wouldn't be affected by the roof caving in, much less Steve's annoyance. He's too preoccupied with the latest marvel to cross his lab.
Tony is stretched face-down across a table in the gold under armor, a host of wires running from him to various machines. The suit had been active enough to respond to the emergency overrides Steve had shouted, but no one can figure out how to get the second skin to retract, and cutting it off had been useless. It just parted around the blade and then sealed itself back up again. Between the under armor, the chips and Extremis, it had been decided that Spiderman and Spiderwoman would take Luke to the hospital, even though he'd already woken up and started complaining, while Steve took Tony to the Baxter Building.
He's seen Tony unconscious far too often for his taste, and it never gets any easier.
Something beeps for attention and Reed's head stretches over to check it. "Well, that's good!" he actually chirps. "The implants are still fully functional. The one in his spine is a bit over-worked, but it's nothing it won't recover from."
Steve reflects that it's unfair the way anything Reed says has to be interpreted before responding. "How is that good?"
"He's not dying."
A living Tony is definitely better than a dying one, but Steve can't quite suppress his disappointment that the shock hadn't taken out the chips. Stranger things have happened. "What about the electric shock?" There's a moment of silence as Reed blinks placidly in obvious confusion. "The electric shock he received when he took out the Doombots? The one that knocked him out?" Steve's certain he explained everything when they arrived.
"Oh, that." One stretched arm waves through the air dismissively. "He's not injured. I suspect the armor is insulated from electrical attacks. It would have been a logical precaution."
Normally, Steve has a reasonably good hold on his temper. He loses it occasionally, the way most people do, but he doesn't do it often and he never loses control completely. Captain America can't afford to be a short fuse. Those years of control are the only thing that keeps him from saying something he knows he'll regret. "Is there a reason you didn't tell me this sooner?"
"I thought it was obvious. No burns—no noticeable injuries at all, in fact."
"Tony hasn't been electrocuted. That's good. But if he hasn't been electrocuted, then what the hell is wrong with him?"
Reed looks hurt at his tone, but Steve's been dealing with a desperately needy Tony for a month and has built up a small amount of immunity to woeful glances. "I'm attempting to find out. I think it has to do with the activity in the lower chip, but I can't quite make out the cause." New diagrams come up, and these Steve can actually read, to a certain extent. It's impossible to be in their line of work and not recognize a map of the human nervous system. It's the sort of thing that ends up plastered on hospital walls, and Steve's seen a lot of those. "The effects are psychosomatic for the most part, except for—"
The pending explanation is cut off by a whimper. Gold under armor melts away as Tony rolls onto his side and curls into a tight ball. Reed's diagrams flicker as every machine in the room gives a high pitched squeal.
Reed taps out a command and fiddles with a power switch for a second. For the first time, frustration tightens his expression. "It's Extremis. He must have access the network." The lights flicker ominously. "And the power grid. If you would tell him to stop? There's no telling what damage he could do, and there's sensitive equipment in here."
The audacity of the request hits all of Steve's buttons at once, but he's distracted by another soft sound from Tony. He pries one of Tony's hands from around his shins and wraps it in both of his. "Tony," he tries, voice gentle for how angry he feels. "Tony, you're safe now. You need to stop this." The lights flash again, chasing each other on and off across the ceiling.
Metal and plastic crashes as Reed starts to unplug things. "Tell him—"
"I don't tell him what to do," Steve snaps. Tony moans, beginning to rock back and forth. "I'm not his owner!"
Reed pauses, half-way between a desk and the wall. Steve's never seen Mister Fantastic look so angry. "Yes," he says quietly. "You are."
Steve stares at him, jaw muscles clenching. Finally, his eyes close for a long moment before he looks back to the man on the table. "Tony, stop. That's an order."
In an eye-blink, the interference vanishes. Light returns, and quiet beeps herald the return of the machines to life, most of them turning on exactly as they'd turned off. The line graphs monitoring the chip activity waver and spike, the new peak hovering so high that the screen zooms out to accommodate it.
Since Reed isn't saying anything, and Steve's not even sure he want to hear what the man might say anyway, he hops onto the table at Tony's side and swings his leg over. Without opening his eyes, Tony shifts so that he's pressed against Steve's thigh. Steve gathers him up into a sitting position, cradling him against his chest.
"What's wrong?" Steve tries to rub Tony's shoulders soothingly, but he's so tense that there's almost no give to the muscles. "Tony, you have to tell us—"
"Wrong. Misbehaved." Tony's voice is barely even a hoarse whisper. He sounds like someone trying not to scream. "Hurts. Mad?"
Ice clenches around Steve's gut. He hadn't ordered Tony to stay. He knows he hadn't. Steve concentrates on the trembling body against his and does his best not to look over at Reed, who is probably watching with the same curiosity he shows anything new. "I'm not mad. You didn't misbehave. It's okay."
"Didn't?" Tony's breath is harsh, his chest heaving. "Right choice? Not removing...?"
The broken note in his voice makes Steve feel like he might cry. "Right choice," he confirms quietly, blinking against the burn behind his eyelids. "We're not taking out the chips, I promise."
Tony shudders against him, head rolling to look up at Steve for just a moment before he sags back into unconsciousness. On the largest screen, the line graph dives to something only a little above a complete flatline. Shakily, Steve checks Tony's pulse, only relaxing when he feels it beating steadily under his fingertips.
"I'm sorry." Steve's head jerks around. Reed's pulled himself together, standing in the middle of the room as he watches the data scrolling across the screen. "I should have been kinder."
"We didn't have time for kind." Steve starts disconnecting Tony from the machines. He can't stand to see it anymore, and it hasn't done any good anyway. Nothing they've done lately has. "Someone had to say it."
"I'm still sorry." Reed's head starts to turn, and Steve lowers his gaze before their eyes can meet. "I know you don't want to hear this, but even if we remove the implants, Tony's going to be years recovering. Short of wiping his memory—"
"Don't even—" Steve growls, but Reed keeps talking over him.
"—which I don't recommend, there's nothing we can do to speed the process." It's strange listening to Reed without looking at him, especially when he uses this sad, almost parental tone. He wonders if Franklin and Valeria hear this voice from him. "You may not think of yourself as his owner, but he does. If you try to resist that before he's ready, you're just going to do more damage."
Tony shifts against his chest, shivering and leaning in closer. A pile of fabric drops from overhead, but when Steve looks up Reed is exactly as he'd been before.
Steve tucks the light blue hospital blanket around Tony's naked body, and the shivering eases immediately. "I don't want to do this to him," he admits quietly. "It feels like I'm taking advantage of him."
"That's because you're a good man." Something taps, a keyboard, and out of the corner of his eye Steve can see one of the smaller monitors flickering with new information. "I don't have any contacts I can give you, but I suggest finding someone who specializes in dominant-submissive relationships and taking some lessons. Whoever you choose as a psychiatrist might have some suggestions."
Dominant-submissive. Steve's stomach turns over on itself. Even the words sound like everything that's never been between him and Tony. "What else?"
"Just take care of him. That's all he needs for now."
Steve remembers what taking care of Tony used to mean. It was mostly nagging him into eating at least one meal a day, or helping to pick up the pieces when his last relationship went wrong. Standing back and not letting his feelings get between them. Letting him work things out on his own, until he was ready to ask for help. Tony had always been more self-sufficient than he needed to be, as if he had something to prove to himself. They'd argued sometimes, and Tony always managed to hold his own. Steve never thought he'd miss that.
He's terrified, in a way that Nazis or supervillains never managed in the past. Before, all Steve had to risk was his own life and the ones under his command, but he'd been trained for that. Now he has Tony's sanity in his hands, and he doesn't have the faintest idea how he's going to keep it together, or even where to start.
Tony's weight is absolutely limp against him, as trusting as a newborn kitten. He hadn't wanted any of this, but Tony needs it, and that's really all that matters. "Take care of him... Yeah. I can do that."
Tony wakes up. That's the first surprise.
The second is that he doesn't hurt any more. He never stops hurting before Steve forgives him. The guilt of upsetting Steve wraps itself around the Extremis additions and refuses to let him breathe until it's resolved. Trying to remember what happened is like grabbing for a mirage. He recalls the pain and his Master's voice saying something, in that gentle, sad tone he gets when Tony's done something stupid like try to run away. Everything else is just out of reach, and experience tells him to stop trying before his head begins to ache. A quick, worried scan with Extremis tells him that his Master's marks are still in place, and as long as the chips aren't removed and he's been forgiven, he doesn't much care for what else might have occurred.
Accessing the security cameras is as easy as blinking, so he does. Like everything else lately, they're sluggish, but he slows his processing speed and it almost syncs with him easily. Images play across the inside of his eyelids, silent and comforting.
He's in Steve's room, curled up in a blanket that still smells faintly of leather and Old Spice—Steve scents. He lets the connections wander, looking for his Master. Familiar faces fill the Tower. MJ and Peter are on the couch—alone, which bothers him. He has the feeling that he hasn't seen their little girl anywhere lately, but he doesn't know why. Maybe she's with May. The question gets filed away with all the other unanswered ones as he switches to another camera, this time finding Logan and Jessica Jones in the kitchen. Another jump—
"Tony? Are you using Extremis?"
Guilt burns a harsh line down his chest. A breath and the connections are severed, feeling like phantom limbs for a moment before they finish closing out. Tony opens his eyes, expecting to see a disapproving frown on Steve's face, but only finding exasperation instead. He's damp and has a towel wrapped around his waist, one of the giant fluffy ones he likes that reach past even his knees.
The preemptive pain vanishes as quickly as if it had never been. "I was looking for you."
Steve smiled, and the expression had the usual result of making Tony tingle down to his toes. "I was taking a shower."
Where there's no cameras. Tony nods his understanding, settling comfortably back into the pillows. Steve watches him nervously, but why is a question that only occurs to Tony for a few seconds. It's not an upset sort of expression. As long as Steve isn't angry or sad, Tony trusts that he'll tell him when he's ready.
Extremis counts less than three minutes before Steve groans and runs his fingers though his hair. "Are you still hurt?"
Tony looks at him in confusion for a moment before shaking his head in the negative. Why would Steve even ask? Tony knows to tell him when he's injured, so Steve can take care of it.
"Oh. That's good." The towel stays up high on Steve's waist as he sits on the edge of the bed, blue and white and silly the way he's gripping it like it might be ripped away from him. It's adorable, which isn't a word Tony really remembers thinking much lately. Usually, it's a word for Natalie May Parker, or little Danielle Cage. It fits Steve right now, and as nice as it is, it leaves him feeling lost, without any idea what he needs to do to make Steve happy.
Steve seems to realize the problem though, and pats the bed beside him. Gratefully, Tony squirms out of the blankets and down to rest his cheek on his Master's thigh, sighing blissfully when Steve starts petting him. The air's chilly on his bare skin, but being close to Steve makes up for it.
He's so comfortable that he barely glances up when Steve starts speaking. "I haven't been very clear lately, have I?" he asks quietly. "Telling you what I want?" His eyes are fixed on Tony, with the same intensity he gives troop formations.
Every muscle in Tony's body relaxes as the contentment from Steve's gaze rolls over him. "I don't mind guessing." His voice is nearly a purr in his ears, and from the way Steve's hand pauses, he hears it too. Tony nuzzles his thigh, wrinkling his nose when the towel tickles it, then goes boneless again when Steve resumes stroking him.
"You shouldn't have to." Tony's eyes are closed, but he can feel Steve stiffen under his cheek. "You're sleeping in here from now on."
Sharp, authoritative tones vibrate in Steve's voice, and every syllable twangs an old rebellion Tony thought he'd buried long ago. He buries it again, letting the comfortable, easy pattern of submission hide it away before the shame of still resisting punishes him again. "Thank you."
Warm fingers touch his jaw, and Tony lifts with their pull obediently. His reward is a kiss on the temple that makes his toes curl.
"Don't thank me. I'm just..." The hand eases Tony back to Steve's thigh, and he lets it happen, snuggling back in to the warm place his cheek had left. Exhaustion and contentment work together against him, dragging him back down into sleep. He drifts off with the sound of Steve's voice just barely carrying to his ears. "I'm taking care of you."