The Roughest Day
Or: The New Avengers, and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad
day week MONTH
The guy on the motorcycle was speeding. Jack saw a flash of blue-and-red going by on his left-hand side, and he had just enough time to register the bike and debate whether or not ten miles over the speed limit was worth switching on his lights and pulling a U-turn to follow the guy and pull him over, before the green SUV loomed up in front of him.
Jack swerved to his right, the massive car just missing sideswiping him (going at least seventy, and that was a hell of a lot more than ten miles over the speed limit) and slammed on the brakes, already reaching for the switch to flip on his siren. In his rearview mirror, he could see the car bearing down on the motorcycle.
The next few seconds seemed to happen in slow motion. The motorcyclist attempted to swerve out of the way, just as Jack had done, and the SUV turned to follow him. It was going to hit the bike, Jack realized, and then the motorcyclist, realizing this at the same time that Jack did, was launching himself clear of the bike, twisting his body in mid-air like a cat.
He wasn't quite fast enough. Jack had never seen anybody but Daredevil move like that, but the SUV had acceleration and mass on its side. The car hit the bike head-on, sending it sliding across the asphalt with a screech of metal, sparks flying. The corner of the SUV's roof caught the airborne man on the shoulder, and he was thrown sideways, to land in a crumpled heap on the road.
The SUV didn't even slow down, barreling off down the street, mid-afternoon sunlight glaring off its windows. Jack had just enough time to get a partial plate before it turned the corner and was gone. He was already reaching for the radio, calling in what he had of the license number and requesting an ambulance, and then he was out of the car and running for the downed motorcyclist.
The man lay motionless in the middle of the road, his mangled bike on its side several feet away, one wheel still spinning. As Jack approached, he stirred, legs twitching for a moment before he reached up and pushed his helmet off with one hand.
"Sir, please don't move," Jack called out. The man ignored him, pushing himself up onto one elbow. Just as Jack reached him, he planted his other hand on the asphalt, trying to sit up, then groaned, clutching at his shoulder. His left arm was hanging oddly, obviously dislocated.
It hadn't been an accident; that SUV had been aiming for him. Jack hoped to hell the Kingpin wasn't involved. Last time there'd been a hit-and-run this close to the Kitchen, all the witnesses had mysteriously gotten amnesia, and they hadn't been able to make the case stick.
"Do you want me to call for an ambulance?" an older black man in a business suit called out, approaching them slowly and holding up on of those sleekly fancy cell phones that did more than the boxy grey Dell Jack wrote up his reports on. Behind him, a small crowd had formed, people climbing out of their stopped cars to gawk.
"No, I got it," Jack told him. "If you could keep everyone back, though?"
The businessman nodded, and Jack turned back to the man on the ground.
"Don't try to get up, sir," he repeated, crouching down next to the man. He was blond, mid-thirties, and even sprawled on the ground, it was obvious that he was tall and athletic. He was wearing the shredded remnants of what had once been a nice leather jacket, which had probably helped save him from needing skin grafts. "Just lie back down. I've already called for an ambulance."
"It's not that bad," the man said indistinctly. "I think I just dislocated my shoulder." Given the slight slurring to his words, Jack mentally added "concussion" to the list of possible injuries.
"Yeah, well, you could have done something to your spine, so I need you to stay still."
The man ignored him, sitting up further, hunching over his injured arm. He pulled a face, then turned, and spat blood on the asphalt.
Shit. "Sir," Jack insisted, "I really need you to lie down now. If you're coughing up blood, you probably have internal injuries."
"No," the man said, looking slightly embarrassed, "I bit my tongue." He frowned. "Where's my bike?"
"It's over there." Jack nodded toward the wrecked motorcycle, which, he saw now, had probably been a very nice bike about five minutes ago. It looked like an older model, probably some sort of classic. "We're going to have to call someone to pick it up; looks like it's gonna need some serious work before you ride it again."
The man shook his head, and tried to get up again. He only made it as far as his knees before stopping, one gloved hand clutching his injured shoulder. His riding gloves were bright red. So were his leather boots, which had weird flopped-over cuffs. They stood out garishly against his blue leather pants - guys on motorcycles always had leather pants - and Jack realized with a sinking feeling that the guy was probably a stunt rider or something. Damn it, he was going to lose it over his bike.
Why the hell would somebody want to kill a stunt rider?
The motorcyclist looked kind of green now, eyes narrowed against the sunlight. "No," he said, through gritted teeth. "There's a leather portfolio on the bike. I need it."
"Trust me," Jack told him, "anything that was on that bike is smashed. You're lucky you got thrown clear."
"No, I need-" he started to move again, and Jack put a hand on his uninjured shoulder, pushing him back down.
"Look, I'll go get the damn the portfolio, okay? If I do that, will you please stay still?"
The man sighed, looking put upon. "Fine."
Jack could hear sirens in the distance as he walked over to the bike, the ambulance on its way to make this not his problem anymore. Maybe his wife was right. Maybe it was time for him to retire, move to DC or someplace else with fewer crazy costumed people, whether with superpowers, or motorcycles.
Miraculously, there was a leather portfolio still strapped to the bike, behind the triangular leather seat. The leather case was scuffed and torn, but when Jack picked it up, he could feel something hard and curved inside it, a heavy disc a couple of feet across. What the-
He turned back to stare at the motorcyclist, who was still sitting on the pavement, head down. The tall, blond, square-jawed, massive-looking motorcyclist. With red leather boots.
It was Captain America. Goddamnit, the guys at the station were never going to let him live this down.
Maybe, Jack thought hopefully, the ambulance would get here before one of the two-dozen rubber-neckers with cell phones called the media.
Coming home from work to Stark Tower was an entirely different experience from coming home to their tiny house in Queens. For one thing, there was a doorman who called him 'Mr. Parker,' and Peter wasn't sure whether that was intimidating, or cool. Also, for the first two weeks, he kept feeling like he ought to be tipping the guy.
School had sucked today, which made it comfortingly familiar; the only difference from his own student days was that nobody had actually succeeded in shoving him into a locker. Art Simek had been out sick, and since the administration hadn't had enough forewarning to get a substitute, all of the other science teachers had had to cover his classes, which meant that Peter had spent fourth period playing substitute instead of eating lunch.
The lobby of Stark Tower had very shiny marble floors, with some kind of silver metal inlay that looked like circuitry; the tile under Peter's feet was an exact replica of the symbol for an N-channel JFET transistor. Maybe it was circuitry; Peter wouldn't put it past Tony. He'd have to ask.
Peter was staring so intently at the pattern on the floor that he nearly ran straight into Tony himself. His new "boss" was rushing through the lobby, cell phone clutched in one hand, a blank, dazed expression on his face.
Peter skipped sideways out of Tony's path. "What is it?"
Tony ignored him, still striding towards the doors. Peter caught him by the elbow, pulling him to a halt. "What's wrong?" A horrible thought struck him. "Oh man, please don't tell me everybody's broken out of the Raft again. Or that aliens are attacking the city. Is it aliens?"
"Steve was in a motorcycle accident," Tony said, voice flat. "I've got to get to the hospital." His voice caught slightly on the last word.
"Wait, Cap got hurt?" It couldn't be that bad. Cap was... well, he wasn't actually indestructible, not like Wolverine, but come on, he was Captain America. And it wasn't like he'd been fighting Doom or the Hulk or something.
"They want me at the hospital."
Peter looked at Tony more closely, noticing for the first time how pale he was, and the white-knuckled grip he had on the cell phone. "Um, maybe I should drive you there."
"You don't have a license," Tony responded mechanically. He was staring over Peter's shoulder, eyes fixed on the front doors.
"Then maybe I should come," Peter said, picturing Tony's no-doubt expensive car wrapped around a lamppost or something. Then both their team leaders would be banged up, and he and Luke and Jessica would be stuck taking orders from Wolverine. Or maybe Jarvis would be in charge. He was good at making people do things.
"Fine," Tony told him. "The car's waiting out front."
Tony's silver Audi unlocked itself and opened it's own door when he pushed a button on the keychain. Unfortunately, it couldn't drive itself. Peter kept silent throughout the drive to St. Vincent's, a death-grip on the door handle, and resisted the impulse to protest every time they drove through a red light.
He wasn't sure Tony would have noticed it, anyway. He wasn't sure Tony even noticed the red lights. He kept his eyes straight ahead, never once looking over at Peter, and his hands gripped the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles stood out pale against his skin.
"He never wears his goddamn helmet," Tony said, turning onto West 23rd so sharply that Peter was thrown sideways against the door. "He has one, but he never wears it. Do you know what something that weighs over a ton hitting you at forty miles an hour will do to your skull?"
"Something bad?" Peter ventured tentatively, a sick sense of worry starting to grow in his stomach. Maybe this really was serious. Tony was scared; he'd never seen Tony scared before. He'd also never seen a motorcycle crash up close and personal, but he could picture what happened when somebody's unprotected head hit the asphalt at forty miles an hour, no problem. If nothing else, he knew what losing too much momentum too quickly could do to your neck.
Tony didn't answer, but the muscles in his jaw tightened. God, what if Cap really was hurt? They were superheroes. They weren't supposed to get hurt in little, stupid things like traffic accidents.
"I'm sure he's okay," Peter said, though he was getting less sure by the moment. "They probably just want you to give him a ride home, or something."
Tony's voice was perfectly even, almost emotionless. "The doctor who called me said head injury."
Okay, that was bad. Or, at least, it had the potential to be really, really bad. And Peter was just going to be quiet now.
Tony pulled up right in front of the hospital, not bothering to go around to visitor parking, and shut the engine off. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes for a moment, then climbed out of the car. Peter peeled his hand off the door handle and followed him, still carrying the briefcase full of tenth grade science lab write-ups he'd had when he came home from school.
By the time Peter caught up with Tony, he was striding purposefully towards the elevators. "He's on the third floor, room twenty-seven," he said, hitting the button for the elevator with unnecessary force. He'd gotten the information out of the desk clerk awfully quickly, either through being really rich, or because he looked kind of scary at the moment. "They just brought him down from X-Ray."
Okay, X-Ray, that was… That meant he was still alive (not that Peter had believed Cap might be dead, because, well, it was Cap). And just because they X-rayed you didn't mean things were actually broken.
He thought about pointing this out to Tony, but the elevator was full of people, and from the look on Tony's face, he probably wasn't in the mood for any attempts at reassurance.
They were the only two who got off on the third floor. Luckily, the rooms all had little plastic number plates and number twenty-seven was easy to find; Peter wasn't sure Tony could have handled asking someone for directions at the moment.
Through the open doorway, Peter could see Cap sitting on the side of a bed, holding what looked like an ice pack to one shoulder. He was wearing only the blue leather pants to his costume, and there were bandages around his ribs. Other than that, he looked okay, and Peter heaved a quiet sigh of relief. He'd been expecting something much worse.
"Are you Mr. Stark?" a doctor emerged from the room and flourished a clipboard at Tony. She was almost Peter's height, looked Indian, and had glasses with thin oval frames. "He's been asking for you," she said when Tony nodded. "He's insisting on leaving now, but to be quite frank, I'd like to keep him overnight for observation. The officer on the scene said that he lost consciousness briefly."
Tony nodded, eyes focused beyond her, on Cap. "I'll see to it that he stays. What's wrong with him?"
She sighed. "Your friend is very lucky. He has a mild concussion, two cracked ribs, and a dislocated shoulder, which we've reduced. Most of the time, when a Harley-Davidson gets into a disagreement with an SUV, the results are a lot uglier."
Tony nodded again, then walked silently past her into the room. Peter hung back for a moment.
"He was worried," he told the doctor, waving a hand at Tony. "I don't think they told him very much over the phone."
She shrugged, and flicked her long, black braid back over one shoulder. "He was more polite than some," she said.
Peter started to follow Tony into the room, pausing just inside the doorway. Cap's shield was leaning against one wall, standing out garishly against the white paint (and white linoleum, and bright fluorescent lights).
Tony had taken a seat next to the bed and was talking to Cap quietly. He looked completely calm now, no hint of his earlier distress.
"They want you to stay overnight for observation."
Cap frowned. "I don't need to stay," he objected. "The worst I've got are a few cracked ribs."
Tony leaned forward, putting one hand on Cap's leg, just above the knee. Peter, still standing in the doorway clutching his briefcase, felt weirdly like a third wheel.
"You've got a concussion," Tony said. "Those can be serious."
"This one isn't. I'm fine." Cap dropped the ice pack and put his hand over Tony's. "And I'd rather sleep in my own bed tonight," he said, smiling just a little. He was now doing the "I'm cute and friendly, don't make me stay in the hospital," thing. It didn't work when Peter tried it on Aunt May or MJ, and it didn't work here, either.
"Stay for me?" Tony asked softly, giving Cap an intense look Peter couldn't decipher.
Cap's lips twitched. "That's playing dirty."
Tony smiled back, just a little. "I know. Did it work?"
"Yes," Cap said, heaving a put-upon sigh. "All right, I'll stay."
"Good," Peter said, finally speaking up. Cap and Tony both turned to stare at him, and he shuffled a few feet further into the room, feeling a little like an intruder. He had the feeling they'd forgotten he was there. "Because that way they can make sure you're really okay."
"Peter." Cap grinned at him. "I didn't see you there. You didn't have to come."
Telling Cap that he'd tagged along because he'd been afraid Tony would crash the car and kill himself was probably not the right answer. Cap was hurt; he didn't need to hear that. "I wanted to see if you were okay," he offered. "When I was in the hospital getting my tonsils out, I always liked getting visitors. I mean, I was six, and I mostly liked it because people kept bringing me ice cream, but, um…" Peter trailed off, not really sure where he'd been going with that.
"You could come back tomorrow morning and bring me a card," Cap responded, in that deadpan way that Peter had finally figured out meant he was making fun of you.
"I'll bring you a plastic balloon," Peter promised. "I think they sell them downstairs, with the Hallmark cards and the creepy teddy bears with the eyes that stare at you."
Tony didn't smile, still staring at Cap. "What happened?" he asked.
"Some idiot in one of those giant SUVs ran into me." Cap frowned, and picked up the ice pack, holding it to his left shoulder again; it already looked bruised, and kind of swollen. "I tried to jump clear, but he was going too fast, and I caught myself on the roof of the car." He grimaced. "I think my Harley is totaled."
"I'll have somebody bring it back to Stark Tower," Tony said. "Maybe I can fix it."
"I, um, already told the police to have it taken there," Cap admitted.
Peter belatedly took a seat along the wall, setting his briefcase on the floor. The two of them were doing that thing where they ignored everybody else in the room - in this case, Peter. They were obviously really close, but sometimes, like now, it made Peter feel kind of awkward, like he was intruding on something private.
Eventually, it occurred to him that MJ was probably wondering where he was. He'd been due home ages ago, and yeah, he was late all the time, but this time it wasn't because Doc Ock was trying to rob the Met, so there was no reason for her to worry.
He slipped out into the hall to find a payphone, and called Stark Tower, then spent ten minutes fielding various frantic questions about Cap from both MJ and Aunt May. "I don't know, he seems fine. Yeah, they're keeping him overnight, but I think that's just one of those precaution things, you know, so Tony can't sue them over anything."
"All right." He could hear MJ smiling even through the phone line. "I'll see you when you get home." She paused, then added, "We should send him flowers, or a teddy bear, or something."
"I'm bringing him an ugly balloon when he gets out tomorrow," Peter told her.
"I'm sure he'll appreciate that."
By the time Peter got back to Cap's room, there was a nurse there, too, shining a penlight into Cap's eyes. She was a tiny redheaded woman, so short that she had to look up to meet Cap's eyes, even though he was sitting and she was standing. She kept darting brief glances over at Cap's shield.
"Everything looks fine," she said, switching off the light. "But Dr. Shah still wants to keep you overnight for observation."
Cap blinked, probably trying to clear his vision after the penlight thing, and directed a look of mute appeal at Tony. Tony put a hand on his good shoulder. "Just do what the doctor says, okay?"
"I'm afraid you're going to have to leave now," the nurse announced. "Visiting hours are about to end."
"We'll, um, see you tomorrow," Peter said. He felt kind of like they were abandoning Cap, but the hospital was going to kick them out if they didn't go.
Tony stood up, and crossed the room to pick up Cap's shield, carrying it back over to the bed. "I'll see what I can do about your bike," he promised, and set the shield down in the chair he'd just vacated.
Cap reached over and brushed his fingers across the surface of the shield. "Thanks," he said, giving Tony a little smile. "I'd like to get out of here as early as possible tomorrow, before Channel Five has time to send somebody to film it."
"Oh, they're already showing cell-phone camera footage of you being loaded into the ambulance," Peter informed him. "I checked the TV by the nurses' station." He'd always thought the media just had a special grudge against him - well, and maybe Daredevil - but it was looking more and more like the news industry just hated everyone in a costume.
"I'll be here at seven," Tony promised. The nurse cleared her throat meaningfully, and they obediently filed out into the hall.
Once they'd turned the corner at the end of the hall, Tony halted. Peter started to ask if he'd forgotten something, then stopped. Tony had closed his eyes and was leaning back against the wall. He reached up to rub at his forehead, and Peter could see his hand shaking.
"I could add fuel injection," Tony was saying. He reached up to brush his hair out of his face, leaving a streak of engine grease on his forehead. "It wouldn't be period appropriate, but it would make the engine more efficient." He was crouched in front of Steve's damaged motorcycle, wearing grease-stained jeans and an undershirt, and Steve approved of the view. There were a variety of hand tools and small engine parts strewn around Tony's feet, although he was ignoring them at the moment.
Tony had picked him up from St. Vincent's exactly at seven, just as he'd promised. Of course, then he'd had to run right back to work, to smooth all of the corporate feathers he'd apparently ruffled by running out in the middle of a meeting yesterday. Steve had spent most of the day sleeping; his head still hurt, though not as much as it had yesterday, and his whole body ached from its disagreement with the pavement.
His shoulder felt infinitely better, though; it had taken two orderlies to shove the bone back into place, but now it was mostly just stiff and sore. Also, he could move his fingers again, which was more of a relief than he really wanted to admit.
It was late evening now; when he'd woken up sometime around six P.M., Tony had been nowhere to be found. Steve had gone in search of Jarvis, who had told him that Tony had gone straight from his office to his workroom in the basement. Then he'd insisted on feeding Steve, which was how Jarvis expressed concern.
By the time Steve had gotten down to the lab, Tony had already had the bike up on a stand, both wheels removed and leaning against a worktable. Even from across the room, they were both obviously warped out of shape.
"What kind of wheels do you want?" Tony asked, not looking up from the Harley's rear forks, which he carefully ran his fingers over. "I could find you vintage Harley wheel rims, but that would take a few weeks. Do you want me to just find you new ones with 2.15-inch rims? And rear brakes?"
"It's a nineteen forty-eight panhead," Steve told him. "It's not supposed to have rear brakes." He shifted his weight slightly on the lab stool, trying to find a position that would take the pressure off his ribs. It was a hopeless endeavor, he knew, but at least they hurt less than yesterday. He always healed quickly. "New wheels." It didn't really make that much of a difference, as long as they fit.
He poked absently at one of Tony's toolboxes, sitting open on the workbench next to him. He had no idea what half of the things in it were; they went beyond simple wrenches and screwdrivers to include tiny soldering pens and components for power tools that could probably think for themselves.
"I'm going to have to tear down the engine and completely rebuild it," Tony rambled on. "Which is why I asked about the fuel injection. You needed new carburetors anyway."
Steve made appropriate interested sounds, but mostly he just enjoyed watching Tony work. Listening to him babble was strangely soothing. With his bike - mangled as it was - and Tony already in the room, Steve found himself whimsically half-wishing he'd brought his shield down with him, so that he could have everything he loved in one room.
Yesterday, Tony had known to put the shield by the head of his bed, where he could reach it easily. It had been extremely unlikely that anything would attack him in the hospital, but having it within touching distance had been comforting.
"…think the engine housing is cracked, which means I need to…"
Tony was talking quickly, gesticulating with both oil-stained hands. He was upset; Steve could tell. He only got wound-up like this when he was worried about something.
"At least the frame isn't bent." Tony glanced vaguely at the assortment of tools scattered around him. Apparently, none of them were what he was looking for, because he straightened from his crouch in front of the motorcycle and crossed the room, heading for the toolbox.
As Tony drew even with him, Steve reached out and grabbed him by one wrist, pulling Tony in towards him, until he was standing between Steve's spread knees. He wrapped his bad arm carefully around Tony's waist. "I'm fine, you know."
Tony rested his cheek against the top of Steve's head, one hand coming up to wrap around the back of Steve's neck. Tony sighed. "I know." He didn't sound convinced, though.
Tony was rubbing little circles on the back of Steve's neck. His fingers were warm, and it eased the lingering remnants of the headache. More than that, the touch just felt nice.
Three months ago, Steve would have pulled away. The first time they were together, before the Avengers had broken up, it hadn't been like this.
Back then, it had been just a casual thing, a few heat-of-the moment encounters that Tony had wisely suggested they keep quiet; the media had had it in for them as it was, and discovering that the Avengers' two male team leaders were sleeping together would have had them camped out on the Mansion's lawn round the clock.
It hadn't been a real relationship, so Steve hadn't let himself get too comfortable. If he'd let himself get comfortable, he would have started expecting more, and that hadn't been what Tony had wanted.
Now, with a new team and a new start, Steve was willing to take the risk. They were still keeping it a secret, but maybe not forever.
Steve reached up and slid his right hand into Tony's hair, pulling him down into a kiss. It was a long, slow kiss, oddly gentle. With him sitting and Tony standing, Steve had to tip his head back, which was a new experience. Tony was closer to Steve's height than anyone he'd ever kissed, but, standing, Steve was still a good two inches taller.
After a minute, they broke apart, and Steve pulled away, taking his arm from around Tony's waist. His shoulder protested at the movement, over-strained muscles still sore, and he reached up to rub at it with his good hand.
Tony pushed Steve's hand away and began to knead the abused muscles, fingers hard. Steve started to protest as he pressed painfully at a particularly tender bruise, then relaxed, closing his eyes.
"That feels really good. How do you know how to do that?"
"When you've been through physical therapy a few times, you pick things up." Tony sounded like he was smiling, but Steve didn't open his eyes to check. The touch on his neck and shoulder was almost painful, and he could feel his arm tingling all the way down to his fingers, but he could also feel the muscles in his shoulder unknotting under Tony's hand.
Steve sighed, and leaned his head forward to rest against Tony's chest. He wrapped his good arm around Tony's waist again, settling his hand on Tony's hip, absently brushing his thumb over the hard edge of Tony's hipbone. This was good. They should have done this before.
Well, aside from the part where Tony hadn't wanted to. He was probably only being so demonstrative now because Steve was hurt, and he'd been worried. God knew Steve had been on the other end of that scenario more times than he cared to remember.
Steve kept his eyes closed, letting himself enjoy the closeness. This was enough; he wasn't going to push for more.
"Have you seen my book?"
"Which book?" Peter carefully placed another playing card atop the structure he had spent the past fifteen minutes crafting. He was on the second story now, and Steve suspected he was secretly gluing the cards together with webbing.
"The David McCullough one, about John Adams." Steve had been stretched out on the couch since that morning, under strict orders from Tony and Jarvis to "recuperate." Yesterday, when his head had still been aching, he'd welcomed the chance to rest. Today, he was mostly just bored.
"It's over there," Tony said, getting up from where he'd been sitting on the adjoining couch. "I'll get it."
"I'm not an invalid, Tony," Steve protested. "I can get it myself." But Tony had already fetched the book from across the room and was handing it to him. The same way he'd handed Steve lunch, and coffee, and a sketchpad, and the first time, it had been endearing, but now it was starting to grate on his nerves. "I don't need to be 'resting' anymore," he said, taking the book from Tony. "The headache is gone, my shoulder is better" - well, mostly better; he could raise his arm above his head now - "and my ribs really aren't that bad."
"Steve, you were in a motorcycle accident two days ago. You should be resting. And if you're getting up and running around constantly, your ribs won't heal."
Steve exercised masterful restraint and didn't point out that Tony was the one whose injuries never healed because he wouldn't take a break long enough to let them. "I really wasn't that badly hurt," he said instead, for what had to be at least the third time.
"You could have been." Tony's voice sharpened. "Now do you see why I always tell you to wear your helmet?"
"I was wearing a helmet," Steve pointed out; in what he felt was a perfectly reasonable tone of voice. He usually left it at home, because it was heavy, hot, and restricted his vision, but New York City had helmet laws, which they occasionally actually bothered to enforce, and he'd decided to obey them that day.
"This time you were," Tony said. He looked away, to where Peter was still constructing his increasingly ornate card building and pretending he wasn't listening. "If it had been last week, or next week, or any of the times you don't bother to, you could have died."
Steve pointedly opened his book. "I was, and I didn't."
Tony failed to take the hint. "I still think you should let me put rear brakes on."
"This had nothing to do with brakes," Steve said. "An SUV ran into me. It would still have run into me if I'd had rear breaks." He liked his bike as it was; he'd already told Tony not to change anything. It was the kind of machine he'd learned to ride on, and he didn't want Tony adding any fancy new features to it.
Tony being Tony, it was probably killing him not to turn Steve's Harley into a state-of-the-art engineering masterpiece. "Fine," Tony snapped, "I'll leave the bike alone, but for god's sake, will you just stay on the couch?"
"I have been." Even though he didn't need to. "Will you just leave me alone?" he demanded, voice rising in volume.
Tony started to say something, already raising his hands to gesticulate, then took a deep breath, turned on his heel, and walked out.
Steve stared after him, honestly surprised and a little hurt. He'd been irritated, yes, but he hadn't said anything that would warrant Tony walking out on him. Or that should have provoked that strong a reaction.
"Maybe you should, you know, just do what he says and stay on the couch," Peter ventured.
"I am." Steve said, beginning to feel unjustly harassed. "I have been. I don't know why he's still so wound up; I really am fine."
Peter gave him a blank look. "Well, yes, but you scared him."
Steve frowned. Tony had been concerned, obviously, but scared? "It's not the first time one of us has gotten hurt."
"I don't know about any other times." Peter shrugged. "But this time he was really freaked. I was pretty worried, too. I mean, going to the hospital the other day was the scariest car ride of my life. He never looked at me once, and he was going on about how you never wear your helmet, and I'm pretty sure that he thought you were dead, and I think that he was hoping that we would crash and die, so that we wouldn't have to get to the hospital and find out that you had crashed and died." He was wide-eyed, words picking up speed as he went; the last sentence was only decipherable because Steve had spent a great deal of time listening to Tony and Hank trade techno-babble with each other, something they invariably did at twice the speed of normal conversation.
It was gratifying to know that Tony cared that much, even if Tony was currently driving him insane. It also made him feel vaguely guilty. How much had the hospital told Tony over the phone? The first half-hour or so after the crash was kind of a blur, but Steve did remember telling the EMTs to call Tony. He vaguely recalled being convinced that Tony's presence would somehow make his shoulder stop hurting, not that he would ever admit that aloud.
Obviously, he hadn't mentioned their relationship. But if it had been his wife or his girlfriend he had told them to call, the doctors would probably have exercised more tact. As it was, they'd clearly said something that had panicked Tony.
"I didn't know that," he said to Peter. He put the book down and swung his legs sideways off the couch, leaning forward and resting his hands on his knees.
"Yeah. He went all creepy-calm once we got to the hospital. But trust me, he was scared," Peter said.
Steve stared down at his hands. If Tony cared enough that he was still worrying over him two days later, long after it should have been evident that he was all right, why the insistence on keeping things casual? And why on earth had he ended things with Steve when the Avengers broke up?
Only a few days before the Mansion had been destroyed, shortly after Wanda had done… whatever it was she had done to Tony, Tony had come to Steve and told him point blank that he "couldn't do this anymore," and only a few days after that, he and Rumiko Fujikawa had been back together.
Steve hadn't argued; given the trouble Stark Enterprises had been in, Tony had probably been doing damage control. The SE board members had had a low enough opinion of Tony as it was, even without the knowledge that he and Steve were… whatever it was they had been to each other then. And if Tony hadn't been invested enough in their relationship to risk the potential fall out it might have led to, Steve hadn't been prepared to try and hold on. He wasn't going to beg.
He'd barely seen Tony for a month after that, but when Bucky had re-appeared as the Winter Soldier and he had gone to Tony for help, things had been just the same as they had always been. They'd still fought together perfectly; he'd known all of the moves Tony had been about to make before he made them, and they had worked in perfect synchronicity, just like always.
Tony had been sincerely upset when he hadn't been able to come with Steve any further on his search for Bucky, and after that, it had been easy to forget any hurt feelings. And really, he'd wanted to put the Avengers back together anyway, and it wasn't the Avengers without Tony.
Even before their relationship had gone from friends to… more than friends, Tony's company had been one of the best parts of being an Avenger, and that first round of desperate, adrenaline-fuel sex hadn't changed that, nor had the handful of encounters afterwards.
Peter added yet another pair of cards to the structure on the coffee table, propping them out from its side at a perpendicular angle, like a flying buttress.
He'd never done anything like that before - not the sex-without-a-relationship part - that was pretty much all he and Diamondback had ever done, which was part of the reason why they hadn't worked out - but the sex-with-another-man part. It should have been uncomfortable, should have made things between him and Tony awkward afterwards, but the morning after that first time, everything had been the same as always. Their friendship hadn't changed at all; the sex had just been an added benefit.
He hadn't been ready to marry Bernie, and he and Sharon never could work things out, even though he'd assumed for years that Sharon was the one he was supposed to end up with. But he and Sharon had always been able to go back to being friends again after they'd failed to make something more serious work, and even he and Bernie had been on better terms after they separated than while they'd been together. With Tony, there had been a chance that they might not have been able to retain their friendship, and Steve hadn't been able to face the thought of losing that.
Steve had decided that it was better to keep things casual, keep things quiet, the way Tony had suggested, than to risk having something more intense blow up in their faces, but it hadn't been an easy decision to stick to. Tony was his best friend; they had already been so close that with the addition of physical intimacy… Once he had that, Steve hadn't wanted to give it up. Had, in fact, wanted more, wanted something permanent.
It had taken him a few months to realize it, though, and by then, it was too late. Tony had ended things and gone back to Rumiko, despite the fact that, as far as Steve could tell, she'd never done anything but jerk Tony around. On the other hand, she'd also never shot him, which actually made her one of Tony's better girlfriends.
"Look," Peter announced proudly. "It's a cathedral!"
Steve looked up again; Peter's house of cards did in fact look like a cathedral, the red-and-white playing cards stacked to form a tall building with flying buttresses and two square towers. It looked familiar.
"Isn't that that Cathedral Daredevil likes?" Steve asked curiously. He leaned an elbow on his knee and propped his chin in his hand, studying Peter's architectural masterpiece. "St. Margaret's?"
"Yes," Peter said. "I couldn't figure out how to do the big cross on top, though. Not without cutting the cards, and that's cheating."
Several of the cards were very obviously held in place by webbing, and surprisingly delicate little spider webs decorated all of the corners. "Isn't gluing them together also cheating?"
"They don't stay together if you don't, especially the flying buttresses." Peter flicked one of the towers with a finger, demonstrating its structural integrity. "Plus, you're supposed to. Dr. Strange used to do it with magic, back when we had poker nights with the Fantastic Four. He really sucks at poker, so he'd cash in his chips after the first round and sit there levitating the cards into shapes."
"The Avengers used to have a poker night," Steve admitted. "Until we realized that the reason Tony always won was because he counts cards."
"Yeah, Reed always did, too."
"Yes," Steve said, "but I think Reed Richards thinks that's the entire point of the game, and that the rest of us are just too stupid to do it well." He smiled, remembering Tony's honest outrage when Clint had accused him of cheating. "The horrible thing is, Tony didn't realize he was doing it." Which had really irritated Clint, especially since Jen had chimed in on Tony's behalf and declared that it was only cheating if done with intent to defraud.
"So, you guys have always been pretty good friends, huh?" Peter asked, studying the left-hand tower of St. Margaret's with great intensity. "You and Tony, I mean," he clarified, looking up at Steve with slightly narrowed eyes.
"Almost since we met," Steve said. "He was my best friend before I even knew what he looked like." Way back in the beginning, they'd all sworn not to pry into one another's civilian identities or private lives. Of course, only Iron Man and Thor had actually had secret identities, and Steve had figured both of them out within about a month.
Even inside red-and-gold armor, Tony had had the same speech patterns and body language. Steve had known who Iron Man had to be as soon as he met Tony Stark.
"That's why you two decided to start up the team again?" Peter guessed.
"The city needed us," Steve said. It hadn't been that obvious, had it? "The breakout at Rikers proved that."
Which was true, but as Sam had pointed out, he could have restarted the Avengers at any time, with anyone. Rikers had just provided the opportunity to restart things with Tony.
That, and Sam had finally gotten sick of listening to Steve talk about how much he missed Tony, and had told him to be a man and do something about it.
So he'd screwed up his courage and asked Tony to help him put a team together, and somehow, the relationship had just fallen back into place. And this time, Steve had let himself stay after the sex; he'd only slept in his own room a handful of times since moving into Stark Tower, and most of his clothes were in Tony's room. And Tony hadn't seemed to mind.
Of course, Steve belatedly realized, Tony could have said no, both to restarting the team, and to starting things back up with Steve. He could have, but he hadn't.
Once upon a time, Tony had spent most of each business day (well, excluding the parts spent in meetings and consulting on projects) in his workroom/lab. Unfortunately, the heavy machinery in Stark Tower had had to be installed in the sub-basement due to structural issues, which meant it was too far away for him to duck into every time he had a free minute.
He would have been down there anyway, but Pepper had ordered him on pain of pain to come upstairs and fill out tax paperwork, claiming she was tired of forging his signature. Tony had tried telling her that her ability to forge his signature was the reason he'd hired her. She hadn't been amused.
So now he was upstairs in his office, which had a huge window with a panoramic view of the city, and no machinery at all. He'd gotten five calls from incompetent section heads in the past hour.
There was no cell phone reception in the basement.
Tony sighed, and opened the .pdf file of blueprints for De La Torre's avionics project. He'd sent it back twice for revisions, and it still didn't fit the requirements, and Sikorsky wanted a definitive list of technical specifications within a week, so that they could get a working prototype of the X-42 VTOL aircraft to the Navy within three months.
"Damnit," he muttered to himself. "I'm going to have to redo this from scratch." In a week.
/Pepper,/ he used the Extremis to hook into the office intercom system/Can you schedule me a meeting with De La Torre tomorrow morning?/ People tended to object when he finished their work for them without telling them, and the Human Resources people inevitably complained. Not that this was so much finishing. Entirely redoing was a better way to put it.
/You're going to finish the military contract yourself, aren't you?/ Pepper asked.
/The deadline's in a week,/ Tony said defensively, responding automatically to the sharp irritation in her voice. He sent the .pdf file to the printer, grabbing the pages as it spit them out.
/I don't know why you hire these people if you won't let them do their jobs./
/A week, Pep. Seven days, or we lose a multi-million dollar contract./
/Remember that talk we had about not giving yourself another heart attack before you're forty?/ Pepper asked, dulcet-toned, as if she was talking to a sulky ten year-old.
/What difference is one more going to make?/ Tony propped an elbow on the desk, leaning his chin on his hand, smiling.
/Fine,/ Pepper sighed. There was a pause. /You're doing that thing where you talk to the intercom in your head just because you can, aren't you?/
/How did you know?/ There was a click, as Pepper turned her intercom off.
Tony tapped a pencil against the avionics blueprints. He was going to have to work extra hours over this one. A few weeks ago, before the new Avengers team had gotten together, he wouldn't have minded, but now he had Steve to come home to.
He'd come so close to losing Steve. When the hospital had called him to tell him that Steve had been brought in from a motorcycle accident with a suspected head injury, all he'd been able to think of was velocity and momentum, and exactly what they could do the human body.
He'd walked out of the middle of a board meeting. He couldn't even remember what excuse he'd handed them, or if he'd made any explanation at all. He couldn't remember the drive to the hospital, either. It was probably a good thing that Peter had been there for that part.
Tony could still remember Jarvis waking him up in the middle of the night to tell him his parents had been killed in a car crash. Getting that phone call had felt far too familiar.
It had been a week now, and even though he knew Steve was fine, knew he'd been hurt worse in fights before and still been fine, part of him couldn't let go of that half-hour when he'd been utterly convinced that he was going to arrive at St. Vincent's to learn that Steve was crippled for life, in a coma, or dead.
Things like that weren't supposed to happen to them out of costume. It was irrational, he knew - he himself had been injured outside of the armor, repeatedly - but somehow it was different when it happened to someone else.
He'd spent the past week running the numbers over and over. Steve had been going 35 mph. The SUV had been going 70, and easily would have weighed over two tons. It would have hit Steve with over a hundred thousand pounds of force. If Steve hadn't tried to jump clear, if the car had hit him straight on, it would have killed him.
And according to Officer Kurtzburg, the car hadn't swerved or slowed down.
Still, he needed to get over it. He'd spent a week twitching every time Steve flinched, handing him things before he could get them himself, and in general being smothering. Tony could recognize smothering; Happy Hogan did it to him all the time.
Tony's computer made the muted chime that indicated an email coming in, and he pulled up the program. It was from his cousin Morgan. Perfect. Just what this day needed.
The message was short and to the point, leaving a cell phone number and asking Tony to call as soon as possible. If Morgan was in trouble again, he was going to have to bail him out again, before it hit the tabloids. Stark Enterprises stock always dropped when Morgan made the tabloids.
He reached out with the Extremis, uplinking to one of the SE communications satellites and dialing Morgan's number.
/Morgan,/ Tony said/This is Tony. What do you want this time?/ It was slightly rude, he knew, but last time, Morgan had owed the Bellagio casino in Vegas a hundred thousand dollars. The time before that, he'd wanted Tony to provide capitol for some kind of investment start-up venture.
There was a crackle of static; Morgan must have been someplace with poor reception. /Tony! Just the man I've been wanting to talk to. How are you?/
/Fine. What do you want?/ Tony repeated. He pulled the top page of the blueprints over and began surveying it, noting down the weak points. He didn't have time to fix this; he really was going to have to start over.
/Are you using that new cybernetic communications thing?/ Morgan asked. More static.
/How do you know about that?/ The Extremis was far from public knowledge.
/You're my cousin. I check up on you. You're the only family I have, Tone. We need to stick together./ There was another burst of static, random, jumbled bits of data coming through the satellite feed. What kind of horrible phone was Morgan using?
Tony distinctly remembered telling Morgan that he hated that nickname. Several times, in fact. /Unless you need to be bailed out of jail, I'm not sending you money,/ he said.
Morgan sighed, and said in a wounded tone of voice, as if Tony had deeply misjudged him/Tony, how can you think that all I want from you is money? Besides, it's only a few hundred thousand. Barely a drop in the bucket compared to SE's operating budget. And it's a brilliant opportunity-/
/Are tabloid reporters involved?/ Tony interrupted.
/No,/ Morgan said, sounding indignant.
/Are you actually in some kind of trouble?/ There was a pause; the transmission had developed a lagtime of a second or so.
/Well, no, not exactly-/
/Then the answer is no./
/You're not still mad about that little problem with Ultimo, are you?/ Morgan asked. /Come on, Tony, that was ages ago, and anyway, it wasn't my fault./
Tony cut the connection and re-opened the line to Pepper. Her intercom had been switched back on in the interim.
/Hey, Pep, would you screen my calls for me? I need to concentrate on this contract./ He frowned, rubbing at his forehead with one hand. There was a headache beginning in his temples, probably in anticipation of all the should-have-been-unnecessary work he was about to start.
/Sure thing, Boss./ Happy's voice. /You want me to bring you some coffee or something?/
Tony smiled, in spite of Morgan and the incipient headache. /Sure thing./
He shut down the connection and turned back to the blueprints. Sikorsky wanted some degree of autopilot, to cut down on the required crew size for their aircraft. De La Torre's design hadn't been sophisticated enough, and, most importantly, hadn't had a manual over-ride. All AIs, even very low-level ones, needed a manual over-ride.
As he scanned the blueprints, his mind traveled back to Steve, as it always did; he needed to back off, give Steve some space. Steve wanted things between them to stay casual. He'd said as much, back when they'd done this the first time around, after Tony had suggested that they keep things quiet for the sake of the team.
It had worked, for a few weeks. It had been fun. And it had been Steve, and even if it wasn't exactly what he really wanted, Tony had been willing to take what he could get. Though even then, he hadn't been able to treat Steve as just another one night stand; he'd found himself turning down invitations to dinner any time someone had obviously hinted at more than just food on the menu, the same way he had when he and Rumiko had been serious.
Then the business with Wanda had started, and after that, he'd been too much of a mess for casual fun anymore. He'd known that, if he let things continue, he'd have ended up leaning on Steve too heavily. Steve had been the only one of the Avengers who had believed him when he'd told them that he hadn't been drinking that day in the UN, and he'd been so utterly, pathetically grateful. Not because Steve had been the only voice of support in a room of people accusing him, but because it was Steve. Because he'd been so afraid that Steve wouldn't believe him, that he'd lost Steve's respect along with his home and half his business, that Steve would think Tony had deliberately let him down.
The sex had been nice - had been great, actually - but Tony knew he'd rather have Steve's respect. So, rather than let Steve see how screwed up he was, he'd ended things. Then Rumiko had been there, and she was always so easy to talk to. She'd never minded that he was damaged goods.
She'd also have been better off if she'd stayed away.
Tony had been utterly shocked when Steve had asked him to restart the Avengers, and even more surprised when Steve had shown up at the door to his bedroom, his first night in Stark Tower. And this time, Steve had stayed the night.
Which was more than Tony had ever expected, and, again, he was more than willing to take what he could get, and not to ask for more than Steve might be able to give.
So, now, it would clearly be in his best interests to not push Steve away by hovering and blanketing him with neurotically excessive concern. He'd been trying to avoid him for the past couple of days, but that was difficult, considering that they lived together.
Of course, the fact that he was going to have to spend the next week putting in extra hours to finish this design was going to make backing off considerably easier.
New York City had been remarkably quiet over the past week, aside from a few muggers Peter had reportedly taken care of on his way home from work. Objectively, this was a good thing, since Steve's ribs were still healing. On the other hand, Steve was now incredibly bored, to the point where he found himself wishing SHIELD would call to try and recruit him for some secret mission, regardless of the fact that he'd privately sworn never to work for Maria Hill.
In the old days, he'd have rounded up Clint and dragged him out to jog in Central Park, or gone to sit in Jarvis's kitchen and listen to one of Thor's endless, rambling war stories. Or gone to hang around Tony's lab and watch him work. After an hour or two, Tony could generally be persuaded to drop the transistors and do something more interesting.
Steve could do that now, too, but he was pretty sure that Tony had been avoiding him. He'd gone down to the basement workroom several times, each time finding his bike in a slightly-improved state, but no Tony.
Right now, however, he knew exactly where Tony was, because Pepper Potts-Hogan had called upstairs to announce that it was six-thirty, and could somebody please come and drag Tony out of his office so that she could go home?
If left to his own devices, Tony could easily keep working on whatever was occupying him until the middle of the night, without bothering to so much as break for dinner. Therefore, dragging him out of his office and forcing him to spar with Steve would be for his own good.
Pepper waved him straight through the front office, offering him a knowing smirk as she began packing up to leave.
Steve knocked once, for form's sake, before pushing open the door. Tony was silhouetted against the room's massive, floor-to-ceiling window, backlit by the rosy glow of evening sunlight. He was bent forward over his desk, entirely absorbed in scribbling on the masses of paper currently spread across it.
"Isn't that what drawing boards are for?" Steve asked, amused. "You'll kill your back doing that."
Tony looked up at him, blinking. His hair was disheveled in a way that suggested he'd been running his fingers through it again, his tie had been tugged loose, and the top two buttons of his shirt were undone. "If I ever end up with back problems, it'll be from all those times Titanium Man threw me through a wall," he said. Then he frowned. "Is everything all right?"
Steve grinned, leaning one shoulder against the doorframe. "Your secretary called me in to make you leave. I think she wants to eat dinner."
Tony blinked again, looking endearingly off-balance. "It's dinner-time already?"
"It's six-thirty. I was actually going to go work out first, work up an appetite," Steve said, making it an invitation.
"I will not spar with you while you have broken ribs," Tony said flatly.
Steve refrained from pointing out that his ribs were cracked, not broken. And anyway, even if Tony wouldn't actually spar with him, there were still other things they could do. Unless Tony really was avoiding him. "Fine. Tai chi then."
"You don't need a partner for that," Tony said, looking back down at his papers. "And I've got to work on this."
"You'll work better if you take a break," Steve pointed out. "Come on, the rest of us haven't seen you in days." It was a slight exaggeration, but he felt it was a justified one. And if something was wrong, hopefully Tony would say something about it now.
Tony sighed, and set his pencil down. "It's been a busy week. But you're right, it would be good to get out of this room." From the tone of his voice, the day had been less than pleasant.
"So, is that a yes?" Steve asked, smirking slightly. He knew when he'd won.
"Fine. Tai chi."
The workout room attached to the Avengers' living quarters was spare and simple; a large, open room with a polished wooden floor and three high windows set along the far wall. It had already been there when the New Avengers had moved in, the same way the quinjet hanger had. Steve had never asked what Tony's excuse for its coincidental existence was, but he took it as more evidence that he wasn't the only one who'd had the intention of someday reforming the Avengers.
The two of them were standing in the middle of the room, about four feet apart. Tony was staring straight ahead, which meant that Steve could watch him without it being obvious.
Tony so rarely wore casual clothing that it was always amusing to see him in the t-shirts and sweatpants he wore when he sparred with Steve. The pants were loose at the ankle, and flapped around Tony's legs when he moved, emphasizing how tall and thin he was, and making him look slightly gangly.
Movements in tai chi were supposed to be slow and fluid, but Tony, who ought to have been moving in unison with Steve, was performing the exercises with short, choppy motions. He was also moving with unnecessary force, and Steve could see the tension in the way he held his shoulders.
"Is something the matter?" Steve asked, staring ahead at the windows.
"Morgan called," Tony said, as if that explained it all, which it actually did.
"What did he want this time?" The first time Steve had heard Tony mention his only cousin, it had been in reference to Morgan selling him out to a supervillain named Midas in order to pay off gambling debts.
"The usual." Tony shook his head, and rolled his eyes. "Money. But after bailing him out of jail for trying to defraud the Bellagio last month, I told him the ATM was closed."
Steve stepped forward, extending his left arm in front of him, palm out. His shoulder didn't hurt at all anymore, and his ribs only twinged occasionally, when he twisted sideways sharply. "You're sure you don't actually want to spar?" he asked. "I know talking to your cousin makes me want to hit things."
Tony sneezed, then looked slightly startled that he'd done so.
"And don't expect me to go easy on you, if you're sick," Steve added, grinning. He bounced back a step and held his hands up, as if in preparation for Tony rushing him. In point of fact, Tony had never asked Steve to go easy on him; it was one of the things Steve liked best about him. Tony never made things easy.
Tony glared. "I don't get sick. And not until your ribs are better."
That was such a blatant lie that Steve didn't bother to dignify it with a response. He resumed the tai chi routine, watching Tony out of the corner of his eye. "How do you know they're not better when you haven't looked at them?"
"Because it's been exactly a week since you cracked them," Tony told him. "Even you don't heal that quickly." Tony likewise resumed the routine, copying Steve's motions, which seemed to require him to glance over at Steve through his eyelashes repeatedly. Tony was the only person Steve had ever slept with who actually did the classic, veiled-through-the-eyelashes seductive look, which was vaguely amusing, since the only other person he'd ever seen do that was Jan.
"But you haven't actually checked," Steve said. It was part and parcel of Tony avoiding him for the past three days. In retrospect, he'd preferred the smothering.
Tony lunged forward, in step with Steve. His sweatpants, Steve noted, hung low off his hips, revealing the angular edges of his hipbones. For someone who wasn't excessively skinny, Tony's hipbones - and shoulder blades, and collarbones, and cheekbones, and the bones in his wrists - were unusually prominent. Steve put it down to a naturally angular frame and the general superhero's lack of body fat. Also, for all the years they'd spent working out together, Tony had never been able to put on much in the way of muscle mass. His arms, shown off by the short-sleeved t-shirt, had really nice muscle definition, though.
But Steve liked the way Tony's hipbones stood out. For one thing, it naturally directed one's gaze to other, even more interesting parts of Tony. It was slightly unfair of Tony to wear something that offered such a nice view if he didn't intend to give Steve the opportunity to do something about it.
And it had been a whole week since he had.
After so many years of practice, Steve could go through virtually any fighting moves without even thinking about them, and tai chi was essentially slowed-down martial arts, so for the rest of the routine, he mostly watched Tony, and let his body go through the motions by rote.
When the two of them had finished, Tony started for the door, probably intending to go right back to his blueprints. Steve followed him, and quickly used his slight height advantage to extend an arm across the doorway, cornering Tony.
Tony grinned at him, leaning his shoulders against the wall. "What?"
Steve grinned back. "I haven't done anything all week." He leaned forward, hooking his fingers into the waistband of Tony's sweatpants. "I've been good."
"I guess you have been." Tony smirked, giving Steve another veiled look. He titled his head to one side, catching Steve's gaze for a long moment, then leaned forward the final inch and kissed him.
Steve closed his eyes, and slid one hand around to the small of Tony's back, pulling the other man forward against him. He'd like to see Tony ignore him now.
Note: /text in italics/ signifies communication via extremis.
"The difference between H2O and CO2 is that H2O is hot water and CO2 is cold water," Peter read aloud, in the same deadpan "why are people so stupid" voice Steve had heard Tony use so many times. "Also, when you look at water through a microscope, there are twice as many 'H's as 'O's."
"He didn't actually write that." MJ was sitting on the carpet next to Peter, who had two classes worth of science quizzes spread out on the carpet around him.
"No, look," Peter said, thrusting a crumpled sheet of paper at her.
MJ dropped the magazine she had been flipping through, and took the page, squinting at what Steve guessed was appalling handwriting. "It's that Jason kid, isn't it? I ought to have guessed."
"And he's not even in the remedial science class." Peter sighed, shaking his head mournfully. "He just does it to screw with me."
"He should come work for me," Tony muttered, not looking up from his own assortment of papers - he was sitting in one of the living room's armchairs, open manila folders covering his lap and the chair's broad arms. It was probably the same project he'd been working on last evening. After dinner, he'd retreated back to his office; Steve wasn't exactly sure when he'd come to bed, but he knew it had been well after midnight. "He'd fit right in," Tony continued.
Steve smiled privately, returning his gaze to his book. He was on the couch again, which by some mysterious alchemy had become "his," the same way the far left stool at the kitchen counter was Jessica Drew's. Tony normally would have been next to him, but when the other man had come in an hour ago, he'd glanced at Peter and MJ cuddling on the floor and taken the armchair.
They'd never actually discussed whether they were going to tell anyone about their not-relationship, but it looked like it was still a secret. Even so, it was nice having them all sit around together like this. It was as if they were a family, the way the Avengers used to be.
"De La Torre has no concept of the amount of detail the average human being can take in," Tony went on, as if continuing some previous conversation, although it was the first thing he'd said since coming in. "This design requires far too much pilot compensation. There's still the weapons platforms, the instrumentation, the surveillance equipment, the radio; if two people are supposed to fly this thing, they can't be monitoring the aircraft's vibration and attitude as well."
"The armor does all that," Steve pointed out, "and that's all you, not a computer."
"Yes," Tony conceded. He cleared his throat, voice raspy. "I could fly this plane at the outside of its flight envelope while coordinating a mission over the radio, monitoring electronic jamming equipment, and firing at enemy aircraft. Reed Richards probably could. Rhodey could, with six month's training. But I don't know anyone else who could, and since they want to mass produce this and have it flown by twenty-four-year-old lieutenants, that's a problem. Also, the computer-assisted fly-by-wire has no manual over-ride."
"Which would mean what?" MJ asked, absently tucking a piece of flamingly red hair behind her ear.
"The computer that can fly the plane by itself can't be turned off."
"Great," Peter said. "When it comes to life and starts blowing things up, we'll know who to blame." He held up another smudge-covered page and read, "The tides are a fight between the earth and moon. All water tends toward the moon because there is no water on the moon, and nature abhors a vacuum. I forget where the sun joins in this fight." He and Tony both began laughing. MJ rolled her eyes, but smiled affectionately at Peter. After a minute, Peter stopped laughing, rubbing at one of his eyes with the back of his hand. "Why do I even try?"
"I've told you," Tony said, leaning back in his chair, still smiling, "you could come work for me."
"No." Peter sighed, looking doleful. "I have to make it on my own." From the tone of his voice, he was parroting May.
"Don't worry," MJ said, rubbing his arm sympathetically. "When I'm a famous actress, you can be my kept man."
Tony sneezed, then made a sniffling sound. "And apparently, he was so busy trying to keep the system's weight down that he forgot to take into account that this is a joint-service aircraft, which means it has to fit on an aircraft carrier, which means the flight surfaces have to fold up, which means that, with the way his people have designed this, the fiber-optics cables that make the aircraft fly will break. That's like building a walkway, and forgetting to take into account the weight of the people."
"That's… really stupid," Steve observed.
"Yeah," Tony said dryly. "People have done that. Also, designed balconies and forgotten to give them a load-bearing capacity that could accommodate the weight of the people standing on them." He sounded as if he were personally offended by this notion, which, knowing Tony, he just might be.
"That was some hotel, wasn't it?" MJ asked, picking up her discarded magazine again.
"The Hyatt Regency, in Kansas City, Missouri," Tony said, then sneezed twice in rapid succession. He'd been doing that at breakfast, as well, and his voice had been hoarse since they'd woken up this morning. Steve counted convincing him that he could work on his design project in the apartment instead of taking off for his office at seven AM as a minor victory.
"Bless you," Steve intoned, not looking up from his book. Maybe, he decided, if he made a point of mentioning it every time Tony sneezed, he would actually admit he had a cold, instead of ignoring it.
"I'm not sick," Tony said, then sneezed again.
"Whatever you say, Mr. I-don't-get-sick."
"I'm not," Tony insisted. "It's probably something from the lab - I was working down there most of this afternoon. It had to be in the basement due to structural issues, but that means the ventilation is a little tricky. And there are a lot of chemicals down there."
Steve looked up, staring at him with raised eyebrows. "Didn't you used to sleep down there?"
"That was the lab out in Coney Island," Tony corrected. "That one's in a garage - it had much better ventilation."
"Your secretary called me to try and get you out of there once," Steve said reminiscently. "I'm not sure why she though that I'd be able to." Even now, with the two of them sleeping together, he couldn't always pry Tony out of the lab. Not if he was really working on something. Or hiding there, which was what Steve suspected Tony had been doing those weeks after the team had fallen apart. Steve had spent those weeks picking fights with Sharon and venting to Sam, until both of them had started snarling at him on principle.
"I used to make my web fluid in my bedroom," Peter volunteered. "Aunt May could never figure out why the carpets always got ruined."
Things went silent for a while, as Peter turned back to grading tests, Tony resumed scribbling on his assortment of engineering plans, and MJ began flipping through her theater magazine again. Steve turned a page in his book. It was interesting, but he'd liked McCullough's book on the American Revolution better. It didn't give the level of political and social context that Wood's book had, but it offered more biographical detail on the Founding Fathers, and made for a better read.
Several minutes later, Tony sneezed again, then looked faintly annoyed.
"Bless you," Steve repeated, in a tone that he knew was just shy of smugly patronizing.
"Don't you hate it when you're sick," Peter announced to the air, "and people who can't get sick, like Wolverine or Deadpool, mock you with all of the cruel mockery of those immune to the common cold? You know, like Cap is doing now?"
"I'm not being mocking," Steve protested. He wasn't. He was trying to subtly prompt Tony to either go and get himself a box of tissues, or actually take some Sudafed. Though that involved Tony consuming medication voluntarily, and would take a minor miracle.
MJ sat up, folding her arms over her chest and angling her chin upwards. "What ever you say, Mr. I-don't-get-sick," she said, in an affectedly deep voice. It was oddly similar to Clint's old "I am pretending to be you," pose, the one he'd adopted every time he'd been mocking Steve about something, usually women.
Tony collected his papers, and stood. "All right," he said, making a sniffling sound that Steve strongly suspected meant that he was stifling a sneeze. "I'm going to bed." He left the room, taking his folders with him.
Steve's theory was confirmed moments later, by the sound of a muffled sneeze.
"Bless you!" he said again, raising his voice, and directing it at the closed living room doors. Tony didn't respond; either not hearing, or more likely, just ignoring Steve.
Steve was fairly sure that "going to bed," had actually meant, "leaving to work in peace."
If he hadn't come to bed by midnight, Steve decided, he was going to go and hunt him down.
He had seen Tony overwork himself into actual illness before. Several years ago, Clint had caught a lingering cold that had turned his eyes and nose bright red and appeared to have had "whining extensively," as one of its major symptoms. He had generously passed this infection on to every susceptible person on the Avengers, and while all of the others had gotten over it in a week, Tony had ended up with what he had insisted was simply a bad chest cold, and what Hank McCoy had insisted was walking pneumonia.
Clint, Hank Pym, and Jan had all taken it easy for a couple of days. Tony had been busy with something or other at Stark Enterprises, and had continued to pull all of his weight as Iron Man while still putting in a fifty-hour workweek. This had continued for two weeks, until Clint had come into the kitchen to find Steve and announced that Tony had fallen asleep on the couch and was "breathing funny."
Beast had threatened Tony into taking several days off work and staying in bed, on pain of pain - which, from Hank McCoy, meant personal nursing and enforced viewing of Passions.
Hank Pym had told Steve later that Tony had probably had residual damage in his lungs from his first bout with pneumonia - the one he'd gone through after the drinking, when he'd nearly died of hypothermia. Overworking himself certainly hadn't helped, though.
Now that Steve was sleeping with Tony, he could at least make sure that he actually slept. It was one of the unexpected benefits of not leaving after sex. Tony could consider it retaliation for the smothering earlier that week.
"A super-saturated solution," Peter read out, "is one that holds more than it can hold. Hey, at least this one's actually correct."
MJ pulled a gold star sticker off one of Peter's "A-plus" sticker sheets, and stuck it on his forehead. "My husband, the educator."
The bullet plowed into the wall underneath him with a loud crack, sending tiny fragments of brick flying. If he'd still been standing on the ground, it would have been his head exploding into fragments. Bloody, dead fragments.
Peter had moved before he'd even realized that something was wrong. He was six feet up the side of an office building, his spider sense still flaring like crazy.
"Holy hell!" Peter looked around frantically, squinting his eyes against the mid-afternoon sunlight, trying to determine where the bullet had come from, and if there were going to be any more coming his way shortly. The street was deserted, as were all surrounding windows.
Which was lucky, he realized, because he was currently clinging to the side of a building while unmasked and wearing street clothes. Peter dropped carefully back down to the sidewalk, expecting another gunshot to ring out any moment. Nothing.
He snatched up the briefcase he had dropped when he'd jumped to safety, and ducked into the nearest alley. Moments later, he had stripped down to his costume and was webslinging home, his street clothes and briefcase attached to his back with webbing.
"Oh god, oh god," Peter said, to himself and the startled pigeon he had just swung past. "Someone just tried to shoot me. Someone just tried to kill me. Someone just tried to kill me when I wasn't wearing the costume."
The pigeon made a quizzical noise.
"I know!" Peter said. "That never happens!"
All kinds of people had tried to kill Spiderman. Doc Ock had tried to strangle him, the Green Goblin had tried to blow him up, the Rhino had tried to crush him into paste, Carnage had tried to eat his brains, Electro had tried to fry him… the list went on and on. But no one, so far as he knew, had any reason to want to kill Peter Parker.
Except for maybe the kids in the remedial science class he'd failed on Tuesday's quiz. Oh God, what if it was one of them? What if one of them was in a gang, and had tried to shoot him, and now knew he was Spiderman?
No, that was stupid. It had to be someone he'd fought before. Someone who had somehow figured out that Spiderman was Peter Parker.
"Don't let it be the Green Goblin," Peter pleaded, picking up speed as he swung past an office building ominously decorate with gargoyles on the roof. If it was Norman Osborn, he'd probably go after MJ or Aunt May next.
He made it back to Stark Tower in record time. This time, he didn't bother with the front door - he went for one of the upper windows. The tower was taller than any of the buildings around it, so getting to the residential floors required some climbing, but it was still faster than the dealing with the doorman, and the elevator.
His and MJ's room was empty. Peter dropped the clothing and briefcase on the bed and raced out into the hallway and straight into Luke Cage; it was kind of like running into a wall. Peter actually bounced backwards a step.
"Where's the fire?" Luke asked, putting a hand on Peter's shoulder to steady him.
"Where are Aunt May and MJ?" Peter demanded.
"In the kitchen." Luke shrugged. "Why? What's going on?"
Peter didn't answer, taking off for the kitchen. He burst in to find MJ and Aunt May sitting at the large wooden kitchen table. Jessica Jones was sitting across from them, feeding the baby a bottle of milk, and Cap was rifling through one of the cabinets.
Peter skidded to a halt, breathing hard. Everyone was okay. Everyone was fine. Everyone was staring at him.
Cap turned around, closing the cabinet and setting a bag of chocolate chips on the counter, next to a large bowl, eggs, milk, and flour. "Peter. Are you all right?"
Peter pulled off his mask, sagging a little with relief. "Someone tried to shoot me," he said.
"Someone what?" Aunt May gasped, raising one hand to her mouth. MJ jumped up from the table, chair skidding backwards on the tiled floor. She grabbed Peter by the arms, shaking him slightly. "Are you okay?" she demanded.
"I'm fine." Peter wrapped his arms around her, hugging her close. Her hair smelled like strawberry shampoo. "My spider sense went off, and I jumped out of the way."
"Damn," Luke observed from behind him, entering the room. "Usually they just throw rocks."
"No," Peter corrected. "Not Spiderman. Me. I wasn't wearing the costume." MJ was still hugging him, her face buried in his shoulder. It was actually starting to creep Peter out, because between that and Aunt May's horrified expression, that fact that he had just narrowly escaped being shot and killed was brought home in a way that was difficult to ignore. And he was pretty sure he wouldn't have gotten to come back from the dead with nifty and disgusting new powers this time around.
"Did you see who it was?" Cap asked, frowning and folding his arms over his chest.
Peter shook his head. "No. I'd have gone after them if I had. But it has to be someone who knows I'm Spiderman. That, or some kind of random drive-by-shooting coincidence, but nothing's ever that much of a coincidence with us."
"Could it be that Morlun man?" Aunt May asked, face pale. She rose from her chair and came to stand next to Peter and MJ. "I know you said he was gone, but…"
MJ pulled back a little, exchanging a glance with Peter.
"He is gone," Peter said. Hopefully she wouldn't ask him why he was so sure. "And anyway, it didn't feel like him." His spider sense had only flared once; with Morlun, it had been permanently in overdrive. "It has to be someone without powers, or they wouldn't have used a gun." Which automatically ruled out the Green Goblin. In retrospect, he probably would have used a bomb, anyway.
"Well, you said it has to be someone who knows who you are," Cap said, leaning back against the counter. "How many people are there who know?"
"Almost nobody." He'd been careful for years. "It's not like it's public knowledge. I'm not Daredevil." A horrible thought struck him. "Oh God, what if it's the Kingpin?" He would never be safe again, anywhere. His family would never be safe again. And Fisk's men would sell his identity to the press and Jonah Jameson would hunt him down where he slept.
"The Kingpin wouldn't have missed," Luke offered, coming in to the room to stand next to his wife. "And anyway, why are we so sure this is all about you? This New Avengers thing has been pretty big news; there's bound to be guys wanting to put an early stop to it. Hell, maybe it's about Stark. Anybody with that much money's gonna have enemies, and everybody knows you're living in his house."
Jessica nodded, gently tugging the empty bottle away from the baby, and setting it on the table. "He's right. This could be about any of us. If somebody out there's out for blood, the others need to know about it."
"I'll call Tony," Cap said. "He's supposed to be in meetings all day, but I've got his cell phone number." He said it as if possession of Tony's cell number was a privilege reserved only for a rare few, instead of something all of them knew. And clearly, Tony didn't take sick days. He obviously wasn't going to let a cold stop him from working and infecting half the businessmen in Manhattan.
If Peter had to stare across a conference table at people like Roxxon Oil, he'd probably take the opportunity to sneeze on them, too.
"I'll go hunt down Logan," Luke said. "Give him a heads up."
Jessica stood, shifting the baby to her other shoulder. "I'll tell Spiderwoman."
Everyone exited the room with suspicious speed, leaving Peter alone with MJ and Aunt May.
It was nice to be on a team, Peter reflected. Back in the day, it would have been him worrying all alone. Having a bunch of other people to worry with him made things seem less dire, somehow, despite the fact that they hadn't actually done anything yet.
MJ's arm was still wrapped around Peter's waist. She gave him a one-armed squeeze, leaning her head on his shoulder. "We'll figure this out."
Aunt May put a hand on Peter's shoulder. "We always do," she said, as if the two of them had always been in on Peter's secret, as if it was a family thing instead of something that was just his. Maybe it was.
"All right, first question," Hank said. "Is anyone else sick?"
Tony glared at him through red-rimmed blue eyes. "No, Dr. Pym," he rasped. "And I shouldn't be. The Extremis is supposed to prevent it."
Hank leaned back against his lab bench and studied Tony. He did legitimately look sick: red eyes, flushed face, general air of misery. And Tony certainly wasn't likely to exaggerate an illness; if anything, the fact that he'd actually admitted he was sick and scheduled an appointment with Hank was a minor miracle.
"From what I understand," Hank said, "this Extremis of yours makes you immune to cancer and viral infection, but not to bacteria. It's probably strep throat, or it could be an allergic reaction to something. I mean, I've been in your lab." And Tony did, after all, share living space with Spiderman, who taught germ-ridden school children for a living. Thank God Jan had never wanted children, and not just because Hank's genetic code didn't need to be passed on.
"Hank, you're a biochemist who works with bugs. Don't insult my workspace. At least it doesn't have pet spiders in jars."
"They're not pets," Hank protested. "I'm testing the paralytic properties of their venom. It could have medical applications. Anyway, I'm sure it's nothing, but I'll run some tests."
"Probably," Tony said, giving a one-shouldered shrug. "But I still thought I should check it out. The Extremis was only tested on one other person, and he turned into a psychotic killing machine, so I'm kind of making things up as I go along here." He swallowed, rubbing at his throat. His voice was noticeably hoarse, and a small, unworthy part of Hank couldn't help but be amused. Years back, when they'd first formed the Avengers, Jan had remarked that she just knew Iron Man had to be cute under that helmet, because his voice was, quote, "so sexy, all low and husky. You know a girl likes that kind of thing, Hank." And then Steve had joined the team, and Hank had just quietly despaired of ever getting Jan to take him seriously.
"You know, if you're really worried," he said, "you ought to go to Beast. I'm a biochemist, not a medical doctor. A very good biochemist, but still just a biochemist."
"It's just a cold." Tony paused, frowning slightly, then sneezed twice in rapid succession, as if to punctuate the statement. "I didn't want to worry anybody. And anyway, last time I went to Hank McCoy for medical advice, he confined me to the couch and he and Simon made me watch eight hours of some godawful soap opera with them."
The way Hank remembered it, Clint had found Tony half-conscious on the couch and had called Beast and Cap in a panic. The Passions marathon had been deserved. Hank turned away, fetching a jar of cotton swabs from the left-hand cabinet. "I'm going to take a throat culture from you," he said. "And I'd like a blood sample, too, just in case." There had been a point, a few years ago, when Tony had regularly come to Hank to get his blood tested. It had been right after the whole drinking and then disappearing for three months thing; Hank had never heard the whole story behind that, but he'd always suspected that the two - the disappearing and the blood tests - were connected.
"You just want to play with my blood." Tony glared, folding his arms defensively across his chest.
"Well, obviously," Hank said. "Also, you might die, and then I'd have to clone you. Otherwise, Cap would sulk forever." He put on gloves and took a cotton swab out of the jar, taking a step towards Tony. "Hold still," he said, letting himself grow a foot taller so that he'd have a better angle.
Tony made a face, but obediently opened his mouth. The lymph on the sides of his neck were swollen; definitely some kind of infection. When Hank had finished, he coughed, rubbing at his throat again, and said, "Steve would only sulk for a couple of months. Then he'd find someone else to argue about Federalism with."
"Whatever you say," Hank said, transferring the culture to an agar plate. Tony could joke all he wanted; when he'd left the Avengers and moved out to the West Coast, Steve had spent the entire time sulking and giving the general impression that being an Avenger was suddenly a horrible chore. According to Clint, he'd acted like that the entire time he'd been in charge of the Clint-Pietro-Wanda lineup of the team as well.
Tony, of course, just had a slightly-embarrassing-to-watch crush on Steve, and always had. Given that the two of them had decided to restart the Avengers together, in a way that seemed to mostly be an excuse for Steve to live in Tony's house, Hank kind of wondered if maybe Tony hadn't finally gotten around to doing something about it. He didn't actually want to know, but he couldn't help wondering, mostly because Jan wondered, loudly and repeatedly.
"He'd have to find somebody new to lead the Avengers with," Hank said. "And we all know how much Cap hates change." He began preparing a sterile syringe for a blood sample.
"He still insists that the Brooklyn Dodgers are the only real New York baseball team," Tony agreed. He unbuttoned one cuff, rolling up his sleeve. "Sometimes he goes to watch the Yankees, just so that he can cheer if they lose."
"How is he, anyway? Jan and I saw the motorcycle crash on the news." It was taking some getting used to, finding things like that out through Channel Five instead of the Avengers comlink. "It wouldn't have killed you guys to call us, you know."
Tony glanced away, looking faintly guilty. "He's fine, now. Probably just annoyed with me for hovering. Sorry about not calling; I was just… a little distracted." His expression went shuttered, all the emotion draining from his face. "It's lucky Spiderman was there," he continued, "or I probably would have crashed my own car on the way to the hospital."
Strange as it was to hear these details second-hand, it was stranger still to think of Spiderman having been there instead of one of the people Hank still thought of as the "real" Avengers. "How are things working out, you know, with the new team?" he asked, doing his best to keep the question casual. He carefully drew a syringe full of blood from the vein at the inside of Tony's elbow.
He and Jan didn't need to be on a superhero team right now; they had their own problems to work out, and the stress of full-time superheroing always got in the way. Initially, they'd planned to move to England, so that Hank could take a job at Oxford, but the gloomy English weather had grated on him, and when Jan had declared that she hated wearing galoshes and wanted to move back to New York, Hank had been quietly grateful. Empire State's research grants were smaller, but they'd been happy to have him.
On the other hand, it also put them right back in the middle of costume country, and Hank always felt obscurely guilty every time a fight went down outside his door and he didn't join in, as if he were shirking his duty. Jan had assured him that it was all right for them to take time for themselves, but that didn't make Hank feel any less like he was letting their side down.
"Honestly? Things are going better than I thought they would." Tony smiled. "Spiderman might-" He broke off abruptly, sneezing violently, then went on as if he had never paused. "Spiderman might even learn to use his communicator eventually." He paused again, glancing away. "We could use another heavy hitter, though," he added. "Or a flyer. Or someone to help with the tech support." He was staring intently at his hands now, not looking at Hank.
Aha, Hank thought. Ulterior motive identified. This wasn't solely an "I have a cold and want free medical advice" visit. It was also an "I'm recruiting" visit.
Hank saw Tony glance at him out of the corner of his eye, face still turned away. He, Steve, and Clint had always been the three most intent on making the Avengers into a little family, probably because none of them had one of their own.
So it made Hank feel ever-so-slightly bad when he said, "Sorry, Tony. Jan and I are working things out right now. We agreed no costume stuff for a while." And to be fair, while Hank occasionally got itchy when a supervillain showed up on the news, he wasn't sure he was really ready to jump right back into the game yet. Not after Jan had been hurt so badly.
He'd been sure she was going to die; more certain with every minute she stayed in Wasp-form, unconscious and still so small that the doctors couldn't do anything. That he couldn't do anything but watch and plead with her to wake up.
"It doesn't have to go down in flames this time." A guilty expression crossed Tony's face again. Hank was still almost seven feet tall, which meant that he was looking down at Tony; he looked particularly pathetic from this angle, especially with the bloodshot eyes and rumpled business attire. "We can keep that from happening again," Tony insisted. "I won't make the same mistakes I..." he trailed off, clearing his throat and dropping his gaze.
"It wasn't anyone's fault," Hank said. He shrank back down to his normal height; this wasn't a conversation to have while looming over someone. "We couldn't have guessed that Wanda was going to go crazy." He'd always figured that if any of them were going to snap, it would be him. He'd done it once already, after all. Thank God there'd been a limit to the amount of damage he could do. Hitting Jan had been bad enough; he couldn't imagine what he would have done if he'd actually killed someone. Knowing that Ultron had because of him was almost more than he could handle already.
"I can't help but think we should have." Tony frowned, rubbing at the bridge of his nose with one hand. "We should have been there for her." Something about the way he said "we" made Hank think that he really meant "I." Personally, Hank had no desire to "be there" for Wanda. She'd killed Clint, Scott, and Vision, and nearly killed Jan, and as far as he was concerned, that made her one of the bad guys. The fact that Tony could feel regret over her, when she'd probably used him like a puppet, and had definitely used her powers to alter his mental state... Tony always had to make everything his fault, because God forbid he admit that he might not be in control of something.
"We should have been there for each other," Hank said. "I'm, um, sorry I accused you of drinking in front of everyone." Now that he knew it had been Wanda, he felt like a jerk about the whole thing. It was a familiar feeling, and one that Hank didn't like. "I was out of line. You didn't deserve - None of us deserved what happened."
"Yeah, well, I hated being Secretary of Defense anyway." Tony shrugged, then added, "Anyway, you have a spot on the team if you want it, and so does Jan. It's a standing offer."
"I'll think about it," Hank said. "But you know, we can still be friends without being on a team together."
Tony rolled his eyes. "I know, Hank."
No, Hank thought, you don't, or you'd have called me when Steve got run over by an SUV. He gestured at the agar plate and blood sample. "I should have the results on these in a couple of days, but I'm telling you, it's probably allergies or strep. And, you know, you'd probably feel better in general if you ate more. The Extremis has almost certainly amped up your metabolism; healing factors usually do." All superpowers tended to increase one's metabolic rate; he and Jan had both needed to up their caloric intake after they'd first begun changing size regularly. Jan had loved it.
"Thanks-" Tony began, breaking off as his cell phone began ringing. He picked his discarded suit jacket up off of the lab bench and searched through the pockets until he located the phone, then flipped it open. "What is it, Steve?"
Hank watched as Tony's face went carefully blank, the expression he wore when he was trying not to display emotion. "Is he okay?" A pause, while Steve presumably answered. "Good. No, I'm in meetings all day, but I can drop the last one. I'll be home at four." He flipped the phone closed again.
"What is it?" Hank asked.
"Somebody just took a shot at Peter."
"They're shooting at us now?" He'd heard about what was happening to Daredevil, and street-level heroes always had it hardest, but bullets were a little extreme.
"I don't think so." Tony frowned, shaking his head thoughtfully. "According to Steve, he wasn't in costume." He dragged a hand through his hair, leaving it standing on end. "Look, I've got to run, but thanks for seeing me. I know I'm probably being paranoid, but-"
Hank waved a hand, cutting Tony off. "Any time. And hey, pretend-doctor's advice, take a day off work. It sounds like you have extracurricular stuff to keep you busy anyway." Not to mention that if Tony walked into a boardroom right now, with his disheveled hair, rumpled clothes, and bloodshot eyes, there was only one conclusion people would draw, and it wouldn't involve illness.
"I might do that." Tony smiled wryly, then sighed, looking exhausted for a moment. "I've got three days to finish a set of design specs for an aircraft company, so I'm going to be locked in the lab for the foreseeable future anyway."
"You've got hundreds of people working for you," Hank pointed out. "Why are you doing that kind of thing yourself?"
"Because the guy who was supposed to do it screwed up." Tony waved a hand, dismissing the topic. "Call me when you figure out what I've got, okay? Or just call." He sneezed again, then rubbed at his forehead. "I'll be glad when this goes away. It's hard to keep the Extremis dialed down when my head is all stuffed up. All the data feeds are twice as loud as normal."
"Sucks to be you. You do realize that half of the scientific community would sacrifice their firstborn to be able to whine that the computers in their head were too loud."
"Yeah, mock, High Pockets. See if your spot on the team stays open." Tony grinned, and shrugged back into his jacket.
Hank grinned back. "Remember that, the next time you have an ant infestation."
The kitchen was one of the most homey-feeling rooms in the New Avengers' living quarters. For one thing, it was about the only communal area that didn't have giant oil paintings of the original Avengers all over the walls.
The paintings always made Peter feel a little bit like he didn't belong, because he wasn't in any of them. He'd made sure not to mention this to Tony, though. If he had, Tony would almost certainly have commissioned a new painting, one that included Peter, and that would have been even weirder.
He occasionally wondered if Cap was ever weirded-out by the fact that half the paintings were of him.
Peter had started doing most of the paperwork for school - lesson plans, writing quizzes, grading essays - at the kitchen table, because the light was good and sometimes Jarvis would make cookies if you kept him company.
He had a lot of company this morning. Tony was sitting across the table from him, working on his airplane design while giving off an aura of intense, cold-ridden patheticness. He hadn't actually complained, but he was huddled in an incredibly ugly sweater, and was now speaking in a hoarse whisper.
MJ, Luke, and Cap were arranged around the other end of the table, playing poker for cheerios. Luckily, MJ hadn't yet noticed that Peter had been eating hers, probably because she still had more than either of the others.
Jarvis, at Luke's request, was boiling oatmeal for the baby - Peter still didn't actually know her name, and at this point, would have felt stupid if he asked.
Peter might not have been a student anymore, but he still loved Saturdays, especially Saturdays when no one was trying to blow up Manhattan. Yesterday, he'd had to duck out of school halfway through teaching his fourth-period class to stop a guy in a mask shaped like a dollar sign from robbing a bank. The guy had been calling himself Mr. Money.
At about the same time, the rest of the team had been in Central Park, where the Controller had turned an orchestra and various tourists into his mindlessly obedient minions. The New Avengers had been given a commendation by Mayor Bloomberg for stopping the ensuing riot and returning the Controller to custody.
Peter had been personally thanked by a bank teller, who had given him a plastic pen with the words "Bank of New York," on it. Then he'd been yelled at by Principal Chen for leaving a classroom full of fifteen-year-olds unsupervised for twenty minutes.
But, since it was Saturday, he didn't have to have anything to do with Chen again until Monday.
"A pair of queens, gentlemen," MJ announced, laying her cards down face-up on the table. "Read 'em and weep."
"You're cheating somehow," Luke said, glaring at the cards with mock suspicion. "Someday, I'm gonna figure out how."
"If by cheating," MJ said, "you mean playing well..."
"No she isn't," Cap said. "I'd be able to tell." He grinned. "I learned how to play this game from Nick Fury. His poker deck had six aces in it, and all of them were the ace of spades. " He shrugged, looking rueful. "I think he was mostly trying to screw with me, though."
Luke shrugged, and turned to Jarvis. "How's the oatmeal coming?" He'd initially come into the kitchen to make it himself, but Jarvis had announced that only Cap and May were allowed to use the kitchen appliances, and had commandeered the stove. The explanation for this rule had been long and complicated, and involved Thor, Hercules, and a burning toaster. The ban even extended to Tony, who technically owned the kitchen, but had apparently been permanently forbidden to touch anything in any kitchen Jarvis was responsible for at the age of seven, after blowing up a microwave oven.
"It's nearly ready," Jarvis said. "It will be done as soon as the groceries get here; I still need to add milk and sugar, and we're out of both." He gestured at Tony with his spoon. "Would you like some? My mother always said oatmeal was good for colds, as well as for people who didn't eat breakfast."
"I don't actually like oatmeal," Tony declared sullenly. It might have had more impact if he'd been able to speak above a loud whisper. According to Logan, the only reason he'd been able to successfully coordinate the take-down of the Controller yesterday was that he could apparently do some sort of techno-telepathy with the Extremis and their communicators.
Peter laid his red pen down atop the stack of papers he was marking up and sighed. Grading homework seemed trivial when there was someone out there who knew who he was and wanted to kill him. The others were all trying to carry on as if everything was normal, which he supposed he appreciated, but just two weeks ago, Peter had been convinced that he was dying, mostly because numerous people had told him that he was. This was too much like that. During the Morlun thing, he'd expected to drop dead of spider-power-related weirdness any day; now, he kept expecting some guy with a machine gun to jump out at him from around every corner.
He'd asked every petty criminal he could chase down if they'd heard of any kind of contract out on him, but none of them had known anything, even when he'd dangled them upside-down off skyscrapers. Probably they'd known he wouldn't actually drop them. But even Logan had been asking questions, and everybody believed Logan's threats.
Aunt May had suggested that he take a cab to work. Cap had repeated his offer of hand-to-hand combat lessons. Tony had planted an electronic bug in his briefcase to keep an eye on him - he hadn't mentioned it, but Peter had found it in the inside pocket. Luke and Jessica Jones had even gotten their crazy ninja boyfriend to ask around about people who had it in for Spiderman as well. Peter had never asked about that relationship, but he had his suspicions.
"Oatmeal is good for you," Cap informed Tony. "My mother always said it was stick-to-your-ribs food."
Tony glared at him, and pointedly turned his attention back to his work.
"And the goddess of poker wins another hand," MJ said, tossing her long, red hair back over her shoulder. Peter had always loved her hair; it was so bright and vibrant, and also really soft.
He reached out stealthily to grab another handful of her cheerio-markers. Unfortunately, this time MJ noticed, and slapped his hand away from them. "Don't think I don't know what you've been doing, buddy," she said. "If you want cereal, just go get yourself a bowl."
"But this is your cereal," Peter informed her. "That makes it so much better." Actually, he was just hungry. He'd been hungry all the time since getting the organic webshooters, and there wouldn't be any real food until the groceries were delivered.
"Hey, you all right?" Luke asked.
Peter looked up from rubbing his abused hand to see Tony resting his head on one hand, eyes closed, shoulders slumped. "Yeah," he chimed in, "are you okay?"
Cap was eyeing Tony with a mildly concerned expression. "I saw that tuba player clock you yesterday," he said.
"Oh, that." Tony opened his eyes, lips twitching. "He didn't actually hurt me, he just broke his tuba over my helmet, and now he's trying to sue. And my cousin called to offer his 'sympathies.' I have no idea how he found out I was sick."
"Don't you hate it when they do that? The suing thing?" Peter said. "I got lucky though. One of the bank tellers gave me a pen." He pulled it out of his shirt pocket, holding it up for examination.
"It's a very nice pen," MJ said, with mild irritation, "but I still think it was sleazy of them not to give you the posted fifty-dollar reward out for that guy."
"Perhaps you should go lie down on the couch," Jarvis said to Tony, who had put his head back in his hands.
"Maybe I will," Tony said, opening his eyes. He picked up his papers and stood.
Cap dropped his cards on the table. One of them stuck to his fingers, and he had to peel it loose, which explained where Peter's card-cathedral had gotten to. "I fold," he said, standing.
"Are you sure?" MJ nodded towards the scattered cards. "You could have won with that."
"No, I'm out." Cap circled the table to stand by Tony. "You should lie down on the couch and take it easy," he said, settling a hand on Tony's back.
"This is payback for last week, isn't it?" Tony asked, as Cap propelled him gently out the door.
Okay. Lots of touching. Peter had seen suspicious amounts of mutual pawing between those two over the past week. So, not only were Luke and Jessica probably sleeping with Iron Fist; he was starting to think that Cap might be sleeping with Tony, and how weird was that? Next, Logan would start sleeping with Jessica Drew, and then the tabloids would start running articles about the New Avengers' filthy team orgies, the way they did about the X-Men. There had already been multiple headlines claiming that Tony was sleeping with MJ, and one memorable one saying Tony was sleeping with him.
The door slammed open again, and Logan walked in, his arms full of grocery bags. "Got your groceries," he grunted. "May told me to bring these in." He slammed the bags down on the counter, and went to lean against the wall, arms folded. Apparently, carrying the bags up had fulfilled his daily domesticity quota, and now he was free to grunt, be manly, and snarl.
Jarvis sorted through the closest of the bags, pulling out a box of sugar. He opened the box, tore open the plastic bag inside it, and was sticking a spoon in when Logan moved away from the wall and leaned over, sniffing at the sugar like a dog.
"I wouldn't eat that," he said. "It's got poison in it."
There was a clatter as Jarvis dropped the spoon on the black granite counter and jumped back a step. "What?" he demanded.
"Yeah," Logan said. "There's arsenic in there. I can smell it. Who have you pissed off lately?"
"Good lord," Jarvis said, horror on his face. "I was about to put that into the oatmeal."
"I was gonna feed that to my kid," Luke snarled, shoving his chair back from the table and standing. "I'm getting Cap. We're going to find this bastard, and I'm going to kill him."
Twenty minutes later, Jarvis had forced Logan to systematically sniff every single item in the kitchen; they had turned up three more newly-purchased food substances with arsenic in them, including Logan's beer. Which, really, was an exercise in futility, because Logan was immune to poison, and nobody else touched his beer on pain of dismemberment.
This wasn't just about Peter anymore; somebody was trying to kill all of them, and didn't care if he or she took out their families in the process.
Tony and Jessica Drew were in the communications room, explaining the situation to SHIELD, and requesting any pertinent information Maria Hill felt inclined to give them. Peter wasn't entirely sure that was a good idea; he didn't really trust Maria Hill, and he knew Cap didn't. Her men had almost blown them up with that air strike in the Savage Land, and yeah, she'd said it was an accident, but it was awfully convenient how it had erased all evidence of whatever had been going on down there.
Cap was calling up every former Avenger he could think of, to make sure none of them had been the victims of assassination attempts. Since there were almost as many ex-Avengers as there were X-Men teams, it would probably take him all day.
Luke and Logan had already left to go pound the streets again; it hadn't turned up any information last week, but maybe this time would be different.
Peter, in costume now, walked tentatively back into the kitchen, where Jarvis was still sitting, his head in his hands. He needed to let MJ and Aunt May know he was leaving.
He was planning on doing some more asking around himself, but first, he wanted to head out to Hell's Kitchen to check up on Daredevil. If someone was after all of the New Avengers, it could have something to do with the way they'd gotten together, and if this did have anything to do with the breakout on the Raft, well, Matt had been there that night, too. Not that poison would work on Matt, since he had an even better nose than Logan, but there were other ways to get to people. All it would take was some hired gun with a dog whistle, and Peter would be out one mildly insane big brother figure.
And there was a chance Matt might have heard something. He knew more about what was going on on the streets than almost anyone. Also, the Kingpin had tried to have him killed several times, so he had experience with this sort of thing.
"I'm going to rip his kidneys out," Jessica Jones ranted. "I'll let Luke hold him while I hit him. Or her." She was pacing up and down the kitchen floor like a prowling cat, fists clenched. "Maybe, if I'm feeling generous, I'll let Luke and Danny break his face."
"I'm so sorry," Jarvis apologized, for about the third time. "I had no idea that-"
"It's not your fault," Jessica snapped. "But I'm going to kill whatever sick bastard thought it was a good idea to try and kill my little girl."
Aunt May put a hand on Jarvis's shoulder. "It's all right, Edwin. You had no way of knowing, and no one was actually hurt."
"I was about to put that sugar into the oatmeal," Jarvis said. "If Logan hadn't been there..." he trailed off, resting his head in his hands. "I was going to give it to Tony. I was going to give it to the Cage's baby. I could have poisoned them."
MJ, sitting on Jarvis's other side, also put a hand on his shoulder. "But you didn't," she said. "And now we know to be careful."
"I'm going to go hunt down Daredevil," Peter announced. "He might know something."
"Good luck, dear," Aunt May said, not taking her hand off of Jarvis's shoulder. "Be careful."
MJ stood, and crossed the kitchen to give Peter a hug. "Here," she said, pushing something into his hand. "We know these aren't poisoned." It was the rest of her poker winnings in a plastic baggie. "I was on a winning streak; maybe they'll be lucky."
Hank had run the tests several times, each time hoping for a better answer, but they'd all come back the same. No elevated histamine levels, no bacteria that weren't supposed to be there, and, as Tony had insisted, no sign of viral infection.
After the tests had come back with the same results the third time around, Hank had been forced to admit that they were accurate, and had called Tony. In this sort of situation he'd felt it was best to discuss things in person, so he'd told him to come over as soon as possible, and to bring Steve.
Unsurprisingly, Tony had come alone.
"Hank," he greeted, as he entered the lab, "you've got something for me?" His voice was a hoarse whisper, and he was clearly running a fever now, eyes red and a hectic flush on his cheeks; even knowing what he did, it caught Hank by surprise how much worse he looked than he had two days ago.
"Yes." Hank waved him into the lab. This was something that needed to be said, but now that he was actually faced with Tony, he couldn't think of the right way to say it. "I heard about the poison." Steve had called him yesterday afternoon to inform him that someone had planted arsenic in the New Avengers' food, and to warn him that he and Jan might be next. For now, Jan was making him feed everything to the ants before they touched it. No ants had died thus far, which was good, because they had names. "Any luck finding out who it was?"
"We haven't turned anything up so far, but we're still looking." Tony rubbed at his face with one hand, frowning. "Anybody sloppy enough to go for mass poisoning has to have left some kind of clue."
"Ah," Hank said. "How's that aircraft design coming?" He knew he was stalling, but this really wasn't a conversation he'd ever wanted to have, especially not with one of his oldest friends.
"Finished." Tony flashed him a momentary smile. "I sent it out this morning." He stopped, smothering a cough, then continued, "It's going to be a fascinating project; the X-42 is going to revolutionize military operations."
Hank led Tony - still talking, now with hand gestures thrown in - over to his desk, pulling out the extra desk chair and lifting a stack of computer printouts off it. It was always amusing to watch Tony go on about machines. Well, for the first fifteen minutes, anyway.
"There's never been anything like it," Tony went on, with raspy enthusiasm. He collapsed heavily into the chair, coughing again. "Even the Super-Hornet's guidance system is primitive compared to-"
"You don't think at all well of yourself, do you?" Hank interrupted.
"I'm not bragging," Tony protested. "I'm just explaining how interesting it is."
"Does it have an off switch?" Hank asked. It was the only question that really mattered when it came to AI.
Tony rolled his eyes, and leaned back in the chair. "Of course it does. What do you take me for?" he said, folding his arms across his chest. He was wearing one of his godawful shapeless sweaters and faded jeans instead of a suit and tie. Tony only dressed that hideously when he was sick or depressed. The enthusiasm for his new design aside, he must be feeling pretty bad.
"A man who has all the same weaknesses I do," Hank told him.
"Hank," Tony said, "did you actually have a reason for calling me here, or were you just bored?"
Hank really wished he was just bored. "I got your test results back. You were right; there's no infection, viral or bacterial."
Tony groaned. "Oh great. Tell me it's not actually allergies. I'm going to have to go through every single chemical in my lab-"
"It's not allergies. You would have an elevated histamine level, and you don't." It made Hank feel almost sick to have to say what he was about to say. This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen to them. And anyway, they were supposed to have been done with this sort of thing happening to Tony.
"Then what is it?" Tony asked, faint irritation in his voice.
"You have an elevated T-Cell count," Hank said.
Tony closed his eyes, looking very tired all of a sudden. What he didn't look was surprised.
"It means that you either have leukemia..."
"I know what it means," Tony interrupted.
"... or, given that you're supposed to be immune to cancer," Hank went on, "that you've got something new and unspecified. I'm leaning towards the latter." If there was one thing he'd learned in twelve years of superheroing, it was that it was always something new and unspecified.
"Right," Tony sighed. "I suppose I'd better get in touch with Hank McCoy. And probably Maya Hansen as well. Make sure this isn't connected to the Extremis."
"Considering that you shot liquid metal into your bone marrow," Hank snapped, "I'm betting it is."
"It's super-compressed, and it's not in my bone marrow," Tony corrected, voice eerily calm. Considering that he'd spent half his adult life with a terminal heart condition, maybe all of this wasn't shocking to him.
"Sorry," Hank said. He paused, trying to think of something to say. "I could call Steve, if you'd like? He needs to know, anyway."
Tony sighed again. "No," he said. "No, I need to... I should tell him myself. After everything that we've... He deserves to hear it from me."
"So," Hank said, "are you two..." He made a vague hand gesture, unsure how to finish that sentence.
"Yes. Maybe." Tony slumped forward, face in his hands. "I don't know." He looked almost fragile, huddling in the over-sized grey sweater. Hank knew it was his imagination, since Tony had a good three inches on him when he wasn't using the Pym particles. Logically, Tony only looked broken because he knew there was something wrong with him.
"How can you not know?" His and Jan's relationship had always been complex, but Hank could generally tell whether or not they were sleeping together.
"It's complicated," Tony said. "I'm not sure how serious he is. God," he mumbled into his hands, obviously speaking as much to himself as to Hank, "I'm going to have to break things off again. It wouldn't be fair to put this on him."
It wasn't fair to anyone. Hank looked away from Tony, staring at the collection of post-it notes on the edges of his computer monitor. Now that he'd told Tony, Hank wasn't really sure what he ought to do next. He hadn't even told Jan yet, both because Tony had deserved to hear the news first, and because telling someone else would make it real, would mean that Tony really might be dying. Again.
Those few hours when he'd thought Jan might die had been among the worst of Hank's life, but at least he'd known. At least he'd been able to be there for her. "Give Steve some credit," he said. "He deserves to make up his own mind about this." Steve didn't do casual sex; he was Captain America. And everyone knew that he loved Tony. Most of them probably didn't know he was sleeping with Tony, but Steve had always made it clear that he considered Tony one of his best friends.
Tony shook his head. "If I actually have cancer, he doesn't deserve to have to go through that. I don't want to put him through that."
"He's not some bimbo one-night-stand you can lie to about your heart because you're going to blow her off after one date," Hank told him. "If nothing else, he's your friend. Do you really think he wouldn't be there anyway?"
"I know," Tony said, straightening and folding his arms across his chest. "I'll tell him tonight."
"Carol Danvers speaking. What do you want?"
Steve gave an inward sigh of relief. He'd been busy calling all of the Avengers he could think of since last afternoon, checking that no one else had been on the receiving end of an assassination attempt. Carol hadn't answered her phone last night, which might not have meant anything, but he'd still worried. "Carol," he said. "It's good to hear your voice. Look, I'm calling because someone is after the New Avengers, and we want to make sure they're not gunning for any of the rest of you as well."
He abandoned his seat on the couch to pace around the living room, detouring around the long, black leather sofas. They were carefully arranged in hotel-room-perfect groups; in fact, all of Tony's living spaces had always looked like hotel rooms. If it weren't for various members of the New Avengers leaving their clutter around, the only room in Stark Tower that would have looked lived in was the lab. Left to his own devices, Tony was perfectly capable of actually living in his lab; he even had a cot down there.
"No," Carol said, "No one's come after me. A supervillain tried to cut my head off with an energy beam on Tuesday, but considering that I was stopping him from blowing up a bridge, I don't think it was an assassination attempt. Oh, and I got one piece of 'fan' mail saying my book sucked."
Steve grinned. "The public has no taste nowadays. Have you seen the kinds of things that are on television?"
"I suppose you think it should all still be Ozzie and Harriet?"
"Actually, that was after my time." Steve turned, walking the length of the couch again.
"It was all shlock, anyway," she said. "And hey, you jerk, I can't believe you're just calling now."
"I tried last night," Steve protested, "but you were out."
"I was taking Simon out to dinner. But that's not what I'm talking about. I can't believe you didn't call two weeks ago, when you got hit by an SUV," Carol half-snarled.
Steve stopped in his tracks, frowning. "I'm sorry," he told her. "I never thought of that. It really wasn't all that exciting; I just collected a few bruises. I get worse in fights all the time."
"Yes," Carol said. "And someone would call me if you really got hurt taking on MODOK or Kang. This, I had to hear about third-hand." She made an exasperated huffing noise. "I mean, Jen called me, because Jan called her, because Tony told Hank Pym that you were in an accident. Well, and I saw it on the news. You should have called to tell me you were all right. I thought you guys were my friends."
"We are," Steve said, feeling a little hurt. "It just wasn't that big a deal. It was nothing," he went on, "I was fine. Honestly, I think Tony was more upset than I was."
Carol snorted. "I could have told you that. I mean, he's been in love with you since he was twenty-three."
Steve blinked. "What?" That had certainly come out of left field. She was probably joking. "He has not."
"No, I really think he has," Carol said. She sounded serious now, the teasing exasperation gone from her voice.
"And you base this on what?" Steve asked. "You didn't even know us then."
"Steve, I know the two of you were sleeping together before the Avengers broke up. And since you've put a new team together, I'm guessing you're sleeping together again."
Carol had known? After all of the effort they'd gone through to keep things secret - never spending an entire night together, never doing anything that might be construed as suspicious, never mentioning it in front of anyone else... "How did you know?" Steve asked. He wasn't about to deny it; he might keep secrets, but he drew the line at actually lying.
"Tony told me." She sounded matter-of-fact, as if it were no big deal.
"He told you?" Steve demanded. "He was the one who insisted we keep everything secret!"
"Well, that was probably a good idea. The press were out to get us enough as it was."
Steve began pacing again, covering the length of the couch in three long strides. He'd been careful not to tell anyone about their relationship, as per Tony's request - well, except for Sam, but that didn't count; Sam had asked. "I can't believe he told someone. When did he tell you?"
"When I went to check up on him after the team busted up," she said. "You have to understand, Steve, it wasn't like he just blurted it out or anything. He was kind of a mess, and I asked."
If she'd asked, that put things in a slightly different light. He wished Tony had told him that their secret was out, even to one person, but it was understandable. After all, Steve hadn't told Tony that he'd told Sam.
But that wasn't what really mattered, at the moment. "What do you mean, kind of a mess?" Steve asked. "He's the one who broke things off. And then he went right back to Rumiko." The conclusion that Tony had therefore been leaving Steve for Rumiko was, Steve felt, an obvious one.
"Remarkably, Steve," Carol informed him, "not everything in Tony's life revolves around you. Just most of it. I went to check on him because I wanted to make sure he was okay after Wanda's charming little head games. You know how he is about being in control, and I know how much it would mess me up if somebody made me think I was drunk." Carol made a disgusted sound. "I could kill that bitch."
"I probably should have done something like that," Steve admitted. "But he'd just ended things, and I wasn't going to be the first one to-" he broke off. "Wait, did he tell you why he broke up with me? Because he never told me. He just said he 'couldn't handle it.'"
"Yeah, well, he was kind of a mess, and, reputation aside, Tony's not actually all that good at long-term, casual sex. There's a reason I never hooked up with him, and it's because he wants commitment. Thank god all Simon wants is the occasional wining and dining."
"Tony's the one who wanted to keep things casual," Steve protested.
"In my experience," Carol said, "secret is not always synonymous with casual."
"Oh," Steve said. Hearing it put that way... Maybe he'd misinterpreted things. Which would mean that he'd been denying himself the opportunity for something meaningful with Tony just because he'd jumped to the wrong conclusion.
"Okay, this really isn't a conversation I thought I'd be having today," Carol sounded serious now, "but look, whatever he said about keeping things secret or quiet or casual or whatever, I don't think it's all that casual for him. I mean, you should hear him go on about how handsome and strong and perfect you are," this in a sing-songy manner that implied that she'd either heard this one too many times, or was deliberately mocking Tony, or both. "Oh, and how you saved him from a burning building like something out of a bad romance novel."
Steve sat down on the edge of the leather sofa. "I didn't think he remembered that." Tony had been very drunk for the first half of that episode, and mostly unconscious from smoke inhalation for the end of it. "I'd sort of hoped he didn't remember."
"Because I lost my temper and acted like a jerk," Steve admitted.
"Was this before you tried to get through to him after everyone else had given up, or after you saved him from the burning hotel room?" Carol asked.
"I gave up on him, too. I walked out and left him there." This wasn't a topic Steve really wanted to talk about. Or think about. He could still remember the dank, despairing smell of the hotel, and the way the smoke had filled the hallway. It was the only time he'd ever seen Tony cry.
And then Tony had disappeared for three months, and Steve had spent the entire time quietly convinced that he was dead, and that it was his fault, for not being able to save him.
"People have to want to be helped," Carol said. "There's nothing you can do for them unless they do. At least, that's what Tony always told me." She gave an embarrassed-sounding little cough. "He told me the whole story after I apologized for being such a bitch the first few times he tried to help me. He said that if even you couldn't get through to him, than he knew he wouldn't be able to get through to me on the first try. Which isn't very flattering to me, but was probably true."
That entire conversation with Tony was permanently etched into Steve's memory; he'd gone over it time and again, trying to think of what he should have said. Carol's words were nearly a direct quote. Tony hadn't just remembered what Steve had said to him; he'd remembered it word-for-word.
"Oh," Steve said again.
"Just trust me on this, all right?" Carol said. "You guys are my friends. I'd like to see you work things out. Plus, if the two of you come out of the closet before the end of the year, Simon will owe me five hundred dollars."
"Oh." He was just repeating himself now, but he couldn't think of anything more intelligent to say. He should probably have been indignant that the other Avengers were placing bets on his love life, but mostly, he just felt pole-axed, still trying to process the idea that something he'd thought hadn't gotten through to Tony at all had apparently made so much of an impact on him that he'd been able to cite Steve's words verbatim four years later. Just because Steve had said them.
And Tony apparently hadn't wanted things to be casual after all. He'd jumped right back into their approximation of a relationship. And, Steve realized, he hadn't seemed to mind at all when Steve had started spending the night. He'd been, according to Peter, on the verge of panic when he'd thought Steve might be badly hurt.
"Steve?" Carol asked. "You still there?"
"Yes," he said. "Thanks, Carol. I need to think about this. But I'm serious; you and Simon need to keep an eye out. Someone out there isn't feeling too friendly towards the Avengers."
"So what else is new? Anyway, thanks for the warning. Feel free to call anytime. And hey, how's Jessica doing?"
"Fine," Steve said absently. If Carol didn't know about Jessica Drew's connections to Hydra, then it wasn't his place to tell her. Of course, it seemed like people were swapping secrets all over the place these days, but still… "She's doing fine."
"I'm glad she's got her powers back. I know how much that sucks. Still, it sounds like she handled it better than me." She paused, then, "Look, any idea who's after you guys? If there's anything I can do, call me, okay?"
"We're still following up some leads," Steve told her. "But if there's anything you can do, I promise I'll call."
"Do that." There was a click, and Steve was left holding a silent phone. He stared down at the black metal case of the tiny Stark Enterprises cell phone, which, according to Tony, could talk to satellites and download music off the internet in thirty seconds. He wasn't entirely sure why a phone needed to do this, and, judging by his expression when he'd described it, neither was Tony.
Tony occasionally expressed uneasiness over taking weapons contracts, and Steve strongly suspected that one of the reasons he still did now and then was because he found things like designing cell phones boring.
Tony was in love with him. Well, probably in love with him. It wasn't a possibility Steve had ever let himself consider before.
If it was true, if Tony really did feel that deeply about him, then maybe he'd been stupid settling for what he thought was all he could have. Maybe he didn't have to settle anymore.
He needed to talk to Tony about this. Actually, he probably should have talked to him about it a long time ago, instead of just turning up at his bedroom door. They could have avoided some of these misunderstandings if he had said something.
He was going to now, Steve decided. He would talk to Tony tonight.
Steve had initially planned to corner Tony when he came home from work, but this plan had been foiled by the fact that Tony hadn't actually come home from work. At first, Steve had assumed he was staying late and forcing the secretary to work overtime again, but when it hit eight o' clock, and the rest of them had already eaten dinner, he concluded that even Tony wouldn't stay at work this late, and that he was probably hiding in his lab again.
The lab-slash-metal shop occupied the entire sub-basement of Stark Tower, and was a long elevator ride down. Actually, it was two elevator rides down; you got off the normal elevator in the basement and entered a second, hidden elevator, which required you to verbally dictate a pass code into a voice-recognition security system. Steve would have considered it a ridiculous level of precaution, but he'd seen some of the things Tony worked on down there, not just for the Armor, but for the Avengers and for SHIELD. At least it didn't involve sitting in a barber's chair, like the secret entrance to Nick Fury's headquarters once had.
Usually, Steve could hear the whirring noises of machine tools as soon as the elevator doors slid open. Now, though, they opened onto silence. For a moment, he thought that he'd been wrong, that the lab might be empty, but the lights were on. Tony never left the lights on.
"Tony?" Steve called, walking around a half-gutted Quinjet engine. There was no response. He turned slowly, looking around.
Tony was slumped over a lab table, head resting on his folded arms. He was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and his hair was a mess. "Tony?" Steve said again.
He didn't move. Had Tony actually fallen asleep down here? Steve crossed the room and stood over him, touching him gently on the shoulder; he could feel the fever-heat through the thin fabric of Tony's dress-shirt, more noticeable then it had been this morning.
"Hmm?" Tony lifted his head, blinking up at Steve with bloodshot eyes, a slightly disoriented expression on his face. "Steve?"
Steve should have been annoyed that Tony had managed to overwork himself into actual illness for a second time, but instead, he found himself grinning foolishly down at Tony. Tony's eyes were red-rimmed, and his eyelashes were clumped together as if he'd been sleeping. Under the bright, fluorescent lights of the lab, his cheekbones and jaw line were sharp angles, and his eyes were a pale, slate grey. "You missed dinner," Steve told him.
Tony frowned slightly, brows drawing together. "Oh," he said. "I didn't realize it was that late."
"It's eight o' clock," Steve said, moving his hand to the back of Tony's neck. "If you don't get upstairs soon, Spiderman will start the movie without you."
"Movie night's on Friday," Tony said. He leaned back into Steve's touch, a thoughtful expression on his face.
Steve tightened his hand slightly, still smiling. Even if Tony had managed to over-work himself to the point of collapse, he'd be better once he'd gotten some rest. And when he had; they could talk. He'd been planning to say something immediately, to get all of the stupid misunderstandings out in the open and clear them up. To get verbal confirmation, from Tony, of what he'd finally realized was true. To finally get to say, "I love you," himself.
But Tony was obviously genuinely sick now, and it wouldn't be fair to make him have that conversation when he was in this state.
But that didn't change the fact that Tony loved him. Tony had always loved him. And Steve couldn't stop grinning like an idiot. "That was in the mansion," he said. "Remember? We changed it to Sunday."
"Oh." Tony blinked up at him, obviously only processing things at about half speed.
Steve reached down and took him by the elbow, pulling him to his feet. "Come on," he said. "We're watching one of the Indiana Jones movies. I need you to help me point out all of the historical inaccuracies."
Tony didn't say anything, looking at Steve with a solemn expression for a long moment. "Steve, I-" he broke off, looking away. "That sounds like fun."
"Or you could just go to bed, " Steve said. "You sound tired. "
"I'm fine. " Tony offered him a little half smile. "And anyway, I wouldn't want to miss you making fun of the Nazis. "
"Great. " Steve steered Tony toward the elevator, one hand on the small of his back. "You can eat something, too. "
"I'm not hungry, " Tony said, not resisting as Steve pushed him forward. "I ate earlier. "
That was a lie, since he'd had gone straight from his office to his lab, but Steve decided to let it pass. He couldn't find it in himself to be annoyed at Tony right now, no matter how annoying Tony tried to make himself.
Once they were in the elevator, Tony leaned into Steve's side, shoulder resting against his. It was unusually demonstrative for him, but then, Tony was always a little more open and unguarded when he was tired.
"You seem happy, " Tony observed quietly.
He was still grinning like an idiot, Steve knew. It was ridiculous to be this happy just because Tony was standing next to him, but this was exactly what he'd always wanted, even if he hadn't entirely realized it was possible until Carol had said something. Tony's voice had been the first thing Steve had heard when he'd woken up from the ice; he had been one of the first people Steve had really connected with in this time.
Even before they'd been sleeping together, he'd known that he could happily spend the rest of his life making fun of movies with Tony, and sparring with him, and fighting alongside him.
"Any particular reason?" Tony continued, voice unusually subdued. He had to be exhausted; anyone else would have had the sense to stay home from work today.
This was the perfect opportunity to say something, but Tony wasn't really in any sort of shape to hear it. Steve would tell him in the morning, after he'd gotten some sleep. Until then, the knowledge that this was real, and could be permanent if Steve just said the word, was enough. "No reason," he said. "I'll tell you tomorrow."
Steve dropped his hand as the elevator doors slid open, and Tony straightened, taking a step away from him. The rest of the New Avengers were already waiting for them in the living room, as was Danny Rand, who was sitting on the far couch with Luke and Jessica Jones, a giant bowl of popcorn on his lap. Iron Fist spent more time at the New Avengers' various gatherings than Logan did; Steve needed to remember to offer Rand a slot on the team one of these days. He'd been on a team with Luke before, and they were obviously close. Anyway, Peter kept insisting that they needed a ninja, and Steve had just about given up on convincing Daredevil to try being a team player.
He still wasn't sure how Tony had gotten Logan to join, unless it involved judicious bribery.
Peter and MJ were cuddling together on the other couch, and Jessica Drew was curled up in one of the room's two armchairs. Jarvis and May were conspicuously absent; Jarvis did not share Peter's taste in movies.
Tony sat down heavily at the end of the nearest couch, opposite Peter and MJ. Steve glanced at the empty armchair across from Jessica Drew, and then deliberately walked past it and sat down right next to Tony. He was going to say something tomorrow; there was no more need to hide things.
"Okay, come on, somebody turn on the movie," Peter said. He turned to Tony, "Where have you been? We're watching an Indiana Jones movie; you know you don't want to miss Cap mocking the incompetent Nazis."
"Man, none of the rest of you can do anything for yourselves." Luke leaned over and punched the "play" button on the ridiculously complicated remote for the DVD player, and the black screen faded into an image of giant gong, and a title card that was mostly obscured by a blonde woman with obviously curled hair.
"There are no Nazis in this one," Tony said, with the air of one making a dire pronouncement. He shifted a little closer to Steve, so that their arms were brushing. "This is the evil temple cult one."
"If there aren't any Nazis, then who's going to spend the whole movie racing him to find the artifact?"
"Nobody," Luke informed him. "This one's the bad one. There are stereotypical natives, too."
"Oh," Steve said, feeling slightly disappointed. He never seen The Temple of Doom before, but he'd watched the first and last Indiana Jones movies multiple times. He'd seen the first one shortly after getting unfrozen, and then any number of times again, once Clint was on the team. They'd watched the third one the last time Tony had been sick, after Steve had finally taken pity on him and rescued him from Simon and Hank McCoy's soap opera marathon. They'd both been fun, and better than he'd expected from films recommended by Clint.
Clint had only asked two things from movies: that they contain lots of explosions, and that they under no circumstances have subtitles (or, failing that, that they contain Errol Flynn).
They hadn't watched Robin Hood since the Avengers Mansion had been destroyed.
On screen, Indiana was now in a Shanghai nightclub, engaged in a Mexican standoff involving diamonds and poison that Steve thought might be a parody.
"I bet George Lucas wrote the dialogue for this himself," Peter announced, as a waiter melodramatically expired in Indiana's arms.
"He probably did," MJ agreed, nudging him with her shoulder. "It would explain a lot."
"Is that one of the things that's wrong with the Star Wars movies I'm not allowed to see?" Steve asked.
"We've discussed this," Tony said. He broke off, coughing, then continued after a moment, "There are only three Star Wars movies."
Jessica Drew smirked, drawing one leg up beneath herself. "Just keep telling yourself that. And anyway, the dialogue is secondary. The whole point of the movie is Harrison Ford in tight pants."
"His pants were tighter in Star Wars," Luke said. Everyone turned to stare at him. "What?" he shrugged. "They were. Statement of fact, not an endorsement."
"Star Wars had better fight sequences," Danny added. "Actually, so did the other Indiana Jones movies. What happened to this one? Did the stunt guy go on strike?"
"Maybe he read the script," Peter offered.
Steve returned his attention to the screen. Indiana and a hysterical blonde woman were now fleeing the nightclub in a car. "Why is his get-away driver an eight-year-old?" If the adorable small child was dead by the end of the movie, he was going to get Peter for this.
"Because this movie sucks," Jessica Jones said.
"Hey," MJ said. "Don't knock Short Round. He's a better actor than the bleached blonde. A better character, too."
Indiana and company were hustled into a cargo plane which then took off into the sunrise. "Oh hey," Steve said, recognizing the plane's silhouette, with three radial engines outlined against the sky. "It's a Ford Tri-motor."
"Enjoy it," Tony said, tipping his head back against the back of the couch and closing his eyes. "The Tin Goose is the best part of the movie."
From the blank looks the rest of the team wore, it was clear that Tony was the only person in the room other than Steve who actually knew what a Ford Tri-motor was, let alone why it had that particular nickname. He knew more about obscure aircraft from the nineteen-thirties than Steve did, and Steve had lived through the thirties. And Tony didn't know all about them because of Steve, either; he'd already been a walking encyclopedia on engineering history when Steve had met him.
That was one of the fun things about Tony; he was passionate about what he did.
As the movie wore on, Tony gradually slid sideways until his head was resting on Steve's shoulder. One of his hands had ended up on Steve's thigh, though Steve wasn't sure if it was intentional, or just because he was asleep.
To have fallen asleep in front of everyone like this, Tony must have desperately needed the rest. "This close, it was even more obvious that he was running a fever, and getting almost no sleep the past few nights couldn't have helped." It was lucky for him that Steve had pried him out of his lab and come up with an excuse to make him sit still for a few hours.
Onscreen, the blonde woman let out a piercing shriek as a truly gratuitous number of bugs fell from the ceiling onto her hair. Tony didn't so much as flicker an eyelash.
When the movie was over, they'd probably have to wake him up to get him to go to bed.
Good. He'd be better for the rest.
The movie went on, and on, and the female lead failed to develop a personality. MJ was right, though; the kid wasn't bad. Eventually, Indiana and his sidekick (and the girl) managed to escape from the mines, the poorly portrayed evil cult in hot pursuit. If this had been an old Douglas Fairbanks Sr. movie - which was probably where they'd stolen it's plot from - the high priest would have been a half-naked barbarian priestess covered in oil, and Douglas Fairbanks would also have been half-naked and oiled, and it would have been a superior film all around.
And then the British Army came to rescue them. Unfortunately, they appeared to be the British Army circa 1890. "Wake up," Steve said, jostling Tony. "Rudyard Kipling's regiment has come to save them."
Tony made a faint humming sound of agreement, but otherwise failed to respond.
"Wow," Peter said, giving Steve an admiring look. "That was almost funny. And kind of bitchy."
"What?" Why was everyone always so surprised any time he joked around? "The costumes are horribly out of period. And I do have a sense of humor, you know."
Tony stirred long enough to mumble, "Yes, yes he does," without opening his eyes.
By the time the movie ended ten minutes later, Tony had fallen asleep again, his head a heavy weight against Steve's shoulder. He waited until everyone else had filed out of the living room, heading for their beds or, in Peter's case, the kitchen, before gently shaking Tony.
"Movie's over," he said. "Come on."
Tony blinked at him. "Hmm?" he mumbled, obviously only partially awake.
"Come on." Steve stood, pulling Tony up along with him, and steered him towards the living room's broad double doors.
Tony didn't actually lean on him, but he listed towards Steve slightly, their shoulders just brushing as they walked down the hall. By the time they reached Tony's room, he looked slightly more coherent.
"Sorry," he yawned, sitting down on the edge of the bed. The yawn turned into a cough, which he muffled with one hand. "I don't know why I'm so tired."
Steve could make a guess at that. "Because you're sick and have barely slept all week." He handed Tony a t-shirt and sweatpants, watching as he slowly unbuttoned his wrinkled dress shirt, exposing the clean lines of his collarbones.
"I was busy," Tony defended. He was silent for a long moment, unfastening the last button on his shirt. Then he looked up at Steve, eyes dark. Between the open shirt and the circles under his eyes, he looked strangely defenseless. "Steve, I need to tell you-" he broke off, smothering another cough.
"What?" Steve asked, pulling off his own shirt and sitting down next to Tony. The bed creaked under their combined weight.
Tony dropped his eyes, looking away from Steve. "Nothing. It can wait 'til morning."
Whatever it was, Tony was reluctant to tell him; this was the second time he'd almost broached the subject only to drop it. Steve had no idea what this thing Tony needed to tell him might be, but he wasn't going to force the matter. If Tony said it could wait until morning, then it couldn't be that bad.
By the time Steve returned from brushing his teeth, Tony was under the covers, curled up on his side. As soon as he lay down, though, Tony rolled over and wrapped an arm around him, burying his face in the crook of Steve's neck, hair brushing against Steve's jaw.
Steve slid an arm under Tony, pulling him closer. At the moment; he couldn't imagine wanting anything more.
Tony was still wrapped around Steve when he woke the next morning, and Steve had to pry his arms away in order to get up. Tony groaned, eyes opening to dazed slits.
"It's only six," Steve said, patting Tony on the shoulder. He was still running a fever, but his skin felt cooler than it had last night. "You go back to sleep. I'm going to go running."
Tony made a vague sound of assent, and curled up into a ball in the center of the bed, a dark shape in the middle of the white sheets, one arm wrapped around Steve's pillow.
At six a.m., the streets outside Stark Tower were comparatively empty; there were only a few early commuters to dodge. When the Avengers Mansion had still been standing, Steve had run in Central Park every morning - it woke him up, and the park's trails were interesting to run through. It wasn't quite as much fun to run through uptown Manhattan, but he wasn't about to give up his morning run.
It was still cool at this time of morning; the heat of the day hadn't yet turned the pavement into baking slabs of concrete. There was a thin veil of mist hanging in the air, which was gradually burned away by the sunlight as he ran. By the time Steve returned to the Tower an hour later, it had vanished completely.
Once he had finished showering and dressing, it was nearly eight o' clock, and various New Avengers were already collected in the kitchen. May Parker was standing in front of the stove, wearing a blue-and-white striped apron, making pancakes - she was one of the chosen few Jarvis permitted to use his kitchen appliances. Jarvis was sitting at the kitchen table, watching May cook and wearing a little smile of the sort that Steve wasn't used to seeing on Jarvis. Peter, sitting across from him, was already dressed for work, though his hair was still sticking up.
Luke and Jessica Jones were also at the table, waiting with empty plates for the pancakes to be ready. Danny Rand, who had apparently never left the previous evening, was crouched in front of the baby's highchair, attempting to feed her breakfast. He was wearing one of Luke's shirts, along with most of said breakfast.
"Take a seat, Steven," May said, without turning away from the stove. "The pancakes will be ready in a moment." Technically, May was younger than Steve, but she always treated him as if he were the same age as Peter; he'd had no better luck convincing her that he was closer to her age than to her nephew's than he'd had convincing the other Avengers that he was older than they were.
The pancakes were wonderful. Tony, predictably, never made an appearance; he firmly believed that the only food that civilized human beings should consume before ten a.m. was coffee. Steve ate his share of the pancakes for him.
Breakfast ended, and May made everyone else wash the dishes, a chore Peter escaped by claiming that it would make him late for his first class. Steve strongly suspected that this was a rote excuse he'd used many times, possibly one that dated back to when he'd been a student himself.
Usually, Peter got himself from the Tower to the high school where he taught via webline. Today, though, Happy Hogan was driving him; that way, if anyone tried to take a shot at Peter on the way to work, there would be a witness.
After everyone had cleared out, Steve fetched his spare boots from his room - which he used mainly to store clothing at this point, and that mostly for appearances' sake - and sat down at the kitchen table to clean them, under Jarvis's disapproving eye. Steve had just finished cleaning and oiling the first boot when Pepper Hogan stalked in, heels clicking on the tile floor.
"All right, where is he?" she demanded, stabbing one lacquered fingernail in Steve's direction.
Steve frowned up at her. "Where is who?"
"Tony, obviously. He has a meeting at ten, and he was supposed to go over the Sikorsky design contract with me first."
"He's not in his office?" Steve asked. That was unusual. Tony might not be a morning person, but he was also never late.
"No," Pepper said. "And he's not in his lab, either. I checked."
"He must be here somewhere," Steve said. "He would have said something if he was going to leave the apartment; we've all been checking in before leaving, since we realized someone out there's after us." He put down the half-cleaned leather boot and stood, wiping Kiwi "candy apple" polish off his hand with a rag. "Anyway, I'll help you look for him."
Steve made a slow circuit of the Avengers' living quarters, which failed to turn up Tony anywhere. Finally, having checked every place else he could think of, he went back to Tony's room, pushing open the door without bothering to knock.
The lights were out, and the blinds were still drawn, but there was more than enough light to for him to see Tony huddled in the middle of the bed, in virtually the same position Steve had left him in hours ago.
A sinking feeling in his stomach, Steve crossed the room, and sat down on the side of the bed, laying a hand on Tony's shoulder. Steve could feel the heat radiating off of Tony almost before he touched him. "Tony," he said, then again, when that failed to get a response, "Tony?"
Tony made a noise of protest and pulled away from Steve's hand, curling more tightly around the pillow he was still clutching. "Leave me alone," he mumbled, not opening his eyes. "Tired."
"Tony," Steve said, putting his hand back on Tony's shoulder and squeezing, "it's nine-thirty. Pepper's looking for you."
Tony opened his eyes and frowned at Steve. "It's that late?" he rasped. "You said it was early."
Steve felt a pang of guilt; if he'd known that Tony was this sick earlier, he would never have left.
"We have to go over the Sikorsky contract," Tony went on, struggling into a half-sitting position, weight resting on his elbows.
Steve pushed him flat onto his back. It was worryingly easy. "That can wait," he told Tony, "you're sick. I'm going to call Pepper and tell her to cancel whatever you've got planned for today."
Tony didn't protest; he simply lay still, eyes half-lidded, obviously fighting to stay awake. Steve kept one hand on the center of his chest anyway, while he grabbed Tony's cell phone off the bedside table and hit speed dial two.
"Great," Pepper said when he told her. She sounded exasperated, but not surprised. "Sometimes I miss the days when all you had to do was wait until he fell over and then plug him into the nearest wall socket." She sighed. "I'll be there in five minutes." Steve could hear worry underlying the irritation in her voice; she had known Tony even longer than Steve had, and she'd been there for the pneumonia adventure, too, as well as the various times that Tony's armor had been killing him. "Tell him not to worry. I'll cancel everything."
By the time Steve put the phone down, Tony had shoved his hand away and pushed himself up on one elbow again, rubbing at his forehead with his other hand. "Tell Pepper I'll be in in fifteen minutes." He forced himself upright, then swayed, catching himself with one hand flat against the bedspread. "Half an hour. Be ready in half an hour."
Steve took Tony by the elbows, and abruptly found himself holding him upright as he sagged forward. "She cancelled everything already. There's nothing you have to do, so just lie back down."
Tony shook his head. "No. I have to finish the X-42 project."
"You finished that yesterday," Pepper said from the doorway; Steve hadn't noticed her coming in, preoccupied as he was with Tony. "Remember?"
"I did?" Tony asked, frowning. "Oh." He sagged forward a little further, until he was slumped against Steve's side, head resting on his shoulder, and closed his eyes.
Steve moved an arm behind Tony's back, so that he was holding him in place. "Something is really wrong," he told Pepper. "Could you call Hank Pym?"
"I'll go and do that now," she said, already turning to go. She paused in the doorway for a moment, looking back over her shoulder, a worried frown marring her features, then left.
Tony coughed, and tried to sit up again, one hand on Steve's thigh for leverage. "Hank will be here soon," Steve said, tightening his arm. He wasn't sure that Tony heard him; he was draped over Steve almost bonelessly, limp and unresisting in his arms.
Steve absently began rubbing slow circles over Tony's back; he had never seen Tony this out of it before, not even when he was drugged, concussed, or drunk. It was deeply disconcerting to see him like this, when Tony was normally so together.
Eventually, Steve laid Tony back down. He promptly curled around himself again, one hand clutching at Steve's wrist. He was solidly asleep by the time Hank showed up fifteen minutes later.
Hank was wearing a white lab coat and carrying a doctor's bag identical to the one Don Blake used to use. He stopped dead when he saw Tony, looking stricken. "Damnit," he said. "None of the tests indicated that things would progress this quickly."
"What tests?" Steve asked, a cold feeling settling in the pit of his stomach. "What's wrong with him?"
"He didn't tell you." It was a statement, not a question.
Steve shook his head silently. He could think of a dozen possibilities, all of them bad. Tony had been poisoned by whoever was after them. Tony had been hit by some bizarre form of curse. Tony had caught some kind of alien flu in the Savage Land. Or it was his heart. If there was something wrong with his heart again…
"Of course he didn't tell you," Hank muttered. "I should have known. Idiot."
"What is it?" Steve repeated.
Hank's shoulders slumped, and he looked away from Steve, towards where Tony was huddled motionless under the covers. "I thought it might be leukemia," he said, "but leukemia doesn't progress this quickly."
"That's good, right?" His voice sounded calm, like somebody else's. "That it's not cancer?" If it wasn't cancer, wasn't something fatal, then they would be able to do something about it. Was that what Tony had almost told him last night? While Steve had been obliviously imaging a future with Tony, Tony had been... not just sick. Probably half-convinced he was dying. And, of course, he'd said nothing to Steve.
"There are treatments for cancer," Hank said. "This..." he shrugged. "I don't know. I don't know what it is." He wasn't meeting Steve's eyes.
"But you can do something," Steve said. He didn't let it be a question. It couldn't be a question.
"I don't know what it is!" Hank snapped, still staring at Tony. "There's nothing I can do unless I know-" he broke off, then said, quietly, "I'm sorry. Look, I can give him something for the fever, and there are a couple more tests I can run." He paused for a moment, glancing at Steve, then away again. "I can't work with you hovering, though. "
Leaving was the last thing Steve wanted to do, but if Hank needed space to work... He nodded, and tugged his wrist free from Tony's grasp.
Tony made a noise of protest and opened his eyes, reaching for Steve again. "Steve?"
Steve caught his hand and lowered it back down onto the bed. "Hank's here. He wants to run some tests on you, and he needs space to work. I'll be back soon."
Tony rolled his head sideways, until he was looking at Hank. Hip lips twitched in a little half-smile. "Hey, Hank." Then his eyes widened, and Steve could almost see the puzzle pieces falling into place. "Oh hell. He told you, didn't he?" He turned back to Steve, eyes dark and full of misery. "Sorry. I was going to tell you."
Steve stared at Tony wordlessly. Behind him, Hank made a snorting sound. "I told you yesterday that you suck, right?" he said with forced levity.
Tony started to reach out for Steve again, then halted the motion, pulling his hand back. "I'm sorry," he repeated.
"I-" Steve began, then faltered. He'd been teasing Tony over this a week ago. He should have noticed that it was serious earlier; last night, this morning. It shouldn't have taken finding Tony half-delirious to clue him in that something was horribly wrong. "You-" he tried again. "Look, I'll be outside."
He fled out into the hall, then walked blindly into the living room and collapsed onto the nearest couch.
What were they going to do? Tony wasn't supposed to - This was supposed to be their second chance. They deserved a second chance, and now Tony was... not dying, he couldn't be dying. Now Tony was sick. Again. And Steve had no goddamn clue what to do.
There wasn't anything he could do. Whatever was making Tony sick wasn't something he could fight, just like Tony's heart condition hadn't been. And at least back then, Steve and Thor had been able to shanghai a heart surgeon for him, which had given Steve something to do other than sit around feeling useless.
Steve slumped forward, resting his head in his hands. He'd been useless when Tony had been trying to destroy himself with alcohol; everything he'd tried had been too little, too late, and Tony hadn't listened to him, and Steve hadn't known what to do. So he'd left. And after that, when Tony had been in the hospital with pneumonia, there'd still been nothing he could do; the one time he'd gone to visit, Tony had been unconscious, his breathing labored, and Steve had left again, unable to sit there and do nothing. Then Tony had disappeared to the West Coast, and arguably gone briefly insane over his armor, and then his crazy girlfriend had shot him.
Steve hadn't even been able to make himself go into the hospital that time. Hadn't been able to face the thought of seeing Tony lying there motionless and broken.
What if he couldn't handle it this time, either? What if, when Tony needed him, he panicked and walked out again? He'd never forgive himself if he did.
Steve started, and looked up. May Parker was standing in front of him, one hand on his shoulder.
"Are you all right?" she asked, a concerned expression on her face.
No. "Yes, I just... no," he admitted.
May sat down on the couch next to him. "What is it?"
Telling her would make it real.
May regarded him silently, her expression composed, and almost knowing.
"Tony's sick," he blurted out.
"I'm guessing it's worse than the cold he's had all week," May said.
Steve nodded miserably. "He was nearly delirious earlier. I called Hank Pym, and he said that it probably wasn't cancer. And that that wasn't a good thing." He hadn't even known that cancer had been a possibility. Hadn't realized it was really serious. For God's sake, he'd actually teased Tony for being sick.
May leaned forward, putting a hand on his shoulder again. "Oh, Steve, I'm so sorry," she said softly.
Steve stared down at the floor between his feet, blinking hard. "I don't know what to do," he told her. "Hank thinks it's really serious, and there's nothing I can do to help."
"You can be there for him," May said, squeezing his shoulder gently.
For all the good that would do, Steve thought. His presence wouldn't make Tony better. But she was right; he could at least be there for him. He hadn't been there before, but this time he would be.
There was a clatter of footsteps in the hallway, and MJ burst in, hair flying out behind her. She skidded to a stop in the doorway, grasping at the lintel to halt her rush. "There you are. We need everyone in the kitchen. Luke just got a blackmail note. From them. They're threatening his kid."
It was cold, and his throat was so sore that it hurt to breathe. After Hank had left, Tony had curled himself back into a ball under the blankets, but he was still cold. Where was Steve? He'd said he was going to come back, but it had been - Tony checked the time through the Extremis, even though it made the headache he'd had for the past four days flare to do so - one hour, twelve minutes, and thirty-seven seconds since he'd left, and he still wasn't back.
He thought when he'd gotten the Extremis that this sort of thing would be over, that he'd be done with his body failing him. That he was done with failing everyone else because of that.
He couldn't put Steve through this. It wouldn't be fair to him, anymore than it would have been fair to Janice Cord, or Pepper, or anyone else he'd avoided getting involved with when his heart had had him living on borrowed time.
Hank had drawn some more blood and given Tony a shot of indometacin, but all that was going to do was bring his fever down; it wouldn't actually fix anything. If this really was because of the Extremis, Pepper and Happy were going to kill him. Rhodey, too. And he didn't want to think of what Steve would do.
/Tony./ Jessica Drew's voice buzzed in is head, channeled in from the comlink in the armor. /We've got a situation here./
Tony sat up slowly, rubbing at his face with both hands. The shift only made him feel a little dizzy; progress from an hour ago. /What is it?/
/Luke's been contacted by the bastards who are after us. We're all in the kitchen, so drop your sonic screwdriver or whatever and get up here./
/I'll be right over,/ Tony promised. Stopping whoever was trying to kill them took precedence over whatever was wrong with him.
He dragged on a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt that hung loose over his shoulders and wasn't covered in grease stains, and therefore probably belonged to Steve, and padded barefoot into the kitchen. Bending over to try and put on shoes had made his head swim enough that he'd given up on the idea.
Everyone else was already there, except for Peter, who was probably still at work.
"Rear their ugly heads?" Jessica Drew was saying. "That's Hydra."
"How do you know?" Jessica Jones snapped. She had her arms folded over her chest, and was glaring fiercely at the other woman.
"What's Hydra?" Tony asked, coming further into the room.
"The bastards who sent me this garbage," Luke spat. He waved angrily at a piece of paper in Steve's hands.
Tony crossed the room and took the letter from Steve. Steve laid a hand on his arm, staring at him with intense, worried blue eyes, and Tony wanted desperately to lean into the touch, to take advantage of Steve's solidity and warmth. Steve was always warm; he was two-hundred and thirty pounds of muscle, and all of it radiated heat. And while that was sometimes a little uncomfortable in the summer, at the moment, Tony just wanted to close his eyes and soak it in. He couldn't do that, though. Not right now.
Tony took a step to the side, away from him, and unfolded the letter.
Jessica Drew went on, "I've worked with them for years; I know the kind of language they use."
Tony scanned the letter. It was hand-written in dark green ink, fancy calligraphy rendering the letters almost unreadable, if not for the fact that Tony had experience trying to decipher Reed Richard's lab notes. "It would be best if you just kept quiet about what you saw in the Savage Land. After all, drug convictions have an unfortunate way of rearing their ugly heads. And it would be such a pity if something were to happen to your lovely wife, or that adorable baby, while you weren't there to protect them."
As threats went, it was remarkably unsubtle, but then, the poison in the sugar bowl hadn't been all that subtle, either. Nor had the attempt to shoot Peter in broad daylight. Hydra, if Jessica was right and this was Hydra, wasn't merely out to kill them; there were faster and more effective ways to do that. Hydra wanted to intimidate them, to make sure the New Avengers knew that Hydra knew where they lived and who their families were.
Tony looked up from the letter to find Steve staring at him. "Either Hydra has gotten sloppy, or they want to make sure we know it's them." He took a step backwards, surreptitiously leaning his weight on the kitchen counter; Hank's shot had left him considerably less lightheaded than before, but he still felt exhausted and disconnected. "Officer Kurtzberg, the one who filed the police report on your accident, wanted to classify it as a hit and run," he told Steve. "He swore up and down that the driver was aiming for you." Kurtzberg had also hinted that he'd been forced to drop the issue.
Steve shrugged. "The car came out of nowhere, and it was going seventy miles an hour. Maybe it was aiming for me, but it happened too fast for me to be sure."
"Question is," Luke said, "why the hell does Hydra want to kill us all? I mean, obviously it's because they're evil, but why kill us all now? What's got them so hot and bothered?"
"They've been keeping tabs on all of us from the beginning," Jessica Drew said. "I was ordered to join to you for a reason."
"And that reason would be?" Jessica Jones asked, raising an eyebrow. Her voice was even, but her hands were clenched into fists at her sides now, and given the expression on her face, she was planning to follow through on the threats she'd made after the arsenic had been discovered.
"I don't know. Nobody tells me anything; I'm just their lackey."
"And here I was appreciating how quiet they've been lately," Iron Fist said. He'd been there last night, Tony remembered. Did Danny Rand ever bother to go home anymore, or did he just live in Stark Tower now, too? "What with their new base of operations being so far out in the Savage Land."
"How do you know they're based in the Savage Land?" Steve straightened and stepped away from the counter, back stiff and straight in the way he held himself when he was commanding attention.
Iron Fist shrugged. "Hydra sends people to try and break into Rand-Meachum about once a month. This time, the guy I caught felt like being talkative." He cracked his knuckles, which caused little flickers of golden light to dance over them. "He said that there was something big going on, and they were sure to succeed this time, because they were too far away from civilization for somebody like you guys or the Fantastic Four to stop them."
"I was told," Jessica Drew said slowly, "to keep my head down over the next week." She pushed a lock of hair back from her face, not meeting anyone's eyes. "They said that something major was in the works, and that they'd put me back on a dissection table if I got in the way."
"The one I beat up mentioned something called Yourmugand," Danny offered.
"Man, I thought we agreed you were gonna call in me or Misty the next time you interrogated someone," Luke said, smacking Danny on the shoulder. Danny danced away from him, rubbing at his arm and glaring at Luke.
"You mean Jormungandr," Jessica Drew said, pronouncing the Norse name correctly. "Oh my God, that was supposed to be a myth."
"It is a myth," Tony said. "It's the Midgard serpent, a giant snake eating it's tail that encircles the world." Thor had claimed to have caught Jormungandr once, while out fishing. It was the only story about fishing Tony had ever actually found interesting.
Steve put a hand on his shoulder, and Tony looked over at him, frowning questioningly.
Jessica Drew shook her head. "No, it's a code name for a plan, but it was always supposed to be apocryphal. Something everyone talked about, but that was never actually going to be implemented, because it would make Hydra too much of a target."
"Tell us," Steve said, "about this plan." His hand hadn't left Tony's shoulder. Tony probably ought to have shrugged away, but it felt good, even if it was only there because Steve knew there was something wrong with him.
"It's a series of terrorist attacks aimed at civilians. Schools, theaters, museums, shopping malls, parks, that sort of thing. They were going to use Antarctic vibranium; maximum explosion with minimum radiation." Jessica started pacing up and down the kitchen floor, ticking off points on her fingers. "Create enough chaos to overwhelm the superhero population, until we'd be so swamped that we'd stop being able to respond. Get the public to lose confidence in us, and then make their big move, whatever the hell that was going to be. I'm not sure they'd actually planned out that part." She paused, coming to a halt just in front of Steve. "If they're putting Jormungandr into action, we need to move now. We need to get to the Savage Land before they can do anything."
"Go where before who can do what?" Peter asked, flinging himself around the doorjamb. "Is everyone okay?"
"Unless you count Hydra planning to bomb the hell out of some unspecified target, we're fine," Logan told him.
Steve winced visibly. Tony held the blackmail note out to Peter. "Hydra's got something big in the works, and they want us out of the picture. They just sent this to Luke."
Peter scanned the note quickly, frowning. "And they thought this would accomplish something? They were better off with the arsenic in the sugar."
"They ensured that I'm gonna beat them to death," Luke offered. "That's accomplishing something."
"You won't, because I'm going to, " Jessica Jones promised darkly. "You can hold them for me, if you want, but no one threatens my family and gets away with it. "
The look Luke gave her was more affectionate than a leer, but was distinctly appreciative nonetheless.
"They wanted to intimidate us," Tony said. "Why else the show of force?"
"To distract us." Steve squared his jaw and folded his arms across his chest, his I'm-not-backing-down-and-you-can't-tell-me-what-to-do pose. "Make us so focused on what's going on here that we miss whatever they're about to do."
"They obviously think we saw something in the Savage Land," Jessica Drew said. "We need to get down there yesterday."
"That's going to be fun," Logan drawled.
"I can have a Quinjet up and ready in half an hour."
Peter peered up at Tony, brows drawn together. "Are you sure you should fly us? You look kinda bad."
"Spiderwoman," Steve began, "can you-"
"Not unless you want to crash," Jessica Drew interrupted. "I might be able to land a normal aircraft there, but there's no way in hell I'd be able to get Stark's squirrelly tech down through those air currents. A Quinjet isn't stable enough. Cyclops could probably do it, maybe Carol, but other than them and Tony..." she shrugged.
"Rhodey could do it," Tony said, "but he's in California, and so is Carol, and we don't have the time to wait around for them. Anyway, I'm fine." If the others attempted to navigate the Savage Land's maelstrom of air currents without a proper pilot, they'd be dead before they ever got to the ground, and Tony would never forgive himself if that happened. It was the least he could do.
"Right," Steve said. He didn't look happy. "Everyone assemble in the Quinjet hanger in half an hour. You, too, Rand. You've got experience with the way Hydra operates."
Everyone scattered. Tony tried to take a step towards the door, intending to go and start the preflight on the Quinjet, but was halted by Steve's grip on his shoulder.
"Tony," Steve said levelly, "you have a three degree fever, and an hour ago, you could barely sit up. Say the word and we can wait for Carol."
"It's only ninety-nine degrees now," Tony countered. "In any case, it's immaterial. I've piloted the armor in worse shape, and if Spiderwoman is right about how serious this is, we don't have the time to waste."
Steve reached out and grasped his other shoulder, pulling Tony around to face him. "This is stupid, and you know it."
"Trust me," Tony said, "I'd like nothing more than to crawl back into bed and not do this, but I'm not letting you go down to that dinosaur-infested hell-hole alone." Just two weeks ago, he'd thought Steve might be dead. He couldn't let Steve go off to face something this serious alone. "Anyway, your ribs are still only half-healed."
"Actually," Steve corrected, "they've already healed up. I mend fast." He closed his eyes, and lifted one hand to the back of Tony's head, pulling him forward until their foreheads were touching. "You don't," he said quietly. "Remember that. Be careful."
If Hank was right, if he really was dying, then there was little point in exercising caution. If worst came to worst, going down fighting was better than dying in a hospital bed after dragging Steve through weeks of misery.
"I'm always careful," Tony lied.
"Starting descent," Tony said, his voice distorted by the helmet. "Everybody fasten your seatbelts."
Peter had spent the past week listening to Tony whisper things in a hoarse, "I have laryngitis" voice, so hearing him speak at a normal volume sounded odd.
The front of the plane tipped forward as they began to descend, and the entire aircraft started to shudder. The bottom dropped out of Peter's stomach as the Quinjet suddenly plummeted about twenty feet, before stopping again with a jolt.
"Sorry," Tony said. "Air pocket."
Peter felt a moment's thankfulness that he was wearing gloves, and that nobody could see his knuckles turning white on the chair's arm rests. He had no problems with heights when it was just him and a webline, or even when Doc Ock threw him off a building, but he'd really prefer not to die in a plane crash. He'd seen the pilot of Lost, and getting sucked out the back of an exploding plane hadn't looked like fun.
The Quinjet started to shake harder, lurching abruptly to one side, and a pteranodon the size of the Hulk went flying past Peter's window. There was a crashing, splintering sound as branches scraped the side of the Quinjet, and then they hit the ground with a thud that rattled Peter's teeth.
"Nice landing," Danny said, wincing as he unfastened his seatbelt.
"Don't knock it," Logan told him. "Last time I came here, my plane blew up."
"On that note," Cap said, "everybody out."
Peter bounced up and made for the hatch. Everyone else was on their feet now, except for Tony, who was slumped forward in the pilot's seat, his helmet resting in his gauntleted hands. He looked like a very tired robot.
Cap put a hand on his shoulder. "Come on."
Tony dropped his hands and stood, and then they were all climbing down the Quinjet's ramp, onto soggy ground covered in knee-high ferns. The air tasted like wet socks. Peter stretched, arching his back. From that angle, he could see the giant hole they'd torn through the tree canopy.
He frowned. "Does anyone else feel the ground rumbling?"
Luke spun around, staring at something behind Peter. "Aw hell," he said. "Run!"
Peter looked over his shoulder. There were dozens of giant brontosaurs thundering towards them, like a moving wall of kind of pebbly flesh that was about to crush them flat. "I hate this place," he announced, as they all began sprinting away from the Quinjet. "Everything here wants to kill us."
Tony fired his bootjets and took off skyward, Cap dangling from one arm, and the rest of them dove into the bushes, just moments before the herd stampeded past them.
The ground beneath Peter was shaking like a minor earthquake, and the sound of a zillion giant feet drowned out everything else. He lifted his head cautiously, and saw a brontosaurus slam into the side of the parked Quinjet, tossing it sideways out of the herd's path. The noise and shaking seemed to go on forever, and then the animals were gone. Peter stood and watched them dwindle into the distance, a half-dozen allosaurs in hot pursuit.
"Those were dinosaurs," Danny panted. "Real, live dinosaurs."
"Man," Luke said, nudging Danny with one shoulder, "I forgot. This is your first time down here."
"We'll tell the T-Rex to be gentle," Logan said snidely. He sniffed the air, frowning. "I think they're gone."
"There's a T-Rex?" Peter couldn't tell if Danny sounded horrified or thrilled.
Tony was staring at where the dented Quinjet lay on its side, shaking his head. "I can't believe it," he said. "That's the second time this has happened."
"I know," Peter said. "We've landed safely in the Savage Land twice now. I bet you can get some kind of award from the X-Men for that."
"I don't think I can fix this with what we've got here," Tony went on, ignoring Peter's attempt at humor. "Let's hope Hydra's base has a machine shop. Or a plane we can steal."
"Where do we start looking?" Luke asked. He waved a hand at the shattered cycads and palm trees around them. "There's miles of this kind of stuff."
"The crater from SHIELD's airstrike is that way." Cap pointed off to their left, back along the wide swath of destruction left by the stampede. "We'll make for that."
It was hot and wet, and the muddy ground was uneven with dinosaur footprints and broken ferns. It was eerily quiet for the first few minutes; the animals must have all been scared away by the brontosaurs.
Of course, the quiet only lasted a couple of minutes. Then the cicadas and frogs started to make shrieking sounds, and dragonflies a foot long began buzzing around them.
Wolverine ducked a giant dragonfly, slicing it into pieces with one set of claws. "I really hate this place," he growled.
"You think you hate it?" Jessica Drew asked. "I've been here two minutes, and my hair already smells like mildew. I want off the team."
"I think that's the swamp," Luke said, nodding at the muddy brown water that was oozing into the deeper brontosaur footprints.
It probably didn't take more than an hour to reach the crater, but it felt like forever, and the light was already starting to fade. It had only been a month since they'd been there last, but there were already huge green vines creeping down the crater's sides, obscuring the destruction. The bottom was a smooth sheet of melted rock, still untouched by vegetation, dimly reflecting the setting sun.
There was no sign of civilization left except for some faded tire marks Logan discovered heading off into the jungle. The entire place must have been packed up and abandoned right after they'd been there.
"It's getting dark," Cap said, as they turned away from the crater and moved back into the jungle. "And we're not going to find anything here. We need to find somewhere to hole up for the night."
"This time of year, night down here is eighteen hours long," Tony pointed out. His shoulders slumped, and he raised a hand to his helmet for a moment before dropping it again.
"And it's when the velociraptors hunt," Logan told him.
"You're making that up," Danny said. "There aren't really velociraptors."
"If it wants to kill you, it's probably here." Luke said, shrugging. "I vote for holing up."
"And if Hydra blows up a shopping mall while we're hiding from the wildlife?" Jessica asked.
"I don't like it either," Cap said, "but if we get eaten by the wildlife, we won't be able to stop them. And the wildlife here is nothing to play around with." He turned to Tony. "Can you pick up anything on the satellite maps? A cave or something?"
Tony was silent for a long moment. Then he said levelly, "No. The Extremis isn't working."
"You mean you can't get any reception?" Peter asked.
"No, I mean that I can't connect with anything but my armor. All the other uplinks are dead."
Okay, that was new. "It didn't do that the last time we were down here." Peter frowned - not that anyone could see it through the mask - and waved a hand skyward. "Have they got some kind of jamming thingy up?"
"No jamming field." Tony's electronically amplified voice was still flat. "I'd have mentioned it."
"We'll worry about that later," Cap said. "For now we've got to get somewhere safe."
"There's some cliffs around here somewhere. Limestone with caves." Logan nodded into the jungle. "It's where I killed the velociraptors last time."
"Do you think you can find them again?" Cap asked him. He reached up to tighten one of the straps holding his shield to his back, then put a hand on the red metal covering Tony's shoulder.
"Don't insult me, America." Logan turned on his heel and stalked - no, skulked, really, it was more of a skulk - into the dense underbrush.
"Wow, great," Peter said, forcing enthusiasm into his voice. He'd have seconded Jessica's concern that time spent bunking down for the night was time Hydra could use to make their move, but they all already knew that. And it wasn't like they had much of a choice; Tony was kind of swaying on his feet now, and anyway, he and Logan were the only two who could find their way in the dark. "A campout! Did anyone bring marshmallows?"
"Told ya I could find it." Logan scratched at the stubble on his chin, and regarded the dark hole in the side of the vine-covered cliff with satisfaction.
"We never doubted you, Logan," Steve told him. "Do you smell anything in there?"
"Nothing but mice. I cleaned out the giant lizards last time."
"The armor's scanning systems are only picking up small lifesigns, probably rodents and bugs," Tony confirmed. He took a step towards the opening, moving with the heavy, slightly stiff motion that Steve knew was the armor operating on autopilot.
Tony was on his last legs, Steve could tell. Whatever Hank had given him this morning had long since worn off, and if he didn't get some rest soon, he'd be worse than useless in a fight. If he'd had any idea of what was actually wrong with Tony... but he didn't, and there was little to nothing they could do about it here.
Logan led the way into the cave, and Steve followed on his heels, shield ready, just in case they'd been wrong about there being nothing in the cave but mice. The opening stretched back some twenty feet into the cliff before ending in a downward-sloping wall, which was split by a dark, horizontal crack just above the cave floor. The ceiling was about eight feet high, tall enough for even Luke to stand upright.
Logan sniffed the air, frowning. "There were people here, probably Hydra. Scent's old, though, so it's probably safe for now."
"Look," Peter called from the mouth of the cave. "It's the giant bats from the movie last night." He pointed outside, where the air was suddenly filled with the dark, swooping forms of bats with two-foot wingspans. The animals probably lived in one of the other caves that littered the cliff face, and were coming out to feed.
"Huh," Jessica said. "You'd think the giant pterodactyls would have eaten them all."
"Pterodactyls mostly ate fish," Peter informed her. "You can tell by the shape of their teeth."
"Sixty million years ago, they ate fish." Luke leaned back against the cave wall and regarded the bats through narrowed eyes. "Ten bucks says the ones here eat people."
Iron Fist wrinkled his nose. "You take me to the nicest places."
Luke smirked. "They probably think you'd make a nice snack. Small, scrawny, brightly colored."
"Hey!" Peter said, "I am not scrawny."
"I don't think he was talking to you," Jessica said, sounding amused.
"Oh." Peter was now perched half-way up one of the cave walls. "It's just, when I hear people use the word scrawny-"
"One of us needs to stand watch," Steve interrupted. "I'll go first. Logan, you're next. Then Spiderwoman." He set his shield down against an out-cropping of rock and turned to Tony, who was leaning against the wall, head bowed. "Everyone try and get some rest," Steve went on. "It's going to be a long night."
Peter dropped down from his perch and curled up against one of the walls, grumbling softly about hard rocks and poisonous centipedes. Jessica Drew settled to the ground beside him, legs stretched out in front of her and crossed at the ankle. Luke and Danny attempted to drop down in the same spot, which led to a brief shoving match before they ended up sharing it, leaning on one another.
Logan hunkered down by the cave mouth, apparently dropping into a trance in moments, eyes slitted.
Tony was still leaning against the damp rock wall, in exactly the same position he'd been in since entering the cave.
"Tony," Steve said quietly, settling a hand on his shoulder, "shuck the armor and let me take a look at you."
"I'm fine." Tony didn't lift his head or otherwise move.
"We both know you're not, and I need to know what kind of shape you're in so I can make allowances for it." Much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, Tony was a liability right now. Tony wouldn't make any allowances for himself - he'd stubbornly ignore anything wrong with him until he keeled over, which was something that had happened on numerous occasions - so Steve had to be prepared for the eventuality that Tony would go down for the count before he could fly them out of there.
"Sorry about that." Tony straightened up and pulled off his helmet, revealing bloodshot eyes and hair matted down with sweat. "Hank gave me more indometacin before we left, but most of it was trampled." Without the helmet's voice filters, his voice returned abruptly to a hoarse whisper. "I've got two doses left, and I'll need one to fly us out of here."
"The rest of the armor, too," Steve prompted. "Even you can't sleep in forty pounds of metal."
The armor slowly broke apart into a dozen different pieces, flying off Tony to land beside him in a red and gold heap. Beneath it, Tony was wearing only the gold mesh of the under-armor, the metallic "fabric" stopping at the base of his throat.
Steve glanced around the narrow confines of the cave, searching for a spot that would give him a clear line of sight out of the cave's mouth. He picked up his shield and started for a rock outcropping about halfway between the mouth and the back wall, towing an unresisting Tony along with him.
The floor of the cave was damp with a thin layer of slimy mud, formed by the water that dripped slowly down the back wall. Steve made a face, wiping his hand off on his thigh. Tony, dropping heavily to the ground beside him, didn't seem to notice the mud. He swallowed a translucent capsule of medication dry, then leaned his head back against the rock, closing his eyes.
By the time the sun had set, plunging the world outside into the long twilight that began a polar night, Tony was asleep, leaning against Steve's shoulder. Steve stayed motionless, not wanting to wake him, and watched the bats swoop back and forth outside.
They had all rushed into this without planning, and in the end, they might very well accomplish nothing. They had found nothing today, were currently losing eighteen hours of time they couldn't afford to waste, and at this rate, Hydra could make their big move and Steve and his team would be able to do no more to stop them than if they'd stayed in New York.
They should have waited for Carol. Then at least they could have avoided dragging Tony down here. Not only was he going to be deadweight in a fight, he needed medical attention that he wasn't getting.
Tony's head slipped to rest against Steve's chest. Steve shifted, and pulled Tony down and over until his head and shoulders were resting in Steve's lap. Jessica, dozing against the far wall, raised an eyebrow at Steve, who ignored her. At this point, what did it matter who knew?
Tony rolled onto his side, back towards the cave door, and turned his face into Steve's thigh. He made a faint, sighing sound, and one hand reached up to rest against Steve's hip.
Steve laid his left hand on top of Tony's head, not taking his eyes off the cave entrance. He ran the fingers of his right hand absently over the rim of his shield, and stroked Tony's hair with his left. Hank's medicine hadn't helped this time; if anything, Tony felt hotter than he had this morning.
Over by the cave mouth, Logan stirred, opening his eyes and stretching. His claws popped out in what Steve thought might be a reflexive motion, and the soft snikt noise echoed off the walls.
Peter twitched at the sound, and sat up, scratching at his head. He was still wearing his mask, so Steve couldn't see his expression. "What izzit?" he mumbled, looking over at Logan.
"Nothing, kid," Logan grunted. "Go back to sleep."
Peter tilted his chin at Tony. "What's wrong with him?" He didn't comment on the fact that Tony was curled up in Steve's lap.
Steve ran his hand over Tony's hair again, not responding. He wasn't sure what to say.
"He's dying," Logan said bluntly, not looking at any of them. He was watching the cave mouth now, on guard. "You can smell it on him."
"Wait, what?" Peter yelped. "He's got a cold! Since when do people die from colds?"
"He had a cold before," Logan said. "Whatever he's got now, it ain't a cold. He smells like a wounded animal."
Tony's hair was soft under Steve's fingers, damp from the ambient humidity. If Logan could tell... Hank had been right, then. Tony really was dying.
Dying, and Steve didn't even know from what. And, just like every other time, there was nothing he could do.
It was hard to deny now, looking at him. Even in the low light, Steve could tell that there were dark, sunken circles under his eyes, and his skin was no longer flushed with fever; instead it had gone pale, leaving two hectic spots along his cheekbones, and Steve could hear a faint, whistling wheeze to his breathing.
There had to be something they could do. Maybe Hank and Logan were wrong; they had no idea what this was. As bad as he was now, Tony could be better by morning. Maybe it was something he would recover from, something the Extremis could fight off.
Or maybe it was his body rejecting the Extremis. It was virtually untested; it could be doing anything to him.
Steve's fingers stopped, still buried in Tony's hair. He closed his eyes. There was nothing they could do but wait for morning.
Steve was drifting, half-asleep. His left hand was still buried in Tony's hair; Tony was a warm weight across his legs, oddly comforting even if it did mean he was half-pinned.
He'd managed to sleep for a while after Logan had gone on watch, but had woken again when Jessica had switched places with him, and hadn't really managed to fall fully back to sleep. Not that he'd really expected to sleep in the first place, not with Hydra out there.
They might be anywhere, already putting Jormungandr into operation. Taking innocent lives, and strangling the superhero community like a giant sea serpent, spreading its venom everywhere.
Steve shifted his weight slightly, trying to get comfortable on the hard, damp floor. He let his hand slip from Tony's hair to the back of his neck. With his hand touching bare skin, the heat coming off of Tony was more obvious.
It would be okay. Tony would be okay. He had to be; this was their second chance.
Unless Hydra took it away from them, killing helpless bystanders in the process. What did they hope to gain from it, anyway? Was it just for the sake of destruction? At least Red Skull had a definite goal, something to make him easier to predict.
Worrying now was fruitless, so Steve let himself doze. He could hear cicadas and frogs droning outside, and the wind rustling through the ferns, and the distant, rushing sound of water, and voices echoing from the back of the cave.
Steve was on one knee, shield in hand, before he'd opened his eyes.
"Hydra!" Jessica yelled. "Everyone up!"
There were green and yellow-clad Hydra agents climbing through the crack at the back of the cave; it must have been broader than it had looked.
One of them was already through and in the cave, staring at the New Avengers with a startled expression on his face that was illuminated by the flashlight in the hands of the man behind him. Steve flung his shield at the man, catching him in the chest and knocking him back into the rock wall. He went down in a crumpled heap, and his companions poured into the cave, shouting.
Peter caught the nearest with a webline, and yanked him forward into Luke's fist. Spiderwoman threw herself into the melee with a yell, and Danny leapt to his feet, following her into the midst of them, the glow from his right hand suddenly casting the scene into brighter relief.
The pile of armor on the floor rattled, one gauntlet flying towards Tony's outstretched hand. He was lying on the floor where he'd fallen when Steve had moved, weight resting on one elbow. The gauntlet locked around his wrist, and he sent a stream of repulsor force at the last Hydra agent still standing, then slumped back to the floor.
"Wow," Peter observed. "You two didn't even stand up. When can I be that awesome?"
"When you start shaving," Logan told him. He was standing over the sole conscious Hydra agent, the tips of his claws pressed against the man's throat. "All right, bub, where did you come from?"
The man swallowed, Adams apple bobbing, and pointed silently at the crack. "From the refinery," he whimpered, once Logan's claws had retreated a fraction of an inch. "Please don't kill me."
"What refinery?" Logan growled.
The Hydra agent flinched. "The vibranium refinery. In the caves. That's why you're here, isn't it?"
Steve got to his feet, picked up his shield from where it lay on top of the crumpled form of the unconscious Hydra agent, and walked over to stand at Logan's shoulder. "Yes," he said. "We're here for the refinery. And you're going to tell us exactly where it is, how many guards there are, and what your commanders are planning to do with it."
"I can't," the man protested. "Madame Hydra will kill me." He was average height, average weight, and in general a rather nondescript presence; exactly the kind of person Hydra liked to employ. His only distinctive trait was a heavy Manchester accent. Right now, he was watching Logan's still-extended claws with open terror.
"You can take your chances with her, or me," Logan said. "And I'm here now."
Jessica Drew stepped forward into the circle of light from the flashlight, which now lay on its side on the floor, filling the back of the cave with weird shadows. "Just tell him," she said. "You're, what? A grade six field agent? You don't get paid enough to die for this."
"If you cut off one head, nine more will grow in its-"
"The back entrance is down that way, through the tunnel. You go through the refinery floor and into the control center. There are twenty-six guards, not counting us. They're all armed with sub-automatics."
"Wow," Iron Fist observed to Luke, sotto voce. "He's even better at that than you."
"And your purpose down here?" Steve asked again. Tony had been right; it was occasionally useful to have a Wolverine on your team. There was no way he would have let Logan actually torture or kill the man, but the fact that everyone knew that Logan would , if necessary, was a compelling asset all on its own.
"To turn the vibranium into bombs. The Australia vs. England football match is tomorrow. We're going to blow up the field and stands. And also the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Lincoln Tunnel, and Holland Tunnel. New York will be completely cut off. None of you superheroes will be able to get to Sydney in time!"
"Except for those of us who fly out of LaGuardia," Peter said. "This is hard to believe, but you can leave Manhattan without owning a car."
Iron Fist and Luke laughed. Steve didn't. Even though it might not be entirely thought out, a terrorist attack on that major a sports event could kill thousands of spectators, and while it certainly wouldn't hinder New York's superheroes, destroying the city's tunnels and bridges would cripple Manhattan.
"And there'll be no chance Australia can beat us," the Hydra agent went on. "And can you please tell him to move his claws? I told you what you wanted."
"Spiderman," Steve ordered, "tie him up and gag him."
Logan retracted his claws, took a step back, and cold-cocked the kneeling man. He looked over at Steve and shrugged. "This way, he can't tell anyone we're here."
Steve turned, surveying his team. Everyone else was clustered around him, ready to go, but Tony was still on the floor where Steve had left him. He'd managed to get as far as his knees, and was now kneeling, hands on his thighs and head bowed. The gold mesh had crept up along his jaw, stopping in an uneven line, and he was wearing only his gauntlets; the rest of the armor was still in a pile on the ground.
"Tony?" Steve returned to Tony's side, putting a hand on his shoulder.
Tony lifted his head and met Steve's eyes. "My armor isn't responding," he said. "I've been calling it, but I can't-" he broke off, bowing his head again. Then he looked back up, half smiling, and lifted one hand. "But I've still got the repulsors. Let's go save commuter traffic."
Steve closed his eyes for a moment, feeling sick. The armor was hard-wired into Tony's central nervous system. If it wasn't responding... He wanted to tell Tony to stay here, take it easy, guard the unconscious people, but Tony wouldn't have listened; there was no way he'd stay behind while the rest of them went into combat. And in any case, Steve admitted to himself, he wanted Tony where he could see him.
Steve took hold of Tony's arm and pulled him to his feet, steadying him when he swayed for a second. "We're going down there to take them out," he said. "There'll be communications equipment down there," he added. "We need to get the word out to someone, to head off these attacks before they can get off the ground." He raised his voice, addressing the whole group rather than just Tony. "Luke, Spiderwoman, Iron Fist, Wolverine; you ought to be able to handle twenty-six people."
"What about me?" Peter asked.
"You're coming with me and Tony," Steve said. "We need to collect all the information on their operation that we can. We need to know what else they're planning. And we need to get the information out to someone who can do something about it. You two are going to hack their computer system." He turned to Tony, who was still leaning on his arm. "Can you do that?"
Tony grinned. It hurt to look at, to watch him pretend that the fact that he could no longer operate his armor didn't matter. "Don't insult me, Steve," he rasped.
The mouth of the tunnel was low and narrow; Logan went first, crawling through it on his stomach, followed by Jessica Drew. Danny and Peter slid down after her, and Luke squeezed himself through, cursing.
"The front door better be bigger than this, 'cause I ain't doing this shit again."
Tony dropped to his knees by the crack, then looked back over his shoulder at the pile of discarded armor. "Sorry, Shellhead," he said softly. "It's been fun." Then he sent a blinding stream of repulsor energy at the armor, leaving it charred and heat-warped. He saluted Steve with two fingers, and disappeared through the dark opening.
Steve stared at the smoldering metal for a moment, blinked hard, and followed him. Luke was right; the crack was far too narrow. The top of the opening scraped across his shoulders as he crawled through, and then the passage opened up into a wide tunnel, with steel-braced walls and a machine-sanded floor.
They followed the tunnel for about ten minutes, on a gradual downwards slope, until they reached a heavy metal door, complete with an electronic combination lock.
Steve was already turning to Tony when Logan stepped forward and scored four long sets of furrows through the metal, forming a rough square. He stepped back and waved to Luke. Luke nodded, stepped forward, and punched the door, right in the center of the box. The metal popped out and fell to the floor with a resounding clang.
"Well," Tony muttered, "there went our element of surprise."
A loud, blaring klaxon began sounding, and a troop of green-clad guards rushed into the hallway, machine guns at the ready.
"Drew?" The leader came to an abrupt halt, then raised his gun, leveling it at Jessica. "You were told to keep out of this. Madame Hydra will be most displeased."
"I've decided to terminate my employment with her," Jessica announced. She lifted her hands, sending a venom blast at his weapon, knocking it to the floor. "Please accept my resignation." Then she kicked him in the jaw, knocking him to the floor beside his gun.
Luke seized the nearest guard by the shoulders, picked him up, and threw him into the rest of the men. They went down like bowling pins.
"Well," Peter said, "they look like they're having fun and don't need any help."
It would have been so nice to hit something right now. Instead, Steve led Peter and Tony past the ongoing Avengers-on-Hydra brawl and into the refinery.
It had to be the middle of the night shift; only the safety lighting was on, and the vast cavern was lit mostly by the eerie glow of molten metal. The drone and clank of machinery echoed off the high ceiling, and the air smelled like sulfur.
Steve took one look at the huge, open vat of liquid vibranium, and made a mental note to avoid the catwalks running over it.
The three of them crept through the maze of pipes and stacks of vibranium ore, until Steve held up a hand for them to halt. He could see the entrance to the control room about ten feet away; there was another metal door, this one markedly less substantial then the first, with the word "operations" stenciled on it in yellow paint. There were two Hydra agents standing guard on either side of the door, at attention.
Peter began climbing silently up the side of the pile of vibranium they were hiding behind. Steve stepped out from the shadows, crossing the distance in two strides. "Hi," he said, and slammed his shield into one of the guard's faces.
The man went down like a ton of bricks, and then Peter dropped onto his companion's shoulders.
Tony blasted the door open, and they entered the room, looking around warily. It was empty, every computer terminal and monitor station abandoned; everyone on duty must have rushed out to the perimeter breach, leaving only the two men on guard.
"I'll take the left, you take the right," Tony told Peter, nodding at the banks of computers that lined each side of the room. He was still in the doorway, clinging to the scorched doorframe with both hands.
Peter gave Tony an indecipherable look, then went obediently to the computers on the right side of the room. He perched on the edge of the computer station's chair, cracked his knuckles, and began typing. "If I were a crazy terrorist organizations, what would my passwords be?"
"Probably something to do with snakes." Tony hadn't moved from the doorway; Steve thought his hold on the doorframe might be the only thing keeping him upright. He took Tony by the elbow, and abruptly found himself supporting most of his weight.
"Come on," Steve said. "You don't want Peter to find all the good data first." He half-dragged, half-carried Tony over to the other monitor station, where Tony collapsed bonelessly into the green rolling chair.
There were several minutes of dead silence, broken only by the clack of Tony and Peter's fingers on the keyboards and periodic chimes from the computers. "Your password has been... accepted!" Tony's computer announced in a perky feminine voice. "Welcome to Hydranet."
Peter swiveled around in his chair. "Hydranet?"
Tony smirked. "The password is Ouroboros."
"That's so painfully obvious I never even thought of it," Peter admitted.
"I thought of it when I sat down." Tony shook his head, as if in despair at the stupidity of thematic terrorist organizations. "I just didn't think they'd be that predictable, so I tried everything else first."
There was another moment of silence, and then Tony said, "I've found the communications uplink. We need to give someone a heads-up about Australia and New York. Do you want me to call SHIELD?"
Steve began to answer, but Peter interrupted him. "Um, no, don't call SHIELD. I just found a list of two-dozen SHIELD agents on Hydra's payroll. Well, twenty-three; Jessica just quit."
"Call the Fantastic Four," Steve decided. "Get Reed to scramble everyone he can."
"Calling." Tony punched a sequence of keys, and the largest of the flat monitor screens lit up. There was no picture, only static, but Reed's voice came through clearly.
"Who is this? Hello? How did you get this number?"
Tony smiled a little. "It's Tony." He coughed, then went on, "Look, Reed, we've just broken into a Hydra base, and they've got plans to take out all of Manhattan's major bridges and tunnels. They're also staging an attack on the Australia/England rugby match. We're stuck down in the Savage Land; can you get the word out for us?"
"Yes. Yes! I'll do that right away."
"I found their evil plans!" Peter called out.
"We're uploading their tactical plans to your system now," Tony went on, not missing a beat.
"Got it. Thanks." Reed hesitated, then, "Tony, are you all right? You don't sound well."
"I've got a cold," Tony said, and cut the connection. He really didn't sound well, and not just because he'd lost his voice.
"Okay, I take back all the Hydra-mocking," Peter said, looking up from the computer screen again. "This is actually really creepy. After they hit Australia and New York, they were going to wait twenty-four hours and then attack Denver, O'Hare, Heathrow, and LAX. Then they were going after a bunch of big national banks. Then the Emmys, and Disney World, and shopping malls, and schools. All within a week of each other."
Steve felt a moment's relief. Jessica was right; they'd never have been able to handle even the damage control on all of that. Thank God they'd gotten a hold of this now, while there was still time to stop it.
Then his eyes fell on Tony again, armorless and slumped forward on one elbow with sweaty hair stuck to his forehead, and the relief evaporated
"Come take a look at this, Steve," Tony said, waving him over and pointing at a smaller computer screen. "Officer Kurtzburg was right; your accident was an attack." He paused, and took several deep breaths, the air whistling in his lungs. "They were going to send one of their people in SHIELD after Jessica, and they set up that shot at Peter, just like we thought. They didn't know he was Spiderman; it was supposed to be a warning to us, get someone who lives in Stark Tower, make us feel vulnerable."
Steve bent low over Tony's shoulder, reading the text scrolling across the screen. The addresses of all of the Avengers save Peter were listed, plus suppliers for the arsenic and the names of snipers, though none of them were of Crossbones' quality. There was the name of the theater where MJ's current performance was running, along with a demolitions expert. The same man was listed again next to the address of Steve's apartment in Brooklyn. He hadn't slept there for weeks, and no one else lived in the building, but it offended him on principle.
Tony hit another combination of keystrokes, and the screen was filled with random gibberish that Steve could only assume was computer code. Tony stared at it for several seconds, his expression blank. Then he began to laugh, raising one hand to rub at his eyes.
"Oh God, it's a computer virus." He went on laughing, a hysterical note in his voice, until he was gasping for air. He dropped his head into his hands, shoulders shaking.
Steve stared at him, feeling panic rising in his chest. He wasn't making any sense. He'd been verging on delirium yesterday morning; he'd been coherent since then, but he'd also been getting steadily worse. "Are you all right? Tony?"
"I will be," Tony gasped. He straightened and looked up at Steve, grinning, eyes very blue and bright with fever. It was a real smile, not the pathetic attempt at one he'd dredged up in the cave earlier. "Get Peter."
Tony was laughing like a lunatic, all slumped over the keyboard with his face in his hands, while Cap watched him with a horrified expression. If he'd been anyone other than Captain America, Peter would have said he was about to start panicking.
There had been something really, serious wrong with Tony since they'd landed down here. Cap and Tony himself had been ignoring it, but Peter wasn't blind. For one thing, why wasn't Tony in his armor?
He was pretty sure Tony's physical condition had a lot to do with why Cap had ushered them back here instead of charging in to fight the Hydra guards they way he usually would have. The others had had things under control, yeah, but it wasn't like Cap to walk away from a fight.
And now Tony was not only - if you could take Logan's word for it - dying, he had apparently gone crazy.
"What's going on?" Peter abandoned his search of Hydra's databanks and crossed the narrow room to stand looking down at Tony.
"It's a computer virus," Tony got out, between gasps of laughter. "Cascading system failure. Explains why the progression was so strange."
"What?" Peter asked.
Tony waved a hand at the computer screen in front of him, and Peter bent to look. Lines and lines of unfamiliar code stretched across the screen, obviously a virus, but it didn't look like any virus Peter had ever seen. Half the stuff he could make out looked like it was designed to take down an AI, and the other half was some kind of medical gibberish...
Peter started to laugh as well.
"What?" Cap demanded, and that was definitely panic in his voice now. "What?"
"I can't believe it." And he'd thought growing four extra arms had made him a medical anomaly.
"Congratulations, Peter," Tony said. "You're about to get to do what half the computer scientists in the world would give an arm for: write software for the Extremis."
"What is it?" Cap repeated, in a tone of voice you really couldn't ignore.
"He's got a computer virus." Peter pointed at Tony, still feeling an almost uncontrollable urge to snicker. "That's what's wrong with him."
Cap frowned, face twisting for a moment, and then he closed his eyes. "And you can fix that?"
"Well, yeah. I get to be a code monkey." He got to write code for the most complex computer system in the world. How cool was that?
"Code monkeys write their own code," Tony said. "Let me rephrase; you get to type software for the Extremis. I can't make my eyes focus anymore."
Okay, slightly less cool, but still cool.
"They must have co-opted Maya Hansen in order to write this. She's the only person on the planet other than me who knows how Extremis worked." Tony levered himself out of the chair and half-fell onto the floor, sitting with his back against the computer console and his knees drawn to his chest. He grinned up at Peter, waving at the now-vacant chair. "Type, code monkey."
Peter obediently sat down, and was immediately absorbed in the information on the screen. He only understood parts of it, but what he could make out was sheer brilliance. "They used the fact that the Extremis is hardwired into his central nervous system to hijack his immune system and turn it against him."
"Cascading systems failure," Tony repeated, and snickered.
"What's that?" Cap asked. He crouched down next to Tony, putting one hand on his shoulder. Seeing him now, Peter realized that Cap had been upset over something ever since they'd gotten to the Savage Land - no, since before that, since right before they'd left. That was gone now. He looked every bit as relieved as Tony, minus the hysterical laughter.
He must have known something was wrong, and kept it secret from the rest of the team, because Cap and Tony had that whole "original Avengers club" thing where they read each other's minds and didn't tell people things. Or maybe that wasn't an Avengers thing. Maybe it was a relationship thing. Because as relieved as Cap looked now - Peter could swear he was actually blinking back tears - he was pretty much positive that his vague suspicions from earlier that week were right.
Well, and there was that thing where Tony had spent all of last night asleep in Cap's lap.
"A cascading systems failure gradually destroys a computer's hard drive," Peter explained. "It picks up speed as it goes, which is why he started out the week with a cold, but now is delirious."
"Not delirious," Tony objected. He had stopped laughing and was kind of wheezing now. It looked as if breathing was taking conscious attention; it was a good thing they'd figured this out now, because Peter wasn't sure how much longer he'd be conscious and able to program. "Sorry, I just..." he trailed off, shaking his head. "Oh, and Peter, sorry about the sniper. They were going after you, but they were doing it to get me, because you lived in Stark Tower. Hydra doesn't know you're Spiderman"
Okay, so that was what hysterical relief felt like. Peter might just indulge in some insane laughter of his own. His identity was still secret. Supervillains weren't going to start going after MJ and Aunt May. He'd seen what had happened to Matt, when he'd been outed as Daredevil, and it wasn't something he ever wanted himself and his family to have to go through.
Tony took a deep breath, closing his eyes. "All right. Here's what I want you to do..."
Tony was going to be all right. He wasn't going to die.
Ever since he had spoken to Hank yesterday, Steve had been certain Tony was dying; that he was going to have to watch as Tony slowly wasted away from something he couldn't do anything about. Then they'd gotten here, and suddenly the armor hadn't worked and Tony could barely stand and it had seemed like they might not even have that small amount of time.
But now they knew what was wrong, and Tony and Peter were working to fix it, and Steve had a future again.
"And that's it," Tony said. He had his head tipped back against the console. His eyes were shut, and his eyelids were dark and bruised looking. But he was going to be all right. "We're done."
"That's it?" Peter cocked his head, lifting his fingers from the keyboard.
"It's elegantly simple." Tony fiddled with his right gauntlet, until pieces of wiring were sticking out of it. "Now comes the fun part. I can't access anything with the Extremis. I need a landline." He held his arm upward, eyes still closed. "You need to break open the computer tower and hot-wire me into it."
Peter wrinkled his nose, the red and blue fabric of his mask crinkling. "I don't know if I should-"
"I'll tell you if you're doing something wrong."
Steve watched as Peter pulled handfuls of wiring from the insides of the computer, twisting it into the wires from Tony's gauntlet in no pattern he could discern. Thank God Peter was here. If it had just been him and Tony, Steve would have been lost. Once you got beyond vacuum tubes, tech was all Greek to him. Anything more complicated than fixing an old radio or repairing a motorcycle or car was beyond him.
"That's it," Tony said.
Peter hit a combination of keystrokes, and the light on Tony's gauntlet flickered briefly. After a few minutes, Tony opened his eyes, blinking. "All right. That should have done it."
Steve smiled at him, and got an answering smile in return. It was slightly wobbly, but it was a real smile. "We haven't heard anything from the others in a while," Steve said, looking up at Peter. "If you're done here, why don't you go see how they're doing?"
Peter glanced from Steve to Tony, and Steve could almost see him raising his eyebrows under the mask. "Right. I'll go check on the others." He bounced out of the chair, sending it rolling backwards across the concrete floor, and made for the door.
Tony was pulling the computer wiring loose from his wrist, frowning intently. It was obviously taking far more concentration than something so simple should have.
"Are you sure it worked?"
"We'll know in a couple of hours. It should have, but it's going to take a while to run." He rubbed at his forehead, closing his eyes again. "The one thing I'm still not sure of is how they infected me. It would have to be through a wireless connection, like a cell phone, or..." he trailed off, opening his eyes. "I'm going to kill Morgan."
That was why Tony's cousin had called him. It wouldn't be the first time Morgan had sold him out. "Let me," Steve said. After the past two days, he deserved the chance to hit something.
Tony held his hand out to Steve. "Help me up. The floor is cold."
Steve grabbed hold of his forearm and stood, pulling Tony with him. "It's cold because you're mostly naked," Steve told him. The gold mesh of the under-armor was as thin as any spandex costume, and revealed far more of Tony than he was used to seeing. Not that this was necessarily a bad thing.
Tony looked away. "I melted my armor," he said, very quietly.
That had been when Steve had stopped hoping, because it had meant that Tony had given up, that he'd known he wasn't walking out of here.
Since he was still holding Tony upright with his hold on his forearm, Steve reached out with his free hand, wrapping it around the back of Tony's neck and smiled at him. "You'll do anything for an excuse to upgrade."
"Art is never finished, only abandoned."
"I finish my art."
"Quitter." Tony grinned, looking at Steve through his eyelashes.
Steve didn't smile back. He could have lost this. The thought was almost physically painful; he had come so close to losing everything.
And Tony would never even have known how he felt. Could have died thinking that all Steve wanted from him was sex.
He had to say something.
"Tony, I-" He broke off, struggling for the right words.
"What is it?" Tony asked. He was looking at Steve intently, eyes holding his unwaveringly. Steve loved it when Tony looked at him like that; it was a degree of attention Tony normally only paid to his armor.
The only warning Steve had was Tony's eyes rolling back in his head, before he collapsed into Steve's arms, completely limp and utterly unconscious.
Steve was frozen for a second, holding Tony upright. He couldn't tell if Tony was breathing. What was this? They had saved him; the code was supposed to be fixing him.
What if they had been too late?
Steve shifted his grip on Tony, sliding an arm around his chest, and knelt, lowering Tony gently to the floor with him so that Tony was resting against his chest, head on his shoulder. Even through the leather of his costume, Steve could feel the heat that radiated off him. It was strangely reminiscent of the previous morning, only now, Tony wasn't moving at all.
He was breathing, though; Steve could feel the rise and fall of his chest under his hand.
"Peter!" he shouted again.
"What?" Peter came skidding to a halt just inside the doorway, then stopped, staring at them.
"He just... fell over." Tony was breathing in shallow gasps, and the hectic flush of fever had vanished, leaving him washed out.
Peter crouched down next to them, and poked at Tony's shoulder with one finger. "Um," he started. "He's probably just... shut down... so that the anti-viral software... can... scan his boot drive! Or I screwed something up. But it's probably the scanning thing!"
Steve stared at him. "Peter," he said, very calmly and levelly. "I thought this was supposed to fix him."
Peter made a bizarre meeping noise and scrambled to his feet, backing away. "It is! I mean, it will! I mean, I think it will." He made a vague gesture at the banks of computers, and then at himself. "I mean, anti-viral software takes ages to run on a laptop, and think about how much more complicated the human body is."
That sounded reasonable. It didn't change the fact that Tony was unconscious. Or that there was still nothing Steve could do about it.
But there were other things that needed to be done. "How are the others doing?"
"All the guards are unconscious and all the scientists are tied up. Wolverine is sabotaging their planes."
Steve brushed a piece of hair back from Tony's forehead, then stood, slinging Tony's limp form over one shoulder. He picked up his shield. "Logan," he said into his communicator, "leave one plane operational. We need it to get out of here."
"You and the geek squad done playing with the computers?"
"Almost." Steve turned to Peter. "Get whatever you can out of the databases, then destroy them, and meet the rest of us in the foundry. We're going to blow the place up."
"It's too dangerous to leave it here; I'm not letting Hydra or anybody else play around with Antarctic vibranium."
Steve found the rest of the team in an open cave that Hydra had obviously converted into a hangar. Luke, Danny, and Jessica Drew were standing guard over a group of sullen-looking people in lab coats and pajamas, while Wolverine crouched on top of one of the jets, slicing through its engine block.
When Steve entered the room, he looked up, gesturing to the airplane closest to the big hangar doors with one set of claws. "That one's still intact. Got a full tank of fuel, too."
Steve turned to Jessica Drew, intending to ask her if she could fly them out of there in one of Hydra's planes, when Tony stirred, moaning softly.
Steve lowered him to the hangar floor, propping him against a wall. "Tony?" He touched Tony on the shoulder tentatively, and Tony stirred again, frowning, then opened his eyes.
Steve pushed aside the sudden urge to hug Tony, very hard, and possibly sock him one for scaring him like that. "Tony?" he asked again.
"What happened to him?" Luke asked, coming to stand at Steve's shoulder.
"Hydra gave me a computer virus." Tony rubbed at the bridge of his nose, then dropped his hand, sighing. "The Extremis shut me down while it scanned drive C for errors."
If it wasn't for the fact that the wall was the only thing holding Tony upright, Steve could have throttled him. He'd nearly died, scaring the hell out of Steve in the process, and now he was making bad jokes about it.
"Wolverine, Iron Fist," Steve addressed the words over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off of Tony, "get these people outside. The rest of the guards, too. As soon as Spiderman gets here, we're going to blow this place sky high."
"With what, exactly?" Iron Fist's voice was skeptical.
"This is a bomb factory," Jessica told him. "Blowing it up won't be difficult."
Luke, Jessica, and Danny had charges set around the refinery floor in record time. Steve wasn't sure whether to chalk their speed up to Jessica's SHIELD and Hydra training, or Heroes for Hire's interesting reputation.
By the time all of the Hydra personnel and factory workers had been dragged outside and deposited on the edges of the fern forest, Wolverine standing guard, Peter had joined them, laden down with computer diskettes.
He held one of the floppy disks up triumphantly. "All of my vital data files will be padded to larger than one point four megabytes in size," he said, in the sing-song voice that meant he was quoting something. "These guys totally fail at evil overlordship. They've got sucky data storage devices, too."
"I can't believe they're using floppy disks," Tony said. He was still leaning against the wall, eyes at half-mast. "They had Maya Hansen working for them; she ought to have made them upgrade to flash memory."
"They had some of those, but they were all encoded." Peter shrugged. "You can't put security measures on floppy disks."
"So," Luke said, "we good to go? 'Cause I got a wife and kid waiting at home."
"Me too. Well, um, not a kid." Peter titled his head to one side, regarding the airplane quizzically. "Who's flying us home?"
"I can land one of those," Jessica said, nodding at the plane. "I'm not so sure about getting us up above the Savage Land's weather systems."
"If you take over once we hit calmer air, I can take us up." Tony planted one hand on the floor, trying to push himself to his feet, then slid back down the wall again. "Help me up, Steve."
Steve pulled Tony to his feet, holding up most of his weight. It was becoming a depressingly familiar action. "You can't stand on your own right now. Are you sure you should do this?"
Tony smirked, the expression pulling his mustache crooked. "I can focus my eyes again. It'll be fine. What the FAA doesn't know won't hurt them."
"Tony," Steve said seriously, "An hour ago you passed out on me with no warning."
"I can get us out of here." Tony met his eyes, expression devoid of all humor. "I can't fly us home, but I can get us out of here."
They all piled onto the plane, save for Logan, who was still guarding the prisoners. With six of them, it was a tight fit; with Logan, it was going to be even tighter.
While Tony and Jessica began the pre-flight, Steve donned the pilot's headset and picked up the hand-held microphone to call Maria Hill. He hated to do it, especially given that SHIELD's integrity had been compromised, but someone needed to come and collect the captured Hydra personnel, and her name, somewhat surprisingly, hadn't been on the list of suborned SHIELD agents.
"This is a top-secret, restricted access channel," Maria Hill's voice snarled. "How the hell did you get access to it, Rogers?"
"It's Nick Fury's old private line." And if she were half the agent Fury had been, she'd have had the sense to change it when she took over. "We've got a bunch of Hydra prisoners for you, down in the Savage Land." He recited the coordinates. "And you've got some house-cleaning to do. Twenty-three of your people are on Hydra's payroll."
"What?" Hill sounded indignant, probably offended that he would insult the integrity of her operations. "Do you have any proof to back that up?"
"Hydra keep payroll files for all of their employees. I'll send them to you when we get back. You'll want the names now," he went on. It wasn't a question. "You won't want a repeat of what happened the last time you people came down here."
"Rogers, if you stay there, we can extract you alongside the prisoners." There was grudging courtesy in her voice now, but she was still addressing him the same way Red Skull did, so Steve felt no compunctions about being rude in return.
"No, Hill, I think we'll be getting ourselves out. Your prisoners are waiting for you beside the giant column of smoke." He ended the call without signing off.
Tony taxied the airplane out through the hangar entrance, the huge metal doors sliding shut behind them silently. Jessica began ostentatiously counting backwards from thirty. When she reached "two," the ground rattled, and the hanger doors bowed outwards, metal warping. Smoke began drifting out through the seams.
"I must have miss-timed the fuses," she said.
Logan stopped his slow prowl around the edges of the huddle of prisoners. "I'd stay put if I were you," he told them loudly, voice carrying. "The smoke will keep the velociraptors away."
He boarded the plane, dropping into the last open seat, and Tony began revving up the engine. "Everybody strap in," he said. "I'm taking us up."
The take off was even bumpier than the landing had been; Steve wasn't sure if it was because the crosswinds were worse, or because Tony was tired. Once the plane had stopped jolting and the Savage Land had dwindled to a small spot of green surrounded by miles of blue-white ice, Tony closed his eyes and sagged back in the seat, letting his hands fall from the yoke.
There were deep circles under Tony's eyes, and he looked worn almost to the point of transparency. But while he didn't look significantly better than he had earlier, but he also didn't look any worse, and as quickly as he had been going downhill, that had to mean something. And they'd done what they had set out to do, Steve realized, with a weary satisfaction.
"All right, Jessica," he said, "take us home."
Someone was shaking him, the sensation distant. Tony dragged his eyes open, blinking to clear the fog from his vision. He didn't remember closing them.
"Tony." Steve was standing over him, one hand on his shoulder. The rest of the plane was empty, the vibration of the engines gone. "We're here."
He didn't remember anything after taking his hands off the controls. Thank God Jessica had been there to fly the plane.
Now that there was nothing left that he needed to do, the exhaustion had hit home full force and it felt as if gravity had suddenly increased its pull. His eyes slid shut again, and he rested his head against the back of the seat. He felt oddly disconnected from his body, as if he were floating. The Extremis was still offline.
"Right. Up you go." Steve grabbed his forearm and hauled him to his feet. The abrupt change in altitude made his head spin and he sagged against Steve. This was getting repetitive. It was also faintly embarrassing.
Back when he'd been dependent on the armor's chestplate to keep his heart beating, Happy had carried him around on multiple occasions. Somehow, that had never been an issue, save for one humiliating time when he'd run out of power and Pepper had had to come save him. With the other Avengers, with Steve, it was different. He needed to be able to pull his weight, or he was a liability to the team. And Steve wouldn't respect him.
He pulled away from Steve's steadying grip. "I can walk. I'm much better now." He took a step toward the plane's door, which turned out to be a tactical error, as his legs betrayed him by wobbling.
Steve grabbed him by the arm. "Of course you can walk. I'll just... help."
It was night outside, the air wonderfully cool after the stifling heat of the Savage Land. The very faint sound of cars drifting up from the street made a pleasant change from cicadas, frogs, and dinosaurs.
Tony could hear the rumble of raised voices as they approached the door to the Avengers' living quarters. Steve pushed the door open, and all of the voices fell silent as everyone in the room turned to stare at them.
Everyone had clustered into the entryway: Jarvis, Luke, Jessica Jones, Hank, Jan, Carol, Peter, Danny, MJ, May Parker, Logan, and Jessica Drew. Wait... what were Hank, Jan, and Carol doing there? Carol had been in California.
Hank took several hurried steps forward, grabbing Tony by the arm - the one Steve wasn't currently holding. "Maya Hansen was kidnapped right out of Rykers three weeks ago. I don't know why no one informed you. Hydra must have gotten her to do something to the Extremis." He glanced down and away. "I can't do anything with the Extremis," he said, sounding as if the words were being dragged out of him. "I don't know enough about it. If you don't know what this is-"
"It was a computer virus," Tony interrupted. "Peter and I fixed it." He'd totally forgotten about Hank, who had obviously still thought he was dying. He should have called ahead; he hadn't wanted to worry people.
"That's what I've been trying to say!" Peter burst out. "No one listens to me. Is it because I'm short? Because Wolverine's shorter, and you listen to him. And anyway, you're Ant-Man."
"You and Spiderman..." Hank stared blankly at him.
"I wrote anti-viral software. Peter input the code for me."
"How nice of you to tell us," Jarvis said. He sounded particularly British; as he always did whenever he disapproved of something Tony had done ("How nice of you to electrify your school supplies. I'm sure the other children appreciated it." "Ah. I see the microwave has exploded. How clever of you."). "Perhaps you could have informed us of this apparently dire illness earlier."
"He didn't know until-" Steve started.
"Three days ago," Jan interrupted. "He made Hank promise not to tell."
"Things got a little hectic," Tony tried.
"Too hectic to tell me when you thought you were dying," Carol snapped. She rounded on Steve, stabbing a finger in his direction. "I blame you. "
"You talked to me the same day and swore you'd keep me in the loop," Carol said.
"How could you do that to Hank? How could you ask him to keep a secret like that? God knows he doesn't need that kind of stress!" Jan went on.
"Anti-viral software," Hank said, still staring dazedly at Tony.
"Hydra agents came in through the windows while you were gone," MJ announced brightly, cutting ruthlessly through the babble. "I knocked one out with a pool cue."
"Hydra agents were here?" Steve demanded, his body instantly going tense.
"I should take you with me when I go on patrol," Peter said. "Maybe people would be scared of you."
MJ struck a tough-guy pose, hands on hips, tossing her hair over one shoulder and smirking. "Tremble, evil-doers."
"It's been an eventful couple of days," Jarvis said dryly to Steve. "Ms. Jones, the two Mrs. Parkers and I took care of them. They didn't give us much trouble."
Jessica handed the baby to Luke. "Next time supervillains follow you home and I have to deal with them, you want me to gift-wrap them for you?"
Luke made cooing noises at the baby, who he was now cradling in one arm, and didn't answer.
"He likes yellow ribbons," Iron Fist said, mock helpfully.
Luke glanced up from the baby. "I'll make it up to you."
Jessica grinned, cracking her knuckles. "I enjoyed it. They had it coming."
"I'm so sorry," Steve told Jarvis.
Jarvis waved a hand dismissively. "It was no trouble at all," he said. "And from what I've heard, the Fantastic Four have taken care of their compatriots."
Steve turned to May, and continued, "I'm so, so sorry."
She patted him on the arm. "Don't worry about it, Steven. It was quite exciting. Edwin was very brave."
"A computer virus?" Hank repeated.
"I mean, for god's sake," Jan said, sounding indignant, "he couldn't even handle England."
"And you flew a Quinjet into the Savage Land with a three-degree fever?" Carol was standing inches away from Tony, her eyes at level with his. Right now, they were narrowed with anger. "How stupid are you? Why the hell didn't you call me?"
Everyone was talking at once, yelling over one another, and the noise was making Tony's head hurt. Jessica Drew and Logan had both ducked out of the room, away from the drama, and Tony wished he could follow them.
"You bastard," Hank shouted. "I thought you had cancer!"
Tony started to apologize, but before he could say anything, the world went white. The room vanished and all he could see or hear were random streams of data, deafening and completely unfiltered. It took him a long moment to pull back and shut them down.
"Tony?" Steve's voice was tight with worry; his arm was around Tony抯 back, and he was holding him upright.
Tony grinned at him. "The Extremis just came back online." If it weren't for the fact that he had a headache and the buzz of computer data had made him dizzy, he would have flung all the connections open and reveled in the flow of information.
Losing the satellite connections in the Savage Land had left them completely cut off. And losing the armor had been... he was nothing without the armor.
Steve grinned back. Then he turned to the assembled Avengers and said, "We're sorry we worried you. It's great to see you all. Tony's going to go lie down now."
Tony nodded silently. Under other circumstance, it would have been nice to talk to Carol, but right now he wasn't sure he could hold a coherent conversation, let alone a conversation with someone who was justifiably mad at him. He'd deal with it later.
"But you're okay, right?" Peter asked. He peered up at Tony hopefully, the mask making his eyes seem huge. Tony had never been sure how Peter managed to make his mask emote; it was just a piece of fabric. It shouldn't be able to look concerned. "I mean, I fixed you, right?"
Tony blinked. He was sure it shouldn't be this hard to formulate sentences. "Yes," he said, with an effort. "You're a good code monkey." He closed his eyes for a second, and shook his head, trying to pull himself together. "If anyone needs me, I'll be in our room."
"No one needs you right now, Tony." Steve started in the direction of their bedroom, towing Tony along with him. "And if they do, they can wait."
"You owe me a hundred dollars," Tony heard Jan say as they left the entranceway.
"Don't worry," Carol's voice drifted down the hall. "Simon owes me five hundred."
Inexplicably, Steve went red to the tips of his ears. It was oddly endearing; Steve always looked like a high school football player when he blushed, all broad shoulders, big feet, and awkward grin.
The hallway was a lot longer than it had been when they left. Steve was still half supporting him, a hand on his arm, or he wouldn't have made it.
He'd spent most of his adult life being sick, and it never got any less miserable.
The bed wasn't quite as comfortable as Steve, but it wasn't as cold. The cave floor had been wet. And anyway, it was good to be horizontal; the room had started doing a slow spin.
Tony fumbled one of his gauntlets off, then closed his eyes, devoid of energy. He would take the other off in just a minute?/p
The side of the bed dipped under Steve's weight, and suddenly, his other gauntlet was being pulled off.
"You need to take the under armor off, or re-absorb it, or whatever it is you do."
That was a very good point, Tony thought hazily. He hadn't been able to re-absorb the under-armor earlier, because it wasn't responsive unless the Extremis was operational. And it would have left him naked. But the Extremis was back now, and there was nobody here but Steve, so...
The metal flowed back through his skin, and left him even colder, now that there was nothing between him and the tower's air-conditioned air. "It's cold," Tony announced.
He must have missed a few seconds, because suddenly sheets and a blanket were being pulled over him, and Steve was climbing into bed next to him, having obviously stripped off his costume at some point.
Tony opened his eyes, blinking until Steve came into focus. His hair was standing on end now that he'd pulled the cowl off, haloed by the soft light of the bedside lamp. Steve's face was inches away from his, regarding Tony intently.
"You don't have any eyelashes," Tony observed seriously. He did, technically, but they were so fair that they were nearly invisible.
"Don't do that to me again." The words were spoken quietly, but Tony could recognize an order from Captain America when he heard one.
"I'm sorry." He'd effectively been deadweight the entire time they'd been in the Savage Land. Steve had been right; he shouldn't have gone. It could have compromised the team. "Won't happen again."
"It better not." Steve rolled onto his side, wrapping an arm around Tony's waist and throwing one leg across his. Steve was all hard muscle, about fifty pounds more of it than Tony, which meant that he effectively couldn't move. Not without exerting more effort than he felt like exerting at the moment.
Not that he'd want to move, anyway. This was, he decided, the best part of rebuilding the team. They should have done this before.
Tony closed his eyes, letting Steve - the warmth of his skin, the sound of his breathing, the smell of him - fill his senses the way the Extremis data had.
It didn't matter if Steve didn't feel quite the same way about Tony that Tony felt about him. He was here, and that was enough.
Coverage of the thwarted terrorist attack on the Holland Tunnel was all over Channel Five news. They didn't say anything about the New Avengers' role in stopping it, and even the Fantastic Four only got a brief mention. Steve wasn't complaining. He hadn't become a superhero for the glory; he'd mostly just wanted to be a solider. Becoming a superhero had been a lucky accident.
The kitchen was empty save for Steve. The rest of the New Avengers had wandered off after dinner, leaving him to sit at the kitchen table in solitude. He didn't mind, though; it gave him the chance to process everything that had happened over the past few days. In the past forty-eight hours, he'd gone from finding out that Tony - probably - loved him, and that they could make something real together, to thinking that Tony was going to die, and he was going to lose everything without ever having gotten to say anything, to... Steve wasn't entirely sure where he was, now.
Hence the fact that he had been considering the grain of the kitchen table's polished wooden surface for the past twenty minutes.
In the Savage Land, he had been prepared to say, "I love you," but he hadn't gotten the chance, and if the worst had happened, he never would have. He could have been too late. He didn't just love Tony; he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Tony, terrifying near-death experiences or no. It was, as Carol had hinted, the real reason he had reformed the team. He could have gone to Sam to reassemble a team, or Hank and Jan, or Carol herself, but it hadn't even occurred to him to put together a new Avengers line-up until Tony had been there. And there had been a very real possibility that Tony might never have known that.
He should have said something back before the Avengers had broken up. His own obliviousness had cost him his relationship with Tony then, could have done so permanently if Tony hadn't wanted to take the risk of starting things back up.
He was probably going to look pretty foolish admitting what he wanted this late in the game, but he didn't really care.
The door swung open silently, and Tony entered, barefoot in jeans and one of Steve's flannel shirts. His hair was wet, the ends sticking to his forehead. He looked like he was half-awake at best, but his eyes were no longer bloodshot, and the dark circles under them, while still present, no longer looked so much like bruises.
He collapsed into the chair next to Steve, staring down at the table in silence for a moment before announcing, "I just realized, I don't think I've eaten anything in three days."
"There's leftover casserole in the fridge," Steve said.
Tony wrinkled his nose, frowning. "Maybe I'll just have coffee."
Steve stood, putting a hand on Tony's shoulder, fingertips brushing his neck. "Coffee isn't food." And whatever Tony's opinions about the casserole, he must have been hungry, because when Steve set a plateful in front of him, he ate it.
"How are you feeling?" Steve asked once Tony had set his fork down.
"Much better." His voice was still hoarse, but the flat, exhausted note was gone. "I still can't talk all that well, but my head doesn't hurt anymore, and I can breathe again." His lips twitched in a self-deprecating smirk. "And hey, I can stand on my own two feet again. I know I was deadweight for a while there."
Only Tony would consider flying them in and out of the Savage Land while half-dead to be 'being deadweight.' Steve shook his head, and changed the subject. "A package came for you. Happy took it down to your lab."
Tony grinned, suddenly looking much more awake. "Is it from Goodyear?"
Steve frowned. He hadn't really been listening when Happy had mentioned that a package had arrived; at that point Tony had still been passed out in bed, sleeping off what Hydra had done to him, and Steve hadn't had much attention to spare for anything else. "I don't know; maybe."
"If it is, then your bike is finished. I completed the engine work four days ago; I was just waiting on the tires." Tony was still grinning, with the air of someone who had accomplished great things.
Four days ago, he had already been running a fever. Hell, he'd already been convinced he was dying. Why in the name of God had he still been working on Steve's bike? Steve himself had nearly forgotten about it, after all the excitement of the past few days. "That was fast," he said.
Tony stood abruptly. "Come on. We can go down to the lab and put the tires on."
Steve couldn't say no to his obvious enthusiasm. Realistically, Tony ought to still be resting; he'd slept for almost twenty-four hours, something Steve had never seen him do outside of a hospital. And even though his fever was clearly much lower, his skin had still been unusually warm when Steve had touched him.
But he was also alert and smiling, and obviously looking forward to playing with something mechanical. "Sure," Steve said. "That sounds good."
Tony's workroom was just as they'd left it four days ago, tools and spare parts scattered over the worktable. Steve's Harley was against the wall, behind the Quinjet engine, completely reassembled save for the tires.
"It was supposed to be a surprise." Tony nodded at the bike. "I was going to find some excuse to bring you down here and corner you against that wall, and then I was going to show it to you. Um, but then Hank decided that I had leukemia."
"That's a good plan," Steve said. "It could still work. You could 'corner me' against the wall, and I could pretend to be surprised." He leaned in towards Tony, attempting to look seductive.
Apparently, his seductive expression needed work. Tony turned away and picked up a box cutter, attacking the big, flat package on the counter. Inside were a pair of rubber tires, which Steve was willing to bet money were exactly sized to fit 2.15-inch wheel rims. Knowing Tony, the rubber might even have been poured in molds from 1948.
Okay, so wall sex was clearly not happening. He needed to talk to Tony anyway. "So," Steve started. "I, ah, talked to Carol a few days ago."
Tony looked up from the tires for a second. "Is that why she was here last night? How are she and Simon doing?"
"I don't know," Steve admitted. Presumably they were dating, since Carol had mentioned going out to dinner with Simon, but he hadn't actually asked. He probably should have, but it hadn't occurred to him. "Look, the past few days have been?stressful."
"I know." Tony looked away again, taking the tires and going to crouch down next to the bike. "Sorry."
"No, I mean, I've been meaning to talk to you." Steve crossed the workroom to stand beside Tony, watching him fit the front tire over the metal wheel rim. "About, well, us, I guess."
Tony sprang up and hurried back to the worktable, where he began sorting through the various sizes of screwdriver. Steve was pretty sure you didn't need a screwdriver in order to inflate a tire.
"When I asked you to restart a team with me, this wasn't exactly what I wanted."
"How much air pressure do you want?" Tony said quickly, still fidgeting with something on the worktable. His shoulders were suddenly tense, as if bracing for a blow. "They grip the pavement better when they're-"
He couldn't say this if Tony wasn't looking at him. Steve walked to the worktable, forcibly removed the useless screwdriver from Tony's hand, and grabbed him by both wrists. Tony looked up, eyes wide and startled.
"I love you," he blurted out, already feeling his face heat. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Not just on a team," he added quickly, "but together. You and me. Like being married, only, um, not."
Tony was staring at him, face empty of expression.
"Like a real relationship," Steve clarified. This wasn't going well. He wasn't saying it properly. "Not casual or secret anymore."
Tony was still staring at him. The look of his face was strange, an emotion Steve couldn't identify, and he was usually good at reading Tony. What if Carol had been wrong? What if he'd totally misinterpreted the situation, and Tony's affectionateness over the past few days had just been the result of delirium?
"I, ah-" Steve began again.
He stumbled back a step, the hard edge of the lab bench hitting the small of his back, as Tony flung himself at Steve. Then Tony's arms were around his neck, and Tony was kissing him for all he was worth.
Steve wobbled for a second, knocked off-kilter, then wrapped an arm around Tony's waist for balance, and slid a hand into his hair, the wet strands clinging to his fingers.
Tony pulled back slightly, biting at Steve's lower lip, and Steve stepped forward, moving them away from the table, and broke the kiss, mouth tingling. He hadn't actually gotten an answer. Steve moved his hands to Tony's arms, pushing him back a step. "So," he said, "is that a yes?"
Tony shoved him, both hands flat against Steve's chest. He didn't use enough force to make a real impact, though.
"Is that a yes?"
Tony rolled his eyes, then reached up to curve his hands around the side of Steve's face. "No." He kissed Steve again, more slowly this time. "That's a yes." He grinned, eyes very blue under the bright lights, and let go of Steve's face, sliding his arms back around him. "So, you want to live in sin with me?"
The red flannel shirt was unbuttoned just far enough that Steve could see Tony's collarbones, and the pulse beating rapidly at the base of his throat. Tony's skin was flushed again, but this time, not from fever. "Sorry?"
"Don't worry." Tony smirked, eyes heavy-lidded. "I like living in sin."
"I like you living," Steve told him, serious again for a moment. He tightened the arm he'd wrapped around Tony's waist. "Don't scare me like this again."
Tony regarded him levelly, now equally serious. "You know I can't guarantee that."
No, he couldn't. Neither of them could make that sort of promise, not with the kind of life they led. Hydra's game with the computer virus had failed, just as the hit and run attempt on Steve had failed, and the arsenic in the sugar, but the next supervillain might be luckier. Tony could no more make guarantees than Steve could. "I know. Promise me anyway."
Tony removed one arm from around Steve's neck and held up a hand, scout's-honor-style. "No more computer viruses," he said, with mock solemnity. "I promise."
Which, of course, said nothing about the next illness or injury Tony would inevitably ignore and risk his life over, but Steve would cross that bridge when he came to it. And really, it wasn't as if paying extra close attention to Tony's physical condition was going to be a hardship.
Steve spun the two of them around, backing Tony against the worktable; in the same position Tony had had him in just moments ago. He leaned forward to kiss Tony, long and slow, curling the fingers of one hand through the belt loops of Tony's jeans, resting the other hand on the table for balance.
Tony arched up into him, sliding one leg between Steve's. He set his hands on Steve's hips, fingers dipping just below his waistband, and trailed them slowly over Steve's skin until they met. Tony tugged lightly at the front of Steve's jeans, unfastening the button of his fly.
"Oh look," Steve said. "You fixed my motorcycle. I'm very surprised."