It was Monday afternoon when they got the call. Thor was – lucky bastard – on the other side of the country trying out for American Idol, which left Steve, Tony, Clint, Natasha, and Bruce, to deal with a semi-sentient blue gelatinous mass that they would later learn was a refugee from the Negative Zone. It oozed forward with dripping pseudopods that reached out and ensnared the Avengers with surprising speed.
Natasha was the first to be pulled into the mass, which was probably just as well, because her fighting technique revolved around targeting the enemy's weak points, whereas their current foe was apparently a homogenous gel. Captain America went in after her, trying to pull her back, but finding that Newton's laws were a curse when he was trying to move and had nothing to push against.
The Hulk didn't care one way or the other. He just charged forward, fists flying, shouting, "Blue jelly not eat Flag and Stabby Lady!" When he reached the border of the beast and was engulfed, his bulk kept his feet in contact with the ground and he continued to make slow headway toward the center of the creature.
Hawkeye and Iron Man fought conservatively. For Clint, this meant perching on a fire escape 400 yards away and systematically cycling through different types of arrows to try to find one which would affect the ooze. For Tony, this meant hovering above the creature which did not seem to have any way to attack at range and try to gradually fence it in by using his repulsors to dig a trench.
Hawkeye let a curare round fly and the creature froze for a long moment before melting to the ground. "Woo-hoo! That's how it's done in the circus, motherfuckers!" he cried, taking advantage of Steve's momentary inability to chastise him for using the comm to transmit a message that was neither PG nor mission-relevant. "While you were all busy being pineapple chunks in the world's nastiest Jell-O mold…I love being a s-s-s-s-sniper!"
Tony flipped up his faceplate and dived down to the ground to check on the others who were moving very slowly, as if still trapped in the ooze. "Hey, is everybody-"
Before he could finish speaking, the mass reassembled, engulfing Tony along with Natasha, Steve, and the Hulk. It was a thick slurry, too dense to breathe in, but it filled every available space. It filled the crevasse between Tony and his suit. It filled his mouth and his nose and his ears; he couldn't help but swallow. Out of the corner of his vision, he could see the Hulk, still staggering slowly forward toward a thin dark spindle in the center of the mass. Hawkeye was probably firing more poisoned arrows. Hulk's hands finally grasped the spindle and crushed it.
The mass melted again, but this time it turned liquid and seeped into the ground. Tony was glad he had thought to dig trenches around it.
At first, movement resumed slowly, until Natasha suddenly dropped to the ground with a hand pressed to her stomach, and retched violently. Steve followed suit soon thereafter, as did the freshly de-Hulked Bruce. Actually, Bruce vomited several times, probably the effect of Hulk-sized ingestion on a Banner-sized body.
Hawkeye, thankfully, restrained his mocking long enough to be helpful and buy them some crackers and Gatorade. (Actually, he sent a 20$ bill and a shopping list into a nearby bodega via arrow and retrieved his purchases the same way. Nick Fury would later have a talk with him about the proper use of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s returning arrows.)
Steve realized that the only one (Clint excluded) who hadn't thrown up, was Tony. It was possible he had ingested less of the substance than the others, but Steve could see that Tony's face was pale and clammy. His teeth were pressed tightly together and he was breathing slowly and loudly, in and out. He was holding back.
People had their quirks for all sorts of reasons and Steve usually tried to respect them, but there really wasn't time right now. The creature's substance was obviously some kind of poison and it was better out than in. He would give talking to Tony one try, then move on to more drastic options.
"Just stick your finger down your throat if you have to," said Steve. "You'll feel better once you throw up."
"Haven't thrown up in four and a half years," hissed Tony through gritted teeth. Up close, it was clear that he was sweating incredibly. "Not going to start now."
Steve nodded and jogged back to the Quinjet. From the first aid kit, he retrieved the syrup of Ipacec. He'd never actually seen it used, just knew that it was something school nurses kept on hand in case of accidental poisoning. From Tony's locker, he retrieved a bottle of vodka. He sighed, but that was a problem for later.
By the time Steve got back to the battle site, Clint was pouring little Dixie cups of Gatorade and Natasha was somehow making accidental poisoning look ladylike. He gestured for Clint to join him and bring the Dixie cups along before he approached Tony again.
Tony looked even worse, swaying slowly from side to side, occasionally leaning far enough that the stabilizer jets gave little automatic bursts.
"How about some victory vodka?" asked Steve, hoping that Tony was too out of it to notice that this was a very unusual offer. He produced three Dixie cups which were acting as make-shift shot glasses: one for himself, one for Clint, and one for Tony.
"To kicking that thing's ass," said Clint, and they all downed their respective shots.
The effect was almost immediate. Tony doubled over and projectile-vomited all over Clint. Steve ignored his indignant shouts ("Fuck, you could have warned me!"). After a minute, there was obviously nothing left in Tony's stomach, but he continued to retch for several agonizing minutes, huddled on the ground in obvious pain.
Steve expected fallout from Tony. He would expect any of his team to be resentful after he tricked them, but Tony was quicker to pout and hold a grudge than the rest. And of course, as Steve's boyfriend, he would be justified in feeling doubly betrayed.
But the week passed without incident, pleasantly even.
Sunday morning was lazy, even for Steve (at least sometimes). He lay in bed, alternately reading the paper and doodling in his sketchbook, when it occurred to him that he and Tony hadn't had sex all week. A week without sex wasn't absolutely unheard of – sometimes Tony was sulking or Steve was brooding or the world's demands on them for business acumen and/or heroics had been unrelenting – but this week had been unusually tame.
The biggest event had been Thor's dismissal from the American Idol contestant pool. On his entry form, in the space marked 'age', Thor had apparently written, "Cannot be expressed within Midgardian notions of time." The judges had, after some debate, come to the conclusion that this meant Thor fell above their 26-year-old age cutoff. Thor had accepted his disqualification with good humor and a YouTube video soon surfaced of him comforting other dismissed competitors with his characteristic cultural misunderstanding. "Be of good cheer, young emulator of the great mortal sound curator Jason-Z!" he bellowed at one. "Although 99 problems may seem like a great many indeed, if none of those problems concern women, you may count yourself quite lucky for their wiles are most confounding and their delights most satisfactory."
And Tony had laughed along with everyone else. He hadn't been hiding in his workshop or stumbling around drunk or playing his music at ear-splitting levels. But no sex.
Steve kissed the back of Tony's neck. "I have an idea."
"Mmmm," said Tony, bleary-eyed. "Sleep now."
"More brilliant than sleep?"
"Let's have a lot of sex and then a lot of breakfast."
Tony rolled over to face Steve, eyes still half-shut. He took Steve's hand and kissed it gallantly. "Not now," he said, "later, I prom-"
Steve suddenly realized the other strange thing and blurted out his conclusion. "You haven't been eating."
"I've been eating."
"Not much," echoed Tony.
"Are you angry with me about Monday?"
"No, no," Tony propped himself up on his forearms and kissed Steve's cheek. "Well, maybe a little, but I was being unreasonable, you did what you had to do, no Monday-morning quarterbacking, I know the drill. Besides, it was the right call. I'm here and I'm healthy." He shook his head. "They're going to keep Bruce on dialysis for another week."
"So what's wrong?"
"Noth-" Tony stopped himself. It had taken a year, but he had eventually learned that the standard no-lying-to-Steve clause that was an expected part of their relationship covered not only his behaviors, but his mental state as well. He revised, "Something, but it's…I'm not sick, I don't need a doctor, I'm not developing an eating disorder. I'm just not hungry. At all."
"You said the last time you threw up was four and a half years ago. Four and a half years ago was Afghanistan."
"Yeah," said Tony without emotion.
Steve just waited. Tony would say something or he wouldn't. They had talked about Afghanistan before. Not every little detail, but Steve knew why Tony kept a towel in the shower, why he didn't like to get his face wet. It had taken two years, but Tony had told him about Yinsen, about the car battery, about backgammon, about Obidiah Stane.
"It's just, it's not…it's different. It's not like the other things from then, and I- well, we don't always agree on it, do we? Because you grew up in the Depression and I grew up rich as fuck, and it bothers you, I know it does, when we throw things out instead of fixing them or when we waste food. And it's not like the other things. I wasn't afraid. I didn't think I was going to die, I just…" Tony grinned weakly. "I'm not making a lot of sense, am I?"
"It's a little hard to follow, yeah."
"You hear this stuff about 'they hate our freedoms,' and it's easy to figure out that's just jingoistic nonsense, but they really do hate American excess." He blinked twice, very slowly. "And I'm sort of the poster-boy for that, right?"
Steve didn't answer. Tony wasn't looking for a response.
"The water – I've told you about the water – you end up swallowing it. You can't…there's just no way around that. It wasn't clean. Maybe girardia? Maybe it's a different microbe over there or maybe just the cold and it was slimy. I kept throwing up."
Steve didn't know what to say to that. Of course he vomited. Was he actually ashamed of that? The shock alone would do it to anyone.
"There were these guys. Three of them, they didn't speak much English, but they knew a few words. They called me Rich Man. They would…run their fingers through it and push it back in my mouth. Don't waste food, Rich Man. I would try to bite and spit it back out and I would bite my own lips and that just made it hurt more when I vomit again and I would bite their fingers and don't do that, don't…" Tony shook his head. "You don't do that. You just swallow the dirt and the vomit. Your body wants to get rid of it but that's just not happening. Open wide, Rich Man. Don't waste food."
Steve noticed that when Tony quoted his kidnappers' words, his voice didn't change at all. There was no hint of an accent, no mocking inflection, nothing to separate his speech from theirs.
"I don't really know what changed, but I learned not to throw up. And then it didn't matter anymore, but I still couldn't throw up and I…" Tony raised an eyebrow. "Steve, is that supposed to be a back rub?"
"My mom always used to rub my back when I was sick. Made me feel better."
"Yeah, I get the general principle, but uh, don't quit your day job."
They laughed and Steve could see that Tony was coming out of his fugue.
"Tony," said Steve, now processing what he had said earlier, "you didn't honestly think that I would approve of, of what they did to you?"
"No, not that you would…not the what, but maybe partially approve of the why. And it's okay, the world's not black-and-white, but there are times when I, when it's hard enough to think about it anyway, and I don't want to think about it being anything but you being behind me 100 percent."
Steve slid so he had an arm and a leg slung over Tony. "I'm always behind you 100 percent."
"No, you're not. You really don't like the way I spend my money sometimes. And that's okay. I'm not behind me 100 percent. I'm not behind the way I was selling weapons without tracking where they were going." He turned inward so he was facing Steve. "I know that there's a difference between that and…and being okay with what happened. I just…" He shrugged and looked down.
Steve pulled Tony closer. "I'm not sure what I ought to say right now. If I could take this away from you," he said, meaning whatever this odd sort of suffering that still held Tony from time to time. "If I could take this away from you, I would." And then, with the unfortunate timing that characterized the gastrointestinal system, Steve's stomach growled quite loudly.
Tony laughed. "I guess we should get some breakfast, er…" he looked at the clock, "lunch."
"How about I make us some toast?" Something bland. Tony probably still felt nauseous.
"No, I've been eating toast all week. We should have real food."
"It's up to you," said Steve drawing him closer. "You're safe," he added. "If you throw up, you throw up. With a little planning, you could probably nail Hawkeye again."
Another small laugh. Steve could feel Tony's muscles flattening under his hands, releasing the tension that had been there.
"If you're thinking lunch," said Steve, "how about that tapas bar on 3rd?"
"You never let me go to a topless bar."
"How about we get take-out and have a topless lunch right here?"
"Naked lunch?" asked Tony, eyebrows flashing.
"Isn't that a book?"
"It's also a great idea."
"Well, you are known for your great ideas."
And Tony kissed him, lips-to-lips for the first time in a week.