He's chained to the wall. He's chained to the cave wall with heavy steel links, the chain too short to allow him any freedom of movement. The chain loops around his throat, a choke-chain, cutting in tightly, and though he hacks and pants, he can hardly breathe--
Tony jerks awake out of the half-dream of his wolfbond and stares at the cave ceiling for a good thirty seconds before he realizes that that isn't him. Wong Chu took Kepler away. It was the first thing he and his guards did when they'd dragged Tony and Kepler in. Tony'd been in shock from the landmine blast and half-delirious, but they'd still had to hold him down and rip Kepler out of his hands to physically separate them. He thinks maybe Kepler bit a couple of them. Good.
And then they threw him in here with Ho Yinsen.
Yinsen seems like a nice guy and all -- Nobel laureate, not too shabby -- and he's done a fair job patching up the injuries that he'd told Tony looked like only minor shrapnel wounds to his chest. But Yinsen's not Kepler. Kepler is Tony's wolfbrother, and it's been three days since Tony's seen him, and he misses him more than anything. Anything. That's not hyperbole. He knows that's why Wong Chu took him and is holding him separately. Leverage.
The door rattles, and when Tony looks up, it's Wong Chu again. He was here yesterday. He was here the day before. He wants Tony to build him weapons.
It's what he does. He's an arms dealer, after all. It's in his blood.
Tony is twenty-three, and he's beginning to suspect that his entire life so far has been a series of bad choices.
He told him no yesterday. He told him no the day before. He's been expecting torture. He's been preparing for torture, as much as anyone with no particular training in interrogation techniques can prepare for torture. Beatings. Waterboarding. But nothing's happened. Every day Wong Chu has merely hummed to himself, as if Tony's answer is somehow utterly fascinating, and left the cave.
Yinsen stands up, at attention, as the door swings open -- it's what Wong Chu expects of his prisoners -- and he drags Tony to his feet next to him.
"Tell him yes," Yinsen whispers, muffled by the clatter of the metal doors. "Tell him what he wants to hear. He's done being kind."
Tony bristles, because he may be imprisoned but he's not broken. He can't give in. He can't. Never mind that the man already has his weapons. There's a line here, and he won't cross it.
Today isn't like yesterday or the day before, because today the two guards behind Wong Chu are walking with Kepler leashed between them. With no slack on either lead, Kepler is trapped. His head is down, but they haven't hurt him. They haven't. Tony would know. His brindled gray-brown coat is even grayer with dust and sand, but there are no wounds on him. Yet.
This is not good.
"Well, Stark?" Wong Chu asks, and a smile creases his face. "How about today?"
Fight them, Kepler says in his head. Wolves don't understand guns and borders and armies, but they understand fighting. They understand evil. Tony knows Kepler can feel his pain, his terror, just as Tony feels the weight of the collar around Kepler's throat. And Kepler's always been brave. Braver than him.
So Tony stands up, as straight as he can, and swallows past the desert-dryness of his throat. "Today I say no."
Wong Chu unholsters a gun. Flips the safety off. Turns. Aims at Kepler's head.
"And now, Stark?"
Oh God. No.
Kepler snarls defiance, ears pinned flat to his skull, teeth bared. Fight, Kepler says, and his mind is a red wash of anger. Don't let them win.
"Please," Tony says, and he's pathetic, he's begging now, "please don't hurt him -- he's my wolfbrother, you don't understand--"
"Will you build weapons?" Wong Chu asks, the question icily cold.
"Yes," Tony says, "yes, anything, just don't hurt him, please. I'll do anything you want," he repeats, and he's starting to cry. He thought he wouldn't break, but he was a fool. This is all it takes to break him. One threat against his wolf, and he'll tell them anything.
Wong Chu looks back at him. "I don't believe you, Stark."
He raises the gun.
"No!" Tony shouts, frantically. "No, no, no--"
Kepler's amber eyes meet his, one last time. Avenge me, he says. Don't give up, brother.
The gunshot is loud in the cave, and Tony feels it like Wong Chu's shot him instead, the bullet tearing through his skull, through his chest, in waves of agonizing pain. In his head the wolfbond rips, tears, breaks, and there's only a cold dark void where Kepler had been. He's gone. He's dead. Tony's brother is dead.
Tony's screaming and lunging forward because he's going to kill them, they're going to die, and if he dies too that's fine, because Kepler's dead, because nothing will ever be all right again--
Yinsen tackles him, shoving him down to the cave floor, and he's holding him down, saying something to Wong Chu. The words are all noise. Tony can't comprehend anything. Not that it matters. Nothing matters now. Yinsen doesn't let him up until Wong Chu leaves, until the guards drag Kepler's body away, until the door closes again.
Even now Tony doesn't get up. He lies on his side on the cold stone floor, curled up, shaking. He's alone in his head for the first time in a decade. He can't do this.
"Stark," Yinsen ventures, quietly, after some time. Tony doesn't know how long it's been. Minutes. Hours. It all feels the same. "I can't imagine what you're going through. I'm sorry."
Avenge me, Kepler had said.
He can do that. He can live that long.
Tony pushes himself to his feet. His chest is raw, like someone's carved out his heart. He can't feel anything anymore. Everything is distant. Numb. He wonders if Wong Chu knows what he's done. He's taken everything from Tony, and now Tony has nothing left to lose.
"I'm going to get us out of here," Tony says, grimly.
Yinsen stares at him. "You know that even if you build weapons for him, he's not going to let either of us go."
There's a drafting table in the corner -- God knows how Wong Chu thought he was going to use that to make surface-to-air missiles -- but right now that's exactly what Tony needs. That, and the rest of the Stark Industries weapons stockpile, also located in this room. Convenient.
"I know," Tony says, "which is why I'm not building him weapons."
"Then what are you building?"
"Something much better," he says, and he reaches for the pencil, paper, and T-square. "You'll see."
He can't save Kepler, but maybe he can save someone. Not himself, though. It's too late for that.
It's a minor miracle that the Iron Man suit works at all. Oh, the design is solid -- of course it's good, Tony made it -- but he was more than a little hampered by the available materials, and he suspects, as he slides the pieces of the armor over his body, that he might have been slightly optimistic about the battery life. Still, he did the best he could. The repulsor technology is relatively new, and he's hoping it works; he's never made a repulsor this big before, but now they're in his boots and in his palms. They ought to make him flight-capable. And lethal, if he needs to be.
Yinsen flips the catches, locks him in, jams the helmet on Tony's head. All of Tony's dexterity is gone, and Yinsen has to do the rest of it.
"Come on, come on," Tony chants. He's waiting for the suit's makeshift OS to boot, so the servos will kick in and he can actually move in this thing. He's currently helpless. They looped the surveillance video footage ten minutes ago, which means they've probably got under five minutes until the guards figure out what they've done.
Yinsen's moving fast, wrapping the harness around Tony's waist, over his shoulders, around his thighs. It's the human half of a military-grade lupine harness, the kind you use in situations where you have to make sheer vertical climbs and you'd like your wolf to come with you. It was Kepler's harness -- Tony'd been wearing his own half of it, and they'd never taken it off him -- and, well, Kepler doesn't need it now.
Kepler, he thinks, and inside the armor he sags, grief-stricken, grateful Yinsen can't see his face. He can't think about Kepler now.
Yinsen's half of the harness is improvised from rope and their belts, and it's as much of a mess as the armor is, but it'll hold. Tony's good at knots.
Tony's harness is now rigged for back-carry, and he can't see it, but he thinks Yinsen's clipping himself on with the carabiners. Yinsen's got a couple of their remaining guns, as well, operating according to the theory that more guns never hurt anyone's prison break attempt. Tony is -- he hopes -- pretty bulletproof in the suit, and he can shield Yinsen with his body, assuming no one gets behind them. With the amount of power he's got, he can carry Yinsen -- he'd better, because this right now is their only chance to tie themselves together. And then they can fly.
The laptop they've connected to the chestplate battery flashes BOOT OK -- he can just barely see it through the eyeslits in the helmet -- and Tony can finally move. He rips the cord out of his chest. He isn't sure how far the charge will get him, but it has to be enough.
"Go," Yinsen says. "I'm ready. Go fast. Go now."
Tony raises his hands and blasts the door wide open.
But they're both alive, and that's worth something. Probably.
Tony's half out of the armor and dragging the other half behind him through the sand with what was left of the harness. The battery hadn't lasted as long as he'd hoped, and he thinks he's got maybe ten minutes before it dies entirely and he has to pry himself out of the rest of the armor. The next version of Iron Man needs more indicators, he thinks, and then, horrified, he wonders how he can think about building anything ever again when his wolf is dead behind him.
Kepler wanted him to live.
If he dies, Yinsen will die.
He might as well keep going. They have no water, anyway.
And they walk.
At first Tony thinks the downed helicopter is some kind of hallucination, but then there's a guy coming toward him in desert camo, staring incredulously. Tony's pretty sure his fantasies are not this detailed, and if he were dreaming anything up he knows exactly what he'd dream first.
The guy's uniform has RHODES embroidered on the breast, and a gray-coated wolf trots at his heels. Tony's heart seizes up.
"Hey," Tony says. His voice comes hoarsely out of his mouth, rasping, because he's been slogging through the desert and can hardly speak. "Hey, can you help us?"
"Sure, yeah," the man says. He's American, thank God. "But who the hell are you? How did you get here?"
"Tony Stark," he says, wearily, "and Ho Yinsen. Formerly prisoners of Wong Chu. We, uh, flew." He chucks a thumb over his shoulder at the remains of the armor.
"Lieutenant James Rhodes, U.S. Marine Corps," the man says, offering a hand, still staring in awe at the armor as he does so. "And my wolfbrother, Excelsior."
Tony shakes his hand and then reflexively turns to Excelsior, as is polite. He doesn't hold out his hand, but he's ready to offer up his scent-name -- black coffee, oil, hot metal -- and that's when he realizes there's nothing there in his head. Nothing where the pack-sense should be, nothing but the ragged, broken edges of an empty wolfbond. He can't feel Excelsior. He can't feel Rhodes through Excelsior. Nothing. He's pack-blind.
He staggers where he's standing. It feels like he's missing a limb, or a sense. Something vital.
"Whoa, hey," Rhodes says, grabbing his shoulder, holding him steady. "Are you all right? Are you injured?"
He can't even begin to answer that.
"I don't need medical attention," he says, finally, because it's not like anything will help, but he lets Rhodes lead him to the shade of the copter anyway.
Rhodes is still holding him up. "Okay. All right. I've got enough food and water for all of us, for the moment. You should definitely sit down, have some water. Both of you. I just have to fix this bird up first, and we can all fly out of here."
"I can help with that," Tony says.
Rhodes grins. "If you're that Tony Stark, I just bet you can." He pauses. "Were you two the only prisoners? Is there anyone else still in captivity?"
Tony shuts his eyes. "We're the only survivors."
"Oh," Rhodes says, very quietly. "I'm sorry."
"Wong Chu killed my wolfbrother," he says, and then Rhodes doesn't say anything else, but he works his fingers into Excelsior's fur. Excelsior whimpers, and it sounds like sorrow. Not that Tony can feel it.
Tony bonded to Kepler when he was thirteen.
Of course he'd wanted a wolf when he was a kid; hadn't everyone? He'd played Soldiers and Wolves with his action figures, long enthralling hours of epic battles. He'd pored over the tales of King Arthur and his wolfbrother Cabal. He'd read all the comics about Captain America and his wolfsister Liberty. He'd made lists of names he'd give his wolf. He'd wondered what it would be like to have someone know everything about you, love you unconditionally, and never leave.
Kepler was the only good thing his father had ever given him, and in the end, he hadn't done it for Tony at all.
"It'll make SI look good," he'd heard his father explaining to someone. He hadn't been meant to overhear it. "It'll really help with those defense contracts, when Tony grows up and this is all his. They'll trust him if he's got a wolf too. Christ, the kid needs all the help he can get."
You weren't supposed to be able to get your hands on a wolf if you weren't military. That's what the wolves were bred for. That's what they'd always been bred for. Since at least the Romans. Since probably before the Romans. Tony kind of suspected that half the people who enlisted did it for the wolfbond. He probably would have, if he'd had to. But Howard Stark had connections, and about a month before Tony's fourteenth birthday, two soldiers showed up at the front door with a wolf carrier.
Kepler was, technically, a washout. A military reject. There was something wrong with his heart. Tony didn't care. Kepler was perfect. Kepler was, of course, a male wolf, and that was perfect too; Tony wouldn't understand for a couple more years why his father had been so insistent on that point. His father signed a few papers for him, promising he'd never breed Kepler, promising he'd keep him away from bitches in heat.
And then the soldiers unlatched the carrier door and a brindled wolf pup bounded out of the cage and into Tony's arms and into Tony's mind. His scent-name was the smell of the air after rain, a bright scent of infinite possibilities. And he gave Tony a name too, just like everyone had said he would: coffee, oil, metal. Tony smelled like engineering, and it was exactly right. The wolf knew him already, knew his heart. All Tony could think was that if his father had understood even the slightest fraction of what it was like, he would never have let him have this.
"Hi there," Tony said, into the wriggling pup's fur. "I'm Tony, you're Kepler, and we're gonna be together forever."
Yes yes yes yes, Kepler said, in his mind, and everything was happy, and Tony couldn't stop smiling.
He comes home.
He hires Yinsen. He promises Rhodey he'll hire him too, when his tour's up. Tony knows how to use money to make people like him.
He thinks maybe Kepler was the only being on this planet who liked him anyway.
The Fifth Avenue mansion is filled to every corner with Kepler's ghost, but it's got the best of his workshops, so there was never really another choice. He puts away the pictures of them. All the pictures. One night he drags all his clothes out of the master bedroom, the one he'd retrofitted half of as a wolf den, to one of the nearly-bare rooms across the hall. It doesn't make him feel better. It's like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.
Gunshots. He keeps hearing the shot, when cars backfire or someone talks too loudly or a door slams. He doesn't think he'll ever stop.
He goes to the basement and works. At least there's a cot there. He tries not to sleep; he's afraid of dreaming. When he does dream, it's not nightmares, it's worse: all his dreams are wolfdreams. Complex layers of scents, movement, prey in his jaws, safety in small spaces. Those were never his dreams to begin with, and he'll never feel that way again. When he wakes every morning he lies in bed for half an hour blinking back tears and wondering if there's a point to getting up at all.
The first day he goes back to SI, everything is so normal that he almost can't handle it. It feels surreal. Meetings, reports, conference calls. Everything is one hundred percent normal except that Kepler isn't padding behind him, isn't lying in a wolf-bed in his office, isn't quietly contented in the back of his mind, and then nothing is normal at all.
He skips lunch, puts his head down on the desk, and then helps himself to an excessively generous double whiskey. It doesn't dull anything.
Eventually Pepper lets herself in, and he can see from her face that she doesn't know what to say. How could she?
"You could get a dog," she says, hesitantly. "One of the crosses?"
Tony starts shaking. He thinks the noise he's making is laughter, but it feels like he's crying. He doesn't know what his face looks like.
If you don't know what it's like to be wolfbonded, it's not a bad idea. There are dog crosses with wolf blood somewhere in them, after all. You don't get the full bond, but they're smart. Smarter than regular dogs. If you've never had a wolfbond, a real wolfbond, it's probably close enough. But it won't work. Not for him. It would just be a mockery of everything he doesn't have.
Tony knows that the wolfless have rates of depression and suicide hundreds of times higher than the general population, and he knows exactly why. You can't live this way.
He knows there are things he could do to ameliorate this. There are support groups. Therapy wolves, who will let you into the pack-sense just enough to blunt the knife-edge of the grief. You can hug them. God, he just wants to put his arms around Kepler again. But he thinks about going to one of the groups, and he feels sick inside. Those groups are for veterans, men and women whose wolves sacrificed themselves nobly for their country. They're not for an idiotic, smartass engineer who was too clever for his own good, who didn't know when to give in, who thought he could think his way out of everything, who thought he'd learned not to care, who thought nothing could touch him. He doesn't deserve to be in the same room with those soldiers. He doesn't deserve their help.
So what if no one understands? He doesn't expect them to. Half the world probably already thinks that because he's rich he doesn't feel pain.
He can't even think about rebonding. He can't. Even if anyone would ever trust him with another wolf -- and they shouldn't -- there's no way he could replace Kepler.
"No," he says. "No, thank you."
He has to stay alive. Kepler wanted him to. It's not like he's never been hurt before.
He doesn't really think about what he's doing until he's standing there in the armor, next to Ant-Man, Wasp, the Hulk, and Thor. They've just defeated Loki. They're heroes. He's a hero, he thinks, and he wants to cry. Maybe Iron Man's a hero, but Tony Stark isn't. Tony is broken and bleeding, dying by inches.
He doesn't have to do this.
He could go home.
"What are you calling yourselves?" the Hulk asks.
"That's right," Wasp says, and Tony supposes that he's meant to pretend he doesn't know she's Janet Van Dyne. She's not even wearing a mask. "We need a name! It should be something colorful and dramatic. Like... the Avengers!"
Avenge me, Kepler had said, and Tony raises his metal-clad fist in the air.
He's in. He can do this. Kepler would have wanted him to.
It's not like he's got anything else to live for.
He offers rooms at the mansion to the rest of the Avengers, and they take them. Out of the suit he has to go back to his old life, being Tony Stark, the Avengers' benefactor, and he hates it. He hates this. He hates being himself. He thinks sometimes Jan sees it in his face; she's the only one of them who knows about Kepler. She met Kepler once or twice. The rest of the Avengers are either uninformed about or uninterested in celebrity gossip -- so they never knew he had a wolf to begin with -- and Tony sees no reason to tell them. The wolf-accessible modifications to the mansion are the kinds of things only the wolfbonded notice. Jan keeps his secret, he thinks; she's always been nice like that. She can probably tell he doesn't want to talk about it.
And of course Jarvis doesn't talk about it. God, he loves Jarvis.
He builds a new version of the Iron Man suit. Sleek, elegant. He paints it red and gold. He puts long hours into developing a HUD more intricate than anything he's ever seen in any other system, controlled by his best software. The AI doesn't quite pass a Turing test yet, but he's getting there. When he puts the helmet on it's a flood of information: gauges, power distribution, flight readiness readouts, targeting overlays. Good. The computer feeds more data aurally, echoing in his ears, but it's not enough, it's wrong, it's not like Kepler's voice at all.
He rips the helmet off his head.
An hour later he puts it back on, and he falls asleep in the armor, slumped in the corner of the workshop with the suit AI whispering to him about the new repulsors' power efficiency. It's not enough, but it's what he's got. He sleeps five hours.
It's still the best night's sleep he's had in months.
He likes being Iron Man. Iron Man's a hero. Iron Man's armored. Protected. No one can tell if Iron Man hurts.
The Avengers are out in the north Atlantic in a submarine, looking for the Hulk. They don't find the Hulk.
They find someone else entirely.
The iceberg bobs placidly in the chilly waters, and there's a distorted dark shape in the middle of it, maybe a little bigger than human-sized. The ice isn't clear -- it has layers and layers of cloudiness, years of accretion, and he can't quite tell what's under it.
Jan peers at the floating object, and then her face goes white. "That's a man under there," she says. "Iron Man, stop the engines! We've got to bring him in!"
Hank grows three times his size in an instant, throwing open the hatch, reaching out, and pulling the mystery man inside. He's dead, of course. But who would have died all the way up here, floating in the ocean?
The man is dragged onto the deck, and -- Tony can see now -- there's more there than just a man. The ice is starting to melt around him. In hardly any time at all, they get a good look at him. He's wearing some kind of costume, something that looks like it used to be brightly colored, ruined and destroyed by the water. He's a big man, pale from the ice, and blond hair peeks through the scraps of a blue cowl. He's young, too, to judge by his face; he can't have been much older than Tony is now when he went under. Whenever that was.
And he's clutching a wolf to his chest. A huge white wolf. One of the queen bitches, certainly, at that size -- queens are bigger than the rest of the bitches, bigger than even the male wolves. She's much bigger than any wolf Tony has ever met, and he's met a lot of wolves. She has some kind of disc between her teeth, at least a couple feet in diameter, gripped tight. The thing is huge and silvery-metal, with paint flaking off it. It's like a shield, maybe. Tony can't quite tell what color it used to be.
It looks like the man was wearing a front-rigged lupine harness, one of the old leather ones that nobody's used since maybe World War II, but that's long since rotted into pieces. The man's gloved fingers are knotted into the wolf's pale fur, probably frozen in place. He died with his wolfsister in his arms. Well, Tony thinks, if you've got to go, that's the best way; neither of them had to outlive the other. He's more than a little jealous.
"Who is he? Who are they?" Hank breathes. "Why are they frozen?"
Thor moves one of the rotten scraps of harness to the side. "He wears a colorful costume!"
"Red, white, and blue," Jan murmurs, under her breath, and then it all clicks. It's just like the comics. Tony knows who this is. They never found his body. It's a one in a million chance, but it can't possibly be anyone else. Not with that wolf. Not with that uniform. Not with that shield. God. That's his vibranium shield.
Tony can't stop staring. "That's Captain America," he says. It feels unreal. "That's Captain America and his sister Liberty."
They've finally found his body. Their bodies.
Hank's mouth has fallen open. "You're right, Iron Man. It is."
Tony takes a few shaky breaths. "Well," he begins, "that's one for the history books. At least we can give them a proper funeral--"
"Quiet," Jan says, sharply, and she holds up a hand. "Look. They're not dead. They're still breathing."
Oh my God, Tony thinks. He doesn't know what to think. He doesn't know what to do. Captain America is alive. Captain America and his wolf are right here and alive. Behind the mask, he's blinking back tears, and he's not quite sure why.
Captain America's nostrils flare, a movement almost too small to be perceptible to the naked eye, but luckily Tony's in the suit. He switches to medical sensors, and his vision is filled with unbelievable data: life. Rising core temperatures. Respiration. Heartbeats, for both man and wolf, slow but measurable.
Captain America is alive. Liberty is alive. It's a miracle.
"Come on," Tony says, hoarsely, still shaking. "We have to get them to medical."
None of the Avengers are exactly experts at this, and the sub's tiny sickbay is not exactly set up for defrosting one human and one wolf, but Tony -- backed up by Hank -- has the feeling that now that Captain America and Liberty have started melting it would probably be a very bad idea to let them refreeze. They're committed.
It must have been the super-soldier serum that saved them, Tony thinks. The serums, plural. Both Captain America and Liberty had been experimental subjects. The only successes of Rebirth, before the original formulas were lost. Human and wolf, both at peak strength for their species.
They have to cut away some of Liberty's ruff to get the two of them separated, but eventually they wrangle them both into separate beds. Tony pleads a lack of dexterity in his gauntlets -- which is sort of true -- when it comes to getting Captain America out of the ragged remains of his icy uniform and into some of Tony's spare clothing, because stripping the hero of Tony's childhood and -- ahem -- adolescence naked is not a thing Tony's brain can deal with right now. Jan passes the task to Hank, because she's not a nurse, she says, and Hank passes it to Thor, which is fine because it's not like Thor has any idea who the guy is, so that really makes him ideal. Plus Thor apparently has some kind of medical training. He doesn't go into the details.
So now Captain America is lying here in an SI t-shirt and sweats (Captain America is wearing my clothes, Tony thinks, and the part of him that clearly has never stopped having a crush on the guy won't shut up), blanket tucked over him, and Tony's watching the numbers on the monitors rise and rise. They're taking turns keeping an eye on them, and it's Tony's watch for the next four hours.
Both Captain America and his wolf are in ordinary REM sleep right now, the screens say. It shouldn't be long now. Tony glances over at Liberty, who's been fastened down with the standard lupine restraints. They don't know which of the pair will wake up first, and while they can actually talk to Captain America, a disoriented military wolf is a handful at the best of times, and there are no other wolves on board to help calm her. Better safe than sorry.
Captain America's eyelids flicker a few times, long pale-blond eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks, All at once, his eyes open all the way, wide and azure-blue, arrestingly handsome.
"Libby!" he cries out, his voice rough and hoarse, his hands flexing on empty air, and his panicked gaze locks with Tony's. "My sister! Where is she?" he demands. "What have you done with her?"
"She's right here," Tony says, as fast as he can. He hopes he sounds soothing but he's pretty sure that in the suit he sounds like a goddamn robot. "Just turn your head to the left and you can see her. She's right here. She's okay. You're safe. You're among friends."
Captain America pushes himself up faster than Tony would have thought a guy who's been frozen for seventy years would really want to do, and then he stares at the scene. "You tied her down. Release her. Now." His voice snaps. It's a command.
Tony can see Liberty starting to stir, her huge paws twitching. Captain America is probably flooding the wolfbond with adrenaline. This is going to get very bad very fast if he doesn't hold his sister back.
"Okay, soldier," he says, and he starts working on one of the buckles. He keeps his voice low, easy. "But I need you to calm your wolf. You're the only wolfbonded on board, and there's no pack to keep her calm. Just you. Can you do that for me, Cap?" The slangy nickname falls out of Tony's mouth without him thinking about it; it was in all the comics, after all.
None of the comics ever mentioned that Captain America called his wolf Libby.
Captain America takes a breath, firms his jaw, and then nods. "I can do that."
Tony undoes the second and third sets of buckles and then Liberty opens yellow-gold eyes, shakes once, gets her feet under her, and then leaps across the room, landing on Captain America's bed easily. It's an impressive leap; Tony's not sure another wolf could have made it. He's pretty sure Kepler couldn't have.
Cap throws his arms around her and tucks his face into the fur of her shoulder. "Shh, Libby," he's whispering. "Shh, easy there, that's a good girl. I'm all right. You're all right."
Tony doesn't want to see this. He wants to run. He doesn't want to be anywhere near Cap and his sister and all he can think of is Kepler and how it's not fair that Liberty's alive and Kepler isn't. He wants to cry.
But he can't just abandon Captain America, so he waits as Cap clings to his wolf and what's left of Tony's own heart fractures into agonized little pieces. And then finally Cap lifts his head.
"So where am I?" he asks. "How did I get here? And who are you?"
Tony's not sure how much to explain. He wonders if he should have waited for the rest of the Avengers. "Well," he begins. "You're on a submarine. You were... frozen in the ice. We -- the Avengers, we're a... team -- we picked you up. You can call me Iron Man, by the way."
"Iron Man," Cap says, thoughtfully, like he's committing it to memory, like he might forget it, like there could be some other guy in a giant metal suit he might confuse with Tony. "Did you find anyone else?"
Tony shakes his head. "No, was someone else with you?"
"Man and wolf," Cap says, and his eyes fall shut briefly, his face washed with grief. "James Barnes and his sister Dottie." His mouth twitches a little. "I mean, Dorothea."
Liberty gives a tiny whine, high in her throat. It's not a full-blown mourning howl; he thinks Cap's holding her back.
Bucky Barnes. Tony remembers that name from the comics too. "No sign of anyone else. Just you two. I'm sorry." He takes a deep breath. "We-- we won the war. I thought you might like to know that."
"We won?" Cap looks around the room, and it's like he's finally taking it in. The computers. All the modern equipment. Tony's armor. Everything. "How-- how long was I frozen?"
Tony sighs. "Seventy years."
Cap pales and his eyes go wide. "You're-- you're joking. You've got to be joking."
"I wish I were," Tony says, because, God, he would say anything to make Cap stop looking at him like that. Cap should never look like that. "I can-- is there anything you want to know? Is there anything I can tell you? Anything I can do for you?"
Cap's eyes are glassy. He's trembling, and his arms are tight around his wolf. "I, uh. Can we have some time alone?"
Tony nods, and then he's backing toward the door so fast he thinks he might fall. "Sure, Cap, of course. Anything."
He's not really aware of crossing it, but he's on the other side of the bulkhead, slamming the door shut, and Hank, Jan and Thor are coming up to him.
"Is he--" Jan starts to say.
Tony nods. "He's awake. He... needs some time to adjust."
Christ, Tony really fucked this one up. On the other side of the door, Captain America is crying. He made Captain America cry.
At least he has his wolf, Tony thinks, jealous and heartsick and selfish.
Tony would trade places with him in a heartbeat.
Because Tony has a secret identity, Tony gets a do-over.
This time he's in the mansion, just him and Captain America and Liberty, and Captain America holds out his hand and says, "Hi, I'm Steve Rogers."
Captain America looks perfectly composed. Normal. Like they haven't just taken his entire life away from him.
"It's very nice to meet you, Captain Rogers," Tony says, shaking his hand. "I'm Tony Stark. Call me Tony. And welcome to Avengers Mansion."
"Please," Captain America -- Steve -- says, smiling graciously. His smile is still stunning, even though it's all an act. "It's Steve." He shuffles to the side, and Liberty steps up. "And this is my sister Libby."
Tony bends down. Tony remembers to hold out his hand so that Liberty can sniff him, because that's what you do if you have no scent-name to give through the pack-sense. That's what you do if you're wolfless. Like Tony is. He can do this right. This is who he is now. Liberty sniffs his hand a few times.
He wonders what their scent-names are. He'll never know.
"Nice to meet you too, Liberty," Tony says. It's not a lie. He'd always dreamed of meeting Captain America and his wolf. But that was when wolves were significantly less... personal.
"You can call her Libby," Steve says, with the familiar distracted tone of a man relaying his wolf's words. "It's her name."
Tony straightens up and, with an effort, keeps a smile on his face. He can't get close. He can't. He can't deal with wolves anymore. He can't believe he invited Steve and Liberty to be Avengers. To live here.
"I'd better not, Cap," he says, trying to make it sound easy. A breezy apology. "I think maybe that would be a little too familiar."
Steve blinks, confused. "But you just called me Cap."
"Yeah, and you're not a wolf," Tony returns, and he knows that's an awful, dismissive thing to say, and Christ, his hero is going to hate him, but that's better than him finding out the truth.
Steve looks at Tony for long moments. "She won't-- she wouldn't hurt you," he says, like it pains him to say. "You don't have to be afraid of her."
Oh. He probably reads as wolf-shy. Scared. Liberty can probably smell the fear on him. And if Tony didn't know the truth about himself, it would be the easiest explanation. It's the one Steve's thought of. Good. Let's go with that, he thinks.
"I'll try," he says, and everyone here knows he's lying.
Tony's grateful that he's smart. No, that's not quite right. He is grateful for that, of course, but in this particular situation what he's grateful for is the exact combination of intelligence and wealth that enables him to have Avengers Mansion ready to go for the Avengers. There's gym space, server racks, a briefing room with his new holographic screens, and so much more. Everything a superhero team needs. Useful, yes, but more importantly, it's impressive. Steve is certainly impressed, he thinks, as he gives him and Liberty a tour of the place.
This is necessary, because when he shows Steve the lupine amenities, they have to come off in just the same way: more lavish excess. Of course a man like this can throw all this together at short notice, Steve is supposed to think. There's the separate chest freezer in the kitchen, full of meat. There's the garden, not landscaped, but allowed to grow in ways a wolf might enjoy, with a little stand of trees, with plenty of interesting things to smell. The front door has a paw-panel at wolf height, the lock keyed to an RFID tag that clips to a collar or harness, and it's rigged to shut again after a wolf opens it. Next to several of the couches in the mansion are smaller couches, wolf beds, in most of the major rooms. In the workshop Tony has prototypes going for lupine combat harnesses -- and they're all sized for a wolf much smaller than Liberty, and he hasn't worked on them in six months. But Steve's not supposed to notice that part. He's supposed to think Tony made all this happen for him.
To be fair, Tony could have. He would have. It just hadn't been necessary. He'd already done it.
Steve's eyes are wide, and when they're done with the tour they're in front of Tony's bedroom door -- well, the bedroom that used to be Tony's and Kepler's. Steve's now.
"Here you are," Tony says, and he pushes the door open. "There's another paw-panel as an opener, and this is the rest of the place--"
Steve's eyes are even wider as he takes it all in. Tony's swapped out the human furnishings for something a little less personal, something bland and wooden, the kind of thing that won't put Steve off by being too modern but is not actually antique either. But the wolf half -- other than having been carefully, professionally cleaned of the scent of any other wolf, just like the rest of the mansion has been -- is pretty much the same. It's basically a den. Maybe a quarter of the room is grassy, lit for plant growth, carefully molded into burrows, into tight little areas, the way wolves like best, and there's a similar nesting space next to it of manmade materials, a springy tunnel leading to a nest of pillows, full of toys and hides and interesting-smelling things.
Liberty steps forward, but, because she is well-behaved, does not immediately launch herself at the wolf playpen.
"Can we?" Steve asks, breathless, his face bright, like it's Christmas, and that almost makes up for having to be in this room again, the room that was his and Kepler's, the room Kepler loved.
Tony makes himself smile. "Sure, go for it. It's all yours."
Liberty bounds forward into the den, tail wagging like a dog. It's cute. Kepler used to do that too, Tony thinks, and then he bites his lip, because he can't help but compare them, can't help but think of everything he doesn't have.
"Thanks," Steve says, and he opens his mouth to say more, but Tony absolutely does not want to have a conversation about this, so he grabs the papers -- printouts, because he actually bothered printing things out for a man who's been in the twenty-first century for all of three days -- from the desk and shoves them into Steve's hands.
"Here," he says. "There's contact information for some of the local veterans' packs, because you're going to want other wolves around at some point. And wolf-friendly parks, there's a map with those marked--"
"Are there still wolf grounds in Central Park?"
"Yeah, of course."
Steve nods confidently. "Then we'll be fine. Not that this isn't great as well. I couldn't have imagined this. This is more than we need. I just-- thank you so much. I can't imagine how you put all this together--"
"It was nothing," Tony says, quickly, and attempts to distract Steve from thinking about it by giving him more things. He's good at this. He fishes out his key ring and unclips a pair of keys, pressing them into Steve's hand. "And these are for you, too."
Steve peers at the keys. "You already gave me keys to the mansion."
"I have some land upstate," Tony says, "that's absolutely perfect for wolves. Several acres, a cabin -- electricity, running water, all the amenities, don't worry. Very private. I know you're a city boy, but I'm guessing your wolfsister isn't. So if you ever want to get away, there it is. That's the key for the lock on the main gate, and the house key. I'm a little too busy to take you up there myself, but Jarvis can give you directions, and if you need a ride there I can certainly arrange one--"
Steve holds up a hand. "Tony. You don't need to do all this for me. For us."
He sounds... overwhelmed. There's some happy growling coming from the wolf-den. At least Liberty likes it here.
Tony shrugs. "It's no problem. It's not like anyone else was using it."
Not anymore, anyway.
So Steve and his wolf move in. Tony sees them pretty frequently. Whenever he comes up for air from the workshop, there they are curled up together in the common areas; Steve probably assumes Tony doesn't want the wolf on the human furniture, so they're usually on the floor, because that way there won't have to be space between them. He's almost never more than arm's length away from her. Usually they're unselfconsciously wrapped around each other, a man and his wolf, each the only thing the other has left.
"You can both sit on the furniture, you know," Tony says. "I don't care if there's fur on the cushions."
It's not what he wants to say.
Liberty raises her head, and Steve rolls away from her, so that he's lying on his back on the floor.
"Do you want to pet her?" Steve asks. Like she's tame. Like she's a dog.
"What?" Tony says, incredulous, when what he really wants to say is yes yes yes.
"She says she wouldn't mind," he says. "She says she'd like to get to know you better, Tony. And then maybe you'd feel more comfortable around her."
"I can't," Tony says, and the last word comes out choked, and he leaves the room before he starts to cry.
He's already sworn Jarvis to secrecy; that was the easy part.
Jan is a little trickier.
"You want me to what, Tony?" she asks, staring at him in disbelief, looking at him across the kitchen island. At least they're alone in here. He wants to tell her to keep her voice down, but then she'd probably think there was something wrong with him. She probably does already.
Tony sighs. "Just... don't tell Captain America I had a wolf, okay?"
Jan looks dubious. "You know, you might feel better if he knew."
"I won't," Tony says, and the words snap out of his mouth more harshly than he intends. "Trust me. Please."
Jan sighs. "All right. But you should-- you should really see someone."
"Yeah," Tony says, looking away. "I know."
He has a list of therapists. He never makes a call.
Tony's secret identity as Iron Man has thus far been -- to make an awful joke about the matter -- ironclad. Even though the public knows that he built the Iron Man suit and flew himself and Yinsen to safety in it, they are perfectly willing to accept that he hired someone else to pilot the armor once he came home, and that said mystery man is both his bodyguard and an Avenger. It strains credulity, certainly. But it's been six months. The public accepts it. The Avengers accept it. Somehow Tony has pulled this off. No one knows this about him.
His secret identity lasts for exactly two weeks after Steve and Liberty move into the mansion.
The Avengers have been tracking the Hulk -- nothing, nothing, and more nothing -- and Tony's armored up and sitting in the basement briefing room with the rest of the team as they review their big pile of nothing. It's maybe a little disheartening.
Steve's slowly been relaxing over the past two weeks, Tony thinks, as he's watching him take charge of the meeting. It's hard to tell without talking to him much, but he thinks Steve's beginning to look a little less lost. The cold desolation in his eyes is beginning to fade, and he always leans into his wolf again when he gets that look on his face. And then, maybe, he looks a little better.
Tony would offer to help, but, well, he'd only be dragging him down with him.
Liberty has hopped up on the chair on the other side of Steve, and he's patting her absently as he talks.
"So I say we just -- keep looking for him, if no one else has any better suggestions," Steve says, and then pauses, waiting. "Move to adjourn," he adds, finally.
"Seconded," says Tony, because his ear itches and he really wants out of the suit.
"Then we're adjourned." Steve looks down and shuffles papers, as the rest of the team begins to get up. "See you next week. Though could I talk to you for a bit, Iron Man?"
"Sure," Tony says. Steve's probably got some request for him to pass along to himself. Steve sees Iron Man more than he's seen Tony; all the Avengers have. They like Iron Man, he thinks. That's good. That's what Iron Man's for. "What can I do for you?"
Steve looks him full in the face, and he looks tense, nervous, and suddenly Tony thinks that there's really something else going on here, something he wasn't prepared for. More than just a simple question.
They're alone in the room: the other Avengers have left.
"I want you to know," Steve says, "that I've spent a while thinking about this. And I debated with myself -- and with Libby -- about whether I should say anything to you, but in the end I decided that it would be... dishonest... to pretend to you that I didn't know. That we didn't know."
"Know what?" Tony asks. His throat is dry. His heart is pounding, because that's not a good sentence, ever. What does he know? God, what does Steve know?
Steve smiles. "Who you are. Tony."
The noise that comes from him is mixed terror and relief, because Steve knows, oh God, Steve knows. "I," he begins. "I don't think--"
"It's all right," Steve says, and he smiles, a kind, kind smile, and Tony doesn't deserve kindness, and now Steve knows that Iron Man, the guy who maybe had a chance of being his friend, is the same as Tony Stark, the guy who runs away whenever he sees Steve's wolfsister, and that's ruined everything, hasn't it? But Steve's still talking. "I know you don't want to tell anyone. I know you don't want to tell the team. I'm not going to tell anyone. I just wanted you to know that we knew. Please don't-- please don't run."
Running sounds like a really good idea, but instead Tony jams the helmet release, two-fingered, and lifts the helmet away. He puts it on the table and takes the opportunity to scratch his ear -- finally -- before looking up. Steve wants to see him? This is what he gets. A pathetic man in a suit of armor, playing at being a superhero. Steve will probably want him off the team.
Steve's still smiling. "Hi, Tony."
"How did you know?" The world is simultaneously unreal and too vivid. His voice is thready. He's panicking.
Liberty drops her jaw and her tongue lolls from her mouth; it's a wolf-grin. Her golden eyes are bright. She knew, Tony thinks. It was her.
"You smell the same," Steve says. "It-- it wasn't hard."
"Oh." Tony feels... stupid. It's humiliating. He hadn't even thought of that. "You knew when you met me."
"Yeah," Steve says, very softly. "For what it's worth, I don't think anyone else has noticed, or will. Unless you meet the same wolf twice in a very short span of time."
He doesn't spend a lot of time around wolves these days, by design. Rhodey's brought Excelsior over a few times, but Rhodey hasn't seen him in the suit since they met in Afghanistan, so he won't have figured it out yet. And hopefully he'll keep quiet. He seems like a good guy.
Tony clears his throat. "So, what now?" He looks away. "You want me off the Avengers?"
"What?" When he looks back, Steve is staring, eyes wide, and Liberty gives a distressed whine. "No, of course not!" He sounds appalled. "Why would you even think I would--?"
Because anyone else in the world would want to hold this over me, Tony thinks, but he can't say that. "You know. False pretenses. You don't want me on the team and funding it. You think I'm too valuable to risk. You want me gone. Something." You think I'm weak.
"Of course not," Steve repeats. "I mean, certainly, if you need to spend more time in one identity or the other, I understand. But of course I want you on the team. I know I don't know you very well yet, but you've been so generous to me. To us. You're a good man. And you're a hero. As much as any of us. You deserve to be here. I think the Avengers would be far poorer without you."
"Oh," he says again, stunned into speechlessness, because Captain America thinks he's a hero, Jesus Christ. Captain America thinks he's a hero and all he did was give the guy a spare room and spend two weeks avoiding his wolfsister.
They're still sitting next to each other, and then Steve swivels in his chair and holds out his hand. "Let's try this again," he says. "My name's Steve, I'm Captain America, this is Libby, and we're very much looking forward to being Avengers. With you."
He's still holding out his hand.
Tony hits the gauntlet release and shakes Steve's hand, barehanded. "Nice to meet you, Steve and Lib-- Liberty." He still can't do it. "I'm Tony and I'm-- I'm Iron Man." He's never said that before. "I'm looking forward to Avenging with both of you."
Steve smiles, and Tony smiles back.
It's a start.
Steve knows his secret. But Steve doesn't know his other secret. And he's never going to. He can just imagine the look on Steve's face. Pity. Of all the Avengers, Steve is the only wolfbonded, so he's the only one who can really understand. (Jan has still never mentioned it to anyone, thank God. He tries not to be around Jan when out of the armor. That way he won't ever have to talk to Jan about it again. Once was enough.)
He doesn't want Steve's pity. His sorrow. He doesn't want Steve to think less of him. This is his chance to invent himself anew. To impress his hero. It sounds stupidly childish when he thinks of it like that, but-- if it were him, and he found out, he wouldn't be able to stop thinking about it. Steve wouldn't think here's Tony, my teammate, he'd think here's Tony, a pathetic wolfless man. Less than a man. Half a man.
So Steve gets exactly one secret. And that's how it's going to stay.
Tony hadn't been expecting it, but Steve knowing that he's Iron Man has brought them closer together -- albeit not in a way he ever could have envisioned.
"Lift your arms higher," Steve says, and then he frowns when Tony can't even get his arms level with his shoulders, because that's how dented the armor is around his shoulders. "What did those pauldrons ever do to you, Shellhead?"
"Nothing," Tony says, defensively, "but I might have landed on them funny."
"You landed on all of you funny," Steve says. He has a point. It wasn't one of Tony's best landings.
Somehow Steve has learned the name of every part of his armor. Tony's not really sure when that happened.
They're in the infirmary. He's taken the helmet off, but that's all he can manage by himself. Liberty's stretched out on one of the exam tables, regally, watching them like they're putting on a show. They kind of are. Tony-- well, Tony definitely needs some medical attention after that last fight, or at least help with the armor, and Steve is the only person who knows who Iron Man is, and he did offer his assistance.
"Okay," says Tony. "I know it would help if I could lift my arms higher, but I swear the armor has underarm emergency releases. There, and then down my sides. You probably have to get a little closer-- oh--"
And then all of a sudden Steve is right there, and he's leaning in and easing the armor away, and God, he smells really good. How has Tony not noticed this before?
He'd better not think about it. Because if he thinks about Steve like... that, well, wolves can smell arousal. Mostly they don't care enough to tell their humans about it, but he doesn't know if Liberty would. And also on the list of things Steve doesn't need to know about Tony is the thing where Tony still has an embarrassingly huge crush on him. Steve's probably straight anyway. Well, straight other than wolflust, and wolflust doesn't count.
Now that he can move his shoulders, Tony very slowly peels himself out of the rest of the armor, as much as he can with his shoulder hurting, letting it clatter to the floor. Steve walks around behind him and hisses under his breath.
"What?" Tony asks.
"The edge of the pauldron dented in," Steve says, with far more concern in his voice than Tony warrants. He's walking around to the front of him again. "You're bleeding."
"Yeah, that would be where it hurts." Tony says, dryly. He knows he gets snarky when he's in pain. "I'll be fine."
Steve raises an unimpressed eyebrow. "Come on, Tony. Shirt off. You wanted my help, you're getting my help."
So he unbuttons his shirt and pushes it off -- yep, that's a lot of blood, drying brown on the torn shoulder of what used to be one of his nicer shirts, and he will definitely have to reinforce the armor -- and when he looks up, Steve is staring. At his chest. Oh.
The shrapnel wasn't quite as clean an injury as Yinsen had promised. The scarring is noticeable, thick keloids across Tony's chest. It's not pretty. Not that anyone else would have seen. He hasn't slept with anyone since Afghanistan. He's not vain -- okay, maybe he is a bit vain -- but he doesn't really want people to see. And now Steve's looking.
"Shrapnel," he says, before Steve can even ask. "In Afghanistan. It could have been worse, I guess." Any more and any deeper, it would probably have been in his heart.
"You were lucky," Steve says. His voice is low, hushed. There's no pity there.
He's never thought of it that way before. He's never thought of anything about that time as good -- how could it be, when he lost Kepler? But Steve's right. He was lucky. About that, at least. "I could have died. I would have, if it had gotten to my heart."
"That was when you made the first Iron Man suit, right?" he asks, and Tony nods. Steve just smiles. "You built a flying suit of armor. You're a genius. I bet if you'd needed one you'd have built an artificial heart to go with it."
And Tony can't help but grin at the ridiculous thought of him and Yinsen building anything like that in a goddamn cave -- because, really, he is not that kind of a doctor -- and the thought that Steve thinks he's smart, which is entirely different from him knowing he's smart.
He lets Steve clean up his shoulder, wrap a gauze pad around it, and bandage him all up, in companionable silence. Steve's hands are big and warm, and even though Tony's not on any painkillers yet, he's starting to feel kind of like he is, a little floaty just from the human contact.
Maybe he's touch-starved.
But he can't -- shouldn't -- let himself get close to Steve. Steve already means too much to him. Steve couldn't handle him if he knew, really knew who Tony was. All of his miserable secrets. All of his pain. Tony can bear it by himself. He's been doing well enough so far.
It almost feels like Steve is stroking him. Caressing him. Petting him. Like he's a wolf. He must be imagining that.
"So," he says, when Steve's tied off the bandages, levering himself off the exam table, "now that that's done I want to show you the upgrades I've got for you. Workshop. Come on."
He knows he's brusque, but that's better than saying... anything else. He shrugs his bloodied shirt back on.
Steve frowns. "You gave me an upgraded uniform last week."
"Not you," Tony says, and then he turns to Liberty. "You. I have a new combat harness I want you to wear. What do you say?"
Liberty wags once, like a dog. That's a yes.
"You did that for Libby?" Steve says, awed. "You don't-- I thought you didn't want anything to do with her--"
I don't, Tony thinks, but aloud he says, "She's an Avenger, isn't she?"
"Yeah." Steve laughs, a happy little sound. "She is. Thank you."
"Don't thank me until we see how it fits," he says, and he's heading out the door.
It fits perfectly.
Liberty licks his hand, and Tony, despite himself, smiles. Maybe he can do this. Maybe it hurts a little less.
The problem with Steve is that he won't stay on the goddamn ground.
It's not like Tony has anything against flight, obviously. The rest of the Avengers certainly don't. Thor can fly. Jan can fly. Hank sometimes can, depending on his choice of companion insect, or he can make himself large enough to assist in pretty much any circumstance that would otherwise have required flight. Really, Steve's the odd one out here. Tony'd offered to throw in some boot jets when he was redesigning Steve's uniform. Steve had declined.
So Steve can't fly.
But he doesn't fight like he knows that.
Tony's heart was in his throat the first time Steve yelled, "Hey, Iron Man, I need a lift!" over the comms and jumped. Steve was on the edge of a relatively tall building at the time, and he just... threw his shield at a villain and dived after it. Like he could fly. He caught the shield on the rebound as he fell and Tony almost smashed into him in his haste. Then Tony got his arms around Steve's torso and swung them both in a dizzying spiral in midair as Steve laughed in exhilaration and Tony wondered what heart attacks felt like and if he was having one.
After that, they started practicing. He can now lift Steve. He can catch Steve at any angle you care to name. He can land safely while carrying him. Which is good, because Steve clearly isn't going to stop leaping off things anytime soon.
Steve's been an Avenger for four months, and they've reached a point where Steve doesn't even need to say what he's going to do; Tony can see it in the way he holds himself, the way he tenses. He knows exactly when Steve is going to try some death-defying leap, and he knows exactly where he needs to be to catch him. The connection is both intimate and terrifying. It feels like the knowledge from a wolfbond, almost, except Tony knows there's no way that's possible. He still worries at the torn edges of his mind every few nights, like poking at the space where a missing tooth is with his tongue. There's nothing there. There never will be. But he's coping.
So that's Steve. He can predict Steve. Steve is no longer terrifying. He knows when Steve jumps.
The really frightening part is when Liberty starts doing it.
They're fighting the Black Knight, and Liberty just leaps up onto his horse's hindquarters in one huge bound and locks her teeth around the Black Knight's arm. Tony thinks it's denting the plate mail. Nice. Strong jaws. He waits for her to jump off, for the knight to fling her off.
It doesn't happen.
The Black Knight's horse gathers itself up, muscles bunching, and then leaps into the air, wings outstretched and then sweeping hard, a powerful downbeat that has them easily twenty feet up in a second and still going. And Liberty's still holding on. Tony has no idea how she's managing to keep her balance or her jaw grip. Super-wolf serum, he supposes.
He takes off after them, running and kicking his jet boots into hot flaring life as man and horse and wolf soar upward. But the Black Knight is good at this. Tony's HUD is flickering, target locks failing to resolve. They're too fast. He can't get a clear shot. His hands are splayed out, repulsors charging up to fire, but God, he can't do it--
He can't do it without hitting Libby.
And the Black Knight is twisting, his horse flying nearly upside-down now and Tony watches as Libby's paws lift off the back of the horse. She's holding on by her teeth alone as the Black Knight is violently shaking her off, and her spine is arching, her tail snapping back and forth in midair, and she's dangling--
"Iron Man!" Steve's voice is hoarse in his comms. He doesn't know where Steve is. On the ground, he hopes. "Libby's going to drop, can you--?"
"On it," he says, and at that exact moment Libby opens her mouth, twists, kicks, rakes her hind legs across the horse's flank, and she's falling, a white blur in the sky.
Tony takes one last wild shot up at the Black Knight because he's running weapons-hot, and he has to bleed out the power somehow. He has no time to see if it connects before he snaps the command to kill the palm repulsors. He needs his hands free; this is the tricky part.
He rises in a wobbling arc, swings forward, reaches out--
And he locks one hand into Libby's combat harness--
He's got her--
And then he goes into a spin, because he's trying to slow down nearly two hundred pounds of falling wolf one-handed and he is nowhere near balanced for this.
The thing about catching Steve is that at least Steve can grab him reciprocally. Put his arms around him. Libby can't. This is all on him. He can't think of anything, anything except that he already watched one wolf die and isn't that enough and oh God what if he drops her and he can't get a good grip.
After a terrifying few seconds of high-G warnings in the HUD Tony works his other hand into the second dorsal handhold on the harness and brakes hard on the boot jets. If they're going to be doing this regularly they have to rework this harness, God, do they ever.
They slow. They stop. He's hovering now. Because she knows what he's doing -- she has to, she's smart -- Libby is limp in the harness, not fighting, letting him just take her weight.
He wishes he could hear her. He can't, of course. She's not his.
Tony's heartbeat is pounding in his ears.
"I've got Libby," Tony says, when he's sure. His voice doesn't even sound like him. "Where do you want her, Cap?"
"Straight down," Steve says, in his ear. "Please."
Overhead, there's the noise of Mjolnir colliding with plate armor. Thor's taking care of it.
He lands with Libby in his arms -- he remembers this, having a wolf in his arms, even though he can't feel her through the armor -- and carefully sets her down; she promptly bounds over to Steve.
"Thanks," Steve says, grinning. He has his hands out, and now Libby is in his arms instead, all over him, licking his face. "From both of us."
"You're very welcome."
Steve's grin is suddenly a sweet thing, like a gift he's giving Tony. "Hey, Shellhead? You called her Libby."
Tony swallows hard. "Well," he says, and he's glad Steve can't see his face, "it's her name, isn't it?"
It's too late to not care anymore.
It's a bright day and Rhodey's on the couch opposite him, with Excelsior curled up into the wolf-couch next to him.
Rhodey's turning his empty tumbler around and around in his fingers. "This is good stuff. Thanks, Tony."
Tony smiles. "No problem."
"And Excelsior says he's having a great time." Rhodey's words are tentative, like he doesn't know how much Tony can handle talking about wolves. It's not the talking that's the problem. He doesn't know what sets it off, really, but he'd had to excuse himself when Excelsior and Libby went romping through the backyard together, tussling with each other with friendly mouthing bites, just like Kepler had always done with other wolves. They aren't pack, not a permanent pack, but Kepler hadn't had one either. They'd been okay.
Steve still doesn't know about him.
"That's good," Tony says, forcing a smile. "You know you can come by more often. Make use of the amenities."
"Maybe I will." Rhodey leans forward. "But today I'm here with an offer."
Tony frowns. "What kind of offer?" It can't be business-related; the military wouldn't have gone through Rhodey.
Rhodey's gaze slides over to Excelsior. "One of the best bitches in the Corps just whelped, and there's a couple pups in the litter that they're pretty sure won't take to officer training. They're good lines, Tony, the best lineage in the country, in the world -- the dam can trace back to Washington's wolfbrother, and the sire was one of the European blood-diversity exchanges, pedigree all the way back to William the Conqueror, if you can believe--"
"No," Tony says, flatly, interrupting him. "None of that matters. I-- I can't."
He can't rebond. He can't. Would they give him a wolf out of pity? Embarrassment? Gratitude for whatever the last fucking thing he built them was? He's not trading bombs for wolves.
(That was how you lost Kepler, his mind whispers.)
"You can't live like this," Rhodey says, very softly.
Tony slugs back his entire drink and tastes only the burn. "I'm living. This is me living. I'm living like this."
"Yeah, you are," says Rhodey, still quiet, "but you don't have to."
He turns Rhodey down and buries himself in his work. Maybe two weeks later, somewhere in the haze of project deadlines, he's wandering the mansion with a mug of coffee in one hand. He doesn't get very far from the coffee machine, as it happens; there's a lot of paperwork on the kitchen table.
And it's not even all his paperwork. Tony frowns at the offending items on top of the stack. U.S. Army, Form L-55: Consent for Lupine Multiple Breeding Without Isolation--
Wait, what the fuck?
Tony flips through the papers in mounting horror. The military doesn't ask you to sign anything consenting to wolf breeding in general; enlistment and subsequent bonding is consent. Everyone who bonds knows what they're getting into. And it's all done properly now, well-ordered. There are heat isolation rooms. Soldiers and wolves are monitored; there's always a medical corpsman present outside. And if the bitch in question isn't pair-bonded, and if the army wants multiple breedings, they're done sequentially, with time to rest between wolves and mandatory medical checks. Time for the soldier to tap out, if he or she needs to. If they do, the breeding ends. No questions. No blame. No recrimination.
It's not something Tony's ever done himself, because Kepler'd been a washout, but he knows exactly how it's supposed to work. Sure, if you have a wolfsister you still end up getting fucked by whoever's bonded to the wolf she mates with -- there's no way around that -- but they've done their best over the years to minimize the potential trauma of wolf heats.
What military multiple breeding absolutely is not is locking eight soldiers and their wolfbrothers in a single room with a bitch wolf and her human, letting them all -- humans and wolves included -- fight it out for something resembling dominance, and then having everyone in the room fuck the unlucky pair in a scenario right out of some twisted lupine-purity true believer's insistence on the Old Ways. Jesus fucking Christ.
The Army would never, ever ask soldiers to consent to a gangbang for a wolf heat.
And yet Steve Rogers' neat signature is all over these pages, consenting to precisely that.
The papers are shaking in Tony's hands.
There are footsteps coming toward him, and when Tony looks up it's Steve. Steve's wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and his hair is still damp from the shower, and Tony is not not not going to picture him naked in the middle of an eight-man multiple breeding, God. It can't be real.
Steve smiles. "Hey, Tony." His gaze dips down to the papers that are beginning to crease in Tony's hands, and then he brightens. "Oh, good, you found the consent forms. I'd been meaning to tell you -- the Avengers, whoever -- that I'm going to need a few days' leave. Libby should be going into heat sometime in the next couple of weeks. It's a little early, but they think maybe the ice threw her cycle off."
"What," Tony says, because he still can't process this, and then he realizes he hasn't even asked a question. "I-- is this some kind of joke?"
Steve blinks at him, confused. "I understand that you've been... uncomfortable... around wolves, but I was pretty sure you knew the basics. The Army wants pups. And Libby was always from a good line, even though the serum's not heritable."
"But you can't," Tony says, even more distraught, and he shakes the papers. "Are you-- how the hell are you all right with this?"
Steve just shrugs. "I can't say it's going to be the most fun I've ever had, but... it's for Libby. She wants, and I want what she wants. That's the deal. It's wolflust. It's not about me." He's looking even more confused. "Haven't you met soldiers?"
Tony knows what wolflust is like. Just because they never bred Kepler doesn't mean he hasn't felt it. He had been at some base somewhere, giving a talk, and one of the generals' bitches had gone into heat then and there. It had been... memorable. Ordinary attraction is to wolflust as sparring with Steve is to being punched in the face with a crowbar by a supervillain, and thanks to the Wrecking Crew, he can unfortunately make that comparison with full knowledge.
"Yeah," Tony says, hollowly, "but." He can't make himself finish the sentence. But that's not what he's objecting to, he wants to say.
Steve's actually beginning to look hurt, his face creasing into sadness, his eyes even paler, wetter. "I thought in the future it would be-- God, Tony, please don't tell me you think less of me because I have a wolfsister. Because of what I do for her." He sighs. "Maybe you can't understand if you've never had a wolf."
I had a wolf, Tony wants to say.
Tony takes a shuddering breath, composes himself, and tries again. "That's not the problem. That's really not the problem."
"Then what the hell is?" Steve retorts, and there's fire there in his tone.
"This!" Tony yells back, the consent forms crumpling in his fist. "I don't know if someone's playing a joke on you but this is the twenty-first century and we are not the fucking Vikings and there is no fucking way that multiple breedings are done without isolation. I don't know if this is some kind of fucking test, if they want to see how many you can take because you're a super-soldier and Libby's a super-wolf, but it's not right and it's not safe and it's not fucking funny and there is no way you should have signed this, this should not even be a thing that exists that you can sign, and if you give me five minutes I will get on the phone and give Lupine Affairs a piece of my goddamn mind--"
He can't even finish talking. He's shaking with rage, and they're going to hurt Steve--
Steve's mouth has fallen open. "You do know something about wolves," he says, softly, eyes downcast. "I'm sorry. I-- I just assumed."
"Yeah," Tony says. His voice is dull. "I know a whole lot about wolves."
Steve doesn't ask him why.
"But you don't know this," Steve says, and his voice is suddenly gentle. "Here, sit. Let me explain."
Tony practically falls into the nearest chair; Steve sits opposite him, and pushes his forgotten coffee mug into his hands. Like he's taking care of him. It feels like there's something else Tony should recognize in the gesture, something like pack, but that can't be right, it can't, because Tony is wolfless.
"All right," Steve says. "I'm guessing you haven't met a lot of queen wolves."
"Some," Tony allows. "Nothing like Libby."
Steve smiles and tilts his head, acknowledging the compliment. "Okay. The standard procedure for multiple breedings is standard only for ordinary bitches. The queen wolves can be... particular." He pauses. "How much detail do you want?"
"As much as you want to give me." As much as it takes so I know you'll be okay.
"Right." Steve steeples his fingers together. "The Army tries to discourage wolves from forming their own pack structures in ways that interfere with the human chain of command; among other reasons, it's why the three of us Invaders who were full-human had bitches. But queens... they always want to lead. And if you're bonded to one, if you're... good enough, you can suppress and channel that drive productively."
"Except when she's in heat," Tony says, realization dawning.
"Exactly," Steve says. "They try to keep quiet about that one. Most wolfbonded don't even know. Queen wolves, true queen wolves, are rare enough that it doesn't come up much, and they don't want people to know how much of a hold we don't have on them. But in heat-- they want everything, they want it now, and they don't want to wait. They want to know that they're being fought for."
Tony takes a sip of his coffee. It's bitter. "They have to?"
Steve nods. "We tried sequential breedings, her first heat. Sometimes they'll take it. Libby won't." He grimaces. "Well, that's not exactly true. She might have, if she hadn't been bonded to me, but she got... desperate, with the waiting, and so I got desperate, and then I ripped the isolation room door off with my bare hands."
"Yeah." Steve sighs. "The next time, we tried tying me down, but Libby didn't take that well."
Tony can just picture it. "I bet not."
"So there's this. Unless or until she pair-bonds, which she hasn't. It would be easier, physically, emotionally -- although not logistically, since I'm an Avenger now and her mate wouldn't be -- but I'm not holding my breath. I know it sounds bad," Steve adds, with another grimace, "but so far everyone has always come out of it fine. Maybe a broken bone or two, at most. And I heal fast."
They gang-rape you, Tony thinks, but he can't say it. "You'll be okay?"
"Yeah." Steve smiles faintly. "I'll be fine. I've been bonded to Libby since 1940; this is by no means my first heat. Don't worry about me. Think about the future puppies."
Tony pushes his mug back and forth between his hands on the table. "Surprised they didn't want to try to breed you too. Marry you off to some nice girl."
Steve grins wider, chuckles a little. "The human serum isn't heritable either. Besides--" He stops.
"Besides what?" He's not sure why he bothered prompting him; he's only waiting for Steve to tell him that he never looked like this without the serum, but Steve, weirdly enough, is starting to look nervous.
Steve bites his lip. "Well. I was always-- I was always fit to be a soldier." Steve's chuckle is self-deprecating now. Tony hasn't heard anyone use that awful euphemism there in years, dear God. "It was a joke to my friends, because I was so sickly, so in that sense I wasn't fit, but even so." He pauses, because Tony still hasn't managed to say anything in reply. "Do you-- do people not say it that way anymore?"
Tony is covering his mouth with his hands because Captain America is gay and this is more or less every fantasy he has ever had coming true, and then he blinks and realizes what Steve actually asked him. "Uh. No. It's -- oh, man -- it's considered really insulting, these days. You should probably avoid saying it like that."
"Oh," Steve says, and he looks a little hurt again.
"Yeah," Tony says, losing himself in the explanation because if he doesn't he's just going to blurt out every stupid thing in his head and there are so many things in his head that Steve really doesn't need to know. "These days people -- wolfless people -- are more aware that wolflust has nothing to do with what you actually want to do in bed, and there are women soldiers with wolfbonds, and--" He's going to stop before he actually uses the words situational homosexuality in a sentence. "But it's not-- it's not bad to be, we just don't. Say it like that."
"But you're okay with it?" Steve asks, and his face is taut, still nervous.
I am so okay with it. You have no idea how okay with it I am.
Tony smiles. "Yeah," he says. "Yeah, of course. Definitely."
Steve exhales. "Thank you."
"No problem," Tony says. He looks down at the now-crumpled papers. "I'm... sorry about the misunderstanding."
"No, it's fine," Steve says. "I'm glad you were concerned about me."
It's maybe a little more than concern. It's maybe a lot more.
Just over a week later, Libby goes into heat. She and Steve are escorted away just past dawn by a pair of officers who very efficiently hurry the two of them into a van; Tony stands by the window and watches them zip off.
He can't sleep at all when they're away. He's too keyed-up. He might as well get some work done. He retreats to the workshop and spends approximately forty-eight straight hours on an armor redesign. Armor is easy. Armor makes sense. He can lose himself in equations, in blueprints, in prototypes, in power-consumption curves, and he doesn't have to think about men holding Steve down, using him, hurting him, with no way for him to tap out--
Tony's hand slips and solder ends up everywhere on the board. He swears under his breath.
He only looks up when he realizes Jarvis is at the door and has been saying his name for at least three minutes.
"Sir," Jarvis says, placidly. "Captain Rogers has returned, with Liberty. He thought you might wish to be informed."
Steve. "God, yes," Tony says. He stands up, runs his hand through his hair. His clothes are ratty and he's probably covered in oil, but he wants to see Steve and Libby now. He has to-- he doesn't know what he has to do. He has to see that they're okay. "Where are they?"
"In the front parlor, sir."
"Thanks, Jarvis," Tony says, and he's taking the stairs up two at a time.
Libby is curled up on the floral-patterned wolf-couch and Steve is sitting next to her. She lifts her head at his arrival. Steve starts to stand up, and he actually winces, a ripple of pain passing across his face.
"No, no," Tony says, hastily, hands extended, palms up. "You don't have to get up on my account, please. Stay there."
Steve is pretty much already standing up at this point, so it's too late, and his eyes narrow into a suspicious squint. "Did you even sleep while we were gone?"
"Uh," Tony says.
Steve lifts his chin, stubbornly, and Tony can see mottled bruising, blue-black, all along his jaw, and if he's still this bruised after the healing factor Tony hates to think of what it looked like when it was happening. Tony's not really conscious of moving, but somehow his hand is extended and he just barely checks himself with his fingers inches from Steve's skin, because a guy who's just been fucked by eight guys probably really does not need anyone else to touch him.
"Shit," Tony says, and he pulls his hand back. "Sorry. Wasn't thinking."
"No," Steve says, and he tugs a glove off and reaches up -- his knuckles are bruised, oh God -- and pushes the cowl back. He unhooks the mail of his uniform at the neck, pushing it down so Tony can see his throat. "It's all right. It's you."
Tony fits his fingers over the bruises -- someone had bigger hands than Tony does, and those are teeth-marks there, Christ -- and Steve wavers, shuts his eyes, and when he opens them again he looks not quite present. Tony can feel Steve's pulse spike under his fingers.
"You're okay?" Tony asks.
Steve nods, but his gaze is far away. "Medical cleared me. No major injuries."
"Not what I asked," Tony says, and his voice snaps into one of those registers he usually saves for being Iron Man, for orders, for calls to assemble.
"It was a little rougher than I thought it would be." Steve shuts his eyes. "Libby rejected one of the wolves out of hand, and the rest of them all dragged the wolf off, but the man-- he wouldn't stop. I broke his nose, but I was--" Steve's voice wobbles. "There was so much blood. I thought maybe I hadn't pulled the blow in time."
It's so very like Steve, that his first thought would be for others. And he's right; with his strength he could have done a lot of damage. "I'm glad he wasn't hurt too badly," Tony says. "But you? You weren't hurt?"
Tony's heart is pounding triple-time. Steve's here, Steve's back, but for some reason Tony can't calm down.
The corners of Steve's mouth turn up. "I'm fine," he says. "Here. Look." And he's pulling the uniform shirt over his head. Tony wants to tell him no, stop, it's his body, he doesn't need to do this... but some part of him needs to see it, to know, and he can't even explain why.
And then Steve's standing there, bare-chested, like this is completely normal. The worst of the bruising is his throat and neck, though there are also bruises the width of hands around his wrists. Tony knows no one could really have held him down, so he suspects it was a kind of powerplay that Steve allowed. Wolflust does things like that. Steve has more bruises on his hips, in about the spots Tony would have expected, disappearing under the edge of his pants. But nothing looks bad, nothing broken, nothing more than bruises. Tony breathes in and out.
"All right," he says, a little embarrassed, because Steve didn't need to do that for him. "All right. Good. Feeling okay, in your head?"
There's a bit of a pause before Steve nods. "Fine."
Tony gives him a look.
"I just." Steve shifts his weight, and he might even be starting to blush; what the hell could make a guy who's just been through a gangbang blush? "Uh. Two of them were-- ladies. Women soldiers."
"Yeah?" Tony says, uncomprehending. "We have those now."
"I've never." Steve mumbles. "With a lady. I mean, one of them, she had a--" His hands make vague motions in the air as he clearly tries and fails to articulate the concept of "strap-on" without using actual words. "But it wasn't-- I mean, it wasn't bad, with either of them, it was just... unexpected. New."
"Well, congratulations," Tony says, because he feels like he ought to. "That must be strange, if your first time was during heat."
Steve shrugs. "So was my first time with a man. It wasn't that bad either." He meets Tony's stare and grins ruefully. "What? It wasn't like I was popular, before the serum."
I'd have asked you out, Tony thinks, and for an instant feels bitterly jealous of everyone else who got to put those bruises on him. Everyone he let touch him like that. Even as he thinks it he knows how awful it is to feel jealous, because if not for Libby Steve wouldn't have wanted it at all.
"I didn't mean to pry," Tony says, though he's kind of lying. "You didn't need to tell me, or show me, or-- anything you're not comfortable with. I'm sorry."
"I'm fine," Steve repeats, and one of his hands is around Tony's wrist. "And of course it was right that you should know. You're pack. You want to check on us. I understand that."
Tony's head snaps up. "I'm wolfless."
He can't be pack. He can't do this. He wants to do this.
"Doesn't mean you're not pack," Steve says, like it's simple. And then he smiles a little. "Doesn't mean we can't care about you, or you about us. Sit with us for a bit, would you?"
"All right," Tony says, and he sits. Steve eases himself back down to the couch, next to Tony, and he leans over to rest one hand on Libby's pale fur. Tony thinks maybe Steve doesn't want to be alone right now. He doesn't blame him.
Tony's so tired of being alone.
Libby wags. Tony thinks that's probably approval.
The days shorten and grow colder, and before Tony is aware of it, before he's prepared for it, it's December tenth.
A year since Afghanistan. A year since everything. A year since Kepler.
None of the other Avengers are here. Only Steve and Libby are in permanent residence lately, and they're off in DC for some Army business until tomorrow; Tony had been too busy gratefully noting the dates of their absence to remember what Steve said they were going there for. He gave Jarvis the day off this morning.
He hasn't been working. The phone rang once, earlier, but he ignored it. He's been drifting around the mansion in a haze of grief all day. It's nighttime now.
He thought about looking at the pictures he's got left of him and Kepler, but so far he hasn't managed to bring himself to actually do it.
He thinks about burning the pictures.
Tony's sitting here in the kitchen with a bottle of his best scotch, and he's been drinking for-- he's not exactly sure how long he's been drinking for. He just wants it not to hurt, but he can't even get that right. He's just making himself worse, he knows, but he deserves this. Kepler died because of him.
"I miss you," he says, thickly, and he hears himself slurring his words. He's a mess.
Don't give up. The last thing Kepler ever said to him. He wants to give up. It's been a year. Hasn't it been long enough? How long is he supposed to hold out? He has-- he has the Avengers-- he has St-- no, no, he doesn't have Steve. He can't think like that.
He throws back another drink.
He thinks maybe he's crying.
There are footsteps in the hall. Footsteps, and then the click of nails on wood floors, and oh God no.
"Tony?" Steve says, and he's not even supposed to be here, and Tony is far, far too drunk to talk about this. His voice is shading into concern. "Tony, are you here? Did you get my message?"
He steps into the kitchen, Libby at his heels, and then he sees Tony and the bottle and his eyes widen. He says nothing. He's wearing civilian clothing, a nice shirt and slacks; Tony guesses that the meeting was incognito.
"You're not supposed to be here until tomorrow," Tony says. It's all he can manage.
Steve's coming closer, taking a seat next to him, and Tony wishes he could reach out, but he can't, he can't.
"I left you a message," he says, and now Tony remembers that the phone rang. "The meeting tomorrow was cancelled, so we took the train back today. I thought maybe we could catch you in time for dinner. But I see you started the party without us." His voice is careful. Not judging him at all, and damn it, Tony wishes Steve would. He wishes he could push Steve, push him until he snaps, until he stops being so goddamn kind. No one can honestly be that nice to him. No one real.
Tony sloshes the bottle at him. "You want some?"
Steve shakes his head. "It'd be wasted on me."
Tony thinks about what his metabolism must be like. "Can you get drunk at all?"
"After a fashion." Steve shrugs. "I'd probably have to put away the whole bottle before I felt anything, but if you want the company..."
"Maybe I don't," Tony says, bitterly, wondering if this is what will push Steve away. If he can just needle him enough. If he'll drive everyone away because the only creature who could ever have loved him is never coming back.
"Maybe you don't," Steve agrees. "But I think if you didn't want company you wouldn't be drinking in the kitchen."
Tony knows there are words for people who drink alone in their rooms, and his mind resists applying any of them to him. "Maybe," he says again. The words are rattling around his brain, like he can't come up with anything new in the mire of grief.
"Some party you threw yourself," Steve says, quietly. "Any special occasion?"
"It's not a party," Tony says, before he can stop himself. "It's a wake." He exhales hard. "Anniversary, I guess."
"Oh," Steve says, still very careful. Like he thinks Tony is fragile. Like he thinks Tony will break. He's too late to worry about that. Tony broke exactly one year ago. "Is it-- I read in the newspaper that your parents died. Was it... was that now?"
Tony wants to laugh, because he can't even think about mourning his fucking father right now, and somehow every single possible emotion wants to come out of his mouth at once. "No," he says. "That was-- that's in March. I was captured in Afghanistan a year ago today."
"I'm sorry," Steve says, and Tony knows that's just the sort of meaningless platitude you say, and maybe Steve isn't even sorry, how could Steve be sorry when it got him Iron Man? Tony would give it all up to get Kepler back. But there's no way to make that trade.
It's not too late for Steve to run. He deserves to know. Tony's broken.
He blinks back tears and looks Steve full in the face.
"They killed my wolfbrother," he says. "They captured us and executed him right in front of me."
Steve's face goes white and his jaw drops. Next to him, Libby whines in sympathy. "Oh my God," he says. "God, Tony. I didn't know."
"Didn't want you to," Tony says, pouring himself another drink and then handing Steve the bottle. Steve doesn't drink. Tony feels like his throat's closing up, but he takes a sip anyway.
Steve's expression is twisted in misery. "I thought-- I thought you were avoiding Libby because you were afraid of wolves."
"Yeah," Tony says. His throat is raw. His eyes aren't focusing. "Not so much."
"I told you-- I told you that you wouldn't understand if you'd never had a wolf," Steve says, desolate. "I'm-- I'm so sorry, if I've ever made you feel--"
Tony waves an unsteady hand. "Don't worry about it."
Steve looks at him for a long moment and then drinks straight from the bottle. Tony feels like his night's just gotten a lot worse.
Steve sets the bottle down and just... keeps looking. There's a gentle smile on Steve's face now. Still careful, but it's not-- it's not the pity Tony was afraid of. "Will you tell me about him?" His voice is soft. Coaxing.
"Tell me about him," Steve repeats. "It's a wake. We're celebrating his life, aren't we?"
He doesn't want to say anything at first; it feels like there's a dam between him and the words, holding his feelings back. He takes another sip of his drink. "His name was Kepler," Tony says, and he can feel tears well up in his eyes. "Like the scientist, you know? I was actually going to name him after King Arthur's wolf, right up until I saw him, and then I knew that wasn't his name at all. And his scent-name was petrichor. I think that's the word. The way the air smells after rain."
"That's a good name," Steve says, quietly. "A good scent, too. I always felt sorry for all the men I met whose brothers were out of some bitch serving at the front who'd named them all mud, mud, and more mud."
Tony grins, a weak grin, but it's something. "These days they're all sand." He wants to ask what Libby's scent-name is. What Steve's is. But he wouldn't be able to smell it, not really, and then that would just make him sad. Sadder.
"What'd he look like?" Steve's question is kind, earnest. Like he really wants to know. Maybe he does.
"Smaller than your pony in a wolf suit here," Tony says, because when all the filters are down he still has smartass jokes left. "Brindled gray-brown. He-- here, I can show you."
There's a tablet within arm's reach -- because it's not like Tony has bothered to clean up after himself -- and he swipes it on, finds the first photo of him and Kepler. He hasn't looked at these in a year. It's a photo from maybe three years ago, before everything happened, even before his parents died. In the picture it's autumn, and he's on the wolf-land upstate, kneeling in a scattered patch of fallen leaves with Kepler sitting next to him. His arms are around Kepler's chest, and he's grinning at the camera. Kepler's wolf-grinning next to him, jaw lowered, ears up, eyes bright.
It feels like he's being stabbed in the heart, just looking at it.
"He was gorgeous," Steve says, like it's a statement of fact. Like it's something you can measure. "Look at that conformation. Those lines. They must have bred him for recon. Stealth. Something like that." And then he seems to hear what he's saying, because he blinks. "But you were never military. Were you?"
Tony shakes his head. "No, but SI does a lot of work with the military. Always has. My father--" oh, he is really not in any condition to be talking about his father-- "thought that I'd look more... trustworthy... to the brass if I had a wolf of my own."
There are so many things behind that word, trustworthy, years of casual, disappointed glances, judging him and measuring him and finding him wanting. Years of insults, of raised voices, of sloshed drinks and slurred words and knowing that no matter what, deep down, Tony just isn't ever good enough. He shuts his eyes.
"Hey," Steve says, softly. "Don't go there."
Tony opens his eyes, confused. "Don't go where?"
"Wherever you're going in your head," Steve replies. "It can't be good. Stay with me. Tell me about Kepler."
Tony sets his glass down and pushes himself back from the table, hands held out over his lap. "What do you want to know about him?"
"Anything. Everything." Steve has one hand on Libby's back, but he turns his other hand over, palm-up, imploring. "What he was like. What you two did. I don't really know what wolves do when they're not at war."
Tony half-smiles. "He was a military washout; he wasn't fit for the really strenuous stuff and he always had to take heart pills. So not quite so active as Libby, but we got a fair amount of running in. Hunting for him, upstate; that's why I have the land. We... we grew up together. I was nearly fourteen when I got him. Took him everywhere. Parties. Everything. He probably learned as much engineering as I did; he was curled up at my feet for every single seminar at MIT. I think maybe he even did learn some of it in his own way." Tony shrugs. "Wolves, you know? I did some lupine harness design in addition to weapons; he was my model, actually. Kept me company in the workshop even when he wasn't." And then his throat closes up on the last words, what he really wants to say. "I loved him. He loved me."
Because that's what's really important, isn't it? Kepler loved him. No one else did. Not like that.
He's starting to cry again.
He shuts his eyes. He can't feel anything. That's not right; he can feel everything, feel too much of everything, but none of it's inside his head, where it counts, where he's always going to be alone. His mind is still ripped open, raw. That's never healed.
There's a jingling sound from off to his side, and then a thud, followed by the click of nails on the floor again -- and then there's fur under his outstretched hands. Tony opens his eyes, and Libby's sitting in front of him. She puts her front paws on his thighs and pushes herself up so that she's standing, half-braced on him, looking him full in the face with bright golden eyes.
"No," Tony says, miserable. "No, no, no, you can't."
He doesn't deserve this.
"Shh," Steve says, low and calming. "She loves you too, you know. You're pack."
"I can't," Tony tries, and he's not really sure exactly what he can't do. This entire situation. Any of it.
"I know you didn't want to tell us," Steve says, his voice still low, even, like a lapping tide. "I know you're... a proud man. I understand that. But you're hurting inside, Tony. Let us help you. We're here for you."
He knows that it's supposed to help, being around wolves. He knows Steve knows that; hell, wolf-grief training has been standard for soldiers for centuries at least, because it's not like wolves don't die in combat. They probably know exactly what to do for him. He just... he can't. He cares too much about them, and they don't need any of the darkness he carries.
"Please," Steve says, anguished, and Libby echoes the tenor of his voice with a high whine, and that's when Tony realizes he's hurting them. Because they care about him just the same.
Something in him breaks, and he slides his fingers into Libby's white fur, into the soft undercoat beneath the guard fur. He can't feel her in his head, but she's warm, so warm, the right temperature, warmer than humans. He bows his head forward, burying his face in the ruff at her shoulder. She smells right, like wolves, even if he'll never know what she smells like in his mind. And he starts to cry, really cry, huge racking disgusting wet sobs that make him shake all over, the kind of thing he never actually allowed himself to do.
This is really embarrassing, he thinks, distantly. Steve's sitting right here, watching him cry like a baby, getting snot all over his wolfsister. God, what must Steve think of him?
Steve's hand settles on his back, between his shoulder blades, rubbing in warm circles. It's like they're both holding him, Steve and his wolf, and something about that is exactly right, exactly what he needs. "Shh," Steve says. "Shh, it's okay, you're okay. We're here."
He's not sure exactly what Steve says after that; he can't quite hear him over the sound of his own sobbing. The words don't really matter, anyway. The tone is still soft, soothing, and Steve keeps petting Tony's back as he talks, as Tony cries. He clutches Libby harder, and Libby doesn't move away. It's like he's reopening a wound that never healed right, letting it heal again.
He can't tell how long they stay like that. Time stretches out. It feels like hours, but it can't be more than minutes. He wishes it were hours. He doesn't want them to leave. But everyone always leaves, in the end.
Eventually, when he's cried all that he can possibly cry, he lifts his head and relaxes his grip on Libby's fur. She doesn't move away.
"Ugh," Tony says. His face is a mess. "I'm awful. I'm sorry." He feels hollow, a strange kind of emptiness, like all of his feelings are gone.
Steve meets his eyes. "You are the furthest thing from awful, Tony," he says, quiet, intense. And then he smiles a small smile. "You could maybe stand to wipe your face off, though. One second."
Steve gets up, but Libby stays, so Steve can't be going far. Water runs somewhere in one of the other rooms, and Steve comes back with a damp cloth in one hand; he stops at the sink and fills a glass of water. It should be humiliating, Tony thinks in some remote part of his mind, but he's somewhere beyond the capacity to feel humiliation right now, so he mops at his face -- the cool cloth feels nice -- and downs all the water.
"Thanks," he says, hoarsely. His throat hurts.
"No problem." Steve's still standing up, and he offers Tony a hand. "Come on, Shellhead. It's late. Let's get you to bed. Can you walk?"
Bed. Bed sounds good, he thinks -- God, he's tired -- but his bed is cold and lonely and he hates it and he hasn't been able to sleep right since Kepler died and he doesn't know how to tell Steve any of that. He shouldn't tell Steve any of that.
"I can walk," Tony says, instead, because it's what Steve asked.
He lurches up, a little unsteady, but he doesn't need help, and then the three of them are walking out and down the hall and up the stairs together. They're maybe a little slower than usual, and Tony is leaning on the railing a little more, but whatever. He's upright.
They all stop in front of his door. This is where Tony leaves them, he knows. "Well," he begins, "I, uh, I guess I'll see you tomorrow evening for the team meeting--"
And then all he can do is stare as Steve reaches out, opens his door, then drags his hand back to grip Tony's wrist and pull him inside as he heads forward. Steve's in his room with him, Tony thinks, stupidly, as Libby follows them both in. Steve looks down at her and nods approvingly -- the sort of look he gives the Avengers when a mission has been accomplished well -- before pushing the door shut behind them.
Steve's eyes are wide and very, very blue in the dimness. "Tony, if you think for one second we're leaving you alone tonight, you've got another think coming."
"I--" Tony says, and then everything gets caught in his throat, because he wants to say yes and he wants to say you shouldn't, but Steve says he won't leave, and it's what he wants more than anything.
Steve seems to see the war he's having with himself, because he backs off a little. "I mean -- if you absolutely don't want us here, that's your call, but. This is what you do for wolf-grief, and I am so sorry that no one ever--" He breaks off. "We can help. I'd like to stay with you, if you'll let me. If you want that."
"I want," Tony says, and that's all he can get out, and he tries to smile.
Steve smiles back. "All right," he says. "Then we're staying. What do you sleep in? I'll get it for you." His eyes rove over the room. "Good, your bed's big enough for the three of us."
Libby hops up onto Tony's bed, stalking over to the far side, and she lies down at the head of the bed, just under the pillow. She pants at them; her eyes are bright. Tony wishes he knew what she was saying, because Steve looks at her and smiles like she's said something.
"She says that's her pillow," Steve relays. And then he starts to unbutton his shirt.
Tony blinks, mute, and there are so many things he wants to ask about this that he doesn't know how to begin asking any of them, and he's so drunk that he knows it'll all come out wrong. How kinky is this? he wants to ask, but he manages to bite that back. Does Steve want him? Why is Steve getting naked? Is this a sex thing? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Is it worse if Steve doesn't want him? This is really not a good time, this is really not how Tony ever wanted this to happen, he's so not up for it tonight, he probably can't even stay hard, and he doesn't think Steve is the kind of guy who'll sleep with him when he's wasted anyway, but maybe this is his only chance--
"Relax," Steve says. He pushes his shirt off and gets to work on his belt. "We're not-- I'm not sleeping with you. Well, I'm sleeping with you, but I'm not sleeping with you." Tony's face, Tony's stupid drunken face, must have given something away, because Steve stops, hands still on his belt, and his expression softens. "That's not a conversation for tonight, okay? It doesn't mean I don't--" He cuts himself off. "Anyway, that's not what's happening now."
"Okay," Tony echoes, and he turns to dig pajamas out of the nearest drawer, balls them up in his hand, and heads to the bathroom to change and brush his teeth. Routine. He should have one of those. It's not about sex, he thinks, staring at himself in the mirror, running water over his face again. That's okay. Steve wouldn't. Of course Steve wouldn't. He's a mess, and he's still a mess even when he's sober. Which he isn't.
When he comes out, Steve is sitting on the edge of the bed, stripped down to his boxers. Tony would appreciate the view but right now he just feels miserable about the whole thing.
Steve smiles again and pats the edge of the bed next to him; a little wary, Tony stays where he is. He doesn't know what's going on here and Steve said it wasn't sex but Steve wants him next to him and he doesn't understand. Steve wouldn't play with his mind, would he?
"What," Tony begins, and he can't really formulate a question.
"It's all right," Steve says. "It's not a big deal. I'm just doing what your pack would do for you. What they should have done for you. You know that, right? I'm sure you've done this before. I can't believe they didn't help you when you came home wolfless."
Done what before? Why does Steve think he knows all about this? "I don't," he manages. "I never. It was just the two of us. We visited wolves," he adds, as Steve's expression turns more and more horrified, sickly pale, "but we were never. Permanent."
"Jesus Christ," Steve says, under his breath, and then he looks like he wants to be angry at himself for blaspheming. He shuts his eyes briefly, opens them again. "How could anyone-- how the hell have you been surviving this year?"
Not well, Tony wants to say. But he smiles weakly. "I managed."
He could have asked Rhodey. He's sure Rhodey would have helped him. He couldn't have asked Rhodey. God, he's so broken.
"Right," Steve says, with just a touch of his commanding, Captain America voice. Something about it is relaxing. Steve knows what's going on. "This is what happens. It's nothing fancy. I don't know if they do fancy things now, but this is what I know. It's simple. Physical contact. We just touch as much as possible. As much as you're comfortable with. You won't consciously reach the pack-sense, but your mind will benefit from it. Like how you probably felt a bit better, hugging Libby earlier. It would be better if the pack were bigger, but--" he shrugs-- "you've just got me and Libby. We'll make it work. As long as you trust us. That's the important part."
"I trust you," Tony says, because of course he does.
Steve smiles again. "Good. You'll probably fall asleep. That's fine too. I hope you fall asleep, actually. You don't need to be awake."
Tony nods. "Okay. I'm game."
Steve gestures to the bed; Libby is regarding both of them. "Go on, then," he says. "Arrange yourself however you like. Just don't pull her tail. She's not a fan of that."
"I won't." Tony slides the covers back, crawls under them, and settles into the very middle of the bed. After a few seconds of awkward contemplation, he turns onto his side and throws an arm over Libby's midsection, so that he could bury his face in her back fur if she'd let him. She's warm and smells like wolf, the way his bed ought to smell. "Is this okay?"
"She says so," Steve says. His voice has the abstracted tone of someone interpreting wolf-speech aloud. "She says she likes that just fine. Can I join you?"
"Knock yourself out," Tony says.
Even though Steve had said there would be physical contact, it's a little bit of a shock when Steve curls up behind him, his body fitting into Tony's like he was made to be there. His chest is warm against Tony's back, and Tony can feel the long line of him, hips to thighs to calves, all the way down.
He doesn't mean to, but he tenses up; there's someone behind him, and for a second he doesn't know who it is. He hasn't slept with anyone in over a year, and even then they didn't usually stay the night.
"Hey," Steve breathes, and his voice, his breath, is hot and whispery on the back of Tony's neck. "Hey, easy. It's just me. This is all I'm going to do, okay? Just going to lie like this. Are you okay with this?"
Why is he so considerate? Tony wonders. Why does he care? And then he wonders what the hell it says about him that he's assuming someone in his bed wouldn't.
Tony inhales. Exhales. Relaxes. "I'm good," he says. "I'm very good." His voice sounds odd. Contented. Maybe he's happy. He doesn't really remember what happiness is.
"Okay. Slight amendment to the previous statement. Can I put my arm over you?" Steve asks. He sounds a little awkward. "Sorry, I have to put it somewhere, you know?"
"No problem," Tony says, and somehow he can't stop talking. "That's fine. That'd be good too. I'd like that. I really would." God, he must be really tired.
"All right," Steve says. "Thank you."
Then Steve's arm locks over his ribs, tight. He's warm and strong and Tony just lets himself luxuriate in the feeling. He is held. He's got Steve right here, and he's got Libby right here, and neither of them are going anywhere. They promised. Libby's fur is soft under his fingers, and he can feel the rise and fall of her ribs. He used to cuddle with Kepler, just like this. His body remembers how to do this. And Steve's face is pressed against his shoulders, against his throat, everywhere that would be vulnerable, but it's perfect. Steve would never hurt him. Steve's taking care of him. Libby's taking care of him.
It's ridiculous, to think of himself as someone who needs to be taken care of. He's an adult. He's CEO of a Fortune 500 company. He's a goddamn superhero. But it's nice, like this. Nice to let them help him. He doesn't feel weak. He feels like he's helping them too, like this is something they need as much as he does.
And if he likes it that's okay, right? They're not going to judge him. This is right. This is how it's supposed to be. There's a wolf next to him, and a man he trusts with his life, and they've got him. He's safe. They're all safe.
This is what pack feels like, he realizes.
Kepler would have loved this, he thinks, and it almost doesn't hurt.
When he wakes, his face is still buried in Libby's fur, and Tony smiles. His head's hurting, of course, but something feels... better. Rested. He doesn't feel like crying. He almost wants to get up and face the day. When he opens his eyes, the light filtering past the edges of the curtains is brighter than he thought it would be, and he blinks. It can't have been that late when they went to bed. He shouldn't be up this late. It's not like he sleeps anymore.
"It's eight," Steve says, from behind him. His voice rumbles against Tony's skin. "Libby and I usually go for a run much earlier than this, but you looked like you needed the sleep. Your... telephone, I think?... says you have a meeting at SI at ten."
"It's eight?" Tony asks, incredulous. He tries to think about what time it was when he started drinking. "How long did I sleep?"
Steve sounds apologetic. "Almost nine hours. Was that not enough? Do you usually sleep more?"
"That's more sleep than I've gotten in one night this entire year." He could cry, he's so grateful. He could kiss Steve. (He could really kiss Steve.)
Please do this again, he wants to say. Please come back tonight. Please don't leave. It's better with you here.
He can't say that, of course. He can't just beg.
"Good," Steve says, brightly, and when Tony rolls over, he sees that Steve is grinning. "I'm glad we could help."
Steve sits up and starts to put his clothes back on; Tony wonders if he's planning to do a walk of shame all the way down the hall. It's not like any of the Avengers are here to see it. Which is good, because this would be difficult to explain.
"So I'll see you later for the team meeting, then?" Tony offers as Steve puts his pants on and starts to button his shirt.
Steve finishes buttoning his shirt; his fingers clench nervously at the fabric in his shirt and Tony wonders what the hell he has to be nervous about. "Sure, of course," Steve says. "But do you have to head out right away? I was thinking... I make a mean omelette, if you're interested. You'll probably feel better with something in your stomach."
Oh, Tony thinks, struck dumb by a sudden wave of fondness. Steve is already nicer than three-quarters of the people Tony's actually slept with, and this is probably the best morning-after he's had, and he didn't even actually sleep with him. Maybe something's wrong with his standards.
"I'm interested," Tony says. "If it's not any trouble."
Steve smiles. "Tony, it's never any trouble for you."
So Steve makes him an omelette -- and he's right, it's a really good omelette, he thinks, as he feeds the last bit of egg to Libby -- and he goes to SI and Pepper keeps looking at him like there's something wrong with his face, all throughout the board meeting. Tony feels really... good. Clear-headed. Focused. Like he's been downing mug after mug of coffee, only without the jitters. He feels... like himself. In charge. Like he knows what he's doing here. He approves design after design, decisively, and shows off more of the lupine gear he's been working on. He hadn't been planning to present it, but why the hell not? He does good work.
When the board files out, and it's just him and Pepper, Tony brings a hand up, pats at his own cheeks. "Go on, give. What's wrong with my face?"
"Nothing," she says, as her gaze darts awkwardly away. "You've just been smiling all morning. It's nice."
Maybe this is what happiness is. Maybe this is what a good day feels like.
He doesn't quite spend the day doodling his and Steve's initials in hearts, but he might as well have; for all that he is remarkably productive, he spends his lunch break -- he actually feels like eating! -- inhaling a sandwich and then spinning in his chair with his head tipped back, thinking about last night, about how it felt like he was finally home, about how he could possibly ever ask Steve to do it again without giving way to the void of weakness within himself. It's okay to like it, but he doesn't want to need it. He knows he can't rely on people -- or wolves -- always being there for him. He's learned that much. He's never going to stop missing Kepler.
Still, thinking about Steve and Libby just makes him so goddamn happy. It's like he's in love or something.
On the way home he stops by the pet supply store, the one that specializes in wolves, the one he hasn't been to in years, and gets a big bag of Libby's favorite treats. He might as well.
He stashes the bag in his workshop downstairs and changes into the armor as fast as he can, red and gold plating locking around him. The rest of the Avengers don't know who Iron Man is under the mask, after all, and it's Iron Man who attends the team meetings, of course. It would all be much easier without all this armor, he catches himself thinking, and then he laughs ruefully and slides the helmet into place. Oh, Steve doesn't judge who he is, but then (a) Steve is Captain America, and (b) Steve didn't know a thing about who Tony was before he met him. No preconceived notions. Whereas the rest of the Avengers -- hell, the rest of the world -- would just be... disappointed. To put it mildly.
So he waits the fifteen minutes for everyone else to get here -- he has to budget in enough changing time to avoid being caught -- before he clanks into the briefing room. Steve and Libby are the only ones here.
He sits down next to them, and Libby licks at his gauntlet. Yep. She knows it's him, all right.
"Hey, yourself, Iron Man," Steve says, and leans forward. "Listen, about last night--"
Tony doesn't want to hear either you're a mess or glad you're fine now, and we're cutting you loose, so he slashes his hand across his own throat. "Secret identity."
"Ah." Steve looks chagrined. "After the meeting, then?"
"After the meeting," Tony agrees.
Goddammit, he likes them. But he doesn't know what to say. What to do. He's going to fuck this up somehow. He always does.
But they can't talk about this now, anyway, because Thor and Hank and Jan are piling in, laughing and chattering.
"Right," Steve says. "Calling this meeting to order." Everyone settles down, and even Libby looks attentive. "The agenda today is debriefing from the Immortus fight, and I'd like to discuss the team rearrangements needed when Libby whelps."
"She's whelping?" Tony asks, stupidly. Of course she is.
Steve nods. "About a month to go. Libby says -- well, I can tell you that later, Shellhead." Must be something for his other identity, then.
Pups, Tony thinks. He's never really been around wolf pups other than Kepler when he was growing up, and they'd basically handed Kepler over and left. It had been a lucky thing that Kepler took to him, really; he knows the way most wolf bondings go is to let the soldiers loose among the litter so that the wolves have a choice.
If she whelps here, they probably won't let him see the pups before they take them away. Him especially. The wolfless, those who have lost wolves, are -- by some cruel trick of the universe -- particularly favored by pups. They sense the wound in the pack-sense; they mend it with their minds, with a new bond. And the Army won't want to chance losing one of Captain fucking America's wolf's pups to him, will they now?
Still. He would have liked to have met them.
Jan purses her lips in an "o," barely, and then she's grinning bright. "Oh!" she says, teasing. "Captain America has secrets!"
"Captain America has a private life," Steve retorts, sounding prim, and then his cheeks go red at the edges of the cowl, which means he's realized what he said sounds a lot like he's dating Tony. Iron Man. Whoever.
Not that Tony would be averse, but Steve clearly would be. Should be.
Jan's eyes dart over to him and she giggles. "Well. I don't mean to pry."
Tony coughs, and it fuzzes out the suit speakers. "We're very good friends," he says. He realizes that maybe that makes it sound worse.
"But you are very good friends," Thor says, brows drawing together in confusion, and then Hank starts laughing.
Steve looks at them and gives an exaggerated sigh, but then he grins at Tony, a real grin, like maybe he likes him somehow anyway, but that can't be right. "Anyway. Enough of that. Down to business."
He didn't mean anything by it, Tony tells himself. It didn't mean anything.
Tony's post-meeting talk with Steve is postponed for reasons of... well, the sudden necessity of being circumspect about his secret identity. Jan and Hank have decided to stay with them in the mansion again, and somehow the dinner after the meeting (Tony slurps a milkshake through the mouth-slit in the mask) turns into Jan commandeering the TV remote and subjecting them all to some godawful reality TV marathon of wedding dress designs, during which she alternately praises the contestants and complains vociferously at the screen, fists waving.
Hank looks politely indulgent. Steve looks bemused. Libby is asleep with her head on Steve's feet. Tony has mostly turned down the visual feed inside his helmet and is redesigning the suit's unibeam housing using only the HUD eyetracking to manipulate the model. Sometimes he thinks no one would believe him if he told them what life in the Avengers was really like.
When the last episode ends, Tony stretches, armor rattling. He's got to get the suit off. "I should go for the night," he says, standing.
"What do you do at night," Jan asks, "charge the armor up?"
Tony lifts his eyebrows behind the faceplate; the gesture is entirely wasted. "Wouldn't you like to know, Wasp?"
Jan laughs and slings an arm around Hank. "I'm taken, mister. But I think Cap's a curious kind of guy, aren't you, Steve?"
She works a foot out of her shoe and nudges Steve with her toe; Steve's blushing again.
"I. Uh," Steve says, and he can't meet Tony's eyes.
Tony takes this as his cue to leave.
He's out of the suit and trying to decide what to do now that he's made a tactical retreat when someone knocks on the workshop door.
"Tony?" Steve asks, and of course Steve is the only person who would have known to find him here, who would have expected him here after Iron Man had left. He should have figured.
He opens the door. Steve's gaze takes him in, up and down, and Tony stands a little taller in the disheveled remains of the business suit he'd been wearing all day. He feels defensive, somehow. Like they're bracing for a fight. He doesn't want to fight. He doesn't know what he wants. No, that's not right. He does, but he can't have it.
Maybe Steve could like him -- it's not out of the realm of possibility, after all -- but it's really not going to happen. He shouldn't think about it.
Behind Steve, Libby wags.
"Yeah?" Tony asks.
Steve gives a weary smile. "I'm sorry about... that. They were joking. They like to try to get a rise out of me."
"I know," Tony says, making himself smile back, like it's easy, like it's casual. Steve wouldn't want him. Of course Steve wouldn't want him. Steve's seen him crying ugly drunken tears over his dead wolf. That's not the kind of thing that makes a guy particularly attractive. And he knows who Tony is now: pathetic. Weak. A man who got his wolfbrother killed. He's seen Tony's true, hidden heart, and of course he's judged him for it. He must have.
Steve's gaze darts away and he scuffs at the floor like he's nervous, which is ridiculous, because he's Captain America. "Anyway," he says, "I was just wondering when you were planning on sleeping tonight, because Libby and I, we wanted-- we thought it might be good to sleep with you again."
He wants this. Steve wants this. Tony can't really believe it, at first. Of course Steve doesn't want... anything else... but he can't possibly want this again.
"Same as last night," Steve says, "but ideally with less of a hangover for you." And he smiles.
Jan and Hank are still upstairs, Tony realizes. "The Avengers will know."
Steve looks at him now, and his gaze is fierce. "I'm not ashamed of it. They can think what they like. I don't care how it looks from the outside. This is between us. Whatever you want to tell them -- anything or nothing -- is fine. But it's nothing to be ashamed of. This is how the pack works. We're here for each other."
"I'm not--" Tony begins, and his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth. Not pack.
"You are," Steve says, quietly. "You gave us a home, Tony. And you're an Avenger, same as the rest of us."
"You'd do this for all the Avengers?"
He doesn't mean to sound so needy. Dammit.
"Of course I would," Steve says. "But you know I--" He stops. Looks uncomfortable.
"I know what?" Tony asks, confused.
Steve looks away. "I-- nothing. It's nothing."
Okay, he's not going to push him on that. Whatever it is. "All right." He makes a show of looking around the room, shoving a torque wrench that he wasn't planning on doing anything with anyway closer to the rest of the stuff he uses to pry himself out of the armor with. "Well, I think I'm done here for the night."
He's a coward, but he doesn't actually have to say yes out loud, does he? He must have last night. He was so drunk.
Steve beams at him.
He doesn't say yes, exactly, but Steve and Libby follow him upstairs; on the first floor he can hear the TV faintly blaring away. Hank and Jan must still be up. On the second floor, all the way at the end of the corridor, is Tony's room. Somehow Libby's gotten ahead of them on the stairs, and she gets to the door first and sits there, white against the rich dark carpeting. Tony's door doesn't have a paw-panel, but she noses the spot where the panel would be, impatiently.
"She knows where she's going," Tony says, amused, as he follows her.
Steve, walking at his side, smiles. "Only if you want us there."
"I--" Tony says, or tries to say, and then the words catch in his throat.
Steve comes to a halt in the middle of the hallway and turns to face him; his eyes are wide and pale, a cool, clouded, sky. "It would mean a lot to me if you said it aloud." He shrugs helplessly, awkwardly, his smile thinning. "Call it military habit, but I like to know that the people I'm in bed with really want me there."
Of course, Tony thinks. It makes sense that Steve would be so concerned about consent. Being bonded to a bitch would take away so much of it during heat that he'd probably want as much explicit consent as he could get the rest of the time.
He swallows hard. "I-- yeah. Yeah, I want you there." His pulse is pounding.
Steve smiles again, wider. "Then you get me."
It's a few more steps to Tony's door, and he lets them in; Libby steps inside a little more sedately than usual and then delicately jumps onto Tony's bed, staking out the same space she occupied last night. The bed is covered in white fur and Tony absolutely does not care. Libby wolf-grins at them, and Steve stifles a laugh.
"She's saying she's cold and we should join her, the liar," Steve says. "She says she likes you; you're warm."
Tony starts unbuttoning his shirt. "I have often suspected that being a mammal was my best feature."
He tries not to think about how he and Kepler had jokes like that too, how Kepler would say something funny and Tony would be grinning at something only he could hear, just like Steve is still smiling fondly now. Steve and Libby are already doing so much for him, and he can't possibly repay all their kindness with bitterness and jealousy.
Steve laughs again, and as Tony kicks his shoes off and steps out of his pants, he can hear clothing rustling behind him. Tony shrugs and crawls into the middle of the bed, but when he looks up Steve, down to his boxers, is staring down at him, his expression odd, hard to parse.
"You don't want to put on clothes to sleep in? Like last night?"
Does Steve know he likes him? Oh God. Maybe he's figured it out, maybe he knows, maybe he's telling Tony to stop literally flinging himself at him, because secretly Steve hates him. No, no, that really is paranoid. Steve likes him fine. He just doesn't like him like that.
"I thought you said it worked better with more skin contact."
"It does," Steve says, "but it works well enough with clothes, and I don't want to make you uncomfortable. But if you really are okay with it, then, yes, it's better."
There, see, Steve's just concerned about him. Steve doesn't know anything. It'll be okay.
"I'm fine," he says, and he knows he's trying to convince himself. "It's not like I haven't slept with people before."
It's just that none of it was ever like this.
"If you're sure," Steve says, and when Tony lies down, curling up to Libby, it's not much longer before Steve slides in behind him, just like last night, and this is good, this is right, he wants this forever--
"Night, Steve," Tony says.
Steve reaches behind himself and dims the lamp. "Night, Tony." His breath against Tony's skin is warm, comforting, as is the solid press of his body. He thinks it's the most comfortable he's been in his life. Steve's got him. Libby's got him.
"Night, Libby," Tony adds.
Libby's tail thumps against the bed once in acknowledgment. She wouldn't need to wag like a damn dog if he had the pack-sense, but, well. If wishes were wolves.
"Same to you," Steve relays. "Oh, and that thing I meant to tell you earlier? From Libby?"
"She says... she knows they wouldn't let you, even if she's not really clear on why, but she'd give you one of her litter. If she could. She says you'd be a good brother to any wolf."
Tony can feel himself starting to tear up, and he runs one hand gratefully across Libby's pale shoulder. "Thanks, Libby. That means a lot."
Tony's dreams are bright pleasant things, rolling in the grass on a warm day, sniffing the kicked-up earth -- and then he blinks awake, abruptly, to the noise of the knocking at the door.
"Yeah, Jarvis?" Tony slurs, rolling over toward the door and getting a faceful of Steve's shoulder, because Steve is still behind him.
"Sir," Jarvis says, through the door, "the breakfast I prepared at the request of Dr. Pym and Ms. Van Dyne is cooling, and I thought perhaps you wished to partake of it. Additionally, Captain Rogers has received a telephone call from the Department of Lupine Affairs, and he has not been present in his room all morning; I wondered if you might know where he was, sir."
Wide-eyed, Tony looks at Steve, and opens his mouth to lie--
"Sorry, Jarvis," Steve calls out. "I hope I didn't give you too much trouble."
Well. All right, then.
If Steve's willing to own up to being in here Tony might as well open the door. Tony throws Steve his clothes and hastily puts on a shirt and pants before opening the door. Jarvis regards the scene with remarkable equanimity, and Steve pulls his uniform shirt over his head and smiles politely, like he's not sitting half-naked in Tony's bed.
It's not what it looks like, Tony wants to say, and then he realizes that it doesn't actually matter to him what it looks like. This is what Steve was trying to tell him last night. They're pack. This is what they do.
"Probably more whelping arrangements," Steve adds, sliding into his uniform pants, pulling his socks on. "You'd think Libby had never had pups before, the way they're carrying on. Ah, well. Thanks for letting me know, Jarvis; I'll go call them back." He gets out of bed, still in his stocking feet, his boots dangling from his hand, the mail-shirt unhooked at his throat. And then he turns and smiles a sweet, sweet smile at Tony as Libby hops down to join him. "See you later, Tony."
He walks out.
Tony just stares.
He'd been picturing shame, guilt, secrets, but apparently Steve just... isn't going to. He's going to be proud of it. This is a thing they're doing. Okay. Tony can work with that. It feels... nice. Liberating.
Jarvis raises an eyebrow.
"Uh," Tony says, because he can't even begin to explain this.
"If I may venture an opinion," Jarvis says, "I believe Captain Rogers has had a stabilizing influence on you, sir."
Tony's chest feels light, and he can't stop grinning.
Steve and Libby show up at his door again that night. And the next night. And the night after that.
They don't talk about what they're doing, not after the conversation in the hallway the second night. Steve and Libby just... keep showing up. Like they live there now, like it's an immutable fact about the world. Gradually some of Steve's clothing begins to migrate across the hall into his room. It makes sense; Steve likes to go for a run early and he might as well keep his running clothes somewhere convenient. In the bathroom, another toothbrush appears, in Captain America blue. Then comes Steve's shaving kit, straight razor and all.
Tony tries not to think about what this means.
Steve doesn't take Libby with him everywhere, these days. Tony supposes this makes sense, as Libby is more and more gravid and has stopped coming on Avengers missions. He suspects most wolves would be absolutely fine at this point in the pregnancy, but he's getting the impression from Steve's increasingly frequent phone calls with Lupine Affairs that the Army is more than a little protective of Libby's litter -- and who wouldn't be, really? She's Captain America's super-wolf; they can have another generation of her direct get bonded to the best and brightest young officers. So Tony understands the concern.
Then Steve starts going on his morning runs alone and leaving Libby behind. With Tony.
Tony doesn't even wake up the first time Steve leaves the two of them, and Libby can't talk to him, so it's just her blinking at him when Tony finally wakes up, confused. His back's cold, because Steve's not behind him.
Tony is both touched and terrified by the trust Steve has placed in him, because he's left him alone with his wolf. His pregnant wolf. Tony's the last person anyone should trust with a wolf. He's proved that. Kepler died because of him.
"Okay," he says, and his voice is higher, fear-laced. His throat is dry. "Okay, Libby, we're okay. We're okay, right?"
Libby licks his cheek. He supposes that's a yes. And then Libby rolls over and noses at the bedside table and-- oh. There's a note.
Don't worry, it says in Steve's ridiculous old-fashioned handwriting. Gone for a run. You and Libby get some more sleep, and I'll bring you some of those doughnut croissants you like. And Tony grins because that's Steve, that's Steve who has already refused to use the word cronut, even though he will easily put away a dozen of them by himself.
Breakfast in bed, Tony thinks, lying back down, still grinning, and Libby rests her huge white head on his shoulder.
This is the best and weirdest relationship he's ever been in. Never been in. Whichever.
"So," Jan says, one evening, when they've unavoidably run into each other out of their masks, at a black-tie gala, "has Steve moved in with you yet? Are you still with Steve? You are with him, right?" She frowns. "What's the deal with you two?" Her tone has gone from conspiratorial and gossipy to outright confusion, by the end of the questions.
Tony snags a champagne flute from a passing waiter's tray to avoid having to talk about it for a few more seconds. "Mmm," he says, swallowing. No brilliant answers have occurred, and he can't just say Steve and his wolf give good cuddles. "It's... complicated."
"Because I thought," Jan continues, "that he and Iron Man were interested in each other."
Tony shakes his head. "They're just good friends."
He wishes. Oh, how he wishes. If Steve liked him he would say something, right?
"Yeah," Jan says, "that's what Iron Man told us."
Tony thinks maybe she looks a little suspicious.
Their strange routine is upended when Libby whelps -- or rather, when she's about to whelp -- and Steve and Libby are once again escorted away to Fort Hamilton, which, in addition to being the closest Army base, is also fully outfitted for breeding and whelping. Steve of course is wolf-affiliated with the Army, a state of affairs somewhere between reserves and retirement, but it means they do still have some say over him, because of Libby. The Army had apparently been pushing for DC, at which point Steve had mentioned that he actually wasn't on active duty anymore, that he was an active Avenger, that the Avengers needed him, and what were they planning to do if supervillains invaded New York and he was two hundred miles away? (Only he'd said it more politely, because he was Steve.)
So Steve is nearby -- Steve's over in Brooklyn, for fuck's sake -- but he might as well be in DC or, hell, even on another planet, because it's not like Tony can visit him and Libby there. He knows that he can't chance being around unbonded pups, even if he had the clearance. So he's alone; it feels like the first time he's been alone in months. It felt like he was only just getting used to trusting that there would be someone at his back, and now they're gone.
He's not sure what lesson he should learn from that.
Tony finds that he's once again not much good for work; all he can do is think about Steve and Libby. He can't stop wondering whether the birth went well, how many pups there are, if Libby's all right. He doesn't even know if it's already happened.
He can't sleep without them, that first night. He buys body pillows and arranges them on his bed, one on either side of himself, but it isn't the same at all, really.
He gets some work done at SI. He goes home. He tries to start an armor redesign, but he scraps it fast; his heart's not in it.
Then his phone lights up with Steve's picture. (Well, Steve and Libby. It had been after a rough battle, and after the debriefing Steve had basically walked into the workshop with Libby weaving behind him and collapsed on Tony's cot, solidly asleep. Libby had jumped up next to him and curled up. Of course Tony had taken a picture.)
He feels breathless, giddy, instantly feather-light, as he swipes the phone to answer.
"Hi, Steve," Tony says, too fast, and he probably sounds like a goddamn teenager with a crush. Like someone who's been sitting waiting for the phone to ring.
"Hey, Tony." It's Steve's voice, warm and friendly and maybe a little tired, and God, Tony misses him, and it's been less than 48 hours. This is pathetic. "Sorry I couldn't call earlier; it's been a little busy."
He says it like this is something they'd agreed on -- or, no, like it's so obvious that it hardly needs explicit agreement. Like they're in a relationship where they'd expect to talk to each other regularly and of course Steve would call him.
They've never actually talked about this.
"No problem," Tony says, and he already feels so much better just hearing Steve's voice. He's cradling the phone to his face like it's a proxy for touching him. He is a needy mess, but at least if Steve can't see him maybe Steve won't notice. "So -- Libby's okay? How did it go?"
There's a note of proud triumph in Steve's voice. "Fine, fine. Perfect." He imagines Steve smiling as he talks. "No problems with the birth. And it's seven pups! Seven! Imagine that."
"Wow," Tony agrees, because seven is at the upper end of litter sizes. Some general somewhere is probably crying tears of joy at the thought of having seven more of Libby's pups. "That's... that's really something, Cap."
"It is," Steve says. "Hang on, I can--"
The sound attenuates for a bit, and then Tony's phone beeps: Steve's sent him a picture of Libby, lying in a whelping box, with seven tiny newborn pups curled up to her side. Libby is completely asleep, of course.
There's a rustling as Steve puts the phone to his ear again. "Did you get that okay?"
Tony's grinning stupidly at the picture, and he switches Steve to speakerphone so he can keep staring. "They're adorable."
When are you coming home? he wants to ask. It's a stupid question, because he knows Libby will need to stay with her pups for weeks yet, and of course Steve will want to stay with Libby for most of it. Wolves come first. Tony knows that. He's not jealous. He just... misses Steve. But he hasn't earned the right to ask a thing like that. Tony has no claim on him.
"I wish you could be here," Steve says, almost wistfully, and Tony wants to tell him he can't say that, he can't mean that, he can't feel that way. Tony doesn't deserve that.
Tony bites back an inarticulate sound of loneliness. "Yeah, I know I can't take the risk."
"Oh." Steve sounds a little surprised. "I wasn't-- I didn't mean it like that. I just meant-- I meant. It's good to hear your voice," he concludes, and it sounds like it wasn't the first thing he intended to say, as he trips awkwardly into a segue. "How are you? Is everything fine there?"
"You'd know if it weren't," Tony says. "You've got your identicard."
"I wasn't talking about calls to assemble," Steve adds, sounding wry. "You know I'd come for that."
Tony idly wonders how much it would cost to pay someone small-time to pretend to attack him. He thinks maybe Namor would do it for free.
Tony smiles even though Steve can't see. "Everything's fine."
"Good," Steve says, and then he pauses. "Sleeping okay?"
Tony hesitates a little too long before he answers. "Nothing I can't handle."
That was somehow the wrong answer, because Steve sighs. "I'll be back as soon as I can," he says. "Bitches, especially queens, can get tetchy if their brothers -- or sisters, I suppose -- aren't around a lot in the early days." And it sounds like he's apologizing, and that really isn't what Tony needs to hear. He's not weak. He can cope. He really does not need Steve to come back.
He just wants him to come back. But he can't say that either.
"Take as long as Libby needs," Tony says, firmly. "As long as you both need. Days. Weeks. However many you need."
Steve sighs again. "All right," he says. "I just-- I just wanted to call and let you know how Libby was. I'll talk to you later."
"Of course," Tony says. "Bye."
"Bye," Steve replies, and then, very quickly, the words rushing out of him, he adds, "I miss you, Tony."
And then he hangs up. Fast.
Tony's left staring at the blank darkened screen of his phone.
Steve misses him. Steve misses him.
It's like this: Tony can't sleep with Steve.
(Sex, he means. Isn't it always sex?)
He can't sleep with Steve precisely because Steve would do it.
Steve's a kind man. Generous. Steve's been sleeping in Tony's bed for a month straight solely to make Tony feel better. If Steve thought that sex was a thing Tony needed from him, Steve would absolutely do it. He would give him even more of his body, just to make Tony feel better. And Tony really, really doesn't want to be Steve's pity fuck.
There are a variety of other reasons, even worse than plain generosity, but they all come down to Steve saying yes. Steve has a wolfsister. He sleeps with people he doesn't much like sleeping with, because Libby needs him to. He could sleep with Tony even if he didn't want to. It wouldn't be difficult. He's already got a lot of practice having sex he doesn't want.
And even if Steve did want to, it couldn't really mean anything to him, could it? Tony is so stupidly hung up on him. Steve doesn't like him back. Sure, he's Steve's friend, but that doesn't have to mean anything. The sex wouldn't mean anything. And Tony wants something real. He can't ask for that.
Tony's bed that night is once again cold and empty. It smells right, kind of like wolves, kind of like Steve's familiar, pleasant scent, but there's no one there, not really. He can't shut his eyes and listen to Steve breathing behind him, light and regular; he can't time his own breaths with the rise and fall of Libby's side under his outstretched hand, with the matching warmth of Steve's exhalations against his shoulder. Tony wonders if Steve knows that he and his wolf breathe in sync. He shuts his eyes and tries to pretend that they're there, that Steve's arm is wrapped around his chest, that if he opens his eyes he'd be able to look down and see him, right there. The dark splintered edges of his mind, the parts where Kepler used to live, seem to loom closer. It all seems worse when he's alone. He's still broken. Not quite as raw, but still not healed. Maybe he never will be.
He thinks he gets a couple hours of sleep, total.
In the morning he gets some work done on the armor redesign, but not enough; he keeps thinking he sees Steve or Libby out of the corner of his eye, flashes of blue scale armor and white fur, because they're down here often enough with him. But they're not here now.
And then Steve starts texting him.
Do you think blue is my color? Steve asks, mysteriously. I miss the green.
A second later there's a selfie, taken in a mirror, of Steve in one of the new blue service uniforms. There's a frankly ridiculous amount of ribbons on his chest. Tony's pretty sure one of those is the World War II Victory Medal. He's also pretty sure that's the Medal of Honor around Steve's neck, Jesus Christ. Steve's cap is perched on his head and he's grinning a distinctly non-regulation goofy grin at the camera. At Tony.
Tony's been around enough military personnel that he is, generally speaking, immune to the attraction of a man in uniform. Apparently he makes an exception for Steve Rogers. Dear God. Steve is gorgeous. Tony's mouth has gone dry. He can't really remember how to put words together, and he's glad he isn't talking to Steve. Or seeing Steve in person. But if he were, if Steve were right here, Tony would be running his hands down the perfect lines of his body, undoing his tie, peeling the uniform all away, layer by layer. And he knows what Steve looks like; he doesn't even have to imagine that part when he thinks about his hands trailing down Steve's chest and oh God, he's so hard, just from picturing that. And Steve would still be smiling at him, maybe smiling just like that.
Tony swallows. Takes a few deep breaths. Right. Not happening. Not happening.
I think we all knew blue was your color already, Tony texts back, thinking of Steve's Captain America uniform. Handsome. Really brings out your eyes.
And then he stares at his phone in horror, because he really just sent that, and if he wants to portray himself as someone who has no romantic interest in Steve, this is definitely not the way to go about it. Oh God. Deflect. Deflect. He has to think of something else to say.
He adds a winking face. Just kidding. Ha.
That's going to show all the fur, though, he adds. There. Maybe that's casual enough.
So did olive drab, Steve texts back. White shows up on everything. Trust me.
There, see? Steve doesn't think anything of it. Tony exhales in relief.
If you wanted to wear white, you should have joined the Navy, Tony texts, grinning.
Steve sends back a line of emoji in various states of sadness. Some of them are actually crying. Mission accomplished, Tony thinks, and he wonders if anyone else would believe that a man for whom "last year" was 1944 is texting just like everyone else. Probably not. He doesn't think a lot of people really get to see Steve, the real Steve. Tony does, though. Steve... Steve lets him.
He can't let himself think about what that means.
Gotta go, Steve texts. Talk to you later.
Steve then texts a heart.
He probably didn't mean to do that, Tony tells himself. Letting himself believe anything else -- as pleasant as that might be -- is just asking for the inevitable rejection.
Tony doesn't reply. He has no idea what to say.
Steve doesn't talk to him later, though. And it's not like Tony's concerned about it, not really. He did manage to settle down and get some work done eventually; the new helmet goes to fabrication. It's the most productive he's been since Steve's left. But then he realizes it's got to be evening now, and Steve still hasn't texted again.
He's not worried. He's really not. He's just... curious.
Six, seven, eight o'clock. No Steve.
Tony wonders if he should call Steve, but Steve's the busier one right now. He'll call when he's able to. Won't he?
Bad monster movie marathon on the TV. Nine. Ten. Steve has to be bunked down for the night by now.
The movie ends, and Tony sighs and heads up to bed. He's not pulling all-nighters much anymore, and he's keeping relatively normal sleeping hours other than that. Steve and Libby's influence, he's sure.
If he were going to call, he'd have called already. Maybe Tony said something wrong. Maybe Steve realized Tony likes him. Maybe that's why he hasn't said anything.
Tony's just getting into bed when his phone beeps.
Are you awake? Steve asks.
Yes, Tony types back and then adds, In bed. Not asleep yet. You didn't wake me or anything.
There's a brief pause, and then a reply flashes on the screen: What are you wearing?
The noise that comes from Tony's mouth sounds like he's maybe dying, because this cannot possibly be sexting. Steve does not even know what sexting is. Tony hopes, anyway.
Um, Tony taps out, looking down at his entirely unsexy shirt and boxers. Clothes? That I sleep in?
Also if it is sexting, Tony's just failed pretty badly.
Just wanted to make sure you're not going to give anyone else a show, Steve says, and... what? This makes no sense.
Then there's a knock on the door.
Tony puts the phone down, throws the covers back, and struggles out of bed over the mass of pillows. He opens the door.
Steve is on the other side, alone. He's still in the goddamn service blues, cap tucked under his arm, and he smiles. "Hi, Tony."
Tony reflexively looks both ways down the hallway, even though he knows there's no way Libby, with her newborn pups, is going to be here. But she's always with Steve. "Is-- is there something wrong with Libby?" Maybe that's why Steve is here. But, no, he would have stayed with her for certain, if that were the case. This still makes no sense.
"No, no!" Steve says, hastily, holding his hand up. "She's fine. Absolutely fine. No need to worry."
"Then why...?" Tony begins, and he can't figure out how to word it, because he is so very glad to see Steve, but he's pretty sure why are you here and not there is going to come out wrong.
Steve makes an awkward face, halfway to a grimace, and he runs a finger around his collar. "Libby kicked me out."
Steve's gaze shifts away. "She told me she was fine by herself and that she was tired of me being, uh. She thought I should come see you. Because I missed you." There's a faint flush on his cheeks, and he's still not meeting Tony's eyes. "And she-- she wanted me to be happy."
"Happy," Tony repeats, dumbfounded, and then he realizes Steve's still standing in the hall in full uniform and Tony's in the doorway in a ratty Radiohead t-shirt and the Iron Man boxers Steve gave him for Christmas and this is really not a conversation he wants to have where gossipy Avengers can overhear. "You want we should talk about this some more inside?"
Steve steps forward and Tony doesn't quite step back and they're both in the doorway, Tony's back pressed against the doorframe, with Steve bare inches from him, smelling mostly like wolves, like himself, exactly right. Steve's eyes are wide in the dimness of Tony's room, and if Tony just leaned in, leaned a little closer, closed the gap between them--
Tony steps back and Steve gets inside the room, closes the door, drops his cap on the table next to the bed.
Steve's still holding himself awkwardly, not settling, looking entirely uncomfortable in his skin. Like he doesn't know if Tony will like what he has to say. (Tony makes him happy? God.) Steve clears his throat, and he is so far from the confident Captain America that you'd hardly know he was the same man. Tony wonders why Steve is letting him see this.
Steve clears his throat. "Well," he says. "I, uh. I missed you. A lot."
"So you said," Tony says, a little amused. It's... sweet. Something about it makes him go warm inside, soft and vulnerable. Steve missed him. Steve came back to see him. Just to see him.
"And I thought," Steve says, his voice whispery-hoarse, "I thought maybe. Maybe you missed me."
He meets Tony's eyes then and his gaze is hungry, a terrifying naked hope, raw and trusting. Like he's on a ledge, on a cliff-edge, holding out his hand, and only Tony can catch him. He's tense, taut, and his eyes are nearly black in the dim light, blue-black, wide, revealing everything.
Steve wants him. That's not indifference. That's not pity. Steve wants him. Steve really wants him. Tony wasn't imagining any of it.
"Yeah," Tony says, and he wonders as he speaks just when he started shaking. "I missed you too. I wished you were here."
Steve licks his lips; Tony's not sure whether it's nerves or whether Steve means it to be seductive, but the wet flash of his tongue is hypnotizing. Tony draws another shivering breath.
"What did you wish for?" Steve's voice has gone low, slow, dark with mixed eagerness and desire. But he's scared too. Tony can see that.
Tony smiles. "You. Right here with me."
Steve steps in, close, uniformed propriety and cautious hope. "Please tell me I'm not misinterpreting everything, Tony," he murmurs. "But I'd really like to kiss you."
Explicit consent. Wolfbonded. Right.
"I would love that," Tony says fervently, dizzy, lightheaded, and somehow his hands are on Steve's shoulders and he's pulling him in, and Steve's arms wrap around him, like they're flying together, and they're kissing.
The kiss is incredibly awkward at first. He'd always envisioned Captain America's kisses -- because it's not like he never thought about this before -- as strong, powerful, purposeful. Maybe his fantasy Cap knew what he was doing, but the real Steve Rogers clearly has much less experience. But this is real, and there's no way Tony would trade it for the fantasy.
Their noses bump. Steve's tongue is in his mouth like he doesn't quite know what to do with it, and he's pressing insistently, messily forward like he's never kissed anyone before. Tony pulls away a little, then darts back to nibble on Steve's lip, and Steve gives a little surprised-sounding breathy gasp that is very possibly the hottest thing Tony's ever heard, like he had no idea it would feel this good.
Tony kind of wants to find everyone who's ever kissed Steve before and give them a stern talking-to, because how could they have had Steve Rogers in their arms and entirely missed these basic opportunities? But then Steve's hands slide down Tony's spine, over his ass, pulling him tight against Steve's body, and Steve pushes one leg between Tony's thighs and oh God, now Tony's gasping. He's so hard already, and the pressure and the friction is just perfect--
Steve draws his head back. "I hope this isn't too forward," he begins, and Tony starts laughing, because Steve has his hand on Tony's ass, how much more forward can they get?
"Please let me take you to bed," Tony says. "I mean, we've been to bed, but. Uh. With even less clothes. Please." Steve's fingertips slide under the waistband of Tony's boxers and Tony kind of forgets what he was saying for a few seconds. This is the least smooth he's ever been. He thinks maybe that's what Steve wants. "Not that your uniform isn't nice, I mean. Very nice."
"If I didn't have to be back on base tomorrow, I'd let you rub off on it," Steve offers, and holy fuck. Tony can't even form words. Steve should just talk dirty to him forever. There's something there about Steve, Captain America, so prim and proper, with a head full of filthy thoughts. Tony can't even really handle it. Does Steve think things like that about him? Tony imagines Steve, his hands on himself, thinking up a long list of dirty fantasies.
"Oh?" Steve asks, and his mouth curves, dark and knowing. "You like that? That's good. I was hoping you'd liked the picture I sent you."
"Made me want to get you out of the uniform," Tony says, and then he realizes exactly what Steve's saying. "You did that on purpose, didn't you?"
Steve grins like it's a challenge, steps back, unbuttons his coat, and starts loosening his tie. "Maybe I'll send you a better picture tomorrow. Give you something to remember me by when you're... lonely."
Tony watches as Steve gets the coat and tie off, his mouth gone dry at the promise of it all, tonight and tomorrow and time together stretching on into the wide-open future, as Steve starts on the buttons of his shirt. "I should never have gotten you a cameraphone. You're going to kill me."
Bared skin is revealed, inch by enticing inch, and Steve smiles, another dare. "You think your generation invented dirty pictures?"
Tony can only stare in response as Steve pushes off his shirt, yanks the undershirt over his head, and starts on his belt, because watching the play of Steve's muscles as his hands work is already better than any porn Tony's ever seen, Christ.
And then Steve just seems to get flustered, because he... stops. He's just standing there shirtless, belt undone, like he doesn't know what to do next.
"Boots first," Tony prompts, and Steve looks down uncomfortably at himself. Tony sits, pats the bed next to him. "C'mere. I'll do it."
Steve sits down, and he's quivering again, like a wire strung tight, but he lets Tony unlace his boots and he works his boots and socks and pants off and he's there in his underwear, and he's looking over at Tony all wide-eyed and innocent, like only Tony knows what to do here, except Tony is sure Steve is very far from innocent.
"I'm okay," Steve says, still trembling, exhaling hard. "I'm good. I just-- it all hit me at once, you know?"
"I know." He takes Steve's hand, strokes his thumb across the back of Steve's fingers, and the tension seems to bleed right out of Steve. Good. "Feeling good so far?"
"Mmm," Steve says. "Very. More kissing?" He sounds honestly curious, like Tony might actually tell him no.
Tony smiles; he feels his mouth shape itself into a soft little curve, and Steve puts his arms around him and leans in. Tony kisses him again, again, a few more times, until Steve is panting again, easy and pliant, and God, they can do this, they can have this. It seems almost unbelievable.
"So what do you want?" Tony whispers, and Steve closes his eyes and shudders against him. "Tell me. You can have me, any way you want." He knows what people assume about men with wolfsisters, but he doesn't want to assume anything here.
Steve's kissing him again, uncoordinated, like he's overwhelmed by the feeling of it, pressing kisses to Tony's lips and jaw and throat. "This is good," he murmurs. "Just... simple. Easy. Nothing fancy."
Plenty of time for fancy later, Tony guesses.
"Can I touch you? That what you want?" Tony asks, because he's getting the impression Steve is the kind of guy who likes to be asked, and Steve smiles and nods and lets Tony push him back to the bed, atop the masses of pillows that were poor replacements for him. He doesn't seem to mind.
Steve arches his hips up and lets Tony work his underwear off him; Tony decides that in the interests of fairness, he might as well get naked, and he's out of his shirt and shorts and Steve's staring up at him, enthralled, and Tony's staring back and while he's never really thought of himself as a size queen, God, he hopes Steve will want to put that in him at some point. He thinks maybe he's licking his lips.
Steve's brows draw together, nervous. "Good?"
"Very good," Tony assures him, and he fits himself next to Steve, the long expanse of Steve's side pressing hot against him, and kisses him again, dirty and messy and open-mouthed, the kind of kiss that this really calls for.
Between one kiss and the next, Tony slides his palm down Steve's stomach, blindly, and wraps his fingers around Steve's cock, thick and hot and leaking into his hand. Steve arches up so hard that he nearly bends backwards, and he moans something inarticulate into Tony's mouth as his flailing hand comes down on the nape of Tony's neck, pressing them together. Okay, wow, he does like that. Tony would have thought just jerking him off wouldn't have been as exciting as all that, but he's willing to take the compliment where he can get it.
Steve's still shaking, but it's a little off, like he's keyed-up in a way that's not quite what Tony wants, and Tony lets his hand on Steve's cock slow. He pulls his head back and puts the palm of his free hand to the side of Steve's face. Steve smiles weakly.
"Shh," Tony says. "Easy. I've got you. We've got all night. We can take it slow, stop if you want to." He wonders if Steve is thinking of wolf breeding, of the isolation rooms, of not being able to stop.
"I know," Steve says, but he sounds too quiet, a little lost. "Kiss me more?"
So Steve really likes kissing; Tony can definitely work with that. Tony kisses him and kisses him, and somewhere in the wet hot slide of lips against lips Tony realizes that Steve is rocking up against him, fucking into his fist. Maybe this is what Steve wanted, to know that he could set the pace, that he could do what he wanted. Tony can give him what he wants. It feels like returning the favor Steve has done, like Steve has shielded him and held him and healed him and now Tony can take all the strength and hand it back, can be what Steve needs with his body.
Tony obligingly tightens his fingers, swipes his thumb over the head of Steve's cock, and Steve gasps against his lips, please and Tony and yes, so Tony does it again, letting Steve's motion do the rest of the work, and Steve's mouth goes slack with pleasure as the rest of him tightens, bends like a bow, and he's coming hot all over Tony's hand, still gasping.
"Wow," Steve says, dazed. "That's so much better than-- you're so good at that." And then, before Tony can ask what he means, he eyes Tony up and down, with a spark of possession in his eyes that sizzles all the way down Tony's spine and makes Tony think, yes, have me, take me, do what you want with me. "Can I?" Steve asks, eyes still wide and dark.
Tony grins at him. "Whatever you like."
And then all of a sudden Steve's rolling him over, and Tony's landed in the valley between his giant pillows, and Steve's on top of him so he's more or less pinned, and -- Tony wriggles experimentally -- he can't get free. It's like Steve cuddling him, times a thousand. Steve's got him and he's not going anywhere. He really likes the feel of that, the reassuring press of Steve's body atop his.
One of the pillows slides away and then Steve is beside him, turning Tony on his side, the way they like to sleep, and Steve's curled up behind him. It's almost like every other night, except they're naked and -- God -- Steve's getting hard again already, cock nestling up against the cleft of Tony's ass in an extremely promising way. Tony shivers at Steve's breath on his shoulder.
"So here's a thing I wasn't letting myself think about in bed," Steve begins, voice pitched low, and he's nuzzling Tony's shoulder. One hand is over Tony's ribs, just like always. "I wasn't letting myself think about lying like this, just like we do, and then moving my hand just a little lower."
His hand drifts southward, and his fingers wrap around Tony's cock, and Tony realizes from the way Steve's shifted that he's pushing himself up so he can see better, Jesus Christ, so he can watch his own hand on Tony's cock, so he can watch himself make Tony come, and God, it's not going to take much--
"Steve," Tony gasps out, and he doesn't even know what he's asking for, but he wants something, and he rocks forward into Steve's fist and then back, grinding against Steve's cock.
Steve gives a surprised gasp, the sound almost punched out of him, and he thrusts forward, rubbing against Tony's ass.
"Please," Tony says, because he wants, he wants--
"Can't fuck you like this," Steve pants out, and Tony's pretty sure his cock jumps when Steve says fuck, God, he just wants Steve to say every filthy word he knows, whisper them right in his ear, and he could probably come just from that.
Tony twists in Steve's hold and his thighs splay open and he has an idea. "Sure you can. Down a little," he says, and the last words come out as a groan as Steve slides down his body and Steve's cock pushes between Tony's sweat-slick thighs, exactly where he wanted it. "There you go."
"Oh," Steve says, a tiny, small sound of surprise, of revelation. "Oh, Tony, I didn't know." He's shaking again, like it's too much, like there's too much pleasure here to be contained.
Tony smiles and drops his own hand to where Steve's hand is still fisted around his dick, and then back, snaking over their bodies to draw them together. "Lying just like this, you said?" he prompts.
"Like this," Steve repeats, voice gone hoarse, breath pluming out over Tony's sticky skin, fingers tightening on Tony's cock, as he slides and thrusts between Tony's thighs. "I-- oh--"
Tony locks his thighs tight and Steve comes on a sigh, messy and hot and Tony looks down and down because, God, does he ever like looking, watching Steve's hand flash over his dick, and then Steve bites down hard on his shoulder, just where he's most sensitive, and he's gone.
They stay curled together for a long time before Tony decides that, as appealing as sleep is, he'd really better clean them up. When he gets up and returns with a washcloth, Steve pushes himself up for a second, then rolls over lazily and lets Tony wipe him clean.
"Mmm," Steve says, sleepily. "That's nice. All of it was nice. Never imagined it could all be that nice." He smiles, wide and lazy. "I mean, I imagined, but. It was different. So much better. Didn't even know you could do that. Uh. That thing with your legs."
Tony drops the washcloth and just stares, because that sounds an awful lot like-- "Steve," he ventures, with mounting dread, "you have had sex before, right?"
Steve blinks at him. "Well, sure. You know I have. Bonded to Libby in 1940, and she wasn't old enough yet to come into heat that winter, but that's--" he's counting on his fingers-- "'41, '42, '43, '44, and then a couple months ago," and dear God, he can't mean what it sounds like he means.
"No," Tony presses, dismayed. "Sex. Actual sex. That you wanted to have. With someone you wanted to have it with. Outside of heat."
Steve is faintly pink. "I wasn't really the kind of fella anyone wanted, before the serum," he mutters, words barely loud enough to hear. "And then there was a war on, and then there was Libby, and it-- it was hard to separate, in my head, what I wanted, from what happens in heat, and I didn't know how to find something that wasn't... that. Someone who would understand and go easy on me."
Oh God. "This was your first time," Tony says, his voice weak in his ears, and Christ, if he'd known, he would have done so much better by Steve, he would have done more than just jerk him off like a fumbling teenager. "I should have known-- I should have been-- you hadn't even really kissed anyone before, had you?" He knows the answer already.
Steve tugs him down. "Hey," he says, low and soothing. "This was exactly what I wanted. This is exactly what I want." He puts his hand over Tony's heart, splayed over his scarred chest, and Tony breathes deep against it, anchoring himself.
"You're staying?" Tony whispers.
"I'm staying." He can see Steve's smile, a brief flicker of amusement. "Libby is going to be insufferable, just so you know."
Tony chuckles. "She set us up, didn't she?"
"Told you she liked you," Steve murmurs, the words slurring into sleep. "I like you."
They sleep face-to-face that night, wrapped around each other.
Just over two months later -- after several more run-ins with Baron Zemo and the Masters of Evil, and will that guy never quit? -- is when Libby bestows official scent-names on the newly-weaned litter, each pup given a name that is recorded, passed on to every wolf they meet.
Tony is expecting martial names, because that's usually how it goes with fighting wolves. Steel. Cordite. Gunpowder. But when Steve comes back from visiting Libby that evening, he makes the strangest face as he starts telling Tony the names.
They are: sweat and machine oil; something that gets recorded as "expensive scotch" (Steve said it was the best he could do, though Tony thinks Libby must have had something specific in mind); cold black coffee; grease pencil on metal; cologne and champagne; hot solder flux.
That's six names. Tony raises an eyebrow. "And?"
Steve looks sheepish and hands over a copy of the official form for the seventh pup, on which he has neatly written "the scent present in the air after repulsor rays are fired from the Iron Man armor."
"Oh my God," Tony says, in disbelief, letting the form drop to the floor, as understanding dawns. "They're all me, aren't they? She named every single one of them after me."
Half of those together basically are his own scent-name, although there's no way Libby could have known that.
"Yep," Steve says. "Congratulations."
"Your sister is a horrible troll," Tony says, face in his hands, because he can't even deal with being the namesake of an entire wolf litter. "Give her a big hug from me."
"Give her one yourself," says Steve, and he leans in and kisses Tony's hairline, at the edge of his cupped hands. "She's moving back in with us on Monday."
Tony grins behind his hands. Maybe they should move across the hall, back into his old room. Libby does like that den.
Because AIM can't do anything that's not malevolent, they're attempting to replicate the lupine version of the super-soldier serum. And because they can't do anything that's not completely fucking incompetent, they haven't managed it yet.
Which is good, Tony thinks.
It would be a lot harder to bring down this AIM base if there were a pack of super-wolves inside.
The base is built in the "ugly concrete bunker" aesthetic so beloved by mad-science organizations the world over. Tony stands back and lets Thor smash in the front doors; Steve and Hank take out the first wave of beekeepers, leaving them sprawled unconscious on the linoleum. Fluorescent lights flicker overhead. Tony's half-sickened by the mayhem, but mostly burning hot with anger: these people have been hurting wolves.
A siren goes off in a faraway corridor; Tony guesses that's for them.
There's movement: one brave yellow-suited figure is running up, alone, holding what looks like a fire-axe from the emergency wall-mounts over his head.
Steve raises his hand, lets the shield fly, and the axe clatters to the ground. The beekeeper tips backwards, hitting the wall, and then Steve is leaping over downed bodies, putting his hand up for the shield, and Libby, bounding forward, is lunging and snarling and snapping and keeping the suited figure trapped.
Steve slams his forearm across the beekeeper's throat, pinning him to the wall; the man gives a very satisfying gurgle.
"Tell me about the wolves," Steve hisses, voice hoarse with fury, and he relaxes his grip enough so the man can talk.
"Hey, man," the beekeeper tries to say. "I just work here, I don't know nothin'--"
Steve slams the man back into the wall. "Tell me about the wolves," Steve repeats, his voice now gone icily precise. "Tell me where they are and what you're doing to them, or my wolf is going to ask you."
No one on the Avengers likes the idea of experimenting on captured wolves, Tony thinks, grimly.
"Okay, okay," the man says, frantically. Tony can't see the guy's face, but he sounds terrified. "They were waiting on a shipment of new stock. New wolves. There's only one wolf left right now, and they -- ow, geez -- they haven't even started on him, labs are downstairs, oh God, please, that's all I know--"
Actionable intel, a remote part of Tony's mind thinks, but mostly he wants this guy to hurt, because all he can think about is dead wolves, and he knows what that looks like. He knows what that feels like.
"Go," Steve says, viciously, and he lets the man out of his grasp. "Get the hell out of here."
Only one wolf left, Tony thinks. God, how many have they killed?
Steve turns back, his mouth compressed into a hard line. "Wasp, Ant-Man, Thor -- you three stay topside, clear this level. Break everything that will break. Wipe all the data. They can't be allowed to do this again."
"Aye," Thor agrees, hefting Mjolnir, and Jan and Hank look at each other. Jan shrinks, and Hank grows even taller. Perfect.
"Iron Man, you're with me and Libby," Steve says. "We're going to go find the last wolf."
Hank gives him an uneasy look at that, because if anything it would make more sense to assign the team biologist to rescue a test subject from the animal labs, but only Steve knows that Tony knows more about wolves than Hank ever could.
"I'll be fine," Tony says. "Cap, Libby, let's do this thing."
Steve nods, and as the other three Avengers run down the hallway to where the lights have started to flicker an angry emergency red-and-white, he turns, takes three steps to the nearest stairwell, and kicks the door open, hard. Libby launches herself through the gap, a snarling white blur of motion.
They're taking the stairs three at a time, and a party of beekeepers is running up, and Steve doesn't even hesitate before swinging his shield in a wide arc, knocking three of them down. Libby leaps on the fourth, all claws and teeth, and he slides back down the stairs head-first and cracks his skull hard against the concrete of the landing.
"Libby confirms one wolf," Steve says, and he's not even out of breath as he leaps over the fallen beekeepers. "Male, maybe two years old. He's angry but not at us, she says, and he knows we're coming and on his side. He won't give us a hard time."
"Fancy trick, all that wolf-talk," Tony drawls, and the familiar pang of grief and jealousy hits him, the one that says you used to talk to Kepler like that. He grits his teeth, taps the boot jets on, vaults down a flight of stairs, and stops in front of the door stenciled B1 LAB ACCESS. "This look like the place to you?"
There's a keypad by the door; Tony shrugs, raises his hand, charges the repulsor, and three seconds later the entire lock assembly is so much slag on the floor. He reaches in through the faintly-smoking hole -- thank God for gauntlets -- yanks the door open, and finds no beekeepers. There is a T-junction, though.
Steve looks at him and raises his eyebrows. "We go left, you go right?"
"Sure thing, Winghead," Tony says, and then he pushes forward, turns right, and barrels down the hallway.
He slides through one set of double fire doors and then another, and luckily the huge windowed area labeled SUBJECT CONTAINMENT is impossible to miss. Through the panes of safety glass Tony sees long metal tables, rows of cages against the far wall, and he doesn't have to think before he lifts his hand, shatters the glass, and leaps inside.
There's movement at the far end of the row of cages, shadowed, but Tony can't focus on that because there's still a beekeeper in the room, this one raising gloved hands in surrender.
Tony smiles behind the mask. He likes when they make it easy.
"Don't shoot." The voice belongs to a woman this time, young by the sound of it, quavering in fear. "I'm not armed. I'll tell you whatever you want."
"The wolf," Tony asks, "he doesn't have any of the serum trials in him?" The guy above had said so, but it's best to confirm; and even if Libby had said the wolf wasn't going to fight them, whatever fucked-up serum AIM had made might mean the wolf is lying, is unstable, is ill.
She shakes her masked head. "Not yet."
"Is he yours?" Tony asks, and she tilts her head in confusion. "Is he your wolfbrother?" Tony clarifies. "Are you bonded?"
Her voice is filled with bewildered distaste. "You think we bond them? To us? What the hell do you think I want with a wolf? He's crazy; he bites all the techs. He has since he was a puppy."
Libby said the wolf was two years old; they've kept him locked in here for two years with only masked AIM scientists for company, as they took away every other wolf who'd come with him and slowly killed them too? Jesus Christ. Tony wants to be sick.
"He bites all the techs because he understands every word you say and he knows you're trying to kill him," Tony says through gritted teeth. "If he's not yours, then get the fuck out. The rest of the Avengers will be happy to take you into custody."
She turns and flees.
Then Tony's running to the end of the lab and kneeling down in front of the one occupied cage. At the back of the cage there's a wolf. He's larger than Kepler was, not as large as Libby, and his fur is striking, red-tinged. Pretty, Tony muses, in the back of his mind, as he thinks about how to get the wolf out of here.
Step one is not to look so much like a robot. The AIM scientists only wear the beekeeper suits, he thinks, so anything that makes him look more human has to be good, right? With that in mind Tony hits the helmet release, wrenches the helmet off, sets it on the floor next to him, and pulls off one of the gauntlets.
When he looks up, the wolf's golden-eyed gaze meets his.
"Hey, buddy," Tony says, keeping his voice pitched low, easy, nice and friendly. "I'm gonna get you out of here, get you somewhere safe, okay? No one's going to hurt you."
He reaches out with his gauntleted hand and rips the lock off the cage door. The door swings wide and the wolf bounds forward. Tony leans back to try to get out of the way, but the wolf is in his lap, in his arms, licking his face, and--
The wolfbond slams into his mind at the same time as his hands reflexively bury themselves in the wolf's fur. It's like the tide coming in, washing over the emptiness, the ragged broken edges where a wolf wasn't, because now there's a wolf there, all the feelings Tony's been missing, excitement and happiness and love. There's that unflinching stability, the certain knowledge that this feeling will last forever, that nothing can come between them now.
"Oh," Tony says, weakly, and he bends his head forward into the wolf's ruff. He wants this. He wants this so much. His hands are shaking. "I can't," he says. "I can't do this. You don't understand. I got my last wolfbrother killed."
Help, the wolf says in his head, fierce and determined, like there's fire in him. Protect. Keep safe.
"You need me to keep you safe? Protect you?" Tony asks. He is the last man in the world who should be worthy of this, but, hell, the wolf needs his help and he can't possibly turn him down. He can't say no to this.
There's a wolf-laugh down the bond. No, the wolf says, even more fiercely. I help. Protect you. Help fight.
Tony can't tell if he's laughing or crying, happy or sad or terrified out of his mind, but he wants this, oh God, he wants this.
There's a clatter of booted footsteps and wolf-claws on tile in the hallway, and someone's shouting something he can't quite make out, and then Tony realizes that's Steve, yelling for him.
"Iron Man!" Steve calls out, and he's in the doorway. "Iron Man, report! You went off comms and-- oh. Oh my God. Oh, wow. Is that...?"
Steve has come to a halt, and Tony can only see him at the edge of his vision but he's pretty sure Steve's staring.
"It's what you think it is, yeah," Tony says, and he's smiling and maybe crying and he thinks the wolf's fur is wet with his tears but neither of them are letting the other go.
And then Tony really looks up, looks at Steve and Libby, and the pack-sense opens up wide and swallows him, like jumping into freefall, because he can feel them. Libby is-- Libby is like nothing he's ever sensed, cool and commanding and deadly, sitting on her haunches and regarding them both in what is clearly amused self-satisfaction. He knows what they mean by "queen wolf" now. He doesn't think he ever really got it before. She's in charge here. She did this somehow, Tony thinks. And behind her, filtered through the sense of her, is Steve, and he can feel Steve's amazement and delight like it's his own, and Steve loves him, God, Steve really loves him, and Libby loves him too, and Tony's positive he's still crying, but he doesn't care.
"Tony," Steve chokes out, and he wobbles against the doorframe, and he doesn't say anything else. He doesn't have to.
"Is the base clear? Then come here before you fall over," Tony says, and somehow Steve's on the floor with them and Libby's here too, nuzzling the wolf -- God, Tony's wolf -- and he can feel them, all of them, everything, like it should be.
Steve has one arm around him, his face pressed against Tony's armored shoulder, and it has to be uncomfortable, but he's not moving. "Oh, God, Tony," he murmurs. "I know I can't ask you to, because you never signed up for this, but please don't break it."
"I'm staying," Tony says. "I'm staying, Christ, Steve, of course I'm staying."
She told me about you, the wolf says in his head. She said you were lonely. Needed help. Needed a wolf to be all better. Said we would help people. Save people. Fight bad people. Fly. The wolf practically bounces. Go flying? The memory the wolf presents him with features him, but isn't his: it's the fight with the Black Knight, the first time he caught Libby, and he sees himself through wolf-eyes, all hot bright metal and a strong grip. We go flying?
Tony starts laughing, and then he keeps laughing, and Steve sits back and peers at him, concerned.
"Are you all right?"
Tony points at Libby, who pants unrepentantly. "Someone there was apparently telling this guy what a great brother I'd make, before I met him. Promised him I'd take him flying."
Flying? the wolf asks, hopefully. Flying! Flying now!
"Sure," Tony says, because right now he feels like he can do anything. "Flying. I'll build you a suit. Iron Wolf." He glances at Steve. "Why didn't you tell me Libby's basically elected herself Avengers chairperson?"
Steve shrugs. "Queen wolf. I thought you knew. She didn't tell me she was interviewing your new wolf for you, though." And then he turns bright red. "And for her."
She's pretty, the wolf says, in Tony's head, and clearly they are going to have a lot to talk about later.
"Speaking of interviewing," Tony says, "I think introductions are in order, because I've been wondering what your scent-names were since I met you. And I will be so disappointed if it's not freedom and apple pie, Cap."
Steve grins, and amusement pulses through the bond, through the pack-sense. "Not me, sorry," he says. "But Libby's apples, if that's close enough."
Libby looks at him, and Tony smells it: green apples, fallen on the grassy, dewy ground, just a little overripe. It's... really nice, actually.
"And what are you, then?"
Steve makes a face, and then Tony catches the scent-name: oil paint and turpentine.
"I was an artist before I joined the Army," Steve said. "Fellas used to rag on me for that one, trust me. Everyone else was guns and blood."
"I would never," Tony says, and he hands Steve his own old scent-name back, oil and coffee and metal.
"So that's why you named yourself Iron Man," Steve says, and Tony is about to object when he realizes, huh, yeah, that is iron. Maybe he did. And then Steve turns and looks at Libby. "She says she asked around the base until she found a wolf who'd met you, before she named her pups, by the way. So she knew what your name was already."
Libby floods the pack-sense with a pleased kind of pride.
"She's running my life, isn't she?"
"It happens," Steve says, and he scritches Libby's head, and the pack-sense is full of so much affection for both of them that Tony can hardly stand it. "So what's your fella's name, huh?"
"You know," Tony says, "I never asked..."
I have the best name, his wolf volunteers in his head, the very thought practically vibrating with excitement as he looks up at them all, bright-eyed.
Tony's nose wrinkles involuntarily as he smells it, and from the look on Steve's face, he's getting the name too. Tony sniffs again. Gasoline, for sure, but it's a little sharper than that. Something else mixed in. Kerosene. Gasoline-kerosene mix, fifty-fifty. Where the hell has he smelled that before? His mind serves up an image, an icy airstrip in the middle of nowhere.
"Wide-cut jet fuel," Tony says, wonderingly. "Christ, you're just destined for flight, aren't you?"
Yes yes flying now? the wolf asks, even more eagerly.
"Flying later," Tony tells him. "Naming now. How about... Jet?"
Yes, the wolf agrees. Jet. Flying name.
And Tony's laughing and laughing and there's more noise in the hallway and then the other Avengers are in the doorway and--
"Tony?" Jan asks, voice high in disbelief. "You're Iron Man?"
Oh. He has the helmet off. Right.
Tony looks over at Jan and Hank and Thor; they're all looking more than a little surprised. "Yeah," he says. "That's me."
It's not like he can keep the secret identity now that he has a wolf. He is surprisingly okay with this.
Keep me instead, Jet says in his mind.
"Wait," Hank asks, "what's going on?"
"Tony's Iron Man," Steve says, summoning up all that Captain America commanding presence to give an explanation. "Tony has a new wolfbrother now."
"Well," Jan says, "this considerably simplifies all the things I was wondering about the relationship between the three of you. The two of you, I mean." Her eyes are still wide.
"To be fair," Tony puts in, "even if there were three of us I'm sure I would still be sleeping with Steve."
Steve makes a choking noise. "Tony."
"I'm positive Jan guessed that," Tony offers. "Probably starting from the part where you've been sleeping in my room since December."
Jan giggles. "Okay. And wolves?"
"Wolves," Steve says. "Everyone, this is Jet. Jet, this is Jan, Hank, and Thor. We're the Avengers. Welcome to the pack."
Avenge, Jet agrees, and Tony knows it's the last thing Kepler said, but it doesn't feel like goodbye anymore, because this is his life, his new life, and he's here and the Avengers are here and his wolf is here and Steve is here. They've all got him. They're all holding him up. He's whole.