New rule, Tony thought. No more tentacles.
It hadn't been a problem at first. He had underwater-capable armor and twenty feet down was nothing. Then the tentacle, forest-green and wrapped solidly around his midsection, slammed him against the slimy face of the cliff wall like it was trying to crack a nut, and one of the gaskets failed.
Chilly water began to trickle against Tony's thigh.
This was a problem.
He couldn't even blast his way out -- his arms were pinned to his sides. He took a shaky breath. Not panicking. Not panicking. Right.
"I've got Spidey," Jan said in his ear, and at least that was someone safe. "Picked him right up."
He was never leaving the city again. Camping, they'd said. Team camping. It would be fun, they'd said. It hadn't occurred to any of them that there would be monsters in the lake, because that would be completely unreasonable. But Peter'd been swinging from the trees at the water's edge and Tony'd been skimming just above the lake surface, repulsors hot, and then-- tentacles! Surprise!
"This thing doesn't like claws," Logan said, satisfied.
Bruce just sounded apologetic. "I don't think this is one of the Hulk's strengths, but I can if--"
"No, no," Jan said. "We've got this. Tony, where are you?"
The tentacle creature drew back and then slammed Tony into the sunken cliff face again. Underwater, the motion was slow, blurred, but it brought heavy pressure to bear: Tony hit the wall hip-first, a starburst of pain all along his side, and suddenly the seal completely popped. His leg was flooded with water, the armor edge pressing into his calf.
ARMOR FAILURE IMMINENT, the HUD said helpfully, and if he didn't get this off he was going to drown. He was going to drown anyway, and if he removed the armor -- if he even could -- he was still being held down underwater. This was not good.
"Storm, keep clear!" Steve said. His voice was tense, nervous. "You can't fry it with Tony in the water. Iron Man, report!"
"Help," Tony said, and his voice in the helmet was garbled. "Steve--"
The eyeslits were starting to dim. Something loomed on the other side of the tentacle creature, something pink in the darkness. Jan's legs, he realized. She was standing in the lake. She must have grown to Giant-Girl size.
"I can't see you!" Jan said. "Tell me where you are!"
Steve's voice was hoarse. "Tony!"
"Cap," Logan yelled, "you can't just dive in! You'll never find--"
COMMUNICATIONS FAILURE, the HUD said. It sparked, and then everything went black, and there was nothing but the rushing water up to his chest. He could just barely see out the eyeslits. The water was murky. What a way to go.
And then there was something blue, right in front of him. Steve.
As he watched, Steve unslung the shield -- he was swimming with the shield? -- and brought it down on the tentacle. The tentacle shuddered and its grip loosened, but it wasn't quite good enough. Steve hit it once more, with all his strength, and that was it, Tony was free. Which led to another problem: he was heavy.
The water was up to his chin, in the helmet. He was sinking.
Steve's face was almost frantic, wild-eyed, and he pressed Tony back against the cave wall, kicking, holding them both up. Tony felt the clunk as Steve hit the emergency armor releases, and his newly-freed limbs and most of his torso protested, sending sharp twists of pain through him.
Then Steve tapped, clanging, on the helmet release. Tony understood that. Hold your breath. He took one last gasp of air, and then the helmet was gone, and the icy water rushed against his face.
Steve had an arm around him, pushing them both off the wall, kicking them up, up, and Tony hoped Steve knew which way up was. He was dizzy, lightheaded, running out of air.
And then the tentacle grabbed his ankle, squeezed, and twisted--
Against his will, Tony opened his mouth, a silent scream, and water filled his lungs--
But Steve had him, and Steve grabbed and yanked hard, pulling him away from the tentacle, and then they were free. They hit the surface of the water together, and Steve still had an arm around him, dragging him toward the shore, and then he was on land, on his hands and knees, coughing up water--
Steve's hand was on his back. Steve hadn't let go.
"We're clear! Hit it, Storm!" Steve yelled, and lightning arced out, and oh, Tony thought, dazed, that was Ororo, Ororo was wonderful and he was never going to complain about rain in the kitchen causing occasional small appliance fires ever again--
A tentacle rose into the air, menacing. Lightning crackled and hit it square on the tip, and it shuddered and subsided. The lake was calm once again.
"I hate camping," Tony rasped, mournfully, and he coughed more water onto the bank. "I want to go home."
Steve's hand rubbed circles on his back. "Yeah, Shellhead," he said. He sounded like he wanted to cry. "Let's take you home."
Sprained ankle. Fractured rib. Probably a sprained knee. Various scrapes and contusions. It didn't sound bad, listed like that, but it hurt like hell.
"I'm sorry," Tony said, from the furthest-back seat of the Quinjet. "I know you guys were really looking forward to camping."
"Believe me," Peter said, with a shudder, "I am no longer looking forward to camping. Ever again." The greenish slime had stained most of his uniform purple.
Logan turned around and stared at him like he was an idiot. "Some things are more important, Stark."
"I concur," Ororo said, and even Bruce nodded decisively in agreement.
"Really, Tony," Jan said, from where she was perched eating one of the chocolate-chip granola bars that someone had brought under the guise of emergency camping supplies. (Tony suspected Peter.) "You think we want to go camping after that?"
Tony winced, and not just because it physically hurt.
He'd never had a lot of friends growing up, and then his father'd walked out on them and-- well. Sometimes it felt like he was buying the Avengers' friendship, giving them a place to live, funding the team, and it was times like this that it felt the most precarious. Oh, they weren't mean to him, and everyone treated him well. But you couldn't buy friendship, or caring, or love, and there was no way to make them care about him like he did about them. They liked him, but equity was never a guarantee, and listening to them talk about him like this just made him feel small and needy, a burden.
Maybe, a voice in his head said, maybe they liked him for what he had, what he could do. Maybe they were just putting up with him. They probably resented having to haul him out of tentacle-infested lakes. No, he told himself. He knew that wasn't true.
Steve didn't say anything -- Steve was the one flying the Quinjet -- and Tony felt his heart sink. He wanted Steve to like him, most of all, more than anything. And the ways in which he wanted Steve to like him -- well, he didn't think Steve would be interested in that. Steve could have anyone he wanted. And now Steve was the one who'd had to drag his sorry self out of the water. Steve was the one who had nightmares about ice, about cold dark water. And as grateful as Tony was, he wished it had been someone else. He'd seen Steve, awakened from his nightmares, wandering the tower to come talk when he couldn't sleep and Tony was up late tinkering... he'd seen that side of Steve too many times to count, and if the sadness in Steve's eyes then still haunted Tony he could only imagine how Steve must feel. He must not have wanted to do this.
But Steve had done it anyway. Of course he had. He was Captain America; he'd save anyone. It wasn't like it meant anything.
He wanted it to mean something.
Tony just wanted... affection. It was pathetic, that was what it was.
"You drew the short straw, huh?"
Steve squinted at him from the other end of the couch. "What?"
Tony waved groggily down at his braced and bandaged self. The painkillers were starting to take effect. "You know, taking care of the invalid."
"It's not a chore," Steve said. "It's really not. And I volunteered. Can I get you anything?"
"You can get me my workshop," Tony tried, exasperated. "That was my favorite suit that's at the bottom of the lake."
Steve sighed and put down the sheaf of papers he'd been holding. "You can make a new suit when you feel better."
"I'm sorry I lost it," he said, and wow, those drugs were working fast.
"I'm not sorry," Steve said, fiercely, and his eyes shone bright. "It's replaceable. You're not."
Tony blinked at him a few times. "You really-- Cap, you shouldn't think--"
"I care about you," Steve said, and he smiled.
It was what he wanted. He shouldn't have it.
"You dived into a tentacle-filled lake for me."
"Like I said." Steve's stare was intense, and Tony began to suspect that he meant something very specific by it.
And then Steve was holding out his hand, letting his palm rest on the couch. Tony reached out and brushed his fingers over Steve's wrist. Steve smiled.
"You care," Tony repeated.
Steve just smiled, and Tony began to think that maybe he could have everything he wanted after all.
"Yeah," Steve said. The smile was fuzzy, fond, soft-edged, a look Tony had never really seen on him before, and something about it made Tony relax, trusting. He could ask. Steve wouldn't hurt him.
Tony coughed. "Maybe there is one thing you could do for me," he began.
"Anything," Steve said, instantly, eagerly. "Anything you need."
Tony took a breath. "Maybe I could... lean on you, a little?"
Steve's smile was wider, and he breathed in and out, shakily, like he'd never expected Tony to ask, like it was a gift he'd always wanted but had never dared to ask for. "It would be my pleasure."
It took a bit of wiggling -- and some minor bumping of Tony's bruises -- to get them situated nicely, but eventually Tony ended up with his head on Steve's shoulder, and then he was tumbling down into Steve's lap, which turned out to be even more comfortable. Steve was warm -- he always ran hot -- and Tony sighed happily and tilted his head back.
Steve smiled down at him, squeezed his hand -- he was still holding his hand -- and with his other hand brushed Tony's hair back from his forehead, almost tenderly. "Is this good?" Steve asked. He sounded hesitant. Like he didn't know.
"Mmm," Tony said, a little drowsily. "Great."
Steve had him. He wasn't going anywhere. Tony shut his eyes.
He thought he heard Jan talking from faraway. "You two have everything figured out?" she said, and she sounded somehow pleased. "Took you long enough."
Steve's voice was a low comforting rumble, as Tony drifted off to sleep. "Yeah. Yeah, I think we're good now."