Intelligently, the hospital staff didn't attempt to bar the way as Steve stormed in. A hapless intern managed to hold his ground long enough to stammer out directions before seeking shelter behind the nurses' station; not breaking his stride, Steve stalked off in the direction he'd been pointed. His hands were shaking.
Familiar voices grew louder ahead as he approached the room he'd been directed toward. First Pepper's exasperated tones ("Of course it hurts Tony, stop poking it!"), followed by a remarkable display of prescience from Clint ("Cap's going to flip..."), and a cry of indignation from Tony ("Why does it hurt? I'm paying enough they should be forking over the good drugs!") just as he reached the open doorway and everyone froze.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tony was the first to recover. "Hey, Steve!" he said cheerfully, waving. Waving left-handed, specifically; the right was in a sling, the edge of a plaster cast peeking out from behind the heavy fabric. His lip was split, the beginnings of what would be truly magnificent bruising just starting to blossom across his face, and a row of stitches neatly bisected his eyebrow.
"What happened?" Steve demanded.
"Oh, you know how it is on a Friday night-"
"He got jumped outside the bar," Natasha interrupted, glaring at him. "If Clint and I hadn't been there-"
"I could have handled it!"
"Shut up, Tony," Pepper said wearily.
"Why?" Steve said.
And suddenly no-one was willing to meet his eyes. Even Tony looked uncomfortable, and Steve felt a horrible suspicion begin to grow. He swallowed around the sudden dryness in his throat. "This is-" His voice cracked and he tried again. "It was because of...us, wasn't it?" The way Tony winced and looked away was all the answer he needed.
Just over a week ago word had somehow got out that Tony Stark was dating Captain America, and the tabloids had promptly exploded. Some quarters were having gleeful hysterics over the news; others were denouncing Tony as a traitor for 'corrupting a national icon'. Tony had laughed at that particular headline, he remembered, just a few days ago. Laughed and said smugly that the 'national icon' had loved every minute of it. Just a few days ago it had all been funny.
And now Tony was in hospital.
In certain ways Tony was the most vulnerable member of the team. No super-soldier strength, no mutation or godly powers, no real combat training. Without the Iron Man suit he was just a man; a man as stubborn as a mule and as tough as old leather when the chips were down, admittedly, but just a man nonetheless. And a man with a big mouth and a talent for finding trouble.
Natasha had resumed glaring at Tony. "We tried to get him to leave, but..." She trailed off, but Steve was fairly certain he knew where the sentence had been going. When provoked Tony was pathologically incapable of keeping his mouth shut.
"Calling them idiots was fair enough," Clint contributed, confirming his suspicions. "But then he started on about how the loudest homophobes usually have repressed homosexual tendencies-"
"It's true!" Tony protested.
"-and things kinda went downhill from there."
"Where are they?"
"Dunno." Clint shrugged. "New York? Maybe. I'd be running for the border by now if I'd been stupid enough to beat the shit out of an Avenger."
"You let them get away?" Steve demanded.
"We were more concerned with getting Tony to a hospital," Natasha said coolly.
"It's not that bad," Tony muttered.
"Have you seen yourself?" Pepper asked dryly, raising her eyebrows.
Tony waved his undamaged hand dismissively. "I've been beaten up worse by better men. And better women. Hell, Natasha does a better job of kicking my ass every day in the gym." Natasha shrugged and nodded in acknowledgement of this truth. "Look, the doctor said I'll be fine in a week apart from the arm and the ribs." He looked around for support. "True?"
"True," Pepper admitted grudgingly.
"There you go," Tony said with an air of satisfaction. "Now is someone going to get me more morphine or what?"
But he still wouldn't meet Steve's eyes squarely.
Steve spent most of that night dozing in a chair by the hospital bed, never really achieving true sleep. At one point he woke to hear Pepper on the other side of the bed fiercely telling a sleeping Tony that he was not allowed to get himself killed over anything this stupid, and if he did she would bring him back from the grave for the express purpose of killing him herself. Later he was woken by shouting and the sound of Bruce patiently explaining to Thor why indiscriminately beating people up was not the correct response to this situation. Smiling faintly despite himself - you could always count on Thor - Steve drifted off again.
When he awoke again, later, he was alone in the room with Tony and chilly pre-dawn light was filtering in through the half-shut drapes. He stretched, thankful for the healing factor that soothed away the aches from sleeping in the chair almost before he could notice them, and glanced at his watch. 6:14am.
Tony was sleeping peacefully. Or as peacefully as Tony ever slept, anyway; he had a tendency to twitch and mumble unintelligibly. The bruising on his face had swollen overnight to an ugly purple-black, cuts and rows of stitches standing out against the livid shades. Unthinkingly Steve reached out and took his good hand, the cold knot of fear that had been in his chest ever since he got Pepper's call last night clenching again. If Clint and I hadn't been there- Natasha had said, and Steve's hands trembled at the thought of how that sentence could have ended. They'd fought aliens and gods and monsters, and Tony could have been beaten to death in a Manhattan alley by a couple of drunk rednecks.
People were always telling him things were different now, but apparently that wasn't as true as they liked to think. Some things never changed. This hadn't changed. No matter which century it was, if you didn't fit in - even, or perhaps especially, if like Tony you revelled in the things that made you different - society would find a way to punish you. If you were a skinny kid with an eye for art in 1940s Brooklyn, you suffered for it. Apparently even in the 21st century, if you were queer and honest about it, you suffered for it. He knew something about Tony's childhood too, and he wondered sometimes; if you were small for your age and far too young to be that brilliant, if you refused to hide who and what you were...did you suffer for that too?
If he thought about this too much, he was going to do something he'd regret later.
Normally he didn't tend to get protective of Tony. He'd never thought twice about ordering him into battle, no matter how dangerous it was. He knew Tony could take care of himself. And it was Tony he ordered into the field; he'd tried at first to keep Tony separate from Iron Man in his mind, but it really wasn't possible. There wasn't a distinction there. Tony was Iron Man, Iron Man was Tony, and you couldn't keep them separate because they weren't. No wonder Tony had never tried to keep his identity secret. Even if it had been possible he wasn't remotely capable of it.
They were the same person and he loved them both, even if Tony did tend to get wide-eyed and panicky every time the L-word made it into conversation. Much as they'd rubbed each other the wrong way at first, he couldn't imagine his life without Tony in it any more. If Clint and Natasha hadn't been there...
He couldn't let himself dwell on that. Tony was still here even if he wasn't exactly in one piece. Maybe it could have been avoided, but the thing was, he was damned if he could think how. Sooner or later, the threats and denunciations were always going to turn into violence. Maybe if they had managed to keep the relationship a secret...but he was really only surprised it had remained one as long as it had. He'd been perfectly happy to keep it private. Tony, on the other hand, was terrible at lying and had an exhibitionist streak a mile wide.
Steve guessed it was probably something to do with being in the public eye his entire life. Tony didn't believe in PR. He was going to be himself as hard as he possibly could, and screw anyone who didn't like it. It wasn't a bad life philosophy. Until something like this happened.
There was a louder mumble and stirring from the bed as Tony woke. And there was one beautiful moment where Tony gripped his hand back and gave a sleepy, unguarded smile- before yelping in pain and snatching his hand back to press against his swollen face. "Ow!" he exclaimed indignantly.
"Good morning to you too," Steve said dryly, mostly to cover his sudden overwhelming desire to punch someone.
"I'm pretty sure I was promised drugs last night," Tony said. "I don't feel drugged. The service in this place is appalling. Get your coat, dear, we're leaving."
"You're not going anywhere until the doctor says you can," Steve replied firmly.
"You suck. Traitor." Tony squinted down at the cast on his right arm. "That sucks." He wiggled his fingers experimentally and grimaced. "Oh, that really sucks. How am I supposed to fit this thing into the armour?"
"The doctors said it'll take about eight weeks," Steve said. "Give it a couple of months and you'll be fit to go back on duty."
"What, so I can go back to saving people like the assholes who jumped me last night?" Tony snapped. It was the first sign of anything other than offhand flippancy toward the situation and Steve was relieved to see it. The facade had cracked, and behind it he wasn't upset or afraid, he was angry.
"So we can go back to saving the world." He paused a moment before adding; "...which does seem to contain a lot of assholes."
Tony laughed, and immediately winced. "Ow. Don't make me laugh. Ribs." He winked at Steve and gave a leer. "Looks like you'll have to be gentle with me for the next few weeks."
Steve smiled, and hesitated. "Listen, we should talk..."
"Drugs first," Tony said firmly.
Just after 9am a doctor looked Tony over and grudgingly conceded that he was in no immediate danger. With stern admonitions to come back in if there were any problems, Tony was discharged from the hospital.
As soon as they got home he immediately locked himself in his workshop, to the surprise of absolutely no-one. Steve gave it a few hours, most of which was spent in the gym, before heading down. The roar of the discordant rock music always playing in the workshop drowned out the sounds of his approach, and JARVIS admitted him without comment.
Tony was hunched over a complicated array of wires and circuits that Steve couldn't make head nor tail of, doing something arcane with a set of tiny screwdrivers. He'd always been fascinated by the grace and precision with which Tony worked with his hands, even back when he could barely stand the man. It still entranced him now. And even now he was surprised and impressed by the apparent ease with which Tony handled the tiny, delicate tools one-handed. He might have believed it was no inconvenience at all if he didn't know Tony better.
The music volume dropped abruptly and Tony looked up, blinking. "JARVIS, what the-?" He stopped as he caught sight of Steve and grinned. "Hey."
"Hey." Steve crossed the workshop to eye the tangle of electronics curiously, a hand coming almost unconsciously to rest on the shoulder of Tony's uninjured arm. "What are you working on?"
"More powerful version of the Widow's Bite for Natasha," Tony replied. "Check it out." He twisted two wires together and, after a thoughtful pause, slid on a heavy glove. The next connection he made caused blue-white sparks to bridge the gap between two exposed prongs with an audible crack. "Cool, huh?"
"Wow," Steve said dutifully, though what he was thinking was more along the lines of should you really be messing with that while doped to the eyeballs on painkillers? "Just don't zap yourself."
"I'm about as zapped as I'm gonna get," Tony replied, tapping his chest with a metallic noise.
Steve gave him a dubious look. He didn't have the first idea what would happen if the arc reactor got shocked, but he was willing to bet it wouldn't be good. Instead of pressing the point, though, he commented, "You seem to be coping pretty well with only having the one hand."
"It's not so bad," Tony said with shrug. "And I've got Dummy to do all the heavy lifting."
"That's good." He paused and looked at his hands, trying to figure out how to say what he wanted to say next. "Listen, Tony..."
"Yeah," Tony said. "Yeah, I know, last night was...look, I'm sorry about last night. I didn't mean to...I really wasn't looking for trouble."
"I know, I just need to say-"
"You don't have to say anything-"
"I can't lose you," Steve said quietly. When he looked up, Tony was looking a little wild around the eyes, but he pressed on regardless. "It's different when we're in the field. There's always a chance one of us..." Except it's not us, it's you, it's always you, because you're far too fragile and breakable and reckless and it breaks my heart how little you seem to value your own life- "...one of us might get...hurt. I can deal with that. But last night was so...so..." He waved his hands inarticulately in what was, if he'd thought about it, really a rather Tonyish gesture.
"Unexpected?" Tony volunteered, a self-deprecating little twist to his mouth. "Trivial? Stupid? Believe me, I get it. I never thought... I mean, I thought I could handle myself. But you said it yourself. Take away the suit..."
"I shouldn't have said that," Steve said, old guilt twisting in his gut. "I was wrong. I didn't know you." He hadn't known Tony well enough then to know that beneath the carapace of sarcasm and overwhelming arrogance was...well, Tony. Tony, whose mind burned with so many ideas Steve couldn't even begin to comprehend that he barely lived in the same world as the rest of them half the time, who would catch a nuclear missile to save a city even knowing it was probably going to kill him. Who was a different man when it was just the two of them; who loved him, even if the word scared him witless.
"It's true though," Tony said bitterly, drawing him out of his thoughts. "Out without the suit and I get the shit kicked out of me by a couple of drunks. That's just embarrassing."
"Tony-" Steve began, and realised he had no idea what to say. Tony didn't deal well with helplessness, and there was nothing he could possibly say that could change what had happened last night. That rare protective urge was welling up again. "Tony, stuff like last night, it's happened to all of us. It's happened to me. So you got your ass kicked. It happens. There's still no-one I'd rather have at my back in the field." Tony was watching him with a bemused expression, and Steve felt able to chance a wry smile. "Anyway, it's your brain that makes you dangerous and you know it."
Tony snorted a laugh, winced faintly, and leaned up to kiss him. He tasted strongly of coffee, which was fairly normal for Tony. Steve was sure he had to be imagining the coppery undertone.
"Now get the hell out of my workshop, soldier," Tony ordered. "I've got zapping to do."
Steve saluted facetiously and climbed the stairs back up to the mansion proper with what he was sure was a rather foolish grin on his face. The music blasted back to full volume behind him.
He headed into the lounge, looking for company; as it turned out no-one was there, though the tv had been left on. His good mood deflated abruptly as he realised the screen was showing a plastic-looking newsreader and a still photo of a bruised and bleeding Tony. "-assaulted outside a bar in downtown Manhattan in what some are calling a homophobic attack," the reporter was saying solemnly. "Mr Stark was released from hospital this morning, apparently in good spirits despite the incident..."
The screen switched to footage of them leaving the hospital. Thor was out in front, forcing a path through the mob of reporters like a glowering norse bulldozer; the rest of the Avengers were formed up protectively around Tony, who despite being a mass of cuts and bruises was nevertheless grinning and waving for the cameras. Steve felt a rush of exasperated affection. It was so perfectly, infuriatingly Tony to be making every effort to show that he was fine, that he might have been battered but he sure as hell wasn't broken. Tony didn't value his dignity much, but you could have shattered adamantium on his pride.
The screen went back to the studio. "SHIELD, the agency responsible for handling the Avengers, has announced a press conference this evening, which many believe is related to the incident. We will report further as the situation develops." Beat. "In other news, the White House announced today-"
Steve stared, the rest of the sentence so much white noise in his ears. Damn. He'd forgotten about the press conference.
The press conference was the same chaotic mess of flashbulbs and shouted questions as every other press conference Steve had ever been a party to. SHIELD involved far more of them than he was happy with. He folded his arms and stood at the back of the stage with the rest of the Avengers as one of SHIELD's press agents read out a statement, trying not to scowl too obviously. Tony stood by his side, scruffily dapper as usual despite the sling and the undisguisable bruises, watching the proceedings with an air of mild interest.
"And now, if there are any questions...?" the press agent concluded, "Ah, yes, you..." Steve tried not to hate her. He really did.
"Mr Stark," the chosen reporter asked, "How severe are your injuries?"
"I'm upright and walking about, aren't I?" Tony replied flippantly. "Cuts and bruises. I'm fine."
"Will this affect your work with the Avengers Initiative?"
"I'm reliably informed I'm more brains than brawn. Hopefully nothing got knocked loose upstairs."
"Is it true that other members of the Avengers were on the scene?" another reporter called.
"That would be us," Clint volunteered, making a gesture which encompassed himself and Natasha.
"And yet you didn't apprehend the perpetrators?"
"Our orders are not to use force against civillians," Natasha said coldly. Her tone contrived to indicate that she considered reporters to be an exception to this rule. At this particular moment, Steve was inclined to agree with her.
"Mr Stark!" yet another called, "Will you confirm or deny the rumours that this was a homophobic attack?"
Tony raised an eyebrow at him. That had to be painful, but he didn't let any hint of it show on his face. "I didn't really stop to have a chat about their motives."
"Are you saying that the attack was unconnected to your...relationship...with Steve Rogers?"
Steve felt heat rising in his face to match the anger rising in his chest. He glanced sideways at Tony, who was staring down the offending reporter with a profoundly unimpressed expression. "I don't remember saying that," he replied.
"Some people consider it to be immoral."
"That was a statement, not a question," Tony said helpfully.
"What do you say to those who say it's against God's law?" someone near the back called.
Steve opened his mouth, his anger getting the better of him, but Tony was faster. "I say I'll stop fucking my boyfriend when they stop fucking their sisters."
There were gasps from the audience, and a few stifled laughs, before suddenly all the reporters were talking at once. Tony held up a hand. "First Amendment, boys and girls," he said brightly, "If they're allowed to call me a pervert, I'm allowed to call them inbred morons."
"And what about those who accuse you of defiling a national icon?"
"If this is about the time the Washington Monument got blown up, that was really more Loki's fault than mine-"
"Actually, I have something to say about that," Steve interjected. Tony stopped mid-sentence and gave him a speculative look. He wasn't the only one, either; suddenly every eye in the room was trained on him. A sense of crushing self-consciousness loomed over him, but the anger was stronger. How many times, how many times, had they fought and bled and nearly died protecting these people? He was assailed by a shockingly vivid memory of the brilliant point of light that was Iron Man streaking towards the gaping wound in the sky with a nuclear missile in tow, the horrible moments of radio silence that had followed stretching out into a fleeting eternity. He'd thought Tony was dead. Tony had thought he was dead, had truly believed that diverting the missile would cost him his life.
Steve cleared his throat and made a further effort not to glower at the audience. He didn't think he'd succeeded, but he found he didn't care all that much. "With respect, sir," he began, in the special tone of voice he had heard non-coms use on particularly stupid officers in which it really meant I have nothing but contempt for you, "I don't know about God's law, but if I'm doing something wrong then that's between me and the man upstairs. I don't believe there's anything so wrong with loving someone-" Tony went an interesting shade of pink, and the flashbulbs redoubled "-and even if there is, with respect sir, it's nothing to do with you. 'National icon' or not, we're still people. We've got as much of a right to be happy as anyone else and it's no-one's business but ours."
There was a long moment where you could have heard a pin drop, and then the crowd of reporters exploded with questions.
It was at that point that Fury stepped up to the podium and glared indiscriminately around the room; silence fell immediately, and several reporters in the front row tried to look as small and inoffensive as possible. "SHIELD would like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that any attack on a member of the Avengers will be treated as a terrorist act," he stated flatly. "When the perpetrators are arrested, they will be treated exactly as people who tried to murder a vital member of our first line of defense deserve." A few of the reporters looked like they wanted to ask questions, but Fury's glare cowed them into silence. "I'm glad everyone understands. Now this press conference is over."
On that decisive note they left, heading back into the anteroom off to one side of the stage. "Well that was fun," Tony said cheerfully. "Now can we get out of this ass-backward country for a while? I hear Spain's nice this time of year."
"I think SHIELD kinda needs us around just now," Steve replied. They continued on, past a couple of SHIELD agents who nodded at them in passing, along the corridor to the fire exit. Happy was parked in the alley round back to avoid the crush of reporters at the front door.
Tony waved a hand impatiently, indicating a dismissal of SHIELD and all things related to them. "Don't care," he summarised. "I wanna get out of here. No to Spain? How about France? I guess you've kinda done the whole Europe thing. Argentina?"
"Tony," Steve said patiently, "You really need to stay put for a couple of weeks and let yourself heal up some."
"I can heal in Argentina," Tony said sulkily.
"Maybe after things get back to normal."
"Normal?" Tony stopped dead, eyes fixed on the floor. Steve couldn't read his expression. "Our lives are not normal. Norse gods and alien invasions are not normal. Some fag getting put in hospital because a couple of rednecks decided he needed his ass kicked? That's normal."
"What the fuck are we fighting to protect?" Tony went on bitterly. "We save the world a couple times a month, and for what? So a bunch of ignorant assholes can beat the shit out of anyone they don't like the look of?"
"It's not going to happen again-" Steve began.
Tony wheeled, suddenly furious. "It's just not going to happen to me again. It happens every day of the fucking week!" There it was again; the anger he'd caught a glimpse of in the hospital now naked and unconcealed.
"I know, but we can't-"
"Can't what? Can't change that? Well why the fuck not? We're supposed to be saving the world. No-one said we can only do it by fighting." He gave a feral grin. "You said it's my brain that makes me dangerous. Maybe it's time I started using it." With that he spun on his heel and stalked off down the corridor again. Steve followed, caught between surprise and bewilderment and rush of fierce love and pride. There was a malevolent glint in Tony's eyes, and it hit Steve anew that while in certain ways Tony was the most vulnerable member of the team, in those very same ways he was also the most dangerous to cross. Perhaps he didn't have the brute strength Steve or Thor or the Hulk did, or the decades of training Clint and Natasha had, but right now it was impossible to look at him and not see the man who'd built Iron Man from scrap metal in a cave in Afghanistan. Tony Stark would change the world to fight back against someone who'd pushed him into a corner.
And it was that Tony, the one who'd step up to fight gods and monsters with nothing more than a home-made suit of armour and a shocking lack of self-preservation, who claimed to be as self-centred as a gyroscope but would nearly kill himself protecting people he'd never met and probably wouldn't like if he did, who he was hopelessly in love with. It was a simple truth, fundamental and undeniable as the sun in the sky. And if anyone had a problem with it...well, that was just too bad.
He swallowed hard. "I was thinking, uh, we should...that is, I wanted to ask you, um..." Steve paused, lined up the words he wanted to say, and said them in a rush before they could wander off again. "Will you marry me?"
Tony nearly tripped over his own feet. He stopped and stared, for once in his life struck speechless. After a few moments he opened his mouth only to close it again.
"Um," he said eventually. "No."
It was Steve's turn to stare. "What do you mean 'no'?"
"I mean...well not no, it's not that I don't- I mean, I don't not want to." Tony paused, running over that sentence in his head. "That is, I'm not fundamentally opposed to the idea, I probably could deal with marrying you even if there's quite a lot of issues I have with marriage in general that we should probably talk about. Or something. But- oh god, no, no, don't do the kicked puppy look..."
Steve made a conscious effort to look less like a kicked puppy. At the moment he was more confused than hurt, and "kicked puppy" was still an improvement on Tony, who looked absolutely terrified. "I just...I don't understand."
"You do know we can't actually get married here, right?" Tony said. "Well, here here, yeah, New York sucks a lot less than most of the country, I suppose we could get married here- but god help us if we ever end up in Texas, that's all I'm saying. And don't even ask about Malibu. Legislation in California stopped making sense years ago."
"I don't care," Steve replied.
"I do." Tony looked faintly surprised at himself, but carried on regardless. "I don't wanna fight for a world that'll fuck me over 'cause they don't like who I wanna be with. But since I know I'm gonna anyway, I guess I'd better take a third option. If - if I'm gonna get married, and we can talk about that later - I want it to be so legally bulletproof every last one of those assholes who called me a traitor can go fuck themselves."
He took a deep breath, eyes alight with a feverish spark Steve had only seen before in the middle of a battle. "If we're gonna go on saving the world," Tony said slowly, deliberately, "I want to be damn sure it's a world worth saving."
Steve blinked and reached out to take his hand, a slow smile spreading across his face.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I can get behind that."