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a higher form of war

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On a good day, Tony trusts Nick Fury about as far as he can toss the guy. He's excessively uptight, prone to unnecessary delusions of grandeur, and is unquestionably dangerous without a healthy dose of oversight in the form of JARVIS's carefully cultivated arsenal of hacks and viruses—but Fury is not an idiot, and his decisions usually hold up under reasonable scrutiny.

The current situation kind of blows all of Tony's preconceived notions out of the water and straight up into deep space.

 

 

It starts, as these things tend to, in Bruce's lab on the helicarrier. Tony's regular contractors are still finalizing repairs on the tower after Doctor Doom blew it up (again) in August, so Bruce is doing R&D for Tony and miscellaneous work for SHIELD on the flying ship again. Things have been boring for a while: no big bad alien invasion plot in over three months, no Red Skull rising from the dead since October, no best-friend-of-living-legend turned KGB sleeper agent come calling in twice that time. As it is, all's quiet on the extraterrestrial front, Johann Schmidt's marinating in some maximum-security prison, and Bucky Barnes is running black ops on the Russian mafia for Fury. It's the longest they've gone without the threat of impending global annihilation since Tony first privatized world peace.

Tony figures this warrants whatever celebration Fury has in mind—but then, Tony's of the opinion that everything warrants half a dozen wine and cheese platters and several boxes of pizza at the very least, so he might not be the best judge.

He eases his thrusters back and admires the Jolly Roger he appropriated earlier flapping proudly in the wind above the UN flag before flying inside. Clint and Natasha are already conversing lowly next to one of the monitors. Steve's lurking by the door, as if he's unsure whether or not to go in.

"Stop lurking by the door, Cap," Tony says, brushing past him breezily.

Steve frowns at him. "I didn't want to distract the good doctor from his work."

Tony thumbs the bracelet on his wrist and raises his eyebrows. "Afraid he'll jump the wrong way and let the Other Guy out to play? I assumed we were long past that."

"That's not what I meant and you know it."

"You should say what you mean, then, instead of making excuses for yourself—"

"Jesus," Bruce interrupts placidly, his fingers still flying over the dual screens he's working with. "Will you two ever learn to shut up?"

Tony blinks. "What, you aren't hopelessly endeared by my dashing good looks and acerbic wit? Bruce, I'm hurt."

"It's not that," he says, voice dry. "The constant arguing was hilarious at first, but—well, Natasha explains it best."

Everyone in the room (save Bruce, who's fiddling with a couple of long equations that make Tony's fingers itch) turns to Natasha.

"You need to bone or get out," she says bluntly, shrugging. "The unresolved sexual tension in the room is giving me a headache, and your incessant bickering isn't great for morale."

"We do not need to bone," Tony protests, "and excuse you, I have chemistry with everything," not particularly offended but feeling like he should be—at the same time Steve asks, classically naïve, what boning means.

Before anyone can provide the national treasure with a crash course on sex education and current lingo, the door to the lab slides open again. "Midgardians," Thor says, inclining his head in greeting.

"Fabio," Tony returns. He reaches up to pat him on the shoulder. "How's the new Bifröst working out for you?"

"Remarkably," he says, the hearts in his eyes a rather solid indication that he's about to start projectile vomiting about how genius Dr. Foster and Dr. Selvig are—not that Tony feels inadequate or anything. He merely has a different set of priorities. "Asgard sends its salutations."

"Um, I feel saluted," Tony offers.

"Thanks," Steve tells Thor, and shoots Tony a quelling look.

"Is there a problem?" Tony asks casually.

"No problem," he says. "I was just thinking how terrible a diplomat you'd make, all style and panache and no substance."

"Really? I'll have you know that I'm a perfectly charming ambassador. How do you think I made it in the weapons industry for so long—"

"Ah, yes, always falling back onto your war profiteering, as if that's something to be proud of—"

"Shut up!" Clint and Bruce yell together.

"See what you're doing to us?" Natasha says, crossing her arms.

Thor's forehead wrinkles. "Are Steven and Anthony in a fight?"

"We're fine," Tony says. "Just because we enjoy a little verbal sparring—"

Natasha raises her eyebrows.

"Alright," he rectifies, "just because we argue all the time doesn't mean we're in a fight—"

Thor still looks confused. "They need to fuck it out," Natasha, queen of tact, says, inspecting her fingernails.

"—or that we need to have sex. Not that I haven't thought about it before," Tony adds, grinning in satisfaction when Steve turns an interesting shade of puce as the other shoe drops. "Loosen the huge stick up his ass, you know. Just another day."

"Oh," Steve says. He pinches his nose, which is basically his version of throwing out an expletive.

Horrifyingly, Thor seems to sympathize with the situation. Tony steps in before he can say anything permanently damaging. "So—you've seen Dr. Foster and Darcy on Level 5?"

"They are present?" Thor asks, delighted.

"SHIELD has them running tests on the reconstructed Bifröst," Bruce supplies. "It's been throwing off some unusual heat signatures, so Director Fury asked me to help look into it."

"And how's that going, Dr. Banner?"

"Jolly Old St. Nick," Tony exclaims, wheeling around. "Just the person I wanted to see."

Fury ignores him. Tony makes a face and Bruce sends him a faintly amused look. Tony crosses over to gaze idly at his screens as Fury's words filter through—something about Level 3 and a ballroom and an after party.

"You're missing an integral in this equation," he says, fingers tapping an absent rhythm against the table behind him.

"Thanks," says Bruce, his laugh-lines crinkling.

When he looks up, Fury is frowning at him. "Are you paying any attention at all, Mr. Stark?"

"Yep," Tony says, and starts rattling the list off: "Level 3's been converted into an impromptu ballroom for the gala, the council will be there so be on our best behavior—come on, what are you, a glorified babysitter? And the after party's going to be a company-wide paintball game to blow off some steam. What's the prize?"

Fury rolls his eyes—eye. "It was going to be a Blu-ray DVD player—"

"Nice," Tony says.

"Blu-ray?" Thor asks, looking concerned. "Is this some sort of Tesseract-based weaponry I should have taken back to Asgard?"

"Don't worry about it," Clint says, patting him on the shoulder.

"—but Agent Hill requisitioned it for movie nights on the ship," Fury says. It's probably a testament to his prowess as a spy that Tony's not quite sure whether he's joking or not. "I'll think of something."

Tony shrugs and strides to the door. "Cool. Peace, I'm going out for some donuts."

"We're floating above the Pacific Ocean," Steve points out. No doubt the man thinks he's being helpful. "There are no donuts."

"We're about an hour away from Hawaii. I know a place. Anyone want anything? I'll take orders," Tony says smoothly, and flaps a hand before Steve can protest. "Chill out, Capsicle. Don't get your Star Spangled undies all bunched up. I'll be back in time."

 

 

He isn't, but it's not much of a loss. Tony can get buttery champagne in faux crystal flutes and mediocre hors d'oeuvres on his own bankroll any time, and it's probably better not to be trapped in a stuffy room with enough killing power to wipe out the entire rest of the earth.

Of course, if he'd known what he'd be flying back into, he probably would've stayed away a little longer.

 

 

The first thing that occurs to Tony is that the deflector shields are down. The ship is motionless, a sitting duck—a flying duck, as it were.

He jettisons up. His black pirate flag's peppered with bits of neon paint—in fact, the entire topside of the helicarrier is splattered haphazardly with broken pellets and streaks of color. The UN flag's been torn in half and is fluttering half-mast, which means they're probably breaking about ten different maritime laws.

Tony's about to drop down onto the deck when, what the hell, some moron with a fucking paint bazooka starts firing wildly at him.

It turns out to be Galaga guy, whose name is George. "Whoa, Trigger-Happy," Tony says, dodging the paint, and flips his mask up. "What's going on?"

Galaga George laughs, a tinge of hysterical in it. "You know what's going on. You heard Director Fury!"

"Sorry, did I miss something? I thought this was just a paintball game."

George finally runs out of ammo and tosses the weapon aside. Tony lands cautiously, clunking forward. "Just a paintball game?" He cackles again. "This is so much more than a paintball game, Mr. Stark. This is a battle—last agent standing gets the prize."

"I'm honestly not that interested in the prize," Tony says, trying for placating and ending up somewhere around the vicinity of condescending. Pepper keeps telling him he should work on that. "Look, I just want to see my friends and then maybe make it back to New York City in time to grab dinner before all the restaurants close. I'm not playing the game. Avengers Tower was kind of demolished, see, and as the guy whose name is on the lease, I also need to—"

"What are you talking about?" George whips another paintball gun out from behind his back. Oh, Christ. "Everyone's playing the game," he says, target locked and acquired, and then—

Two bullets hit him on the chest, right over his heart. George is out for the count. Tony's safe; the crowd goes wild. He falls back onto the deck, eyes glassy. Tony turns and sees a flash of red hair. Natasha.

"Mr. Stark."

"Agent Romanova."

She raises her eyebrows, scanning him, before reaching down and picking the fallen gun up. She tosses it to him. "Come with me if you don't want to get paint on that suit."

And really, with that kind of proposition, how is he supposed to resist?

 

 

"You think Galaga George will be alright?"

"Does it matter?" Natasha asks.

"Man, that's cold, even for you. He's on your side!"

"Some things are more important than SHIELD loyalty at the moment."

Tony blinks, even though it shouldn't surprise, not anymore. And blinks again when he realizes where she's led him—the Hulk cage. Except the place has gotten a bit of remodeling work done since Tony was last here—the clear walls of the cage are blacked out, and there are bits of ceiling around the detention area that have fallen in, like something big and nasty's gotten to it.

Natasha raps twice on the glass and enters a code into the keypad. The door slides open. Tony reaches back to take his helmet off and whistles at the stacks of ammunition stockpiled in the cage. Clint's head bobs up from behind a crate, his expression relaxing when he realizes who they are.

"Look who I found wandering in the DMZ," Natasha says.

"Tony fucking Stark," he breathes, slinging an arm over Tony's shoulders. "I thought you were dead."

"Is that just, like, a normal thing to assume, now?" Tony remarks. "I was only gone for three hours. Granted, the last time I was gone for three hours Thanos was trying to get the codes to the helicarrier out of me, so I guess I understand why you'd be a little nervous—"

"No, I meant in the game, idiot," Clint says, snapping back to sarcastic son of a bitch so fast Tony swears he almost gets whiplash.

"I don't understand," Tony says flatly. "It's just a game of paintball."

"Yes," Natasha says. "A game of paintball with one rule: last man standing gets the prize."

"Also, we're not allowed to actually kill anyone," Clint says, unstrapping his quiver and bending down to inspect it.

The alarm bells in Tony's head are screaming ABORT, ABORT. "What the fuck is this prize?"

Natasha's right hand immediately moves to palm the gun tucked in her holster. "You don't know."

He sends her a disbelieving look. "No, I don't. What could be so great that the helicarrier looks like it's been tarred and feathered by a bunch of kindergarteners on acid—"

"A favor from Nick Fury," Clint cuts in quietly. "He'll do anything for you that's in his power to grant."

Tony scoffs. "That's it? A favor? That's why this whole place is trashed and everyone's gone batshit—" and then, belatedly, it hits him. "Wait. Anything?" His eyes go wide.

Tony's hand reaches down to grab for his gun and Natasha steps forward with a sort of feline grace, hers already pulled out and raised. "Take it easy, Stark."

"I could ask him to never make me do another after action report ever again. No more jumping through hoops, no more red tape." Another thought occurs to him. "Jesus, I could make him divulge government secrets."

"You could do a lot of things," Clint says.

"Yes," Natasha agrees. "Everyone wants that prize, Tony, and there's no way to share it, so the idea is that eventually we'll all turn on each other. But," she shrugs, here, "we've gotten really good at working as a team in the past year, and sticking together will exponentially increase our chances of making it to the end. So—"

"So you're saying we should help each other. Until we're the only ones left, at least."

Clint nods.

Natasha tilts her head. "Also, the quicker we get this over with, the faster SHIELD can resume normal operations. This can't be good for Fury. Or, you know. World defense."

"Right," Tony says, though he couldn't care less about that at the moment. "Is everyone doing this power in numbers thing?"

"The bridge crew agents started running in packs first," says Clint.

"I've heard the pilots have started arming their quinjets." Natasha looks up. "They're going to make it rain out there soon."

Tony considers this. "Are any of the other Avengers still alive?"

Natasha eyes him. "You mean Steve."

"No, I don't mean Steve. Did I say Steve?"

"Twice, now," Clint points out.

"Yes, well," Tony reasons aloud, though he's pretty sure the other two don't believe it for a second, "he is our leader."

 

 

Clint fiddles with new paint-bomb arrows while JARVIS helps Tony tinker with his suit. He loads paint clips in place of his deadlier missiles, and then the three of them systematically take out several squads of agents in the next hour. His armor's loud when in motion, but it has superior firepower, and by the time they hear him they've usually knocked most of the better shots out of the game.

"Bathroom break," Clint bites out later, climbing out of the shambles of a lab, grabbing a gun from a fallen research assistant.

"Lucky the Mark VIII has—"

"—a built-in diaper for you," Clint finishes. "Yes, we know."

"When you put it that way, it sounds so juvenile," Tony says, following after him.

"Oh, because you're the paragon of responsibility and—Jesus. I'm starting to sound like Captain Rogers," Clint grumbles. "You're a terrible influence, Stark."

"I try."

They slink into one of the bathrooms off the main hallway on Level 4. Natasha kicks the stalls open as Clint pisses into one of the urinals.

"So it doesn't bother you to be in the men's room, does it?" Tony asks conversationally, and doesn't get an answer beyond a cocked eyebrow and exasperated upturn of Natasha's lips before the main bathroom door bursts open again and a paintball TASER is pointed straight at his head.

"Drop your weapons and stand down!"

Tony goes cross-eyed for a second before he stares down the barrel of the weapon, the arm of the person holding it, and—ah, yes. "Hi, Darcy."

"Nice to see you, Mr. Stark," she says pleasantly.

"Man of Iron," Thor booms, a gun in each hand, one trained on Clint and the other on Natasha. Tony eases his head over to peek out behind Darcy; Jane and Bruce are just outside the door.

"Bruce," he calls. "Surprised you didn't bring the Other Guy out for this one."

"Too big of a target," Bruce explains drily. "Something like this requires a little more finesse." It makes sense in a fucked up sort of way—like this whole game, really.

"We should join alliances," Tony says. Natasha's hands shift on her gun.

"We're doing just fine on our own," Darcy counters.

"Oh," Clint says. "You're just going to keep camping out in front of the bathroom and ambushing people? Nice strategy."

"It has worked well for us so far," Thor notes. "Though Dr. Selvig was killed in the bowels of this mighty ship."

There's a moment of silence for Eric, and then Darcy's asking, "By the way, have any of you seen Captain Rogers?"

"He's not with you?" Tony asks.

Bruce shakes his head. "There are whole swaths of the ship we haven't gone through yet," Natasha says.

"Maybe, if we get to the bridge, we could tap into the systems and find him," Clint suggests. "And everyone else who's still in the game."

"Sir," JARVIS says. "I've been running a hacking algorithm all day. I could break into the systems in as little as two hours—"

"Make it one, sweetheart, and I'll take you out on a nice dinner date when this is all over."

"Will do, sir."

He smiles winningly at the rest of them. "Wanna join alliances, now?"

 

 

They lose Clint and Jane on the way back to the Hulk cage for ammo. Someone drops a grenade from Level 2 and Clint jumps on it before it can roll too far, takes the entire brunt of paint all down his front. Natasha's face flickers for a moment as he goes down. Thor helps Jane up after she gets caught in the crossfire of an ambush and bids her a sad farewell.

Tony's shrugged out of most of the suit by now—JARVIS has altered the design for maximum mobility: the slim briefcase is strapped to his back like a hardcover shell, freeing his hands up to heft smaller, faster guns.

When the hacking algorithm finally finishes its work, Thor and Natasha stand guard at the doors of the detention center as Tony accesses the mainframe from the monitor outside the cage. He flicks through the surveillance cameras: all clear on the research levels, but the lower hangars are suspiciously empty. A moment later, a quick pitter-patter travels dully through the ship to their hideout—the jet fighters have begun their assault.

Tony flips to the workout room cameras just in time. Steve's holding his own against a veritable army of agents, his shield painted various shades of blinding neon, but the crude barricade he's constructed seems to be slowly giving out. Regardless, it's pretty impressive, especially for a one-man job.

"Where are the other Avengers?" one of them yells, the sound filtering slow and grainy through the speakers. Tony exchanges looks with Natasha. Bruce paces, rubbing at his wrists. "We know they aren't dead. We know you know where they are."

"Don't they know they're speaking to an American icon?" Tony says drily.

"We gotta get him out of there," Darcy says.

"Alright," he says, clapping his hands together. "Operation: Rip Van Winkle is a go." Tony snaps his helmet on and JARVIS pulls the ship's blueprints up. "We can get there through the air vents."

 

 

Tony and Natasha go on the extraction mission. Bruce stays back to keep an eye on the cameras and look after Tony's suit with Darcy, and Thor takes the stairs up, Mjölnir in one hand and paintball gun in the other, to deal with the jet pilots.

Steve's on his last leg by the time they've clattered to his location. Waves of agents are still streaming at him from the bridge, and the barricade's about to break when Tony removes the screen off the vent and stage whispers, "Hey! Captain Crunch!"

Steve's head jerks up and Tony has to duck back as a couple of bullets sing past his ear.

"Jesus, calm down—it's Tony! You know, Iron Man, genius billionaire, fellow Avenger. We're here to rescue you. Show some gratitude."

"You should've let me handle it," Natasha says, rolling her eyes.

"Where's the fun in that?"

It takes them another half hour to crawl back through the vents—one of the fans has collapsed in and they have to take the long route.

Tony's about to push through a loose panel and climb back into the detention center when Natasha tugs on his pant leg and goes very still. "Something's wrong," she taps out in Morse code against his skin, and again on Steve's hand.

They slink out quietly. The Hulk cage has been totally ransacked: the ammo's gone, there's paint all over, and Darcy's sitting on the floor next to the console, dead to the world.

Tony crouches down next to her. "Darcy?"

Her eyes flutter open. "Mr. Stark."

"You should really call me Tony. Mr. Stark's my dad. Well, he was."

"Right," she says, smiling a little. "Tony. Did you find Captain Rogers?"

"Yeah, he's here."

"Want to tell us what happened?" Steve asks.

"Couple of agents got the drop on us. Bruce refused to Hulk out but I told him run before they found him. They got me instead." She smiles. "I took them out."

"Good girl," Natasha says.

"But before Bruce left—" she gestures up at the screen. "There's something you should hear."

Tony straightens up again, fingers flying over the keys. There's a crackle of feedback, and then: Fury's voice. "Enough is enough! I have had it with the motherfucking paint in this motherfucking game," he's saying angrily. "We are in the business of putting an end to global crises, not starting them. This has been going on for at least six hours. What if the council hears about it?"

"They won't have to if you put me in the game."

Steve's head snaps up. Natasha looks genuinely concerned—a pretty monumental feat, all things considered. "Coulson," Tony says, frowning.

"He's supposed to be on leave in Majorca," Natasha comments.

"You're on leave in Majorca," Fury says a beat later.

"I used to play paintball three times a week, sir," Coulson says. "I still have my old equipment. Put me in and I'll take everyone out. Things will go back to normal after that."

Fury sighs, sends a rush of static over the line. "You're certain you can do this."

"I'm already on my way."

"That sounds bad," Tony says. "Is that bad? Natasha, are we fucked?"

"What do you think?" she asks flatly. "He's a terrific shot, and he's our handler."

"Right," Tony says, deflating a little.

Steve frowns. "We still have to worry about the other agents running around—"

"Not to mention we're low on ammunition, and half our group is either dead or missing."

"Well, I think the quinjet problem's been resolved," Tony says, and points at the monitor. "Let it never be said that Thor doesn't appreciate a hearty battle."

The cameras that haven't already been obscured with paint are logging the fight outside. Thor is in the air, jumping from jet to jet, smashing bulkheads in and wreaking general havoc, yelling typical Thor things, like "For Asgard!" and "Victory shall be mine!"

 

 

Later, they find Bruce ransacking one of the canteens for food—nearly fall into one of his booby traps, actually, before he realizes they're friendlies and lets them into his new base of operations.

"Any coffee?" Tony asks, perking up, because caffeine hits are always a good thing after hours of serious extended paintball battles.

Bruce sticks a thumb over his shoulder and Tony wanders into the kitchen, starts heating water up in a kettle.

"What would you do if you won the prize?" Steve asks, after the electricity gets cut and the eerie glow of backup phosphorescent lights takes its place. The helicarrier goes into emergency lockdown mode and eases itself into the ocean, bobbing gently.

They're huddled around a small fire that Tony coaxed into being with some chemicals he salvaged from a lab and a contained explosion (Steve's face goes all pinched, and he makes a couple of passive aggressive comments about vandalism—never mind that the entire helipad's been drenched in paint—before reluctantly reaching out to warm his hands). The Mark VIII's power levels are at ten percent, so he's got JARVIS on standby—no more surveillance. It's not worth it with all the cameras out, anyway. They sit, and wait.

"I'd never do SHIELD paperwork again," says Tony.

"I'd ask him to wipe Côte d'Ivoire from any existing records," Natasha says coolly, and Tony makes a note to heckle Clint about it later. "What about you, Bruce?"

"I'd ask him to stop tracking me," he says, as quiet and serene as ever. "Let me drop off the radar, if only for a couple of days." He looks into the fire. "Sometimes I just need to be alone."

Natasha's face softens. "You know what," Steve announces, determination running through his voice like steel. "I say if one of us wins the prize, we give it to Bruce."

"Agreed," Thor says, and Tony can't believe what the fuck he's hearing.

"What? Thor, no," Tony says, frowning. "You don't have to do that."

Steve stares at him. "You don't want to help him?"

"That's not what I meant," Tony snaps. "I'm so sick and tired of you trying to guilt-trip us into being, what, as fucking noble as you are. Bruce doesn't need your coddling. He's a grown-ass man, he can take care of himself."

"Still in the room," Bruce mumbles.

"I'm not guilting you into anything, Tony," Steve says. His brow furrows as he turns his head, and the fire throws deep shadows across his face. "You can do what you want. I'm just trying to look out for a friend. If that doesn't sit well with you—"

"Give me a break," Tony says. "Just because you package it up with wrapping paper and a pretty bow doesn't mean it isn't misplaced charity."

He jerks at the sound of guns being drawn from their holsters. Natasha's got one pointed at him and the other at Steve, and Thor's is cocked as well. "Maybe they'll stop bitching if we kill them," Natasha says calmly. "The odds are in our favor."

"Wait—" Tony starts, but a loud ricochet in the hallway outside the lounge cuts him off.

Steve surges up. "What the hell was that?"

"Hello, kids," comes Maria Hill's voice from around the corner. Thor palms his gun; Natasha tenses up. "We've been looking for you."

"Oh, yeah?" Tony says, lips pulling up in a grin. "Come and get it."

It's not so much a skirmish as it is a massacre. No matter how skilled they are, it was probably always a lost cause to pit field agents against them in this fight, and they go down in droves: picked off by Natasha, blasted with the hose Bruce has rigged up.

Tony's gun clicks as Maria Hill swings around to face him, a look of unholy glee scrawled on her face—shit. He's out of ammo, and the nearest gun's ten feet away.

She raises her weapon, index finger snug on the trigger—and then Steve emerges from behind a collapsed table and shoots her in the shoulder.

The last of the agents are still streaming in, undeterred. "Can't take much more of this," Natasha grunts.

Minutes later, a lucky shot catches Thor in the leg. Natasha goes out in a blaze of glory, paint grenades strapped all around her torso, and takes at least twenty people down with her.

"Shit," Tony says, shooting from behind a knocked over vending machine. "We're going to get overrun."

"You guys need to get out of here," Bruce says, his makeshift hose pumping away. "I've got a couple of gallons left, I'll keep them occupied—you just go."

Tony puts a hand on his shoulder. "Are you sure?" Steve asks. "You're not going to make it out of this alive."

"You won't either unless you leave now. Get a move on, before they surround the place!"

Steve clasps his arm. "I'm going to win that prize for you, Bruce."

"Cut the theatrics, Cap," Tony says, rolling his eyes. "Good luck, Bruce."

He smiles at both of them. "Thanks."

Tony can hear the battle echoing behind them far after they've run out of range. He raises his hand on Level 2 and bends over, panting, drops his suit on the ground. "You okay?" Steve asks, ever-present concern in his voice. "Hey—" he points at a pink patch on Tony's undershirt. "You've been hit!"

Tony presses his fingertips to the stain and winces. They come back red. "It's not paint. It's blood."

"Oh," Steve says. "Thank God."

 

 

The medical bay's still relatively untouched when they arrive. Steve pulls a gurney out for him and roots around for gauze and Neosporin. Tony shrugs his shirt off and lies down, head pounding.

He must doze off for a little bit there, because when he cracks his eyes open again, his war wound's been dressed and Steve's sitting in a chair next to him, shield propped up against his chest, staring absently at the light of the arc reactor. His eyes are very blue.

If Tony wants to admit it to himself, it's not the pedestal or the perfect soldier shtick that bothers him—it's that Steve actually lives up to the name. At the end of the day, despite anything Tony might say on the contrary, Steve is an infuriatingly good person, one of the best people he knows, up there in his personal Hall of Fame with Pepper and Rhodey.

It's a mode of operation that's completely foreign to him. Tony's hyper-intelligent, very rich, and plays at being a superhero on SHIELD's dime—and the sum of the parts combine with an alarming lack of self control and almost suicidal recklessness just so to make him an asshole of the highest caliber, a born contrarian, petty and selfish and abrasive. He tests people to see how they work, pushes and pushes until they either give in or run away. The thing is—

The thing is: Steve hasn't given in or run away.

He shifts on the gurney and Steve's eyes flick up to study his face. "You're awake."

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Tony says, but there's no heat in it. Steve smiles faintly. "Thanks for patching me up."

"Nothing to it."

Tony chuckles, the sound scratching through his throat. "You know, this is totally something straight out of a terrible porno. Person A gets hurt, Person B bandages his battle scars, and then they have sex. I bet if the others were here they'd be throwing money at us to get it on already."

Steve just shakes his head, but Tony sees the upward curve of his mouth and grins.

"I'm already half-undressed," he points out helpfully, waggling his eyebrows.

"I'm aware," Steve says, voice dry. "Who's Captain Obvious, now?"

"Ooh, snazzy comeback," Tony retorts, and sits up.

Steve thumbs his shield, drags his fingernails across the dry paint.

"Look," he starts, and Steve raises his head again to gaze at him. Tony's not entirely sure what he wants to say. "I just—I wanted to apologize."

"You really don't have to," Steve says, but Tony waves him off.

"You're a fucking saint, Steve," he says. Something flickers in Steve's eyes. Tony chalks it up to a trick of the light and plows on. "You genuinely care about people. I guess I'm—I don't know. It's stupid. I can't be that person, I can't do it, and it's unbelievably irritating watching you swan in and epitomize selflessness and heroism like it's easy, effortless." Tony huffs, staring at the ceiling. "Basically: it's not you, it's me."

"Stop being an idiot," Steve says bracingly. Tony's eyes dart toward him, confused. "You—what the hell, Tony. You help people, too—all the time, and you don't even seem to realize it."

Tony frowns.

"Don't give me that look," he continues severely. Tony raises his eyebrows. "Come on, you know exactly what I mean. Think about it."

"Footage not found," he says, and Steve shakes his head again.

"You made sure all of Agent Coulson's funeral arrangements were perfect, when we still thought he was dead. You give money to charities and risk your life to save the world on a regular basis. You gave up working for the very lucrative weapons industry so you could focus on clean energy, for God's sake. Need I continue?" He exhales. "If that isn't helping people, I have no idea what is."

"That's all well and good, but—"

"Stop arguing," Steve says quietly. "Stop painting yourself as a cartoon villain trying to atone for the past."

Tony sighs, and lets it go for now. Steve looks pleased. "This isn't over," he warns.

"I didn't think it was," Steve says, rolling his eyes. A beat later: "Sometimes I feel like all we do is talk in arguments."

Tony grins. "I'm very okay with this."

"It does get tiring."

"You can bow out any time you want, old timer," he crows. "That's an automatic forfeit."

Steve sends him look, half amused and half irritated, and the base of Tony's spine tingles. "You wish."

Tony leans back against his pillows. "Look at us, working through our feelings like big boys," he says wryly. "We're clearly moments away from doing it."

To his credit, Steve doesn't blush. "They were really stuck on that, huh?"

"It's too bad you don't have any vices," Tony remarks, folding his arms behind his head. "We'd probably be doing them all a massive favor."

"You think I don't have vices?" Steve mutters. How typical, that it's the one thing he's stuck on. "I'm not perfect, Tony. You know, you can be incredibly stupid sometimes."

Oh, yeah? Tony thinks. Prove me wrong, then. It must show on his face: Steve squares his shoulders, a determined set to his jaw. And, because it's kind of an inevitable culmination of a year of trading insults and learning to work together, and maybe because the universe sometimes makes up for its overall fuckery and does Tony a solid: Steve Rogers stands up and kisses him full on the mouth.

Which—okay. Tony can work with that.

The angle is really awkward, and it's not the neatest kiss he's ever participated in—all slick tongue and saliva and the faint taste of refried beans from earlier, in the canteen—but it's good and warm and earnest, and Steve kisses like he's offering Tony his soul through his mouth. Steve holds nothing back, and maybe it's just an aftereffect of Tony's heightened adrenaline levels all night, but he kind of feels like he's going to shake out of his own skin.

Steve settles over him like a blanket, and for a second Tony's sure the gurney's going to collapse beneath their combined weight, but it only shakes twice before steadying out—and then it's just a blur of skin on skin, impressions of a wet mouth tracing his stomach and the crease of his leg where it meets his hip, and sucking long bruises into his collarbone.

"Christ," Tony manages when Steve palms his dick, eyes half-lidded in the dark.

"Had enough?" Steve asks. The idiot's barely broken a sweat and Tony's pretty sure he looks a complete mess, hands curled in Steve's hair, sticky and naked and gasping for it. Steve braces an arm next to Tony's head, smiles widely, and—of course. Of course this, like everything else, is combative and explosive and absolutely riveting: an opportunity to push, to see if Steve will push back.

"Don't give yourself too much credit," Tony says, wrapping arm around Steve's shoulders and flipping him over. Steve goes down easy, lets Tony press him into the soft padding despite the obvious fact that he could probably toss Tony clear across the room if he wanted to.

Steve's uniform is already bunched up around his waist, and Tony slides it the rest of the way off, drops it over the side of the railing. Tony chews on his bottom lip and scrutinizes him, the lines of his abdomen and the clench of his thighs and the half-erection that's starting to form, and—oh, so Steve's a full-body blusher. That's actually kind of adorable. "It's not meant to be," Steve says, flushing darker, and Tony realizes belatedly that he'd voiced those last bits out loud.

"Ah, well, too bad," Tony says, scooting back and grinning. "It is." Before Steve can say anything else, he licks his lips, holds Steve's hips down, and goes to town.

Tony gives blowjobs with the sort of intense and methodological focus he approaches anything else he enjoys, which means the flat of his tongue pressed against the underside of Steve's erection and his nose bumping against Steve's stomach until his back is arching off the bed, breath coming out in tense pants. Tony hums around the dick in his mouth and Steve shivers, buries his fingers in Tony's hair and pulls.

Tony groans in appreciation. Loudly. Steve must take it the wrong way, though, because he tries—fails spectacularly—to put himself back together, eyes tentatively concerned through the haze of arousal, and Tony doesn't want tentative or concerned anything. He lets Steve's dick slide out with an obscene pop, sits up on his haunches. "Don't think you have to hold back on my account," he says nonchalantly. "You know, if face-fucking is your thing, I am definitely down—"

"I haven't," Steve starts, running a hand over his face, and kind of gives up midsentence.

"Oh," Tony says, pursing his lips and pretending to think. "Is that the problem? Been a while, huh. You wanna do this the old-fashioned way? Missionary style? It's a medical bay, I'm sure there's something oil-based we can use as lubricant—"

"Tony, shut up," Steve says, in what sounds suspiciously like his Captain America voice—which is totally a thing, no matter what Steve says to the contrary—and Tony laughs, props his head up on his hands. Steve slips a hand against the back of Tony's head.

"You sure about this, champ?" he asks. "Not that I'm second-guessing your undoubtedly sound decision making. Perish the thought."

"Tony," Steve says again, and it turns out all he really needs is a little of the old Stark goading, because when Tony swallows him whole, the head of his dick slamming into the back of Tony's throat, Steve yanks so hard Tony's convinced half his hair's about to come out.

It doesn't take long after that—Steve's got superhuman stamina, to be sure, but he's been blue balling for seventy years, and Tony's fucking amazing, is pretty much the king of giving head. Steve comes with a stifled shout, the tendons in his neck standing out in stark relief, his entire torso bent in on itself, taut and smooth like a sine curve.

Tony swallows through the afterglow, grins as Steve slumps back against the gurney.

"Satisfied?"

"Yeah, hold that thought," Tony says, reaching for his own dick. It's flagged in the interim, but he works it up back to full hardness in no time at all, and then—

Steve. Steve wraps one giant hand around Tony's wrist, warm and heavy; the other grasps the base of Tony's erection. Tony pitches his head forward onto Steve's shoulder to smother the truly embarrassing whine that escapes from the back of his throat. The arc reactor leaves little impressions in Steve's skin that fade away almost as soon as they're made.

"Shit," he mumbles against the column of Steve's neck. Steve's hand moves painfully slow, mapping out the contours of Tony's cock, fingers rubbing at the precome that starts leaking out. Jesus. Tony's never done well with patience. "Come on, Cap, I know you're a senior citizen but this—is a little much—fuck," which is when Steve decides to reach his other hand around and flick his thumb against Tony's asshole.

"Is that—" Steve asks, unsure, breath huffing over Tony's shoulder.

Tony eases back and pins Steve with what he hopes is a threatening look. It probably comes across more needy than anything. "I swear to God, if you stop—"

"Right," he says, mouth tilting up. Steve presses in more insistently, hands warm and slick. Tony kisses him again, makes an encouraging noise.

Orgasm creeps up on him suddenly. By then, Steve's worked two digits up his ass, with the help of some lube he manages to find in a cupboard—one long pull at his erection and he's shuddering into it, clenching hard around Steve's fingers, back arched and head thrown back.

Tony's just catching his breath again and disentangling his limbs from Steve's when his heel accidentally hits something on the gurney and it comes crashing down, dumps them unceremoniously on the floor.

"Jesus God," Tony groans over the sound of Steve's stunned laughter, letting his head drop back to the ground. "I think I just broke my back."

 

 

They get dressed and move cautiously into the empty bridge. Fury's nowhere to be found. Outside, water laps gently at the edge of the windows. Tony sets his suit down next to his feet and it clacks against the plastic, unsettlingly loud in the silence. Without the monitors whirring and the clack of keyboards, everything looks a little sad.

When he turns back from the window, Steve has a gun pointed in Tony's face. He can't say he's all too surprised.

"Did you have sex with me to win at paintball?" Tony asks. "That's—actually really sneaky, Steve." He'd be impressed, if he weren't too busy acting affronted.

Steve looks contrite for a grand total of two seconds before he shakes his head. "No. I had sex with you, and now I'm going to win at paintball." His brow furrows. "I just want this game to be over so we can go back to, you know. Saving the world."

"Good plan," Tony says, fiddling with the hem of his undershirt. "So—everything that happened. It didn't mean anything to you?"

"I didn't say that," Steve answers promptly, frowning. "What did it mean to you?"

"Nothing," Tony lies, just to see how he'll react, and is a little gratified when Steve pulls the trigger, jaw clenching.

It clicks, the barrel empty. Steve's eyes go wide.

"The power of mathematics," Tony says, tapping the side of his head. He reaches underneath his shirt and pulls out his own guns. "You ran out of ammo on that one a while ago."

Steve's forehead goes all wrinkly. "Then, everything you just said—"

"Don't overanalyze these things," Tony interrupts, and then out of the corner of his eye he sees fucking Coulson stepping onto the bridge, armed with two machine guns.

Steve throws Tony a look of alarm. They both take cover as Coulson open fires, paints the windows pink and yellow and green.

"Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark," Coulson acknowledges calmly. "You'll be happy to know that you made it all the way to the end."

"What the hell are you even doing here?" Tony shouts, sending a couple of blind shots over the row of machinery they're ensconced behind. "You're supposed to be on leave in Majorca!"

"I don't question orders," he says, which is kind of a low blow and also pretty untrue because Fury actually lets him get away with a ton of shit.

Steve scoots over and grabs Tony's arm. "Give me a gun."

"Are you kidding?" he asks. "I'm not stupid."

"You got the drop on me," Steve says. "I lost, you won. Let me do this for you."

Tony opens his mouth to object and Steve makes a low, snarling noise that shoots straight to his groin, leans in and shoves his tongue against Tony's with a sort of sloppy urgency, fingers curling at the nape of Tony's neck.

When Steve pulls back, he's got one of Tony's guns in his hand. "Good luck," he tells Tony, hefting his shield, and hops over the computers.

Tony takes JARVIS off idle and puts the half-suit back on, shoves his helmet over his head. Coulson and Steve take each other out simultaneously, paint smearing over their clothes, and Tony stands, plucks one of the machine guns out of Coulson's hands.

Coulson starts chuckling as he walks away.

"What's so funny?" Tony asks, annoyed.

"You know there's no prize, right?" he says.

"What are you talking about?"

"Do you really think Fury would grant anyone a favor? He's a spy. SHIELD is a global defense association. He'd never be allowed to follow through." Coulson tugs his jacket open: a bomb strapped to his chest is ticking down, five—four—three— "Joke's on you, Stark."

"Tony, run!" Steve yells helpfully.

"JARVIS?" Tony prompts.

The thrusters blast him out the bridge's window, the sound of reinforced glass breaking like bells in his ears.

 

 

Tony uses the last of the suit's energy reserves to locate Fury. The director is lurking in one of the hangars at the bottom of the ship when Tony finds him.

Tony's dirty and exhausted, but alive, and Fury sighs when he sees him, covers his face with a hand.

Tony aims and fires, hits Fury's eye patch square in the center.

"What do you want from me, Stark?"

"Coulson told me everything," he says.

"So you know I can't give you the prize you're asking for."

"Let's make a deal, then. Equal trade, something more concrete than an arbitrary prize, in exchange for our silence on the matter and a promise that none of this will get leaked to the press, or the council—I'm sure they would be very interested."

Fury raises an eyebrow and wipes at the neon orange paint dripping down his face. "What could a multibillionaire possibly want from me?"

Tony cocks his head to the side. "I can think of a few things."

 

 

Which is how the Avengers up on a beach in Hawaii a couple of days later, paid leave courtesy of some secret UN grant. Tony presents Bruce a fake passport, a set of blank round trip tickets, and a guarantee that a security detail won't be tailing him whenever he should choose to take a few days off.

"I'm impressed," Steve admits, sitting cross-legged on a beach towel and sipping a root beer.

"Thank you," he says graciously.

"What did you have to do to get Fury to agree to this?"

"You don't think I could've just wheedled it out of him?"

Steve just quirks an eyebrow.

Tony sighs. "Fury's forcing us to help with helicarrier repairs next week," he says, making a face. "It's all a part of the deal."

In front of them, under the thick canopy of a ridiculously large umbrella, Bruce and Natasha exchange looks.

"Something's different," Bruce says.

A beat, and then Natasha guesses, shrewdly: "You took my advice and finally fucked.

Clint, on Steve's far side, spittakes a mouthful of mango smoothie all down his front. "What? Really?" he splutters.

"Can't you feel it in the air?" Natasha says mildly. Tony really can't tell if she's joking or not.

"What, am I supposed to feel better now?" Clint asks, looking indignant.

Tony shrugs and swirls the toothpick in his martini. "Steve, you still have paint in your hair."

"I know," he replies. "Is that a problem?"

"No, I think it's pretty cute," Tony says smarmily, because he has no brain-to-mouth filter, and because Clint looks like he may pass out. That's always a win in his book.

"Nope, this is definitely worse," Bruce decides.

"Sorry, kids," Tony says, aware that he probably sounds anything but. "We can't exactly unfuck. That ship has sailed."

Thor comes back and sits down next to Tony with about eighteen different platters of shrimp. "I liked that game," he announces. "We should play it again when the opportunity arises. I will invite Sif and the Warriors Three."

"Never again," Bruce says, shaking his head. "You know, the whole time I was just waiting for some villain to drop in and be like, hey! This was all part of our master plan to take over the world! I mean, remember when Justin Hammer tried to mess with the Halloween party and turned everyone into zombies?"

"Let's not," Tony says, rubbing a hand over his face.

"You're just mad because that's the night Darcy called you old-man-hot," Steve says, very wry.

"I don't think you have any room to talk, Sleeping Beauty," says Tony. He grins like an idiot, can't help it.

Steve's lips curl up in an answer, his expression equal parts fond and exasperated.

Yeah, okay. Tony can work with that.