"Okay, Hulk, buddy, hang back a sec," Iron Man soothed, charging up a repulsor cannon. He settled his free hand on the green guy's shoulder, who peered back up at Iron Man with something akin to a pout.
"Hulk want to smash," he insisted, bouncing his fists up in the air. His shoulders rocked back and forth with the effort not to go crashing through the car-infested street.
"Hulk can smash in one second, buddy, just let ol' Tony here knock this bad boy out of traffic and--" Iron Man let loose a blast of kinetic energy, shoving the twelve-foot tall robot away from a bus full of screaming people. "Oh my god, shut up brats, I'm coming to save you -- alright big boy, smash to your heart's content, I'm going to finish clearing out the civilians."
The Hulk took off, grinning madly as he threw one massive fist into the rusty tin can's face.
"Damn, big guy, you don't waste any time, do you?" Iron Man laughed, flying over to the bus. "Everybody, calm down," he ordered slowly, firmly, crouching down to slide his hands beneath the undercarriage. "I'm going to move you somewhere safer, okay?"
The passengers seemed to believe him, for their screams dulled to a low murmur, albeit still clinging white-knuckled to the seats. Iron Man sighed gratefully, hefting the bus up over his head and flying them some twenty blocks away. He blasted off back towards the battle scene as soon as he'd set the bus down, flipping a little salute as he departed. It was never a good idea to leave the Hulk alone for very long.
"JARVIS, do you see any more rogue buses filled with screaming passengers lying around?" Iron Man called out, scanning for any heat signatures in harm's way.
"I believe that was the last of them, sir," the AI replied helpfully as Iron Man charged back into the fray. "Although perhaps Doctor Banner could use some assistance."
JARVIS was kind of right, actually. While the Hulk was impervious to like, everything, he didn't seem to be faring so well against their new foe; he was lying flat on his back, arms and legs stretched out and stuck to the ground with some sort of oozing, glimmering goo. Iron Man made a face behind his helmet, cursing Fury to the deepest, darkest levels of hell.
Fury, as if sensing Iron Man's silent damnation, hissed in his ear, "Motherfucking robots. Stark, don't make me send in Hawkeye to clean up your mess."
"You love me too much, Nicky-poo," he cooed, firing up another beam. The robot screeched, flying back a few feet before whipping its head sharply towards him and charging. "Crap, crap, crap, crap," Iron Man growled, shooting one of his smaller missiles at it. "You just don't go down, do you? Stubborn asshole. JARVIS, whatcha got for me?" he continued, sidestepping the slime it shot at him.
"It appears to be made of an alloy similar to that of the Iron Man suit," JARVIS commented, pulling up a selection of code. "There does not appear to be any sort of life-form inside the suit, so it must be receiving its signal from somewhere remotely."
"What do you want to bet it's in the chest?" Iron Man asked, punching at the robot's head; he spotted the the gap where the head and neck connected and mused, "Hmm, hmm, head or chest, head or chest? Oh well; we'll find out!" Iron Man fired another missile straight into the joint and blasted up and out of the way of the explosion.
"You doing alright, big guy?" Iron Man called down to the Hulk, still struggling against the ooze. A robot arm flew by his head.
"Hulk is sticky," he whined from the asphalt, shifting uncomfortably.
"Gimme just one second, buddy, gotta make sure the robot's down for the count--" A steady stream of green coated his helmet and Iron Man cursed. "Shit, it's definitely not. Fury!" he barked out; punch from what he assumed to be the robot sent him flying back into a wall. Another heaping pile of glop cemented his right arm to the wall. "A little back-up would be nice!" Iron Man struck out blindly and, when his hand hit something tinny, he charged up a repulsor cannon and fired at it, sending the nasty little rust bucket sprawling backwards. "JARVIS!" he called out. "Any way I can get some sort of visual?"
"U-nfortuna-te--not, sir," JARVIS crackled. "--t app-rs to be interfering with the--"
"Damn it," he swore, jerking at his pinned arm. "Fury!"
"Don't--r panties in a tw-st, Stark," Fury growled in his ear. An explosion sounded not too far off. "--eye."
"What?" Something at the back of his neck clicked and Iron Man's helmet slid off. "Hey! Who told you where that was?"
"Hey, buddy," Hawkeye grinned, covered from nearly head to toe in rock and soot. "Would you rather we rip the faceplate off again? Thanks for blowing the head off that guy so I could shoot him, by the way."
"No problem," Iron Man ground out, balancing one hand on his hip. "Any idea on how to get me and the big guy unstuck?"
"Fury's flying in a few different compounds right now," Hawkeye muttered with a laugh. "Sorry I had to use you as a distraction."
"Uh huh," he muttered, taking in the street-level damage. Tony whistled lowly. "Damn, that's impressive. So, was the receiver in the head or chest?"
"Yeah, well he was twice our size spitting glue everywhere," Hawkeye replied, still smirking. "And it was in his chest; there was an extra layer of protective armor I had to blast through to get to it."
"Ha! I knew it," Tony crowed, squinting up at the incoming helicopter. "What about civilians?"
"No, you got them all before the robot took down Hulk," Hawkeye assured him, setting down Tony's helmet with a solid thunk. "Meet you back at HQ for the debrief?"
Tony's lip curled.
Hawkeye barked out another laugh. "Yeah, okay, that was a dumb question."
"Stark!" Fury snapped, stalking over, still managing to look menacing while staring up at Tony. "What the hell was that?"
"That was me getting blasted with super glue?" Tony replied sassily, making a face at Fury's good eye. "It's a little hard to avoid when it's everywhere."
"He's uh, talking about the part where you left the Hulk alone while you carried off that last bus-load of people," Hawkeye supplied, scratching his back with an arrow.
Tony's face dropped in horror at the movement; Barton had no fear. "You're gonna set an arrow off," he muttered, then turned his gaze back to Fury. "Listen, he can handle himself without a babysitter for five minutes, alright? Did he break anybody? No. Have a little faith, Boss-man."
Fury sighed painfully, pinching the bridge of his nose. "The deal was we let Doctor Banner stay on the team so long as he had someone to make sure he didn't accidentally crush the city."
Tony bit back the joke about Fury's continued refusal to say the word 'smash'. "Hawkeye was surveying from one of the rooftops," he said instead.
Fury snorted. "The Hulk could snap Hawkeye in two if he wanted to. Don't make me call Thor or the Captain; I'm putting a lot of," Fury sneered slightly, "faith in you, here."
"Oh, Nicky," Tony drawled, batting his lashes. "You do care."
Agent Hill chose that moment to pop up and spray a foul-smelling concoction at his armor.
"Woah, woah, no helmet here," Tony groused, scrunching up his face; nevertheless, his arm slid free of the wall a few seconds later. "Awesome. Now if you don't mind, I'm just gonna--"
"Come with us for the debrief," Fury finished lowly, staring deep into his soul.
"One day," Tony swore, handing Bruce a fresh pair of clothes, "I'm going to make you a pair of pants that doesn't shred when you hulk-out."
Bruce smiled, staring down at his shredded trousers. "They held up a lot better this time," he assured him, slinking out of the torn ones and stepping into the clean pair. "No accidental flashings whatsoever."
"Not good enough," Tony quipped, running a hand through his hair and grimacing. "Jesus, I smell awful."
Bruce, wisely, kept his mouth shut, though the grin widened. He slid into his shirt and buttoned it up efficiently, grabbing a pair of flip-flops out of his SHIELD-issued locker.
"Shut up," Tony laughed, poking him in the ribs. "So yeah, dinner. You in the mood for Thai? We could pick something up on the way back to the tower."
"Actually," Bruce started, flashing those wide eyes up at Tony. "I was thinking I'd just make something."
"After a hulk-out? Are you serious?" Tony stared down at Bruce. "I mean, shit, I'm not one to turn down your culinary delights, but yeah, you don't have to."
"Let's just go home, Tony," Bruce murmured and clapped him on the back.
And really, it just warmed Tony down to his toes that he had a friend like Bruce.
Though he should have expected something was up when Bruce willingly agreed to cook post-battle. When they stepped out of the elevator at Stark Tower, the lights snapped on and Rhodey and Pepper popped out, a tray of cupcakes in hand.
"Bullshit," Tony gaped, running through the numbers in his head. There was no way that--
"Yes, Tony," Pepper promised, flashing that incredible little Pepper-smile of hers. "It really is your birthday."
"Why didn't I throw a party?" he whined petulantly, a real smile still threatening to break out on his own face. "I love parties."
"The week-long tech upgrade for everyone and subsequent robot attack may have had something to do with it," Pepper laughed, handing the cupcakes over to Rhodey so she could wrap him up in a hug. "Plus after last year, we thought you might want to do something quieter."
"Point," Tony conceded, allowing a brief inhale of her perfume before releasing Pepper to grab onto Rhodey. "Missed you, pumpkin," he teased, nuzzling his face into his best friend's neck.
"Tony, Lord, you smell terrible," Rhodey gagged, but kept the embrace for a moment longer. "We will allow you to shower before feeding you."
"Oh so kind," Tony laughed, flashing a peace sign back at them as he turned on his heel. "Gonna join me in the shower, big guy?" he leered at Bruce.
"I'll shower by myself, thanks Tony," Bruce insisted, already heading to his own wing of the tower.
Tony trotted up to his room leisurely, stripping and tossing his clothes haphazardly on the bedroom floor. Looking at his reflection in the mirror, Tony made a face, observing the already purpling skin of his right shoulder. "Gross."
JARVIS, the wonderful soul he was, had the shower on and ready for him; Tony stepped under the spray and sighed, slicking his hair back against his skull. Grabbing his oh-so-lovely body wash and loofah from the shelf (both from Pepper thank-you-very-much), he began to scrub himself off.
Tony was lazily brushing the loofah across his hair when JARVIS interrupted, "Sir?"
"Yeah, JARVIS, what's up?" Tony asked, blinking his eyes open and staring up at the ceiling.
The security feed from outside the tower slid into view. "There is a woman outside requesting your attention, sir," JARVIS continued, zooming in.
The camera angle twisted until Tony got a close-up of the woman's face. He whistled. "Damn. I guess I should go down and see what she wants, right?"
JARVIS let out a small noise that Tony would have sworn was a sigh. "If you wish to, sir."
Tony smirked. "Well I can't just leave someone that cute all by herself at," Tony glanced at the time stamp, "nine o'clock at night. That's just rude. Let her into the lobby?"
"Of course, sir."
"Watch it, you sass machine." Tony pointed a finger at the ceiling before turning the water off. Tony grabbed a towel and wrapped it around his waist, stepping out and drying his feet on the carpet. He snatched another one off the rack and began towelling at his hair. "What're you thinking? Reporter, fangirl, or sexy robot assassin?"
"Do I have to answer, sir?"
"Oo, you are feisty tonight JARVIS. Do I need to build you a girlfriend?" Tony cackled.
JARVIS, wisely, did not answer.
"Okay, okay, clothes," Tony murmured, padding into his bedroom and flinging his closet door open. He dressed quickly and casually, dumping his towels in the laundry chute on his way out. He passed by a suspicious looking Pepper (Rhodey was mysteriously absent), calling out gleefully, "Just got a little visitor; be right back!" before trotting back into the elevator. And yeah, maybe it was a little petty that Tony felt the need to let Pepper know; Tony never said he was a saint. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Tony shook his head and frowned, stepping out of the elevator. Sometimes life dealt you a shitty hand (though it seemed more often than sometimes, in Tony's case), but that didn't mean he should blame Pepper, per se.
As the elevator doors whooshed shut behind him, the brunette that had been pacing the lobby stilled, turning around and flashing a brilliant smile at Tony. "Mr. Stark, I presume?"
Tony returned the grin easily. "Please, 'Mr. Stark' was my father. Call me 'Tony'," he urged, striding forward to meet her. "What can I do for you this lovely night?"
Her lips pulled back and Tony caught a glimpse of her perfect pearly whites. "Tony," she purred, clasping her hands behind her back. "I hear you have a birthday today. Forty, am I right?"
"Oh, god, that makes me feel so old," Tony groaned, shoving his hands in his pockets. "But yeah; you guessed it. Tony Stark -- forty years old."
She laughed, tossing her curls over her shoulder. "You were born at nine," she glanced at the watch on her wrist, "fourteen p.m., March third, nineteen seventy-two, correct?"
Tony's smile froze and he took a step back. "Right again," he agreed, tapping a button on his bracelet. "I'm sorry; I'm not entirely sure what the purpose of this visit was. What'd you say your name was, again?"
The woman's eyes crinkled. "I didn't," she simpered, tugging a hand through her hair. She wiggled her fingers; a clump of dark brown hair came off with it. She moved a few steps in Tony's direction.
In his pocket, Tony's phone was vibrating madly against his thigh. The windows shook and the pieces of Tony's armor shot through the glass and and locked into place on him. "I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to ask you to leave," Iron Man ordered more than requested, lifting one palm and aiming it at her.
She melted -- literally melted -- away in front of him and Iron Man spun around, growling, "JARVIS? Where'd she--?"
All the lights flickered off and Tony hissed, "Where is my night vision?" He swiped a hand in front of his face and the gush of air he felt startled him enough to pause. "JARVIS...?" Tony asked lowly. He touched his face.
No helmet. No armor of any kind. And no glow from the arc reactor.
Tony felt his lungs collapse. "Come on!" he shouted, spinning around in the darkness, muscles taut. "Where are you, you bitc--"
Knives bit into his cheeks and Tony threw a fist in front of him. Something laughed. Tony snarled and punched weakly at the air again, wheezing. His arc reactor suddenly sputtered to life and Tony gasped in a gulp of fresh air.
"It's time to pay your debt, Stark," she cooed, still digging her nails into Tony's face. The blue glare lit up her hideous face: sunken eyes, grey, patchy clumps of hair, and a mouth full of jagged, yellow teeth. "Welcome to hell," she hissed darkly and smashed her lips to his.
"Tony!" Pepper shrieked and Tony shot up from the ground, nearly smashing into Pepper's face. Bruce was a few feet away, only in his boxers and skin tinted slightly green. "Tony, what the hell just happened?"
His faceplate opened and Tony's looked madly around for the woman. "Where the fuck--?"
"Tony," Pepper whispered again, eyes wide and bright.
"There was." Tony's jaw twitched and he tried to clear his throat. "JARVIS, where'd she go?"
"It would appear that she's -- vanished, sir," JARVIS piped up, decidedly uncomfortable.
"Vanished?" Tony croaked, hopping to his feet.
"She just disappeared off camera, sir. There is no remaining heat signature, no sign of her anywhere in the tower."
Tony cursed and settled a hand on Pepper's back, already ushering her out of the lobby. A metallic crash had Tony spinning around, repulsors already charging. He sighed in relief when he saw it was only War Machine, guns out and surveying the surroundings.
"Everything okay, Tony?" Rhodey asked, his own faceplate popping up, worry plastered on his face. "You called the suit."
"Yeah, I." Tony scrubbed a gauntlet across his hair, already turning back towards the elevator. "I just need a drink."
Pepper pressed her lips together tightly, gazing up at Tony. "I'll... call for the lobby to be repaired," she whispered softly, already pulling out her cell.
"Double the security, too," he added roughly, jerking a thumb against the button to the elevator.
Pepper and Rhodey shared a short look and Rhodey nodded, helmet securing back over his face. "I'm going to do a perimeter sweep," War Machine stated, flying out the window.
"Yeah," Tony mumbled, pressing his other hand over his arc reactor. "Yeah."
Tony tossed and turned that night, waking what seemed to be every few minutes. Each time his eyes finally fluttered shut, hollowed, glowing features and banshee shrieks chased after him and Tony cursed again and again, grabbing the Crown on his nightstand and taking too-many swigs straight from the bottle.
The nearly empty bottle hit the stand with a loud clunk and Tony groaned, smushing his face into the pillow. "JARVIS," he mumbled weakly, scratching his scalp. "What time is it?"
"It's a little after four in the morning, sir," JARVIS said quietly, turning on the lights just a smidge. "Shall I start a pot of coffee for you?"
"Yeah, that'd be great, JARVIS, thanks," Tony muttered, rolling over, snatching his tablet up, and flinging himself out of bed. He swayed unsteadily on his feet for a second before stepping over last night's clothes and shuffling out into the hall.
Tony nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Rhodey still prowling around in War Machine. "Jesus, Rhodey," he laughed, clutching at his chest. "You can sleep you know; Stark Tower is one of the toughest nuts to crack."
Rhodey's faceplate slid apart and he frowned. "JARVIS showed me the security feed. People don't just disappear into thin air, Tony."
"Yeah, well, Loki could and--" Tony snapped his fingers, gesturing at Rhodey with one hand, swinging his tablet in the other. He started jogging to the kitchen. "I'm gonna go call Thor; I'll be back, buddy."
Rhodey shook his head and muttered something under his breath before skulking down another hallway.
Once saddled with a monstrous cup of joe, Tony plucked at random bits on his screen, muttering, "Come on, come on, interdimensional communication, gimme." The call finally connected and he grinned, crowing, "StarkTech is the best tech!"
The screen lit up and Thor's face popped on the screen, shouting, "--Not now, mother, the strange box is chanting cheerful Midgardian tunes!" Thor caught sight of him and beamed. "Tony Stark: The Man of Iron!" he proclaimed. "How art thou this fine evening?"
"I--art well, Thor," Tony grinned, setting his tablet on a stand so he could clasp his mug with two hands. "Listen sorry to bother you so late, but--"
"Not at all!" he boomed, face still bright. "We were merely celebrating a fine hunt with a goblet of mead!"
Tony doubted it was just one goblet but, "How's uh, how's your brother doing? He isn't by any chance hanging out on Earth again, is he?"
"Loki?" Thor asked, brows knitting together. "He is here on Asgard, with us! He has been confined to his room for the time being," (Tony snorted almost violently) "but has not caused too much undue trouble. Why, has something happened on Midgard?"
"You guys sure do have a weird sense of what constitutes as punishment, don't you?" Tony smirked, gulping down the last of his cup and moving to refill it.
"He is my brother," Thor reminded him, waiting patiently until Tony returned to his chair.
"Yeah, yeah, family love and all that jazz, but uh," Tony coughed, "I was wondering, what kind of person just... vanishes into thin air? Then reappears and," Tony's breath caught in his throat, "makes you see things?"
"Vanishings and illusions? One would have to be a mighty sorcerer," Thor concluded, shaking his cup at Tony.
Magic. Tony hated magic.
Tony internally winced at the splashes of mead on the screen. "Do you happen to know of any... mighty sorcerers in Manhattan?"
"I do not," Thor admitted, setting down his goblet. "This type of questioning is more suited to Loki's tastes than mine. I shall ask him and return to this device as soon as I am able."
"Hey, thanks Thor, you're awesome, I don't care what Fury says ("What does the One-Eyed Leader of Midgard say about me?"), I like you. Also, I'm totally number two on your speed dial, you just press that, baby and I'm yours."
"Wonderful!" Thor cheered, throwing his fist in the air. "But who is number one, dear Tony?"
"Jane," Tony replied with a little grin, but nearly cried when Thor lost his grip on the phone.
Thankfully, he managed to catch it before it could plunge to the deep, dark depths of Thor's banquet hall floor. "Jane!" Thor cried gleefully. "I can contact her with this magic box?"
"Yeah, buddy, if you can call me, you can call Jane," Tony laughed, going for a third cup of coffee.
"You are truly a wonderful friend, Tony Stark!" Thor exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. "I will call upon you as soon as I have talked to my brother."
"Great, awesome, can't wait." Tony yawned. "See ya later, Thor."
"Farewell, Tony!" Thor responded and the screen went back to its normal schematics.
Tony sighed, smacking himself in the face lightly. "Okay, work time, work time. Clint needs some new toys and I bet Natasha wouldn't say no to some gadgets when she gets back from whatever creepy things she does when she's not around. Bruce needs some spanx and Cap--" Tony made a sour face. Really, the least Captain Amerijerk could do was pop in and say hello (They had saved the world together), but no, Mr. Fucking Perfect had to go off riding his motorcycle into the sunset rescuing orphaned kittens or helping little old ladies do their dishes or whatever it was he was doing these days. Tony totally didn't care.
"Right, okay, Bruce, Clint, Natasha, Iron Man suit." Tony ran a hand over his face and filled up his mug with coffee one more time. He spied the tray of last night's cupcakes and grinned. "You're coming with me," he drawled and plucked one up, shoving his tablet in the back of his waistband so he could carry the coffee and the cupcake.
Tony made his way to the elevator leisurely, licking at the cream cheese icing on top of his cupcake. He groaned and shivered happily; Bruce made the best cake. The doors slid back open and he practically skipped down the hall to the door of his shop; Tony tapped his code into the keypad and strolled into the workshop, taking the first bite into Bruce's awesome, delicious
Tony choked and spat it out, dropping both his mug and the rest of the cupcake on the floor. The cup shattered, spilling scalding coffee across his bare feet. Gagging, Tony swiped a hand across his mouth. Bright red, coppery blood stained his fingertips and Tony swore, "What the fuck, Bruce?" He coughed and his throat tightened; Tony fell to his knees and vomited, teeny tiny little razor blades spilling out onto the tiles. His eyes burned.
Tony looked up from his spot on the floor, breathing harshly. A droplet of sweat trickled down the back of his neck.
"Sir, are you alright?" JARVIS repeated once more. Tony got the mental image that he'd be wringing his hands if he could.
Tony wiped the back of his hand across his mouth again. No blood. "...I'm okay, JARVIS," he whispered after a minute. "What just happened?"
"You... threw your things to the ground and expelled the contents of your stomach, sir."
"I." Tony poked at the fallen cupcake, checking it for nefarious bits. "No blood?"
"No blood, sir. Perhaps I should call Doctor Banner or Miss Potts down to the workshop?"
"No." Tony lifted the hem of his shirt and scrubbed off his mouth once more. "No, I'll clean it up. I'm fine JARVIS; I didn't mean to scare you." One of Tony's little mopper-bots was already scuttling over. "I'm sorry, JARVIS."
"You have nothing to apologize for, sir," JARVIS quietly answered. "Shall I turn on your early morning playlist, sir?"
"Yeah, that's good, JARVIS." Tony walked over to the fridge on the other side of the workshop and pulled out a bottle of water. Taking a small sip, Tony swished it around in his mouth before moving to the sink and spitting out his now vomit-flavored drink. "We don't have any chewing gum in here perchance, do we?"
"In the drawer to your left, sir."
"I love you JARVIS," Tony hummed, popping a stick in his mouth.
Tony had about three and a half hours of fiddling with various fabric/metal combinations when Pepper strode in, already dressed for the day. She took a long look at him, from the coffee-stained jeans and soot-covered nose to the crazy hair and greasy shirt.
"You need a shower," Pepper ordered. "You have a meeting with the board in an hour."
"Ew, Pepper." Tony wrinkled his nose. "I hate the board."
She rolled her eyes, mumbling, "Yeah, well the board hates you too." She pointed one excellently manicured fingernail at him. "The construction workers are already downstairs fixing the windows, Rhodey crashed about an hour ago -- I gave him one of the rooms on the eighteenth floor, the seventeenth is still under maintenance -- and Bruce knows you stole one of his cupcakes, Tony."
"They were for my birthday!" Tony gasped, clutching one hand to his arc reactor.
"Eat real food," Pepper told him, giving him the stink eye. "Eat, shower, and get dressed. You have an hour."
"Thanks, Mom," Tony griped, turning off the blowtorch and flipping up his goggles. "I can always count on you to suck the fun out of everything."
"Will that be all, Mr. Stark?" she called back, a little note of worry in her voice, and Tony was never so fiercely grateful they'd broken up until this moment. She had enough stress in her life without Tony doubling it for her.
"That'll be all, Ms. Potts," Tony answered, yanking off his gloves. "One hour: got it."
She smiled fondly at him and left the workshop, glass door sliding silently shut behind her.
"Blah blah, stock prices, blah blah StarkTech, blahblahblaaah," was all Tony heard as he fiddled with the tablet in front of him.
"If you guys stopped worrying so much about deadlines, maybe we could actually produce something worth its shit," Tony piped up a few minutes later, scrolling through a few pages of ideas for Clint's new bow. "My phone can call people in different dimensions, how cool is that?" he boasted with a grin.
One particularly overweight gentleman whose name Tony never bothered to remember actually harrumphed. "As impressive as that is, Anthony," (Tony made a nasty face at him) "there's not much of a demand to talk to people in other worlds. What people are actually looking for is blahblahblah..." A trickle of blood slid down his nose.
"Hey, Jeeves, uh, you got a little something on your face there." Tony gestured at the man's face.
The stuffy businessman pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and dabbed at his nose. He opened his mouth to start speaking again when a wave of blood spilled from his lips, slapping sickeningly against the table.
Tony sat up sharply, eyes widening. His gaze flickered around the table; no one else had responded to Stuffy's blood-gushing display. In front of Tony, he was now bent over the table, hacking up blood and fatty chunks of something. Tony certainly didn't want to know what.
Thor's face flashed on his tablet and the Thundercats theme song start playing; Tony closed his eyes and let out a small sigh of relief. When he looked up again, there was no blood, no dying businessmen in the room.
"Excuse me, gentlemen, I have to take this," he murmured, picking up his tablet and leaving the room as quickly as possible. Outside, Tony fell back against the wall, sliding down to his butt on the floor. He answered the call. "Thor, buddy, thanks for calling back, hey."
"I have spoken with my brother, Tony!" Thor bellowed as a greeting. "However, he is reluctant to speak to me. Shall I place him on the call?" Before Tony could answer, the screen wavered and Loki's face appeared (still with that weird norse gag in place -- not a good look on him, if Tony were honest) and Thor whispered, "Be nice, brother," removing the odd mouth-collar.
"Hey, Loki," Tony cracked, feeling slightly less confident than he (what he hoped he) looked. "Long time no throw me out of window. What's cookin', bud?"
Loki narrowed his eyes.
"Er, right. Anyway, you don't happen to know any magic-wielding hags, do you?"
"Oh, you mean besides Frigga?" Loki drawled, raising one brow and suddenly Loki was gone from the screen and Thor was roaring, "She is our mother!" and Loki was screeching back, "No, she is your mother!"
"Right, then," Loki coughed politely a few minutes later, sporting a busted lip as he slid back onscreen. "Could you be a little bit more specific? You petty little mortals dabble in the magic arts all the time, from what I hear."
"Uh, disappearing, visual and auditory hallucinations, oh and I thought I bit into a razor-blade infested cupcake this morning. And I saw one of my board members spitting up blood." Tony grimaced; when he said it like that, it sounded kind of serious.
"Odin's beard," Thor mumbled from somewhere behind Loki.
"Oh my," Loki laughed, throwing his head back. "Who did you piss off, Anthony Stark of Midgard?"
"That's a long list," Tony quipped, tucking one of his legs under him. He settled more comfortably against the wall. When did this become his life, spilling his hopefully only metaphorical guts to the god of mischief? "Does me being forty have anything to do with it? She mentioned it being 'time to pay my debt'."
"Now, that does sound interesting," Loki hummed, steepling his fingers in front of his face. Thor must have been holding the phone. "Bargain your soul for anything, perhaps?"
Tony scoffed, "I am a billionaire. Who needs to sell their soul when I've got cold, hard cash?"
Loki smiled then, eyes glittering. "Yes, I suppose you are right about that. I shall have to do more research. Perhaps you could convince my dear brother Thor to spare me a trip to your little tower? I do miss it, so."
"I am not sure that is wise, brother," Thor warned, and Loki shrugged.
"You asked for my assistance, Thor. I do not know how I am supposed to help this poor little human when I cannot even touch him."
"There's a dirty joke waiting to happen," Tony piped up.
Loki, unsurprisingly, ignored him. "It is up to you, brother. You're the one who holds my... leash now, after all," he finished, sneering slightly.
The picture swivelled around once more and Thor gave Tony a tight smile. "I shall see about the possibility of bringing my brother to Earth to examine you, Tony," he whispered softly. "I cannot guarantee the outcome would be a pleasant one, but--"
"Right, right, Fury would have kittens ("Kittens? How wonderful!"), screaming masses, yada yada, I get it," Tony interrupted, waving a hand. "Thanks for trying, though."
"Do not misunderstand me," Thor said, straightforward as ever. "This is a promise that I will do everything in my power to see you well again. Yes?"
Tony sighed and managed a small smile. "Yeah, okay. Call you later?"
"It would be an honor," Thor promised and Tony ended the call, attempting to rub the weariness from his eyes.
Tony looked up as Bruce entered the workshop. With a swish of his hands, the different holograms of Bruce's pants winked out. "What do you mean?" Tony asked casually, falling back onto a stool and taking a sip of... something. Tony looked down into his mug and frowned. "Dummy, what did you put in this cup?"
"Pepper's on a bit of a rampage since you skipped out on your meeting early," Bruce commented, stepping over various bits of metal so he could lean against the desk beside Tony. "I told her I'd come down and talk to you -- you should be thanking me."
"I knew there was a reason I liked you," Tony grinned; Bruce gave him a look and he sighed. "There's nothing to talk about. Thor called and I left to talk to him."
"You can call Asgard on your phone?" Bruce asked with a laugh, crossing his arms over his chest. "How'd you manage that?"
"Pure genius," Tony bragged, puffing out his chest. "I rediscovered and synthesized a new element; I can do anything."
"Alright, well, what did you and Thor talk about?" Even Tony had to admit the man's skills at staying on topic were impressive. "Or did he call to chat about women and fine wine?"
"I'd personally like to meet whoever said you didn't have a sense of humor and punch them in the throat," Tony snorted, uncapping a bottle of water. "Nothing really important, just calling in to check on the kids and whatnot." Tony held back a gag, rough grains of sand sluicing down his throat. He forced himself to swallow and looked down at the bottle. It was still water. Tony sighed and took another swig, relaxing when it didn't turn to dirt in his mouth.
"You haven't really talked to anyone except for me and Clint since the whole Loki debacle," Bruce brought up, a cautious look in his eye. "Are you sure nothing's wrong?"
"Everything's fine," Tony asserted, hesitating. "Just... don't freak out if Thor and Loki happen to stop by the tower sometime."
"Okay, now I'm really concerned." Bruce got up and circled around to face Tony. He placed his hands on Tony's shoulders gently, hunching over so he could look the other man in the eyes. "This is about the woman from last night?" It didn't exactly sound like a question. "Did she do something to you?"
"Maybe?" Tony shrugged, huffing and looking away from Bruce's sweet kitten eyes. "Don't tell Pepper -- I'm having weird hallucinations."
"Hallucinations?" Bruce echoed, face scrunching up. "Like, drug-induced, or?"
"You have no idea how much I wish I was on drugs right now," Tony assured him, jaw tightening. "They're too random to be substance-related. Besides, whatever the fuck she gave me would have worn off by now; it's been over twelve hours. Unless there's something in the air, but wouldn't everyone else be tripping, too?" Tony shook his head and growled. "Magic-shit fits the best."
Bruce made a face. Tony was pretty sure Bruce hated magic as much as Tony did, maybe even more. "So you asked Thor to bring Loki... to help you?" he asked slowly, raising one eyebrow. "Don't you think that's going to have the opposite effect that you're looking for?"
Tony threw his hands up. "It was Thor's idea. Do you know anyone else who knows about magic? Cuz I sure don't," he snapped.
"Hey, I'm on your side here," Bruce growled, teeth gnashing. He took a step back from Tony, rolling his head from side to side, vertebrae popping at the motion. "Don't take it out on me."
"Easy, killer," Tony assuaged, rubbing his thumb and forefinger over his eyelids. "Sorry. I'm a little tired. You're right. I have no idea what Loki is going to do -- if he even comes here."
Bruce exhaled softly through his nose. "What kind of prison do they have Loki in, anyway?" he asked to change the subject, to Tony's supreme appreciation.
"House arrest," Tony suddenly snickered, slapping his palm against his thigh. "They sent Loki to his room!"
Bruce laughed so hard he cried a little.
Bruce shot him a look. "Tony, eat your salad like a normal person," he instructed, taking a bite of his own veggie-packed meal. "And yes; he left while you were still at your meeting. Important army business, I guess."
"Boo," Tony murmured, pouting around a crouton. "And Pepper? She had to fly back to L.A., right?"
"Yep," Bruce confirmed, swirling the tea around in his cup. "She gave me strict orders to yell at you if you stepped out of line while she was gone. I said I'd put the fear of God in you, if necessary." He smirked.
"Oo, baby. I'm sure you say that to all the boys," Tony teased, waggling his eyebrows at Bruce; Bruce rolled his eyes, snickering.
"You're too much for me," Coulson commented, propping his feet up on Tony's kitchen table. He pulled out a package of donuts from somewhere and started munching on them. "I'm hurt you didn't record Super Nanny for me, by the way."
Tony started, looking across the table at Phil. "Bruce," he whispered roughly. "I need you to go to my room and grab the sedatives from the medicine cabinet. JARVIS? Shut down my armor for the next few hours."
"Tony?" Bruce sounded so far away. "Tony, what's wrong?"
"Yeah, Stark, what's wrong?" Coulson asked, pilfering Tony's coffee cup and dunking a donut in it. His eyes glittered and a spot of red bloomed on his chest. "Feeling a little guilty you never got to send me to Portland?" He slammed Tony's mug down on the table. "Did you even call my girlfriend to see how she was doing? Did you go to my funeral?"
Tony dragged in a ragged breath of air. "I didn't -- I couldn't, I." He swallowed roughly, little shards of glass picking at his esophagus.
Phil smiled then, teeth stained bright red. "Of course, of course, I understand. You're a very busy man, Tony. You thought my first name was 'Agent'. What on earth would possess you to give a damn about anyone but yourself?"
"Shut up," Tony hissed, backing out of his chair. "Shut up."
"That was a really neat trick with the missile and the interdimensional portal, by the way," Coulson continued, crawling on top of the table. "You seem to be very good at the whole 'defying death' thing. Tell me, Tony, how long are you going to avoid your fate? What you deserve?" He slid up to Tony then, fingertips dancing against his ribs. "How long are other people going to pay for your mistakes?" Coulson whispered desperately into Tony's ear. His tongue flicked out and dabbed Tony's earlobe; his fangs dug into Tony's throat. "Your whole fucking family is cursed, Stark. Did you think you could run forever?"
Tony let out a savage yell, pressing his palms up to Phil's chest and shoving him away hysterically. "You are not real!" he shouted, clamping a hand to his neck. "Leave me the fuck alone."
Coulson threw back his head and laughed. The veins of his throat deepened and darkened and burned with the long-term effects of palladium poisoning. His head jerked to an impossible angle and Coulson hissed, black sludge slipping from his lips.
Tony jumped up on the chair, but the murky water followed him, dripping like paint from the ceiling, black, slippery fingers exploding from the darkness. It dripped against him like ink, filling his mouth, his lungs, his stomach with black sand, black blood, black death. Something in Tony's chest clicked and he looked down, horrified as Obadiah Stane ("Obie, how could you?" he cried) plucked the arc reactor from his chest.
Tony choked and fell backwards, claws tearing at his flesh and crows plucking out his eyes. The black swamp rose to swallow him whole and Tony fell, fell forever, ice clinging to his skin and fire singing out his heart.
He dreamt of Afghanistan, of swallowing buckets and buckets of dirty water as the desert rose up to silence his screams.
"Tony, oh my god."
His chest hurt. His everything hurt. Tony's face twitched and he moved to throw an arm over his face to block out the light. Something tugged against his wrist and he frowned, eyes snapping open.
"What the fuck?" he growled, voice hoarse. Someone in the room made a displeased noise.
"Tony, I'm so sorry," Bruce whispered and Tony felt a hand brush the hair from his forehead. "The restraints weren't my idea; they didn't let me take them off."
"Why am I being restrained?" Tony sagged back against the bed, panic blooming in his chest. "Where am I?"
"You're at the hospital."
Tony craned his neck to see Steve Rogers standing on the other side of the room. "Capsicle," he said lowly.
"Stark," he returned, raising one brow.
Tony turned back to Bruce. "I hate hospitals, please get me out of here, sugar plum," he pleaded. "I hate hospitals."
Bruce made a comforting noise, still petting Tony's hair. "I can't yet, I'm sorry. The doctors won't let me," he apologized, chewing on his lip.
"How long have I been out?" Tony croaked. He turned back to Steve. "Why is he here?"
"Three days. I called him, Tony," Bruce murmured soothingly, hand stilling for a moment. "When I came back into the kitchen, you were screaming, shouting at nothing and you," Bruce stopped to clear his throat, "you threw the arc reactor at me. I tried to sedate you, but you were struggling so much. I..." He looked away then and Tony could see a faint sheen of green rising on his neck. His fingers tightened against Tony's scalp. "The other guy almost came out. I didn't want to risk an incident with you like this. I had to call someone and Thor wasn't answering his phone."
"Why am I tied up?" Tony asked quietly, sliding his hands into fists.
"You kept trying to take out the arc reactor," Steve told him from his little corner; Tony's jaw clenched. "You repeatedly tried to injure yourself, so the doctors put the restraints on to protect you."
Childishly, Tony turned his face away from him. "Where's Pepper?"
"She left a few hours ago. She's been up for almost sixty hours, she was about to pass out. I told her to try and get some rest," Bruce consoled him and resumed stroking Tony's hair.
"Yeah? And how long have you been up?" Bruce didn't answer. Tony sighed, "Listen, well, I'm up now. Can you call a doctor in here so I can sign the release forms and go home?"
"That's not a very wise idea, Tony," Steve said in his 'I am the leader' voice.
"And what do you know about what's best for me, Steve?" Tony shot back, anger replacing the fear. "Where have you been the past seven months? We're not friends, you're not my mom: you don't get to tell me what to do."
Steve frowned. "Your father--"
"Fuck my father!" Tony bellowed. "He was an asshole and a drunk and he didn't give a shit about me."
"Don't speak ill of the dead, Stark!" Steve glared down his nose at Tony. "I know you have problems with respect and authority, but--"
"Respect?" Tony guffawed, baring his teeth at Steve. "I'll show people some goddamn respect when they actually deserve it! And my father? Let me tell you: he is the least deserving person I've ever had the displeasure of knowing."
"We are interrupting?"
The fight drained out of Tony and he managed a weak smile. "Thor, buddy, pal, friend, care to let me out of this BDSM stunt gone wrong?"
"Of course, my dear friend!" Thor replied with a smile, striding over and releasing the straps, despite Bruce and Steve's protests.
Tony hummed quietly and started rubbing his wrists. He looked up and snorted at the leash Thor held. "Loki, we have seriously got to talk about your fashion choices."
As if suddenly noticing Loki's presence, Bruce and Steve froze, muscles tightening up. Steve's eyebrows lowered and he moved to grab his shield.
"Friends, calm yourselves," Thor pleaded, raising up one hand. "My brother is here to help, bound by oath."
"I'm pretty sure that doesn't mean anything to them, Thor, but thanks for trying," Tony murmured, cautiously sitting up. He rubbed at his sternum gingerly. "So, what's the dealio?"
"My brother will need to inspect you," Thor explained, tugging on Loki's binding. He turned to his brother and laid a palm on Loki's cheek. "No tricks. Please, brother," Thor beseeched him and unclasped the guard around his mouth and jaw.
Loki snorted, one hand slipping up to softly massage his face. "You know me, brother," Loki rolled his eyes, "innocent as a newborn babe." He slunk forward towards Tony and reached out a hand. "Don't flinch now, little human."
Tony leered. "I'm not little everywhere."
Loki rolled his eyes and placed two chilly fingertips to Tony's temple. Then his eyes fluttered shut and he hummed. "Someone has placed a curse on you," Loki murmured. "Very old and very powerful. It is a curse of vengeance and hatred. Who have you upset so?"
"I used to manufacture weapons for a living," Tony mumbled, only slightly surprised to find his own eyes closed. "I'm sure I made a lot of people angry."
"Please, this isn't so petty as a few dead humans. You've upset a witch." Loki hummed again and he took a step closer, swinging one leg over Tony's lap and straddling his waist. Tony's eyes snapped open.
Bruce and Steve moved to defend him, but Thor held up a hand, insisting, "No, no, he is merely getting a better look."
"May I look into your bloodline?" Loki whispered, ice blue against earth brown. Tony hesitantly nodded once and Loki smiled. "Lovely," he purred and kissed him.
"Woah, now!" Tony heard Steve proclaim. Bruce let out a startled noise of his own and even Thor sounded unsure as he persisted, "My brother knows what he is doing."
"Ah, yes," Loki drawled as he pulled back. "How quaint. Howard is your father, I presume?"
"Yeah," Tony managed, a little shaky. "What of it?"
Loki laughed, all teeth. "Fathers are quite wonderful creatures, aren't they? Interested only in their own survival, they feign love when in reality only use you for their personal gain."
"Brother--" Thor started.
"He promised you a legacy," Loki continued, unheeding of Thor's protests, gaze never wavering from Tony's face. Tony swallowed against the lump in his throat. "But what he really endowed you was the weight of his sins. Your father hurt many people in his search for his precious Captain--"
Steve inhaled sharply.
"--and he even went so far as to cross a demon in his travels. He said he'd quite pay anything for her assistance in finding Steve Rogers, but when it came time to pay, he found the price too steep. Do you know what he said, Anthony Stark of Midgard?" Loki crooned, shifting forward to slide his soft, smooth cheek against Tony's rough and stubbled one. "He begged, he pleaded for her not to take his life, to spare him. And when the demon said she'd instead take his first-born son," Loki licked the shell of Tony's ear; Tony shuddered violently, he felt sick, "he literally jumped at the offer. He said of course, of course I will give you my son. Let me just find a woman and I'll have a child and give him to you. And the demon laughed and replied, 'An innocent baby is of no use to me. Wait for him to grow and sin; a polluted soul is all the more delicious'. I don't know about you, but I'd much rather her have taken me when I was too young to know the difference. Did these forty years fulfill you? Do you love your father that much more for giving you this small taste of life? Does it please you that he never again got to meet the man he sold your soul for?"
"Out," Tony wheezed. Loki smiled against his throat. "Get out!" Tony howled, throwing the water glass on the tray beside him at the wall. "All of you, get out!" Bruce was the last to leave, wide and worried eyes glistening brightly at him.
Tony vomited on the floor.
Tony, red-eyed and still slightly shaking, looked up into the sad puppy eyes of Steve Rogers. "What are you sorry for?" he whispered. "I'm finally getting what I deserve, right?"
"I didn't know," Steve whispered, shuffling closer, hands deep in his pockets. "I had no idea that Howard could do something like this."
"Let's not... talk about him right now," Tony murmured. "Where's Bruce?"
"He wasn't doing so well. I said I'd look after you and he went back to Stark Tower. Thor and," Steve faltered for a second, "Loki gave us a few instructions that would help with the... with your visions." He pulled a gold chain out from underneath his shirt and slipped it over his head. "This was my mother's," Steve offered, holding the crucifix out to Tony.
"I'm not really the religious type," Tony croaked, cautiously reaching out and taking it from him. He put the necklace on anyway. "Thanks," he said awkwardly.
"We need to get a few more things still," Steve continued, hands zipping back to his pockets.
"Thought it wasn't a wise idea for me to leave?" Tony joked, nevertheless shifting around and getting off the bed and not stepping in his own puke.
Steve cracked a small grin, the first one Tony thought he'd ever personally put on the good captain's face. "I told them we were transferring you to SHIELD'S infirmary."
"There's no way I'm going to SHIELD for this shit and--" Steve let out a little laugh and Tony crowed, "Holy shit, Captain Perfect, you lied to someone for Tony Stark? Where are your morals?"
"They might have left with Loki," Steve answered, suddenly serious. "Thor, ah, said that he and Loki would go and see if they could find the demon your father talked to." He gestured to the set of clothes on the chair beside him. "They're what you came to the hospital in, but Dr. Banner said they'd been washed. Do you need anything else?"
"To get the hell out of here," Tony quipped, throwing off his hospital gown and smirking when Steve flushed and turned the other way. "C'mon, Cap, seriously? You were in the army."
"It's still rude to watch other people change, Stark," Steve replied, crossing his arms over his chest.
Tony let out a complicated noise. "Right, right, I'll try not to offend your virgin eyes."
"People had sex in the forties, you know!" Steve blustered, bristling at Tony's comment.
"Yeah, and I definitely heard that fondue story," Tony returned, arching an eyebrow with a laugh. Steve huffed again and Tony sobered somewhat. "Okay, okay, yeah, what else is it we need to get?"
Tony eyed the huge canister of sodium chloride suspiciously. "And this is supposed to protect me from the demon trying to get me to blow my own brains out?"
Steve had this look of alarm on his face when he squeaked, "You don't own a gun, do you?"
"I am Iron Man," Tony proclaimed. "I am an inventor. I do not need a gun to kill myself."
"That's comforting to know," Bruce piped up from the couch, dark circles under his eyes. "Pepper's still passed out upstairs, by the way. I didn't want to wake her until I was sure you were coming home."
"No, no, don't wake her," Tony insisted softly, scrubbing a hand over his face. He looked down at the container of salt. "I'm going to try and get some more sleep myself. JARVIS?"
"Yes, sir?" JARVIS asked and Steve jumped nearly three feet in the air.
Tony snickered. "Shut down the Iron Man suit until further notice, please. Shit, it would be really great if nothing attacked the city until this mess gets sorted out," he groaned, swaying on his feet. Oh yeah. He turned back to Steve. "You're totally welcome to any of the empty rooms, by the way. But you, ah, don't have to stay if you don't want to."
"No, that's very kind of you, thank you," Steve insisted with a tight smile. "Just... any room?"
"Yeah, sure, you can sleep in a different room every night if you want," Tony muttered, already on his way towards his own room. "Thor said just a circle of salt around me, right?"
"Yeah," Steve confirmed, following him, and Tony nodded, hanging a right and slipping into his room.
"Thanks, buddy," Tony whispered after Steve had long since passed his door, popping open the lid and spilling a line of salt around his bed. He practically fell onto the mattress, asleep before he even hit the sheets.
He screamed his throat raw, forehead mashed into the carpet, hands clasped desperately over his ears. "You can't have me!" Tony cried desperately, feeling claws shred the skin of his back. He clutched at the crucifix on his neck and pleaded, "Leave me alone!" The pain subsided slightly and Tony sobbed into the floor, curling into himself pathetically. "Please, please leave me alone."
"You may have the same bargain I gave to your father, Anthony Stark," it hissed from the shadows, fingers curling around his throat. "A soul is a soul is a soul. What say you?"
"You can go choke on a dick," Tony managed weakly. "Fuck you, I'm beating you the right way."
It laughed and picked him up by the neck, flinging Tony against the wall. "You say this now, but your father told the same lie all those years ago and he broke as hard as he fought." Snakes coiled around Tony and sank their fangs in. "I will enjoy running you through in hell!"
Tony came to gasping and shaking with Pepper weeping into his shoulder.
"Tony, oh Tony," she cried, clinging to his shirt.
"Pep, Pepper, Pepperoni," Tony soothed, running a hand against her hair. "You should go back to Malibu," he urged, clinging tightly to her so she couldn't pull away and slap him.
"Are you insane? Don't answer that!" she hissed, smacking her fist against him. "I can't leave you like this, Tony, I can't."
"Pepper, there's nothing you can do," Tony told her, clenching his jaw. "I don't--I can't have you see me like this."
"You're an idiot and I'm not leaving," Pepper insisted, loosening her grip so she could wrap her arms around Tony.
"What if I attack you?" he yelled in horror, more at himself than anyone else. Tears welled up in his eyes. "What if I attack Bruce and he hulks out and I can't stop him from taking the building apart with you in it? Pepper, please, go to Malibu."
Pepper cried with him for a long time.
"It's probably for the best," Steve said softly, thankfully no longer in his Captain America uniform.
"Man, anybody ever tell you you'd be a great therapist?" Tony asked with false cheer, pasting on a manic grin. "Cuz you sure are great at making people feel better."
"I'm sorry, Tony," Bruce apologized, dropping a hand to Tony's hair. "You just wanted to protect her, right?"
Tony nodded jerkily and held out his bag of dried fruit. "Blueberry?" Bruce smiled fondly and accepted the token. Tony, face eerily blank, turned to Steve and slowly offered, "Cap? Do you want one?"
Steve looked at Bruce, who gave him a stern frown and a nod; he made those last few steps over to the couch, smiled hesitantly, and whispered, "Thanks, Tony," before grabbing a small handful.
"Bruce makes really good hamburgers," Tony said then, sticking out his lower lip.
Bruce laughed wetly, grinding a palm against his eyes. "Yeah, Tony, okay, I'll make hamburgers. How many do you eat, Captain?" he asked, turning to Steve.
"Please, you can call me Steve," he insisted.
Bruce inclined his head. "Then you may call me Bruce. So, how many?"
"Honestly? I could probably eat like, five."
"Super soldier," Tony whispered conspiratorially, one hand cupped around his mouth. Bruce snorted and just padded to the kitchen in his shredded pants. Now that they were alone, it was kind of awkward. Tony cleared his throat. "He gets pissy when you try to help him, so don't bother. Also, the um, cross helped a little, while you guys were gone... Thanks, I guess," he mumbled, lips twitching.
Steve half-smiled. "Wanna watch a movie?"
"Yeah, let's totally watch your old propaganda films," Tony teased, curling up on one corner of the couch and patting the cushion beside him. "Totally kidding by the way," he said to Steve's silence. "Have you ever seen Dr. Doolittle?"
"Ah, no?" Steve answered, carefully stepping over the salt line and plopping down beside him.
"You poor soul," Tony sympathized, turning the television back on. "I think you'll like it."
Bruce came in shortly after, eyebrows practically raised to his hairline. "Shall I leave you two alone?" he asked with a small curve of his lips.
"He is sleeping," Steve asserted lamely, trying to cross his arms over his chest while simultaneously trying to not send Tony sprawling to the floor.
"Hey, hey, no judgment," Bruce held up the hand that wasn't carrying the plate of food. He set it on the coffee table in front of him and commandeered the loveseat to Steve's right. "No, this could be good for him; Tony hasn't really had anybody since he and Pepper broke up."
"Oh," Steve said awkwardly, looking down at Tony. "I ah, didn't know, I'm sorry."
"It was better for them both," Bruce admitted sagely, tucking his feet under him and grabbing a burger. "Oh, I love this movie," he exclaimed, face lighting up. He turned back to Steve a few minutes later. "Thank you for coming, Cap--Steve," he corrected, smiling again. "Tony doesn't think I need a babysitter, but sometimes I worry myself. This building is especially fragile," Bruce shot another soft glance at Tony, "and I want to make sure I never break anything I can't fix."
Steve wasn't so sure the man was talking about the architecture. "Mr. Stark, ah, Tony has a lot of faith in you, Bruce. I don't think he would without due cause."
Bruce coughed, a slight color coming over his cheeks. "Thanks."
Tony frowned in his sleep and fisted a hand in Steve's trouser leg. Steve hummed a low tune and brought a hand around to Tony's back, rubbing slow, soothing circles until his face relaxed. "I had really bad asthma when I was a kid," he explained to a once more smirking Bruce. "When it got really cold out, I never could get to sleep, so my mother sat with me, just rubbing my back until late into the night."
"I never thought I could hate someone as much as I hate Howard Stark," Bruce blurted out, suddenly fierce. His neck turned a little green. "Who the fuck has a kid just to sell their soul?"
"I... don't know," Steve admitted, staring down at Tony. "The Howard I knew could be abrasive, but I never thought he'd be capable of--of something like this."
"I'll die before I let this thing take Tony," Bruce maintained, green slowly fading back to flesh-tones. "And the other guy won't let me die, so."
Steve sucked in a tight breath of air. "I'm going to have to agree with you on that front," he agreed, palm still resting between Tony's shoulder blades. "Nobody deserves this. I'll do everything in my power to help you," Steve told Tony quietly.
Tony had retreated to the corner of the room with his box of salt; now it seemed nearly every time they repaired the ring of salt, some phantom breeze was blowing it away and causing Tony to shriek in agony.
Loki flashed onto the screen and sneered at him, not a hair out of place. "Are you really calling us right now to ask that question, you star spangled clot?" he scoffed. "We are quite tied up at the moment dealing with your puny human mess!"
"Brother, do not be rude!" Thor took the phone back and appeared in the call, sporting a busted lip and a gash along his forehead. "Ah, Captain! We have descended down into your Midgardian hell to search for the beast that holds dear Tony's soul! So far they are proving to be quite intractable," he admitted. He then hoisted Mjolnir in the air above him. "But fear not, for my brother and I do not give in easily!"
"That's good, Thor," Steve confirmed, wincing slightly as Tony grunted in pain behind him. "We were wondering if you had any other ideas? The salt has stopped being so effective."
"In Asgard, we normally travel to purification saunas to ease our woes," Thor suggested and Loki had to grab the phone then, for Thor was spinning on his heel and smashing his hammer into some ugly terror's face.
"Are there even any saunas in Manhattan?" Bruce asked incredulously, arms wrapped tightly around Tony's trembling shoulders; he'd stepped inside the circle and had assumed the salt pouring responsibilities. His phone chimed in his pocket and Bruce snatched it out to take a peek. "Clint says to burn sage."
"No saunas," Tony rasped, his lip curling. "Those things are riddled with disease."
Loki rolled his eyes. "Quite picky for someone with little choice left. Burn the incense and keep him surrounded by holy objects. We shall call on you when we have new information."
"Thank you, Mr. Loki," Steve said gratefully, giving the mischief god an only half-false smile.
Loki sputtered, his teeth bared. "Do not extend me your gratitude, human. Thor has promised me access to the inner courtyards if I successfully assist him in this task. I do not go to such lengths for the likes of you," he growled, hanging up the phone.
"No, tell us how you really feel," Steve told the phone dryly, sighing and slipping it back into his pocket.
"I like funny Steve," Tony murmured, and Bruce laughed quietly, nodding against Tony's temple. "Gonna go stock up on some fun demon-banishing tokens?"
"Looks like it," Steve affirmed, running a hand through his hair; Steve had a feeling he had a cowlick sticking up there somewhere. "Anything in particular you want while I'm out?"
"Burger King," Tony implored. "Their pies are delicious."
"No," Bruce demanded. "That stuff is terrible for you. I'll make you something."
"Traitor," Tony hissed as Bruce left, deflating nearly the second they were alone. Tony looked exhausted. "Sorry, Caps," he mumbled around a yawn.
"It's like with Pepper, right?" Steve asked him, recalling their conversation from last night. "You don't want Bruce to worry?"
Tony, after a slight hesitation, nodded, leaning against the wall. "There's an occult shop a few blocks away; I'll text you the address, okay?"
"Alright," Steve acquiesced, dancing from foot to foot for a second before surging forward and clapping Tony on the shoulder. "You're very brave, you know that?"
Tony laughed, sharp and bitter. "I'm really not. See you when you get back, Steve."
Steve frowned, but made his way to the elevator and left.
Shadows crawled towards him, slinking like melted wax fingers across the floor. Tony whimpered, grabbing fistfuls of his own hair. "Go away, go away," he groaned.
"You should count yourself blessed," it hissed, sandpaper skin caressing Tony's face. "That crucifix you wear is the only thing keeping your nightmares from becoming reality."
"Oh my god, no way!" Tony cheered. "I feel so lucky!"
It cackled, ripping out his tongue.
"You look a little lost," she noted, raising a non-existent eyebrow. "The diner is next door."
"No, no, I actually meant to come here," he insisted, sidestepping a tall stack of books. "Do you sell er, sage here?"
"Loose-leaf, bundle, cone, or stick?" she asked, and laughed heartily when Steve looked mildly horrified. "Okay, that was mean. I'm sorry. What kind of effect are you going for?"
"Protection?" he said cautiously.
She snorted, metal in her ears jingling as she shook her head. "Sage isn't really so effective against noisy neighbors, I'm afraid."
Steve made a little face. "It's not for noisy neighbors, ma'am. Sorry to bother you, but I just need some sage and religious artifacts, please."
"Well, I can't really help you unless you tell me what you're looking for," she started slowly, crossing her arms over her chest. "This isn't some teeny-bopper hobby store. I sell legitimate religious supplies here and I get enough grief from the church on Fifth without them sending their little choir boys to come mock me."
Steve sighed deeply and hung his head. "Alright, maybe we got off on the wrong foot. I need protection against a demon," he supplied and this time both her shaved eyebrows went up.
"Oh my god, what did you do?" Without waiting for his answer, she hopped over the counter and scooted to the other side of the shop, plucking up random bits as she went. "This is why you dumbasses don't mess with that Ouija board shit. Or did you try and actually summon something while you were drunk for shits and giggles?" She sent a disapproving frown his way.
"I can't get drunk," Steve mentioned somewhat unhelpfully, dodging her as she lumbered past. "And it's for a friend of mine, actually, but he didn't do anything."
"Uh-huh," she droned, unimpressed, finally dropping her armload on the counter. "Dragon's blood for banishing evil -- no it's not literally from a dragon, what are you, twelve? -- and sage for cleansing negativity. You burn them both, but walk the sage around everywhere in the house." She held up two tall, thin boxes. "Black candles for dispelling negativity and white for purification. The cross, duh, protection amulets, scarabs, and the Hamsa are all good at repelling evil." Her eyes slunk back to him for a second as she rang up his purchases and bagged them. "I know a guy who does exorcisms. Is he possessed?"
"Not possessed," Steve whispered, face crumpling. He handed her his debit card and she ran it through a decrepit little machine that squealed when it printed off his receipt. "Just... haunted. Tortured," he croaked.
Her eyes softened and she darted around the corner again. She came back with a small pink candle. "This one's on the house, yeah?"
"What does this one do?" he asked, staring down at the little pink candle in his palm.
She smiled, sincerely for the first time since he'd entered her store. "Look it up if you really want to know."
"Hey, you asked for no windows. The closets are the only shatter-free rooms," Bruce reminded him helpfully. "But we can go to another closet if you want?"
"No, I like my closet," Tony said petulantly. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Pumpkin pie, can I have my tablet? I'm bored -- I want to invent stuff."
Bruce laughed, barely on the right side of hysteria. "Only you would be bored with evil spirits breathing down your neck," he mused, dropping a hand to Tony's head. "I'll get your tablet. Anything else?"
"A stripper, please," Tony requested, grinning from ear to ear.
"I'll get right on that," Bruce muttered dryly, ruffling Steve's hair as well as he left.
"I think it smells kind of nice in here," Steve said with a shrug to fill the silence. Tony smirked. "What? It's a nice scent."
"Yeah, okay, Steve," Tony told him, sitting up and scooting against the wall beside Steve. He bumped his shoulder against the other man, wondering, "So why'd you get a pink candle, too?"/
"I'm not exactly sure," Steve admitted, grinning and nudging Tony's shoulder back. "The dame at the shop told me to look it up."
Tony raised an eyebrow and murmured, "Did she now?" A strange smile flitted over his face. "Yeah, alright."
"What?" Steve asked, looking down at Tony.
"Nothing, nothing," Tony insisted, grabbing the candle from him and rolling it around in his hands. After another long, awkward silence, he said aloud, "Jesus, where the hell is Bruce?" and turned around, hand going for the doorknob.
When he flinched back, hissing, Steve turned to him and said, "Tony, what's wrong?"
The lights blinked out.
"Steve..." Tony asked quietly, hand reaching for Steve's shirtsleeve. Steve clasped his hand over Tony's tightly. "Steve, did the lights just go out?" Tony stared at the now weakly flickering candles in the middle of the closet.
"--Yeah," Steve confirmed, staring at Tony's pale face in the fading light. "It's not just happening in your head, Tony."
"Stark Tower's self-sustaining, there's no way, no way the power just went out, Steve," he babbled, shivering. "JARVIS? JARVIS!"
A fist cracked against the closet door and Tony yelped, scrambling backwards.
Steve wrapped his arms around Tony in a fierce hug, holding on even as Tony shouted, "Blow the goddamn candles out before we set this place on fire!"
A low growl hissed from the doorframe, "Your little scientist is absolutely delicious. Would you like to know whose name he screamed as I gutted him alive?"
"You leave him the fuck alone!" Tony roared, struggling against Steve. "Goddamn it, let me out, Rogers!"
"You don't know if he's lying or not!" Steve snapped, tightening his grip. "We're safe in here!"
"Yeah, but Bruce isn't!" Tony argued, kicking his foot in the air. He elbowed Steve in the gut "You hear me, you son of a bitch? I'm going to kill you!"
It laughed, "You are welcome to try."
Bruce burst into the closet, wide-eyed, and the lights sputtered to life above them. Panting, he eyed them both, white-faced and shaken. "I couldn't open the door," he whispered, voice breaking. "I couldn't open it."
"We believe we are on the right track," Thor promised Tony. Despite the admission, he looked a little upset. "My friend, you do not appear to be faring so well."
"Ouch, buddy, I'm hurt," Tony wheezed, brushing his bangs out of his eyes. "I didn't think I looked that bad."
"It is through no fault of your own," Thor said sternly and his jaw clenched. "We have made it to the lower levels. The foes are sturdier, however they are more amenable to answering our questions once bested. There seems to be some sort of hierarchy here. We believe that if we defeat your foe in battle, we may request she destroy your contract."
"Wait, the thing's actually in hell right now?" Tony squawked. Steve slid a damp washcloth against the back of Tony's neck.
"Yes, it would appear that although he can send nightmares and black magic to Midgard's surface, the demon's true form remains here in the Midgardian hell. Additionally, we have discovered that as long as you still live, your soul remains your own. You must take your own life before it can take you."
"Right, just don't commit suicide," Tony cringed, taking a sip from the bottled water beside him. "What if I die of natural causes first?"
"She won't let that happen," Loki injected in the conversation, taking the phone from Thor. "She's getting smarter, right? Blowing away your salt lines, demonstrating somewhat successful physical manifestations?"
"Yeah," Tony agreed quietly, fingers wrapping around Steve's wrist as the cloth slid to his face. Tony took the rag from him and clasped his hand to Steve's. "What does that mean?"
"It means she is becoming impatient," Loki explained, gaze shooting to their interlocked fingers. "You and your team were able to defeat me and an entire army, Stark. I'd think you stronger than allowing one measly demon to surmount you," Loki drawled and ended the call.
"Did he just offer you a compliment?" Steve asked incredulously, staring down at Tony's phone.
"I think he might have," Tony confirmed, hesitantly taking his hand back from Steve's. He sighed, watching somewhat fondly as Bruce began to snore lightly. He'd passed out about an hour ago and neither of them had the heart to wake him. "Care to make sure I don't slit my wrists in the shower?" Tony teased, shooting Steve a dirty look.
Steve sputtered, cheeks turning a lovely shade of pink. "I can wait right outside if you want?" he offered shyly.
"What if I fall and hit my head?" Tony asked, batting his eyes at Steve. "No, totally though, wait outside. I don't want you to feel inferior or anything after seeing me in all my naked glory." He shot one final look at Bruce and padded over to the bathroom, leaving the door cracked just a tad.
Steve smiled and shook his head, walking over and sitting on the floor beside the door. Sometime after the shower started, Steve heard a soft noise and burst in, eyes darting around wildly.
Tony was on the floor of the shower, knees pulled up to his chest. His breath hitched again and Tony bit his lip, trying to quell the sound. At Steve's entrance, he managed a watery smile and rasped, "Sorry, didn't mean to freak you out."
"Tony, it's okay. Nobody's expected to be able to function under this pressure," Steve soothed, pressing his forehead to the fogging glass. "Back... back in the war, men with far more training than you broke under far less."
Tony laughed, a jagged sound. "Good to know, Cap."
"No, listen," Steve insisted, opening up the door and kneeling in the shower beside him, clothes and all. "You're just so--" Steve tried again, unable to find the proper words. "You're so... great," he finished lamely, taking Tony's face in his hands. "I was hesitant to come at first, when Bruce called, since we haven't spoken since the Avengers last assembled ("Two way street, Cap," Tony cut in), but I'm glad I did. All I saw before was a spoiled brat and it really ruffled my feathers, but."
"I am a spoiled brat," Tony laughed, locking eyes with Steve. "Have you met Pepper?"
"You're more," Steve told him firmly, thumbs brushing Tony's cheekbones; he shivered, despite the hot water. "You're more than a man in a suit and you're so much more than you think," he finished softly, leaning forward and brushing his lips against Tony's.
Tony surged forward, desperately deepening the kiss, fingers wrapped white-knuckled around the cross on his neck.
Bruce nearly jolted out of his chair, the phone he kept clinging to feverishly flinging into the air and across the room. Bruce scrambled after it, hissing, "Shit, shit, shit!" and looking at Steve like he was crazy.
Steve ignored him. He continued, "You let me hear you before. How about you pick on me for a little bit?"
Steve had enough time to appreciate how Tony's features slackened peacefully before the black consumed him. A thick, heavy pressure settled on Steve's chest and he felt the sheets slip out from under him. Two grey, spindly lumps of flesh slithered out from the shadows, bony fingertips slicing into his cheeks. Steve struggled to breathe under the weight of it.
"You rang?" it snarled; something dank and rotten licked the wounds on Steve's face.
"I believe in God," Steve told the demon. "You can't hurt me."
It cackled. "You may, but your little faggot does not. He clings to his precious artifacts, but it is not the love of your God that protects him," it spat, worms falling onto Steve's face and neck, "but your own pure and precious love."
Steve started. "Oh, no, I don't--"
"Don't get cute with me, you half-thawed sodomite!" it rumbled, turning the floor upside-down. Steve tumbled and felt his wrist snap. "Look at your pathetic little soul -- one kiss and you've already given him your heart. What a miserable, useless mortal you are!"
"You can't have him!" Steve bellowed, throwing punches into the dark. "I won't let you take him!"
"Oho, you won't, will you?" It slammed Steve up against the wall. "I was promised a soul, little human wretch. I was sworn it from the man who searched so desperately for your sunken tomb."
"He never found it," Steve contested angrily, feet dangling off the floor. Steve wasn't even sure there was a floor anymore. "Doesn't that mean you didn't uphold your part of the deal?"
It laughed, a guttural, wet sound. "If only Howard Stark were so bright as you. He thought not of the powers I possess. I merely ensured that a Stark would once again meet Captain America -- the idiotic little scum didn't even have the presence of mine to ask if it would be him or not -- and he literally fell over himself to agree." The thing purred into his ear, "Howard Stark once called Tony his greatest creation. He said it was because he believed Tony was going to change the world. Do you think that was the truth, Steven Rogers? Or do you think he had an ulterior motive?" it finished, the stench of centuries-old deaths filling up his lungs.
"Tony never made that deal," Steve maintained, glaring down the creature's snout. "He doesn't deserve this fate."
Frigid sea water rushed into Steve's mouth, making him gag. The demon cooed, "You don't think the child should have to pay for the sins of his father?"
"No," Steve answered, honest and steadfast even amidst the ice. "I don't."
"I want to dance." Steve coughed quietly into his hand. "With you." Then he clasped his hands behind his back and stood at attention, feeling significantly less confident than he looked.
"I need popcorn for this, be right back, don't start without me," Bruce laughed, practically skipping out of the room.
"Look, now you've upset Bruce," Tony snickered, covering his face with his hands. He took a deep breath. "Why would you want to dance with me?" he asked, moderately serious, standing up from his little cushion on the floor. He hovered inside the little metal ring he'd fashioned out of spare parts Steve and Bruce brought him, though. They'd filled it with salt and bolted it to the floor after Tony had tried to rip his ears off.
"I've never danced with anybody before," Steve admitted with a shrug, stepping over the ring and right into Tony's personal space.
"You--what? Seriously?" Tony laughed again. "JARVIS? JARVIS, turn on a playlist of, hmm, Bublé. You'll like Michael Bublé, Steve."
"I know who Michael Bublé is, Tony," Steve said fondly, settling a hand on Tony's hip.
"What, no, no, I'm not going to be the girl," Tony blustered, grabbing Steve's hands and moving it to his shoulder. "You've never danced, remember? That means I get to lead." He frowned and started ushering him over. "Come on, there's no room in this stupid thing, let's just do it out here."
"Tony..." Steve started warningly, trying to hold his ground.
"No, relax, I'll be fine," Tony insisted, free hand moving to slide over the cross resting against his clavicle. "It's fine, I'm fine, Cap. Let's dance." He then slid his hand to Steve's hip, clasping his other hand to Steve's. "Just do what I do," he murmured, pulling the other man in a little closer. "Step back with your left foot and follow me."
"I'm not sure how good at this I'll be," Steve forewarned, staring down at his feet in distress. "Why aren't we doing a more modern dance? Does anybody even waltz anymore?"
"Woah, Captain Forties, did you really just say that?" Tony chuckled. "I waltz all the time at parties; rude."
Steve smiled and inclined his head. "Forgive me," he murmured, gazing fondly down at Tony. "Would it kill you to call me 'Steve'?" Steve pursed his lips; Tony looked up at him and snickered.
"It really just might," he disclosed before standing on his toes and giving Steve a light kiss. "Steve," he mumbled, shutting his eyes tight. "Are we doing this because I'm dying?"
Steve faltered, releasing Tony's hand so he could grab Tony's shoulders. "You're not dying," he ordered in his sternest 'Captain' voice. "Thor and Loki are going to find it and kill it, okay? You're going to be fine."
"Yeah," Tony said faintly, looking off to the side.
Steve sighed and pressed another kiss to Tony's mouth, pulling him into a firm embrace. Something between them sizzled and and Steve pulled back, staring down at Tony's chest and the cross burning a scar into his skin.
"I am trying!" Bruce roared, muscles rippling under his skin. He was a little green, but so far maintaining his normal size. "The other guy likes Tony just as much as I do!" he continued. "He doesn't like what's happening."
"Thor, what do we do?" Steve asked near hysterically, stabbing the speaker button dropping the phone on the bed so he could jump up after Tony and hold him tight. The other man jerked horribly in Steve's arms; Steve thought he heard bones cracking.
"What possessed you to take off the damn necklace?" Loki screeched from the phone. "That was the only thing that was working for him!"
"It was burning him!" Steve defended, trying to keep whatever the hell was there from snatching Tony up again; Tony screamed, doubling over into Steve's shoulder.
"Yes, well, it's worked fantastically for you, hasn't it?" Loki growled; Steve could practically feel the demigod rolling his eyes. "Listen, Thor is battling the beast right now, but we need more time."
"What part of we don't have anymore time did you not understand?" Steve hissed, wrapping a hand around the back of Tony's skull before he could snap his neck.
"Tell Stark not to kill himself! I don't care how you do it, just stall it!" Loki spat. "There seems to be some sort of delay between what we do here and what happens there on Midgard. I don't think the thing there knows we're fighting it here. Just delay the damn thing as long as you can!"
Steve looked at the bed then and realized the phone was projecting a hologram into the air. Loki certainly looked less than perfect now: there was a nasty burn mark running down the side of his face and the armor he could see had nearly been ripped to shreds.
"Why aren't you fighting...?" Steve questioned quietly, holding tight to a sobbing Tony. A trickle of blood fell from his nose.
Loki sneered and his form flickered. "I am fighting, you simpleton." Loki sputtered out of existence for a second and Steve thought, 'Oh,' as Loki appeared once more, looking even more worse for wear. "Just give us ten minutes more," he urged.
"Ten minutes," Steve echoed. "I can do that."
Steve practically threw Tony into Bruce's arms, screaming to the sky, "Hey! I want to talk to you!"
The darkness slunk to him like smoke. "I grow weary of your impertinence, Captain."
"You like making deals, right?" Steve asked, narrowing his eyes. "You let Howard bargain his unborn son's soul. What say you trade Tony's soul for mine?"
"What the fuck are you trying to do?" Tony yelled from miles away. "Steve!"
"Oh," it whispered, suddenly intrigued. A cold mist swept around Steve's ankles and he looked down, flinching at the body parts he saw twitching there. Hands grabbed his legs and Steve fell to his knees. Peggy Carter looked him in the eyes and purred, "You would damn your eternal soul to save him?"
Steve's breath hitched. "I would," he agreed firmly.
Her breasts bumped along his abdomen as she slid up to meet his gaze. She smiled at Steve, showing teeth. "You should know I prefer the souls of the sinners and the diseased. And you? Why, nearly a century old, and you're still as innocent as a newborn. What darkness lies in your heart that would satisfy my appetite?"
"Rape and murder are sins, right?" Steve challenged, throat closing up. He wasn't sure if he could do this. "I bet I'd be even more delicious having just completely obliterated my 'purity'."
"Oh," Peggy said again, laughing high and clear. "Oh, you dirty boy. Let me get this straight. You're going to forfeit your place in Heaven and spend all eternity as my lunch, all for that little speck of a man in the corner? You: Steven Rogers, born July fourth, nineteen eighteen, at six a.m. sharp?"
"Oh god, it fucking figures," Tony gurgled, sounding sick to his stomach. "Born promptly at oh-six-hundred. Steve, don't do this!"
"That is correct," he told the not-quite-Peggy. It could match every detail exactly, except for the eyes. Her eyes were as dead as a tomb. "How would this transaction work?"
She giggled, circling around him like threads of smoke. "Who says I'm going to take you up on your offer, Captain?" It reached between his legs and squeezed. "Kidding, I'm kidding -- of course I will. You smell so good, Steve," she moaned, nuzzling against his neck. "I can't wait to eat you."
"How do I complete the transaction?" Steve repeated, eyes straight ahead.
It sighed, "Oh, you're no fun. Very well." It vanished for a second and Tony appeared in front of him, smirking devilishly. His eyes held no life in them. "I thought this form might make it a little easier for you. All I need to seal the deal," it growled, pressing flush up against Steve, "is a kiss."
Steve swallowed roughly and nodded. They'd run out of time. Eyes fluttering shut, Steve leaned forward, tilting his head down.
It laughed and laughed, tongue lapping at its own brittle, broken lips.
When Steve could feel its rotting breath against his lips, the darkness shattered and he could hear it shriek, "What? No!" It ripped at his chest, went for his guts, and Steve jumped back, eyes wide and lungs heaving.
"Thor?" he hesitantly called out. "Loki?"
Lightning ripped at the sky and a hole appeared in the ground before them. "It would appear that we are the heroes today, Brother!" Thor boomed, tired but cheerful. "We have won this battle, demon! Our bounty would be that you release Anthony Stark of his contract."
"No, you abominations, no!" it screeched, claws digging into the floor, trying to keep its shell from being sucked back into hell. "How dare you trick me, how dare you!"
Loki laughed then. "I of all people would know when to accept defeat. The time is now, witch." Fingers snapped and the demon's arms turned to mush. It howled, crashing through the earth and descending into the flames. The hole sealed itself tightly; Steve let out the breath he wasn't aware he'd been holding and sagged against the wall.
"Oh my god, you asshole, you fucking asshole, I hate you," Tony swore, scrambling over and pressing a hand over the sluggishly bleeding marks on his chest.
Steve laughed, tears pricking at his eyes. "Still think everything I am came from a bottle?" he asked him, cupping Tony's face in his hands. He rubbed their noses together tenderly.
"I hate you," Tony hissed, slamming their mouths together all teeth and tongues and life.
'I love you, too,' Steve thought, sucking in a deep breath through his nose.
"Hey, shit, Steve," Tony gasped, pulling back for half a second. He looked him in the eyes, eyebrows raised questioningly. Steve saw bright, unshed tears in Tony's eyes. "That was just a stalling technique, right? You weren't really going to trade your soul for mine, right?"
Steve laughed again, a few tears of his own slipping down his cheeks. "Tony," he whispered gently and held him tight.
Tony swore again, clinging to Steve like his life depended on it. He answered, voice full of wonder, "Steve."