They have two days, and everyone's getting kind of twitchy.
Of course, Steve’s been here long enough to know that 'twitchy,' in SHIELD, is basically just raising their eyebrows slightly. Maybe their expression gets pinched, or they suddenly develop a nervous tick.
But Coulson- ineffable, brilliant, clean-cut calm Phil Coulson- delivers it with a carefully managed expression and squared shoulders.
"Forty one hours, two and a half minutes." Coulson says. "The entire eastern seaboard is going to go down if we don't get Loki to talk."
Clint doesn't glance up from where he's fiddling with his arrows, but they all know he's paying close attention. "Have I ever told you how good you are at pep talks, sir?"
Coulson doesn't answer. Instead, he flips on the screen that connects to the next room over.
On the screen, Maria is halfway through a sentence, on the tail-end of a threat, when Loki interrupts her.
"It is out of my hands now, Agent Hill."
Maria doesn’t even pause. “Are you saying you can’t stop it?”
Loki’s smiling that smug, tiny smile that curls at the edges. “Not if I tried. This is ancient Asgardian magic, Agent Hill, it can’t be stopped once it has been cast.”
“Wanna bet on that?” Fury is glaring, but it’s kind of his default setting whenever Loki’s involved. He has his hands folded behind his back, and they’re getting tighter with every minute that passes- Steve knows the feeling, how he can almost feel the clock thumping at the back of his throat, reminding him how truly screwed they all are.
Loki’s smile, if anything, widens. “Gladly, Director. Have you found out what it is yet?”
“You should hurry. Something tells me even SHIELD cannot evacuate the entire eastern seaboard in the time I have given you.”
Maria’s jaw tightens, but Fury doesn’t even blink. “And something tells me that this won’t work out for you if the curse does start taking effect. It’d be a shame to stain that pretty cape of yours.”
The smug smile turns into a shit-eating grin. “I am merely helping your team, Director. If this curse starts to come down on anyone, rest assured that it is entirely their own fault.”
Tony rolls his eyes at Steve before leaning forwards and pressing his finger against the speaker.
His voice comes through the speakers in the camera: “Sounds awesome, reindeer-games. And what the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
Loki glances into the camera, and inclines his hand slightly in a half-wave. “Good to hear from you again, Stark.”
“Uh-huh,” Tony says into the speaker, propping his elbows up on the desk. “Well, personally, I love to see that goshdarn purty face when you’re not bent on mass genocide. Oh, wait.”
“Not the time, Stark,” Fury says, still not looking away from Loki.
Loki hmm-s softly before letting his fingers drum against the table in an all-too human gesture that Steve hasn’t seen him do before. “This curse- it is designed to make the one it focuses on… happier.”
“My team is going to be happier if half of America gets wiped out?”
“I should hope so, this country aggravates me above most others on this wretched planet,” Loki says. “And again, not your whole team. The curse fixates on but one. It all links back to the one, and said person is the sole one who can stop your precious citizens from being brutally slaughtered, whether they know how or not.”
“But no pressure,” Tony says, and Steve resists the urge to grin, because of course Tony could piss Fury off more than Loki ever could.
Loki’s laugh is lilting, quiet, almost lyrical. “Indeed.”
Steve taps Tony’s shoulder, and tries not to notice how Tony moves away from the speaker without arguing.
He looks at the camera, where Loki is still smiling.
“And who’s this person? The one who can stop it?”
Loki laughs again, and this time, it grates on his ears. “Who else? You, Captain, of course. It all ties back to you.”
“No pressure,” Natasha says from beside him, and Tony elbows her.
Steve wets his lips. “Why-”
“Yours was the most prominent,” Loki cuts him off. “It gravitates towards the people with the largest pull.”
“The largest pu- what? What was most prominent?”
Behind him, he can practically feel Coulson’s glare at Clint and Tony warning them to not make any dick jokes.
Loki, however, just looks at the camera like he can see him. Heck, maybe he can. “Your want, Captain. This magic, it clawed its way into your mind. Into your... deepest, darkest wishes. Your want outshone everyone else’s, and the magic latched onto it.”
Steve glances back and half expects everyone to be staring at him- there are a few glances, but other than that, the avengers focus on the screen.
“Dandy,” Steve says, turning back. “How the hell am I supposed to stop the curse?”
“That is up to you to figure out. This magic is triggered by the want being left untouched- two days, and millions of people will die unless you fulfil it. Tell me, Captain,” Loki says, and his smile is like fucking barbed wire crawling up Steve’s throat, “what do you want most in the world?”
Thirty-nine hours left, and no-one has said anything for the past two minutes.
Steve links his fingers together again, and focuses on the thump at the back of his throat, the clock counting down.
“What Steve wants most can’t happen, right?”
Steve’s head snaps up, and Tony is staring pointedly at the wall.
“I mean,” Tony continues, “We don’t exactly have a TARDIS.”
Steve gets the reference, but it takes a moment for the meaning of it to click.
Everyone is still doing that totally-not-looking-but-really-we-are thing where Steve keeps feeling like someone’s staring at him, but whenever he turns, they’re already staring at something off in the distance. Which is hard to do, seeing as they’re in a room with no windows.
Steve sets his jaw. “I don’t- of course I want to, but I’ve- accepted that I’m here. In 2013. I like it here.”
Tony’s movements are sort of jerky, Steve realizes. They’re stiffer than usual, and Tony is obviously noticing, because he’s trying harder to look casual than usual.
“It doesn’t matter if you accept it, you still want it,” Tony says, still not looking at him, and Steve sort of hates it- he’s used to Tony looking at him, his hot brown eyes warming him with a glance, but he knows that if Tony were to look at him now, they’d be careful and cold.
Steve swallows. “I just- I miss it, okay? That doesn’t mean… “
He trails off, biting the side of his tongue.
“Steve,” Bruce says, and Steve looks over to him- he remembers when they had all started calling him that instead of just ‘Cap’ all the time, and it still cheers him up to remember sometimes.
Bruce is overshadowed by the Hulk, Steve has always thought. Everyone steps around him, treats him like a ticking bomb instead of Bruce, like one wrong move is going to make him turn green and fling you across the room.
But Bruce is Bruce, and Bruce is smart. He knows his limits- mostly- and he’d rather sit in the back than take the front lines. He’s quiet, he’s humble, he keeps a low profile, and he’s a good man. He’s his friend, has been for a while- they’ve all been friends for a while, now that Steve thinks about it- so Bruce, at this point, calms him down, because Bruce is cautious.
Bruce is think-first and move-slowly and plans before he strikes.
“Uh,” Bruce says. “Look, just- it’ll come to you, if you think about it. I mean, it’s kind of obvious what I want most, right? And if- if what you want most is going back to the forties, then, uh.”
“Abandon ship,” Clint nods. “Again, no pressure, Steve.”
Natasha purses her lips, like, why the fuck do I hang out with all of these males. “Ignore them, they’re emotionally stunted. They’ll get you thinking that what you want most in the world is a doughnut shaped like a stripper.”
“That would be easier,” Steve says. “And it’d save everyone’s lives.”
Beside her, Clint’s mouth twitches. “Fuck. Imagine that news report- ‘saved via stripper-shaped doughnut, the citizens of America rejoice.’”
Tony snorts, and a reluctant laugh punches out of Steve, and suddenly everyone’s giggling.
“Thong-shaped sprinkles,” Clint says, and then they’re full-out laughing, bent over in their chairs, trying to get their breath back and laughing harder because of it.
Natasha manages, “Tassle-shaped sugar crystals,” and Steve’s eyes are watering, and he can see Tony wheezing through his laughter, and it’s barely even funny, they’ve seen stupider things happen in reality than stripper-shaped doughnuts, but Steve can’t stop laughing and for a second he lets himself believe that he doesn’t want anything else but this- bad jokes and crappy coffee and his team, his team, sprawled out around him and grinning so hard it hurts.
See, Steve is having enough trouble identifying what he wants most in the world, much less fulfilling it, and SHIELD has already started on alternative options.
Which at the moment involve threatening Loki, which everyone knows won’t lead to anything, so they’re still screwed.
The next option is to bring Thor in- he’s been in Asgard with Jane for the last two weeks, but they’re cutting it short. They’ve tried telling the SHIELD agents that having Thor bargain with him won’t help, but the SHIELD agents in question are newbies and therefore aren’t up to speed on these things yet.
Tony’s already been into Loki’s cell, asking him what the curse would do if the thing in question was impossible. Like time travel, or bringing someone back from the dead, because god knows Steve misses a lot of people.
Loki had just smiled and said, “You better start building a time machine, then.”
Tony had come very close to punching him, but Bruce had dragged him out just in time.
They’ve also found out that, along with the population eastern seaboard (or at least the equivalent of that radius, wherever the curse is cast), the curse kills the host if it doesn’t fulfil their wish.
Steve has tried to convince the others to get out of the blast zone, but that conversation had lasted all of six seconds before Natasha had slapped him and then hugged him and told him that ‘they’re not going anywhere, and that he’s a fucking moron for thinking so.’
So all in all, they have twenty-six hours to identify and complete Steve’s greatest wish, and Steve has a rapidly-fading red mark on his left cheek.
They’re getting five hours of sleep each, because apparently even people on death row have to sleep, and Steve is flickering between consciousness when Tony walks in.
He stops when he sees Steve. “Oh. Sorry, I can-”
Steve shakes his head. “It’s fine, that was at least four hours. How much time do we-”
“Nineteen hours. Still no pressure.”
Steve laughs weakly, trying to clear his head.
He stretches, saying, “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of pressure implied here, Tony. I’m not going to let millions of people die just because I can’t figure out what I want. Or can’t get what I-”
He stops, finally registering what Tony’s wearing. “What’s with the Starksguise?”
Tony frowns; looks down at his suit- the fine creases, the perfectly tailored everything, the outrageously expensive jacket, which all adds up to Steve having a brain aneurysm 90% of the time.
Steve backtracks: “Sorry, I just woke up- it’s what we call the suits. Starksguises. Y’know, Stark disguises. Uh.”
Tony has that expression where he can’t work out if he’s offended or not, with a small twist in his forehead that mostly happens when someone starts talking about Howard.
“Uh,” Steve says again. “I- it wasn’t- we- in a good way, I mean. Like- you look great in the suits, it’s not- I just-”
He shoves a hand through his hair. “It’s- just- staged when you’re in them, you know? You’re- you’re laughing but it’s not real, you’re smiling but it’s that practiced one that you do when something’s wrong, and it’s like a different kind of armour, and you hate those things that you have to wear suits to, so we just- we’re used to you faking everything when you’re in a suit. And. Uh. Fuck, that was probably really offensive, I’m so sorry-”
“You swearing is worth any insults you can throw at me,” Tony says, his eyes wide. “Seriously. I’ve been waiting a year and a half for you to drop the f-bomb. I’m glad I got to hear it at least once before Loki decided to be a little shit and kill everyone. Again.”
And he’s faking it, he’s trying to gloss over it with sarcasm and whatever the hell he can get away with, but Steve laughs anyway.
“We just,” Steve tries, and for the millionth time wishes the serum had enhanced his social skills. “We like you better when you’re not acting. When you’re not all- all perfect and clean and- and- faking it.”
And Tony is still staring, his jaw slightly slack, but he blinks himself out of it after a few seconds. “I. Okay? That’s- okay. Okay, right.”
“Okay,” Steve says.
Tony nods like he doesn’t know how to, and his throat clicks. “Actually, I do kind of hate these monkey suits.”
“Yep,” Tony says, and his hand jerks to his collar, sliding out his tie.
Steve watches as Tony slings his tie over the couch, unbuttons his cuffs, shoves his sleeves up to his elbows, takes off his jacket and puts it with his tie.
Tony finishes by popping a few buttons at the top of his shirt. “Better?”
Steve tries not to inhale sharply at the sudden shock of collarbones, gentle and smooth and biteable against the fabric.
Then, without thinking about it, he’s moving forwards. He hears the hitch of breath as Steve rumples Tony’s hair, messing it up, kinking it and making it stick up in odd places like it does when Tony wakes up in the morning.
Steve swallows; lets his hand drop, and steps back. “Better,” he says, unsteady.
Tony’s eyes are bright, there’s colour high in his cheeks. “Good,” he blurts. “Okay. Glad I’m- not perfect again. Or something. With bedhead, apparently. I’ll just- go and talk to Jane. About the thing.”
Steve watches him go, and his hand tingles where he had pushed it through Tony’s hair.
Five hours to go, and SHIELD is considering telling everyone to get the fuck out of this half of America.
Jane, Tony and Bruce have developed a countdown device- a clock, basically, that taps into the magic and can tell if it stops.
Not that it’ll be worth anything, because Steve still doesn’t know what the fuck he wants and everyone’s glaring at him when he walks through the halls.
“Well,” Clint says, as they all stand in front of the clock and its huge, blinking numbers. “That’s totally not ominous at all.”
“Not helping,” Natasha says, and Steve stares and wishes he could want something simple, something stupid, something easy to label and say that, I want that, I want, I want, I want.
Someone tells him he should get some sleep- Steve isn’t paying attention to who at this point- but Fury tells him to sit the fuck up and think.
Steve blinks groggily, and the numbers at the back of his throat are right beside him and attached to Jane’s machine.
Six minutes to go, and Steve is starting to get it.
He thinks about what Natasha had asked him before she had gone to fill out a report: above everything, Steve. What do you want above everything else?
He thinks about what he wanted a year and a half ago- he had wanted to get back to the 40s, had wanted it so bad it had physically ached, had wanted Peggy’s laugh and Bucky’s shove and it had beat at him for months on end.
It’s a dull throb now, a scar that won’t fade, but it’s healing over.
He tries to think about what he wants right now- he wants to help, he’s always wanted to help, he wants to save whoever the hell he can. He wants his team, his friends- Natasha’s messy hair in a bun after sparring, Clint shoving his feet in Bruce’s face as they fight over the couch, Thor scaring the shit out of grocery clerks when they run out of cereal.
He wants his shield at arms’ reach, he wants old photos for when he misses them again, he wants the avengers and the tower and the roar of his motorbike as it hammers down the road.
And he wants Tony next to him as they play video games, he wants Tony doing something stupid on a mission and Steve having to make himself yell Iron Man into the comm instead of Tony.
Tony, who is insufferable on his best days, who works too hard and fights too hard and loves too hard and pretends he doesn’t.
Tony, who blazed in without apologizing, who Steve was wrong about, who is so startlingly different than Howard in all the best ways.
Tony, who woke Steve up when he needed it, when he was lost and pissed off and out of place.
He wants Tony and that small twist of hair that always manages to sneak out no matter how hard they comb it down, Tony and his burned fingers, his coffee-stained teeth, his tired eyes and mouth and hands.
He wants him spread out on the sheets, on his bed, on Steve’s, he wants him quiet and thoughtful and loud and stupid.
He wants to run a hand through his hair, bite down on his lip, rumple his shirt, mess him up a little and pull the Stark away until it’s just Tony, who doesn’t need to fake anything.
And there’s two minutes and fifty-three seconds left, according to the clock, and Steve hears it in his throat, and his heart is rattling around in his chest, and he feels like he’s going to overflow.
He looks over at Tony, and it bursts: IwantIwantIwantIwant, over and over, beating a rhythm at the back of his eyes.
He’s lurching the twelve steps over to him before he registers doing it, and he thinks he must look like he’s dying, because Tony’s eyes widen again and he says, “Fuck, are you oka-”
And there’s the blush, hot and uncomfortable and seeping up his neck, over his face, like he knew it would.
He stands there like an idiot, in front of the man who he wants most in the world, and he has two minutes left and he has no idea what the fuck to say.
“I,” he chokes, and his palms are sweating, he feels like he’s half the size of Bucky again and has just run a marathon, gulping in air and not even managing that. “Tony, I-”
“Holy fuck,” Natasha says from behind him, but it hears it like it’s rooms away.
“You- you’re-” Steve says, and Tony looks stuck between terrified and struck dumb, and if this doesn’t work then they have less than two minutes left until millions of people are going to die, it’s not exactly romantic, and Steve very briefly considers speeding up the process because this is, without a doubt, the worst he’s ever felt in his entire life.
“It’s you,” Steve blurts. “What I want most in the- you, I want- I’m in love with you.”
And he’s sweating from everywhere, and blood is roaring in his ears loud enough to drown out the ticking of the clock, and he bends and crushes his mouth to Tony’s and lets himself have this, this one thing, before Tony will push him away.
Tony’s lips are dry, and slack, and he’s not kissing back but Steve expected that, so he’s- he’s- well, he’s not fine with it, obviously, but-
But the clock is still ticking when Steve pulls back, and he doesn’t even have time to be confused about that, and Tony still looks like he’s going to throw himself out of a window as he says, almost too fast to work out, “Hey, so that didn’t work, that sucks, but if we’re all going to die then I mightaswellsayI’minloveyouSteve.”
The last few words are garbled together, and Steve doesn’t actually register them until a few seconds later, and then- and then-
And then everyone’s cheering, and hugging each other, and Steve is very, very confused, before he realizes that the ticking has stopped.
He looks over, and the clock is frozen on 1 minute, 19 seconds, and it’s not changing, and Steve realized dimly that hey, he just stopped millions of people from dying from hearing Tony-
“Okay,” Steve all but squeaks, his voice still wrecked.
“Right,” Tony says, looking just as shellshocked as Steve feels. “Good, then. That’s- good. So. I. Uh. Good.”
“Good,” Steve agrees, dazed, and allows himself a second to think that from now on, he’s going to be a huge idiot whenever Tony’s around- well, more than usual- before leaning forwards and kissing him again, and smiles into his mouth when Tony kisses back.
They don’t pull apart for a while, and when they do, their breathing is ragged.
Tony rests his forehead against Steve’s shoulder- which is way too sweaty, because everything’s sweaty right now, he needs a shower- and says, “Good?”
“Good,” Steve says back. “Very good. Great, in fact.”
“Oh,” Tony says. “Good.”
A pause, and then: “We’re going to be idiots for ages.”
Steve can’t help the lightheaded laugh. “Yeah, well. Good.”
“’Good’ sounds weird now,” Tony says, and swallows.
“Mmmm,” Steve agrees, and distantly wonders if everyone acts like they’re incredibly stoned when they’re in love, or if it’s just them. “Everyone’s looking at us, by the way.”
“Noticed,” Tony says. “I’m pretty sure those guys are handing over money. They had a poll.”
“Yeah. Possibly some billboards. The rest of our team started it. Blame them.”
Steve laughs again, and his skin feels like its humming below the surface. He kisses Tony again, because he can and Tony wants him to, and loves how he leans forwards when Steve pulls back.
“We’re definitely going to be idiots,” Tony says on his exhale.
Steve says, “Good,” and leans in.