Steve was lying in bed reading when Tony came rushing in, already talking up a storm. It was eleven o'clock, the time of night when most people went to sleep. For Tony, though, it was still bright and early. "Come on, up and at 'em, let's go, let's go."
"Where are we going?" Steve asked as he marked his place and set the book aside.
Tony grinned. "You'll see. Just meet me in the garage." He backpedaled out of the room, drumming a little on the doorframe as he went, then added, "Oh. And wear a sweater." Then he was gone.
"Okay," Steve said to the empty room.
Tony drove them out of the city in his shiny silver Aston Martin. He muttered under his breath about the traffic, and refused to answer any of Steve's questions. Although it was late October, he had not followed his own advice, and he was dressed in just a long-sleeved T-shirt. From time to time he leaned forward to peer out the windshield, craning his neck to look up at the sky.
"You're really not going to tell me what's going on," Steve said.
"Not yet," Tony said. They were finally starting to leave the city behind, and he relaxed a little as they were able to pick up more speed. "Just trust me. You're gonna love it." He pulled out into oncoming traffic in order to pass up a car that was in fact going the speed limit – which was apparently not fast enough for Tony. "I should've just flown us out to Malibu, this is so much easier out there, fewer lights and all, but by the time JARVIS reminded me, it was too late for that. So this will have to do."
Long since accustomed to Tony's seemingly non-sensical rambling, Steve just clutched what Clint had dubbed the "oh shit handle" on the car door. "Okay," he said. He knew the payoff would come later, when the reason for this mystery trip was revealed and Tony's words would make sense. He was willing to wait until then.
Despite his easy agreement – or maybe because of it, who knew? – Tony shot him an anxious look. "Seriously, are you okay with this? I don't want you to think I'm kidnapping you or anything. And this is definitely not me keeping secrets from you, okay? Well, I mean, it is, but it's only temporary and anyway it would ruin the surprise if I told you ahead of time. So, are we cool here?"
Steve didn't much care for the note of worry in Tony's voice as he all but begged to be forgiven for keeping something secret from him. It had been over a month since the near-disaster in Stamford, and their vow to never keep secrets from each other again. It bothered him that Tony was so determined to uphold his promise that he couldn't even let himself enjoy something that was supposed to be fun.
He didn't want to say anything, though. For an answer, he just put his hand on Tony's thigh. "We are more than okay," he said. "In fact, I kind of like the whole 'air of mystery' thing." He squeezed his hand, just once.
Tony jumped a little, then grinned. "Really?" He gave Steve a wink that was probably meant to be rakishly charming and a little lascivious, but instead just made him look silly.
"Really," Steve assured him. "Although I'd feel a lot better about it if you kept your eyes on the road."
"Oh." Tony gave the steering wheel a sharp nudge to the right, and the Aston Martin returned to their own lane.
Slowly Steve unclenched his death grip on the door handle and sat back in his seat. He still had no idea where they were going or why, but he was content to know that eventually his curiosity would be satisfied.
About an hour out from the city, Tony slowed down. He scanned their surroundings constantly now, obviously looking for something but not finding it. As Steve sat there and silently watched, he continued to make the occasional muttered comment about light and space. Once he even brought the car to a halt right in the middle of the road, just so he could lean forward and stare out the windshield. Fortunately at this late hour, there was no traffic on the suburban road, so they were in no danger of causing an accident.
At last Tony seemed to find what he wanted. He pulled the car over to the side of the road along a vacant lot. Across the street, two houses stood dark and silent, no lights shining in the windows. On either side of the lot, there were houses in various stages of new construction. The entire neighborhood was so new it didn't even have a sign yet.
"Okay," Tony said. "This looks good." He got out of the car.
Steve followed him out. "Where are we?"
Tony shrugged as he opened the trunk. "Who knows? Far enough away from the city, that's all I wanted. No light to interfere." He pulled out a dark, shapeless object, then a metal cooler.
Steve just stared. He recognized the first object now – a rolled-up blanket. "Did you… Are we having a picnic? At night?"
"No," Tony said immediately. He slammed the trunk shut. "Well, sort of. Maybe?"
Tony was good for grand gestures and heroic moments of self-sacrifice, but the little things often eluded him; no one could ever call him a romantic. Steve knew this and loved him for it anyway – which was why it moved him so much to see that blanket. "I think it's a great idea," he said, and meant every word.
"Do you like picnics?" Tony asked as he tossed the blanket over his shoulder. He leaned down to pick up the cooler. "At night?"
"I don't know," Steve said honestly. "I've never been on one before."
"Oh. Well, just you wait," Tony promised. He led the way into the vacant lot. Toward the rear of the property, he set the cooler down and spread out the blanket. He looked up, scanned the sky, then stretched out on his back on the blanket, lying at a slight diagonal. "Well? You coming?"
Bemused, Steve lay down beside him. "Do I get to know what this is about now?"
"Yes," Tony said. "You do." He pointed up at the sky. "Orion. You know it?"
"Sure," Steve said. He wasn't nearly as knowledgeable about astronomy as Tony or Thor, but he could identify a few constellations on sight – and that was one of them.
"Okay," Tony said. "Just keep watching."
They lay side by side on the blanket, staring up at the night sky. Steve wasn't quite sure what he was supposed to be looking for, but he kept his eyes open and he remained alert.
Nearly five minutes passed in utter silence. Then without warning, a fiery line streaked across the sky. It remained in sight for about three seconds, then it burned out and vanished.
Tony's hand took hold of his. Their fingers intertwined. "Did you see?"
"Yeah," Steve said.
"It's the Orionid meteor shower," Tony said. "It happens at this time every year. Debris from Halley's Comet causes it. Some years--"
"Don't tell me the science," Steve said. "I just want to watch."
Tony's fingers squeezed his tight, but he fell silent.
The night wore on. It was chilly out, and Steve was glad he had worn a sweater. He worried for Tony, just in his T-shirt, but Tony didn't even seem to notice the weather. All his attention was for the stars above and those random silver streaks in the sky.
There was a half-moon tonight, and under its light Steve was able to turn his head and gaze at Tony. He smiled a little as he studied the well-known profile. Even now, after everyone knew they were together, Tony rarely spent the entire night with him, rising early to start his day's work. It wasn't often that Steve got this chance to just lie there with him, feeling the warmth of his body, content to just be.
Another meteor flashed across the sky. Tony said, "When I was a kid, Jarvis – the real one – used to wake me up in the middle of the night whenever there was a meteor shower, and we'd go out in the backyard and watch. It wasn't the best conditions there in the city, with all that light, but I didn't know that then. I thought it was so cool. It was kind of our little secret. After I was sent away to school we stopped doing it. But it was nice. While it lasted."
Steve pressed his hand. He understood now why Tony had been so excited to bring him out here. Tony didn't have very many good memories from his childhood, but here was one he could share, one he wanted to share. It humbled Steve that of all the people in the world, he was the one Tony had chosen to share it with.
"I always wanted to go into space. Ask JARVIS. Very first time I took the suit out, I asked him about it, what we needed to do." He paused. "Never expected I'd get that wish quite the way I did, though."
Tony's experience with the Chitauri portal was not something they had really ever talked about. Steve was a little surprised he had even brought it up at all. "You'll go back there someday," he said.
"Of course I will," Tony said. He looked over at Steve, and smiled.
It was the most natural thing in the world to lean over and kiss him then. His lips were cool from the night air, but the rest of him was quite warm.
Tony apparently forgot all about the meteor shower; he reached for Steve, rolling onto his side toward him and kissing him back with fervor. "I'm glad you came with me tonight," he said.
"Not like you gave me much choice," Steve teased. He ran his hand down Tony's arm, then let it rest on his hip. "I seem to recall something about being kidnapped." He dug his fingers in in a quick goosing motion.
Tony yelped. "Hey! I resemble that remark." He grinned, then suddenly seemed to remember something. "Oh. Wait a sec." He sat up.
"What?" Steve asked.
Tony moved over to the cooler, where it weighed down one corner of the blanket. "I almost forgot." He opened it up and reached inside.
"Hey you!" A voice rang out from the darkness, startling Steve badly. He had been so wrapped up in what Tony was doing that he hadn't even heard anyone approach. "Stop right there!"
Cautiously he stood up. "Okay," he said. The man who stood there was tall, but heavyset. He was dressed in a light-colored shirt and jeans. Moonlight glinted off the rifle in his hands.
Steve raised his hands to show that he was not a threat. "It's okay." He was very aware of Tony kneeling behind him and off to one side; at this moment they were both in the line of fire, depending on where the rifleman might choose to aim.
"Don't move!" The man sounded scared, but determined. "I've called the police, and they're on their way. You guys aren't getting away this time."
"What are you talking about?" Tony shut the lid of the cooler with a snap and stood up. The champagne bottle in his hand caught the moonlight and reflected it.
The man with the rifle shouted in fright. In the stillness of the night, the gunshot was very loud.
Steve never forgot the sound of shattering glass and splintering metal that heralded the destruction of the arc reactor. Or the shocked, gasping noise Tony made as he staggered backward from the impact. He never forgot the alarmed cry the man with the rifle uttered as brilliant light stabbed the night, then went dark.
And he never forgot the way Tony fell.
"No!" The scream was wrenched from his throat. "Tony!" He threw himself over Tony's body, protecting him from further harm, the way he had once thrown himself on what he believed was a live grenade.
"Don't move!" cried the man with the gun, his voice high-pitched and shaky. A circle of light bobbed into life as he turned on a flashlight.
The scene that met Steve's eyes could have been taken straight from his nightmares. Tony lay flat on his back, his eyes wide with fear and pain. He was gasping for breath, his hands curled over the shattered remains of the arc reactor. Blood darkened his shirt where the broken pieces had been driven into his chest.
"Oh my God," Steve breathed. He turned to glare at the man holding the gun. "Call 911!"
The man looked like he was going to be sick. The barrel of the rifle sagged toward the ground. "Is that…who I think it is? And you're…?"
"Just get help!" Steve shouted. He grabbed two great handfuls of Tony's T-shirt and ripped it apart so he could see what he was dealing with.
"I didn't know," the other man said, his words rushing together. "We've had some thefts, graffiti. Punks! I saw the car and thought it was them. I didn't know. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry!"
"Do street thieves drive a million-dollar car?" Steve snapped. He turned away from the frightened homeowner and did not spare him another thought.
God. The arc reactor was in pieces, glass and metal everywhere. It was no longer giving off any light, although even as he stared in horror, a spark tried to light deep within the remains, far within Tony's chest. As the light sparked, Tony flinched and cried out, his hands spasming.
He could hear sirens now. But no ambulance, no police officer could help with this. Tony needed a new arc reactor before any other medical attention – without it, he would die. Every minute the reactor was not functioning was another minute when the shrapnel buried in his chest moved closer to his heart. If he did not get a replacement soon, he would go into cardiac arrest and die.
Steve slid his arms beneath Tony's shoulders and knees, then stood up. Tony cried out again at the abrupt movement. His eyes screwed up with pain, his hands scrabbled weakly at the ruin of the arc reactor; he nearly cut his fingers on the sharp edges, and Steve hissed at the sight, unable to stop him.
"I'm sorry," the other man said again, babbling in his panic. "I didn't know, I'm sorry, I didn't know it was you. Oh my God, did I just kill Iron Man?"
"Not yet," Steve said curtly, and began walking toward their car.
"What can I do?" the man wailed. "Tell me what to do!"
"Open the door," Steve ordered. "It's not locked."
The man opened the passenger door, and Steve stooped down so he could place Tony in the seat.
"Steve." Tony was extremely pale, his eyes ringed with white terror. "Steve."
"I'm here," he said. "It's going to be okay." He could feel panic wanting to clutch at him, threatening to turn his blood to ice and drag down his limbs. He did not dare stop moving, for to stop now would be to give in to the panic, to just freeze and do nothing while Tony died right in front of his eyes.
"I'm so sorry," said the man who had shot Tony.
Steve ignored him. He hurried around the car and got in the driver's seat. He reached for the ignition, then stopped. "The keys. Tony, where are the keys?"
"My pocket," Tony gasped. "Steve. JARVIS…"
"I know," Steve said. It had taken them an hour to drive out here; he vowed it would not take that long to return. He wanted to get away from here though, before the police arrived and detained them both. Once they were underway, he would call JARVIS and explain the situation. If they were lucky, Thor would have arrived from Asgard while they had been out, and he could fly out to meet them, bringing a replacement arc reactor. If not, he could still warn the rest of the Avengers, and they could have things ready.
He found the keys in the front pocket of Tony's jeans. As he started the car, light flashed in the arc reactor's remains. Tony arched up with a pained cry, his eyes flying wide open. "God!"
"Hang on," Steve said grimly, and stomped on the accelerator.
He drove away from the vacant lot where the man with the rifle still stood there helplessly. In the rearview mirror, he saw flashing blue and red lights as the police arrived.
Overhead, a shooting star fell to the earth.