November 03, 1943
The room was dim. Not dark; nurses needed to be able to move from bed to bed with ease. A field hospital never saw anything darker than a sort of twilight glow. Every now and then someone would groan, but other than that, silence prevailed. Steve's fingers ran over the curved edge of his shield as he leaned back against a wall, keeping watch for any sort of disturbance.
Keeping watch for Her.
Everyone knew about her, the Lady that came at night. They spoke about her in whispers, when they did at all, grown men embarrassed to be talking about boogymen. From the lowest private to the top brass, they all knew her, though no one would admit it. Even when Captain America had been briefed, it was in hushed tones, the Major's eyes daring Steve to call him insane while he explained. Seventeen patients who should have lived, dead overnight. Two gone missing altogether. Many, many more men who might have made it, also gone. The numbers were staggering, far off from what they should have been. And the only link between the deaths was sightings of a woman, dressed all in white. Bullets didn't touch her, and the only man who had been able to lay a hand on her had been found the next night in the roof rafters with his head half removed.
It wasn't the sort of assignment Steve was used to being called in for. Leningrad was still under siege only miles away, and there was plenty of work for him on the front, even though they'd gotten supplies through. Three nights of bare-bones guard duty had him itching for real work. He was starting to think that whatever was going on was something in the water. He could have been put to better use closer to the action, even if he was just waiting for the next set of orders. But things had gotten bad enough that they needed to be stopped, before a spook turned into a bigger problem. The winter was deadly enough without men shooting at shadows.
None of the nurses looked up, not even when the winter wind blew cold air directly over their desks. She glided; sending her hips rolling in ways that Steve wasn't completely comfortable with. Every step sent her dress fluttering behind her, like something from a dime store romance. She wasn't really dressed in white, but the blue was so pale that it could have been, next to her golden skin and dark hair. The dress wasn't made for the harsh winter, being too thin and short-sleeved. The woman should have been frozen blue with cold, but she moved as if she were on a California beach in June.
She turned her head and met his eyes through the shadows. Her eyes were light brown, almost amber, and as completely emotionless as a doll's. He couldn't move. Even breathing took thought. It was like being a mouse caught in a snake's gaze. If he tried to escape, she'd strike.
"Good evening, Captain." Low, warm tones rolled over his skin in silky smooth French. "They told me you would be here. Stay there, will you? I'll be only a moment, and then you may raise the alarm and collect the leftovers."
Steve forced himself to step forward, though every instinct in him said run. It was like wading through a fast-flowing river, every footstep slow as unacknowledged fear tried to drag him off balance. He gripped his shield so tight that the leather straps were cutting off the feeling in his fingers. "No one's dying tonight."
She smiled, sweet and innocent, reminding him of Gail for a fleeting moment before he saw the sharp teeth that glittered against her painted lips. Her eyeteeth weren't much longer than normal, not long enough to look unnatural, but they had the same evil glitter as the edge of a knife. "I am Death, Captain. I will take whomever I wish this night. You cannot stop me."
"Bet your life?"
Her smile turned to a snarl, a hiss like steam escaping her. He didn't get another warning before she launched herself over the sickbeds. Steve crouched down, lifting his shield overhead and bracing for the impact. She came down onto its face with enough force that his shoulders almost gave way and trapped him under her. He gathered his knees under him and heaved, tossing her into the wall with a sickening crunch of broken bones as she dropped to the floor.
By now, nurses and patients were waking up from their stupor, screaming in terror, shouts of gospodi pomilui ringing in the rafters. The ones who could move were scrambling out of their beds, while the ones who were trapped did their best to take cover, or to help those who needed it. Nurses were flashes of movement in his peripheral vision as they scuttled around, some of them bodily lifting patients from their beds. Other than taking note of them as obstacles to avoid, Steve ignored them.
The woman pulled herself to her feet, limping on broken legs. Steve kept his eyes firmly on her as he stepped forward, shield raised. Blood matted her hair to her forehead and ran into her eyes. Her fingers left gouges in the wall where she clung. "That almost hurt." Confusion lifted her voice, making the phrase nearly a question. "How did you do that? What are you?"
Steve hadn't intended to answer, but he didn't need to. A nurse stepped up from behind her desk, clutching a tiny gold cross that dangled around her neck. "E— in nomine patris..." Her voice shook so much that the familiar chant was almost impossible to follow.
"Ma'am, get back," Steve ordered in a tone he usually reserved for stubborn privates.
She shook her head, loose curls from her bun falling down around her face. Tears left tracks through her makeup and smeared her mascara, but she kept moving forward, edging between the woman and the patients. "In nomine patris— et fil— et filis, et spiritus sa— sancti—"
Beds slid aside, scraping the concrete floor as they were shoved out of the way. The woman moved so quickly that Steve only saw a blur and the blood spurt as the nurse's throat was ripped open. Red spray arced upward, splattering over the beds and floor as she collapsed. She didn't even have time to scream.
Wet, dead meat thumped to the ground as the monster dropped the nurse's body, crisp white uniform splattered with gore. Her spine gleamed through the hole that had been torn in her throat, a single spot of white among so much blood. The vampire lifted her head, blood running down her chin, staining her teeth bright red. As he watched, the cut over her forehead sealed and vanished. Bones cracked and popped as her legs healed. When she straightened, there was no sign that she'd ever been injured at all.
That seemed to be the sign the rest of the room had been waiting for. Everyone who could rushed to the doors, only a few brave souls staying behind to try and collect their bedbound charges. Neither Steve nor the vampire moved, though Steve stayed at the ready in case she tried to stop them, but she didn't even look at the escapees. The room emptied rapidly, leaving it dead and hollow. The door swung open and shut in the winter wind, its clattering the only sound left.
When the last person had gone, the vampire tilted her head curiously. The blood from her meal had had time to congeal. It left sticky red lines where it brushed her skin, like a macabre brush painting. "You do not fear me."
"I've seen worse than you, lady." He hefted his shield, eyes marking out its trajectory. As long as he could keep her distracted with banter... "You're not getting out of here alive."
Her laugh rolled over his skin like a living thing; soft and warm, leaving prickles of horror in its wake. "Don't you know? I'm already dead."
She moved just as he threw his shield, ducking under it and surging forward. Steve leapt, but she was too fast, even for him. Her hands caught his calves, nails shredding through the leather of his uniform like it was paper. Momentum kept him going, tearing him out of her grasp. Steve managed to keep rolling, landing on his feet, even though blood was trickling down his legs.
The shield bounced off a bed, curved to hit the solid metal door, then arched through the air straight at the vampire's back. With just a tilt of her body, she leaned out of the way, making it miss by inches on the rebound.
Steve caught it by the straps and whirled, braced for another attack.
"Not fast enough." Dark blue fabric dangled from her fingers—pieces of his uniform. Metal glinted under her fingernails as she dropped the scraps. "You'll have to do better than that, Captain."
Documents rustled under his boots as Steve circled. She turned with him, lips curled into a tiny smile behind her mask of gore. This wasn't a Nazi, wasn't some foreign invader from another planet. It was just a homegrown monster, and he wasn't going to let her go. Too many men had lost their lives already.
Something soft squished under his boot. In spite of himself, Steve glanced down at the wide-open eyes of the dead nurse who'd tried to face the monster. He'd stepped on her esophagus. Cold horror made him pause, meeting the nurse's eyes.
It was enough. The vampire launched herself across the distance. Steve brought up his shield, expecting to repeat what had happened before. It didn't work. This time she clung to it, planting her feet in his chest and ripping it from his hands, tossing it aside. They grappled, her nails slicing into the back of his hands like knives. Thin muscles bulged in her forearms as she forced his hands back, almost to the breaking point. He panted and shoved back with everything he had, fighting his own disbelief. How could the monster be so strong?
"Silly, silly little Captain." She grunted with effort as she forced him to his knees. They were so close, he could smell the rotting blood on her breath, see the flesh caught between her teeth. "You can't fight death. I'm going to drain you down to a husk." Her hands flexed, cracking his thumb out of its socket. "Or maybe I'll make you one of us. Would you like that, little human?"
Steve centered himself and rolled backwards. His left wrist gave way with a pop as he kept rolling, tucking under and shoving until she was pinned to the cement under him. Pain burned all the way up to his shoulder, making him curse. It didn't stop him from using his other fist to break her jaw. The second blow caved it in, and the third knocked it clean from her façade of a human face.
She clawed at him, shredding his uniform in desperation. Nails dug into his sides, tearing gashes over his ribs. Warm lines of blood trickled down his skin. Steve ignored it, let the horror and fear turn into anger, and then revenge. Revenge for the dead nurse, for the private she'd mutilated, for every body gone missing from the hospital. He aimed his next blows at her shoulders, and then moved farther down to break her hips and thigh bones. It was too late to help any of them, but he could give them this much.
Blood bubbled from her mouth as she hissed and wheezed, probably cursing him. Without a jaw, it was impossible to tell. For good measure, he brought his heels down on her elbows, one after the other. From the way she'd healed before, it wouldn't keep her long, but he just needed to slow her down.
His shield had landed near a wall, half-hidden under one of the cots that had been rearranged in the charge for the exit. He grabbed for it as quickly as he could, blood-slick gloves sliding over its polished surface before they caught around the straps. Pain sliced through his thumb as it popped back into place with a wet-sounding snap. Behind him, cloth and flesh scraped against the floor as the vampire pulled herself to her feet. Whirling, Steve brought up his shield. There was no time to aim.
The vampire head didn't come off entirely The shield sliced through her throat, leaving her head to sag to the side with a damp, sickly noise. Blood splattered from the missing jaw when it landed, leaving a fine spray on the beds around it. Slowly, the body collapsed in a heap of loose limbs. His shield rebounded off a filing cabinet and back to him. Steve leaned on it, let the familiar shape act as a crutch as he got his feet back under him.
Panting, Steve stumbled over to the body. Adrenalin kept him going, but his hand had already began to throb, and the wounds in his legs were deep. Blood had started pooling in his boots—not enough to put him out, but he'd need to be stitched up. It clung to his socks and slid between his toes. In the fresh silence a faint squish marked every step he took.
Not even the damned Chitauri had been that hard to fight.
Nothing moved in the vampire's dress, not even an attempt to breathe. White bones stuck out where they'd broken through the skin. She was so soaked in blood that only the back of her dress was unstained, pristine blue. Even as he watched, the body convulsed and curled in on itself, then went still.
Steve managed to stumble two steps away before falling to his knees and violently losing his dinner into a bedpan. Bile stung his throat, but still it kept coming. He waited until there was nothing more to come up, and then longer until the dry heaves had stopped, before stumbling over to the nurse's body.
There was no peace or even horror on her face; just the blankness of death. Her eyes had started to film over already. It looked like a normal body. He didn't see many people who'd been ripped apart as she had been, but it couldn't be that different from seeing someone taken out by a bullet. Something was missing though. Steve leaned on his shield and tried to figure it out. It took a long minute before he finally realized what it was.
Her cross. Lines had been scored around what remained of her throat where the chain had cut into her skin, but there was no sign of the necklace itself. His eyes skimmed the floor around her for it, so busy looking that he almost missed the glint of gold lodged between her fingers. She'd gripped it so tightly that it had bitten into her palm, leaving an inch-long wound in the center. Cold had already started to stiffen her flesh, beating even rigor mortis. Sill, Steve was careful as he pried her hand open and extracted the little necklace and its broken chain.
Then he brought the edge of his shield down on what was left of her neck.
Her spine snapped with a sad little crunch, leaving her head to settle off to the side. There was no telling how the vampire worked, and he wasn't taking chances. The necklace and its chain dangled between his fingers, clicking against the face of his shield.
After the war, he'd find her family and deliver it personally. They deserved to know that she'd been a hero.
Wood slammed against wood loudly behind him. Steve pulled up his shield and turned, eyes darting around the room. The door swung freely in the wind, opening and closing with a screech of frozen hinges. He was alone—no enemies loomed to take him out while he was injured. The room looked exactly as it should, with one small difference.
The vampire's body had vanished.
Just prior to Ultimates 1
"Thank you for meeting with me, Mr. Stark."
Tony turned around, not spilling a drop of the whiskey he was pouring. He hadn't heard her come in, but that wasn't an unfamiliar feeling. Jarvis had mastered the unobtrusive entrance and exit, even if he rarely used the skill. "I wasn't aware that I had much choice, Miss Bathory. Your appointment was terribly hard to cancel." Erzabet Bathory—which must have been a false name—stood demurely in the middle of the den, hands clasped before her. She was no one he'd ever seen before; Tony might have gone through a lot of partners, but he took care to remember faces, in case it was useful later. He would have remembered someone with her striking coloring. With tanning beds tremendously popular, seeing someone as pale as her was noticeable. "It refused to be erased from the book, you see, and none of my secretaries would admit to having placed it there."
White-blond curls fell forward as she bowed her head. "I apologize for the inconvenience I have caused. The matter is... most urgent, or I would not have taken such drastic methods. The timing was most crucial. I could not risk having it altered." Her voice was light, but measured, every word clipped with an accent Tony couldn't quite place.
"Nights aren't always a free part of my schedule, true, but far be it for me to ever deny a lady. My reputation would never recover." Tony set the decanter back on its board and gestured her to one of the armchairs. "Please, have a seat."
Erzabet smiled prettily and settled into the chair he'd indicated. She moved like a dancer—or an assassin. Up close, she was even more striking. Lovely, of course, but in a sharp-edged way, more like an ice sculpture than a person. From her perfect blonde curls to the ice blue of her eyes, it was as if he were talking to a porcelain doll.
Casually, Tony swiped a set of car keys from a sideboard and pocketed them before taking a place across from her. He wasn't planning on driving anywhere, but all of his keys had panic buttons, and the situation seemed to call for more caution than usual. He wasn't the kind of man who was enough of an idiot to assume pretty meant the same as harmless. Whiskey burned the back of his throat as he sipped. He hadn't had a drink in long enough that he'd almost sobered up. Bad form, that. "So, my dear, tell me why you're here?
Silence stretched as she looked at him through long, dark lashes. Mascara or false, Tony couldn't decide, but with hair that color there was no way they were completely real. Unless the hair was dyed, of course. If it had been, the job was recent—her roots matched. When she spoke, it was only slowly, as if she were trying to drive each word home. "What would you say, Mr. Stark, if I told you I could solve your... little problem?"
Tony raised his eyebrows and leaned back in his chair. "I would have to ask what problem you're referring to. I've more than one, as most people do."
"Your tumor." Platinum curls tumbled over Erzabet's shoulders as she leaned forward. Her dress—as pale as the rest of her—blended seamlessly with the white leather of the armchair. It hung down to her ankles in a froth of lace and linen, just antique enough to pass for fashionable without actually being so. "Oh, do not look so surprised. I can smell it on you. You have—what, five years, at the most? And then... Poof." She snapped her fingers. "Such a short time for so much genius."
Amber liquid swirled in Tony's glass as he turned her words over in his mind. Though it was late for regrets, he wished he'd tried harder to have the meeting elsewhere. It was always so much easier to toss the crazies out of a place of business without causing a stir. "If you know anything about my condition—which is highly confidential, I might note—you know that it's inoperable. What you're offering is impossible."
"I did not say an operation would be involved." She smiled, her lips only faintly pinker than the rest of her skin. Even her teeth looked sharp. It sent shivers down his spine, the kind he hadn't felt since Jaime and her riding crop exited his bed for the last time. "In perfect truth, this has nothing to do with human medicine."
A crackpot, clearly. But Tony had humored less lovely women, and her particular type of insanity seemed appealing. As long as she didn't cross any lines, it was worth wasting a few moments. "I don't believe in miracles."
"You should, Mr. Stark." Another smile that gave him chills. Or maybe that was the medication. It had to be. He'd dealt with paid killers before, and none of them had ever given him such a sense of foreboding. "Please tell me. How old do you think I am?"
That, at least, Tony could answer readily. He took a swig of his drink first, though, for fortification. "I know better than to answer that question from a lady."
"I must insist."
"If you must know..." Tony's eyes skimmed down her, marking the lack of lines in her face and the slender silhouette. "Eighteen, perhaps twenty at the most. No younger, or you'd never have gotten a private appointment, no matter what tricks you used."
Chin up, shoulders back—she reminded him of paintings he'd bought from museums, some sort of medieval queen making a proclamation. "I am more than five hundred years old, Mr. Stark."
The fun had definitely dropped out of the meeting. "And delusional, Miss Bathory."
"No, far from that. So very far." Erzabet shifted forward, legs demurely pressed together at the knees, hands clasped as if in supplication. "I can offer you a cure, of a sort. You will die, in the course of things, as all men do. Likely from your tumor, but I understand you pilot the Iron Man suit, yes? So perhaps from that. But death need only be temporary. Please do not reach for the alarm in your pocket. It would be distressing for all involved."
Tony froze, eyes narrowing. He hadn't done more than consider reaching for his personal panic button, which meant he was dealing with a telepath. He hated psychics of any sort; give him an honest charlatan over the real thing. A man always knew where he stood with a fraud. "And what price would you ask? Life doesn't come cheap. I can't imagine immortality is any different."
"No price, Mr. Stark. It is a gift."
In spite of his better judgment, Tony considered her seriously. "Why would you 'gift' me with something like that? I'm hardly a saint. The exact opposite, if you follow the tabloids."
For the first time, Erzabet actively frowned. It made her pretty face seem more mature, though not older. "But you are a genius. A man of the future, trapped in an ever stagnant present. Me— my kind—" She gestured around, encompassing all those not present. "We only accept the best into our ranks. A sort of club, you could say. Mozart, Einstein, Newton. All were made the same offer as I make you now."
"Did they take it?" He knew the answer. All of their deaths were, if not perfectly documented, at least historical fact.
"Alas, no." Her voice throbbed with hurt. If he'd been a little more gullible, he might even have believed it. "Their faith had them call us demons, and drive us from their homes. But you are different. You are desperate, and you place no trust in gods. Only in results."
Tony drained his glass, and felt the pain of an on-coming headache recede. Whiskey was wonderful stuff. "Results matter in more than faith. You seem to know me, so you must know that I'm going to require proof before letting you give me anything."
Her laughter tinkled, like she belonged in a bad romance novel. "Oh, Mr. Stark." Her teeth flashed in a brilliant smile. "That is something I believe that can be arranged."
Dark, polished wood and glass gleamed in the dim light of the oil lamps that lined the walls of the massive board room. Plush, but plain, beige carpeting swallowed the sounds of restlessness as the occupants waited to be acknowledged. No windows or paintings broke the monotony of the white walls, leaving the only furniture to draw the eye. The table was long and delicately carved, with frosted glass insets plaed before each chair like a place marker. The spacing between the chairs was inviolate, each seat exactly far enough away that not even outstretched fingertips could brush. Territories were clearly delineated, not even the edge of a folder allowed to pass beyond the invisible lines that separated them from one another.
At the head of the table, a single slim figure twirled a pen through his fingers, making it dance. Other than his fingers, he held himself absolutely still, and radiated the type of control that spoke of a lifetime spent perfecting it. The soft, white wool of his suit reflected the dim light, blending with the marble whiteness of his skin and making him glow like an angel. Pale green eyes stayed focused on the middle distance, not focusing on any of the other nine chairs until they rested on the empty one. "Bathory is late."
A tall, dark-haired woman dressed in a dove grey tailored pantsuit slid a folder to him. "She is in New York. The Stark business."
Dark murmuring rose from the younger residents of the table. Not everyone approved of the plan to make Stark theirs, but no one was brave enough to say so singularly. The muffled disproval silenced quickly when Caine glanced around.
"No, she is not." The pen twirled, paused and reversed. "Stark has accepted our generous offer. She is hiding from us."
More than one of the people at the table made noises of discontent at that. "She can't be," a high-pitched, querulous voice said, rising above the others easily. Dark hair, pale at the roots, fell over a high forehead. "Bathory has no reason to hide."
"We all have reasons to hide, Parchet." The physically oldest one, a tiny woman whose face was so crinkled and brown with age that she resembled nothing more than a dried apple, tapped her fingers on the glass pane. Her voice tripped over the syllables of English, as if she weren't accustomed to it, though her grammar was perfect. A sewing needle flashed silver in her fingers, moving so quickly that it blurred in the dim lighting. Her dress was only a few tones darker then the leader's suit, so close to white that a casual glance could make the mistake easily. "Bathory is not any different. Only young. It is a temporary condition."
Parchet sneered. "She's old enough to know better than to miss meetings, Ambroise. Not when we're so close."
"We don't know if we are close," the old one, Ambroise, replied gently, as though admonishing a young grandchild. "Perhaps Stark will be the one. Perhaps not. We have waited this long. There is no need to rush."
Wood and glass rattled as Parchet brought the flat of his hand down sharply. "There is every need to rush—"
The quiet words from the head of the table brought instant silence, though Parchet's lips still tried to form words for a moment before he realized what had happened. He sank back into his chair, cowed. All eyes turned back to their leader. The pen still danced between his fingers, but it had picked up speed, now moving so quickly that even their eyes couldn't follow.
"Stark is the one." Only a fool would have spoken to contradict him. "We have not seen such potential since the Chitauri."
"And see how that came out? Stark was one of the people who took them down!" Directly across from the leader, a tall, wide man settled back in his chair. He was built like a wall, with shoulders that belonged to a linebacker. The shirt he wore, a thin t-shirt that only just missed being black by a shade, only emphasized the power of his figure. "We're playing with fire on this one; you've all seen the newspapers. He's too erratic to risk."
"What do you think we should do, then, Davids?" The leader's eyes fixed on him. "Should we take him, and risk being caught out? He surrounds himself with those who have surpassed humanity. He is friends with a god! It would not be difficult for them to eradicate us, and then our cause would be worthless."
Davids wasn't cowed. "So we'll wait for him to figure us out?"
"Bathory knows what she's doing. This is not a new game."
"But Stark is a new player, and not like any we have had before." Ambroise paused in her sewing, looking up at the group. "And dear Bathory is... not yet reliable. Perhaps Davids has a point. We should watch him, and arrange things if he shows signs of escaping us."
The woman in the suit snorted. "How can he escape? He's taken the bait."
"But the trap has not yet closed." Ambroise resumed her sewing, pieces of fabric merging together under her fingers like magic. "We should not act rashly, but Stark lives a dangerous life. It would not be difficult to... encourage the process. An accident is easily arranged. It does need not even appear accidental."
"He has enemies we can use."
"We'll watch." The leader, who had been quiet while the others debated, finally stood. "No one is to do anything unexpected until we have time to see how Stark responds. It's possible his habits will do our work for us. If not, the tumor will. And then we shall have him."
A hum of obedient agreement went up from around the table. Davids averted his eyes, but even he nodded.
"For now, I call this meeting closed. We all know what must be done to prepare for the great work ahead. Do it."
"What about Bathory?" Parchet demanded.
A slow smile crept over the leader's bloodless lips, showing a flash of his teeth. "I will speak with her about her truancy."
Six Months Ago
A hard, wonderful expanse of muscle spread out under Tony's hands as he curled in closer to his bed partner. It wasn't often Steve stayed overnight. Usually, his sense of decorum sent him back to his own room or apartment, which fooled absolutely no one who really knew them, but made Steve feel discreet.
Tony stretched out on the fine cotton sheets, reveling in the soft place between sleep and waking. Consciousness had not yet made itself known enough for the morning nausea to strike, and the warm body next to him made it terribly easy to fend wakefulness off for a while longer. Even the pleasant aches of a night well spent were distant things. No doubt as soon as he attempted to sit up, he would have to make the usual run to visit the porcelain god, and there he would stay until his medication took effect, but the moments before that were well worth savoring.
He could easily become accustomed to such mornings, nausea and all.
Steve's breathing hitched as Tony's fingers slid over his ribs—the tight sound of a ticklish place found, rather than the lower noise that indicated a new spot to nibble. Reluctantly, Tony left off his groping. Morning had found him, sending its rays to burn through his eyelids, so he may as well acknowledge it. He may as well also acknowledge the collarbone he was currently at eye-level with.
"Good morning, Soldier Boy." He nipped at Steve's collarbone, just barely scraping his teeth over Steve's skin. Steve's skin really was amazing, stretched silky and tight under his lips like a fresh sunburn before it had time to hurt. "Have I been a good boy this year, or is there a less exciting reason you're still here?"
"Stop it, Tony." Steve slid away, taking about half of the sheets with him. "I didn't mean to stay."
Translation from Rogers-ese: he had dozed off in the post-coital glow and only just awoke to realize his error. That was fine. More than fine, really, since Steve's nocturnal relocation always left Tony staring at the ceiling for an hour or more.
The autumn-colored quilt had pooled around their knees in the night, so the loss of the sheets left Tony bare to the chill morning air. With a groan that was more due to impending nausea than he liked to admit, Tony scooted over and reclaimed his share, tugging and curling it under him until Steve gave it up.
Steve watched him suspiciously, but Tony didn't make a move to nibble again. Regaining the covers had taken too much effort already. "You know," he began, then rolled his eyes when Steve tensed. Of course the lug would expect him to make an attempt at seducing him. Granted, Tony had been all for that a moment ago, but that was hardly the point. "You don't need to rush back to your own bed every night. No one is going to be irreparably traumatized if you stay through breakfast." Except for perhaps Pepper, but she'd walked in on worse than Steve's morning tousle.
This time, Steve didn't take the covers with him when he moved. He pillowed his face on his forearms. California sunshine poured in through the curtains, pooling golden on the curves and dips of his back. It stretched over his skin in a way that made Tony's mouth go dry. "Yes I do. I don't want..."
"This to be serious." The same argument, turned over again, scratched and repeated until it was poisonous. With anyone else, Tony might have let it go, but they'd found something comfortable—at least, Tony had—and he was loathe to give it up to Steve's insecurities. "What does it cost you to settle? It's not like I'm asking for a ring."
"That's not what I mean." He sat up, back against the headboard and fists clenched in the sheets. Tony hadn't thought it was possible for Steve to be more uncomfortable, but he seemed to manage. "I'm not—we didn't start this thing to be serious."
"And I didn't start this thing expecting to have this conversation, but it's amazing how we surprise ourselves." A moment of internal debate and a check-in with his stomach informed Tony that, yes, he could manage a small elevation without losing what remained of his dignity. He propped his head on his hand and angled himself to have a decent view of Steve. There were quite a few options on that last one. It could be said that there was no perspective to be found that was less than breath-taking, but Tony had made it the work of more than a year to try and find one, to no avail. "Tell me, do you see a lost world in there, Narnia maybe, or just old coats and shoes?"
"What are you talking about?" Steve stared down at him. The sunlight hit his stubble, and for a moment all Tony really wanted to do was feel it scratch at his skin. As soon as the thought occurred, it was promptly vetoed by everything above the pubic and below the hips. This was going to be one of those mornings. Hanky-panky was not in the schedule.
He really would need to throw up soon.
"I'm talking about your denial, mon Capitan." Delicate noises sounded out in the hall. It was the shuffle and clatter of the maid who was no doubt waiting discreetly outside the door. The staff in L.A. weren't used to having a full house. Having the Ultimates descend on the mansion for a month had rattled them. This one was likely old-hat enough that she wouldn't barge in, but too new to knock. A week or so could cure that. "What's your preference, Steve?"
"Leaning? Proclivities? Romantic orientation?" Tony knew very well that Steve was familiar with the terms, which meant that the dull glaze of incomprehension in his blue eyes had to be all fraud. "Men or women?"
"Women." The word popped out so quickly that Tony winced, even though this part of the discussion was all repetition as well. It was an automatic reflex that Steve, fortunately, failed to notice. It was amazing what Steve failed to notice, sometimes. "You know I like dames. Hell, you like 'em too."
"And yet here I am." Tony ran a hand over his face, trying to hold his skull together against the headache that gathered like a storm behind his eyes. The chill hadn't gone away with the return of sheets and Steve's admittedly fabulous body-heat. He had a ten o'clock appointment, and from the feel of things it would take at least that long to make himself look more like something human than not, and the illusion was unlikely to go more than skin-deep.
To use the quaint parlance of the internet, he didn't have the spoons for this.
A warm hand settled over his. Steve's thumb rubbed gently at his temple, and stars, it actually worked a little. "Are you okay?"
He'd risk calling it a miracle, but experience had taught that angels stayed far away from the Stark name. "Fine. Just... You know."
"Yeah, I do."
And that was what made it impossible not to want Steven Rogers as a permanent resident of his bed. That casual way he had of tossing empathy out there without doing anything so unmanly as sympathizing. If Tony hadn't been desperately leaning into his touch, he might have felt a bit disgusted with how gooey it made him feel. Even Natasha hadn't been like this. Of course, she'd missed the point where mornings had turned into small slices of Hell. "I don't think I can do this, this morning."
Steve's thumb paused, then stretched back to reach the hollow just behind the temple. It was better than a shot of Liquid Ice. "I don't know what you're talking about. There's nothing to do."
"Don't— Just. Don't." It wouldn't solve anything to start it then, other than to wreck the rest of his day. A day that started off with Steve in his bed was already too good to risk. "Fine. We won't talk about what there isn't to talk about later, if that's okay with you. Step around the elephant and all that."
The bed was too expensive to transfer the motion as Steve moved. It didn't stop Tony from feeling it in the change of the angle and the long press of legs against his. Sour morning breath huffed over Tony's forehead, but as long as Steve kept rubbing, he could breathe germs on him all he liked. "I don't get you."
"You're hardly the first to say so." The hand vanished, and Tony found himself forced to open his eyes. Steve was close enough to kiss, that implacable jaw set with worry. The pillow had left a crease on his cheek. It was touching, really. Pain no longer loomed on the immediate horizon, though how Steve managed that Tony had to assume was some sort of top government secret. It couldn't possibly be natural. "I'm serious about talking about this later. Don't think you can save the world once or twice and put me off. I'm not that easy."
"Nothing about you has ever been easy, Tony." Steve kissed his forehead, stubble, dry lips and all. The last lingering threat of a headache vanished. Psychosomatic, Tony knew, but he welcomed the effect with open arms. It was a shame Steve couldn't do anything for his stomach. "I should get going."
"The maid's outside the door," Tony offered. He tried not to feel disappointed when panic flashed over Steve's face. Nothing new, nothing changed. It was amazing how Steve managed to stagnate so easily. "Just get yourself dressed. I'll distract her, and you can make a break for it."
"Are you sure?"
No, as a matter of fact, he wasn't, but asking Steve if he wanted to hang around to hold Tony's head out of the toilet was not high enough on the list of Things To Do Before He Died to handle right then. It did have its place, though. "I'm sure. Get going, Cap, before people think you were in here being debauched."
That got the expected eye-roll. Tony let himself watch as Steve collected his discarded uniform and shrugged it on. Never miss a free show, that was certainly a life rule to remember. But Steve was in a rush, and it didn't take him long at all to hide all the glorious muscles under leather and mail. Tony waved him behind the door, where he would be out of the maid's direct line of sight.
With Steve safely tucked out of sight, Tony braced himself on his elbows and tried to keep his head from swimming too much. "You can come in, Petunia."
The maid opened the door with the care she no doubt used while dusting antiques, glancing around warily. She was an older woman, not yet old, not by any means, but it would take a very young lady to wear a mob cap and look anything but middle-aged. "I thought I heard voices, sir, and didn't want to disturb you and your... guest."
"No guests here," Tony lied through his teeth as she wheeled in his usual breakfast. Which is to say, enough liquor to drop a platoon and a pretense at toast. Steve watched him from behind the door with an impatient expression, no doubt waiting for Tony to get on with it so he could escape.
The temptation to drag the moment out was nearly overwhelming.
Shame that plan would only cause more problems. Tony waved the maid in. "Come in, come in. I'm not toxic yet, I promise."
She crossed the wide expanse of the floor—what had he been thinking when he'd chosen such a large bedroom?—pushing her cart in front of her. The wheels squeaked on the thick rugs, but they were well cared for and didn't make more than a token protest. Tony waited until she was safely at the half-way point before sitting up. The sheets fell down to pool in his lap, but his stomach fell with them, so at least there was a sort of symmetry in it.
It would have been nice to say that the world swam, but that was too gentle a phrase. The world roiled, taking first the bile of his stomach and then his head with it. Pillows were wonderfully soft things to collapse back against. Sudden verticality had done its damage, though. As Petunia hurried over, Tony threw himself over the edge of the bed and made a dash for the en suite bathroom. He didn't pause to see if she covered her eyes against his nudity, but he did see Steve slip out the door. Then there was cool marble under his knees and the daily revisiting of his dinner began.
Tony really hated mornings.
Drilling off the coast of California was routine. Less routine was dealing with some two-bit schmuck who'd gotten his hands on a few explosives. It was good publicity. The team needed that these days. Steve couldn't shake the feeling that it was wasted effort though. The police could handle every-day criminals. The Ultimates should have had better things to do.
Tony had insisted though. Publicity had been the whole reason they were in California at all, and whatever small-time villain they handled while there was gravy. Appearances, signings, photo ops... It was all hogswash, as far as Steve was concerned. The Ultimates didn't need to be liked. They just needed to do their job. Next was some place in Wisconsin. Steve hadn't even realized that Wisconsin had terrorists.
The drill was sturdy under his feet as he finished the last check up. There hadn't been any gifts left behind to explode later. This time, the would-be terrorists hadn't had a chance to plant them. Overhead the sky was clear as a bell, the sort of blue that New York had lost to pollution and sky scrapers. Everyone told Steve that California could have some wicked weather in the summer, but he didn't see a sign of it. The only cloud in the sky was so far off, it was more of a pale smudge than anything else.
Pretty as it was, he wanted to go home, back to his own apartment with the crowds and smog and even, God help him, the muggers. Tony's mansion was nice, but sharing a place left everything too open to debate. Avoiding anyone for longer than a few hours was impossible without hiding out in his room, and that just made him a sitting target. He didn't want to fight, but it seemed like every time they had a couple of minutes of privacy, Tony would bring it up.
It wasn't right, two men having a relationship. Sex was just sex, but Steve wasn't one of those kinds. Guys had done it back in the war, just taken care of each other and then gone back to their girl when they could. It didn't mean anything. Tony didn't seem to get that, and Steve couldn't explain it without feeling like he was missing something important.
They just needed to get back to routine. Then Tony would forget about the relationship business and things would be normal again.
Jan buzzed up to him, hovering in front of Steve's nose, perfect in that way that she only had when she was tiny. She'd changed the design on her costume, this time to something solid black and tight, but practical. He held up a palm for her to land on, bringing it up to eye level. "Tony says that the Feds have it covered. We're ready to leave whenever you're sure it's clear."
"These guys couldn't plant a daisy." Steve thought she smiled, but at less than an inch it was hard to be sure. "Why didn't Tony tell me himself? He's got a communicator."
She shrugged. "There's something wrong with his radio. He didn't want you to get half the message and come charging in." Her little body was a bright spot of warmth through his gloves—she was always warmer when she was small. Tony had tried to explain it once, when the team was new, but he'd given up when Hank and Bruce had been the only ones able to follow it. "Something about the salt. It's probably just mild corrosion."
Steve frowned. Corrosion didn't mean anything good, but it was just the communications. Tony could probably fix it with some baling wire and bubble gum when they got back to base. "I'm coming. Tell Tony they can get the chopper ready."
Jan blew him a kiss and lifted off. "I'm on it."
At least Jan wasn't awkward with him. It had taken months after their break-up, but they were friends again. For a while, he thought he'd lost that. They were both adult enough that could have managed as just colleagues, but that wasn't enough. Jan had been one of the first people he'd met after the ice. Her friendship was important.
On the way back to the landing pad, Steve took his time, ducking into unlikely places to spot-check his work. There wasn't any reason for it—he'd already triple-checked it. But he didn't want to get to the 'chopper and have to wait for them to finish collecting everyone. Tony wouldn't start anything in front of the rest of the team, but after their almost-talk that morning, Steve just didn't want to deal with uncomfortable silences, or the issues between them.
Tony would make him eventually, but if he could put some distance between them, he might be able to get through it without ruining everything.
By the time Steve was back in sight of their transportation, Iron Man was hovering overhead, his thrusters bright pricks of white against the sky. The Stark International logo stood out in glaring white against the flat black paint of the machine. It was probably supposed to be menacing, but it always reminded Steve of the crest on a knight's shield, like Tony was advertising himself as one of the good guys. Maybe that was the point. Clint waved him in from under the slowly rotating blades. Steve ducked, even though the blades were easily over his head, and dashed for it. Jan, back at full size, tossed him a helmet. Immediately, the whoomph of the rotors warming up vanished.
A quick head count made Steve frown. Jan, Clint, himself... "Where's Thor?"
"Goldilocks had some family business." Jan's voice came clear through the headsets, even though he couldn't hear her strapping in. "He said he'll meet us for dinner tonight."
Steve winced and turned down the volume. His ears were still ringing from the squeals. The vibration from the chopper picked up as the pilot finished his checks. "Was that Tony?" It had sounded like the television white noise in the middle of a storm.
Clint rubbed the place on his helmet where his ear would be. "See why he didn't call you home himself?"
"I didn't realize it was that bad." Steve twisted in his hard metal set, angling his head so he could see Tony hovering outside. "Maybe he shouldn't fly."
"Man, you know how heavy that suit is? It'd need a reinforced 'copter just to keep it from going through the floor." Clint's hand landed on Steve's shoulder, pulling him upright just as the helicopter started to lift off. "He's better off on his own. Anyone knows the limits of that thing, it's him."
Steve hated to admit that Clint had a point, but he nodded and sat back in his seat anyway. Tony knew what he was doing. Worrying was just going to draw attention to them, and that was the last thing Steve wanted.
He'd corner Tony later and make sure the corrosion issues were taken care of before their next mission.
The helicopter wasn't all that different from the transports he used to get carted around in back in the war. Hard seats, minimal straps to hold a butt in, and enough of a rattle to shake a man's teeth out of his skull. If Steve closed his eyes, he could almost see Bucky, leaning up against a wall with one of those damn cigarettes in his hand and his camera around his neck.
But Bucky had been gone for two years. Gail for a year. Steve had known she wouldn't live long after Bucky, but he hadn't expected her to go so fast. Even the doctors had been surprised. Her kids hadn't been. Maybe they'd known something Steve hadn't.
There was nothing left of his old life but a helmet and two gravestones, side by side. It was strange, but Steve didn't feel as alone as he'd thought he would. The year had been hard. More than once, he'd gone to call up Gail and Bucky and ended up talking to their son, pretending he'd called to check on the grandkids.
Tony had helped with that. He always had something going, usually two or three things. When Tony was around, the day flew by. Sometimes a whole week would, if nothing happened that needed Captain America. It wasn't always parties, either. Tony mixed work and play so easily that half of the time, Steve didn't even know which it was. At first it had been annoying, not knowing where he stood, but now Steve didn't know what he'd do with his spare time if it weren't for Tony.
Steve was jolted out of his thoughts by a cough from the pilot. "Um, excuse me Captain, but is something wrong with Iron Man?"
"What?" Steve unsnapped his safety belts and twisted to look behind the copter. The Iron Man suit was visibly having problems, moving slowly and unsteadily through the air as the helicopter got farther and farther ahead. It was barely a speck of red against the blue of the sky. "Turn around, he looks like he needs help! Tony, report! What's going on?"
"It loo—zzzrt—rusters have some —crrck—rosion. Down to—screeeet—cent power."
"Turn around!" Steve shouted at the pilot, grabbing onto one of the handles as the helicopter started to list sideways. It was too slow, much too slow. Tony was creeping closer, but it wouldn't be close enough until he was safe.
"Doing my best, sir, there's a tricky wind—"
"I don't want excuses!" Steve's chest was so tight, he thought he'd fall out of the copter and they'd have two rescues. It wasn't the sort of rush that came from a fight. That cold he could deal with—he'd been trained to handle that. No one could be trained to stand around and be helpless. "Just get it done, Mister!"
Jan appeared next to his side, so close to his face that he could see her eyelashes. "Don't yell, he's doing the best he can."
"It's not damn good enough. Tony!"
"crnk—isten to the—gers, or she'll—crzzzzt—ottom."
The chopper had finally turned around, closing the distance more rapidly. Iron Man was more easily visible, close enough to pick it out as a man-shape, almost close enough to imagine the helmet had a face. It dipped and twisted alarmingly, losing altitude only to regain it seconds later. Tony was doing his best with the stabilizers built into the hips, but even Steve could see that they were screwing up too. The thrusters were sputtering, flashing too bright and too dim at random. Even the lights in the helmet's "eyes" were dim.
"The thr— power levels falling—czzrt—eve!"
Too far, too high, too fast. Metal dented under Steve's fingers as he gripped the bar. He leaned out the chopper door, wind blurring his vision and tugging at him. The Iron Man armor glinted in the sunlight, a piece of genius and art wrapped into one, red and gold against the bright blue of the Pacific Ocean. "Fifty yards! Come on, come on, you're almost there!"
Clint took the spot at Steve's other shoulder. He didn't lean out, but even behind his goggles, Steve could see the fear in his eyes. "Come on, Tony, you can do it!"
"—oo far—sssrrct— eve—"
The thrusters failed.
"Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss, this world uncertain is..."
The church was surprisingly empty. Lovely, as Tony would have wanted, because he'd loved beautiful things, but empty.
Over half of the funeral funds had been set aside specifically to make sure that the event wasn't disturbed. Neither reporters nor uninvited guests could get through to the service. That hadn't stopped them before but still, somehow for all of Tony's reputation, only a double handful of people came. It was enough to fill the first few rows, but not nearly as many as there should have been. What was left of his family hadn't bothered to RSVP. No hangers-on or press had been invited to crowd under the stained glass windows. The hand carved pews were mostly vacant.
It seemed like a sin to Pepper, that the funeral would be in such a gorgeous place and almost no one would be there to witness it. But that had been the way it had been laid out, and no one was going to refuse Tony his last request. A few people had tried, but she'd shouted them down, and when they'd been too high ranked for that, Captain America had done it for her.
"...The plague full swift goes by. I am sick, I must die..."
No one had asked Rogers to speak. No one had been brave enough, not even Pepper. Somehow, it had happened regardless, when the schedule had been made and names had been written down. There was no one else more appropriate. Everyone knew that he and Tony had been closer than most. Only a few suspected how close, but that hadn't been the point. Having Rogers speak at Ultimates' funerals was nearly tradition.
They all pretended that they couldn't hear the strain in his voice, or the cracks when the podium gave under his grip.
"...Brightness falls from the air. Queens have died young and fair..."
The Living Will had specified the poem to be read, and emphasized no personal eulogies. Tony hadn't wanted long, tearful goodbyes, or a pointed lack of them, and he'd made it clear. He hadn't made his fortune by making people love him, though he'd accomplished it in spite of that. Sometimes they'd only loved him for one night, but they'd loved him.
That had been Tony's final joke on the world: leaving it.
Pepper curled in on herself next to Happy, dabbing her eyes with her handkerchief and thanking God for waterproof mascara. They had rated seats in the family section with the Ultimates. That had been in the Will too. She wasn't sure what it said, that his teammates and two employees were all Tony had left behind. It should have been sad, but Tony had never seemed to find them wanting. She'd always thought that he hadn't known how to be lonely.
The rest of the Ultimates, current and former, were seated close together on the long stretch of pew, dry-eyed to the last. Losing Tony hadn't come as a surprise. The method had, but not the loss. They'd all known that any day could have been the one he didn't wake up.
"...Swords may not fight with fate. Earth still holds open her gate..."
The casket was empty, of course. He'd fallen into the Pacific from more than a mile up. SHIELD was still combing the bottom, looking for the Iron Man suit. As dangerous as the armor was, there was no chance the government was going to let it into the wrong hands. Just in case SHIELD turned out to be the wrong hands, Stark International had a search going too.
It was cruel to hope that the fall had killed him, but Pepper found herself wanting to be cruel. With as many fail-safes against sudden acceleration and G-forces as the suit had contained, it was all too possible that Tony had survived long enough to run out of air. They wouldn't know until the body was found.
Janet had mentioned it to Rogers just before the service. Maybe she'd been trying to be kind, but it had been the wrong thing to say. Pepper would have to make sure the church was compensated for the hole he'd put through the wall.
"... Wit with his wantonness, tasteth death's bitterness..."
Something buzzed in Pepper's clutch, a tiny black thing that, appropriately, Tony had given her. She frowned, glaring down at it. The buzz came again, gentle and non-demanding, just loud enough to get her attention. She knew for a fact that she'd turned off her Blackberry. Of course she had—it was a business line, and until the lawyers figured out what Tony had been doing with his holdings and all the strange instructions he'd left, she was out of business.
People glared at her from across the aisle: business associates, mostly, the ones rich enough that they couldn't risk not being seen here, in case whoever inherited the company would take it as a snub. She winced and fumbled in her purse, casting apologetic grimaces around at whoever looked her way. By sheer luck, her thumb caught the mute button as she pulled it out.
"...Mount we unto the sky. I am sick, I must die..."
YOU HAVE RECEIVED A TEXT MESSAGE
Pepper's nose wrinkled. What ass would be rude enough to text her in the middle of a funeral? She debated answering, but she'd already committed the faux pas of looking at it during the memorial service. She might as well make sure it wasn't an emergency. Her thumb pounded the view button a little too hard, making her nail scrape over the screen.
Have Hap bring car. Dock 6. Hurry. Secret. T.S.
"Lord, have mercy on us!"
"You've lost him!"
Ezrabet knelt on the stone floor and kept her head low, using her hair as a shield to guard her expression. Experience had taught her that even the slightest hint of insubordination would be punished, and she had come too far to be downed by a doddering fool in a temper.
He'd chosen her home, her tower prison as the place for this meeting. The only reason for it was to rattle her, a transparency that amused her, even though her heart ached from it. Csejte Castle itself was crumbling, barely safe for their human followers to travail. Breezes whistled through the cracks in the stone, smelling of her mountains and land. Her land, her home, where she had lived and died. Had Caine known his choice of locale had the precise opposite reaction as what he intended, he might have tossed her out the remains of her window.
Being home again gave her strength to swallow her pride. Ezrabet bowed herself low, until her forelock touched her knees. "I apologize, Lord Caine." She rolled her tongue around the ugly, clipped words of English. "I have failed you."
Caine snarled. "Not only failed, but failed again!" He paced, long legs swinging. Today's suit was spun silk, so freshly made that the reek of the loom and dye still clung to it. Not holding Council, he affected to wear steely blue, rather than his accustomed white. Ezrabet raged inwardly, that he forced her to wear a child's somber black, even though the occasion was not formal and she long since should have been given a council member's gray. It was another slight, one in long centuries of them.
She dared to peek up, then ducked her head again. His temper was such that his heart had started once more, flushing his sickly skin with blood. The dull, uneven thump sounded loud in the empty chamber, echoing off stone walls. The human girls who hugged the walls outside heard none of it, but to her it was perilously close to a death knell. One of them would die later, to assuage his wrath.
"What do you have to say for yourself, Bathory?"
"I shall set it aright, my Lord." Her tone stayed meek, shoulders rounded submissively. She clenched her hands in her skirt, until her nails bit deep into the palms. Pain helped ground her, kept her thoughts clear. Knowledge of that was a gift from her late, unlamented husband. "There is still yet an eternity, and he cannot run for all of it."
"What will you do, if you fail?" Polished loafers paused in front of her, gleaming in the dim candlelight. He nudged her chin up with a toe, meeting her eyes. "You've failed many times before, and this is vital. Without Stark, the humans will never be properly subdued. What will make this time different?"
"My lord?" Ezrabet stayed still, though her thoughts raced. "If I fail, I shall die. Is that not—"
"No!" Quick as lightning, Caine's foot struck the center of her chest. Bone cracked and pain, brilliant flowers of it, consumed her. Ezrabet stayed down, back pressed to cool rock, and let the sharp blades of broken ribs ease. His red hair gleamed like fresh blood as Caine knelt over her, running dispassionate fingers over her broken bones. "You don't fear death. It's not enough to motivate you. I think you need to give me more."
Breathing to speak sent another jab through Ezrabet's chest, sweet as the honey tarts from her childhood. "What more can I give my lord, if my life is not sufficient?"
"Why—" A blow to the stomach robbed Ezrabet of air to speak. Her body, the weak, terrible thing, seized, curling in upon itself.
"You think I haven't noticed how you favor her?" Caine's voice lowered so that the humans could only strain hopelessly to hear. "Like this tower, like your diaries, she's a part of you. Did you think you could keep her safe, the way you did when you were human?"
Breath still refused to come, so Ezrabet only shook her head. She had to close her eyes, or risk allowing him to witness the hatred there.
"If you fail, you will give me your pet, your Celicia. Not her head, but living. I wish to enjoy her company as you do, as I did with your Anna." Caine's voice caressed her ears, making plain the acts which he did not name. Goose pimples of revulsion crawled over her flesh. "It will remind her of her time before you, won't it? And then, maybe, you'll learn not to disappoint me again."
He struck her again, across the cheek. Her head cracked to the side, spine snapping from the force of the blow. The fire of her broken ribs, the delicate throb of her stomach vanished, leaving no sensation at all behind. Panicked, Ezrabet tried to lift herself up, but her body failed to answer. Not so much as a finger twitched at her call.
In the edge of her vision, Caine stood, his milky pale eyes staring down at her. "You should be healed enough to move before the sunrise comes through the window. If not... I suppose I'll have to assign your replacement to the Stark case." He stepped on her wrist as he passed her, on his way to the door. Ezrabet heard rather than felt the bones grind together. "Fare well, Bathory."
Footsteps and the whispers of human life sounded as Caine rounded up his followers. Then even those sounds vanished into the night, leaving her with the breeze and the calls of animals as they prowled her castle. Ghosts, victims and lovers both, rose up from the shadows, watching to see if she would join them.
Anna laughs, her voice throaty with promise as she stretches over Ezrabet's bed. Ruffles and lace surround her in a swirl of decadence, ruby red velvet and gold broadcloth fit for a queen. Ezrabet had bought her the gown, had it brought all the way from Italy to please her. Painted red lips smiled, throwing her fangs into brilliant contrast that made Ezrabet's so-human heart tighten. "Can't you leave your toys for even a moment, my dear? They'll still bleed tomorrow."
A squirrel chattered at her in the rotting rafters. Its nest poked out of a hole left by crumbled masonry. She snarled and it skittered away like a frightened maid.
"Look, my Lady! The guard's returned!" The maid clutched her breast and leaned out the window into the bright noonday sun, the Magyar brown of her skin flushed with happiness. She was young, and pretty enough for a peasant, so new that she hadn't learned to fear coming to her lady's chambers. Ezrabet found her enthusiasm charming, enough that she would let her see the end of her contract. "May I go to see them? May I?"
Rock fell somewhere, a tiny cascade of pebbles as yet another piece of mortar collapsed. The castle rotted, like a loved one ready to be placed in the ground. She ached for it, feeling its death in her soul, more than even her own.
Dark heads bowed, armor gleaming with fresh polish, the collection of soldiers didn't meet her eyes as they delivered their news. Ezrabet could only stare at the young captain who led them, wondering why she felt so little sorrow. Her husband since she was twelve, the father of her sons, was gone, and she could only think that this would give her the freedom she longed for. Her mother-in-law could be removed, her Anna brought to stay—so much freedom, she felt giddy with it. Surely this pleasure would need repentance, but she cared not.
She was free.
Ezrabet closed her eyes and sank into her dreams as the sun crawled closer. Cool stone cradled her cheek, comforting her with its memories as her body knit. She would be free again. She swore it.
"Fifty yards! Come on, come on, you're almost there!"
Tony's eyes glinted through the eyeholes of the Iron Man helmet, barely visible behind the Plexiglas. If Steve reached a little farther, tried a little harder, he could catch him, pull him in to safety. He was so close that Steve could smell the sharp cut of hot metal on the ocean air, see the shaking in the thrusters as they tried to compensate. There was no one and nothing else, just Steve, Tony and the ocean. Nothing to save them if it all went to Hell. No last trick to pull.
When the thrusters failed, it was silent. Steve's throat locked around his voice as he shouted, catching the words and making him choke. There should have been explosions, or screams. Some sign that the world had just lost something it couldn't replace. But instead it was just a long fall and a ripple as the armor cracked like an egg. A heartbeat, and there was no sign that Tony Stark had ever existed at all.
The ocean swallowed him.
Steve sat up in bed, strangling on shouts of denial. Sweat poured down his skin as if it weren't snowing outside. Only a faint glow from the streetlights filtered through a crack in the curtains, spreading a line of grimy light over the dresser, pinging off a picture frame and climbing the wall. There was no ocean, no helicopter. Even his apartment was empty. He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands, forcing his breathing to slow.
Six months and the dreams hadn't stopped.
Maybe if there had been more of an explanation, Steve could have handled it. If it had been anything other than bad timing and a mechanical malfunction, he could have accepted that Tony was gone and moved on with his life. Instead, it had been a waste. There hadn't been any reason for it; they hadn't even really had a decent excuse for the mission they'd been on.
The death of someone like Tony Stark should have been worth more than a headline and an empty casket.
He pushed his hair out of his eyes and slapped the light on his bedside clock. 0357. There was no chance that he'd be able to get back to sleep before the alarm went off in an hour, and it wasn't worth trying. Steve pushed back the quilt, a comfortable faded thing made out of scraps that he'd bought from a neighbor, and tried to lose the shakiness before actually trying to stand. The adrenalin would leave soon enough, but the rush from the nightmare was enough to make him try his knees before trusting them.
Waking up after the ice had been just like it.
Dressing only took a couple of minutes. Steve didn't even bother to turn on the light. The clothes he'd worn the day before would be good enough for a jog, and those were still folded on top of the hamper. Then he'd find Nick and see if SHIELD had any updates on the Iron Man armor. It still hadn't been found, even though a concentration of metals like that should have shown up like a flare on the scans. Knowing Tony, he'd probably included something to cloak it and forgotten a fail-safe.
If SHIELD didn't pan out, there were always places that could use volunteers. He could lend a shoulder to some housing projects, and maybe some good press. The newspapers like to see Captain America pitching in for the common good. Tony would have loved it.
Maybe if he worked hard enough, Steve could stop thinking about Tony would like. The dead shouldn't get to have opinions. Of course Tony would break that rule too.
His warm-ups were quick, some stretches and jogging in place, a few kicks and punches to get his blood flowing from something other than terror. The serum made sure that he was the least likely person in the world to pull a muscle, but Steve knew better than to risk it. Besides, it would start up a bad habit, and he never knew when he might need to reinforce good ones for someone.
Snow crunched under Steve's sneakers as he stepped out into the street. It was too new to have developed the grey tint that any time at all in New York would give it. The air smelled fresh, with only the barest hint of pollution. In a few hours that would be gone, lost in the car exhaust and trash, but Steve would enjoy it while it lasted. A drunk across the street watched him from under a make-shift shelter of cardboard and trash cans, his bottle hidden in its little brown paper bag. Between the snow and the pre-dawn dark, it was hard for even his eyes to spot the wear and graffiti. Brownstone and concrete had been washed clean, if only for a little while.
Cold air burned the back of his throat and nose as he jogged. It stung like icicles digging into his lungs, but Steve kept breathing steadily. It wouldn't get better if he slowed down. He kept his pace to long, steady strides, not pushing his limits by any means, but not creeping along either. The slide of icy cement under his sneakers was dangerous enough without risking a faster pace. He focused on the pump of his muscles and breathing.
As long as he didn't think about anything, it was okay.
Time passed without Steve's notice. Traffic picked up. People started appearing, headed off to work and school, bundled against the cold. This part of New York wouldn't have Christmas shoppers wandering the streets, but that suited him. Pedestrians gave him something to watch out for. Shoppers were just nuisances. The sky turned from dark to grey, and then the sun had come up behind the snow clouds and day had arrived.
His watch read 0712, so Steve turned for home. Somehow, he'd circled around and was already nearly back to his apartment. It didn't take long to find his own street and follow it back, even when he slowed his steps in order to cool down. Moving slower, people weren't as quick to get out of his way, but his size and reputation made sure that no one really bothered him. It had taken a few years, but the street toughs knew better than to try and rob him. News like Steve got around.
Steve slowed even more when his door came into sight. A sleek, powder blue car was parked at the curb outside, with the motor still running and someone that looked suspiciously professional behind the wheel. The chances of it being a SHIELD car were nil. There was no SHIELD logo or any of the small signals the unmarked cars sometimes carried to identify them to other agents.
Not to mention that Fury would swallow a grenade before authorizing the purchase of a hybrid.
He pulled his cap tighter around his ears and stooped down, making himself as small as he could. Nothing about him was anything out of the ordinary for the area except his size, and there wasn't much he could do about that. Still, it worked. The driver didn't even glance in Steve's direction as he jogged through the snow and into the building. As soon as he was out of sight, Steve softened his steps, easing his way up the stairwell and dodging all the known creaks.
At the top of the stairs, a short woman in high heels was using his door as a writing surface. Her pen scratches sounded loud in the otherwise silent hallway. She was still dressed in a thick, lime green winter coat, but there was no way he could mistake that bright red twist of hair. He hadn't seen her since Tony's funeral, but redheads weren't so thick on the ground that he'd forget one easily.
Tony's former assistant spun around with a grace Steve had to admire. Her heels didn't catch the rough floors at all, and even he sometimes had trouble with that. She flushed, cheeks bright red against her pale skin, and stepped aside. The paper she'd been writing on crinkled in her hand. "Good morning. I thought you were gone for the day."
"Just jogging." Steve tried to smile reassuringly, but it didn't seem to sink in. He stepped past her and unlocked the door, gesturing for her to go in first. "Have a seat and I'll make some coffee. I wasn't expecting to see you here." Pepper Potts was a busy woman, one he'd honestly never expected to see show up at his door.
Potts ducked her head as she stepped through the door. Her whole body seemed hunched in on itself, and she kept glancing over her shoulder nervously. She was out of place in his apartment, bright colors and sharp lines against warm browns. It was like a fashion model had stepped out of the page and into his living room. "I'm fine, thank you. This will only take a minute." She didn't move very far into the apartment, as if she might need to make a run for it. "To tell the truth, I wasn't expecting you to be here. Our man said you'd gone out early. I thought I'd slip in, leave a note and..." She shrugged.
"You've been watching me?" Warm air wrapped around Steve as he stepped in behind her, reminding him that he was still sticky with sweat and needed a shower badly. It would have to wait. Even if it wouldn't have been rude to leave her standing there, he needed to know the rest of the story.
"Only today." This time she didn't blush. As soon as the door closed, Potts straightened her back and lifted her chin to meet his eyes, visibly more at ease. "I wasn't sure how you'd take it, and we didn't want to risk anything. I thought we'd set up an appointment to talk."
If she wasn't going to settle, Steve wasn't going to. He took off his hat and coat, but didn't relax more than that. "You're here now. There's no reason we can't take care of it. What's this about? What does Stark International have to do with me?"
She licked her lips and a little of the defiance melted out of the set of her shoulders. "You heard about that? It wasn't in the papers."
"The company's funding us, Miss. I notice when it has a new CEO."
"Interim CEO," she corrected quickly. "I'm just holding it until the terms of the Will can be satisfied. But this doesn't have anything to do with the company, or the team."
He nodded. He had actually been avoiding looking up anything about Tony's estate, other than what affected the team. He didn't want to know about any dames Tony had left things to, or about donations he'd made to charities. "So why are you here?"
Potts reached into her coat and pulled out a long business envelope. "I was asked to give you this."
Steve accepted it, running his thumb under the unglued flap. Something stiff was inside, keeping it from flexing easily, but it wasn't thick at all. The same curiosity that had made him poke around abandoned houses as a kid itched to open it, but Steve just kept it clenched in his hand. "The new CEO of Stark International has time to play delivery girl? Must be an important letter."
"Very important. Maybe the most important thing I've done in six months, I don't know." Her fists clenched in front of her, holding the handle of her purse like she had a vendetta. "Just do what the note says. I swear it's not a trick."
A car horn honked out front and some kids yelled insults at the driver. Steve stared at her, then slowly flipped open the envelope. There were plane tickets inside, and a single folded sheet of paper. "What's this about?"
The deep breath she took was audible. "It's about Tony." When he started to interrupt, she lifted a hand. "No, listen to me. He was involved in something when he died. Something big. I'm just doing what he asked and giving this to you. He wouldn't trust anyone else to do it."
Steve looked down at the envelope again. The note was written on a plain sheet of computer paper and sealed with a happy face sticker. "I don't know what he'd want me to do. I was just—"
"Don't give me that." His eyes jumped back up to Potts at the snap in her voice. It was the first time she'd raised it since walking through the door. "I know what you were. I was Tony's personal assistant. It was part of my job to know everyone he slept with and make sure there were no complications. Do you think I missed that he was dating Captain America?"
"We weren't dating."
The look Potts gave him would have made the Nazis run for their bunkers. "Of course not. Just sleeping together, exclusively, for more than a year. That's all." She glared up at him, every inch a general in her high heels.
"Exclusively?" That couldn't be right. Tony always had dames around him. Just sitting down to dinner in a restaurant would cause three or four to circle. He'd called it the Stark Mystique. Towards the end, not many of them had been taken back to the mansion that Steve noticed, but Steve had put that down to Tony's embarrassment over his health. And Steve... Well, Steve hadn't exactly been in a relationship since Jan, but that was different. He didn't need a dame outside the Ultimates. He had too much going to worry about protecting anyone. Clint had taught him that lesson. "What do you mean, exclusively?"
Green eyes narrowed like he'd spilled juice on white cashmere. Her jaw tightened dangerously. "You've got to be kidding me."
Silently, Steve shook his head, watching in something close to awe as Potts threw her hands in the air and muttered something in German that Steve was certain ladies weren't supposed to say. He hadn't heard anyone curse like that since the last time he'd worked with the marines. Nick Fury would have shed a proud tear.
When she turned back, she was composed again, but some of her hair had fallen loose from her bun from the violence of her reaction. "Alright. I have a company to run, which means I don't have time to work through your not-really-a-relationship squabbles. For whatever reason, Tony trusted you, and he wanted you to have this. That's all I have. Take it or leave it."
It was a shame, Steve reflected, that dames hadn't been allowed to fight back in the war. They could have won in half the time. The plane tickets were smooth against his fingertips as he rubbed them idly. Why had Tony left this for him? Had he known he was going to die?
No. The morning of the accident, Tony hadn't acted any different than usual. He couldn't have known, which meant this was a contingency plan. "Thanks you, Ms Potts. I appreciate it."
She stared at him for a long minute, then nodded and stepped past him to the door. Her back was stiff under her plush lime coat. "Let me know if you need anything. I've kept Tony's direct office line. Use it."
"I will." The door clicked closed behind her, just as the heater kicked on. Its rattle filled the silence as he stared down at the envelope, wondering what it contained.
There was only one way to find out.
There were only two tickets in the envelope, one for Phoenix Arizona out of La Guardia the next morning, and a return ticket out of New Sky Harbor a month later. No receipts or purchasing information had been included, but his given name was on the tickets. That meant that he wasn't going undercover.
The note was much simpler. It was hand-written in pencil, in a familiar cursive hand that he could almost place, but the moment he started to consciously recognize the angle and curve, something jarred him out of it.
Hie thee to the land of the legendary Phoenix. Seems apropos, all things considered. You'll find out more when you get there.
It was unsigned, as expected, though some smartass had put a heart sticker at the bottom, one of the glittery ones that little girls played with. Steve shook his head and double-checked the envelope for any other clues, but it was clean. There wasn't even a hair, and since the envelope hadn't been sealed there was no chance of DNA there. Someone had tried hard to keep from leaving any sign that he or she had touched it.
For a minute, he thought about chasing Potts, but he had a feeling she wasn't going to give him anything. That was a dame with a grudge.
Steve weighed the tickets, like they might tell him something just from holding them in his hand. He'd done his best to stop thinking about Tony, but it seemed like every time he turned around, something would push Stark back into his life. They'd even put in a bar across from his gym. Now it was some conspiracy.
Tony Stark wasn't a man to let go of easily. And the only place to find out what he'd been doing would be in Phoenix.
Steve was in his bedroom, packing and trying to make some sort of sense out of the airline regulations—he'd be charged seventy bucks for his duffle, but an extra suitcase was only fifty, that didn't make any sense at all—when someone knocked on his door. He ignored it, then ignored it some more when it came again a few minutes later. It was probably just someone selling something door to door. Lately there'd been a craze for handmade knickknacks and jewelry, some sort of high fashion movement, and all the people with too much time on their hands had been churning the things out for the Christmas. Personally, Steve thought it all looked like rubbish, but he'd never much understood modern styles anyway.
When the door creaked open, he froze, ducking down out of sight of the open doorway. Sharp footsteps like a woman in heels clicked across the threshold. They became muffled when she stepped onto the carpet. It couldn't be Potts. She wasn't the type to barge into a man's home. She might order him around like a drill sergeant, but she'd give him his space.
The door closed with a loud thud that trembled along the walls.
"Steve?" Jan's voice was unmistakable. It also explained everything. "Come on, I know you're in here. The door was unlocked. You might as well come out and talk to me."
For a minute, Steve thought about making her go to him, but he was in the bedroom. That was a charged enough place for them without the argument that was on its way. And he knew damn well that there would be an argument. Jan had never taken being left out of the loop well.
Besides, she was a friend. More than that, someone besides Potts should know where he was going, in case he needed back-up. There were some instincts left from the war that Steve wasn't in any hurry to shed. He made sure that his pile of shirts wasn't going to fall off the bed and stepped out into the living room.
Jan had made herself comfortable on the couch, arms and legs crossed, fur-lined high-heeled boots on the floor. She was still wearing the matching jacket, but she'd unzipped it to show off her light blue blouse and dark blue jeans. The white fur around the collar brought out the gold in her skin and the shadows of her low-cut top. It was a subtle reminder that they weren't together anymore. Even though they were friends, Jan liked little her digs. "Steve."
He felt his shoulders draw back in response to her tone, instinctively preparing for a fight. But there was no reason to expect trouble before it showed up. Still, instead of settling into the armchair, he leaned against the bar, keeping the majority of the room between them. "Hey, Jan—"
"Don't 'hey Jan' me." For being more than a foot shorter than he was, and sitting to boot, she managed to loom. Her dark eyes were narrowed. "What's this you told Clint about taking a month off? You're Captain America. That's not exactly a day job, you know."
"Something came up." Immediately, he knew that had been the wrong thing to say.
Bright white teeth showed behind Jan's dark lipstick as she ground them together. She looked like she wanted to throw something but the only thing handy were her no-doubt expensive shoes. "Something came up? That's a pretty piss-poor excuse for a guy who's always chewing the rest of us a new one about duty. What the hell could have come up, huh?"
"This." He grabbed the envelope and its tickets off the counter, letting them fly with a quick twist of his wrist. She caught it even before it could land on her lap, where he'd been aiming and quickly opened it up.
The tension dropped out of the room immediately, as if just being in on things was enough. He'd never understand dames, and times like this he wasn't sure that was a good thing. "Pepper Potts delivered that this morning. She said it's something Tony left for me."
A dark frown twisted Jan's mouth down as she looked at the tickets. "Phoenix? What's going on?"
"I don't know," Steve admitted with a shrug. "Potts said that Tony was hip-deep in something. There's nothing going on big enough to justify ignoring it."
"What if it's a trap?" Jan turned the tickets around in her hands, inspecting them like they might explode. "I don't trust her. Just because she worked for Tony..."
"I do." When Jan looked up with a scornful look, Steve frowned defensively. "Tony trusted her, and he had a good feel for people. He wouldn't have put her in charge of his company if he thought she would do anything wrong with it."
"People change, and Tony's not around to make character judgments on his employees anymore." Steve winced and looked away, but she didn't notice. Paper slid against paper as she fanned the tickets out. "This is exactly the sort of thing a lot of people would like. Get Captain America alone in an unfamiliar city and take him out. The Ultimates won't be able to help you out of a jam on the other side of the country."
"I know what I'm doing."
"Really? Because it looks like you're running away from your responsibilities and into a trap to me!"
Steve made himself take a deep breath and let it out before replying. She couldn't know how New York was feeling a lot more like a graveyard than Arlington. It had been six months. He was supposed to have moved on. They hadn't even really been together.
It didn't help when he repeated that in his head. "What responsibilities? Waving from a float in the Macy's Day Parade? Maybe explaining to Fury how we're not going back to SHIELD? Again? There hasn't been anything major in two months. The heavy hitters are laying low. If I put it off, I might not get another chance, and it could be important."
Jan finally seemed to realize that she'd hit a nerve. Her voice softened. "Steve— Honey. I know the past few months have been tough. We all miss Tony. He was a founding member—but this isn't the way to handle things."
That was a lie. Steve knew that she'd already been trying to get War Machine on the team to replace Iron Man. But sitting there on his sofa, leaning towards him with her eyes dark and soft, Steve could almost believe Jan did miss Tony. Maybe just a little. "I need to do this, and I don't need anyone's permission. I'm a grown man."
The soft look didn't last long after she realized that it wasn't working. "Who's going to take your place if something does come up? The team's already down to four members. There's no way we can manage without you."
"Get Rhodes if you're desperate. Or borrow someone from SHIELD." Then Steve did something he'd never done before. He marched over to the door and pointedly held it open. "I've made up my mind."
Jan's face colored red, either with anger or embarrassment; it was hard to tell with Jan sometimes. She shoved on her shoes and stood up, not even bothering to zip up her jacket as she stalked past him into the hall.
The ugly, light-tan of the hallway silhouetted her figure when she turned around. "Fine. If that's how you want it. But you just remember—you're part of a team here. You call if you need us, you got that? Before you get into that jam."
"I'll remember that." Steve let the door swing shut.
Sky Harbor Airport had been one of the first things the Chitauri ships had demolished when they'd attacked. They'd taken a small chunk of the city and a large one of the I-10 freeway with it, but luckily the area didn't have very many homes, so the body count was lower than it might have been. For some cities, it might have been a decade before another airport took its place, but Phoenix was one of the fastest growing metropolises in America, and every resource was thrown at the project. New Sky Harbor had only taken nine months to build, and the whole nation had watched as the first airplane—Air Force One—took off from the brand new runway.
Because it was as much a tourist attraction as an airport, New Sky Harbor had a design that could only be called "Southwest". Everything was done in white stucco, daubed to look like adobe, and random cattle skulls dotted the displays. Shadows of tired cowboys and dispirited horses lined murals done all in blinding shades of red and purple around the baggage claim. There was even a cactus garden in the smoking area, complete with Christmas lights.
It was probably the least tasteful thing Steve had ever seen, and that included modern horror movies. Going by the way some of his fellow traveler's eyes rolled when they passed the display of Authentically Reproduced Navajo Pottery, he wasn't the only one who thought so. What the Chituari had done deserved a better memorial. He'd heard that there was a plaque and a statue somewhere downtown, but he wasn't sure where. It hadn't gotten enough attention for word to get around.
The first thing Steve noticed when he stepped out the door was the temperature. He'd come prepared for warmer weather, and the people wearing sandals in the airport had given him a clue, but he hadn't expected to step out into a balmy afternoon. It was the start of December and snow was already on the ground in New York, but he had to shrug off his coat while he waited for the city bus. The temperature had to be at least seventy degrees, and the sky was so clear that he could see some of the mountains that ringed the valley, behind the brown layer of pollution. Steve had second thoughts about the mural. The sunset really did turn the sky red.
"Rogers? Hey, you Rogers?" A driver leaned out of a cab window a little way ahead of him. He wasn't a small man, even sitting in a car seat he looked like he might top even Steve in height, if not in width. His skin was the color of old walnuts, which managed to match his shirt so well that Steve needed a second look to make sure he was even wearing one. "Come on, man, speak up! I don't have all day!"
Jan's warnings about a trap seemed a lot more serious all of a sudden. "How do you know my name?"
"A guy gives you a cool two hundred to pick up his buddy, you'd remember names too." He waved Steve over to the cab. "Come on, I'm blocking traffic, and it's a bitch on a good day. No one knows how to drive in this town."
Steve eyed the cab for a minute before dragging his duffle bag over. The driver looked big, but there was no way he'd be able to match the effects of the super soldier serum. More importantly, whoever had paid him had known Steve was coming, and that had to be either Potts or someone Tony had been dealing with. It was another step closer to finding out what was going on.
He slid his bag across the back seat, then followed it and strapped in. "Did this guy tell you where you're taking me?"
"The Hilton on Thomas, my man, and then a little place I know on Van Buren." Dark eyes met Steve's in the rearview, just before they pulled out into traffic so quickly that Steve grabbed for the door. It wasn't any worse than the cabbies in New York, but he didn't like their driving either. "Someone really likes you. That place books months in advance in December. They've even got a massage parlor over there."
There were small, finger-shaped dents in the plastic door handle where he'd gripped it and a small spider web of cracks. Steve hoped no one would notice the damage. "You sound like you've been there before."
"I might have saved up, taken the missus there for our tenth." The cab swerved around a heavy-duty van so quickly that Steve's head almost smacked into the window. "Real nice place."
Steve fidgeted with the strap on his duffle bag and tried not to cling to it too tightly. His shield was in it, buried beneath a layer of clothes packed so close that the duffle didn't even bend without the shield. He had no doubt that it had been found by airport security, but as long as he'd gotten it back, they could play with it all they liked. "Who sent you to pick me up?"
"Your buddy." The look the cab-driver shot him in the rearview said everything about stupidity and nothing useful at all. "I already told you that."
"Only a couple of people knew I was coming, and I don't have any friends in this city." The driver slammed on the brakes to avoid a small sedan that couldn't decide which lane to drive in. They hadn't even reached the freeway yet. "I need a name."
"Sorry, man, I don't ask about names."
Cacti and painted gravel in odd geometric shapes passed by as they turned onto the freeway. The whole layout followed the same style that the airport had been done in. Phoenix was a city that really enjoyed its theme. Steve had a feeling that he was going to be sick of western everything by the time he headed back to New York. "A face then. Anything."
"You really don't know who sent me?"
The driver hummed, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel. "Man, that's messed up shit. Is this some sort of secret camera, thing? I'm not going to find myself splashed across YouTube or nothing, am I?"
It took a lot of effort not to yell at the man. "You won't."
Even after that, the man still hesitated before he shrugged. "Okay, I'll shoot. It was a dark bar, so I ain't really sure about details, but he was a tall guy. Dark hair, tan skin, beard—spoke Spanish, so maybe, but he didn't look like one of us, you know? That's all I've got."
That helped, but just from what Steve had seen at the airport, it still covered about half of the city. Maybe more. "How tall? As tall as me? Taller?"
The question seemed to spark something in the driver's memory. Another sharp turn and they were off the freeway, pulling into heavy traffic. It wasn't bumper-to-bumper, but it was thick. Friday at rush hour. "Naw, but close. Real tall, like six, six-two. Black cowboy hat and boots. He seemed like a real smooth player. Young guy, too."
Buildings around them became progressively fancier, and more and more western. The whole city seemed obsessed with white adobe and red tile roofs. It looked like someone had planned out the perfect tourist trap for would-be cowboys. He had a feeling Clint would have loved it. "Nothing else you can give me?"
"You got all I know." The car pulled to a sharp stop at a red light, and the driver twisted in his seat to offer Steve his hand. "Name's Carl Montega."
It was rarely a bad idea to get on to good terms with friendly locals, whether it was in Germany-occupied France or on solid American soil. Steve grabbed the offered hand and was pleased when Carl didn't try to squeeze too tightly. Some guys tried to pull the tough act when faced with someone his size. Carl obviously knew better than to try. "Steve Rogers."
Red flashed to green, and somehow Carl must have seen it, because he was back in his seat and hitting the gas almost as soon as the car in front of them moved. "Hey, man, I knew that. You're Captain America—I had your poster on my wall when I was a kid. You're gonna love Phoenix."
Ezrabet bit her thumbnail as she looked down from her well-padded throne. It was a terribly unladylike habit that her mother had once railed at her about. She could still hear her sometimes, shrill and demanding. "You'll look as though you've been working. Is that what you want your hands to look like, those of some ignoble laborer?" That voice pierced her ears, even though it carried from centuries past. The elegant peacock blue gown she wore helped push the voice away, but she knew it would not stay there. "You are certain it was him?"
"Yes, Madame." The human kept his eyes lowered, but didn't kneel. She detested such servitude, no matter how lowly the one who gave it. It built resentment among the little ones, and resentment was much more deadly than terror. "The plane ticket was purchased under his given name."
Of course it would be an honest name. Since the tragedies at the beginning millennium, not even Captain America could travel under a pseudonym through the air. "The name is immaterial. Both are common. Tell me of the man. Did you see him?"
Celicia stepped forward to Ezrabet's side, shrouded in her cloak as always. She never believed Ezrabet when she exclaimed over Celicia's concealed beauty. Some scars were simply too deep. "Describe him!" she demanded, voice low and intent. "Tell me of the man you saw!"
He hesitated, glancing at Ezrabet. Poor human that he was, he had no idea of the death he spoke to. Ezrabet took sympathy and nodded, allowing him to continue. "Well, he was tall, more than six feet at least. Blond and light eyes, maybe blue. Built like a wrestler, lots of muscle."
It was Rogers, or a twin, and how many men of that name and description would be leaving New York for Phoenix at this point in history? "Excellent work. Leave us."
"But—" the human looked around the empty hall, peering into dark corners as if they hid jewels. The reek of his sweat seemed to fill the room, and his heartbeat was so fast it might have been a rabbit's. He was prey, and had not the seemliness to pretend otherwise. "I was promised— for my services—"
"Yes, you were," she cut him off with a sharp twist of her hand. "And I will summon you for your reward. For now, go."
Self-preservation finally seemed to find its place in his mind. He went, scurrying backwards like the basest of commoners. A sneer curled her lip as he went. Modern people had no dignity, and tasted like sludge. On some days, she'd rather eat cabbage. The door closed behind him with barely a sound.
"This changes things," Celicia sighed in their native Hungarian, the syllables sounding of home on her tongue. She took a seat at Ezrabet's feet, long legs stretched out before them. Under the folds of the cloak, a sensible brown dress peeked out, blending well with the rough fabric that concealed her. "Rogers is not an easy man to deal with. You could fail." Nothing in her voice revealed the sword that loomed over her head.
Pride at her companion's fearlessness made Ezrabet's heart stir. She rested her hand on Celicia's shoulder. "He is a man, and men can be dealt with. Have I not protected you for this long?"
Celicia's cloaked head turned to rest against her arm, revealing the curve of her cheek. "You have, but Rogers is different. You know this. I will accept my fate, so long as you don't meet yours."
"Death comes unto us all, when and how he will." She bent to kiss the top of Celicia's head. "For you, I shall take care. But I require a forfeit."
"If you insist on hiding your loveliness away, I must be allowed to provide you with a better means." She tweaked the hood forward playfully, rubbing the heavy, course cloth between her fingers. Had she calluses, it would have snagged. "It is unseemly."
Shadows moved, hinting at a smile in their depths. "God did not grant me noble birth—"
"But I have granted you a noble rebirth, and you are my dearest friend and companion." Ezrabet rubbed the fabric again. She wanted to rip it back and force her friend to show her beauty to the world, but the doors were unlocked. Celicia would never forgive her if her scarring were revealed without necessity. "Allow me this, and I swear I shall run, rather than risk my own demise at the hands of this man."
"I shall even—" Ezrabet touched the chin hidden under the hood and forced her head back, until she could see the gleam of Celicia's eyes. "I shall even make a gift of him to you. Would you like that, my darling?"
Celicia's weight against her shuddered. "Would you?" she breathed. "Your other quest will be hazardous enough. Do not divide your attention for my sake."
"Once I have my homeland returned to me, my place in America shall be yours, and all those in it, including Steve Rogers," Ezrabet promised, brushing a kiss over her friend's forehead. "If I do not have him in hand when this is over, I shall hunt him down for you, and deliver him in chains. But only if you allow me to outfit you."
A giggle broke the silence between them as Celicia leaned up to meet her lips. "Thank you, my lady. You barter with such grace for my sake."
"So you agree?"
"How could I refuse?" Another kiss and Celicia dropped her cheek to rest against Ezrabet's knee. "I am hungry."
"Then let us have our dear spy brought in, hm? He is due his reward, after all." Ezrabet patted her friend's cheek as best as she could. The scars were a roughness under her palm that she did her best to ignore, for Celicia's sake. "Lord Caine shall arrive soon, and that shall surely set me off my meals. If you do not mind sharing?"
The rough cloth of Celicia's cloak scratched against Ezrabet's skirts as she nodded. "With you? Never."
The Hilton had welcomed Steve with open arms, especially when they found out that "Roger, Stevens" was paid in advance for a week, and would probably stay for the rest of the month. Whatever credit card his room had been purchased under, it had been a big enough deal that the hotel manager had shown him up to his suite personally, and then had to be forced to leave.
He'd dropped off enough clothes to make it look occupied, then had Carl take him to a Garden Inn just down the street, to Carl's complete disbelief. He'd booked a single room under a different name and left everything but his shield. That was in a cloth case beside him on the bench seat in the cab. Even behind a layer of canvas, it was suspiciously round and large, but there was no way he was going anywhere unarmed.
Even if this wasn't a trap, Steve wasn't going to take chances.
Van Buren Street was not what Steve expected it to be. It was downtown, right behind the shining glass sky scrapers that collected in the center of the city, but it was as run down as any place he'd seen in New York back in the thirties. Streetlights flickered, just bright enough to show the trash on the sidewalks, and graffiti was everywhere there was a wall to paint. Girls walked the streets in shorts that were probably underwear and tops that were a step above being illegal. The temperature had dropped enough that he could see his breath. Even though he only needed a long-sleeved shirt to be comfortable, several of the street walkers were huddled together out of the wind, shivering. Only streets way from wealth, and the whole place was a disaster. He wasn't sure what to think about that, other than that someone needed to straighten out their priorities.
Carl cleared his throat. "You just ignore the girls. They're always hanging around here. Police try, but..."
Steve frowned as they passed, but looked away. He couldn't do anything to help them. "Where's this place you're taking me to?"
"Just 'round the corner." As if to demonstrate, he turned left down a surprisingly well-lit side-street. It was in the half-way zone between the luxury and the slums, tidy enough that people who got lost wouldn't be shocked, but still not what it could have been. A single sign was lit over the bar door, showing a woman's silhouette and a martini glass. It said "Danny's Screwdriver". If Steve hadn't been told, he never would have known the place was even there. "It's not as bad as some places around here, but it sure ain't the Hilton. The beer's cold and the chicks are hot, that's what counts."
"Your wife know you go looking for women, son?"
Carl laughed and parked by the curb, cutting the engine. "Hell, she don't mind. I know what I got to go home to, and it's sweeter than anything I'd find around here. Girls these days don't have any meat on their bones."
Cars honked as Steve slid out, seemingly offended that he dared to get out on the street side instead of sliding across to the sidewalk. He grabbed his shield and slung it over his shoulder by the canvas strap. He'd take it out, but the buckles were quick and dirty enough that it would only take a second to have it if he needed it, and it wasn't worth the recognition. "Thanks for the lift. Do you have a number?"
"You've still got a hundred and fifty on your tab, amigo, and I've been promised more if I take good care of you." Carl pushed back the seat and stretched out his legs under the dash. "I'll wait right here. You go in and do whatever you gotta do."
That seemed to be that. Steve nodded at him and turned to push his way through the swinging door.
A bar was a bar, it seemed, even here. The lights were dim and the air was thick with smoke. The wall bore a neat little plaque that said it was a smoking establishment—as if that weren't obvious. Two pool tables were surrounded by people in everything from blue jeans to cheap suits, and some sort of country song crackled out of a neon-lit jukebox. The only nod to the city's roots was that the bartender was wearing short sleeves in December.
He propped his shield by the bar and took a stool, looking around. About half of the men in the room fit the description Carl had given him, so that wasn't going to be any good. Steve didn't even know if he was supposed to meet someone here at all. No one was looking his way.
The bartender slid over from where he'd been flirting with a girl on the other end. Tattoos wrapped around his wrists and up his arms, flowing between some sort of tribal snake pattern and a Japanese swordsman. He had three eyebrow rings and a stud in his lip. The piercings brought a frown to Steve's face more than the tattoos did. Men had tattoos even back in his day—hell, he'd nearly been dragged to get one by Bucky one time when they'd had a few days leave. Only women wore earrings though, and only punks wore them anywhere but their ears.
"Name's Ian. What'll ya have?"
"Just a coke." He still hadn't caught any extra attention, so Steve leaned forward across the polished wood of the bar, sliding some bills across it. A large mirror across the back of the room showed the start of another tattoo at the base of the bartender's neck."I was told to come here tonight by a friend. You know why he might have said that?"
"Nothing happens around here." Inked shoulders lifted in a shrug as Ian poured Steve's drink from the tap. A faint splatter of freckles across his cheeks hinted at northern heritage, only visible against his pale skin. Steve felt a brief moment of kinship; he turned red instead of tan, and had since he'd been a kid. "We do karaoke on Thursdays, and Saturday's always a full house. But Fridays? You're lucky to pick up a chick. Sure you don't want anything harder?"
"This is fine." Steve swiveled on his stool, looking out over the crowd. The music rolled over into something almost as old as Steve. Other than that, nothing. Maybe it was a false lead. Tony couldn't have known that he'd take the tickets. Sure, it had been a pretty good bet that he would, but he couldn't have known. It could have been a trap, or even just a reason to get him out of New York.
The pool game was being dominated by a tall man with a black cowboy hat tipped low over his eyes and a white dress shirt that he hadn't bothered to button the collar on. He just kept taking shot after shot while the other players stood around in awe. He glanced up, tipped his hat at one of the girls, then sank the last ball with a flourish.
"Pay the piper, Gentlemen."
A good-natured grumble went up from his opponents as they slapped their money down on the table. Apparently this was a game they'd played before, and none of them minded losing enough to stop playing. The pile of cash looked pathetically small, though, so maybe they'd learned their lesson about betting against him.
"One of these days, you're gonna have to tell us how the hell you pull those shots," an older man griped, but he was grinning through his nicotine-stained beard. "It just ain't natural, boy."
The winner was polite enough that he didn't count the money at the table. He just folded it up and shoved it into his back pocket. "It's all geometry. No one makes you bet, Jake." He flicked his hat up out of his eyes, and Steve froze with his coke lifted to his lips.
It couldn't be. It was impossible.
"Worth the money to see you in action." Jake slapped the winner on the shoulder on his way to the bar. "Reminds me of when I was your age."
Blue eyes looked over the old guy's back straight at Steve, then back at the other men. "That's it for me tonight, boys. I have a date with a pretty blond." Shouts and friendly curses followed him out a side door. Steve waited a few minutes, then finished the last of his coke, grabbed his shield and followed.
The alley was small, almost too narrow for a man with Steve's shoulders. Good for defense, but it would be hard getting out of it if things came to that. Trash and broken bottles gathered in the corners, crunching under his boots. It reeked of piss, vomit and stale beer. The streetlights didn't reach this far, leaving the whole alley in shadow. Headlights dragged over the walls, illuminating everything for just a moment before they vanished again and the dark returned.
So it was excusable that Steve reached for his shield when he heard the crunch of footsteps behind him. He twisted around, keeping his back to the wall, but the figure stopped ten feet away. A car drove by, its headlights giving the alley a flash of daylight. "Steve."
Steve took a full breath, so deep that his lungs ached. He let it out slowly and straightened from his defensive crouch. "You're supposed to be dead."
It was too dark to be sure, but Steve thought he saw a grin, white teeth flashing in the dark. "You don't have a copyright on coming back from the dead, old boy," Tony said. "I know. I had Pepper check."
"You're supposed to be dead."
To Tony's eyes, Steve looked good. Better than good—he was as gorgeous as ever, tall and proud, filled with that same righteous fervor that most politicians only dreamed of. Backlit by the streetlights, he almost had a halo. Even in the alley, which was admittedly less than a pleasant area for a reunion, Steve stood out as something more than the average bruiser. That was a bit of a disappointment, really. He could have at least looked a little bit like a wreck, like he'd missed Tony.
Of course he'd never be that lucky. Steve had made it perfectly clear that Tony had just been a way to pass the time. Friends of an odd sort, but not lovers. He'd probably already fallen back into bed, maybe with some pretty blonde bit, or Jan again. Steve would never do the secrecy act with a girl that he'd done with Tony, but maybe he'd learned a lesson or two about being a celebrity.
Jealousy wasn't something Tony was intimately familiar with, but he had a feeling that he was about to be.
"You don't have a copyright on coming back from the dead, old boy." Tony smiled and shoved his hands into his jean pockets, grabbing desperately for a piece of normalcy. As if anything would ever be normal again. Really, it never had been, but now he couldn't even pretend. "I know. I had Pepper check."
Bludgeoned senseless was a good look for Captain America, but it didn't take him long to bring up his shield again. "You're not Tony. He's dead. We buried him."
"Not even a kiss for a guy who's back from the dead? You buried an empty coffin, and you know it." Tony stayed carefully back and made no move too quickly. He didn't want to find out if he could take Captain America in close quarters. The answer was likely to be an emphatic no, and he'd just gotten used to living again. "Good job carrying out my final wishes, by the way. I was very moved when Pepper showed me the recording. You have a voice for poetry."
"Who are you?" Steve wasn't convinced.
Tony sighed and tipped his head back. The sky over Phoenix was filled with stars, and over half of them were invisible to the human eye. City lights drowned them out, killing the little glimmers in a night sky that was grey with ocular pollution. He could see all of them now, even the faint dusting that was the Milky Way. The little things like that clenched his certainty that he'd made the right choice. A few times in his life, he had wanted to die, but this time, he would have been dead. It put a new perspective on things.
But Steve was still waiting, and only getting more trigger-happy with every second of delay. "The first time I kissed you, it was right here in Phoenix—well, Gilbert, but in the metropolis area after the fight with the Chitauri. You socked me in the jaw, and I had to tell the reporters that the aliens had done it. Sound familiar?" And then Steve had gone and hopped in a bed with Janet, in a move that an observant man might have mistaken for capital-D-denial. "No one but you and I know that. Convinced that I'm me?"
Steve relaxed only a little, but he did relax. Tony picked out the subtle shifting of his muscles under his skin, and was hit by an incredible urge to shove Steve back against the grimy brick and run his lips over those muscles. Some things hadn't changed in six months, at least. "Let's say I believe you. Why the hell have you let us think you're dead?"
Unspoken was the rant about duty to the American people, and Tony was grateful for that. He didn't need to hear Mr. Self Righteous tell him that he'd let his country down. "Do you think I'm hanging out in this little hellhole playing good ol' boy for a lark, Rogers? I'm hurt. See my pain?"
"I can't see a thing in this alley." Finally the last bit of excess tension left Steve, though it wasn't all of it. The only time Steve really relaxed was... Tony ended that line of thought. He'd probably lost right to that by dying, and he'd never been much of one for teasing himself with what he couldn't have. "What's going on? Potts said you were up to something."
"More like something's up to me." A miraculously whole bottle rolled away when Tony risked stepping closer, though still not close enough to be caught if Steve decided to take him out. He hadn't survived six months dead by taking chances. "I need help. Pepper and Happy are tied down in New York holding Stark International together."
"So you lured me here?" The moon was finally starting to get enough height to shine down between the buildings. It was a fading crescent, not really bright enough to compete with the city itself, but it was enough to change the shadows. "I'm not your damned errand boy."
"You've never been my anything; you made that clear enough." Oh, there'd been some bitterness in that. Tony winced at his tone. He hadn't meant to let that out, but he'd had too long to brood on it, and Steve had a way of bringing out all sorts of things in him. "Never mind. Are you going to help me, or do I need to do this on my own? Pick fast, Rogers, I don't have time to play games."
Moonlight picked out the blue in Steve's eyes while the city played with his hair, and that was just unfair. Even nature hated him. "Why aren't you dead? We all saw you fall and hit. You couldn't have survived that."
"That's a bit of a personal question. Do you happen to have terrier in your background, or is it an Army boy thing?" Steve glared, and that made things easier. It was always easier to keep from ravishing Steve when it would start a fight. Not easy, because Steve really had been built for the bedroom, but easier. "Answer my question and I'll answer yours. Unrepentant bastard's honor."
Slowly, Steve shook his head. "I'm not agreeing to anything until I know the whole story."
Tony closed his eyes. He hadn't expected that to hurt. Had some part of him actually thought Steve would agree, though? He must have, he reasoned. After all, he'd tried, when he should have known better. "Then I guess I've inconvenienced you for nothing. I'll let Pepper know that you need tickets back to New York."
"So that's it? You dragged me three thousand miles and now you're just going to send me back?" Steve's voice picked up in volume, unreasonably indignant, as if he were the one being refused. "What game are you playing at? What's going on?"
"God, you think this is some sort of game? Because I enjoy this?" Anger rose in Tony's throat, thick and palpable in a way it had never been before. He could smell Steve's irritation, just on the edge of rage. It made his teeth ache. "Maybe I just want your word that you won't take my head off before I tell you anything."
In retrospect, that had been the wrong thing to say. Canvas ripped in the night as Steve took the shield out of its bag. It gleamed, even with so few light sources. Tony knew it wasn't sharpened, but there was a lot of damage it could do with enough force. "Tell me why I would want to take your head off, if you're really Tony Stark."
It was much less romantic than, say, bodices ripping, but Tony was already in enough trouble to worry about non-existent bodices. "You're a little quick to violence, Cap. I'm just covering my bases. Resurrection's only a one-time deal, I'm sure you know."
"I don't know! You've got thirty seconds to explain."
A footstep crunched overhead. Tony froze. Steve didn't seem to hear it, and wasn't that strange, having sharper senses than Captain America. It didn't matter. "No I don't. We're out of time."
"Shut up." The footstep didn't sound again, but if Tony could hear them, they could hear him, especially with Steve being so loud. They'd have been watching the Ultimates, waiting for Tony to contact them.
For the first time in his life, Tony felt unintelligent. He'd played right into their hands. They wouldn't be stupid enough to attack Steve, but they'd sure as hell use him against Tony. There were worse things they could do than kill him. Tony couldn't risk it.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. "I'll find you again if you stay in town." Too fast for Steve's eyes to follow, he turned and sped off down the alley. Overhead, footsteps paced him, not bothering to keep quiet. They knew that he knew they were there—there was no point in sneaking. Steve shouted after him, loud enough that people the next street over were probably already calling the police.
Tony hit a wall, rough-hewn and old enough to provide finger-holds, and scaled it, the soles of his boots scraping against the brick. If he could move fast enough, his fingers didn't have time to lose their grip. His hat dropped back into the alley—it had held on through his run, but climbing was too much for it. There was a moment of silence and then a thud as his stalker leaped the alley just as Tony reached the flat top of the building.
She crouched low, dark clothes blending into the shadows, but not enough to hide her. It would take more than that now, and they both knew it. "Tony, Tony, Tony. You're still running? I would have thought you'd have wised up by now." The moonlight was brighter up here, catching the red highlights in her short brown curls. Normally, Tony would have loved a chance to wrestle with an athletic woman, but he could smell worse than blood on her and it turned his stomach. "Smartest man in the world and you just don't know when to quit."
"I'd say that I know when the stakes are too high to fold."
"You're a little slow tonight, baby." Sharp white teeth filled her mouth as she grinned, stepping to the side like a predator about to pounce. "Not eaten yet? Blood a little cold?"
"I'd say that's my business, isn't it?" He turned to keep her in sight as she circled, moving away from the edge of the building with every step.
Even so, he wasn't ready when she surged forward, fist swinging. He dodged out under her arm, but she came so close to landing a blow that his cheek stung. Buttons popped and scattered as he ripped open his shirt, pulling out a thumbnail-sized flash bomb from the slim pouch strapped around his waist. He had just enough time to cover his eyes before the roof lit up like photographer's studio for a sustained ten seconds, three times brighter than noon light. Heat seared his photo-sensitive skin, but it was only one of the low-UV bombs, enough to sting but not enough to make him blister.
His attacker wasn't so lucky.
She screamed, hunching over and scrabbling at her face as the light seared her eyes. Red welled up behind her fingers where the delicate veins were shattered trying to compensate for the burst. Tony fought the urge to do rub his own eyes—even with them covered, it had been bright enough to give him a monumental headache.
The girl hit her knees, her wails fading into sobs as her body started to heal the damage. He didn't have long. The rooftop offered precious few options, and he'd lost his hat, but improvisation had always been his forté. Metal groaned and then snapped as he pulled one of the blades off the air intake fan.
Two chops were all it took, the muffled thunk of meat and bone almost easy to miss under the sound of cars in the distance. Dull metal couldn't cut through a neck easily, but enough force could make anything into a guillotine. Her head rolled off to the side, eyes still open, but shriveling fast. Decay set in almost immediately, days of deterioration drying skin and turning eyeballs into raisins. The faint, unmistakable crackle of flesh withering sounded impossibly loud, even with the noise of the city as a background static.
Another set of footsteps scuffled the rooftop. Tony turned to see Steve silhouetted by the glow of the city. It must have taken him time to find a way up. Probably by climbing; his shield was slung over his back. Tony straightened, resolutely pulling his eyes from the corpse.
Steve's hand rested on the straps of his shield, one bad joke away from doing something regrettably permanent. "What did you just do?"
Tony groaned and finally gave in to the urge to rub his eyes. This was going to be a long night, and he still had to eat. "I suppose you won't accept, 'kill a villainous vampire thug' as an acceptable answer, will you?" At his feet, the body wrinkled and shrunk as advanced decomposition took effect. By morning, it would be only a skeleton, centuries old by carbon dating and miraculously well-preserved.
"I'll try to think of a convincing lie, then."
Steve's room at the Garden Inn was tidy, but it didn't have anything close to the luxury of the Hilton. Tony crossed his arms as he looked around. The furniture was upholstered in classic eau de hotel floral patterns that only achieved acceptability by being done in muted greens, rather than the significantly less popular yet more prevalent glaring oranges. The bedspread matched, as did the cheap print on the wall. It was as if the decorator had hired an artist specifically to match the sofa. "Pepper reserved a perfectly good hotel room for you. This is a Best Western, for God's sake."
"Potts reserved a room under the name Roger Stevens. Do you really think that would fool anyone?" Steve rested his shield beside the bed, sentimental old thing that he was, and shrugged off his light jacket. Back and shoulder muscles slid smoothly under taut flesh, impossible to hide under anything so simple as a long-sleeved t-shirt. "It made sense to have something less obvious. I didn't know how dangerous this mission would be."
"The answer is 'not very'. For you, at least." Tony stayed close to the door and tried to keep his ogling subtle. Life wasn't fair, but Steve's jean-clad backside evened the score wonderfully. It was not the time for that, or so he tried to tell himself. His libido begged to disagree, but for once it wasn't allowed a majority vote. "It would take people significantly more insane than this to attack Captain America with anything less than an army or two. You're safe."
"And you have to take girls' heads off." Steve didn't sit. He just leaned back against the wall that separated the vanity mirror from what was nominally a bedroom. Tony chalked it up to a primal dominance thing. "With a fan blade."
He missed letting Steve be primal and dominant—it was something Steve did very well. "The razor wire was in my hat band." He tipped the hat in question. The western look had never been one Tony aspired to, but when in Rome...
"You said vampires." They'd managed to avoid talking exactly about this thing on the cab ride back. Carl had been confused, but happy enough to have the hundred dollar bill that Tony slipped him that he hadn't asked about the stains on Tony's shirt. "Tell me why I shouldn't slap cuffs on you for murder."
"Why, Steve, I didn't know you were into that." Humor did not add levity to the situation. Tony remembered to breathe and leaned back against the wall, mirroring Steve's cross-armed stance. It was all about appearances. "What do you know about them?"
"They worked with the Nazis, back in the war. Liked to attack the wounded, but they'd eat anyone that they could take down." Steve's hand rose, toying with a thin chain of gold around his neck. The cross the dangled from it was tiny, almost miss-able, and usually hidden away. Tony had always thought it a surprisingly feminine piece for Captain America. "Decapitation kills them. So does fire, but they burn just like most humans, and they can do a lot of damage before they're down."
Tony hadn't known about fire, but it made sense. Fire killed just about anything when it burned hot enough. Theoretically, even Johnny Storm could be taken out with a hot enough flame. "You have the general idea. What you don't know is that they're organized. The leaders are called The Council, probably for some pithy reason that makes historians slap their legs and pass on the joke. It's a group of ten. Most of them saw Rome in its heyday. The oldest probably used to eat mammoth meat for dinner. They've been around for about three millennia, long before monotheism caught on." Steve just watched while Tony spoke, expression neutral. It made Tony feel oddly like he was making a pitch to a new investor. CEOs wore that same expression when they were calculating risks. "As far as I've been able to tell, they've had a thumb in every Figgie Pudding since, digging out the plums. And now they're getting tired of hiding."
"So what does that have to do with what happened in L.A.?" It looked like that was a bone Steve wasn't going to let go of. "If they're out to finish what Hitler started, why didn't you tell us?"
"Because they're not after any of you. They're after me." Tony took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. It was longer now—he'd let it grow since he died, to better hide in areas where expensive haircuts weren't the norm. And he could let it grow. There was no chemotherapy to take it out, patch by patch. "I'm too high-profile. If I went back to New York, or let the Ultimates in on what's happening, it would be all over the news in time for the six o'clock. I couldn't risk being exposed like that."
"How did you survive?" There was definitely terrier of some sort in the Rogers family tree, Tony noted in disgust. "Even if the fall didn't kill you, you sure as hell didn't fly out. Search and rescue had that place covered. Someone would have seen you."
"I walked," Tony tried, meeting Steve's eyes boldly. "The Iron Man suit is capable of holding up under water. It wasn't hard."
"You only had an hour of air. We were ten miles out, and your suit was damaged." Realization wiped the dogged expression off Steve's face. He positively went pale with shock. White stucco scraped against his shirt as he sagged backward. "You didn't survive, did you? You're one of them." He said the word them as if it needed to be spat.
"Bravo, sir. You've figured it out." Tony smiled broadly, but without humor, letting his brand-new fangs show for the first time. They weren't too noticeably larger than the rest of his teeth, but they didn't need to be in order to draw blood. Being razor-sharp was enough for that. "Yes, I'm one of them, as you so aptly phrased it. As an alternative to being a pancake at the bottom of the Pacific, I find it a wonderful thing. Possibly the best life-style choice I've made yet."
Steve's fingers twitched as if he wanted to reach for his shield. "Tell me why I shouldn't take you down right now?"
A small piece of Tony went cold inside. Of course, he'd been braced for this, or thought he had. One did not become walking undead without people looking at you differently, and Steve was always slow to adapt in small yet significant ways. That didn't stop it from hurting a surprising amount when Steve's weight shifted into a slightly more threatening stance. "I'm not a danger to anyone, Steve. I've gone all night without ripping out a single throat. Doesn't that tell you something?"
"Yeah. It tells me that maybe you know how to play it up. You always were good at playing with people." Muscles rippled under Steve's plain red shirt, making Tony's libido sit up and take interest. Its timing was abominable. When it came to Steve, it usually was. "How many people do you kill every night, Tony? Do you go after street people, or do you just pick up a girl from a bar?"
"Dear God, did you even listen to a word I said?" Tony didn't grind his teeth, knowing that it would be taken as more of a threat than it actually was. At least Steve was predictable that way. "I don't kill people. I'm a vampire, not a monster."
"You have to eat." There were few things quite as annoying at Captain America at his stubborn best. He took a step forward, chest out, but—thank God—didn't reach for a weapon. He hadn't placed Tony firmly in the Threat category, then. "And you eat human blood, don't even pretend you don't hurt anyone."
"Yes, I eat human blood, and I find that my stomach is surprisingly not large enough to hold nine pints at a go. Not even enough to bleed a human out." Tony took his own step forward, careful to be human-slow, not willing to be cowed. Since the change he was probably strong enough to take Steve in a wrestling match, but in a fight to the finish he wouldn't stand a chance. Tony didn't want it to come down to that, but letting Steve bully him was out of the question. "Maybe one, on a bad day, and that's just about what a blood bank will take."
Steve didn't look convinced, but of course he didn't. It would be a cold day in Hell before Steve believed something that he was dead set against. In a year of trying, Tony hadn't even been able to make him admit that maybe he was more than heterosexual. Tony really didn't want to think about that one. The chance that Steve was heterosexual, and Tony had just been a pretty way to pass the time after Jan, wasn't a pleasant one. He'd been used for sex before and quite enjoyed it, but coming from Steve, it would hurt.
That was what he got for getting attached. Clearly, Natasha had taught him nothing.
Three steps at lightning speed put Tony in Steve's personal space, close enough to feel the warmth radiating off of him. His stomach cramped, reminding him sharply that his last meal had been small and more than twenty four hours past. To his credit, Steve didn't move, either to escape or to grab a weapon when he found Tony nose to nose with him.
"What do you want from me?" Tony demanded. Warm breath washed over his skin as Steve breathed, a steady human intake and exhale that sounded oddly loud in close quarters. Even Steve's heartbeat was too loud, as if making up for strength now when it had been lacking before the Super Soldier treatments. They hadn't been this close in six months, and somehow he'd forgotten how tempting Steve could be. He had the sort of body that the men on the covers of romance novels only aspired to. "Do you want a signed fucking confession? Maybe for me to starve myself crazy to suit your damned priggish morality? Or should I have turned them down and just let myself die?"
"You couldn't have known you'd fall!" Good, solid military boots bumped the toes of Tony's affected cowboy boots, bringing them close enough that Steve's chest brushed his. Maybe this hadn't been such a brilliant move, after all. "Or was that faked too? Corrosion in the wiring, or just Tony Stark picking his moment?"
"No, you know, I couldn't have known I'd take a dive into the Pacific." He kept his eyes on Steve's—it was either that or look down, and Steve would take that as a sign of dishonesty. He was the kind of man who made judgments based on a firm handshake, and Tony had learned to fake a firm handshake by age ten. It also kept him from thinking too much about the blood running under Steve's skin—what it would taste like, how it would feel to have Steve's body pressed against his as he drank him down... "But I did know about the damned tumor. It was just a happy accident that I died before that finished running its course. It would be a lot harder to come back after a big public hospitalization."
"You didn't want to die."
"For once, no." He needed Steve to believe him, if only because they'd been friends, once. Perhaps it was selfish, but Tony wanted that back, even if it came without the benefits he'd grown accustomed to.
Steve stared at him measuringly, and then dropped his eyes. "Stop it. It's not— you can't seduce me into believing you. Back off."
Tony blinked and straightened from where he'd been nearly pinning Steve to the wall. About ninety percent of him objected. Steve was warm, and he smelled delicious, and had even before Tony had died. "Pardon me?"
"You don't need to—" Steve swallowed. His heart rate picked up, beating just a split-second faster, enough to ping the edge of Tony's senses. Dark pupils expanded, eating away at the ring of his irises. "I believe you. I think. Now move."
That was either an opportunity or a challenge, and Tony hadn't gotten where he had by ignoring either. "Why, Steve," Tony smiled and closed the distance between them again. Warm, hard muscle pressed against him as Tony all but shoved Steve back against the wall. He settled between Steve's thighs, pressed close from hip to chest. Steve was hard, the thick length of him an obvious bulge through his jeans. "You used to like me like this. Or did you pick up a girlfriend to play with, since I wasn't around to warm your bed?"
There went the jaw, stubborn and stiff, a signal flag for Steve's moods. "That's none of your business."
That hurt. "No, I guess it's not. It never was, was it?" From so close, he could smell thick musk of Steve's arousal, and under it the copper temptation of his blood. Tony made himself move away while he still could. "I should go. As you so cleverly pointed out, I need to eat, and you don't seem very eager to oblige."
He waited, half-hoping and half-dreading that Steve would offer, but he wouldn't even meet Tony's eyes again. "Fine. Go eat, and then let me know what you want from me."
Tony knew exactly what he wanted from Steve. Funny, even after six months apart, he hadn't gotten used to not being able to have it. He drank in the sight of Steve one more time, then turned and walked out the door without bothering with a goodbye.
Hot, coppery blood rolled over Tony's tongue, one sip at a time. The poor night watchman who was providing Tony's repast groaned, but the knot on his head was enough to keep him unconscious. Tony lifted his head from the man's elbow and licked his lips clean as he finished. It was times like this that he wished vampirism were a little more magically inclined, as in fiction, at least enough to erase the evidence from his meal's skin, but the best he could do was numb the bite.
It was possibly the least satisfying meal he'd ever had. He could still feel a ghost of Steve against his skin. What was it about the man that even when he was an absolute ass, he had a way of being unforgettable? He wasn't decent enough to make a clean break of it, and he was too decent to do something horrific enough to allow Tony to move on.
Tony wrapped the guard's jacket around his elbow and applied pressure, waiting for the anticoagulant to give way to nature. It didn't take long for the bleeding to stop—he'd been careful not to bite too deeply, or to nick a major vein. When he was sure that his donor would be none the worse for wear, he tucked the body under one of the collections of low-lying scrub that masqueraded as topiary decoration. He'd been guarding a corporate building, which meant he'd be noticed as missing soon enough, and on his way either home or to a hospital in under an hour.
This part of the city was hardly asleep at any given time, even going on three in the morning. It wasn't quite downtown, but it definitely wasn't as shady as the area he'd led Steve to. Cars passed by at a regular pace, and Tony was hardly the only person on the sidewalk. It wasn't New York, Las Vegas or any one of the other metropolitan areas that ran on a famed twenty four hour schedule, but it was still a busy place. It was the easiest thing in the world to duck out from behind the bank and saunter off, brazen and unnoticed.
What he wanted, more than anything, even more than Steve, was a drink. The world snapped into focus when viewed from the bottom of the bottle, and still stayed at a distance enough that it could be handled safely. Nothing hurt quite so much when he had alcohol buzzing through his system, lifting him up for the next round of the endless bout between himself and Life.
There had to be at least two or three bars still open, and even more all-night liquor stores. It wouldn't be high quality alcohol, but it would get a body drunk. Or, rather, it would get any body but his drunk. The one time he'd tried, the pain had been brutal, and he'd been incapacitated for almost three whole nights from just a single swallow. No doubt it there some sort of irony in that—it took dying to sober Tony Stark up. The tabloids would love it.
Not being able to imbibe didn't stop the craving, though. The need went deeper than the new one for blood. It was an addiction that he'd had years to hard-wire into his body. A few months and a new thirst weren't enough to wipe it away completely. That would take years, if he was lucky. Unlucky, he might never be rid of it, an anchor around his neck that pulled him down to the bottom of the nearest glass, even though it hurt.
He should head back to Steve's quaint little hotel room, with its dollar-store prints and chintzy luxury, to try and find a way to put his life back in order. Instead he wandered onward along sand-crusted sidewalks, taking turns at random and keeping away from the brighter lights of true downtown. Normally, there'd be a bar, or a dance club, with some sweet thing who had no idea what sort of creature she was dancing with. Tonight, though, he wanted solitude, to absorb Steve's rejection.
When he'd accepted the offer from Ezrabet, he'd known that there was more to it. No matter how idealistic, secret organizations didn't simply offer people immortality just because they'd had a couple of ideas and made a few trillion dollars. But he'd been coming off the news from the doctor and had been desperate not to die. It had been worth the risk. One thing that Tony never shook, even when he was at his lowest, was the conviction that he could take whatever was thrown at him, and defeat it head-on.
He hadn't accounted for the attacks that would come from behind. It was a hard night when Tony Stark found himself brokenhearted.
It had been a ridiculous idea, to stay faithful when Steve thought he was dead. A pretty dream, when Steve had been clear that they weren't involved in anything so tasteful as a relationship. Clearly Steve hadn't changed his mind just because Tony had died. He'd practically admitted that he'd moved on, re-rooted himself in the good old heterosexual tradition of men and women, and forgotten that one Tony Stark had ever had a place in his bed. Tony wasn't used to having the tables turned on him—wasn't used to being the one to long, rather than being the object of it. He rather hoped he hadn't left any of his own bedmates feeling this way. If he had, he owed them an endless cascade of apologies.
What he really needed was a new flame. Maybe a curvy little brunette to wash the taste of Steve from his mouth. Someone who wouldn't take staying through the night as a mistake, rather than the splendid opportunity it was.
He was so wrapped in his thoughts that this time he missed the shadow that paced him above, and the sound of the cars next to his ear drowned out any tell-tale scuff that might have given it away. Gravel crunched under his boot as he crossed through a back alley, dodging around the behemoth dumpsters that littered the lane like monuments to the public utility system.
A giggle was the only warning he got.
Tony dived for the cover of a dumpster, but not fast enough. Something caught him in the temple, cracking loud enough that his ears rang with it. Pain skinned through his palms as he hit his knees, gravel slicing his hands open. The walls were high and solid brick—no one would notice a fight back here soon enough to call the police, and any human that got in the way was as good as dead.
Three of them ringed him, two men and a woman. They were learning. "Hello, little Tony. Daddy sends his regards." A boot connected to his jaw, sending him sprawling backwards in the dirt. He stayed where he'd fallen, staring up at the star-studded sky. It was impossible to tell which one was speaking—one of the men, but his head was still swimming too much to pinpoint which. The healing factor hadn't kicked in yet, and it wouldn't be nearly quick enough if they did him heavy damage. That had been an unpleasant discovery of less than a month ago.
"It can't have been that easy," the woman said. Her long, ruler-straight blonde hair fell over her shoulders as she peered down at him. "He took out Jessica. And Tobias."
"Luck." The toe of a boot slammed into his ribs, hard enough to leave no doubt that they were broken. Tony jerked with the blow and curled around his stomach, cheek scraping itself raw on the rocks. "He's not even six months old. They got cocky."
His jaw popped as the healing started, finally. "Hate— hate to disappoint you, sweetheart." Tony palmed one of his miniaturized flash bombs. Blessed little things had saved his non-life enough times that he was considering giving them pet names. He flung it into the air. "Think fast!"
The bullet-sized grenade rose overhead in a graceful arc. Like the snakes they were, the vampires' heads snapped around to follow it. Tony realized his mistake just as the bomb hit the top of its arc. He scrambled for the leeward side of the closest dumpster, slamming his forearm over his eyes. The grenade exploded, just as effectively as its brother had earlier that night. Screams rose from his attackers as the UV-saturated light seared them. Tony hunched over in the shadow of the dumpster, back against the metal and face pressed into his knees. The skin on the nape of his neck tightened and blistered as the light reached it. He covered it, but that only left his hands exposed. The rest of him was covered enough to be safe for a short burst, and the flare wasn't sustained enough to kill him, but it burned.
The second the flare dimmed, he uncurled from his hidey hole and sprinted down the alley as fast as his snapped ribs would allow. Porch lights were flickering to life on either side, neighbors woken by the screams and the lights. If his attackers had any brains at all, they'd run off to lick their wounds somewhere private, far away from anywhere the police might look.
Safety. He needed safety. Any place to hide. The predator in him knew too well that a wounded hunter was just another type of prey. As he crept off into the desert night, it all coalesced into one driving thought.
The door slammed closed, so loudly that the walls shook and people in the rooms on either side complained through the walls. Steve pushed up on his elbows and flipped the switch on the bedside lamp. At first, he didn't see anything. Then he sat up farther and saw the top of a dark head, curled up against the door. "Tony?"
"Hurts." Tony looked up from his crouch. The entire left side of his face was mottled black and blue, stretching from his neck up to his hairline. One eye was swelling, though not enough to be shut, and blood dribbled from a nostril. "Sorry. Didn't mean to wake you. Needed..."
His eyes weren't focusing, Steve realized as he scrambled from bed. Could vampires get concussions? Apparently so, he decided, judging by the way Tony seemed to be staring three inches to the left of him. When the clock had rolled over to three, he'd assumed Tony wasn't coming back. He should have known that something had gone wrong. "Don't move. I'll get some cloths."
"No!" Fresh blood trickled out of Tony's nose, catching in his goatee. "Healing factor. Comes with the territory. I'll be fine. Morning. Maybe Monday."
He looked ready to fall over, and there was no missing the way he held his ribs. Steve ignored his protests and got wash cloths from the rack in the bathroom, along with the traveling first aide kit he kept in his duffle. "I'm taking a look at you. So shut up or leave, if you can."
Tony glared out of his good eye, but didn't even try to prove himself capable of standing, much less leaving. That alone told Steve how bad it was. Usually Tony's ego was enough to have him try, even if he gave up. This time there wasn't even a smartass remark. He knelt over Tony's knees, keeping him pinned in place, and lifted his jaw to inspect the damage to his face. The bruising was deep red-purple, the kind that went down to the bone, and spread back into his hair over a good portion of his skull. Red, dirt-crusted scrapes were hidden by the swelling. He swabbed at them with a cold washcloth as best he could, holding Tony's face still when he hissed and jerked away. "You're lucky this jaw isn't broken."
"Was." Tony closed his eyes and let Steve manhandle him. "Healed on the way here. Mostly. Don't worry, I wouldn't deprive you of the dulcet tones of my voice. Punctured lung, too. Ribs still hurt."
There had to be enough dirt in his wounds for another desert. Steve did his best, first with the cloth, then with an antiseptic wipe when the crusted grime was gone. "Cracked ribs, concussion, punctured lung, lacerations—what else, Tony?"
Tony's eyes stayed closed as he sagged forward. He wasn't even breathing. A second of panic hit Steve before he remembered that Tony wouldn't breathe anymore, except when he wanted to. Then he finally took a pained breath. "UV damage to my hands and the back of my neck—only second degree. More lacerations on my back, but I think those are healing. And I do believe that I'm choking on my piece of humble pie."
Steve finished as best he could with Tony's face and sat back to look at his hands. "God!"
"Yeah, not so pretty, is it?" Tony wriggled his fingers against Steve's palms. The skin on the back of his hands was bright red and already peeling back like the skin of a boiled tomato. Parts of the skin of his knuckles were split open down to the bone, the edges of the burns faintly stiff with char. Even as he watched, the edges sealed together, like a time-sped video. When he blinked, it was a little less gruesome. "Grabbed the wrong flash. Didn't have time to take cover before it went off."
"What the hell happened to you?" The scissors were at the bottom of the kit. Only patience kept Steve from dumping it outright to get at them. Tony didn't even flinch when he started taking off the dead skin. "I thought you went out to eat."
"I did. Got jumped." Tony's weight shifted progressively more forward, until his uninjured cheek was resting against Steve's head. "Three of 'em. Didn't think they'd send another so quick."
"The Council?" The dead skin went inside a ziplock—it wasn't a biohazard bag, but it would have to do. Tony did hiss when he started cleaning the burn with antiseptic, but he only tried to pull away once. "You haven't told me everything. Why are they after you?"
"Dunno. Just are." Tony's breathing faded again, but Steve could feel him flinching every time he made a swipe over the burn. He did the best he could, but he wasn't a nurse, and there was no such thing as a manual of field dressings for vampires. His experience had always been in causing the injury. Normally, he'd be worried about shock, but as far as he knew, blood pressure didn't mean anything to a person without a steady heartbeat.
When Tony's hands were clean and bandaged, Steve tried to shift away, only to find that Tony shifted with him. "Tony, let me up, I need to look at your back."
"Tony..." Steve pushed him back upright, ignoring Tony's groan of complaint as he stripped off the shredded remnants of his dress shirt. There was nothing left of the back of it but scraps, and not even enough of those to make a dishrag. "Can you stand up? How are your ribs?"
"My ribs are fine, for now." Tony pushed off of Steve's shoulders with his bandaged hands, then dropped immediately back to the floor. His boot heels scraped over the carpet as they slid back down between Steve's thighs. "But I'm afraid I can't stand."
Steve sat back on his heels and gave Tony a once-over. If anything, he looked worse than when he'd arrived. The scrapes had crusted over with scabs, and the bruising had taken on the mottled green of healing wounds. But his eyes still didn't focus when he opened them, and he was opening them a lot less. "Okay. Hold on."
It took some careful maneuvering, but he managed to get Tony stretched out face down on the floor. As soon as Steve saw the mess of his back, he winced. The back of Tony's neck was bright red, thankfully not as badly burned as his hands, but enough that the skin was already bubbling like a bad sunburn. Under that, his shoulders looked like ground hamburger, the smooth gold stretch of his skin broken by large swathes of dirt-crusted meat. The shoulder blades were the worst. They'd been scraped down to muscle, and tiny bits of gravel were half-healed inside the wounds. Setting his jaw, Steve grabbed another washcloth and got to work.
It took the better part of two hours to get Tony's back taken care of. He tried to pull the debris out as quickly as he could, but enough of it had healed under the skin that Steve had to use a penknife to slice some places back open. Sometime during it, Tony passed out, or at least stopped whimpering. He couldn't wrap his ribs without Tony's help, but he wasn't sure his ribs would need wrapping by the time Tony was awake enough to sit up. When sunlight started to creep through the window, he carried Tony over to the closet, which had a solid sliding door. It would keep him safe enough.
After that, all that was left was to wait, and maybe find out for himself what Tony wasn't telling him. He made sure Tony was safe from the sun, then reached for the phone.
Carl had all four windows rolled down when he pulled into the parking lot outside the hotel. Somewhere he'd acquired a Yankees ball cap, and it looked like he'd driven through a carwash. The desert had already started to dust the white and yellow sides of his cab though, dulling the shiny new wax job. "Hey, where's your friend?" he yelled, leaning out the window. "You two are paying my rent!"
Steve slid into the cab, his shield securely tucked beside him. For being only just past 0800, it was already ridiculously bright outside. The sun had achieved a white-hot glare that he hadn't seen since the last disastrous time the Ultimates had visited the Middle East.
Remembering Carl's driving, Steve buckled in. "He's sleeping it off. I need you to take me to the nearest library."
"Well, you've got two options there, brother." Carl turned around in his seat, elbow resting on the headrest. "The closest library's a rinky-dink thing. But for five miles more, I can get you to the big one. Anything you need by way of books, you'll find there."
"And an internet connection?"
"Whole floor that's nothing but computers."
Vinyl seats creaked as Steve sat back. "That one, then." Tony would be fine, and he needed to find out what was going on before he decided what to do about anything.
Tony smelled Steve before he opened the door. The sun was still up—drifting towards the western horizon, but not yet hidden by the mountains. It would be an hour at least before he could risk going outside. If he closed his eyes, he could feel it hanging overhead, a sword of Damocles waiting for him to risk it. His back still stung, but with the dull urgency of the almost-healed, rather than the crippling.
UV burns were the worst. The skin had healed, but it was tender and dry, and likely to stay that way. When his rib had punctured his lung, he'd lost his entire dinner and then some extra hacking the blood from it. Until he replaced that, he'd be in no condition to take on anything, much less an evil corporation of vampires bent on no doubt nefarious plots.
The door clicked shut with all the grace of a rampaging rhinoceros, but at least Steve was making an effort to avoid annoying the neighbors. They'd had enough trouble the night before, with the banging and Tony managing to cough up a copious amount of blood on their welcome mat. Steve's scent filled the room, the warm tang of leather and the oil he used to keep his shield clean, sweat, skin, and under it all the hot copper of his blood. Tony whimpered and hid his face in his knees.
Steve was not food. He would never be food, and Tony was an idiot to ever think of sinking a single tooth into him. No doubt, the moment he tried, Steve would throw him through one of the incredibly thin walls, and then he'd find himself explaining to the newspapers what he was doing holed up in a cozy little hotel room with one Steve Rogers, far away from his supposed eternal resting place. It would make for wonderful print, but Tony didn't fancy trying to regain Steve's regard afterwards.
If Steve even had any regard for him left. No, Tony would likely find himself having to regain Steve's friendship by going through whatever girlfriend he'd caged for himself. He wondered who Steve had found. Maybe that Sharon girl, or one of the lovely operatives that worked for SHIELD. He might even have hooked up with Janet again, though if that had happened, Tony would have to call in someone's grandmother to have a stern talk to the entire team.
He tried to stop thinking about such depressing matters, but they flashed through his head anyway, Steve with the spunky little number who worked as Fury's receptionist, when he felt like having a receptionist. Or maybe another blonde, to try and match Steve—in bed, at least, and Tony would cheerfully sign an affidavit testifying to Steve's superiority there. Odes could be written to his flexibility, and he was the only man Tony had ever met who was strong enough to pin him against a wall.
Vodka. He needed vodka. Or at least some cheap whiskey. Even if it did feel like it was eating his intestines from the inside, at least it would be something to focus on other than Steve's probable sexcapades.
"Tony." Something heavy smacked against the carpet, then shuffled. "Tony, are you awake?" The closet door creaked open. Steve had acquired a smear of dust along his forehead, and he looked like he hadn't slept yet. But that wasn't what held Tony's attention. Instead of the faint, burning light of day, the hotel room was completely dark. Not even a sliver of sunlight touched his skin.
"I'm awake— what did you do, turn off the sun?" He eased out of his corner, wincing when his back protested the movement. "I'm really very flattered, but I think the citizens of Phoenix might object. They're rather fond of their daylight for some reason."
"Blackout curtains and duct tape." Steve grabbed Tony's wrist and lifted him up off the floor with as much ease as a normal man might lift a stuffed animal. "I didn't want to take any chances, and we need to talk."
Tony slumped against the wall and stared at him, then shook his head in disgust. "That statement never bodes well." His stomach fair roiled with hunger, telling him that there was an absolutely wonderful source of food right there and all he needed to do was pin him down and take it. But no—Steve wouldn't stay pinned for long, and no matter how tasty he might be, it wasn't worth Tony's unlife. He'd gone through too much trouble preserving it to risk for a quick snack. "What is it we need to talk about? I thought we'd covered everything. Evil vampires likely bent on some sort of world domination, only mostly dead, et cetera ad nauseum." Tony risked easing out into the main room. When horrible agony failed to strike him down, he let himself collapse across the king sized bed. "We'll just finish up this business and get back to our lives. You and your new lady-love will be very happy, I'm sure."
"What are you talking about?" Steve turned on a lamp and sat on the foot of the bed, making Tony's legs dip towards him. If they'd been at the Hilton, that wouldn't have been a problem. As it was, he made the best of a terribly cheap situation and propped his feet on Steve's thigh. "That doesn't have anything to do with this."
"Your new amour certainly doesn't have anything to do with anything, and yet I find myself dwelling. I hope you at least waited for my corpse to grow cold." Alright, perhaps Tony was a tad bitter. He wasn't in a hurry to castigate himself for it. He was trapped in a cheap hotel room with a man who was the pinnacle of perfection, and he wouldn't even have the opportunity to rumple the tasteless yet colorful sheets a bit. That was truly a crime of some sort. Gross negligence, maybe. "Who is she? I'm sure you'd only settle for the best."
He could taste Steve's frustration on the back of his tongue, and that certainly was new. "You're being ridiculous. Not that it's your business, but I don't have any new girlfriend. I've been busy."
Tony rolled over, eying Steve. The man could convince ducks to fly north for winter, but he was much too honorable to lie about something like a relationship. Except for a relationship with a male, but no doubt that fell under some archaic double-standard that Tony wasn't familiar with. He certainly looked like he was being serious. "You're not."
"Not even a date."
In the blink of an eye, Tony found his spirits lifting tremendously. So he still had an uphill climb back into Steve's affections, but at least there was an open spot for him. He hated to be the catty ex-girlfriend who couldn't let go of a good thing. He slid down the bed, letting his knees hook loosely around Steve's waist. "If not your romantic inclinations, then, what is it of which we need to speak?"
Steve crossed his arms, the sheaf of papers under his elbow crinkling as they were bent. That was a worse sign than even the phrase 'we need to talk'. It meant that he'd discovered something that disagreed with him, and it wasn't likely to be the abysmal state of the restaurants hereabouts. "How long have you been in town?"
"Pardon?" Sitting up stretched his back terribly, but it was better by far than letting Steve tower over him. Never give the man an advantage. "Three weeks, give or take a few days."
"Then what's this about?" The papers dropped down into Tony's lap. They were crisp, white copies of newspaper articles printed offline, fresh enough from the printer that they hadn't yet acquired the soft look of paper that had been handled. Tony flipped through them. Mysterious death, corpse found drained of blood, perfectly preserved one hundred year-old skeleton found in the desert... The articles dated back six months.
"It looks perfectly normal to me." He could feel Steve's glare on the back of his scalded neck, but didn't bother to look up. Steve had managed to print off part of a crossword that he hadn't seen before. Eleven letters, something that is done repeatedly over time... "Why do you think I'm in this city? It's their head of operations on the west coast, and has been since the eighteen hundreds. Of course there's been strange happenings. Did you bother to look any farther back? Say, a year? A decade?"
Silence told him everything he needed to know.
"Thank you for your trust. I'm touched." In disgust, Tony swung his legs off of Steve's lap and sat up. The stomach cramps were becoming constant as the scent of Steve's blood tickled his senses. He needed to put some space between them, before he did something that he would likely not have time to regret. "Did you do anything else of interest today? Perhaps stock up on sharpened stakes and holy water? That last isn't effective, but I can only assume that a piece of wood through the heart will be efficacious for most beings, undead and living alike."
"It wasn't like that—"
"Then what was it like, Steve? Speak up, I'm sure your explanation will be riveting."
Steve's eyes stayed fixed on the bedspread, as if the vaguely nauseating floral pattern were a thing with hypnotic powers. "I'm sorry."
Tony's eyebrows lifted. "Surely my ears deceive me? Is the great and mighty Captain America apologizing?"
"Don't be like that." Ah, that was the Steven Rogers he knew. Nice as it was, the meekness couldn't have lasted. "I should have trusted you, and I didn't. I'm sorry. Let it go, okay?"
It could have been dragged out. Tony could have taken that one little phrase and milked it for a month or more. But he was tired, hurt and hungry. Annoying Steve wouldn't bring enough joy to waste the spoons on. "Accepted."
"What?" This time, it was Steve's turn to be surprised. "Just like that?"
"Perhaps dying matured me." Tony held Steve's gaze, then gave up and laughed. "No, of course it didn't. I'm feeling magnanimous. Don't grow too attached to it."
For maybe the first time since meeting up in that wretched little alley, Steve smiled. It was grudging, but a real, honest smile that lit up his entire face. For the space of an entire breath, Tony saw the shadow of the idealistic kid who had signed away life and body to his country. Had he been breathing, he would have stopped.
That precious little quirk of the lip faded as Steve noticed his fixation. "What?"
Tony faced his dilemma. He could give in and deal with the consequences, both in terms of Steve's no doubt vivid revulsion and likely violence. Or he could be the responsible, grown adult he was supposed to be and restrain himself for a few more hours, leaving both his tentative connection with Steve and his neck intact. It would only be the right thing—the mature thing to do.
Who was he kidding?
Steve didn't even have time to protest before Tony had tossed him down onto the bed and straddled his hips. He rested one hand to either side of Steve's shoulders and grinned down. "I do believe I like being on equal terms here. It makes me wonder what else might have reached parity."
Blood pumped gently under Steve's skin, a pulse just at the edge of Tony's hearing. His heart rate picked up speed as color flushed up around his cheeks, and Tony swore he would never tire of seeing the American Super Soldier blush like a schoolboy. "Tony— this isn't the time..."
"Speaking for myself, I can't think of a better one." Aroused heat was already rising off of Steve's body. Tony took a moment to appreciate the differences between then and now. As a human, he'd never been quite so aware of anyone's responses before—he could taste Steve on the air, with a nose so sensitive that it was nearly a second set of eyes. If he were blindfolded and across the room, he'd be able to know exactly how much Steve wanted him. It was a bit gratifying to know that he could cage a reaction just by sitting on Steve and being himself.
His lips ran over Steve's jaw, scraping a day worth of stubble. The blood just under the skin pulsed invitingly, begging to be sampled. "As long as that sun's over yonder hill, I'm a little trapped, and we can't set about anything until it's down. We may as well catch up, don't you think?"
"We could plan..." Breath hissed out between Steve's teeth, but his neck arched invitingly. Tony obliged by scraping his dull front teeth over the skin, suckling just hard enough to pull the blood to the surface. His stomach cramped again at the taste of it so close. "Or share intelligence... "
More stubble under Tony's lips, then a taste of coolness as his tongue snaked over Steve's lips—he must have had a mint earlier. "You talk too much." Their mouths pressed together, slow and gentle, like almost nothing else was between them. Mindful of his teeth, Tony was the first to part his lips, tongue snaking out to brush the tip of Steve's.
He'd missed it—the easy flow of it, the clink of Steve's belt buckle under his hands, the little trail of golden hair leading down his lower stomach like an arrow pointing to the Promised Land. His hand curled around Steve's cock, stroking it, exploring, letting his fingertips relearn the feel of him. It wasn't just sex—though the sex was very good—it was Steve. The curve of his back was stolen from the statue of some sort of Greek god, and the way his pupils blew wide with arousal was enough to make a lesser man weep for the beauty of him.
Now Tony was even more aware of every shuddered breath and choked-off moan. The hunger flared and faded away, driven under by more immediate needs. He slid his fingers under Steve's shirt, finding the chiseled grooves of his muscles and playing along them until he'd worked Steve's shirt high enough to bother taking it off.
Somehow in the process, they tumbled over. Pain radiated from his back, touching nerve endings Tony had never much thought about and setting them alight. He groaned, arching, torn between the ache between his shoulders and Steve's hands at his hips. Steve lifted up on his knees, leaving Tony free to squirm while Steve put his hands to good use stripping the battered remnants of Tony's jeans and boxers off his hips and down to his knees.
As soon as Tony kicked his legs free, he lifted them to hook around Steve's hips, using pure undead muscle strength to yank him down. Their hips rocked together, too dry and too hard, but not bad enough to make either of them stop. Someone groaned into the kiss, and Tony honestly couldn't say which one of them it was. It vibrated the air between them, tickled the back of Tony's throat with the taste of peppermint.
"There's no lube." Blunt nails dragged over Tony's chest and stomach. Each little scrape connected straight to his groin like four small lightning bolts. They never managed to break the kiss entirely, only slowing down enough for Steve to take a breath. Crisp linen rustled under them, bunching and twisting with every shift of their bodies together.
"And here I thought making do with limited resources was one of those things they teach in Captain America school." Tony's thighs flexed, forcing Steve back down against him. "Improvise, Soldier Boy."
In response, a large, warm hand wrapped around them, and the last of Tony's seldom-vaunted self control vanished. His arms snapped around Steve's shoulders, tugging him down. Barely a blink of time passed and Tony's teeth sunk into the meat of Steve's shoulder, slicing through flesh as clean as a knife. Hot blood flooded over Tony's tongue and down his throat a mouthful at a time. It was sweet, sweeter than blood had any right to be, and sharp like the after-taste of a good martini, tainted with the Super Soldier Serum.
Steve moaned, the sound high-pitched and surprised. He tried to jerk away, but Tony had locked his elbows and teeth in a death grip. Their hips rolled together, Steve's hand growing fumble-fingered as he pumped them together. Skin slid against skin, catching, precome not enough to slick the way completely.
Tony lost it first, falling back from Steve's shoulder with a choked groan as he came. Steve's hand sped up. He followed just a minute behind, forehead falling against Tony's chest as he shuddered.
Breathing wasn't necessary, but it felt good to have his lungs fill and empty. Already, Tony could feel Steve's blood going to work, tingling across his ribs and shoulders. He leaned up and licked a line over the red trail still seeping from Steve's shoulder. "Good improv. Nine point five out of ten. Next time, have lube."
Laughter brushed over his skin, little jerks of breath that felt absolutely wonderful in the aftermath. "You bit me," Steve accused, but somehow the edge of condemnation simply wasn't present in his voice. Tony thought he felt another smile against his collarbone. "In the shoulder. You didn't even bother trying to reach my neck."
"Of course I didn't." Long, smooth lines of back muscle arched under Tony's fingertips. He played along the line of Steve's spine, searching for the little knobs that were so prominent on his own back. On Steve, they were buried under a layer of muscle and almost impossible to feel, but sometimes it wasn't the discovery that counted. "The neck has the jugular vein. It would be too easy to sever, and I'm not some pop culture stereotype that leaves two pinpricks and a hickey. You'll have to heal the old-fashioned way."
Curses of disappointment caught on Tony's lips as Steve pulled away, letting cold air wash over the mess smeared on their stomachs. His fingers probed at the cut on his shoulder. It was a clean slice, but far from neat: two oddly-shaped punctures the width of his finger, surrounded by already dark bruising where Tony's sucking had pulled the blood to it. "It's numb." He sounded surprised.
"Chemicals in my saliva—there's a mild anticoagulant too." Tony pressed his fingers around Steve's judging the depth of the damage. It wasn't very bad, not nearly as bad as he might have done. When the anesthetic wore off, it would sting, but it wasn't anything that would seriously impair someone like Steve. The man had fought through entire battalions of heavily-armed robots with a broken collarbone and enough contusions for a hospital ward, and had still won the day. "I keep thinking that I need to have Pepper send in a sample for testing, but God knows what they'd find. Better to wait until I have my own labs back."
"And how are we going to do that?" The last of Steve's warmth vanished as he pulled back. It was a signal that their moment was done, and there would be no more unmanly cuddling or anything of the sort. "You still haven't told me what these bozos want with you. Or why you did this."
Tony groaned and made himself sit up, pleased when the only effect was the snap of a rib finally finished settling into place. "You know me—opportunities are made to be grasped, and I'm very... very eager to do so." Feeling the need to provide an example, he reached out and cupped Steve's cock in his palm. Unsurprisingly, Steve pulled away with a roll of his eyes. "Fine, fine. All I know is that they want to get their hands on me, and I doubt it's for my mother's wonderful cookie recipe."
"You didn't catch any to question?"
"Why, no, Steve, I've been a little busy trying to avoid capture." The headboard was cool against Tony's back. Even as he settled against it, the last of the pain vanished. Super Soldier blood, it seemed, was good for more than wasting tax payer money. "If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them."
Blue eyes were intent as Steve leaned forward, muscles glinting with a faint sheen of sweat, the picture of post-coital perfection. "As a matter of fact, I do."
"Stephan and Erwin are not back yet. Nor Andrea." Pale fingers laced together as Caine stared at the tiny woman standing at the foot of the table. "And now you have sent out Ian and Woon."
The room was dark, as always, with only a pale glimmer of golden light from the oil lanterns daring to glance off the polished tabletop. Light was something their dinner needed, not them. The other eight members of the council were silent. The leader had the stage, and none of them wanted to risk catching his attention.
Ezrabet hung her head, platinum blonde curls tumbling around her shoulders, made even more striking by the slim black dress she wore. It was the only shade of pure black in the room, a mark of shame. It burned in her, but she kept her face placid, even as she cursed inwardly. "They're not. They're likely dead."
"They were very promising."
"They were." They had been fools, just like every other child taken from the modern era. Excitement overwhelmed caution, and led them to their deaths. If she didn't need Tony Stark so badly, she would have been pleased to see them gone.
"How many has Stark killed?" Wood scraped against the marble floor as Caine shifted in his chair. His green eyes were wide, a child asking an innocent question. Ezrabet had known children like that. They drowned puppies without a tear, and raised fists against the helpless. Of all things, she despised the petty sort of tyrant. "A dozen, now—wastes, for the most part, but some very promising children, gone to those damnable gadgets he uses. And Stark, only newly reborn six months past."
"It is not only Stark," Ezrabet insisted, her small hands clenched in fists at her side. "Captain America has joined him. He—"
Wood smashed against the wall as Caine rose to his feet, slamming back his chair with so much force that it shattered. "He would not have had a chance had you taken Stark six months ago!"
Icy blue eyes met green, and tension twanged in the air between them, as though Ezrabet would object to the accusation. Her lips formed the words silently, a breath away from speaking, and condemning herself. Then her head dipped down, bowed once more. "Yes, sir."
Breath eased out of chests that had grown unaccustomed to it when the moment passed. Ezrabet was not a favorite, but loss of a member was an eternal reminder that only one of them was permanent. He was older than all of them—older than any nation still in existence. He'd seen the passage of ages, and he'd taken down subordinates for less cheek than Ezrabet had offered, but none of them would respect her if she bowed too easily. She walked the razor's edge, and counted on her cut and bleeding feet to keep her from slipping.
He was the reason most vampires didn't see the end of their first century. The pack had to be culled to ensure strength, and it was up to the leader to do so. And he did. With glee.
Caine settled his gloved hands on the glass inset before him, palms flat. He stared at the submissive vampire, eyes sharp as he took in every line of her. "You have. But I am a forgiving man. You have a chance to redeem yourself."
Her chin came up. Ezrabet's eyes were huge and blue in her face, the skin bleached from the years before her death, when she'd been trapped in her tower with only a small window to show her daylight. She looked like a child, though she'd been far from it when death had first come for her, in a cold castle in Slovakia. "Anything. Tell me what to do."
A slender hand was held forth, palm up. "First, you'll renew your vows." When she looked away, he nodded. "You have started to stray. You all do. But it stops here. Feed, Erzabet."
Sullenly, she slunk forward, her head bowed over his palm, placing a kiss to the center. Her hands stayed steady, even though she longed to rip the arm from his body and feed it to him.
She was a member of the Council! A woman of the noblest blood, and he still treated her like the lowest of children, a commoner and an idiot. The insult burned in her stomach. For a moment, her fingers tightened, so close to attacking him that she could almost feel his flesh giving way under her hands.
Along the wall, Celicia's cloaked form watched. She was sandwiched between guards, unarmed and vulnerable.
Everyone heard when Ezrabet's teeth sank obediently into Caine's hand and she began to feed, binding herself to his order. She only took a few small mouthfuls, leaving the wound to drip blackened ooze when she was finished. Her head stayed bowed low, submissive.
The other hand smoothed her hair back from her brow. "You will not ever raise tooth or hand to harm me. You will follow my command. Won't you, dearest?"
"I will." The snarl in Ezrabet's voice was unmistakable, but she didn't lift her head. She couldn't. Too much rested on her strength to submit. "And what is your command, Lord Caine?"
"You know what it is. Capture Stark. Bring him here. Use any means you deem necessary."
She looked up. Razor-edged teeth caught at her lip, slicing into it until blood trickled down her chin. Ezrabet caught it absently on a finger and licked it up. "And Rogers?" Her eyes slid to one of the cloaked figures gathered at Caine's back. Before she could be called out on her wandering attention, they snapped back to the imposing figure in front of her. "What of him?"
"He is not needed."
Ezrabet nodded. If Caine wanted to underestimate Rogers, after how well he'd foiled their earlier schemes, so be it. It would be one more weapon in her arsenal. "May I have permission to withdraw, sir?"
He dismissed her with a flick of his fingers. She bowed to hide her disgust and let herself out, allowing herself the release of cracking the doors shut behind her.
The woman appeared at her elbow in a blink. Ezrabet hadn't seen her leave the hall, but Celicia had her ways. "My Lady?"
Calculations ran behind Ezrabet's eyes. She would only have one chance to make this right before Caine called in his debt. The game had to end, or the sacrifice could not be borne. "Collect and send me sixty of the youngest. Have them report to me before nightfall to be bound. I shall not have any fleeing when they are needed."
They kept walking, passing row after row of her playrooms, with the toys tucked neatly inside. Some of them were still screaming. "You will stay here. Make certain the other members are safely away. No stragglers shall be tolerated." Celicia made a noise of protest, her hand briefly closing over Ezrabet's wrist. "I have placed you in too much danger," Ezrabet continued, switching to her home tongue in order to confuse any listeners. "I would never be able to live easy, if you were to be hurt before the game is played. Stay here, and safe."
Celicia said nothing as they passed to the next level up. Her new, black velvet cloak brushed Ezrabet's ankles, so close they walked up the steps.
Finally, before Ezrabet opened the door, Celicia broke the silence. "Do you think Stark would give in to Lord Caine's plans? Could he even build the machine?"
Ezrabet tipped her head at her companion, lips crooked in a smile. "He would rather take his own head. I am rather depending on it."
Steve leaned back against the closet wall. Beyond the shades of the closet blinds, the suite at the Hilton was exactly what it was supposed to be. The only time Steve had ever seen a room look like that was when he'd met the president back in '42. The room was done in tasteful shades of brown and gold, and Steve was pretty sure the curtains were silk. They'd scattered the bed sheets and some of the clothes Steve had left there to make it look lived in, even though leaving the bed unmade ticked every bit of basic training Steve had ever had. Tony had insisted, though.
An expensive hotel booked under the name Roger Stevens had to get some attention.
Next to him, Tony was a warm, still presence. At least he was breathing now and then; Steve had made it clear exactly how creepy it was when he stopped. Other than that, the only indication that Tony was even alive was the occasional slide of fingers up the inside of his thigh. Even the cheek against his shoulder was absolutely still, as if the need to move had departed with the rest of his technical life.
Tony had gone off on his own—to get something else to eat, he said, but when he came back it was with a condensed version of the Iron Man armor. It fit under his clothes like another skin and flexed like cloth. If Steve hadn't known it was metal, he would have sworn it was one of the new synthetic things that Fury had been all over.
It was weird, seeing Tony in bright light. He was still Tony, Steve would know him anywhere, but there were differences. He looked younger, skin less pinched, body not so scrawny. The lines in his face that Steve had gotten used to were gone, or faded. It had taken him a while to realize that was because he wasn't taking a whole hospital worth of medicines anymore, and the tumor was gone. He hadn't realized how much effect his ill health had been having until it didn't matter anymore.
Midnight was creeping past when the door handle jiggled. At his side, Tony tensed, but instead of looking at the door his head turned towards the balcony. His lips pulled back in what Steve was pretty sure was an unconscious expression, baring his teeth. A click sounded through the room as the electronic lock on the door was triggered.
Just as the front door eased open, the sliding glass balcony did the same. There were two of them—both male, dressed in dark clothing. They didn't say anything as they closed the doors and canvassed the room separately. Next to him, Tony had sat up, watching them. They moved so quickly, Steve could barely see them as dark blurs of motion. One paused and tipped his head to the other, then ducked into the small lounging room that had been set off to the side, while the other ducked into the bedroom.
The door to the closet was open and Tony gone before Steve could signal. The armor under his t-shirt and jeans didn't even creak as he crept across the room, steps muffled by the thick pile of the carpet. Steve scooped up his shield and followed. Tony went after the one in the bedroom, leaving the other to Steve. That was fine by him—one each was close enough to fair.
The entertainment room was simple: just a sofa and a recessed television in the far wall, with more electronics built into it than Steve had ever cared about. There wasn't much that might have been handy, but he made a note of it all; anything could be a weapon. Shouting a warning, he threw himself at the vampire's back. Wood and plastic cracked as his shield missed the head and crashed into the entertainment center instead. From the bedroom, he heard a thunk and a strangled scream. Practice and training let him ignore it. The vampire didn't have that much concentration. His bald head turned towards the sound, giving Steve a chance to grab him by the elbow and swing him into a headlock. His fingers dug at Steve's forearm, pressing muscle and tendon down to the bone. Steve jerked his arm, feeling the sharp crack of a broken collarbone as they grappled.
Biting numbness crept up Steve's arm as the vampire's grip did its job. His hold loosened and the monster slipped free, slamming a shoulder into Steve's stomach. He heaved, rolling Steve over his shoulder to crash into the couch. It collapsed in on itself with a crack of solid wood shattering around him.
Fangs showed under a pierced lip in a sneer. Tattoos writhed under the man's skin as he flexed melodramatically, making the snake writhe along his biceps. "Want a coke again?" It was the drink slinger from the bar—Ivan, Evan, something like that. Steve had known he was bad news. Another scream sounded from the bedroom, and a crack appeared in the adjoining wall. This time, the vampire didn't flinch. He'd learned his lesson from the last hit Steve had landed. "Or something a little heavier?"
Steve pulled himself out of the crushed wreckage of the sofa. Stuffing and ripped brocade scattered around him, along with the splinters of the wooden framework. The sounds in the other bedroom were growing almost gruesome, but he had to trust that Tony knew what he was doing. If he didn't, he'd go insane.
Under the bright florescent glare of the overhead lights, the vampire's skin was sickly pale, almost translucent, and his teeth were yellow. Steve kept his center of balance low and circled, shield up and braced for anything.
"Captain America, huh? You don't look so tough to me—sure as hell ain't the guy who had 'em on the run sixty years ago." The vampire blurred into motion. Steve barely brought up his shield in time to block the knife the vampire had pulled from an ankle sheath. He bounced backwards and rolled to his feet, putting his back to the wall. "They promised that whoever took you down would get as much of that super soldier blood as they could swallow, but seems like someone already raided the pantry." Metal screeched over metal as the vampire took another shot. Steve brought his knee up, catching him a lucky blow to the ribs. He grabbed for a handhold on its arm, but the cloth of his shirt ripped. The vampire sped away again and the chance was gone.
"I can smell him on you, Rogers. Like territory that's been marked. You take him, or you take it, huh?" Anger narrowed Steve's world down to a point as the vampire laughed. "I bet you bend over like a good little boy, don't you? Big bad super soldier. No wonder you wear all that damn leather. I bet you're just fucking eager to take Stark's cock. Who'd have though, Captain America taking it up the ass for a playboy like Stark. Makes ya lose faith in the world, don't it?"
The words sunk in. Steve refused to show how they hit home. He wouldn't give some two-bit brat that sort of victory. But his silence only made the lack of any other sound more obvious. Noise had stopped coming from the bedroom—he wasn't sure if that was a good sign, or a very bad one.
Steve kept his back to the wall and crouched down low, making sure the bastard couldn't use his speed to get behind him. It was just like sparring with Pietro. He just had to compensate. He wasn't bright enough to pull anything fancy—his whole strategy seemed to be fighting like a human, but faster and stronger. That was the sort of thing Steve could work with—had literally been made for.
When the vampire moved again, Steve stopped trying to focus on the movement and let his instincts estimate the trajectory. He jumped to the side and swung his shield at shoulder level. A clank and a jolt up his arm told him that he'd connected before he saw the limp body rolling to a stop against the wall. Blood poured out of a wide crack in his skull, staining the tan carpeting in a streak.
Even though the vampire seemed beaten, Steve kept his shield raised as he knelt down to check. Nothing happened as he bound its wrists with police grade cuffs, not even so much as a twitch. The head wound was still bleeding, though, and he hadn't shriveled, so he was probably still alive—or whatever it was vampires were.
A light step sounded in the doorway. "You got it?"
Tony didn't look affected at all. His hair hadn't even been ruffled. The vampire under his arm, though, looked about three steps away from blowing into dust. Blood caked down the front of his chest, oozing from charred wounds across his shoulders and arms. One eye was missing, and a full half of his scalp had been reduced to a pulpy mess. Tony dropped him to the floor, letting his face catch him. He hadn't even bothered with handcuffs.
"Yeah," Steve nodded, picking up his own prisoner, who groaned weakly as he woke. The man must have weighed almost two hundred pounds. It made balancing him awkward. "I've got him."
For a second, Tony was all predator as he looked down at his catch. His eyes were sharp and narrowed, expression passionless. It was an expression Steve used to see Tony use on Fury and his board-members. In a fight, he tended to be gleeful more than anything else, trapped in the adrenaline rush. Tony ipped his head thoughtfully. The toe of boot prodded his captive's probably cracked ribs. "Excellent. Now we just need to find out what they know."
Steve was aware of the vampire-bartender under his arm listening. "How do you interrogate a vampire?" His eyebrows rose in curiosity. They'd never bothered trying in the war. It was more important to kill the things, and the ones they had managed to catch were too dangerous to leave alive for long, but not high up enough to know anything useful. This time was different, though. They needed information, and this was the only source they had. "The only thing I know is sunlight, but we can't wait for dawn."
He just had to trust that Tony knew what he was doing.
A tiny bottle appeared out of Tony's pocket, small enough that it might probably be allowed through the airport check in. Small golden motes danced in clear liquid as he shook it. "I have an idea or two."
Steve eyed the bottle, keeping his knee on the vampire's back as he stirred. The head wound healed as he watched, much faster than Tony's had. Bone had already knit together, and the first layers of skin were starting to form. His injured wrist ached, reminding him that it would be hours before he could look forward to any sort of relief.
A little cruelty suddenly seemed like a good idea. "What's that?"
"Goldschläger. Cinnamon schnapps." Tony juggled it from hand to hand, the glass bottle clinking as it bounced off the half-gauntlets that wrapped around his palms. "Burns like the devil going down, trust me. Not my usual poison, but the minibar seems admirably stocked for our purposes."
Some things obviously wouldn't change just because of something like a death. "This isn't the time for a drink, Tony."
"Au contraire." Sharp lines crinkled the corner of Tony's eyes as he smiled. "It's the perfect time."
They picked the bartender. Tony's catch was in such bad condition that his skin had wrinkled and dried out while his wounds healed, leaving a barely living husk. On the other hand, the bartender was already awake and cursing. Tony sat on his chest and Steve on his knees.
Steve had never seen someone scream at the sight of a bottle of alcohol before. Metal slapped against flesh as Tony jabbed a palm over his mouth. "Don't even try to bite me. You'll break your fangs, and that would be terrible."
The bartender's glared up at him, eyes drifting back and forth between them and the alcohol.
Steve leaned on his shoulders, keeping him down while Tony broke the seal on the single-serving schnapps. "Here's the deal. We need information. You're going to give it to us, or else you get to take a nice big sip. Don't scream now." The hand let up.
Yellowed teeth flashed as the vampire stretched his jaw. "You wouldn't," he accused. "You're superheroes. You don't have the guts for it."
"Hold his mouth open." Steve's fingers dug into the muscle of the vampire's jaw. He resisted, locking his teeth together, but they couldn't hold forever and slowly pried apart.
"Do you really want to try me and find out?" Tony asked conversationally, swirling the bottle and making the gold flakes dance. "You assholes have been trying to catch me for months. I want to know why."
The bottle dangled again, the clear liquid and gold flakes beautiful as they danced inside the simple glass when Tony tipped it over the vampire's open mouth. Liqueur cling to the mouth of the bottle, only a breath away from dripping. "You know, it's not as bad with food, but alcohol's just a killer on our systems. I wonder why that is. Not too dissimilar from a mouthful of drain cleaner, is it? Except we heal the damage too fast to die. I figure just a sip will only hurt for an hour or so. I wonder how long a whole bottle will last. A week? Longer?"
The vampire's eyes widened. They didn't have time to react before a fist slammed into the back of Tony's head. The other vampire had woken up. Tony sprawled on the floor, limbs loose and awkward, temporarily stunned. Tattooed muscles strained as the bartender heaved himself upward, using brute force to throw Steve off. Metal snapped like damp clay as he ripped his wrists apart. His elbow swing at Steve, but Steve rolled out of the way, reaching for his shield.
"No time!" The words were oddly slurred through the other vampire's bruises. "Run!"
The bartender snarled, then grabbed the other's arm. Together he and his partner threw themselves out the closed balcony windows. Glass shards rained down as they shattered. The two vampires dived over the rail and out of sight.
Tony groaned and rubbed the back of his head, bracing himself with his other arm against the floor. "I'm growing terribly annoyed at the number of head injuries I've received lately. Just when I'm rid of the tumor, I collect permanent brain damage dealt by petty thugs."
"You'll heal." Steve rubbed his shoulder, leaning against his shield for support. "Did you get it on him? Will we be able to track them?"
"Easier than naked pictures of Paris on the internet." Tony held up a hand and wiggled it. "Not that those were my fault."
"Of course not." Muscles ached as Steve groaned and rolled to his feet. In a few minutes the aches would be gone, but those minutes would hurt. "You're sure you can hack SHIELD to track them?"
"Who do you think set them up?" Tony sniffed at the bottle of alcohol mournfully. It had been upended in the escape, leaving only a few flakes down at the bottom. "Some kind of genius I'd be if I didn't leave myself a back door."
Admiration and annoyance battled in Steve's head. Of course Tony would be underhanded enough to have holes only he could exploit in any security system he designed. But the dishonesty of it rubbed him entirely the wrong way. He looked at Tony through the corner of his eye, then finally gave a mental shrug and let it drop until they had more time. "We've got to get to your lab."
It was enough that Tony was a complete bastard, or else they'd have needed to track the vampires on foot. At the speed they moved, even injured, it could have been impossible.
A heavy knock sounded at the door. "Hotel security!"
Steve sighed. This was the part he always hated, and there was no one else to deal with it except for a supposed dead man. "After dealing with that."
Tony grinned so widely that he showed every one of his brand new fangs. "I'll toddle to the closet and leave you to that then, Mr. Captain."
"Thanks." Steve did his best to mimic Clint's best level of irony.
"Oh, don't mention it. I'll put it on your tab."
Luke Air Force Base had been closed back at the end of the millennium, before the Chitauri had even dreamed of putting their end game into motion. It had been a godsend to them. A massive military structure just laying around, waiting for someone to move in and make use of it. Somehow, over half of it had survived the battle over Phoenix intact. It wasn't the half that most people knew about, though.
Miles and miles of underground labs stretched out through the desert, almost entirely untouched by the fight that had decimated the buildings and aircraft hangars above. Everything from experimental research in nuclear fusion to biological agents had been developed there, in a place more secure than Area 54 could dream of being. It was the perfect place for a lone vampire to den up, where there were no leases or credit cards needed to out him. More importantly, it was the perfect place to hide for someone with as much hardware as Tony liked to play with.
Steve would never have expected to see Tony living underground, but he wouldn't have expected Tony to be undead either. He was learning to change his preconceptions. Sometimes he had to change them every few minutes. Tony Stark could do that to a man.
The tunnels were completely silent as they paced through them. Arizona didn't have a high enough water table to allow for much seepage, and the few rodents that had dared to burrow so close to human habitation had been scared off. Even their footsteps hardly made any noise at all, Steve's army boots not being steel-tipped. Tony had finally started acting like a supernatural creature and glided along the concrete corridors in relative silence.
It was weird, but peaceful. It reminded Steve of the few times he had worked espionage cases in remote areas. Rural villages tended to have the same sort of dead quality to them at night, when the farm animals were out to pasture and the people were smart enough to go to bed early and not witness anything that might get them in trouble.
That had always come with a sort of tension, though. Not with Tony. If anything, it was almost easier than a stroll through Central Park. He caught his hand reaching for Tony's and locked it around the strap on his shield. Tony wasn't a dame, and it would be a dumb move to act like he was.
In the dim glow of the emergency lights, Steve thought he saw Tony send him a long, low glance, and a frown. Then his legs stretched, sending him a few steps ahead. "My lab's close by. We'll run some checks, go over what I have and tap into the SHIELD network to track our little friends. I've already searched everywhere I can, but maybe you'll spot something. Maybe we'll even catch an episode of How It's Made—I love that show."
Steve snorted. "You miss being able to play with your tech. Admit it."
"Of course. I do love my work, you know. I'd marry it, if it weren't for a few pesky laws and some Senators I haven't managed to buy. The United States is so provincial." Tony took a sharp right and vanished to a small subset of deeper shadows. With a hiss of displaced air, a door slid open, spearing a rectangle of light into the tunnel. "Coming?"
The lab was visibly Tony's, from the tools scattered around to the equations written in barely legible print on the whiteboards. Red and gold armor dominated the far wall; the Iron Man armor was as sleek as ever, without any sign that it had been dropped into the Pacific Ocean. The lab wasn't nearly as large as the one Steve knew he had kept in New York, but it wouldn't need to be. Tony was only working on one project—staying alive, and his focus when he wanted to could be phenomenal.
Tony slid into a chair and curved his fingers over the keyboard. It lit up. A second later, three screens flared to life, the Stark OS logo flashing over it. When prompted, Tony typed in the password—Str1k3R, whatever that might have been, More screens lit up along the back wall, showing everything from CNN to MSNBC and, off in a corner by itself, the science channel. "Pull up a chair, Steve, and we'll get started. Nothing like a little espionage to get the blood pumping."
"You had all this brought in from New York?" Steve grabbed one of the office chairs and slid it into the open spot in the corner of Tony's workspace. "How'd you manage to stay legally dead this long? Someone must have noticed."
"This stuff?" A few key taps had a screen open, plain text scrolling down it at a speed that made Steve's head hurt. The only thing that stayed stationary was the SHIELD logo up in the corner. "No, this is all scrounged from here and there—it's amazing what Radio Shack doesn't know it has. Recycle, reuse, renew, I'm as green as the next guy. Probably more, since the next guy is you."
"I recycle." Steve stopped trying to follow what Tony was up to. He couldn't even keep track of his keystrokes, much less figure out what he was doing. Three years had given him a pretty good touch with modern technology, but Tony passed modern by a decade on his lunch breaks. "I'm surprised you bothered. Must be hard, trying to keep it all together."
"You didn't think I'd go six months without my toys, did you?" Bright blue eyes glanced at him under a thick fringe of lashes, and that was a come-hither look worthy of any starlet from Steve's era. "I gave up alcohol, sex and the world stage. Next you'll want me to stop mistranslating Wikipedia articles to Swahili."
"Yeah, sure you did." Steve frowned, annoyed at how Tony seemed to have to bring sex into everything. "Okay, alcohol and fame, got you, but that wasn't celibacy back there in the hotel room. Tony Stark is a vampire and he hasn't used it to pick up women?"
The tap-tap of the keyboard paused for a second, not long enough to be anything other than a blip in the rhythm. His eyes stayed fixed on the monitor. "No," Tony said, voice low and tight, "I haven't. Starting to think that was a screwed up idea, though."
"Why?" Tony's jaw tightened, but he didn't make a move to answer the question. It wasn't just strange that Tony had gone celibate, it ran counter to everything Steve knew about him. The only time Steve knew of that he hadn't had a different girl every night had been when he'd been engaged to Natasha. Then he'd been surprisingly... faithful... "This isn't because of me. Tell me it's not."
"Fine. It's not you." A piece of plastic cracked as Tony jabbed at something too hard. He whirled in his office chair to face away, yanking open a box to dig through the bits and pieces of scrap in it. Metal clattered as he shoved pieces aside to get to the bottom. "Happy now, Steve? It's not you, so you can feel safe tucked away in your little closet. Maybe you'll meet the other three Backstreet boys."
"Potts said that we'd been sleeping together exclusively for a year." And he hadn't believed her. Hadn't wanted to believe her. "Want to tell me about that?"
"Not in the least. I think I'd rather take a swig of vodka." Tony didn't turn around. "I had an arm full of a very vigorous, very eager Captain America every other night. I don't think I would have had the energy to entertain anyone else."
Steve stared at his back. It was so stiff that he could probably bounce a penny off it. "I don't get you."
"It's mutual, trust me." Tony must have found whatever he'd been looking for, because he whirled back around to face the monitor. He jabbed whatever it was into a port, still not even glancing in Steve's direction. There was a fine tremble in his fingers—Steve wasn't sure if it was anger or something else. He knew how to deal with anger, but there were a lot of other things Tony tossed around like juggling balls that he just didn't get. "Just let it go. I'm not going over this again. You're straight. I'm not. We'll forget about it, okay? Isn't that what you want?"
"What do you want?" He shifted forward, resting his elbows on his knees. The chair was just a little too small to be comfortable, but at least it didn't have arms; those always were too small for a man his size. "You're real good at not saying anything, and then getting mad when I don't get it."
"Same thing I always want: a good fuck." Tony's eyes lifted to his, finally. He had the same, devil-may-care smile he gave to dames and reporters. Steve was surprised to realize that it wasn't familiar—he hadn't seen it turned on him since before L.A. "That what you want to hear?"
No, it wasn't. Steve wasn't really sure what he wanted to hear. "I want the truth."
"No you don't." The smile vanished. Tony gave the keyboard three more taps—apparently without looking at it—then let the screen fill with flashing satellite images, searching, as he turned the last of his attention to Steve. It was like being at the center of a bulls-eye in a bomb drop zone. "If you wanted the truth, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Tony would let it go, Steve realized. He really would this time. They'd let it drop, and they'd never have this sort of merry-go-round discussion again. That should have been much more of a relief. It really should have.
Steve set his jaw. "Just tell me. Then I'll tell you whether I wanted to know or not."
Blue eyes held his. Tony's hands laced together at the fingers, as if to keep him from doing something with them, Steve wasn't sure what. He'd forgotten to breathe again—it was strange to hear only his own breath and the whirl of the machinery in the lab. One of these days, he was going to ask how Tony could stand to forget like that.
A second, slow intake of air finally ended the quiet. Long, lean muscle shifted under his dark dress shirt as Tony leaned back in his chair. "The truth.... The truth is that I would, perhaps, be pleased by a slightly more permanent arrangement than what we have heretofore enjoyed. And you wouldn't. So that's that."
Something dark and unpleasant tightened in Steve's chest. He found himself starting to look away, then made himself look back. Tony hadn't really been right—he'd known that. It didn't mean he wanted to know it. "I'm not one of those kinds of guys. I'm not a faggot."
"Oh?" A slow, predatory smile curled Tony's lips. Before Steve could blink, a new weight come to rest in his lap. Tony settled against him, pressed chest to chest, with a leg on either side of Steve's hips. "You're not one of those types, huh? A faggot? What the hell do you think I am, then? Because I'm absolutely agog to know, I'm sure."
In spite of himself, Steve felt his cheeks grow hot. Worse, he was getting hard. "It's not like that—"
"Then what is it?" Warm hands tugged at the hem of his uniform, sliding along the skin of his sides. Steve kept his hands locked around the chair's seat like it would drop out from under him. "You got something against faggots, soldier?"
"Oh, no." Tony's hands stopped creeping up him, but he didn't pull them back. "If you want to stay in that screwed up, pretty blond skull of yours, go ahead. I'm not under any obligation to hole up in there with you, and I sure as hell don't have to take this homophobic bullshit." Thin but soft lips rested against Steve's for the space a shared breath. "And I'm not going to be collateral damage while you work the war out in there. I can do casual, if that's what we're going to do, but you're going to tell me right the fuck now if that's what it is we're doing."
"I—" For once, Tony didn't interrupt him. Casual meant that Tony would go out and have the time of his life with probably about half the population of Phoenix. He'd thought that had been what Tony was doing. It hadn't set well with him before, and it did even worse since finding out otherwise. Just thinking about it made Steve want to hit things. But the other option would be a relationship, and he wasn't....
In the back of the room, every screen was playing the same thing. People were screaming, streaming off to one side. The image was oddly tilted, as if the camera had been upset. Streetlights had been broken, lying in the center of the street like downed trees. Bodied littered the sidewalk, splattered red with their own blood. Some of them were still moving, but stopped as they were trampled by the ones running away.
The capture beneath read Terrorist Attack in Phoenix, AZ.
Figuring out what they were doing was going to have to wait. Steve shoved at Tony's chest lightly, jerking his chin towards the back wall. "Tony, the television."
Familiar lines deepened around Tony's mouth as he twisted on Steve's lap, then even farther when he frowned. "Disable Mute."
Muffled screams and shouts came from hidden speakers, along with the unexpectedly soothing tones of a female newscaster.
—the Phoenix Museum of Art. The children who had been visiting the Museum are still held inside. Sergeant Brians from the Phoenix anti-terrorists task force says that the terrorists have yet to deliver their demands. There has been speculation over whether these are Islamic or Mutant insurgents, but official estimates are Mutant. No word on what sort of weapons they have, but the known body count has already totaled more than a hundred people, mostly adults, as the terrorists clear out the streets surrounding the building—
"Villains must love you. That sort of timing to avoid an issue costs me a few hundred thousand at a go. Mute." Tony slid off of Steve's lap and stepped back. "It looks like we don't have to go looking for them after all. Time to bust old Ironsides out of retirement. Interested in a little bit of action, big boy?"
Steve stood and tugged on his cowl. "You can't be sure it's them."
"True, true, but that's what the satellites are for." Tony grinned as he moved some of the clutter away from the Iron Man suit, a boyish expression that made him look more like a college kid out on a lark than a predator. "How well do you think you can hold on?"
Steve clung to Tony's side as they soared over Phoenix, fist firmly wrapped around a make-shift hand-hold Tony had cobbled together. The city was pretty at night—not New York, but not bad, set out in neat squares and grids that were lit up with Christmas lights. It was freezing cold so high up, but nothing he hadn't dealt with before. The smudge of what was happening at the Museum was obvious—it was lit up nearly as bright as day, surrounded by the red and blue flash of police cars, with no less than five news helicopters overhead. Most of the bystanders had been cleared off or killed. They were high enough that Steve couldn't pick out individual bodies as anything more than ant-sized shadows against the cement.
"Ready for action?" Sometime during the last six months, Tony had adjusted the tone of Iron Man's voice. It sounded even more mechanical, probably as an intimidation tactic.
Steve adjusted his grip, making sure that he wasn't going to lose it until he was good and ready. "Take us in."
"Roger that, Captain." Even through the synthesizer, he could hear the grin in Tony's voice. Or maybe that was just because he knew Tony. "Approaching for landing, please fasten your seatbelts and keep all tray tables in their fully upright and locked positions."
The thrusters cut to half power, and they dropped like the ton of metal the Iron Man armor was. Steve's stomach, unfortunately, didn't. He clenched his teeth against the surge of nausea and hung on. Fifty meters over the museum, the thrusters kicked in again, letting them turn their fall into a soar. Below the police and few civilians that hadn't been scared off screamed and pointed upward.
"Twenty five meters... Fifteen..." A large bay window approached, stretching across the top story of the building nearly from edge to edge. "Ten... Releasing passenger... Now!" The handle on Iron Man's side cracked and dropped away just as Tony cut sharply upward. Steve dropped off, spinning through the air straight towards the window. He brought his shield up just in time to deflect the shards, rolling to kill his momentum as he hit the floor.
Shouts came from below—they hadn't expected an attack from above. Below the orders and curses were the faint, wailing screams of frightened children. Steve was on his feet before he'd even stopped rolling entirely, racing for the first hiding place he could see, a shadowed alcove that contained a twenty-foot model of a satellite.
There were only two of them, and they didn't have any idea what they were facing. Until they did, he would need some sort of cover. He hopped over the display, crouching down in the shadows behind it.
Just in time, as it turned out. Three people rushed in and spread out, two peeling off while the third went to inspect the shattered window. They didn't have any weapons visible, but that didn't mean a thing. There were worse weapons than guns and knives.
"He was here," the one closest to the satellite display yelled, kneeling down to run his fingers over a piece of floor. "I can smell him."
"Yeah, I think we guessed that." At the window, the only woman held up a piece of glass as big as her hand. She was smart enough to stay low, out of sight of any sniper that the FBI might have called up. She had a head full of blonde curls that looked like they belonged on one of those tetchy little dogs rich old ladies carted around. "Just look around, will you? He's probably already made for the lower levels, if he's got any brains at all."
Steve waited, barely breathing, as the dumb one came closer, still paying more attention to the floor than to what was going on around him. When Steve yanked him around behind the display, he didn't even notice in time to scream before Steve had shoved a cloth between his fangs and wrapped a wire around his throat.
Whatever Tony had done to the wire when he made it, it cut through cloth and skin like soft cheese without any effort at all. It caught on the trachea, but only barely. Gloved fingers had wrapped around the wire as if to pull it loose, but they'd lost their fingertips in the attempt. Heavy weight slammed into Steve's chest as the vampire tried to throw himself backward to avoid the wire, but it wasn't enough to win free. Steve could tell that all it would need to slice the head clean off would be a tug. Bone might give it some trouble, but the rest would be easy.
The vampire stopped breathing, frozen in terror. Helpless noises sounded in the back of his throat, high-pitched from the need to remain perfectly still.
"You want to live, don't you, Mister? Just nod." Steve kept his voice low, mouth right by the vampire's ear. The vampire nodded, long grey hair bouncing frantically with every tiny jerk of his head. He looked old enough to be someone's grandfather, but he moved like a kid a fourth his age. "Good. Here's what we're going to do. Call one of your buddies over. No funny business or you'll be a foot shorter."
Carefully, Steve took the cloth out of the vampire's mouth.
Frightened, mud-colored eyes glanced up at Steve, then back towards his friends. "Hey, Vittor!" His voice was a little high-pitched, but strong and steady. "There's something over here. You need to see it!"
Footsteps padded across the wooden floor, occasionally crunching on a piece of glass. A dark form came around the edge of the satellite. "This had better be good, John— son of a bitch! Brittany!"
Steve cracked John over the head with his elbow and let the limp body drop as Vittor came in swinging. Bones cracked as his fists landed on Steve's shield, not even denting it. Steve brought the edge up, cracking his jaw, and then around. Blood sprayed as Vittor's head flew off, rolling off into a corner while his body dropped.
The woman—Brittany—barreled around the display and skidded to a stop, eyes going first to Vittor's shriveling body, then to John's still-living one. She finally looked up at Steve, and he saw the fear in her eyes. "Fuck."
"That's no language for a lady." Steve stepped around the fallen, shield up and ready, but she didn't seem ready to attack.
"If you haven't figured out that I'm not a lady yet, you're a lot dumber than we've been giving you credit for." Metal boot tips clicked against the hardwood as she stumbled backwards, then went still when Steve lifted his shield to throw. His other hand rested on the gun at his hip—it might not do any good, but even Tony hadn't been sure that a headshot wouldn't down a vampire. "I didn't sign up for this."
"You don't have to stay signed up for it."
She laughed. It was almost a giggle, squeaky and out of control. "You don't know— you've got no idea, do you? It's in the blood—her blood. I can't even run away." She doubled over, trying to quiet her laughter. The second her eyes were off him, Steve threw his shield. It bounced off the wall and rebounded, clipping her temple just as she straightened. The vampire crumbled, unconscious, to the floor.
A quick check showed that the room was secure. No one else had entered while he'd been busy. A news helicopter dipped low enough to shine a floodlight inside, but he ignored it. There were bigger things to worry about than a news crew who were too wiling to risk their lives for a story.
In his ear, the communicator beeped. "Cap, you in position?"
Steve tapped the send button and eased his way out of the room and down the nearest set of stairs. "Almost. Downed three. It's definitely vampires."
"Lovely." Shouts from the searchers echoed up the stairwell through the dark. The vampires had killed most of the lights, probably to confuse any humans that came after them. "Let me know when you've found the kids. Iron Man out."
The stairs wrapped around the outer edge of the building, letting out into different specialized levels at every landing. Steve ducked into each, making sure the hostages weren't there before moving on. A few vampires caught him, but the razor wire took care of them before they could warn the others.
First floor, the lobby and gift shop. It was the only place left. Steve crept around a corner and down the last flight of stairs, keeping low. The children's cries were louder, hiccupping sobs that echoed off the high ceiling. He rounded the last corner, then ducked back before he was seen.
Vampires ringed the kids, maybe thirty of them at a glance, all of them dressed in the same solid black clothing as every other vampire he'd seen except Tony. What he assumed was the tour guide, or maybe a teacher, was sprawled out by the entrance, throat gaping open. The children couldn't have been older than twelve.
Atop of the welcome desk, a petite blonde perched, legs crossed. Like the others, she was wearing black, but much of a classier sort—a real dress that went down to her ankles, with heels and a string of black pearls around her throat. She'd pulled her hair into the sort of up-do that dames wore to high-class events, like she was getting ready for a party instead of terrorizing a bunch of children.
A vampire melted out of the shadows behind her. She didn't even turn around. "Well? What word?"
"Whoever came through the window wasn't Stark." The vampire was barely visible in the dark, but Steve thought he was fidgeting. "It smells like a human—male, young, in good health. Carrying at least one firearm."
Sharp clicks sounded over the crying of the children as she tapped her heel back against the stand. "That would be our good Captain, I think. And where he is, Stark is not far behind. Keep looking."
"We've looked everywhere, Madame Bathory. Perhaps they ran."
Steve rolled his eyes, and was disturbed when the "Madame" did the same. "You do not know Stark or Rogers. They are inveterate heroes—they would not leave children in our hands. Stark, at least, knows what we will do with them. Search harder. Look for bodies."
Bathory's voice hardened in annoyance. "If you have not found them, then someone has, and that someone did not survive to report it. Look for them. That will tell us how deep they have penetrated. Has Brittany returned?"
Steve drew back into a dark corner, keeping his back against the wall. He punched the send button at his ear. "In position. First floor lobby. Kids still alive; let's keep it that way."
"Roger that, Rogers. Two minutes to deployment. Wait for it."
Metal dug into Steve's chin as he sank back into the corner, careful to keep the rough stucco from scraping his uniform and alerting the guards. The throat guard Tony had found for him was cumbersome, but it would at least save him from getting his throat ripped out. The rest, he'd have to take care of himself. Tony had wanted to shove him into chain mail, but it would get in the way and be too heavy.
He kept his breathing steady and slow, counting down in his head slowly, waiting for Tony to make his move. This was the worst part of any fight—the waiting. His muscles itched, wanting to be put into action and do something. He pulled down his tinted goggles and focused on staying quiet.
At five seconds to the bottom of the countdown, there came a tinkle of broken glass. Something heavy rolling across the floor. Steve tensed and started a new count from ten.
"What is that— Alex!" Bathory's voice rose. "Get rid of it!"
A crack sounded over the silence, then screams as the lobby was flooded with solid white light, about the same brightness as noon, and—according to Tony—exactly the same composition as sunlight. Steve rolled out, dashing through the burning vampires towards the cluster of children. He scooped up the few that were closest and shoved at the rest. "GO GO GO! THE DOOR! GET TO THE DOOR!" They hesitated, blinking at him through their tears, lowering their hands from their eyes.
One of the brighter ones grabbed the girl next to her and tugged, bodily dragging her towards safety. The wails turned to Captain America as they finally started moving. He put down the two in his arms so they could move on their on and dashed ahead, kicking the door open. More glass broke, this time a full-fledged crash—Iron Man had arrived.
The vampires were blistering, their skin turning lobster red and raw everywhere the light touched them. Some of them screamed, mostly the ones at the farthest edge of the radius. Those closer to the center didn't have enough face or throat left to cry out. One and all they scrambled for the back of the lobby, where the UV bomb couldn't reach, shambling and broken as if they'd been run over. Iron Man stood firm next to the shell, the suit doing its job protecting Tony, even from sunlight. Steve kept hustling kids out the door, picking up the ones that tried to shove before they could cause anyone damage.
Bathory was already back there, her skin only faintly pink in the shadows; she must have moved too fast for the bomb to work. She smiled brightly, hands folded before her as if it were a social situation. "Dear Tony, so good of you to come. It's been too, too long."
"Miss Bathory." If anything, Iron Man's voice was even hollower than before. "I'm afraid it hasn't been long enough, actually."
"You say such cruel things to your mother." The vampires that could were scrambling out the back exit. Most of them only reached as far as the shadows before collapsing. Some didn't even get that far. They curled into fetal balls as they died, skin flaking away. Decay took its toll, leaving a macabre blast radius of fast-rotting corpses. "It is time to come home, Tony. Mother has work for you to do. If you are a good boy, maybe we will even let you keep what's left of your darling Captain over there for a pet, after he has met his obligations."
The last of the children finally ran out. Steve pulled his gun and turned.
"My mother had better fashion sense." Iron Man crunched over the shards of the window he'd broken getting inside. Steve fell in step with him, aiming over the edge of his shield. "What do you people want with me?"
Big, baby doll blue eyes crinkled innocently at them as Bathory smiled. Her teeth were still stained red with someone's blood. "I suppose you shall just have to wait to find out, will you not? Good bye, Captain. Tony." Steve pulled the trigger, firing three shots. They pocked into the wall as she blurred into motion and was gone.
"Damn it!" The faceplate stayed down to protect Tony from the light, but the way Iron Man moved made Tony's frustration as obvious as his expression would have.
"We'll find them." Around them, the abandoned wounded groaned. They weren't going anywhere. Steve nudged one with his foot. She wasn't strong enough to roll out of the way. Most of them had already withered down to dead husks. While he watched, the one he'd nudged stopped whimpering and curled in on herself. "The police are going to have fun figuring this one out."
"The police are going to have fun?" Metal boots crushed a piece of wood as Tony knelt to inspect the flash bomb. It clicked, hissed, and went dark. "You should hear what the news reporters are saying. It seems my lack of death isn't going to remain a secret for much longer."
Steve stared at Iron Man's back, wishing for a second that he and Tony could talk face to face. "Damn it."
"My thoughts precisely."
Ring. Ring. Ri— click.
"You've reached the cell phone of Steve Rogers. I'm unavailable to take your call right now, but... Clint, this is ridiculous. You're joking again, aren't you?
"Just say the lines, Rogers."
"Fine. If this actually works, leave a message. Now, how do I delete it and start again?"
"You think I'm going to tell you—"
"Damn it! Pick up your God damned phone, Steve!" Jan threw the cordless phone down in disgust. It bounced off the edge of the end table and toppled to the immaculate hardwood floor in a clatter of plastic. She kicked it for good measure. Unfortunately, it didn't shatter against the rec room's pale green walls.
Why did they give him a cell phone if he didn't answer it in emergencies?
"Steven is still not answering?" Thor asked from the couch. When the Ultimates had gone private, Tony had brought one in brought in to suit large frames. Years with the team hadn't served it well. It was a battered but comfortable thing done in creams, with odd stains and patched upholstery. Steve had insisted that it be kept.
"Just because something's old doesn't mean you throw it away."
Just looking at it made Jan want to scream or cry, she wasn't sure which.
"No," she finally answered, turning away to run her fingers through her hair. It was getting a little long. Time for a trim. "He's not. I told him not to go. If he's dead because of this crap, I'm going to kill him."
Thor smirked at her illogic. "I'm sure he's in good hands. Trust his good judgment."
Sometimes, she didn't know what to think about Thor, and it was a lot more comfortable not to. They'd all, mostly, come to terms with the God of Thunder thing, but he saw too much for Jan to ever be completely comfortable with him. "Steve doesn't have good judgment. He has instincts and a lot of justifications."
"His instincts, then."
That was hardly reassuring.
Jan paced, ignoring the god on the sofa. She kept turning things over in her mind, putting the puzzle pieces together every which way. No matter how she thought of it, nothing made sense.
Tony had taken the Iron Man armor with him when he fell. Even if someone had pulled it out of the ocean, it couldn't have been in a usable condition. That meant, logically, that whoever was on TV in the suit either had the knowledge to repair it, knowledge of where the spare suits were or the ability to make one from scratch.
The first was feasible, but unlikely. Gregory Stark or Reed Richards might have been able to, but they were both accounted for. Pepper Potts had assured the team that Tony's spare units were accounted for. That left creation, which took her thoughts right back to Richards and Stark, with similar results. Rhodes in a modified suit was completely out of the question—he'd already called up demanding to know what was going on.
Him and the rest of New York. If she never heard Fury scream at her again, it would be too soon.
She'd been in the business long enough to know better than to discount long-odds possibilities, but something about them sat wrong in her gut. Something more was going on, something that Steve hadn't told them, that had to do with Tony and Iron Man.
"I'm going to kill him."
"Let me have a chunk, will ya?" Clint stretched as he came into the rec room, tossed down his jacket and headed immediately for the mini fridge. He bent over, shuffling through the shelves for one of his beers, which Jan had thoughtfully shifted to the far back, behind her soy milk. "If I've gotta say 'no comment' one more time, I'll shoot something."`
"That bad?" she asked, a moment of sympathy gnawing her stomach. It wasn't a long enough moment for her to admit where the beer was. "I thought some of the reporters would be gone by now."
"They're ten deep. I had to come in through the roof."
"You're both too dramatic," Thor announced, in a tone that sounded suspiciously like it needed handed down from on high attached. "If Steven could contact us, I'm sure he would. Be patient."
Jan opened her mouth to yell, then shut it. Patient. She'd heard that word one too many times for her to like it. Thor meant well, though, and she'd need him when they had to pull Steve's fat from the fryer. "Yeah, well, you be patient when your ex-boyfriend could be in a coma somewhere while someone makes off with Tony's armor."
High heels against hardwood announced the arrival of their source of funds. "Thor is right, Ms. Van Dyne," Potts said calmly as she sailed into the room. Even at five AM, she looked more like a picture than an actual person. Hair perfectly coifed, suit unrumpled, makeup flawless—Potts was never out of place. Jan thought it might have been a defense mechanism against Tony's wildness, but she couldn't say for sure. "Patience is the key. Short of flying to Arizona yourself, you can't make him call, or answer."
Suddenly aware that she was in the same clothes she'd worn the day before and that bags were under her eyes from not sleeping. Jan flushed. Normally she almost liked Potts, being the only other girl in the boys' club, but she didn't feel very sisterly just then. Potts had been the one to deliver the note that started it all. "Maybe we should go to Arizona then, and kick his ass back home," she said belligerently. "He shouldn't have left in the first place!"
"He had to." The driver, a big blonde man who'd driven Tony, hovered in the doorway. Jan turned to glare at him. To his credit, he didn't flinch away from her. "Rogers was following the boss's request. He had to do it."
"Bullshit," Clint and Jan said simultaneously.
Clint had finally found his beer, and ended the stereo-agreement with a long swig of it. "He doesn't do anything he doesn't want. He could have taken us with him. Or not gone."
Potts' stare could have melted steel.
"You seem awfully calm for someone who's probably catching more hell than we are about this mess." Jan dropped herself into one of the arm chairs, sinking deep into its cushions.
"If you think I'm calm, you're mistaken." Just then, with her chin up and shoulders back, Pepper Potts looked like someone made out of steel. She pulled a set of file folders out from under her arm and dropped them onto the ping pong table. "I'm simply biding my time until I can speak with Rogers personally."
"Bide a little more loudly, will you?" Clint asked, swigging his beer again. "It's kind of creepy."
Pink-glossed lips tilted in a smile. "I'll try. Now, about Christmas—"
"What do you know that we don't?" Jan interrupted, looking around the room suspiciously. The driver—Hogan?—wouldn't meet her eyes. That was interesting. "You're the one who did this, and now you're standing around talking about Christmas? You're not telling us something."
Heels ground into wood as Potts slowly turned to face her. "Ms Van Dyne," she began slowly, green eyes narrowed, "I don't tell you many things. But they're not my secrets to tell. Clear?" She held Jan's eyes for a moment, then bent over the table. "Now, about Christmas. We have a fundraiser planned..."
Jan tuned it out, slumping back in her chair while the boys gathered around to hear the holiday plans. The empty phone cradle mocked her from across the room.
Steve had better have a good excuse for not calling, or she'd rip him a new one.
"—reports of Iron Man at the scene, accompanied by Steven Rogers, who may be better known as Captain America. As we reported earlier, Tony Stark—owner of Stark International and the only known pilot of the Iron Man suit—had been declared missing back in June after an accident over the Pacific Ocean. His status was updated to dead after search and rescue failed to recover either the body or the Iron Man armor. We now go live to Fox News correspondent Eric Merryweather outside City Hall. Tell me, Eric, do you think it was Stark piloting the Iron Man suit? And if so, why did he fake his own death? What—"
Tony stepped out of the bathroom and snatched the remote control from Steve, flipping the television off before it could do any more damage to his fragile ego. "You're watching Fox, you heathen bastard. At least have the decency to turn on CNN if you're so interested in the speculation about me." He dropped down to the bed at Steve's side and crossed his legs, tucking the tiny hotel bath towel around his hips. Outside, the sun had begun its inevitable climb over the city, but the blackout curtains kept the room snugly dark. "Though Fox does have much more attractive anchors, I'll admit that much."
Blue eyes caught Tony's as Steve twisted his neck backwards in a way that looked positively inhuman. He was stretched out on his stomach, and his hair stuck up in damp spikes from his shower earlier, and clad in a pair of pajamas—likely deliberately to fend of Tony's advances, as if he had any hope at all of doing so. Tony could smell the soap on his skin, for the moment over-riding the distinctive musk that he'd started to categorize as purely Steve. "I wasn't watching them. Not really. They interviewed Carl." When Tony politely raised his eyebrows in query, Steve prompted, "The cab driver? The one you had pick me up at the airport?"
Memory returned. "Ah, yes. I suppose he gave them all the sordid details they asked for, hm?" And made a mint off of the story, no doubt. Not that Tony could blame him—it was hard for a working man to turn down an easy check.
"Just that he'd driven me a couple of places, and then a lot of 'no comment'. Good man."
Too little, too late, but Tony appreciated the loyalty from someone who wasn't even on any official payroll. "A very good man. Remind me to put his children through college, will you?" He leaned over Steve's back, stretching out as much as he dared, enjoying the solid mass under him. In a way, it was a relief that they hadn't finished their conversation back in the lab. It meant that he got to have Steve for just a little longer, without having to admit that his chances for keeping him were dead in the water. "Any word from our illustrious teammates, or has the news of my survival not yet traveled that far?"
"You don't hear my cell phone ringing, do you?" Tony hummed in question and rested his cheek against Steve's shoulder blade. "Jan kept calling while you were in the shower. I didn't know what to tell her, so I turned it off."
"Fair Janet will be absolutely furious with you, no doubt. Small breakables may be thrown. Teddy bears will be shredded. Manly pride shall be crushed under her exquisitely shod heel."
Steve shrugged. It jostled his shoulder under Tony's cheek, but he rode it out, not yet willing to move. "It's your secret, so you should be the one to tell them. They deserve that much."
"Very kind of you, I'm sure." He could give it up and let Steve go. It wouldn't be the first time he'd let someone walk away without a protest. It would be the first time he'd let them walk away and cared about it, though. That was a blow. "Not terribly brave, but kind."
"Right now they all think I let some stranger pilot an Iron Man suit. You're the one who let us all think you were dead. Me telling her won't save you from being yelled at." Steve rolled over onto his back, forcing Tony to either let him go or collapse on top of him.
He chose collapsing, sprawling himself over Steve's chest like an oversized lap dog. His head ended up cradled against Steve's shoulder, but his chest was massive and well enough padded with muscle that no inconvenient bony bits were in Tony's way. "Well, no, but it would mean I wouldn't be alone while being yelled at. Misery shared truly is misery halved."
"You should have told us." Steve's voice was gruff, but he didn't try to shove Tony off. That was good. Hanging on tooth and nail would have been terribly awkward. "We had your funeral. People cried. You couldn't have sent us a note?"
"To be fair, I was still trudging the Pacific during my funeral."
"And the note?"
When Tony closed his eyes, his lashes barely caught on the fabric of Steve's pajama shirt. It was odd, how aware of everything he was. Maybe it was that he was sober, or maybe it was the vampire thing, but he'd never paid so much attention to how they fit together. It was different from Natasha—different from any girl, really, but also from every other man he'd slept with. Steve was just comfortable, like a made-for-Tony body pillow.
Breathe in, breathe out. Forgetting was easy, since his brain no longer received the message that air was in short supply, but a bad habit to get into. "I wasn't sure anyone would care. It seemed easier."
"What?" A large hand settled in the small of his back, hot against skin that was still a little cool after his shower. "Why wouldn't we?"
"It was just..." A stupid, ridiculous bout of worry. That's all it had been, something he was—in retrospect—obviously mistaken about. He had friends beyond Pepper and Happy, people who gave a damn whether he lived or died. People had cried at his funeral He'd never though anyone would shed a tear for him. "Never you mind. I was living free. No holds, no ties, that's all. But vacation's over, time to get back to routine."
He could tell by the way Steve huffed and rubbed his back that he hadn't fooled him one bit, but Tony really didn't care. Steve was the one who kept taking a step back. Until he stopped trying to back out, Tony was under no obligation to let him in.
"Speaking of routine..." Steve's hand moved in soothing little circles, completely disarming Tony for the blow that was coming. "We were talking about something earlier."
"No we weren't." The words popped out of Tony's mouth before he had a chance to screen them, but he decided that they would have to do. He was comfortable, warm, and only faintly hungry. The last thing he wanted to do was ruin a pleasant moment, and he had no doubt that wherever Steve thought their conversation had been headed would ruin it. "There was no talking. None. Trust me. I was there."
"Tony—" Steve's chest heaved in a sigh. It did interesting things to the sound of his lungs. Tony tried to focus on that, rather than whatever was on the way. "What happened to wanting to know?"
"I changed my mind. I'm allowed to do that." The same sigh again, and clearly Steve was not going to be dissuaded from explaining exactly why he couldn't commit to regular, monogamous sex, the bastard. Drastic measures were called for. Tony lifted himself up to straddle Steve's stomach, conveniently letting his towel fall by the wayside. "We can talk later. I happened to pick up some lube from the Hilton's bathroom amenities, and we're going to be stuck here all. Day. Long." To emphasize the point, he nipped at the tip of Steve's nose.
Steve stared up at him, and really, he had no lashes at all, or if he did they were the equivalent of a plastic wrap negligee on Pamela Anderson Lee. Finally, he laughed, hands settling around Tony's hips, and that was very, very okay. Much better than break up speeches, actually. "You're impossible."
"About time you noticed that." This time the bite landed on Steve's lips, then flowed on into a kiss that made Tony forget to breathe again. Buttons came undone under Tony's hands as he worked Steve free of his defensive pajamas. Steve really should have known that they were more gift wrap than protection. The last button on his shirt was a casualty of Tony's enthusiasm, popping free and rolling somewhere under a ripple of green comforter. He ignored it, spreading Steve's shirt wide and letting his hands explore the wonderful—dare he venture a cliché with rippling—muscles underneath.
One of these days, Tony was going to sit down and craft a thank you note to the White House for funding the Super Soldier project. Just as soon as he thought he could do so without going into unnecessarily exhibitionistic detail.
That was not likely to be soon.
Steve arched under his hands, mouth opening easily. His tongue slipped between Tony's lips, only to be chased out a second later with a muttered, "Teeth." The bottoms were even easier to remove—only one button and a lot of hope kept them up. Tony popped the button and tugged, giving Steve enough room to lift his hips, and away they went. Hard, hot flesh settled into his hand like it way meant to be there, and as far as Tony was concerned, it was. At least for that moment.
"No tighty whities?" he asked between kisses, sliding his hand along Steve's cock. He was already half-hard, how did the man do it? "Why Captain, I do believe you were laying in wait for me."
"You're the one who grabbed the lube," Steve accused, lifting his hips into Tony's hand. His chest was already flushing, and really, Tony wouldn't mind turning artist and trying to find that exact shade. It could take the rest of his life, but he rather thought it would be a worthy sacrifice. "Speaking of...?"
"Pillow. Condom too." Tony grinned and rubbed his thumb directly along the vein, applying gentle pressure just under the ridge. The groan he got was more than worth the glare that came with it. "You're not the only tactician in here."
Sheets crumbled as Steve tore at them, finally finding the little bottle discreetly labeled Hilton Strawberry Daiquiri Personal Lubricant in flowing script. Predictably, Steve rolled his eyes at the name, but poured a generous amount on his fingers anyway.
The sharp, sweet scent of pseudo strawberries hit Tony's nose. He wrinkled it, but obediently lifted when Steve tugged at his hips. A slightly chilly, slick finger pressed against him, easing inside. Steve's finger was thick, but not too much. Just one wasn't bad.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Tony let his chin drop to his chest as he focused on relaxing. Six months without had ruined his record prep time. He found himself staring down at Steve's cock. The thick curls at its base were just a little darker than the hair on his head, and much coarser. It wasn't the longest or the thickest he'd ever taken, but that was all to the good—they could skimp on prep sometimes, times like this when it had been too long and Tony wanted it now.
It looked lonely.
He gave a brief thought to his flexibility, and an even briefer thought to giving it up as hopeless. Teeth would definitely make things awkward. Then Steve tried the second finger, really starting to stretch him open, and that was that. He throbbed, and Tony had rarely been one to ignore such things. "Hold— hold up."
Tony pulled away, ignoring the confused noise from Steve, and flipped himself around. His knees went on either side of Steve's ribs, leaving his ass up and open. It was interesting how much wider he had to spread himself to straddle Steve's chest instead of his hips. A mental note tagged the back of his mind to explore that more thoroughly later.
Once again, he was looking down at Steve's cock, but this time he didn't need to break a hip to reach it. Delicately, Tony leaned down and curled his tongue around the head. It was a trick, learning to work around his new teeth. Teeth had always been bad, of course, but it had become too much to risk. He smelled simply amazing, all male and arousal, leather and soap and Steve.
Steve's breath hissed out between his teeth. His fingers slid back into Tony, a little too fast. It stung just a little, enough to send a not-entirely-unpleasant jolt up his spine. Tony retaliated by wrapping his lips around the head and humming the National Anthem.
Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light... Steve's hips jerked, but that was great, that was perfect, because his fingers twisted too, and that had been exactly what Tony wanted.
He pressed back, humming a muffled demand. Somehow, Steve got the point and did it again. Superbly thick fingers curled and rotated inside him. They brushed up against his prostate, and for a second Tony thought he'd died again. The fingers left him, and Tony would never, ever admit that he whimpered except perhaps to his therapist.
"Tony— Tony, c'mon." Steve tugged him up by the shoulders, even though Tony kept straining to run his lips along Steve's cock one more time. "You're going to finish without me."
Reluctantly, Tony sat up, looking over his shoulder. "Then fuck me anyway." The exact moment the meaning of that hit Steve, the smell of lust grew even stronger. Tony resisted the urge to grin—jackpot.
After there, there was no time to revel in his small victory. Steve twisted, knocking him aside and down to the mattress. A pillow wedged under the small of his back was the second surprise, followed quickly by a third in the form of an empty condom wrapper being launched overhead. He'd moved so fast that Tony didn't have time to protest, much less fight him off, assuming Tony was insane enough to do either.
God bless the super soldier serum.
Box springs creaked as Steve leaned over him, braced against the bed. His cock brushed over Tony's, the pre-lubed condom leaving a streak of dampness. "Ready?"
Tony snapped his legs around Steve's waist, digging in his heels into his ass and dragging him down by his shoulders. He sank his teeth into Steve's lip, accidentally nicking one on his sharper eyeteeth. A dribble of blood flowed out, right over Tony's tongue. "Just fuck me already."
Steve groaned into the kiss. The head of his cock dipped in, teasing. As much as Tony stretched, Steve had the leverage, easing in inch by infuriating inch. It peeled up open, spreading him wider than Steve's fingers could ever have. By the time he came to rest flush against him, Tony was panting as though he'd run a marathon. Worse than the previous crime, Steve stopped.
That was just unforgivable. Tony rocked against him, seeking some sort of friction. All it earned him was a slide of skin not even worthy of being called a thrust. "You—you bastard."
"Shut up, Stark." Steve's mouth settled against his as his hips pulled away. A disappointed groan caught in Tony's throat, then turn into a gasp when he thrust back in, hard enough to push Tony's back off the pillow a bit. That was the last of Tony's worries. A familiar, lovely charge shot through him as Steve touched his prostate again.
Heat built between them, thick and stifling. Sweat slicked their skin, smoothing the slide as Steve pushed into him again— and again, creating a rhythm that wasn't even nearly enough, but was just right. The pillow slid aside completely, but Tony barely noticed. He arched, doing his best to meet Steve half-way and being held down for trying. Squirming only made it worse. When he tried to reach between them, Steve grabbed his wrist and pinned it to the bed.
"Touch me," Tony growled, digging the nails of his free hand into Steve's back. "Fucking touch me! If you don't—" He groaned, losing track of that thought when Steve hit that lovely bundle of nerves again. He was making it pretty well impossible to think of a decent threat.
Then his wrist was free, but it really didn't matter because Steve's hand was on him, big and warm, the calluses tugging at the skin just so—
White flared behind his eyes. Tony came, falling backwards against the ugly green comforter, nails leaving furrows in Steve's shoulders. The pounding continued through it, forcing him deeper into the mattress long past the point where Tony's muscles had turned to pudding. When Steve finally came, he sank his teeth into Tony's shoulder, muffling his shout.
Tony focused on remembering to breathe as Steve gasped against him, trembling in the aftermath. It wasn't very hard. This much, at least, his body remembered needing air for. He ran his fingers apologetically over the scratches on Steve's back. "Are you certain sexual prowess wasn't one of the features the Army enhanced for you?"
A panting laugh came from somewhere in the vicinity of Tony's newly aching shoulder. Steve pushed away from him, pulling out and tying off the condom with a quick, practiced move. "I'm sure. I think they'd be horrified if they knew what I was doing."
"Ah, my life's work has been completed then." Tony wrapped his arms around Steve's shoulders and pulled him back down. He wasn't ready to give up his body pillow yet. "That was the last on the list, you see. Terrorizing World War Two era scientists. I can go to my grave in peace."
Steve laughed again. His bulk kept Tony effectively pinned, but Tony was strangely okay with that. "Sure it was. You have a foul mouth."
"You always say that, and yet I continue to curse." He leaned up to nuzzle Steve's ear. "Want to make me curse again?"
Sunset came like a relief, settling in Tony's bones and letting him know that he was safe again without ever making him look at a clock. He settled deeper into Steve's side, sliding their legs together. He ached, but that was a hazard of entertaining Captain America, and one Tony gladly put up with. In any case, it wasn't nearly as bad as a day in bed would have been before the accident. Then he would have had to worry about his medication and the side effects, never mind the soreness of marathon sex. As a way to avoid serious yet unpleasant discussion, a day spent in bed had just bumped saving the world off the top of Tony's list.
Whoever decided that having unpleasantness done with was for the best had never tried giving Steve Rogers an opening to break up with them. Just making the attempt while arguing had been hard enough. Actually going through with it in cold blood was very nearly impossible, as he'd discovered.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to play patty-cake with Steve on a less frequent basis. At least he would still have a piece of him, until Steve found a woman who was willing to put up with him. Surely by then Tony would have gotten bored, or found another dish to savor.
He really needed to practice lying to himself more often.
Tony's stomach grumbled petulantly; he wasn't going to be able to go for two days on a few mouthfuls of Steve, no matter how delicious and nutritious. And there was the satellite scans to check. By now, they would have located the two break-in artists and the fun could safely begin.
He pulled out of Steve's arms and went looking for his clothing, finding it appropriately scattered even though he'd taken it off on the way to shower rather than during any more vigorous activity. By all appearances, Steve didn't even notice when he left the bed, just grumbling and curling up in the warm spot.
Under armor, jeans, shirt, hat... Tony checked his connections one last time to make sure nothing would give him away, but no—cheap or not, his clothing hid the armor admirably. He was looking forward to being officially alive again, if only to be able to wear a ten thousand dollar suit. Locale attire had grown wearying rather quickly. Of course, the first thing he would be wearing said suit to would be a press conference about his supposed death and why he wasn't, but he would worry about that after he survived the mess he was in.
Steve's eyes opened while Tony finished buttoning his sleeves, blurred with sleep and what Tony prided himself on as satiation. It was remarkable how attractive Steve could be when he'd been well cared for. Tony almost expected him to stretch and purr like a contented cat.
"Going out?" His voice was pitched low and slurred, rasping over the vowels. He rolled onto his side, watching Tony through heavy lids.
For just a moment, Tony gave serious thought to skipping dinner and snacking on Steve again. The craving was too much, stronger than just the need. It was like wanting a glass of cognac—his hands started to shake from the urge to sink his teeth into Steve again. Unfortunately, his stomach vetoed that idea. It wanted more than just Steve could provide without affecting him adversely. If the satellite searched paid out, they'd both need to be up to full strength, and that meant no Steve-flavored hors d'oeuvres.
"Going out for a meal." He flashed Steve a grin and finished with the button as quickly as he could, to hide the tremble in his fingers. "And to stop by my lair and check on our little friends."
"Your lair." Steve snorted, but sank into the pillows, and it really was very unfair how delicious he looked spread out like that. "Do you want me to come along?"
Tony could put him on a menu and every vampire for a hundred miles would want to try him. Of course, then Tony would have to play jealous boyfriend, and whether he had the right to do so was still a question as yet unresolved. "Don't trouble yourself, honeybunch. You won't like it much, and all you'll be able to do is watch and get in the way." Steve scowled. That was a good sign—they weren't regressing. Tony grabbed his hat and headed for the door. "I won't be gone for very long."
"Who, me?" Tony grinned, tipped his hat, and was gone before Steve could look any more scrumptious.
The knife slid through soft flesh with ease, carving delicate patterns. Ezrabet bit her lip in concentration as she focused on the curve of a line, carving sharp arcs around the protrusion of the hipbones. Strapped to the board under her, her chosen canvas tried to scream, but Ezrabet had ordered her gagged, so the sounds were muffled, so they didn't bounce off the bare walls as they could have. The attempts were vexing, however, and she finished her flourish with a glare.
"Do stop that, or I shall be forced to remove your tongue," she chided gently, tapping the girl's breastbone. She was a scrawny thing, ravaged by addiction and starvation, nothing like the lush ladies Ezrabet had played with in her life. Her hair was lovely though, dark tresses that spilled over the headboard in wonderful ringlets. It nearly made up for the odor of lowborn illness and drugs that lingered about her. If only Ezrabet could cull her toys from among the more prosperous, but alas, they were too readily missed. "You shall survive, I promise you, but only if you remain still and silent."
Poor human that she was, the girl was too far gone in her agony to even hear Ezrabet's admonishments. Ezrabet sighed and bent to lick a smooth line up the cuts she had made. Her saliva did its work, numbing the girl's wounds as she traced them. The pained whimpers faded, replaced by confused noises. "You see?" Ezrabet asked, drawing her index finger through the trails of blood that dripped from her work. "Pain is but temporary, little one, but my knife is very sharp. So do be good, or I may damage you."
The muffled screams started again as she turned to decorate the girl's spread thighs with loving curls of her scalpel. Modern times simply failed to produce the sort of strength her own era had—humans were weak, pathetic things, all vying to be the least pitiable among each other. Sickening is what it was. Her toys hardly lasted a week.
One of her own vampires eased into the room with a polite, quiet cough as Ezrabet finished peeling the centers from her designs. When she looked up, his eyes were caught by the girl's writhing form, though he was jaded enough to not allow his thoughts to show.
"Yes?" She licked the evidence of her work from the back of her hand. "What is it?"
"Lady Celicia has returned from her assignment."
"And Woon is recovering from his injuries."
"Perfect." Ezrabet dropped her scalpel in its dish. The towels she had laid aside were not enough to remove all of the mess from her, but she did her best to make certain she wouldn't drip. "What number of guests does she bring?"
"Only one, Madame."
A single one would do, especially if it were the one she suspected. She'd hoped that her Celicia would have had a chance to properly play with her promised, but on occasion sacrifices were needed. She patted the girl's knee absently and dropped her towel. "Take care of this. Make certain she is treated well—I do not wish to find her dead of infection before I have finished."
She made her way through the rows of cinderblock cells, casting a disdainful glance down the hall at her own throne room. It had been taken over by Caine, and every time she thought of him gracing her seat it enraged her even more. Still, sailing into the room and laying her claim would accomplish only her own death, and she had sworn to have care.
Celica waited for her in her private rooms, midnight blue cloak gracing her form as it spread around her. She lounged on the edge of the bed, feet kicking gently in time to some unheard beat. Her clothes were eminently practical—denim trousers and a loose blouse, both dark to more easily blend with the night. The trousers hugged her legs, displaying their length admirably.
Ezrabet leaned back against the closed door, taking in the details of her friend's attire. She was harshly aware that her black dress, bloody though it was, was simple and unadorned, severe in line and color. It made her feel awkward and ungainly next to her friend. The sensation was oddly uncomfortable, but Celicia had a way about her that made Ezrabet ignore what she would not in others.
"Do remove your trappings of secrecy, dear heart. They do you a wrong, and I would like to know that I chose the color well." She pushed herself off from the door and crossed the simple, dark wood floor to kneel at Celicia's feet. When she craned her neck, she could see the curve of her friend's lip and a glint from the earrings that adorned her lobes. "None other than I shall witness your visage. See? I have locked the door."
Satin rustled beguilingly as Celicia shook her head. "It is too fine for me. I told you that."
"Diamonds would not be too fine for you, if only you would allow yourself to see it." Ezrabet frowned, but let the matter drop, rather than risk a schism between them. "You were successful in your hunt."
"He came like a lamb to the slaughter house." Celicia ran her fingers through Ezrabet's hair, nails scraping gently over her scalp. "Exactly as you predicted, as always. I only pray this isn't an error."
Ezrabet's eyes closed and leaned into the touch. Already soothed by her play earlier, it took away the last bit of lingering tension. "We are almost finished with the game, regardless of the outcome. This risk is one that is needed, or I would not take it."
"My promise," Ezrabet agreed, nodding. They fell into silence, Ezrabet captivated by the feel of Celicia's fingers, and Celicia lost in her own thoughts. Not even the vulgar beat of a human heart marred it. Her knees ached from holding the position, as they sometimes did when Caine forced her to kneel, but she allowed herself only small shifts to ease it, rather than move entirely.
The peace ended when Celcia kissed her brow. "You must prepare for the final act, before any more guests arrive unannounced."
"You are correct, loathe though I am to end this." Ezrabet pushed up from her tender knees, dragging herself along Celcia's legs as she did so. "I do not suppose I could entice you to assist me in dressing?"
Clever fingers slide down Ezrabet's cheek to undo one of the buttons over her breast. "Of course," Celicia answered, her smile audible in her voice as another button came free. "You know I enjoy playing with beautiful things."
Steve's boots clicked against the concrete-lined tunnels under Luke AFB. Nothing had changed in them; they were still the same poorly lit rat warrens as before. That should have been reassuring, but instead it sent a chill down his spine.
0200 and Tony wasn't back yet. Steve had done everything possible to pass the time, from cleaning his weapons to checking the news. Everyone was still holding communications silence on Tony's condition. About the only one handling the issue with grace was Thor. Even Fury hadn't taken time to chew anyone out on national television. More than anything else, that told Steve that he had probably known Tony wasn't dead. It didn't surprise him—Fury was good at keeping secrets, and Tony's status wouldn't have been the first one.
Steve had tried to be patient. He didn't know how Tony handled his food needs, or how long it would take for him to get back from the lab. Then midnight had passed. And then another hour. It wasn't even close to dawn , but Tony had only gone out to check the search results and eat. It shouldn't have taken four hours, and if something had come up, Tony would have called the hotel, or even left a voicemail on his cell phone—Steve had cleared it out of the twenty messages Jan had left just to be sure that there was room. But still, Tony hadn't returned, hadn't called. So Steve put on his uniform under his civvies, called Carl for a ride, and headed out.
Something was wrong. He could feel it in his gut.
When he came to the lab entrance, Steve almost missed it. It was recessed into the wall, and every light was out. He doubled back on himself, eyeing the barely visible door. They hadn't turned the lights when they'd left—Tony had said that they were motion activated by sensors in the hall. Keeping low, Steve crept towards the door and pushed it open. It swung without protest; whoever had left last hadn't checked to be sure it latched.
Bracing himself, he reached over on the wall and slapped the button for the lights.
Steve eased inside, staying low. At first, he couldn't see anything wrong. The lab was as messy as they'd left it, with notes and random mechanical parts scattered in an order only Tony would be able to identify. Boxes were still in place, and there was no visible damage to any of the computer systems. Even the door didn't look as though it had been forced.
That was when he noticed it.
Tony's hat. The razor wire had been pulled from the brim and was covered in blackened gunk. Next to it was a smear of more of the same, and splatters led across the concrete floor. Looking up, Steve saw more stains on the ceiling. Ice froze in his stomach. There was no corpse, but there didn't need to be—they could have taken it along in an attempt to clean up after themselves.
Cursing, he pulled out his phone and hit the power button. It lit up, then immediately dimmed. Service Unavailable. Cell phones didn't work underground.
A quick search turned up nothing useful—no sign of a body, nothing missing that he could identify as actually gone. They hadn't even touched the Iron Man suit. Maybe that had been a smart idea, though. Putting a distressed Tony in the same building as his armor was a quick way to be exploded across the local landscape and sometimes parts of the moon. One thing that could be said about Tony; in a crisis situation: he seldom held back. A gore-stained wrench had been discarded in the corner; whatever it had hit, it had done so hard enough that he could see the outline of the hand that held it around the stains.
The hum of the main desktop attracted his attention. After one last glance around, Steve sat in front of it and jiggled the mouse. The monitor flared to life, and a password prompt flashed at him, with a small animated computer chip tapping its foot angrily in the background. Thinking back, Steve carefully entered the password—knowing Tony, too many bad attempts would trigger something permanent, and there was no telling how many times the ambush team had tried. The computer processed for a few moments, then the computer chip grinned and gave the thumbs up.
Welcome back, Mr. Stark! Your search using SHIELD SAT GAMMA has completed! Would you like to view the results?
Pressing his lips together grimly, Steve clicked onward. The first thing that appeared wasn't the satellite images that had been running before, but an e-mail.
Damn it, Stark, if you're going to hack into classified systems, at least cover your tracks! I had to have three techs work on cleaning up your trail, you lazy son of a bitch.
That answered that question: Nick knew Tony was alive. Steve was going to have a talk with him about that, after he found Tony and blew the vampire's hideout back to Hell.
Steve didn't let himself think about the very real chance that he wouldn't find Tony. It didn't work that way—they needed Tony alive, or they wouldn't have been screwing around for six months trying to catch him. They could have set off a bomb in the lab and waited for him to trigger it. Instead they'd sent in a task force. That said hostage to Steve.
What they wanted with him was anyone's guess. It had to be big, to have gone through the trouble they had and more than three years setting it up. Whatever it was, they were willing to take time and make it work. That made them smarter than half of the guys Steve had spent his time out of the ice fighting.
Behind Nick's email was the satellite search results, with a street-level view of the building. It was an oddly-shaped glass skyscraper, narrower in front than behind and lit up with blue running lights. It stretched up high enough that the camera couldn't see the top, losing the view somewhere around what looked like the twentieth floor. What it did get an image of was the sign across the door: Bank of America. Below, an address picked neatly out in bold text blinked gently.
Steve stared at it for a long minute, then reached for a pen and a pad of paper.
Almost as soon as he reached the surface, his phone rang. Steve snapped it open without bothering to look at the screen. "Jan, before you start yelling at me for ignoring your calls, we have an emergency. Get the team together and have a plane readied for Phoenix. Or ask Thor. A jet might be too slow." He hadn't yet made it out of the abandoned base, and the crushed remnants of the final battle of the Chitauri loomed around him. Nothing had even been touched. It was an abandoned site and a reminder of a near catastrophe. Phoenix preferred to put its money into a new tourist trap and airport rather than take care of actual damage.
A long moment of silence came through the line, then, "This isn't Ms. Van Dyne, Mr. Rogers, but I'll be sure to let her know you spoke in such cordial tones." Pepper Potts' voice was positively icy through the slightly static-laced receiver. "You said there's an emergency? What have you screwed up now, besides Tony's reputation and everything we've been doing for half a year?"
Steve paused, one hand resting against a shattered and fire-scorched wall. "Ms. Potts, I wasn't expecting to hear from you."
"I run Tony's life, and you just outed it on national television. Of course you're going to hear from me." Potts must have covered the receiver, because the long string of shouted orders that came next was muffled. Then she was back to full volume. "So why don't you tell me why you thought it was a good idea to deal with a few small fry when you should be concentrating on helping Tony."
"It's more complicated than that." He started moving again. In the distance, Carl's cab was a bright yellow speck under a miraculously working streetlight. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I don't have time to talk."
"Yes. You do. You seem to forget that until Tony is declared legally living again, I hold the keys to the jet. Now, tell me what's going on."
Potts definitely should have been an Army general in World War Two. He waved at Carl, and was recognized by the car rumbling to life. In the still desert air, it was the only human noise audible. "Fine. You want to know what's happened? Tony's been captured, and I need to get him back. Now, are you going to let me assemble the team, or am I going to have to go after him alone?"
Another moment of silence carried through the phone, broken only by the hiss of static. There were more muffled orders, and then Potts was back. "Happy's contacting Thor right now. If we can find him, we should be able to beat a plane out there. How long has Tony been missing?"
"A few hours, but—" Steve's tongue and feet both tripped to a stop. He started moving again, picking up the pace. "We? You're not coming here."
"We," Potts confirmed firmly. "And yes, I am. Iron Man's been spotted in Phoenix? I can't afford not to go check it out." As if sensing his disapproving frown, she chuckled. "Don't get full of yourself, Rogers. I'll stay out of the way of the real heroes. Just keep me apprised of the situation and let me handle the press. That's all I'm asking."
Carl waved at him through the driver side window, and Steve slid gratefully into the backseat of the cab. He missed his motorcycle and all the options Ultimates had open to them in New York, but Carl wasn't a bad compromise. At least he could keep a secret. "It doesn't sound like you're asking anything, lady."
"That's because you don't listen very well." A click, a thud and shouts echoed in the background. For almost dawn on the east coast, Stark International was awfully lively. "Look, I'm busy handling the fall out from your little stunt over there, and I don't have time to debate. I'll call you when I've got something, until then, hold tight and for God's sake don't get caught on camera again, and don't go off half-cocked. If I have to attend Tony's funeral again, I'll make sure you wish it were yours. And answer your damn phone." The line with dead with a sharp click.
In the driver seat, Carl adjusted the mirror. He was still wearing his Yankees cap. Steve really didn't have the heart to tell him that he preferred the Dodgers. "Arguing with the little lady?"
Steve stared at the back of his head, then shook his own and buckled his seatbelt. "She's not my little lady," he corrected absently. "And I'm not sure what I was doing. Losing, whatever it was."
"Some girls are like that. You just gotta let 'em have their way, you know?" The cab kicked into gear, gravel grinding under the wheels as Carl preformed a u-turn in the middle of the road. "Where we headed, then?"
The street lights were few and far between near the base, and they vanished entirely after a few blocks. No doubt it used to be lit by security lights, but there was nothing left to secure. At least, not according to the government. "Do you know where Alma School and Southern Avenue is? There's a Bank of America building."
"Hell, yeah I do. It's downtown Mesa, near the mall. You can't miss it—damn building looks like its falling on you all the time. Creepy shit."
Tony could be taking torture right that second. For all he knew, the vampires wanted him for the nanites in his blood, or for some sort of grudge that meant slicing him thinly from the feet upward. He didn't have time to wait for Pepper Potts and the Ultimates to find Thor. There were a lot of things worse than death. "Take me there."
Tony blinked himself awake, weaving on his feet. His bare feet, with his bare body. Someone had stripped him. His head pounded like he'd run it through a brick wall, or maybe tried to take on Hulk in the nude, and blood crawled up the back of his throat, tasting more of bile than the meal he'd put into his stomach earlier. Chains rattled and kept him from falling on his face as he lurched forward, retching onto the cheap poured concrete floor. When he finished he hung there, panting and trying to remember that he didn't need to. It made the nausea worse, as he had plenty of experience with.
He was so unsteady, the manacles around his wrists were all that held him up. They connected back to a solid wall of cement blocks, and were the only notable features of the six by six square foot cell. Even the lighting was recessed overhead and covered by a pane of plastic. The floor sloped towards a drain that ran down the center of the room. No windows and only one door, made of what looked like the same impossibly thick metal as the chains. Off to the side, someone had left a room service cart, complete with a white sheet and a large metal lid over the top, hiding the contents of the tray from view.
A covered tray and chains. Oh, that never ended well at all.
"Are you feeling better, Mr. Stark?" A familiar, oddly accented voice asked in a sickly sweet tone. He lifted his head, gore and bile dripping down his chin. Ezrabet Bathory smiled at him, hands folded like a teacher in front of a class of elementary school students. She was dressed in black again, like every time he'd seen her since the first, this time a sleek dinner gown with more pearls. "Did you get it all up, or would you like some more time? We certainly don't want you to keep it in your system for too very long. It curdles, you know, and that just makes everything very messy."
He didn't need to breathe—he didn't, it was just his body remembering one too many hellish mornings. But trying to stop was harder than it ever had been when he'd been alive. "What—what did you do to me?"
She smiled, coral pink lip gloss shimmering in the overhead light. It dimpled her cheeks in a way that would have been fetching on a woman who wasn't standing in a pool of blood and stomach acid. "Milk, Tony. It does wonders for the human cattle, but for us, it is more than a little distressing. I was beginning to fear you would not wake up before you processed it. That would have set back our plans while you recovered. We cannot have that, can we?"
Sharp clicks sounded on the floor as she circled him slowly. "You really should be much more careful flying that armor of yours, no? Anyone at all can follow it back to its landing, if they are watching closely where and when it takes off." Ezrabet came back to her original place. "But you were too busy hurrying back to notice. Sloppy."
Bile rose up in his throat again. Tony lunged forward, gagging up more of the contents of his stomach. He did his best to aim for her shoes, and was darkly pleased when a bit of blood splattered over the hem of her skirt. Small revenge, but when chained to a wall by villainous vampires, even the least of rebellions was sweet.
The smile faded. Ezrabet lifted her skirt and stared down at it, lip curled in disgust. Tony had just enough time to savor a surge of triumph before she giggled and let it drop. Baby doll blue eyes looked at him through thick lashes. Delicately, she stepped over the mess on the floor and pinched his chin to lift it.
"Oh, Tony, Tony, Tony." She clicked her tongue in disapproval. "You are naughty, are you not? And I did try so hard to catch you before you were ruined by the cattle. Look at what you have done. If you had not ran, back in California, we would not have to do this." Slowly, her fingers dug into his cheeks, brilliant sparks of pain slicing through him. Her nails dug runnels in his skin, one of them reaching so deep it clicked against his teeth. Tony hissed and yanked away, leaving blood crusted under her manicured fingernails. The left side of his face throbbed as the wounds tried to close.
Ezrabet stared at the blood, then wrinkled her nose and wiped it off on her dress in four long, red streaks. In seconds, they darkened to black as the blood aged and dried. One of her nails had ripped off, dangling by a thread of meat. The underside of the cuticle bubbled, oozing puss where Tony's poisoned blood had gotten into the wound. As he watched, Ezrabet tugged the last bit of the nail off. It turned yellow and collapsed into dust. "That hurt. I believe I shall enjoy taking you. And then you will help mother in her little pet project, will you not?"
"Go to Hell. Again." Tony leaned away until his back pressed against the cold wall. His ribs ached where he'd fought his ambushers, but nothing felt punctured this time. The cold eased his headache a little, and settled his stomach enough that he didn't feel like he was about to cough up a kidney. "You're not my mother."
"I made you what you are, Antonio Stark." Platinum curls tumbled around her cheekbones as she looked up at him.
She was so close that he could see the dark roots just beginning to grow back in. A vampire with a bleach job. He had known it couldn't be natural. That was just hilarious for some reason, or would have been if her knee hadn't connected with his groin. Pain shot through him from crotch to skull, rattling his bones and closing his throat so that he couldn't even gasp at first. Tony tried to double over, and this time when he threw up it was directly down her chest. She didn't even try to move away. He dangled by his wrists while his entire body rocked with the pain.
"I raised you up from your personal little hell, from the shell of humanity that held you down." Sweet, delicate tones rose up and down in a musical litany that Tony would have appreciated much more had he not been in agony. "I fed you your first true meal, back when you had been nothing but another cow, waiting for the butcher. I ended your pain, when the cancer would have let you suffer on. I am more your mother than Maria Stark had ever been. She only gave you life. I gave you eternity."
"What do you people want from me?" Tony choked. He didn't have the strength to stand up straight, but the chains had started to pull at his shoulders. Shaking knees held him up for a few moments before he collapsed again. His shoulder wrenched when his weight hit them, drawing a pained gasp from his throat. "Look— Lady, I'm all for kinky BDSM, but I usually get a safe word. This isn't the way to get what you want."
"Au, contraire, my precious little one. It is precisely the way to get what I want." There went the smile again; it made her look as wholesome a Joss Whedon villain. Her fingers tapped against Tony's chest, the nail-less one a soft pat next to the sharp digging of the other three. Metal flashed under her fingertips—she'd put some sort of blade under them. That explained how she'd been able to draw blood so easily. Nails didn't usually slice and dice so well. "Torture does not work on human cattle. They are too delicate, too mortal to last long enough to break thoroughly. But you and I, our people are not so weak, are we? And there are ways other than torture, ways between two vampires that would not work at all on a human."
Steve would find him. Tony tried to focus on that. Steve would find him, because saving people was what Captain America did. No matter how confused he was about their repeated and frequent one night stands, Steve wouldn't stop until he'd either found Tony or whoever had killed him.
Maybe it would be for the best if he died. Steve could find a nice girl next door type and forget he'd ever had a homoerotic misadventure. Pepper would get the business, but that was better than Gregory sinking his claws into it. Most of the world would never know the difference if Tony Stark clocked out a few months late. Just the Ultimates, Pepper and Happy would ever know it had happened.
Blood trickled down his chest from the cuts Ezrabet had made, drying before they even reached the dark trail of hair over his navel. The cuts didn't heal all the way, barely starting to close before his condition got the better of him. There was too much damage, between the concussion from the wrench and the milk, and he'd lost everything he'd eaten. There was no way they'd feed him—they weren't stupid.
If he tried hard enough, he could trick her into killing him. He knew he could. God knew he'd almost done it enough times before, sometimes not even on purpose. It would be easy.
"We had your funeral." Steve's back was warm and strong. Steve was warm and strong, everything Tony wasn't and had always admired from afar, but never really wanted to be. He was content enough to leave it to people better than him. "People cried."
People had cried over him. Maybe not much, but they had. Someone had cared enough to shed an honest tear. He couldn't do that again. It felt too much like cheating, to give up the ghost before they'd had a chance to yell at him for the first time he'd done it.
"Tony?" Razor-sharp metal dug into his face again, making him clench his teeth. How had he ever thought she was pretty? It was all artifice, and while Tony could appreciate a good persona, there was nothing worth seeing under hers. It was like a piece of watered silk, thrown over a month-old corpse. Once you knew what was under it, you couldn't stop seeing the shape. "Child, you must stop ignoring Mother or I shall think that you do not love me. What are you thinking, when you go so deep into your thoughts?"
"I was thinking..." Tony coughed to clear his throat. It was sore from the times he'd heaved, and he had a feeling that he was only going to do it again. "That my friends are going to splatter you all over the desert."
Sharp white fangs flashed in a brilliant, childlike smile. When her nails sunk in again, they kept digging until they scraped against his jawbone, dragging downward. The razors under her nails ground in, scraping as she curled her fingers. Tony gritted his teeth so hard that one of the back molars cracked. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of screaming as she methodically stripped away pieces of his flesh, but he couldn't entirely keep back a strangled whimper. "I was so hoping you would say that—what is it?"
Bathory's fingers ripped down his jaw, coloring the space behind his eyelids gray with pain. Something wet splattered against his chest, sticking for a moment. When Tony opened his eyes—when had he closed them?—he saw a chunk of skin drop to the floor. The pain eased as Bathory turned away, down to a throb that wasn't much worse than being punched by an irate husband.
Rusty hinges creaked as the heavy metal door scraped open. Tony almost laughed at the cliché. It was too much. He almost expected the man who leaned in to have a flat head and a hunch, or maybe just bolts in his neck, and inevitably be named Igor. Instead, it was a perfectly ordinary man, the sort that wouldn't look out of place behind the desk at a used car lot. He even had the thin, desperate lank brown comb over of the truly hopeless.
The newcomer's heartbeat fluttered like a bird's, so fast that Tony thought it might be a health condition. It was the only sound in the room other than the occasional groan of Tony's chains, making Tony's stomach churn as hunger battled with nausea. He tried to ignore it. Whatever the problem was, the man was human—which meant that this went a lot father than just some undead megalomaniacs, as Tony had been assuming. "Lady Bathory, Lord Caine asked me to deliver a message for you."
"What?" From the way she bared her teeth, she looked about three seconds away from killing the messenger before he'd even had a chance to deliver the news. Then she paused and visibly straightened. "I mean, what is it that Lord Caine wishes to tell me?"
"We... we've had word." The human licked his lips nervously, his eyes darting from Ezrabet to the still-covered cart, then down to the bloody vomit on the ground. "Captain America found the lab—the man that was left behind spotted him coming out. He spoke into a phone and then took a car. Lord Caine has decided to assume that he's on his way here. The prisoner must be finished before he arrives. You are to bring him down as soon as possible."
Cap. Tony tried to keep his face blank as his mind raced, not wanting to give Ezrabet anything to work with. Steve was on the way, and about to do something impulsive and stupid. That was reassuring, even though it sounded like they were just going to step up their plans. He only had to hold out until Steve got there.
Ezrabet's face twisted in anger. He hands curled into fists. Tony watched as blood trickled down between her fingers where they'd dug into her palms. By the time it dripped to the floor, it had aged to dust. "I was promised that I would be allowed to play when we had caught him. Promised. Is the Lord no longer a man of honor?"
Apparently the messenger wasn't entirely stupid, no matter what working for the vampires said about him. He cringed and huddled against the doorjam, eyes submissively low. "I'm just repeating what I was told to say, Lady."
"Tell Lord Caine that I will be with him shortly to discuss matters." The human nodded frantically and scurried out of the room, using both hands to haul the door shut behind him.
Blue eyes turned contemplatively on Tony. She reached for the tray and finally pulled off the cover. Underneath was the expected array of blades—Ezrabet was a woman who liked her knifeplay. What he hadn't expected to see was a bottle of cheap, rotgut Canadian Sour whiskey and a shotglass. The bottle looked bulky in her tiny hands as she poured two fingers of the amber liquor and lifted it up for his inspection.
Tony couldn't take his eyes off the shotglass. The old craving hit hard, crawling through his bones. He needed that drink, needed the space from the world that it gave him to think. But now it was mixed with fear.
"Oh, yes." Ezrabet smiled and swirled the whiskey in its glass. It glittered like the downfall of saints. "All the world knows of your weakness, and I know that you are aware of what this will do to you. Would you like a drink, little Tony?"
There was nothing he could do as she ground her fingers into his jawbone until it was a choice of open his mouth or lose the jaw. As soon as the whiskey was in his throat, she slammed her palm up, snapping his mouth shut and keeping him from spitting it out. It burned his tongue, not the old familiar burn, but an acid heat that scalded the inside of his mouth. Heat blasted at his nerves, blistering the soft tissue of his cheeks and tongue where he'd bitten them. The half-healed wounds split open again, gaping wide as the alcohol ate at their edges.
"Swallow now, swallow..." A tiny fist connected with his stomach. Before he could stop himself, he gasped, and the liquor burned its way down his throat. "Oh, good boy, you are such a very good boy, are you not?"
Pain doubled him over as the burn spread. It ate through the thin lining of his stomach almost immediately. Blood welled up what was left of his throat and between his lips. He could feel the liquor sliding through his body, burning away everything it touched. It was a blast furnace in his stomach, flames licking along his blood and into every organ. Chains snapped as his legs gave out, wrenching his arms in their sockets as he dangled just inches above the floor, without enough slack to kneel. His throat locked up, lungs spasming as they tried to cough the blood filling them. Vision faded, blessed darkness giving him a nanosecond of respite. Then it bloomed again as the healing factor went to work.
Tony tried to scream. The best he could manage was a wet gurgle.
Ezrabet giggled and kissed his cheek. "Something to think about, while I am away. Think hard, Tony."
Carl had parked a block away, where a sorry excuse for a parking lot broke up the space between buildings. He killed the lights and the engine. "This is it, buddy."
Steve grabbed his shield and unbuckled his seatbelt. He really missed his bike. A cab was no way to travel. The door slammed behind him, sounding too loud in the empty lot. Leather straps locked around Steve's shoulders, hooking his shield to his back for travel. "Go home to your wife. If this goes wrong, you're not going to want to be nearby."
The front seat creaked as Carl twisted to stick his head out the window. His big face was set with worry, deepening the lines exposure to the hard desert sun had already etched into it. The streetlights caught a few silver strands in his hair. "Man, you sure you don't want me to wait? I can tell when something big's going down, you know? And this is major. I can call the cops if you don't come out or something."
His shoulder was solid under Steve's palm as he clasped it. "You're a good man, but if I don't come out, there won't be anything the police can do."
That didn't seem to reassure him, but Carl nodded. "I'll be watching the news for you guys. Good luck, man. God bless."
Steve clasped his shoulder one more time, and then found the deepest shadow to slip through, leaving the cab behind. Every step sounded too loud, and every time he had to dash through brightly lit back lots he winced. Bright blue leather wasn't the stealthiest thing to wear, but he didn't have time to go back to the hotel and get something better.
Time, time, time. It ticked away in his head, seconds to minutes to hours. They'd had Tony for at least several hours. That was enough time to board a plane and fly just about anywhere, as long as they had human pilots and a safe place to hide from the sunlight. A few minor thugs hiding someplace didn't mean that they'd take Tony there. It could even be another trap, like what had obviously been left for Tony, designed to catch Steve too.
Even if it was a trap, though, there would be someone there. And if there were someone to catch, there was someone he could squeeze information out of about Tony's location, or what they were planning for him. Eventually, he'd catch up, and then make them pay for whatever they'd done.
Thick decorative bushes rustled as Steve eased between it and the building it was decorating. The landscaping was all more eastern than everyplace else Steve had seen in Phoenix—less gravel and cactus, more grass and hedges. It wasn't perfect cover, but it kept him out of sight should anyone pass by. It was almost 0300 though. Phoenix was mostly asleep.
It was so quiet that he couldn't help but hear his own thoughts, even when he knew he should have been focusing on the mission and his surroundings instead. He couldn't stop thinking about how close he and Tony had gotten. Pushing through the lower branches of a rhododendron, he realized that eve if he still wasn't sure what he wanted, the few days they'd spent together had been simple, comfortable. Even with things being weird and Tony supposedly dead, it worked better than he and Jan ever had. Tony hadn't even slept with anyone when Steve had thought he was dead. Steve never would have even thought that possible until he'd heard it.
Blue lights from the overhead signs lit a covered path under the hedges. He ducked under, movements slow and stealthy. The bushes were still flowering, even in winter, but the gaps between the branches gave him an excellent view as he worked his way along. The edge shield caught the lower ones, snapping them like small gunshots in the quiet. It took Steve some trial and error to work out how to hunch his back, forcing the branches to slide off the curved face of it.
Having Tony back was like having his shield back. He managed to get by without him, but everything was easier when the Tony-shaped hole in his life was filled. And now he'd been taken away again.
Steve really, really wanted to hit something.
The building was exactly the way Carl had described, all dark glass and an odd polygon shape that gave the impression of falling. It was lit up with bright blue runners along the edges that made it stand out among the other glass buildings like a bluebird in a flock of crows. It didn't look like the sort of place that someone would be kidnapped to, or that houses the kind of people who would threaten children. He wouldn't have thought Bruce was the type to turn into a monster like the Hulk, either. Appearances counted for nothing.
A security guard paced around the target building. He looked completely normal, like any human security guard might. Tall, slightly out of shape and not really paying much attention to what he was supposed to be doing. Steve hunched down in the bushes when his flashlight passed over them, too quickly to be searching for anything specific. Either he was an innocent man who'd been hired out to the wrong people, or he was a vampire, and there was no way to tell.
If he happened to be innocent, Steve didn't want to hurt him too badly.
Steve waited until the guard had passed him, then rolled out of the bushes. The man had enough time to turn his flashlight beam before Steve's fist connected with his jaw. He went down like a tree. He checked to make sure he was really unconscious, then rolled the body under the hedge where it wouldn't get stepped on. Pavement jarred his knees as he dashed for the entrance. Security cameras would spot him, and probably had already alerted them to his presence. Tony would have been able to disable them, but there was nothing Steve could do about that. A subtle entrance was pretty much impossible anyway.
He brought his shield up to protect his face and crashed through the glass doors. No alarms sounded that he could hear, but he had no doubt that there were plenty that he couldn't. If they had any sense at all, any alarms wouldn't be audible, or triggered to alert the police. People like this didn't want police officers investigating their business—they'd much rather take care of it themselves.
The lobby looked just like a bank should. White florescent panels had been set up so high in the ceiling that the created an illusion of sourceless lighting. Only every fifth was lit, keeping the entire room dim. Faux marble columns that were no doubt load bearing stretched up to the ceiling, and neat velvet ropes created a twisting line for customers up to the counters. What few decorations there were had been done in red, white and blue, which offended him on principle. His footsteps were loud on the tile, echoing through the cavernous room. Steve flattened himself against the wall and waited.
It took less than a minute for the lobby to be flooded with people. Most of them were human, but a few vampires were there too. Steve picked them out by the way they moved, too quick to be anything but super human. No identifiable uniforms marked them except for color—every single one of them was dressed in solid black.
These humans were fair game.
They rushed him without guns, trying to take him down by sheer numbers—gunshots in the lobby would attract too much of the wrong sort of attention. Steve followed their lead, keeping to his shield as he fought them off. One tried to come up from the side, a machete glinting in the low lighting. Steve kicked it out of his hand and immediately brought his leg back around. It caught the attacker in the temple, putting him down for the count. Another three rushed him from the front. A wide swing of his shield a head-height took them down, and put him in position to catch another in the gut with his knee.
Steve felt his conscious mind take a step back, years of training and reflexes taking over. He kept his back to the wall so no one could take him from behind, but everything else was automatic. None of the humans were any sort of hand to hand experts, and the worst weapon they had were blades.
A blur of black shoved one of the humans aside, landing a blow on Steve's ribs, then sprinting away again. He grunted, bending too late to protect his side. One of the humans darted forward to take advantage of the opening. His knife skittered off Steve's uniform before biting into meat, leaving a long, shallow gash over his hip. Steve rewarded him with a boot to the chest.
The humans were getting thinner. Whoever had organized them hadn't expected Steve to put up as much of a fight. Blackened, decayed slime clung to the edge of his shield, where vampire blood had decayed and stuck like glue. A detached, distant part of his mind realized that it was going to take hours to clean. Steve tossed another one into a wall, then caught the next comer in the throat. One of the vampires rushed him again, but this time he was ready. He brought his shield up horizontally, directly in the vampire's path. The monster's head rocked back as he ran right into the edge. Another blow to the neck and his head rolled off to be trampled by the men around him.
A second later, another vampire stepped up to take its place, this time a female who looked like she'd stepped out of a poster for Rosie the Welder. She didn't make the same mistake her colleague did, choosing instead to swing one of the stands that held the ropes. Steve ducked, and was caught in the chin by her shoe. He grabbed her leg, forcing higher and sweeping her off balance. Marble dented under his shield when he brought the edge down on her neck. Her eyes stared up at him blindly, before the decay shriveled them beyond recognition.
Ten humans and one vampire left.
They seemed to realize what their chances were against someone who had taken out twenty of them. Everyone hesitate, even the vampire, as they glanced around. Then, en masse, they charged.
For a minute, Steve thought he was going down. His back slammed against the wall and his shield crunched open a skull as they cornered him. Then an opening appeared. It wasn't much, just enough room to get his feet braced, but that was all he needed. He took it, stepping forward to balance, and laid into the mob. He barely noticed when the vampire's head went flying. It was hardly the only one, the press of people hindering them more than it did him.
Five, punch, kick, slice, three, jab, punch, one, kick, done.
Steve took a deep breath, wrinkling his nose at the pervasive odor of decay and bloody death. Most of them were gone, either unconscious or worse. He waded through the bodies, scanning for movement.
A groan in the corner caught his attention. He stepped over someone whose neck had been broken and bent down. It was another woman—ancient or not, vampires were obviously equal opportunity employers. She rubbed her head where it looked like his shield had caught a glancing blow and sat up. Blood matted her dark hair to her head and crusted the side of her face. When she saw Steve leaning over her, she yelped and tried to scramble back.
"I don't know anything, I don't, please don't kill me," she babbled, dark eyes huge with panic. "Please don't, please, please—"
Steve covered her mouth to shut her up. "You know something, or you wouldn't be here. Give me some answers, and I'll let you run out through those doors. Clear?" She nodded frantically, then wobbled as the movement upset her balance. She probably had a concussion. He took his hand off her mouth. "Good. Tell me where Tony is."
"Who?" Steve narrowed his eyes, and she blanched. "Honestly, I don't know. I'm just human, they don't tell us anything."
That made sense. "He would have been brought in early tonight. Vampire—dark hair, tall, probably unconscious."
The girl—and she had to be a girl, she barely looked eighteen—shook her head, more carefully this time. "Word said they'd caught someone, someone important, but I didn't see them bring him in. If they did, he'd be downstairs in the sublevels."
"How many sublevels are there? How occupied are they? Are the upper floors occupied too?"
It took her a few seconds to speak. Steve ground his teeth, but waited. The concussion was obviously getting to her, and trying to force things wouldn't get him straight answers.
"Five sublevels, not really thick. Lady Ezrabet lost about half of the vampires last night at the museum, and the rest are probably still out feeding. No one but human guards are on the above ground levels—it's the business part, so they run it as a front."
"What level would they be holding Tony on?"
She swallowed, closing her eyes as if dizzy. "Bottom—fifth level. That's where the cells are. They'd put any prisoners there. If your friend's a vampire, he'd definitely be there."
Steve nodded solemnly. "Is there anything else I should know?"
Dark hair fell over her forehead as the girl bowed it, visibly trying to think. "Lord Caine is here," she said eventually. "He's the oldest. Older than anyone. I don't know why he's here, though. He usually stays in Europe—the United States belongs to the Lady."
"That's all you know?"
"Yes." She swallowed again, glancing up at him weakly. "May I— may I go? I don't want to die yet."
"Sorry." Steve swung his fist. She collapsed backwards bonelessly, unconscious but still breathing. "You'll have to wait."
Tony was in the building, probably level five if he trusted the girl. With no other intel to go on, he had to. At the worst, he'd find someone else down there with more information. If he didn't find Tony, he'd find out where he'd been taken to.
It was all he had.
The first level was almost entirely empty. Steve caught a few workers and knocked them out. They were all humans, who looked more like penpushers than any sort of security. He worked his way through the office cubicles to the next level of stairs. The same thing greeted him—a handful of humans who couldn't even run and more wide open office space, filled with computers and filing cabinets. Another staircase, and he made his way downward.
He eased open the door to level three and barely brought up his shield in time to deflect the gunshot that had been aimed at his chest.
Bathory took aim with the wide, easy stance of a practiced marksman. It was hard to see, but her black evening gown was splattered with vomit and blood, as though someone had thrown up directly on her. She didn't seem to care.
"Hello, Captain." The gun clicked as she chambered a round. The space behind her was a set of barracks, long rows of beds and trunks, as neatly kept as anything he'd seen in the army. "We heard that you were coming to visit us. I apologize for the lack of hospitality, but you were too rude to give us proper warning. I was just on my way to speak with my superior about you, but I could hardly miss the noise you were making above."
"Where's Tony?" Steve kept his shied up, stepping sideways to try and throw off her aim.
It didn't waver. "Tony should hardly be your primary concern right now, Captain. Do keep your attention where it belongs. You might hurt my feelings." Another gunshot sounded. Steve ducked his head behind his shield, momentarily taking his eyes off the enemy to protect his head.
It was a mistake.
Bathory leaped at him, covering the distance in an eye-blink. Her nails raked over his face, slicing cleanly through the leather and into skin. Blood blurred his vision, giving her enough time to land another blow on his temple. Something hooked his legs at the knee. Steve toppled to the floor, almost catching himself on his shield. Then that was ripped out of his hands and hurled across the room, where it stuck in the wall.
Satiny dark fabric bunched around her waist as Bathory perched on his chest. One hand pushed against his throat, keeping him pinned. "You reek of him, did you know that? I could smell you from the moment you entered the building," she purred. "Oh, but I do understand what my little Tony sees in you. Big, strong human—not intelligent, and too impulsive for your own good health, but handsome. They do not breed men of your caliber any longer."
Steve lunged, using his weight against her to try and throw her off, but she grabbed his throat, cutting off air. When he pulled away, the pressure released.
"Do not do that. I would have to hurt you, and that would be unfortunately premature." Her lips pursed as she leaned over him, meeting his eyes. "You have been fighting little ones, so far. I have been as I am since before this wretched country was even discovered by that idiot Italian. You are not strong enough to defeat me, Captain."
Breathing hurt. She'd managed to bruise his trachea. Steve forced himself to take deep, even breaths and not tense under her. "If I don't, someone else will. The Ultimates—"
"Yes, your friends shall be annoying, I have no doubt, but it will not be them, nor this century, I think." Blonde curls brushed over her cheek as she bent over, sticking where blackened blood clung to it. Her tongue ran over his forehead, lapping up the blood that oozed from the cuts she'd made. Steve flinched away in disgust, but she just smiled down at him and licked his blood from her lips. "You taste sweet—the serum, maybe? I think I shall keep you."
"You're a monster."
"Yes, I am. And?" She peered at him for another minute, then brought her free hand up to her mouth. Steve heard the moment her teeth dug into her palm. Blood splattered down her chin and over the star on his chest. Bathory pressed her bloody palm to his mouth. He pressed his lips together and tried to turn his face away, but her hand tightened around his adam's apple.
"Swallow." Nails bit into his throat, sharper than any sort of human nail should have been. "Drink before it heals, or I will kill you now, and then do worse to your lover. I have never castrated a vampire before. Do you think his manhood will grow back, or would the lacking remain?"
Reluctantly, Steve opened his mouth. Blood slid between his lips, already half-clotted and more disgusting than it had any right to be. It tasted like how old, rotten meat smelled. He gulped a mouthful down before he could gag on it, then coughed when more of it dripped down his throat between swallows. It settled in his stomach like lead, heavy and faintly metallic. The taste filled his nose, until every breath he took reeked of it.
"Such a good boy." Bathory's palm wound only stayed open long enough for him to get down a few mouthfuls, for which he was incredibly grateful. When she took it away, she wiped it on her dress, leaving black streaks behind.
Steve focused on not gagging. The way she had him pinned, he'd either choke on his own vomit or she'd break his trachea. His hand eased down to his hip, where the butt of his gun dug in. "What—" He grimaced as bile rose and forced his back down. Had to distract her, had to get free and find Tony. "What are you going to do with me?"
"Kill you, of course." Her smile was as bright and cheery as any he'd seen on one of the painted gals on television. A smear of his blood was caught on the corner of her mouth, but she didn't seem to notice. "Do not worry, Captain. I promise it will not last long. You shall barely notice." Her hand drew back from his throat. "Hold still now."
He took the chance, heaving himself to the side before she could strike. Bathory screeched as she toppled, rolling across the floor until her back slammed into one of the beds. Slim arms braced against the floor, pushing her upright. Steve didn't give her a chance. The butt of the gun slid into his hand smoothly. As soon as he had her in his sights, three shots fired almost by themselves. She jerked, eyes wide in shock.
Blood spread from the entry wounds—shoulder, chest, stomach. Bathory touched them tentatively, forehead pinched in confusion. Steve kept the gun up, waiting for her to fall.
Instead, she huffed in annoyance. "That stings." Steve fired another shot, catching her in the other shoulder. Bathory jolted with the impact, but finished rising to her feet. "Ow. This is very inconsiderate, to injure your host. You are a most vexing man, Captain." When he gaped, she just smiled and finished rising to her feet. "What? You thought your silly toy would kill me? If we were so fragile, we would not have survived, Captain. Now... Shall we dance one more time?"
Steve dived out of the way as she blurred into motion, coming so close to hitting him that he felt her dress against his cheek as she passed. He rolled to his feet, holstering his gun and whirling to find her.
Bathory perched on the edge of the bed, skirt shamelessly hiked up to her hips. Pink-stained teeth flashed in a leering grin. "Close, but not close enough." She vanished again. This time Steve couldn't move fast enough. A blow connected to his jaw, then his stomach. He whipped around, bringing his elbow up to what he estimated what head-height. It cracked against something.
High heels scrabbled against concrete as she stumbled back, blood dripping from her nose. It was blackened with age before it reached her lips. The mocking little smile was gone, replaced with a snarl. Great—he'd made her angry. At least he was managing to do something.
She lunged, jabbing the side of her hand at his throat. Steve arched over backwards, flipping himself entirely. His feet caught her in the chin, knocking her back to the floor. Out of the corner of his eye, his shield gleamed where it had stuck in the wall. It wasn't razor sharp, but it had done for enough vampires already—it would do for Bathory. He edged towards it, keeping his eyes on her.
Black satin spilled across the cold grey concrete as Bathory pushed herself upright. She didn't try to get to her feet. Her hair had come out from its style completely and spilled over her shoulders, hiding her face behind a curtain of white-blonde curls. "You forget something, Captain. Something which is very important."
"What have I forgotten?" Fifteen feet... ten...
Her arm came up in a blur. Gunshots fired. Steve's leg started to buckle when it was hit. He locked his knee to stay upright, clutching the wound to apply pressure.
"You forgot that I am armed." Her gun arm stayed steady as she rose to her feet, even though her high heels made her lurch. "Now. Hold. Still."
Light flashed as the electricity flickered. The reek of ozone filled the room along with a crash of thunder. "Steven, you should have waited for us." Thor loomed, as large as ever, grinning behind his beard, Mjolnir slung over his shoulder. Behind him, Clint and Jan were still crouched to get their bearings and balance. Even farther back, Pepper Potts and Harold Hogan, dressed to the nines in their business best, swayed and clung together.
Bathory wasn't stupid. She took one look at the Ultimates and vanished. The door to the stairs shut behind her so hard that its hinges cracked.
Potts was the first one to pull herself together. She pulled away from Hogan and stood up straight. "Where's Tony?"
"You brought civilians?" Steve demanded, lurching the last few feet to yank his shield from the wall. "What the hell were you thinking?"
"We were thinking we'd show up in a hotel or something," Jan snapped. She was wearing her battle gear, but her hair was still tousled and there were pillow creases on her cheek. "Not the middle of a damned warzone. What's going on? What's this about Tony? Tony's dead!"
"But not yet gone." Thor set his hammer, head down, on the floor and rested his hands on the handle. "Is he?"
"Something like that." Steve pulled his hand off the gunshot wound. It was going to need surgery to get the bullet out, but the bleeding had stopped. He'd be good enough for a fight. "Tony's in the building—probably on sublevel five. We're on three."
"What do they want with him?" Clint, at least, didn't look like he'd been asleep. "And what are we dealing with?"
"Vampires." Everyone except Thor and Steve turned to stare at Potts. She'd pulled a handgun out of her briefcase and was checking the magazine. Hogan was doing the same. Steve hadn't even known they knew how to shoot. "You're dealing with vampires."
"Great, just great." Jan wrinkled her nose. "You mean, stakes and holy water?"
"No, I mean decapitation or game over." Potts frowned down at her gun, then slammed the magazine home. "Hollow points should do it, if you can manage a headshot—arrows are useless, sorry Hawkeye."
"You two are not coming." Steve ignored the pain in his leg to stand up straight. He crossed his arms, and was a little surprised when Potts and Hogan crossed theirs. "And no arguing. We are not taking civilians into a combat situation."
"You already have, Rogers." Hogan wasn't as big as Steve, but he managed to loom as though he were Hulk-sized.
Potts kicked off her heels, losing four inches of height like magic. "And you can't stop us. We might not be super human like you lot, but that's our boss down there, and we're not leaving him."
Steve glanced at Thor, who shrugged amicably and leaned on his hammer. No help there. "Fine, but you stay back unless you've got no options, understood? And you follow orders."
A thinly plucked red eyebrow arched sardonically. "Sir, yes, sir."
That was that, then. Steve turned back to the Ultimates. It felt good to have his team back. It would be better once Iron Man was there too. "Okay, here's the situation. They move like Pietro and they pack a punch like the Hulk. Take out their heads first chance you get, because you won't get another one. Jan, I don't know how good your stingers will be; if they're not, focus on reconnaissance. Hawkeye, you got any explosive tips?"
Clint held up a handful of arrows. "And some hollow points. We're good."
It would have to do. "Okay, civilians in the back. Let's move out."
When Ezrabet came back, Tony had finally managed to stop choking on his own blood. She didn't even bother to close the door behind her, dancing in gleefully. Her dress was still stained, but new tears that looked like they were bullet holes had appeared in it, covered in her blackened blood. More blood smeared her face, and bruises had started to heal, turning yellow as they did. She twirled, making her skirt flare around her knees.
"Oh, Tony, Tony, I do see why you like him so much. He is very tasty."
Tony tried to find his feet, refusing to give her the satisfaction of seeing him hang. He wasn't beaten yet. Not by a long shot. His tongue and lips worked, forming the word "Who", but his throat was still ravaged by the whiskey. No sound made it out.
She seemed to understand what he'd said anyway. She paused, hands clasped at chest height, right where a bullet had gone through her. "Why, your Captain America, of course. The super soldier serum in his blood, it tastes very sweet. I have not ever had its like. It is a shame he did not last. Even he was only another of the human cattle, in the end."
Steve. She couldn't have known that about Steve unless she'd actually bitten him, and he couldn't imagine Steve letting her get that close. Tony's knees started to give out again as despair hit him, but he made them lock before he could put any more weight on his aching shoulders. The burn of the whiskey through his internal organs was suddenly secondary compared to the black weight of determination. His lips moved, blood burbling up between them. "I'll kill you."
"You will try." She reached up to pat his cheek fondly, like someone might do a favorite pet. There was fresh blood dried around her lips. "But for now, my plans must move forward. We do not have time to play."
He was helpless to resist as she sliced open her wrist and forced it to his mouth. The blood tasted awful—nothing like the warm, smooth copper of human blood, or even the acid tang of his own. Tony gagged and tried to spit it out.
"Drink, Tony." A tiny fist wrapped in his hair, forcing his head back so that her wrist would drip straight to the back of his throat. "Drink it all down, that is a good boy." Against his will, he swallowed reflexively, then again when more blood followed. "Did you never wonder how we maintain order, among our people? Why not one child ever goes back to their family, or to the tabloids? This is why, little Tony."
It wasn't as bad as the whiskey—nothing could have been as bad as the whiskey, dying hadn't been as bad as the whiskey—but once the blood hit what was left of his stomach it made his head swim. Not in nausea, but as if he were underwater and being spun around in circles.
Ezrabet pulled her wrist back and watched him through narrowed eyes, obviously waiting for something. "You see, Lord Caine wants to use your lovely brain to devise a way to turn the humans into the docile cattle they are. We have tried so many times, with other men, with the Chitauri, with machines." Her hand worked his throat, forcing him to swallow the last drops that remained in his mouth. "But I— I know that would be our downfall. We were meant to rule the shadows, not the day. Caine is old, and insane with his age. He is no longer relevant."
One by one, Tony's muscles went limp, giving him over to gravity. Even his tongue felt heavy in his mouth. Chains clinked as he sagged against them, his weight pulling at his shoulders and arms, slowly ripping them from their sockets.
She leaned in, lips brushing his ear. "You shall kill him for me, and then you shall die. A happy accident, yes? After I told them all that taking you was a mistake. Such a shame. But his territory will be mine. My homeland, given back to me." Her tongue traced over his ear. "I do wish I had been able to play with you. You are almost as pretty as your Captain. But we all must make sacrifices."
Tony tried to stand, or at least to spit on her, but nothing responded. His body was entirely limp, dangling like a marionette from its strings. He couldn't even shudder.
"Stand." The word had the weight of an order. His body did it for him, even though all he wanted to do was double up from the acid still eating through his gut. "Look at me." He did that too. Ezrabet was smiling, a small, smug little tilt of her lips that he wanted to wipe off her face like he'd never wanted anything else in his life.
Steve was gone. Tony was helpless. His mind raced, but no matter what way he looked at the situation, he came up hopeless. Even his body was betraying him.
"You will walk with me, and you will act normal." Her arms folded across her chest as she eyes him. "When Caine attempts to feed you, you will grab his neck and squeeze, until it comes off."
Tony did his best to glare at her, pleased to find that he could glare. She didn't have perfect control.
There had to be a way around this. Nothing was perfect, no amount of orders could close every loophole. And she couldn't stop him from thinking. He could take her out. It would kill him, there was no way around that, but he could do it.
Living had just lost its novelty anyway.
Ezrabet didn't even seem to notice the look he was giving her. She gave him a quick, once over inspection, then nodded and put her hands on his arm.
"Come. It's time to finish this."
The fourth level was at least twice, maybe three times as large as the ones above it, designed in a series of offices and what looked like personal apartments. It was also filled with vampires. Whether the girl had made an honest mistake or not flashed through Steve's mind for an entire second. Then there was no time to think.
Thor barreled into the halls with a battle cry that sounded like something out of a fantasy novel. Vampires didn't even get a chance to get near him. He laid around him with the sharpened end of Mjolnir, chopping off not just heads, but limbs and torsos at well. Lightning sparked overhead, running from each of his foes in a widening circle. Vampires screamed as they cooked. It didn't kill them, but they stayed incapacitated long enough for Mjolnir to do its work.
Hawkeye followed after him, shooting off arrows so quickly that his hand seemed to blur with speed. Every target he hit exploded, taking out the whole upper body. Jan whizzed above them all, shooting off her stingers. They weren't much, but they distracted the vampires long enough for Hawkeye to land a shot. Then came Steve, swinging his shield in an imitation of Thor's hammer. The team worked as smoothly as ever, pushing their way through the press of monsters and leaving only rotting bodies behind.
It was Potts and Hogan who surprised him most.
They hung back, as ordered, staying close to the wall and firing off shot after shot. Not all of their bullets hit, but when they did they always took off an arm or a leg, and a few times the top of a head, with little explosions of flesh and gore that were understated next to Hawkeye's kills, but effective. They aimed to the sides, Potts on the left, Hogan on the right, so none of their stray bullets risked hitting the team. Steve wouldn't have expected even one shot to hit—professional police and soldiers had a hard time hitting the broad side of a barn in action. Whatever Tony had been paying them, they were definitely worth the money.
The vampires didn't even try to run. That was strange. Usually in heavy hand to hand, even the best trained forces had one or two who cared more about their own necks than orders. This time they just kept throwing themselves at the Ultimates, and getting sliced and blown to small chunks in the process. Steve felt weirdly like he was in some sort of movie, where the villains were incompetent and the hero barely had to do anything to kill them.
It wasn't a fight. It was a slaughter. And it was wrong.
"Wasp!" Steve sheered through another vampire, who didn't even try to raise her arms to protect herself. He reached to tap his communicator, then cursed. It was still at the hotel, with his spare ammo and gun. As a make-shift, he kicked a skull towards her to get her attention and raised his voice over the din. "Wasp! To me!"
Jan appeared overhead, fluttering in small circles. Her mouth moved, but he couldn't hear her tiny voice over the gunshots and the sounds of slaughter.
"Go find Tony!" Steve ducked a clumsy blow from a vampire that looked like he was a boxer when he'd been alive. "This isn't a fight—it's a delay! Find out what's going on!" She nodded and zipped off towards the stairs on the far wall.
Steve stepped back, boot crunching the rotting remains of a vampire bone. His shoulders touched Thor's, who turned to look at him.
"You believe they are sacrificing themselves?" he asked, hammer taking out three enemies in a swing.
"You haven't fought them like I have." Steve ducked and brought his shield around, slicing a vampire in half. They weren't even trying to use their speed, or their strength. Just from having sex with Tony, he knew they were holding back. He still had bruises on his waist from Tony's thighs. "A handful of them almost got me upstairs. This is too easy!"
Thor nodded, cutting through another vampire like a wax doll, wading deeper in. "I had begun to come to the same conclusion."
"You shits think this is easy?" Clint demanded from farther back. He'd run out of arrows and had moved on to hollow points, like Potts and Hogan. His gun let out a report at twice the speed of theirs, and all of his shots were headshots. "You're nuts!"
The vampires keep coming, and Steve wasn't sure from where. They poured out of the rooms and other hallways, packing them in and making each step one that had to be cut through the crowd.
Jan reappeared overhead, circling frantically. She swooped down and landed on Steve's shoulder, clinging to the edge of his cowl. "Tony's downstairs!" she shouted, almost having to yell directly in his ear to be heard over the carnage. "There's something going on—that blonde woman and another guy are there! He looks bad!"
Tony was alive. Alive. A tight feeling in Steve's chest that he'd barely been aware of gave way.
He looked around, spotting Thor a few feet away. "Tony needs help! You got this?"
Looking every inch a god, Thor nodded regally and sent a head flying. "Rescue Tony! We will handle these!"
The only way to the stairs was either through the crowd or... Steve backed up, ignoring the crunch and ooze of decaying body parts under his boots. He took three quick steps and then leapt, twisting his body mid-air to soar over the heads of the crowd. A few of them tried to swipe at him, but he'd gotten too high up. When he came down, it was with his shield under his feet and accompanied by a crunch of skulls breaking. Then he was surrounded, but most of the press was focused around the team. They hadn't expected anyone behind them. Some sweeps of his shield and a few punches cleared the way between him and the door.
A buzz of energy sparkled overhead as Jan fended off one of the few enemies that had hung back. She waved a tiny arm and whizzed off, ducking down and squeezing through the gap underneath. Steve followed, knocking the vampire out of the way before pounding down the steps after her, taking them three at a time.
The final floor was dim. He could barely see the walls, which looked like they were made of solid concrete blocks. It didn't have any of the human touches from the upper floors—no carpet, no paint, not even any furniture. If anything, it reminded him of a kennel, from the drains that ran across the floor to the solid metal doors that obviously led to individual cells.
Dark, rusty red and black stains were smeared over the floor and walls in some places, obviously blood. Steve shuddered and prayed that none of it was Tony's.
Jan hovered in front of his face, her wing beats fanning his cheeks. Even in the low light and shrunk down, her tiny face was pinched with worry. "Follow me. Quiet."
Steve nodded and stepped after her, doing his best to keep his footfalls silent. People groaned in the cages to either side. Just sound alone didn't tell him if they were human or vampire, but it didn't matter. They were hurting. He hesitated, looking at the doors, but Jan swooped around him and shook her head.
Tony. Grimacing, Steve set aside his guilt and followed her.
The room Jan led him to was lushly decorated, as elaborate as the rest of the level was bare. If anything, it was too extravagant, like the decorator had tried too hard. Bright crimson carpets, gilded furniture, marble statues—it was more of a throne room than anything else. It took up half the level, at least, and the ceiling had been painted to give an impression of vaulting height when it was exactly the same as the rest of the building. Steve stayed low, ducking behind oversized furniture and statues to stay hidden.
Voices carried from deeper in the room, measured cadences barely audible. Jan stayed close by Steve, darting down to hover nervously around his ear before fluttering off out of his line of sight. He wanted to tell her to settle on his shoulder and stop distracting him, but when he caught his first sight of Tony, he understood her nerves.
Tony looked like someone that should have been dead. He knelt naked on the floor, weaving as if he'd pitch forward as any minute. Still-bleeding gouges had been sliced into what Steve could see of his sides, and a large piece of his skull was matted with blood. Every few minutes he leaned forward, coughing. Blood visibly splattered on the white suit of the man standing before him.
Steve thought he'd be ill. Leather creaked as his grip tightened around the straps of his shield. Every instinct yelled to dive in there, to kill the thing that had hurt Tony. His hands shook with it. It took every bit of will he had to force himself to crouch down and wait for his chance. He'd only get one shot at rescuing Tony, and he wasn't going to waste it.
"This is what we've come to." The vampire knelt down and forced Tony's chin up, like he was inspecting him. He must have been taller than even Steve, but he was skeleton-thin. His skin was the sort of pasty color that reminded Steve of nothing so much as a corpse. "Treating our children like dogs."
Bathory hung back, well away from Tony and the other vampire, head bowed submissively, but Steve saw her fists clench. "He would be dangerous without it, Lord Caine. This man is not one to be trifled with, and he would not agree to our cause."
Dark auburn hair fell into eyes that were so pale, they almost looked white. His fingers slid through Tony's hair, coming away sticky black with blood. Silently, Steve urged Tony to fight, but Tony just sank into the touch and gagged on his own blood more. "Did you try to convince him, before you tried to break him?"
"No, my Lord. The Ultimates attacked. I had no time. We must bind him to you before they can take him from us." Steve saw Bathory shift, taking a step closer to the wall. Her hands were still clenched behind her, blood oozing from her palms. "Hurry, my Lord."
"They are only cattle. This will not be rushed." Jealous rage curled in Steve's stomach as the man pet Tony. Steve looked away to try and get a grip on himself. That was when he saw the guards, tucked away in shadowy nooks. Five of them, and they looked more competent than anything from the upper levels. "This is our triumph, Bathory. With Stark, it will not take long to make the humans see their place. It should be savored."
"Is dead, isn't he?" Caine looked up, and Tony sagged more. Steve's eyebrows rose in surprise. "That is what you reported."
Bathory startled, obviously upset at being caught in a lie. "But his people— they are still above. And dangerous. They are killing our children."
"Yes, you've shown great concern over the welfare of the young ones. I commend you for doing an excellent job in clearing out the chaff." Caine sighed. "But your meaning is well taken." A small knife, roughly the size of a letter opener slipped out of his sleeve. Steve tensed, but he didn't make a move to use it on Tony, instead slicing open his palm. It oozed sluggishly, black and thick straight from the wound. "Drink, little one."
Tony's head came up. His back tensing was the only warning before he lurched into motion, slamming his head into Caine's chin. His hands weren't tied—they must have thought him beaten. The taller vampire went down under the assault, Tony's hands locked so tightly around his neck that blood oozed between his fingers.
"That's our cue!" Jan chirped, speeding out into the air overhead. Her stingers sparked near the guards, confusing and slowing them down.
Steve rolled out from his hiding place, hurling his shield. "Tony, down!"
To his credit, Tony didn't even look before throwing himself to the floor. Steve's shield cut right through Caine's neck. It struck the wall and rebounded, coming back to him as surely as if it were on a bungee. The body folded slowly to the carpet, already mostly gone before it even hit.
The guards froze, looking over to Bathory.
"Get them!" she shrieked, pointing a blood-stained nail at Steve. "They killed Lord Caine!"
Their faces set. Swords slid out of the scabbards at their sides—a sensible weapon for a species that had to be decapitated to die. Steve didn't wait for them to finish drawing. He dived in, swinging his shield. It caught the first in the chest, throwing him backwards but not killing him. Before he could follow up, the second was on him, sword held expertly steady as it swiped at his legs.
Jan darted down from above, stingers flaring in the vampire's eyes. As soon as he was blinded, Steve kicked the sword out of his hand. His shield crunched into the vampire's skull, cleaving it open. The sword skittered over the carpet, clattering to a rest against a geometric-shaped statue. Steve whirled to catch the next attacker.
He wasn't fast enough. The bullet wound in his leg slowed him down, just enough for a closed fist to backhand him. He felt the crunch as his nose broke, blood washing down his face. Another blow caught him in the sternum, cracking ribs as it threw him. Steve landed on his back and rolled to his knees, coughing, lungs spasming as they tried to suck in air. He kicked out backwards, the snap of a kneecap breaking traveling up his leg. Someone screamed, then the noise cut off abruptly.
The body sagged to the ground, its head neatly removed at the shoulders. Tony sagged against a sword, using it to prop himself up.
Steve nodded and rolled to his feet in time to catch another one in the throat. The vampire gagged, pitching forward. It was enough of an opening for the shield to crunch down between its vertebrae. He brought it up to catch the sword that was swung at him from one of the last two. In the corner of his eye, Tony weaved and brought his own sword to take the other one, but he was so unsteady he could barely keep upright.
Two small explosions cracked through the air: gunshots. Chunks of skull and brain splattered onto Steve's face. The last two guards fell, withering down to husks as they dropped.
"At least they saved some for us." Clint holstered his gun. Thor hadn't even bothered to bring up his hammer. Behind them, Hogan and Potts had their weapons down too.
"Hey, boss," Hogan frowned. "You don't look good."
Tony took one look at them and crumbled. Steve caught him before he managed to hit the ground. A pained gurgle and new blood coughed up between his lips when Steve's arm wrapped around his stomach.
"What did they do?" Thor knelt down at Tony's side, pressing two fingers against his neck. He frowned and shifted them, searching.
"Nothing good. Stop that, you won't find a pulse." One of Steve's gloves was already half off. He rolled up his sleeve as much as he could, baring his wrist. He shoved Thor's hand out of the way and pressed his wrist to Tony's mouth. "Come on, Tony, drink up."
Tony's eyes met his, impossibly blue behind black smears of gore. Then his teeth sank in, grinding down so deep Steve felt them scrape bone. The familiar numbness spread, dulling the pain until Steve couldn't even manage to twitch his fingers. Tony's mouth locked around the wound, suckling, pulling the blood out as if Steve could bleed any faster.
"What the hell—"
Jan expanded to her full size, touching down beside Steve lightly. "Shut up, Clint. Did anyone get the woman?"
Thor dragged his eyes from Tony, shaking his head. "We did not see a woman. Only the two Clint killed."
The pull at his wrist slowed, then stopped as Tony's head sagged forward. He went limp, curled against Steve's chest like a child. None of his wounds were healing yet, but they would, even if Steve had to drain himself dry to do it.
Steve pulled his sleeve down. It would help keep pressure on the bite until he could get it bandaged. When he stood, he kept Tony cradled in his arms, glaring at Thor when he made as though he'd take him. "We'll find her later. We need to get Tony somewhere safe before dawn. Someone get upstairs and call transport."
Potts flashed her cellphone, thumb already slapping the keys. Her eyes were locked on Tony, and worry set deep lines in her makeup. She still hadn't put her shoes back on, and she was covered in muck up to the ankles. "I've got it. Just keep him going, Rogers. If he dies again, I'll never forgive you."
Steve couldn't bring himself to meet any of his teammates' eyes as he shouldered past them, carrying Tony's limp body. "Neither will I."
Everything ached, like the worst hangover Tony had ever had, or possibly the time he had seduced the Swedish Tag Team Wrestling pair. Breathing hurt, moving hurt, thinking hurt. Light pierced his eyelids, and no amount of sticking his head under a pillow seemed to help.
"Lights!" The word barely came out as a croak. "Off! Lights off!"
For the first time in six months, they obeyed, shrouding the room in blessed darkness. Tony relaxed, sinking into the body-hugging mattress. Thank god for voice controlled buildings.
Voice controlled buildings. The mansion. He was in the mansion.
That shocked the last bit of sleep out of him. He sat up sharply, then clutched his head when the motion made it feel like it was coming off. Nausea surged and died when his stomach proved to have absolutely nothing in it to throw up. It adjusted swiftly to the discovery by instead cramping with hunger. The room had the grace not to lurch, but it spun alarmingly. He clenched his eyes against the sensation of everything moving around him and tried to keep from tipping over.
Warm, strong arms wrapped around his waist, holding him upright. The hot, coppery scent of blood hit him, enticing, laced with the even more tempting scent of Steve. His stomach seized again, craving settling deeper into his veins than the need for alcohol had ever reached. He needed— he needed...
Before he could stop himself Tony twisted around, shoving Steve down to the bed. He was too weak to put any real force behind it, but Steve didn't fight him, toppling backwards easily. Tony's teeth sank into the thick muscle of Steve's shoulder, slicing down deep. As soon as the blood touched his tongue he relaxed, lapping it up. It slipped down his throat, soothing the rawness and settling in his stomach. Steve's hand cradled the back of his neck, his thumb rubbing a calming circle as he fed.
The bite was too deep for Tony to catch it all. Excess blood spilled over Steve's shoulder, staining the sheets. He whined and tried to catch it before it was lost, sweeping his tongue over the broken flesh. He'd never been so hungry in his life, not even after the six day slog through the Pacific.
"Slow down, you'll make yourself sick again." Warm fingers smoothed through his hair. "Easy, easy... Breathe..."
Tony pulled away, resting his forehead against Steve's chest. He was naked, and Steve was naked, and while usually this would be a wonderful state of affairs, he couldn't bring himself to enjoy it. Steve's heartbeat was so loud, the blood moving just under tender skin, so close. It was like a siren's song, calling to him to seek it out. He could taste it on his tongue, that odd sugary flavor that was only Steve's. Just a small taste more, that's all he needed, just a little more... "Steve?"
"You should finish." The hand never stopped rubbing the back of his neck. "I know you're hungry."
He settled on Steve's stomach, suckling at the wound. It was practically on top of the one he'd made before, ripping through the scar tissue. The bleeding had slowed, but started flowing again when licked it, breaking it open where it had started to seal. Tony fed until the cramps eased and he could straighten without immediately doubling back over. Steve still smelled like the most wonderful thing ever, but he wasn't so mind-numbingly tantalizing. Tony pushed himself up, using Steve's chest to balance before he drank too much and he did make himself sick.
Steve reached over to press his palm into the wound. White gauze peeked out between his fingers. Clearly, he'd been prepared to be jumped. "Are you okay?"
Tony nodded. He could feel his throat healing, a hundred little wounds stitching themselves together with the fresh influx of blood. An experimental swallowed proved easy enough, so he tried speaking. "What happened?" When pain failed to assail him, he continued, letting the words flow. "Not that I don't appreciate breakfast, but this was hardly on the list of things I expected to wake up to."
"You've been unconscious for about a week." Steve shifted away, pushing at him. Tony obediently let him move, heart sinking, but Steve only reached for more gauze and some medical tape. "We moved you here a few days ago. Potts and Hogan insisted. Are you still hungry? There's some bagged blood..."
Pepper. Wonderful, lovely Pepper and Happy. Angels in the form of a redheaded ballbuster and her love-struck boxer. They knew how to take care of him. He'd have to give them a raise, when he got control back of his company. Or maybe they could give themselves raises. "No, no, I'm fine. Full. You're delicious, by the way." Tony stretched, enjoying the pop and crack of his spine after a week without movement. "You happened to be present when I woke?"
Steve flushed. It was reassuring, in a way. He had enough blood in him to flush. Not that Tony felt like he had really taken that much, but he had no way to quantify it realistically, and quite a bit had spilled. "I didn't want you to wake up alone." He squirmed and sat up, taping the gauze in place and steadfastly refusing to meet Tony's eyes. "How do you feel?"
"Surprisingly good for a man who choked up his small intestine. Almost ready to be declared living, again. We are declaring me alive again?" Tony watched Steve with a sinking heart. Waking up to find Steve there had lit a small, desperate flame of hope. Steve was alive—not dead at Bathory's hand, not a victim of Tony's mistakes. And then he'd said he wanted to be there...
He was tired of having the same candle lit and then snuffed, over and over.
"Potts is working on it. You'll have to ask her for the story. I've been avoiding the press." Steve's blue eyes finally met his. For just a moment, Tony wished that he hadn't bothered to wake up. "Look, about that talk—"
"No talk." Tony fell back, sprawling elegantly and then adjusting it to something that put less pressure on the back of his head. His cracked skull still hadn't healed, it seemed. The ceiling was as fascinating as it had been the last time he'd stared fixedly at it to avoid looking Steve in the eye. "I'm done with talking, and I don't have the energy to seduce you out of it. I understand."
"You understand?" The bed didn't shift—really, it was wonderful to be in a decently expensive bed again—but he felt Steve move. The subtle shifts of the air and the direction of his voice told Tony almost more than his eyes could have. His voice came from Tony's side. If he concentrated, he could see the edge of Steve's shoulder in his peripheral vision. "What do you understand, Tony?"
"Everything." A sweeping, looped gesture tried to encompass the word. It didn't even get half of it, but Tony figured that the attempt counted. "You know, it's almost morning, isn't it? You still have time to get back to your own bed. Maybe Jan will keep it warm for you."
Airflow changed again, but Tony was still surprised when Steve leaned over him, frowning. The little gold cross dangled from his neck, cold where it brushed Tony's collarbone. "Tony—"
"Do you mind?" Tony frowned back as sternly as he could. "You're blocking my view of the ceiling."
That was the exasperated roll of the eyes he knew so well. Unfortunately, the sarcasm failed. Steve settled down against Tony's chest, practically pinning him down. No weight pushed against him, for which Tony was terribly grateful since his aches were still present, but he blocked him in with chest and arms. If Tony wanted free, he'd have to wiggle for it.
"I think I want to stay here." Steve's face was absolutely solemn. "Your bed is more comfortable than mine."
One last ember of hope that he hadn't quite been able to snuff flared back to life. Tentatively, his hands curled around Steve's biceps, not quite holding him. "Well, if it's in the name of comfort, I suppose we could simply move a few of your things in here? So you don't have to go back and forth, that is."
Steve's lips brushed over his, so soft that if Tony closed his eyes he could almost think he imagined it. "I'd like that."
Ezrabet settled into her chair gingerly, hands flexing against the arms. Caine had died in her territory, passing his own province on to her by tradition, and good riddance to him. He'd thought age was strength, when all it meant was the weakness of habit.
The other members of The Council watched her warily. They knew that she had arranged Caine's end, and it frightened them. Politics were petty and dangerous among the other nine, but assassination was unheard of, and no one had dared to threaten the oldest. They tasted mortality, for the first time in centuries.
The seat reserved for Eastern Europe was her rightful place. She'd worked for it for centuries, since her first taste of death, when she'd been dragged screaming from her castle to be taught her place. She'd longed to have her homeland back, with its mountains and the taste of wind in the trees.
Only one matter remained—assigning her old territory. "Celicia."
Her dear friend stepped up from the shadows. She came close enough to touch, dark head bowed in submission. For this occasion, she was unhidden. Ezrabet wished she could claim such rights more often, but she would have to content herself with Celicia's bared visage being saved for only herself. "My Lady."
Ezrabet leaned forward and took her hand, thumb sliding over the slight bumps where her fingers had once been broken. She had always been Ezrabet's dearest, the one she trusted and the only one left from her old life. Now she could return a small portion of what Celicia deserved for her loyalty. "You are my eldest, are you not?" she asked, for the sake of formality. Ezrabet had only ever taken two children of her own, and Celicia was the first.
"North America is yours, by right." Ezrabet squeezed her hand gently, as she had centuries before when she'd pulled her Celicia from the house of the wretched man called her father. Long centuries of caring for her, hiding her away from danger and placing herself before it were coming to fruit. It felt right and good, as few things did. "But also, there is someone there who I am sure you would want to meet again, and I made you a promise. Would you like to claim your gift?"
Celicia looked up. The lighting was soft, almost hiding the slight change of skin tone and uneven bone structure where her jaw had been ripped away. Her eyes gleamed like amber. "Yes, Lady."