Syzygy (a Kludged Together remix)
a conjunction or opposition, especially of the moon with the sun.
"the planets were aligned in syzygy "
a pair of connected or corresponding things.
-- Google Definitions
For a moment, Tony considers asking JARVIS to take a screencap of the zoomed-in image. It's not like it would look out of place among his eclectic and whimsical art collection. Pepper would tear him a new one for insinuating a fuzzy satellite image could stand up to the masters, but Pepper? Verbally castigating him? That would be a new experience… never ?
Tony zooms out the image just to double check his readings, and the result is unmistakable. "Jarvis, buddy, ol' pal."
"Less of the old, if you'd rather, sir. I'm keenly feeling every nanosecond of my seven years of being online."
"Aw, baby, you're looking your age too." Tony squints. "Banner still off the grid?"
"I'm afraid so."
"How about the Bobbsey twins?"
"I believe they're on a mission. Would you like me to bring up the interface so you can divine their location?"
Tony leans against the table, letting the soft background hum of his equipment quieten the buzz of his brain for a moment. With the soft blue of the abstract display on the screen before him filling up his vision, it's almost like being at sea. And maybe it's the deep blue of the ocean that compels it, or maybe it's the notion of just who he would want at his back when confronted with deep fathomless water, or maybe it's just his ever-speedy futurist brain, calculating the only (best) option for mission success before he can consciously decide on it— whatever the reason, he's reaching out and tapping the command to send a text message out before he's even fully aware of his next step.
He stares at the blinking cursor in the white messaging space and refuses to be defeated by his subconscious action. It's logical. And on the bright side, it's plausibly logical enough to reason out not calling in Fury and his merry band of onesie-wearing cronies.
"Jarvis," Tony says, "current location of Captain Red, White and Blue?"
"Captain Rogers is currently engaged in his mid-morning jog, currently near turtle pond. Would you like me to send out a command to assemble?"
Tony glances at the messaging command he's already engaged, and shakes his head. "I've got it, J." He thinks for a moment, and decides that brevity is the soul of wit:
Tower, asap. Potential Goldilocks sighting, need to investigate.
Tony clicks send and realizes he's semi-holding his breath. It feels a little like hope. Like wanting something that he maybe can't have. Thor departed so long ago, and though the Avengers work together well on the battlefield, it doesn't feel right without the jovial warrior laughing and smashing his hammer through their foes like he's just passing a blunt knife through warm butter. Tony's stomach grumbles, the sharp pang of hunger shaking him from the slew of emotions he's not happy about feeling, and he smirks before bringing up the messaging command again and quickly typing an addendum:
PS Boy Scout, if you pass by that hot dog stand at the corner, bring me one.
Rogers probably won't comply, as he seems to have this ridiculous idea that Tony is constantly followed by lackeys, providing to his every whim every second of the day. The man's insane — he's lectured Tony more than once about replacing breakfast with coffee after a night of slaving away at Avengers tech, and the way Rogers side-eyes his kale smoothies is downright sacrilegious. If Tony had toad-weasel lackeys serving him left, right and centre, Tony wouldn't be accidentally skipping mealtimes while he worked so selflessly to create amazing things for his team.
Defying his expectations entirely, Jarvis brings up the footage of Rogers entering the tower with his hands full of food. Tony beams at the screen for a moment before realizing he probably looks like a massive dork, so he spends the time waiting for Rogers practising his casual routine. What should he say? Mm, give mama some sausage ? No, no, Rogers would spook and then he might eat all the food himself just to prove something stupid. Could you place it on the table so I don’t have to freak out at being passed something? Noooo. Honesty? Not his department, unless it's wrapped in three jokes and tied up with a ribbon of beautiful sarcasm.
As the door opens, Tony's derailed by the delicious smell wafting from the food, which makes his mouth water and his stomach remind him again how angry it is for not filling it recently. He ends up going with, "Just drop it there," accompanied by a vague gesture at the nearest desk. Tony kind of wants to facepalm. So suave, Stark. Then he continues to stare at the dark blue-green image and the hazy purple smudge like it's the most interesting thing in the world, so that Rogers can't see the furrowing frown on his face, because why does he want to appear suave in front of Captain Van Winkle, anyway?
Tony turns to him, meaning to say thank you, only to be faced by a suddenly-super-close Rogers, a determined expression on his face — just as he dumps a hot dog in Tony's hand before Tony has time to react.
The thank you chokes in his throat as his skin goes suddenly clammy and cold and all Tony can do to communicate the panic and hatred is to glare at Rogers. His chest pangs hard and Tony has to fight with all his might not to scream, not to run, not to freak out, because being handed things, that's when things go to shit, that's when things blow up in his face, that's when things go wrong.
For a second, Tony looks down at the hot dog and all he can see again is the photos Christine Everhart handed him. The bodies strewn across the floor. The small, bloody corpses of children. The weapons with his name plastered on them as the cause.
Tony swallows it all down as he always does, because that's just who he is. Freaking out is for later, and not in front of Captain Perfect Hair. He blinks and breathes and the photos morph back to the hot dog. The tantalizing smell that had made his mouth water now reminds him of dust and the metallic tang of blood in the back of his throat.
He looks across resentfully at Rogers, but Rogers is already looking up at the screen. Tony takes a vindictive moment to be pleased by his baffled expression.
"So what have we got?" Rogers asks, cutting straight to the point.
Tony takes an embarrassed moment next to be thankful for the distraction from the traumatic way his brain responds now to being handed things, and that embarrassment makes him react a little vindictively. Rogers thinks he's constantly waited on hand and foot? Tony can act like that's how he sees him. It's a petty comeback, but Tony's never seen himself as grandiose in the realm of revenge. He bites into the hot dog and mugs for Rogers' benefit. "Still surprisingly good," he says. "Also, being served a hot dog by Captain America: breakfast doesn't get much more American than that!" Tony tries not to grin too widely at the stubborn jut of Rogers' jawline. Aw, yeah. Time to round it out with a punch of good ol' Stark smartassery. "And what we've got," Tony waves at the screen with the hot dog, "is this ."
Rogers ignores him — or thinks he's ignoring him, but Tony can totally see the tense pulse in his neck that means he's irritated — and moves up closer to the image, his eyes tracking the white ripples like there's a secret message in their curves. "A modern painting?" Rogers eventually offers.
“Wouldn’t look out of place in my collection, but I think Pepper could tell the difference,” Tony replies, talking while he eats just to wind Rogers up some more. He finishes the food quickly, licks his fingers, wipes them on one of the napkins he keeps rolled up in with his spanners so that he can make impromptu paper napkin bowls for days when he needs to snack and not drop his popcorn all over his work, and uses a gesture to zoom out the image. The East Coast shoreline appears, easily recognizable.
Rogers still looks confused, but that's probably because he doesn't understand what the white ripples actually mean.
Tony prods at the area. "So. What we’ve got is a very unusual electrical storm some 500 miles off the coast, which puts it in international waters. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to get any proper readings on it, but what I can tell is that it’s pretty close to some of the data SHIELD have on our hammer-happy friend.”
Rogers frowns at it, like Tony's maybe making fun of him. Tony's a joker, that's true, but he doesn't mess around with facts, not when it comes to a mission. He wonders irritably for a second why he even chose Rogers for this mission. He should have hacked into SHIELD and found out where Katniss and Ninja Orphan Annie were. Of course Tony felt like the most third wheel that had ever rolled when he had to go on a mission with the two of them, but maybe it's better than the constant low level of disapproval Rogers seems to emanate when around him. They're just… so opposite. Tony's lost his mind, obviously. Well, he wouldn't be the first playboy to go off the rails.
“If it’s Thor," Rogers says, and Tony deeply resents the if , because he's a genius, why the hell would he have called Rogers in if he isn't sure? Because everyone totally loves to be disparaged by one of America's greatest heroes for their self esteem, right? "What’s he doing in the middle of the Atlantic?”
“He's a demigod and I'm a mere mortal," Tony says, "who am I to tell? A conference with Poseidon? An orgy with mermaids - oh, there’s a thought! There might well be a ship or an aircraft in there, but it’s impossible to tell with all the interference.”
Rogers shuffles, his shoulders bunching a little. Tony's getting to him, but boy scout as usual is correct, because Rogers is focussing on the mission and not on Tony's peeved melodrama. “Is the storm moving?”
Well, if Rogers can be professional, so can Tony. “Not at the moment. It's very localized, and its size has remained stable, a couple of miles in diameter. Whatever it is, it doesn’t pose an immediate threat to civilians, since all traffic, air and sea, has been directed to safe routes around it. Still, we’d better go and check it out.”
“Just you and me?" Rogers asks. "Where’s everyone else?” His face looks sour, like it's the worst idea he's ever heard of. He's probably thinking the same thing now as Tony. The two of them are so diametrically opposed, it's pure insanity to propose doing something together without anyone else to spray a hose on them when the bickering gets too much.
It's the most logical option , Tony mentally repeats to himself, albeit through metaphorically gritted teeth. He runs it through step-by-step with Rogers, because Rogers needs to know it's just a factual, logical choice and not anything strange like Tony actually wanting to work one-on-one with him. Tony ticks the options off on his fingers. “Widow and Birdling are off on some secret SHIELD mission, didn’t bother to hack the details this time. Banner is off the grid, haven’t heard from him since Tuesday. I can appreciate he sometimes needs quality time on his own, what with all those anger management problems. I’m sure the two of us can handle this just fine.”
“Fair enough," Rogers says, and Tony tries not to let the surprise show on his face. He was expecting more of a fight."I’ll call SHIELD and ask for a ride, and…”
“Nah, no need to involve Fury and his fan club. I already told them we’d take care of this on our own." Actually, Tony hasn't, but… he will. While they're getting ready. "They’d probably just grab Thor and bring him in for questioning as soon as they set eyes on him, I’d rather avoid that.”
“How am I going to get there, then?" Rogers asks, and it's delightful, he's actually pouting . Tony tries not to grin. "Last I checked, their technicians are still working on the Quinjet we wrecked on the previous mission, and you haven’t even finished the plans for our customized one.”
“Well, no, I’m still working on that," Tony says, waving a hand dismissively, "but as it happens, and you may have noticed, I’ve got this suit that can fly and can easily carry even the considerable bulk of a Super Soldier." Rogers' eyes narrow, like they always do when he thinks Tony's condescension is reaching rage-inducing levels. "If you think riding a Harley is good, let me tell you, that's nothing compared to this!"
Rogers' expression is nothing short of hilarious.
Of course, maybe Tony should have dialled back on the confidence. Not a lot. Just a little. Just on the easily part. Rogers' weight is more than bearable, Tony can lift him in the suit with ease, that's not a problem.
The awkward part is the wind and the fog and the, uh, probable hurricane. Tony decides not to admit to Rogers that he's flying them through the edges of a hurricane to get to the interesting sight ahead of them. Screw the danger, it's pretty fun, though, and he can't help but holler into the wind, the modulator in his suit amplifying the noise so Rogers can hear it in his earpiece above the noise of the storm; he tries to make noise, because it's when he falls silent to recalculate the flightpath that Rogers grips a little tighter. Cap's a nervous flier. Who knew?
The storm is unusual though, unusual in a way that means it's probably not Thor at the heart of it. Tony's disappointed, but Rogers doesn't suggest that they turn back, even after Tony admitted JARVIS couldn't give them any data. Moving in closer to the storm is the only way to know for sure what's going on.
The storm is a beauty, as far as storms go, and Tony doubts it's natural; JARVIS has picked up some sort of ship in the epicentre of it, and that makes it worth proceeding if nothing else, even though— Yeah, the storm isn't natural by a long shot, there isn't a weather phenomena out there that can explain the way that the clouds extend into a wall down from the sky to the surface of the sea itself, nor the thickness of the almost-opaque mist clinging to the area, nor the occasional flashes of lightning that flare up somewhere deep inside the clouds and the mist.
When they finally break through into a clear patch, Tony whoops again — because in the middle of the battering waves is a container vessel, sitting relatively low in the water.
"Gotcha!" Tony says, scanning the ship and looking through the details that run across his visual display. "It's a container ship under, hm, Danish flag, which – that's interesting, it’s been out of contact for over a day, last anyone's heard from them was thirty hours ago, nothing unusual, no distress calls. Engines are offline, as is everything else. As far as I can tell, it's anchored in place and just sitting there."
"The lifeboats seem to be gone," Rogers notes, looking at the aft of the ship. "Might be no one's home.” Tony tries not to be too annoyed that he wasn't the one to notice that, but then… He supposes that might be why his subconscious so quickly decided that Rogers was the one to come on this mission with. Because someone so opposite, so different, would have a diverse set of skills. His brain chose working solo with Rogers because Rogers can see things Tony can't. It's kind of irksome. Well. Tony's self-esteem is irked.
“Unidentified vessel, this is Iron Man," Tony calls, patching through to the ships' comms. "We're approaching your position. Anyone there? Do you need assistance?" The buzz of zero-feedback is the only reply. "Not a peep on any frequency,” Tony tells Rogers. "Okay. I'm picking up some funky energy signatures, better take a closer look."
"Do you still think it could be Thor?" Rogers asks, and Tony sighs. Okay, maybe he was too harsh earlier on criticizing Rogers for saying if . It's a long shot for Thor, really. It's just— Tony does miss Thor. He hates missing Thor. He hates anything where he can't fix the problem himself with his own two hands.
"I don't doubt he could cause something like this if he wanted to," Tony admits, "but no, I don't, seems too randomly aggressive even for him."
Tony swoops them closer to the ship, close enough that alongside the lack of lifeboats, the ship looks abandoned, no one apparently on board, all the lights switched off. And then Tony sees it: a long figure. Standing on the deck at the aft of the ship. The roughly man-sized shape blazes in white and violet light.
Tony's sensors try to identify what the light is, but he's too far away — he edges closer still, but it's a mistake, because an incandescent beam of light lashes towards them, like a bolt of lightning.
"Shit," Tony swears, swerving sharply to miss the bolt and get them to cover. "Cap, unclip, now." The order's unnecessary; Rogers is already finding the releases and detaching himself from the suit and from Tony. He drops smoothly onto the deck in a blur of red, white and blue.
Tony scans at the blur of light. His readings scatter frenetically, graphs leaping like jagged mountains, indecipherable. "I have no clue what that is, but it's clearly not Thor, and it's pissed. Better not get hit by one of those bolts. They don't actually read as lighting even if they look like it. Don't know what to make of them. We'd better figure out a way to contain it." Tony squints. The figure constantly shifts, making it hard to get a grip on what it looks like. "Him." No, that doesn't quite seem right. The figure appears to have a slender, elegant build and long thin lines. "Her." The blaze of light shifts. " Whatever the hell that is," he finishes.
"You stay in the air, I'll try to sneak closer on the deck," Rogers says. Tony tries not to roll his eyes at how obvious of a plan it is. Wait. He's in a mask. He rolls his eyes and flies up, readying his repulsors and circling closer while Rogers starts sneaking up to the creature, moving toe-to-heel like the thing can hear him over the sound of the ocean and the ship trying to settle in the extreme tug of the waves and wind.
"Hey," Tony calls, setting his legs apart so he can just hover, buffeted by the wind and staying as steady as possible, "flame girl. Why don't you turn the light party down a bit and we can have a chat, man to electricity bolts?" The figure doesn't react like she's heard him. Tony's kind of fascinated. He's never seen a fire- or electricity-wielding superperson that looks so interesting before. "We come in peace, take us to your leader?"
There's still no reply. Maybe she doesn't speak English. Tony runs it through the modulator's translators, and there's still no response, but as he flies closer, his readings spike aggressively; the figure sending a violet-white flash of lightning his way.
He dodges it, but the second one follows too quickly to respond well, and a third one emits towards him so rapidly that Tony barely manages to get out of the way. He turns and fires back, managing to expel a couple of repulsor blasts, but the figure reacts like he's done nothing at all — except it gets ornery and fires back.
And Tony can't get out of the way in time.
The violet light floods his vision from every angle and his entire body feels like it's screaming as pain washes through his body. He thinks he's being flung towards a wall, but that's the last thing he remembers before everything goes dark.
Everything is dark, a deep impenetrable black. His body feels like it's on fire. His systems aren't responding. His limbs aren't responding. He can't see anything. The monitor is black. The only thing that is working is his ears, and the comm sounds like it's drenched with lightning, and Tony can hear a clang that might be Rogers' shield hitting something, but it echoes painfully through his head.
"Hey, boy wonder, you hear me?" Tony squints, his voice sounding harsh to his ears. There's no response. Comms are only working one way, then. He can hear Rogers' harsh breathing He has to move. Rogers is out there, unprotected, because Tony thought they could deal with anything the world could throw at them. He almost wants to laugh but his throat is burning too. The pain is dizzying. He grits his teeth and tries to move his legs again. Come on, come on. If something's broken, they can deal with it later. For now, Rogers is out there and fighting on his own, and the sound of lightning is a terrifying soundtrack to Tony's fears. Come on, work, you goddamned piece of crap. Tony manages to move his head, knocking it hard against what's probably the ground, and it's the shock to the system that his suit needs; his display sluggishly fizzles and reforms, showing him the damage around him before trying to fling up red text to label it. Tony barks out a command to belay the diagnostics and focus on the functioning, but the command echoes in the helmet uselessly.
There's a reason he can't move. While the basic diagnostics is running, the suit is immobile. If Tony wants to move, he'll need to get out of the suit. He focuses to see his surroundings and realizes that he's been knocked through a wall and into some sort of large room, with lots of empty tables and low benches. Maybe a mess of some kind. I know the feeling, Tony thinks ruefully, and the sound of lightning crackling through the helmet makes Tony's stomach lurch. In the suit right now, he's nothing more than a fancy paperweight. If he's going to help, he needs to be outside the armor, not inside of it.
Even though it hurts more than words can even describe, Tony manages to move enough to activate the suit's emergency release function. The suit opens and oxygen burns his throat as he tries to breathe too fast. He doesn't have time to do a personal stock check. Without the armor pushing him down, he can move, so it means nothing important is broken. He pushes himself to his feet, even though every part of his body screams at it, and he takes a reluctant look down at the armor before turning to the hole he's apparently made in the wall. There's no sign of the creature or Rogers, just the aft of the ship and scorch marks on the deck and rain and seawater marring the whole area in a melee of water and wind.
Tony hesitates, indecisively. He needs to help Rogers, but without the armor he's useless.
Wait. No. The suit isn't Iron Man. He's Iron Man. His mind has helped save the day more times than his repulsors or jet boots. Tony forces himself to pause and think, even though all he wants to do is run out there and fight alongside Rogers. It would be stupid to do that. He needs a shield or a weapon or something similar. A grenade would be nice. But it's a container ship, they weren't usually allowed to travel with weapons, unless one of the containers had been hired by a weapons company. Tony turns, taking stock of his location again. Would the ship have a record of its contents? No, the admin tended to be done on land. Besides, it's likely an inventory would just be the name of the company, not the contents, there'd be no way to know if any of them had weapons in or just boxes of paperwork, if anything at all. Come on, Stark. Think. Outside, the explosive creature's probably giving even Captain America a run for his money, and Tony's just hesitating over what to do, like a total idiot, wasting time that could be used flinging open random containers.
But the odds of that are astronomical. It's not like someone's just going to have a bomb lying around. Tony freezes. Not a bomb. But something better . He grins in relief and runs for the side door he can see that has to lead into the bowels of the ship. Why spend time looking for a bomb when with a bit of creativity he can turn the whole ship into a bomb?
Rogers is probably not going to like this, Tony thinks. The thought honestly does nothing but increase the appeal for the plan.
It probably doesn't take a lot of time to turn the engine into something a little more explosive, but it feels like it takes an eternity. The ship has a basic marine diesel engine, meaning Tony can manufacture a crankcase explosion without too much trouble; all he has to do is ensure the lubricating oil is brought above two hundred degrees Celsius, and the oil should vaporize into a mist full of oil particles. It's like atomization, really; that oil mist will hit a hot spot in the engine and cause heavy damage if Tony can increase the pressure enough.
He ramps the engine to its highest possible setting before knocking off the oil mist detectors; it wouldn't do for the creature on-board the ship to realize his plan and come down to finish him off before he can make the ship explode. He takes a large wrench and turns the relief valves to their lowest before smashing them off, and then smashing at the vent pipes; a large enough dent should cause a choke up if Tony's math is right. Finally he jams the crankcase doors open, checks the pressure valves, and heads back towards the surface. If his calculations are right, it'll be under ten minutes until the engine blows and takes the whole ship — and hopefully the creature — with it.
Now what he needs is to get the good Captain and get them both the hell out of dodge before dodge blows sky high. Tony moves as fast as he can, ignoring his protesting body, and pushes out to the deck with a warning to leave already on his lips —
And Tony totally should insisted after being handed the hot dog that he should be allowed to nap and forget the world existed, because really, being handed things is the worst. Being handed things is a terrible sign of certain forthcoming evil. If Rogers had dropped it on the table like Tony had asked, there's definitely a very good chance that Tony might have come out of the door into a safer situation. And not stuck like a giant walking target in-between Captain America and the lightning-creature, with zero armor, zero protection.
Tony turns towards the figure, aware that its projectiles had been hard hitting when he was in the suit, so forewarning is the best chance he has of survival — only he's too slow, because the figure fires one of its searing bright energy blasts the moment Tony lays eyes on it, and he can't react in time. He thinks he hears Rogers shout, "Stark, watch out!" and Tony's heart drops, except only literally, because it's a shame he can't physically move his heart — that's where the blast hits.
The blasts hurt when he was hit while in the suit. Unprotected, it's bad . Tony's brain dissolves into single syllables and he's on his knees, hunched over, balling his hands into fists and pushing them into his sternum, incoherent with pain. Maybe if the blast had hit his flesh, he might just be burnt, but it's hit the arc reactor. He forces himself to breathe, because if he panics it will just make it all worse, but he wants to scream and it's only the fact that Rogers is there that he doesn't.
"You still with me, Stark?" Rogers asks, glancing down at him briefly before moving in front of Tony, shield outstretched to protect him as he watches the figure.
"More or less," Tony says, surprised that he's managing full words. It's more less, really. Without the armor he can't tell how bad the damage is, but his entire body feels like he's been dropped into a vat of acid, so it can't be good. "Would be perfectly fine if you'd been there ten seconds ago," he tries to joke, but his voice is shaky, so he swallows back the other jokes he wants to make. He manages to move a little, pushing himself up to his knees, and he grits his teeth, annoyed with himself for not managing more. They have to leave. The ship is about to become one of the biggest bombs Tony's ever had a hand in creating. “Anyway, we have to go. Now.”
“Yeah, we’d better fall back and regroup," Rogers says, face still turned towards the lightning creature, "I’m not getting anywhere. I've been playing cat and mouse with her for at least ten minutes, and I'm definitely not the cat.”
“No, no, no," Tony says, trying to push himself up more, frustrated at his limbs' refusal to co-operate. "We have to get off this ship. Right away.”
“The ship is going to blow. In about eight minutes.”
“Oh,” Rogers says, obviously dumbfounded.
Okay, so it's not the most elegant plan in the world, but it's going to work. At least, Tony hopes it will work. It might slow the creature down enough for them to get away. It might even kill them. If Tony was in less pain he might even regret that thought.
Rogers seems to approve of the plan, reaching down now to put an arm around Tony's back to help pull him up. He keeps the shield held high to cover them, which Tony is embarrassingly grateful for; he's not as steady on his feet as he'd like, and his right hand is plastered to his chest like it thinks it can help. It can't. He needs to get into the arc reactor, see how it's holding up. But first, they need to get off the ship before they got blown sky high.
“You all right?” Rogers asks.
It's a shock that Rogers asks, and in combination with that surprise, Tony's in too much pain to come up with a joke. “I've no idea, but there's no time to worry about it,” Tony replies. There isn't any time. Their only escape option is… Well, it's water, so it's terrifying, but it's better than burning to death. Tony's done the life-changing explosion thing before; if his world is to end a second time, out here, Tony knows enough of hate to find some calm acceptance in his destruction happening in the cold icy water. “Let’s go,” Tony says, through clenched teeth.
It only takes a few labored steps to make it to the railing, and neither Rogers nor Tony even hesitate. They climb over the railing in unison and drop swiftly into the inviting, rolling waters.
There's some sort of poetic parallel between rebirth and breaking through the surface of a freezing cold ocean. Tony doesn't care. Oxygen, oxygen, oxygen, his brain chants, the hard facts of science an ever-present anchor for his brain. The sky is currently free of the eerie white-violet lightning of the creature, and Tony can see the ship rising up behind them.
Tony coughs and splutters, trying to eject the bitter salt water from his throat, and also trying to remember how to tread water. He gains some sort of equilibrium after a moment, and that's when he realizes Rogers is nearby, because someone's shouting his name like it's not the first time he's said it. "Stark! Over here!" Rogers seems okay, even with his shield on his back, which has to be weighing him down, but Rogers doesn't seem to be struggling: super strength certainly has its moments.
Tony laboriously starts to try to move towards Rogers; his undersuit's giving him a little buoyancy, but not much. He's really going to have to give the undersuit an overhaul for situations like this. Maybe make it a little more flameproof. He edges a look at the ship, worriedly; if the lightning creature comes after them now… He shudders, happy he can blame it on the ice-cold temperature, and starts to swim instead of wasting energy treading water.
"We should try to get as far as we can," Tony shouts, starting to swim, and oh, Tony's not exactly a fond fan of the concept of luck — dammit, he's a Stark, he makes his own freaking luck — but the current is moving them away from the ship, away from the incoming explosion, and that is damn lucky. An opposing current would doom them both.
Rogers swims up to join Tony, and Rogers is lucky too; Tony's plugging all his energy into battling the pain and making it through the waves. He has to fight the pain. It's tugging at him from every angle, his chest aflame and so heavy he thinks it might drag him down below the waves for good. If he gives up, he'll drown, for sure.
Rogers swims steadily, his strokes and speed steady despite the heavy weight of his vibranium shield on his back, and Tony glares at the back of Rogers' head as he struggles. He has to pause every ten strokes to catch his breath. Screw drowning or freezing to death in the ice-cold water, the explosion might still take him out. Honestly, Tony doesn't know if it is the pain or if it's the water itself that's dragging on him. He wonders how he'd cope even if he hadn't taken a full blast of lightning to his chest. Probably really badly.
Rogers actually waits for him, like it's a good idea, like it's not the most stupid self-sacrificial action in the world, because Rogers should just swim away, because goodness forbid both of them dying out here for Tony's rushed idea of a mission. It's stupid, it's all really freaking stupid; Tony had just wanted it to be Thor, he'd wanted it so badly. And maybe it's a good idea they've discovered this threat, because nothing with that much power ever has good intentions for the human race, but Tony really should have assembled the Avengers, and not just assumed he and Rogers could take care of it.
Rhodey and Tony used to whine about regrets back at MIT, about what they called FOMO now — fear of missing out. It's why they did all of the things in their college day, because regretting things that you didn't do, that had to be the worst feeling in the world, right? Tony wants to go back in time and shake them both, because both kinds of regret were the worst. Regret's just a fuck-up of an emotion. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
Tony would have regretted not coming out here to look. Tony regrets coming out here to look. It's sort of hilarious, in a bitter, painful ironic interpretation of hilarity.
"Can you manage?" Rogers shouts, and isn't that just the cherry on top of the icing of Tony's dignity, because it's still very possible that he's going to die, and Rogers is condescending to him, looking down on him, viewing him as the very real physical weak link in the Avengers' chain. Except, Tony glances at him, and there's no superiority in Rogers' expression. It's nothing but worry, and it's all trained on him. He feels queasy and breathless, all at once.
"Can't go any faster, not feeling great," Tony replies. "But we need to keep moving, about two minutes before the fireworks start. As soon as you hear something go off, dive."
"Okay. Moving on, then," Rogers says, but instead of speeding off like he should, he hovers closer to Tony. Tony should feel insulted, he thinks, but instead he feels— safe. Which is about the most bizarre thing in the world. And they're in a world where Tony regularly flies in an awesome metal suit, one of his best friends can turn into a massive green beast, and Donald Trump is actually seen as a viable political candidate by a disturbingly large number of people.
They aren't far enough away from the ship, not as far as Tony would like, when he hears it; a tell-tale low rumbling that bisects the droning lament of the ocean and the wind. Tony still sees Rogers' careful, watchful gaze and presumes Rogers will take the cue from him, so he takes as deep a breath as his burning lungs will allow and he dives beneath the waves.
Tony hears the explosion before he feels the power of it, the water cold but still a rapid conductor of sound, and then he feels the thrust of it, like the whole ocean is trying to shake them away. He tumbles limbs over head, and struggles to right himself, before moving as best as he can to avoid the new danger -- hunks of burning metal and the displaced containers hurtling down into the water like rain taken to a whole new disturbing level. He's caught by the heat of one piece but he fights past it, avoiding the wreckage as best as he can.
Well, say that one thing for him: Tony knows how to blow things up. It's a nicely distracting thought as he breaks through to the surface and sees the carnage, and it would be extremely satisfying for a long time, but the distraction doesn't last long enough -- because he feels like he's inches away from being dragged back down under the waves for good.
He sees Rogers surface a moment after he does, and he tries not to make an embarrassing sound of relief before starting to doggedly try and swim closer to him. It's then that he realizes just how screwed he probably is. Surviving this long might mean nothing, especially if Pikachu's enraged cousin has an affinity for surviving satisfyingly large explosions.
Rogers swims over rapidly, making it look enragingly simple, and then smacks Tony right where he knows it'll hurt -- his pride. Rogers actually puts his legendary, one-of-a-kind shield on the water surface, and it floats so well that Tony's heart sinks, because Rogers obviously thinks he's a child in a kiddie pool who needs floaties.
"You're not serious. I don't need that," Tony says. From Rogers' expression, he might have gotten away with it if he hadn't punctuated the sentiment by swallowing a mouthful of saltwater. He spits it out dolefully and takes the shield, eyeing Rogers warily, waiting for a smug comment which doesn't come.
Anyone else would have taken the opportunity to soundly mock him. Maybe he's been underestimating Rogers. A little. Just a smidge.
Tony focuses his energy for the next few minutes holding onto the shield, shucking aside his pride and swallowing the idea down that surviving to this point might have just been the universe mocking him. Ha, you thought you were gonna live, huh? Nope. He grits his teeth and clings on, hating that he has to rely on Rogers' strength to move them through the water. There's no solid ground in sight, the only visible mar to the seemingly endless stretch of water being the remnants of the container ship, slowly sinking in pieces into the depths. Tony swallows hard and keeps his gaze averted, not wanting to think how close he is to joining it.
It might be minutes, it might be hours later, Tony doesn't know. Rogers mustn't have a working phone any more, or he'd have called for help by now. Overhead air traffic will have automatically been rerouted to avoid the storm. Despite his bravado to Rogers, Tony had logged the mission with Fury's people, but he'd marked it as an Avengers-only activity; it could be hours before SHIELD come looking for them. A lot of hours. And even if somehow SHIELD come looking before then, there's no guarantee they'll be found, just two small figures among the rapidly wind-spread debris. And that's discounting the fact there still might be a lightning freak out to get them.
When Rogers stops swimming, Tony thinks oh , because of course even Captain America would have to give up and stop tugging around his useless bulk. Abandoned even by Captain America . Just how bad of a person does one need to be for that to happen? Bad. Tony must be even worse a person than he feared.
It's only when Rogers tugs on something and a burst of orange expands out that Tony realizes what's going on. A life raft. Somehow, against all possible odds -- and Tony's run through the odds on their survival a hundred times over the last hour, always coming up with infinitesimally small numbers -- Captain Perfect has somehow managed to spot an actual, intact life raft. It makes the mystery of the abandoned boat all the more chilling; if there had been a life raft on board, where did all the people go? Was that lightning creature the only thing on the ship? Had it evaporated all the people that had been crewing it? The questions balm the pain, a little, enough that Tony can clamp down on the scream he wants to make when Rogers jolts his chest helping him onto the raft; it's all Tony can do to stay conscious as Rogers finishes helping him over the edge, and Tony collapses to the floor, desperately trying just to breathe while Rogers restraps his shield onto his back and follows him on.
There's damage in his arc reactor. For sure. Tony only lets himself acknowledge that now their chance of survival has increased. Probably by only 0.09% but right now, Tony will take that. Rogers fixes up the rest of the raft, tying the orange canopy so it's more secure in the wind, while Tony tries to catch his breath. He hasn't checked his pulse, but it doesn't feel right; there's a syncopated, hesitant thump in his ears if he breathes too much in too quickly that doesn't bode well at all. Without even part of his armor, he has zero tools. Nothing but his brain.
Nothing but his brain and Steve Rogers, whom Tony had wanted for this mission without even deciding on it, whom Tony had automatically decided was enough for an unknown situation. He watches Rogers for a moment, drenched to the bone and anyone normal would be freaking out, because Rogers has to hate water as much as Tony does, if not more so, because an ocean like this once stole seven decades away from him, and Rogers is staying with him and looking after him just like Tony's subconscious knew he would, even if Tony's conscious brain is kind of an asshole and distrusts practically everyone whose name isn't Pepper, Happy or Rhodey.
Tony apparently already trusts Rogers. And that kind of total trust is horribly unnerving, because the last time he automatically trusted someone, they ripped out his heart. Nearly literally. Obie's face leaning into his is a permanent fixture of Tony's worst nightmares.
Rogers isn't Obadiah Stane, though. He isn't anywhere near. Obie would have taken one of the hundred opportunities to leave Tony behind. Obie would have let Tony drown in the ocean, claimed it an accident, while sweeping up all the benefits of not having Howard Stark's bratty son around holding back his ravenous desire for power and money. It's messed up that Tony misses Obie sometimes. He misses the Obie that used to bring him pizza, or pat him on the head, or make him laugh when he stole newspapers from businessmen on the train when they weren't paying attention.
Things really must be bad if he's fondly digressing about Obadiah Stane. And while Tony's spent quite a lot of his life embracing the fun concept of denial, he needs to rip off the metaphorical band-aid and figure out just how badly the arc reactor is damaged.
While Rogers rummages around inside the life raft, presumably looking to see what they have at their disposal, Tony pushes himself up into a sitting position, and looks down at his chest contemplatively. There's probably nothing for it but to pull it out and see the actual damage.
Here goes nothing. Tony reaches for the casing, puts his fingers in the depression and twists, pulling the reactor out and trying his best not to pass out at the sudden jolt. He fancies for a moment that he can feel the shrapnel instantly shooting straight for his heart. No, it won't happen that fast. His death would be slow. Impossibly painful. The edges of his vision flash white and Tony squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. No. Not now. He squints at the device, his vision more blurred than he'd like, and he's glad for the device's constant blue glow. It's only now that they're on the raft that Tony's aware of how wet he is, his sopping hair dripping down his neck. Tony ignores the irritation of it. He also ignores how Rogers stares at his chest for a while, probably in open repulsion. It's only gross if you think about it too much, Tony knows that from experience, and Rogers obviously decides so too -- his gaze moves to the doorway of the raft, and out to the depression view beyond. Although the mist and dark clouds are mostly gone now, there's no sign of anything living, just occasional pieces of wreckage from the ship, and unending sea. The Atlantic is vast, and Tony and Rogers are just a speck of dust to its lonely expanse.
The air stinks of salt and ozone. Tony can't shake the feeling that the scent is permeating his skin, that if they survive this he'll be smelling the ocean for a long time. He blinks back tears, the slowing wind still fast enough to sting his face, and focuses on the arc reactor, turning it around in his hands as methodically as he can considering he's low-key shaking. The fact that there is no visible dent should be soothing, but it doesn't still the roiling worry in the back of Tony's mind. Internal injuries were always possible, and always ten-times worse than any visible hurt.
When Tony shoves the arc reactor back into the casing, it's probably with too much force, because the pain is like another jolt of the creature's lightning, and Rogers turns to him in surprise, his blue eyes flickering to the glow in Tony's chest for a moment again before travelling to his face. He looks stunned. Oh. Tony might have scared him, then. The idea that Rogers might be scared for him is... Well, it's making Tony realize he should verbalize some of what he's thinking.
“Nothing visibly wrong with it," Tony says, translating it to Captain-dummy-speak as best as he can. "That’s no guarantee, though. I’d need to be able to run some proper diagnostics to be certain." He strikes the reactor a couple of times with the heel of his hand to check the power output, hoping Rogers isn't watching closely enough to catch his wince of pain. “At least I’m convinced it’s not a power output issue, there would be some giveaway flickering to go with that. I assume your supreme senses aren’t picking up any unusual fluctuations that a regular baseline human can’t catch?”
“No, it looks entirely normal to me, too,” Rogers says. “This is probably a dumb question, but how do you know for sure that there’s a problem?”
It is a dumb question, but Rogers has been good to him; he probably doesn't deserve the dose of Stark sass that's on the edge of his tongue. “I can feel it well enough,” Tony says, although the pain is making his words curter than he intends them to be. Protectively covering the reactor with his right hand, he moves the fingers of his left to check his pulse. The pulse at his neck flutters, like a badly damaged bird fighting to live. It's... not a greatly cheering metaphor. “You're welcome to check if you want to. Don’t need a medical degree to tell that’s not a healthy rhythm."
"I'll take your word for it," Rogers says, an uncomfortable expression crossing his face that looks like frustration, and Tony can empathize deeply with that. It's a problem that Rogers cannot simply punch into submission, so of course it's going to be annoying to him. “Assuming it’s not a problem with the device itself, what else could it be?”
Even though he can't punch the reactor into working order, Rogers still wants to help, then. Tony doesn't have time to teach him how it works, but having someone to sound off his ideas to regardless might be helpful. He finds himself wanting to try to explain it in a way Rogers will understand, but he doesn't know how successful he's going to be. “If the reactor’s output is all right, as it seems to be, then, trying to use small words here, either the power isn’t getting to where it’s supposed to go, or something’s wrong with where it goes – that would be the casing, and all the stuff that actually keeps me going. I do hope that's not where the damage is, because working on the casing out here would be, I don’t like to say impossible, but, as close as. Of course, the third alternative is even less appealing.”
Rogers eyebrows furrow. “What’s that, then?”
“That it’s not a technical problem but a medical one, and unless you’re hiding unexpected talents in experimental heart surgery, our chances of fixing it equal zero, zilch and nada.” Tony grimaces, and taps at his chest. "Only one way to get a better idea of what's going on. I don't suppose you've got a mirror stashed in your spangled pants?"
"No, and my phone is fried, too," Rogers replies, even though Tony had figured that out ages ago.
"Of course it is. No self-help selfies to be taken. That means you'll have to be my eyes." Tony considers how to phrase the next part, because, well, it sucks. "Ah, hell, I have no words to describe how much I hate doing this," he says, before pushing his fingers back into the depressions and twisting, yanking out the arc reactor for a second time. "Let alone this," he adds, sticking his fingers into the empty casing and fishing for the spare anchor cable, the arc reactor equivalent of having a spare tyre in your trunk. He misses it at first grasp, but manages to get his fingers around it. Why is his hand so awkwardly big for this process? He needs to make the cavity bigger, that's what she said, but Rogers had obviously been freaked out at the size of the hole in his chest as it is, making it bigger might give someone a coronary someday in pure shocked disgust.
Tony works closely, connecting the cable to one of the base optimizers, and clamping it onto the bottom of the detached reactor, gripping it in his left hand tightly. When he finally has a moment to look up, Rogers is staring at him wide-eyed like he's a fairground attraction. It hurts in a weird way Tony doesn't want to analyze too deeply. Tony tries to take a deep breath, to test if the jury-rig works, but pain shoots outwards from his heart like a burning star of agony, and he probably makes some undignified sound of woe. Whatever. Someone who basically has a tiny lump of metal between the air and their open heart is the only other person who could judge Tony right now.
It hasn't worked. Tony tries not to audibly sigh, and he presses his knuckles against his chest, near the small panel in the casing that covers the left external regulator pump. "That didn't fix it, then," Tony says. It's easier saying it out loud. "Not that I was expecting it to. Let's just hope it doesn't make things worse, either. If I pass out, disconnect the cable and stick the arc back in, you've seen how to do that now, right? Just push and twist."
"Push and twist. Right," Rogers says, visibly swallowing hard and probably making a thousand prayers to his God that he won't have to do anything of the sort. "How long can you go on, if you can’t figure out how to mend whatever’s wrong?”
Tony smiles wryly. "Seeing as I have no idea what that is, your guess is as good as mine. Maybe a couple of hours. Or I might just keel over any minute now. Hence, casing diagnostics. I need you to take a look and tell me if there's anything suspicious in there."
Rogers looked startled at that, but soon figures out Tony is serious, so he moves cautiously and carefully, probably nervous of sinking the raft. Rogers settles on his knees and stares into the cavity that normally houses the reactor.
If Rogers thinks he's managing to hide his utter revulsion and dismay at the sight, he's got another think coming, but the horror doesn't stop him from doing what Tony has asked.
And his first words freak Tony out.
"You're bleeding," Rogers says.
Tony answers immediately because holy crapola, no, he can't breathe . "No, I'm not, that's not possible," he says, because denial is his best buddy after all. He's probably not hiding his panic well, though, because he stares down at his chest immediately, eyes straining to see, and when he sees the small bloodstain, it's like oxygen's been allowed back in his life. He forces himself to breathe evenly as the panic seeps away. "Shit, don't scare me like that, Cap, I've already got palpitations."
Rogers face twists into something that is halfway between frustration at the situation and frustration at himself. "But -"
"It's not nothing," Rogers says, and he actually sounds a little pissed off. "How can you even say that?"
Ugh, it's like Tony forgot he was on a mission with one of the most serious people on the planet. "Okay, not nothing," Tony sighs, "but around ninety percent chance that it's entirely superficial and unrelated to whatever's wrong. The casing probably jarred the skin when I got tossed around.” He's aiming for casual, mainly because if he admits how scared he is and how much pain he is, he'll probably start screaming and never stop. It's possibly not fooling Rogers, so Tony busies himself with wiping at the small smudge of blood. “Hardly the first time that's happened. On the other hand, if I ever start bleeding through the baseplate, that would be like a ninety-nine percent chance that I'm about to kick the bucket. So, please tell me there's no blood inside the casing."
Rogers resumes staring intently into the cavity. "Not that I can see, no."
"Wonderful," Tony says. "I may yet live to see another day. What can you see? Anything visibly burned, blackened or out of place?"
"Nothing seems burned," Rogers says slowly, like this is a test he's scared of failing, "but I really have no idea what it normally looks like, how am I supposed tell if something's out of place?"
"Well, as long as there's nothing sticking out--" Tony says, or he tries to say, but it trails off into "Oh, ow," instead, because ow . Ow is an understatement. Ow is a new kid at kindergarten, and Tony is enrolling a triple-doctorate professor of ow, because he can't breathe. He can't breathe. His vision whitens and his chest feels like it's imploding, and his skeleton's burning again, burning him from the inside out, acid and fire and ice, and Rogers is talking, he thinks, but he can barely hear it over the irregular slamming of his poor, beleaguered heart against the broken, disgusting wreck of what remains of his chest.
It subsides almost instantly, like a thunderclap to his brain, and he sits up trying not to howl, panting like he's run a marathon, his head thoroughly pounding. He's going to have a headache for weeks. And Rogers-- Rogers looks like he's going to actually wet his pants with worry. It's touching enough for Tony to try and speak, even though his throat feels like it will burn if he does. "Damn, not good," he manages. "Not good at all. I think it's getting worse." Whoops, kind of an understatement.
"What, exactly, just happened?" Rogers says, the worry starting to be replaced by a kind of wild-eyed fury that...well, still resembles worry, really.
"A hiccup," Tony says. Rogers' eyes narrow. That's not going to cut it. "Power shortage," he further explains. As much of an explanation as it is. "I don't get it, this shouldn't be possible. The whole set-up is as everything-proof as anything on the planet. Sure, the casing is more patchwork than the reactor because it's not detachable and it's difficult to work on in the best of circumstances, but still."
"Sorry I wasn't very helpful in giving it the once-over," Rogers says, his voice a little subdued.
"Ah, well, don't fret about it, I don't think I could tell what's wrong just by looking at it either," Tony says, and he'd casually gesture if he had any energy left for anything but trying to keep his wretched heart beating a little longer. He reaches his fingers into the casing again, probing for answers, and tries not to dwell on how he doesn't even hesitate, because this-- this is probably something he would freak out about in front of anyone else. Pepper's the only one who's seen inside the casing, and even then, he'd waited to call her down until the very last minute. Then again, given the choice, would he have let Rogers see something that makes him so vulnerable? Pepper had been absolutely horrified, but she'd been essential; Tony hadn't had anyone else then that he would have trusted to do what she had done for him.
He hadn't had anyone then. He repeats the thought back to himself, and looks at Steve Rogers for a moment out of the corner of his eye under the pretence of being focused on exploring the inner casing. Would he trust Rogers to put his hand in Tony's chest? Just one inch away from his actual, uncovered beating heart?
Yes. No hesitation. And the way he feels when he manages to knock two of the subsidiary connection pins together-- it's probably very good that he's with one of the maybe four people in the world he would let so near to his exposed heart. Because, impossibly, he feels suddenly better. He narrows his eyes. It can't be that easy. And then, obviously, it isn't, because the pain and the dizziness throbs through him again, but... it's the closest he's found to an actual solution. Hot damn, he might get through this after all.
"You've got to be kidding me," he breathes, probably grinning like a madman at the same time, "no way it's that simple! Does feel better, though." He twists his fingers, but can't quite curl them the way they need to. Tony regrets that time when he once made a drunken list of what the worst superpowers ever would be; being stretchy and elastic like Stretch Armstrong might be pretty good to have right now. There's no option, he's going to have to ask Rogers to help. He opens his mouth to do it, and nearly stumbles, because this isn't exactly the kind of situation he'd open himself up for with someone he knows just by their surname, and Tony can't make the situation have levity, because laughing right now could literally kill him, so no funny nicknames. He trusts Captain America the hero, and he... he really does trust Steve Rogers, the man. "The angle just isn't quite right..." Tony continues, and then, just goes for it, even though he hasn't used Rogers' first name... Well, ever. It's too intimate a situation for anything else. He shouldn't be so nervous. Thank goodness the half-drowned-in-seawater look hides copious sweating. "Ah, Steve?"
Rogers' -- Steve's -- expression feels like a reward for Tony's small bravery. He's more than earned his own name, and not just over this mission -- Tony's just been his usual, stubborn self. He feels like he has a kinship in that characteristic with Rogers -- with Steve . Steve's eyes are wide and he looks suddenly nervous. Crap. He probably thinks Tony's about to tell him he's dying or something. Not today. "Would you say you've got bigger hands than me? Longer fingers?" Tony asks and holds up his hand so Steve can answer.
"Probably," Steve says, his mouth turned down at the edges, "yeah, they're pretty big." Tony holds his palm against Steve's to check, lining the base of their palms up. Steve's fingers are nearly an inch longer. His hand is warmer too. Tony tries not to shiver. Steve's head tilts suspiciously. "I'm not going to like where this is going, am I?"
"You should feel honored!" Tony says, because Steve still looks a little panicky, and maybe forcing a little of his usual bravado will help convince him Tony hasn't lost his mind. Actually, with the amount of oxygen currently reaching his brain, it's not an outlandish suspicion to have. "Pepper's the only one who's not me who's ever put a finger in there. And you'll have it easy compared to her, it's not that bad now, the current design means there's no icky plasmic discharge to deal with."
Steve obviously has zero clue what Tony's going on about, and he looks torn, like he's halfway between staying and doing the right thing, and running away in total horror. But of course Steve has that stubborn self-sacrificial streak all gung-ho heroes seemed to have, so he settles himself and juts his jaw determinedly, stubbornly ignoring his own horror in favor of saving someone's life. "What do you need me to do?"
Tony would swoon if he had the energy to do so. No, really, the chivalrous heroics are head turning. He shoves those thoughts away; light-headedness does nothing good to his internal voice. He puts his hand back inside the casing, trying his best to show Steve what he means. "See where my fingers are? Just where the cable connects to the baseplate. I can't keep them in the exact correct position for long, it should be easier for you. Just place your fingers around the connector and push. Aim straight into my chest, and then to your left. Oh, and if I go all PTSD on you, never mind, just keep up the pressure."
Rogers nods through most of it, but falters near the end. "If you what?"
"Ah," Tony says, because damn, he doesn't mean to be indecipherable and make Steve feel out of place, but catching every modern term or culture reference is really difficult for someone whose speech tends to be drowned in the stuff. There's no time for a medical definition. "Panic, basically?" Rogers still seems concerned and confused, so Tony continues, "As I said, it's not often that someone else goes poking at the reactor, it's slightly threatening, you know, what with my life depending on it and all. It's not that I don't trust you, I do, more than myself, really. You're probably every bit as trustworthy as Pepper, which is the highest compliment I can give, and--" oh god, he's rambling, wind it up, Stark, "--can we get this over with, before you get second thoughts? Or me, because I'm already starting to think this might not be the best of ideas."
Steve puts one hand firmly onto Tony's shoulder. The weight is heavy, but it's reassuring and warm, and Tony finally lets himself think of home. Okay, this is gonna work. "Okay, okay, you're rambling, Stark, focus, it'll be fine. Just stay with me and make sure I get it right."
Stark, ugh, Tony kinda hates that now he's been internally using his companion's first name. The brief spark of annoyance is probably what revives his sass levels back to usual functioning parameters. "Yeah, I'm very focused on the fact that you'll be sticking your fingers inside my chest. Okay. I'm going to let go now."
And yeah, maybe Tony should have given Steve more warning, because Steve looks perplexed, and, oh god, Steve actually pauses, his fingers inches away from where Tony needs them right now , dammit.
"Uh, should I have washed my hands first or something? And what if I hurt you?"
The bastard's concerned, with no freaking idea just how freaking much Tony's trusted him, and he was wrong, was he wrong to do it? His head screams, deprived of oxygen, and a desperate thought pushes through, no, you were right to trust him, he's not Obie, not everyone's out to actively kill you, and if Steve's frozen by the burden of what Tony's asking to do, he's still just a system like any other kind of communication system and if your system is broken you reboot it.
"Steve!" Tony says, sharply, his voice trembling, his vision trembling, probably his whole body trembling. "Just do it."
Steve might be a patriotic, national, legendary superhero but at heart he's still a soldier, and the barked command makes him snap into action, plunging his hand into Tony's chest with determination. He struggles to fit his hand in the cavity, but his wrist twists and his fingers search for their target. Steve looks like a deer in headlights when he doesn't find the right place for his fingers to press into on first go.
Tony reaches out, remembering how Steve's hand on his shoulder calmed him down, and he manages to grasp Steve's left forearm. Pain makes his grip too tight. "Not quite there yet, remember, straight and left, you need to push harder, don't worry, not going to hurt me," Tony says, trying to speak as fast as possible while still being clear.
Steve follows the instructions, and oh, oh. Tony's never felt so good in his life. No orgasm has ever felt as amazing, Tony's sure. From Steve's reaction to the noise of relief from Tony's mouth... Uh, maybe it's a little inappropriate. Eh, since when has he ever let that stop him? "Ooooh, oh, wow, that is so much better, feels entirely normal, actually. Ah. Regular circulation to the brain is an amazing and wonderful thing."
"Pleased to hear that," Steve says, and he seems to have trouble knowing where to look, now he has his hand semi-buried in Tony's chest, "now what?"
"Now you stay there and don't move an inch until we get rescued."
“Stark…” Steve starts, but something about that stings, because, really, hasn't he earned his first name by now?
"Can't you drop the surname thing already?" And crud, Steve looks suspiciously like he's noticed it's something that matters to Tony, and that's too much to bear, when his head is still killing him, when his body knows Steve is the only thing keeping him alive right now, so he tries to make it sound less serious, less desperate . "This has to qualify for first name basis, seeing as you've got your fingers in my ho-"
Steve instantly blushes and it is delightful, Tony can't help himself. He laughs as Steve interrupts him.
"No," Steve says. "No, you don’t get to make that joke. Seriously, Stark. Tony. Shut up."
Tony probably should shut up -- Steve's job is difficult enough as it is -- but he can't help laughing. He tries to stop. It's probably semi-hysterics at this point, anyway. "You can't say it's not funny, though," he points out, and mentally fist pumps when Steve can't work up a denial. Even half dead, Tony's totally still got it. "Anyway, being entirely serious about it, sorry, but this is the way it's got to be until I get to my shop. It seems like a fairly simple issue with the connections, but I can't fix it here, working blind and without even the most basic tools. So, until we're there, your perfect all-American Super Soldier fingers are the jury rig that's going to keep me alive." It's as casually spoken as Tony can manage, given the situation, and Steve nods seriously, because, like it or not, the situation is serious. They're stuck on a tiny raft in the absolute middle of nowhere. Tony's finding it difficult not to linger on the fact that even with someone else's fist in his chest, he's barely functioning, a broken mismash of technology and biology.
And then it's like Steve finally realizes just how much Tony is actually trusting him, like he's just realized exactly how close his fingers are to his vulnerably still-struggling-to-beat heart. He looks Tony directly in the eyes and for a moment Tony forgets to breathe, because were Steve's eyes so blue before? They're like the ocean around them, Tony thinks. Calmer now, but still deadly.
"So," Steve says.
Steve's gaze is somewhat disconcerting. Of course it feels like a challenge, so Tony faces Steve's gaze, and is proud he manages it with nothing more revealing than a tiny, barely noticeable nervous smirk. "So," Tony repeats, and Steve's mouth thins, obviously unhappy with the silence, and, well, if Steve wants noise, Tony's definitely his man. And wow, I really shouldn't like the sound of that. Tony speaks, because now they both need distracting. "As much as I'm enjoying this," and damn, putting honesty into his sarcasm is a bad habit, it really is, "it's a temporary measure that won't work indefinitely. Waiting for SHIELD to come looking for us might take too long. We need to figure out a way to guide help to us."
Despite the weird thoughts about Steve brought on on the light-headedness of being in pain, Tony's head is actually working better, now his heart is fixed. Well, not fixed. Temporarily stopped from getting any worse, that's more accurate.
"Do you have a plan?" Steve asks, and Tony tries to suppress a sudden thrill, because his inner five year old is delighted that Captain America comes to him for strategic planning.
"First, we'll need to do an inventory of what I've got to work with, then I can tell what's plausible. You've got your SHIELD issue communicator, right?"
"Yeah, but I already told you, the blast from that creature did something to it, it won't even turn on," Steve says. Tony eyes the remnants carefully as Steve digs them out from his belt with his spare-handed. The care Steve takes not to jostle Tony is incredible. Tony might be crazy to trust someone he doesn't really know very well this much, but... Steve's living up to the trust entirely.
Tony decides to focus on communicating the next steps of what he needs, rather than do something crazy like crack and talk about his emotions. Ugh. Pain is not a good personal look on him. "Considering what those blasts did to my suit and to me, that's no surprise. It's still the most useful thing we've got, something to start from. I can scavenge a few components out of my undersuit, but a knife would help with that. Or anything sharp, really."
"There might be a knife in the raft's emergency pack," Steve says, "I saw that when we came in, right at the doorway. I'll - um." Steve seems to notice it a few moments later than Tony does, and he looks at the distance between Tony's chest and the pack like it's a million miles, not a few meters.
"Just fetch it," Tony says, and all bravado, adds, "You can let go for half a minute, it should be fine."
And damn, it totally is pure bravado, but Steve buys into it, and even though Steve tugs his hands out and is away for maybe twenty seconds, it feels -- yeah, definitely, definitely nineteen seconds too long.
The pain's too strong not to make noise over it. "Ah, shit, no, no, no..." he mutters, pushing his own hand into the cavity, trying to reach the same point, but he can't reach it. Tears sting at his eyes, the pain overwhelming, and he hunches over, desperately trying to press in deeper, where he needs it. He's aware of a blur of movement, and the raft rocks alarmingly, and then someone is kindly but firmly pulling his hand out of his chest, and for a second Tony wants to fight back, but he catches a glimpse of ocean-blue eyes and his body instantly calms and lets Steve resume pushing carefully at the baseplate. His mind races as the pain subsides a little, an annoying hum instead of a roaring scream, and it's all he can do to stare at his rescuer and try and remember how to breathe.
He manages to draw a long breath that sounds drenched in relief and he straightens, so Steve will have an easier job keeping his fingers in place. His body is trembling, and Steve's too kind to point it out. It aches in a raw, brittle way, and Tony's too tired to fake casual. It's so far past the point where Tony can get away with it. "Damn, that was bad," Tony says, doing his best to keep his voice level but failing. "I just couldn't get the angle right, no matter what. Damn. Let's not repeat that."
"Don't worry, I'm not going to let go again," Steve says, and he looks kind of constipated, actually. Probably trying to blame himself for Tony nearly dying a minute ago, because white knights seemed to like that sort of thing. It's why he always prefer the path of a black king himself.
"You'd better not, unless you'd like to be stuck here on your own," Tony says. "It seems that while what you're doing is helping, it may also have made things a bit worse. I literally can't live without you any more." Shit, that sounds too genuine. Add sarcasm. "Lovely. At least we know that now. So, what have we got here?"
Steve looks thankful for the distraction, and he starts carefully going through the contents of the pack. It's all kinds of awkward -- they're both essentially working one-handed. Tony's busy holding his arc reactor close enough so that the anchor cable stays connected, and Steve's busy fisting Tony's chest. Ha. Sometimes even Tony is surprised by the things that happen in his life.
"Well, here's a knife for you, and scissors," Steve says, naming the items as he passes them over, lying them carefully on the ground and not handing them directly to Tony. "And flares. Maybe we should fire a few?"
"I doubt they'd be visible far enough when all traffic has been rerouted to give this area a wide berth," Tony decides. "Better save them for later when it's more likely that someone's looking for us. What else?"
Steve's mouth quirks up at one side. "Hah, anti-seasickness tablets and sick bags, and a first aid kit."
"Yay, a Band-Aid and a seasickness pill will patch me up good as new," Tony says, ironically waggling his semi-detached arc reactor. "Not," he adds, because he's actually still a fifth-grader. "Anything even remotely electronic in there?"
"A flashlight and some spare batteries and light bulbs."
Tony eyeballs the batteries and grins when they're the kind he can take apart and gut. "Now we're talking!"
"That's all there is, though," Steve says. "The rest is only going to be useful if we're stuck here for a longer time. Like water and rations and a fishing kit."
"Oh, well," Tony says, and has to resist the urge to shrug. "It’s not optimal, but I think I can make this work with what we've got."
Steve looks at the stuff on the ground and then at Tony, sceptical. "What're you going to do?"
"Fix your phone and send a signal so that SHIELD will come pick us up," Tony says, and yeah, he's faking casual again, because it's not as simple as that. For him to do that, he's going to need both hands. And to have both hands free, he's literally going to have to hand Steve the one thing that's kept him alive for years. It feels somewhat momentous, like it's the most intimate thing he's ever done in his life, which is-- absolutely something to think about later, when he's not jury-rigged together with a cable and a super soldier's hand. "I'm going to need both hands, which means you'll need to take this," Tony says, and he doesn't hesitate, holding out the arc reactor and trying to look confident, not like he's falling apart in nerves, because what if after all this time, he's just placing his trust in the wrong person, what if Steve just yanks on the arc reactor, pulls it out, gets rid of the deadweight so he has more of a chance to survive himself--
Steve moves carefully but confidently, eyes tracking the path of the anchor cable and curling his free hand around the arc reactor like it's actually Tony's exposed and beating heart.
"All right," Tony says, feeling dizzy, and it's not exactly entirely a physical reason for that dizziness, "my life is in your hands, twice. I do hope you're not secretly harboring murderous intentions."
"I'll keep you safe, no matter what," Steve says, solemnly looking Tony in the eyes, and Tony's mouth is dry, because it sounds like a promise. It sounds like one of those vows Steve intends to keep, and not just for now.
"I know you will. Otherwise I'd be on the verge of a panic attack right about now," Tony mutters, trying to visualize what he's going to need. Definitely some of the wires that are in his left leg. "Or, you know, even closer to the verge than I’m now. We’re just skirting that verge ever so slightly, nothing to worry about. Right. Great. All right, let's see..." Tony picks up the knife and starts making an incision to his undersuit that will help him get to the wires he needs.
"Is there anything I can do?" Steve asks.
"Unless the serum enables you to grow a third hand, not really," Tony jokes, all his intention focused on jury-rigging a new communications array. "You're doing plenty as it is." It's totally an understatement.
Steve could probably do with some warning before Tony moves, but Tony's on a deadline - and probably more than he wants Steve to be aware of. He knows his body. It's a good thing that working on projects tends to send him into a kind of frantic zen state. It's not often that someone gets to see him like this. Not that Tony hasn't enjoyed showing his skills off in the past, but it's rare for him to let anyone see him go into almost a trance during it, where nothing exists but the technology and what Tony can create with his mind and own two hands.
It feels like just a handful of minutes, but when Tony finally stops and admires his creation, the light has dimmed a little. Has it really been hours ? Wow. His invention isn't exactly going to win any beauty awards, but hey, Tony's pretty enough to compensate.
"Hm, I'm not going to get enough juice out of a flashlight’s batteries to reach a satellite," Tony says, because it probably has been hours, and Steve's been forced to stay pretty much frozen doing nothing for that time, having zero clue what Tony was doing. It's a gut punch, really. That maybe Steve trusts Tony as much as Tony trusts Steve. The concept is ill-fitting in Tony's brain for a moment before it flutters and settles in, like a jigsaw piece clicking in and turning a mystery into a full picture. It's mutual. If Tony had the energy to, he might even smile. "I'll have to use the arc for that."
"Should you?" Steve asks, eyes wide. "Is that safe?"
"Perfectly," Tony reassures him, "it's actually not damaged at all."
Steve squares his shoulders. "How do we do it?"
"Just hold it out so I can connect this," Tony says.
It should be awkward - the anchor cable connecting the reactor to his chest is ridiculously short, Tony needs to work on a better solution when he gets home - but Steve works with him, and it's smooth -- Tony's able to connect his makeshift transmitter to the reactor using a wire from the spare port, and he forces the energy to smile when it connects, because damn, he's good. They're in the middle of the ocean, both a little scorched, two hands between them, Tony nearly died about seven times -- and he can still save the day with a handful of scavenged components. MacGyver eat your heart out.
"And we're online! All right, then," Tony says, and pries up the tiny microphone, taking a deep breath in order to make his scratchy voice as strong as possible, because he can't be sure how strong the connection will be. "JARVIS, if you can catch this, and you should, because I know it works and you're always listening: protocol Sierra Alfa Romeo three, effective immediately. Triangulate on this position if possible, if not, use the last known coordinates of the electrical storm. Tell SHIELD to come pick us up, asap. We're on an orange life raft, drifting. I repeat, JARVIS, protocol S, A, R, three, right now, life raft close to the position of the electrical storm. JARVIS. Sierra Alfa Romeo three. Hurry."
Well, that's all he wrote.There's literally nothing else he can do. The realization washes over him like a cold wave from the sea and he's suddenly acutely aware of just how tired and how much in pain he is. The adrenaline's gone, then. He unplugs the transmitter and lets it fall; if it doesn't work from that first attempt, it's not going to. "That's it," Tony admits, "It's done, and so am I."
Done is an understatement. His limbs protest his efforts to stay upright any longer. Now aware of the sleepiness he's been fighting for hours, he's unable to fight it, and it's enough of a struggle to hold it back even for a few moments. His body slumps, and he's too tired to even muster up surprise that Steve catches his head on his shoulder. Tony's eyes struggle to focus. In Steve's hand still, the arc reactor glows, a hazy cloud of blue to Tony's exhaustion.
"Tony? Are you all right? What’s wrong?" Steve asks, his voice pitching upwards.
"I'm good," Tony mumbles into Steve's neck. "I just feel like taking a nap. Narrowly missing cardiac arrest half a dozen times within the space of a few hours is kind of taxing." Steve's shoulder is warm under his cheek, making him realize how cold he is. The exposed skin from butchering his undersuit isn't helping, nor is the fact that they're both still soaked through.
"Are you cold?" Steve asks.
Tony really doesn't have the energy to laugh. "Well, it's not exactly balmy in here." It's got to be the supersoldier serum. Does Steve feel temperature at all anymore? He doesn't have the energy to ask. All he's struck by is the urge to move closer to Steve, to snuggle into his body heat, because even just like this, their faces barely touching, Steve's giving off a steady warmth. But he can't. It's too much of an imposition. And it's not like Steve can move his hands.
"Uh," Steve says, and up close, Tony can feel his words as much as hear them. "You can, you know, just rest against me, I'm quite warm."
His words are hesitant, but Tony thinks, he lets himself think, that it's nerves over adding one more layer of intimacy to their already forced too-closeness, but the permission is too much for his poor battered body and heart to refuse. He moves in as close as he can with Steve's hands caught between them, as close as he dares, and just breathes. Around them the ocean continues to calm, the waves the oddest lullaby, saying shhhh, shhhhhh, ssshhhh . The raft rocks them and Tony succumbs to sleep.
He wakes a few times, he thinks, although it's all in a daze, and maybe it's a dream.
Because why would the whole world contract down to just the small space where they're touching, Steve's breath matching his own alongside the rocking of the ocean. If he was awake, surely the ocean would still sound terrifying, and not soothing, and-- he doesn't want to wake up. Not if it means going back to the status quo, where Steve is a reluctant ally, and not someone Tony can trust so easily with his life. He can't bear it, the idea of going back to Cap and Stark, of Steve second-guessing every little thing Tony says. Tony's half unsure whether the whole thing has been a dream, anyway. Earlier he would have said nightmare ; the choice of the word dream is telling. Telling what? Tony's too nervous to analyze it further. Was this morning really just a few hours ago? It feels like eternity. There are too many questions and not enough answers, so Tony lets sleep take him again, because it's the only way to stop thinking about how long it might take SHIELD to find them.
It's the fugue state between awake and asleep that makes his brain take so long to figure out that they are being rescued. He thinks he hears Steve's voice, but he brushes it off as on the dream end of the spectrum, because no way are they being rescued. He probably mutters something back, which is probably highly embarrassing, and tries to burrow more deeply into the reassuring warmth of Steve's shoulder.
"Tony," Steve says, and even Tony's brain can't conjure up the real note of concern in Steve's voice. He says something about SHIELD and a flare and--
He should probably ask. "Huh, what?" is what he manages. Well, he's still half-asleep and half in pain, Steve can't hold him to any of his actions at the moment. Which is probably good, considering how much he's apparently still snuggling Steve. What did Steve say? Something about-- SHIELD. Flare! They're being rescued! His expression moving from sleep-logged to surprised is probably hilarious; thank goodness Steve doesn't have a camera.Tony moves to stretch and grab a flare, and then thankfully almost instantly remembers why that's a bad idea, and he freezes.
"It's fine," Steve says, sounding disturbingly awake -- did he sleep at all? No. He mustn't have been able to at all, not without risking Tony's life. "The casing got damaged, remember? We're on a life raft, adrift at sea, but help is just minutes away."
Tony stares up at Steve, the last vestiges of sleep slipping away, unfortunately dragging with it the reminder that he's still pretty hurt. Well, pain's always kept him alert and awake, if nothing else. "Right, yes. SHIELD. Flares. They're right here." Tony carefully chooses one of the flares, and inclines his head over to the raft's doorway. "Let's get over there."
Moving when one has someone else's hand in your chest, unable to separate, on an easily-rockable raft is... Interesting. The word is interesting. Covering a few feet of space feels like a marathon. When they reach the opening in the raft's side, Tony lifts the flare and fires it into the now clear blue sky. It has to be impossible to miss.
And it is.
Tony barely has time to try and take a deep breath before the distinctive hum of the Quinjet comes closer, and he closes his eyes briefly as it descends from above, the engines displacing water over them for a few moments before the ramp lowers and shields them. A SHIELD agent that Tony thinks is called Monica stands at its end. She smiles at them and offers her hand out.
"Captain Rogers, Mr. Stark, I hope you're all right? We came as soon as we got the call from your AI."
"We'll be fine," Steve says.
Tony shoots him an askance look. The gap from the ramp to the Quinjet isn't massive, but it might as well be. The only way to do it will--
Shit. Shit. Talk about an actual leap of faith. Tony almost wants to laugh. It's going to hurt. But he knows to his bones that Steve will catch him when he falls. And, okay, his heart is hammering like crazy, but it's just in anticipation of the unavoidable incoming burn of pain.
He gives Steve the steadiest look he can manage, because Tony's the one with his life on the line in this moment, but Steve is the one who looks scared. "Only one thing to it. I think I can make it across on my own. Just stay close and catch me when I crash, right?"
"Right," Steve says, looking over the gap once more before squaring his shoulders determinedly. "Ready?"
Tony swallows. The small distance suddenly looks like a mile. "As I'll ever be."
Tony extends his hand to take back the arc reactor, and he finds himself taking a deep breath before Steve pulls his hands out. Tony moves as quick as he can, reaching out for Agent Monica's hand and scrambling onto the ramp, pushing through the first wave of sheer agony by gritting his teeth and employing some patented Stark stubbornness. He thinks Steve is right behind him. It's sad in a way leaving the raft behind. It's one of the reasons Tony's still alive. But the main reason is clambering onto the Quinjet's ramp behind him.
Forcing himself to breathe regularly, Tony nearly manages to make it inside. The sad key word being nearly. The world tips sideways and pain whitewashes his vision again. He struggles against the sea of hands that appear to grab at him and he feels himself being pulled up and onto something, possibly a gurney, and he tries to open his mouth and tell them he needs Steve, he needs Steve, they're killing him-- when Steve's face comes into focus for a moment and Tony knows it's going to be okay, except, what if it doesn't work? What if he needs to sit upright for Steve to reach inside the casing? What if---? But it's too bright to keep looking, to keep watching, and Tony screws his eyes shut, helpless against another course of pain that washes over him, like another deadly wave.
And then the pain subsides, so suddenly, that it feels like a stab all on its own, and Tony's eyes open automatically in relief to see Steve back at his chest, smiling at him in sheer relief.
"About time," Tony says, struggling to breathe, and succeeding, slowly. "That was way too close for comfort."
"I know, I was as fast as I could," Steve says. His mouth tightens, like he's annoyed with himself. He shouldn't be. He was amazing. He is amazing. Of course he is. He's Captain America.
"Would any of you care to explain what's going on?" someone demands. Tony reluctantly stops gazing at Steve to see a SHIELD medic standing there looking a little disheveled and dirty. Like maybe a super soldier shoved him aside, or something. Tony looks back at Steve, impressed.
"Nothing much," Tony tells the medic. "As long as the good Captain here keeps holding me together I'm perfectly fine."
The medic makes a noise that Tony's received from a lot of SHIELD medical personnel. And sometimes he gets it from Pepper too. "That was as far from fine as you can possibly get! And I'm not exaggerating here, I actually thought I lost your pulse!"
"Yeah, but I got better," Tony declares. He pushes himself up into a sitting position, even though lying down is absolutely preferable; it doesn't do to look weak in front of SHIELD. Steve lets Tony use his shoulder for support. "All I need is a ride home and a few hours of quality time in my shop," he lies, because he's never been known to make the distinction between want and need.
"Mr. Stark, seriously," the medic says, looking like he's going to explode with indignant rage; it's a common look on medical personnel in a ten foot radius of Tony, "where you need to be is a proper medical facility, you're very obviously not all right."
It's all white noise to Tony -- he's heard (and ignored) similar sentiments enough in his life to tune most of it out. "If you must pick nits, sure, I've seen healthier days, but this is a technical problem no one else can solve. And no," he adds, because the medic is getting that determined expression that Steve gets sometimes, "you're not getting any details, you don't have the security clearance."
"He's telling you the truth," Steve adds, and Tony sighs, because he kinda likes arguing with mid-level SHIELD personnel, and now Steve's ruined all his fun by stepping in, because they all listen to Captain America almost as much as they listen to Fury. "You can check with Director Fury if you want to, just mention it's Stark and it's arc reactor related, he'll confirm that whatever Stark says, goes."
"Very well, then," the medic says, and heads to the cockpit, either to call Fury or just to give the pilot their new coordinates.
Tony watches, morosely. "How come they listen to you but not to me?"
"Because I'm older?" Steve suggests, and Tony sighs at the stolen opportunity to make the age joke himself. "Or because I talk less?"
Tony eyeballs him warily. "Technically, you're not older than me," Tony says, because no way is he taking seven decades in ice over actual decades of life experience, "and I don't talk that much." Steve eyeballs him this time. "I just happen to have many valuable opinions that others could benefit from." He smirks and Steve pretends to resist it for a moment before wryly returning the expression.
They're interrupted a minute later by the return of the medic. "Okay," he says. "Okay, we're on our way to the Avengers Tower. It's still almost an hour away, though, so in the meantime, I'd at least like to examine you properly, Mr. Stark."
"I'm all yours. Couldn't escape if I wanted to," Tony says, inclining his head at the situation. "Just don't get between Cap and me, that would be extremely bad for my health."
Tony tunes out and lets the medic put him through the usual run of tests and check, hoping that the full medical check isn't undertaken, because if this guy tries to stick a finger up his butt while Steve's hand is still in his chest, Tony's going to find out the guy's name and hack into his SHIELD personnel files for the purposes of many shenanigans.
He does his best not to laugh when the medic gives him a clear board of health, because wishful thinking worked somtimes, who knew? Tony beams at the medic, who scurries away, muttering about giving them space.
"To be entirely honest with you, and I think you deserve that," Tony admits, and it's also because he's amused as to how Steve might react, "I actually had no idea what he'd conclude."
It pays off beautifully. Steve raises both eyebrows and stares at Tony, askance. "But you told him you're fine."
"Uh-uh, to make sure we get home without an additional layover at SHIELD medical. With all this as messed up as it is," Tony gestures vaguely at Steve's hands, "I can't be certain about anything. Especially not on a day like today."
A pulse twitches in Steve's neck. "I backed you up because I thought you were telling the truth!"
"Actually, I never said to you that I'm okay, just to the SHIELD guy," Tony points out. Steve huffs, apparently not accepting that evasion. "You've been with me all day, you know I'm not exactly the picture of perfect health. Anyway, I now have the official seal of approval from a SHIELD medic, which spares me the trouble of having to turn up for a check-up later."
"Tony!" Steve says, chiding, but it's his first name, and that takes any sting out of it. "That was a quick once-over by a field medic, it's in no way the same thing as a full workup, and I'm pretty sure you're due one after this."
Tony narrows his eyes. "Ugh, you're starting to sound like Pepper, and not in a good way. I'll worry about doctor's appointments later. Before anything else, I'd like to regain some independence and freedom of movement. And I assume you'd like your hand back."
Logistics as a problem rears its head one more time when the Quinjet arrives at Stark Tower, landing carefully on Tony's small landing pad. It's a long way down to his workshop. Tony tries to figure out how to tell Steve that they're going to have to get right down to the tenth level as they are, stuck together, but it seems Steve's figured out enough of that for himself. They waddle awkwardly, Tony trying not to think about how ungraceful they must appear. He's not opposed to a casual outfit or three, but when he's in front of SHIELD agents, he likes to look a little more put together. Then again, he's half-drowned, wearing three-quarters of a butchered undersuit, and he has Captain America slightly buried in his body in a non-dirty manner -- there's no way of exiting this scenario with his dignity intact.
Steve obviously wants to try side-stepping, but it's not going to work, Tony can't guide him like that. Tony exhales noisily. "No, no, get back, that changes the angle, you need to stay in front of me. You can walk backwards."
"Why do I have to walk backwards?" Steve asks, and for a moment Tony thinks he's actually whining about himself, but, no, "you're the one who needs support," Steve adds and Tony sags, because of course he's still relentlessly chivalrous.
"You don't know where we're going," Tony says.
There's that stubborn expression on Steve's face again. "I would if you told me."
"Let's not do this now," Tony sighs. An order worked while out in the field, maybe an order will work now? "Backwards, march, soldier!"
It does. Wow, that's totally a weakness that Tony's going to have to work very hard not to abuse in future. They move slowly and steady, Steve walking backwards, Tony guiding him with his hand. The SHIELD personnel stare at them, because obviously Tony's entire life is a sideshow for Fury's monkeys. He indulges Steve and takes the reactor back so Steve can be a good little soldier and salute at them.
"Thanks for the ride," Steve calls.
"Call us if you need anything," the annoying medic says. "Oh, and the Director will want your full report on what happened as soon as you've dealt with the, uh, technical problem."
"I'll see to it that he gets it," Steve says, ignoring Tony when he rolls his eyes.
"I trust that you will, Captain," the medic says. "And good luck," he adds, which is what a lot of people get told who deal with Tony. Ha. You don't need luck when you're friends with Tony Stark. Maybe you need a really good health insurance policy, just in case, but who's Tony kidding, he totally covers all his friends' medical bills when they're not looking.
The journey is awkward with a capital A, W, K, W, A, R, D. Tony finds the only way to stay balanced is to keep his free hand on Steve's shoulder. With Steve walking backwards, focusing intently on keeping his fingers inside the arc reactor casing, it's almost like dancing -- Tony ends up stepping on Steve's toes a few times to extend the simile.
Tony directs him as quickly as possible towards the elevator; this close to his sanctuary it's hard to fight the impulse to hurry. But hurrying could move Steve's hand and bring the pain again. "Two more steps, there," Tony says, having to verbally usher Steve away from one of his bigger, more impersonal lab setups, "through the doorway, and we're in."
As the doors slide shut, a familiar voice speaks: "Welcome back, sir, Captain."
"JARVIS!" Tony beams. "Just the AI I need."
JARVIS would preen, Tony imagines, if he was sentient. And. Y'know. Had a face. What would a human JARVIS even look like? Handsome like his namesake, definitely. "Your private workshop, I presume?"
"That would be correct," Tony says. The elevator moves smoothly, and Tony guides Steve out when it stops into his favorite personal lab in the tower. He doesn't normally let people in here, partly because it's cluttered, pieces of abandoned, broken and half-finished projects scattered everywhere, but mostly... because the place is a reflection of Tony himself. This is his mind in physical form. It feels like sharing too much of himself when he lets people in, but Steve's had part of his body inside Tony's body for what's nearing about ten hours now, and it feels churlish to go anywhere else.
Besides, Tony's shaken hands with death over six times today, he's allowed to want to be home , and this lab, more than the whole building, more than any of his mansions and apartments... it's where he works on Iron Man, on all the things that mean something to him. It's home .
"I must congratulate you on the most creative use of available resources up to date, sir," JARVIS compliments.
"Why, thank you, J. I do take pride in my ability to improvise under duress. Steve, that way," Tony says, and nods over at the chair he uses when he needs to work on the arc reactor. Steve understands and they continue their awkward dance until the reach it, and then it's like moving on autopilot. Tony's spent so many times here alone working on the arc reactor; he knows what to do without having to think. He pulls out wires from behind the armrest and neatly cuts the front ofthe undersuit so he can hook himself up to the heart monitor. He's faintly aware of Steve hovering, watching with wide eyes, but Tony focuses on connecting up the equipment -- if his heart is really damaged, he needs to know, and he needs to know now.
"All right, JARVIS," Tony commands, clipping the last wire into place, "full diagnostics. No stone unturned. I need to know what's going on."
"Very well, sir," JARVIS intones.
"Um," Steve says, looking at his hand, still pushed into Tony's chest. Super serum or no, his hand must be cramping by now, but when Steve asks, "should I stop?" Tony can't risk giving him relief. Not yet.
"No, absolutely not, not before I tell you to," Tony says. "And the less we move, the less artifacts JARVIS will have to compensate for. Won't take more than five minutes."
Steve squints. "Can you actually stay still and quiet for a whole five minutes?"
The sass is delightful. Tony firmly resists the urge to tell him so. "Yes, if my life depends on it, and right now it sort of does, so, shush," he says, before closing his eyes and leaning back.
The next few minutes are torturous, because tests are always terrifying when you can calculate a thousand different alternatives, most of them horrific. The hum of Tony's machinery in the background is low, lulling, almost like the calming waves of the ocean.
"I have now finished turning the proverbial stones, sir," JARVIS says.
"Excellent," Tony says, and his eyes snap open. He avoids looking at Steve. He doesn't want to see the worry that's probably there. He doesn't think he can take it on top of his own worry. But the answer's not going to change if Tony delays hearing it, so he rips the band-aid off. "Show me," he commands.
JARVIS displays the schematics, and-- no. No, that can't be right. Surely not? Tony squints at the flashing red sections, and makes the motion with his spare hand to zoom in on the diagram, and-- Holy shit. Numbers on the diagram spike as his heartrate increases in stress.
"Holy shit, JARVIS," Tony breathes, because Steve won't understand, and he needs to know he's not hallucinating this, "are you seeing this?"
"Indeed I am, sir," JARVIS says. "It seems you were quite lucky with your improvised solution."
"Yeah, it actually shouldn't have worked like it did." Tony stares at the diagram, his mind blown. "Jesus, that really was just dumb luck. I had no idea. No wonder it was so dependent on the angle. By all accounts, I shouldn't even be alive anymore!”
When he looks back towards Steve, eyes wide, Steve looks like he's been hit by a truck too. "Are you going to tell me what's wrong?" Steve asks warily.
"Um, just that there's a little more damage than I thought, but it happens to be located so that pushing at a very specific angle causes a short circuit that sort of goes around it," Tony says, hoping his translation into layman's terms is understandable enough. He's torn between being completely amazed and completely appalled. "Not a good solution in the long term, bound to cause even more damage. Already did, in fact, that's why you couldn't let go."
"Can you fix it?" Steve asks.
"Sure I can," Tony says, almost giddy with it, "just need to replace some wiring. Piece of cake. J, do you think you can emulate what Cap is doing?"
"Of course, although I strongly recommend rerouting power as soon as possible to prevent further harm," JARVIS suggests.
"That's the next item on my list. But first, good news for you, Steve," Tony says, reaching behind himself and pulling out the extendable arm, tugging it close to the casing. "Now would be the time when you can let go for good."
"Right now?" Steve asks, looking faintly horrified. Or concerned. Maybe it's concern. Well, the two aren't mutually exclusive, Tony supposes.
"Yes. This time, I promise it'll be fine," Tony says, meeting Steve's worried gaze with his own so Steve will know he's not kidding around this time or bullshitting him, "JARVIS will take over."
"All right then," Steve says, and when Tony nods, he pulls his fingers out for the third and hopefully final time.
The pain starts to surge in, but the robotic arm moves in with its usual operating hum, and starts to work, and Tony relaxes as the pain subsides almost immediately. He smiles in relief.
"How's that, sir?" JARVIS asks.
"Spot on," Tony says. "Keep it up." It's perfect. He's home and the damage isn't even permanent. He's beyond lucky. He edges a look at Steve, who is flexing and unflexing his hand gratefully. Maybe it's not all luck, just... having someone at your back that you can trust with your actual life.
In the rush of relief and gladness that they both survived and are home, it's too much of an impulse to resist-- Tony reaches out to grab Steve's hand, and he brings it to his lips to brush a kiss against his knuckles. It's chaste, but if Steve wants to read more into it, Tony thinks... he wouldn't be opposed. He tries to communicate it with a glance, because words aren't sufficient. Tony didn't only trust Steve with his life, he trusted him with his actual heart, and if his chest thumps a little faster at the thought, at least Tony can blame it on the procedure.
Steve steps back slightly, but his cheeks are pink, and that's an encouraging sign.
"Poor, heroic fingers," Tony says, looking at Steve's hand lingeringly for a moment, and Steve's cheeks turn a deeper shade, and yeah, that's something Tony's exploring later. "There are worse places to be, of course, but that can't have been easy. Did an excellent job keeping me alive. Now, for a more permanent solution..."
Steve doesn't leave, which is for the best, because after Tony studies the diagram carefully for a while, it's clear he's going to need one more thing. The robotic arm stays steadily in place when he reaches forward to pull out the equipment he needs.
"Here's what I'm going to do," Tony explains. "First, a very quick and dirty temporary fix. Will have to go offline for that, should have just enough time to finish it. That'll give me room to make the repairs properly, without any extra appendages in the way." Tony arranges his equipment onto a tray. "You better hold on to that," he adds, and in a moment of belated revenge, just hands it to Steve, not giving him time to protest. "If something goes wrong, JARVIS will tell you what to do."
This day is kind of full of sucky things, Tony thinks, but with Steve there watching, it's easy to be quiet and work methodically through what he has to do. He feels weirdly zen about it. Usually, when he does this sort of thing, he's on his own, and although he starts out okay, he usually ends up semi-panicking by the end of the procedure. With Steve there, it's easier to disconnect the robotic hand and yank out the reactor entirely. It still hurts, but it's manageable, even though Steve is staring at the arc reactor in the corner of his vision like Tony's actually yanked out his beating heart and put it in his hands.
The heart monitor starts to protest barely fifty seconds into the procedure, and Steve looks like the one who's inches away from a coronary.
"JARVIS?" Steve says, sounding distressed. "What do I do? How can I help?" He turns around the room, like someone might appear from elsewhere to help.
"Nothing, Steve!" Tony says, and then when Steve doesn't react, looking vaguely haunted, Tony abuses his knowledge about Steve's susceptibility to orders to add, "Stand down!" Steve stills, but still looks suspicious. "Ten seconds," Tony says.
Steve relaxes at that, crossing his arms across his bulky chest, and waiting.
Tony's hands are shaking now. This is the risky part. Squinting at the displays to guide him, he works swiftly, soldering two new connecting components into place and holding them in place for a few agonizing seconds, before dropping the soldering iron and holding out his hand.
"Arc reactor, now," Tony says, and hey, it's one more order, but it's for a good cause. Steve gives it to him, and Tony swiftly connects it to the casing with the cable, the fading alarm letting them both know the procedure's worked. Tony's suddenly aware of how heavy his breathing is. He can hear a low ringing in his ears.
There's only one word that covers it. "Well, that was fun," Tony says.
Steve's mouth falls open. "No, it really wasn't!" he says, indignant.
"I must agree with Captain Rogers, sir," JARVIS says. "Unless you are using the word 'fun' in some sense that is missing from all my dictionaries."
Betrayed by his closest AI? Oh, the dignity. "Oh, JARVIS, you disappoint me! Try looking under 'irony'? I can understand Cap has problems grasping the concept because it probably hadn't been invented in the forties, but I programmed you better than this!"
"That wasn't irony," Steve mutters, "you just like flirting with danger and freaking people out."
Ah, only one day basically stuck together and Steve knows him so well already. Tony blithely ignores him. "Anyway, the job is only half done, and the rest of it will be boring, with barely any risk of sudden death."
Steve adjusts his pose, probably tired of Tony's company by now, but still compelled by decency to ask, "You still need my help?"
He's probably sick to the teeth of Tony. The idea of being alone isn't exactly compelling, but the idea of emotionally blackmailing Steve to stay longer isn't much better.
Tony tries for suave. "Nah, not really, you can saunter off if you've got somewhere better to be."
And Steve, for some reason, doesn't. He does saunter, but it's only as far as the nearest chair, Tony's favorite one for sitting and thinking and occasionally (okay, far too much) napping. Steve settles into the comfortable seat, contemplatively staring at his hands while Tony works. Apparently Steve doesn't want to leave as much as Tony doesn't want him to go.
Tony works methodically, Steve's presence a comforting anchor, and he only regrets it once, when Tony touches a wire too close to a central hub, and the diagrams and JARVIS go a little crazy. Steve shoots upright and looks honestly like Tony's electrocuted him, and nope, he totally didn't. He just electrocuted himself a little, that's all. It takes a few minutes for Steve to settle back into the chair, and he watches Tony warily after that, at first surreptitiously, and then openly as Tony finishes the job and reconnects the arc reactor fully, making his chest complete again.
"Ah, there we go!" Tony announces, beaming over at Steve before rechecking the readouts. Satisfied with the outputs, he pulls out the wires connecting him to the monitor before standing and stretching, relishing the fact that it doesn't hurt to move. "All better now. And if we ever run into whatever the hell that lightning thing was again, it can shoot as many bolts at me as it likes, not going to cause any damage." Tony's not going to lie to himself, he's pretty damn proud with himself for his work today. "I should send them a thank you note, really. Revealed a weakness that I hadn't realized was there."
Steve stands up, glancing from Tony's face to the arc reactor with a decidedly curious expression. "You're a hundred percent sure it's all fixed?"
"Yes," Tony says, reaching out and patting him on the shoulder, hoping the physical touch is just as reassuring to Steve as it was to Tony. It seems to work instantly, the tension in Steve's shoulders slightly relaxing. "Trust me, worrywart, I know these things."
"But Tony, you--" Steve starts.
Tony glares up at the ceiling. "J, a little support here?"
"According to all available metrics, you are functioning within normal parameters, sir. There is no need for further concern, Captain Rogers," JARVIS says, and Tony mentally crosses his fingers, hoping Steve will ignore the fact that Tony programmed the AI, and as such, JARVIS can't exactly be fully trusted to be the most impartial, objective observer inthe room.
"Okay, I'm happy to hear that," Steve says, but slowly. He seriously doesn't look convinced, though, and he looks miserable with it, the tension seeping back into Steve's shoulders, and an unhappy cast to his mouth that Tony hates with the burning passion of a thousand mysterious lightning-blasting creatures (who Tony is still hoping has a vulnerability to drowning in the ocean, and-stroke-or large explosions.)
Tony is struck by the urge, by the need , to wipe that expression from Steve's face, to obliterate it from the planet, and the solution is easy. Tony's a words kind of guy, and needs only words to be pacified in situations like this, but Steve's manifestly physical. Tony reaches out and takes Steve's hand, pressing it firmly against his chest, half over bare skin, half over the reactor.
"There, feel it?" Tony asks. "Ticking away like nothing ever happened. All thanks to you, of course. Without you, I'd be dead several times over. I'm glad I didn't go alone, I did consider doing that at first."
"I'm glad I was there," Steve says, his gaze intently meeting Tony's. "And if anything like this ever happens again, you can always count on me."
Ahhh, the emotional honesty is reaching critical levels. Tony reaches for his usual coping mechanism. Ah, sarcasm and wit, my greatest friends. "Great, any fingers, toes or other body parts that I need for an engineering project, I'll know who to ask," Tony quips, finally letting Steve's hand go now he seems to have calmed down. He wrinkles his mouth for a moment, wondering if he should say the next part, but the idea of talking about today, of how it felt to have Steve literally holding his heart together -- it feels too much. "Also, I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell the others about this. I know it's priceless, as stories go, but…"
"Fury wants a full report," Steve reminds him. Tony pulls a face. "Of course, we can make it a strictly classified one. Wouldn't want anyone to know you actually do have a heart beneath all that metal," he finishes, reaching out to pat Tony's chest lightly.
Tony grins at him wryly. "You know, you’re not even the first person in the world to make that observation. You should ask Pepper about it one of these days. But, anyways, now that we're finally convinced I'm not about to flatline any time in the near future, how about we celebrate with pizza? I'm starving!"
Steve smiles back, soft and fond. "Pizza sounds great, " he says, and starts moving towards the elevator, inclining his head, inviting Tony to walk with him. Tony immediately falls into step with him, matching his pace. A memory hits him of being on the raft, half-asleep, Steve's breaths matched to his, and Tony's cheeks warm involuntarily. He ducks his head a little and follows Steve into the elevator.
"The common floor kitchen, J," Tony commands. "And queue us up some pizza, will you?"
"I already submitted your usual orders, sir," JARVIS says.
"Good boy," Tony says.
"Quite," JARVIS says, with a hiccup of a noise which might be a server rebooting in the distance, or might be the faint echo of an AI sentient enough to sniff on being referred to as a dog might.
"If the others come in while we're eating," Steve says, "how are we going to explain your, uh, charming ensemble?"
Tony side glances at his companion in confusion and Steve gestures at Tony's torn undersuit and patches of bare skin. Oh, yeah. Tony focuses on the important part first. "You think I'm charming?" Tony puts a hand on his hip, pulling a coquettish model pose for a moment, beaming at Steve until Steve rolls his eyes. "We tell them the truth."
"The truth," Steve says, sounding doubtful, "but--"
"Of a sort," Tony says. "You know. Went flying, did a little swimming, a little sailing, a little napping, a little fixing, and then, pizza."
Steve nods. "It's true. Even if it is missing..."
"99% of the details," Tony admits.
"Hm, that," Steve says, and pauses at the threshold of the elevator, an interesting expression on his face as he gazes at Tony and adds, "I was going to say it's missing some of the nuance."
"The... nuance," Tony repeats, slowly, baffled but automatically following Steve out to the common floor that the Avengers tended to use when they were off-duty. "Huh?"
"Oh, you know," Steve says, and he pauses, looking at Tony with that same expression, and Tony only just about manages to decipher it as intent when Steve grabs one of Tony's hands, lifting it up and brushing the lightest, softest, lingering kiss against his knuckles. He locks gazes with Tony as he pulls away. "Nuance."
"Oh," Tony says. " Nuance ."
Steve beams, and lets his hand go, turning to the coffee maker. "I presume you'd like your usual drink order?"
"And I thought I couldn't like you any more than I already do today," Tony breathes. "You make me coffee with those magic fingers of yours and I'm probably yours for life."
"I think," Steve says, "that I can live with that."
Tony's relaxes against the counter and beams at Steve, his heart thumping loudly in his ears. Well, flirting with Steve is certainly one method of proving that his heart is still beating, and it's a method that Tony can see himself as being a-okay with for, well. For as long as Steve lets him.
"Yeah," Tony says. "Me too."