“Tony? Everything all right?”
“Fine, Jarvis. It’s nothing.”
“Don’t give me that, Anthony Stark. I know you too well.”
“It’s just the rain, all right? No need to worry. I’ll sprint back to the apartment in no time.”
“Yes, I can imagine how well that is going to work.” Even through the crackling radio link spanning the Atlantic, Jarvis’s voice was heavy with sarcasm. “Go on, then. Go back to Steve.”
“I will. Talk to you later.”
Tony hung up, and leaned against the wall next to the telephone mounted on it. He’d wanted to drop by at the embassy first thing in the morning, since he knew Jarvis would be anxious to hear what had happened during the last few days. Tony had been happy to tell his oldest friend that their venture in the catacombs had been a great success – they’d found the relic they had been looking for, and a number of other potentially interesting artifacts.
It was nothing short of ridiculous that he’d been perfectly fine dashing through those dark underground vaults mere hours ago, only to have a short walk across town through a drizzling spring rain shower leave him feeling like he never wanted to move again.
Since he and Jarvis had worked out the latest modifications to his repulsor pump about a year ago, he rarely even thought about it. Gone were the times when he had to periodically recharge himself like some kind of a mechanical monstrosity. Still, the fact remained that there were things in his chest that didn’t belong there, metal and glass where there should have been skin and bone, and that caused him pain, from time to time. Especially on days like this, when he had strayed into weather that had turned out to be far colder than he had expected, not wearing nearly enough layers. Both his jacket and shirt had gotten soaked through.
On days like this, he could constantly feel the cold metal sitting heavily in his breast, a chill radiating outwards from it, turning into a bone-deep ache.
“Sir? Are you unwell? Should I call for a car?” an embassy official called out, observing Tony with a concerned expression.
“No need for that. I’ll be on my way now. Thank you, and good day to you,” Tony said quickly, stood up straight, and headed out of the building.
La Ville Lumière did not live up to its reputation this morning: the sky was covered by a thick layer of clouds, the rain a constant drizzle. Everything looked gray, in a way that the lights in the windows didn’t quite seem to penetrate. There weren’t many people out in this weather and at this hour, the commuters already at their workplaces, everyone else staying put within four walls. The terraces in front of cafés were empty but for the most habituated customers, huddling at their lonely tables. Tony spied someone studying him with raised eyebrows, as if wondering whether he was in need of assistance.
For Pete’s sake, Tony could walk back, it wasn’t that many blocks! He’d walked for countless miles in much worse shape, through some of the deadliest places imaginable, from stifling jungle to frozen wasteland. He refused to be this pathetic. And yet, as slowly as he stepped, he still felt breathless, like there was a block of ice deep inside of him, making his lungs seize up, turning his blood to ice in his veins. He knew it wasn’t serious, not something that could actually harm him, but that did not prevent his mind from playing tricks on him. The weariness washing over him and the ache in his chest reminded him far too much of those times when there was an entirely real and life-threatening risk of running out of power.
Eventually, he made it back to building in which their rented apartment lay. The doorman greeted him and winced in sympathy, seeing his miserable and drenched state. Tony decided he should find out the man’s name later and perhaps hand him a signed copy of the latest issue of Marvels.
Thank goodness there was an elevator in the building; Tony wasn’t sure he would’ve managed to climb the stairs all the way up to the fifth floor.
When Tony had left the apartment, Steve had still been fast asleep in the bed that they shared, weary from yesterday’s adventures. Unwilling to wake him, Tony had slipped out as quietly as he could. Steve was hardier than he seemed, often surprising those who instantly equated his slight build with weakness, but he did tire more easily than Tony – on most days, Tony corrected himself. At the present moment, whichever sport they might have chosen to compete in, Steve would have won, hands down.
Tony opened the door to find Steve in the hall, pulling on his shoes. Steve looked up, smiling, but that instantly gave way to a look of concern as he took in Tony’s dripping clothes and hunched posture.
“I was just about to head downstairs and ask if they knew where you’d gone,” Steve said, frowning at Tony. He placed his slender hands on Tony’s shoulders, squeezing gently, creating two wonderful spots of warmth amidst the chill. “What possessed you to go out in that weather without a proper coat?”
“It’s spring in Paris! It’s not supposed to be this cold,” Tony protested. “And I only went to the embassy, it’s practically next door. Jarvis sends his love. He was quite impressed to hear of our success.”
“That could’ve waited,” Steve said, reproach in his voice. “Go on, get out of those wet clothes before you catch your death. I’ll make tea.”
The apartment was small, less luxurious than what Tony would usually go for – bedroom, living room, tiny bathroom and equally small kitchen – but they’d wanted to keep a low profile, since they had reason to suspect there might be others after the relic. Their fears hadn’t been unfounded, as had been proven by an encounter with a troupe of rogues in the dark last night.
Tony made his way to the bedroom and hastily peeled off his soaked clothes, shivering in earnest now. He shrugged into a silk dressing gown, which didn’t do much to counter the cold. As tempting as it would’ve been to curl up on the bed and wrap himself in all the blankets he could find, the promise of tea had him abandon those thoughts, and walk through the hallway to the living room.
Almost at Tony’s heels, Steve stepped out of the kitchen, and offered him a steaming cup of tea that smelled absolutely heavenly. Tony wrapped his fingers around it and settled on the sofa. Steve sat down next to him with a cup of his own. The radio was on, forgotten, with two pleasant French voices apparently talking about elephants.
“Were you listening to something?” Tony asked curiously.
“With half an ear. I was trying to get started on my sketches about yesterday,” Steve said.
Tony gulped down the tea so quickly, the cup had barely time to cool down between his hands. He put it down on the nearby table. The warm liquid had done wonders to dispel the cold, but it wasn’t quite enough to relieve that ache entirely.
“Are you well? Does – does it hurt?” Steve asked cautiously. He moved closer to slip a hand inside Tony’s dressing gown, placing it lightly over his sternum.
This wasn’t something Tony talked about, not even to Steve. Partly because he found it embarrassing, being so affected by simple fluctuations of the weather, and partly because he didn’t want Steve to worry. Steve already worried far more than he should, considering that over a year had now passed without Tony’s heart giving him any trouble.
“I should take a look at those artifacts we found,” Tony said, leaving Steve’s question unanswered, though he knew he was too tense for Steve not to see through his feigned indifference.
“You can do that,” Steve said, placing his other hand on Tony’s chest as well. “As soon as you’ve warmed up a little. We have all day, just for the two of us. The artifacts have been waiting for us for decades. They can wait a little longer still.” He began rubbing soothingly with his nimble fingers. They were almost unnaturally warm against Tony’s cool skin, so like Steve; slight but with such inner fire Tony had never seen in anyone else. That had been the first thing Tony had fallen in love with.
Tony made a pleased hum. This was a plan he definitely approved of. The artifacts weren’t of a sort that might just mysteriously disappear, and Steve’s touch felt thoroughly wonderful, as if it went far deeper than skin, warming Tony all the way through.
“Does this happen often?” Steve asked softly. “I never realized it still hurt you like this.”
Tony leaned his forehead against Steve’s shoulder. “It’s not hurting now,” he mumbled into Steve’s neck, because it really wasn’t, not anymore. The cold and the ache had faded to a distant memory, chased away by irresistible warmth and tenderness.
Steve huffed in mild disapproval, and nudged Tony’s head up a little to keep him in better position, still continuing that soothing massage.
Tony drifted off, Steve’s skin wonderfully hot against his, and a smooth French voice going on about Saharan animals in the background.