It was two days until Steve’s birthday.
Not-- not his Fourth of July birthday, not the one that the press had made up back at the beginning of his tour of the Front, the one with red, white and blue cake and fireworks to celebrate America’s favorite son.
No, it was nearly his real birthday, the one no one remembered, the one that had died when Bucky died-- Bucky, the only person who gave a damn about celebrating Private Rogers’ birthday.
The Mansion seemed so much more oppressive when it was empty. Hank and Jan had gone away for the weekend. Thor was...doing whatever it was Thor did when Thor wasn’t Thor; Steve hadn’t quite puzzled that one out, and Iron Man had been sent on a mission for Tony Stark.
Jarvis had been there, of course, but when he realized that they were alone in the house, Steve had suggested the butler take the weekend off.
“Are you sure, Captain Rogers?” Jarvis had asked, with a kind, concerned expression. Steve had said yes, of course he was sure, and waved the man off with an easy grin.
He was an adult; he was a superhero, of all things, he told himself. He could handle a weekend alone.
Now that he was alone, he wasn’t sure. He realized, with a chill that rose up his arms, that it was his first time being alone-- being really, truly alone-- since he’d come here. Sure, he had his own rooms; he spent plenty of time away from his teammates, but he’d never had the house to himself, never experience this degree of solitude.
And now he did, and it was going to be his first birthday since he’d woken up in a new time, his first birthday as an Avenger, and he had nobody to share it with.
He tried to make the best of it. He worked out, reminding himself how nice it was to be able to put his music on in the gym instead of listening to Jan’s saccharine boy bands or Tony’s too-loud, too-bass-heavy selections. He didn’t even have to wear headphones; he could blast Glenn Miller as loud as he wanted.
He popped some popcorn and watched a movie. He tried the next one on his queue, which was something about a bunch of monkeys worshipping a black obelisk. He couldn’t figure out why anyone would have put this on his must-watch list, and swapped for another, a cowboy movie that he liked much better, right up until the end when the main characters were slaughtered by the Bolivian Cavalry.
That was depressing. He turned off the television and left the house, wandering toward the grocery store.
He stood in front of the cake aisle for a long time, wondering exactly how pathetic it would be for him to buy himself his own cake.
He’d just determined that the clerk at the register would have no way of knowing that he would be going home and eating this entire cake himself, and took out his wallet to pay for it, when his phone rang.
He put the cake-- yellow cake with strawberry filling, white frosting, and blue trim-- down on the counter and passed some cash to the clerk as he answered.
“This is Rogers,” he said.
“Cap?” asked the voice on the other line.
“Tony? Tony Stark?” he asked hesitantly, as the cashier handed him his cake in a rustling plastic shopping bag. Tony Stark was not exactly high on the list of people he expected to call.
“Hi!” said Tony. “Listen, I, uh…Iron Man said you were alone this weekend?”
Steve grimaced. Plainly, no one else was certain he could manage a whole weekend alone, either. “Yeah, everybody else ditched me,” he said, trying to sound as cheerful as possible. “What’s the matter? You need something?”
“Ahhh…” Tony chuckled, a little nervously. “What are you doing while you’re all by yourself? You got any plans?”
“Plans?” Steve asked. “I was...going to eat a whole cake?”
“Oh, that’s sad,” Tony said, tsking. “Good! So, uh, you’re free?”
Steve was starting to suspect something. This conversation was much too stilted than what he normally expected from Tony Stark. “I...yes?” he said.
“So…” Tony was definitely hesitating. “Do you want to go to Latveria with me?”
Steve blinked. He was still trying to keep up with all the ways the maps had changed since he’d gone into the ice. “Lat…”
“I got invited to a Doom’s Day party, and I can bring a plus one, so…”
“Doomsday?” Steve asked. “Is this some Nostradamus bullshit?”
“No, no, no, no, Doom’s Day,” Tony assured him. “Two words. Doom’s. Day. National holiday of Latveria. I thought maybe--”
And then he remembered where he’d heard of Latveria. “This is...Doctor Doom’s country, isn’t it?”
Tony cleared his throat. “Sort...of?” he said, a little apologetically.
“Isn’t there a trade embargo?” Steve asked.
“There’s...sort of that, too,” Tony admitted.
“And we’re--” Steve fumbled for his passcard to get back into the mansion. “We’re going to a party there?”
“Does that mean you’re coming?” Tony asked. “Great; I’ll send a car.”
Tony was off the phone before Steve could determine exactly what had just happened.
He supposed he was going to Latveria. He supposed he should start packing.
He began to stuff a few things in a duffel-- what did one wear to a Doom’s Day party, he wondered, tossing in a couple different pairs of slacks and some nice shirts. He realized he didn’t even know what the weather was like in Latveria this time of year.
He’d just shut his duffel bag when the phone rang again. “Tony?” he asked as he answered.
“I forgot to tell you!” Tony said. “Black tie.”
“Of course it is,” Steve replied. “Black tie. Sure. Why wouldn’t it be black tie?”
“Do you have a tux?” Tony asked. “Because if you don’t--”
Steve frowned. “I have a tux,” he assured Tony. “I just…”
Steve cleared his throat. “I’ve never worn it,” he admitted.
“Hey,” Tony replied. “First time for everything, right?”
Steve sighed, and packed his tuxedo, then eyed the duffel bag cautiously,unpacked the tuxedo and put it into a hanging garment bag.
Tony did indeed send a car, and Steve found himself whisked away to a private airfield, where he could see the sun setting, sending golden beams through the trees on the horizon line.
An airfield. The man owned his own airfield, Steve thought, with wonder.
Tony was standing by a hangar where a small jet waited, being refueled. He had his hands on his hips, standing up straight and tall, dark glasses perched on his nose, a bright grin on his face, and Steve was pretty sure his suit was silk.
Steve mentally added he’s wearing a silk suit on a transatlantic flight just after he owns an airfield to his list of ways Tony Stark had surpassed even his most absurd expectations, and looked down at his own jeans and tee shirt.
He knew Tony Stark was rich, but he was starting to suspect that his understanding of the word ‘rich’ didn’t even begin to cover Tony Stark.
“Hey, Cap!” Tony said, striding forward. He held a hand out to shake, waggled his eyebrows behind his sunglasses. “You ready for the ride of a lifetime?”
Steve wasn’t sure what that meant, though he found himself thinking, it can’t compare to flying with Iron Man.
A slow smile spread over his face, as he imagined the wind rushing against his cheeks, the sleek metal suit beneath his gloves, the view of the world from up high, from dizzying heights.
Then he remembered that he should probably answer Tony. “What makes it the ride of a lifetime, exactly?” he asked.
Tony pressed a hand over his heart. “You wound me!” he exclaimed. “My company, of course.”
“Your--” Steve squinted. “Oh,” he replied, as he realized that Tony meant ‘company’ in the sense of companionship and not in the sense of corporation.
Tony looked hurt. “Well, that’s not much of a vote of confidence, Cap.”
“Hey,” Steve said. “I’m off-duty. Call me Steve, okay?”
“Sure thing, Steve,” Tony replied, grinning and animated once again-- Steve surmised that he couldn’t have been that hurt. “Lemme introduce you to our flight crew. You-- is that all your luggage?” he asked, eyeing Steve;s duffel and his hanging bag.
“Did I need more?” Steve asked, holding the bags up warily.
Tony considered the bags with a tilt of the head. “Nah,” he said cheerily. “I mean, I’m sure it’s fine; you’ll look good in anything. Or nothing. Or...ah…” Tony frowned, as if he were rethinking his words. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” he managed, and held a hand out. “Gimme your bags.”
Steve felt a little strange, having Tony carry his things for him, but he relented, and followed Tony up the gangway and onto the jet.
On the inside, Tony’s airplane was one of the most-- no, Steve thought to himself, not one of, the most extravagant vehicle Steve had ever seen. There was high-pile carpeting, fancy leather recliners, tiny side tables that Steve was pretty sure were made from mahogany. And, after they took off, there was a flight attendant who asked him for his beverage order and his pillow preference.
“Pardon?” Steve had asked. “What’s a...pillow preference?”
“She wants to know if you like ‘em firm,” Tony answered cheerily, from where he was lounging with his shoes, glasses, and jacket off, and his tie loosened. “Do you--”
Steve couldn’t tell from the tone of Tony’s voice whether that was an intentional innuendo, but he was having trouble not hearing it as one, and swallowed. “Ah.” He wasn’t sure what was the right answer. If he said no, was there a joke to go along with that? If he said yes, was he implying something about himself he didn’t really intend for anyone to know? “Whatever’s easiest,” he said to the flight attendant, giving her a smile that might have been a little too stiff.
“Bring him two,” Tony suggested. “Then he can pick.”
Steve ordered a Coca-Cola, a beverage choice that was met by a “huh” from Tony, who ordered some fancy scotch with a lot of syllables in its name.
Tony pulled out his StarkPad and began swiping at something that Steve couldn’t see, and Steve sipped at his soda and wondered if maybe he should get some rest. He picked up the two pillows, trying to determine which one he actually preferred.
“So, Steve,” Tony said, suddenly, out of the blue, not looking up from whatever it was he was doing.
“Hm?” Steve asked.
“You and Iron Man are pretty chummy, aren’t you?”
It was not what Steve had expected to hear, and he blinked. Of course it made sense: Iron Man technically worked for Tony Stark; he was only an Avenger on the side.
“Pardon?” he asked.
“You and Iron Man,” Tony repeated. “You get along pretty good?”
“Yeah,” Steve assured Tony, straightening up a little, wanting to do anything to make his friend look good in the eyes of his employer. “He’s an incredible asset to our team; he’s a hard worker, smart, fast, considerate--”
Tony nodded. “Good, Good.” He looked down at his scotch and took a sip, almost as if he was trying to steel himself for something, though Steve had no idea what.
“What do you think of him?” Tony asked. “Uh. Beside all that. Not that I want you to, uh, snitch on your teammate, but it’s always good to get an...outside perspective.” Tony glanced away again, looking almost sheepish.
And Steve...Steve wasn’t sure how to answer. What did he think of Iron Man? He wasn’t about to say, ‘well, gosh, Mr. Stark, I think I have a crush on your favorite employee.’
“He’s uh…” Steve’s ears felt warm. “He’s a...good egg? I guess.”
Tony chuckled. “Shellhead. A good egg. I like that.”
Steve coughed. “Uh.” That had been unintentional. “He’s, uh. Warm. Considerate. Enthusiastic? I’m not sure that’s the right word. He’s been a very good friend to me, been more than generous with his time. For...for someone who has two jobs, and his own private life, I assume.”
“I don’t know if he has much of a private life,” Tony said, with a soft sort of smile, a smile that seemed somehow incongruous, like his heart had been warmed by Steve’s words. “But that’s...nice to hear. He-- it’s important to me, how Iron Man’s faring with the Avengers.”
Steve wondered at that, wondered what Tony’s relationship was, to Iron Man, when Iron Man wasn’t in the suit. Tony had no family, as far as he knew.
“Well, he’s faring well,” Steve said, politely. “But I don’t want to be a snitch, even if I’ve only got good things to say. It feels a little...disingenuous, talking about him behind his back.”
“He wouldn’t mind,” Tony assured Steve.
But Steve frowned. “I should tell him that,” he realized, aloud. “He’s been doing so much for me, and I don’t think I’ve ever really thanked him.”
“You thank him all the time,” Tony answered, instantly, and Steve glanced at him sharply, wondering exactly how much Iron Man talked about him. “I mean…” Tony added, when he saw Steve’s look. “I mean, he knows you’re very grateful; I’ve inferred as much.”
Steve relaxed a little. That made him feel better, then, if Iron Man knew how much he was appreciated.
He was burning with curiosity, though-- if Iron Man and Tony were that close, what else could Tony tell him? What was Iron Man’s life like, outside the suit? Did he have his own friends, a family? Steve had no way of knowing if Iron Man was married, if Iron Man had kids...where he lived, who he lived with, and not knowing...not knowing any of those things always made his crush feel a little hapless, made Iron Man feel unattainable. He didn’t have any idea if Iron Man was even attracted to men-- hell, he didn’t even know if Iron Man was a man, under all that armor.
Not that it mattered to Steve, really. But it would have been nice to know, even if Steve was entirely aware that it was something he wasn’t likely to ever pursue.. And all these questions were on the tip of his tongue, begging, just begging to come out, so he had to clamp his jaw shut, scold himself for even thinking of asking.
“Everything okay?” Tony asked, tilting his head at Steve, looking vaguely concerned.
“Yeah,” Steve said, his voice coming out a little stiffly, and then he gave Tony a sheepish smile. “I’m trying not to ask you personal questions.”
Tony coughed. “Personal questions about me or about Iron Man? ‘Cause I’m more than happy to tell you anything you want to know about me; I’m an open book. Like, a really big open book, like every single volume of the Oxford English Dictionary open. Probably to a swear word, but you know what I mean. You live life as a celebrity, it’s better not to have secrets, ‘cause somebody’ll dig ‘em up if you do.”
Well, that made things a little easier, Steve thought. He tried to think of something he could ask Tony. “So, is it true?” he asked. “Do you really have a room full of Captain America memorabilia in your house?”
“Ha.” Tony snickered, and waved a hand at Steve. “Blatant lies. A room full of Captain America memorabilia? Who told you that?”
“Iron Man, actually,” Steve admitted.
“Well, I’ll have to give him a formal warning,” Tony said cheerfully. “A room full. It’s three rooms. I never.”
Tony rolled his eyes dramatically. Steve wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to be laughing, but he chuckled appreciatively.
And then Tony straightened up, his eyes suddenly all aglow. He had a very animated face, Steve realized, very expressive, the kind of face that was, in Tony’s own words, an open book, every emotion written in big, bold strokes in his eyes, in his mouth, in the quirk of his brows.
“Hey!” Tony exclaimed. “You should come by the house, sometime. You know, come see for yourself. I bet you’d get a kick out of it, Cap-- er, Steve. Seeing all that stuff from while you were gone. There’s a card game from the 1950s, called Commie Catcher; it’s like rummy but you’re supposed to be Captain America taking down Russian spies.”
Steve couldn’t help but laugh out loud at that. “These people had no idea I’m practically a socialist, did they?”
“Considering I have a pamphlet called ‘Help Captain America Stamp Out Socialism in Your School’?” Tony replied, gesturing to make air quotes around the title of the pamphlet. “Doubtful.”
Steve sighed. “This is the problem with dying and coming back, I suppose,” he lamented cheerfully.
There were a lot of problems with dying and coming back. But they weren’t things he was going to talk to a near-stranger about.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Tony said. “Sheesh. Jesus Christ never had this problem.”
“To be fair,” Steve pointed out. “He was only gone for three days.”
Tony smiled, finished off his scotch, and then stretched and yawned. “I’m gonna take a nap,” he told Steve. “It’s a long flight, and Latverian parties are killers. You enjoy yourself; if there’s anything you need, you can ask the flight crew. We’ve got meals, movies...whatever you want.”
“Thanks,” Steve assured Tony.
It was a long flight, and after a while of flipping channels on the personal television screen installed by Steve’s seat, Steve decided he might better nap, too. When he woke, a bright morning sun was shining over snow-capped peaks.
Tony was awake, reading something on his tablet.
“Are those the Alps?” Steve asked. He felt a little breathless, a little bit of a chill running down his spine, a little bit of a bittersweet tug at his heart as he remembered fighting here, down below, huddling for warmth with his compatriots as they fought their way through a pass to help move supplies to Resistance fighters in France.
“Yeah,” Tony answered, looking up from his tablet. “Yeah. We’ve only got a few hours left; we should touch down around one in the afternoon Latverian time. You want breakfast?”
The plane was very well-stocked, and the flight attendant provided Steve with apple pancakes, orange juice, eggs, bacon, and some of the best coffee Steve had ever tasted, complete with a Captain America shield drawn into the latte foam.
Tony was craning his neck to watch Steve’s reaction when the flight attendant set down the tray, like a small child who had given his parent a piece of art to put on the refrigerator.
It was enough to make Steve’s face crinkle into a smile, and he rubbed at his eyes, a little sheepishly. “Did you also ask Iron Man what my favorite breakfast is?” he asked.
Tony cleared his throat and looked away innocently. “I would never,” he said, in a haughty tone. “Taking advantage of my business connections to feed you pancakes?”
The pancakes were delicious. Chewing thoughtfully on a bite, he glanced at Tony again, wondering. It did seem like an awful lot of effort to go to. Tony Stark seemed like a decent enough person, but he couldn’t help but question whether he might want something, and if so, what it was.
Steve tried to put it out of his head.
Their plane landed, as promised, just around one in the afternoon, and as they deboarded, Steve carrying his bags, he saw the massive, metallic sculpture of Doctor Doom, waving like a highway road stop mascot, near a sign painted in a sparkling curlicue font that, Steve had come to understand, was characteristic of 1950s design.
Welcomes you to
Enjoy your stay!
“Sounds cheery, huh?” Tony asked. “Name notwithstanding, they have an excellent safety record.”
Two green-caped figures were approaching. Doombots. Steve stiffened, bracing himself for battle.
Tony, meanwhile, strode forward, arms outstretched. “Doombot! And Doombot! Great to see you, pals! You’re looking especially well.”
“Welcome to Doomstadt, honored guests of Doom,” said one of the Doombots, in a metallic approximation of Doom’s own voice.
One of them raised its arms. It was holding something that looked like a green and silver lei.
Tony bowed his head, and Steve, still not entirely uncomfortable with this situation, eyed him cautiously.
“Come on, Steve, get leid,” Tony said, with an eyebrow waggle.
Steve’s throat went dry, but he followed suit, as the Doombot put the lei around his neck. To his surprise, it didn’t emit needles or toxic gas. It did, however, have tiny styrofoam Doom-heads at the center of every flower.
“You will follow us to your accommodations,” one of the Doombots informed them. The Doombots-- almost forcibly-- removed their luggage from their grasp and marched back in the direction they had come from.
Steve gave Tony a questioning look. Tony shrugged, cheerfully, and hastened after their hosts.
“So,” Tony said, as they were shuffled into a waiting green-and-silver car. “How’s it been, buddies? Lovely weather you’re having.”
“Our great leader has mastered control of the elements,” one of the Doombots explained. “We have no weather but that which Doom commands.”
“Praise Doom,” said the other Doombot.
Steve took a deep breath and poked at one of the tiny Doom heads on his lei.
The car crawled up a curving road through a pass in the mountains that surrounded the airport, when Steve first spied the castle on the hill. It was massive, looming, with high spires and colorful flags flying proudly in the wind, like something from a fairytale or a horror movie, and Steve wasn’t sure which.
“Doom Castle,” Tony whispered in Steve’s ear, and Steve shivered, and then felt a bit stupid for shivering, as he stared up at the building, where it perched high in the mountains.
They passed through a city that seemed to have been preserved in time, like something out of a movie, a perfect medieval town, with stone bridges and thatched rooftops, with a broad stone bridge over a rushing river, and kept creeping closer toward Doom Castle.
And then they crossed over a drawbridge, and entered the outer wall of the castle itself, through a portcullis of all things.
“And here you thought you were the one living in the past,” Tony muttered at Steve, who shot him an appreciative smile in return.
The castle was hung with the Latverian flag, and green and silver banners that flapped in the wind, glimmering as they caught the sunlight.
And there, up on the parapet, stood the man himself, in his flowing green cloak, his silver gauntlets glinting.
“Behold,” said one of the Doombots. “Doom awaits your arrival.”
“Oh, goody,” Tony replied. “Lucky us.”
“We will take care of your belongings,” the Doombots informed them. “Doom has demanded an audience. You will see Doom.”
“Guests of honor, huh?” Tony said cheerfully, and jostled Steve a little with his elbow before he left the car. When they met on the other side, Tony leaned closer and whispered. “You get uncomfortable, just leave it to me.”
“Thanks,” Steve murmured back.
They were met by another set of Doombots.
“Greetings!” these Doombots said, in unison. “Doom awaits. You will follow us.”
They were led into the main hall of the castle, where a red carpet had been laid out, and the walls were lined with art by all the great masters. Steve let out a low whistle as he surveyed a Boticelli, and then a Monet, and then he stopped, frowning, at a blank space on the wall.
“What do you suppose happened there?” Steve asked.
“Oh, that?” Tony replied. “That must have been the Renoir. It displeased him.”
Steve had a distinct sinking feeling. “Great,” he said.
They were led into a throne room. An actual throne room, with immense vaulted ceilings, the long red carpet leading down an aisle between rows upon rows of seats, all of them occupied by Doombots.
It was uncanny, seeing an entire crowd, all with the same face, the same body, the same clothing.
The Doombots rose in perfect unison as Steve and Tony were led into the room, and for a moment, Steve thought that this was their greeting, but no-- there, on the dais, Doom himself had risen from the massive silver throne.
“Step forward,” Doom instructed, even though Steve and Tony were already walking forward. “Greetings, and welcome to Doomstadt.”
“Doomstadt,” Steve muttered under his breath.
“Your Majesty!” Tony exclaimed. “You're looking well today. May the blessings of Doom’s Day be upon you.”
He dropped to one knee, and motioned for Steve to do the same.
Steve just stood there dumbly, slightly mortified that Tony expected him to bow to Doom.
“Captain Rogers,” Doom said, imperious. “A fine and worthy opponent, but today, you shall be Doom’s honored guest. It is with much pleasure that I see you eager to see the greatness of Doom without enmity to color your vision.”
Steve swallowed. “It's, uh, very gracious of you to have me,” he said.
Doom put up a hand, as if he were the Pope giving a benediction. “It is the spirit of Doom’s Day,” he said. “Most blessed of days, when all men are at peace.”
Doom held out a hand. “You may kiss Doom’s ring.”
Tony kissed the ring. Steve gave Tony a sidelong glance. Tony shot him a thumbs-up. He took a deep breath, and kissed the ring, which was a tiny silver replica of Doom’s mask. Steve tried to imagine the amount of ego a person had to have to wear a ring of his own likeness.
“Doom has prepared the best rooms in the castle for your visit,” Doom continued. “And you will find them arrayed with a quantity of refreshments, as well as a wardrobe befitting Doom’s Day.”
“That's, uh. Very kind,” said Tony. “But Steve and I did bring our own clothes.”
Doom’s hand dropped to the throne’s armrest with a clang. “They displeased me,” Doom answered, matter-of-fact. “They have been burned and replaced with acceptable fashions.”
Steve watched the way Tony’s mouth hung half-open. He knew enough about Tony Stark to imagine that Doom had likely just burned thousands of dollars’ worth of clothing.
Tony cleared his throat. “Doom’s generosity is, of course, unmatched,” he answered.
“You shall bathe and dress yourselves,” Doom informed them. “And then Doom has arranged for a tour of some of the greatest scientific and cultural accomplishments of Latveria. You shall see how Doom’s reign is unsurpassed in the modern world.”
“Looking forward to it!” Tony assured Doom.
“You may rise,” Doom said. “You are dismissed. May Doom be with you.”
“Doom be with you!” The Doombots echoed in unison.
“And, uh--” Tony rose, looking up at Steve, who had never knelt in the first place. “And also with you?”
“Also with you,” Steve mumbled, not wanting to seem rude.
Their rooms were not near each other, positioned in opposite wings on the same floor, so that after Tony had been dropped at his assigned place, Steve was left walking with his Doombot chaperones. He felt uneasy, as if he were being matched to his death, and he wondered for a moment if this was a trap, if Doom’s display downstairs was meant to lull them into a false sense of security. Tony, well, Tony was safe: he was an entrepreneur, not a superhero, and quite a capitalist, at that. Steve suspected that his support was valuable to Doom; as far as he knew, they might have covert trade agreements, in spite of the embargo against Latveria. But he-- he was Captain America. And that in itself was enough reason for Doom to be...less than hospitable. Would Doom simply let him leave?
He shouldn't have agreed to this, he thought-- but then, he hadn't, technically, agreed. He'd let Tony Stark make up his mind for him.
And now, here he was, walking down a narrow hall lit by torches that burned with green flame, in the home of a super villain, and so outnumbered and defenseless that if Doom had wanted to take him captive, it would require minimal effort.
He found himself eyeing the hall critically, looking for items that could double as improvised weapons, considering any possible escape route.
But then, the Doombots brought him to a massive, carved wooden door, and one of them pressed a hand to the plate beside it.
“We have arrived,” said one of the Doombots. “Kindly input your palm scan for security identification.”
Steve put his hand over the spot the Doombots had indicated, and a green light flashed over his palm. Again, he wondered if it was a trick-- would Doom keep his handprint? What could he use it for?
There was a friendly-sounding beep, and the door swung open. The room, on the inside, was as technologically advanced as the hallway had seemed medieval. Holoscreens displayed weather reports, a food menu, Internet access, a series of PSAs on Latverian industry, and a touchscreen panel had settings to adjust the temperature, humidity, and brightness of the room, as well as the bed softness. The bed itself was enormous, piled with pillows, and covered in a fluffy featherbed. The only hint that he was inside an ancient castle was the narrow crenellations that served as windows, through which Steve had a view of the lush Latverian countryside.
Triumphant music swelled on the stereo, and Doom's face flashed on all the holoscreens.
"Doom wishes each and every one of you a most glorious Doom's Day," Doom said, and a banner scrolled across the bottom of the screens, that said "HAPPY DOOM'S DAY! CELEBRATE!"
The message from Doom was repeated in several other languages-- Steve recognized German, French, and Italian. Finally, Doom's face faded away. replaced with images of people dressed in what Steve could only assume were traditional Latverian peasants' clothes. They were holding aloft steins and dancing and singing raucously.
Steve looked at the screen offering the food selections: Doomwurst, Doomstadterschnitzel, Doomsalat, and finally chose the Doomessen, which, from the description, sounded like a special holiday sampler plate.
His phone buzzed in his pocket.
"Tony?" He asked, as he fished out his phone and answered it.
"Is this place a trip, or what?" Tony asked. "I just...I wanted to make sure they really gave you a room and didn't throw you in the dungeon."
Steve laughed in spite of himself. "No," he said. "I have a room. It's--"
He looked around again. "A trip, yeah."
"Did you check out the clothes?" Tony asked.
"I checked out the menu," Steve answered.
"Haven't gotten to the food yet," Tony admitted. "Take a look at the clothes."
"Where..." Steve frowned, peering around the room.
"Just say 'Closets,'" Tony replied.
"Closets?" Steve echoed, and one of the broad, mirrored walls rolled away, revealing a huge selection of clothing-- all embroidered cotton and leather, the same kinds of quaint fashions the people in the Doomsday video were wearing.
Steve was struck speechless. He reached for a feathered felt cap. "We're...expected to wear this?" He asked.
"You know what they say," Tony replied cheerfully. "When in Doom, do as the Doombots--"
"I would," Steve interrupted, "but I don't see any green cloaks or metal gauntlets."
Tony tsked. "Such a shame," he said. "You'd look hot in metal gauntlets."
Steve blinked, relieved that Tony couldn't see his reaction. He couldn't tell if the other man was joking, or actually flirting.
"Well, I'd hate for Iron Man to think I was stealing his signature look," Steve retorted.
"Oh, believe me," Tony said, "I think Iron Man would agree with me."
"Ah--" Steve really wasn't sure how to answer that. "Thanks?"
Tony chuckled, seemingly unaware of the awkwardness on Steve's side, for which Steve was eternally grateful.
"Listen, I'm gonna snag a bath, and then I'll drop by your room?" he offered. "I'm a little...leery about being separated."
"Sure," Steve agreed, and he peered toward the door that certainly led to the bathroom. "Sure, I'll see you."
Steve hung up and put his phone down. He stripped out of his sweaty clothing from the airplane, and then, after a moment's consideration, hid them under his bed, in case the Doombots got any ideas about burning the rest of his clothes.
Jan was going to be so mad about the tux, he thought, as he stepped into the bathroom.
The bathroom-- The door shut, automatically, behind Steve, and the lights came up as if on a motion sensor, soft and glowing and rose-colored. The room itself was entirely silver-veined marble, with a tub that was recessed into the floor.
Another holoscreen allowed controls for temperature, scent, and bubbles.
Steve frowned, selected “Hot” and “Doom Mountain Fresh” and “Medium,” and watched, mesmerized, as the tub filled itself with steaming water, and soft, almost hypnotic music began playing.
He sank into the tub, the jets bubbling up around him until he was submerged to his chin, massaging the muscles that were still cramped from the flight and the too-small seats. The water felt divine, the temperature perfect, and the lights changed slowly from rose to gold to silver-blue and back. Doom Mountain Fresh scent was apparently a pleasant mix of wildflowers, grass, and evergreen.
He found himself nearly drifting to sleep, when something touched his head and gave him a jolt.
He sat up straight, the water splashing violently around him.
There was a Doombot in the bathroom.
“What--” Steve started.
“Doom has demanded only the best treatment for his guests,” explained the Doombot. “You will have your hair washed.”
“I can…” Steve felt suddenly tense, tenser than he had been before the bath had let him fall into a lull. “I can wash my own hair, thank you.”
“I have been trained with the latest hair-washing protocol,” the Doombot informed him. “Your hair-washing technique is likely inferior. Doom will not be pleased.”
Steve sighed, and relented. “Fine,” he muttered.
The Doombot’s fingers stroked his scalp, and after a few moments of exceptionally skilled massage, of those metallic fingertips somehow seeking out all the points of stress behind his ears and down his neck, he was feeling exceedingly grateful that he had agreed. He felt the luxurious, foamy lather behind his ears, and then the soft, warm pressure of the water flowing through his hair from a faucet.
Steve was up like shot, suddenly alert, the water cooling on his skin and making him feel a chill on his shoulders, on the back of his neck.
“Tony?!” he exclaimed, squinting as he looked around the room.
And then, there was Tony, projected on a gigantic holoscreen. “Hey! I figured out how to call your room!” he said cheerily, waving at Steve, before he pursed his lips, eyes wide, and swallowed. “Uh. Sorry, I didn’t, uh, mean to interrupt whatever you’re--”
“No, no--” Steve said, not wanting to seem, well, prudish. Anyway, he told himself, even though he felt his cheeks go hot, the bubbles were covering most of what Tony might have been able to see. “It’s fine--”
Tony, on the other hand, was wearing nothing but a somewhat...short...bathrobe, and-- was that a blush creeping up his neck?
Steve realized, unable to take his eyes off Tony’s legs, just how fit the man was, how athletic-- something that came as a bit of a surprise to Steve, as he imagined Tony spent most of his time sitting hunched over a computer. But no, here he was, with sculpted calves and messy, freshly-washed hair, looking more attractive than Steve had ever quite noticed before.
And then Steve swallowed, realizing he was staring.
And that Tony wasn’t exactly saying anything, either.
Tony coughed. “I uh...I wanted your help?”
“What kind of help?” Steve asked, relieved to have a basic directive.
Tony held up two vests-- one red, one black, both with elaborate braiding and embroidered flowers down the front. “Which one do I wear?” he asked, a grimace on his face.
Steve laughed in spite of himself. “Red,” he answered, without thinking. “Definitely the red one.”
It was only as Tony held it up in front of his chest that Steve realized what it reminded him of, with its metallic gold needlework up the sides of the vest, and he bit down on his tongue. “Maybe the black,” he decided, and Tony, frowning, switched.
“Thanks,” Tony said. “You’re a lifesaver. I, uh...I’ll be over soon.”
The holoscreen switched off, and Steve let the Doombot finish rinsing his hair, before it offered him the fluffiest green towel he had ever used in his life.
“May I be of any more service?” the Doombot asked. “A nose-hair trim, perhaps?”
“Uh...I’ll let you know if I need anything,” Steve assured the Doombot.
“Praise Doom!” The Doombot answered.
Steve wasn’t entirely sure what the protocol was in this situation. Surely Doombots didn’t receive tips?
“Praise Doom,” he mumbled back at it, and left to get dressed.
Back in the bedroom, the Doomessen had arrived, and it was laid out on the table-- a savory-smelling array of sausages, cold cuts, pickles, salads, and dumplings. Mouth watering, Steve helped himself to a small plate.
He went through his own clothing, and found a pair of leather knickers that were somewhat longer than the other leather knickers, a white cotton shirt, suspenders, and a beautiful leather jacket that was clearly intended for him -- deep, dark blue with a silver star motif embroidered on the back.
He was just combing his hair when someone knocked at his door.
A little screen displayed Tony, bouncing on his heels, in his black vest, a black shirt, and black leather knickers not unlike Steve’s own.
Unlike Steve, Tony had actually dared to put one of the feathered caps on his head, and he looked entirely the picture of one of those men Steve had seen on the holoscreen.
Steve had to suppress a laugh, but at the same time, something about it was...endearing, almost, and he watched a moment longer as Tony straightened his cap and fidgeted with his suspenders, like a young boy about to meet his date.
Something in Steve’s chest fluttered, as he realized that that was exactly what it looked like.
With a new sense of trepidation, he opened the door.
Tony’s eyes were gleaming. “Hey, Cap,” he said, looking Steve over. “The, uh. The blue suits you.”
Steve smiled back, now feeling somehow as if he were a young boy meeting his date. “Thanks,” he said.
“I know, I know,” Tony said, as he made his way part Steve, into the room, “I look like a member of a death metal oom-pah band.”
“You...do?” Steve asked.
“Trust me,” Tony said, straightening the cap again. “I do. Ooh!” he crowed, seeing the food laid out. “You got a little of everything. Can I--”
He’d already picked up a plate and a fork, and was stabbing at a dumpling, so Steve saw no reason to refuse. After all, it was more than enough food for both of them.
“Go ahead?” Steve answered, just as Tony pounced on a plate of roasted meat.
“You got the Doomerbraten,” he said, delighted, scooping up a forkful. “Ah, that’s a damn good Doomerbraten; nobody makes it like the Latverians.”
“Well,” Steve said. “The Doombots have been updated with the latest meat-roasting protocols.”
Tony snickered and shoveled more Doomerbraten into his mouth.
The Doombots arrived to take Steve and Tony on their guided tour of Doomstadt, and Steve was slightly relieved to discover that Doom himself wasn’t planning on accompanying them.
Instead of a car, they were ushered into an open coach, drawn by four silver horses that Steve strongly suspected were also robots, and drove back down from the mountaintop, into the city below.
The Doombots took them on a full tour of the city, driving them down a grand boulevard, through a stately park full of proud, old trees and decorative shrubbery, and past a grand medieval clocktower just as the clock chimed, ringing melodiously out over the valley. A metal figure-- a perfect replica of Doom himself -- marched out of the tower, followed by clockwork children and animals, and they all danced in a circle before returning inside the clock.
“Have you ever seen anything like it?” Tony murmured to Steve, pointing at the clock.
“There’s the animal clock at the Zoo?” Steve volunteered. “But that’s not quite--”
It was definitely not quite.
And when Tony’s hand dropped back to his side, his fingers brushed against Steve’s, resting on the seat.
Steve glanced at Tony, but Tony was still looking out the window, and didn’t move his hand. Steve couldn’t quite bring himself to pull his own hand away.
They rode like that, neither of them speaking, neither of them looking at each other, until the Doombots stopped the carriage at an ivy-covered, pillared structure.
“Ah!” Tony scrambled from his seat. “I’ve always wanted to see this!” he informed Steve, hopping out of the carriage.
“What...is it?” Steve asked, alighting from the carriage somewhat more hesitantly.
“The Latverian Academy of the Sciences,” Tony said, staring up admiringly at the majestic edifice. “One of the greatest modern educational institutions. They have one of the greatest particle physics labs in the world; I--” Tony was breathless and giddy, and his eyes lit up as the Doombots took them on a tour of the main building. He peppered them with questions that went well beyond Steve’s understanding, so Steve tried to busy himself by studying the murals and relief sculptures that decorated many of the walls-- images of the great scientists: from Kepler, Newton, and Galileo to Einstein, Feynman, and, Steve noted, with a bittersweet tinge, Abraham Erskine.
Tony joined him, looking up reverently at the portrait of Steve’s old friend. His sleeve brushed against Steve’s.
“Someday, I’m gonna be up on those walls,” he said, breathlessly.
Steve prayed silently that his heart would stop beating so fast.
They finished their tour of the college, and then saw two churches, and the Doomstadt Museum of Romani History, where Steve saw photos that brought memories of the war, of liberating prisoners from Nazi camps, flashing before his eyes. He shivered, at a picture of a dark-eyed, too-thin child staring out from a fence of barbed wire, and now Tony put his hand firmly on his back.
It gave him a start, and he tried to summon himself back from his memories of the war.
“You okay, pal?” Tony asked.
Steve shook his head, hard and fast. “I-- yeah,” he said. “Yeah. Just...the war.”
Tony bit his lip.
“Right,” he said. “I...sometimes forget that about you. You--” He lowered his hand from Steve’s back, and gestured for Steve to follow him, away from the war photography, over to an exhibit on traditional Romani fashions. “Are you doing okay?” he asked. “In general, I mean, not-- not just with this?”
“Sure,” Steve said. Tony was a near-stranger, he reminded himself. Tony didn’t need to hear about the nightmares, about the flashbacks, about the cold sweats or the sleepless nights. “Sure, you know, sometimes it’s tough, but…” he shrugged, and forced himself to smile at the other man. “Everything’s pretty okay, yeah?”
“Okay,” Tony agreed, but he looked skeptical. “You...you tell me, if you ever need to talk to anybody? I...I haven’t been a soldier, but I’ve...been there, a little bit, I guess? Had my whole world turned upside down.”
Steve took a breath. “Okay, I’ll-- remember that,” he assured Tony, even as he told himself he would never--”
“Or talk to Iron Man, you know,” Tony offered. “He…” Tony chewed on his lower lip, as if he were seeking for a word. “He cares about you more than he lets on.”
Steve swallowed, and looked away. “I...I just don’t want to be any trouble,” he said.
“He wouldn’t think that,” Tony assured Steve. “I wouldn’t think that.” And he reached for Steve’s hand-- actually took Steve’s hand in his, which was a strange, but comforting gesture. “Come on. Let’s tell the Doombots we’re finished.”
They arrived back at the castle just as the sun began to set, and the Doombots escorted them back to their rooms to dress for the party.
This time, when Steve entered his room, he found classical music playing, the bed turned down, and a bath already drawn, complete with flower petals floating on the surface.
“God’s sake, I just had a bath,” Steve muttered, and then he relented, giving the currently-deactivated Doombot in the corner of the bathroom a glare. “I know,” he said. “Doom will be displeased. Just-- I don’t need your help this time,” he informed it irritably.
Steve washed--quickly, this time, certain the Doombot was going to decide he was doing something wrong. He hopped out of the bath, toweled himself off, and went back into the bedroom, where he found clothing already set out for him.
He sighed, and dressed. It was a military-styled suit, but one of another era, with braid and trim and two rows of shiny buttons down the front.
And a sword. A dress sword, with a jewel-encrusted pommel and a dull blade.
“Holy Hapsburg, Steve!”
Steve whirled around. It was the holoscreen again.
Tony, too, was dressed in the same sort of finery that Steve was wearing, a sash across his chest, bright buttons.
Steve coughed into his hand.
“Check this out!” Tony said, turning in a circle. “Is this...sexy King Ludwig enough for you?”
Steve squinted. “Pardon?”
“Ludwig Two of Bavaria?” Tony said, tilting his head, as if he expected Steve to know what he was talking about. “Neuschwanstein? Bankrupted his country building pretty castles? Had a hard-on for Wagner?”
Steve was reduced to shaking his head with complete lack of recognition.
Tony let out a loud, mock-sigh. “And here I thought we just had to educate you on the current century. Listen,” Tony said. “I, uh... I guess now is the time to admit I sort of...brought you here...with an ulterior motive?”
Steve blinked. “Ulterior motive?”
“Yeah, uh…” Tony shrugged. “I need you to run interference.”
“What...kind of interference?” Steve asked warily.
“Well, see,” Tony replied. “The last time I came to one of these things, I’m pretty sure Doom tried to seduce me, and in spite of the fact that I know it’s a terrible idea, I go weak at the knees at the, uh, size of his research facilities.”
Steve winced. “Why am I getting the feeling that ‘research facilities’ isn’t actually an innuendo?”
“Well, come on, Steve!” Tony objected, looking hurt. “You saw his labs! If I meant cock, I’d say c--”
But then a knock came at the door, and Steve hastily said goodbye to Tony, who assured Steve he’d see him downstairs.
Steve was completely unprepared for a Doom’s Day ball. Whatever he had had, fixed in his head, the most grandiose party he had ever attended in New York-- this was ten times that. The Doombots led him to the top of a grand, carpeted staircase that looked over a ballroom with dozens of crystal chandeliers twinkling above, and a glimmering green marble floor veined with silver below.
The room was full, crowded with-- Steve noticed, to his relief-- actual humans, all as elegantly arrayed as he was, and a full orchestra played beautiful, lilting music. At the far side of the room sat tables covered in roasts and sweets, a tremendous buffet in silver chafing dishes, and there, at the very farthest end of the room, stood the tallest evergreen Steve had ever seen indoors, festooned with candles and silver ornaments, a massive silver mask atop it with gleaming eyes.
“What the--” Steve started, and then he snapped his mouth shut, realizing he was speaking aloud.
“What?” Tony asked, appearing suddenly at his side. “You’ve never seen a Doom’s Day Tree?”
Steve swallowed. “Can’t say that I--”
“Me neither,” Tony admitted. “To be fair, Doom changes the holiday every time he celebrates it. Last time, we had an egg hunt and lit a menorah.”
“But Easter and Chanukkah aren’t even at the same time of--”
Tony nudged him. “Don’t question their cultural traditions within earshot,” he murmured, nodding at the Doombots who were apparently acting as serving staff for the festivities.
Steve coughed, just as the music stopped.
A trumpet sounded, and the entire crowd turned at once to look up at the staircase.
The entire crowd was looking at them. Steve gulped.
“Captain Steven Grant Rogers and Mr. Anthony Edward Stark, both of the United States of America,” a Doombot announced from a podium, and the other guests broke into polite applause.
Steve looked at Tony, unsure what to do. Tony shrugged, and shot Steve a lopsided smile. “I guess you’re my date, Cap,” Tony said sheepishly, and he offered Steve his arm.
Steve took it, and though he tried to relax, he descended the stair stiffly, feeling self-conscious the whole while, as they took a step at a time, the rest of the room staring up at them.
But when they reached the floor, the crowd parted, and there, there right before them, was Doom himself.
“Doom is pleased by your attendance at this intimate gathering,” Doom said, and he bowed low. Tony bowed in return, and Steve supposed he ought to, too, though he got caught on his sword and wished, wished it had been his shield.
“The pleasure is all ours,” Tony assured Doom, and he caught at Steve’s hand, which make Steve glance down at Tony with a new sense of affection he hadn’t felt before. And he looked Tony over, looked at his softly curling dark hair, his sparkling blue eyes, his ridiculous facial hair, the flash of his teeth and the pink of his lips and the crooked quirk of his smile, and he suddenly didn’t want to let go of Tony’s hand.
But then, Doom, with the barest glance in Steve’s direction, dipped his head toward Tony. “You will give Doom the honor of this dance,” he informed Tony.
“Ah-” Tony started.
But Doom put out his arm. “Doom demands it.”
Steve watched Tony swallow, and wondered if he should step in.
But Tony dropped Steve’s hand, and accepted Doom’s massive, metal arm. “How can I say no, when you put it so nicely?” he asked, with a nervous chuckle. He looked at Steve, and Steve thought that maybe Tony looked a little pale, a little nervous.
But Tony shot Steve a grin. “Enjoy yourself, pal,” he said. “Find a cute Latverian lady, or something.”
Steve thought it might be a bad idea to mention that there was only one person in the room he wanted, and it wasn't a cute Latverian lady.
He tried not to stare over his shoulder as Doom led Tony to the dance floor and the orchestra struck up a waltz. From here, he could see that the entire orchestra was comprised of Doombots, dressed in formal attire, with a Doombot conductor. He watched them play, impressed in spite of himself at such an accomplished robot orchestra, and then turned to the buffet table, piling up a plate with even more meat, and tiny Latverian cakes.
“Try the Doomstreusel,” a voice suggested from behind him. It was faintly recognizable, though Steve couldn't place it until he turned around.
He blinked, squinting at the man in front of him, with his red hair and beady green eyes. “Mr….Osborn?” He ventured. He had yet to meet Norman Osborn in person, though even a few months had introduced him to the man who was almost as ubiquitous a figure in the modern American news cycle as the Avengers themselves were.
“Ah, you are Captain Rogers,” Osborn said, sounding delighted at the discovery. “Fancy meeting you here.” He held out a hand. “Call me Norman. So pleased to finally meet you in the flesh.”
Steve smiled, sheepishly. He still wasn't used to celebrities treating him like a celebrity. “Same,” he said. “Uh. Norman. It's Steve.”
Norman's hand was cool and a little uncomfortably clammy, and Steve fought the impulse to wipe his own palm against his fancy leather britches.
“What are you doing here?” Norman asked, as he stacked a Doomstreusel onto Steve’s plate. “I thought you and Doom were...well...would mortal enemies be an exaggeration?”
“I think technically he's Reed Richards’ mortal enemy?” Steve ventured with a frown. “But I’m as surprised as you are, to be honest. I'm technically Tony Stark's guest," Steve explained. "He invited me, and I thought, why not take the opportunity to learn about Latveria?"
Osborn's eyes narrowed slightly, and for a moment, Steve wondered what he'd said, but Osborn turned and gazed out at the dance floor, where Doom was presently whirling Tony around. Tony, Steve noticed, was agile and light on his feet, and for a moment, Steve wasn't able to take his eyes off him.
"Look at him, out there, dancing his way into Doom's good graces," Osborn said through gritted teeth. "If I had the youth or the looks to seduce business my way..." Osborn shook his head. "Pardon my frankness," he said. "But if I lose contracts I've been chasing for the past year and a half because your friend is playing rent boy for the night--"
Osborn's brow was creased, his face red, his eyes sharp and glinting with malice.
Steve was not sure what to say. "I'm sure Tony wouldn't do that," he said.
"Then you don't know his reputation," Osborn answered. He puckered, as if he'd tasted something sour. "If I'd even known he wanted those contracts, I'd be better prepared to fend him off, but..."
Osborn waved a hand in the air. "If you'll excuse me, I'd better call my team." He glared at Tony one more time. "We're going to be up all night reworking the Latveria bid."
Steve wanted to tell him that wasn't what was happening at all, that Tony had brought Steve there specifically to have an excuse to avoid Doom, but he supposed, as Osborn walked off, glaring at Tony and steaming, that perhaps it wasn’t worth it.
But then he found himself watching Tony, from a distance, as he danced with Doom. Tony didn’t look uncomfortable, and he was chatting amiably-- a talent Steve envied, Tony’s ability to make friendly conversation with just about anyone. But he was supposed to be keeping Doom from seducing Tony, wasn’t that the point? He thought it was the point.
Still, he felt as if cutting in on Doom was a recipe for disaster.
Instead, he absently forked Doomstreusel into his mouth.
And then, he saw, frowning at the punch bowl, a familiar face-- and bare, perfectly-sculpted abdominals-- he hadn’t seen in years.
Literally, years. His eyes stung briefly as he tried to keep his composure, then steeled himself and walked up to the shirtless Atlantean.
“Your Majesty!” he said, as Namor, his plate piled high with pickled fish, turned, his already-high brows popping up further at the sight of Steve.
“Captain Rogers,” Namor replied. “If it is not one of the few worthy land-dwellers I have had the privilege of knowing.”
Namor’s smile was hard, and thin, but still genuine, and he met Steve with a nod. “It has been many a year, my old ally,” he observed.
Steve felt a tightness at the back of his throat, but he smiled, too, a sad sort of smile. “How’ve you been, friend?”
“These land-apes continue to destroy my realm,” Namor said, with a sneer. “They are villains, without a care for the consequences of their actions.” He picked at his fish. “They pass their own laws, regulating the rape of my domain, their fishing, their trade routes, their pollution, without hearing my demands. Yet their pickling skills are unsurpassed. Have you tried the Doomheringe?”
“Ah…” Steve had to tell himself to look at Namor’s plate, and not his muscles. “No.”
“My one regret is that they appear to have no bagels,” Namor said, a little sullenly. “That, and the fact that the love of my life has yet to show her face.”
“The...love of your life?” Steve asked. This was certainly a new development.
Namor sighed, and his expression softened-- a strange look for a man usually so fierce. “The most exceptional woman to have ever lived on land or on sea,” he said, with a sigh. “I know that Doom is a rival for her affections, so I hoped she might show her face.”
He stared, longingly, at the door. “Someday, Rogers,” he said, a bittersweet air to his voice. “Someday, you will look perfection in the eye and know it was meant to be yours, and all the same, each time it eludes you, your heart will be crushed over and over again, like countless sailing vessels upon a rocky shoal.”
“I’m very sorry,” Steve said, and he meant it, too. “Perhaps she’s running late?”
“Alas,” Namor said, shaking his head. “She is engaged to another. I fear she may already be lost to me.”
“But you’re-- but you’re royalty,” Steve objected. And had abs you could fry an egg on, but Steve wasn’t going to say that out loud. “I’m sure you can change her mind.”
“Her taste in men is appalling,” Namor explained sadly. “And-- her brother; her brother dares usurp the title of our dear friend, Jim Hammond.”
Steve frowned. “The Human-- wait, you mean Johnny? Johnny Storm?” And then it clicked. “You’re talking about Sue Storm, Reed Ri--”
“Do not speak his name in my presence!” Namor cried in an anguished tone. “And today, of all days-- to be without a lover on Doom’s Day…”
“Huh?” Steve asked. He swallowed his last piece of Doomstreusel. “Why Doom’s Day--”
“Do you not know the great traditions of Doom’s Day?” Namor asked, frowning. “I am rarely one for land-dwellers’ superstitions, but I take great stock in this: that if a man is not kissed on Doom’s Day, he will not be kissed again until the next Doom’s Day.”
“Oh,” Steve said, not really paying attention until the gravity of what Namor had said set in. “Oh.” He furrowed his brow and looked at Namor. “Is that--that’s not real.”
“That is what I thought!” Namor answered. “Until last Doom’s Day, when I scoffed at this tradition, and lo and behold, no sooner had I failed to keep it, but the majestic queen of my heart turned her gaze from me. My lips have tasted no others, be they land- or sea- creature.”
“Couldn’t you just...kiss someone?” Steve asked.
“I tell you, something will prevent you,” Namor answered. “I know not if it is the hand of fate or the hand of Doom himself, but mark my word, if you do not have a kiss by midnight, you will suffer until the next Doom’s Day.”
“Really?” Steve asked. “No kissing for an entire year?”
“Well,” Namor replied. “Until Doom pronounces another Doom’s Day. He is very generous with his holiday. We have had three this year. But it is my chief goal to be kissed before the night is out. If Sue will not have me, may it be another lucky land-dweller. For who could refuse the King of Atlantis?”
“Certainly not me,” Steve said cheerfully, before he realized he’d said that out loud.
He tried very, very hard not to stare at Namor’s chest, as a flush crept over his entire body, and his smile faded as Namor gazed at him with renewed interest, arching an eyebrow.
“Is that so?” Namor asked, tilting his head toward Steve, the pointed tips of his ears pricking back. He took a step closer.
Steve swore under his breath. He swallowed, and shuffled back the tiniest bit. Why, he asked himself, was his outfit so warm? He loosened the collar of his jacket, the ruffled neck of his shirt suddenly oppressive.
He was supposed to be watching Tony, he reminded himself. But he glanced back at Tony, and Tony was still off dancing with Doom, like Cinderella at the ball, and Steve hadn’t kissed anyone since he’d come out of the ice, and--
“Screw it,” Steve murmured, and he looked back at Namor with what he hoped was intent. “Well,” he offered. “If it’s necessary.”
“We must see that our luck wins out,” Namor informed Steve, and he put a hand on Steve’s chest, and Steve could feel his heart beating like it was about to pop the buttons on his ridiculous jacket. “I assure you that I respect you as a great warrior and a man of your word, and my heart is lighter knowing you are not dead.”
Steve’s throat went tight. “Well, in that case,” he said breathily.
And then Namor’s lips were on his, and they were hot and hungry, and Steve reached for the other man and found his hands brushing against taut muscles as Namor parted Steve’s lips with his tongue.
Namor kissed deeply and passionately, and when he parted, breathless, he stared into Steve’s eyes. “You kiss passably well for a land-dweller,” he informed Steve respectfully, before kissing him again.
Steve was lost in reverie, Namor’s fingers sliding through his hair, when he heard a voice call his name.
Steve lurched back, leaving Namor blinking in surprise, and turned to see Tony, with a panic-stricken look on his face.
If Steve had felt hot before, he felt sweltering now.
“Are you all right?!” Tony demanded, glaring daggers at Namor.
“What?” Steve asked, flustered. “What? Yes, of course I’m--”
“We were merely performing a tradition of Doom’s Day,” Namor explained. “Captain Rogers is an old friend and compatriot, and he graciously offered to help me ward off a superstition.”
“With your tongue!?” Tony asked, looking like he was about to explode.
“I did not realize Captain Rogers was spoken for,” Namor answered, but he frowned, even as he spoke. “But I should warn you, Mr. Stark, such possessiveness is unbecoming, even in a land-dweller.”
“I’m not spoken for,” Steve objected.
“And I’m not a land-dwell--” Tony started, just as hotly, before snapping his mouth shut. “I mean, I’m not possessive!”
Namor sighed. He didn't look angry, or even irritated-- just bored, really, Steve thought, as though this happened with some regularity.
“Captain Rogers,” Namor said, in a humoring tone, “if you tire of your miserably jealous land-ape lover, know that there is always a place for you in the court of Atlantis. I shall take my leave of you and seek out a bagel in the kitchens.”
Steve watched Namor retreat, a bit dumbfounded.
“Are you okay?” Tony asked.
“I’m fine; I--” Steve turned, and squinted at Tony. “What the hell was that?”
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you were playing tonsil hockey with Mr. Mckenzie, there,” Tony said, grimacing. “What got into you?”
“What got into you?” Steve asked, irritably. “I’m not a kid, Stark; I appreciate your need to protect me from the dangers of the modern world, but Namor and I are old friends.”
“You do realize,” Tony said, his face still red, “that that’s not how friends greet each other in the twenty-first century?”
Steve groaned and rolled his eyes. “You know, Namor’s right,” he said. “You’re acting like a jealous lover. You were off--” he gestured toward the dance floor. “Dancing with our host.”
“And you were supposed to--” Tony snapped back.
“Supposed to what?!” Steve asked. “Stand at the snack table while you enjoy yourself? I was just--”
Steve sighed, sputtering. “It’s a Doom’s Day tradition,” he replied.
“What is?” Tony asked.
“You’ve got to kiss someone,” Steve explained. “If you don’t, you don’t get kissed until the next Doom’s--”
Tony groaned. “Oh, bullshit, Steve. You just made that up. And next you’re going to tell me you have to squeeze an Atlantean’s shark dick for luck.”
Steve threw his hands up. “Atlanteans don’t have shark dicks!” he exclaimed.
“Oh yeah?” Tony asked, raising an eyebrow. “How the hell would you--”
“They’re more like dolphins, for Christ’s sake, Tony, what the hell is your problem?” Steve asked, his cheeks going hot. He could feel himself sweating heavily, through all the ridiculous layers of his ridiculous costume. “What the hell do I need to do, kiss you?!”
“MAYBE!” Tony shouted back.
Well. That was not what Steve had been expecting to hear.
He took a long, slow breath, and stared at Tony. “I didn’t--” he started, hesitantly.
Tony winced. “There’s a reason why I invited you, Steve. I--”
But he cut himself off as their host approached.
“Mr. Stark, Captain Rogers, Is there some trouble?” Doom asked. “Doom’s guests must enjoy themselves on this festive occasion.”
Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “We’re fine,” he said, dully, not meeting Steve’s gaze.
“Excellent,” Doom answered. “Then may I prevail upon you to join Doom for another dance?”
“I’m all danced out at the moment,” Tony said. “But I’m sure my pal, Steve, here, would love a shot; wouldn’t you, Steve?”
“I’m not much of a dancer,” Steve said, giving Tony a plaintive look. “Two left feet. Funny little side effect of the Supersoldier serum.”
“Well, you’re sure some kisser, aren’t you?” Tony asked bitterly. “Steve’s giving out kisses for some Doom’s Day tradition, he says,” Tony told Doom.
“Ah, yes,” Doom replied, with a grave nod. “Those who are not kissed on Doom’s Day are doomed to go without a kiss ‘til the next Doom’s Day.”
Tony blinked. “That’s real?” he asked, incredulous.
“A most time-honored tradition,” Doom agreed, nodding, and Steve rolled back on his heels, shooting Tony a self-satisfied smirk in spite of himself.
“Your offer is most generous,” Doom informed Steve. “But Doom’s eye is on another.”
Doom’s eye, in this case, was quite obviously on Tony.
Tony’s eye, on the other hand, was quite obviously on the floor.
“Well,” Steve said, clearing his throat. “I’ll let you two get back to--”
“Doom!” Osborn snapped, as he approached the trio. “What’s this all about?”
“Ah, Mr. Osborn,” Doom replied. “Have you found everything to your liking?”
Osborn crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his foot. “No, this is certainly not to my liking.” He glared at Tony. “Am I to believe you and Stark aren’t...canoodling behind my back?”
“As much as Doom wishes to canoodle with Mr. Stark,” Doom replied. “In all truth, the answer would be no.”
“What the hell--” Tony started, but Osborn marched right up to him, shaking a finger in Tony’s face, his brow creased, and his mouth twisted into a sneer.
“Those contracts belong to Oscorp, Stark,” Osborn snapped. “And don’t you forget it. If I catch wind that you’re underbidding me for--”
Tony squinted, shaking his head at Osborn uncomprehendingly. “I have no idea what contracts you’re talking about, Osborn; I’m just here for Doom’s research facilities.”
Osborn blinked. “What kind of innuendo is that?” he asked.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!” Tony snapped, throwing his arms up yet again. “It’s not an innuendo; he’s just got huge--”
But Tony was interrupted as the walls began to shake, and the lights in the chandeliers flickered out. There were gasps and cries from the crowd-- the human crowd-- while the Doombots jumped to attention, their eyes glowing green, armed and ready for combat.
A massive gust of wind blew into the hall, extinguishing all the candles, rustling through the Doom’s Day tree, and blowing over many of the flowers arrangements on the dining tables.
Tony stumbled forward, and Steve caught him before he fell, wrapping him in his arms as he steadied him.
Which left Tony pressed up tightly against Steve’s chest. Steve tried to breathe, tried to tell his heart to stop beating so loud and so fast, but it was no use.
The room shook again, and this time, even Steve staggered backward, though he caught himself on a table, still not letting go of Tony, who was, by now, clutching at Steve’s ridiculous jacket.
A green glow began to form into a ball of light in the center of the dance floor, pure, brilliant energy that flickered and flashed as the guests began to scream all over again.
“Stay back,” Steve whispered to Tony, trying to put himself between Tony and whatever this thing was, but then Doom himself stepped forward, imperious and grim, stalking toward the ball of light.
“Who dares sully the occasion of Doom’s Day with this interruption?” Doom demanded, his voice booming in the big hall. The Doombots in the orchestra began to play, low and ominous music, a rolling swell of the timpani.
And the light flashed, and dissipated into a yellow-green mist, and a silhouette stepped out from it, dark at first, but slowly resolving into the form of a woman-- a grand-looking woman, with long, dark hair and a regal figure, clothed in shimmering gowns and carrying an imposing scepter.
“Who the hell is that?” Steve asked.
“Morgan Le Fay!” Doom exclaimed.
“Victor!” the woman said with a scowl “You will answer for this insult!”
The orchestra began to play faster, more tensely, the sharp strains of the string section joining the low tones of the percussion and brass.
“Did he just say Morgan Le Fay?” Steve whispered to Tony.
“Yes,” Tony replied. “He did.”
Steve squinted at the woman, at her wild eyes and flaring nostrils, which did nothing to detract from her great beauty. “Isn’t she a fictional--”
“Apparently not,” Tony muttered. He looked a little gray around the edges, backed up hard against the buffet table. “Fucking magic.”
“Insult?” Doom demanded. “Doom knows of no insult toward your person, Madame! Remove yourself from the premises at once.”
Steve was torn between watching the altercation and watching Tony. “Are you okay?” he whispered to Tony.
“Remove myself?!” Morgan Le Fay tilted her head back and laughed, her voice echoing to the high, vaulted ceiling of the ballroom. She raised a hand in the air, her fingers tense and curled as if she were grasping at an invisible sphere, for a brief moment, and then she snatched at the air, her hand forming a fist.
As her fingers came together, shadows rose around the room, shadows that formed into creatures that writhed and cackled and began to creep toward Doom.
“Why,” she demanded, “was I not invited to this festive occasion?!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” Tony snapped, throwing his hands up in the air. “Doom, the fucking FIRST RULE OF PARTIES is you always invite the evil fairy!”
Morgan Le Fay whirled toward Tony-- and Steve-- and she smirked at them, moving slowly toward them, a sly expression on her face.
“Anthony Stark,” Morgan Le Fay said, her tone chilly.
Tony was tense, his jaw rigid, his eyes wide with fear. “I don’t know you,” he said, his voice a harsh whisper.
A hint of white teeth bared themselves behind Morgan Le Fay’s blood-red lips. “Oh,” she said, liltingly. “You will.” She pointed a slender, sinister finger at Tony. A green thread of light began to form, frenetic and threatening.
Steve shoved himself between Tony and the woman, squaring off with her, his hands in tight fists. He could feel his blood boiling, feel his jaw tightening. “Stay away from him!” he shouted, and he threw a fist at the woman.
His hand was caught, suddenly, in something like an electrical current, and it jolted his body, made his limbs go limp, made his eyes roll back into his head, and the pain-- the pain was unbearable. He gritted his teeth, hard, trying not to scream in agony as he fell to the floor.
“STEVE!” He heard Tony shout.
“Away, woman!” he heard Doom growl. “You have visited enough discord upon these revels! Doom expels you!”
All around him, Steve could hear the sounds of combat-- shouts, crashes, thundering booms, the cries of the other guests and the frantic music of the orchestra, trying to keep up the pace with the battle.
“Please remain calm,” announced the doorman Doombot. “And make your way to the nearest exit in an orderly fashion. Praise Doom!”
He tried to push himself up, but his arms were weak and useless; he was unable to move.
Steve felt hands on his arms, hands unbuttoning his stupid jacket. “Steve,” said Tony’s voice in his ear, pitched high and panicked.
His eyes fluttered open; his vision was blurry, and the light made him squint.
Tony moved back slightly, but he hovered over Steve, his expression full of concern. “Steve, are you-- god, say something, Steve?!”
It hurt to speak; his jaw felt swollen and tight, but he managed to part his lips just as Tony pressed his ear to his chest.
“Unngh,” he strained to say.
“I’ll take it,” Tony answered, and gave Steve’s shoulder a squeeze. “Come on, pal; come on, I’m gonna get you out of here. Osborn!” he snapped. “Do me a fucking favor and help me with Rogers!”
Osborn crawled out from under one of the tablecloths and pushed himself to his feet. “The contract’s mine, Stark.”
Tony was trying to drag Steve to his feet, but Steve stumbled over himself, his legs feeling like rubber, and he draped an arm across Tony’s shoulders, unable to support his own weight.
Tony glared at Osborn. “For fuck’s sake, Norman.”
Osborn crossed his arms over his chest. “Say it, Stark.”
Tony rolled his eyes, and slid his arm around Steve’s back. “I don’t even fucking know what contract it is, so fine, sure, the contract’s yours.”
And then Osborn supported Steve’s other shoulder.
As they reached the door to the hall, ducking the balls of light that chased across the room, dodging out of the way of Le Fay’s shadowy minions as they ransacked the buffet, Steve glanced over his shoulder just in time to see the Doom’s Day tree go up in a fiery ball of flames.
Tony hesitated for a moment, and Steve could see the sweat beading on his brow, but it was only a moment.
“Come on,” Tony growled, and trudged out the door.
Osborn helped them as far as Tony’s hall. “Don’t think this means we’re friends now,” he said.
Tony rolled his eyes. “Someone isn’t getting kissed ‘til next Doom’s Day,” he retorted. “Go hide under a bed, Osborn.” He dropped one hand from Steve’s waist just long enough to wave Osborn off dismissively.
Tony lugged Steve the last few yards on his own, and lowered him into a chair the moment they were inside Tony’s room. Steve looked around: the room was practically identical to Steve’s own, apart from a different bedspread, and a different view out the narrow windows.
ALERT, said the holoscreens. ALERT. INTRUDERS REPORTED WITHIN CASTLE WALLS.
“Yeah,” Tony muttered, glaring at the holoscreen. “Thanks.” He tugged off his sword and most of his traditional Latverian costume, and then dropped to one knee beside Steve. “You okay, pal? Sorcery’s a fucking bitch; are you--”
By now, Steve was feeling less numb, not quite as limp and lifeless. “Little better,” he assured Tony, as Tony shoved a cold glass of water into Steve’s hands. Steve’s grip faltered a little, but he managed to bring the glass to his lips, and took a long drink. The water was cool and clear and tasted a little bit like Doom Mountain Fresh Scent.
As he swallowed, he realized Tony’s hand was on his back. “Look, Steve,” Tony said, a little breathless. “I’ve gotta get back down there; I’d better help sort things out.”
“Tony,” Steve said, warily. “Is it safe? Tony, you saw that that woman did to me. And no offense, but you’re no supersoldier.”
Tony shot Steve a lopsided smile. “Fair enough,” he said. “I’m not a supersoldier. But I do have this.” He turned toward the window, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled.
A piece of metallic red armor shot through the narrow crenellation and clanked on the floor, followed by another, and another, and then a few gold pieces.
“Aw, sorry kids,” Tony said, and it seemed like he was talking to the armor. He bent over and snapped up one of the pieces, flicked a button on it, and it expanded into a kneeguard. “I know how much you hate collapsing, but the windows are so small.”
“What--” Steve said, staring in disbelief as Tony plucked up pieces of armor and slipped them on. “That’s Iron Man,” he realized.
“Yeah,” Tony answered, and popped on Iron Man’s helmet.
“Does Iron Man know you--”
Tony lifted the faceplate and grinned. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I know I’m Iron Man,” he answered.
“You’re--” Steve watched, unblinking.
“As pleased as I am that you obviously had no idea,” Tony replied. “Yeah, I kind of figured it might be better to tell you now instead of after I apologized for getting jealous over Namor and asked if you were still willing to give me a chance?”
Every single thing that came out of Tony’s mouth left Steve more and more speechless. “Y--” was all he managed this time.
“See?” Tony asked. “I mean, think about how awkward it could have gotten if we were dating and you didn’t know we were working together; that would be just plain stupid. What would happen if one of us got hurt?”
He had a point, but. “You still haven’t technically apologized for anything,” Steve pointed out, with a frown.
Tony sighed. “I was hoping you’d let me get away with that,” he said, a little grudgingly. “Fine. I’m sorry I was an ass about you maybe-potentially getting some dolphin dick. I mean,” he amended hastily. “Dolphin tongue. It was just dolphin tongue; that wasn’t fair of me.”
Steve couldn’t help but laugh. He raked his teeth over his lower lip, smiling up at Tony.
They stared at each other, silently, for a long time, until Tony cleared his throat.
“So,” he said, hesitant, shuffling his feet in his metal boots. “Are you-- I mean, am I forgiven?”
Steve bowed his head, and then nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I’d have to be an ass to say no.”
Tony snorted. “Well, to be fair, Cap, you do kind of have your moments.” Flustered, and red-cheeked, he gave Steve a plaintive look. “And I’m sorry to be leaving you here, but I…” He grimaced. “Have to actually help Doctor Doom, for once. Who would have fucking thought, yeah?”
Steve smiled, and tilted his head, watching Tony admiringly as Tony lowered the faceplate. “Hurry back,” he said. “Don’t get distracted by Doom’s...facilities.”
Tony cocked his metallic helmet at Steve. “Oh, well, we’ll just have to see how it goes,” he retorted, and flew out the door of the room.
Steve got antsy the moment Tony had left the room. “Iron Man,” he muttered. Of course, of course Tony was Iron Man, it made perfect sense, and now-- he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it sooner. But he also wanted to be there with him, fighting at his side, and he was furious that his body was still weak.
He pushed himself up out of his chair, still woozy, still unsteady on his feet, and unfastened the suspenders on his leather pants, dropped the pants onto the floor, and stared down at them, lamenting the effort it would take to pick them up off the floor.
“Never mind,” he said to himself. “There’s probably a Doombot for that.” He rubbed at his head, and lowered his hand to his side, every movement a strain. It was infuriating, being this weak, knowing there was a battle raging below, knowing that Iron Man-- Tony-- was putting his life on the line and Steve couldn’t help.
He managed to drag himself to Tony’s bath and let the helpful Doombot thoroughly massage his neck and shoulders, which took care of most of the pain, but left him feeling limp and lethargic.
He shut his eyes, tilting his head back, when suddenly, the Doombot’s hands slipped away, and they was a loud, resonating crash on the marble floor, shaking the entire room. Steve straightened up, turning to see one of the shadowy demon creatures from the ballroom.
He straightened up, tried to get his bearings, pushing himself, dripping to his feet.
“Critical error,” said the Doombot. “Warning. Critical error. Hardware failure due to impact.”
The demon screeched and launched itself at Steve, driving its pointy shadow-talons into the flesh of his shoulders. It froze where it touched him, so icy it burned, and sent a chill down its spine. Steve swung a fist at the thing, and it squalled at him, dragging him back down into the tub with a splash, and tugged him under the surface of the water.
Steve choked, and spluttered, and struggled to pull himself free from the creature’s grip, but it was no use: the demon’s strength would have overwhelmed him even if he had his full faculties. He strained to hold his breath, but as the time pressed on, his lungs began to ache, and his head went fuzzy.
Captain America, he thought, drowned in a bath. There were worse ways to go, really; after all, he had frozen last time, although he didn’t technically remember what happened after he fell, and--
He was ripped from the water without warning by a powerful hand, laid on the marble floor, where he gasped for breath, his lungs heaving as the air entered them.
“Please run diagnostics,” said the Doombot, still lying on the floor, kicking its legs in the air.
He heard a smack, and then another, and he twisted his neck to look behind him, and found Namor, towering over the demon, pounding his fist into the creature’s face, over and over and over again.
The thing screamed, and Namor threw something in its face-- some kind of white powder. There was a sharp hiss, and the demon melted away, still letting out a blood-curdling shriek that echoed and rang in the bathroom even after it was gone.
“What-- what did you just--” Steve stammed, as he pushed himself to his feet.
“Salt,” Namor replied. “Everyone knows demons are repelled by salt. It is why the legions of Hell will never find their way into my domain.”
Namor’s dark eyes found Steve now, and looked him over, his expression impassive.
Steve was suddenly very, very aware that he was naked and dripping wet. He stumbled over the fallen Doombot, reaching hastily for a towel.
“Th-- thanks,” Steve managed, and he wrapped the towel around his waist, his breath shaky. “Whatever it was, thanks. Are-- are they-- downstairs, is everything--”
“I will see to it that it is,” Namor answered. “But you…” He arched an eyebrow at Steve, sternly. “You ought to rest. Your constitution is so frail; it is not up to this sort of exertion.”
Namor looked Steve over, his expression one of concern. “Shall I carry you to bed?”
“No!” Steve answered, a little too adamantly, and his cheeks went warm. “I mean, ah. No, I can make it just fine, just go-- go help our host?”
Namor nodded, and this time, as he eyed Steve, his gaze definitely didn’t move above Steve’s collarbone. “Until next time, then, friend,” he said, with an appreciative nod, before diving back into the bath, disappearing down the man-sized drainpipe.
Steve took one more shaky breath before stumbling to the bed, falling flat onto the soft surface, not even taking down the covers.
The next thing Steve knew, he felt fingertips against his cheek, and a voice whispering in his ear.
“Tony,” he murmured back.
“You’re hurt,” Tony said. “You--”
He was hurt. His shoulders were still sore where the thing had clawed him. “It’s nothing,” he answered. “I’m fine. It just--”
And then he felt warm lips pressed just beside one of his wounds, gently, and then again, on the other side, and again, just in the center of his shoulderblades. “I’m sorry,” Tony said. “I didn’t mean for anything like this to happen.”
And Steve smiled, and laughed quietly, even though it hurt, and reached a hand up toward Tony, who lay down beside him, sweaty and ruddy-cheeked, a smear of something sooty across his forehead.
“You all right?” Steve asked, turning his head to look at the other man.
“Yeah,” Tony replied. “I’ve just got...I’ve got one pressing problem, Steve.”
“What is it?” Steve asked, frowning, cautious. He didn’t want Tony to have to leave again, not now, didn’t want to think that there was more danger he couldn’t fight.
“It’s eleven fifty-nine,” Tony said, pointing to the giant digital clock display on the holoscreen just above the bed. “And nobody’s kissed me.”
Steve glanced at the second-counter on the clock. Twenty seconds to go. “Oh?” he asked. “That’s terrible.”
“I’ll be doomed forever,” Tony said, with a pleading look.
“Only ‘til the next Doom’s Day,” Steve reminded him nicely. “If you ask me, I went seventy-something years without kissing anybody, so honestly, I think you could stand it.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Tony said, as he glanced at Steve, then glanced at the clock. “I see what you’re doing. You’re a cruel, cruel--”
Two seconds. Steve cut Tony off, pressing his lips to Tony’s-- tentatively, at first, and then more confidently, as Tony kissed back, nipped eagerly at Steve’s lower lip, tangled his fingers into Steve’s hair. Steve moaned softly, slung one knee over Tony’s leg, fumbled at the buttons on Tony’s shirt.
And then the bells of the massive clock tower began to chime, and Steve paused briefly, looking up at the narrow window.
“It’s my birthday,” he realized. “It--”
“Your birthday’s not till July, Steve,” Tony said, stroking his thumb just behind Steve’s ear. It tickled, pleasantly, and Steve bowed his head closer to Tony’s, pressing their foreheads together, so he could feel Tony’s breath warm on his cheeks, so he could see his eyes, large and luminous, filling his field of vision.
“My real birthday,” Steve said, in a whisper. “Nobody knows. Well, nobody alive. Except you.”
“Well,” Tony said. “That’s better than Doom’s Day.” Tony kissed him again, kissed his lips, and then kissed him on either cheek. His free hand stroked its way down the length of Steve’s torso, stopped just shy of the towel at his waist.
“Are you--” Tony squinted. “Wearing anything under that towel?”
Steve snorted, and bit his lip as he shook his head ‘no.’
“Well, praise Doom,” Tony answered cheerfully, giving the towel a tug.
“Praise Doom,” Steve agreed.