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The Secret To Happiness Is Almost Dying

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“Tony! Eastern rooftop!” came Steve’s cry in Tony’s ear, and that was all the warning he got before the Captain was flying through the air.

“Damnit Steve,” he cursed, firing his repulsors as the HUD calculated the angle of Steve’s descent. He clasped his teammate’s forearm just as he began to drop, carefully angling his boots so the Captain’s uniform wasn’t singed right off of him. Wouldn’t want Steve out of his uniform, would we, he thought with a grin.

“Take us right to it, Tony,” Steve instructed, gloved hand holding Tony’s arm with a grip that he could feel through the armour.

“I could build you a flying taxi, you know,” he groused, “I do actually have a function outside of the Capsicle Express.”

“But then where would the press get their heroic buddy shots?” asked Clint, and Tony could hear the smirk in his voice, the bastard.

The horror of the week this time was a revoltingly slimy mass of heaving tentacles, currently oozing its way up the side of a skyscraper in Manhattan. With Thor up in Asgard Tony was their sole air support, and Bruce was waiting in the wings as backup firepower.

“Gentlemen,” Natasha chided, “Our friend appears to be picking up speed.”

Tony ran the numbers as he and Steve rocketed up the street towards the monster.

“She’s right, twenty percent increase in movement rate since it crawled out of the Hudson,” he confirmed, swinging up the face of a building and levelling out over the rooftops.

“Are you in position yet Clint?” Steve asked, squinting down at the beast.

“I am… now!” replied Clint, and then there was an echoing roar as one of his explosive arrows took out a section of wriggling flesh.

Tony swooped low over the roof of the skyscraper that the monster was climbing, releasing Steve and then stopping his own forward momentum with a flare of repulsors. The Captain rolled to a neat stop and stood, taking his shield from his back.

“Oh crap, it is not happy, heads up Cap you’ve got incoming!” Clint yelled, and then the creature exploded over the side of the rooftop with a shuddering, high pitched cry.

A dozen writhing arms hurtled towards them, and Tony blasted them away as Natasha flew the quinjet around behind the monster, tipping the nose forward.

“Hit the deck boys,” she called, and Steve stepped in front of Tony and raised the shield.

Bits of gore and ichor sailed past them as she unloaded the ship’s weapons into the mass of tentacles, accompanied by inhuman screeches of pain. When Nat stopped and Steve lowered the shield Tony saw that the creature had been reduced to a mound of torn green flesh, still feebly twitching.

“Yuck,” stated Clint, and Tony was inclined to agree.

“So very sorry to have missed this one,” murmured Bruce, voice dry, “seems like you’re all having fun.”

“Is it neutralised?” Steve asked, nudging a section of leftover tentacle with his boot.

“Seems pretty neutralised to m-“ Tony began, but cut off in alarm as the mass pulsed.

“Uh…” he said, taking a step back as a second pulse rippled the surface, “Cap, I think we should scarper.”

Steve backed up next to him, eyes trained on the creature as it heaved again.

“That may be a good call,” he agreed, “Nat, can you –“

Tony never found out what Natasha was supposed to do, because at that moment the creature exploded. He had a split second to take in the tidal wave of slime rushing towards them, glistening sickly green in the bright sunlight, before he turned to Steve.

And knocked him off the roof.

The goo hit him in the back, the force of it rocking him forward a step and driving him to brace an armoured boot on the edge to avoid toppling over. He grinned down at Steve even though the Captain couldn’t see his face through the faceplate. His teammate had grabbed a strut on the side of the building, legs dangling and slime-free.

“And people say I’m not a team player,” he crowed, ignoring the gunk dripping off of him, “you owe me a drink for that one Steve.”

The Captain sighed, “Thank you Tony,” and rolled his eyes.

“I am the most conscientious, considerate…” he trailed off as a warning popped up on his HUD, closely followed by a blaring alarm.

“Tony?” Steve asked, reaching up to pull himself onto the roof.

“Wait!” Tony yelled, throwing an arm up to halt Steve, “Don’t touch the slime!”

“What?” Steve asked, blinking in confusion with an arm frozen halfway towards the roof edge.

“Don’t touch the slime!” Tony snapped, “Shit, shit, shit.”

“Tony what is it?” Steve demanded, eyes widening in distress.

“It’s corrosive,” he replied, voice going higher with mounting panic. “Oh crap.”

The HUD flickered and died and he flipped open the faceplate, frantically trying to release the armour’s locking mechanism. The controls weren’t responding; the substance must have been eating through the wiring.

He dug his fingers into the shoulder joint and ripped, tearing the armour off. It shouldn’t have been possible, but the compromised metal gave with a ringing screech and detached. His fingers scrambled for purchase, clumsy under the weight of his anxiety.

Suddenly Steve was there, ripping the chestplate off and away, digging his fingers between the retracted faceplate and Tony’s skin, wrenching the metal away. Tony felt the buckling metal slice through his shoulder, but he could barely feel the pain.

Steve peeled the last section of leg armour away, grabbed Tony’s arm in one hand, squeezed his other hand between Tony’s waist and the back section and pulled.

They staggered backwards, Tony in Steve’s arms, holding on by the front of the Captain’s collar and an arm slung around his shoulders. Steve had one arm under Tony’s knees, and the other hand was likely leaving bruises with its tight grip on the smaller man’s waist.

They watched, frozen, as the remains of the Iron Man armour fizzed and dissolved, occasional sparks flying. Tony vaguely registered their teammates’ frantic questions in his ear, staring at his suit in horror.

“Oh god,” Steve breathed, his grip on Tony tightening fractionally.

Tony looked up at him, gradually becoming aware that the Captain hadn’t put him down yet. He opened his mouth to speak, but was momentarily distracted by the feeling of Steve’s body pressed up against his side.

“Steve?” he tried again, his voice coming out embarrassingly breathy.

Steve tore his eyes away from the wreck of the armour, eyes blazing blue with emotion as he met Tony’s gaze. With a choked cry he let go of Tony’s legs and flung his arms around him in a crushing hug. The engineer squeaked in surprise, his brain for once completely stalled. Steve was warm, his breath heating Tony’s skin where the Captain had his head buried against his teammate’s shoulder. Between his fear and Steve’s closeness Tony was finding it difficult to breathe.

Then the side of his neck, where Steve’s gloved hand was curled, started to tingle. Then it started to sting.

“Steve!” Tony barked, pushing him away.

Steve took a hurried step back, stuttering through apologies and looking up. Embarrassment turned to shock on his face as Tony clapped a hand over his neck, trying to smother the rapidly skyrocketing burning pain.

The Captain held up his hands, staring in horror as the red material of his gloves began to smoke and flake apart.

“Cap?! What the hell is happening?”

“Tony, what’s going on man?”

The other Avengers’ voices buzzed in Tony’s ear, strangely muted behind the roaring panic of his thoughts. His clothes were hissing and flaking in a half dozen places, and his neck was a searing brand of agony.

“Steve…” he whispered, meeting his friend’s eyes with an involuntary little shake of his head.

Steve clenched his hands into fists, wincing as his now blistering fingers rubbed against his palms. He set his jaw stepped forward into Tony’s space.

“Tony, I need to…” he started off strong, but trailed off, losing focus and staring over his team mate’s shoulder.

Tony, watching a piece of slime eating through the Captain’s bicep with a sense of floating detachment, figured that he had about thirty seconds before the wound on his neck began to interfere with anything vital.

No time for a plan. No way to cut the wire, as he’d brashly told Steve all those months before.

Well, he thought with a self-deprecating smile, I know how I’d like to spend my last thirty seconds.

“Sorry about this Cap,” he murmured, and Steve looked back down at him, now wearing the expression Tony thought of as Steve’s ‘I’m gonna save the day’ face. It was the one he got as he came up with a plan to beat the villain-of-the-hour, eyes blazing and brows drawn together in fierce determination.

Not this time, Steve.

Tony grabbed himself a fistful of the Captain’s uniform collar and yanked him forward, and Steve blinked down at him like a deer in headlights.

He paused for a moment, enjoying Steve’s look of utter confusion. Adorable.

Then he pulled him down and pressed their lips together.

What a way to go, he mused, pushing down the swirling terror in his chest in favour of biting gently at Steve’s lower lip. The Captain was as still as a statue, lips parted slightly in what Tony hoped was surprise, and not something more negative.

His neck flared in suddenly increased agony, and he wrenched back from Steve in an involuntary spasm.

“Tony?!” Steve cried, startled back into movement to grab at his arms.

Tony’s throat worked, and he shuddered, pain tinging the edges of his vision red and black. Steve was shouting something at him, but he couldn’t hear him over the blood pounding in his ears.

His world tipped sideways as Steve picked him up cradled him against his chest. He tried to grin up at him, but wasn’t sure if he was managing it. His pain seemed to be receding, which some part of him was still conscious enough to note probably wasn’t a good thing.

“Hold on Tony!” Steve’s voice thrummed through his chest.

Hold on to what? he wondered, confused.

Gravity dropped away, and a sudden burst of frigid, whistling wind brought back his awareness. The air pulled at his hair and clothes, and behind Steve’s face the windows of the skyscraper whipped past at dizzying speed.

“You didn’t?” he tried to demand of Steve, but all he managed was a wet choke.

Then Steve curled his body around Tony’s, spinning them in the air so that Tony was on top.

And they hit the river.

Tony held on to consciousness just long enough to feel Steve pulled from his arms by the force of their impact, then he inhaled a lungful of churning water, and everything faded to black.

**************

The first thing he was aware of was a dull throbbing pain at his throat, numb beneath the sadly familiar haze of some high end painkillers.

So, not dead, he thought with mild surprise.

He tried opening his eyes cautiously, blinking at the expected harsh hospital lighting. The soft beep of medical machinery and his own unlaboured breathing were the only sounds he could hear.

Memory started to filter back in a slow trickle, and he raised a hand to his neck, feeling soft bandages under his fingertips.

“You’ll be adding some scars to your collection, but they told us there won’t be any long lasting damage.”

Tony thrashed comically, fighting the crisp white sheets before ending up propped on his elbows. Natasha, Clint, Bruce and Steve were gathered around his bed.

“The water washed away the slime,” Steve continued, and the rest of Tony’s memories were slammed unceremoniously back into his head.

“Ack,” was all he could manage in reply, causing Steve to frown at him with concern.

“We asked if they couldn’t just tweak it so that you weren’t able to talk for at least a little while, but they said something about duty of care,” Clint drawled, making finger quotes over the last three words.

Nat swatted his arm, a tiny smile pulling up one corner of her mouth.

“They’re analysing the substance now,” Bruce told him, fingers flicking over a tablet, “It’s highly corrosive to both organic and inorganic matter, but it breaks down in water. You and Steve are very lucky.”

Tony stared up at his friend, uncomprehending.

I kissed Steve. I kissed Steve and now I’m not dead.

Bruce’s brown eyes softened in understanding.

“I need a coffee,” he announced, switching off the tablet.

“Me too,” said Nat, teeth flashing in a swift smile.

“Bring me back a latte would you- “ Clint began, only to cut off with a grunt as Nat elbowed him in the gut.

He followed her and Bruce out, grumbling under his breath, leaving Tony alone with Steve. Alone with Steve.

An entirely different type of panic than he’d experienced on the rooftop gripped him. Steve was watching the door swing shut behind their team mates with a wry smile.

“Subtle,” he murmured.

Tony opened his mouth to speak, but all that came out was a strangled wheeze. Steve sat down on the side of the bed, springs creaking. Tony scuttled backwards, stopping himself from sliding towards the depression the Captain had made in the mattress.

“So how’re you feeling?” he asked, fixing the squirming Tony in place with intense blue eyes.

“Uh… fine?” Tony squeaked, finding his voice at last, albeit embarrassingly higher pitched than normal.

“Tony…” Steve began, brow crumpling as he leant forward, “your neck; I’m so sorry.”

Tony added confusion to his laundry list of conflicting emotions. Steve glanced at his own hand, flexing his fingers before making a fist.

“I was just so relieved, I didn’t even think about- “

“What?” Tony interrupted incredulously.

Steve frowned at him.

“I touched you with the slime on my hands-“

“Steve!” Tony said firmly, because there was no way he was letting the man feel guilty over this. “You had slime on your hands because you had just finished saving my life. Then, when you realised we were still in danger, you saved my life. AGAIN.”

Steve met his eyes, the wrinkled line above his eyes smoothing out.

“I, on the other hand,” Tony continued, “only managed to-“ he cut off abruptly, realising where he’d accidentally led the conversation.

Steve smiled; not the wide salesman grin Captain America used for the news cameras, but the soft, crooked smile that was all Steve Rodgers.

“You on the other hand?” he asked gently, and Tony lost his voice again, wholly distracted by the curve of his lips.

Steve shifted further up the bed, his hand brushing against Tony’s.

The light touch sent Tony’s brain to mouth instincts into overdrive.

“Well, slime induced craziness is a well-documented phenomenon; we can just ignore anything that may or may not have happened. As a result of that, I mean.”

He clicked his fingers and rubbed his hands together, wishing irrationally for some piece of technology to fiddle with.

“Anyway, I’ll have my people look into the monster slime; who knows where it’ll be useful. Maybe some corrosive arrows for Clint?”

“Tony,” Steve chided fondly.

“Or, or maybe Natasha can use it somehow,” Tony continued frantically, eyes skittering away from the expression on Steve’s face. “Some kind of weapon? Or an, ah, an exit strategy? Burn your way out of cuffs, walls; all that spy stuff?”

“Tony.”

Steve leaned forward, gripping Tony’s shoulder with a broad hand, and he clamped his mouth shut, swallowing the manic rush of words.

“There was one other thing I wanted to apologise for,” Steve said, voice low and sweet.

For once Tony’s brain had completely stalled.

“I was a bit distracted, with the whole preventing our flesh from melting thing, so I didn’t get a chance to answer your… question…”

Tony’s spinning mind caught and turned over, sparking off the tiniest glimmer of hope.

“Steve?” he asked breathlessly, unable to look away from Steve’s eyes.

“Tony.” Steve whispered, and it felt like an answer.

There were a bare handful of inches left between them now, Steve’s eyelids lowered halfway. He stopped, holding his position while the warmth of his breath tickled Tony’s lips.

Patience had never been Tony’s strong suit.

“Damnit Rodgers, just kiss me already!” he snapped.

Steve surged forward, shifting his hand upwards to bury his fingers in Tony’s short curls.

And pulled him forward for a slow, gentle kiss.

Tony’s heart was blasting away like a rock concert in his chest. Steve’s lips were smooth, and he had the barest hint on stubble on his cheeks. Far too quickly for Tony’s liking, Steve pulled back, panting lightly. He couldn’t bring himself to be too ashamed of the unhappy noise that came from his throat.

“You know you didn’t have to wait until you were dying to do that right?” Steve murmured, carding his fingers through Tony’s hair.

“Oh well, dramatic timing, etc etc,” he replied, flailing a hand, and trying to dampen the grin he could feel spreading on his face.

Steve smile mirrored his, perfectly crooked.

“Good thing we’re already in a hospital,” said a voice from the door, “because I may just throw up.”

Tony looked up to see Clint holding the door open with his hip, a stack of coffee cups balanced in his hands.

“Damnit Clint,” chided Natasha, appearing over the archer’s shoulder. “Having fun there boys?”

“Yes, thank you,” Tony retorted before Steve could answer. “Now please toddle off so that we can continue our fun, yes?”

“Tony!” Steve scolded, straightening up and ignoring Tony’s attempts to tug him back down.

Clint and Natasha entered the room, followed by a sheepish looking Bruce.

“I find myself with an irrational craving for calamari,” Clint declared, flopping down into a stiff backed hospital chair.

“You redefine the boundaries of irrational, Clint,” Bruce mumbled with a smile, choosing a seat on the other side of the bed.

Natasha settled lightly on the end of the bed.

“Why not sushi?” she asked, and Bruce hid a smile behind his hand as Clint made a considering noise.

Steve turned to look back at Tony, blue eyes dancing as the others bantered. He squeezed Tony’s hand and bumped their shoulders together.

Not the worst outcome for almost dying, Tony thought, reaching up to slide his fingers under Steve’s chin. Though just once I’d like an opportunity for personal growth that didn’t involve a brush with death.

Steve raised a ‘you are being ridiculous’ eyebrow at him, but he allowed Tony to pull him down for another kiss.

“Guys, in front of the kids, really?” Clint cried in the background, and Tony ignored him in favour of nibbling lightly on Steve’s lip before he could pull away.

There was the faintest smudge of red on Steve’s cheeks when he sat upright, and Tony’s lip curled in a satisfied smirk.

Becoming Iron Man, saving the city, getting the guy; Tony couldn’t say that the rewards for his near death experiences weren’t worth it.

The secret to happiness is almost dying; who knew?

**************