“Cap?” Steve jumps and bangs his head against the top of the cupboard. He swears softly, still not quite used to sudden calls from disembodied voices, and then speaks up.
“What is it Tony?”
“You’re gonna want to see this. It’s…well, it’s probably not good.”
Steve stomach sinks and he sets down the jar of peanut butter he’d been getting. “Where am I headed?”
“On my way.” Steve looks mournfully at his meal and then abandons it for more pressing news. JARVIS jets him to the communal space without asking, and the moment the elevator doors open, Steve’s heart stops for just a second. There’s a rent in the sky, jagged and sharp, it’s edges glowing a color that refuses to be either blue or white, but somehow rests between. In the black crevices between, Steve can see traces of starlight and colorful mists that might be clouds or might be nebulae, he’s not quite sure. Tony is standing out on the landing looking up, and Steve hurries out the door to him.
“Report,” he says, and he doesn’t think he sounds that harsh, but Tony still jumps.
“Well, there’s a hole in the sky,” he says after a moment. There’s something off about his voice, something that makes Steve rip his eyes away from the portal above and look at Tony. His skin is shiny with perspiration and his pupils are dilated. He’s pressing one hand to his mouth in a parody of thought, but he’s pressing so hard that the skin around his knuckles and jaw has gone white, and after a moment, Steve realizes that Tony’s actually biting one of his fingers, his teeth sharply set against his skin.
Tony shudders full body and closes his eyes, jaw clenching so tightly Steve is worried Tony will draw blood on that finger. “It’s…it’s…” Tony takes a deep shaking breath and then looks at Steve, though his eyes are still wide. “The radiation readings on it don’t match the…don’t match before. This is a different thing.” Steve’s almost sorry he asked for the SitRep, but Tony’s giving it, his voice tight and reedy. “Nothing’s come through so far. I’ve gotten six calls in the past five minutes from every major branch of the government. They want us ready for battle.”
A cold shock slides down Steve’s spine, and he looks up at the ominous portal again. “Let’s get inside,” he says after a moment. “We need to get in touch with the others anyway.”
He turns and heads back inside, hyper aware of the way Tony is almost staggering rather than walking. “Let’s get something hot to drink while we make a game plan,” Steve suggests, and Tony looks grateful. The kitchen has a view that looks directly out on the portal and from the corner of his eye, Steve can see how Tony is staring at it, can’t look anywhere but there. “JARVIS,” he says, “give us a view of Miami.”
The window fades into sunny blue skies and ocean, and Tony visibly relaxes, even if he still shoots an incensed glare over his shoulder. Steve wants to ask about Tony’s reaction, but he can’t think of how to make it sound concerned rather than accusatory, so he doesn’t ask anything at all. Instead, he pours out two mugs of milk for cocoa and sets them in the microwave. He’d prefer to do it the old fashioned way, honestly, but speed seems more important, so he settles for a powdered mix from the pantry.
Tony perches unsteadily on the barstool and puts his head in his hands. He’s counting under his breath, and but it’s not any sequence of numbers Steve knows. Still there’s a rhythm to it and Steve finds himself silently keeping the beat and matching Tony’s breathing. It’s evening out, growing more and more steady and confident. At 6793, Tony looks up with practiced nonchalance. “So. Portals.”
“Looks like,” Steve grimaces. “I take it SHIELD’s already investigating.”
“To the best of their ability. Fury says Nat and Clint are on their way, and Bruce is aware, but he’s working on a delicate experiment and can’t come up for another three hours.”
Steve can read between the lines of that message. For all his strength, for all Hulk’s help during the Battle of New York, Bruce still doesn’t like think of what he did to protect the city. Where the government sees enemies, Bruce sees sentient life, life that in another universe might have been willing to listen, to trade, to learn. Steve feels cowardly when he turns away from Bruce’s way of thinking, but sometimes the enemy must be faceless. That’s what Steve tells himself when he sees the faces at night. He shakes himself off and goes back to his roster, his team.
“In London. I’ve already called Jane Foster and chartered a flight for them. We’re gonna need her brains on this too.” Tony hesitates for a moment and then looks down at his hands. “Debrief now or wait for everyone?”
The microwave beeps loudly in the relative silence and Steve considers it as he pulls the mugs out and starts dumping in cocoa powder. “Might as well wait for everyone. Should we…I mean…does it need monitoring?” He feels like he’s floating free, helpless in the face of the laws of space time and the numbers that Tony spits like they’re his first language when he and Bruce are in the thick of their brainstorming sessions. He’d look to Tony for guidance, for authority when it comes to the weird science of the 21st century, but underneath his Hollywood smile, Tony is still shaking on the edges. There’s sweat at his brow and his hands tremble when he takes the mug from Steve. Right then. Commanding officer. Executive decisions.
“Actually,” he says, sipping at his cocoa and trying to look casual, to be as cool and unflapped as Tony is pretending to be, “I’m sure you’ve got JARVIS monitoring it already, right?”
“Naturally, Captain,” JARVIS chimes, and Steve catches himself for the millionth time wondering what JARVIS feels and how much he acts on his own without Tony’s input. If he didn’t know any better, Steve would say JARVIS is already wise to Steve’s plan. Steve’s other…well, a lot of Steve’s plans.
“Let’s you and I go check equipment then. Make sure everything’s in top shape. I can lift heavy things for you.”
Tony guffaws, but he’s white-knuckling his mug. “Are you kidding? I’m gonna make you personally test Bruce’s stretchy pants. For science.”
“For science,” Steve says, smiling a little.
In the safety of the windowless workshop, Tony’s shoulders drop from where they’ve been bunched around his ears and he tilts his neck left and right, the joints crackling and popping. All of the Avengers’ gear is stored in neatly separated alcoves, locked with biosensitive reader panels and JARVIS’ ever-watchful eye. Tony ambles in front of them and Steve watches, amazed how his swagger can seem so easy and yet so rushed at the same time. He eventually settles in front of Nat’s gear and unlocks the case, pulling down body armor and sleeves of knives, stun batons and several sets of Widow’s Bites. With a jerk of his head and a “C’mon big buy” Tony lures Steve over to a work table. He spreads the gear out and puts Steve to work sharpening knives and checking battery charges while he himself starts looking over every single stitch on the body armor.
As he works, Steve watches Tony from under his eyelashes. Here, with a task at hand and a holo display open at his side taking his dictation, Tony’s color improves and his hands stop shaking. His voice loosens until he’s tumbling along at a million miles an hour, rambling off equations with one breath and Def Leppard lyrics with the next, bantering with JARVIS and asking for Steve’s tactical opinions on mobility versus armor.
If both Steve and JARVIS sound a little smug when they answer Tony, Tony certainly doesn’t mention it.
Steve’s eyes are going a little blurry at the edges by the time JARVIS chimes and interrupts them. “Agents Barton and Romanov have arrived, Sir.”
The ease that had permeated Tony from shoulder to finger vanishes in an instant and he’s back to bowstring tautness. “Bring ‘em in for a landing.”
“And send them down here,” Steve adds.
Tony glances at him, eyebrows quirked, and Steve shrugs. “I figured we’re working and we’re not debriefing yet. Might as well just have ‘em come down. Plus you can have Nat try on the armor.”
“And test the batons on Barton,” Tony says, relaxing a little, looking gleeful even.
“You just want to see him writhe on the ground.”
“Tony,” Steve says, trying for reproach and failing to completely hide his smile.
A moment later, the workshop door slides open and Natasha and Clint step in. They’re both already in work mode, Steve can tell. Natasha’s pushed her center of gravity lower, her steps covering ground with the grace of a stalking cat. Clint is compacted like an eagle on the branch watching for prey. His eyes dart around the shop, catching everything, and for the briefest moment, Steve is hyper aware of how he and Tony might look, hunched over a shared workspace, heads close together, Tony grinning and Steve fighting a smile. He almost wishes it was what it looked like.
“If it isn’t my favorite killer assassins.”
“Spies, Tony. We prefer spies.”
“You prefer ‘spy,’” Nat says with a smirk, though her posture doesn’t relax. She’s watching Clint almost as closely as Steve is watching Tony, though she’s being subtler about it than Steve. He wouldn’t notice if he weren’t doing it himself.
Clint’s not vibrating like Tony is; he’s eerily still, pausing just outside the point where it would be considered sociable to stand. He’s fingering his hip like he expects a quiver to be there, but there’s nothing. Scratch that. Beneath his jacket is the faintest outline of SHIELD issue pistols, secured tightly in a shoulder holster.
“So,” he said after a moment, shifting and deliberately sliding his hands into his pockets. “Our favorite alien army is back?”
“Unlikely,” Tony says, bending over Natasha’s weaponry again. His hands dart over wires and circuits, checking connections at almost inhuman speed. “Steve?”
“Wait ‘til Thor gets here. Dr. Banner should be coming up soon, too.”
Steve turn away and catches Natasha watching them both. In her razor sharp gaze, Steve recognizes a kindred spirit. It’s strange to him that of all the friends and teammates he’s made in this new century, the person he most feels akin to is a woman who’s spent most of her developing years alternately being tortured and murdering, but then, Steve had always had a thing about underdogs and redemption stories.
“Speak of the devil,” Clint murmurs as Bruce appears in the doorway. It still surprises Steve sometimes that Dr. Banner doesn’t fill more space. His sloped shoulders and sheepish grin beg that they look away, that they pretend his space is empty, and Steve can remember that too, hovering in the corners of dance halls while Bucky tried to drag him out onto the main floor.
“I hear,” Bruce says, nervously touching the bridge of his nose, “we’ve got company.”
“No company yet. Just a knock on the door.”
“A friendly knock?”
“Comforting.” Bruce gravitates to Tony, peering over his shoulder to where his hands do not betray his nervousness. “So we’re…”
“Waiting,” Clint says, his face frozen in a stony grimace. “And asking you scientist types to do some heavy lifting for us. Message from Fury.” A small data chip appears between his fingers and Steve blinks, surprised by the sleight of hand, though why he couldn’t say. He’s seen Clint’s file and he knows the background, both good and bad.
“Shouldn’t we wait?” Tony says, eyeing the chip as though it might explode at any moment. Knowing Fury, it might just.
“Nah. This is for you sciency type nerds. All the math you can shake a stick at.”
When it becomes clear that Tony will not be taking the chip, Bruce accepts it instead, searching around for a place to put it. “To your left, Dr. Banner. I expect that the data will be…Sir?”
“There is an aircraft approaching the rift.”
Tony shivers and drops the body armor, wiping his fingers across his thighs. “On screen.”
Steve knows he’s at attention, that his shoulders re stiffening and his knees softening, as though an attack is imminent. But he can’t stop it, can’t relax for Tony. If the Chitauri are back…
JARVIS brings up a display so that they can all see an unmarked jet slowly circling the rift. “Air traffic,” Tony demands, and there’s a crackling buzz as JARVIS cycles through all the radio signals before pausing on two bandwidths. One is the NYPD, frantic voices mobilizing to intercept the aircraft. The other is an all-call, military by Steve’s guess.
“—tify yourself. I repeat, identify yourself, and withdraw from the anomaly immediately. You do not have authorization to approach alien air space. You do not have authorization to approach alien air space.”
There’s no answer from the jet, and on the other line, Steve can hear that a helo is two minutes from takeoff. He glances over to see Natasha on the phone, frantically speaking under her breath. Her face is carved in marble, her lips turned down. She’s fingering her elbow, where Steve guesses a knife is hidden beneath the sleeve.
“What should we do?” Bruce asks, staring wide-eyed at the screen. Steve’s mind is racing. Act without authorization? Wait for SHEILD to call it in? Pull in for close observation? Coordinate with NYPD? JARVIS brings up another feed with the helo en route, only four minutes out.
“Let’s wait to see what happens with the cops. We might not be needed. Maybe it’s a curious news chopper.” Even as he says it, he doesn’t believe it, and he knows the others don’t either. What news chopper would operate without a massive logo and a clearance for air space? No. Steve’s gut is sinking. “Suit up,” he adds, already stripping his shirt off. “Just in case.”
They all scramble to comply, mechanical and efficient as jeans and T-shirts are shed in favor of Tony’s special fine-weave Kevlar, steel-toed boots, and bristling weapons. Steve keeps a watchful eye on his team as he steps into his uniform pants. Bruce is breathing quickly, his chest heaving as he trades out his khakis for his stretchy pants, and Steve thinks they’re going to need a distractiong or Bruce will lose it right there in the lab. Natasha is frighteningly efficient, her movements compact and sharp like the blades she slips into the hidden sheathes on her thighs, her ankles, her wrists. Clint is a silent ghost beside her, his arms flowing in large angular blocks, as though just by looking intimidating this threat will resolve itself. And Tony, Tony beyond all of them shimmying into a skin-tight body suit, shaking and sweating and breathing through an open mouth. If Steve concentrates his hearing, there is Tony’s heartbeat, fluttering like a rabbit, wubbing in a slightly arhythmical beat. He’s panicking and this time, there’s no distraction. There can’t be.
Steve turns back to the monitor, where the all-call is still blaring. “Unauthorized aircraft be advised. We are prepared to open fire. Withdraw from alien airspace or we will open fire. Unauthorized aircraft—“
He sees it happen in slow motion. A turret drops from the belly of the jet, 50 cal barrels in a horrifying loop. The police chopper is armed with men hanging from the sides with serious weaponry, but it’s not a military grade vehicle. The facing cop opens fire, but so does the mystery bird. Bullets rip through flesh, metal, and shear part of the tail fin off and the NYPD helo goes into a dangerous spin. Steve sees two bodies bail, and parachutes a moment later, but the pilot is still there. Steve swallows hard and yanks on his helmet.
“Avengers.” They’re already ahead of him, Nat and Clint securing the last of their weapons on the run. Tony’s in the armoring rig, chest plate clicking firmly into place. Steve’s com goes live in his ear and he doesn’t bother with checks. There’s no time. “Widow, Hawkeye, take the jet out and meet them. Get them away from that rift. Iron Man, I’m with you. Drop me in the jet when you can.”
Steve finishes securing his shield and his sidearm and then steps into Tony just as he steps down from the platform. It’s instinct at this point, wrapping his arm over the armor’s shoulders and latching onto the secret handle Tony made for his teammates. He and Tony step as one, a deadly dance that that sends them up the escape hatch.
JARVIS begins feeding them flight conditions and updates. The chopper has crashed into a bank and civilian injuries are likely. NYPD is mobilizing more aircraft. Nat and Clint are one minute ahead of them, on an intercept course. The enemy craft is firing into the rift, though what they are are firing, JARVIS isn’t 100% certain. He guesses a probe of some sort, or possibly a counter portal.
“What good does that do?” Steve asks, more himself than anyone else. “Are they trying to collapse it?”
In his ear, Tony makes a sound like he swallowed glass, and the helmet shivers slightly. “Or widen it,” he says, and Steve wishes that he could see Tony’s face, read how close Tony is to the edge of panic. He hits the speed, though, so Steve’s breath is stolen on the wind. They draw even with the quinjet and Clint drops the hatch for Steve to be dropped on board. Before Tony can draw close for the transfer, though, machine-gun fire fills the air. Tony veers sharply left and Steve’s stomach is left over the quinjet. He grits his teeth and digs his fingers into metal and fights to turn and look.
The aircraft firing the beam is no longer alone. Another jet circles below, and it’s honing in on them with frightening speed. “Widow, Hawkeye, cripple them, but try and keep from casualties if you can. We need to know who they are and what they’re trying to do.”
“Roger, Captain,” Clint says, the ice in his voice crackling through the coms. If he’s as close to panicking as Tony, he’s hiding it well. And Nat is almost as a good a pilot. If worse comes to worse, she can handle the secondary aircraft.
“Iron man, drop me on the other jet.”
Tony doesn’t say a word, but his repulsors burn brighter and the armor jerks inelegantly through the air. “Iron Man?” Steve’s glove slips two centimeters across Tony’s shoulder, but it feels like two miles as his foot swings wild for a breath.
“Sorry! Sorry, Cap,” Tony huffs, his breath crackling over the coms. Steve wishes there was another way, any way that didn’t push Tony so close to the portal.
“You with me, Shellhead?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I…Yeah.” The ride smooths out and Tony accelerates more gradually, ducking another spray of bullets to come around and under the guard. They’re about five hundred feet from the primary jet and closing fast when JARVIS crackles across the com. The connection is shaky, as though it were coming from a great distance.
“Captain, Sir, detecting gravitational anomalies. I advise pulling back and commencing a long range attack.”
Steve thinks that’s not a bad idea, but Tony’s free hand is occupied holding Steve up and there’s no room at all left for firing weaponry. He considers, but a moment later Tony’s voice comes through, clearer and stronger than JARVIS’.
“I’ve got the anomalies on screen, Cap. I’ll just avoid them and drop you off.”
“Roger. Hawkeye, Widow, keep well back. We have gravitational anomalies. Long-range fire only.”
“Not a problem, Cap.” Clint’s voice is still icy cold, but beneath it, Steve detects a hint of relief. Tony slows as he starts dodging dangers Steve can’t even see, but two hundred feet from the enemy craft there’s a blare in his ear.
“Shit!” Clint says, just as JARVIS warns there’s an incoming missile.
Tony jerks, Steve lurches in his grip, and a roaring noise fills his ears. Something is dragging at him like a line hooked in a fish’s mouth. His gloves can’t quite get a grip on the armor and his anchoring boot is already flying free through the air.
“Cap!” someone shouts in his ear, but something wrenches him from Tony’s grip and he’s flying and spinning. Sky earth sky earth sky metal cutting hard as Steve hits the enemy craft and goes flying off in a different direction.
“Steve!” Tony screams, but then Steve’s vision is filled with stars and stars and stars and he’s falling up, his inner ears spinning wildly. Something cold and icy passes over his skin, his ears pop, and his vision goes black, the fish hook in his stomach yanking mercilessly.
Tony can see Steve’s body flying into space space space and what the fuck how the…He pants into the helmet and turns on the missile behind him, opening up the repulsors full blast. The missile explodes into a cloud of heat and fire and then Tony turns, his chest aching as the reactor’s RPM spins out of control. He feels frozen, even hurtling through the air toward the bastards who did this, who he’s going to kill for this. But Steve’s body is growing smaller and smaller and JARVIS can no longer read his com signal through the rift and fuck fuck fuck fuck.
“Trajectory for the…go. Go for Steve.”
“Do it! Autopilot!”
Tony knows that for JARVIS, even one second is a millennium, is more than a terabyte, is information and mathematics cycles flowing by in a hyperfast stream, so he knows that JARVIS hesitates for one millennium before answering. “Yes, sir.”
The arms and legs lock and Tony fixes his eyes on the gaping maw that is going to swallow him whole and tells himself he is not afraid. Not for this. Halfway there, a gravitational anomaly catches them and sucks them inexorably upward. As he passes the jet, Tony releases one shoulder missile and watches with satisfaction as it cripples the wing. The beam is disrupted, flickers, and grim satisfaction curls in Tony’s belly as he turns his attention back to the place where Steve has fallen. It’s only after another five seconds that Tony realizes he’s made a horrible mistake. The maw is closing, its blinding edges creeping inward the same way cinders creep and burn across paper. “No!” he screams and presses his fingers into the palms, engaging supersonic speed. J heeds him and the suit rockets forward with almost no preparatory acceleration. For a moment, Tony blacks out, and when he comes back, the stars are there, sucking sucking sucking him in.
“Sir,” JARVIS says into his ear, “please come back, Sir.” Tony gasps as the suit passes into alien space and the pressure change rocks him through the air. Gravity reverses, up becomes down, and the suit overcompensates, goes flying into a spin. For five seconds, he’s in total free fall, and the G-force does him in. Scrabbling at the edges of consciousness, he sees Steve in his peripheral, arms and legs spread-eagled like a falling angel. And then his vision goes dark.
Tony regains consciousness while he’s still airborne, and amazingly, blessedly, Steve is clinging to his neck, his huge arms squeezing so tightly that Tony can feel their pressure through the gorget. “Tony! Tony Tony Tony!” he’s screaming as the wind whips past them. The sensors are blaring, the world is spinning, and all Tony can process is that the ground is approaching fast and the autopilot is about to give out, so he spins, hits the breaks in the air foils along his back, and braces Steve’s neck and head for impact.
It’s not the worst landing Tony’s ever had. It would be hard to beat falling lifeless from the void of space. But it’s up there. The entire length of his spine and shoulders explodes in fire on initial impact, and they bounce up again, spinning and tumbling into something hard that drives into Tony’s hip and sends it twisting at a bad angle. The wind slips from his lungs and sends his brain into panic mode, pulse fluttering in his ears, sweat along the back of his neck and his temples. But his first thought is for Steve.
He fights for a breath of air, can almost feel the way his lungs hug the arc reactor, working overtime to set him to rights. At last he manages a great shuddering gasp, his back arching involuntarily, and wheezes, “Steve?” It sounds like he’s breathing through a straw, like he’s sitting at 70% oxygen. Hell. Maybe he is.
Through the com, Steve groans, shifting on top of Tony. Tony’s still panicking, still gasping for even one full sip of air, but he’s ridiculously grateful that Steve isn’t dead. Yet. He needs to do inventory. Check Steve for injury. Check the suit. Check satellite connections. Check radiation levels. Check check check—his brain is spinning and fuzzy and he wishes to god he could concentrate even a little.
Steve coughs and groans again, carefully rolling off Tony and onto his back, his spine curling awkwardly over edges of the shield. “Let’s not do that again,” he mumbles, pressing a hand over his eyes. Tony watches in a corner feed, ignoring all the numbers the suit’s sensors are feeding him. He wants to stop his brain, to halt the tumbling jumble of thoughts, but he can’t even grab a thread from the spider’s web of his mind. Not enough oxygen. Not by a long shot.
Slowly, oh so slowly, Steve rolls to his side and sits up, his knuckles digging into the ground. Something about it, the way he moves so precisely, makes Tony’s mind slow. “Shellhead? You ok in there?”
Tony would like to answer, would like to tell Steve “it was a ten-point landing, of course I’m ok,” but all he manages is a rattling whimper. That wakes Steve up and there are suddenly hands on the armor, fumbling for the emergency catches.
Steve’s panicking and that’s…that’s not good. Tony can’t let that happen. With a force of will, he sucks in a huge breath, starts going through the prime numbers sequence in his head. When he can’t remember what comes after 1033, he switches over to the Fibonacci sequence, adding and adding and adding and as he does, the vice around his chest eases. He raises one right hand, focus focus focus, and grabs Steve’s wrist.
“Give me a second, big guy.”
Steve’s relieved smile is like a cool breeze across Tony’s face and suddenly he can grasp the tangled threads of his mind, and think logically, rationally, again. When he feels like he can flex his fingers without clenching them into a vice, Tony sits up. Horrible mistake. The world spins and his gag reflex informs him that very shortly he’s going to regret his choices. He pops the mask, turns away from Steve, and promptly loses his lunch.
“Ugh,” he groans when he’s finished. “Maybe let’s not pull six G’s the next time we decide to take a spin.
Steve’s mouth wobbles like he’s fighting between a smile and a worried grimace, but after a moment, he looks around. “Any guesses where we are?”
Tony looks around, too, moving his head slowly so that he doesn’t upset his equilibrium again. They’re surrounded by trees like Tony’s never seen before, golden arching things that twist and turn like twining serpents, their leaves so filmy that Tony can see light passing through them like tissue paper. They’re huge and spade shaped, their thick veins stark in the dim light of the forest. And it is a forest. Beneath him, more leaves rustle and crackle, and there’s frost dusting everything.
“Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” he mumbles and Steve laughs.
“If anyone’s Toto in this scenario, it’s you,” he says, but his smile is so broad and good-natured and sweet that Tony knows he doesn’t mean anything insulting by it. It makes something in his ribs flutter, that Steve now feels comfortable enough to banter with him like they’ve been doing this a while. Like they’re not still tiptoeing afraid of making the wrong move and starting up another shouting match.
Tony shakes himself off and slowly stands, Steve rushing to put a supporting arm around him. Tony wants to lean in, but he can’t, shouldn’t. Steve’s only here because Tony let go. Because Tony failed him. Steve shouldn’t have to be holding up his dead weight.
With a deep, shaking breath, Tony steps away and says, “Let me just…” The face plate claps down and Tony starts accessing the systems, moving his fingers in tiny-micro twitches to access the onboard computer. No satellite connection. No bars. No radio signals. After a moment, Tony flicks his thumb and activates the onboard AI.
“Sir,” it says, a poor facsimile of JARVIS’ nuance. This one doesn’t have the processing power to do all JARIVS can do; it operates on a level about three degrees higher than DUM-E, and without access to the servers, it can’t tell him everything he needs to know. But he can extrapolate from baseline data.
The background solar radiation is like nothing Tony’s ever seen before. It crackles over the readings in huge storms of energy, and he shivers, glad it’s not reaching earth. This kind of power would knock out the electrical grid, and then they’d be in real trouble. No. Better that it’s just him and Steve and his shielded suit dealing with this. And good thing Steve’s enhanced, because honestly, this kind of neutrino bombardment isn’t far off from what astronauts experience. If they’re here for any length of time, it might not be great for Tony’s already shitty health.
“So, you want the bad news,” he says slowly, going over all the data the suit’s feeding him, “or the worse news?”
Steve grimaces and looks around at the dim forest again. “Let’s get the worse out of the way.”
“Well, I’m not getting any of the radiation signals we were reading from the portal. Pretty sure those guys, whoever they were, closed it off.”
“So we’re stuck here.”
“For the time being.”
“What’s the bad news. We’re definitely not on planet earth anymore.”
“You’re counting that as less bad than not having the portal? Seems worse to me.”
“Well, we’ve got a breathable atmosphere and a place that seems analogous to earth. We could’ve been dumped into the void of space, and then we’d both be dead. So yeah. Not worse.”
Tony means for the comment to sound light, offhanded, but his voice shakes over “void” and a shiver runs the length of his spine, someone stepping over his grave. Steve must hear it, because he doesn’t argue, just nods and looks around. “So…we should find shelter.”
“Yeah. And water. God I hope there’s water. We’re in trouble otherwise.”
Steve blanches at that and looks around. “There’s trees. They’re probably water-based. Right?”
The atmosphere is also sitting at 60% humidity, so Tony’s pretty sure they’re alright. He nods and checks the terrain. “If we head downhill,” he says, pointing to where a hill slopes away to a boulder-strewn path between the trees, “we’ll probably find something we can drink eventually.”
Wherever they are, night is coming on fast. The forest is twilit and clouds of fog are puffing from between Steve’s lips. Tony takes point without asking, and Steve goes with it, wary at Tony’s back with the shield free and buckled over his arm. It feels awkward and at the same time natural. Even if their personal relationship is only just moving away from wary circling dogs, their battlefield relationship has never been anything but synergetic. Tony always knows where Steve is and Steve always knows where Tony is and when they face a foe, they move as one.
Tony wants to make conversation, to break the strange tension he feels crackling down his own neck, to maybe apologize for fucking up so badly back at the portal, but he knows Steve’s preference in hostile territory. Silent until they’ve got the upper hand, and with just the two of them on an alien planet, the upper hand is miles out of reach.
So instead, Tony focuses on two things. Keeping a wary eye and finding water. Around them night settles like the swoop of a raven’s wing, sudden and silent, and Tony ups the lights on the suit so Steve isn’t stumbling through the darkness. Steve doesn’t object, even though now they’re more visible; hostile civilization, Tony supposes, is preferable to hostile wilderness. Unless someone shoots them. Then he’s all for Bear Grylls’ing it.
After a half-an-hour’s steady trek downhill, Tony’s onboard mic picks up a tell-tale burble. He veers unerringly toward it and Steve follows, his steps steady and comforting like the beating of a drum in Tony’s ear piece.
The stream comes up so suddenly that Tony nearly stumbles into it, his boots clattering over the smooth rocks along its banks. Steve draws up beside him and puts a steadying hand on his elbow, his daunting strength hauling all four hundred pounds of armor and man back into equilibrium.
“Water,” he says with satisfaction, staring down at the black glistening ribbon.
“Now we just need—“
“Shelter,” Steve says, pointing down to his right. Tony leans to look and sees what Steve is looking at: a huge outcropping of marbled red rock that juts from the forest like an angry giant. “Wind cover and keeps our backs guarded. Don’t think we’ll find a better place and it’s already late.”
“It’ll be like the Ritz Carlton,” Tony says, grinning even though Steve can’t see it.
“I was thinking the Hotel Royale, but if you really want the Ritz…”
“Get your kicks,” Tony says, and sets off for the rocks, side-by-side with Steve.
The rock is better than they could have hoped for, horse-shoeing around them in comforting wings that are likely to discourage any curious animals that come knocking. Even better, the stream tumbles down the side of the rocks, a steady trickle of life that grounds Tony in a way water hasn’t in years.”
Steve sets his hands on his hips and nods as though he’s satisfied. He turns back to Tony and says, “We should take inventory. Figure out what we’ve got and what we’re going to need to get in the next twenty-four hours.”
Tony nods and considers his own comfort. On the one hand, he can technically sleep in the armor, and they are in more-or-less hostile territory. On the other hand, he’s not exactly young anymore and he knows how his back will treat him in the morning. On the other, other hand, sleeping on the ground will probably do the same thing for him. After a moment of consideration, he unlocks the helmet and shucks it from his head, shaking out his sweaty hair. Steve removes his helmet too, his hair sticking up at odd angles, and god help Tony it’s cute. Steve’s helmet hair is fucking cute, and Tony wishes he could pretend he didn’t know that, didn’t see it every time they wrapped a mission.
“Take a load off,” Steve says as he tumbles awkwardly to his behind, his armor hindering his elbows and knees, his heavy boots clunking on the hard ground. Tony must look even more ridiculous easing himself to the ground, but it does feel nice to be off his feet. He drapes his elbows over his knees and looks up at the canopy above them. “I’ve been in worse places,” he murmurs, reaching down to finger at more of those filmy leaves.
“Yeah,” Tony says, staring out into the black of night. “Yeah, me too.”
He can feel Steve looking sidelong at him, his mouth pursed thoughtfully, but then he reaches down and undoes his belt, setting it between his thighs to go through its contents. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
Tony shucks his own gauntlets and reaches for the slim onboard storage compartments along his ribs and thighs, opening them and extracting his own emergency supplies. He slides over close to Steve, nearly hip-to-hip, to offer his goods to the pile. Between them, they have two boxes of iodine tabs, a pack of waterproof matches, 100 feet of Tony’s extra-strength towline, two climbing anchors, two EMPs, a field knife, Steve’s Beretta, two rolling plastic water bottles, the barest of first aid supplies, Tony’s onboard toolkit, a shiny silver emergency blanket, an iPod with earbuds, twelve high-calorie energy bars, and two condoms. Steve eyes the condoms for a moment and then raises his eyebrow, looking at Tony with an expression that is trying desperately to look stern.
“Hey, always be prepared. I may never have been a boy scout, but I can respect a good motto when I hear one.”
Steve’s eyebrow, if anything rises even higher.
“Oh come on. Pretend they weren’t standard issue in your kit back in the war. Go on. Tell me you never received your little packet on VD.”
It’s dark with only the glow of the arc reactor between them and the bare ambient light of the forest, but Tony’s pretty sure Steve is blushing. But then something mischievous flashes over his face and he turns back to their pile of supplies. “What? Didn’t anyone ever mention the Captain America Campaign against VD to you?”
Tony’s jaw drops and he fights a snicker, but fails miserably. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“That must be part of my illustrious history that they like to keep from the general public.”
“’Every bond you buy is a bullet in the barrel of your best guy’s gun.’ Never did tell them which gun.”
Steve’s toying with the matches, so at first Tony can’t quite see the twitch of his mouth, but then he catches it and gasps with mock scandal. “Why Steven, are you having one over on me?”
Steve snorts and looks at him sidelong, his mouth quirking in a soft smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Mr. Stark. I am never anything less than honest.”
“Oh my god, you troll.”
At that, Steve sputters and then bursts out laughing, his head tilting back so that Tony can see the flash of his teeth in his mouth. “Ok, ok. The bond sales were never part of any VD campaign. I give.”
Tony nods, satisfied that his worldview has not been shaken, but then Steve adds, “The VD campaign came after, once I was in Europe. ‘Cap always brings a shield to the party, and you should, too.’”
“You are horrible.”
“You like it.”
And that’s just the problem isn’t it. Tony likes it too much, if anything. He clears his throat and lets the smile linger on his face as he looks down at their stash again. “So…we have food and clean water for tonight. And that’s good. And tomorrow once it’s light out, we can fly up and get our bearings. Maybe find civilization. If there is civilization.”
Steve nods, his grin fading. “Yeah. Yeah. We ought to sleep in shifts. Eat and bed down until it’s light out.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Tony says, and he begins to unroll the water bottles, holding out one to Steve. They take turns holding the bottles under the trickling water until they’re full, and then they each drop an iodine tab in.
“Sure hope this works against alien pathogens and parasites,” Tony says with a grimace, watching the pill begin to slowly dissolve. Steve doesn’t say anything and instead hands him a high-calorie bar pack.
“You know, I’ve never actually eaten one of these things.”
“They’re not bad,” Steve says, and Tony gives him a skeptical look.
“What? I get hungry in the field. You remember that day with MODOK when we were out for twelve hours? I had two that day.”
“Two? These are like, 1,200 calories each.”
“And I consume about 5,000 a day.”
“Well, we’re fucked, then.”
“I can cut back for a few days. I’ll be fine. I lived on a hell of a lot fewer calories during the war.”
Steve sounds a little melancholy at that, and Tony wants to ask him about it, or say something comforting, but he doesn’t know how to do that. He’s never been good with verbal expressions of affection. Hell, there’s a reason Natasha pegged him for a textbook narcissist. But he he feels like Steve deserves…something. Some acknowledgement.
“Must have been tough.” Smooth, Stark, he thinks to himself, immediately looking back at the dissolving tablet. State the obvious why don’t you.
“Honestly, me mam and I had it worse during the war. Flour was so expensive we…there were a lot of weeks where it was potatoes and cabbage and nothing else. Mam said if she’d wanted to live on potatoes, she would’ve gone back to Ireland. As if we could afford passage.”
It should be sad. Steve should be sad. But he’s grinning a little, his eyes crinkled at the edges like they get when he’s pleased with something Natasha’s done to put a bad guy in his place or when he’s looking at that compass with Aunt Peggy’s picture, the one he thinks no one’s noticed he carries in his pocket all the time. Tony holds his breath for a moment and then says, “I’ve never heard you mention her before.”
“Who, Mam? Yeah. Yeah, I guess…I don’t know. It’s been a while, you know. Nearly ten years. Or…I guess almost eighty years. It doesn’t…doesn’t seem right to bring her up.”
“Doesn’t mean you don’t miss her, though. Just because she’s been gone a while.”
Steve fiddles with his calorie bar, flipping the silvery wrapper over his fingers like the fan of a brush. “What about you?” he says after a breath that seems to stretch on for minutes. “You…you don’t really talk about your mom either.”
“You mean ‘me mam?’”
With a duck of his head and a twisted smile, Steve looks up. “Was your mother Irish?”
“Then she’s your mom. Learn a little bit of Gaelic, pick up a slab of Catholic guilt, and then we’ll talk.”
Tony laughs, fiddling with his own calorie bar. After a moment, he peels back the wrapper and bites in. It’s…an experience. The stuff is slick and globby in his mouth and for a moment he’s fighting his gag reflex, but he knows better. This is all the food they have and while they’re in potentially dangerous situations, Tony can’t afford to be performing at less than peak just because he hasn’t been eating. He swallows as best he can, the bar sticking to his tongue and teeth and throat on the way down.
“Ugh. Blech. That is…horrible.
Steve, merrily chewing away his own bar, looks over. “You really don’t like it?”
“It’s like…like peanut butter and oat flavored lard. It’s like eating butter. I can’t…ugh.”
“Whatever gets you the calories,” Steve says, shrugging and taking another bite. He really does look completely unfazed by it and Tony’s a little horrified.
“Your poor taste buds.” But Tony takes another bite and works on swallowing it as quickly as humanly possible. Maybe if he swallows without chewing, he won’t catch the god-awful texture on his tongue.
“You never answered my question.” Steve’s staring at his own hands again. “And I mean,” he barrels on, “you don’t have to. If you’re not comfortable talking about it. About her. That’s fine too. I just thought, you know. Maybe…maybe it’d be nice to have someone listen.”
Tony twists his bar in his hands, breaking off another piece. The silvery wrapping catches the light of the reactor and throws little darts of blue over his face and over Steve’s shoulders. After a moment, he laughs a little. “Quite a pair we are. Sitting here talking about how we don’t talk about our parents. Shrink would have a field day with us. Tell us how keeping it all in isn’t good for our psyches or something.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I suppose they would.”
After that, Steve doesn’t say anything, and Tony’s glad he doesn’t pursue it, that he lets Tony change the subject. Maybe the reason they first rubbed each other the wrong way was because they’re actually more similar than they’d like to admit. Maybe that was the problem, both of them sitting with chips on their shoulders against Fury and raring to chomp at the bits the government forced between their teeth. Maybe the problem was never each other at all.
“So, what kind of place do you think this is? Vulcan friendlies? Flopsy weirdoes like Jar Jar Binks? Beautiful Amazons queens who’ll snoo snoo us to death?”
“I did not understand a word of that.”
“I’ll give you a pass on Jar Jar, but the fact that you don’t know the other references hurts me deeply, Steve. Deeply.”
“Well, what can I say? Pay per view under the Arctic ice just ain’t what it used to be.”
Tony snorts and takes one last bite of his bar before wrapping the rest up for later. 600 disgusting calories should be more than enough for him, and if he’s only eating half a bar, they’ll last longer. “I guess what I'm saying is, do you think there are aliens here?”
“Dunno. Wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen to me this week.”
“Really? What was the weirdest?”
“Clint falling through the ceiling grate in my bathroom. While I was naked. That was awkward.”
“Those holes are tiny. How did he even—“
“Hell if I know. One minute I’m shaving, the next I’ve got him in a strangle hold. You’d think around a whole bunch of combat veterans he’d be more careful. Can you imagine if it’d been Bruce?”
Tony doesn’t want to imagine. He only just finally finished up repairs from the Chitauri invasion and he’d prefer to keep his tower intact for more than a week, thank you. The thread of conversation goes peacefully still for a bit, and Tony considers leaning against Steve, drawing close enough to catch a whiff of his aftershave or draw on a little body heat, but it just seems impractical in the armor. Instead he sighs and leans deeper into the rock outcropping.
“So, sleeping in shifts?”
“I’ll take first watch. Sound good?”
“Yeah. How long since we put the iodine in? Do you think it’s safe to drink?
Tony’s onboard universal clock is useless here, but he can at least tell that it’s been twenty-seven minutes since they put the tabs in. “Give it a bit longer. Maybe shake the bottle to help mix it.” Steve could probably drink the water straight from the stream without a problem, but better safe than sorry. Alien pathogens are the last thing they need to be dealing with.
Steve nods and after a moment stands. “I’m just gonna…” he gestures awkwardly, but Tony understands the call of nature. “You need a light?”
Steve taps the shoulder strap of his harness and an LED flickers to life.
“Oh yeah. Forgot I installed those.”
“You think of everything Tony.” Steve turns and marches off into the forest, and Tony watches him go and silently begins to wonder just how royally fucked they are.
“Not everything,” he murmurs, turning to stare into the oily darkness of the woods. “Not everything.
Steve is a little sad he can’t watch the sunrise on this alien world. He’d like to know if the colors are the same, if the sky is just as blue, if the clouds are just as mountainous. Are there clouds? How can they even know? Well, they’ll find out when Tony wakes up and they go for a flight. But for the time being, Steve imagines. He populates his mind with the kind of lands found in the pulp novels and magazines he once devoured when he was a kid, with red skies and floating masses of rock, billowing green clouds and sleek silver ships, plant life that grows like a web from one land mass to the next and creatures so strange he can barely process them. It’s nicer than thinking about the reality of this—that they’re on an alien world, isolated, alone, maybe going to die here without ever seeing their friends again. No. Steve’s not thinking about that.
Around them, the forest is waking up and calls are filling the air, echoing like the peals of the church bells on Sunday. For a moment, Steve considers bowing his head to pray. It would be fitting in this place where the only familiar thing might just be God.
Instead he stands and stretches, touching the tips of his heavy boots, arching his back, rolling the tension out of his shoulders as best he can. Then he turns and looks at Tony, slumped in the armor with his neck at an angle that can’t be comfortable. In the silvery light of the strange forest, the armor looks otherworldly. Its red hues are softened to a muted burgundy, and the gold glimmers softly as though it’s emitting its own light. Steve wants to draw it, but even if he had paper, there’s no time. They need to get moving, and hopefully not have as disastrous a flight as they had yesterday.
Sighing, Steve leans down and shakes Tony’s shoulder. Tony groans and rolls his head, looking up through his eyelashes. “Don’t you just look disgustingly chipper.”
“Good morning to you to.”
“Ugh. My mouth tastes like…like I licked Mjolnir’s handle.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “You say that like you have experience with licking Mjolnir’s handle.”
“There may have been a bet.”
“That explains it. Well, if you want to eat breakfast, then we can head up and see what we’ve got.”
Tony nods and rolls forward, all of his movements made awkward by the limited mobility of the suit. “Sleeping in armor, terrible idea. Do not repeat.”
“You could…you could get out. Just for breakfast. Just to give yourself a break.”
“That sounds good, actually. So long as you’ve got my back.”
Steve nods and glances around sharply when an animal calls out, its shriek piercing the early morning air. When he looks back, Tony is on edge, his fists at the ready.
“Maybe,” Steve says slowly, reaching for the shield, “maybe keep a gauntlet on.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I can do that.”
Steve passes Tony his iodine water bottle and the other half of the calorie bar he didn’t finish yesterday. They eat in tense silence, listening as more and more animals called out. Wherever they are, it’s not a quiet place. Some of the calls remind Steve of big cats—huge roars that sound as though they might swallow the forest whole. Others are as sweet as the calls he’d first heard that morning, bell tones and complex tunes that rise and fall through the foliage.
They ear in a hurry and Tony stretches just as Steve did, twisting and reaching for his toes, working the kinks out of his back. “Ugh. Getting old is hell, Steve. Absolute hell.”
“You’re not old Tony.”
“You’re right. I’m still a paragon of youth. Don’t know what I was thinking.” Tony flashes a smile at Steve, his teeth blindingly white in his face, and Steve’s heart kicks up a notch. Tony’s got the kind of smooth smile that would make anyone melt, and even if it’s fake (because Steve knows all of Tony’s facades by now), it’s no less handsome.
“I’m just going to take care of nature’s call and then we can head up. Sound good?”
Tony wanders off into the bushes and Steve hefts up his shield. The scent of the oiled leather comforts him, and he pulls it just a little closer, for a moment remembering the first time he hefted it in a moldy musty underground bunker. “Look at me now, Peg,” he murmurs, tracing the edge of the vibranium. “A million miles from home. What else is new?”
Of course Steve hasn’t really known what “home” is for a long time now. He used to think it was New York, in a flea-bitten tenement rubbing elbows with every other poor slob and scraping from one job to the next. But even Buck had known that wasn’t true. “You got stars in your eyes, Rogers,” he’d once said. “You won’t be satisfied in this dump forever.” And Steve had laughed and told him he didn’t know what he was talking about, but then the war had come and all Steve wanted, all he ever wanted, was to help.
“You should see these mushrooms,” Tony says, walking back into the clearing as he zips his flight suit back up to his neck. “Well, they look like mushrooms, anyway. Except the stalks are…weird. Honeycombed. Anyway, they’re the size of dinner plates and I think they’re bioluminescent, but it’s hard to tell by daylight.”
Steve shakes his head, caught with the scent of the past still in his nose, and for a moment he’s not quite sure what Tony’s saying, but then he remembers. “Yeah. I saw ‘em last night. They did glow. Kind of a purple-blue color, like that pretty sweater of Natasha’s.”
“And you didn’t say anything? Steve, this place is amazing. Look at these trees. I’m not exactly a wet sciences guy, but you don’t get huge trees like this without massive amounts of CO2 in the air. Or, well…actually they might not function like earth plants. Maybe they don’t give off oxygen. Maybe they don’t respire. Oh my god, what if they’re silicon based?”
The edges of Steve’s mouth curl higher and higher the more Tony talks; he’s pointing at leaves and a baby blue fuzzy growth on the rocks that might be this world’s equivalent of moss and the rocks themselves, which are striated red with what, Tony assures Steve, can only be iron. Where Steve sees the color, the shape, the line, Tony sees numbers and chemicals and cosmic questions. And damn if it isn’t beautiful to listen to him. Even as he steps into the armor he’s still talking at a thousand miles a minute, and Steve’s not an idiot. He knows that part of this might just be Tony’s defense mechanisms fighting panic, but if Tony’s defense is to take apart the world and see how it ticks, understand all its nuts and bolts, Steve thinks that’s pretty amazing.
The helmet clunks into place and Iron Man’s eyes go electric blue, so Steve jams his own helmet on and buckles the strap beneath his chin. Tony’s chatter shifts slightly: “Humidity’s 73%, temperature’s fifteen degrees Celcius, air pressure is 1.3 atmospheres. Little high for us lowly earthlings, but I think we’ll be alright. You ready to go for a spin, Cap?”
“Born ready, Shellhead,” Steve says, and swings up onto Tony’s boot, hooking his fingers deep into the groove on the armor’s shoulder. Tony laughs and jumps into the atmosphere and Steve laughs with him. He knows, knows, that they’re both avoiding the big questions, treating this like just another adventure, like they can get home any time, and he doesn’t care. Flying through the foliage like this, Tony at his side, Steve feels like they can do anything.
They break through the canopy and Steve is momentarily blinded by this world’s sun, it’s butter-yellow light shining in his eyes. He winces, blinks, and then peeks through his lashes. The landscape that spreads beneath them is magnificent and alien, the forests a solid blanket of silver that retreats into the…into the East? Are there cardinal directions here? Are they the same? Even that’s an unknown. The sky above them is blue, same as back home, but there’s a bronze yellow tint to it that puts Steve in mind of sepia-toned photographs, as though this world is as old as the universe. Tony slowly rotates so they can get a 360 of the landscape. To their right, Steve sees the glimmer of what he thinks might be a sea, its surface blue-black and flashing white in turns, but it’s far off and it might be a trick of the horizon. When Tony rotates again, huge mountains creep into Steve’s line of vision, their peaks craggy and wild, capped with white like ancient sages.
When the mountains recede with Tony’s rotation, Steve focuses back down beneath them. The stream they’d found is invisible from this height, and there are no blatant landmarks. Even the outcroppings of red stone that occasionally jut from the landscape are too numerous and uniform to be of much help. And there is nothing that looks like it might be made by intelligent life. No squares of farmland, no regularity in the landscape, no lights or flashes of metal. Steve’s stomach sinks as he realizes that they just might be frighteningly and completely alone.
“What’ve you got, Shellhead?” he says, and he knows his voice is in battle mode, but he can’t help it. Suddenly, their plight feels much more dire, much more real.
“I’ve got a shiny thing over that way,” Tony says, turning them again and pointing toward where Steve thought there might be an ocean, “that might be something or might be nothing. No idea. But that’s about it, really.”
“Not that I can pick up. No radio waves, no feedback, no satellite signatures that I can trace. There is…huh…”
Steve waits patiently while Tony runs numbers or consults readings or does whatever it is he needs to, but the answer isn’t forthcoming. For five minutes they hover in space before Steve finally says, “Shellhead?”
That seems to knock Tony from his stupor, and the helmet shakes slightly, as though Tony’s just snapped from a deep sleep. “Sorry. Sorry. That…these readings are…I’m not entirely sure. But if I had to guess, I’d say they’re gravitational anomalies. The magnetic field of this place is bending around them in all sorts of weird ways, and I don’t know what else would be, it’s almost like—“
“Like what sucked us in, yesterday?”
“Uh, yeah. Actually definitely yeah. I think whatever whammied our planet might be whammying here too.”
“Could…if we entered one of the anomalies would it send us back home?”
“No,” Tony says, and Steve can hear the wince in his voice. “Graviational anomaly doesn’t necessarily equal portal. It just equals weirdness. Chances are it would just send us tumbling again. Or worse, trap us with no way to escape. If those points are vacuums, you’d, we’d—“
“Can you fly around them?”
“I could try, but I don’t know how far their range extends. If they have super-gravitational pulls, like Jupiter or the sun, their reach could potentially be very far.”
“Are they down at ground level?”
“Well, I didn’t pick up any last night, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
“But not the worst shit. I mean, at least there’re no aliens coming at—“
Steve registers the shriek at the same time Tony does and his stomach drops to the vicinity of his boots as Tony hits the jets. A shadow passes over them and Steve looks up to see the silhouette of something big and presumably hungry. He weighs his options, weighs what he knows, and then shouts to Tony, “Take us down! Put us below the canopy!”
Tony doesn’t hesitate to comply. He accelerates so quickly Steve’s ears pop, and his equilibrium for a moment becomes mush. But the next thing he knows, they’re hovering just under the treetops and Tony’s face is upturned.
“So,” he says breathlessly, “hell of a welcome committee?”
“What have you got?”
“Honestly, not much. It’s probably warm-blooded. Or at least, its heat signature is higher than the surrounding atmosphere. Computer’s estimating it at a fifteen-foot wingspan, which means it probably couldn’t eat us in one bite, but it could do serious damage. I’d rather not meet it to find out.”
Steve glances around at the branches that weave and arch around them and then looks back up toward the break in the leaves, where the sky shines blue and deceptively inviting. “So, between the gravitational anomalies and the less than friendly fauna?”
“We hoofing it, Captain?”
“Looks that way. Did you get a fix on the shiny thing you were looking at?”
“Then let’s head out, Shellhead. Time’s a wasting.”
It becomes painfully obvious within twenty minutes of their hike that Tony’s suit was never meant to maneuver terrain like this. Sure he can walk, but the boots aren’t flexible and the souls don’t have any sort of rubber grip to help with friction and slipping. Since they’re heading downhill, following the creek they sheltered next to last night, Tony has had more than a few undignified tumbles. Steve can’t decide if it would be easier to put himself on point and have Tony follow, or if their current formation is safer, since Steve can at least see when Tony tumbles and make sure he doesn’t get banged up too badly.
“Maybe we should chance flying,” Steve grumbles, and he hadn’t really intended for Tony to hear, but Tony does reply.
“What? You’re not awed by my innate grace? Come on, this must be hilarious to watch.”
“You heard that.”
“Coms are still working. Over short range, anyway. Think of them like walkie-talkies. Further away we get, the weaker the signal will be. No satellites to keep the signal bouncing when we’re far apart.”
“So what you’re saying is if I want to talk to myself, I’d best run off at least a mile away.”
“Why Cap, I’m wounded. Wounded! Are you saying you don’t want to be by my side.”
Exactly the opposite, Steve thinks, and then he shakes himself. “I’m saying privacy has its place when you happen to be a man who talks out loud to himself a lot.”
“Do you really?” Tony sounds genuinely curious. After a breath, he lifts the helmet so he’s look at Steve straight on. Steve appreciates the gesture. Sometimes it’s disconcerting talking to a blank metal face, especially when Tony’s expressions are so effusive—when he’s unguarded at least.
“Yeah. Used to drive Buck nuts, you know? He’d think I was bad-mouthing him under my breath when really I was just listing the groceries or working out how much money we were gonna need for rent.”
“You learn something new every day.” Tony grins and shakes his head a little, like he can’t quite believe that Steve does something as inane as talk to himself.
“What about you? What sorts of weird little habits do you have?” Steve wants to swallow his tongue almost the moment the words are out of his mouth. This, this is why he never had romantic dates. It wasn’t the wheezing or the five-foot-five frame or the concave chest or the weak chin. It was his goddamned-say-the-first-thing-that-pops-into-your-head mouth. Steve can feel the heat on his cheeks like the burn of a two-day-old sunburn, and Tony is grinning at him, so he must look as red as he feels.
“You don’t, sorry, you don’t have to answer that. I was just, you know…” And then of course, when he needs them the most, his words dry up like water in the Sahara.
“No, it’s ok. Pep would tell you my weird habit is the suits, but there’s no accounting for taste.” Tony trips haphazardly over a boulder and ends up hopping on one leg down part of a steep incline. Steve’s frankly impressed he can manage that in the suit. Keeping his balance must not be easy, what with three hundred-ish pounds of metal tugging him inexorably downward. “But really, my weird habit is probably the whole not getting handed things. Is that a habit? Maybe that’s a quirk. They should pin these words down, you know?”
Steve blinks, trying to unravel the logic of Tony’s sentence, but he’s not quite getting it. “’Not getting handed things?’”
“Yeah. Didn’t you know? I don’t like being handed things. Just don’t.” But Tony’s face is strangely tight when he says it and Steve thinks there’s more to the story, a reason Tony doesn’t like having another human being pass him an object. He wants to ask about it, but just at that moment, an outcropping of rock bests the armor boots and Tony goes sliding. He hits his hip hard on the way down, and the clang of metal resounds through the forest like a beacon.
The animals that had been calling around them suddenly go silent, and Steve feels simultaneously repentant and unnerved. He’s been in hostile forests before. When things go quiet, it’s never a good sign, but if it was just Tony that spooked the animals, there’s no reason to worry. Still…
“Tony, can you scan the area?”
“Oh no, I’m fine, Cap. Thanks for asking,” Tony says, rolling awkwardly to one hip so he can push himself up. But then he says, “Infrared’s clear, and I’m not seeing any gravitational anomalies or anything. If something big and bad is creeping up on us, it’s not registering in my sensor array.”
“Ok. Keep an eye out,” Steve says. They trek another five tense minutes in silence before Steve says, “I’m sorry I didn’t ask. Are you ok? You went down pretty hard.”
Tony is quiet long enough that Steve thinks he’s not going to answer, but then he says, “Yeah, I’m fine. I lined this armor with this nifty gel material I developed. It’s kind of like the vibranium—where I got the idea actually. Super shock absorbent. I probably didn’t even get a bruise.”
“Well, that’s…that’s good.”
“I know, right? I want to incorporate it in your armor, and Nat and Clint’s, too. Once it’s a bit more refined, anyway. Can’t use it everywhere, but at least in the elbow and knee pads, and maybe the shin guards. The places where you guys take the worst beating and hit the hardest.”
After that, the tension around them dies away and gradually the animal sounds return, but it’s an unpleasant reminder that this isn’t exactly a hike through a national park. They’re surrounded by alien species, one of which tried not too long ago to eat them. Best not to let their guard down.
Their hike grows quieter, and sometimes Steve can hear Tony panting through the coms, though he doesn’t say anything about it. He doesn’t want to ruffle any more feathers when they’re all they’ve got out here. But he does wonder if maybe he’s pushing the pace too quickly. Sure Tony’s on point, but Steve feels like he’s moving at a good trot, so maybe by normal human standards they’re traveling too quickly? And he doesn’t really know how much effort Tony has to put into moving the suit himself. Steve has seen Tony shirtless, and he’s pretty sure those muscles wouldn’t be there from just Tony’s physical training regime, which is sporadic at best.
He starts a mental clock in his own head, and when he thinks they’ve been going for two hours, he calls for a full stop. “Water break,” he says with a grin, and Tony nods and flips up the helmet. Up close, Steve can see that his hair is soaked with sweat, and the lines around his eyes are drawn tight.
“You want to pop out of the suit for a bit? Wriggle your toes?”
Tony must be more tired than he lets on, because he doesn’t even put up a token protest. The armor simply unlatches and lets him tumble out. Even with the black neoprene of his flight suit, Steve can see the telltale half circles of sweat at his chest and back.
“Here,” he says, and hands Tony one of the water bottles tied to his belt. “And I’ve got the Vitamin C tabs, just…” Steve digs through his pockets until he finds the water purification kit, and he hands the tablet over.
“Tonight we should make a fire,” Tony says, plopping a tablet in and watching it dissolve the same way a cat watches a spider crawl across the wall. He must be thirsty. “Then we can boil the water and save the iodine for emergencies.”
This is the kind of talk they’ve been circling obliquely, but never quite actually addressing. For the brief window of time when Steve was in SHIELD therapy, his therapist had informed him that he was “repressing his emotional responses in a manner fitting the time period he’d been raised in.” She made it sound like everyone in the new millennium wandered around spurting their feelings to the first random stranger they crossed, but based on the people Steve’s gotten to know, she was full of shit. That or all his friends are just as emotionally repressed as he is.
But this is less about emotion than about facing a problem that seems to have no solution. If there’s no intelligent life on this planet, they sure as hell won’t be getting off it any time soon. The best they can hope for is that Thor convinces his portal friend to zap them back to where they belong. And that’s provided the Avengers know where they are. Steve’s not optimistic.
Fuck he hates feeling helpless.
“Sorry, yeah. Just…just thinking.”
Tony sees it on his face, Steve’s sure. He frowns and his lips go thin, like he’s puzzling over a heating coupling or teasing at a chemical formula. Then he looks down at his water bottle, where the Vitamin C tab has completely dissolved. He uncaps the bottle and takes a swig.
“Ah, the flavor of the great outdoors. You need a sip?”
Steve accepts the bottle and quietly drinks down a fifth of the water. Then he passes it back to Tony. “You need more than I do. Finish it off.”
“Pretty sure that’s not how it works, Mr. 5000-calories-a-day.”
“Really. Only one of us has super healing here, and like you said, I can probably drink the water straight from the stream and still be fine.”
“Yeah, but I’d rather not text that theory, if that’s all right with you?”
Steve shrugs and digs out the sticky food bars, breaking off a piece for Tony. That gets him another dubious eyebrow and a puckered frown, but Tony eats his share, chewing slowly. The forest is warming up a bit now that full daylight is on the, but beneath the silvery canopy, the light remains gray and speckled, almost like being underwater. To their right, something ruffles and suddenly an animal emerges from the brush, flapping over their heads by several feet. Steve doesn’t really get a good look at it, but he thinks it might have had webbed wings like a bat and he’s pretty sure it was a deep ruddy red.
“You think we could eat the animals here?” Tony asks, chewing absently.
“We might have to find out sooner or later,” Steve says. He means to smile like it’ll be fun, another adventure, but he’s pretty sure he ends up grimacing instead. It’s all right. Tony smiles wide enough for the both of them, like he’s about to eat a Senate committee alive for trying to take the armor again.
“Well, if something’s gonna take us out, let’s make it something big. Nice juicy deer or maybe a wild boar.”
“Don’t joke about wild boar. They’re mean mother fuckers. Me and the Howlies once ran into one when we were bivouacking through Austria. It ripped Morita’s leg to shreds before Jones managed to kill it. Took three bullets to put that thing down.”
“Bet it tasted pretty good, though.”
Steve grins and doesn’t even bother to hide his smug satisfaction. “I can still taste it if I think about it. Best damn barbecue I ever had.”
Tony grins too, his eyes glinting as though he shares Steve’s satisfaction just by being close to him. “We should have a barbecue,” he says, turning to look out to the forest. “To celebrate surviving an alien world, you know? I’ll get that beef brisket stuff they cook for twenty-four hours in Texas and we can do hotdogs for Clint because Clint is a total plebe and we’ll get the snooty beers for Rhodey and the piss water for everyone else and maybe corn on the cob and ice cream or something.”
He rises and begins to step into the armor as Steve says, “Do you mean we put ice cream on corn on the cob, because that sounds disgusting.”
“Why not? I’m all for new life experiences, Cap. Maybe we’ll start the next big fair food fad. Move over deep-fried Snickers,” Tony says as he gestures expansively, “for sweet corn on the cob cream.”
“Oh my god,” Steve says, laughing. He hefts his shield as they head off again. “It’ll be monstrous. Just really, really awful stuff. And everyone will love it because food fads in this country, I swear to god. ‘Back in my day we made do with potatoes and cabbage and we liked it.’”
Tony is snorting and guffawing in the com, and it’s honestly one of the best sounds Steve has ever heard. He would give anything to hear Tony laugh like that every day, like he’s not just laughing because the press expects him to or because he’s trying to intimidate Fury. Like he’s laughing because he’s genuinely happy, genuinely in the place he most wants to be.
Their walk after that is much more pleasant. It’s warm, but not so hot that Steve starts sweating in his armor, which is frankly good because he’s not entirely sure when he’ll next be able to wash any of this. He’s probably already a little ripe from the battle as is. The further downhill they go, the more the trees start to thin out, until thin beams of sunlight pierce the leaves and shine down on Tony’s shoulders like God himself is trying to tell Steve something.
Steve hurriedly shakes his head to clear that thought away. God’s not trying to tell him anything. God hasn’t spoken with Steve in years, and the times he thought he heard that clarion call he now doubts more than ever. What kind of God would hurl a man seventy years in the future? What kind of a God would let things like the Holocaust or the nuclear bombings happen?
But then he thinks of his mother clutching her rosary as they wheeled her away to the TB ward, and he thinks of going to mass and listening to all the voices around him rise as one. Hell, he even thinks of Buck’s mom secretly lighting the candles on Chanukah while Mr. Barnes was out working his construction job. She’d turned and put her finger to her lips, looking all her children in the eyes one by one, and finally meeting Steve’s eyes too. “What Matthew doesn’t know won’t hurt him, right everyone? And the candles are pretty all on their own anyhow.” And then she’d passed tiny little pieces of chocolate to each of them. Sitting at Bucky’s side surrounded by a surrogate family, feeling the chocolate melt on his tongue, that had felt a little like God then.
Again Steve shakes his head. Apparently being abandoned on an alien planet makes his mind wander to strange places. He forces it back to the path in front of him, gluing his eyes to Tony’s shiny red boots. Tony sure as hell won’t be the one to say if he’s grown tired, so Steve’s just going to have to judge when his steps become too uneven or his shoulders drop too low.
By the time night starts falling, They’ve reached a landscape where open meadows dot the spaces between trees. In those meadows, strange plants and fungi proliferate in a vast array of colors so vivid that it almost hurts Steve’s eyes to look at them. Tony stumbles out of his armor, points to a series of plum-purple scalloped fungi marching up the trunk of a tree, and says, “Do you want to play a game of poisonous or more poisonous?”
“I want to play a game of let’s not die on our second night here,” Steve says. His shoulders are aching from the constant pull of his shield harness. He knows he could just take it off and in mere minutes his muscles would repair their aches, but he’s hesitant to do even that. Instead he stares with envy as Tony lifts his arms over head, stretching until the vertebrae at the base of his spine pop loudly in the chill evening air.
Tony catches him looking and returns his scrutiny, eyes running up Steve’s feet, over his knees and hips and chest and shoulders. “You’ve got to be feeling claustrophobic in that uniform, Cap. You want to pop out for a bit? I can get back into the armor. Trade off a little?”
Steve’s sorely tempted, but he shakes his head. “I’ve worn it for longer stretches. We used to go weeks with just the one set. So long as you don’t mind the smell, I’ll keep myself clothed.”
“I’m sure you still smell as fresh as spring daisies.”
“Hardly,” Steve says, snorting. He is, for the most part, immune to his own body odor, but when it comes to Tony, he’s a little more embarrassingly aware of it. Rather than dwell on whether or not he stinks, he studies the forest floor. “There’re plenty of dry branches and logs around here. Do you want to try for that fire?”
“I think it’s not a bad idea. We can boil water for tonight and tomorrow. Maybe make a delicious poison mushroom soup. It’ll be great.”
Steve doesn’t even bother with an exasperated “Tony.” Instead he raises his eyebrows and bends to begin gathering branches that will make nice kindling. By the time they’ve both got good armfuls of wood, night has well and truly fallen. Steve picks a hollow at the base of two massive trees and digs a shallow fire pit with his hands, and Tony does the honors, lighting the kindling with a tiny focused blast from a gauntlet.
“I honestly didn’t know those burned hot,” Steve says, gesturing as he settles into coaxing the blaze up.
“They usually don’t. It takes a little fiddling to get the temp up. You have to narrow the beam and spin the repulsor at a faster RPM for a few seconds, and then bam. Fire. Or barbecued bad guy. Either way.”
“That’s good, though. It means we can save the matches.”
Tony only hums and fishes out fresh high-cal bars, passing one to Steve and keeping the other for himself. Steve’s been keeping track. Tony ate maybe 1,000 calories throughout the course of the day, and Steve’s eaten 1,200. He decides he needs to lower his own intake. He knows he can survive on long periods with nothing more than the bare minimum, but if Tony doesn’t get enough energy for their hiking, they’ll be in trouble fast.
With the fire crackling, Steve looks up through the trees and loses his breath. There’s only the barest glimpse of the sky, but even so he can see the huge glowing red arc of a planet hovering close, its ring bands bright in lines of yellow and tan. It looks bigger than the moon, filling half the window of the break in the trees.
“Tony,” Steve hisses, pointing up. Tony follows his finger and actually gasps, his eyes widening and his mouth going slack. Beyond the planet there are unfamiliar constellations and a faint smattering of green light that Steve guesses might be a nebula. It’s stunning, and Tony actually stands up and stumbles a few steps forward, as though that will somehow bring him closer.
“I…I want to fly up and look at it,” he says, turning to Steve, his face alight with wonder.
“Go on then,” Steve says with a smile. “I’ll guard the fire.”
“But, but you should…” Tony walks back toward Steve, his hands open, fingers spread wide. “Come with me?”
Steve wants to. He wants to see all of it spreading out around them, a wash of color and light and things no human has ever seen before. He wants more than anything to do that at Tony’s side. But if they lose their campsite, and more importantly the creek, they’ll be in trouble in short order.
“I’ll stay here. Make sure we don’t get lost. You go on ahead.” He knows his face is open; he’s not even trying to hide how badly he’d like to go. Tony can see it. It’s written in the way he frowns, the crows’ feet around his eyes becoming pronounced.
“Well, I’m not going to leave you all alone on an alien planet. If we keep walking, we’ll get out of this forest eventually. Then we can see it together. Won’t even have to leave the ground.” With that he settles down again, side-by-side with Steve, thoughtfully chewing his dinner.
It’s silly, really, but suddenly Steve almost feels like he’s about to cry. He looks away and picks up a stick, poking at the firewood. “So how are we going to boil water, Shellhead?” he asks, and he turns back to Tony, smiling to hide how vulnerable he’s feeling and to let Tony know that he’s not being mean-spirited.
“I,” Tony says, holding up his pointer finger, “have a plan. It maybe kinda sorta involves your shield.”
Steve’s eyebrow pops. “My shield? Really? That can’t be sanitary.”
“It will be after we boil the water in it.
“I don’t know how much water it can hold.” Steve says, unhooking it from his back and swinging it around.
“About 0.013 meters cubed. Thirteen liters give or take.”
“No. No that’ can’t be right,” Steve says, staring down at the metal on his arm. Of course, he can curl his entire body behind it so maybe…
“Well, take away for the arm straps and the fact that we can’t fill it to the very brim, and it’s probably more like ten, but still… Actually, my brain might be futzing the calculations, but the point is, it holds more than you think it does. So let’s fill it up and get some water that doesn’t taste like iodine.”
Tony sets the shield over the fire and they spend the next several minutes ferrying water from the stream to the shield. At the last, Tony tosses in their water bottles too, keeping them afloat with a stick and fishing them out after about five minutes. “All decontaminated,” he says with satisfaction, watching the water bubble at the base of the shield. “Better than Brita.”
Steve hums and leans into the warmth of the fire. The night is chilly and when Steve steps away from the fire, he can see his breath clouding out. He wants to lean into Tony, share body heat while Tony’s not in the armor, but he can’t quite bring himself to do it. Not without an excuse at least. So he purposefully shivers and wraps his arms around himself, rubbing at his biceps.
Tony notices. Of course he does. Without a word, he unclips one of Steve’s belt pouches and yanks out the space blanket, offering it with a wry twist of hiss mouth. “Can’t have you freezing to death again.”
“But what about you?”
“I’ve got the suit.”
“Which you’re not in right now.”
With a shrug, Tony scoots closer and throws the blanket over their shoulders, yanking one end tight while Steve yanks the other corner in. Under the thin cover of the silver blanket, it does instantly feel a bit warmer, but maybe it’s all in Steve’s head. Maybe it’s just being so close to Tony. He stares into the fire, listening as Tony’s breathing grows deeper and steadier until, like a slowly sinking ship, he falls into Steve’s side, asleep.
Steve looks down at his tufted hair for a moment and feels the sudden and overwhelming urge to kiss his forehead. He shakes it off and gently eases Tony back so he can move the shield and the water to keep it from boiling off completely. With as much care as he can manage, he fills the bottles and drinks his fill, leaving the rest for Tony in the morning. Then he curls up back at Tony’s side and settles in for a long watch and a longer night.
Tony wakes with the start in the predawn light, aware that something is off. The woods are deathly quiet around them, even though this time yesterday they were already bright with birdsong. Caught between urgency and caution, Tony’s not sure what to do, but then there’s a rustle on the other side of their campsite and Tony can just see something moving in the darkness. The hair on the back of his neck stands up and he shivers, leaping for the suit as the thing comes into full view.
It’s maybe as big as a deer, but heavy and lower set, like a rhino or a hippo. Its quivering flesh rolls with each step, every inch of it muscle, and in its open mouth Tony can see rows of jagged black that can only be teeth. It stares at him the way a cat stares at a mouse and Tony wills the armor to latch around him faster. Behind him, Steve’s waking, but not quick enough if the thing decides to charge.
Hesitantly, Tony raises the repulsors and waits, watching the creature circle around them. Its eyes are milky white, and they blink sideways like the nictitating membranes of certain lizard species.
“Tony,” Steve hisses, only barely audible on the environmental mic. He’s not wearing his helmet and the lack of communication might be troubling if they have to fight this thing. In answer, Tony shakes his head and steps forward threateningly.
“Tony,” Steve says, louder this time, and with a distinct note of panic. Unwilling to take his eyes off the animal, Tony activates one of his back cameras and goes cold. There’s another one. A mother one, if her size is anything to go by. She’s perfectly still in the trees behind them, as big as an elephant if not bigger, and she’s peering at Steve and Tony with all the disdain of the top of the food chain.
Steve’s very slowly reaching for his shield, which is still full of water, when the baby gives a sharp pitiful cry. Just like that, the tension between four bodies explodes into motion and the mother charges screaming through the trees. “Shit,” Tony hisses as he hits the jets and gets himself out of the path of destruction. The wind the mother generates as she barrels past is enough to knock his course a little and he slams into a tree. Forests are not made for easy flying and Tony is fucked if he has to fly for long in here.
Behind him Steve is up, still helmetless but shield in hand. “Tony,” he’s shouting, glancing back and forth between the angry mother and Tony’s crumpled armor.
“Not without you!”
Tony curses again and forces himself up, but not before the mother rounds and heads back for a second charge. Her teeth are as big as his hand and she’s baring all of them at Steve. Worse, Steve is backed up against their shelter tree, with no easy escape from her oncoming bulk.
“Jump, Steve!” And bless Steve and his stubborn head, because for once in his life he listens and leaps, landing awkwardly on the mama’s back. She slams face-first into the tree and he goes sliding, his footing compromised. The shield tumbles away, rolling to a stop near the baby. Steve’s already up and scrambling, not nearly fast enough, and mama is turning and bearing on him, her roar an earth-shaking bellow in the early morning forest.
“STEVE!” Tony screams and jets it, intent on deterring her charge any way he can. She slams into the chest plate with all of the force of Mjolnir, and Tony’s instantly stunned, mind shaken loose from his body. It’s almost like watching it happen to someone else—out-of-body-experience. That’s what they call this. Tony is no longer himself. He’s just ether, floating and watching as the armor buckles over her nose.
But somewhere in his white-stunned mind, Tony has a momentary thought that he’s in the best possible place to drive her off. His hands clench and manipulate the micro-sensors in the gloves and suddenly there’s a blinding flash of repulsor fire on either side of the rampaging mother’s snout. She screams and tosses her head from side to side, dislodging Tony as she backs away. Her hide must be like diamond, because there’s barely a scorch-mark to show where she must have burned, but it’s enough. She keeps backing up, tossing her head back and forth as her baby cries piteously behind her. Tony would feel bad about it if his head weren’t still completely blank, his body a distant numb stump that he knows all too soon will come shooting back to him.
As the mother turns and stomps away through the trees, Steve scrambles gathering up his shield with sloppy fingers as he turns. “Tony! Tony, holy shit, Tony! Are you alright. Tony!”
It all feels so distant and muffled, like Steve’s talking to him through cotton wadding or water or even through a portal. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that thing hit Tony so hard his mind’s been knocked through a portal. It’s sitting fat and happy back in Avengers tower while his body waits to be told what to do.
Steve’s fingers are on the helmet, scrabbling at the catches. Tony wants to tell him it’s alright, that his mind is just momentarily separated and it’ll be back in a few, but somehow he can’t make his lips move. Or his lungs. They’re not moving either. Come to think of it—
—and just like that his body comes screaming back into awareness. It’s a roman candle against his skin Afghanistan all over again fire heat light blood bone oh god fuck oh god.
Tony heaves a breath and it’s like swallowing hydrochloric acid, like his stomach has turned inside out and wormed down his trachea, like the very air is the miasma of hell. He wants to cough. He wants to vomit. He wants to rip off the armor and pull at his ribs until something gives because they are in a vice, metal claws gripping him and squeezing and squeezing and squeezing until he is a grape bursting in their merciless hold.
Above him, though, Steve’s face, his dirt-smudged, crooked-nosed, perfect-toothed face, is twisted with fear, and that, Tony is very distantly aware, is unacceptable. And so he sucks down another acid breath and coughs weakly because he doesn’t have the energy to hack out the poison pain in his lungs and he turns a little so he can vomit out what little remains in his stomach.
“Holy shit,” he wheezes, his voice uncomfortably high.
“Tony,” Steve says again, and there are warm, comforting fingers in his hair, scratching at his scalp, distracting from the hydraulic squeeze of his ribs on his innards.
Steve. For Steve, Tony manages to say, “Let’s not do that again.” And then he vomits a second time, burning burning burning and the taste of metal in his mouth. It’s a taste he knows and doesn’t know and he scrambles to hide it from Steve, scraping loose dirt over ominous red as he rolls onto his back, groaning and closing his eyes.
“Concussion,” Steve murmurs, prodding at Tony’s skull.
“Doubt it.” He can barely whisper, his voice a hoarse accordion wheeze that makes it sound like he needs a ventilator. Not good. Can’t scare Steve. So he takes a bigger deeper breath and bites his bleeding tongue until fresh iron slips down the back of his throat. “Didn’t hit my head. Just my chest.” That’s better. His voice almost sounded human that time.
“That was…I should check you over. Oh god, are you hurt?”
Steve’s hands are hovering, sketching nervous paths through the air and Tony can see any moment now he’s going to start shucking the armor off whether Tony gives the go ahead or not. That’s not acceptable, because if Steve shucks the armor, he’s going to see that Tony is indeed very, very injured and then they are well and truly fucked, because Steve is like a big, golden dog with a bone.
So gritting his teeth and sucking at the blood on his tongue, Tony gathers all his strength and forces himself upright. His vision goes white and he’s not entirely sure he doesn’t make a noise. He hopes he didn’t. If he did, Steve’s just going to be worrying more and more than that is just as bad as Steve knowing that Tony’s hurt.
A moment later, his vision returns, if fuzzily, and Steve’s face fills everything. There’s a smudge of dirt across his nose and its shaped like a mushroom. If Tony focuses on that, the screaming, pounding pain of his lungs isn’t nearly so bad.
“—sure you should be up?”
Oh shit. Steve’s talking. Tony needs to answer or Steve’s going to freak out.
“I’m fine, Steve,” he says, and it sounds almost normal. Tony compliments himself. He deserves a new car. Maybe even two new cars. “We should move before mom decides to come back for round two.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive,” Tony says, and just prove it, he forces himself to his knees. It takes everything in him to keep his face from showing exactly how much that hurts, and even then, he’s not quite sure he’s managed to pull off the wary-but-most-definitely-fine-really-Steve look he was going for. He can feel Steve’s eyes, feel him watching with the intensity of the sun, so he hauls himself to his feet and takes a few staggering steps.
It’s Afghanistan all over again, blood on his tongue and down the back of his throat, chest pounding as though it’s considering just splitting open like overripe melon. He doesn’t dare look down at the housing, doesn’t dare let on that something is most definitely wrong, but he can feel it in the hum of the reactor that sings through his molars. No time to worry about it now. He might’ve said the thing about the mama bear to get Steve to pay attention to something else, but he kind of meant it, too. If round one results in the complete and total crushing of his torso, he’d hate to see what round two looks like.
Each step is like a punch from Thor, and without really thinking about it much, Tony flips the helmet down. There. Now he can grit his teeth and swear all he wants and there will be absolutely no hint to Steve, so long as Tony remembers to mute the coms.
The problem with swearing is that it requires air, and air is something Tony is having a problem with. It feels like he’s trying to suck oxygen through a straw, and someone is pinching off the end just to fuck with him. It’s not enough, never enough, and the vitals in the corner of his display are, Tony is reluctant to admit, really fucking not good. Something is seriously wrong, and he’s crossing his fingers that it’s only the wiring, because if those numbers are right…
No. He shakes his head and contemplates his emergency supply of in-suit morphine. The team doesn’t know about that, can’t know about that, but maybe… Not yet. But if he needs it, it’s there.
Sucking air through his teeth, Tony rounds on Steve with as much nonchalance as he can muster. It’s like setting his innards on fire and he ignores it completely. “Fastest way out of here is with me. What do you say, Cap?”
He offers his hand because he can do this. He has to do this. Steve contemplates the gauntlet critically as he settles his helmet on his head.
“What about the anomalies?”
“I’m not planning on flying far. Just enough to get us out of range of whatever the hell that thing was.”
Steve nods and steps into Tony’s grip like it’s nothing. “I’ll keep an eye out for those bird things.”
Tony nods and clamps his arm around Steve. His entire shoulder goes numb. “Fuck,” he hisses, and silently locks the joints so that he won’t drop Steve. Into the coms he says, “Let’s go, Captopus.”
“Really?” Steve says, his mouth twisted a way that almost hides his amusement.
“Really really. Cephalopods are amazing creatures, I’ll have you know.” That’s it. Joke. Laugh. Don’t let on. It’ll be fine. He hits the jets and for two seconds blacks out. It’s not going to be fine. But he has to make it fine. He’s Tony Stark. That’s what he does.
Even with the gentle acceleration he uses to get them airborne and flitting through the trees, it feels like every single one of his vital squishy bits is being ground to dust. Holy hell. He has to keep this up for, for minutes at least. Or Steve’s going to suspect. What Tony wouldn’t give for JARVIS, just so that he could have a voice in his ear simultaneously reassuring him and reminding him of his own stupidity. Or Rhodey. Pepper. Anyone really. Anyone but Steve, who doesn’t shout at Tony nearly as much anymore, but who does frequently give him the kind of look that makes Tony feel like he kicked a dozen puppies and laughed about it. He hates letting Steve down. Hates it even more since they actually became friends.
He’s so wrapped up in his own head that he doesn’t realize immediately that Steve is talking.
“—able to see something if we just peek. What do you think?”
“Shit, uh, sorry Steve.” Tony means for his voice to sound find, to sound confident, but it sounds weak, breathless.
With the sound of his own grinding teeth in his ears, Tony takes a huge breath and manages to force out a semi-normal reply. “Sorry. Wasn’t quite listening. What was that?”
He can feel Steve’s eyes on him. There’s cold sweat trickling down his temples and the back of his neck. He’s not sure how long he can keep this up, but he’s damn well going to do better than five minutes.
“I was just saying maybe we should peek above the canopy. See if we see anything interesting?”
Tony nods but doesn’t speak. He reangles them and shoots above the trees, wheezing into the mouth of the helmet. Around them, the forest really has grown sparser. There are even places where Tony can see wild grasses waving gold and silver and green in the wind. The mountains look a bit smaller than the last time they were up in the sky, and the sea a bit closer. He spots a glint of gold at the edge of the visor in the same spot where he’d marked something before. His pain momentarily forgotten in that glimpse of hope, and he turns to hone in on it.
“Computer, enhance image, maximum zoom.” The onboard OS responds after processing for three seconds (Tony’s kingdom for JARVIS) and the field of vision narrows to that single glinting point. Tony sucks in air between his teeth, his heart speeding with a lick of hope.
“Cap,” he says, wheezes, and then clears his throat into the mic. “I think we’ve got signs of intelligent life.”
The zoom isn’t much, but it’s enough to show Tony vaulting golden and ivory towers and what looks like…a giant pipe organ? Whatever. Somebody had to have made that. That is most definitely a city of some sort. It sits on the edge of an ocean, like some sort of sprawling bird waiting to take off.
“Don’t suppose there’s any way to know if they’re friendly, is there?”
“Not from…uh, my calculations put us at about fifty miles. Do you want to risk flying it?” Tony knows what his answer is. His ribs are screaming, but the sooner they get to civilization, the sooner they can get him patched up or get blown to pieces. Either way, instant gratification as opposed to long drawn-out suffering.
“Are you still detecting those anomalies?”
Tony scans the magnetic field readings in their vicinity, watching the math run past in long strings of wonderfully calming numbers, right up until he finishes the calculations. They are literally twenty feet from a warped magnetic field and Tony feels his stomach drop. “Yep. In fact, we should maybe land. Now. Right now.”
Steve squeezes his torso tighter and multi-colored fireworks bloom in front of Tony’s eyes. “That close, huh?”
Unable to even consider speaking, Tony only nods.
“Ok. Guess we’re taking the old-fashioned route.” Steve’s smiling, clearly hoping Tony will rib him a little, but his arm is still tight around Tony’s chest and it is almost impossible to think around the pain.
Instead, Tony only nods again and eases them around the anomaly, flying much more slowly than he normally ever would. He hopes Steve will chalk it up to caution around the gravitational field and not read deeper into it. Not notice that Tony is almost never this cautious, even with nuclear warheads (though he tries for his team, for Steve, really he does.) They settle on the ground maybe three football fields from where they met mama monster and well in sight of the stream. Tony’s got a bearing on their intelligent lifeforms and he’s gratified to see the stream is heading in that direction. At least they’ll still have water, even if he’s going to be limping. But he’s not going to be limping. Not yet. Not until he has to.
“Which way?” Steve says, and his face is so damn bright, so painfully young. It’s a thing Tony’s been noticing more and more. Steve’s expressions span a thousand years, but lately Tony only sees the thousand-yard stare, the knowledge that no matter how hard you try, sometimes you can’t save everyone. It’s so nice, seeing Steve look his age again, look like for all that they’re in a life-and-death situation, he wouldn’t rather be anywhere but here, now, under a bright alien sun.
It’s Steve smile that helps him take the next step. And the next.
Steve doesn’t call a halt until the sun is high and the air is wavering with heat haze. Tony is all but numb to the hand gesture. His torso is an inferno of pain, his lungs burning with each breath, the reactor whirring higher and higher behind his teeth. Tony has been dying before, been almost dead, been actually dead, but not since Yinsen first opened him and saved him and destroyed him and remade him has he felt pain like this. It’s only rote motion that’s keeping him going and he’s afraid that if he stops, he won’t be able to start again. But Steve can’t know. So Tony stops.
“Water?” Steve says with his starbright grin. Would that he could spare a little of that energy.
And Tony wants to say yes, he’s parched he’s dying oh god Steve he might actually be dying, but if he lifts that faceplate, it’s game over. So he shakes his head. “Actually, gotta take a leak.” He knows in the coms his voice isn’t normal, is even close to normal, but he can’t hide it. Not with the way the air is whistling through his throat like sandpaper.
He doesn’t give Steve a chance to fight him, just turns and keeps walking, one foot down, one foot up, a slow wooden march. They’re not moving as fast as they were yesterday and Steve’s got to be suspicious, got to be wondering, but he still hasn’t asked. Bless him.
When Tony’s far enough away, sure that Steve won’t follow, he lifts the faceplate and gasps. It’s both better and worse. The air of the suit is filtered and Atacama dry and his tongue is a thick rubbery mass in his mouth, but the alien air, when it hits him is sticky and wet and still like an Amazonian rainforest. If anything, it gets harder to breathe for a moment, and Tony is struck dumb, his throat caught and unmoving.
And then panic kicks in and he manages a weak breath. Another. Another. Another another another. There. Nothing wrong. Everything’s going to be fine. With ginger care, he removes the helmet and sets it in the crook of a branch so that he doesn’t have to bend over. That would be disastrous. And then he looks down as best he can. On first glance, the armor looks fine. Of course it does, or Steve would never have let Tony keep going. But he doesn’t know the mechanics like Tony does, doesn’t know what blunt force trauma can do to the delicately articulated rib section or the wafer-thin under-arm points. Steve doesn’t know that the right force in the right direction can compress Tony like a tin can. So Steve also doesn’t know that in Tony’s lower rib cage, his ribs must be fractured at least. And he doesn’t know that Tony’s sternum, which took the brunt of the impact, is weaker than it should be, has been patched together with metal like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster wannabe.
One glance and Tony knows that it’s even worse than he imagined. He doesn’t dare remove the chest plate to see, but the crack across the reactor guard plate is gargantuan, and he can see the shadow on the right side where there wasn’t one before. No wonder the reactor is buzzing in his teeth. No wonder it’s reading at a terrifyingly slow rotation rate. No wonder his blood oxygen is going haywire. He stares, processes, for one long minute, sucks in a shuddering breath that aches to his bones, and then reaches for the helmet.
He thinks the sweat has probably dried enough that Steve will see him and not suspect too much. There’s not a lot he can do about how pale he must look, but Tony is nothing if not a master of bravado. He hopes it’ll be enough. It has to be enough.
“There you are!” Steve says when Tony finally returns. He’s holding a bottle of sparkling, clear water and Tony wants it so damn much if only to make his tongue feel normal again. He takes it and forces himself to take small sips. If he’s sick on top of everything else, God only knows what the muscular contractions would do to his ribs.
“So how far do you think we’ve gone?” Steve says and Tony almost wishes he hadn’t asked because Tony’s onboard computer knows and it’s a woefully slow pace; Steve’s bound to notice.
“About six miles.”
Steve’s eyebrows furrow and he stares hard at Tony, but he doesn’t say anything more on that. Instead, he pulls out a calorie bar and tosses it across the space between them. Even as it sails through the air, Tony knows this is a test, and it is a test he is probably going to fail. He reaches for the bar, sees the silver glinting in slow motion, feels his lungs sucking down thick, hot air, and cringes when his spine twists the wrong way and the whole of his torso squeezes in too tightly.
The bar falls pitifully to the ground and bounces across the scattered leaves a few times, but Tony’s not looking at it. He’s looking at Steve, whose mouth is now drawn in a tight line, his eyes severe.
“I knew it. ‘Take a leak.’ Like the suit doesn’t have…fuck Tony, you…I knew you were hurt.”
“It’s nothing, Steve. I’m fine. Just a little bruised. Let’s just eat and be on our way, because I am 100% A-O-K.”
Steve straightens, his shoulders drawing back and his lips pursing in a way that says, I see through all your bullshit and raise you a stubborn ass. “Alright,” he says, lightly, almost like he’s already taken Tony’s word for it. “Just pick up the bar then, and we’ll be on our way.”
Tony freezes where he is, still awkwardly twisted, heart pounding in his ears. He can’t—he shouldn’t lean over. If a rib pops out of place, stabs his lung, his kidneys, his heart. But Steve’s standing there, arms crossed, looking almost smug because he knows, the bastard. For a long, breathless moment, Steve and Tony hold a staring contest, because they’re both as stubborn as the devil himself. And then, Tony very slowly straightens.
“Could you maybe get that?” he says under his breath, turning his head to the side so he doesn’t have to watching Steve’s mouth curl in satisfaction even as the corners of his eyes crinkle with worry.
“I’m sorry. What was that?”
Steve holds up his hands and then retrieves the bar, peeling back the wrapper and handing it to Tony. “Eat and then I’m looking at your ribs.”
“Steve, it’s probably nothing. I’m just sore. Even you’d be sore after being knocked around by a one-ton angry behemoth. I just want to keep making progress. Can we do that?” Bravado. That’s all he needs. Just enough to throw Steve off the scent for a little longer.
Steve’s frown deepens and he sighs long and loud because he is nothing if not vocal when he’s displeased. “Alright. But I’m looking tonight. And if the pace is too fast, you have to promise to tell me.”
“Promise,” Tony says grudgingly, and then bites into his calorie bar. It’s like sludge on his tongue. Steve nods and starts in on his own meal, still watching Tony sharply. That’s fine. It’s fine. Because Tony’s not going to flag. He’s wearing the world’s most advanced prosthesis. It will keep him upright long after his own body fails him. He won’t drag Steve down.
Steve blames himself. In more ways than one. Ever since their lunch stop, he’s been keeping one ear trained on Tony, part of his brain tracking every step, logging every stumble. He insisted on taking point because he’s the one in better shape now, and if he’d been thinking straight, he would’ve realized Tony as a straggler looks much more enticing than Tony out in front. Steve would’ve realized he should’ve been in the rear. But he’s not thinking straight. He’s listening to Tony and wondering how difficult it will be to get him out of the armor to check his ribs and he’s not thinking about the fact that the trees have thinned so much that they’re under open sky more than they’re under foliage.
So Tony’s cry catches him off guard and the repulsor blast that should send him leaping into action only makes him turn like he’s caught in tar. He sees the thing, probably one of the same things that attacked them when they were airborne before, and it’s got a huge set of claws wrapped around Tony’s chest. Tony’s injured chest.
Steve sees red.
The shield flies from his fingers and he’s already airborne, following, aiming, yelling as his fist strikes bony flesh. The creature screams, and in its grip, Tony twists and aims. Steve sees the blast in time, twists away through the air, tracks the shield, catch aim launch crack-strike-bone catch repeat. The flying creature releases Tony as it screeches, drawing away from them and turning up for altitude.
Steve watches it with bared teeth, chest heaving, the shield still singing in his hand. He wants to launch it again, to break the spine and watch the bird tumble and fall, to teach it that it should never have touched Tony. He shakes his head. Irrational. It was a hungry animal trying to get an easy meal. Steve shouldn’t be angry with it. But he is. He’s furious.
Especially when he turns to Tony and sees him laid out on his side, unmoving.
“Tony!” Steve nearly drops the shield in his haste, scrabbling across weedy ground to reach Tony’s side.
“Tony Tony, come on, Tony wake up, you’ve gotta, Tony.”
Steve doesn’t know what to do. In theory he knows how to release the armor. He knows all the catches, all the hidden levers, all the secret buttons, but at just this moment his fingers feel thick and rubbery as sausages, and he can’t quite remember which dips and shadows conceal Tony’s flesh. Helplessly his hands flutter over the arm until suddenly Tony waves, his hand flapping weakly at the wrist.
“Ow,” he says, and Steve barely hears it through the coms.
“Oh god, Tony.”
The sun’s getting low and Steve is hyper-aware of how much pain Tony must be feeling, how exposed they are, how very dangerous this planet is proving to be. He needs to get them somewhere safer, somewhere where he can guard against anything coming toward them. Tony’s hurt, but Steve’s body is still riding high on adrenaline and one glance up in the sky tells him that those flying things are not that far away. They’re still there, still watching.
“Do you think you can stand? We’ve got company.”
“Shit.” Tony groans and carefully rolls until he can put weight on his palm. He pushes, groans through his teeth, works his knees under himself.
A shadow passes overhead and Tony turns with a speed Steve’s not quite expecting as he shoots a wild repulsor blast up. A flying creature screams and Tony yells while Steve crouches completely helpless against these damn things.
“Come on,” he says, working his arm under Tony’s armpit because he needs to move, to do something anything. Now that he’s listening for it, he can hear Tony’s breath and voice whistling quietly across the coms. It’s not good. It’s really not good.
Somehow Steve gets both feet on the ground and he pushes with his knees and gets Tony up, gets them both standing. Steve’s already picked out a potential shelter—one of the red stone mounds that dots the landscape. There’s one maybe half a mile in front of them and not too far from the stream. If they can just reach it, Steve thinks he can fend off the flying things until they give up and go away. He hopes they don’t have night vision. He hopes there are no more giant gray behemoths around. He hopes a lot of things, but right now, hope isn’t going to get him far.
“Come on, Tony. One step in front of the other.”
Step. Step. Lurch. Thunk. Step. A black shadow. The zing of Tony’s repulsors.
Steve wishes Tony would say something, anything, to relieve the tension crawling steadily up Steve’s spine. Even in battle Tony is never silent. He always has another quip, another piece of intel, another calculation. But now all he has is haphazard shots into the sky and barely concealed groans and grunts in the coms channel.
The jut of red rock seems like it’s receding into the distance and Steve grits his teeth in frustration, casting a wary eye upward as another shadow passes overhead. They are prey. They are wounded prey and the longer they’re visible, the more likely they are to be attacked, especially if these creatures work in packs.
He counts their progress by his footsteps, his heartbeats, Tony’s breath whistling in the coms. 462, that’s how many wheezing inhales and exhales it takes to reach the rock, and Steve quietly sends up silent thanks because there is a cave. It gapes open at them, yet another hungry maw, and maybe there’s something in there that will want to eat them, too, but Steve doesn’t care, will rip whatever it might be apart with his bare hands if only it will get them out from under the oppressive flying creatures. He and Tony stumble over the threshold and at last Steve is able to ease Tony down to the ground where he sprawls, his limbs limp like a marionette with its strings cut.
Steve wants to check on him right away, to see his face and get a gauge of how bad it really is, how much danger Tony’s really in, but he has to do a perimeter sweep first. He clicks on the LED on his shield harness and sweeps every corner of the cave and the ceiling for good measure. Tiny creatures scurry out from under the light and Steve would be willing to think they’re harmless if he weren’t so sure they’re likely packing venom or poison. Either way he’d rather not find out; hopefully they can coexist in harmony.
Sweeping the chilly cave, he’s able to finally get a handle on his adrenaline. Once the fight or flight response is gone from his body, he’s left feeling hollow. He should’ve been more cautious. He knows Tony hides injuries, is one of the worst on the team about hiding injuries. He should’ve forced him out of the armor, made him check over his torso. Maybe if Steve’d been more cautious, they could’ve been more careful about where they were walking and kept out of sight. They could’ve…
He reaches the mouth of the cave and sees Tony still sprawled there, though he’s removed the helmet. His head is at an awkward angle, cranked back over the edge of the gorget with his Adam’s apple sharp against the line of his throat. In the fast-fading light of sunset, Steve can see that he’s terribly pale, his hair plastered down with sweat and the thin skin of his eyes bruised purple with pain and exhaustion.
Carefully, Steve kneels down in front of Tony and speaks. “You with me?”
Tony’s eyes flicker and Steve holds his breath until at last they open and Tony looks up.
“Hey Captain Handsome.”
Steve fights not to suck a breath between his teeth. Tony’s voice is wrecked, a sad wheezing shadow of its usual grandiose self.
“Aw, don’t give me that face. It’s the puppy kicking face.”
“Tony, I don’t…”
“Do you have any water?”
Steve fumbles for the other water bottle and opens it, holding it to Tony’s lips. “Not too much,” Steve chants as he carefully tilts it, watching carefully to make sure he’s not drowning Tony. When he pulls the water away, Tony sighs and throws his head back again, groaning a little when his neck hits the edge of the gorget. Steve leans back a little and studies the armor critically, trying to figure out how he’s going to get Tony out of it so that they can get him bandaged and seen to. He knows where the first set of catches are, concealed beneath the armpits, and more calm-headed, he’s able to control his fingers well enough to undo them. He leans forward and hooks his nails under them, pulling until Tony catches his hands.
“That’s not a good idea.”
“Tony, you and I both know you’re hurt. You might as well just let me see the damage and not hide it anymore.”
“It’s not as easy as all that, Steve.”
“How is it not as easy as all that?”
“Uh, well,” Tony says, flashing a titled smile, the kind of smile a Coney Island scammer would give. Nothing to see here, bub. Nothing at all.
Rather than ask for elaboration, Steve leans back and tries to take in Tony again, tries to see both the detail and the whole picture at once. It’s then that he notices. It’s not that he didn’t spot the crack the gray creature left that morning. It’s not that he didn’t see it. But he figured it was the outer casing. And clearly it was because now all that’s left of that glass are jagged edges around the reactor. The flying thing must’ve knocked the rest of the broken pieces loose.
“Oh my god, Tony,” Steve says, reaching out to touch but pausing at the last moment, hovering uncertainly.
“So you, you noticed that, huh? It’s, it’s nothing to worry about. Totally fixable. I just, I need your help with something. Since you’re already there. Could you just, clear out those last little shards of glass. They’re, they probably shouldn’t be there.”
Steve glances up at Tony’s face and tries to read him, tries to catch what he’s not saying in the shifting lines of his face and the glittering of his eyes.
Steve stares down at the tiny silvers of glass and rubs his fingers together, trying to clear them of dirt from earlier scuffles. His hands so large, his fingers so unwieldy that he’s terrified he won’t even be able to work in the tight space. Carefully he picks at the first shard of glass, one of the largest, and is horrified when it lifts away from the gasket with ease. Steve knows Tony’s designs, knows how hardy they are. This isn’t…shouldn’t…
“I’ve got a pair of pliers in my onboard tool-kit. For the little pieces. Real easy. Like Operation.”
“You know, the kid’s game. Seriously? You too? Whatever. It’ll be fine, Cap. I trust you.”
Steve gulps and plucks at another shard of glass. And another. And another. When they become too small for his thick fingers, he accepts the miniscule pliers that pop from Tony’s thigh storage and pulls away slivers.
“Ok. Good. Great. Now, you’ve got good eyes, right?”
“Best the US government could buy.” Steve tries to smile a little because Tony is looking half-zonked on his way to fully zonked and Steve turning into a ball of raw nerves isn’t going to help anyone. He’s not sure if Tony even sees it, though.
“Great. Just…just take a peek down the housing. See if there’s any glass, you know. Down there.”
Steve studies the crevices around the reactor carefully, using every ounce of concentration. By his harness-mounted LED, it’s not easy to see, but the glass glints well enough and a single tiny reflection catches his eye.
“I see a piece.”
Tony makes a sound in his throat somewhere between a whimper and a gasp and Steve looks up in time to see a fat trickle of sweat disappear down the edge of his jaw. His eyes are squeezed shut and his lips are moving like he’s talking to himself. “That, that can’t be there. Could you just…”
“Ok. Ok. Breathe Tony. I need you to take a couple big slow breaths with me. Ok? Inhale. That’s right. Good. Exhale. Great Tony, you’re doing great. Ok. Another inhale. Just like that.”
Steve has had to do this a few times for Sam, when something threw him for a loop, but he’s never seen Tony lose it. Not in front of anyone, anyway. They’ve all got their hang-ups—they’re warriors in a never-ending war, for God’s sake—but Tony keeps his problems close to his chest, balled up next to the reactor. While he talks Tony through the breathing pattern, he reaches the needle-nose pliers inside the crevice and carefully grabs for the glass. What he grabs instead is a strut of the arc reactor and the entire thing shifts in Tony’s chest.
“Mother-fucker!” Tony hisses through his teeth, and Steve drops the pliers, jerking back and away. Tony shudders and shakes inside the armor, his eyes squeezed tight shut. Steve can just hear a warning beeping from within the chest plate and he clenches his teeth hard, unsure what to do.
“Steve,” Tony hisses, his teeth bared in an angry grimace. “Steve, you’ve gotta, you’ve gotta, take the, fuck, take the housing and twist. It’s gotta…it’s touching the socket wall, I’m, please Steve, you’ve gotta…” His voice grows fainter and fainter and Steve lurches forward again, carefully fitting his fingers around the edges of the arc reactor. He twists and pulls and he knows his movements are too much, too big, but Tony’s, fuck Tony’s dying right there in front of him and he can’t just stand by and let that happen, so even though Tony screams out loud when the reactor comes loose, Steve still pulls. It slips from the housing, a set of cords trailing behind it, and Steve sees the shard of glass fall away. But now that it’s out, he can tell the normally perfectly circular reactor is oblong and that one side of the housing is dented in a direction it shouldn’t go.
“Oh my God, Tony,” he whispers, the arc reactor cradled in his hands. He had no idea, no idea how deep the housing went. And when he looks down… Steve’s not squeamish, not anymore, but the fact that he can see three and a half inches deep into Tony’s chest cavity is almost more than he can bear.
Tony’s eyes flutter open and he looks down to where the reactor is held so carefully, so preciously. “You got it,” he says, the corners of his mouth lifting in the horrible parody of a smile. “Good. Good job. Glass out?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s out Tony. It’s out.”
“Great. ‘Cause now it’s gotta go back in.”
“Can’t have it loose, Steve. If cords disconnect…” he shrugs, lips still moving but voice too far gone.
Steve stares at the dented edge and the way the arc reactor is just ever-so-slightly imperfect, and tries to imagine sliding it back in without making Tony scream like that again. It’s impossible. He can’t… Hot tears start sliding down his face and he looks away, ashamed that when Tony needs him most, he’s failing.
“Hey, hey hey hey,” Tony murmurs, and the sharpness of metal gauntlets through his hair, against his scalp, makes his skin stand out in goosebumps. Tony applies weak pressure to the back of his neck and draws him forward until dry, cracked lips brush his forehead.
“I’m sorry,” Steve gasps through gritted teeth. “I’m sorry. I can…I’ll…”
Tony just keeps on saying “hey” over and over again. Maybe he hasn’t got the strength to say anything else. But the soft press of his mouth against Steve’s forehead is strangely fortifying. It makes Steve think of when the priest, who was an old-fashioned Italian grandfather of a man, used to bend to kiss his cheek in blessing when Steve was down sick. He remains there, letting it sink in, and then pulls back a little to judge the socket wall and the reactor. Tony’s eyes are closed, his breathing shallow like a kitten’s, but he’s still murmuring a little, like he has more to say to Steve.
When Steve thinks he’s got it lined up, he does something he hasn’t done in many years: he sends up a prayer to the archangel Raphael. Ever so carefully, he lowers the reactor back down, holding his hands as steadily as the serum allows. He can do this. He can be Tony’s rock.
The housing clicks with a tiny puff of compressed air and the arc reactor settles in place. Steve doesn’t think he’s imagining that its light is dimmer though. He places a hand over it for a moment, as though he can hold in all that power, keep it contained in Tony where it will protect him and save him. And then he bends to and presses his own lips to Tony’s feverish forehead.
“Mmm? Did I do a good thing?” Tony’s voice is barely there, and when Steve leans back to look, he doesn’t think Tony is entirely lucid.
“Yeah. Yeah Tony. You did a good thing.”
Tony’s mouth tastes like metal and bile and peanut butter goop. It’s vile. But he focuses on it because the next thing to focus on after that is his screaming ribs and the way each inhale feels a bit like being stabbed with a knife. And after that, the significantly reduced output of the reactor. If the cycles per second dip below 10,000, he thinks the magnet might just fail. And if the magnet fails, it’s ten excruciating minutes of pain as miniscule bits of metal slip through flesh and blood and into Tony’s heart.
He’s not entirely sure what time it is, but the world around him is dark. He remembers…Steve. There was glass. A flying monster. The reactor—oh fuck the reactor in Steve’s hands. And Steve crying. And himself being useless, dead weight across Steve’s shoulders.
He twists his neck and searches, but he can’t make out much in the darkness. Where are they? Where’s Steve? Are they safe? Hah! Who is he kidding? He is never safe. There is no safety to be found in this alien landscape that seems so eager to crush them.
To the right, the world looks a little brighter. Pre-dawn? How long was Tony out? Where is his helmet, anyway? The onboard OS could tell him if he could just speak to it. Ever so gingerly, Tony twists and puts weight on his hand. He has one second of lucidity to think fuck and then he’s out.
When next he wakes, Steve is leaning over him, shaking his shoulders with a gentleness that doesn’t at all convey the panic written on his face.
Tony groans and turns to spit the awful taste from his mouth, but that’s not even remotely effective. Where before his ribs were only painful on the inhale, now they are acid in his chest, burning burning burning with each breath. The right side is worse than the left and Tony’s not entirely sure if he’s going to have the breath to speak, which is a problem, because Steve looks like he could use some words of reassurance.
There’s plastic against his lips and Steve is speaking, but Tony can barely focus. He swallows and then feels cool, vaguely sour water on his tongue. For a brief moment he panics because there is water in his mouth and he didn’t put it there and it will drown him before long, but the sourness cuts through his mind. Iodine water. Tony sips greedily until his vision goes spotty from lightheadedness and then he has to turn away, some of the precious water trickling down his collar and into the suit. The feeling of it on his skin, soaking his undersuit, is simultaneously welcome and repugnant.
Steve is still speaking, but it feels so damn far away. Tony has to squeeze his eyes shut and concentrate hard to process the words.
“—breathing well. The, I tried to check the suit readouts, but I’m not sure if I’m understanding them. I’m pretty sure you’ve got a fever, though, and I don’t know if it’s just illness or some alien bacteria, but we’ve got to get you to that city you saw. Can you give me a heading, Tony?”
Those big blue eyes are glinting, and Steve sounds like he’s on the edge of panic. Tony’s seen Steve panic before, once when Natasha went down on the field. Steve doesn’t panic like normal men, like Tony on a bad day shivering and shaking in his shop with DUM-E at his shoulder. Steve’s panic is transmuted into battering ram momentum, and he aims himself at whatever the object of his distress is. On that day, it was one of the Wrecking Crew, and after Steve was done with him, Thunderball was sent to the ICU with three cracked vertebrae and a coma. Tony’s almost afraid of what he’s planning, looking up at him now as he vibrates like electricity in the red, white, and blue.
“—ny? Tony? Are you still with me? Please still be with me.”
Steve is holding Tony’s left gauntlet, squeezing so hard Tony can actually feel the pressure through the metal and neoprene impact gel.
“S’rry. Yeah. Here.” Speaking is like hacking up razorblades. His lungs do not have that much air to give him, and every word lights up sparks behind his eyes.
“Can you give me a heading?”
“H’lmet,” Tony groans, flinging his right hand out in a gesture that’s meant to be invitation, but really only comes off as a weak flop. The gauntlet clatters against hard stone and pain shoots up the side of Tony’s chest.
Steve scrambles away and returns a moment later with the helmet. “What do I do? Put it on you?”
Teeth gritted, Tony shakes his head. “You. You wear.”
The light wherever they are is gradually getting better. Closer to dawn? In the cold blue, Tony can just make out Steve’s confusion, but Steve removes his own blue helmet and puts on the mask. It’s…disconcerting. It doesn’t feel right, putting that burden on Steve, who’s already got so many burdens of his own. It’s not like giving the armor to Rhodey, who’s baseline human and who deserves so much more than the military gives him credit for.
Carefully, Tony twitches his fingers into the response pads inside the gauntlets. He knows the keystrokes even without seeing them. The display just now is showing Steve the heading, the path, giving some approximate data in terms of distance and likely obstacles. It’s picking out possible landmarks for assessment and identifying terrain characteristics. It’s giving Steve a chance.
Tony’s chest starts throbbing before Steve finally removes the helmet and looks at Tony, his eyes huge. “You’re processing that much information all the time?”
Tony gives his best approximation of a shrug (pain), grins (less pain), and huffs out a little laugh (splintering agony).
“Ok. Ok, I’ve got a plan. I know what we’re going to do. I’m, I’ve got to go out and get some supplies, but I’ll be back as soon as I can. I promise you, Tony. You have to wait here and promise me you’re not gonna move, and you need to keep your repulsors armed in case something comes along. Can you do that for me, Tony?”
Steve is looking at him with those desperate, panicking eyes, and how could Tony deny him anything? Beneath the determined set of his shoulders and the downturned corners of his mouth, Tony senses a fear Steve rarely shows to anyone. He’s perched on his toes like a deer ready to take flight, like the slightest hint of another monster will send him spinning into a blind rage. Tony can’t break that fragile shell by telling Steve the truth, the fact that he’s barely clinging to consciousness by his fingernails.
“Yeah,” he hisses, and cracks a weak smile. “Yeah, Steve.”
“Ok. Ok, good. I just, um, Tony, I…” Behind his eyes there’s something so hurt and scared and at the same time so hopeful. Tony’s heart lurches with pain, and he doesn’t think it’s his lungs or the shrapnel or any physical ailment. Steve’s breath huffs out warm and peanut-butter-sweet across Tony’s face, and then his lips are against Tony’s forehead.
Tony remembers this. Or at least a shard of this. Did Steve do this before? Or did Tony? Or was it only a dream?
When Steve leans back, his eyes look wet, and Tony knows his own eyes are wet, too. Maybe Steve senses what Tony’s not saying, or maybe on the HUD display, he noticed Tony’s abysmally low O2 sats and dangerously fast heartrate. But he’s still got that fight-or-flight look in his eye, and Tony’s seen Steve’s files. He knows Steve’s never run from a fight a day in his life.
“I’ll be back soon. I promise.” The bare tips of his fingers are on Tony’s jaw, gentle as butterfly wings. And then Steve is gone out the…are they in a cave? It must be a cave, though a shallow one.
Tony stares at the bare red rock and then out to the distant silver and gold trees. His jaw is clenching compulsively and he forces it to relax. Without Steve to anchor him, Tony’s thoughts quickly begin spiraling, and he can feel his chest fluttering weakly as his respiration goes haywire. Steve left the helmet in arms’ reach, so Tony snatches it and puts it on. He’s afraid to look, but he has to know.
The blue display feels blinding in comparison to the half-light of the early morning cave, and at first, Tony can barely stand to look at it. With a weak twitch of fingers, he brings his health stats to the forefront and quietly stares at the evidence of his own mortality. His blood oxygen reads a measly 72%, which might explain why he feels like he’ll faint if he so much as twitches. His heartrate is…well, best not to look at that number, because it only makes it climb higher still when he does that. His core temperature is 37.7 degrees Celsius, and the skin around the port aches fiercely. The onboard OS hypothesizes infection, broken bones, and badly injured lungs. It’s frankly astounding neither of them has collapsed yet.
With that information ascertained, Tony considers his next plan of action. It’s clear Steve has no intention of leaving him behind, and Tony appreciates that, but if anything attacks them, Steve is practically on his own, and he only has his sidearm and his shield. And Tony knows for a fact that Steve won’t reach for his sidearm unless he’s desperate. They are well and truly fucked.
Unless…unless Steve doesn’t have to worry about him anymore. Tony still has his onboard supply of morphine and if he took the entire supply at once, on top of the way his heart is weakened, it might just…
Tony’s taken from his morbid thoughts as an onboard sensor goes off. The arc reactor’s cycles per second have dropped from 12,000 to 11,750 and are showing no sign of regaining the speed necessary to power the entire suit. Tony shakes himself off. What the fuck is he even thinking? Leave Steve alone to blame himself for the death of yet another comrade. Tony can’t do that to him either. But if he keeps up the suit’s current power levels, he’s going to die either way.
He hasn’t got a lot of options. Carefully, he starts manually rerouting power conduits and allocating resources. No boot jets. Can’t fly like this anyway. Drop infrared, drop targeting systems, drop right repulsor. He’s left-handed. He can make it work. System after system powers down and gradually the HUD gets darker and darker as fewer and fewer readings appear. At last, Tony is left with the arc reactor stats and his own vitals. In the time he’s been working, his fever has climbed another tenth of a degree, and he can feel sweat trickling down his cheeks.
Steve left him the iodine water. It’s touching the gauntlet’s fingers. Tony would like some water. The faceplate lifts and his left hand carefully shucks the helmet off his head. The chilly air feels good. He lolls his head into the breeze, willing his fever to drop a little. Water. Water, right. He grips the plastic bottle and lifts, but he can’t quite get his arm high enough. Chest is aching, piercing. Head spinning. Above him, he thinks he sees an angel. But that’s stupid. Tony doesn’t believe in angels.
There are shadows fluttering black against pink. Something is skittering. His back is jostling. He can hear a thunk, thud, thunk, though it seems very distant. Thor hammering Hulk? He can’t place it. His face is hot, mouth cotton ball dry. Oh, his eyes are closed. That’s…
Open now. There are branches passing overhead, and their dappled shadows alternate with blinding yellow light. He’s not walking. He doesn’t think he’s walking. How is he—
There’s someone over him, someone big. Their shape is dark overhead. Obie. No no no no Obie don’t… The arc reactor. It’s exposed. It’s right there. What if Obie takes it? He’ll die. He lashes out, but he can’t move his arms. When he tenses his shoulders, the whole of his torso burns. Maybe it’s not Obie. Maybe he’s back in the cave. Maybe they’re torturing him and that’s why he can’t even get a breath in. Oh god, he’s going to—
Steve. That’s Steve’s voice. He’s talking, whispering almost. If Tony can just open his eyes he can talk, too. It’s dark, but not completely. Steve’s just there, just out of sight. There’s a scraping scrabbling sound too. Tony’s not sure what it is. He can’t quite make out Steve’s words.
“—think, Tony? Think we covered about ten miles today. That’s pretty good time. If I can do that three more times, we’ll make it. I know you’d tell me to stop, take a break, but I can do this. What good’s super soldier serum if you don’t use it?”
Tony thinks Steve is trying to sound light-hearted, like he’s laughing. But really he just sounds tired and sad. Tony doesn’t like it when Steve is tired and sad, and he tries to say so. His voice comes out as a hollow horrifying croak.
And then Steve’s there, kneeling over him. There’s a light shining from his chest and its blinding, but Steve doesn’t seem to notice how Tony squints.
“Hey. Hey, let’s…I’ve got some water. Right here. Can you drink it for me, Tony?”
Through the blinding glare, Tony can just make out Steve’s big blue eyes. He looks sad, too. Tony wants to make him happy, so he nods. There’s plastic against his lips. Water in his mouth. He sips as best he can, but it’s sour and he can’t breathe. He turns his head away and water splashes over his cheek and down his neck. It feels icy cold.
“Oh, Tony.” Steve looks even sadder now. Tony didn’t want that. He wanted—
Heat. Pain. Numb lips. Somewhere someone is talking, but he doesn’t understand.
For all that this world seems to be leaning toward autumn, the sun is relentless. It beats down on Steve’s head, permeating the helmet, burning his cheeks, scorching his shoulders. Sweat trickles down his neck in a steady stream, soaking into the underarmor of the uniform. In his fevered haze, Steve imagines the landscape wavering before him like the glassy mirages over New York pavement.
His legs are moving automatically now. If he were to stop, he imagines they’d explode into pins and needles and the sharp stinging ache of dozens of blisters, but he can’t stop. He can see the shining city now. It’s looming on the horizon, gold and ivory in the sun. The trees are all but gone, and the landscape has shifted to golden fields dotted by those strange red rock formations. With no tree cover, the easily tread animal paths have disappeared and Steve must force his way through waist-high grass, stomping it down with all his might.
He needs to make the way easier, smoother, for his precious cargo. He chances a glance back to where Tony lays, feet flopped open, face shielded by a corner of the space blanket unfurled and suspended by a few stray twigs and branches. His helmet rests at his hip, and his hands are on the chest plate, limp and lifeless.
Steve stares, even as he takes another step forward. He waits and waits and at last sees Tony’s lips move just a little. Still there. Still alive. There’s still hope. Steve turns forward again and focuses on his destination. The first leg of the trek wasn’t that bad. He kept to the cover of trees and chose the easiest terrain he could, dragging Tony’s litter along at a steady clip. They’d made good time, especially since Steve didn’t really need that much sleep. He’d gone without for forty-eight hours on a hard march out of Austria. The boys hadn’t been with him for that, his pace hadn’t been anywhere near this slow, and he’d been mostly fine. Ten hours of sleep and a reaming from Bucky and Peggy and he was back in action.
Of course, he hadn’t been hauling four hundred plus pounds of precious armor and the man inside it when he’d pulled that stunt. Buck would have something to say about this, too. A dry smile stretched its way across Steve’s cracked lips. He could just hear it. “Rogers, you jackass. Go and get that big giant body and you think you don’t need sleep? Or food or fucking water? Jesus Christ what is wrong with you? Did that stupid serum rob all your stupid brains?”
“Naw, Buck,” Steve murmurs, his voice a bare husk of its former self. “You took all the stupid with you.”
He can almost see Buck, there in front of him, exasperated fondness in ever line of his face. But that can’t be right. Buck is gone. Buck’s up with his mam, and the both of them are looking down and clucking their tongues at his stubbornness. But then, they never did figure out where they landed. Maybe that portal didn’t send them to an alien world at all. Maybe this whole time he and Tony have been slogging through purgatory, paying for their failures in life. Steve knows he’s got a lot to answer for. Wrath. Jealousy. Covetousness. But he wouldn’t do a damn thing differently.
Maybe that’s why he hasn’t felt God’s presence in a while. Maybe God knows that Steve won’t ask forgiveness for his own failings, is not sorry for the way he is. What Steve does, he does out of love, and if that love is misplaced, then God is the one who screwed up. Not Steve. Not this time. If they’re dead, both of them, it doesn’t matter. Steve is not about to give up Tony, not about to leave him to ache and die and rot in this hell.
A shadow passes overhead and Steve flinches out of his wandering mind, clenching his fists around the vine rope he fashioned to drag his litter. The first day on the plain he was lucky. There was something dead and rotting off in the distance and the giant monsters had been circling over it, tearing at it and leaving Steve and Tony alone. Today…
Another shadow and Steve tightens the knot of the tow-line wrapped around his waist before lifting the shield up and over his head. He rotates the polished metal this way and that, hoping that the reflection of the sun will be enough to keep them at bay. It would scare earth animals. But then, this isn’t earth.
Even though he can’t feel them anymore, somehow Steve’s legs start churning faster, flattening down the high grasses haphazardly as he presses forward. The city is so fucking close. How has he not found a patrol of guards yet, a road, something, anything other than this godforsaken wasteland?
His stomach clenches painfully, protesting his neglect. His back and shoulders ache with tension and stress from days of marching on a hair trigger. If he focuses on his hips, he can feel how the socket joints are slowly but surely turning into raw sandpaper fire. But it’s all secondary. If he can just reach the city, if he can just get them a fighting chance.
Something strikes the shield with a ringing clang and Steve shudders, his numb knees buckling against the blow. He fights it, fights to take another step. But then there’s another strike, another clang. He can’t fight it, not when he’s gone so long without food, without water, without sleep. It was a huge gamble, even with his enhanced physiology. Strong as he is, efficient as his body can be, four days nonstop is too much. Seems like his luck has run its course.
He controls his collapse, heaving his body backward so that he can put himself between whatever it is and Tony. The helmet is so fucking hot and he wants to rip it from his skull, but he’s being attacked and even by his standards that’s just stupid. Instead he lays out next to Tony and puts the shield up as best he can, fingering his sidearm. He could shoot, but what good would it do? Peering over the edge of the shield, he sees the huge beast incoming, black and blinding against the sun. Its claws are outstretched, grasping, but it’s so large. Even if he shot it, it’d only get angrier. It’s coming, and he calls on his strength, raises his shield and angles it, sending the massive claws skittering sideways as the beast veers off.
Is this it? Is this how they’re going to die? On this godforsaken spit of grass?
Steve twists to look at Tony. He’s waxy and pale, the sweat long since dried. Steve’s been trying to keep him hydrated as they go, taking five minute breathers to go back and press the bottle to his lips. He doesn’t know when he last stopped though. It feels like it must’ve been ages. It’s hard to keep track anymore, his own mind lost in the haze of a never-ending march. Is he…is Tony breathing?
The arc reactor is flickering, weaker than ever, and unthinking Steve reaches out and puts his hand over it. Tony’s heart. His heart. Steve’s heart. There, a faint hum just under the surface. Steve wishes Tony would open his eyes one last time, just so Steve could tell him. Another regret etched into his brain. Missed dance. Missed date. All these missed opportunities with the people who mattered most.
Steve twists to get closer, to tell Tony, even though Tony can’t hear. But the shadow’s above him again, getting closer, and this time, Steve’s not sure he’s got the strength to raise the shield. He turns his face up and watches death come. It looks different somehow. Like…like maybe in the last instant, the creature has become a boat. Charon come to carry them across the river Styx? Maybe purgatory is at an end and they’ll be permitted to pass on at last. If it’s together, if they’re together, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. Closer and closer it comes and Steve’s mind blanks. His eyes go dark and at the last he manages to whisper, “I’m sorry.”
The gray monster is coming for him. It hits him again and again and again. His ribs crack a thousand times. The reactor shatters into splinters and his heart lurches in his chest. His lungs are collapsing and he can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe.
Where’s Steve? Did Steve get away? Is he safe? Tony can bear this if only Steve is safe.
Ah, so that’s how…
There’s Steve. Right there, just as he’d been their first morning on the alien planet. Shining golden, smiling, disgustingly awake. Stupid morning person. Tony hates him and loves him.
You do love him.
“Tony?” He holds out his hand and Tony remembers now. A skirmish with some lowlifes. Bank robbers? Mad scientists? Doesn’t seem to matter who they were. All that matters is that Steve is extending his hand, waiting to help Tony up. As he rises, his lungs reinflate. He can breathe, but it hurts. Hurts like the first time in Afghanistan.
Such pain. How have you endured?
Steve is touching his chest, touching the arc reactor, and Tony wants to panic, should panic, but there’s something muffling the whole of his body, like cotton wadding or being underwater. It feels so distant compared with Steve’s smile, Steve’s careful tender prodding. The arc reactor lurches in his chest, his bones crack, rebreak, repair, but Steve leans forward and says, “You can do this, Tony. Just a little longer.”
He loves you, too, you know.
Tony doesn’t know, actually, but the way Steve is smiling at him, tracing his cheekbones, he can believe. They are in Central Park, spreading out a picnic blanket. Clint and Natasha are distant, chasing each other like children. Thor is buying Jane an ice cream. Bruce is asleep under a tree. It’s just them, side by side, close enough that they’re hands are touching. Tony thinks maybe he ought to kiss Steve, thinks maybe this is the right moment for it.
He leans in, makes a pretense of reaching for something in the basket beyond Steve’s thigh. They have watermelon. Cool and sweet. The juices have Stained Steve’s mouth sticky pink and Tony thinks about licking it clean. Steve’s watching him, so close Tony can smell the mint on his breath from the cocktails Natasha packed. The sun is warm above them and if he leans just a little closer…
Just a little more.
Steve is gone and there’s a woman. She smells like Christmas cinnamon and she’s at the piano, her back turned to Tony. He knows this. He knows this.
He doesn’t want to. He wants to talk to her. To tell her about his life and his friends, about Steve, about how he’s learned to be better than the legacy of his name. She should know. He wants her to know.
She knows. Sleep, child.
It’s cool. Blessedly cool and smooth and dark. His body is heavy, and his eyelids heavier still. For a very long while he lays there studying the insides of the thin skin and savoring the perfect protective cocoon around him. Is this his room in the Tower? The sheets don’t smell right, but…what the hell kind of dream did he have anyway?
There was…there was a portal. Him and Tony. Tony smiling by a campfire. Tony eating peanut butter goop. Tony being slammed by a grey freight train. Tony!
Even with his eyes open, the room is still dark, illuminated only in a soft blue. This is not the Tower. This is a strange place. He remembers wondering if they were dead, but somehow he never quite pictured the afterlife like this. The ceiling vaults into darkness, and Steve feels as though he might be consumed by it. There are open balconies and through them Steve can see starlight and those huge blue and green nebulae stretching across the night sky. From their otherworldly light, he can see he’s lying in a bed so large the whole of the Avengers might be able to tuck in for the night with room to spare.
But where is Tony? Tony who was so pale and so feverish and who was dying…
Steve shoves himself out of bed and is alarmed when his legs wobble and nearly give out. His uniform is gone, though he stumbles over the shield propped against the bedframe. Someone has dressed him in a soft tunic and loose pants, and he’s barefoot. He shudders at the thought of being touched by unknown people in this alien place. If they did that to him, then Tony…
The nebulae outside are familiar, the same formations he stared at night after night as he dragged Tony along, so he’s still in his personal purgatory. On this side of his exhaustion, semi-lucid, he can recognize that he is probably not dead, but that doesn’t mean he’s safe. Not when he has no armor, no tools, only the shield and his own strength.
He shakes his head fiercely and turns toward the door. He has to find Tony. His wandering mind infuriates him, because in this enemy territory, he must be sharp enough to save the both of them. He hefts the shield onto his arm, even though it feels almost dangerously heavy, and then he goes about locating the door.
When he emerges into the hallway, the lighting is better, soft and golden, and there are two people standing at his door. Guards bearing spears, well armored in burnished gold. The sweeping Gothic lines of the armor somehow look familiar. A tall, dark-skinned woman turns to him and looks down on him with hawkish yellow eyes. “You’ve woken. My Prince will be pleased.”
Steve blinks, angry that none of this is making sense. Her speech sounds familiar, yet somehow he can’t place it. It doesn’t matter. “Tony?”
“Anthony rests in the Queen’s healing wing. But first you must see my Prince. He has been most worried about you.”
The woman grasps Steve around the bicep and frog marches him through the halls, and he’s so dumbfounded that he allows it. Tony’s in a healing wing. Tony’s alive. Tony’s alive. The woman manhandles him as though he were nothing more than a child, and her towering height makes him feel like he’s suddenly lost the serum, so much so that he glances down at his own body, confused to see that his chest is still broad, his forearms still meaty.
The woman leads him to an ivory hall with a long table that is mostly empty save a plate with a few scraps of meat and choice fruits, as well as a chalice and decanter of wine. Thor is there, seated, chin in his hand, eyes distant.
Thor looks up, expression shifting from contemplation to quiet joy and relief. He rises and steps forward, hugging Steve as though he had no intention of ever letting go again. Steve’s throat suddenly feels tight. He hardly dares believe any of it is real. It doesn’t look or feel real. Thor’s dressed in soft, draped silks, and he looks more kingly here than he ever does on earth in his battle garb or in American clothing.
“I am so glad to see you awake, my friend. I had feared we were too late.”
Steve’s throat is tighter still, and he tangles his fingers in the folds of Thor’s mantle. He wants to say something, to acknowledge at least that he’s glad to see Thor as well, but the words don’t come. His tongue is glued fast to the roof of his mouth.
“You must be hungry. Sit and eat and I will tell you what I know.” Thor guides him to a gilded chair the same way Steve would guide Peggy to her armchair by the window, but it’s not in him to protest. The guard is still there, standing at attention, watching over them, but Steve can’t shake the feeling still that none of this is real. It’s like waking up in New York all over again, except this time there’s no pretense of deception. The dream does not try to disguise itself as anything else.
Thor gently pushes the plate of food in front of Steve and pours out a goblet of golden liquid. “Eat my friend. When you came to us, my mother says you were half-starved.”
Cautiously, Steve lifts the meat to his lips, but he can’t bring himself to take a bite. He hasn’t seen Tony. How can he eat when Tony’s still somewhere in this huge place, alone?
Thor frowns and leans back in his own chair. “You wish the tale first?”
“You were spotted from one of the outer-city guard posts. The Hræsvelgr were descending upon you, and at first our guards thought you were a fallen animal, no more than carrion. The corpses of animals often bring the Hræsvelgr near the city walls, though they dare not draw near enough to be felled by our archers. But then the guards saw the flash of your shield and a patrol was sent to investigate. They found you and Anthony collapsed on a leaf litter and bore you first to the houses of healing, but the healers there were baffled. They said you were not Asgardian. You were sent here to my mother, who is a powerful healer, and she recognized you as Midgardian. Heimdall sent for me. I am so sorry, my brother, that I did not find you sooner. Heimdall’s gaze reaches far, but he must be directed, and I had no way of knowing which of the seven realms you’d been pulled into.”
Thor’s expression shifts to understanding. “Would you prefer to take your meal at his side?”
At Thor’s nod, the guard steps forward, though she doesn’t take Steve’s arm this time. Thor sweeps up the meal himself, bearing the tray and the pitcher easily. It looks incongruous, him in the mode of a prince serving Steve. It only serves to further the sense that none of this could possibly be real. That Steve will wake any minute to find himself back on that hellish plain with Tony growing cold beside him. He quickens his step, fighting the fatigue that drags at his limbs.
The guard leads them through the vaulting halls until they reach a door etched with twisting trees and birds. She clomps her staff against the floor once and then pushes the door open. “My Queen. My Prince and his companion the Captain, Steven of Midgard.”
A woman sits at a bedside, but she rises when they enter. Her flowing hair is twisted into elegant knots about her head, and her robes are just as beautiful and stately as Thor’s. Hesitantly, Steve bows, though he’s not entirely sure that’s the right protocol.
“Steven of Midgard,” she says, stepping forward, arms outreached. “I am Frigga, and I welcome you to Asgard. The tale of your journey is one the warriors of the hall would very much like to hear. But that is for another time. I am sure you are here for a different reason.”
She draws him forward with soft cool hands, and for a moment, just a moment, she is his own mother, slight and pale but still with hands of healing, and the knot in his throat tightens until it’s almost unbearable. Then she is herself again, and she is pulling him toward a strange bed with two twisting, arching branches at its head and foot. A glittering golden dust hovers within the confines of the loops and within that is Tony.
Frigga’s cool, smooth hand is on Steve’s shoulder, and her other hovers over the mist, golden white with a strange light. “His injuries were grievous. It must have been a fierce and terrible thing that put him in such a state. I have struggled, I admit, with the strange technology in his chest. We have things akin in Asgard, but at the same time, very different. I could not replicate his, so I have done my best with what was available to me. The bone is knitting and the bruises fading, and I’ve removed the metal that cuts him so and causes him such pain, but his heart is weak. He will need this crystal or something similar the remainder of his life.”
Steve stares down through the mist to where Tony rests. They’ve dressed him in soft golden clothes, and his wrap tunic is open to the bellybutton, exposing the port to the open air. In the place where an arc reactor normally rests, there is a smooth glittering crystal, just as blue and white as Tony’s tech. It glows with its own crackling inner fire, like lightning trapped in stone.
Quietly, Steve settles into the chair Frigga previously occupied, staring down at Tony’s pale, still face. “Will he live?”
“I believe so. His fever persists, but he is stubborn this one. I do not think he will go without a fight.”
His smile feels weak and wobbly, but he offers it nonetheless. “Thank you. For saving him.”
“No, Steven. It is you who did that.”
She touches his shoulder again, fingers in the short hairs at the nape of his neck, and something in Steve loosens just a little, as though she’s taking some of his pain as her own.
“Steven, please eat. Anthony would be most displeased to know you neglected your own health so. You still have healing to do as well.” Having spoken, Thor lowers the tray into Steve’s lap unasked, and sets the goblet on an elegant table beside the bed. Steve accepts the food and eats only because he knows Thor is right, though the food tastes like sawdust on his tongue. He can barely get it down as he stares at Tony’s eerie stillness. Thor sits with him, equally silent, but his large warm presence is welcome after days of hellish loneliness.
At the same time, though…
At the same time, Steve would like to be alone. Would be grateful if he could be alone, if only so that he could clear the thick knot that tangles his throat. It stings at his eyes, a piece of grit that refuses to be blinked away. Frigga’s wrong. He didn’t save Tony. Not really. Tony’s suffered so much pain, and Steve didn’t manage to prevent any of it. And now, now the reactor’s been replaced by yet another alien technology, completely against Tony’s will.
“Can I, is it all right to touch him?”
“You will not interfere with the healing sleep by doing so, no.”
Steve gives Thor a weak smile of thanks and reaches into the warm golden mists to grip Tony’s hand. It’s slightly clammy, but it feels firm, real, alive. Steve has to fight not to squeeze harder, to hurt Tony even more. Instead he rubs his thumb over Tony’s knuckle again and again, memorizing the pattern of the skin and scars there, learning the smoothness of the bone beneath.
At some point, Thor dims the lights, and beyond the huge windows, the radiant sky and the planets visible beyond bathe the room in a faint glow. Tony looks celestial, surrounded by the strange glistening glows of this other world. As though he really has moved on from this life and only his shade remains. Steve can do nothing but stare and at last he nods off.
It smells like…like honey. It’s confusing. Tony doesn’t keep honey anywhere in the Tower, though he thinks maybe Bruce has some in his quarters for tea. It’s deliciously warm, and Tony doesn’t really want to open his eyes to face the day if his bed is going to feel this nice. Maybe it can just be a day for lazing around, wrapping up in sheets and sketching out equations by hand for a change. JARVIS will humor him.
He inhales, exhales, relishes in the sweet air in his lungs, and twists his toes in the sheets. Slowly, he becomes aware that someone is holding his hand, and that’s nice too. He thinks he ought to turn over and say hi to the person holding his hand, because clearly they had a nice night together if Tony’s feeling this warm and loose, but when he starts to turn, he registers a strange stiff coolness in his torso, a soft whisper in his mind that says Don’t.
Slowly he opens his eyes, and he’d like to panic, he really would, but a strange lassitude is on him, thick and sweet, and he can barely muster the energy to take in the vaulting halls, the silk drapes, the lush plants growing along the balconies. He turns ever so slightly to see who is holding his hand. Steve. Steve half-sprawled across silk sheets, golden hair tousled, mouth slack in sleep.
Where the fuck are we? Tony wonders, and he doesn’t mean to say it out loud—maybe he doesn’t say it and only thinks it—but he must make some noise, because Steve’s eyes flutter open, long eyelashes brushing over his cheeks. He looks up and meets Tony’s eyes.
Tony expected fond exasperation, or maybe a relieved smile. What he doesn’t expect is for Steve to burst into tears.
Unsurprisingly, Steve cries quietly. His craggy shoulders heave up and down, but not a sound escapes his lips. His face is crumpled like tissue paper, though, and his big hands are pressed over his eyes. Even so, Tony can see the tracks running down each of Steve’s cheeks, dripping off his beak of a nose.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Tony says, tugging Steve’s hand. He remembers doing this once before. There was…there was glass, and Steve was crying then too. With another gentle tug, Steve tumbles forward, his face and hand pressed to Tony’s shoulder, but that makes it easier to reach up and rub at his hair, sifting fingers through fine, loose strands. “You’re ok. It’s ok now.”
“It’s not,” Steve chokes, and Tony can feel his lips moving through the fabric of his shirt.
“Last I remember, I was in pretty sorry shape, and right now I might just be able to run a marathon, so I’d say relative where we were this is pretty damn ok, Steve.”
“No, you don’t, you don’t…” Steve doesn’t finish, and Tony takes a moment to assess as he continues to comb his fingers through Steve’s hair.
His torso feels…weird. Stiff and muffled, like it’s been wrapped in bubble wrap. Beneath it, in a very distant recess, he can recognize that there might be pain, but when he even thinks of it, that same gentle voice is back. Don’t, it says, and for once he listens. He thinks he knows that voice. That he knew that voice a lifetime ago.
If he ignores his muffled pain, though, beneath it, he’s shocked to feel his lungs expand and expand and expand and contract and contract and contract. It feels like he’s taking a breath for the first time in years. Even his mouth, which should be dry and wreaking of morning breath, feels fresh and moist and almost…minty? What the fuck?
Steve, in the meantime, is shaking even worse, his fingers fisting in Tony’s tunic, and that’s how Tony notices. There is…what the fuck?
Cautiously, carefully, he lifts his free hand and touches the glittering crystal in his chest. It’s smooth to the touch, eerily warm, and at the points where his skin touches it, it glows brighter, like one of those cheap lightning boards they used to have in C-list horror films. It fits perfectly in the port, but somehow, the edges of the metal have been shaved away and neatened so that they are nearly flush with his skin. Panic wants to jump up his throat and shake him like an angry dog, but again that emotion feels distant, almost impossible. It creeps Tony out.
“Steve?” he finally whispers, and Steve, hiccupping and shaking and blotchy-faced, looks up. Tony can’t, can’t even think what he was going to ask. Instead, he takes a firmer grip of Steve’s shirt (tunic?) and pulls until Steve has no choice but to climb onto the bed. And then the only natural thing to do is hug him tight, and Steve starts sobbing all over again, his wet face pressed against Tony’s neck.
Tony has no idea what to do, so he just keeps murmuring “hey,” running soft, weak fingers through Steve’s hair and over his back. By the sunlight, it looks like it’s maybe early morning, and outside, Tony can see vaulting towers glittering in the light and sparkling vehicles flitting by from time to time. Unthinking, he presses his lips to Steve’s forehead, breathing in and in and in and feeling so confused.
Little by little, Steve’s sobs subside and his muscles go boneless. He must be falling asleep, and Tony wants to let him do just that, but at the same time, there is a crystal in his chest instead of an arc reactor and he has a thousand questions, even if they feel distant and fuzzy in his mind.
“Better?” he asks, when Steve has quieted to bare hiccups.
“I’m sorry,” Steve hisses, and for this Tony needs to see his face. He puts fingers to Steve’s jaw and urges him to look up. He does not cry prettily, his eyes puffy and his skin hot and spotty, but Tony runs a thumb over his damp chin nonetheless.
“Don’t be sorry, Steve.”
“Abup! No. I have no fucking clue where we are, and I’m kind of lowkey terrified, but I feel better-rested than I’ve felt since that stupid portal swallowed us whole and my lungs feel, God Steve, they feel clear. I can breathe. And last I remember, I was pinched into the armor like a sardine and dying, so I’m going to say this is a definite improvement. Are you apologizing for making me feel better?”
“I didn’t do that. I didn’t heal you.” Steve’s jaw is clenched tight, and his eyes look watery again. “And the reactor—”
“Admittedly freaking me out a little, but I kind of…it’s hard to explain. I feel like I can’t freak out right now. Like I’m too…loopy? Am I drugged up? Morphine?”
“Not quite, my friend.”
Tony looks over Steve’s massive shoulder to see Thor entering, followed by a stately woman.
“That explains a lot,” Tony murmurs, and he tries not to draw attention to the fact that Steve is hastily wiping his face in Tony’s shoulder.
“I am pleased to see you awake. My mother feared for you at first.”
“Your mother?” Tony asks, glancing over Thor’s shoulder.
“Frigga, Queen of Asgard,” Thor says, bowing deferentially. The woman comes forward and places her hands on Tony like it’s nothing at all. Normally that too would be something that would send him spiraling down, but in the moment she touches him, music fills his mind, sweet piano and the scent of Christmas cinnamon. “I do apologize,” she says, her elegant fingers tracing the edges of the port. In a corner of his mind, Tony is screaming not to be touched this way, but it’s so quiet, so distant. It has been barred from him and he’s not quite sure how.
“I know this is not the healing you would have chosen, Anthony of the Iron Armor, but I do not know your technology as well as I wish. Healing is my purview, and I did what I had to. Will you forgive me?” Her voice is warm and honeyed, and on her face, for a moment Tony sees long false lashes, limp, tired hair. He blinks and shakes his head a little.
“Can’t be angry, considering what you’ve done for me.”
“You are not completely healed yet. But you are well on your way. And this stone will serve your purposes until you decide you know better.” The knowing look she gives him makes him quiver, and he shrinks down beneath Steve’s bulk. “Will you both grace us at dinner? As I told Steven, the warriors are most eager to hear your tale.”
“Are you up for that, Tony?” Steve asks. His voice is still husky from crying, but when he looks up, his skin has cleared and Tony can barely tell he’s been crying. Super soldier. Hardly seems fair.
“Yeah. Let’s feast with the Asgardians. Have we been here the whole time?”
“You shall hear all in the telling,” Frigga says, her smile mysterious, “and in the telling, all, Anthony.”
She touches his forehead once last time, leaving a wake of cool behind her, and then turns and exits as though carried by the very winds of Asgard. Thor, with a grin, leaves a tray of fruits and bread and cheese as well as a flagon of something that smells sweet and then exits.
“In the telling?” Tony says, raising his eyebrow sharply. Steve laughs wetly into Tony’s shoulder, holding him tightly.
Together they pick at the tray. Tony is surprised to find that he’s ravenous, but Steve seems to barely have an appetite at all. He spends most of his time glancing sidelong at Tony as though he’s afraid Tony might just disappear.
“So, Asgard, huh?” Tony says when he’s eaten his fill, licking at the fruit juice that has dribbled down his fingers.
“Thor hasn’t told me much either, but a patrol found us on the plains near the city and brought us in. They realized we weren’t Asgardian and sent us to the palace, and Frigga healed you.”
There’s something Steve’s not saying. Tony can almost see it in the way he’s picking at the hem of his tunic. But now with a full stomach, that strange lassitude is even heavier upon him and it drags him down until his eyes are fluttering shut. “You’re,” he murmurs, yawning hugely, “you’re gonna tell me all about it. Later. Sleep now.” Unthinking, he wraps his hand around Steve’s shoulders and tugs him down until they’re curled together on the bed facing each other. Tony can feel Steve’s breath across his lips, just as cool and minty as his own, and it’s comforting knowing that even though something strange, something horrifying, has happened to his body, Steve’s there to guard him now.
Hours later, Thor wakes them with a gentle shake and sends Steve off with a handful of women who giggle at him as he blushes and stumbles from the bed. He glances back at Tony as he goes, a note of what Tony would almost call fear, if he wasn’t so sure (or is it the spell that’s so sure?) that nothing can harm them here. Thor himself remains with Tony, helping him first to his feet and then in a circuit around the room.
“How do you feel, my friend?”
“Like Gumby left out in the sun.”
Thor blinks, uncomprehending, and then shrugs. “Well, we’ll not ask you to perform any feats of dancing or fighting this night, so you may rest at ease and merely watch. Steven is the one who must do the telling, I think, or if not him, our bards. The tale must be known, but I think perhaps you don’t know it.”
“I think perhaps you’re right,” Tony murmurs, frowning down at the clothes Thor hands him. They’re made of fine, smooth cloth, beautifully embroidered in his own personal favorite colors. Thor knows him too well.
When he’s dressed, they make their way down to the hall, where a narrow man announces them with a bugle and a call. Tony is in Medieval Times. Real life Medieval Times, complete with a crowd of Asgardians who stand and cheer as Thor ushers him in. It’s surreal, to say the least. It’s one thing to be cheered on Earth, where he’s famous, rich, and good-looking, and that’s apparently enough to warrant adoration, but here on an alien planet where he’s virtually unknown and, outside of the armor, completely outclassed by all of these people, they’re still cheering for him. For the first time in years, Tony feels a blush crawling up his face.
Thor leads him to a seat of honor at the foot of the dais where Odin and Frigga sit, and then settles at his side, looking out over the crowd. A moment later, the door opens again and Steve is announced. The crowd loses it. For Tony they cheered but for Steve they rise to their feet and stamp and clap and scream. Steve looks as dumbfounded as Tony feels, and he enters only hesitantly. The guard flanking him points and he seems to steel himself, straightening and squaring his shoulders, holding the shield proudly over his chest, but a blush is still crawling up his cheeks.
Steve’s escorted to the head table and made to sit beside Tony, the both of them staring out at a sea of beautiful, otherworldly faces, all eagerly upturned and waiting.
Behind them, Tony hears Odin rise, and his voice rings out over the hall.
“Brothers and Sisters of the Golden Hall, we welcome you with mead.” Another raucous cheer and the crowd eagerly holds up their goblets. Steve and Tony do the same, Thor grinning at their side. “Tonight, we drink to these valiant Midgardians, my son, your Prince’s shield brothers, who braved the wilds of Reidgotaland and survived the trials of Fyrisvellir to find their way to our hall. Hail Anthony of the Iron Armor and Steven the Indomitable.”
“Hail!” the crowd cries and then drinks. Tony and Steve, after a breath, drink as well, and Thor beams in approval.
“Let the feast begin,” Odin declares, bringing down his heavy staff on the stone flags of the dais. Servers appear with trays upon trays of food, lining them up first before Steve, Tony, and Thor and then before the rest of the revelers. With nothing for it, Steve and Tony dig in, picking from choice portions of animals that are completely unidentifiable (“Tastes like chicken,” Tony whispers in Steve’s ear at one point, making him laugh and press a hand to his mouth), vegetables and fruits that are light and bubbling, and breads and cheeses that are hard and soft, pungent and mild.
Mead is sweet and syrupy on Tony’s tongue and he only drinks a little for fear it will go straight to his head and he’ll embarrass himself in front of a hall of Asgardians. He’d prefer not to have a repeat of his birthday party from a few years back. Steve is equally subdued, eating well enough, but keeping a wary eye on everything. This kind of thing, Tony knows well from numerous charity galas, is really not Steve’s scene. The hall is boisterous, and many warriors come forward to pay their respects to Thor and ogle at Steve and Tony, but very few of them engage in conversation. They look as though they’re expecting something, but Tony’s not quite sure what.
When the carcasses of their roasted animals have been picked clean and flagons upon flagons of mead have been drunk, Odin suddenly knocks his staff to the floor again. “The time has come,” he announces, “for the telling of the tales.”
At once the Asgardians settle into their seats like eager school children, staring up at the dais ruddy cheeked and grinning.
“My son, Anthony, Steven, if you would honor us.”
Thor rises and spreads his arms, palms out as though to calm the crowd. “I will tell you a tale of Midgard and Asgard,” he begins, and the crowd leans forward eagerly, already hooked. “’Tis been a fortnight since this tale came to pass. I was taking my repast on Midgard, watching over the city of London with my love, Jane the Clever, when news reached me of a distressing event over the city of New York.”
Thor’s voice rises and falls with a lilting cadence, almost as though he’s singing, and Tony realizes with a start that Thor’s telling their story. The story of how Steve and Tony wound up here. The Asgardians laugh and cheer and gasp as Thor goes, describing the frightening portal and the battle beneath it. He wasn’t even there, but he makes it sound like he was, and by the time he turns to Steve, even Tony’s caught up in it.
“Steven, will you honor us with the telling from here?”
Steve blanches and looks out at the eager faces. “I…” he says, glancing helplessly at Tony. “Uh, we’re not much for…that is to say I’m not good. At this. Stories. I don’t really…”
“That is alright, Steven.” Both Tony and Steve jump when Frigga speaks, and she rises from her throne, passing their table to stand before the assembly. “I will tell the tale in your stead.”
The atmosphere of the hall shifts, and many warriors bow their heads as though being blessed. Frigga’s manner of speaking is different than Thor’s, quieter and deeper, demanding that the audience lean their ears to hear her so that she need not shout to reach them. Tony listens, a little frightened, as Frigga traces their landing and their night camped out on the rocks, their encounter with the gray thing (so that’s what a bilgesnipe is) and Tony’s subsequent injury, and their next encounter with the bird beasts. Her way of telling makes it all seem so dire, so pressing, and Tony supposes it was, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. He was just doing what he had to to protect Steve.
Then, however, they reach the part of the story that Tony doesn’t know. The part where he passed out. He listens with growing horror as Frigga describes what Steve did, how he pushed himself for days on end, dragging Tony behind like so much dead weight. How he starved himself. How he didn’t sleep.
Tony glances over at Steve, who’s staring into his goblet, cheeks aflame, shoulders hunched. He looks like a man who’s used to disappearing into the corners of a room, like he’d rather be back out on the hell plains than here in the hall. He did all that. For Tony.
The audience erupts in thunderous cheering and Tony realizes with a start that Frigga has finished. She steps back, bows and picks up a decanter of mead, pouring first for Steve, then for Tony.
“How, how’d you know all that?” Steve asks her quietly, and Tony leans forward, because he’d like to know too.
“I have my ways,” she says. “Odin’s gifts are for war, but mine are for healing, for magics, for knowing the soul. I watched your journey, walked it with you. That is how I know.”
She leans forward and kisses first Steve’s forehead, and then Tony’s, and something wells up inside him that aches fiercely, because she still smells of Christmas cinnamon. When she steps away, Odin pounds his staff again.
“The tale is told. Let there be dancing.”
As one, the Asgardians rise and clear their benches and tables to the sides of the room. A few people step forward with flute, fiddle, and drums and quite suddenly the Asgardians are whirling across the floor. It’s not long before a woman approaches Tony and offers her hand. “Will you do me the honor, Anthony of the Iron Armor?”
Tony glances to Steve and Thor, wondering what the protocol is here, but Thor is flapping his hand as though to say “go on” and grinning, so Tony takes her hand and lets her lead him onto the dance floor. It’s not exactly any kind of dance he knows, but he can at least turn in the same direction she does and she doesn’t seem to mind leading. They spin and spin across the floor, and Tony feels strangely light. He hasn’t danced like this in years, and he’s amazed he has the breath for it. The woman seems nice enough, too, smiling and asking him about Midgard in between breathless twirls. When the dance finishes, she passes him off to a stately man in sweeping robes and they take up another dance, a slower one with a lot of bowing.
From time to time, Tony glances toward the dais and head table until he spots Steve being reluctantly led onto the dance floor by a grinning Thor. He wishes he could see better. Hell, he wishes…
Where he would normally squash that thought and let it rest, something in him rebels. He can feel it just behind the stone that sits light and warm in his chest. Maybe he and Steve should dance. Tony needs to chew him out for being a complete idiot anyway, and maybe if they’re dancing, it won’t be quite so antagonistic.
But the moment he finishes the bowing dance another Asgardian approaches him, and then another and another. Ten dances later, his ribs feel stiff and cold, that strange alien healing throbbing just next to his lungs. He ducks out of his next dance and goes to stand against the wall, studying the dance floor.
He hasn’t seen Steve in quite a while, and he searches the hall of boisterous warriors anxiously. The crush of people is a little overwhelming, and without the calming press of the strange spells in the healing hall, Tony can feel faint panic burbling at the edges of his mind. He is desperately trying not to think about the stone in his chest, and absence of the arc reactor’s hum, and Thor and his cohort for the most part have been a good distraction. But it’s Steve who grounds Tony in this moment, reminds him that they made it through the Asgardian meat grinder and came out the other side.
“You might find him there,” Thor says quietly in his ear, pointing over Tony’s shoulder to vaulting doors. It surprises Tony how very different Thor’s demeanor is here. He’s more subdued, more regal, and Tony wonders what it is about earth that makes him so jovial and loose. Tony smiles and nods and ventures out onto the balcony.
The scenery steals his breath. Steve stands dwarfed by the sky, limned in faint blue and golden light. He faces the stars, his shoulders broad and a little tense, and he looks up at the cloudy nebulae and the two giant planets glowing above him. The ocean before him disappears into the distance, and Tony can hear the roar of the endless falling water. In the distance, the repaired Bifrost glows golden and regal upon its multi-colored bridge.
“Needed some air?” Tony asks, and Steve looks over his shoulder, eyebrows raised but expression hesitant.
“It’s a lot,” Steve says, ducking sheepishly.
“They do know how to throw a party, that’s for sure.” They both know that’s not quite what Steve means, but he doesn’t correct Tony. Instead he laughs and looks back out. Tony joins him and they stand shoulder to shoulder, staring out at the alien landscape, at the ocean that drops into infinity.
Tony can feel that strange urge just behind his heart, a welling sensation that shifts restlessly and bubbles in his throat as though waiting to come out. He wonders what other spells Frigga has set in his skin. Bravery? Compassion? Empathy?
“So you really thought I was going to die?” Apparently tact was not one of the things she etched into him.
Steve shudders and hunches in a little. “You didn’t see yourself, Tony. You weren’t, I didn’t…” He shrugs helplessly and glances over, as though making sure Tony is still there and still whole.
“And you really thought the best way to save me was to get yourself killed in the process?”
At that, Steve’s jaw hardens into that stubborn line Tony has memorized so well. “I wasn’t trying to get myself killed. I did what I had to.”
“Steve, my life is not worth your death. Ever.”
“It is to me.”
They stare at each other, hard-mouthed, craggy-browed, until Tony suddenly laughs a little, a weak splutter. “We’re a couple of idiots.”
Steve laughs too, looking down at his feet. “Yeah we are,” he says, a self-deprecating smile dancing on his face. “Yeah we are.
They both turn to look out on the sky again, and Tony lets it sink in for a moment. That they’re here, together, alive. He thought maybe telling Steve he shouldn’t have done what he did would be enough, but he can still feel that strange something in his chest. Maybe it’s the damn stone. Maybe that’s what keeps pushing him.
“Thank you,” he says abruptly, tracing the edges of the finials along the balustrade. He can feel Steve looking at him, about to say something, but he’s not done speaking yet. “For saving me. It was stupid, what you did, but you did it unquestioningly. A lot of people would’ve just left me there to die, but that wasn’t even an option in your mind. So thank you.”
Steve shrugs, ducking his head. Tony stares at his profile, studying the crook in his nose, the fullness of his lips, the easy tousled fall of his hair. Then, very suddenly, Steve stands up straight, turns to face Tony, and squares his shoulders. “Can I, can I do something that might be really stupid?”
“You, Steve? Doing something stupid and impulsive? I can’t imagine.”
But Tony grins and waits, keeping his body language open. Steve puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder and draws him nearer, sliding another hand along Tony’s lower back and up until he’s cupping a shoulder blade. And then he bows his head and kisses Tony.
Tony’s mind goes blank for a moment, barely processing the soft press of Steve’s lips, the gentle circling motion of his palm on Tony’s back. It’s too good to be true, and yet the vague discomfort in his ribs and feet, the chill of the night wind on his face, those all feel real. It’s only Steve and his sweet entreaty that seems otherworldly.
Steve pulls away after a moment, studying Tony’s face. “I said it was really stupid,” he murmurs, and he starts to pull away. Unacceptable. Tony gets a hand on Steve’s neck and pulls him back in, kissing him again. It feels right, pressing against Steve, sheltered by his broad shoulders, fingers working through the short bristle at the back of his neck.
When they part again, Tony whispers, “Only a little stupid.”
Steve laughs, a warm puff of air across Tony’s lips, and smiles a little, the corners of his eyes crinkling with joy. Tony’s answering grin is bigger, and he pulls Steve down until they are pressed together, forehead to forehead, wrapped tightly around each other. “I like a little stupid,” he breathes, briefly kissing Steve’s nose.
“So do I,” Steve says laughing. “So do I.”
They stay there on the balcony, letting the wind cut through their clothes until Steve shivers. “Come on,” Tony says, wrapping fingers around Steve’s wrist. “Let’s head back in. Get a little warmed up.”
They slip back into the great hall, clinging to the edges, trading glances and giggling. Tony’s almost drunk on it, on the heady feeling that there’s now something shared between him and Steve, something sweet and warm and secretive. Maybe not so secretive, he thinks when he catches Thor watching them and grinning. Tony means to grab drinks for Steve, means to push a warm piece of bread pudding or a steaming cup of mead on him, but somehow they can’t seem to stop touching each other. It’s Steve who pulls them out into a side corridor, stepping into Tony’s space for another kiss.
When they break apart, Tony’s panting a little, giddy, effervescent. He hasn’t felt this way about a budding relationship since college, hanging on every scrap of love Sunset Bane bestowed on him.
“We should,” Steve says breathlessly, “we should…go to bed. To sleep. To sleep. You, you’re still healing.” He’s pink-cheeked, head bowed, the very vision of shy bashfulness. It’s thrilling. Tony feels almost like he’s dancing.
“Ok. Ok. Sleep, yeah. Together?”
Steve’s flush creeps up his ears and he peers at Tony from under his eyelashes. “I don’t want to let you out of my sight,” he whispers, almost like he’s said something he shouldn’t have. Tony nods and takes Steve’s wrist again, tugging him through the long corridors, growing more and more lost until they run into a guard who gives them a knowing eye roll and leads them back to the houses of healing, where Tony is apparently still meant to stay.
He and Steve crawl into bed together, both turned on their sides awkwardly facing each other, a hand-span between them. Steve is the first to sigh and curl an arm around Tony, pulling him into the curve of his body, puzzling their legs together into a basket work, bending around Tony until he feels surrounded and protected. The golden mists of the healing bed rise up and envelope them and the last thing Tony thinks is that somehow, this is both very right and very wrong.
Thor wakes them the next morning, and at first Steve is so fuzzy he can’t even bring himself to be embarrassed by the way he and Tony are wrapped around each other.
“My friends, I hope you have rested well. Today we return to Midgard, where the others anxiously await your return. I’ve not been able to send them word that you are safe. They only knew that you were found when Heimdall came to retrieve me. Eat and we will depart. My mother has prepared a grand send-off for you.”
In the light of day, Steve feels even more uneasy about the Asgardians treatment of them as some sort of heraldic heroes. He only did what was necessary. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t deserve all the accolades. But Thor is settling a tray on their laps, pulling up a chair and grinning at them, so he weakly smiles back and begins eating. His appetite has returned to him at last, and his metabolism is making up for lost time. As politely and carefully as he can, he puts away half the chicken, several rashers of bacon, two vines of grapes, a flagon of sweet sparkling juice, and half a loaf of bread. Tony, however, seems to have given the whole of his appetite to Steve; he only picks at his own food. He glances up at Steve several times, though, surreptitiously. Steve’s grown used to reading between Tony’s constantly shifting lines, but in this, he can’t quite place what’s worrying Tony.
When they’re done, Thor leaves them new clothes to change into, just as richly embroidered and fine as the last. In addition, there’s armor and weaponry. Outfitted in burnished silver that matches his shield, Steve feels almost ridiculous. Tony’s in burnished gold, carefully angled and shaped to resemble the Iron Man, and he looks just as ill at ease in it, shifting uncomfortably. There’s a sparkling crust of jewels in a circle in the middle and it glints as Tony turns this way and that.
“Wish it was in the suit,” he says, looking up at Steve with an uneasy grin. “Not sure how much good this would do in a fight.” He experimentally lifts the war hammer the Asgardians have given him and grimaces. “I’m more of a point and shoot kind of a guy.”
Steve steps in as close as he can in the armor, cupping Tony’s elbows. “I still think you could do a fair amount of damage,” he says with a slow grin. Then his expression grows more serious. “Can I…can I kiss you again?”
Something in Tony’s eyes clouds over, and Steve’s heart clenches with fear. Maybe yesterday was in the heat of the moment. They were both light-headed with Asgardian mead and joviality, and maybe under those endless stars Tony had just gone with the flow. But then Tony nods and tilts his head, closing his eyes and parting his lips in just the barest hint of invitation. Steve bends awkwardly, the armor keeping them from getting as close as he’d like, and kisses Tony. It’s different from the last time somehow. Fluttering and bird-light, ready to break at any moment. It feels fragile and afraid.
Steve pulls away with a frown, lifting a hand to touch Tony’s jaw. “Is this ok?”
“Yeah,” Tony says, and flashes his teeth. Bravado. Not true joy. Steve swallows, unease creeping up his gullet. “It’s definitely ok. More than ok. Shall we go?” Tony offers his elbow to Steve as though they’re about to go out on the town, and Steve takes it, still ill at ease.
Together they step out of the halls of healing to where Thor is waiting, smiling and fully armed. “So Thor,” Tony says, still full of his bluster, his free hand fluttering, “how did we even end up here. The portal, the gravitational anomalies, all that jazz, did Bruce manage to analyze it?”
Thor’s face darkens and he looks down at Mjolnir at his side. “I fear the cosmos is moving,” he muses slowly, gently touching the engraving on the metal. “In what ways I know not, yet this upheaval, the revelation of the Tesseract, the fearful power in Loki’s scepter. These portals between the worlds have appeared before, and when they did, a great calamity fell on the world. After I’ve deposited you safely in Midgard, I may return here to consult my mother. She knows much of the universe’s old powers.”
Thor leads them to a quay where one of the glittering, flying boats waits to carry them to the Bifrost. Frigga is there, as well as a host of Asgardian warriors. Steve recognizes faces from the night before and shifts uncomfortably as they all look at him with wonder.
“Anthony of the Iron Armor, Steven the Indomitable,” Frigga says, stepping forward. “I wish you swift winds on your journey home. We here in Asgard will work to understand how you first came to be here and what it means for the Nine Realms. We hope you will do us the same honor from your world.”
She takes Tony’s shoulder, pulling him forward and kissing his cheek. Steve sees her whisper something to him before pressing her lips to his skin again. When she moves away, Tony looks shaken. Then she does the same for Steve, her pointed fingers resting over the center of his breastplate.
“Look after Anthony, Steven. He will need your guidance. I know our ways are not yours, but I know not what else I could have done for him. Your bravery is still needed, so do not abandon it here on our shores.”
Her lips on his cheek are papery soft, like dragonfly gossamer, and for just a moment Steve smells his mother’s simple perfume, the small jar she saved only for church and Christmas. His chest aches with the familiarity of it and for a moment he fears he won’t be able to remove his hand from Frigga’s elbow. Thor, however, tugs him away, ushering him onto the boat. It’s loaded with a chest, and Frigga speaks up, addressing both them and the crowd.
“Asgard sends glad tidings with you. Gifts for the mighty warriors my son has told us of. I hope you will accept our good will as a small atonement for the havoc my younger son wreaked upon your world.”
Steve stares at her, frowning. This is the first true apology Asgard has offered Earth, and he can’t help but notice that it only comes from the Queen, not from the King. But he bows and offers a weak thank you, sitting as Thor puts his hand to the rudder. The ship lifts from its landing and rises into the humid Asgardian air, swiftly gaining altitude and speed. The watching Asgardians raise up a cry as they go, spears and swords lifting into the air in salute. Steve hasn’t felt such culture shock since he first landed in 2012.
The sparkling sea disappears beneath them until it is only a distant glass mirror, and Thor takes them on a complete circuit around the ivory and gold city. Tony watches everything with a distant eye, and again Steve feels a nugget of worry unfurl in his chest. What had Frigga meant in her admonition?
They round out over the sea again, and Steve’s stomach lurches when the ocean drops away into a fathomless chasm of clouds. He had imagined floating landmasses on his first morning here, but now actually seeing it, he feels almost ill. Where does it all go?
Thor brings them in on an easy landing at the Bifrost and there a golden-armored giant of a man awaits them. “My Prince,” he says, not even bowing.
“Heimdall. We are come to return.”
“And I shall return you.” He steps aside, and Thor leads them inside and up a golden plinth. Heimdall steps to a golden orb and hefts his huge two-handed broadsword.
“Swift winds, my Prince.”
“And you, Heimdall.”
The sword sinks into the orb and Steve’s vision fills with light, all the colors of the spectrum and more, time stretching around him, stars flitting past too quickly to see, his ears feel like they’re about to implode, and then as quickly as it begun, it stops and Steve, Tony, and Thor stand on the landing platform of Avengers Tower.
“Welcome home, sirs,” JARVIS intones from the loud speakers, and Tony collapses to his knees.
On the metal of the platform, Tony is shaking and hyperventilating, his eyes dilated too large to be healthy, his fingers scrabbling at the steel framework like he plans to dig straight through it. Steve drops to his side and places a hand on the armor plating of his back, speaking quickly.
“We’re back Tony. We’re here at Avengers Tower. I’m right here with you. Can you count and breathe with me? Easy in five. Ready?” Tony shakes and shakes, and Steve is distantly aware that the other Avengers are crowding around them, waiting at a distance that is both too close and too far away.
“Stark,” Natasha says sharply, dropping to Tony’s other side. She puts her thin, strong fingers on the back of his neck and starts counting with Steve like it’s second nature. Ever so slowly, Tony’s frantic breathing quiets and he closes his eyes, the air shivering and shaking as it enters his lungs.
“Portals,” he spits finally, hatefully, his fingers clenching into a tight fist.
Behind him, Steve hears Thor take a sharp breath, but that’s secondary to his worry for Tony. He should’ve known. He should’ve thought of it. Some tactical genius he is.
“Do you think you’re up to standing?” Steve asks, even as Natasha keeps counting single-mindedly.
Tony nods and steps up to a knee, his war hammer swinging and clinking at his hip. “I’m fine,” he breathes, pushing away Steve’s hand. Steve pretends he doesn’t feel a jolt of jealousy when he doesn’t push Natasha away as well. “Let’s get inside.”
As though of one mind, the Avengers ring Tony and walk him into the tower, Clint on point, Bruce and Thor at the rear, Steve and Natasha at the flanks. A ball of barbed tension Steve didn’t even realize he’d been carrying slowly uncoils and dulls as they step into the Tower. He hadn’t realized how much he’d come to rely on them all, how much he needs them all in his life now, this little band of misfit heroes.
“I’m thinking pizza,” Clint says with a grin, turning on them all and spreading his hands with a kind of easy bravado that belies the fact that he’s still holding his bow in one hand and hasn’t unstrung it. Behind them there’s a whump and a crackle of thunder and the box Frigga had given them, along with another larger chest, appears where they had just been standing. Tony shudders at the light and sound and Natasha hurriedly marches him further in, away from the windows. “Pizza,” Clint says, staring out with his sharp, thousand-yard stare. “JARVIS?”
“Right away, Mr. Barton. The usual order?”
“And throw in a couple extra of Steve’s favorites,” Natasha says, looking back over Tony’s shoulder. “He looks like he could eat a horse.”
“I do?” Steve says dumbly, watching as they walk away from them. He’s not jealous. That’s what he tells himself. Tony’s been leaning on Natasha longer, and he was clearly nervous when Steve kissed him this morning. It’s nothing. It’s fine.
Behind him, Thor hauls in the chest and box, opening them for Steve’s perusal. The chest contains the broken remains of Tony’s armor and Steve’s uniform, the arc reactor carefully placed on top in a holding box specially designed for it. The box of gifts is…too generous. Gleaming, oddly curved blades that fit easily in the palm, a bow of a strange wood the like of which Steve has never seen, rich clothing, Hulk-sized gloves that Steve fingers curiously, unsure of their significance, and beneath all that, thick books with strange titles and stranger writing. The more he stares, the more he is able to understand though, as though the gilt letters are rearranging themselves into the Roman alphabet.
Someone clears their throat behind him, and Steve turns toward the living room, where Clint, Natasha, Steve, and Bruce disappeared with Tony. Natasha stands there, her winged eyebrows drawn down thunderously, her mouth in a dangerous line. “What are you doing out here? Go in to him!” She barely speaks above a whisper, but her posture is threatening, almost overbearing.
“He didn’t want me to,” Steve says helplessly, remembering how Tony had pulled away, pushed away.
“Steve! You’re still trusting his words? Jesus, get in there!” She pulls him to his feet with almost terrifying strength and gives him a violent shove. “I’ll take care of this. Go.”
Steve goes into the common room and searches for Tony, finds him curled on the couch, divested of most his armor, with Clint pressing a hot cup of coffee into his hands. “This’ll do the trick,” Clint is saying, giving Tony a friendly smile, “and pizza’ll be here in twenty. Pizza fixes everything.”
“Says you.” Tony gives a tired snort, and Steve instantly feels a little more at ease. At least he’s joking with them. That’s better than dead silence. Quietly, Steve approaches, shedding his chest plate and gauntlets as he goes.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asks, gesturing to Tony’s left. Tony looks up at him with such guarded eyes, but even so Steve thinks he can just see the fear in them, the thing Tony’s working so hard to hide. But he shrugs nonchalantly and scooches a little closer to the arm of the sofa, a clear invitation. Steve settles close to him, but not quite touching. He tries to open his torso toward Tony, to look inviting, and hopes that Tony will take the implicit offer.
At first nothing happens, and Steve’s shoulders slowly drop, curving inward until he’s fighting the urge to cross his arms. But then Tony pushes into him, just enough that their thighs are touching and he leans into Steve’s personal space as well so that their elbows brush together when they move. When Clint comes back in with another cup of hot coffee, he says nothing, only sets it down at Tony’s side, steaming and smelling of home.
“I know it’s not Thursday,” he says, scuffing his socks in the carpet, “but how do you guys feel about an impromptu movie night? To celebrate.”
Steve glances sidelong at Tony, sees that he’s just watching them all with that frighteningly hooded, haunted look, and turns back to Clint. “Sounds good. I think we could use a bit of…a bit of time with the team.”
Bruce, curled on his own personal chair with legs crossed and tea steaming in his hands, murmurs agreement. “While we’re waiting on the pizza,” he says after a moment, setting aside his tea, watching both Tony and Steve with a razor sharpness he rarely displays, “do either of you need a medical check?”
Tony flinches, drawing nearer to Steve, and impulsively Steve puts an arm around him shoulders, drawing him closer still. “The Asgardians had us in their healing bay. I think we’re both as healthy as we’re going to be without a bit of rest and recovery time.”
“Good,” Natasha says as she leaps over the sofa on Steve’s other side, settling down in a position that allows her to see all of them at once, “because you’re both benched for at least a week.”
“Nat,” both Tony and Steve protest at once, and she puts her palm up, her expression carved in diamond.
“Tony, after what happened on the platform, you have no room for argument. Steve, you’re thin. Too thin. I don’t know what happened over there, and I’m not demanding a debrief this instant, but as second-in-command, I’m calling it. Rest. We’ve got this. Especially since Thor’s here.”
She glances sharply over to where Thor hovers near the entrance they came through. He quavers under her gaze and then nods. “I must return to Asgard to discuss how Anthony and Steven came to be there, but I can remain on Midgard until they are both in better health. My mother would insist on it.”
Steve almost misses the miniscule shiver that runs down Tony’s spine, but it’s there, just under Tony’s skin. “You ok?” he murmurs, leaning into Tony so that the others can’t here. “Cold?”
Tony only nods, so Steve pulls the thick chenille throw off the back of the sofa and tucks it over both their laps, sharing body heat as best he can without pulling Tony even closer.
Natasha, Thor, and Bruce are still discussing their roster, but it’s a distant buzz in Steve’s brain as he looks down at Tony’s profile, the sharp line of his upturned nose and the curve of his ear. He’s very pointedly not looking at any of them, and his mouth is in a stubborn angry line. It itches at Steve’s mind, the surety that he has missed something desperately important, and without that information, there’s no way for him to help Tony fight whatever it is, whatever is eating at him.
Maybe it’s the portals? Steve is useless when it comes to fighting those. He lacks the mathematical and scientific abilities to process them. And if it’s something else… All he can do is wait and stand by Tony, ready to guard his back at the first sign of trouble.
Just then, the pizza arrives and Natasha cuts off the shop talk, shooing Thor onto the love seat as they wait for Clint to bring up their order. That seems to set Tony at ease, watching the team pass around gooey cheese slices and the sharp-scented anchovies Thor always insists on. They put on Star Wars and all of them sink into it, commenting and quoting as they see fit. The evening wears on and Tony sinks into Steve’s side, gradually relaxing inch by precious inch. Steve could almost believe nothing is wrong at all.
Around two in the morning, when most of them have nodded off in their chairs, Tony remains wide awake, staring with dry, aching eyes as Luke rescues Han. Steve’s still awake too, his fingers gently playing against Tony’s arm where they’ve been protectively curled for hours. Steve glances down at him, at the eyes that must be blood-shot and sunken, and says, “You want to head to bed?”
Tony nods numbly and allows Steve to help him up, the blanket pooling at their feet. Together they walk down the hallway to the living quarters, reaching Steve’s room first. There they pause, and Tony can’t quite bring himself to look in Steve’s eye. He was the one who…but that wasn’t right. Neither of them were in the right mind. He knows that now. That tug centered in his chest, the whisper of suggestion, the sickening curl of obedience, none of that was real. And if it wasn’t real in him, it wasn’t real in Steve. It couldn’t have been.
“Night, Cap,” he says, brusquely, stepping away and throwing a sharp wave over his shoulder. “See you in the morning.”
He scurries off even though Steve is starting to say something. Tony pretends he can’t hear it, missed it entirely, and turns down the corner, slipping away so that he can lick his wounds in peace. He’s not running, he’s definitely not. He’s…adjusting. He slips into his room and locks the door behind himself, pressing against the thick wood of the door, holding his hand to his fluttering heart.
“Sir?” JARVIS asks after a moment. “Sir, your respiration and pulse are elevated. Shall I call Dr. Banner?”
Sneaky bastard. Tony knows how to play this game. He waves his hand and shakes his head. “I’m fine, J. Just…just adjusting.” If he says it enough times, maybe it will become true. He pads to his bathroom and begins shedding the Asgardian clothing, leaving all the silk and velvet in a wrinkled trail behind him. By the time he reaches the master bath, he’s shirtless and pointedly not looking down. He’ll look at it when he’s damn good and ready. So he stands staring at the tub, contemplating what it would be like to sink into water. If he triggers a different weak spot in his weak mind, will the other weak spots strengthen, fade into the background? Or will he just crumble to pieces, too full of cracks to do anyone any good?
He sucks a deep breath into his newly repaired lungs. Another. Another. And then he turns and faces the mirror. The stone glints out at him, its inner fire eerily familiar. He lifts his fingers to touch it, to tap at it the way he would the reactor, but he can’t bring himself to touch it. He only stares and stares, hypnotized by the sparking lights.
“Please understand,” she’d pleaded, her cinnamon scent flooding his nose, a familiar melody in his mind, but he can’t. How can they… Tony can’t even finish the thought. He turns away from his own reflection, ignores the lines slowly etching themselves into his face, and uses the toilet before turning back to his room.
He climbs into his own bed, the sheets both familiar and alien, and stares up at the ceiling.
“Sir, when you are ready, you have messages from both Ms. Potts and Col. Rhodes. I believe they would both very much like to hear from you.”
“In the morning, J,” Tony mumbles, turning onto his side and throwing his arm over his face. It can all wait until morning. He closes his eyes and tries to sleep. And tries and tries. But there are whispers at the edge of his mind, voices he knows yet doesn’t know, the lingering sense of something occupying his chest in a space that’s not quite his own. He wishes Steve was there, watching his back, but he didn’t, couldn’t ask Steve to be at his side. It’s not right. Not when it was never really Steve’s choice. Sure, Steve would probably still say yes, but not because he wanted to. Not now. Now it would just be pity, some misguided sense of obligation.
Tony lays with his aching eyeballs, turning over possibilities in his head, twisting his fingers in the sheets, looking out over New York’s skyline and superimposing it with the vaulting, swooping lines of Asgard. When next he looks to his alarm clock, it’s 4:37. Sun is just starting to lighten the sky in the east, but it’s nowhere near full sunrise yet. And Tony is apparently not going to sleep.
He could go down the shop, start looking at the portal data again. That sounds like a riot-and-a-half. He’ll just run the numbers and be completely ok, absolutely no problems whatsoever. Or he could start work on a new suit, one built to withstand the impact of a freight train against his chest. That would be time well spent. But he knows what he really wants. Quietly he rises and slips from his quarters padding down the hall to Steve’s room. He pauses there and stares at the innocuous door, the gleaming door handle.
“J, report on Captain Rogers.”
“Is he ok?”
JARVIS is silent for several seconds, and Tony is forced to marinate in his own weakness, the fact that this is not the first time and it’s certainly not going to be the last time he asks this. He knows the privacy protocols perfect well. He wrote them. J isn’t supposed to give him this information unless there’s an emergency. “Quarters will always be completely private,” Tony had told them, and he’d meant it. He can’t spy on his fellow avengers through J, or he’s not supposed to be able to. They are arguably more capable of spying on him, what with Natasha’s deadly silence and probable bugs around the tower and Clint’s constant ventures into the vents. But on nights like these, nights when his own brain can’t stop spinning, Tony needs to know.
“The Captain is sleeping. Pulse and respiration are standard for Captain Rogers physiology and indicative of REM sleep.” JARVIS’ voice is shockingly neutral, and Tony loves him for that, loves him every time JARVIS doesn’t reprimand him for his weakness. He especially loves him especially as he curls in toward the door, pressing his forehead to the wood. Steve’s sleeping. Steve’s safe. At least one thing has gone right in this world.
He removes himself from the door and continues on past the living room (Clint is still asleep on the loveseat, a blanket draped over him.) into the kitchen. He starts up the coffee machine and stares blearily as tubes and water bubble to life, brewing him the strongest cup of coffee he can make. On the smart table, he opens his company email and starts going through the things he’s missed. R&D isn’t on fire, is in fact, slightly ahead of schedule with their designs for the clean energy plants he wants to establish throughout the US. That’s good. He can work with that.
Coffee in hand, he falls into a haze of designing and planning, applying for the permits they’ll need, appealing to cities with facts the plants’ low costs and their eventual returns. His eyeballs ache, but it’s negligible. Anything to take his mind off the rest of his body.
That’s Steve. That’s Steve’s voice right at his side. He looks up and does his best to arrange his face into polite inquiry. Nothing to see here. Perfectly normal. Just Tony and his work.
“What are you doing up? Did you even sleep?”
“Wanted to get a jump on SI business,” he says with an easy wave of his hand, quickly turning back to his plans. “I’ve missed quite a bit.”
“Tony, you need to rest. I know the Asgardians did a lot of healing for you, but that doesn’t mean you’re completely in the clear.” Steve’s hand is on his shoulder, gentle and warm and imploring. It feels so fucking good, and for just the briefest moment he leans into it, relishes in it, and then he quickly stands away from his chair and clears the screen.
“Were you getting breakfast? I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Tony…” Steve’s moving toward him, reaching his arms out. Tony almost lets it happen, almost weakens, but he just can’t. He skitters away and turns for the door.
“I’ve got work to do. See you around, Steve.” He runs for his lab and hopes that Steve’s not on his heels, because in a speed contest without the suit, only one person’s winning and it sure as hell is Tony, with his aging joints and baseline human stats. But he reaches his lab with no interference and quickly throws up the black-out mode windows. With no windows, surrounded by his tools and inventions, DUM-E revving to life in the corner, Tony finally lets go, just a little.
He collapses into his ergonomic chair and stares at the classic car screensavers, those hot-rod-red flames that first inspired his paint choices. It soothes him just a little as he feels his own pulse pound in his ears.
His brain fazes out, goes fuzzy at the edges, until J cuts in. “Sir, shall I play your messages from Ms. Potts and Col. Rhodes?”
“Why not? Have at.”
“Tony? They’re saying they found you. Call me when you get back. Please call me. I don’t… Three months in the desert was bad enough, Tony. An alien world? Please call.”
“Tones, they’re telling me you went and got yourself in trouble again. At least Cap is with you. I know he’ll watch your six. You call me when you get back. Let me know you’re safe.”
There are more messages before that, but he doesn’t bother with those. It’s bad enough listening to Pepper near tears in the last one. Tony stares at the audio transcript, at Pepper and Rhodey’s smiling faces on the side, and presses his lips together because he is not going to fucking cry. What good would it do? It’s not going to make the thing in his chest go away, that’s for damn sure. And he can’t shake the niggling feeling that at any moment, he’ll hear her voice again, just the barest whisper of suggestion at the back of his throat, but one that feels imperative nonetheless.
Tony fucking hates magic. He hates it.
And he will undo it as soon as he possibly can.
“J, rev up the CT scanner and see if we have something we can rig into an EKG. I want to know what the hell my heart is doing yesterday.
“Would you prefer to contact Col. Rhodes and Ms. Potts first, sir?”
“You’re not subtle, J. Not subtle at all. Scans.”
If JARVIS could sigh, Tony is 100% sure he would, and often. Instead, there’s a brief pointed silence before J says, “Dr. Banner has a machine currently wired to perform an EKG in his personal laboratory space. Preparing CT scanning equipment.”
Tony lets JARVIS handle the wet science side of things while he goes over projections of SI schematics above his head. The scans of his chest he stares at for only a moment before swiping them away. By necessity, he’s learned a stunning amount about the human chest cavity in the last several years, but he’s not quite up to staring at his own personal squishy bits just yet. Especially when he doesn’t understand the magic that’s making him tick.
She’d said…she’d said he could, would replace it. It can be removed. But how? And how long can he survive without it? Can Thor tell him? Or should he have asked her? Would he even trust her answers?
Yes. The answer is fucking yes because he wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. Her voice would be there, in his mind, urging him to trust, to obey. To…
“Sir? Captain Rogers is at the door.”
“Little busy,” Tony says, hurriedly shoving his shirt down and ripping away the EKG wires. He scrambles over to his desk where the SI plans are idling and pops them up into holograms so he can stare pointedly at them and not at Steve.
“He is most insistent.”
“Of course he is,” Tony grouses, hand hovering over the not-reactor in his chest. He drops it and nods. “Let him in.”
The door hisses open and Tony listens to the barely-there tread of Steve’s boots. For such a large man, he’s remarkably quiet and it makes Tony shiver all down his spine. He doesn’t like being snuck up on.
“Tony? JARVIS said you didn’t eat breakfast.”
“Coffee doesn’t count, Tony.” Steve sets down a tray set with fruit yogurt and granola, as well as another cup of coffee and a glass of orange juice.
“Treating me right, Cap?” Tony asks, spinning and giving what he hopes is his most rakish smile. It kind of fades away, though, when he meets Steve’s eyes and sees the sincere worry there.
“Always,” Steve says softly, shuffling a little and crossing his arms, clearly uncomfortable. “Mind if I sit?”
“Knock yourself out.” Normal. Easy. Tony can do this. He can convince Steve that everything is fine. He glances over to the projections again and tweaks one of the arrays for the power conduits. Efficiency raised by 3%.
“Do you…can we talk?”
“’Bout what, Cap?”
“Asgard. What happened there. Between us?”
“I’m, uh, kind of busy, Cap. Company to run. Suits to update. Portals to decipher. World energy crisis to solve. Can we put the talk on hold?”
He doesn’t dare look at Steve’s face. Instead, he tweaks another array and accidentally overloads the grid, causing the holographic reactor to explode fantastically all over the lab. He can feel Steve’s eyes on him, see Steve’s hand where it sits completely still on the counter, belying absolutely nothing of what Steve’s thinking or feeling.
“Ok, Tony. Ok.” It’s like a punch in the gut. Tony curls in on himself a little, remembering the moment the bilgesnipe struck him. “I’ll leave you alone. But before I go, can I kiss you?”
Tony does turn then, and looks at Steve’s face. He looks so…so hopeful. And beneath that, something else, something Tony’s afraid to look too hard at. He can do this. He can at least do this. He wanted this, he’s pretty sure. He nods and waits as Steve leans across the space between them, half-rising from his chair. The brush of his lips against Tony’s is barely there at all, cautious in a way Tony’s not familiar with, not from Steve. Steve’s just as much as a risk-taker as Tony and this…this isn’t him, is it? This can’t be what Steve really wants. It must be pity. Steve must see how Tony wants it, almost needs it.p>
Steve pulls away when Tony doesn’t respond, and in the end, he simply looks, his hand on Tony’s jaw, his eyes with that fucking kicked puppy look. “Ok, Tony,” he says again, and rises. And leaves.
Tony stares at the door where he’s disappeared, and touches his own lips, holding onto the ghost of Steve’s warmth there. Holding on to his own doubts.
“Captain Rogers, how may I be of service?”
“Has Tony slept yet?”
“Sir fell asleep over his work desk twenty-seven minutes ago.”
“That’s better than nothing, I suppose.” Steve glares down at the portal readouts Bruce has made, trying yet again to parse the words he can only half-decipher. He’s got three different google tabs open, but apparently unlike Tony he can’t teach himself astrophysics in one sitting. Not for lack of trying, though.
Quietly he rubs at his temples and glances at the clock in the corner of his tablet. Almost midnight. He’s been up…a while. Too long, probably. Outside, New York stretches glittering into the darkness. The night is clear and the black sky swallows everything, even the overpowering light pollution. If Steve looks up instead of out, he can almost picture those nebulae and planets hovering there. He sets aside his tablet and rises, stretches, wonders if there are other sleepless Avengers wandering the halls or if he should just bite the bullet and try to sleep.
He keeps thinking back to earlier in the day, Tony staring at him and being kissed but not kissing back. What happened? What changed? He’d looked almost frightened when Steve asked him to share that same intimacy that hours before had felt so right, so warm and natural. He’d been tired of waiting, damn it, and coming so close to losing Tony, it’d only seemed right to try.
Maybe he’d misread the situation. Maybe Tony was only looking for comfort in the moment of survival. Maybe it was less that it was Steve kissing him and holding him and more that it was someone and now he no longer needs that intimacy. Tony probably didn’t garner his playboy reputation with chaste kisses and long walks under the moonlight.
Steve snorts in disgust, bending in half to touch his toes. Second-guessing will only make him worry more. He and Tony will talk, one way or another, and Steve will just ask. He’s tired of waiting, of not acting. He needs to know one way or another what this thing between them is. If Tony wants the same things or if he really just needed a warm body to sleep against that one night and no more.
That decided, he rises and heads to bed, checking down the silent hallways as he goes. If anyone else is up, they’re tucked safely away in their quarters, keeping their demons in private. They’re all “emotionally stunted” as Clint likes to say, and on nights like these, Steve feels it acutely and worries he’s not doing enough as team leader to help them all be slightly less stunted.
In the safety of his own quarters, he shucks his shirt and jeans and slides into bed, looking up at the ceiling and trying not to think. He takes deep breaths, concentrating on his heartrate, slowing it between one inhale and the next, and forcing himself to slip into sleep. It’s deep, dreamless, but even in the depths of REM, something calls him forward.
He jerks awake, reaching for the shield, and freezes when he finds Tony standing at the foot of his bed.
“Tony?” he says, slowly lowering his hands, peering through the darkness.
Tony’s face, even by the poor half-light through the tinted windows, looks wrecked. The lines at the corners of his mouth and his eyes are deeply etched, his forehead drawn into thick folds, and his eyelids look puffy and wet. His arms are crossed over his chest, fingers clenched tightly into his biceps, and Steve can just see the way parts of him have gone white with the force of it.
“Sorry,” Tony says, lips thin and tight. “Sorry, I…I shouldn’t’ve. Sorry.” He turns on his heel and flees toward the door and Steve’s still heavy with sleep, but he knows better than to let Tony go in this state. He stumbles out of bed, sheets tangling around his feet, and dashes to the door feeling like an ogre.
“Tony, what’s going on?”
“It’s dumb,” Tony says shortly, not meeting his eyes, staring fiercely at the door handle just beyond Steve’s body. “I’m sorry I woke you. I’ve got work to do. Let me go.”
“Or you could tell me what’s going through your head. You could let me help.”
“Can’t help with this, Cap. Not unless you want to scramble my brains a little.” Tony grimaces almost as soon as he says it, ducking his head and hiding his face. When he turns back, he’s wearing a weak smile. “Don’t mind me, Steve. I didn’t get as much sleep as I should’ve. Talking nonsense, spewing stupidity, you know how I get.”
Steve wants to grab him by the elbows and shake him, because he does know. He knows exactly how Tony acts when he’s thirty hours into an inventing binge working on 600 calories and pure genius, and this isn’t it. Helplessly he slumps, because he won’t do that to Tony. “I just wish I knew how to help,” he says quietly, and Tony’s fake smile disappears into real pain.
“Some things aren’t so easy to fix, Cap.”
“But they can be easier with a team,” Steve says, reaching out again. Tony flinches back and Steve freezes, his hands clenching on empty air.
“You don’t have to fake it, Steve,” Tony says, eyes back on the door knob like it’s the Arc of the Covenant.
“Fake it? Tony—“
“Anyway, like I said, Steve, sorry I woke you. Sweet dreams. Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite. Not that I’d allow bed bugs in my Tower, but you know what I mean. So bye.” Tony ducks past Steve in a move that would make Natasha proud if she saw it and slips out the door before Steve can get so much as another word out.
“Fake it?” Steve murmurs again, staring at the spot where a moment ago Tony had stood. What the hell? Had Tony thought…what? That Steve asked to kiss him out of…out of what? Steve’s missing a piece of the equation. He almost follows Tony out into the hallway and down to whatever corner he’s tucked himself away into, but Steve knows from experience every time he does that without a game plan, they end up shouting at each other. The last thing he needs right now is a fight.
What he does need is information, and he’s guessing that begins and ends with Frigga and, by extension, Thor.
It is, however, 3AM, and his questions can wait until light of day and Thor’s waking attentions. In the meantime…
“Where did Tony go?”
“Sir has retreated to his room.”
“What brought him here?”
JARVIS is silent for a moment, and Steve stares intently at his bed, waiting for the AI to decide how much he’ll divulge. “I can only speculate, Captain, but Sir was asleep over his desk and his respiration and heartrate increased dramatically, in a pattern frequently indicative of a nightmare state.”
“Was there any reason he…you know, came into my room?”
“I have no concrete evidence for Sir’s actions, Captain.”
“Do you have supposition?”
JARVIS’ silences are so unbearably loud that Steve begins pacing, arms crossed and head bent. He can’t solve the portal problem for Tony, but more and more he suspects that that’s only a contributing factor in the way Tony’s acting and reacting to Steve. He reaches the window before JARVIS speaks again.
“When Ms. Potts still lived on premises, there were at least twelve incidences of Sir checking on her either via verbal confirmation with me or visual confirmation in person after one of his nightmares. He has also repeated these actions on one occasion with Col. Rhodes, and three times with Agent Romanov.”
“And with me?”
“I am not at liberty to share that number.”
Steve’s eyebrows shoot up. There are two ways he can take that answer, and either way makes him nervous. He paces in front of his window for another half an hour, watching the sky gradually lighten and wearing a groove into the deep pile of his carpeting, and then he changes into his workout clothes and goes on a run.
With long, deliberate strides he eats up the pavement, still thinking on how best to handle this. Speaking with Thor is only the first step. What then? Confront Tony? Back off and give him space? Steve can’t imagine pretending it didn’t happen. He wants it to have happened. To happen again and again. But he also doesn’t want to end up fighting with Tony. That won’t get them anywhere, and Steve suspects Tony would use anger to his advantage and push Steve further away.
No, this has to be handled carefully, deliberately, and as soon as possible.
When Steve returns to the Tower, the sun is well and truly risen and he suspects most of the team is as well. Wanting privacy, he goes to Thor’s quarters and has JARVIS announce him. Jane is the one to answer the door, wrapped in a sumptuous robe and looking as ruffled and dead to the world as Tony does before he’s had his coffee.
“Mmph,” she grunts, and leads him back to the kitchen where Thor is similarly robed, long legs stretched in front of him and crossed at the ankle.
“Steven? What brings you here at such an early hour? Have you broken your fast? Join us.”
Jane grunts at both of them and moves to the coffee maker where she stares intently as it percolates. Terrifyingly like Tony, then.
Steve settles at the table and accepts a bagel from the plate Thor offers him, cutting it open and spreading cream cheese as he considers his words.
“Your mother,” he begins, staring down at the grooves in his cream cheese as though they were the lines on a battle plan, “she said something to me before we left. And I’m beginning to think I need an interpreter.”
“Oh?” Thor leans forward intently, his loose hair swinging through the air.
“She said that your ways are not ours, that I’d need to take care of Tony even on this side of the portal. Do you know what she meant by that?”
Thor’s face sets into a pensive mask, and he stares out into the morning sunlight, his blue eyes as distant as the stars. “I suspect I may,” he says, bringing fingers up to stroke at his beard. “Is there a particular reason you’re asking, Steven?”
Steve flushes at this, because part of him would like to keep his business private, but this is important. It’s important to him and it’s more important that Tony get help if that’s what he needs, or space if that’s better instead.
“We…maybe you noticed at the banquet…”
“You consummated your relationship, yes.”
Heat creeps down his neck and up his cheeks to his ears, but Steve nods, concentrating on his bagel, as though he might be able to toast with his eyes it if he stares at it long enough. “Well, we kissed. I don’t know if I’d say…anyway. But when we got back, Tony…he ran. He…he won’t let me kiss him, and he said I don’t have to ‘fake it’ and I’m just wondering if something happened I don’t know about. Something while I was asleep?”
Thor’s eyes widen and he looks down at his own breakfast, shame creeping in around the edges of his eyes. “I think I may now know what my mother meant.”
“My brother…he was always more adept at the arts of magic than I.”
“What does your brother—“
“I will explain, I promise,” Thor says, holding up a hand and meeting Steve’s eyes. “When my mother noticed his aptitude, she was quick to train him. She hoped he might learn to be another great healer like her, but his true talents lay in the ways of trickery and illusion. What Midgardians might call coercion.”
“You must understand, Asgardian healers must experience some of what their patients experience as they heal. My mother said as much to you, I believe. However, a seed of suggestion planted in the heart eases the way for both healer and patient, especially for patients who are too far gone in pain or fever to understand that the healing will help. A hint of a lullaby, a half-remembered summer day, all memories that may come in a healing, and ones the healer may use to soothe the patient. A healer as advanced as my mother can even craft false memories from what she experiences as she heals, visions and dreams to please her patients.”
“Are you telling me your mother…read our minds?”
“It is a consequence of the healing. For Asgardians, this is natural, but for you I imagine it is…uncomfortable.”
“Damn right it is,” Steve says. His jaw is ticking, he knows, but he can’t seem to unclench his teeth. Like a ghost, Jane sets a mug of coffee beside him, and he reaches for it gratefully, wrapping his hands around the warm ceramic. It helps to ground him, if only a little.
“What’s more, this suggestion may linger after the healing, especially one as extensive as Anthony’s.”
The puzzle pieces lock into place and Steve feels a horrible twisting in his gut, the sudden desire to sink down into the ground and not emerge again. “Are you telling me he was…was drugged? When we kissed?”
“No!” Thor says, a sharp shake of his head sending his hair flying. “No, nothing so dark. The suggestions healers plant can never be new ideas. It is not, not complete control. They must use seeds of things already in the mind, things the patients themselves thought or rejoiced in or desired. Loki’s mind-control was unnatural, amplified by his staff. He normally would not be so strong.”
“His feelings must have already been present, for my mother to use them in the healing. I imagine…”
Thor hesitates, studying Steve intently, eyes tracing the lines of anger that must be etched around his mouth.
“Spit it out, Thor.”
“I imagine those feelings were very close to the surface, given what Anthony did to protect you. My mother told me of how he was injured. She felt the impact, a ghost of the impact, as all healers must. She was amazed he survived as long as he did.”
“Well, Tony’s a fighter,” Steve says, himself spoiling for a fight now that his temper is broiling so close to the surface.
“That is what I told her,” Thor agrees, nodding sagely as though the point was never in contention. “All Midgardians are fighters. It is a fact Asgardians have clearly forgotten over the millennia.”
Steve huffs air through his nostrils, squeezing his fingers around his mug until he fears the ceramic might crack. He almost wishes it would. The pain of scalding coffee and jagged clay would be a welcome distraction.
“So Tony, does he think…what, that I was mind-controlled, too?”
“Only Anthony can answer that question.”
Turning the mug round and round in his hand, Steve considers the possibilities. It certainly seems likely. Why else would Tony think…but Steve had kissed him the next morning, too. Maybe he thought the spells lingered? Or maybe he thought it was pity. Either way, it made Steve’s blood boil that Tony had been coerced—because it was coercion by their standards, no matter what Thor said—and that he’d had to suffer in silence.
Abruptly, Steve downs the whole of his mug of coffee, relishing in the burn of it on his tongue and the roof of his mouth. When it’s gone, he sets it down and rises. “Thank you for explaining, Thor. I know your mother meant to help, but…well, maybe next time there shouldn’t be that kind of help.”
“She only did what she felt was right.” Thor looks simultaneously abashed and reproachful, and Steve at least has the good grace to duck his head. The Asgardians did save them, after all. That certainly counts for something.
He mutters an abrupt thanks and heads for the door, forming the next step in his game plan. He thinks he knows what needs to happen to begin to heal this.
Tony jolts awake over his desk to find DUM-E hovering over him with a mug of hot coffee. He’s already accepted it and taken two sips before he notices Natasha’s sitting on the worn-down sofa in the corner.
“Jesus,” he gasps with a little jump, nearly spilling his precious coffee all over his lap.
“You can talk to us you know,” she says, tilting her head her face almost terrifyingly blank.
“Gee, thanks, Nat. I’m sleeping great. How about you? Anyone scare you out of your skin lately?”
Tony freezes, not expecting such a harshly honest answer to his glibness.
“Disappearing into who-knows-where like that and then coming back and shoring up all those walls we’ve been trying to tear down. Two of us on this team have been brain-washed, Tony. Did you think we wouldn’t notice?”
“Don’t answer that. Just listen.” She stands and approaches him, feline grace wrapped in yoga pants and a sweatshirt that Tony is 99% sure belongs to Steve. He couldn’t run if he wanted to. “Whatever happened over there, we’ll find out when we finally manage to get a debrief. But that only goes so far. You can give us the facts and the figures and the play-by-play, but that’s not going to help us help you. Not really.”
She puts her deceptively delicate fingers on his cheek and leans in close. “Not in the least. The only way we can help is if you talk to us, Tony. Clint and I, we’ve been there. We know what it’s like not to trust the voices in your head. Not to trust everything around you. Been there. Done that. And we’ve both made it out the other side.”
Tony knows he’s gaping like a fish, knows his eyes are wide and slightly terrified, but he feels like he can’t hide from her. He couldn’t hide that it happened in the first place, so how the hell could he hide anything now?
“So when you don’t trust what’s right in front of your eyes, maybe come talk to us, ok?”
She pats his cheek once and then kisses it before finally straightening and giving him a little personal space.
He flaps his jaw a few times, pressing his tongue to his teeth like that will somehow help him get a grip on what just happened, and then he shakes it off. “Security breech,” he mumbles, and she laughs, a sound so oddly carefree that he’s frankly shocked it came from her mouth. On silent feet, she turns to go, and Tony can’t stand the thought of not knowing.
Expectantly, she looks over her shoulder, her face still that same odd mask of neutrality.
“How do you know? What’s real and what’s not. How do you tell?”
She looks away then, her eyes half-lidded and a thousand miles away. Her fingers tap at her stomach only once, the briefest brush before she drops them and an odd tell if ever he’s seen one. Then she looks back at him. “Find someone you trust. And ask them.”
“What if…what if you’re not sure they’re real?”
“Then nothing matters anyway. Trust them or give up. Those are your options. Or you could trust yourself, but that gets awfully lonely. Not that you don’t already know that.” Her lips quirk in a smile that lacks any real mirth, and Tony wonders how long it took her to trust herself again. How long it took her to trust Clint to be her anchor.
Between one breath and the next, she slips out, not giving him enough time to ask another question. He stares at the space she filled, trying to make sense of it. The same terrifying thought passes through his mind. His rescue wasn’t real. None of this is real. He’s still dying on the grassy plains of Asgard. But if it’s not real, why does his heart ache?
At last he turns back to his work station, frowning down at the gauntlet design he was sketching before he passed out.
“2:17AM, Sir. You slept for three hours and twenty-two minutes.”
Must be why he still feels like shit. He’d pulled that stunt in Steve’s room this morning and then gone into binge mode, dropping from exhaustion twice. Even then, he soon woke with unsettling nightmares and visions. Hands on his face when he didn’t want them there, the sound of his mother’s voice in his ears, the thud of the monster against his chest again and again and again until he realized it was his own heart pounding in his ears. Steve! Was Steve ok?
Almost the moment he has the thought, Tony feels foolish. Of course Steve is ok. Steve is probably sleeping like all sane people do at two in the morning. But…but what if he isn’t? What if he didn’t survive the plains after all? Tony just needs to check. Just to be sure. And he really ought to try sleeping in a real bed again. Just for kicks.
He shuts down the shop for the night and takes the lift to the sleeping quarters. At Steve’s door he pauses, debating.
“J, status on Captain Rogers?”
“Captain Rogers is not in his quarters.”
Panic zings down Tony’s spine and he fights the urge to hurl the door open and search. It would be fruitless. JARVIS knows where they all are, and is intent on protecting them with every line of code Tony’s ever programmed into him. “Where is he?”
“In your quarters, Sir.”
Panic turns to sick dread and Tony turns to peer down the hall toward his own door. Sleep suddenly feels like a distant concept, something unobtainable tonight. “Maybe I’ll just—“
“The Captain is expecting you, Sir. He asked me to alert him if you stopped at his quarters.”
Betrayed by his own son. Honestly, developing an AI was one of the worst/best decisions Tony ever made. “And if I go back down to my shop?”
“Captain Rogers has made it quite clear he intends to wait all night if necessary.”
Tony might be sick. He might honestly have to duck into Steve’s bedroom and empty his already empty stomach. But that would be silly. There’s no reason for him to be afraid. None. It’s his goddamn room after all.
Gathering breath into his lungs (his horrifyingly clear lungs) Tony starts down the hall, feeling as though he’s on death row. What the hell am I so afraid of? he wonders, but deep down he already knows. Whatever Steve has to say, it’s not going to be pretty. Probably. Tony’s pretty sure.
Steve’s watching the door when Tony slips in, though he doesn’t rise from where he sits on the loveseat in the corner. In fact, he doesn’t say a word, just watches carefully. Tony is painfully aware of what Steve must be seeing. He knows he’s barely eaten since they came back from Asgard, that the fever had been burning him away before that. He knows his sleeplessness has resulted in craggy lines on his face, purple bruises under his eyes. Whatever Steve’s seeing, it’s not pretty.
Once the door’s shut, Tony can’t think of what to do next. He’d expected…a lecture? A fervent question? Steve’s anger? What he doesn’t expect is for Steve to come and hug him, big burly arms pulling him in close until his face is pressed into Steve’s chest.
“I wish you’d said something,” Steve says into his ear, and Tony’s stuttering, sleep-deprived brain can only think What?
When Steve pulls away, his eyes are terribly sad and that’s honestly worse than what Tony was expecting, because anger is easy to meet with anger. (Anger at what, Tony’s not sure, but surely anger.) He could’ve dealt with that. Sadness, though? Disappointment? That’s much harder.
“Tony, that night, the night of the banquet, I wasn’t under Frigga’s influence. I…Thor explained it to me. I’m so sorry you were…not yourself. I know, I feel like I took advantage of you. And that wasn’t right.”
“You…you…” God damn his own exhaustion, because he’s normally quicker on the uptake. Steve wasn’t…which means when he kissed Tony…but then…
“Oh god,” Tony whispers, and panic crawls up the back of his throat like an oozing demon, one he’s become far too familiar with in the past year. And what even is he panicking over now? How does he have so little control left? Thoughts of self-loathing whirl through his head and he can’t seem to stop a single one of them. Steve’s already counting for him, so familiar with this weakness that he knows what to do before Tony even starts hyperventilating. How can he have failed this badly? He was the one who was supposed to protect Steve. That was the whole point, wasn’t it?
“—me, Tony? Easy in. Come on. Please stay with me. Please.”
“If she didn’t,” Tony gasps, sucking desperately at the air, “then why, why—“
“Why did I kiss you? Because I wanted to, Tony. Because I care about you. Because I’m tired of waiting and waiting and waiting and always being too late. I almost lost you. I’m not going to let this slip through my fingers just because I’m afraid.”
“But you don’t—“
“I do. I really, really do.”
Tony squeezes his eyes shut, raising the heels of his palms and pressing until he sees stars. That feels real. But Steve? Steve having feelings for him? Wanting to kiss him? That can’t be real, can it? How does he know the difference?
Trust and ask. That’s what Natasha told him to do. And he supposes she is the expert on mind control. Three quarters of her file is redacted, but Tony’s read enough to know that her childhood was by far the worst of theirs, and that’s saying something in the Avengers.
“Steve,” he breathes. Trust.
“Is this real?”
He wishes he could see Steve’s face, but he can’t bring himself to open his eyes. Not when panic is still black and hot on the back of his tongue. He’s betting Steve looks sad again. Especially when hands touch Tony’s jaw, trace the stubble there.
“Yeah, Tony. Yeah, this is real.”
“How do I know?”
Steve is silent for a very long time, though his thumbs keep tracing circles over Tony’s rough growth, catching on bristly hair and soothing away hard lines. “What can I do to prove it to you?”
“Tell me something only you know.”
Steve hums and the sound of it travels up Tony’s spine. “Something only I know,” he muses, and one of his hands drops to Tony’s throat, tracing the hollow formed by his collar bones and tendons. “When I was a kid, when I was too sick to go to Mass, Father Angelo used to come and visit to give me communion. He was Italian. Came to the States when he was young. I always thought he should have been a grandfather, because he looked just like Santa Claus. But he always said God’s work was more important. He was so…so Old World. When he finished praying with me and hearing my confessions, he’d kiss me on the cheeks. Just like you did when I was holding the arc reactor. Just like this.”
There’s warmth all around Tony as Steve moves closer, and the shadow of him passes over Tony’s eyelids as lips brush first one cheek and then the other and then his forehead.
That…that feels pretty real. Sounds pretty real. Tony doesn’t think an Asgardian could’ve invented something like that. “Tell me another?” he asks, and Steve gently squeezes his shoulders.
“I will, if you’ll do something for me?”
Tony slowly opens his eyes and looks at Steve’s face. It almost hurts to see him looking so hopeful and heartsick at the same time. “What’s that?” Tony asks.
“Get into bed? You need sleep, Tony. I guarantee it’s much harder to tell what’s real and what’s not when you’re not sleeping.”
With a dumb nod and a clumsy stumble, Tony gets to his feet. He hadn’t even realized he’d fallen. Steve rises with him, hands hovering close, ready to help. Too tired for modesty, Tony strips down to his underwear and crawls into bed, fighting to relax into the sheets. It’s easier when Steve joins him, slipping in but keeping a healthy distance between them.
“Real enough?” Steve asks softly, watching Tony from the corner of his eyes.
“Real enough to want more.”
Steve laughs a little and turns onto his side, propping up his head. “Ok. Hmmm. I didn’t break my nose in a fight.”
Tony stares intently at the crook in the bridge of Steve’s nose, the place where it didn’t quite heal straight. “But you—“
“Were getting in fistfights all the time, I know. But no one ever broke my nose in one of those. Black eyes. Split lips and eyebrows. Broken arm. All those. But no broken nose. Nope. I broke my nose trying to get my first kiss.”
He can’t help it. He really can’t. It emerges first as a snort, and then as a guffaw, and then as full-on laughter. Steve’s laughing, too, albeit self-deprecatingly, his eyes downcast with modesty. Somewhere in there, though, Tony’s laughter hiccups into a sob. And then another. And another.
Steve’s arms are there around him, offering solid comfort. He keeps talking, too, like this is completely normal. Maybe it is. Maybe this will just be Tony’s status quo from now on. Maniacal laughter followed by intense crying jags. “Buck set me up with her. Veronica Stein. Prettiest hair. She kept it in perfect curls and it was so shiny I could practically see myself in it. She seemed, she seemed nice. I thought maybe she was talking to me because she actually liked me. And I thought, well Buck had been talking about how nice it was to make time with Debbie Voltaire, so I thought why not. She was leaning in and I was leaning in, but she just kept leaning and picked up a penny. Meanwhile I’m still just waiting there with my eyes closed like a real dumb pigeon and when she stands back up, she cracks me right up the nose. Blood everywhere. Needless to say we never went on a date again.”
By the time Steve finishes, Tony’s crying has died off into weak hiccupping. This feels real. The rawness of his throat and the ache in his sides feels real. He doesn’t think some Asgardian magic could’ve just invented such a wild tale. Steve’s warmth feels real, as does the stickiness of skin against skin.
“Another?” Tony asks, looking up at Steve.
He gets a smile for his trouble—a watery one, but an earnest one all the same.
“Mam swore like a sailor, but only when she thought I couldn’t hear.”
“Is that where you get it from?”
“Hush, I’m telling a story.”
Tony hushes and listens intently as Steve starts in again. By the third sentence he’s out cold.
Tony wakes to crusty puffy eyes and a bed that is entirely too hot. The places where he and Steve are pressed together are uncomfortably sweaty and Steve’s snoring a little. The moment Tony shifts, Steve’s awake, jumping a little.
“How long were we out, J?”
“Ten hours, Sir.” JARVIS sounds positively smug.
Steve groans and pulls away to stretch, the whole ridiculously long length of him arching off the bed. He reaches down to scratch at his belly, and it might be the most damn beautiful thing Tony’s seen in ages.
“Will you kiss me?”
Maybe he shouldn’t have asked, because Steve freezes mid-stretch, glancing over at Tony. “Are you sure? I don’t want to do anything that makes you uncomfortable. I…I want this to be real for you, Tony.”
After a hesitation that feels like it lasts a lifetime, Steve leans over and presses his lips to Tony’s. He tastes uncomfortably of morning breath, and he’s still a little sweaty from where they were pressed together. It’s nothing like the enchanting kiss under the Asgardian night sky.
When Steve pulls away, Tony grins. “No broken noses.”
Steve’s guffaw is disbelieving, and he bows his head until his mouth presses to Tony’s collarbone.
“I can’t believe I told you that. You’re never going to let me live it down.”
Tony grins stupidly at the ceiling, tensing a little when Steve’s hand strays too close to the…to the not-reactor.
“Sorry,” Steve murmurs, pressing an apologetic kiss to the skin of Tony’s shoulder. Ok. Not completely fixed. Not yet. Not by a long-shot. But Natasha did say it’s easier when you’ve got someone to trust. It feels easier.
“Tell me another?”
Steve looks up, working his elbows under himself so that he can watch Tony’s face. “Another?”
“Did I ever tell you about the time Peggy went as me into battle?”
“Tell me about it.”
Steve grins, opens his mouth, and starts talking.