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The Viral Code

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It starts with only a small crescent shape on his arm where the lance hit him and cut through his glove and down through his sleeve. He thinks nothing of it, after all as an Avenger and a warrior he’s used to the battle bruises and the scrapes of war. It is red the first day, like all slices. Still in the debrief he only notices it because it stings. He peels back his long sleeved plaid shirt and peers at it. It is red and angry and like a curse written on his skin. He actually thinks that for only a second, but then goes back to listening to the debriefing.

In the shower, the second day Steve notices that the slice has curled around and over his wrist. He doesn’t remember it being as long as this; he doesn’t recall it curving about his wrist like a manacle. He reaches out in the warmth of the water and touches it, only to pull his hand away. It hurts like he’s touching ice on a dry winter’s day. When the water touches it, it does soothe it a bit, but not enough to take away the sharp bitterness of it. That alien lance packed a lot of punch. He leaves it at that, he’s sure of the serum. It will take care of it, it always does.

After five days Steve’s arm tremors and he thinks maybe he should to confess to someone that the long slash has transformed into an ugly network of welts up and down his right arm. The pattern is intricate and not random, even he can tell that. He doesn’t understand it, not for a minute. But he hides it; he doesn’t want the others to notice, to worry. He’s their leader. It is his job to be strong.

Tony walks in on him one day in the gym when he’s all but given up on working out. His arm hurts and he’s holding his elbow because of the shakes. As he sits on the bench, he bends over and cups his arm to his chest trying to rock the pain away. Tony saunters in the room as he does all the time; every movement of Tony’s is always self-assured and wickedly arrogant. Sometimes Steve doesn’t know if he should punch him or kiss him. This time he leaves it alone and just ignores him.

Unfortunately, Tony notices him curled in the corner of the large work out space in SHIELD’s gym. “Cap? Do a little sparring? JARVIS said I need to spar.”

Tony doesn’t see the scarring or whatever it is on Steve’s arm because he has a long sleeved t-shirt on. He’s soaked it through from his aborted work-out, but he won’t take it off. Tony bounces around the mats and urges him to join in the fun. Clint is in the corner lifting weights and stops to cackle at Tony.

“What? Without the suit? You’re nuts, right?”

“Laugh it up, bird brain; I got a god, well demi-god on my side. And oh, by the way, if anyone figures out the difference between a god and a demi-god send me a memo, or at least a tweet. Or post a gif on tumblr or something.” He jumps about and waits. “Come on, Capsicle, some of us are moving and grooving here. Get your sweet ass in gear.”

Steve smiles at the remark. He remembers a time when Tony would expect him to blush and bluster about it. Now, though, he only wishes Tony was a bit more serious about it. As a man out of time, it took Steve some time to adjust to the new mores and culture. Having the Avengers around to guide him into the future – his now – has been exciting, frustrating, and a bit more than entertaining.

“Okay, okay,” he says. He forgets about the ache in his wrist, the piercing pains that shoot up his arm. He’s fine. He can do a few rounds with Tony sans suit. Easy peasy – right?

Tony spends some time skipping and hopping about the mats, he has his hands in gloves and he’s ready to go. Steve laughs at the sight, and shrugs his shoulders. His hands are already taped, all he has to do is get on the gloves and Clint comes over to give him a hand with it. Slipping on the left glove isn’t a problem, but when Clint tugs on the right and ties it, Steve looks away and cringes trying to stop the gag of bile. He swallows down the pain along with the acid taste in his mouth.

The serum will take care of it. He’s sure. There’s nothing to worry about, he keeps telling himself.

He nods to Clint and steps over to the mats.

“Come on, old man, show me what you got,” Tony says as he flits about the mat.

Steve stands there, waiting for Tony to settle down into the sparring routine, but he’s a little manic and everyone knows when Tony is in such a state that either he’s about to make a huge discovery, invent something, or hurt someone (usually himself and usually with one or the other of the first two). Since Tony is offering to spar, Steve has no problem allowing himself to be the human punching bag as the genius figures out some problem or issue he’s encountered in his latest and greatest field of study (whatever that might be).

Tony snaps as him with a quick right jab, but it doesn’t land because Steve is too fast with his reflexes.

“Look at that, Gramps, can put on some moves,” Tony laughs and Clint echoes him.

Steve just frowns and slides forward a little, enticing Tony to invade his personal space. Once he does, Steve crosses with his left fist and hits Tony squarely in the ribs. “Protect yourself; you aren’t in the damned suit.”

“Oh, the Ice Cube knows how to swear, well a little bit anyhow!” Tony chuckles and flies inward and hits Steve along the waist, almost in the fault area. Steve skips away and then swing in to hit Tony in the jaw, but he ducks at the last minute to twist around and land a cross to Steve’s right shoulder.

Steve stumbles to the mat onto one knee and heaves in an unsteady breath as the pain explodes in bright flashes of red and orange and yellow. He’s blinded by the colors. It takes a count from Clint to wake him from the delirium of the pain. He looks up and Tony’s standing there, over him, his brow furrowed and his dark eyes intense.

“You, my man, are out of shape, if that hurt.” Clint puts his hand out to help Steve back onto his feet.

Steve grits his teeth and manages to ignore the sweat dripping down his temple –normally when sparring with anyone other than Thor he would never even break into a light sweat. He tries to laugh it off, but isn’t sure it goes over well at all. “Just getting him where I want him.”

“Oh, so that’s your version of bait and switch?” Tony says and he licks his lips and jumps in place.

“Something like that,” Steve says and climbs to his feet without the help of Clint. “Give me what you got, Tin Man.”

“Oh, getting a little mouthy, are we?” Tony rushes at him, striking out first with his right which Steve easily avoids and then with his left. The left thrust doesn’t reach its mark because Steve lifts his right arm to block it and go for a cross to Tony’s abdomen, but falters as the gloved fist impacts against his arm again. He crumples to the mat and rolls over to muffle his scream into the plastic of the foam covered flooring.

“Jesus Christ, what the hell?” Tony says and kneels by his side. Steve can tell he’s there, just by the shift of the mat, and the smell of Tony’s cologne, but he doesn’t look. His vision is a riot of flashing colors and lights as the pain burst over his arm and doesn’t release its grip on him.

When Tony reaches out and places a hand on Steve’s right shoulder, he arches away from him and screams. “Hold him.”

He feels another set of hand on him and knows Clint is wrestling to keep him still as Tony tears away the sleeve of his t-shirt.

“What the hell is that?” Clint says.

Steve pants and hisses as they peel away the sleeve to reveal the patterned modeled skin of his arm. Tony yanks away the rest of the shirt, ripping a hole along Steve’s chest.

“It goes all the way across his chest.” Tony leans over Steve and somehow or someway his boxing gloves are gone. When did they disappear? He doesn’t know, he can’t know, the pain is bright and white and all-encompassing now. The colors are bleached away. Tony holds his face and asks, “Steve, come on, what happened? When did this happen?”

He wants to answer, he does, but he can feel the curls and swirls of the markings, of the slashes grow over his skin. They twist around his back, down his torso. He knows they tighten around his throat.

“Fuck, it’s spreading,” Clint says and drops his hold of Steve’s shoulders.

Steve feels it as it crawls under Tony’s hands and mars his face. Tony only lets go with one hand and examines it, but his hand is back on Steve’s cheek as he’s saying, “If it’s contagious, we’re infected already. Now, tell me, Steve, when did this happen?”

He mumbles out the words, but his throat constricts and he rasps instead. His lungs pull and tug and lust for air that isn’t coming. It is like an asthma attack, his lungs beg him and he can’t inhale because it’s choking him.

“Christ, call medical, get them down here now,” Tony screams and Clint disappears from his view.

Desperate, he’s desperate for air. He wants to tell Tony, but he can’t form any words, the lights gray out and he blinks. The world funnels down to a pinpoint, to Tony’s face only.

“Listen to me, Cap, breathe with me, feel me breathing,” Tony says in a tone made more frantic by the fact it is the only sound Steve can hear. Distantly, he knows Tony picks up his hand and places it against his chest right next to the arc reactor. He slips and slides, he cannot hold on even though Tony demands his attention. “Stay, stay, don’t you fucking dare. Don’t you-.”

*oOo*

Tony hunches over in the plastic chair and folds his hands in a loose clasp. He watches through the floor to ceiling windows of the isolation room as the doctors and nurses walk around in spaceman like garb around the central figure in the room. He scrubs a hand down his face and presses into his eyes until it hurts. It only brings back memories, recalls images he wasn’t ever supposed to witness.

Captain America – Steve Rogers – dead.

They resuscitated him twice before they were finally able to intubate him and get his oxygen starved body much needed air. Once they loaded him on the gurney off the floor in the gym at SHIELD HQ, Steve’s head rolled to the side and his eyes lifted if only briefly. The tube down his throat prevented him from speaking, but he raised his hand, and everyone listened. Crap, you stopped and gave all of your attention when Captain America spoke regardless of whether words were involved or not.

He had reached out, stretching his arm to Tony, and he couldn’t deny him, even though the paramedics warned about hazards and contamination. Tony ignored them, and laced his fingers into Steve’s clammy hand. Once their hands were locked together, the Captain let the pain take him and he faded into a glazed oblivion.

Tony glances at the dance of the strange figures in the room, they have no idea what they are dealing with, they have no idea what’s infected the good Captain. Something cramps in the pit of Tony’s belly and he cringes at the thought. Someone, something out there can hurt Captain America, the invincible. How can that be possible? Nothing on this Earth should hurt him.

Bowing his head, Tony lets his gaze drop to the floor and he hardly hears it when Natasha walks in and sits next to him, her hand on his shoulder (if he was being honest, he’d have to admit, he never heard her at all). He realizes she has taken a risk, according to the infirmary personnel, Clint and Tony should be in isolation, at least until they get a handle on what the Captain has been infected with and whether or not they are in danger.

“He’s alive,” she says but doesn’t remove her hand.

He nods and looks up at her. He sees the worry in her eyes, as she lets her gaze drift to the window to see the figure on the bed. It seems to Tony that every fucking instrument they could cram into the room is actually in the room attached and monitoring their Captain, his Captain. Something pulls tight inside his chest like someone’s removed the arc reactor and the shrapnel has finally speared through his heart.

“What happens now?” she asks and he’s not sure that she’s actually asking him or wondering out loud.

For a moment, his mind goes blank and he just bathes in the complete insanity of nothingness of his mind, then the words hit him like a tidal wave and it forces him to his feet until he’s nearly pressed against the glass. “We find out who the hell did this to Steve. How the hell did they do it?” He peers over his shoulder at her.

All hell could reign loose and it would have nothing in comparison to the look etched on Natasha’s face. The utter determination both thrills him and terrifies him. “Tell me what to do.”

“You have connections; find out if they know anything. Find out if someone engineered something specifically for our super soldier and if they did, how and who the hell did it,” Tony says. “I don’t care if there are SHIELD protocols set into place for an investigation of this type, shit, I don’t give a crap if god on high comes down and tells you that you have to follow rules.” He crosses the space between them and says, “There are no rules here, none. When it comes to an Avenger, when it comes to our leader, our Captain, there are no rules.”

She stands and narrows her eyes. “No rules.”

She leaves in a whisper, but it is harsh and swift and resolute. Tony turns back to the window just as one of the doctors looks at him and says, “I need you to get in protective garb and come in here. I want you to take a look at these patterns.”

It is Banner and Tony can tell just by his tonal inflection that there’s something odd and interesting, something they would normally oo and ah over if it wasn’t killing one of their own. Tony walks to the door and goes to open it but Banner yells at him, “Suit up, Tony. We don’t need you infected, too.”

Tony ignores him and just walks through the inner chamber and screws around with the locking mechanism to be allowed entrance into the isolation ward. The nurses and doctors glare at him and throw a few insults around before he glowers back at them.

“Really? I touched him with my bare hands, you ass wipes. You really think getting in a god damned space suit is going to save me now?” He walks over to the side of Steve’s bed and realizes that the good Captain – his friend – is awake and suffering. “Can’t you? Can’t you do anything about the pain?”

One of the doctors picks up a line and shows it to Tony. “We’re pumping him full with elephant doses of pain killers and nothing is working to keep him under.”

“So the serum is working?” Tony says.

“For this yes, for whatever’s infecting him, no.”

Tony concentrates on the Captain; his face is pinched and drawn. The lines of the disease or whatever the hell it is lace up his face in swirls and dots, his neck looks like a pattern of barbed wire scars against the pink flesh. Reaching, Tony doesn’t ask for permission but lays a hand on Steve and says, “I need to see, Capsicle.”

With a tube down his throat, Steve cannot answer. He only blinks his eyes in assent.

As he lifts the blanket and pulls it back, Tony is greeted by a mass of welts and slices that do not look like anything at first. Yet as he tugs back the sheet and folder it over Steve’s legs, he sees the same whirls and patterns. It reminds him of intricate tattoos yet made of flesh and blood and not ink. He runs a hand down Steve’s arm and feels the flinch of pain and witnesses the tears leak from the good Captain’s eyes.

When he lifts his hand away, Steve gropes about with his hand as he did when the paramedics came to take him to the infirmary. His movements are almost blind like, as if he cannot see Tony.

“Why is he in such pain?” Tony asks.

“We don’t know, but we don’t think the markings are skin deep. It is almost like they are cuts into underlying tissue and that because of the serum the infection is continually active.”

Tony looks over to Bruce and says, “So, it’s like he’s continually being sliced by whatever is infecting him.”

Bruce nods. “The serum is trying and failing to cure him. The infection has overtaken his systems. We have no idea if it is just his skin infected or if his organs are as well. They’re running tests, but not sure at this point. He’s constantly cycling through shock from the pain and that could throw all the tests off.”

“But the markings,” Tony says as he stares down at them, his one hand clutched in Steve’s. “They don’t look like anything I’ve seen before. Not random like chicken pox or something.”

“No, they’re distinct and patterned. Look at the ones on his face and chest and compare it to his throat.”

Tony peers at Steve’s throat and glances for a moment up to Steve’s eyes and notes that Steve is listening, intent and aware of everything they do and say. ‘The ones on his throat look like barbed wire. Like they’re trying to cut off his breathing.”

“Or talking.”

Tony tilts his head and says, “Why, my Jolly Green Doctor, I think you have it.”

“What?”

“The markings are trying to tell us something. The ones on Steve’s throat are keeping him quiet, because they don’t want him to talk, mess up the message.”

“Who’s they?” one of the other doctor’s asks.

“Shush, did someone ask for a non-genius to speak?” The doctor grumbles in response and he can almost feel a slight tension in Steve’s grip on his hand. “Whatever this is, it isn’t random patterns, and something is here. I need JARVIS to analyze this.”

“Jarvis, is he your assistant? You could call him through the comm.” A nurse offers him one of the computer consoles in the room.

“Ah, no, not through SHIELD. JARVIS and SHIELD, not going to happen, but I can through my phone.” He digs his phone out of his pocket and connects. “JARVIS, I need a scan of Captain Rogers, access SHIELD intranet, medical, alpha one three gamma seven two.”

“How did you-?” A doctor asks.

Tony waves him off. JARVIS speaks as the doctor huffs about talking about secret networks and bullshit that can only be important to a middle level manager without upward mobility.

“Sir, I am currently analyzing the patterns.”

“Check and see if they are binary, or multi-dimensional representations.”

“Or mathematical,” Bruce murmurs as he pulls off his mask. The other doctors bristle at him but he ignores them and Tony loves Bruce and his green anger management issues a little more.

“It isn’t random at all, look at the ones on his chest and then down to his stomach.” Tony points to the swirls and dots. “It almost reminds me of some sort of hieroglyphics.”

JARVIS chimes in and notes, “Sir, I am reading a multi-degree pattern not unsimiliar to the Chinese logograms.” Tony puts it on speaker so that Bruce can listen in.

“So it’s words?”

“It would seem as if it might be a message or a code.”

“It is a code.”

Both Tony and Bruce look up to see Thor standing by the open containment vestibule. The doors are wide open and the doctors and nurses have gone into panic state. Tony shakes his head and just says, “Get out.”

Thankfully, they do without any argument. Turning back to Thor, Tony says, “What do you mean it is a code?”

“I apologize for my tardiness. I came as soon as I was able.” Thor joins them by Steve’s bedside. “How long has our good leader been incapacitated?”

“He went down yesterday afternoon,” Bruce says. “We’re not sure how long he was infected before. He hasn’t been able to speak.”

Steve raises his hand and opens it, then flashes two fingers. He repeats the five fingers then two.

“Seven? Seven days prior to the gym?” Tony asks. Steve only closes his eyes and grimaces since the movement of his arm sends another shiver of pain through him. “So we’re on day nine.”

“Then it is worse than I feared.”

“Worse than what?” Tony says. “What the hell is going on, Thor?”

“This is a pattern or a code as you might call it,” Thor says. “Nay, to my people on Asgard, it is considered a curse from the ninth world of Nine Worlds. It is from Hel.”

“I’m, I’m not exactly sure that I’m following you,” Bruce stutters.

“Are you trying to tell me the Cap has been cursed by someone from Hell?”

“Someone under the reign of Hel who has been cast out of Asgard to Niflhel where evil foes go and are imprisoned by the All Father.” Thor looks down at the angry red slices along the Captain’s face, the line of his throat. He reaches out and touches them. “Hel has tried over and again to defeat Asgardian rule and the other worlds of the Realms, but has yet to do so. This is surely their code.”

“What exactly does the code say?” Tony needs this to make sense; he needs this to be somewhere linked to a reality he can fix with tools and his smarts, not with magic and hand waving. That isn’t logic and rational and fixable.

“It is more of what the code does,” Thor says. “We fought an alien species at the time the Captain was infected, yes?”

Bruce nods and Tony bits back his fear.

“Whoever it was must have been in the clutches of Hel and her evil strategies. I fear that she has sought to rip the heart out of Earth’s mightiest heroes so that she may find reign and ruin here.” Thor touches his hand lightly to Steve’s cheek and Tony watches the single tear trail down the scarred cheek.

“So, another lunatic from the outer reaches of space, like we haven’t dealt with enough of that already,” Bruce says.

“Yes, my constant companion has been the fear that the tesseract incident has doomed my beloved Earth.”

“Your beloved,” Tony says and realizes he can hardly say the word as he looks at Steve so torn and broken, lying helpless and mute on the gurney with a tube down his throat. He forces the concern away, steps back into the cocky, brash, genius known to the world and his fellow Avengers. “Tell me, big guy, what’s the cure?”

“I have no good news for you, for there is not a cure.”

“What?” Tony says and swallows hard, trying not to scream and yell and fucking screech at the demi-god. “You fix this, you have to fix this.”

“There is only one cure and lo, I do not believe we can follow it.” Thor looks absolutely wrecked, as if reporting this news has torn out his heart as well.

“We’re fucking Avengers, we can follow anything, handle anything. Crap, we dealt with your lunatic brother and defeated him. Six against his army, tell me what it is,” Tony demands.

“It is balance that is sought. The curse from Hel herself, is one that imprisons and kills the heart of the mighty warriors. By taking out the heart of any army, the courage and determination is lost.” Thor says and gently lays a hand on the Captain’s shoulder. “There are two parts of a warrior’s fortitude – the mind and the heart. Cut one from the other and the warrior withers and dies.”

“So, what exactly does that mean, because right now I’m thinking I’m listening to one of Charlie Brown’s teachers,” Bruce says.

Though Thor raises his eyebrows at the comment, he doesn’t ask about what it means and, instead, says, “If Hel wants to destroy this world, she would cut out its heart and leave the mind without its support. The only way to resolve this is if the mind and the heart beat as one.”

“Well, still hearing an awful lot of wah-wah wah-wah, wah-wah.” Bruce scratches his head, adjusts his glass, and then checks the monitor behind the big guy as Tony stares at the images, patterns over Steve’s body.

“It’s a pattern, right? A message?” Tony says.

“More like a curse, my brother.”

“A curse, but one that can be broken.” Tony slips his hand onto Steve’s chest and runs his fingers along the grooves and spirals. Steve flinches and shifts. “What if, what if the heart is referring to Steve as a whole and not his actual heart?”

Twisting around, Bruce looks back at Tony and says, “Then – what are you saying? No, you are not saying that.”

“Yes, yes I am.” He picks up his phone again and checks to see if JARVIS is still there. “JARVIS, tell me you are still there?”

“As always, sir.”

“You’ve analyzed the patterns and swirls?”

“Yes, sir.”

Tony looks over to Thor and says, “Can you read it?”

“No, it is the language of the Ninth World; it would be blasphemy to read such malevolent text. I am sorry.”

“Okay, we can still work with that,” Tony says and speaks into the phone again. “JARVIS, from the patterns on Steve’s body could you extrapolate the language?”

“Without a Rosetta stone as it were, sir, it would be near to impossible.”

“But knowing the meaning, the overall meaning helps, yes?”

“Only in the most minor way, sir.”

Tony rubs at his temple and curses. “Okay, okay. How about a projection or extrapolation of the base elements of the language, from there could you modify it to give me the most common parameters.”

“I could give you the most common symbols and elements, but they would have little to no meaning to you, sir.”

“Doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter,” Tony says and looks over to Bruce. “Get him ready to roll.”

“Um, what?”

“We can’t do this here. I need to move him into my lab. JARVIS has the ability to project using the holographic equipment in my lab, but here it’s too limited to do.” Tony clicks the phone shut without even saying goodbye to his A.I. He knows JARVIS will understand; he created him.

“Not sure what you’re planning, but you want to move Steve to your lab?” Bruce says. “You do realize he’s on life support, right?”

“I’m aware.”

“Life support, for a reason, Tony.”

“As I said, I’m aware. I’m also aware that he’s dying and nothing these crackpots are doing is saving him,” Tony replies. Tony presses the phone again to call up his instant connection with his A.I. “Get a Quinjet ready, JARVIS.”

“Can he do that?” Bruce asks.

Tony snickers and waves both Bruce’s and Thor’s questioning looks away. He bends over Steve and cups his face in his hand. “Hey, hey, come on Captain; tell me you can hear me.”

Steve rolls his eyes and blinks once, the pain carved over his features like daggers drawn over raw wounds. It hurts just to look at him, just to touch him. But Tony steels himself and grasps Steve’s hand and says, “I’m taking you home. I have an idea.”

A slight quaver flitters over his large frame as if the muscles themselves are depleting and dying right under Tony’s touch.

“Sir, a Quinjet is ready on landing pad three.” Tony peers over to Bruce and says, “Unless you want the doctors to birth baby hulks, I would say now would be a good time to get them in line to help us move Steve.”

Bruce raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. “The more I know, the more I wonder what the hell is going on.”

“Don’t we all, don’t we all,” Tony remarks as Thor says, “And I thought I was the only one.”

It hurts, but Tony still laughs.

*oOo*
His world becomes a series of flashes, reminding him of the old news reels that sputtered along with black and white visions of times and places he had never been until an eccentric scientist gave him a chance and a ticket to a war. They move him from the isolation ward and they place him in a tube that he can only call a space aged coffin. Tony leans over him, tells him to cowboy up, and the lid is closed over him. He doesn’t fight it when the grayness overwhelms his senses and he falls away.

When he finds his way back again, when the serum does its job, he’s brought back to consciousness only to be greeted by the never ending onslaught of pain, a pain so debilitating his heart races in panicked rhythms. He shudders against the throbbing across his chest, his torso, and down his legs. The pain does not let up; it is like an increasing storm wave battering the shoreline. It is ever present. He fights to maintain control, but the welts wrapped around his throat tighten. It becomes impossible to stop the bile gathering, to halt the need to gag and wretch. The doctors turn him to the side and try and aspirate out the vomit. He’s choking and he hears Tony in the background cursing. He’s no longer in the coffin transport, but somewhere else.

He blanks out again as the world whitens then darkens in flashes.

He awakes without the tube in his throat, but Tony hanging over him with his forehead nearly pressed against Steve’s head. “Listen to me, Cap – Steve, are you listening?”

Steve can say nothing in response but he tangles his fist in Tony’s shirt sleeve.

“We’re going to try something out; I don’t know if it will work. Damn, I don’t even know what the hell I’m doing. I need you to keep a hold of my hand. Can you do that?” Tony stands up and reveals that they are now in Tony’s workshop in the Tower. Steve glances around and sees Thor standing to the side with Bruce nearby. There are several monitors beeping and clicking scattered about the room. The wires all lead back to Steve. At the foot of the gurney both Natasha and Clint stand like sentinels, they eye the one medical doctor in the room with scathing looks as if Steve’s dire state is his fault.

“Cap?”

Steve drops his hand from Tony’s sleeve and reaches for his fingers. He tries to clench his hand, but the pain weakens his grip.

“It’s okay, Steve. Just don’t let go and we’ll know you’re okay,” Bruce says as he pastes some electrodes onto Steve’s bared chest. Bruce nods to Tony.

“JARVIS, lights at fifty percent.”

The lighting immediately decreases and Tony unbuttons his shirt. “Never expected to show you my wares with so many people around, Captain.”

Steve wants to smile, wants to offer a comeback, but he is muted. He has been silenced by the ache, the pain, the noose around his throat.

“Okay, JARVIS, I’d like you to project the most used symbols onto my chest.” Tony grasps Steve’s hand and nods to him. Steve closes his eyes if only for a moment since Tony tells him to stay with them. A nasal cannula feeds Steve what little oxygen he can get without intubation.

The projection appears over Tony’s chest, encompassing the arc reactor. JARVIS must have some kind of artistic knowledge because the swirls and curves of the language circle around the reactor and increase its beauty, enhance its simplicity and complexity at the same time.

“Continue, JARVIS, changing the patterns and the displayed symbols every two minutes.”

The patterns and light show continue to shine over Tony’s skin. It is beauty, and serene, and lovely. But it does nothing for Steve’s pain, it does nothing for the intensity of the wounds which stab into him like ice, bitter and cold and fierce.

“For shits and giggles, JARVIS, how about we invert the signs.”

“As you say, sir.”

The patterns switch and twist around into a new juxtaposed image when compared to the ones on Steve’s chest.

“Continue and place them on my face as well.”

Tony shuts his eyes as the light flashes over his face, projecting patterns across his cheeks and the bridge of his nose. When the light lines Tony’s lips an explosion of agony jolts through Steve’s body and he arches up off the table. The room dims and flickers in Steve’s vision and he momentarily loses his hold on Tony’s hand.

“Stay with me, Steve,” Tony commands.

He hears a slight whine, a whispered moan, and realizes the wrecked sound comes from his ruined throat. The coils squeeze and tense. He can feel the markings move like snakes, like vipers poisoning his skin.

“I think now would be a good time to stop, Tony?” Bruce says. “Now, would be good, no?”

Tony gropes for Steve’s hand and clutches his one hand with his fists. “Come on.”

The spirals twist outward from Steve’s arm and stretch like tentacles to capture Tony’s wrist.

“Oh, ah, don’t think that was part of the plan.” Clint says. “Was it?”

Thor reaches over to tear them apart, but Tony stops him. “No, leave it.”

“Okay, weird ass plan engaged,” Clint says.

The tendrils slither up Tony’s arm and he hisses in response. Struggling with what little strength he has left, Steve tries to pull his hand away. Tony grips all the more. “Oh no you don’t, Captain. No, you don’t.”

The snakes twist and turn up Tony’s arm and he peers down at Steve and then back at the invading coils. One flares up as if it is a cobra and strikes Tony in the face. He staggers back as Natasha yells out. Tony never releases Steve but he forces out through clenched teeth a warning to Natasha, “Don’t, don’t touch us. Not now.” He falls over Steve and his body goes rigid.

The monitors screech and hiccup in the background. The sounds are like distant noises to him as he hears something else, something new that is like an oncoming diesel train. It is a mass of information, a mass of light and dark and numbers and figures and words, so many, many words. The strings of sentences garble and fumble together. He cannot make sense of anything at first, it is too dense. It is a viscous liquid in which he tries to swim. He makes no headway, but then he suddenly is in the middle of it.

It is a shining brilliant center where the questions and words and figures and numbers collide to a unified understanding. It is a place of absolute comprehension and peace.

He gasps.

It is Tony’s mind.

As he comes to terms with his realization, Tony grapples against his bruised chest and groans. He staggers to stand and looks at Steve. The sounds and sights and even they fall apart and disappear. He sees Tony’s mind, Tony touches his heart.

Tony grabs hold of Steve as he rasps, “Tony.”

Searching for his hand, Tony clasps it and raises it to cup his own face. The welts, the patterns are there as well.

“Tony,” Steve whispers again. There is no need for speech, he can hear every word, every thought racing, running, bursting into light and joy. Tony huddles over him, only a breath away.

It is Steve who pulls Tony closer; it is Steve who touches lips tentatively to this master, this brilliant man, who he never knew until this moment. Tony replies with lips that devour Steve, with a quiet brush of a thought, how he feels now, how he knows what is in Steve’s heart.

The kiss lasts and doesn’t last. It is a momentary thing, but it is forever. The world drops away and disappears while it is recreated into something new, something right, something beautiful. When Tony pulls away, the pain disappears, the ache to breathe is no longer, his lungs are satisfied.

Straightening, Tony stands over Steve and says, “JARVIS, end program.”

The lights brighten and the projected images are gone as is the pain, as is the cursed network over their flesh.

Clint raises an eyebrow and says, “Well, that was one I would never have predicted.”

“Would you have predicted that you fight alongside a big green monster?” Bruce says.

“Touché.”

Bruce tilts his head and says, “The Captain needs to rest.”

Bruce ushers them out, but doesn’t ask Tony to leave. Tony stays, without a word, Tony stays and sits and holds him until he sleeps.

*oOo*
Three days later the Captain is recuperating at a slow rate. While none of the doctors are overly concerned, Tony remains by Steve’s side. He isn’t the kind to be a mother hen, hell, he never even cares if he actually changes his own underwear in the morning. Yet, something keeps him pinned to Steve’s side.

When Steve needs to stand and move around, Tony assists even though the big idiot tries to wave him away. Tony just hisses at him and slings Steve’s arm over his shoulders and walks him to the bathroom, or helps him to the kitchen. The other team members are solicitous and respectful. By the third afternoon, Tony situates Steve on a lounge near the large windows of the penthouse. He hands him a cup of tea and offers him a paper (yes a god damned newspaper, the man will forever need paper things) for him to read the news. He sits nearby with his tablet and juicer drink.

After a few moments, Steve looks up from the paper and places his feet on the coffee table to rest. His tea grows cold on the table. “Are we going to talk about it?”

“About?” Tony likes to pretend he can act dumb. It is harder than he thinks, most of the time.

“About what happened?” Steve says and waits. He is exceedingly patient and kind and good and Tony knows this because it goes right down into the core of who the Captain is. Tony saw it, Tony felt it during their little merge or meld or whatever the hell it was.

“Um, I saved you. Done deal?”

“Yes, thank you. For that. But the sleeping beauty kiss?” Steve asks.

“Well, technically, you initiated so it really wasn’t a sleeping beauty kiss because that would annihilate a lot of the basic elements of the fairy tale.” He swallows hard, should he have this conversation? After all that he learned about Steve, does he want to venture there?

“Okay, then how about the fact we each have one of these,” Steve shows him his wrist. There is an intricate tattoo embedded along the inner portion. It is part of the design; the second half of it matches Tony’s markings.

“Oh, um, Thor said something about mind and heart of Earth’s warriors. Something like we’re parts to a whole.”

“And what do you make of that?” Steve says. The paper is on the floor, he’s leaning toward Tony. He’s waiting for Tony to be brave.

Doesn’t bravery initiate in the heart of a person? Of course, Tony knows this is idiotic to think. Every thought, every process begins in the brain. But he’s the mind portion of this duo, Steve’s the heart. He’s the courageous one, not Tony. Steve reaches out with the hand that has the permanent tattoo engraved on it. Tony lets Steve’s fingers run across his arm, down to the back of his hand, until they are interlaced in Tony’s own fingers.

Before he knows what he’s doing, he cradles Steve’s face in his open hand and places a touch of his lips on that waiting mouth. He presses and Steve gives, opens, and he feels the same spark, the fire, the longing he felt with the first kiss. This time it is deeper, more intense, more profound than it was before. He tastes and takes and feels a certain succor deep inside the well that had been empty and dry for so long. This is his heart, this is his complement, his match, his foil, his companion.

Steve breaks away from the kiss and says in a low whispered tone, “I think I finally understand a little of this new world I’m in.”

Tony grins and replies, “Me too, now shut up, and kiss me.”

THE END.