The first sign of trouble arrived silently, and with gorgeous red hair. “Activate the tracker you put on Steve’s bike,” Natasha said.
Tony jumped a little. JARVIS had warned him that she was here, but he’d been focussed. He tapped the device hovering in front of him gently and it slowly drifted down until it landed on the lab table.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, quirking an eyebrow. “That sounds like a gross invasion of privacy, something I am strongly against. Frankly, I’m insulted at the accusation.”
Bruce snorted softly in the background, but Tony ignored him. Natasha stared at him blankly, and Tony wondered if she was organizing all the reasons that’s complete bullshit alphabetically or chronologically.
Tony rolled his eyes and said, “Listen, if he doesn’t want to be found, I’m not going to help Fury force the issue.”
“It’s not for Fury,” Natasha said.
“You want his tracker activated,” Tony said, surprised.
Natasha nodded once. “A personal favor,” she elaborated.
If it was a strategy, it was a good one, because that carried a lot more weight. He scratched over the stubble on his jaw and thought. “Is something wrong?” Tony asked. He was having trouble coming up with a situation Steve couldn’t handle.
“No,” she answered, and then added before he could argue, “But after Steve left, he kept in touch. I haven’t heard anything for a few weeks.” She paused and frowned. “I’m worried.”
Tony sighed. “Alright, you’re welcome to check it, but if he’s already found the ones SHIELD planted, there’s a good chance he’s found mine, too. JARVIS, help the lady out.”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS answered. “The device is live and transmitting. I sent the location to the GPS device you are carrying, Agent Romanoff.”
“Thanks,” she said, eyes on Tony as she reached into an inside pocket.
He waved her off and turned to look busy on his latest project, wishing it was more important than a target practice toy for Clint. It flew up again when he touched it, and he listened as she walked out of the lab, measuring the reaction time as he poked the device.
“Do you think Steve’s okay?” Bruce asked after a minute.
No, Tony thought immediately, but didn't voice it. He wanted to say, Of course not, wanted to say, He’s trapped in the wrong century, and all of us have been riding a thin line since Coulson... since aliens tried to take over New York, but that cut a little too close, so instead he grinned and said, “Yeah. For one thing, not many icebergs to crash into on a road trip around America.”
Bruce shook his head, smiling reluctantly, and Tony went back to work for real this time, forgetting the whole thing.
Come to think of it, the second sign of trouble came with gorgeous red hair, too, but Pepper wasn’t exactly silent when she pried him from the lab. Ugh, gingers. He was going to make a rule.
She was kind enough to give him coffee, though, so maybe not.
“What’s going on?” he asked blearily, blinking and knocking back the shot of espresso. “Is the Earth ending? Again?”
“You’d probably know before me,” Pepper reminded him.
“Right, yeah,” Tony agreed. That didn’t really explain why she was here, though. He hadn’t seen her since - hadn’t seen her in almost six months. “My company crashing and burning again?”
Pepper arched an eyebrow. “My company is fine,” she said with a faint smile, “And though I did want to thank you for finally doing some of that R&D you’re supposedly in charge of-”
“Yeah, well, had some time on my hands,” Tony said, shooting for casual and missing it entirely.
“That certainly is a change,” Pepper snapped and then froze at the expression on Tony’s face. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, possibly counting to ten and looking much calmer when she reopened them. “Tony, I apologize.”
“No,” he cut in, “I’m an asshole.”
“It was my schedule as much as yours,” Pepper continued.
“That is a complete lie,” Tony said, talking over her.
“And I didn’t come here for this, anyway, because-”
“Pep,” Tony said sharply, finally stopping her. “Can we just...” he waved his hand in vague circular motion, “not?”
“Okay,” she said quietly. She studied him for a second. “Do you have any idea why Director Fury sent a request for our employee applications?”
“No,” Tony said frowning. “I haven’t heard from Fury in months. And Fury isn’t the type to ask politely.”
“I know, that’s one of the reasons I’m inclined to agree to his request, but I didn’t want to get into the middle of one of your pissing contests so I thought I’d check first.”
Tony shrugged. He wouldn’t give Fury the records just to spite him, but he wasn’t going to tell Pepper how to do her job. Plus, Fury wouldn’t be able to get much out of that information.
“You could have just called,” Tony said.
“What?” Pepper asked.
“On the telephone. You know, those communication thingies. We manufacture three models, and I know you have one.”
Pepper huffed and turned, walking briskly away. “You weren’t answering.”
Tony quickly followed. “Admit it, you just wanted a chance to check up on me. I don’t blame you, six months is a long time to go without my sparkling personality.”
“Five months,” She corrected, “And I just wanted to make sure you were still breathing. The paperwork would be insufferable if you died.”
“Five and a half,” he argued, “And you don’t have to make excuses.”
“Eat and sleep, or I’ll have a talk with Bruce,” Pepper threatened, picking up her purse and heading for the front door.
“Hey, he likes me better than you!” Tony pointed out.
Pepper paused in the open door and smiled broadly at him, all teeth. “That’s what I’m counting on,” she said sweetly, and then swept out.
Tony rolled his eyes. Man, did he want a drink, but no, nope, he was much too busy for that. He headed back down to the lab. He didn’t give Fury a second thought.
“Hey, sorry to wake you but - Holy shit!” Clint yelled as he ducked out of the way of a short repulsor blast. It hit the opposite wall and left a small scorch mark. He hadn’t used much power.
Tony dropped his hand when he realized who it was and tried to wake himself up. “What?” he asked shortly. He didn’t sleep much anymore and was pretty pissed about being woken.
“You sleep in your gauntlets?” Clint asked.
“Only the one,” Tony replied. He waved his free hand before rubbing his eyes.
Clint gave him a narrow look. “Is this a sex thing?”
More like a PTSD thing, Tony didn’t say. He asked, “Was there a reason for waking me up? A good one, hopefully?”
“Yeah, we’ve got a mission,” Clint said. Tony had found, in the months since Clint was de-cubed, that he had a juvenile sense of humor and had expected a little more glee about finally having a mission. Instead, he appeared serious, almost grim.
“Clint, I think I made it very clear that I wasn’t Fury’s errand boy. Unless the world is ending, consulting hours are between-”
“It’s about Steve,” Clint said, and Tony’s mind woke up enough to think. It was clear that Tony only had a few of the variables, but he already didn’t like the projected outcome.
“5 minutes. Let me get my suit,” Tony said.
“The big guy’s staying at home, but I’ll go tell Bruce what’s going on.”
Tony nodded, already moving. He suited up and boarded the helicopter with ill grace. He’d prefer to fly under his own power, but he didn’t know where they were going.
Clint jogged aboard, and they took off as Natasha quietly briefed Tony.
He stayed silent through her terse explanation, anger growing. When she was finished, he asked, “So you’re telling me that Steve’s been missing for almost two months, most likely kidnapped by an unknown organization, a force which employs two brilliant but completely crazy scientists that hate Stark Industries because they were refused jobs on the basis of their psych evals, and I’m only hearing about this now?”
“I told you as soon as we had a plan,” she said, unruffled at his anger. “We found him two hours ago.”
Tony scowled, glad his face plate was open so that she could see it. “I could have helped you find him sooner!”
“Our biggest advantage is surprise, and I couldn’t trust you not to give us away.”
Tony checked his flinch. “If you don’t trust me, then why am I here?”
“You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t trust you,” Natasha said, raising a hand to stop Tony’s automatic denial and explained, “They were watching Stark Industries. Any change might have tipped them off, and you aren’t exactly covert.”
Tony couldn’t argue with that. He pointed a finger at her, then dropped it when he realized it looked a little ridiculous in the suit. “Just for that, I’m not making you any more tech.”
Natasha raised an eyebrow and said, “Fine. Study the information on the compound I sent to JARVIS.” She went over to look menacing next to Clint.
“JARVIS,” Tony muttered as he pulled up the specs, “We really need to keep a closer eye on SHIELD.”
“Noted, Sir,” JARVIS answered as his faceplate snapped into place. There were three entry points, but Tony was going in right through the front door. Good.
Tony had been trying to figure out what kind of force could take down Captain America. Compared to that, the fight was anticlimactic. This was a science facility with only a few hired gunmen that didn’t stand a chance against a dozen highly trained and pissed SHIELD agents.
Tony was beginning to feel a little superfluous when Clint’s voice came over the radio, “We found him.”
“Do you need medical?” Natasha asked, turning from where she’d been overseeing the detainment of everyone they’d found in the compound.
“Yes,” Clint said, “And maybe... an electrician? Tony, you better get down here and - shit!” There was yelling on the other end of the open com. Tony started running.
“Clint, status,” Natasha ordered.
“He’s awake, but something’s wrong. I don’t think he can tell we’re friendlies. He’s taken out four agents, no, shit, five. FALL BACK!” Clint ordered and then said into the ensuing silence, “This is almost as bad as Thor.”
Tony pulled up short into the doorway to assess the situation. Agents were littered across the floor, unconscious and disarmed but alive. Steve had a handgun clutched tightly in his fist, crouching low in a corner in a hospital gown.
“He attacked when we checked for a pulse,” Clint said, and Tony turned to see him perched on a tall, sturdy cabinet on the other side of the room, tranquilizer gun at the ready. “He was attached to the machines by a bunch of wires, but he pulled them out when he attacked. I don’t think he can see or hear us.”
“Right,” Tony said. “Let me see if I can get the gun away from him. Only dose him if he’s going to kill someone. We don’t know what they gave him.”
“Your funeral,” Clint said, but Tony was too focused on Steve to snark back. He took a few steps toward Steve, whose head whipped around at the movement. Tony stopped, but while Steve was staring in the right direction, his eyes were wide and unfocused. He was tracking the vibrations in the floor.
That was fine. Tony wasn’t trying to sneak up on Steve anyway. He took two more slow steps, Steve tensing even further, and then reached down to touch Steve’s arm.
The instant they touched, Steve lashed out, throwing a powerful punch that Tony just avoided. Steve grabbed at him, clearly trying to get a solid grip to take Tony down, but his hand slid across the smooth metal of the armour, and Steve froze.
“Tony?” he asked, voice hoarse and quiet. Steve gripped at his arm, tight. Tony took Steve’s wrist gently, and when that didn’t result in violence, opened the faceplate and moved Steve’s hand up to his face.
Steve’s fingers traced over his features, lingering on his goatee. “Tony,” he breathed, much of tension leaving his body. Tony nodded.
Steve startled, but Tony stayed still and calm, and Steve didn’t lash out. Natasha placed a single finger against the hand that Steve wasn’t holding against Tony’s face and started tapping in Morse code.
“Natasha?” Steve asked. His voice still sounded cracked and damaged. She placed his hand against her face like it was against Tony’s and nodded. Steve let out a low breath, fingers tracing over her features.
“Really glad to see you guys,” Steve rasped, and his knees buckled. They lowered him to the ground, crouching over him because he refused to let go of them. Natasha started to tap out another message, but Steve’s eyes rolled back in his head and he started seizing. Tony rolled him onto his side, eyes catching on a small, metallic disk at the edge of his hairline before two field medics took over, Natasha dragging him away.
The medics injected Steve with something, but it didn’t seem to be helping.
Tony looked away. “We’re going to need all of this equipment taken back to SHIELD to figure out what it does. All of the computer systems, too. And no redacting. I’ll need everything if I’m going to figure out what they’ve done to him.”
Natasha nodded, her eyes fixed on Steve. “I’ll talk to the scientists we detained,” she said, and a dangerous smile slipped on her face. “I’m sure they’ll be happy to help.”
Bruce was there when they get back to SHIELD, so Tony left Steve’s side long enough to take off his suit. The doctors complained about their presence until they got back an Xray of Steve’s head and neck to get a better idea of what the metal implant was, a hush falling over the room as they stared at the faint shadow etched through Steve’s brain. It was as if a seed that had sprouted and left roots growing through his brain.
“I thought it would be metal, but metal doesn’t haze like that,” Bruce said with the carefully flippant tone he used when he was trying not to frighten people by sounding upset.
“I think...” Tony began, and had to pause to listen to the thoughts swirling around his head, schematics and calculations taking over for a second. “Nanites,” he said, as if from a distance. “We’re not looking at one thing, but hundreds or thousands of nano sized devices.”
“So we’re only seeing the places where there’s a heavy concentrations,” Bruce said.
“We need to get a few of them to study. And see if they’re magnetic, because we’re going to need better imaging. Hopefully, this is all located toward the back of his head and not...” Tony couldn’t finish the sentence. Higher reasoning skills and personality were controlled in the frontal lobe.
Bruce nodded like he heard anyway.
Steve ended up having two more seizures before Tony realized that the device in Steve neck was, basically, a plug, one that had been drawing a small amount of power to feed the nanites. Hooking him back in stabilized him, and so far there had been no more seizures, although Steve was still unconscious.
After twenty-four hours, Natasha appeared in the lab and made him take a break. “Where’s Bruce?” Tony mumbled as she pulled him up.
“Asleep,” she answered, but her tone held no judgement about how Tony was still awake.
“They were working on brain control and physical enhancements,” she told him as he knocked back another coffee and poked at his food.
Tony snorted. “They tried to super-soldier the ultimate super-soldier. I’ve read over some of their notes, and it only worked because his tissue regenerates so much faster and better. There were fourteen other trials that didn’t.”
“That matches what they’ve told me,” she said. “I’ll give you the transcripts, but honestly, I don’t think they understand biology enough to know what effect it would have.”
“I was getting that impression, too,” Tony said, “I spent a couple hours studying neuroscience, and I don’t think anyone understands the human brain enough to really understand what would happen. What’s happening,” he corrected himself, and huffed. “Just this once, I’d have preferred a genius mastermind to rank amateurs that have watched The Matrix one too many times.”
Natasha was silent until Tony had eaten a little more. “Do you think you can fix it?” she asked finally.
“I don’t know,” Tony said, honesty warring with the determined yes on his tongue. “We can’t remove the nanites. There’s no way, it would cause too much damage. I’ll have to find a work around.”
Natasha nodded, and Tony was afraid that she would question if he could do it, but she sat quietly with him while he finished eating and didn’t press.
After three days of studying the designs, Tony tried to interface with the implant in Steve’s neck. He ran his fingers carefully around the join between it and Steve’s skin, wondering why it looked so familiar.
When he figured it out, he practically ran out of the lab, rambling something about coffee and not pausing even when Bruce called after him, asking if he was okay. Natasha found him leaning against his suit, hand pressed over the reactor in his chest, and trying to stop hyperventilating.
“Who did this?” he asked when he could breath again.
“I don’t know yet,” Natasha answered. “But I’ll find out.”
“I should do that,” Tony said, almost desperate. “I can help you to-”
“No,” she interrupted.
“But I need to-”
“You need to keep helping Steve,” Natasha said firmly.
He gave her a panicked look.
“Tony,” she said, and he could hear the worry in her tone, “I can’t do what you’re doing. But I can find the bastards that did this. So, I’m going to trust you to take care of Steve, and you’re going to have to trust that I’ll take care of whoever did this to him. Okay?”
Tony took a shaky breath. It wasn’t much of a choice, really. He couldn’t give up on Steve. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Okay.”
Bruce was waiting when he got back. “Glad you’re back. My programming isn’t quite good enough for this,” Bruce said, pointedly not asking any of the questions Tony didn’t want to answer. Bruce was good like that.
“I just needed a break,” Tony said, answering one of them anyway.
Bruce nodded and added dryly, “You also need to stop drinking coffee and sleep for eight hours. Any chance of that happening?”
“You’re such an intelligent man, Bruce. I have no idea why you keep saying such stupid things. Now, let’s get back to work on Humpty Dumpty here.”
Steve woke up after five days, but Tony missed it. He was at home in his own lab because he'd needed to fabricate a prototype to replace the implant. Apparently it wasn't as dramatic as when they'd found Steve: he'd only hit one person before Natasha had intervened, but it was the asshole who'd tried to set up a betting pool about whether Steve would wake up or not, so Tony figured it was karma.
He went to visit later, though, when he needed Bruce’s opinion and the initial uproar had calmed down.
Steve flinched when Tony touched his arm to get his attention, so Tony put Steve’s hand against his face like he had before, realizing a few seconds after the fact that he could have told Steve it was him using Morse code. Luckily, Steve couldn’t tell he was embarrassed, relaxing when he figured out who it was, and rasped out, “Tony.”
Tony took his hand and tapped out, [No talking.] Steve’s throat was still injured.
[Forgot, sorry,] Steve answered.
This was when Tony realized how hard it was going to be to communicate with Steve like this, because if he could hear, Tony probably would have said something like, “Finally waking up, Sleeping Beauty? Or no, sorry, is that reference a little too on the money since your time in the ice? You really need to get this narcolepsy under control. Or is it more like hibernation?”
That was ... a lot to say in Morse code. Tony thought for a minute, annoyed, and then distilled it down to, [How are you feeling?]
[Fine,] Steve replied.
Tony snorted and paused with his finger on the back of Steve’s hand as he realized that sarcasm wouldn’t really come across like this. That was even more annoying than the twitteresque word limit. [I don’t believe you,] Tony said.
Steve shrugged one shoulder, and Tony decided not to press.
[Did they explain it or lie?] Tony asked. He had a healthy suspicion of the medical field in general, and these people were hired by Fury.
[Bruce told me,] Steve said.
[It’s complicated, but don’t get too comfortable in here. I’ll figure it out.]
[Thank you,] Steve said. [Bruce said you’ve been working very hard.]
Tony had been trying to avoid looking at Steve’s face - Steve had a very direct stare, and Tony felt uncomfortable at how unfocused it was now - but at that he looked up to see a small smile on Steve’s face. Tony didn’t know what to say.
[Also, sorry for attacking you when you found me,] Steve tapped out after a minute.
As far as Tony was concerned, that didn’t merit an apology. Anyone would have done the same thing. [You had a good reason.]
[Maybe. But I didn’t mean to hurt anyone,] Steve said.
[Just a few concussions. Nothing to feel guilty over,] Tony teased. When Steve kept looking morose he added, [The agents have been bragging about how Captain America did it. Probably going to ask if you’ll autograph the bruises.]
Tony laughed at Steve’s incredulous face, and then saw Bruce in the doorway, watching them. He moved away, suddenly realizing that he was basically sitting here holding Steve’s hand, but Steve grabbed him again, startled at Tony’s sudden disappearance.
[I have to go talk to Bruce,] Tony tapped out with his free hand.
Steve nodded and let go, but this time Tony grabbed him.
[I’ll visit tomorrow,] Tony said, and then stood.
“I have some ideas, but it can wait until you’re done,” Bruce said.
“All finished here,” Tony assured him and followed him back to the med lab.
“I’m a little astounded that you managed to miniaturize the arc reactor even further,” Bruce said as they walked. “I wouldn’t have thought it was possible.”
“Possible, yes, but kind of useless since it can’t deliver much power. Not that Steve’s nanites need much.” Tony shrugged. “I’ve been toying with it for a while. This was a good reason to finish it up.”
“I’m sure Steve will appreciate going wireless,” Bruce commented.
Tony resisted the urge to touch his own arc reactor and firmly pushed the memories of a certain car battery away. “You have no idea,” he said finally as they made it into the lab.
Bruce picked up the tiny arc reactor gently. It sat easily in his palm, roughly the diameter of a quarter. “You realize that this could have a lot of applications, though.”
“Oh yeah,” Tony agreed, “I can now make the world’s most expensive wrist watch. Did you take a look at the code?”
Bruce studied him a moment before turning the look back on the device in his hand. “I’m more worried about how this will react when put inside someone. Didn’t you poison yourself at one point?”
Tony waved this away as unimportant. “That was a whole different model. No more palladium,” he argued and got to work on environmental stress tests.
Tony managed to avoid more than a passing greeting to Steve for two days. Well, avoid was probably a bit harsh. After all, it was hard to stay away from someone when you were working to repair him.
Tony refused to make any Six Million Dollar Man jokes, but only because it lost some of the humor when you were having to actually rebuild someone. Plus, he’d already heard them all from Rhodey when he’d learned about the arc reactor.
In any case, Bruce was responsible for ending his evasion. “Tony, listen,” Bruce began, and Tony only half paid attention because he was expecting some kind of comment on sleeping more or his outrageous caffeine consumption, but then Bruce said, “We’ve got to get Steve out of here.”
Tony’s head snapped around. “What? Is he in danger?”
“No,” Bruce said, a little startled. “Nothing like that. He’s just going a bit stir crazy.”
Tony rolled his eyes and turned back to his work.
“Hey, I’m serious,” Bruce said, poking Tony in the shoulder, “Morale is very important in patient care. He hasn’t been eating as much.”
“So, I want you to break him out of here for awhile,” Bruce said. “Take him to another room, at least. Feed him some real food.”
And damn Bruce, because Tony had been trying not to think, really think, about what it would be like to sit in bed in complete silence and darkness for days. He shuddered metally. “Why don’t you do it?” Tony said, cranky because he could feel himself caving.
“They don’t like it when I make sudden movements,” Bruce said, just a touch bitterly, then added, “I thought you’d leap at the chance to kidnap Captain America.”
“Fine,” Tony said, “But you’re paying. I want pizza, the good stuff, and lots of it.”
“Sure,” Bruce said mildly. Tony just knew that was going to end up on his credit card, but whatever. It’s not like he would notice.
Twenty minutes later he had jury rigged a mobile generator, and Bruce handed him a slip of paper (paper, where does he get this stuff?) with a room number on it. Tony hooked Steve up to a converted I.V. stand and grabbed him hand.
[Come on,] Tony tapped out. [We’re getting out of here.]
“Tony,” Steve said, voice cracking, and then he coughed.
[Are you allowed to talk yet?] Tony asked.
Steve scowled and shook his head no.
[Didn’t think so. Get up.]
[Should be healed by now,] Steve said, honest to god pouting. Tony absolutely refused to find that adorable.
[Your body must be busy trying to heal all that brain damage,] Tony replied. [Will you listen for once?]
[Why?] Steve asked, frowning. [Where are we going?]
[Nowhere if you don’t move,] Tony said impatiently and threw Steve’s covers off.
Steve didn’t move.
[Still don’t trust me?] Tony tapped before he could think better of it. Apparently he didn’t have a filter in Morse code either. [No, don’t answer that. Just get up anyway.]
[I do,] Steve said and stood shakily.
Tony positioned one hand on the I.V. stand for Steve to drag along, connected by an actual I.V. and the wire to his implant. The other went on Tony’s shoulder. [Follow me,] Tony tapped out.
It was slow going, although Steve got more confident the more he walked. Tony was convinced that they would be caught, but he never saw another person on their way to a small lounge three floors down. As promised, a large stack of pizza boxes was waiting on a table next to a green, ratty couch. It looked intrusive here, SHIELD having that far too industrial to be chic look, like something that would make Fury scowl on sight. Tony loved it immediately.
[Smells good,] Steve tapped out against Tony’s shoulder.
It really did. Tony led Steve to the couch and waited while he groped the couch enough to get the general idea and sit down. Tony let go to pull the table closer, but Steve tensed, hand darting out in Tony’s direction. Tony grabbed his hand, tapping out, [What’s wrong?]
[Where are you going?] Steve asked.
Instead of replying, Tony snagged a box of pizza without letting go and deposited it in Steve’s lap. He grabbed another for himself and sat down, close enough that they could easily touch and that Steve could feel his weight dragging the couch down and know he was here.
Steve didn’t say anything else, just opened the box carefully and started eating. He wasn’t messy, although he wouldn’t be, proprioception being what it was. It was strange, though, to be able to freely look at Steve and not be caught out or have his gaze challenged.
[Funny,] Steve replied, [He said the same thing about you.]
Tony paused with a slice of pizza halfway to his mouth and narrowed his eyes at the ceiling in the direction where Bruce was presumably working three floors up. It was a setup, then. He briefly considered not eating, but then shoved half the slice in his mouth. Not eating this pizza would be a tragedy.
[Should I stop working then?] Tony asked, getting pizza grease on Steve’s wrist, although he didn’t seem to mind.
[Please don’t,] Steve answered, and Tony smothered a stab of guilt with another slice of pizza. [But you should take care of yourself.]
Tony shrugged. He got Steve another box when he finished the first, and they sat together in silence, elbows bumping occasionally. Tony didn’t usually do this, just sit quietly with another person. He could blame it on Steve’s senses, but the truth was that sitting this way, side by side in silence, he’d forget for whole minutes at a time that Steve couldn’t hear him, and he still didn’t feel the need to speak.
He wasn’t sure what that meant. Not that it likely mattered. He knew that Steve barely tolerated him on a good day, their ability to save New York together notwithstanding.
It was Fury himself that found them eventually, pausing dramatically in the doorway, coat settling menacingly as he crossed his arms and raised both eyebrows. “Cozy,” Fury said flatly. Tony gave him points for committing to the performance, but it was a wasted effort. Steve couldn’t see it, and Tony didn’t care.
Tony saluted him with an empty pizza box. [Busted,] he tapped out against Steve’s hand when Steve turned, sensing the motion.
He tensed, although Tony didn’t know if it was because they’d been caught or because he hadn’t realized someone else had arrived.
“No rest for the wicked, huh?” Tony asked Fury, who glared for a second and then left again. It was a pretty weak glare, rating maybe a two on Tony’s internal fury-o-Fury meter, so Tony figured he couldn’t be in that much trouble.
[Come on, Helen Keller,] he tapped out, then helped Steve stand and picked up the leftover pizza for Bruce. Time to get back to work.
Tony wished the next day was as calm, but all their tests were finished on the new implant, all optimal, and the medical staff had (reluctantly) agreed that it was time to install it. And by install, they meant surgically insert a piece of tech that he’d designed into Captain America that would interface with his brain.
Tony might have been freaking out a bit.
He’d decided to deal with this by distracting Steve from his approaching procedure, which was essentially talking Steve’s ear off. In a manner of speaking.
[So Rhodey and I are sitting on an entire keg of beer,] Tony tapped out against the back of Steve’s hand, [which is barely hidden under the bed, and I can’t stop laughing because it’s mine, but Rhodey is totally going to get in trouble if we’re caught. The guy in charge of the dorm was blinded by my genius. He was convinced that Rhodey was leading me onto a path of debauchery and mayhem.]
[See, you haven’t even met Rhodey and you know that’s crazy. I’m the troublemaker in that relationship.] Tony gave Steve his best shiteating grin before he remembered that Steve couldn’t see it.
[Speaking of trouble,] Steve said, [Did Fury give you a hard time about the pizza?]
[No, he didn’t care about that. He was looking for me because he’d found one of the snitches I made for Clint.]
Steve pulled his hand away. Tony suspected that Steve enjoyed being able to stop him midstream. [Snitches?]
[Right, you wouldn’t get that reference. I’ll add it to the list, old man. It’s a flying target I made for Clint. He has to track it and then hit a very tiny, mobile target with special arrows. JARVIS has been scoring him.]
[Sounds fun,] Steve said, [I bet he’s enjoying that.]
[He seems to,] Tony agreed, not saying anything about how desperately Clint had taken to playing, breaking two models already through constant use. [Anyway, Fury had found one flying around, captured it - and let me add that was no small task, those things are programmed to be extremely elusive, I’m going to have to hack the surveillance system to make copies of how that went down - and was convinced that it was a spy device. Typical Fury paranoia,] Tony complained, [I was completely insulted.]
[That you would spy on him?] Steve asked. He looked conflicted, as if he wanted to point out that Fury had a reason to be suspicious, but didn’t want to offend Tony.
[No,] Tony corrected him, [That he would be able to find my tech so easily! My surveillance equipment is beyond compare.]
Steve shook his head, but Tony could see the edge of an amused smile.
[Anyway, Fury was giving me quite the performance, glares, veiled threats, all the tools of professional terror, and then Natasha came in and saw it on Fury’s desktop, and then, you’ll never believe this, but I swear she was going to crack up. She barely kept herself from laughing in Fury’s face.]
[I bet that was something,] Steve said.
[You said it. Bruce and I have this bet going on her and-]
[Wait,] Steve said, pulling away to interrupt again, [you two make bets on your team members?]
[Of course!] Tony said, enjoying himself rather than being defensive at the hint of Steve’s disapproval. [We’ve got JARVIS keeping tabs, too. Last time Foster and her brunette friend were visiting, Clint tried to drink Foster’s friend under the table. Bruce bet on Clint. Guess who won.]
[Clint?] Steve tapped out.
[Wrong,] Tony answered gleefully.
[I’d have liked to see that,] Steve said, and it was such an innocent comment, but it felt like a slap in the face as it reminded Tony that Steve wouldn’t be able to see it right now. Steve paused, then tapped out, [Thanks for this, by the way.] Tony wasn’t sure how he managed to fill Morse code with that much sincerity.
[Don’t mention it,] Tony said with a frown, and added, [I’ll come by and visit later.] He nearly spelled out ‘after,’ thoughts of the implant weighing heavily on his mind, but caught himself just in time.
When Steve woke up this time, Tony was there, as promised, and no one was given a concussion. The slow, steady beat of Steve’s heart, echoed in the quiet chirp of the monitor, slowly picked up as he started smiling gently.
“Steve?” Tony said aloud, breaking the hush that had fallen over the medical personnel quickly gathering in the room, all of them holding their breaths.
“I heard that,” Steve said, voice still rough, and his smile deepened. He turned in Tony’s direction and opened his eyes. He blinked, and then blinked again. The smile dropped off his face.
“Shit,” Tony said, waving a hand in front of Steve’s face. Steve swatted it away, but the reaction time was too slow, no flinch, his eyes not following the movement and just staring in Tony’s general direction.
He exchanged a troubled glance with Bruce and swore again.
Steve was still blind.
It was chaos for a few hours while all the doctors gathered in a conference room to demand tests and offer explanations and suggestions. Eventually it devolved into yelling and insisting Tony had made a mistake.
Tony decided that was a good time to take a break and left Bruce to it. It was for the best. Everyone was very careful not to yell at or blame him.
“Hey,” Tony said, collapsing into a chair next to Steve’s bed, “It occurred to me that we were all so busy figuring out what was going on with you that we didn’t ask what was going on with you.”
“Yeah, it got pretty loud. Has it been like this the whole time?”
“What, have Bruce and I been dealing with these morons the whole time? The answer is yes. They’re insufferable, especially the so-called neurologists,” Tony complained before thinking that maybe he shouldn’t insult the doctors treating Steve. He cleared his throat and changed the subject. “You doing okay?”
“Well, I’ve been better,” Steve said wryly with a small grin, “But this is a big improvement, so I’m not complaining.”
“Yeah,” Tony pronounced, drawing out the word, “You’ve actually been handling this very well. Surprisingly well, actually, does it hurt to be so well-adjusted? I’m asking because I obviously have no idea.”
Steve took a long, deep breath. Tony could see his reluctance to talk about it and was just about to change the subject when Steve said, “I don’t feel well-adjusted.” Tony blinked and realized that he’d been so focussed, obsessed really, with Steve’s injuries that he’d pushed aside the fact that Steve was in a strange future where he’d already been dragged into battle. Where everyone he knew was dead.
When it came to Steve, Tony tended to have tunnel vision, assuming things about Steve just because he was zeroed in on one simple aspect of a complicated system. Even if he wasn’t very good with people, Tony was good at analysis, at finding patterns and predicting behavior. Every time Steve surprised him it was a shock, especially since it was Tony’s faulty perception and not subterfuge on Steve’s part.
Steve continued, unable to see Tony’s reaction, “But it’s not the first time my body’s been out of my control.”
“Right,” Tony said, because it should have been his first thought, his dad never shut up about the goddamn thing, “Project Rebirth and all that.” He tried to keep his voice flat and keep the bitterness out of his tone.
If Steve heard it, he ignored it. “Not really,” he corrected, “I meant before that. I was a sick kid, asthma and things. Spent more time than I’d liked with doctors. I figured out that sometimes you had to stop and wait, let your body get better. You just couldn’t give up in the long run.”
“But it must be different like this,” Tony argued, voice a little too sharp. He pursed his lips, frustrated with himself, and deliberately softened his tone to say, “We depend on our senses. A lot.”
“I know that,” Steve said drily, which was probably the understatement of the year. Steve was the last person that needed a lecture on the importance of the senses. “But you depend on being able to breath, too.”
“I should have known as soon as we were able to talk, we’d start arguing again,” Tony said with a smirk and made a grandiose gesture toward his chest that Steve couldn’t see. “I just can’t help myself.” Steve frowned, but Tony continued before he could interrupt, “I take it your throat is feeling better.”
“Still hurts, but not as bad,” Steve said, “And this helps,” and stuck out his tongue like a two year old. It was stained bright red and had a losenze resting on it.
“That’s very attractive and mature, Captain,” Tony said, not even trying to disguise his amusement.
Steve smiled in return.
Tony pulled out his phone to check the time. “I should be getting back,” he said reluctantly, wondering if Bruce had gotten everything under control. Probably.
Steve hid it well, but Tony could see his disappointment, and once again thought about how he would feel if he was stuck in bed. He shuddered, and before he’d even thought about it, pulled Steve’s hand toward him and slapped his phone in it.
“Tony?” Steve questioned, taking the small device and wrapping curious fingers around it.
“I’m going to leave you my phone,” Tony said, “Well, I say phone, but it’s my own prototype, and it has a ton of features, one of which is an uplink to JARVIS. Say hello to Steve, JARVIS,” Tony ordered.
“Good day, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS intoned immediately, causing Steve to jump slightly when his voice came from the small speakers in his hand. “I’m delighted to see that you’re feeling better.”
“Just tell JARVIS what you want to listen to, and he’ll play it,” Tony instructed. “Music or radio. He can even read you a book.”
“I can’t accept this, Tony,” Steve said, sounding aghast. “How will you talk to JARVIS?”
“I am able to talk through many of the devices that Mr. Stark owns, including the Iron Man armor,” JARVIS explained before Tony could respond, “And he has built several other cellular prototypes that need to be tested, so this one will not be missed. Additionally, if you’re comfortable with my presence, Captain, I’d appreciate the chance to improve your hospital stay with this small contribution.”
“Well,” Steve said, and Tony hid a smile at the way JARVIS’ appeal had stopped any reasonable objection Steve could have made, “Of course, JARVIS, thank you.”
“My pleasure, Captain,” JARVIS replied promptly.
“You kids have fun,” Tony said. He waved, rolled his eyes at himself when he realized what he was doing, and headed back into the fray.
Tony frowned at the code, setting it to scroll slowly. “I don’t think it’s a software problem.” He rubbed at his eyes and then stared at the code rolling by before sighing heavily. “This code is perfect. I know there wasn’t anything indicative in the scans, but it must be a mechanical problem.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t want the doctors to be right,” Bruce answered.
“Oh, are we talking again? I’ve been trying to work this out for an hour while you’ve just been sitting there,” Tony accused, sparing a glance at Bruce. “You know, sometimes I feel like you never listen to me.”
“I’m trying to do my own work, Tony,” Bruce said, still not looking up from his screen.
Tony reached blindly for a coffee mug, but scowling at the stained bottom when it turned out to be empty. “They’re just blaming the code because they can’t figure it out.”
Tony huffed when Bruce ignored him, and called up an image of Steve’s brain, red points highlighting the structure of the nanites. He set it spinning and sighed again.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Steve said, and Tony whipped around to see him standing in the doorway.
“Wow,” Tony said, because Steve was dressed and standing in the doorway alone. “You convinced them to give you real people clothes?”
“Even better,” Steve said, grinning, “I convinced them to release me from medical, although I’m still confined to base.”
“How did you possibly manage that?” Tony asked.
“Well, I’m not hooked up to the machines anymore, and JARVIS here can alert them if there’s an emergency, so yeah.” Steve shrugged. “I just had to promise to be careful.”
“I see, you convinced them you were a responsible adult,” Tony said. Not a strategy he’d be able to use then.
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, amused. “Anyway, I wanted to say thank you, so JARVIS helped me order some Chinese food. Take a break and come eat with me.”
“Always giving orders, Captain,” Tony teased, but now that his attention was on the food, he became aware of just how good it smelled. His stomach growled. “Yeah, break time, okay,” Tony said, sending the display to sleep and getting up. “Ohh, Peking Palace, my favorite. I’m surprised you were able to get it delivered here.”
“I think the delivery guy had some problems with security,” Steve said, sheepish. “An agent brought it up to me. I got enough for Bruce, too, where is he? JARVIS said he was here.”
“Oh, he’s concentrating,” Tony said. He fished out one of the boxes and a pair of chopsticks, leaving it within easy reach. Bruce made a low noise and waved them away.
“That was harried scientist for thanks,” Tony explained as he followed Steve out of the room, watching Steve walk with a hand running along one wall. Steve led them to the same lounge they’d had pizza in and carefully set the food on the table.
"So I take it the phone is working out," Tony said as they started to eat.
"JARVIS is very helpful, Tony, thanks," Steve replied.
"Helpful, yeah, but watch out. He's also sarcastic. And a bully. Sadistic, really, it's terrible."
"I can tell you made him, if that's what you mean," Steve said drily.
"Nice, very funny. So what lies has he been telling you?" Tony asked.
"None," Steve said, surprised, as JARVIS responded with, "Certainly less than you, Sir."
"Ouch," Tony said with a laugh though a mouthful of food and winked at the nearest surveillance camera.
"JARVIS has been telling me about history. Catching me up on some of the things I missed."
"Learn anything interesting?"
Steve is quiet for a long time, fumbling for an egg roll. "When I woke up, they told me that the war was over. That we'd won. They didn't say how."
"The Manhattan project," Tony said with a rush of clarity. Steve was such a huge part of how his dad had described the war that it was easy to forget that Steve had missed the end of it. "Dad worked on that, you know."
"I'm not surprised," Steve said calmly, "It sounded a lot like one of the other projects he'd been working on, understanding Hydra's weapons, and that was just the one I knew about." Several noodles slid off his chopsticks as he stared into space, but Steve didn't notice. "Did Howard ever say..." Steve gave himself a small jerk, as if coming back from wherever he'd gone in his head. "Sorry, Tony, I shouldn't have."
"It's fine," Tony said, cutting off Steve's apology, even though he'd made it clear the last time Steve had brought up his dad, when they'd first met, that it wasn't fine. "You want to know if he thought it was worth it, after." Steve nodded, and Tony shrugged. "We never really talked about it. But he made weapons and bombs for a living after the war, so it couldn't have weighed on him too heavily."
"Right," Steve said, and they ate in silence for a while. Tony tried to focus on his food and not useless memories of his father until Steve said, "I also learned that gay marriage is legal in New York," and Tony nearly choked to death.
"Are you shocked?" Tony asked when he could talk again. "Morally outraged?"
"No," Steve answered with a studied nonchalance, but Tony couldn't tell what emotion he was covering.
"Well, good," Tony said, and left it at that, ruthlessly ignoring any hope that made him want to pursue the matter.
After a few seconds Steve continued with, "And JARVIS says that we went to the moon, but I'm not sure that I believe that one."
"Nope, that's true, too," Tony confirmed, "I was only joking about JARVIS lying. He's way more responsible than me."
"Huh," Steve said thoughtfully.
"What?" Tony prompted.
"Nothing, just... we went to the moon and have billionaires in flying armor and talking computers that fit in my hand. With all of that, I would have thought it'd be possible to fix me."
"The brain is much more complicated than the moon," Tony said, and then scowled. "And hey, what do you mean? We are going to fix you."
"Yeah, I know," Steve said, and changed the subject, but Tony thought it sounded weak. When he returned to the lab, he was even more determined to figure things out.
It took two full days of brainstorming and dead ends, coffee and cursing (Tony), and a frustrated tantrum that led to a few hours of meditation (Bruce), but they finally stumbled on a plausible idea.
Well, to be fair, Bruce did the stumbling. “What if we’re looking at this wrong,” Bruce started slowly.
“Yeah, I think we would have solved it by now if we were looking at it right,” Tony snarked, spinning around in his chair. He missed his own workshop, even though it made more sense to stay here.
“We’re assuming that Steve’s still blind because we made a mistake, either in the physical tech we implanted or in the code it’s using to interface with the nanites.”
“Yup, that’s the idea,” Tony agreed, stopping his lazy circle with one foot so that he could watch Bruce and see where he was going with it.
“But we can’t find anything wrong. Everything is working as expected, and you’ve been through the code line by line, so what if it’s not a mistake on our part, but something else?”
“Possible,” Tony said, and tilted his head as he thought about it. “Probable, even. The neuroscientists can’t really tell us what’s going on in there, and they’re the experts.”
“Right,” Bruce said, “So what else could be going wrong?”
“I don’t know,” Tony admitted, “How do you troubleshoot a problem in a system you don’t understand.”
“Pull up the 3D rendering of Steve’s brain, again,” Bruce said, and JARVIS had it displayed above the table before Tony could give the order. “The problem is here, right?” Bruce asked, pointing to occipital lobe at the base of Steve’s brain.
“Where the nanites are the most concentrated,” Tony mused, studying the dense red color. “Do you think the nanites themselves are causing the problem? They’re not supposed to override normal brain function, just add and control where necessary.”
“I don’t think we can trust them to act like they’re supposed to,” Bruce said, “They’re also not supposed to be so highly concentrated, but based on the logs, they couldn’t move the nanites any farther without causing critical tissue damage.”
“So we end up with interference,” Tony said, and considered it further. “Okay, so how do we find out if that’s true? And how do we fix it?”
“I don’t know,” Bruce groaned pulling off his glasses to rub at his eyes.
“Okay,” Tony said, eyeing Bruce carefully. “Well, I feel good about that idea, so why don’t we take a break and think about it? You go drink tea or whatever, and I’m going to take a walk. You know, find someone to annoy that’s not you,” Tony joked.
“Good idea,” Bruce said with a smile. “I think I’ll take a nap, too,” He glances at the clock on the screen. “Or possibly just go to sleep. I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“Huh, I didn’t either,” Tony said, although he didn’t really care.
Bruce stared at the image of Steve’s brain for another minute or two before shaking himself and turning away. “Goodnight, then,” Bruce said, firmly.
“Night,” Tony said, and started spinning in his chair again, thinking.
It felt like minutes, but several hours had passed when JARVIS interrupted to say, “Sir? Will you please come to Captain Rogers’ quarters?”
“Why?” Tony asked, alarmed, “What’s going on?”
“A nightmare of some sort, Sir, and I cannot wake him.”
“Oh,” Tony said in relief, even as he moved quickly out of the lab and toward the barracks, “I thought you were going to say it was another seizure.”
“I would have alerted the medical facilities in that case, Sir,” JARVIS said.
“Nightmare too small potatoes for his doctors?” Tony asked as he walked.
“I believe Captain Rogers would appreciate their exclusion in this matter. He has expressed his desire at other times to remain out of the medical wing as much as possible.”
“Him and everyone else on the planet,” Tony agreed as he reached Steve’s door. It was unlocked, and he shut it behind him, surprised to find the lights on, but then, it wasn’t as if they would bother Steve.
Steve was sprawled on the sheets in a simple white shirt and blue striped pajama pants, and Tony instantly and selfishly wished that he hadn’t seen it, because how was he supposed to go on with his life with that image in his head.
“Doesn’t look too bad,” Tony says, not bothering to keep quiet, trying to remember how to wake someone in a nightmare. Were you even supposed to wake them? Or wait, was that sleepwalking?
“His pulse is highly elevated, and-”
“No!” Steve gasped and gave a muffled cry, fingers clenching in the sheets. Tony stopped thinking and moved forward, grabbing Steve’s shoulder and shaking gently.
Steve made another panicked sound and grabbed Tony’s wrist, hard, pulling him down until he was pinned under Steve’s weight.
Tony didn’t fight the move, going down easily and staying still on his back, but couldn’t help talking. “Okay, sure, this is a much better position, I’ll just stay right here. God, you’d think I’d have learned about trying to wake you up by now. It’s a losing proposition. Not that I blame you, I’m sure I’d be ten times worse. I don’t always wake up well, either.”
“Tony?” Steve said groggily, his grip easing. “What - what’s going on?”
“You had a nightmare,” Tony said, “Bad enough that JARVIS couldn’t wake you.”
“Oh,” Steve said, and raised a hand to rub his eyes. Then he seemed to realize the position they were in and sat up quickly to move away from Tony. “Sorry! I didn’t mean to... Are you okay?”
“Fine, I’m fine,” Tony said, patting Steve’s shoulder briefly as he sat up as well. Steve still seemed distressed, so Tony made a face and said, sincerely, “You want to talk about it?”
“No,” Steve answered sharply, then sighed. “Sorry. I mean, thanks for the offer, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
“No problem,” Tony said, and changed the subject. “Bruce came up with a good idea earlier. We’re working on it, but I think he might be right.”
“You don’t sound very excited about it,” Steve said tentatively.
“I am, yeah,” Tony said, trying to insert some enthusiasm. “I don’t want to get your hopes up too much, but if this works, we could fix your vision.”
“There’s a catch, though, right?” Steve said. “Otherwise you’d be telling me how brilliant you are.”
“I am brilliant,” Tony said immediately, but then continued, “I’m trying to find a way around it, but I think what we need is to help your brain send stronger signals through the nanites. Make it louder, kind of, not really. Anyway, unfortunately, I think the best way would be to have small implants in several places, including your temples.”
Steve was quiet for a second. “That’s not too bad. You had me worried that it was something terrible.”
“The implants will be visible. I mean, we can work on masking them, but the ones at the temples will be especially noticeable at first.”
“But I’ll be able to see?” Steve asked.
“Yeah, we won’t do anything until we’re sure it will work,” Tony assured him.
Steve shrugged. “Then that’s fine.”
“Fine?” Tony asked.
“Better than being blind,” Steve said. “Why, is there something wrong with implants?”
“Nope, not a thing,” Tony said casually, while realizing frantically that of all things, Steve didn’t know about the arc reactor. Hadn’t he read Tony’s file?
Steve reached out and ran two fingers gently over Tony face and then sighed. “I can’t tell if that’s true or not. Your voice is... You’re really good at hiding how you feel.”
“You’ve been doing okay,” Tony said. He hadn’t meant for Steve to pick up on how ill at ease he was with the implants, for one. Hopefully that was all Steve had picked up on.
“I’m trying to pay attention. Especially since... well, I haven’t apologized for that yet, but-”
“Hey, no,” Tony interrupted, “Just, listen, we both said some things, but we’re way past apologies. It’s all water under the rainbow bridge, you know?”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, although his laugh was a little choked. He blinked and pulled his fingers off of Tony’s face as if just remembering they were there. “I’m sure glad you found a way to cut the wire, though.”
“You and me both,” Tony said. He wavered and then started unbuttoning his shirt. “Let me show you something.”
“Show?” Steve asked wryly.
Tony paused when he realized that Steve couldn’t see, that Steve would have to touch to really understand, but pushed through the sudden fear and kept unbuttoning his shirt. “Here,” he said, and pulled Steve’s hand to rest over the arc reactor.
“Tony?” Steve questioned, voice hollow with shock, but then he frowned and felt around the edges of the arc reactor. “What am I feeling?”
“An implant,” Tony said calmly. He hadn’t let anyone touch it since Obadiah, couldn’t quite believe that he was allowing it now, but the fear had fallen away. He could trust Steve to understand how important it was. “Keeps my heart running,” he explained, “I guess my negative feelings toward implants are just personal.”
“This happened when you were kidnapped,” Steve said, quickly putting the pieces together. “You said it was your heart? Are you okay?”
“Sure,” Tony said, “As long as I have this. Just like you really,” Tony said, and brushed his fingers along the side of Steve neck to the side of where his tiny arc reactor was located.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” Steve said softly, pressing his palm over the arc reactor in Tony’s chest.
He should probably get back to work, see if Bruce had decided to wake up, but instead he stayed still and breathed, feeling his chest rise and fall under Steve’s hand, and tried to hold on to this moment.
Steve was in the gym when Tony went to find him, JARVIS leading him through the echoing hallways. The door opened to a small, old fashioned boxing area that looked like it had been built for Steve. It probably had.
Inside, Steve and Natasha were sparring. It looked as though they were practicing footwork, dancing around the ring without using any of the holds or throws Tony knew they were both capable of. They were quiet as they fought, the creak of the mats and a hard exhale when a blow landed the only sounds.
It should have looked normal, but Tony had studied these people, fought beside them, and they were both moving much slower than he knew they could. Natasha wasn't hesitating to connect body shots, but missed several clear opportunities to hit his head, a fact which Steve had already figured out and was trying to use to his advantage. He didn't bother blocking when he danced closer, sure that she wouldn't risk hitting him.
She tripped him and sent him sprawling across the mat, Steve landing on his hands in what looked like a particularly messy push-up.
"I told you not to take it easy on me," Steve said, standing up gracefully.
Natasha smirked at him. "I've always had to take it easy on you."
"If you say so," Steve said with a wry grin.
"You think I'm lying?" Natasha asked, mock outraged.
"Of course not," Steve said, "But you have to realize that I was doing the same."
"That's unfortunate," Natasha said, "I usually remove a man's balls if he coddles me in a fight." She gave a small shrug. "Or kill him."
"You're welcome to try," Steve invited, and Natasha attacked again, much faster this time.
They were both still pulling their punches, but not as obviously so. Tony wondered about their obvious camaraderie, especially since it seemed obvious to Tony that that Steve merely tolerated him now because he was useful, but quickly ignored that thought and focused on the fight, which was covering more ground this time. They moved to the edge of the mat and back as they darted around each other.
"Who's watching us?" Steve asked in an undertone as he dodged a hip level kick, just loud enough that Tony could hear, obviously caring more about the fight than the answer.
Natasha's eyes cut to his briefly, although Tony knew she was aware of him the entire time. "Tony," she gritted out as Steve threw his weight into a sharp jab. She dodged his second attack easily, using his momentum to bring him to the mat again.
"Tony?" Steve asked, head turned blindly in Tony's general direction. He'd fallen harder this time, his arms flat on the floor from his palms to his elbows.
After a second when Natasha neither confirmed or denied, Tony said, "Yes. Hi?"
"What are you doing here?" Steve asked as he climbed to his feet.
"I was wondering the same thing about you when JARVIS told me you were down here, but wow, that was an excellent demonstration. How are you doing that?"
Steve shrugged. "My hearing is really good. And I’ve had some practice at it. No one would spar with me unless I used a handicap." He left off the reference to the war but Tony knew they all heard it. "Want a turn?"
"A turn to prove that you can beat me blindfolded and with one hand tied behind your back? I think I'll pass," Tony said amused. “Besides, you’re done for now, too. We’re ready to test.”
“Okay,” Steve said, and Tony could tell he was excited. They’d been working on this for almost a week, and Tony was pretty sure it would work. “Give me two minutes, I need to shower.”
“Oh, did I make you break a sweat, Captain?” Natasha asked sweetly.
“Sure did,” Steve said with a smile and felt his way into the small bathroom on the other side of the room.
“You’re good together,” Tony said.
Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “We’re not together.”
“Oh?” Tony said, relieved. “Well, you’re platonically good together, then.”
“We understand each other. Soldiers, you know?” She answered.
“You’re a soldier?” Tony asked, skeptical. He didn’t think any one term could really be used to describe Natasha. She was too complicated to summarize well, and even if he tried, he didn’t think he’d pick soldier.
“Sometimes,” Natasha agreed, smirking. “Anyway, you’re an idiot if you think he’s interested in me. He’s very clearly hung up on someone else.”
“Who?” Tony asked, but Steve came out before she could answer. He wasn’t kidding about that two minutes.
Bruce helped wire Steve up in their dimmed lab. It was nothing permanent yet. They needed to test out the equipment first. More wires and sensors were connected than would eventually be needed in an attempt to find out what exactly was happening, and they looked strange, thick and black against Steve’s pale hair and skin.
“Ready?” Tony asked, giving the amplifiers a final adjustment, fingers gentle but sure against Steve’s face.
“Yes,” Steve said firmly, and Tony switched everything on.
Steve blinked, and blinked again. The bottom of Tony’s stomach dropped away in dread, sure that he’d failed Steve again, but then Steve tilted his head and began to grin. For the first time in a long time, his eyes were locked directly on Tony’s.
“There you are,” Steve said, and closed the small distance between them to press a kiss against Tony’s lips.
“Shit, shit, sorry,” Tony said, pushing Steve back into place and carefully re-attaching the wires.
“Tony?” Steve asked, letting out a relieved sigh as his eyes sought out Tony’s again. “Good. Let’s try this again. I. Uh.” For the first time, Steve looked uncertain, almost bashful. “Sorry, if I - did I read this wrong?”
“No,” Tony said, because how could he give any other answer? He swallowed painfully and forced himself to continue, “Not on my end. But you hardly even,” He stopped, unwilling to remind Steve of his own disinterest in Tony. Instead he said, truthfully, “I am such a terrible idea, Steve. Ask Pepper. Hell, ask anyone.”
“Tony,” Steve repeated, this time a reprimand. Tony didn’t think he’d ever get tired of hearing all the various incarnations Steve had of his name. “That was probably a little presumptuous of me, but I won’t apologize since you want it, too. If you’re worried,” Steve continued, not letting Tony interrupt, “That I don’t know what I’m getting into, I guess it’s possible, but,” Steve shrugged, taking one of Tony’s hands, a familiar action after so many days of speaking through touch, “I think we’ve seen the worst and best of each other.”
“We argue all the time,” Tony pointed out.
“Yeah, sometimes, but it doesn’t feel hurtful anymore. Besides, when I couldn’t hear, I kind of missed it.”
Tony shook his head. “I’m a mess, Steve. Since New York, even before that. You deserve someone so much better.”
“Don’t even try that. You of all people know that I’m pretty banged up myself.” Steve gave Tony a smile. “I think I’m doing this wrong. Let’s try this: Hey, Tony, you want to stop talking about the reasons this won’t work and go to dinner with me sometime? Because I’ve thought of them all, and I still want to take you on a date.”
It was so hopeful and so pragmatic at the same time, and it reached him the way a purely romantic declaration probably wouldn’t have. It was such a Steve approach to things, and throat too tight to speak, Tony tapped out, [Yes,] in Morse code against Steve’s hand.
He watched Steve’s smile grow even wider.
“I might need a few minutes to adjust,” Tony said, “Because I had no idea you were interested. Little bit of a shock.”
“Sure, you can have a few minutes,” Steve said, and felt the wires pull as he nodded. “Or longer,” he added with a grimace, “Since I’m not going to be leaving anytime soon.”
“Are you kidding?” Tony said with a smile, “It works! We’ll have you out of here in no time,” and this time he leaned in to kiss Steve.
“How come testing new tech means you get offensive weapons, and I’m standing here empty handed?” Steve asked suspiciously, but Tony could tell that he didn’t mind.
“These old things?” Tony said innocently with a wave at the new gauntlets he was wearing, skin tight and nearly invisible so that even without the suit he wasn’t defenseless. “Don’t worry, I have them set to stun.” Steve raised an eyebrow at that, but Tony continued, “And when have I ever left you empty handed. JARVIS, show him what we’ve got.”
A red light appeared on the edge of the small implants at Steve’s temples, flaring out to form a small screen over both eyes, stretching above and below to catch the full range of vision. Tony couldn’t see anything on it, but he knew that it was a simplified version of the interface he used in the armor.
“Whoa, Tony,” Steve said, mesmerized, eyes darting about to track the information popping up. “This is amazing,” he said, and held a hand up to touch something that wasn’t there. He’d have to train to use it, but Tony thought that it would be a real advantage in the field.
Tony let him have a minute or two to adjust, and then sent a thin repulsor blast toward his foot, a clear warning shot. “Are we going to fight, or what?”
“You’re going down, Tony,” Steve said, and Tony smiled because he was forever amused that Captain America trash-talked his opponent while training.
“Maybe later,” Tony said with a broad wink to hint at the euphemism in case Steve didn’t get it, “But right now I have to kick your ass.” Tony lunged forward, but Steve caught him easily, dropping him just as fast when Tony grabbed his wrist and blasted.
Steve examined the skin, but there was no damage. At this setting, it felt like a mild shock and nothing more. Steve grinned like he always did at the prospect of a fair fight.
Tony grinned back while Steve circled carefully and waited for his attack.