People weren't supposed to know what it felt like to die.
There was a certain blissfulness to death being a concept, an idea, a thing that happened to other people. Older people, sicker people, less fortunate people. Even now, even in a world of kaiju and genocide and destruction, people shouldn't have to know, really know, what it felt like to be ripped from the thread of reality. There was a gravity to it, a weight that settled hard on one's shoulders like the Grim Reaper himself had taken to riding around on one's back, whispering in an ear; soon.
Steve knew. He'd still been in the Drift when his brother in arms, Bucky, had died. He had felt the awful, lurching tug and tear of Bucky's soul being snatched like it was his own; the sensation of it, the knowing, was unshakable. He'd surfaced on the shores of Anchorage almost five years ago now, but he could still remember with perfect clarity what it felt like to stumble out of American Dream, gasping and shaking, still choking on the thick, overwhelming loss of it.
He'd felt dead.
It had taken him years to come to terms with that feeling. He'd quit the Ranger program immediately, dropped off the map. The program had been losing speed with government bigwigs anyway, and all the focus was headed towards building the Walls. That was something he could do, even in the tumultuous months and years after when the thought of Bucky was enough to make him moody and quiet for days, and the thought of the Drift was enough to give him panic attacks. It was more than two years before he was able to stop suppressing it, stop boxing it up in a corner of his mind and deal with it, but building the Walls helped. He was still helping to protect people, still doing his part, but there was no great existential crisis in his work, no deep thought processes, no need for mental engagement. He could get a tool in his hands and a job on his mind and just do what needed doing. It was physical work, manual and exhausting, and it was the best thing for him. There, he could exert all his anger, all his guilt, all his grief.
There were still nights he woke in a cold sweat, every nerve ending screaming at him that Bucky was dead and that he ought to be too, but they'd grown few and far between. For the most part, he worked. He built. He healed.
Then Phil Coulson came to call.
Steve had been doing his work like always. He'd pulled a top of the Wall shift, but it suited him fine; hard to mind heights after piloting a Jaeger. He ducked into the tent after his shift, sparing a glance at the perpetually-on TV in the corner. He usually ignored it, but this time, the announcer's words caught his attention.
"Less than an hour ago, a Category III kaiju breached the Sydney barrier."
There was some shaky cell phone footage and a scrolling feed identifying the beast as Mutavore. Steve watched as it tore through the Sydney wall, slogging through the harbor and making towards the city. Steve thought briefly of Nick Fury, and his perpetual disapproval of the Walls. A distraction at best, he'd said, a delusion at worst. A safeguard for the public's peace of mind.
"This is the third attack in two months. The PPDC is now down to just two Jaegers, and yet both were dispatched today: Quinjet, a Mark V piloted by strike-team Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov, and special unit IronJaeger."
Photos of the triumphant Jaegers flashed across the screen, and Steve couldn't help just a touch of awe. He'd seen Mark V's a handful of times before, but Quinjet was stunning. Steve had heard the program had a new funder calling the design shots for about a year or so now, and he imagined that might have something to do with it. He liked the results, they looked good and strong.
The other one, though.
If Steve liked Quinjet's usefulness, IronJaeger was pure beauty. A little flashier with a red and gold color scheme to Quinjet's muted purple and black, but there was no denying that IronJaeger was a truly gorgeous machine. Sleek but powerful, less bulk and more efficiency; Steve could appreciate that.
Both machines could've taken American Dream down in a flat second. Steve felt a bit of an envious pang, followed by the flash of anger, of resentment—piloting a machine like that, Knifehead, the kaiju who'd taken him down for the final time and killed Bucky, wouldn't have stood a chance. He let the emotions swirl and brood a moment before he took a deep breath, pushing past what couldn't be changed and returning his attention to the screen.
The reporter was chasing after Quinjet's pilots. Neither of them responded to her questions, until she made a dig about IronJaeger.
"With only two left, don't you think it's a poor judgement call for both remaining Jaegers to be out once? Does this imply any truth to the rumors that IronJaeger has been coming to fights against PPDC orders?"
"You know what, lady, I'll tell you one thing, IronJaeger saved our ass back there so I'd watch it with the—" Clint whirled about and started in on her, defensive, but Steve wasn't surprised. Pilots these days had a hell of a lot to defend from. They saved millions of lives, yet had perhaps only a thousand supporters left at best.
"Damn it, Clint, stop talking to reporters." The other pilot, Natasha, yanked Clint away by the arm.
The reporter continued talking, about how a decommissioned program ought to be let lie, but Steve was done listening. He gave a heavy sigh, and left the tent, preferring the cold silence than listening to the Jaeger program get ripped apart by the media. Oddly enough, he heard a helicopter overhead; didn't get too many of those out here. He watched as it touched down on the other side of the assignment area, and caught sight of the logo across the door—that was the insignia for PPDC, the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps. The door opened as soon as he thought it, revealing Phil Coulson exiting the craft.
"Captain Rogers," Phil greeted, as if he'd been expected. Steve had been a Captain in the army, once, before the kaiju came. It was a title he hadn't heard in a long time. He'd missed it, but then, that was likely why Phil had used it.
"Phil." Steve nodded cordially. Phil looked no different than their last meeting, still wearing a sharp, well-tailored suit, not a wrinkle in sight, shades on despite the distinct lack of sun.
"Been a while."
"Five years." Four months, seventeen days. He continued, already well aware of what Phil was going to ask. "I'm not a Ranger anymore."
"You're an inactive one," Phil corrected, commenting mildly, "Hard to find, too."
"You don't need me, Phil."
"You're exactly who we need. We need every good man we can get our hands on, but you're the very best."
"Bucky and I were the best." Steve paused, the feeling of American Dream's arm being sliced away crawling over his skin. He shook it off. "And now he's gone. What do you expect to do with one soldier?"
"You can Drift again, Captain."
He tried to imagine someone else in his head, connecting with someone who wasn't Bucky and forming a bond not meant to be broken. He heard Bucky screaming his name in the last second before the neural handshake broke. Steve straightened up, forced the thought down.
"And why would I do that?"
"Because the world needs you to," Phil told him, just as genuine and sentimental as Steve remembered him, "And heroes do what the world needs them to."
"I'm not a hero, Phil."
"We'll see about that. We've got a last ditch effort we want to try; we want you to help us try it."
"A suicide mission."
"Worse things to die for."
Steve gave Phil a lingering, examining look.
"I hear you're pretty short on Jaegers these days," Steve said at last, "You even got something for me to pilot?"
"We've got a guy who says he can fix American Dream."
"Not possible." Steve responded immediately. He'd seen her. She'd been…irreparable.
"If it's mechanical, he can fix it. You'll get your Jaeger if you want her, Captain."
Steve tried to imagine piloting American Dream again with someone that wasn't Bucky. He didn't like it, but he knew better than to ask if there were any other options. He already knew Phil's answer, just like he already knew his own answer to Phil's offer; he'd known since the helicopter had first touched down. He wasn't looking for a suicide mission, but if it granted him or anyone else a shot at saving the world from the beasts that had taken his life from him, well.
"Then I guess you've got your pilot."
When Tony found Nick Fury waiting in his living room a year ago, he'd been expecting it.
At that exact moment, perhaps not—evidenced by the shout of fucking hell and the drink he spilled, it was the middle of the night, damn it—but he'd known this was coming. Tony had been playing an interesting game for the past few years, to say the least; turning Iron Man into the IronJaeger, the only civilian owned, privately produced Jaeger in the world, had been a dangerous gambit. He'd known from the start the military wouldn't take kindly to it—not that they'd much liked Iron Man—but his city was in danger, and if Tony had to step up his game to protect it, so be it.
His design was different than most Jaeger's, not to mention the operating system and power source, but he'd still needed access to the Drift. The science of it wasn't hard to learn, there was enough public information about it floating around for Tony to infer and pick up on the finer points the military had locked down, but the question of who to pilot the IronJaeger with him had plagued him.
Rhodey had been the clear choice; he'd operated War Machine for years, was eager to fight, and had known Tony since his MIT days. Much as Rhodey knew him, however, Tony couldn't get past the thought of how open a neural connection would be. Every secret, every fear, every nerve ending in Tony's cerebral cortex left open for Rhodey to read through and examine…he couldn't do it. It wasn't Rhodey—it's not you, it's me—it was the concept of being laid bare that way, the intimacy of it, that terrified Tony. He'd spent his whole life behind walls. Life was easier to handle that way; he was easier to handle that way. Rhodey handled him with kid gloves as it was, as his eccentric, loveably difficult best friend. He wasn't prepared for the raw complexity beneath the facades Tony so loved, and Tony wasn't prepared to lose one of the few real friendships he'd managed to cultivate.
So Tony did what he did best; he found a mechanical solution to a human problem.
JARVIS was easily intelligent as any human, if not more so. JARVIS understood Tony as much as anyone could, had seen as far underneath the shell as anyone had. Nearly all of JARVIS' "memories" were of Tony's own life, an infinite series of touchpoints for the Drift that made them a dream team. It had taken some trial and error, hooking himself up to Drift with an AI instead of a human, but Tony wasn't lauded as a genius for nothing. He did brain scans regularly to make sure JARVIS was a suitable substitute and the suit wasn't killing him—again—but to even his own surprise, it truly worked.
He and JARVIS dominated in the field, and though both the public and the military pressured him for the name of his second pilot, Tony stayed mum. They couldn't very well court martial him, not when he kept so many people safe, so they'd reached an impasse for the time being. At least, until Nick Fury had been sent to give him a heart attack in his living room.
"We have a mission."
"Try assigning it to someone who works for you." Tony had placed the empty glass aside. "Are you aware that you look like a Bond villain, or are your cheesy levels of mysteriousness accidental?"
"Now's not the time for vigilantes." Nick had ignored him. "It's time to fight as a team, to take these things down once and for all."
"Inspiring, truly, but you know I don't play well with others." Tony had dismissed him. "Seriously, black trenchcoat, unexplained eyepatch, breaking and entering to sit on my coach in the dark, you can't tell me you weren't going for a little dramatic flair here—"
"You know why I'm here."
"Budget cuts are a bitch." Tony had shrugged, then, with a sharp smirk. "Remind me not to work for the government."
"If you funded us, we wouldn't be government."
"Straight stab for the checkbook. I like that."
"We need you, Stark. Believe me, we don't like that any more than you do."
"Now flattery? What, is today my birthday?"
"We want to wipe the kaiju out. Close the portal, for good."
"You think I have an answer?" Tony had raised an eyebrow.
"We think you have money. We have the scientists; good, hard-working scientists, top of their fields. We're getting there. We need the funds to keep working at it."
"I'm not really a sit back and watch the action kind of guy." Tony had shot Nick a thoughtful look. "If I'm going to fund you, I want in, in. I want to talk to your scientists, brainstorm with them, poke at the toys. I want to take apart your Jaegers, make them faster, stronger, better. And, if and when this final attack goes down, I want to be front and center blasting some alien ass."
"What a patriot."
"I think the last poll settled on 'self-indulgent danger junkie'."
"Fine." Nick sounded reluctant, which only made Tony suspect that this had been the plan all along. "But when you're in my shatterdome, you don't challenge my authority. You won't be a vigilante anymore, you'll be on my team, playing by my rules. Judge jury and executioner, you got me?"
"Challenge authority? Me? How scandalous."
"I'll see you there at 0500, Stark."
"Uh, that's pm, right?"
These days, Tony still didn't quite manage the 0500 call—screw the end of the world, who the hell woke up at five in the fucking morning—but had otherwise settled in at the Hong Kong shatterdome very well. He bounced around most of the time, not really assigned to one particular position.
He spent most mornings training. At first he just went in with the other recruits, but he bonded quickly with team Quinjet and before he knew it the three of them were sectioning off to train on their own. They were miles out of his league in hand to hand combat, but had turned out to be surprisingly patient teachers. The joke going around the shatterdome was that they'd adopted him into their already borderline codependent relationship. Rumors of threesomes aside, Natasha and Clint were good friends of his, though Natasha in particular had taken some getting used to.
For starters, she'd been snooping on him for Fury for months as a plant in StarkIndustries legal department. He'd thought the best way to get over it would be by sleeping with her, but when he'd tried—admittedly, fairly crudely—she'd said she'd go for it if he lasted ten seconds with her in the ring. She'd smacked him into the mat so hard he'd thought his nose had been driven into his brain.
She'd helped him up, taught him how to block the throw next time, and they'd been good ever since.
He spent his afternoons in the lab with the other person he'd befriended on base, Dr. Bruce Banner. They were the ones who'd pieced together the puzzle, figured out a way to potentially close the portal. When Tony had first joined the team, Bruce had been working alone, since he was more famous for his big green alter ego than for his own achievements and people had been hesitant to work with him, Bruce himself even more so. He'd come to the shatterdome to work—he knew his mind could be used, and if the Hulk had an incident, what better to shut it down than a Jaeger?—but still didn't quite trust himself. When Tony had first arrived he'd been isolated, holed up in his lab nearly all day, only ever leaving to sleep, and sometimes not even then.
Tony, never one to back down from a challenge and not about to start when he was so blisteringly eager to speak to someone on his level, had taken up shop right in the very middle of Bruce's workspace. He still hadn't moved. Their workspaces had mixed together over the past year, tables shifting and bookshelves moving, papers passing back and forth as research materials crossed over the space so many times it became more of a blended environment than anything else.
After his time in the lab with Bruce, Tony usually spent his evenings doing tech rounds, looking over the work that had been done on the Jaegers that day, tinkering with potential new weapons and examining the blueprints for ways to maximize current capabilities. He stayed up fairly late, but he wasn't running himself as ragged as he used to—he had to be rested for early morning training with Clint and Natasha, or he'd come out with broken limbs. He ate more often than he did at home, too, since Clint and Natasha never took no for an answer and always dragged him and Bruce out of the lab to eat with them in the pilot's mess hall. They were close, the four of them. It surprised most people, but particularly Tony himself. But then, that was just his luck.
Of course he'd start liking his life once the world was coming to an end.
Steve disembarked the helicopter with exactly none of his questions answered.
Phil, while not as blatantly dismissive as Nick—Steve remembered asking a particularly impertinent question once and Nick replying that if Steve asked him one more goddamn question he was going to drop his ass in the middle of the Pacific ocean as kaiju chum—but was far more evasive. He dodged every question with disturbing ease, and Steve eventually decided his time would be better spent staring out the window and trying to sleep.
When they landed in the Hong Kong shatterdome, it was storming with wild winds and buckets of rain. Steve couldn't get much of a clear view of the area, but he certainly caught sight of a group of technicians hauling what looked to be a kaiju brain in a jar off a cargo plane. It was enormous, and Steve did a visible double-take, but no one else seemed particularly surprised. The technicians were taking orders from a man a bit older than himself, with dark, curly hair, blocky glasses, and a lab coat that had seen better days flapping in the wind. He had a number of sample jars stacked against his chest precariously, but that didn't stop him from shouting at the technicians.
"Careful with that!" he insisted, and the technicians startled visibly in response. Steve was a bit curious; odd for technicians to react so nervously to a mousy little scientist.
"They're being careful, Bruce, relax."
The man next to the scientist, Bruce, clapped a hand to his shoulder. This man looked a bit younger, though still likely older than Steve, with messy brown hair, sharp eyes, and a strangely trimmed beard. He too was clutching a number of sample jars of various colors from the cargo plane, but clothes like that—a simple shirt and oil-stained jeans—meant he was probably a mechanic, and now that Steve was looking, that might've even been grease on his cheek. Then, Steve caught himself really looking, something not much helped by the dingy-looking black wifebeater the man was wearing, revealing tan skin and muscled arms. Before he realized what he was doing, Steve was leaning forward for a better look just as the man turned his head.
Steve quickly looked away, though not before the man definitely caught him staring. To avoid further embarrassment, he quickly stepped back into line next to Phil, though he couldn't help keeping an ear on the conversation.
"That's a live specimen!" Bruce was protesting. "How would you like it if someone sloshed your brain around like that?"
"Buddy." The other man chuckled. "If my brain had been removed and thrown in a jar, it getting a bit sloshed around would be the least of my worries."
"Welcome to Hong Kong," Phil's voice covered whatever Bruce said in response as he led Steve away from the loading area, the kaiju brain, and the intriguing mechanic. They made their way to one of the cargo elevators.
"This was the first Jaeger station, wasn't it?"
"The very first." Phil nodded. "And now, the last one standing."
They stepped into the elevator together, and just as the doors were about to close, Steve heard the mechanic's voice.
"Hey, blondie, hold the door!"
Steve shot out a hand to block it from shutting, and seconds later both men he'd seen a moment ago crashed into the elevator, soaking wet and cradling sample jars the way mothers cradled their children. The mechanic ended up pressed against him in the elevator, though really, there was plenty of room. He leaned on Steve, catching his breath as the doors closed behind them. He shot a grin at Bruce.
"Told you he'd hold it for me." The mechanic tilted his head enough to turn his grin on Steve. He was rather unfairly handsome, this close. "Thanks, gorgeous."
"He's been on the dome less than five minutes." Phil shot the mechanic a sharp look. "Try to restrain yourself."
"You're no fun, Coulson, you know that?" The mechanic gave an indignant sort of snort, but stopped leaning on Steve. "So, new guy—"
"I'm pilot Steve," Steve blurted. Phil gave him an astounded sort of look, and Bruce raised an eyebrow. The mechanic just grinned some more. Steve, with a wince and a blush that probably reached all the way to his hairline, corrected himself. "I mean, I'm a pilot. Steve. Rogers. Hi."
Thirty years old and he still couldn't manage to talk to attractive people. Goddamn it.
"Hi, pilot Steve." The man shifted the samples in his arms to extend his free hand, and that was definitely amusement in his eyes. "I'm scientist Tony."
"I know, I know, I'm too pretty to be kept locked up in a lab all day—"
"No, uh, most scientists don't get…" Steve raised a hand before he could think about it, swiping a thumb over the streak of black on Tony's cheek to show him. "Engine grease on their face."
Tony stared at him for a minute, then seemed to break out of a trace. He turned to Bruce, demanding, "There was no point at which you thought you maybe ought to tell me I've had grease on my face all afternoon?"
"I could've." Bruce chuckled. "But then I wouldn't have just won ten dollars off Clint. He said you wouldn't notice until tomorrow morning."
"Does it really count if someone else pointed it out to him?" Phil mused.
"Sorry?" Steve offered.
"It's fine," Bruce told him, then to Phil, "It only doesn't count if we point it out."
"Your bet, your rules." The elevator doors opened, and Phil led Steve out. "Debrief in ten, boys."
Tony shot Phil a mock salute, and Steve a wink. Bruce nodded, then elbowed Tony. As the doors closed, Steve caught Bruce muttering, "What was that about?"
He would've been interested in the answer, but the doors had closed and Phil was already walking away.
"Don't mind Tony," Phil told him with a bit of a sigh, "He's as harmless as he is shameless, tell him no once and he'll never bring it up again."
"I'll keep that in mind," Steve lied, "So he's one of your kaiju scientists?"
"The two of them are our research division. They're unorthodox, but they're very effective."
"They're your whole division?" Five years ago, last he'd seen of it, the research division had been composed of hundreds of minds from across the world, all eager and brilliant and hard-working.
"We're not the army anymore, Captain." Phil glanced back at him as he swiped his card before pressing a rapid-fire code into the keypad to open the sliding doors. "We're the resistance."
Steve could feel his pulse skip as he took in the wide expanse of the shatterdome. It looked similar to the others he'd been stationed at, same sense of grand enormity, same gritty, mechanical feel. There were more docking bays than Jaegers at the moment, and Steve damn near felt his heart stop at the sight; there, right between Quinjet and IronJaeger, was American Dream.
He hadn't seen her since the crash. Her arm had been restored and her hull cleaned, and after a moment, Steve had to look away. He remembered his first day at his first shatterdome, so many years ago, a fresh recruit and an overconfident hotshot gunning for the biggest, baddest machine he could find. He remembered racing up the docking bay with Bucky, running past each machine in turn until they both skidded to a stop in front of the large, red white and blue beauty that towered over Steve now. They'd told each other in determined unison.
Coming back to a shatterdome, piloting again, wasn't a bad idea. He was a soldier, a fighter, a pilot; he'd taken the time he'd needed, and he'd healed as much as he would, but he was meant to be here. He knew that, felt it in his bones as soon as the doors had opened wide. That didn't mean he wanted to pilot American Dream again. The front lines were where he belonged, but American Dream had been where he and Bucky belonged. That had been their Jaeger, their dream. Steve knew it was going to feel horribly wrong getting into that machine with anyone else, and he dreaded it.
Phil gave the tour fairly quickly, walking him past each Jaeger in turn as he highlighted the plan: they were going for the Breach. They planned to strap a thermonuclear warhead on IronJaeger'sback. Twenty-four hundred pounds, with a detonation yield of 1.2 millions tons of TNT. While IronJaeger completed its mission, Quinjet and American Dream were to run defense; Steve would probably be contesting that he'd been brought in to play defense and not offense later, but for the moment, just tried to wrap his head around the thought.
Could nuking the Breach even be done? Last he'd heard, energy fields outside the Breach repelled any form of approach, and after the fallout of initial strikes spread over Hong Kong, Sydney, and Southern California, most leading governments had lost their appetite for nuclear strikes. He doubted Phil would answer many questions, but he couldn't help trying.
"We've hit the Breach before." Steve frowned. "Nothing's ever gone through. What makes this different?"
Phil gave him a long, inscrutable look.
"We have a plan," Phil told him at last, "Operation Pitfall. If Director Fury wants you to know more than that, you will."
Tony would always be more at home in a workshop than a lab, but this one held a special place in his heart. He could get his hands dirty here, could dig in and find himself here. Bruce was just as brilliantly scatter-brained as he was, and between the two of them they'd turned the lab into geek heaven; papers everywhere, all computers firing away, jars and tubes of every material known to man—and some still to be figured out—stacked and scattered, no surface left uncluttered.
At the moment, Tony was in the zone, blazing away on a chalkboard so big he had to stand on a ladder to get to the last un-scribbled area. He was using every scientific shorthand he knew, but even so, there was too much to be written. He'd need to get another chalkboard in here, stat, but he supposed he could explain his process to the mortals, first.
"In the beginning, kaiju attacks were a year apart," Bruce was telling Nick, Phil, and Maria, "Then six months, then three. Then every two weeks."
He glanced up at Tony, and Tony took it up from there, tapping his chalk against his last equation.
"The most recent one was a week." Under other circumstances, Tony would've paused for dramatic effect, but was currently too pumped about his discovery to bring himself too. "Thing is, in four days, we could be seeing kaiju every eight hours until they're coming every four minutes. Add that to the double event we should get within the week—"
"A double event?" Nick interrupted him to echo. "I'm gonna need a date on that, Stark."
"We can't give you one," Bruce cut in, "We're not there yet—"
"But we're close!" Tony emphasized, "Numbers don't lie, we will get a double event within the next week, then three, then four, then, well—"
"End of the world," Maria finished dryly, clearly not appreciating Tony's inappropriately excited voice. And okay, to be fair, he wasn't exciting about dying, thank you, he was excited about their breakthrough—
"And that's not all!" Tony leaned precariously off the ladder to circle the number 4 on the other chalkboard. "We've got a window. This is our opening to take out the Breach."
He hopped down off the ladder, making over to where Bruce was already pulling up their holographic model. He pointed at the top of the model, then the bottom.
"Our universe. Theirs. In between, we've got this narrow passageway—"
"—we're calling it the Throat, it connects us to the Breach—"
"—and every time a kaiju passes through, the Breach remains open—"
"—how long it stays open before and after is correlated to how many kaiju go through—"
"—well, precisely speaking it's correlated to the mass of the kaiju—"
"—so think of traffic lights at freeway on-ramps, turning red and green at different intervals, but stopping everyone for at least a moment—"
"—and that slows things up." Tony gestured excitedly to the gap. "So if we make the light stay green a little longer—"
"—more cars get through with no reds in between—"
"—and the increased traffic means the on-ramp light stays on longer—"
"—which makes it stable enough—"
"—that we could bomb it!" Tony finished.
The higher-ups, clearly not understanding the value of this, remained deadpan and silent. Tony threw his hands up with a muttered noise of disgust. Mortals. Bruce cleared his throat politely.
"Where did we lose you?"
"Why are we bombing a freeway?" Maria raised an unimpressed eyebrow.
"The freeway was the Throat, weren't you listening?" Tony demanded.
"You're saying that once we get to crunch time, the Breach will be stable enough that we could send a bomb through to their world," Nick reasoned.
"Bingo!" Tony tapped one pointer finger to his nose and pointed the other at Nick.
"Don't do that."
"We also have a second theory—" Bruce began, and Tony groaned.
"No, Bruce, come on—"
"Tony, I'm telling you, this will work—"
"It'll fry your brain like an egg on the surface of the fucking sun—"
"I want to hear all theories," Nick told them in a voice that brokered no argument, "This isn't a time to be holding back. All options need to be on the table."
"It's not enough to know when and for how long the portal will be open, we have to understand the nature of the kaiju if we truly want to end this," Bruce began. Tony rolled his eyes, collapsing into the nearest chair with a gusty sigh.
Bruce talked about how kaiju shared the exact same DNA sequencing, how they were basically spare parts in an assembly line, how this showed they were manufactured organs. This was about more than monsters popping through a portal, and that to end it they needed to know what they were dealing with.
"And now he gets crazy," Tony gave a preemptive warning. Phil shot him a dry look that promised strangulation; he was probably still pissed at Tony for hitting on the hot newbie. Tony put his hands in the air innocently.
Bruce went on his spiel about how kaiju's silicate nucleotides appeared to exist purely for information storage, that they functioned as memory banks. He explained that he and Tony had recently acquired a brain sample that was weak but still alive, still functioning, and could be tapped into using the same tech that allowed pilots to share a neural bridge. He spoke about utilizing a Drift to learn where the kaiju came from and why they'd come here, to examine how to get inside the Breach and experience that transfer firsthand through the memories.
The three higher-ups processed that for a long minute.
"You're telling me you wanna Drift with a fucking kaiju?" Nick said at last.
"Just enough to get a sense of why they're here," Bruce said quickly, "The neural bridge could provide—"
Maria began to shake her head, and soon enough they all were, thank god. Tony liked Bruce; the last thing he wanted was for the one person who understood him when he got going to turn their brains into black goo.
"The neural surge would be far too much for any human brain to handle," Tony contributed. Bruce shot him a dirty look.
"Good thing I'm not all human."
"There is absolutely no proof the Hulk affects your neural pathway—" Tony argued.
"No, but he's stepped in every other time I've tried something dangerous, why not then?"
"Okay, say he does—add Hulk-crazy to kaiju-crazy and set them free to smash away at each other in your head?" Tony threw up his hands. "I'm the king of self-destructive fuckery and even I wouldn't try that shit."
"It's not self-destructive, it's to save the world—"
"We don't need you to, all we need is to pop a missile through the Throat at the right time," Tony insisted, "Who cares what's on the other side?"
"I agree." Nick stood. "I want the data from the first theory on my desk as soon as possible."
Once Nick, Phil and Maria left the room, Bruce shot him a foul look that melted into something a bit closer to defeat. Tony sighed, pushed his chair so that it rolled away from the desk and towards Bruce.
"Look…last time you tried an experiment this crazy, you ended up with an angry green rage monster in your head. You really want a repeat?"
"It's the end of the world." Bruce shook his head. "What I don't want is to sit back when I can do something about it."
"So Jaeger up," Tony suggested.
"I'm not subjecting anyone else to what's inside my head." Bruce chuckled humorlessly. "A kaiju being the exception."
"That's not an exception you want to make—"
"I don't want to talk about this anymore, Tony."
"Fine, fine." Tony put his hands up, spun in the chair. "What do you want to talk about, then?"
"You could tell me what you thought of Steve." Bruce raised an eyebrow at him. "He certainly seemed taken with you."
"You think?" Tony mused, spinning in his chair.
"'I'm pilot Steve'?"
"Fair enough." Tony couldn't help the hint of a smile. The blond had certainly made an impression.
"Is he your type?"
"I think that's the least offensive way anyone's ever asked me if I was gay."
"I catch a guy who looks like that giving me a second look, I'm certainly not complaining." Tony shrugged. The guy was built like a no-nonsense linebacker—broad shoulders, strong jaw, frankly mesmerizing eyes—but floundered adorably and blushed redder than a cherry. Who wouldn't go for that? "I lean straight. There've been exceptions before."
"Exceptions to what?" Clint opened the lab door.
"Tony's interested in someone," Bruce informed him.
"Possibly interested, we shared an elevator for a minute and half, I wouldn't say I know the guy too well—"
"How did you manage to meet someone new when you've been on base all d—holy fuck, did you hit on Captain Straight-As-An-Arrow Rogers? I would pay money to see that—"
"He can't be that straight, I caught the guy staring at my ass five seconds after he stepped foot on the dock."
"Ew, personal hero, don't tell me that—"
"Aw, I'm your personal hero? How sweet—"
"Not you, dweeb. Captain Rogers."
"I'm the dweeb? He introduced himself to me as 'I'm pilot Steve'!"
"We're obviously not talking about the same guy." Clint shook his head insistently. "Mine's the only surviving Mark III pilot. He dropped off the grid for a couple years but he's back to help in the final battle; he's calm, he's collected, he's a freaking war veteran."
"Blonde hair, blue eyes, shoulder to waist ratio of an upside down triangle?"
"Your personal hero stroked Tony's face within a minute of meeting him," Bruce announced.
"Why would you tell me that—" Clint clapped his hands over his ears with a groan, which, if Bruce's amused smile was any indication, had clearly been the goal.
"Okay, he didn't actually 'stroke my face'," Tony felt the need to point out, "He wiped grease off it because none of you idiots let me know I needed to wipe my face before I—"
"What are you three doing in here?" Natasha poked her head into the room. "Hurry it up, dinner's already on."
"Tony's been hitting on Captain Rogers!" Clint protested.
"He's been what?" Natasha raised an eyebrow, then glanced back out into the hallway.
"Hey, Captain Dweeb hit on me," Tony corrected.
"Tony—" Natasha began, but stopped, turned her head again. She watched something out of Tony's field of a vision a moment before turning back to him with a judgmental stare.
"He likes you."
"I'm a likeable person, what's your point?" Next to him, Clint snorted. "Shut up."
"He was standing next to me, Tony." Natasha rolled her eyes. "I invited him to eat with us. He left when you called him Captain Dweeb."
"Nice one, Stark." Clint glared at him.
"I meant it in a good way!" Tony protested, "You know, the aw-shucks, stumble-over-introductions…the cute kind of dweeb!"
"Tell him that." Natasha jerked her head to the side.
"Shit," Tony grumbled.
He stood, passing by Natasha and heading down the hall in search of big, blonde, and bashful. He found him another two corners away, and Tony jogged to catch up with him.
"Hey, Cap, wait up a sec," Tony called.
"It's fine." Steve turned on his heel, and Tony very nearly bumped into his chest. Wouldn't have been too bad, actually, it looked like a very nice chest—focus, Steve was talking. "I understand you didn't appreciate the attention, but I'd have appreciated it if you'd told me instead of gossiping about it—"
"Hey, whoa, slow down." Tony held up both hands in a sign of innocence. "No one said I didn't, uh, appreciate anything."
"You called me Captain Dweeb." The line of Steve's mouth went thin, clearly disbelieving.
"I meant the good kind of dweeb!" Tony protested. One eyebrow shot up. "I did! Look, don't run off to brood just cause I ran my fat mouth. It happens, I say a lot of things and don't mean half of them, you get used to it. Come eat with us, it's fine."
"I don't need to impose," Steve said stiffly.
"It's not an imposition." Tony leaned in a bit, bumped his shoulder. "It's an invitation."
"Oh?" Steve's face was quite carefully blank, as he were certain Tony was playing a joke at his expense and didn't want to give in to buying it. Tony preferred the blush.
"Yeah, oh." Tony slung an arm over the guy's shoulder—man, he was tall—and steered him back towards the others. "Come on, we're all under one dome, might as well bond."
"Might as well?" Steve raised an eyebrow, and Tony was nearly certain there was a faint spark of optimism back in his eyes now. Good.
"Sure. Food's not so great, but the company's decent. Well, Clint's a dick. And Natasha goes straight for the throat or balls if you piss her off, so, y'know. Don't. Also, Bruce sometimes brings kaiju parts to the dinner table, but we're working on that."
"And what about you?" Steve's guard seemed to have dropped again for the moment, if the amusement in his voice was any indication.
"Everything you've heard are lies and slander, I swear," Tony assured him, "Well. Mostly. Okay, some of it's true. A lot of it. Fifty-fifty toss-up, really."
"I haven't heard anything yet." Steve chuckled. "I've only been on base a few hours."
"'Tony Stark' rings no bells?" Tony blinked in surprise.
"Nah." People who had no preconceptions of him were rare, and Tony wasn't about to waste his chance with one. "Just a tinkerer."
Steve felt like he was in high school all over again.
The crowd of pilots parted for them as they entered the mess hall, and kept eyes on them through almost all of dinner. He understood, he supposed; the people he'd ended up eating with were certainly interesting to watch. Clint and Natasha were both quite famous, and while Clint was the boisterous one, the jokester, Natasha too had a sharp, wry sense of humor. Bruce was quieter than the rest of them, but once Steve asked him what he was studying about the kaiju, he came to life and went on for at least ten minutes about something called silicate nucleotides.
"Just nod and smile." Tony leaned into his shoulder, close enough Steve could almost feel Tony's lips against his ear. While he leaned, his foot bumped against Steve's again; he'd been doing it all dinner. Steve bumped him back again. Tony curled his foot around Steve's ankle this time, still talking normally, like they weren't playing footsie in the middle of a very public mess hall. Steve's skin felt like it was on fire, but he didn't actually stop. "You don't actually have to listen."
"Of course I'm listening, it's interesting," he attempted to whisper back, but Bruce overheard and shot him a wide smile.
"I'm glad you think so, Tony thinks I'm a lunatic—"
"You are a lunatic," Tony shot back, "You've already got the Jekyll and Hyde thing going on, now you want to cram a kaiju up in that noggin of yours?"
"You want to do what?" Steve stopped watching Tony's lips move long enough to shoot a startled glance Bruce's direction.
"I told you, I want to connect my neurons with a kaiju's," Bruce told him.
Steve just blinked, not understanding. He looked at Tony.
"He wants to Drift with a kaiju brain sample," Tony filled in.
"Are you insane?" Steve gaped at Bruce.
"Damn it," Bruce muttered.
"Thank you!" Tony crowed, "See? Steve's sane!"
"Don't bring Steve into this." Bruce scowled at Tony. "It's our best chance at understanding their intentions—"
"Intentions?" Steve frowned. "No disrespect intended Dr. Banner, but you haven't fought one. They're massive, destructive, and have no intentions but to destroy us. We should focus on how to destroy them first."
"I knew I liked you," Tony declared.
Tony passed Steve his fruit, tapping the toe of his shoe to Steve's. Steve, unsure why Tony had given him food but definitely still hungry, accepted it anyway with a polite thank you, hooking his ankle around Tony's as he did. It wasn't until he'd taken a bite of the apple that he noticed the others staring.
"What?" he mumbled, mouth full. They couldn't see under the table, could they?
"When Tony bribes you with food to agree with him, you're not actually supposed to take it," Clint told him, "It's like a devil deal."
"It's not a bribe," Tony protested, "He already agreed with me."
"Reward, then," Bruce corrected.
"But Tony was right anyway, and I got food out of it," Steve reasoned, trying to understand the downside, "What's the problem?"
"You popped right out of one of Stark's wet dreams, didn't you?" Natasha observed dryly.
"Excuse me?" Steve tried to will himself not to blush. He failed.
"Shut up, Romanov." Tony unhooked their ankles to kick Natasha underneath the table. "It's fine, Steve. It's not a reward. It's just food."
"Okay." Steve shrugged, taking another bite.
"Yeah, okay, how long?" Clint turned to Natasha.
"How long until what?" Tony narrowed his eyes at Clint.
"Nothing." Clint shrugged innocently.
"A week." Natasha decided.
"That's fast." Bruce shot her a curious look.
"End of the world." Natasha shrugged.
"Two weeks. At least." Clint snorted. "Tony's an idiot."
"I thought he was a genius?" Steve interrupted.
Natasha shot Clint a knowing glance.
"Yeah, okay, a week," Clint conceded.
"I," Tony declared, standing up, "Am going back to the lab. Science, unlike you people, appreciates me."
Steve, still looking for a chance to have an actual conversation with Tony that wasn't about food or getting caught staring at him, quickly stood as well. He nearly tripped over the bench in his haste to follow though, and it was only Tony turning back to steady him that stopped him from doing a somersault across the mess hall floor. Nice, Rogers.
"Jesus." Tony clasped a hand to his arm and shot him a look one part concern, nine parts amusement. "You okay there, Ariel?"
"Mermaid, couldn't walk? Disney movie? Never mind." Though Steve was now sufficiently steadied, Tony's hand stayed on his arm. Steve was fairly certain Tony even squeezed a couple times. Was he being felt up?
"I think I'm good." Steve said eventually, when Tony didn't seem likely to stop touching him otherwise. He wasn't opposed, but. People were sort of staring.
"Right, of course you are." Tony quickly removed his hand. "Obviously. Christ you must work out a lot."
"Whenever I get stressed." Steve shrugged.
"Are you like terminally ill or something—that's a fucking weird question, forget I said that, I just mean, what the hell kind of stress are you under?"
"End of the world?"
"That's, uh, obvious—no, yeah, totally fair. I'm going to stop talking, at some point, maybe, uh, what was the rush for, anyway?"
"I still haven't seen the lab yet. If you're heading back, and you don't mind, maybe you could give me the tour?" Steve said hopefully.
"Sure, yeah. Let's do that." Tony nodded quickly, turning to lead the way. Steve collected his tray to put away on their way out. Clint grabbed his hand as he did.
"Hurt him and I'll fucking kill you," Clint informed him quietly with a cheerful smile.
"Right." Steve blinked. "Uh. Got it."
"Go get 'em tiger." Clint released his hand with a shooing motion.
"What was that about?" Tony regarded him suspiciously as Steve approached.
"Your friends are very…" Steve mulled over exactly what adjective he'd choose for the group. "Interesting."
"Nosey, you mean."
"They mean well."
"Yeah." Tony gave a surprisingly soft smile at that. "Yeah, they do."
"How long have you known them?" Steve asked as they exited the mess hall, Tony leading him off to the right.
"A year or so. I met them when I joined up. I knew Natasha previously, but we only really became acquainted when she slammed me face-first into a mat."
"Broke my damn nose." Tony tapped the line of it. "I maintain she set it improperly out of spite and you can still see the crook of it. She says I'm just being vain."
"Seems straight to me." Steve observed, then, teasing, "Though I don't doubt your vanity."
"Lies and slander," Tony maintained.
"I'm sure." Steve chuckled. "How's the first year treating you?"
The first year on a shatterdome was rough, or so Steve remembered. It was particularly hard being so far away from friends and family when any day a kaiju could come through the Breach and take them away. Steve had been lucky, in a manner of speaking; his parents had already passed, and his only real friend had been his co-pilot. He'd known men who'd been miserable though, a few who'd given up and returned home because of it.
"Not much to miss back home," Tony dismissed, a careful sort of casual, "I prefer it here. I've always liked to get my hands dirty—give me a problem, step back, let me dig my heels in and solve it. The others understand that. Drag me out for food, of course, but we're all here to solve the same problem, fight the same enemy. There's a solidarity in that I didn't get a chance to experience much, back home."
"War was a bit like that." Steve nodded his understanding. "When I first got back, I had trouble readjusting. Wouldn't say I missed getting shot at, but I did miss the camaraderie of it, the focus. Didn't have much to focus on, for a while. Got a bit lost. Then the kaiju started popping up, and while I sure as hell didn't like them, having that to focus on was…familiar, at least."
"What made you leave PPDC?"
"You haven't heard of me?" Steve shot him a curious look.
He wasn't vain, but he wasn't stupid; any pilot who'd set foot in an academy in the last five years had heard of him. He was the only pilot ever to survive a disconnect like that, the only pilot to survive losing someone he'd Drifted with—he wouldn't say he was a legend, but he was an interesting tale and one often told both in pilot circles and out.
"And you haven't heard of me." Tony shot him a hint of a smile. "Don't know about you, but I think I quite like that."
Steve still wasn't sure where he was supposed to recognize Tony's name from, but he certainly understood what Tony meant about liking it. While building Walls in those five years off-duty, he'd learn to recognize when people were staring at him, whispering about him. He could recognize the sheen of hero worship in people's eyes, the glimmer of pity and attempts at sympathy, as if they could possibly understand what he'd gone through. It had made him angry, at first, but he'd always had a hell of a temper. It had faded into resignation by now, but he couldn't help finding the idea of telling someone his story the way he wanted to instead of having it displayed across his forehead in newsprint and tv reels infinitely more appealing.
"I'm certain I like that," Steve agreed, returning the smile. They turned down the correct hall, and Tony swiped his ID card to open the door to the lab.
"Welcome to my parlor," Tony smirked.
"The spider and the fly?" Tony frowned. "Old fable? You know, spider tricks the fly into his parlor with honey and bribery, then devours him?"
"I'm…the fly?" Steve frowned. "But you didn't trick me."
"No, it's just a phrase—"
"Are you threatening to eat me?"
"Not like that, I just meant—whatever, never mind. You don't know movies, you don't know fables, next thing you'll be telling me you've never heard of The Who."
"No, The Who."
"That's what I'm asking you."
"You're asking me who's on first?"
"Wait, what? Who's first?" Steve was now completely lost.
"I'm going to have so much fun with you," Tony told him fondly, "But first, JARVIS, cue up Who Are You."
"Indeed, Sir." A crisp voice replied, and a rock song Steve didn't recognize began playing over the speakers.
"Jesus." Steve startled in surprise.
"Nope, just JARVIS."
"Who's—how did you—?"
"He's my AI."
"Right. Say hi, J."
"Hello, Captain Rogers."
"You know who I am?"
"Indeed I do, I've read your file."
"I thought you said you didn't know who I was." Steve looked to Tony.
"I look over a great wealth of information at a near constant rate, Captain Rogers," Jarvis intervened, "I do not tend to share what I learn with Sir unless it is pertinent or requested. I can assist you as well; should you require information, I am far faster and more capable than any computer on base."
"Oh, I—thank you, Jarvis. Just Steve is fine."
"As you please."
"Incredible," Steve breathed. Jaegers were very impressive technology, of course, but they still required humans to pilot them—hell, they needed two. For a program like Jarvis to run himself autonomously was beyond incredible.
"Yeah, he's cool, ain't he?" Tony grinned, clearly pleased with Steve's reaction. "He was my senior project at MIT when I was sixteen."
"Sixteen?" Steve's eyebrows shot up.
"Genius." Tony shot him another grin, though this one looked oddly…well, plastic was the first word that came to mind. Rehearsed was the second.
"And oh so humble," was all Steve said in return, but it got the plastic edges to chip down a bit. "Why rush?"
"My father was…" Tony seemed to struggle with the correct word. Steve waited. "Impatient. I kept up."
"Thought you wanted to see the lab, not hear my life story." Tony deflected neatly and with humor, not seeming keen to rest on the subject.
"Didn't know they were mutually exclusive." An offer to listen, not a request for answers.
"Gonna have to get some alcohol in me if you want to hear more than that." Tony snorted.
"Guess I'll have to buy you a drink sometime," Steve offered with a smile, "When the world's not ending."
"I'll take you up on that." Tony smiled back, far more genuine this time. "When the world's not ending."
"Until then." Steve tried to tamp down the grin threatening to split his face and completely failed. Instead, he turned away from Tony, pretending the lab had caught his interest. Then, something actually did. He reached out a hand to touch it. "What in God's name is that?"
"Oh, shit." Tony quickly followed after him, tugged his hand back. "I wouldn't touch that, it's radioactive—"
"Why on earth do you have radioactive material sitting on your computer, isn't that hazardous?"
"I hate to break it to you, but just about everything in this place is hazardous. Did you know kaiju blood can melt steel?"
"Learned that the fun way, actually," Steve admitted with a bit of grimace.
Back in the academy, Bucky had once thought it'd be funny to nick some from the labs, use it in a prank. Needless to say, they burned a hole in the floor, almost dissolved a fellow student, and damn near got themselves expelled. He felt a bit of a hollow pang at the memory of Bucky's wide-eyed, oh-shit expression as the blue liquid melted through the ground. Tony bumped his shoulder.
"Sounds like a story."
"Hell of one." Steve collected himself, focusing on Tony instead of the memory. "We almost melted someone—though to be fair, that two-bit punk started the tussle."
"You talk like my grandfather." Tony snorted. Before Steve could consider being offended, Tony waved him on, leaning against one of the file cabinets. "Go on, Captain Golden Years, what'd the hooligan do?"
"Phillips was a bully." Steve defended himself. "Always picking fights, talking down to the women pilots, trying to prove how tough he was by kicking other fellas into the di—what?"
"Nothing." Tony shook his head quickly. Steve got the impression Tony found him amusing, though he couldn't quite pick out why. He liked making Tony smile like that though, a secretive, entertained quirk of the lips, so he didn't mind too much. "Go on, Cap, what'd the 'fella' do?"
"He was saying things about a friend of mine, Peggy. She'd never so much as look at guy like him, but. He suggested otherwise." Steve could feel himself frowning disapprovingly just at the memory. "Crudely. I gave him what-for, he didn't listen. I almost decked him, but Bucky hauled me off before I could. He suggested we get back at him a little more subtly."
"By trying to dissolve him with acid," Tony said, voice perfectly deadpan, "The obvious solution to all of life's problems, I agree."
"We thought it'd be gross, that's all," Steve muttered.
"Turning your fellow recruit into a pile of steaming atoms is quite gross, yes," Tony teased.
"Shaddup," Steve grumbled.
"Is that Brooklyn I'm hearing?" Tony leaned forward inquisitively, looking positively delighted.
"Uh." Steve scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck. "Yeah. Comes out sometimes. Born and raised. Lived there til the war, then again until I enlisted in the PPDC."
"Manhattan, myself," Tony offered, "But I'd recognize that twang anywhere."
"It's not twang," Steve defended, "It's character."
"Sure it is," Tony agreed innocently. Then, "Twangy character."
"You're horrible, y'know that?"
"I've been told," Tony replied cheekily.
"Let me guess, you're a Yank, too." Steve made a face. Manhattanites and their crap baseball teams.
"Met, actually." Tony smirked proudly.
"Hell, that's worse." Steve groaned.
"What're you, then?"
"Dodgers man, born and bred."
"Dodgers?" Tony gave him a strange, curious look. "They haven't played in Brooklyn since '57."
"Don't let my mother catch you saying that blasphemy," Steve warned jokingly.
"Denial." Tony shook his head with a wry chuckle. "Fair enough. Can't deny the better team, though."
"Sure can't." Steve smirked. "So says the 1988 League Championship."
"What, you mean the one time your crap team beat mine half a century ago?" Tony scoffed. "Keep with the times, old man. We'd knock you on your ass these days."
"In your dreams—"
"Baseball? Really?" Bruce snorted as he entered the room. "I give you an hour alone and you use it to argue about baseball?"
"We didn't only argue about baseball," Tony grumbled, a touch petulantly, "And it's not my fault the guy still thinks the Dodgers are coming back—"
"As if the Mets could beat them even if they didn't—"
"Can you two take…whatever it is you're doing, and do it in the hall? Some of us—" Bruce shot Tony a long-suffering look. "—actually have work to do."
"I should be getting back to my quarters anyway," Steve admitted reluctantly, "Call's at 0500, and I'm supposed to start meeting Drift candidates tomorrow."
"Yeah, sure." Tony waved him on. "Go on and sleep, or whatever it is you normal, non-insomniacs do once the sun goes down. I'll see you around, pilot Steve."
"I'm never going to live that down, am I?" Steve winced.
"Not unless you prefer Captain Dweeb." Tony's grin was good-natured; teasing, not mocking.
"Oh, look at that, I think 'pilot Steve' is growing on me."
"What's growing on you?" Bruce's head shot back up. Steve realized he'd already zoned into his research and missed a chunk of the conversation. "I could've sworn I put that away—"
"Nothing's growing, Bruce, Steve's fine," Tony reassured. He placed a hand on the small of Steve's back, led him towards the door. "You better leave before he goes from the obsessive-reading stage to the manic-experimenting stage, him and kaiju bits are like me and inventions, except with less explosions and more toxic ooze."
"Explosions are a common phenomena with you?" Steve raised an amused eyebrow. "Why am I not even remotely surprised by that?"
"I have a dynamic personality?" Tony offered with a charming grin, and Steve laughed.
"Yeah, that's it."
"I'm going to puke if you don't ask him out soon," Clint decided.
"Okay, couple of problems there." Tony eyed Clint, who was now ruthlessly and vigorously stabbing his pancakes. "One, I don't understand how puking is the called-for reaction. Two, asking him out would imply we have an 'out' to go to that isn't the mess hall, lab, or gym, and frankly, even I have higher first date standards than that. Three, he's going to be back in a minute and if you say anything even remotely similar to him, I'll stab you in the neck with my spork."
"I'm just saying," Clint grumbled, "It's been a week."
"It's been five days—"
"A work week, then," Clint corrected with an eye roll, "And putting you two in the same room is like having the heater set to a hundred degrees. Your UST is both stifling and unnecessary."
"What's a UST?" Steve questioned as he joined them, sliding into place at the table next to Tony.
"Computer term," Tony lied quickly. Steve was both adorable and hopeless with computers. "Clint was asking about it, but I think we cleared it up."
"Neat." Steve leaned into Tony a bit as he swiped Tony's apple. "Why do you even get these? You never eat them."
"They come with the meal." Tony shrugged. And because Steve liked them, but he refrained from mentioning that. "How're the candidates looking?"
Steve made a disgruntled sort of noise.
"Not well?" Natasha guessed.
"They can't anticipate me at all." Steve made a face. "I don't think it's taken me more than three moves to bring down a single one."
"I thought they were specially vetted for you?" Bruce frowned. Three moves was way too fast for a properly compatible pair.
"By Hill." Steve stabbed an egg. "Who's only ever seen my dossier."
"Bet Tony could give you a run for your money," Clint suggested. Tony kicked him viciously under the table; the bastard didn't even flinch.
"I'm not an available pilot—" Tony began.
"But it could be fun, at least." Steve perked up. "How about it?"
"Just for fun. Please?" Steve shot him that ridiculous puppy dog look, the one that made Tony want to do very, very stupid things.
He knew how antsy Steve was getting. Steve was a doer, Tony was learning, and hated sitting around on his hands. He got bored with the candidates and training easily, since he was leaps and bounds ahead of it all and hadn't found anyone compatible yet. He was always wandering off to come find Tony in the lab instead, which, hey, Tony certainly wasn't complaining. Steve would just sit in the corner with that notepad of his, doodling whatever it was he wouldn't show Tony. When Tony had genuine work to do they didn't talk much and Steve seemed content with that, but when he didn't they talked for hours without tiring, enough that Bruce invested in headphones.
Which was good, because Steve was surprisingly talented at drawing personal information from Tony before he even realized what he was talking about. Tony hadn't been joking that he needed alcohol to talk about his family, but Steve seemed to negate that rule without trying. He sure as hell didn't pry, wasn't nosey like Clint, or eerily all-knowing like Natasha, but didn't just let the subject lie like Bruce, either. He asked questions without making Tony feel like he owed him an answer, questions that were easy to dismiss with a off-hand one-liner but that Tony could answer at length if he wanted; it was to Tony's own surprise that he did. It was fucking weird, but he only ever realized how weird it was after the fact. When he was talking to Steve, telling him, it just felt comfortable. Natural.
Part of it was likely because Steve didn't hold back much either; if it was Tony asking, Steve seemed willing to answer. He told Tony about his life in Brooklyn, his few years in art school and the ridiculous amount of times he'd been 4-F'd before his growth spurt. He talked less about the war and more about the brothers in arms he'd made there, a group nicknamed The Commandos. He told Tony the story Tony would've heard if he hadn't been so busy dying from palladium poisoning at the time, about how he'd lost his former co-pilot, Bucky Barnes, in a Category III attack off the coast of Alaska five years ago and dropped out of the PPDC afterwards. He hadn't gone into much detail—it was clearly and understandably a hell of a sore spot—but enough that Tony got the impression Steve had felt Bucky die, and he couldn't begin to imagine the toll that took on a person.
He knew Steve was ready to get back in the field though, was itching for it now that he'd had it offered to him. He was wary of Drifting again but not opposed, and just wanted to get to it already. Once Steve made up his mind about his course of action, it seemed that was how he went about it: head-on and fearlessly. Tony could admire that in a man. Tony could admire a lot about this man.
"Yeah, alright." Tony nodded finally. "Couple rounds couldn't hurt. You break my nose though, we're going to have problems."
"Your nose is perfectly straight, Tony." Steve rolled his eyes.
"At least something about him is," Clint commented innocently. Tony gaped at him. Steve turned a very attractive shade of red. Natasha and Bruce snickered like children.
"You," Tony hissed, kicked him under the table again before standing to leave, "Are a bag of dicks."
"Wait, Tony—" Steve started, glancing between the leaving Tony and his half-eaten breakfast. "But, food."
"I'll meet you in the Kwoon when you're finished." Tony huffed. "I have to warm up anyway."
"I love you, snugglebear!" Clint called after him.
"I'm going to murder you in your sleep, pillbug!" Tony called back.
That jackass was going to ruin everything. Tony had plans, and there was an order to his plans—kill the kaiju, save the world, get the guy. The first two were sort of a heavy prospect of course, but that was why 'get the guy' was last. Tony was well aware of the risks involved in his plan. Carrying a nuke through the Breach could easily result in his death, and that was a price Tony was willing to pay, but what was the point of getting Steve's hopes up if he was just going to die on him? Steve had experienced enough pain and loss in his life, Tony didn't need to pile onto that.
Clint making gay jokes and forcing Tony's hand wasn't helping.
By the time Steve joined Tony in the Kwoon, Tony had limbered up and put such thoughts to the back of his mind. No point in dwelling on it. Besides, Steve, for all his gung-ho confidence in everything else, got endearingly shy when Clint poked fun or they hinted about making plans for after they closed the Breach. It wasn't as if he would make the first move, and Tony had no plans on doing it either until after, if they got an after; therefore, stalemate.
"How long do you need t—?" Tony started, twirling his hanbō as he waited. Then Steve shrugged off his shirt and Tony froze, though not for the good reasons.
Large white scars were draped across Steve's chest and back, marks Tony recognized as the keloid shadow left behind from the circuitry of a drivesuit overloading. It must've been from the same attack he'd lost Bucky in. Steve had to be aware that Tony was watching—his movements were too precise—but he didn't hesitate, just tugged the shirt over his head and tossed it on the bench, took a long drink from his water bottle before making eye contact.
"See something you like?" Steve teased, but his voice was stiff.
No point in offering sympathy. Steve wouldn't want it.
"Nothing I didn't already," Tony shot back instead with an exaggerated leer, deciding then and there to strip off his own shirt as well.
Some candidates liked to fight shirtless—less to think about, something about it feeling more natural, whatever—but Tony had never considered it. The nightlight crammed into his chest and the surrounding scars had seemed like reason enough to keep it on. Steve may not want sympathy, but he might appreciate understanding. Tony yanked his shirt over his head, tossing it on the bench with Steve's, and heard him suck in a breath.
"Didn't I mention I'm a Terminator?"
"Tony, what…" Steve trailed off, clearly unable to decide which question came first, what is that or what happened.
"Kidnapping in Afghanistan. I was doing a weapons demonstration, they ambushed my convoy back. Got a little too close to an explosive—one of mine, the fucking irony—took some shrapnel to the chest." Tony tapped the reactor. "This keeps it out of my heart. It's called an arc reactor, I invented it myself."
"God Almighty." Steve took a step forward, almost unconsciously.
"Don't think he was involved."
"How long?" His eyes didn't leave the reactor.
"Nine years. I'm fairly used to it by now."
"Doesn't it hurt?" Steve seemed deeply concerned, and Tony couldn't help a bit of a fond smile. "It looks like it's right between your ribs."
"All the nerve endings in the area are long dead by now, and it's stable and resilient as hell. You could punch it and it's more likely to break your hand than do me any damage."
"Could I…?" Steve raised a hand cautiously.
"Oh." Tony paused, surprised. That certainly wasn't the normal reaction. Steve, waiting on his permission, didn't move so much as an inch closer until Tony quickly nodded. "If you want, yeah."
Steve reached forward and brushed his fingers over the metal edges, light as a feather. Tony couldn't actually feel the touch—the scarred skin there was all long dead—but he could sort of imagine the ghosting sensation of it. Steve looked so thoughtful, so carefully concentrated, and he swallowed hard before finally pulling his hand back.
"That's amazing, Tony," Steve told him earnestly.
"You know me, I endeavor to amaze," Tony shot back off-handedly. He twirled his hanbō just to have something to do with his hands. "Well, come on. You wanna fight or stare?"
Steve stepped away in answer, moving off to the side to retrieve a hanbō of his own. Tony went out onto the mat, practicing a stance or two while he waited. The Jaeger Bushido consisted of fifty-two positions; he'd learned some before turning Iron Man into IronJaeger, then all of them at Nick's insistence once he'd joined them at the Hong Kong shatterdome. He'd been reluctant, at first. What was the point? Jaeger Bushido was used to determine Drift compatibility, and he had no intentions of Drifting with another human being. Nick had pulled the stupid "my team, my rules" card though, and Tony had reluctantly gone along with it. He only had a year under his belt, but he was good and Steve was five years rusty; Tony'd go easy on him, at least to start.
"Five points?" Steve offered as he joined Tony on the mat, squaring up, and Tony nodded.
Steve threw the first strike, more of a formal move to open the match than an actual attack. Tony blocked it loose and easy, came back overhand, giving Steve time to warm up, do some initial formalities and get a rhythm going. Steve caught the end of his hanbō and smacked Tony under the ribs.
"One-zero." Steve smirked, clearly aware of what Tony had been thinking. Tony grinned back. Alright, no going easy, then.
Tony flicked a sideways swing Steve's direction and popped him in the left shoulder before he could block, and Steve shot him a pleasantly surprised look. Without another word, they fell into it; Steve twirled his hanbō and reversed his grip, going for a shoulder blow, but Tony weaved under the swing and darted forward. He made for straight thrust, Steve turned away and made for another rib tap. Tony dodged nimbly, but apparently just how Steve expected him to; Steve got him under the knee, knocking his legs out from under him and winding up for a blow to the face that would've easily broken his nose. Tony winced in expectation, but Steve only tapped the hanbō against his nose lightly with a cheeky grin.
Tony rolled out from under him with a huff, trying and failing to keep his fond amusement from showing on his face. Neither of them managed to pin the other after that; they'd gotten a feel for each other now, and every strike of Steve's Tony could see coming, and for his every counterstrike, he could see Steve anticipate the same. Steve was stronger, his blows sharper and more decisive, but Tony was faster, a bit more agile. Together they covered the mat, every strike just enough to defend and return, neither of them able to gain more than a second or two of ground on the other.
It wasn't like when he'd fought Clint, or Natasha, where they finished off within a matter of minutes. It was like watching Clint and Natasha. Tony had seen them go at it before; when they really got going, there was nothing like it. It wasn't a fight but a dance, a back and forth of connection and rhythm. It was in their breathing, their step, their posture; it was vicious and graceful, intense and fluid. Every move was anticipated, every parry blocked, and rarely did one of them win by more than a point. They could go for hours that way, and Tony had never understood it.
Not until he fought Steve.
They had that connection, that rhythm, and feeling Steve match him at every point was the most invigorating thing Tony had ever experienced.
"Wow," someone murmured.
Tony and Steve looked up in the exact same motion, both shooting the intruder, a pilot Tony recognized vaguely as one of Steve's candidates, a raised eyebrow.
"Geez, that's creepy." The guy—hadn't Tony caught him playing Galaga on lab computers once?—held up his hands, backing out of the room. "Sorry. Leaving."
Moment broken, or at least paused, Tony swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He was sweating like a damn pig. How long had they been at this, anyway?
"Forty-seven minutes." Steve gave a breathy, disbelieving laugh, answering the question Tony hadn't asked by looking at the clock in the corner of the room. "Jesus. Don't think I've ever gone at it that long."
"I know I haven't." Tony shook his head, putting his hanbō down and stepping off the mat to grab his water bottle.
"Did it feel that long?" Steve followed after him to do the same, a strange look on his face that said it certainly hadn't felt that long to him.
"Not even close," Tony agreed heartily, taking a long drink. He was definitely not twenty-five anymore.
"Have you ever considered—" Steve started, then stopped just as abruptly. Tony raised an eyebrow at him, but Steve shook his head. "Could you go again?"
"Uh." Tony took a minute to catch his breath. "Yeah, I suppose. Ten minute breather?"
"Make it fifteen?" Steve requested, edging out the door. "I'll be right back."
"Okay?" Tony replied curiously, but Steve was already dashing out.
"I want Tony Stark," Steve declared as he burst into Nick's office.
Nick raised an eyebrow but didn't actually move, and seemed neither amused nor surprised by the intrusion. Steve wondered absently what it took to actually shake the guy.
"That seems like something one handles on their own, Captain. And according to the other pilots, you're doing just fine."
"No, I—what? No!" Steve stopped and shook his head, flustered. "I mean for my co-pilot. Wait, what do you mean I'm doing fine?"
"You want Stark as a co-pilot?" Nick leaned forward, paying attention now.
"I ran here because he's waiting. We're going to go another round in ten minutes, I want you to watch."
"A round of…Bushido." Nick eyeballed him.
"Of course." Steve didn't understand. "What else would we be doing?"
"You're sweaty, panting heavily, and half-naked, I wasn't going to ask."
It took Steve a moment to understand. When he did, he couldn't help the distressed, mortified sort of noise that escaped.
"Why does everyone keep saying things like that?"
"Real mystery, that," was all Nick said on the matter, "You're Drift compatible?"
"Yes." Steve nodded immediately. "I know he's a scientist not a pilot, but he knows the moves, and you should really see us, we'd be fantastic. I know what Drift compatibility feels like, Director, and I don't think I've ever felt it stronger. You wanted to know my co-pilot pick? It's him."
Nick observed him for a long, silent moment. Steve started to wonder what he was waiting for, but just before he was about to speak again, Nick finally answered.
"I don't need to see it. If you can get him to agree to it, I'll set you up for a trial run this afternoon."
"Yes sir, you won't regret it." Steve saluted, partially out of old habit, partially because he was a little endorphin-loopy, mostly because Tony did it a lot to piss Nick off and Tony was rubbing off on him in a number of ways.
Damn it, now even he was making innuendos about it.
Steve ran back to the Kwoon. He didn't think Tony would leave if he wasn't back on time or anything, but he was excited and it was across base; running would cut five minutes. When he returned, Tony was stretching out on the mat.
"Have you ever considered being a pilot?" Steve bounced on the balls of his feet as he entered, eager and excited. Of course Tony would say yes. Why wouldn't he?
"Uh." Tony frowned, craned his neck to look at him. "Steve, I know you hadn't heard of me before the shatterdome, but you've heard of me on the shatterdome, right?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I already am a pilot." Tony stood, giving him a strange look. "Who did you think piloted IronJaeger?"
Steve had no right to be disappointed, and he definitely had no right to the flare of emotion he told himself quite firmly was not jealousy.
"I just—I thought I hadn't met them yet." Steve focused on the one question he had that didn't sound completely petty. "Who's your co-pilot? I only ever see you with Clint, Natasha, and Bruce."
"You named your AI after a person?" Steve frowned in confusion, and yes, okay, that might've been jealousy. Tony had known this person since he was sixteen, how had he not been mentioned or introduced or even just around—
"No—I mean, yes, JARVIS the AI was named after Jarvis the butler, but there's not a physical Jarvis-person who's my co-pilot. I Drift with JARVIS the AI."
Steve tried to puzzle that out. "What?"
"I had a butler as a kid, Jarvis—"
"Right, you mentioned him the other day—"
"Yeah, I named the AI after him."
"That's not the confusing part, Tony."
"The machine that creates a neural bridge, the Pons?" Tony sighed. "An AI has what a layman might call a 'memory' just like the human brain; it uses a different storage system, of course, but hooking myself up was just a matter of finding a way to pinpoint and access the correct area."
"You Drift with an AI." Steve absorbed that. "IronJaeger's pilots are you and…Jarvis."
"Why wouldn't you Drift with a human? Tony, that sort of connection in battle, having double the strength, double the intelligence, double the experience, you can't replicate that."
"I'm not replicating. JARVIS is more intelligent than most of the population, has more virtual experience to draw on than any human could hope for—"
"Virtual experience isn't even close to real experience, you have to know that—"
"I know that if you've haven't been too busy building Walls to look at a TV lately," Tony replied tersely, "You'd know JARVIS and I have been doing just fine."
"I'm not saying you aren't a good pilot, Tony," Steve amended quickly, "IronJaeger has saved millions of lives. You've done fantastic work, no one's arguing that. I'm asking if you think we could do better together."
"I'm not saying we don't have Drift compatibility—"
"That's even a question?" Steve couldn't help the disbelieving laugh that escaped. "Were you on the same mat I was? We're not Drift compatible, we're Drift perfect. I haven't been in a fight like that since…I haven't ever been in a fight like that. I don't think I've ever even seen a fight like that."
"We're compatible, I get it," Tony conceded, "But I have a co-pilot. You will too, Nick's got plenty of candidates lined up for you—"
"And none of them are you," Steve interrupted, stepping forward to take Tony by the shoulders. "Human connection is worth something. You're great with JARVIS, but we,Tony, you and me? We have something. Connection, compatibility, we've got it, and we could be incredible."
Tony looked up at him, bewildered and just a bit hopeful. Steve couldn't help it; he kissed him. Tony opened his mouth out of surprise, but Steve didn't push the advantage. He kept it soft, gentle, a suggestion instead of a demand. Tony made a sound into Steve's mouth he was likely going to deny forever as he went sweetly, compliantly lax, leaning into Steve and kissing back. The tenderness of it lasted only a moment, then Tony's hands scrambled at Steve's chest like he was looking for a shirt to grip but of course couldn't find it. He settled for grabbing Steve by the face, his fingers curling warmly around the back of Steve's neck as he slipped his tongue into Steve's mouth.
Steve couldn't have said how long they stayed there, just as absorbed in each other now as they had been on the mat. It was eerie how similar it felt—the easy connection, the fierce warmth lighting through him—eerie, but wonderful. Perfect. Tony pulled back first and Steve let him go, though not too far, just enough to lean their foreheads together.
"I know what you're doing," Tony told him before he could say anything, fingers fiddling along the back of Steve's neck, curling into the short ends of his hair. Steve wasn't sure if Tony even knew he was doing it; he was too busy babbling and not looking Steve in the eyes. "You're making a point about human connection, and well done, point very, uh, thoroughly made, deliciously made, but that's not—doesn't mean I should Drift with you. With anyone, really, it's a conscious decision I made, and with good purpose, I've known Rhodey—I've mentioned Rhodey to you, haven't I, at some point—"
"You've mentioned Rhodey to me."
"—okay, best friend since MIT, has known me longer than anyone on the planet, and even he wouldn't be able to handle me, not all of me, I'm a lot, I've been told that, repeatedly and with force, my PA turned CEO, Pepper—"
"You've mentioned her."
"—right, of course I have, she runs my life even when I'm across the planet, because she's known me all my adult life and put up with my shit for far too long, and we dated for a while and she broke up with me because I was too much, those were the exact words used, multiple times if I remember correctly and of course I do, so what in the hell do you think that's going to translate to if I let you into my brain? My brain goes a hundred miles an hour, take my mouth as an indication of the speed at which—"
"I like your mouth," Steve told him, both because he meant it and because a joke might help Tony slow down.
"—good, that's great and I'll probably abuse that later, but that's not my point. My pointis that I shouldn't Drift, with anyone, and especially not with you. We have something, I think, at least I'm going to assume from the part where you kissed me, and I'd prefer to procrastinate the part where I chase you away with my neediness until at least the second date if I can, and we haven't even had a first date, which is really unfair, for the record—"
"Are you going to talk this much every time I kiss you?" Steve asked in amusement.
"It's beginning to seem like a distinct and horrifying possibility."
"Trust me?" Steve leaned in enough to slant their lips together again, just a quick, affectionate gesture.
"I really could," Tony murmured back, voice so low Steve almost didn't catch it, "Hell, I think I already might."
"You say it like it's a bad thing."
"It tends to be."
"Tony," Steve just exhaled softly, pulling him into a tight embrace. Tony let him, burying his face in Steve's shoulder with a muffled, tired sigh. "I haven't known you too long. I know that, rationally, but it sure doesn't feel like it. I feel…I feel a lot of things, and I feel them strongly, but mostly I feel that I'm not going anywhere. And if there's one thing I've learned I can count on in this life, it's my intuition. You're not going to scare me off with whatever's going on in your head, Tony. I've been through a war. I've lost friends, family, brothers. I had a damn piece of my soul ripped out by kaiju; don't go thinking my head's gonna be too pretty a place to walk around in either. Opening up to the Drift—to another person, on that level—it isn't easy. I know that. But I also know we'd make a hell of a team if we let ourselves."
"You're placing a disturbing amount of trust in someone you met five days ago," Tony murmured into his shoulder. Then, almost as an afterthought, "But apparently so am I."
"Is that a yes?"
"That's an I trust you." Tony leaned back enough to kiss him softly, though there was still a troubling air of apprehension to it. "Hell knows why."
"People do crazy things," Steve said, though he opted to kiss Tony again instead of finishing the phrase.
He wouldn't say he was in love. He didn't know the man well enough, not yet, but the possibility of it was certainly thick in the air. Funny; everything else was coming to an end, and here Steve was with his bright new beginning. Strange world.
The suiting procedure was familiar; doing it with someone beside him was not. Tony knew he was fidgeting, knew he was snapping at the technicians and at Nick and even at Steve a little bit—basically making himself even more of a pain in the ass than usual—but he couldn't get himself to stop. He also knew Clint and Natasha were watching, could see them on the same platform Nick, Maria, and Phil were on, could see that they'd even managed to drag Bruce out of the lab to come watch. Though there probably hadn't been much dragging involved this time.
Steve might have been blissfully unaware of exactly how far out of the usual boundaries he'd gotten Tony to go, but no one else was.
Steve, through some stroke of luck or fate or whatever one chose to believe in, had never heard of him before stepping foot on base. He didn't know Tony's track record as the boy genius isolated by his own intelligence, as the perpetually-single playboy who didn't keep the same company twice, as the loner vigilante who took on terrorists and kaiju alone and won. Tony had a long and storied history of doing things on his own; he was good at it.
He still wasn't sure how exactly he'd been convinced to not only team up with someone, but let them into his mind.
Intimate was a funny word—most people's first thoughts jumped to sex, but Tony's junk had been censored on youtube more times than most people got onyoutube. Sex wasn't an intimacy to him. He'd never been shy about his body or his desires, and "getting intimate" with someone had never involved any vulnerability or real intimacy, not for him.
His mind, though. Tony's mind was all he had. His intelligence, his ingenuity, his drive; that was what made him who he was. There were more rich, party-hard jack-offs who inherited companies from their daddies than the world knew what to do with—Tony's value, his rarity, came from what he could do with his mind. His knack for anything with wires, his cunning business sense, his visions for the future and what he could do for the world, that was what set him apart. Letting someone step inside, see how he really worked, give them the keys to take him apart if they wanted?
Fuck sex. That was intimacy, and it terrified Tony profoundly.
"Hey." Steve's fingers slipped into his, and Tony turned his head, startled out of his thoughts. "Breathe."
"I am breathing," Tony snapped.
"You look like you're going to pass out or bolt," Steve told him gently, not reacting to Tony's waspish retort, "If you're that opposed, Tony, you don't have to—"
"I'm fine," Tony cut him off stubbornly. He glanced at their hands, then nodded up at the LOCCENT command area. "You know they can see us."
"I figured that out when Clint cheered and pointed."
"He what?" Tony hadn't been watching. He narrowed his eyes at Clint, who just shot him a double thumbs up and a wide grin.
"I don't mind, if that's what you were asking." Steve stroked a thumb over the back of his hand. "Do you?"
"Hell no. Which is good, because I'm probably not going to be able to stop touching you for a while. Also, I'll be calling you lots of embarrassing petnames, did I mention that?"
"You didn't." Steve seemed amused instead of horrified, so that was probably a good sign.
"I can't help myself, it's a sickness."
"I suppose I can endure."
"If you sugarplums are finished," Nick announced over the speaker dryly, "I'd like to remind you that there are microphones in there, and we can unfortunately hear you."
"That is a gross invasion of privacy, I was having a private conversation—" Tony began.
"You're in public." Nick retorted.
"Technically speaking any part of IronJaeger is my private property—"
"Then you should've been aware of the microphones," Nick cut him off, "Engage the drop."
Around them, machinery shuddered and whined, lifting their Conn-Pod up from prep deck to it's home on IronJaeger's neck. They settled into position, the feed lighting up as Maria announced three minutes until calibration.
"It's going to be more intense," Steve told him while they waited. He wasn't quite whispering, but his voice was softer, meant for Tony and not the comms.
"I can handle my memories." Tony nodded determinedly. He'd done this before. He went through it every time he Drifted with JARVIS—he'd lived these memories more times than he'd ever wanted to, and he'd come out on top.
"I believe you. I'm warning you about mine." Steve paused a moment, thoughtful, before continuing. "With another person in the mix, the Drift is…it's like a conversation. If we both have nasty memories running around, they're going to talk back, feed off each other. They'll become stronger, harder to wade through."
"Great," Tony replied with as much sarcasm as he could muster, "Sounds awesome. Whose idea was this again?"
"Listen." Steve squeezed his hand to get his attention. "If you start to chase the rabbit—"
"Do the what?"
"Neural bridge initializing," Maria announced over them, "Neural handshake in ten, nine—"
"Chase the rabbit, it's what trainees called it when you latched onto a memory too hard," Steve spoke quickly, trying to finish before they went under, "If you do, the best thing is to try and re-focus on something real, something from the outside world. Pick something and outline every detail you can in your head, clear as you can. It'll help me find you."
"I'll pull you back, Tony." Steve squeezed his hand once more. "I promise."
Fa la ninna fa la nanna
Look at him can't even hold himself up
Nella braccia della mamma
Of course he's sick when isn't he sick
Fa la ninna bel bambin
I'm not saying—all I'm saying is we can't afford another damn bill
Listen close bel bambin you don't go inside when the door is closed
He's crouched under the table he's too little and too scared and too helpless and maybe if he doesn't see it it's not happening
The light of the fire illuminates the glow of liquid amber in a glass and he hears the clink of the ice against the crystal as it's shaken his direction Here this'll put some hair on your chest
You listen close Steven you always stand up
Stark men are forged in iron boy remember that
The pencils are uneven and they break easily but they're his and no one else's so he evens them up himself with a pocketknife and handles them like fine china
He built his first circuit board when he was four because he thought it might get Dad's attention but Dad didn't notice so he kept building and never stopped and sometimes his whole life feels like one endless chant of Daddy look at me
Cripes, if I weighed much as you did I don't think I'd stand up to a paper bag much less that two-bit He was bein' a bully And you was bein' an idiot
It's his birthday his parents are in Spain and since no one is paid to attend no one shows up and the nine year old birthday boy who invited absolutely everyone he knew tells Jarvis politely to please put away the untouched cake before retreating to his room because Stark men don't cry at least not in front of others
He picks fights mostly because an awful lot of people in the world could use a good what-for but he knows he does it sometimes because he gets that itch to prove he's really here that he's alive and kicking even if no one ever notices
Because engineering makes fucking sense, that's why And people don't make any at all but he doesn't say that
They're only freshman but she slips him the tongue and that's supposed to be A Big Deal so even though kissing her makes him feel strange and not entirely comfortable he asks her to be his girlfriend
He's fifteen and thinks he's hot shit while she's nineteen and the most beautiful woman he's ever seen and it's everything in one night it's his first kiss his first fuck his first time having his wallet stolen and he wonders sometimes if that counts as paying for it
She says no and he tells himself he's not relieved
He doesn't remember her name
She tasted like bubblegum and he was always spending his spare nickels and dimes on bubblegum so why hadn't he liked it
He really should remember her name and there's a lot of names after her he should remember too but why break pattern now
He was supposed to like it
It was supposed to mean something
I have to do something with my life Buck I want to mean something You're a damn fool ain't no army gonna want your skinny punk ass all you're gonna do is get yourself killed
Howard and Maria Stark perished in a tragic car accident this morning along with their driver Edwin Jarvis Police are still working to contact their only son and heir to the StarkIndustries fortune Anthony Stark
Are you fuckin' kiddin' me scram kid I got soldiers to sign up
Heavy hand on his shoulder dark eyes foggy and grieving Obie was always such a better actor than he ever gave him credit for They're in a better place m'boy
Look kid I ain't even sure I buy you're eighteen like hell I'd buy you're fit for combat get outta my office
Drink lie dance drink lie flirt kiss fuck sneak out crash advil coffee drink
Where's the stickman I went to high school with didja fucking eat him seriously hot damn Rogers it's about time
Drink and fuck crash and burn and fucking revel in it
Crash and burn and the sickening rip he could feel in his soul as he crashed into the freezing ocean and washing up on shore and he'd never visit a beach again
He fucking hates the sand it's in his mouth and his eyes and god he can't wait to get this over with then he falling falling gunshots ring out it's one of those nights again
Brothers at his side
Sand in his eyes
Signal left duck under go go go
Did that say StarkIndustries oh fuck blood fuck there's so much blood why did that say StarkIndusties
What do you mean the enemy has our weapons
Are we dealing under the table
Your father understood business this is beyond you
A new generation of weapons with this at its heart
Claws digging into his chest one sharp suction and a mechanical pop and the reactor was out and Obie Obadiah never Obie again was crooning at him about the future while he pulled his heart out took every inch of trust he'd ever accumulated mulled it over in his hands called him naïve and selfish while he killed him slowly personally intimately
Worried I'd be killing the golden goose when I ordered that hit on you
Focus he was supposed to focus on something someone had told him that Steve had told him that Steve had said something
It'll help me find you
He thought there would be inhibitions but there weren't he looked up at Obadiah's cruel smirk and couldn't move couldn't defend himself couldn't hope to guard the desperation of his thoughts
Find me please find me see me I've been waiting for you to see me why does no one ever see me
I'll pull you back Tony I promise
He was still on that couch still immobile and so despicably helpless but Obadiah was gone and he didn't get it until Steve was kneeling in his place and this was worse this was a nightmare why was this happening what had he done to deserve this all he'd ever wanted was to be loved why couldn't anyone love him
It's okay sweetheart it's okay
Steve was cupping the detached reactor in his hands slipping the wire back inside clicking it into place watching it glow bright again before bending forward to press a kiss to the center leaning back to brush a hand over his neck his cheek his forehead push back his hair and press a kiss there
I promised, Tony.
Outside the Drift Tony could feel IronJaeger shudder. They were in business.
IronJaeger lifted both arms, moving as Steve and Tony did into the formal defensive stance Rangers used to signal readiness.
Steve had, of course, been right. With JARVIS, the Drift had been limited in ways Tony could only now realize. When he'd Drifted with JARVIS, it had been Tony's brainspace and JARVIS had occupied it. Taken up a corner, fed him information, statistics, battle strategy, whatever he needed. Steve was the space. The connection they'd had in the Kwoon was dwarfed by what they had now, the sparring just a distant glimpse. Tony tried to get a feel for the seam where his psyche ended and Steve's began. He couldn't find one.
"Neural handshake maintained at one hundred percent, held strong and steady. Time to disengage," Maria's voice rang out over the intercom, the smallest hint of wry pride in her voice, "Congratulations, boys. You've got yourselves a co-pilot."
Got a hell of lot more than that.
"Don't you dare make out in front of me, I need my eyes," Clint threatened as Tony approached.
Particularly amusing, since he'd spent the past ten minutes before Tony arrived giving Steve an increasingly detailed version of the shovel speech involving sacrifices to the kaiju, the Russian mob—to which Natasha had nodded knowingly—and a disturbing metaphor about spaghetti, sporks, and Steve's intestines.
"I haven't even sat down yet," Tony grumbled, sliding his tray beside Steve's and scooting in. Steve curled a foot around his ankle in hello. Tony smiled at him briefly, before raising an eyebrow at Clint. "Think I could maybe get a hello, or a congrats on my new, flesh and blood co-pilot? And who said I'd want to go around making out in some greasy mess hall anyway?"
"Hello," Natasha offered.
"Congrats on Steve." Clint rolled his eyes. "And of course you do, don't lie, we all know you'd be making out with him right now if he'd let you."
"Fair point," Tony conceded, "Steve?"
"No," Steve told him, swiping Tony's orange.
"Now let's establish some ground rules," Clint interceded.
"Rules?" Steve frowned.
"Rule number one, make out in front of me, and I'll kick your boybuddy in the shins until you stop. Rule t—"
"Okay, no," Tony interrupted, "Rule number one is that the term 'boybuddy' is creepy and vaguely pedophilic and if you ever use it again I'll put kaiju bits in your food."
"Picky, picky." Clint rolled his eyes again. "Boyfriend?"
"Suppose so." Tony glanced at Steve discreetly, as if checking if that was indeed the term. Ridiculous.
"I have a rule." Steve decided.
"And what is your rule?" Tony leaned into him, the perfect angle.
"I kiss whomever I want and if Clint doesn't like it—" Steve closed the space for a kiss. "—he can find another table."
"I was here first, I have dibs!" Clint protested.
"I hear my boyfriend owns the shatterdome. Good luck with that."
"Sleeping your way to the top, that's how it's gonna be, Rogers?"
"Of course," Steve replied dryly, "I'd sleep with anyone to get this deeply enviable lunch table."
"You're not even aware, are you?" Natasha shot him an amused look.
"Aware of what?" Steve frowned. "You can't think—"
"Steve, she's met you, she knows you didn't go after me for a lunch table." Tony snorted.
"I meant that you're being sarcastic, but we are in fact quite envied, Captain." Natasha chuckled.
"You had to have noticed all the recruits trying to sweet-talk you into picking them?" Clint raised an eyebrow at him.
"No, they haven't been—" Steve began.
Tony interrupted with a half-laugh, half-snort of disagreement.
"What?" Steve glanced at him.
"Darling, you're not the most perceptive of these things," Tony evaded.
"I perceived you hitting on me shamelessly just fine, didn't I?" Steve shot back.
"That you did." Tony grinned. "But 'shamelessly' was the key word there."
"Maybe it's simply that I only have eyes for you," Steve told him instead.
Even hours after the fact, the effects of the neural handshake lingered; through the post-Drift hangover, Steve could feel Tony respond to the comment, could feel his gratitude and affection and deep need to prove he was worth it. They could work on that. In the meantime, Steve leaned into a kiss.
"Stark." Maria's voice crackled over the speakers, abrupt and surprisingly tense. "Report to the lab."
Tony pulled away, and they all exchanged a glance. That hadn't sounded angry-tense, that was worried-tense, and a worried-tense Maria Hill meant trouble.
"What do you think—" Tony started, then froze. He hopped up off the bench like it was on fire, dashing out of the room swearing a blue streak.
"Think we're invited to the party?" Clint peered after him. Steve was already standing.
"Don't think I care if we're not," he answered.
He headed after Tony, Clint and Natasha no more than a step behind him. They made it to the lab shortly, and though none of them had a lab pass, it turned out they didn't need one; the door had been left open in someone's haste. Bruce had fallen out of his chair and was collapsed on the ground, shaking wildly, a thick black ooze leaking from his nose. He gasped out nonsense, while Tony, crouched beside him, tried to calm him down. Nick was present, watching with a stiffly unreadable reaction that told Steve he had no more of an idea about what was going on than any of them did.
"The new world is ready the dinosaurs trial they died they waited we terraformed—" Bruce babbled.
"You were right, buddy, okay, you were right, I believe you," Tony told Bruce, hand on his arm, "Now you have to bring it home. Come on, you can handle this. You can clamp down the Hulk you can clamp down some washed-up kaiju memories, right? Calm your thoughts, Bruce, deep breath—"
Steve caught sight of the wires next Bruce; they were detached now, but they looked like the same wires used in Drifting. The machine they were connected to, it was makeshift but it was definitely a Pons, and the other wires were connected to a large, slimy grey matter in a tube…all the jokes about Drifting with a kaiju, he hadn't thought Bruce would actually dare to—
"Loki!" Bruce shouted, loud enough everyone in the room flinched. There might've been more, but he made a choked off noise and shut down, clenching and unclenching his fists in little spasms.
"Sure. Loki," Tony soothed, rubbing Bruce's shoulder, "What's a Loki?"
"They're just weapons," Bruce shook his head, "Just weapons, just his weapons."
"Isn't Loki a Norse god?" Steve questioned. Tony shot him a startled look, surprised to see him in the room, then turned back when Bruce spoke.
"Mischief madness chaos it's all he wants and now me Tony he's looking for me he knows I looked knows what I saw—"
"What did you see?" Tony encouraged.
"Genetic sequencing." Bruce grabbed Tony by the wrist, hard and insistent. "Tony, it uses genetic sequencing as an entrance marker."
"The cloned DNA, holy fuck," Tony murmured, clearly realizing something. Steve still didn't understand what was going on; from the looks of it no one else seemed to either, but before anyone could say anything, the alarms went off.
"Are you fucking kidding me—" Nick started, stopping abruptly to press a hand to the ear where he had a comm in. "Maria, what do we—fuck."
"Well this sounds great," Clint enthused sarcastically.
"All of you, to your prep bays." Nick rounded on them. "Two category four, holding at the Breach."
"They're waiting on another," Bruce told them, "They saw me, they're coming, Tony do you—"
"I know what I have to do." Tony nodded, gripped Bruce's shoulder tight. "Good job, Bruce. I mean it. No one else I'd rather have prove me wrong."
Bruce smiled weakly. "Who else could?"
"That's my science bro." Tony grinned, releasing his shoulder and turning to Nick. "We need to engage Operation Pitfall now."
"What makes you think you can tell me when we engage—"
"We've got two kaiju holding guard at the Breach and a third coming through, if we don't go now we don't get another chance."
There was something else. Steve could see it—could feel it almost, through what remained of their Drift-hangover—but he could tell Tony didn't plan on telling Nick or anyone else. Steve didn't like it already. Nick and Tony finished their staring contest. Without turning away, Nick spoke into his comm.
"Hill, tell the crew teams we're engaging Operation Pitfall, have IronJaeger prepared with the nuke, Quinjet and American Dream for dispatch. Coulson, suit up."
"What?" Heads shot up around the room.
"We've got a world to save and an extra Jaeger." Nick met each of their eyes in turn. "That's not the sort of advantage we waste. Just one could be enough to turn the tide, and I don't know about you lot, but I like the odds of three Jaegers against two kaiju a hell of a lot better than two on two."
"I suppose we don't need to ask who's co-piloting," Natasha said, but she wasn't really arguing. End of the world didn't leave many options.
"No, you don't." There was a beat of silence, then Nick shot a gruff look around the room. "Well? You waiting for the kaiju to come to you? Go suit the fuck up already."
They plunged into the Drift. Steve's history raced past Tony's eyes in seconds and he absorbed it, welcomed it, but didn't linger. Once they'd passed the initial rush, Tony used the connection to speak to Steve without letting the microphones hear. Steve, he knew, had been waiting for him to explain since the lab.
Kaiju all have the exact same DNA. They use it like a barcode, a key to passing through the Breach. Even if the Breach is open, the nuke won't go through unless it's attached to a kaiju, and the only way to attach it to a kaiju—
Is to attach ourselves to one.
There was a long moment as Steve absorbed the gravity of that and what it meant for them.
I don't think I've ever really thought about the future. Not until right now.
That's irony for you. Nothing like a suicide mission to make you want to live.
I've been on suicide missions before. They didn't give me a future to think about. You did.
Outside the Drift, Tony took his hand.
He could feel Steve's confusion. He just continued, doing his best to paint a mental picture to accompany everything he thought about.
Not Brooklyn, though, and not Stark Manor, either—fresh start. Get our own place, downtown. Close to work, but not in the Tower, too many people. Basement for my shop. Extra room you could turn into an art studio. You'll finish your degree, or not, if you don't want to, you're good enough you could probably pass without one anyway. Comic book illustrator, right? Or you wanted to teach, once. You'd make a good teacher. Whatever you want, obviously. I'll head up R&D, because I don't care what Pepper says, she makes a better CEO than I ever did, though I'd probably be more responsible with you around. But building was always the part I preferred anyway. I'll pick you up for lunches, though. Take you out, spend too much money, show you off. You'll give me grief about being a braggart, but you'll let me anyway. I'll probably do that a lot, try and show you off. Why wouldn't I? I'll take you out to all the best restaurants and shows and galleries and whatever else I can think of, and you'll keep telling me I don't need to, which will only make me want to do more for you. So I'll buy the Dodgers back for Brooklyn, and you'll yell at me about being frivolous and possibly insane but you'll give in and we'll end up going to all the games. We'll stay in, too, watch crappy movies and eat too much takeout and fall asleep on the couch and love every minute. Or we'll go to bed for sex and only remember at two in the morning that we're still talking and that hadn't been the plan, because I think I could spend my whole life talking to you and never tire of it. I'll call you the weirdest petnames in front of other people. You'll play footsie with me even when everyone can see. We'll finish each others sentences, be one of those couples, just because we can. And we'll get married, someday. Maybe even get a dog, or adopt a kid or something, and embarrass the hell out of them with our dime store novel levels of sappiness. Who knows. But we'll figure it out, you and me. We'll be happy. We'll be so fucking happy.
"Deploy IronJaeger in three, two—"
Steve's voice resounded in his head; one word, infinite meanings. If Steve's jaw was clenched tight and his eyes looked a little watery around the edges, well, Tony wasn't telling, and he wasn't exactly an emotional rock at the moment himself.
They were deployed in a rush, Sikorskys' hauling them up and carrying them out towards the open ocean. There was still a lot of if's—if they could get there before the third kaiju, if they could get past the patrolling ones, if the Jaegerscould even handle the intense pressures of the Marianas Trench long enough to deliver—but balancing that was the absolute certainty that if they didn't do this now the whole world was going to hell.
Maria called out commands and updates as they flew in, keeping them in the loop and probably trying to keep them from thinking too much.
"The two actives are staying in circle formation out in the Guam quandrant, code names Scunner and Raiju. Start sealing up, you swim in five. Remember, this isn't a battle, it's a bomb run. Quinjet and American Dream, hold them off; IronJaeger, get to the Breach."
All three Jaegers dropped at once, dropping through the thick fog and into the ocean with an enormous splash. They headed down without words, and it took them fifteen minutes to reach the ocean floor. They sank into the silt, and Maria gave them more information on their location. Half a mile to the ocean cliff, then three thousand feet down to get to the Breach in the most complete darkness any of them had ever experienced. Great.
"American Dream, movement on your left flank."
"I've got nothing," Phil replied.
"It's fast, faster than anything we've seen yet," Maria said, then shouted, "It's Scunner, left flank!"
"The systems aren't working at this depth, we can't—" Nick started, right as thirty-five hundred tons of reptilian alien slammed into their left flank. The incredible force threw them back, knocking some systems offline and sending ripples through the fluid-core synapses.
"American Dream, are you—" Steve called, and hell if that wasn't weird. It felt like using third person.
"Holding," Nick grit out.
Scunner reared back for a second strike, but American Dream didn't give it time, rolling to the side just as Scunner's massive claws came down. American Dream got on her feet, tackled Scunner from the side, forcing it over and rolling far enough to crash into one of the subsea mountainsides. Scunner managed to pin her for a moment, snapping at her head; she dodged once, twice, then spun around and slammed Scunner into the ocean floor.
In the meantime, Raiju made for Quinjet. Raiju was faster and gave no time for warning, but they were all on guard now and Quinjet was able to grapple it back, stay on her feet. They wrestled a moment before Raiju ripped itself away from Quinjet, turning away as if to retreat and slamming its tail into Quinjet's right flank.
IronJaeger looked for an opening. They couldn't just get to the rim of the Breach and discharge the nuke like they'd planned; they'd need to carry it through themselves, and they needed to do it while holding onto a kaiju.
Any idea how to get one of them to take us through?
We need a plan.
What we need is DNA...but maybe not the whole thing. Theoretically, if we could hack off a kaiju piece, that could open the Breach.
Theory's about all we've got here.
They made for Quinjet, who looked in worse shape. They were having a hard time adjusting to the pressures, and were still figuring out that they had to start their moves a little earlier, let inertia carry through for the most impact. The bigger problem was that the density of the water made it impossible to change direction as fast as aboveground; Jaegers hadn't been designed for underwater combat.
Their opponents clearly had been. Raiju and Scunner both had a vaguely reptilian look, with long jaws, jagged, scaly skin, and tails that propelled them through the water far too fast for the Jaegers to keep up with for long. They were designed for underwater combat, which only solidified to Tony that Bruce had been right about something else, too: the kaiju were weapons, designed for specific purposes. Raiju and Scunner were designed for this fight, to guard the Breach. He wondered absent-mindedly if they could even breathe above water, but didn't care to find out.
While IronJaeger was still making for Quinjet, the ground began to shake. Currents began churning up from deep within the Breach, and over the comm that connected them to LOCCENT they could all hear the alarm that signalled another kaiju on its way.
"Fucking hell." Clint groaned.
"Third signature detected," Maria rattled off, voice clipped.
"How big?" Phil asked.
"Our first category V."
"Did I mention fucking hell?" Clint repeated.
"Bitch is big," Tony grumbled.
"Do not label the kaiju Bitch, Hill, so help me," Nick started in before Tony even finished his sentence.
"Slattern is approaching the lip of the Breach," Maria reported back, nothing in her voice to indicate anything but professionalism. Tony grinned; he knew she had a sense of humor hidden away somewhere.
Slattern rose above the Breach, and IronJaeger attempted to get to Quinjet first; it wasn't even a contest. Slattern slashed a massive claw between Raiju and Quinjet, slamming Quinjet into the seafloor with one unstoppable blow and following through by landing on the Jaeger and wrenching Quinjet's arm from it's socket. Clint screamed, and for a dangerous moment Tony felt Steve being sucked back to Alaska, back to Bucky.
Stay with me, Steve.
Not even a second passed before Steve reacted to his voice, followed it back.
"Left arm offline!" Natasha called.
Raiju had left Quinjet to Slattern, circling back and heading at IronJaeger. Quinjet was holding Slattern's jaws closed with one arm now, even as it twisted and tore at the damaged limb. On the Conn-Pod feed, Tony could see Clint's whole left side burning up with sensory overload; in Steve's memory, he could remember the pain. Pissed, they charged forward as best they could despite the water's resistance, dodging Raiju to deploy their chain sword and attack Slattern with vengeance. Quinjet rolled to the side once IronJaeger engaged, free for only a moment before Raiju came at them again. They grappled the beast one-armed surprisingly well, smashing it back against the mountainside.
Meanwhile, IronJaeger ducked back from a slash and started the plasma cannon, setting the non-sword arm out and at the ready. Slattern darted forward to clamp its massive jaws down on IronJaeger's arm, gnawing into the armor until sparks began discharging. They used their other hand to hold Slattern down, dig the plasma cannon a little deeper into the beast's throat, and fired.
It didn't go off.
Slattern thrashed its head, ripping off a portion of IronJaeger's gauntlet as they released it. They were quick to try again with the chain sword, but Slattern was retreating, scrambling back for another charge. Tony glared at the sensors, scanning the readouts of the plasma cannon systems for the problem; pressure had collapsed the lensing and intensification rays, nothing helped by Slattern ripping away a portion of the system. Fucking great.
Slattern was gone for the moment, circling to attack again, so IronJaeger used the opportunity. Ignoring various calls of what the fuck are you doing, they intervened in Quinjet's fight, slamming into Raiju. They rolled a moment but managed to pin the ugly thing, and, with one clean slice, take off its head.
"Always gotta show me up, huh Stark?" Clint grunted over the comms.
"You know me, can't resist a good fight—"
"IronJaeger, quit fucking around and get to the Breach," Nick snapped, "Let us hold off the kaiju."
"Sorry, needed this." IronJaeger held the kaiju head aloft, then made for the edge of the Breach.
"I don't think that trophy's gonna fit on even your mantle, buddy." Clint snorted.
Tony disregarded Clint's jab, replying simply, "Been a pleasure."
"Good luck," Steve told them.
IronJaeger shot the other two a salute, then dove into the Breach.
"The fuck are they doing—"
Then the comm cut out, and Tony couldn't hear a thing.
Well. That wasn't quite true. He could hear the Conn-pod groan and quake around him as the pressure intensified to levels no human designer could've imagined, could hear Steve saying a Hail Mary for the both of them. Tony didn't see the value in it, but could appreciate what little comfort it gave Steve. He let Steve catch him floating the idea of ejecting Steve from the Conn-pod; Steve crushed the thought viciously, angrily.
Together, damn it.
Steve took his hand and squeezed, hard.
Tony glanced up at the engage icon, lit up at the top of his HUD. They were still in the Throat, not yet through to the Anteverse, so Tony held. Outside the Conn-pod, colors Tony didn't have words for swirled. They hurt his head. He felt Steve imagining the things he could paint with them. A series of gates began to open before them, allowing IronJaeger and their dead kaiju part into the Anteverse. They floated through, and the vast incomprehensibility of the Anteverse surged through them like a physical wave. Things Tony had no name for looked up at him, and he could feel their fear like it was his own.
Goddamn better be afraid. You killed my brother.
Their fear intensified; Tony felt Steve's bittersweet satisfaction as his own. One last look at Steve; Steve looked back at the same time, smiled. It was the most beautiful thing Tony had ever seen.
He pressed the engage icon, and then they both pressed eject.
"Relax, I'm fi—don't touch me, I said I'm fine—"
Steve came to consciousness slowly, blinking against the bright lights and overbearing whiteness of the room. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of antiseptic as his mind struggled to understand; if this was Heaven, he sure wished it smelled a little better. He'd had his share of hospitals as a child. He was a little disappointed for a moment, before he recognized the voice.
Well. He supposed Heaven was alright, then.
"Steve!" Tony snapped to attention immediately. Someone tried to grab his arm but he shoved their hand away, rushing to Steve's bedside. "Steve, god, Steve, baby—"
"Just gonna keep saying my name?" Steve teased.
"For the rest of my life." Tony clasped his hand tightly, pressed a kiss to it. "Fuck, Steve. I'm so—I just—fuck."
Steve realized with a start that Tony was shaking.
"Tony—" Steve frowned, tried to sit up, and failed. Why couldn't he sit up?
"No, no, don't move." Tony pressed a gentle hand to his shoulder. "You're not strong enough yet, just stay awake, okay darling? Stay with me."
"Strong enough?" That was odd. If this really was Heaven, shouldn't he be healed?
"Yes, baby, you're going to be fine, you're just not there yet, try and—"
"And you aren't either!" Someone behind Tony told him waspishly. "Mr. Stark, if you don't go back to your room and reconnect to those IV's right this minute, I'm going to call security and have you strapped to that bed!"
"What is she…?" Steve's head was still so foggy. Why would anyone strap Tony down?
"Don't worry, darling." Tony brushed his hair back soothingly. "Everything's fine. She's just a little upset because I've been visiting you—"
"I'm upset because you took out your IV's, again—yes, security? This is—yes, it's him again. Same room. Thank you."
"They're going to take me away in a minute." Tony gave an aggravated sigh. "But I'll be back, I just have to sign out—"
"You are most certainly not signing out AMA—" The nurse cut in.
"I am an adult, I can make my own medical decisions—"
"Not according to the papers Miss Potts faxed us—"
"I was drunk when I signed that!"
Two large men came into the room. The woman—nurse?—pointed at Tony. They advanced, and Tony quickly leaned forward, kissed Steve's forehead before standing up and putting his hands in the air innocently.
"I'm going, I'm going!"
Steve was so confused.
"Tony?" Steve tried to sit up again. He heard something beep wildly, and Tony slapped the men's hands away.
"What's wrong with him? Stop touching me and fix him, why is it beeping like that—"
"Tony," Steve repeated, and then Tony was there next to him, gripping his hand again.
"What's wrong, where does it hurt?"
"Tony, it doesn't hurt, it's Heaven." Steve frowned, because what was Tony talking about? "Why are they taking you?"
"Heaven." Tony gave a laugh. "Steve, honey, this isn't Heaven."
"But you're here." Steve couldn't make sense of that.
"Mr. Rogers." The woman trying to make Tony leave spoke to him now. "Mr. Stark has severe internal injuries. If he doesn't go back to his room and stay there, he's going to be in a lot of pain for a long time. Wouldn't you agree that he ought to go?"
It was a lot of words for Steve's pleasantly fogged brain to sort through, but he latched onto "Tony" and "injuries".
"You're hurt," Steve accused.
"A bit," Tony admitted, "But so are you. That's why I'm staying right here until you're better."
"You need to get better too." Steve squeezed Tony's hand. "Please."
Tony paused for a long moment, then leaned across the railing of the bed and kissed him so softly Steve almost couldn't feel it. He released Steve's hands and stood up again, throwing his hands in the air flippantly.
"Take me away, you damn health Nazi's."
"Thank you for your cooperation." The woman nodded concisely. The men grunted, grabbing Tony anyway as an extra precaution.
Steve watched him go before letting the darkness creep back over him.
He slept for the better half of a week. When he woke up again, there was another bed in his room. Tony was there, swaddled under an enormous mound of blankets, and for a moment, Steve just watched him. His hair stuck out a bit on one side and was dead flat on the other, likely from sleeping on it wrong, and his beard had grown out of the lines, into a mess of mis-matched scruff. He looked grumpy and irritable, hooked up to various machines and flicking through TV channels at the speed of light. Then he realized Steve was awake, and he threw the covers aside to lean over with a bright, beautiful smile.
"Hey." Steve smiled back. "Guess this isn't Heaven, huh?"
"Nah." Tony bounced a bit, eager, scooting closer on his bed. "They had you on some wild drugs, though."
"You shouldn't have snuck out to see me."
"And now I don't have to." Tony gestured to their setup in what was clearly supposed to be a one person room. Not that Steve was complaining, but.
"You bribed someone, didn't you?" He shot Tony a fondly amused look.
"Of course not." Tony huffed. He held strong only a moment, then admitted, "Pepper did. She was tired of visiting me only to find I'd unhooked myself to come here again."
"Are you going to be okay?" Steve questioned, worried. "That's an awful lot of machines you're plugged into."
"I'll be fine." Tony leaned across their dividers to take Steve's hand. "You will be too. Best medical care in the country, I made sure of it."
"Wait." Steve shook his head, tried to clear his mind. There was something important. "The Breach, is—?"
"Nuked those fuckers right off the map." Tony's smile managed to widen. "Everyone got out, too. Even Clint, that crazy SOB. The Breach is gone, the teams survived...we did it, baby."
Steve leaned further across the dividers to tug Tony into a victorious kiss. He held it as long as he could, and when they had to part for air, he only took a brief inhale before letting the words tumble out in a rush.
"I love you." It was soon, it was really soon, but he didn't care and he knew Tony didn't either so he grabbed him and kissed him again.
There was probably an I love you too pressed somewhere between their lips, but Steve didn't need to hear it to know Tony's answer.