The portal was in the middle of the field. It was only mid-March, so all the fields—corn or soy, Steve couldn't tell which they would be—were fallow, displaying the occasional snowdrift and thin iced-over puddle. It was a couple hundred feet from the road—itself a dirt road, pitted and worn, with only a few tire tracks ground into the ice—and was exactly where the coordinates had said it would be. The farm was huge, and Steve supposed that not a lot of people came this way at this time of year. That probably made it the perfect location.
Even through the van's tinted windows, Steve could see that the edges of the portal crackled, an ominous blackened purple against the cloudy afternoon sky. The portal itself was perpendicular to the ground, and through it Steve could see another place entirely. There weren't more fields on the other side. There was a cabin. It looked like somewhere in the mountains, to judge by the trees around it.
The portal winked shut, collapsing into a point of light and then disappearing, like a television turned off.
Steve glanced at the dashboard clock. Three p.m. exactly. The report had gotten that right.
The anonymous tip was a day old. When Steve had hit Cincinnati, he'd stopped to get a square meal, to shower and shave, and to drop the newest comic book pages in the mail for his editor in New York. He'd just gotten back from the post office when the computer system in the dash had lit up, Ram bringing him the latest news from his citizens' hotline.
There was a town an hour or so away, Ram had said. A man was reporting a mysterious portal, appearing and disappearing on a local farm for the past two days—but only from dawn to dark, every hour for five minutes at a time, like clockwork. A magical version of Old Faithful. Whoever had called it in had done so from a payphone in Columbus; there was no tracking that down. But the details had been right, because here Steve was, and here was the portal.
Steve glanced at the computer system and thought about backup.
For all his talk about freedom, about needing to get out and see the country, he wasn't ever truly alone. A call to New York would summon a Quinjet in an instant, courtesy of Jan; he wasn't even going to have to miss the Saturday team meetings.
If it had been just a villain, just an ordinary supervillain, Steve would have had no qualms about facing the challenge head-on. Fighting whoever needed to be fought. But this was magic. This was a portal to God-knew-where. It would be better to have someone at his side. This was above his pay grade. And besides, he had a team. He had the Avengers. This was what they were here for.
But there was no sense summoning an Avenger right here. Whoever had made the portal—because obviously someone had—could be watching him right now. No, the best course of action would be to go away, get backup, formulate a plan, and come back.
Steve turned the engine on again, reversed, and then drove back the way he'd come for a good fifteen minutes, stopping when he'd gotten to the closest main road. There. That was probably safe. He grabbed the keyboard out of the center console and typed awkwardly, one-handed. He watched as his own query appeared on the screen, green on black:
CAPTAIN AMERICA: Backup needed. Non-priority but urgent. Full team not required. Closest city is 39 ° 20' 11" N, 82° 59' 2" W.
There. Whoever was on comms duty at the mansion would see that, and he'd have to wait a few minutes for them to acknowledge, for Jan to find him a Quinjet—
Another line appeared on the screen.
IRON MAN: Acknowledged. Responding. Five minutes out. Light me a beacon, Cap.
With fingers that were suddenly shaking, Steve flipped the switch that would broadcast a homing signal on the Avengers' frequencies. His heart skipped a beat, and he took a slow, even breath, trying to bring himself under control.
It wasn't Tony. It wasn't. It couldn't be, not anymore. He knew this. His brain knew it, but his heart obviously didn't. In these past three years of living in the future, he'd known from day one that Iron Man was his friend. Iron Man was his teammate. Iron Man was safety and home and everything good... and other feelings he hadn't quite let himself entertain. And then, not that long ago, he'd learned that Iron Man was Tony Stark. Two of his best friends were the same man. He knew now what it was like to see Iron Man smile at him, the way he'd always dreamed of. It hadn't helped those hopeless feelings any, but he'd had Bernie then and Tony'd had Jan and then Indries, so what did it matter? Nothing was ever going to happen. It still wasn't.
And then— and then—
Jim Rhodes was Iron Man now. He'd been Iron Man for a good four months or so, wearing the armor because Tony hadn't, because Tony couldn't anymore, because Tony had lost himself in a bottle.
Steve shut his eyes and swallowed hard.
He hadn't talked to Tony since the middle of his bender. He'd— God, he'd just left him. He'd saved Tony's life and he'd left him. Tony had run away. And that was the last time Steve had seen him. He'd heard enough—from Jim, actually—to know that Tony had turned a corner a few months ago, sometime in the middle of December. Whatever had happened—Jim had been evasive about the details—Tony was newly committed to sobriety. He was going to AA, Jim had said. He was healing.
Last week, Steve had caught a glimpse of a newspaper headline. Something about the death of Obadiah Stane. He hadn't bought the paper, or read the article, but surely that meant that Tony was going to get his company back. Surely that meant that Tony was going to be all right. He didn't need Steve's help, which was good, because it was obvious that Steve wasn't going to be able to do anything to make him better. He already knew he'd made him worse.
He didn't know if Tony even remembered what Steve had said to him. Maybe he'd been too drunk.
Maybe someday Steve could figure out what in the world he could say to Tony ever again.
But it didn't matter now. Jim was Iron Man, and when Jim got here he could tell him why he was even here in southeast Ohio, because the last Steve had heard, he'd been on the West Coast team with Clint and Bobbi and the rest. And maybe, after they figured out what was going on with this mysterious portal, Jim could tell him how Tony was doing.
Steve sighed, pinched the bridge of his nose, and got out of the van to wait, so Jim could see him. He leaned against the side of the van—it was red, now—and let the chill of the metal seep into his back as his breath fogged out in front of him in the cold. It wasn't an especially warm day.
And then, above him in the skies, he saw it, heading toward him. A familiar flash of red and—
—red and silver?
That wasn't Iron Man, was it? The armor Jim wore these days had once been Tony's armor, red and gold. Steve would have known it anywhere. But Jim was just the pilot, a very good pilot but still just the pilot; Tony was the one who did all the engineering. Steve had assumed Tony wasn't in any shape to build anything, but he must have been, because that sure as heck wasn't the old armor. Had he made Jim new armor? He must have. This had to be Iron Man. Steve was expecting Iron Man, and no one else could fly quite like that.
In fact, the figure in the sky flew the way he remembered Tony flying, with a breakneck speed and an easy confidence Jim hadn't quite mastered the last time Steve had seen him.
Now he was just seeing things, Steve told himself. It was clearly Jim, it had to be Jim, and Jim would explain everything when he landed.
As the figure drew closer and closer, it became obvious that it was Iron Man, albeit in a sleek and modern armor. The arms, legs, and faceplate were silver rather than gold, and the armor was larger than usual, but built up in such a way to make it taper elegantly around the wearer's body, from wide shoulders down to a narrow waist. The helmet looked larger too, almost hooded. The shoulders were built-out, giving the entire armor an inverted triangular shape that matched the triangular unibeam housing in Iron Man's chest. The entire effect was... surprisingly deadly, but gorgeous too. It had to be Tony's design.
When Iron Man was about twenty-five feet up, the bright glow of the boot jets dimmed and then cut entirely, and then he dropped the last fifteen feet with one leg drawn up, balancing gracefully with his arms outstretched, floating down with the power of his palm repulsors alone. He landed as lightly and easily as if he'd just been taking a step forward. It was a nice move. Elegant. Beautiful, even. It had been one of Tony's moves, once. Steve guessed Jim had been practicing.
Iron Man walked toward him.
Steve finally got a good look at him and promptly forgot how to breathe.
The eyes behind the mask were blue.
Oh, God. It was Tony after all.
What in God's name was he supposed to say to him?
He's an Avenger, Steve told himself, firmly. He's your teammate. You say what you need to say. Do your goddamn job, Rogers. Be professional.
He breathed deeply, in and out and in again.
Tony tilted his head to the side, an achingly familiar gesture of confusion, as huge as all his motions were in the armor, and he started to reach out a hand. "Cap?" he asked, and it was Tony's voice, Tony's voice the way it had always sounded with all the filtering on. "Is everything okay? Did something happen to you? Is that why you needed help?"
Sheesh. Tony probably thought some villain had hurt him somehow, and that was why he was so strange, when instead it was Steve's own thoughts that plagued him.
"I'm all right," he managed to say, his voice scraping his throat. "Just surprised. You... weren't the Iron Man I was expecting."
The eyes behind the mask blinked, and Steve found, to his shame, that he was out of practice at reading Tony's reactions, in the armor. It might have been understanding. It might not have been. "You didn't read the papers?" he asked. "The team didn't fill you in? I'd thought it would at least have been in the papers. About a week ago."
Oh. That headline. The death of Obadiah Stane. It wouldn't have named Tony, of course, because the public didn't know his secret identity, but it would probably have said Iron Man, if Steve had bothered to read the article. "Did Stane— did you—" The words caught in Steve's throat.
"I didn't kill Stane, if that's what you're asking." The filtered voice was sharp and somehow faraway. "I finally suited up again because he'd kidnapped a few of my friends. Stane killed himself." Tony paused. The armor speakers fuzzed in a sigh. "So it's been... quite a week. If you were wondering."
What was Steve supposed to say? I missed you? Could he say that? Did he have the right to?
Steve cleared his throat. "It's good to see you again." He hoped that wasn't daring too much.
Tony's armored face was unreadable, but his eyes were fixed on Steve. "Likewise." And then he glanced around. "So. Where's the fire, Cap?"
Oh. Right. The actual mission. Steve gestured at the van. "It's not as urgent as all that, but come on in. I'll show you what I've got. You can get out of the cold, anyway."
He walked around and climbed back in as Tony opened the passenger-side door; the van rocked with the weight of the armor as he sat. When Steve flipped the homing beacon off he looked up to see Tony watching him.
Tony nodded at the computer system in the center console; the armor glinted as he moved. "Pretty sure that's not a factory option on a Chevy."
"The Avengers special?" Steve shook his head and tried not to smile. He'd forgotten that Tony made him smile. But he knew he didn't deserve Tony's friendship, not after what he'd done to him. "Not exactly. It's got a few Wakandan aftermarket upgrades."
"Yeah," Tony agreed. "It looked like T'Challa's people. Nice."
Before he was quite aware of making the offer, Steve realized he had tapped at his own throat, where the armor catch used to be on Tony's helmets. "The window glass is tinted," he offered, "if you wanted some fresh air—"
Tony's stare was once again unreadable, and he was certain for a good few seconds that Tony was going to say no, but then Tony reached up to his chin. There was a metallic click, and then he was lifting the helmet away.
It had only been maybe six or seven months since Steve had learned Tony was Iron Man. Watching him unmask felt—still—like being privy to an amazing secret. Which Steve was, he supposed. He'd wondered since he'd first met Iron Man, idle daydreams and fantasies, about who was under the mask, and it had been the best possible answer.
Steve felt his heart beat faster, as the helmet came off and Tony was revealed before him.
Tony was a little thinner now than he should have been, his cheekbones too prominent, the hollows around his eyes too deep, his skin paler than usual. But he was neatly groomed, his mustache trimmed, his hair styled into a long and fashionable cut. And his eyes were bright again, that familiar dark blue, clear and alert, sparkling and warm. Steve hadn't even dared to hope to see that look in his eyes again. Tony wasn't at a hundred percent; that much was obvious. But he was on the way up, and that was plain to see as well. And he was—he was still so goddamn handsome, that was what he was.
The last time Steve had seen Tony's face, he'd been passed out, dead drunk in Steve's arms as Steve carried him from a Bowery flophouse, out of the flames. He hadn't shaved in days, and he'd been shaking, sweating, sick, sallow, the life ebbing out of him. The only thing left in Tony had been a ravening thirst for liquor, a craving eating him up from the inside, and Tony had been giving in, not fighting, letting it take him—
He'd thought he was never going to see Tony alive again.
Steve's own father had crawled into the bottle and never come back out, after all. He knew what it looked like, and it had terrified him, because Tony had looked exactly like that.
"Do I look okay?" Tony asked, his voice shaded with more than a little tension, thick with awkwardness, and Steve realized he was staring.
"Yeah," Steve said, quickly, too quickly. "You look good. Uh. Fine. I mean, you look fine."
Tony's gaze darted around, and Steve wondered for one terrified instant if Tony had somehow divined everything he was thinking, but then he settled back into his seat and lifted the empty helmet between his hands, holding it out to Steve as if the thing itself were a question. "You like the new armor? It was going to be a present for Rhodey, but I ended up needing it a little more. It's the Model 8. The Silver Centurion. Fresh out of the West Coast Avengers compound. Brand new. Well, new as of last week."
Steve cleared his throat. "Sure. It's great."
"That's why I'm here, by the way," Tony said. "Well, not here-here, I'm here because you called, but I was running distance flight tests and I didn't, um. I didn't want to go back to New York." The break in the sentence was excruciatingly audible. Steve knew exactly why.
For God's sake, Tony probably hadn't wanted to run into him.
"It's very nice armor," Steve said again, a desperate attempt to fill the gulf between them, the gulf that had never been there before.
"Thanks," Tony said, and then he was glancing wildly around again; his gaze lit upon Steve's portfolio cases, resting against the side of Steve's seat, which were probably the nearest safe objects. "So I'm certain I know what's in one of those," Tony added, "but I'm honestly curious about the other, because last I checked, you only had the one shield."
Tony raised his eyebrows, inquisitively, and the corners of his mouth curved upward in the smallest of smiles—a real smile, inviting Steve to smile back, and God, Steve had never thought he would see that.
"Two shields," Steve said, deadpan, and oh, the things he wanted to do to make Tony smile again—
Stop it, he told himself. It wasn't happening.
"No, it's actual art." Steve relented and admitted the truth, after enjoying Tony's answering smile for longer than he really should have let himself. "But you're not going to believe this."
"You," Steve said, savoring the pause, "are looking at the newest artist for Marvel Comics' Captain America."
Tony's gauntleted hands went to his mouth. "Holy shit," he said, and his delighted, joyful laughter echoed throughout the van. "You're kidding me. What am I saying? You're not kidding me. You're never kidding me. Oh my God. Really?"
"Cross my heart," Steve said.
Tony was almost doubled over now, laughing, tears in his eyes, and when he raised his head he was staring at Steve, amazed and wondering, like he hadn't even known he could still laugh like that. Steve wondered how long it had been since Tony had laughed.
"Can I see?" Tony breathed, and Steve supposed he should have expected that; Tony had always liked his art. "I mean, how urgent is the timetable here?"
"Don't worry," Steve assured him. "We've got about half an hour before all the excitement starts."
He passed Tony the case, and Tony opened it and held the pages inside almost reverently, cradling them in his bulky gauntlets. Even though most of the pages couldn't have looked that great—all but the top one was nothing more than layouts—Tony stared at them, awed, like Steve was one of the Old Masters. It was... well, it was flattering. Heady, even. It always had been, the way Tony appreciated pretty much everything he could do, whether it was drawing or taking down evildoers.
"These are lovely," Tony said, shutting the case and putting it down. And then he finally seemed to take stock of where he was sitting, of the rest of the van, of the narrow bed in the back next to Steve's bike. It was clear to any observer that this was where Steve was staying. "So you're a long way from home too, huh? What's with the road trip, Cap?"
"Oh, you know," Steve said, and he was sure Tony could see right through the casual air he was affecting. "I didn't want to just move back into the mansion, and I had that back pay from the Army, and I set up that citizens' hotline, and I thought it would be easier to help people if I could drive out to see them. And I'd get a chance to really see the country along the way, see it the way everyone else sees it."
It was the same thing he'd told Sam, more or less, but somehow it felt more hollow when he said it to Tony.
Tony squinted. "Move back into the mansion? I thought you were living in Brooklyn Heights. With Bernie."
Two weeks. It had only been two weeks, and the regret stung, crawling under his skin, leaving him raw and aching. They'd been so good. He'd thought, once, that she was the one, for sure. They'd been engaged.
He remembered every word of the letter Bernie had left him; it was the curse of an eidetic memory. I hope when I graduate, we still feel the same for each other. There are no guarantees in life, though. Good luck on your mission.
He'd known, even before the letter, that it wasn't going to work out between them, but knowing it intellectually was different than seeing it, final and irrefutable, in black and white. He'd been holding her back. He'd come on too strong. He couldn't ask her to give up everything for him. She didn't owe it to him to do what he wanted, to stay and run a damn hotline, to be no more than a superhero's girlfriend, a superhero's wife. She had ambitions. She had a career ahead of her. He wasn't going to stand in her way.
Maybe a normal life wasn't for him. Maybe he didn't get to be happy.
He glanced back at the rest of the van, at the bed that only fit one person, and he felt very, very alone.
"She moved to Wisconsin," Steve rasped. "Law school. When she's done, maybe, we'll see—" The words caught, and his eyes were suddenly too hot. "But I know it's over."
Tony's gaze softened, and he leaned over and rested a gauntleted hand on Steve's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said, quietly.
There was sorrow and understanding in Tony's eyes—God knew Tony had been dumped too many times to count, not that Steve understood why. If I had you, he thought, I'd never let go.
He wanted to laugh, because his fantasies had so often come close to this. He was single. Tony was single; at least, Jim hadn't mentioned anyone since Indries, and given what Indries had done to Tony, he would have said if Tony were on the market. And they weren't usually both single, not at the same time. And so many times, Steve had thought what if and Steve had thought he's taken and Steve had thought we can't. And now they really, really couldn't. Sure, they were both single, but Tony's last girlfriend had left him and sent him falling off the wagon, down into an alcoholic spiral, a tailspin that had nearly cost Tony his life.
He loved Tony. He couldn't do that to Tony. He couldn't chance being the cause of that, not ever.
And besides, it had only been two weeks for him. He owed anyone the courtesy of not being a rebound, and Tony more than anyone else. Steve was— Steve was... okay, he was kind of a mess. And Tony was—
He didn't know what Tony was.
He wanted Tony to be all right. He wanted Tony to be happy. Tony was better off without him.
Hell, Tony was probably straight.
Tony squeezed his shoulder, a pressure Steve could feel even through the mail of his uniform shirt. Tony was touching him. He hadn't seen Tony in months. He hadn't touched Tony in months.
"If you need anything," Tony began, and he left the offer, as always, open-ended. His voice was soft. Steve wondered what he'd sound like if he knew what Steve actually wanted.
Steve nodded. "I'll be fine." His voice was still tight.
Tony dropped his hand. For a few seconds, the only sound was their breathing.
"So," Tony said. "What brings us here to, uh, Deadman Crossing?"
Was that what this area was actually called? That wasn't a good sign.
"Take a look for yourself."
With an awkward, two-fingered computer command, Steve brought up the mission logs, so far consisting of the hotline transcript, and he watched as Tony turned the screen toward himself and read through everything Steve knew. Tony's eyebrows rose higher and higher.
"A portal every hour on the hour, huh?"
"Yep." Steve leaned back and stared out the window at the empty road and deserted fields. "I got here, saw one open and close, and thought some backup might be nice."
Tony's mouth quirked. "So when you asked yourself which of my friends really loves magic, the answer you came up with was me?"
Steve snorted. Now that Tony had said it, of course, he was remembering exactly how much Tony hated magic. "In my defense, I wasn't actually expecting you to be the one showing up." He wondered if that sounded like he didn't want Tony here.
"Eh," Tony said. "That's reasonable."
He was still smiling. The jibe about magic had been a joke after all. At least Steve hadn't offended him.
And Tony had said friend. Not just teammate. Not just fellow Avenger. Maybe they were still friends. So what if they'd been... avoiding each other? Things had been rough, sure, but they could put it all behind them. They could go on. They could team up and run a mission, the way they used to. Everything was going to be fine.
A mud-brown sedan with Kentucky plates zoomed down the road, then paused ahead of them. As Steve watched, it turned... down the very road Steve had just come from.
Tony's eyes slid over to meet Steve's. "Were you expecting that?"
Steve shook his head. He had his hand on the keys in the ignition. "No, and that's the road the portal is on, so I think we'd better follow them and see—"
Tony caught his wrist before the engine so much as turned over. "In this thing? They saw us. They turned past us. They'll know it's us. Don't you want to take the bike? I can fly."
"I want to see what we're dealing with before we give ourselves away as superheroes."
Pursing his lips, Tony sat back. "All right, Cap. It's your show." He settled his helmet over his head once more; it locked into place.
Steve told himself that he didn't miss the sight of Tony's face.
"Besides," Steve added, "they won't know it's us."
He hit one of the other buttons on the dashboard, and through the windshield he could see the hood of the van—and all the rest of it—begin to change color, the red becoming blue.
Tony whistled, a noise that sounded very strange with the suit filters on. "Nice."
Steve smiled, and then he backed the van up and turned down the road, after the other car. It was probably going to be nothing, but there was no harm in checking it out.
This was the slowest car chase Steve had ever participated in.
Sure, with his serum-enhanced vision, he could keep the other car in sight for much longer than anyone else possibly could, but it was a frustrating process of pausing and pulling over as soon as he could just barely see it, so he didn't advance too far, so he didn't get to the point where the other driver would be able to see him coming.
"Sorry," Steve said, as they sat on the side of the road for the third time.
The armor's huge shoulders shifted as Tony shrugged. "Nothing to be sorry for. This is actually kind of relaxing. I like it."
After the fourth time Steve stopped, the brown sedan had pulled to a halt almost exactly where Steve had parked, before, when he'd seen the portal. Whoever they were, they were waiting for the portal.
Steve glanced at the clock. Three minutes.
The driver's-side door opened. The person who got out was wearing a long, shapeless dark robe, with the hood pulled up over their head. Steve couldn't make out anything else about them, not even their gender, but if he had been asked to describe someone who was about to participate in some kind of unsavory magical practice, they would have been an excellent candidate.
"Okay," Tony said, uneasily, and Steve supposed there was some kind of distance-vision equipment in the suit, because it all should have been a blur even at Tony's 20/20. "That's definitely not ominous at all."
The robed figure was standing on the other side of their car, facing the field where the portal was due to appear, not looking in Steve's direction.
Without taking his eyes off the figure ahead of them, Steve unbuckled his seatbelt, grabbed the other portfolio case, and took out his shield. The weight of it in his hands was reassuring. Red, white and blue gleamed at him out of the corner of his eye.
He didn't move. He didn't have to. He just breathed, slowly, evenly, and he could feel everything into him settle into that cool, calm place, centered and ready. The world was too real and not real enough; the world was only tactics, angles and impacts and cover, line of sight to the target. It was the way he always felt before battle, with his team around him.
"How do you want to play this?" Tony's level question was so quiet, as if the faraway figure could have overheard. "Do you want us to take them down now?"
Steve shook his head. "Wait for it. I want to see what they're going to do."
"Oh, I already know what they're going to do," Tony murmured, and that was when the portal opened up again.
It was exactly as Steve had seen it before: there was a line in the air, black-purple, crackling with energy, opening wider and wider, as if an unseen hand were tearing a hole in the sky. It grew taller and wider still, until it was about the size of a doorway. From this angle and distance Steve couldn't make out what was on the other side, but it had to be the cabin from before.
The hooded figure didn't look back. The figure simply stepped forward and through the doorway.
The portal was still open.
Before he was even conscious of moving, or of wanting to move, Steve was out of the van, running down the muddy, icy road.
"Hang on," Tony said, from behind him. "I'm faster."
And then Tony caught him up in his arms and he was flying, they were flying over the road, through the field, barreling towards the portal, and the only thing Steve could think was God, I've missed this.
Tony set him down just in front of the portal, where it was plain to see that the view was the same one Steve had seen before: the cabin. It was small, log-sided. Pine trees rose up on either side of it, and there was more snow on the ground there than there was here. And there were even more portals visible through the portal. Steve counted five of them, appearing and then winking out, disgorging more dark-robed figures, who promptly headed forward to the tiny cabin.
Tony's repulsors gleamed bright, charging up, and he took a step toward the portal.
"Wait," Steve said, and Tony turned around. "Can you even tell where that is?"
"The magical interference is playing havoc with my sensors," Tony said, shaking his head. "But I can tell you that it's not putting out enough energy to be either interdimensional or interplanetary."
Steve hadn't even considered that. "So wherever this is, this is Earth. Our Earth."
Tony nodded. "And if it's Earth, we can take these guys down and get home. If worst comes to worst and you're hurt, I can fly us out." His head lifted, and Steve was sure he was smiling behind the mask. "Besides, you weren't honestly going to stay on this side, were you?"
"You've got a point." Steve grinned and lifted his shield. "Come on, Avenger. Time to save the world."
"It must be Tuesday," Tony muttered, and Steve started laughing as he turned toward the portal, because he really had missed this. They could be friends again, couldn't they? The past was past.
Tony was at his side, meeting his eyes, one last determined glance, and then they leaped through the portal together.
Even before he hit the ground on the other side of the portal, the first thing Steve noticed was the cold. The air was thinner, and the chill of it stung at his throat and chest: wherever they were now, they were high enough or north enough that winter had not quite yet receded. He landed hard, and his boots crunched on a drift of compacted snow; Tony settled down more gracefully next to him, landing with a flare of light.
They were alone in the middle of a clearing, in front of the cabin, surrounded by at least ten portals identical to the one that had brought them here, all showing varying scenes: a suburban yard, a grimy alleyway, the pale sands of a beach with palm trees in the distance.
And then, at once, all the portals shut.
"That hasn't been five minutes," Tony said, and Steve supposed he must have been running a timer inside the suit. "And if they've been opening the portals on a schedule and just waiting for people to come through as it suits them, my guess is that whoever's been creating the portals is inside and just did a final headcount."
It made sense. The only reason for them to have deviated from the schedule was if they no longer needed it. And they'd clearly been summoning people from all over. They must have gotten everyone they needed. Whatever they were going to do, they were about to do it. And that meant it was Steve's job to stop them.
"Any idea where we are?"
Tony shook his head. "Too much magical interference to tell. I'm detecting massive magical energy readings from that cabin, and at this distance it's temporarily disabled most of the suit's higher functions. I've got flight and weaponry, but anything else will have to wait."
"No problem," Steve said. "We just take down everyone inside and then you can tell us where we are, right?"
Tony's laugh was a familiar hiss of static. "I knew I liked you for your optimism." There was a pause, like he'd wanted to say something else. "Yeah, once the magic's knocked out, we're good to go."
"All right," Steve said. "Then let's do this before whoever's inside gets started with their plans."
There might, of course, have been some entirely benign reason to summon a bunch of robed people to the middle of nowhere, but Steve doubted it. At any rate, they'd have the truth soon enough.
He hefted his shield and jogged through the snow toward the cabin; to judge by the uneven, worn track and the sheer variety of footprints punched through the crust of the snow, it looked like a good number of people had been this way. Tony followed him.
There was a window next to the cabin door, dozens of tiny panes of glass set in a wood frame, but through the window the inside of the cabin was still, and everything was quiet. They had to be in there, though. Where else could they have gone?
The door was coated in worn, flaking green paint, and when Steve put a hand to it, the doorknob turned; they'd left it unlocked. He raised his shield, and he was aware, without looking back, of Tony standing just behind him. They were covering each other, instinctively, the way they'd always done, as if they'd never stopped.
Steve eased the door open, and the rusty hinges squealed.
Inside, he took in the rooms as fast as possible; they were in a small sitting area with an overstuffed chair, a couch, and a pile of blankets, with a heater at the far end of the room as a welcome source of warmth. The sitting area opened up ahead of them into a dingy kitchen and pantry, the scratched kitchen table bookended by a pair of wooden chairs. There was a door to a bathroom, open and unoccupied, and a linen closet, and then what Steve was assuming was a bedroom, its door closed. The whole place was tiny. And empty. The creaking of the floorboards as he and Tony moved further in was the only sound.
Where was everyone?
There was only one room to check, really. Steve ran across the room to the bedroom door and slowly pushed it open.
It wasn't a bedroom.
The intended use was obviously some kind of storage room: there was a chest freezer and a few solid wooden cabinets. But the part of the room that drew Steve's attention was the floor. In the middle of the floor, next to a rumpled area rug, hastily pushed aside, was a hinged wooden panel with a ring bolted to the middle. A door.
There was a basement.
Steve raised his hand and beckoned to Tony. "Iron Man! Over here."
The floor creaked even louder as Tony ran across it in full armor. Then Tony stopped and stared, and he knew Tony had seen it too.
"Could they get any more cliché?" Tony asked. "Okay. Ready whenever you are, Cap."
Steve got a firm grip on the door and tugged upward. The panel swung up and he could make out a flight of wooden stairs below, barely illuminated by some unseen, flickering light, even further beyond. There was just enough room for them to go down one at a time.
Steve raised his shield and descended into the darkness.
The basement was huge.
The staircase here was taking them down to the far edge of a cavernous, dank space: high-ceilinged, dirt-walled, dirt-floored, and at least three or four times bigger than the tiny cabin above.
The basement was entirely full of dark-robed figures. There had to be at least thirty or forty people, and even though Steve was fairly reflective and Tony was literally glowing, no one paid them any attention, because what they were attending to was even worse. They stood in a huge circle, their heads tipped down, presumably with their eyes shut, each holding hands with the person next to them, murmuring in unison in a language Steve couldn't identify.
There was a huge circle painted on the floor, a ring that they were standing around; Steve could see glimpses of it between the robed figures. The floor was covered in bizarre symbols and words in half a dozen alphabets. The paint, such as it was, was reddish-brown and had the all-too-familiar sickening smell of drying blood.
So much for their intentions being pure.
"Stephen Strange," Tony said in his ear, over the local comms; Steve supposed those still worked too. "Wanda Maximoff. Jericho Drumm. Think of all the people you could have brought along for this mission."
"I could have brought them, sure," Steve subvocalized, letting the comm pick up his nearly-silent words. "But you know I have more fun with you."
He couldn't resist a bit of banter. If he acted like everything was fine, it would become fine. The past would be gone. They wouldn't have to think about it.
Tony laughed in his ear. "I hope you remember that when I can't save you from being eaten by a demon, Winghead."
The old nickname made Steve smile, made a sudden warmth blossom in his chest. Other people called him that too, of course, but it had always sounded the best from Tony. He'd missed it so much.
"I'll be all right."
Steve went down the rest of the stairs as quickly as he dared, not wanting to draw attention, but still none of the robed people looked up, not even when he hit the bottom and Tony hopped off the last stair behind him. They were in the shadows, still, and the circle of hooded figures began to chant even louder.
There was a pinprick of light in midair, in the very center of the circle, something akin to the portal that had brought Steve here. It flickered, glowing with a dark and malevolent energy, and the ragged edges of the portal pulsed as the portal grew. It grew with each pulse, the rip in the fabric of the universe gaping wider. It grew in time to the pulses of light, like a flurry of punches in an attack, as if some creature on the other side of the portal were trying to claw its way through to reality.
The comm crackled in Steve's ear. "Check out the color scheme on the robes," Tony said. "I bet I know who's in charge here."
Now that Steve was closer, now that the light from the portal was brighter, he could see that the robes weren't all dark: there were figures in red robes. Every fifth person, evenly spaced around the circle, wore a crimson robe. And there was one mysterious figure whose crimson robes were edged in black. He—Steve thought this one was male—wasn't holding the hands of either of the people next to him. He was holding a book, an old, leather-bound book, and reading from it. He was, Steve saw, actually leading the chant: he said a few alien words and the rest of the circle echoed him.
"I see him," Steve murmured, and he slid his shield off his forearm and let it settle into his hand, balancing it, picturing the arc that its flight would take. "You want to do the honors, or should I?"
"It's your mission," Tony said. "Go on. I'll cover you."
Tony stepped up behind him, the way he always did, and Steve half-smiled at the familiar rising whine of repulsors coming up to full combat charge.
Steve breathed in, breathed out, took aim, and let the shield fly.
The shield sailed across the room and struck the lead cultist dead on in the center of his chest. He staggered and fell back, dropping the book, which landed... inside of the circle.
The glowing light went bright, and then it dimmed to a low, sickly green. The portal was changing color.
A ripple of dismay went around the circle. There were startled gasps, and then shouting, and as the shield flew back to Steve's hands the rest of the room finally noticed their presence.
The nearest red-robed cultist pushed back her hood, shook out her hands from the sleeves of her robe, and cast an energy bolt in their direction, a crackling yellow ray of light that Steve just barely blocked, crouching low. Tony raised an armored hand over Steve's shoulder and returned fire; the cultist went down.
They couldn't split up; they'd both go down if they did. They needed each other for cover and for offense. Tony couldn't block, and Steve couldn't shoot back.
"Stay on me!" Steve yelled.
"Believe me," Tony called back, "I'm not going anywhere!"
But most of the figures didn't seem interested in fighting back. Of the remaining red-robed figures, only two or three of them were shooting, and the rest were... opening portals?
Steve watched in confusion as a tall man sketched out a symbol in the air and snapped his fingers, and then a blue-edged portal opened, looking very like the ones that had been in the clearing. The man stepped back and started to herd the rest of the cultists through.
"Go! Go!" the man was yelling at the other cultists. "Run!"
After most of the people had leaped through, the man glanced back at the greenish portal in the center of the abandoned circle. The portal was wider now, and the look on the man's face was pure terror.
It wasn't Steve and Tony they were trying to get away from.
The man leaped through, and the portal closed behind him.
There were three remaining figures, all red-robed. One, the man in black-edged robes who had had the book, was on the floor, crawling weakly away from the circle. The second had made a massive portal and was moving the rest of the cultists out, and the third was shooting. Steve gritted his teeth as an energy blast hit the shield, rocking it in his grip. Tony stayed behind him and kept firing with both hands.
The green portal was wider and wider still.
After a few more missed shots, Tony connected with a repulsor ray, and their assailant toppled backwards. The other cultists didn't even blink; the second man shoved his unconscious fellow cultist through the escape portal, and then he jumped through and let it fall closed.
The leader, the only one left, was still trying to crawl away.
Steve ran across the room.
The man didn't even put up a fight when Steve picked him up by the front of his robe. His hood fell back. He was middle-aged, balding, and honestly he looked more like what Steve would have expected from some kind of manager rather than a magical cult leader. He was sweating and gasping for breath, trembling, terrified. He wasn't even looking at Steve; he kept glancing over at the portal. His eyes were wide and dazed; his skin was ashen.
"You idiots," the man spat. He was shaking. "You fools. Do you know what you've done?"
Steve's fist clenched in the fabric of the robe. "What did you summon? Tell me!"
Tony's left hand was splayed wide, the repulsor charged up for another blast. Steve could see its light reflected in the cultist's eyes.
"It was supposed to be Chthon," the man gasped.
Chthon. Steve was only vaguely familiar with the name, but he was positive that wasn't anything good.
"Oh, no," Tony said. He had clearly placed the name better than Steve had.
The cultist struggled in Steve's grip, but not like he was trying to get away from Steve. He was glancing over at the portal again, and he swung in the air like he was trying to throw himself further from it.
"You interrupted the ritual." The man was panting. "It's not Chthon anymore. It's not going to be Chthon. It's so much worse. You have no idea what you've done."
Tony's voice was hard. "Close the portal."
The cultist smiled a nasty smile. "I can't. It's your problem now."
He sketched out a symbol with his free hand and... disappeared.
Steve was left clutching an empty robe.
The green light brightened, and when Steve lifted his head, the rip in the fabric of the universe was a good ten feet high, and through it there was movement. The world on the other side of the portal was dark, though the portal itself was bright, and Steve could barely make out something slithering in the dimness.
If it was worse than Chthon, they were all going to die.
"There's still too much magical interference," Tony said. "I can't call for more backup. I'm sorry."
Steve took a deep breath and lifted his shield. "Well," he said, "I just want to say that it's been an honor."
If they were going down, they were going down fighting.
"Likewise," Tony said. His hands were raised, palms back, angled at the portal; he was braced for combat, a pose Steve had seen a thousand times. He supposed it was how he was going to remember Tony.
That was when the tentacle monster heaved itself through the portal.
The monster was hideous, awful almost beyond description, a creature out of nightmares. Steve was used to fighting sneering, costumed villains. He was used to fighting humans. He hadn't been prepared for this. He raised his shield higher even as he could feel his stomach clench and roil, some atavistic urge deep within him saying that here, now, this was a thing to fear.
It was a slick, oozing mass of tentacles. There was no shape to it, no form other than the tentacles. They were huge tentacles, at least eight or ten of them, dark green. At their base they were easily each as wide around as Steve and Tony put together, and they stretched and tapered for a good ten or fifteen feet each. One side of each tentacle was a paler green, dotted with suckers, like an octopus. The whole creature was glistening, wet, covered in viscous slime.
"Oh boy." Tony's voice was weary with resignation and an undercurrent of bitter, sardonic amusement. "Tentacles. My favorite."
The portal was closing around the monster, although it didn't snap shut completely the way the other portals had. Rather, it closed on the monster itself, so that sickly green light crackled about the base of the tentacles and shone along their length, providing the suggestion that the massive bulk of the monster itself was holding the portal open, and that there was more of it to come if it kept moving forward—or rather, upward and outward.
And then a voice thundered through Steve's mind. Ah, sustenance, it said. It didn't speak aloud; the words had the almost-hallucinatory echo that Steve associated with broadcast telepathy. He had the impression of a vast and chaotic intelligence, some ancient great beast, entertained by the weak flailing of humanity. So much life. There was a sense of laughter. I shall require your vital essence.
That didn't sound good.
Steve gripped his shield tightly. "No, thanks," he said, as coolly as he could. "I'll pass."
One tentacle coiled in on itself, and then raised itself high in the air, a slow, ponderous movement. At least this was going to be easy to counter, Steve thought—
—and then, as fast as the crack of a whip, it snaked forward, wrapped itself around Tony's ankle, and yanked. Hard. And Tony went flying with it, forward into the monster's grasp, his arms and legs waving wildly as he dangled and spun. And then Steve couldn't see him anymore; the body of the monster had turned, and Tony was behind it, somewhere in the darkness.
"It's okay," Tony panted, in his ear. The comms crackled. "I'm okay. I'm fine. This isn't my first tentacle monster. I fight them all the— oh, no—"
Tony swung back into view, and the situation had rapidly become worse. One of his legs was free. The other was still wrapped in a tentacle. He was being held upright now, by means of a tentacle looped around his throat, and he had both hands on it, twisting in midair, trying to pull it away.
There was the awful creaking noise of metal being bent. It was crushing Tony. It was choking him. Oh, God, it was going to kill him.
Steve took a step forward and threw his shield, hard, at the tentacle holding Tony by the neck. It was a perfect throw, and he could see it in his mind, just where the shield would hit, how it would impact the thick mass of the tentacle, how the tentacle would recoil—
Another tentacle snagged the shield right out of the air.
Steve watched in dismay and horror as the tentacle waved the shield high, holding it across the convex face of the shield. There was a wet noise of suction. The tentacle, clearly, had an excellent grip.
Okay, so he didn't have his shield. But he still had his body. He could do this. He could save Tony. He ran, bracing himself for the jump, and then he sprang into the air, flinging himself toward Tony.
A tentacle shot out, swinging through the air in a huge arc, and slammed into Steve, across his chest, driving all the air from his lungs in one heaving rush and sending him sailing backwards into the shadows.
He hit the far wall, gasping, and for a few disorienting seconds there was nothing but pain.
No, the tentacle monster said, in Steve's head. Its tone was didactic, chastising, like an owner with a misbehaving pet. Aid is not permitted.
"Like hell," Steve rasped, and he struggled upright. "I'm not going to let you touch him."
He was aware as he said it that he didn't exactly have a choice. He could see Tony hanging there, swinging, fighting the hold, suspended within the mass of tentacles.
The comms in Steve's ear crackled and clicked, on and off, and Steve guessed the system didn't have much time left. He could hear Tony panting raggedly, in heavy, harsh breaths.
"Don't count me out yet," Tony said, in Steve's ear, low and determined. "I've still got weapons."
Tony let the tentacle around his neck stay looped there, not fighting it, and for an instant Steve didn't understand what he was trying to do, because he couldn't mean to let it choke him. Then one of Tony's hands slid along the tentacle, along and away from himself, and Steve got it: Tony was trying to angle his grip so that a ray through the tentacle wouldn't hit his own body on the other side.
"You want me, huh?" Tony spat out, addressing the monster. "Take this."
Tony's gauntlet glowed bright, and then energy crackled all along the tentacle. There was an unearthly howl of pain, and the limb sagged back as the repulsor ray shone out and flashed through the darkness, carving a long divot into the dirt floor.
For a second, maybe two, there was only one tentacle on Tony. He was nearly free—
And then three more tentacles smashed into Tony, wrapping themselves around him so completely that Steve could hardly make out the sheen of the armor under the writhing, slick mass of dark green flesh. They covered his entire body.
"Tony!" he yelled, and another tentacle tripped him as he tried to run forward. He crashed hard, skidding across the dirt.
"Steve!" Tony said in his ear, the word so distorted through the dying comm system that Steve could hardly make it out. "Run! Get out of here! It can read your mind! It knows—"
There was a hiss, a crackle, and a muffled crunch. The comms went dead.
And then there was a very familiar metallic clicking noise, and then another. The emergency armor releases.
The goddamned monster could read their minds, and it knew everything Tony knew about the suit. And that meant it knew how to take him right out of the armor.
The helmet came away as a tentacle pitched its shattered remains across the room, and Steve was now staring at Tony's bare face. Tony was wild-eyed, too pale, and his teeth were gritted as he struggled.
"Go!" Tony yelled.
Another tentacle swept Steve backwards again. The monster didn't want him going anywhere.
He could see more of Tony as the monster peeled off the armor in silver-red pieces: one gauntlet was carried away, then the other, and then the chestplate and backplate fell with a clatter. Each piece was twisted, deformed by the tentacles, made useless. Tony wasn't wearing much of anything under the armor, bare to the waist. Steve could see that he was too thin, his ribs visible, which made a bad situation even worse. He wasn't going to be able to stand up to this.
There was another crunch, and the groin plates fell away. A tentacle curled around Tony's midsection, and another around Tony's legs. Steve saw a boot go flying.
Tony was wearing exactly one piece of the suit, and he knew how to make it count: one breath, two, and then the last bootjet triggered with a high, broken whine.
Tony rocketed forward, off-balance, and he was free. He was crawling across the floor wearing only his underwear and a single boot, but he was finally free.
Lunging forward, Steve dodged the tentacles that came for him, ducking the first and leaping over the second, and he grabbed Tony's left arm—
A tentacle wrapped around Tony's waist, and another tentacle yanked his boot off, and together they started to drag him backwards. Steve locked his other hand around Tony's arm too and pulled as hard as he could. It was the worst game of tug-of-war he could possibly imagine, and if he lost, Tony would die.
Steve, Tony said, but his mouth didn't open when he spoke, and Steve remembered what Tony had said about the monster and its telepathy. It could read their minds. Somehow it had made them able to read each other's minds.
The tentacle coiled tighter around Tony's waist and up his spine, fastening on with huge suckers, and Steve could feel each point of suction climb up his back as if it had been on his own body. Tony thrashed in its implacable grip and then the suckers went tighter. Tony twisted in his bonds. Steve was still desperately holding on to Tony's arm. The tentacles pulled harder.
Something had to give, and it was Tony's shoulder.
Steve could feel the horrible, agonizing wrenching, a lightning strike of pain, as if it were his own shoulder. Tony's mouth opened on an awful sob, a scream, and there were tears trickling down his face.
"Go!" Tony shouted again, his voice raw. "That's an order, Avenger! Leave me!"
Tony's terrified mind broadcast the opposite opinion, a litany of fear, a string of near-incoherent prayer: please don't leave me oh God oh God I don't want to die like this oh God I hope it's quick oh God I don't want to die for nothing please at least let it be quick please don't let Steve have to watch this please—
Tony's skin was slick, covered in tentacle slime, and Steve's hands finally, finally slipped.
The tentacles bore Tony back, holding him high, unarmored and vulnerable, pulling his arms and legs apart as if to draw and quarter him, and no, God, no, this couldn't be it. This couldn't be how it would end.
Steve barely had the strength to fight as another mass of tentacles knocked him backwards. One slimy tentacle wrapped around his waist, hooked into his belt, and dragged him back and down, forcing him to his knees. A smaller, more agile tentacle tip ripped the comm out of his ear and yanked the cowl back before retreating. The tentacle about his waist loosened and shifted—and then held his hands together behind his back.
He was helpless. He wasn't going anywhere.
He could feel the monster sift through his mind, picking up information, casting through memories and letting them fall. It clearly wanted to learn everything it could before killing them.
Foolish mortals, the monster said. If I desired your lives, I would have your lives. The tentacle that was wrapped about Steve's wrists constricted, a lazy threat. Do you not understand me? I require your vital essence. One of you will suffice.
Steve had to admit that he didn't understand. He could feel Tony's own distant confusion, clouding his mind. Tony didn't understand either.
The monster held up another tentacle, high in the air, and Steve watched as the tentacle drew closer to Tony. Tony was still struggling in midair, held spread-eagled by four tentacles. He was shaking. He was shivering, too; it was cold down here in the basement, and much like the recent mission where Tony's identity had been revealed, Tony was wearing only a very small pair of underwear, satiny red. Now was not the time to think about that, Steve told himself.
The very tip of the tentacle was slender, almost delicate, and it glistened in the dim light. It brushed against Tony's collarbone gently, the motion very much like a caress, and then it drifted slowly downward across his chest and stomach... and then down further, sliding between Tony's thighs as the two tentacles on his legs pulled Tony's legs even wider apart.
Tony made a quiet, strangled noise that might have been surprise, or dismay. He was holding perfectly still.
Suddenly Steve had a very, very good idea of what vital essence meant.
The tentacle continued to fondle Tony, in a slow, undulating motion—and then, whip-quick, the tip of it hooked into the side of Tony's underwear and tore off the remaining scrap of fabric. Tony hung there naked, fully bared to Steve's gaze for an instant, until the tentacle once again curled possessively around Tony's still-soft cock, petting him, stroking him with the lightest of touches.
"No!" Steve's voice was hoarse. The cry tore at his throat. "Leave him alone! You want one of us, you bastard, then take me! Take me instead!"
Steve was strong. Steve had a healing factor. Whatever the monster did, Steve could survive it.
He wasn't so sure that Tony could.
Oh, but Captain, the monster whispered in his mind, in a tone that Steve might have called a purr, softly enough that Steve knew he was the only one of them who could hear it. He is so fine and sweet. And he has already offered himself to me. He wishes to spare you my touch.
Tony raised his head and met Steve's eyes. "It's okay," Tony murmured. "It's all right. I can do this. I do this, and it lets us both go. It won't hurt you. It promised. Everything's going to be all right."
And Tony believed the monster? How could he believe anything the monster told him? And how could he think Steve was the one who needed protecting?
"It's not all right—"
Tony gave him a weak, wan half-smile, a twitch of his lips, but his gaze was determined, his voice calm and level. "Everything's going to be okay, Steve."
Dear God, why was Tony the one reassuring him?
He swallowed, his mouth gone dry. He didn't know what to say.
A tentacle caressed Tony's cheek, and Steve watched Tony shudder and close his eyes as the tentacle stroked over his jaw, down his throat, and to his chest. The tentacle flipped over, pressing its suckers in a long line across Tony's chest, and Tony's mouth opened soundlessly. When the tentacle lifted away and moved on, Steve saw a line of ring-shaped bruises where it had been, and then the tentacle glided back up and did it again. The very tip of the tentacle teased Tony's nipple.
Tony's eyes were open now, unfocused, his head lolling to the side. He was panting, shallowly, but Steve could hardly hear it over the pounding of his own heart.
Another tentacle came from behind and dove between Tony's legs, joining the one that was still there, and Jesus, Steve shouldn't look, he shouldn't look, but he had to know what it was doing to Tony. He had to know, he had to see in case it hurt Tony. He needed to know the extent of the injuries.
The tentacle between Tony's legs glided over his balls, fondling them gently, as the tentacle that was still wrapped around Tony's cock rippled tighter, pumping him in a wave of motion.
Tony made a soft, surprised sound of protest and Steve watched, half-sickened, as Tony's cock twitched and started to harden in the tentacle's grasp.
He wanted to look away. He couldn't look away.
There was an uncomfortable pressure in the pit of Steve's stomach, a slurry of anger and shame. This wasn't right. This shouldn't be happening.
But it was, and there was a goddamn tentacle monster trying to get Tony off, and here Steve was, and he couldn't do anything but watch. He yanked in vain at his bonds.
Tony wasn't broadcasting his thoughts as much as he had been earlier. All Steve could sense from him was a determined, almost detached calm. Don't think about it, Tony was thinking. Just go with it. It'll be okay. Think about something else. Think about something sexy. It'll be faster. There were hazy pictures in Tony's mind, then: bright blue eyes, a loving smile, the hard planes of a muscular body—
Steve backed away from Tony's mind then, hastily, because there were limits, and Tony had a right to his fantasies. Whatever got him through this was fine.
There was another tentacle behind Tony now, this one wetter than the others, glimmering and glistening. Steve couldn't quite see it from this angle but he had the unfortunate feeling that he knew exactly where it was going to end up. It stroked down Tony's back, and then—
Tony's eyes went wide.
Oh, fuck, here we go, Tony thought, and there was a snap of discomfort down the telepathic link, a burning pressure. Steve could feel the ghost of it, forcing Tony open, and he could only imagine what it felt like directly.
The tentacle pushed forward and in. Tony grimaced, quivered, and then held himself still, his body gone rigid, tensing up at the intrusion.
Tony's thoughts were loud, but not directed at Steve; they were a chant of encouragement. Breathe. You can do this. Keep breathing. Stay still. Don't fight it. It will only hurt more if you fight it. Oh, fuck, but that's huge. Breathe. Relax. Stay calm. Deep breaths. Don't tense. Breathe. In and out and— aw, fuck. Tony's eyes were wet. He was fighting back tears. It'll be over soon, Tony was telling himself. You just have to get through this. You've had worse, Stark.
Horrified, Steve watched as the tentacle pushed deeper, and Tony half-sobbed and groaned in response. Steve could feel the ache deep within him through the telepathic link, the stretch and the burn—God, it was so much, it was splitting him open, it had to be. How could Tony possibly take this?
The tentacle was fucking Tony in earnest now, its slick green flesh sliding in and out and in, and Tony was crying out with every thrust and visibly trying to curl away, a reflex he'd stopped trying to check. There was nowhere else for him to go. The telepathic link attenuated. Steve could feel Tony's mind blank out, as Tony tried to go somewhere else in his head, somewhere that wasn't here, somewhere that he didn't have to feel any of this. It felt like an old, old defense mechanism, something from long before Tony was ever Iron Man, and Steve realized with an awful rush of sympathy and despair that there must have been a reason Tony knew how to dissociate like this and, God, he never wanted to know what it was, he never wanted to think about Tony having been hurt like this, having been hurt too much to bear, and he didn't want to know this, he didn't want to see this—
Tony's cock had gone soft again, even with the tentacle wrapped around it, pumping in time to the tentacle in his ass. Steve wasn't surprised. It didn't seem possible for anyone to perform under these conditions.
But it didn't look like the tentacle monster knew that, and the chance that it was going to seriously injure or even kill Tony while trying to get him to come was increasing.
"You're hurting him!" Steve yelled, straining against his bonds, and Tony didn't so much as flicker an eyelid at the sound of his voice. "He can't do what you want! Not like this!"
There was a tendril of quizzical thought from the tentacle monster, and then Steve felt it in his mind again, and he could tell exactly what memories it was going for: his goddamn sex life. They were Steve's memories, goddammit, they didn't belong to this beast, this beast who was marveling at warm-edged memories of Bernie and then Sharon, smiling and laughing and drawing him close. The monster pushed through them to older memories, the war, the men whose names Steve never knew, GIs grinning and fumbling with uniforms, their hands sliding under clothes, their mouths hot and knowing.
He is not enjoying himself, the monster said, finally, in a tone of wonder, and it felt like a question. Like it hadn't known that.
No, Steve thought back, as firmly as he could. He is definitely not enjoying himself.
The smallest, most ashamed part of Steve's mind wondered if he could help, if the monster would let him help, what he could do, what it would be like to finally touch Tony even if neither of them had ever wanted this—
Tony let out a quiet, broken whimper. There was nothing in his thoughts but pain. Steve didn't think Tony was aware that anyone else was here. Not anymore.
The monster raised another tentacle, holding it high and curving the tip down. If Steve had thought the tentacle currently buried in Tony's ass was slick, this one was dripping, a filthy mess, covered in an iridescent oily slime that looked to be just a shade thicker than water. Rivulets of shining liquid rolled down the tentacle, pooling around the suckers, sliding off the pointed tip, a quivering monument to obscenity.
Jesus Christ, Steve hoped the monster hadn't decided Tony needed a second tentacle in his ass, because that— well, Steve thought that had a good chance of killing him.
He will enjoy himself, the monster declared, a solemn and almost stubborn pronouncement.
Yeah, Steve didn't see how that was going to happen.
The new tentacle was moving... upward. The tip of the tentacle traced a line up from Tony's hip, over his sucker-bruised chest, up the hollow of his throat and then higher, smearing glistening wetness over his jaw, his cheek, his cheekbone.
Steve didn't realize what it meant to do until well after Tony did. Tony was trying to twist his head away, his mouth moving in whispers Steve couldn't make out, his mind an endless weakened string of pleading, no no no no no.
Another tentacle wrapped itself around Tony's throat—more lightly than it had when Tony had been in the armor—and forced his head up, holding it immobile.
The oily tentacle glided over Tony's lips, and then it pressed itself in.
The tentacle around Tony's throat retreated, leaving a necklace of bruising, as Tony's lips stretched wide around the tentacle-tip invading his mouth. It looked— well, there was an obvious point of comparison as to what it looked like, Steve thought, as he watched the oily slick leak out of Tony's mouth and drip down his face.
The telepathic link was a little more present now: Steve could feel the weight and heft of the tentacle on Tony's tongue, the oddly sweet taste of the fluid that coated it. It wasn't trying to choke Tony. It just sat there, resting, as something in Tony's mind lifted, blossoming in contentment. There was the reassuringly pleasant feeling of being full, exactly the right amount of full, that Steve associated with giving a truly excellent blowjob.
Tony's cheeks hollowed, and he sucked ever so gently on the tentacle's tip.
Good God. Tony was enjoying himself.
Tony glanced up, and he was looking in Steve's direction. Instead of the blank-eyed withdrawn absence that had characterized his expression in the encounter so far, his face was changed, entirely wrong in a different way. His gaze was sultry, his eyes dark with desire, half-lidded in ecstasy. His face was flushed, and it looked like he was trying to smile around the tentacle in his mouth. He moaned, a soft, wanton noise that Steve had never before heard from Tony's lips, but that Steve had no difficulty recognizing. This was what it sounded like when Tony wanted—
To Steve's abject shame, disgust, and horror, he felt his own cock twitch and begin to harden, as the echo of Tony's pleasure reverberated through the link between them.
Tony went lax in the tentacle's grip, unresisting, and then he started to sway and swing, his hips rolling gracefully. He was—oh God—fucking himself on the tentacle in his ass, trying to impale himself further, like it was everything he ever wanted, when thirty seconds ago he'd been crying, trying to get away.
Yes, Tony's thoughts hummed. Yes yes yes please more more more yes like that yes.
Steve drew a ragged breath, and he was exquisitely aware of his own growing erection, trapped in his too-tight uniform pants. This was wrong. He shouldn't like this. Tony wouldn't really like this. Tony didn't like this. But Steve's goddamn traitorous body didn't care because apparently all it cared about was that some part of Tony was acting like it liked this.
The tentacle that was coiled around Tony's rapidly-hardening cock began to ripple, the tip of it gliding over the head of Tony's cock and delicately scooping up every bead of pre-come before tightening and—oh, God, Steve could practically feel the little pinpoint dots of gentle suction.
So good, Tony thought. His mental voice was breathless, dazed with pleasure, like nothing had ever felt like this. More.
Steve watched a tentacle roll Tony's balls with its tip as the tentacles on Tony's chest laid down lines of sucker marks over his nipples, and Steve's cock throbbed in his pants, harder than he'd ever been in his life as he watched Tony give it all up, abandon himself to his lust, overwhelm himself from every possible direction. Tony was always in control. Tony would never have allowed himself this even in better circumstances, and watching it—getting off on it—was a betrayal of Steve's entire friendship with him.
But Steve's body definitely didn't care.
Tony was rock-hard now, and Steve watched the tentacle twist and twine around Tony's—actually very impressive—erection. Steve had been good. Steve had never stolen glances. Hell, he'd practically kept his eyes averted during the entire Molecule Man fiasco. But now he couldn't look away. Tony was thrusting into the tentacle wrapped around his cock and whimpering around the tentacle in his mouth and greedily snapping his hips back for the tentacle in his ass, which Steve could tell was hitting him just right. The telepathic link was definitely not helping. Tony was on the edge of his own release, and Steve wished fervently that he could un-know this, because he didn't have the right to know what Tony's naked body looked like or what the breathy little moans he made sounded like or how it looked when his thrusts were beginning to stutter and go ragged.
Some horrible, despicable part of Steve wished he had a better view, wished he could see the way Tony's ass was held wide by the tentacle. And at that thought, Steve's cock jumped again. He was as hard as Tony was. His uniform was soaked with pre-come. He knew he'd always been sensitive, but he wondered if he could come just from watching, because apparently he'd never seen anything in his life that had done it for him as much as this.
Please, he thought, don't let me come watching this, oh God, this is wrong, please, I can't—
Of course, the tentacle monster heard him.
Enjoying yourself, Captain?
A tentacle skimmed up Steve's thigh and pressed against Steve's cock. Steve groaned, in misery and ecstasy and abject shame, because all it had to do was stay there a little longer and it would all be over. God, he was so close. His cock throbbed and it took everything he had not to shove himself forward and rub up against the tentacle, mindless, a beast in rut.
The voice in his head was Tony's, and when he raised his head, he realized Tony was looking at him. Tony was practically quivering with need, but there was a fragment of recognition in his eyes. It wasn't quite full lucidity, but it was... concern?
Tony could feel that something wasn't right with Steve. He could tell that the tentacle was touching him, and that he was upset. That was what it was. Tony cared. Even now, Tony cared.
Steve couldn't let Tony be distracted. Tony just had to think about himself. Tony had to come. And then it would be over.
I'm okay, Tony, he thought, as loudly as he could. Don't worry. I'm okay.
Okay, Tony agreed, with what for him was a frightening amount of complacency, and then he let the tentacles take him again.
The tentacle tightened around Tony's cock again, rippling, pumping harder, a rhythm that—if Steve's preferences were any judge—was going to finish him off in about ten seconds flat. The tentacles on his chest pinched his nipples in unison, and the tentacle in his ass curved and rippled—Steve could tell—right against his prostate. He was close.
And Tony was still watching him.
Tony's gaze was fixed on Steve. He could tell Steve was hard. He could tell Steve liked it. God, Steve was about to come and Tony was watching him and he knew, he knew everything, and the humiliation of that made everything worse, worse and better at the same time, and the tentacle pushed just a little harder on Steve's cock and that was it, that was it, he was gone, coming right there, on his knees, with Tony in his mind, with Tony watching every second of it.
He knelt there, gasping, head bowed, open-mouthed, and his cock spurted in his pants again and again as his orgasm washed through him, as the tentacle monster dragged him back and held him upright, as Tony's gaze didn't move from him. It was awful and wrong and the best Steve had ever felt.
He could feel his own pleasure echo through the link, and then Tony arched back in the grasp of the tentacles and came, spattering white across the dark tentacles as his hips jerked, as he emptied himself, as his desire rolled back over Steve like a wave, down their bond. His eyes fell shut. His face was transformed, radiant, and in the haze of his own orgasm Steve thought he'd never seen anyone more beautiful.
Yes, the monster hissed, contented. His essence is most excellent.
Steve took one breath, then another, and shame flooded in as the bliss began to ebb away, and he was distantly aware that—of all the goddamn times for the serum to curse him—he was hard again. Already.
But this wasn't about that. This was about Tony.
"You got what you wanted," Steve called out, to the monster, proud of how steady his voice was. If you hadn't known he was a despicable mess of a man who'd just gotten off to his best friend being raped by a tentacle monster, you might almost have thought he was still a hero. "Now leave him alone. Go."
A few of the unencumbered tentacles coiled and uncoiled, waving in his direction; the monster was listening. Steve could feel the heavy weight of its mind, that alien regard, almost as a physical presence.
Agreed, the monster said.
The tentacles around Steve unwound themselves from his wrists, and Steve rocked forward and nearly fell.
The tentacles around Tony slithered out of his body. Steve could see something shiny and viscous beginning to ooze down Tony's thighs, and he hoped to God it wasn't blood. Tony made a soft noise of protest. Another tentacle uncoiled itself from his now-soft cock. The tentacle that had been in Tony's mouth slowly drew away; Tony's face was a mess of spit and oily tentacle slick, and it was clear from his eyes that he wasn't all there. More tentacles unwrapped themselves from Tony's chest, leaving dozens of ring-shaped marks across his skin. Dear God, it looked like the deeper ones were bleeding.
There were still the big tentacles clinging to Tony's arms and legs, supporting his weight. And then, all at once, they dropped him.
Tony hit the dirt floor hard, on his side, shoulder-first—the same shoulder that Steve had injured. The noise he made this time was unmistakably pain, but he didn't move. He only lay there, curled in on himself.
Steve realized he couldn't sense Tony's mind anymore.
The tentacle monster pulled itself backwards through the portal. Slick flesh dragged through the dirt as the portal stretched wide around it—and then, it was gone.
Steve's shield, which one of the tentacles had held this entire time, dropped to the ground. Vibranium rang out, clear and pure.
With the portal closed, the basement was dim and dark. Everything was quiet. All he could hear was Tony, breathing slowly and, somehow, calmly.
It was over.
If it had been up to Steve, he wouldn't have moved. He would have stayed here, covered in his own mess, here on the rough floor of the dark basement. It was no better than he deserved. His cock still throbbed insistently in his pants, like it didn't even care that he'd already come once. Like it didn't even care that he should be lower than dirt.
But Tony wasn't getting up, and Steve would die before he'd let Tony come to harm. Well, to more harm than he already had.
God, he'd brought Tony here. This was all his fault.
Man up, Rogers. He didn't deserve to think about himself, he knew. Not now, not when Tony needed his help.
"Tony?" he called out.
Tony said nothing in reply.
Steve pushed himself to his feet, as fast as he could. Scooping up his shield on the way and affixing it to his back, he ran to Tony.
Tony lifted his head, weakly, and squinted up at him, like he couldn't even really see him. He probably couldn't. It was dark enough that Steve almost couldn't see. Tony was a pale shape in the dimness, his skin lightly mottled with shadows that were probably going to be massive bruises in daylight. Steve couldn't tell if Tony was bleeding; everything already smelled like blood, from what was left of the cultists' summoning circle.
Then Tony smiled. His face was smeared with whatever had been dripping from the tentacle, and he was looking at Steve the same way he'd been regarding him earlier—slow, sultry, a heavy-lidded gaze. His eyes were too dark, and they weren't quite tracking motion right. His breathing was a little deeper than usual.
"Steve!" Tony's voice was raw—given what had happened to him, of course it was—but at the same time he sounded so incredibly cheerful, like there was nothing in the world that could have been better than seeing Steve right here. "I'm so glad you're here." He sounded practically like he was floating.
Whatever the tentacle monster had coated that last tentacle with, whatever it had done to Tony to ensure his so-called enjoyment—Steve winced at the thought—it was still in effect.
And that meant that Tony was as high as the proverbial kite.
Steve made himself smile; he hoped that was reassuring.
"Yeah, Tony, I'm here," he said, and Tony beamed back. "How do you feel? Are you hurt?"
Tony was still grinning up at him. "I feel great," he said, entirely unworried. "Peachy keen. That was nice. So nice. So nice, Steve, did you know it was so nice?" His repetition now was almost urgent; he clearly felt it was important for Steve to know this.
But it hadn't been nice. That was the problem.
"I saw," Steve said, stiffly. "Look, we've got to get you upstairs, okay? Can you stand up? Can you walk?"
True to his word, Tony didn't seem to be visibly pained, but he was pushing himself upright with his non-dominant hand—his left shoulder, unfortunately, had been the one that had gotten wrenched and then slammed into the floor. His tongue was poking out of his mouth in concentration and Steve swallowed hard and shoved back every single thought about what he'd just watched Tony doing with his mouth.
It looked like Tony had forgotten everything he had once known about walking. Lost in contemplation, he stared at his own bare feet for several seconds, looked up, and then gave Steve a smile and a disturbingly lopsided shrug. "Don't know."
"All right." It was very much not all right, but it was what they had to work with. "Let's find out. Here, come on, let me help you up—"
He got a good grip around the least-bruised parts of Tony's torso—he hoped—and pulled Tony up to his feet. And Tony stayed on his feet for about half a second before toppling over onto Steve, throwing himself all over him. His arms went around Steve and he pressed his whole body up against Steve in a way that suggested he was doing it because he really, really wanted to touch as much of him as he could.
Steve's neglected cock throbbed in his pants and Steve gritted his teeth and thought maybe he was the worst person on the planet and did not think about Tony moving a few inches over and sliding his leg between Steve's thighs. It wouldn't have taken much. What in God's name was wrong with him?
People have funny reactions to trauma, a distant part of his mind, a part that remembered how to be rational, informed him. Value judgments aren't helping. Getting Tony out of here would be helping.
"Nope," Tony concluded, laughing. "Can't walk." It didn't seem to bother him any.
Steve took a deep breath. "Okay. I'll carry you. Is that okay?"
Tony just smiled, and Steve got one arm under Tony's shoulders and another under Tony's knees and lifted him up. He didn't know if he was used to carrying Tony in armor, but Tony felt almost disturbingly too light, and then all Steve could think of was the last time he'd seen Tony, the last time he'd carried Tony, the smell of smoke and the reek of booze and the terror of his pounding heart.
And, well, now he was covered in his own come and he had a hard-on that wouldn't quit. There was a phrase here involving the words mighty and fallen.
"I'm so glad you're here," Tony repeated, and then his face twisted up, and Steve paused, halfway to the stairs, because now that looked like real pain, and God, what if he was hurting Tony? "You were gone. I missed you so much," Tony said, and he looked like he might actually start crying. "You weren't there. I stopped drinking. I stopped drinking just like you wanted, but you never came back." He sounded miserable, mournful. "I waited and waited but you never came. I was in the hospital for two weeks and you never came to see me. Did I do something wrong, Steve?"
The remaining fragments of anything that might have made Steve a good person had now crumbled and burned away. Jesus. Tony was drugged enough that he was going to tell him every thought in his head, everything he would never have wanted to say if it had been up to him. They couldn't talk about this. Not like this.
And Tony had been in the hospital for two weeks and he hadn't known?
He'd been so concerned with his own goddamn pathetic feelings that he hadn't been there when Tony needed him. He should have asked. He should have found out where Tony was. He should have been there for him.
"Are you still mad?" Tony asked. He was wide-eyed. His voice was unsteady. "Is it because I ran away? I'm sorry I ran away. I'm better now."
Well, at least he knew now that Tony remembered that day. Maybe it would have been better for everyone if he hadn't.
It took a few raspy breaths before Steve could get himself under control enough to speak. Tony needed him. It didn't matter how Steve felt about it. Tony needed reassurance. Tony was begging him for it, drugged and begging him, maybe even more wholeheartedly than he'd begged for the tentacles, and this at least was something Steve could give him.
"I'm not mad," Steve said, and he wondered for a mortified, agonizing moment if he was going to cry. "Oh, Tony. I'm so sorry I wasn't there. I didn't know. But I'm not mad, all right? I'm your friend. I'm always going to be your friend, no matter what, okay?"
Ha. Some friend.
This was obviously what Tony had needed to hear, though, because he brightened right up, bestowing a cheerful smile on Steve. His mood seemed to be able to shift very quickly. Labile. That was the word.
"Okay," Tony said, with perfect happiness, and then he turned his face into Steve's shoulder. He was practically nuzzling him.
Affection was the last thing he deserved from Tony.
Mercifully, Tony fell silent as Steve carried him upstairs—and he couldn't help gasping in shock as he finally saw Tony in the light.
Tony was a wreck.
He was covered in dozens, maybe even hundreds, of little bruises from the suckers, rings of various sizes in criss-crossing lines wrapping around his body. The largest ones, from the huge handling tentacles that had been around his thighs and upper arms, were carved deeply enough into his flesh that a few of them were bleeding. Tony was covered in drying, crusting slime. And he was smiling up at Steve, lazily, contentedly, like this was some kind of afterglow.
God, Tony was so high.
This was wrong. This was so very wrong, but it was happening anyway.
"All right," Steve said, as he carried Tony out into the living area—which, thanks to the heater, was at least warm. He was talking partly to hear himself talk, because it wasn't like Tony cared right now, but he was also talking out his plan. He had to have a plan. He had to stay in control. Tony needed him. "This is what we're going to do. I'm going to put you down, somewhere nice and soft, okay? And then I'm going to examine you. Figure out how badly you're hurt. I'm going to be as gentle as I can, okay, Tony?"
He needed to think of it like battlefield first aid, because that was what it was. Triage. God, he hoped Tony wasn't bleeding internally. There wasn't anything he could do about that. He didn't even know if there was a first-aid kit in this place.
"Okay," Tony echoed, again. Oblivious to Steve's thoughts now, he was still smiling.
Steve readjusted his grip on Tony, picked up one of the blankets from the corner, and spread it awkwardly over the couch before placing Tony on it, laying him on his back. They might as well avoid getting the furniture dirty if they could.
Tony promptly snuggled up into the blanket as if it were the best thing he had ever felt. He stretched, luxuriantly, putting one arm—not his injured one—over his head and letting his legs splay open. He smiled again at Steve, a lazy, beautiful, utterly trusting smile.
And good God, Tony had sucker marks on his dick. Well, that was one thing Steve wasn't ever going to be able to unsee. He looked at it and saw again the way the tentacle had wrapped around Tony's cock, had embraced him in its coils. His own long-neglected erection began to rise again, and apparently Steve being disgusted with himself wasn't enough to dissuade his body about anything.
Steve took a deep breath. Right. Stay professional.
"I'm going to examine your shoulder," he told Tony. "I want you to tell me where it hurts and how much. Don't tough it out. I need to know how much pain you're in."
Tony smiled dreamily, his gaze gone unfocused. "Zero."
This was going to be more difficult than Steve had thought.
He took off his gloves and laid them on the floor, because he needed as much dexterity as he could get, and also because everything he was wearing was covered in slime. He knelt at Tony's side.
He didn't deserve to touch Tony, but he did anyway. Tony's skin was cool under his fingertips. He hoped that wasn't shock.
Something was obviously wrong with Tony's shoulder. When he tried to lift Tony's arm and gently rotate the joint, Tony's eyes went cloudy.
"Does this hurt?" Steve asked.
Tony frowned, as if this question truly demanded all of his thought. "Don't know. It's weird. Don't think I can feel pain. Don't really care." He sighed happily.
Steve was just going to take that as a yes.
It didn't seem like the sort of thing that could be fixed by popping it back in; it must have been a different type of shoulder injury. They needed a real doctor. Unfortunately, all Tony had was him.
"I don't think there's anything I can do to fix it," he concluded. "I think if we immobilize it as much as possible, get it in a sling, put you on anti-inflammatories if I can find any around here—that's the best I can do. Sorry."
"Don't apologize. You're great," Tony said, and then he honest-to-God giggled. "You're perfect."
He definitely had not earned any compliments whatsoever from Tony.
"Okay," he said, deciding to ignore that. Now was the part he really wasn't looking forward to you. "I'm not done yet, though. I need to examine— I need to see, uh. Where the tentacle touched you." Geez, could he not even say it? His palms were sweating. "It's important. And I'm going to be as gentle as I can, but I want you to tell me if it feels wrong, okay? If it feels wrong or strange, I'll stop. And if you don't want me to touch you at all, I'll stop, because you have the right to tell me no. But if you let me look, it will help, because then I'll have some idea of how hurt you are. Just like any other exam, right?"
He didn't know why he was bothering to be so deliberate about this; Tony was high enough that he probably couldn't tell him no even if he'd wanted to. For God's sake, the drug had made him not want to tell a tentacle monster no. But Steve needed to give him the choice.
Tony nodded, smiling. "You can touch me anywhere you want." His voice was low and full of a kind of promise that really shouldn't have been there. "Everywhere you want."
Steve was absolutely positive that wasn't an invitation and he'd be as bad as the monster if he interpreted that the way it sounded—but his body knew exactly how that sounded. He took a breath, trying to force everything else away. He was not going to think about the creeping, inappropriate desire pooling in his belly.
"You need to turn over." He thought this was what a doctor might have said. Calm. Professional. "On your stomach or on your side. I can help you if you need it."
"I can do it myself," Tony said; the familiar determination in his voice was oddly petulant.
When Tony rolled over onto his stomach, Steve realized it was going to be difficult to remain detached, because Tony looked like... like something out of some kind of hardcore pornography, some fetish that Steve hadn't even known existed until half an hour ago. Tony's movements were fluid, languid. He'd regained some of his fighting strength, and long lines of ring-shaped bruises trailed over the well-defined muscles of his shoulders, down his back, over the swell of his ass where—oh God—the tentacles had once pulled him apart. The bruises there were deeper. His skin was still slick, glistening, his thighs smeared with wetness, a debauched mess.
Lifting his head, Tony looked over his shoulder up at Steve and smiled like a goddamn pin-up girl, easy and enticing, his gaze dark-eyed through long lashes. He canted his hips, just a little. Offering himself up for more.
Steve went hot all over and he knew he was never going to be able to forget this. He wondered if maybe he was going to come in his pants again. At least Tony was too distracted to notice.
Very slowly, Steve brought his hand down on the small of Tony's back, letting his palm settle into the curve of it. Most of the bruising was either lower or higher; this was one of the few patches of unmarred skin.
"Mmm." Tony had pillowed his head on his arms now, but Steve could see the barest edge of his dazed smile. "That's nice," Tony said, dreaminess once again infusing his voice. "You have nice hands, Steve. Did you know that?"
"Uh," Steve said. "Thank you?"
"So nice," Tony told him. "Big and warm. Not soft, though. Too many calluses. Probably from your shield. But that's okay. Still nice. The nicest. I like when you touch me. I like it a lot."
Steve wondered if maybe he could get Tony to stop talking now. He didn't want to know. He did want to know. Tony was never going to forgive him.
Tony rocked his hips, pushing up against Steve's hand, and Steve was certain he was the worst person on Earth.
"I feel safe when you touch me," Tony whispered, like it was a secret. "I'm not supposed to. Supposed to be strong. A real man. Not supposed to be weak. Not supposed to want it." He said it like he was reciting a command from long ago. Tony didn't talk much about his family, but it didn't take much to guess who had taught him that. And he was going to be so upset when he realized he'd told Steve any of this.
"Shh," Steve told him. "It's okay."
What else could he say?
"I always liked it," Tony said. "Always. Since I met you." He still sounded unsure of himself.
"It's all right," Steve repeated. "It's all right to like it. Physical affection is... a good thing. It doesn't make you weak, Tony, I promise."
"You promise?" Tony echoed.
This was what Tony needed. He needed Steve to be here for him. "Absolutely."
Tony's smile was bright.
Steve swallowed hard. "Okay, Tony. Just one more second. This will be quick."
He took a deep, steadying breath, reached out with his other hand, and then he slid his hands to the curve of Tony's buttocks, parting them as much as he dared.
Thank God, there was no blood. Tony still looked... relaxed, slick with the slime that had coated the tentacle, and he was definitely going to feel it later, but he didn't look visibly injured. Steve breathed out—
"You could fuck me," Tony offered, a lazy suggestion, and he wriggled up against Steve's hands as Steve's heart pounded and he forgot everything except sheer terror and desire mixed together. "I can't come again, but it would feel so nice." His gaze now passed over Steve's groin, which was, unfortunately, at Tony's eye level. "You seem so sad. I don't want you to be sad. Wouldn't it make you happy? It would feel really nice. Then you wouldn't be sad. You'd like it."
It didn't mean anything. Tony couldn't consent to this. Tony didn't really want this.
"No!" Steve said, practically tripping over the word in his haste, and he yanked his hands away.
Tony's face contorted in pain. "You don't like me? You don't want to?"
Steve wondered if the universe was laughing at him. What had he done to deserve this? Was it because he'd brought Tony here? Was it because he had feelings for him?
"It's not about whether I want to." Steve forced the words through his too-tight throat. "I could hurt you more."
"It doesn't hurt," Tony assured him.
Steve wasn't sure how to put it in a way that wouldn't offend Tony more, but he had to try. "You're not yourself. You might feel differently later, when you feel more like yourself."
Tony would definitely feel differently later, of course, but Tony wasn't going to believe him now.
"Okay," Tony agreed, and Steve relaxed for about half a second before Tony added, "I could suck you off."
"Tony," Steve said, desperately, and his cock twitched at the thought of it.
Tony yawned. His eyelids were starting to droop; he was clearly drifting off. "I'm really good at it. It wouldn't take long. You could come right down my throat."
At least that answered the question of whether Tony was straight, Steve thought, half-hysterically.
"I'm falling asleep," Tony mumbled. "But you could still fuck me anyway. I'm still slick. You wouldn't have to do anything to prepare me. You could just use me. Nice and warm and tight for you," he said, and Steve wondered frantically what it would take to make Tony stop talking. "I don't mind. Then you'd be happy. I want you to be happy. S'good when you're happy. Best thing in the world."
He smiled, and then he was out like a light.
Steve would have liked to say that the first thing he did after that was something responsible. Perhaps even something heroic.
Instead he folded in on himself and curled up on the hardwood floor, at Tony's side. His pulse pounded in his head, he gasped for air, and all he could think about was his throbbing erection. He didn't consider what to do. There were no choices. He couldn't process anything beyond his body's urgent need. In another few seconds he had his fly undone and—oh, God, this wasn't going to take long at all—took his cock out, stroking himself with rough, tight strokes and biting back every groan of agonized relief that wanted to come out of his mouth, the way he'd learned to get himself off back in the war, when there was no privacy to be had. He couldn't chance waking Tony up.
He wasn't thinking about Tony. He wasn't thinking about anything Tony had offered. He wasn't thinking about anything he'd seen Tony do, because Tony hadn't wanted it and it would be wrong, it would be sick, and so he wasn't. He wasn't. He looked down at himself, at the flushed shaft of his cock gliding through his fist, and he wasn't thinking about Tony's hands, he wasn't thinking about Tony's mouth. His fingers tightened almost involuntarily, and he moaned, louder than he'd meant to.
Guiltily, he looked up, but Tony hadn't so much as stirred. Thank God.
But Tony had known before. The thought burned through him. He'd come watching Tony getting fucked and Tony had known, Tony had been looking at him, Tony had been inside his mind, Tony knew. The shame stung him, flew down his spine like lightning, tangled with desire. If Tony knew what he was doing now, if Tony knew that Steve had heard him offering himself up and been so overcome that here he was, perverted and appalling, jerking himself off and not thinking about Tony's warm, wet mouth, about the way Tony had let the tentacle in. He imagined Tony smiling and saying I know what you really are and you can't hide from me and I know you liked it and I know how much you want it— God, what if Tony were listening to him right now?
Steve gasped and came hard, spattering his hands, ruining his already-soiled uniform, as he trembled and bit his lip, trying not to make a sound as his release coursed through him.
There were only a few fleeting moments of pleasure before the guilt set in. What the hell had he done? What had he been thinking? He hadn't been thinking. That was his problem. He was the lowest of the low. The monster had barely even brushed him; no, it was something wrong with him. He hadn't been made to do anything. He hadn't needed any help. He'd already been there. Hell, now he'd come twice. There were no excuses. If Tony found out, he'd never forgive him. The one saving grace was that Tony, presumably, had been too distracted to notice the thoughts in his mind—and now, well, Steve just wasn't going to tell him.
They'd leave, and they'd go their separate ways, and maybe Steve would quietly resign as Captain America, because he was positive that Captain America didn't do this. Captain America didn't get off on one of his best friends being raped by a tentacle monster. Dear God. He'd do it once they left.
But they were trapped.
They needed to get out of here.
He'd even forgotten about that.
Steve pushed himself to his feet, grabbed another blanket, and spread it over Tony, who didn't even move. He was going to pull himself together, because Tony needed him. All he had to do was not fall apart. For Tony.
He headed to the bathroom, and washed his hands. He splashed a little at the mess he'd made of his uniform, to no avail. That wasn't coming off without some scrubbing, but hopefully he'd be a little more presentable before the Avengers got here. He stared at himself in the mirror. He looked, he thought, awfully tired. His face seemed almost hollow.
Right. The Avengers.
He fished his identicard out of his slime-covered belt pouch and stared at it in horror.
It was coated in slime and cracked down the middle. He could see the circuitry within, and it was covered in more slime. It looked corroded. The screen was blank.
He wasn't going to be able to call for help.
Okay. He could handle this. Tony was going to wake up soon. Maybe it was fixable. Maybe some part of Tony's armor was still working, enough to send a signal, now that the magical portals were all gone.
Failing that, they had to be somewhere. He could always hike out and get help for Tony. He tried to suppress the tiny voice within him saying that if the cabin's usual inhabitants got here by way of magic, they didn't necessarily have to be somewhere that was accessible for anyone else.
This was just a minor setback. That was all.
He set his ruined identicard on the edge of the sink and sighed.
If they weren't getting out of here anytime soon, he wanted a goddamn shower.
At least the cabin had one of those.
The shower was small, but there was plenty of hot water, and the demon-summoning cultists had thoughtfully left soap and shampoo. He stepped in boots and all, at first, and it took him at least ten minutes to get the slime out of his clothes, and then another ten minutes after he'd stripped down until he felt clean again. He rubbed at his skin until it stung and reddened.
In the linen closet he found several clean towels, a fully-stocked first-aid kit—thank God—and a pile of spare robes, which wouldn't have been Steve's first choice of clothing but at least they fit. The black robe fell to his wrists and ankles, and he carried his uniform back to the main room and spread it in front of the heater to dry.
Tony didn't wake up, a fact for which Steve was very grateful.
He'd turned over onto his side, and he was clutching the blanket Steve had given him possessively, his entire body curled up under it. There were sucker marks on the backs of his hands.
He looked so small. Steve hated to think it, because if there was one thing Tony wasn't, it was small. He had always had a power, a presence; when he walked into a room, Steve always fancied he could hear everyone else draw a collective breath and stand a little straighter. And now he looked like he'd been trying to claw himself up from the edge of a precipice, and even now he might fall rather than fly.
"I'm so sorry," Steve whispered.
Tony still didn't move.
Well, Steve could do one thing for him. He could get Tony's armor and see if Tony could make anything of it later, because he'd be damned if he'd make Tony be the one to go back down there to retrieve it. So, barefoot, he headed down to the basement, and in three trips he had put every crushed piece of Tony's new armor in a pile upstairs next to the trap door, which he closed tight and pulled the rug over. It wasn't like doing this, closing the room off, could make any of the afternoon not have happened, but he felt better having done it.
Steve sighed and picked up a twisted piece of one gauntlet. It didn't look fixable to him, but he knew better than to underestimate Tony. If there was a way, Tony would find it.
He set down the gauntlet and headed to the kitchen, finding, to his relief, that it was fully stocked. Someone had even been shopping recently; there were perishables in the refrigerator. The pantry was likewise nearly full. All the cans were labeled in English, and they were brands Steve recognized. Therefore, they were probably still in the US. That was good. They hadn't gone that far. And Steve knew how to make a fixed supply of food last quite a while. Someone would find them. Someone had to find them.
When Tony was awake, they'd come up with a plan. They were Avengers. They could do this. Steve hoped the drug would wear off soon.
Steve hoped that maybe Tony wouldn't be able to remember any of it.
On cue, there was a rustling from the living area, and when Steve turned around, Tony was sitting up. The blanket had pooled around his waist, he was holding his left arm at an awkward angle, and he looked... distinctly uncomfortable. There was a clarity in his eyes that hadn't been there before, and his face set into something unreadable and almost cool. Remote.
He remembered, all right.
"Hi," Steve ventured, when Tony hadn't said anything.
What was he supposed to say? What did you say to your friend who'd been used by a tentacle monster? Are you okay? It was obvious that Tony wasn't.
Tony glanced at Steve and then over at the bathroom door. "Did you save me any hot water?"
Oh. This was how it was going to be. They were going to pretend it hadn't happened.
Steve didn't know what to do.
"Yeah," he said, the word heavy and awkward in his mouth. "There should be some left. Do you— do you need help? Can you walk?"
"I've got this."
Wobbling, Tony pushed himself to his feet with his right hand, his upraised left hand just barely clutching the blanket in front of him, a sop to his modesty, and then he raised an eyebrow. It was a calculated move, a mask, an overcompensation. He dropped the blanket.
"Eh," Tony said, with a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "You've seen it all anyway."
The tentacles' bruises were darkening, beginning to stand out even more on Tony's skin. Tony took a step forward and—oh, God—he was limping.
Steve was halfway across the room, holding out his hands. "Do you want help? I can help—"
Tony shook his head. "I've got this," he repeated, louder.
Tony practically rounded on him, or would have if he could have moved; he mostly just swiveled. "I've got this. I don't need help, okay? I can bathe myself."
Steve held up his hands in surrender and wished he knew what he'd done wrong. "Okay. Okay. Let me know if you change your mind. I'll make dinner."
"Fine," Tony said, the word almost a snarl, and he limped off.
The stew was done and waiting, warm on the stove, by the time Steve finally heard the shower shut off. He'd decided that, since there were perishables, it made the most sense to use them first, and he'd stood there and chopped every vegetable he could find while the water ran and ran.
The floorboards creaked, and when Steve turned around, Tony was standing there—in one of the cultists' red robes—bracing himself on the doorway, scowling at a length of fabric between his hands. His hair was damp. Steve had hoped that he'd look a little better after a shower, and he did, but he was still obviously wounded; there were bruises at his wrists and ankles, bruises creeping up the side of his neck, all the way up to his ears. And he was still holding his left arm awkwardly.
"I'm sorry I snapped at you," Tony said. His voice was very small. "Do you think you could— I can't seem to make a sling by myself."
Oh, geez. If Tony was actually asking for help, after the way he'd refused it—Steve couldn't even imagine how awful he must have felt. Tony was always so determined to do everything he could by himself.
Steve smiled, as if a smile could make anything better. "Yeah," he said, softly. "Yeah, of course."
Tony looked like he still wanted to snap at him, to be honest, but he stood there, unresisting, as Steve took the length of fabric from Tony's hands and rigged up a sling. After two tries he had it the right size, and as Tony rested his arm in it he slipped the whole thing over Tony's head.
"I found the first-aid kit," he added. "There's ibuprofen, and food to take it with. If we keep you on a steady dose—"
"No!" Tony's denial was almost frantic, and he shook his head wildly.
"No," Tony repeated. He sounded a little calmer, but that didn't make the demand any more reasonable. "No painkillers. I— I can't. No."
"You'll feel better," Steve said.
This didn't make any sense. How could Tony want to be in pain? It was just an anti-inflammatory. It wasn't like he was offering him a shot of morphine.
Tony was still shaking his head. "I'm fine. I'll get better. It doesn't hurt that much. I'm all right."
Incredulous, Steve stared at him. "Your arm is in a sling. And you're limping."
"I'll get better," Tony said again.
Steve knew better than to try to out-stubborn Tony. Okay, that wasn't fair; he clearly still tried to. But he liked to think that maybe he tried not to. You tried at that flophouse, his mind whispered, and he wanted to cringe away.
He wasn't going to push Tony. Tony's day had already been a nightmare, and Steve wasn't about to compound the pain by trying to take Tony's control of his own body away from him. Tony had had that enough. He didn't need it from Steve as well.
"Okay." Steve held up his hands. "Will you at least let me bandage up some of those wounds, though?"
His brow furrowed, Tony's stare was obstinate enough that Steve thought for a few seconds he was just going to refuse to make a point.
"All right," Tony said, finally. "Bandages, and then dinner."
"Sounds good," Steve told him, and he went to fetch the tape, gauze, and antiseptic from the kit.
When he came back, Tony had lowered himself onto the edge of the couch, and the smile he gave Steve was considerably more brittle; Steve was willing to bet that sitting hurt. He almost asked Tony if he wanted to lie down, but Tony would have if he'd wanted to.
He wasn't going to push him. He had to remember that. He'd already driven Tony away once.
Always so talkative, Tony was silent as Steve pushed up his sleeves for him and gently cleaned the worst of the wounds, high on Tony's arms. Tony's breathing went shallower as Steve held the gauze in place, and Steve didn't know what to say that wouldn't make it worse.
The thought that ran through his head, unstoppable, on a loop, was that Tony had told him he had nice hands. I feel safe when you touch me, Tony had said. Steve wanted to ask him if that was true, if he'd meant it, if it was real; of all the things Tony had said, of all the obscene offers he had made, it had felt to Steve as if that one simple sentence, somehow, lived closest to Tony's heart. But Tony hadn't wanted to tell him, and obviously Steve couldn't bring it up now.
He wondered if he still made Tony feel safe.
"Can you," Tony began, awkwardly. "I mean, uh. There are a couple on my legs too."
It was easier to do this now that Tony was in his right mind. Steve would have been proud of his detachment, but it seemed wrong to praise himself for what should have been a given—that, and he was aware of exactly how much it hadn't been. He knew the dark, perverted, wrong thoughts still lurked within him. If he could pretend hard enough, maybe they'd go away.
"No problem," Steve managed to say, and he hiked up Tony's robes for him and got to work on the huge scabbed-over mark on Tony's leg, a circle outlining his hipbone.
There were two more, and Steve bandaged those too, in silence.
"Thank you," Tony said, when he was done. It was the first thing either of them had said in long minutes.
Steve didn't offer Tony a hand up, because he knew Tony didn't want it.
After he finished ladling the stew into bowls and setting the table, he looked up to find Tony regarding the hard wooden chairs next to the table and wincing pre-emptively. Yeah, Steve wouldn't have wanted to sit on one of those either.
"Give me a second," Steve said, "and I'll put down a cushion or a blanket or something." He would have offered Tony the couch, but Tony wasn't going to be able to eat the stew one-handed, not without something to set the bowl on.
Tony grimaced. "I told you already, I'm fine. I'm not fragile."
"Okay," Steve said, too quickly. "Okay, sorry. I just— sorry."
Biting his lip, Tony sat down opposite Steve, but he looked up and smiled as soon as he tasted the stew. "This is good," he said, quietly. "Thank you."
Steve exhaled. Tony was going to be okay. He needed to not worry so much.
"You're welcome. I thought we should use the perishables first."
"Yeah, speaking of first," Tony said, in between slurps, "I saw the broken identicard you left me. And there doesn't seem to be a phone in this place. So much for communications, huh?"
"I brought your armor back up too, if—"
Tony was shaking his head. "Not a chance there. The comm system is out."
"All right." Steve tried to think about it. Out the window, the sun was starting to set. "Here's my proposal, then. The monster seems to be gone, and since we seem to be in a relatively safe place right now, with food and water and heat, I say we stay here at least overnight, and in the morning I can scout out the area, try to figure out where we are, and you can try to figure out if any of the comms are salvageable."
"They won't be," Tony said, with a more fatalistic streak than Steve usually saw in him. "But okay. Sounds good."
"There's going to be a way out of here," Steve told him. "There is."
Tony just ate his stew, in silence.
Tony thanked him again, when they were done, and insisted on washing out the bowls himself, even with only one good hand. After all, he said, Steve had done the cooking, and Steve couldn't argue with that.
It was definitely nighttime by the time everything had been cleaned and dried, and Steve regarded the single couch in the living area. It would have been better if there had been a bed for Tony, but Tony could take the couch.
"I think the couch folds out," Tony said, helpfully, and he bent down and lifted the corner of one of the cushions up, showing the bottom of a mattress underneath it. "We can both fit."
There was no way Steve was going to share a bed with Tony. Not after he'd— no. Not with all the hideous thoughts still rattling around his brain. He knew Tony couldn't tell what was in his head, not anymore, but he couldn't shake the feeling that lying there next to Tony would somehow let all the darkness within him leech out and ruin his friend. And he'd already given in to those awful base impulses while Tony had slept. No, the best thing was to be as far away as possible.
"No," Steve said, hurriedly. "No, I— no. That won't be possible."
Tony's face tightened, cold all over, and Steve had the sinking feeling that he'd wounded him.
"Okay." Tony's voice was hoarse. "Okay. I get that I'm— that you don't want to be near me because of what I—"
Oh, God, no.
"It's not that," Steve said. "It's not you."
"Oh." Tony's face fell, and his mouth twisted. He must have thought he understood what was going on here. "You know, it's okay if you're not okay—"
It wasn't. It wasn't, and he had to be okay, because he had to be here for Tony, and that meant not touching him.
"I'm fine." The last word came out harsher than he'd intended it to. "It didn't do anything to me."
No, the problem had been him; the problem had been in his head, all along.
"It touched you," Tony snapped back, and Steve went cold all over because what if Tony knew? "It touched you, and I felt you in my head, and you felt like you were freaking the fuck out, which is a perfectly valid response, but for God's sake could you at least do me the courtesy of not lying to me about it?"
He didn't know. Steve was shaking. But Tony hadn't noticed what Steve had been thinking about, so it was okay. It was going to be okay. Tony thought Steve was only upset because the tentacle had brushed up against him. Ha. It wasn't like he'd even needed the tentacle. He would have already been gone. And that— that, Tony couldn't ever learn.
"It barely did anything to me," Steve pointed out. "Not like it did to—" He stopped. They couldn't just talk about this, could they? Not like this.
And it seemed that they couldn't, because Tony went pale. The fingers of his left hand tightened around the edge of the sling. "Jesus, Steve, it's not a competition!" Tony snapped. "You're allowed to not be okay with this!"
"I know," Steve said. "I know. I just— I'd rather sleep on the floor, okay?"
Tony's eyes went a fraction narrower, and then he sighed. "Well, it's not like I can stop you."
Steve supposed that was as good a place as any to leave it.
He helped Tony unfold the bed, in silence, and then he grabbed a pile of blankets and a pillow from the linen closet and stretched out by the heater, next to his shield. If anything came for them, he'd have it to hand.
Tony turned out the lights and climbed into bed; when Steve looked up, he could just barely make out Tony's face in profile courtesy of the meager light from the window. He didn't think Tony could see him at all.
"I know you won't believe me," Tony said, into the darkness, "but I'm all right." He sighed again. When he spoke, his voice was still tense. "I mean, okay, was this what I thought I'd be doing when I woke up this morning? No. But is it the worst thing that's ever happened to me? Also no."
Steve wondered what the worst thing was.
He wondered why it sounded like Tony was lying.
"All right," Steve said. "Good night, Tony."
"Good night, Steve."
He waited until Tony's breathing slowed, deep and even, and then he shut his eyes and fell into a dreamless sleep.