Somewhere along the line, Tony had gotten it into his head that Captain America was invincible. Maybe it was the propaganda from when he was younger - comics and clips from the war - or maybe it was the unbelievable things he’d seen Cap make it through in the time they’d been working together. But either way, it had always seemed impossible to Tony that the Star Spangled Man with a Plan could be truly hurt.
So this man - hooked up to lines and sensors, surrounded by beeping things, eyes refusing to open - this man isn’t Cap, he’s just Steve. And Steve is broken.
The hospital blanket slips to the side, and Tony tugs it idly back into place. Is it heavy enough? Steve doesn’t like the cold…
“Tony.” Natasha’s voice is gentle - too gentle.
“I’m fine,” Tony snaps - answering a question she hadn’t asked, wouldn’t ask.
Her fingers land on the crook of his elbow. “I’m not,” she says plainly. “I’m scared.”
SHIELD medical is that kind of hushed quiet that feels loud, and it smells nauseatingly of cleaning chemicals. Tony can feel pain radiate through his jaw and knows his teeth are clenched, but he can’t find the strength to pry them apart. “They’re wrong. He wouldn’t -”
“Nat. I can’t -” Tony tries to roll his neck out, and her fingers tighten on his arm. “Money can’t fix this. What the fuck do I do?”
“You have two choices, I guess.” She drops her hand away and leans against him instead, a solid line of warmth and pressure down his body. “Stay here, be here for him - when he wakes up. Hold his hand or whatever.”
“Or we go find out what really happened. Clear - so at least people know. What it was for.”
Tony shoves his hands in his pocket. He can feel a ghost of the armour ratcheting together across this body, plates snapping into place and forming a barrier between him and the world. “You think he’s going to die,” Tony whispers. It isn’t a question.
And Natasha doesn’t answer.
It takes four days for Tony to give in. Four days at Steve’s bedside, growling at nurses who tell him to, “Talk to him, love. He can hear you.” Four days of holding Steve’s limp hand and feeling like an idiot for it. Four days of alternating between begging him to wake up, cussing him out for being a fucking coward, and playing Angry Birds on his phone.
And something snaps.
He charges down the hall to where Natasha keeps a ridiculously small SHIELD bunk and slams her door open. She doesn’t flinch, just raises an eyebrow at him.
“Okay, let’s go.”
It’s surprisingly easy, to beg off everything and climb into a car with Natasha at his side, bags of whatever random shit he had the presence of mind to pack, in the three hours between “let’s go” and “behind the wheel” stowed in the back. Tony’s not sure if that’s because his life had screeched to halt with Steve in the hospital anyway, or because he really just doesn’t have that much going on right now. Either way, it’s easy, and now they’re on the freeway and they’re heading south.
Nat has her lap full of papers - reports from SHIELD - and Tony’s not entirely sure if she came by them honestly or if he’s also the getaway car. But they need them.
“He was on vacation,” she begins, as if it’s the start of a fairy tale.
“Bullshit.” Tony takes the next on-ramp, and they hit open highway. “Steve Rogers doesn’t take vacations.”
“Well. You know that’s a lie,” Natasha says, but she doesn’t press it. “He was supposed to be on vacation,” she clarifies instead.
“Right. And instead he was busting into a private SHIELD facility to steal a fucking weapon and getting himself shot in the head. Better than a goddamn beach.” The words come out bitter and harsh, and he knows Natasha is going to read a fuckton into that, but he can’t help it. He’s pissed.
“If you think that’s what really happened, then -”
“No, of course, I don’t. I -” Tony takes a breath, loosens his grip on the steering wheel. “I don’t think that. Cap must have had a reason for doing what he did. That’s why we’re doing this, right?”
“That’s why I’m doing this,” Nat says carefully.
“That’s why we’re doing this.” It’s plain and final, and Nat seems to accept it because she goes back to her papers.
“He was gone for three weeks, not a blip, and ended up at the SHIELD HQ in Virginia. So, we start there - work backwards.”
They started out with less than half a tank, so it isn’t long before they have to stop for gas. Tony leans against the side of the car as it fills, watching the numbers tick up. There’s a click and between the four and the five, Tony is somewhere else.
“I thought this was a mission, Tony,” Steve says, but there’s laughter in his voice, even if he’s giving Tony a look.
So Tony shrugs and smiles, settling his sunglasses over his eyes. “It is a mission. Objective: get Steve Rogers to fucking relax.”
“I - You can’t just abduct me for - for -” Steve gestures at the blue sky and even bluer water, cut off sharply by a swathe of glowing white sand. “This,” he finishes lamely. “SHIELD…”
“- knows. You have no excuses, mon ami. If you had a pet, or a plant - which you don’t - you already would have arranged to have someone to take care of it while you were on a mission. You’re on leave, soldier. Enjoy it.”
Steve’s silent for a moment, gazing out at the beach. Finally, he folds his arms over the railing, bending down and stretching his back out. “How long?”
“You’re staying, right?” Steve asks with no hesitation. His brow is creased, and Tony knows without a doubt that if he says no, Steve’s not staying either.
“Course. Brought my Captain America speedo and everything."
Steve laughs, and it’s as nice a sound as the rushing tide and calling gulls.
Tony has a house rented on the beach and everything in town is in French, but it seems that Steve’s perfect memory is still intact because even though Tony has never heard him speak a word of it, he’s even more fluent than Tony. By the end of the week, they’re tanned and wind-blown, covered in sand-flea bites and burnt in a few places, and they’re speaking some horrible franglais concoction to each other and they can’t seem to stop. And Tony’s happy, and he thinks maybe, his best friend is too.
The gas meter clicks over to five, and Tony starts as the nozzle jerks in his hand. He shoves it back on the pump and clicks the gas cap shut. He doesn’t care about his receipt or his change, so he just gets in and drives away.
They pass the next few hours companionably. They chat a little. Nat reads out everything they have, which isn’t much, but Tony’s read it all before anyway, so while it passes the time, it doesn’t really do more than make him feel even more at a loss. Even the writer of the report sounds like she can’t believe she’s really putting these words on a page. Tony’s pissed all over again because it’s simply not fair that after everything Steve’s done, all it takes is one… whatever this was to brand him a criminal.
He takes a breath and glances at Nat. She’s paused in her reading and is staring idly out of the window, ignoring him - either because she’s in her own world or because she doesn’t want to get sucked into whatever negative spiral he can feel himself falling into. It’s not fair, though, to shuck all the blame on SHIELD. It's not like they’ve abandoned him. Steve is in a SHIELD facility, with top-quality care, and he’s not even handcuffed to the bed.
Tony refuses to believe that’s because they don’t think he’ll wake up.
When they get closer, Natasha starts directing him into the bowels of a tiny town in northern Virginia. She’s been here before, but Tony hasn’t, so he mindlessly follows her instructions, winding tighter and tighter the closer he gets. He doesn’t want to go here, he doesn’t want to see this, but he has no choice. He has to know. He has to know for himself what happened, why Steve would -
There are still police and SHIELD vans surrounding the nondescript office building, and he and Natasha have absolutely no authority to be here whatsoever, but the officer by the yellow tape and the agent by the door just wave them in. Natasha leads the way to the security office. There are two bored looking security guards there but they snap to attention when Natasha pushes her way in, Tony hovering behind, trying to look imposing - which mostly means resisting the near-constant urge to crack wise.
One of the guards opens his mouth to speak, but Nat gets there first. “We’re here to see the footage,” she says, iron solidifying her spine and making the men in the room lean away unconsciously.
“Of course.” They both scramble for the TV, and Nat pulls a rolly chair away from the wall to perch on it. Tony hovers at her side, regularly reminding his feet that they can’t turn and start running.
The guards start playing the footage on four screens at once, each showing the same thing from a different angle, but it takes them a bit to get it set up so each screen is a few seconds out of sync of the others. They watch as Steve slides into the building, a suspiciously round backpack slung over one shoulder. He looks like he’s dressed in civvies, but Tony recognizes the pants from one of his SHIELD-issued stealth suits. He jumps from screen to screen, appearing then disappearing as he makes for the elevators.
The guard changes the camera feeds and fast-forwards, skipping about ten minutes, and when they catch him next he’s stepping out of the elevators into one of the upper hallways of the building. The backpack is gone. He looks panicky.
He tries to break into one of the rooms and succeeds in getting it open and slipping inside, just as four police officers and three agents charge the hallway from the stairwells. Steve steps back out slowly and holds up his hands, but Tony can see the anger radiating off of him. He doesn’t trust these men. These are not fellow agents to him anymore.
Steve starts talking, gesturing wildly, and one of the agents talks with him, but there’s no sound and the angle and quality are too poor to read lips. Tony glances at Nat and can see she’s trying but with little luck.
The two agents hold up their guns, and Tony can see one of their hands is shaking. Steve gestures again, bigger this time and points behind him. He’s worked up, scared, angry. Tony recognizes the curve of his shoulders, sharp with tension, and the rough, jerky way he throws his arms around. The conversation does not appear to be going well. Tony braces himself, one hand digging into the back of Natasha’s chair.
Steve jerks forwards.
When the shots come, Tony gets to see it eight times - each one making its rounds through the time-delayed screens. Steve gets hit in the ribs - and again, and again, and again - and then he gets hit in the side of the head and crumples to the floor - and again, and again, and again.
The white tile is stained dark almost immediately, and the agents are running and shouting and gesturing, and Steve is little more than a slumped puddle on the hallway floor. And Tony feels sick enough that he actually thinks he might throw up, but the potential humiliation of that is enough for him to stomp down the feeling.
“Is that it?” Nat asks, and the guards nod. “You don't have anything else? From between coming in and the police showing up?”
“No, he was at the vault level. It’s high security only, and there are no cameras there.”
Natasha sits still and quiet for a moment, then nods. “I’d like to see the hallway.” She points to the screen. They’re ushered into the elevators and let out into a hallway. There’s no blood on the floor anymore, but Tony and Nat both instinctively step over the place where they saw him fall. Nat looks up at the guards. “Thank you,” she says. It’s final and dismissive. The guards hover for a second longer before shooting a glance at each other and leaving.
Nat and Tony share their own look as the elevator hums away.
“What did he do with the shield?” Tony asks. It’s not in any of the reports, it wasn’t brought in to medical with him, and he definitely had it when he came in. Nat sighs in agreement and starts working her way down the hall, opening doors and poking her head in them. Tony stands in the middle of the floor and stares as the spot where Steve had lain, bloody and broken. He stands in the spot where another man stood and fired a bullet into Steve’s brain and he can’t look away.
“What are the odds they let us in the vault?” he finally says, trying to break himself out of his trance.
“Slim to none.” Natasha reaches the door with the knob Steve broke and pushes it open. It’s an office, nothing more. She takes a turn around the office then comes back to stand in the doorway. “Was the building clean when Steve came in?” she asks, and Tony’s not sure if she’s talking to him or herself.
“In the video - are the rooms clean? Does it look like the service has just been through?”
Tony thinks back - there were vacuum lines on the lobby carpet and the windows were bright and shiny. “Yeah, I think so. It was Monday, right? So they probably come Friday night or on the weekend.”
Nat bends to the trash can in the corner. There’s not much in it but she digs through it carefully, laying each piece out on the floor. “And no one has been here on this floor since the shooting?”
The shooting sounds so weird to Tony because that’s not was it was at all. He opens his mouth to correct her - but to what - but shuts it again when she hums with satisfaction. “What?”
“He emptied his pockets in here. Those few seconds he popped into this office. It looked like he was looking for something, but he just emptied his whole jacket pocket into the trash. On the video, you can see it change shape and his hand comes out of it when he steps out.”
“Huh, I guess there’s a reason you’re the spy here. So what did he have?”
“Mostly actual trash, but he’s got a receipt here for a restaurant in Lexington. Nothing but bottomless coffee and a plate of fries at 4pm on Saturday. He left a 40% tip.”
Tony rolls that around in his mind. “Steve doesn’t drink much coffee but it’s the kind of thing they let you sit and nurse. And a tip like that might be a thank you for occupying a table for a long time. You think he was staking something out?”
“Either that or he had a weird craving for coffee and fries in the middle of the afternoon.”
“Not like him.”
“Not like him,” Nat agrees. She tucks the receipt in her pocket along with the rest of the trash and heads for the door.
“Do you think it’s worth trying to get downstairs? Trying to wheedle something out of them about what weapon they claim he took? There’s no info at all about it in any of the reports.”
Nat hits the button and shakes her head. “It’ll only draw attention to what we’re doing. We need to follow Steve’s trail - that’ll give us answers. His answers, not theirs.”
Tony tenses as the elevator hums up to greet them. “You don’t trust SHIELD.”
Nat shoots him a look. “I don’t trust anyone.”
They’re both starving, so by some silent agreement, Nat pulls in to a rest stop with a diner. Tony stretches, and his back makes a horrible, shifting pop that makes him wince. He’s getting too old for this. He’s been too old for this for a long time.
Watching Nat put on her armour is so similar to when he puts on his own that it gives him a brief moment of dissonance. He can see her own invisible armour snap, plate by plate, over her face until she’s no longer Natasha Romanoff, but Black Widow - and Black Widow is a chameleon. By the time they’re inside, Nat’s gone soft and gentle, leaning in towards Tony’s space a little and offering a small, hesitant smile to anyone who meets her eyes. She looks tired in a way she didn’t before. And it’s all such a brilliant, careful, terrifying shield that Tony has the visceral urge to cower away from her.
She slides her eyes his way, and he wonders if he flinched because she raises an eyebrow the tiniest amount, a single muscle at the corner of her mouth twitching up. Tony has to remind himself that she’s protecting both of them - he’s inside the safety bubble of her extraordinary ability to blend in. He forces himself to relax, carrying along in her wake as she leads them both to the diner, while somehow making it appear as if he’s leading her.
“For two?” the hostess asks, brightening as she sees them. Tony’s not sure if it’s because she recognizes one or both of them or they just look like really good tippers, but he offers her a smile back and nods.
Nat checks the exits almost invisibly, scans the crowd, then settles in her seat - and thank god, really, because Tony has no idea what he would even be looking for if it were up to him. He wonders, for the first time, if SHIELD might have sent someone after them, but it seems unlikely. They’re fairly easy to track, they’re not needed at home (they’re not; Steve does not need him) but if they happen to solve a puzzle that no one else can without racking up agent overtime, it can’t possibly be a bad thing.
They both order without looking too closely at the menu - a rest stop diner isn’t the time to be adventurous. Their waiter is a young, hot guy with his hair fashionably slicked back. He looks out of place in a way that makes it clear that as soon as his tips add up enough, he’s out of there. Either he’s wearing a scent or he’s carrying around some pleasant smell from the kitchen, and when he leans over to set down Tony’s water glass, Tony is hit with a sense memory so strong he reels from it. It’s hazy and unformed, from so long ago it’s frankly shocking that years of alcohol abuse haven’t obliterated it from his mind. It’s a kitchen and Jarvis - the original, human one - and his mother laughing. That’s it. When the waiter steps back, Tony still feels dizzy from nostalgia.
“You alright?” Natasha asks, and Tony picks up his fork and plays with it in an effort to ground himself in the present.
They sit in silence while they wait for the food. The booth is a different enough shape from the car’s bucket seats that it’s nice to have the change, but he’s also sick of sitting, and his back and butt and neck are complaining enough to occupy a solid portion of his vast attention.
When the food comes, Nat takes a bite of her burger then looks pointedly at Tony. “I’m glad you’re an Avenger,” she says.
Tony nearly chokes on a mouthful of bacon, lettuce and tomato and eyes her with suspicion. “What?” he asks, trying not to spit food over their table.
“I didn’t recommend you at first, and you hold it against me.”
Tony swallows and takes a long drink of his water. “You were right not to, back then. I wasn’t ready.” He shrugs.
“I know. But that doesn’t stop you from holding against me.”
They sit in some sort of weird staring contest for what feels like a hour but is probably only ten or fifteen seconds, then Tony shrugs again. “No one likes to hear things like that said about them. I’m over it.”
Natasha just waits.
“Were you glad when I showed up to help with Loki?” Tony can’t help but ask when the silence starts to pile up on the table between them.
“Yes. I like you, Tony. I had fun being your PA. I wrote what I did because it’s what you and Fury needed to hear at the time. In the end -” she shrugs with one shoulder “- it worked out. In the end.”
“Well then, thanks, I guess. Never tell Fury I said this, or Coulson, but I enjoy being an Avenger.”
She smiles now, and it’s warm and sweet and somehow real, even though she’s still wearing a mask. This one seems to go through all the layers. It’s nice, when she smiles. Tony settles back into his food.
When Nat finishes, she gets up to go to the bathroom. Tony’s sketching out designs for a frankly ridiculous jet-powered segway on the back of a napkin when the waiter reappears and starts to pile their cutlery on their empty plates. “Do you know if your girlfriend wants any dessert?” he asks kindly, and Tony almost bursts into laughter.
“I bet she does,” he says with one of his most charming smiles. He sees the waiter’s eyes go wide with the power of it, and Tony allows himself a momentary internal preen that even after eight hours on the road he still has that effect on people. “It’s our anniversary,” he adds, almost conspiratorially. The man leans in a little to catch his lowered voice. “We’re on our way to a cabin for a little retreat. She won’t order it herself, but I bet she’d love some chocolate cake.” He winks, and the waiter blushes.
The waiter nods then and whisks their empty plates away. Tony watches him go, admiring the curve of his back, but when he disappears into the kitchen, Tony is reminded of another back, walking away.
“Come back!” he calls, trying not to laugh, but failing. Steve’s back continues to disappear across the parking lot. He’s not walking as fast as he could be, though, because Tony catches him before he reaches the sidewalk. Tony matches his stride and bumps his shoulder against Steve’s. “Where you going?” he teases.
Steve’s voice is stern, but his eyes are dancing. “I told you if you tried to get Lena to give me her number again I was going to walk out and leave you behind.”
Tony chuckles and speeds up a bit to keep up. “I can’t help it. You’re so hot, you practically wingman yourself.”
Steve sighs, but he’s almost laughing now. He wraps his arm around Tony’s shoulders and tugs him close, slowing his pace so Tony doesn’t have to half-jog just to keep from being left behind. Tony tucks his hands into his back pockets and does a little skip-step so his shoulders are bouncing in time with Steve’s. “Bucky used to try and wingman for me, but it usually ended up with him going off with both of them.” Steve gestures while he talks, telling the story, his hand dancing in Tony’s periphery where it hangs off the end of his shoulder.
Tony tries not to burst into laughter in the middle of the street but it’s touch and go. His wide grin must make him look friendly and approachable though, because a young woman and her friend wave them down and hold out a phone. “Would you mind taking a picture of us?”
It happens a lot, living in New York. Tony grins and gestures to the man beside him. “He’s the artist.” Steve’s arm disappears from Tony’s shoulders as he takes the phone. The two girls line up, grinning in front of a pretty doorway, and Tony’s lips twitch up as he watches them. Steve takes several shots, throwing out a line and a smirk to get them to smile for real, then hands the phone back. Tony sidles up beside him. “Enough flirting, sweetheart,” he quips, with a wink to the girls. “Clint’s expecting us at noon.”
The girl with the phone has been flipping through the pictures with a pleased smile and she looks up at Tony gratefully and says, “Sorry to make you late. These are great though, your boyfriend has a great eye for photography. Thank you!”
Steve splutters several random complex onsets then manages to get out, “No, no. No. No.”
“Really?” Tony rounds on him, grinning, but indignant. “Four nos?”
Steve blanches and turns to Tony. “No! I didn’t mean that I - it’s - but - guh.” Steve drops his face into his palm, and Tony’s laughing so hard now he’s worried about oxygen.
The young woman brings her hand up to cover her mouth, her cheeks pinking. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to assume. I just - you - with ‘sweetheart.’ I’m so sorry.”
Tony reaches out and squeezes her shoulder gently. “No, no, it’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong. He’s just overwhelmed by the concept of being with someone as amazing as me.” Tony winks, and the girl laughs into her palm, but she’s blushing even more now. “I’ll get him home and get him an ice pack and a quiet lie down. He’ll be fine.”
“Tony!” Steve objects, but it’s too late, Tony’s dragging him off, waving goodbye to the two women. Steve mumbles something else but Tony doesn't catch it.
“Is the idea of dating me really so offensive?” Tony brings a mock-offended hand to his chest, walking half-backwards to get a look at Steve’s stricken expression.
“I didn’t mean it like that! It’s just - it’s not - true… so I didn’t -”
“Digging the hole deeper, Rogers.”
Instead of answering, Steve reaches out and grabs Tony’s sleeve, dragging him to the side so he doesn’t walk into a sign outside a storefront. Once he has Tony close, Steve throws his arm around Tony’s neck, aggressively this time, tugging him in until Tony loses his balance and stumbles against Steve’s side, laughing, struggling to get free.
The cake arrives at the same time Nat returns, and Tony is knocked out of his reminiscence.
“On the house!” the waiter says, grinning. “Happy anniversary.”
Tony winks at Nat, and she smiles, then flutters her eyelashes at the waiter. “Thank you.”
He beams, then leaves them with two forks and a large piece of chocolate cake with raspberries and caramel sauce decorating the plate. Nat dives in first, sticking her fork in the side of the cake, then spearing a raspberry before bringing it to her mouth. Tony follows suit and it’s surprisingly good for a roadside diner. Or if it’s not, it’s at least what he needs right now.
“The stupidest way Clint almost killed me on a mission was with a piece of cake,” she says almost thoughtfully.
“Well, I have to know that story.”
Nat nods and takes another bite then starts to talk. “This was like, seven hundred years ago. I’d just been recruited by SHIELD and I was touchy, suspicious, and not entirely sure what to do with the soft authority of the American government after the previous employment I’d had.”
“‘Was’?” Tony interjects softly, but she just shakes her head with a smile and plows on.
“I was on an undercover mission with Clint, one of our first together. We were at a small dinner party for some political movers and shakers in a country that shall remain nameless. It was fairly simple - we were just ears and eyes. All we had to do was get in, listen, prompt a few people on a few topics, and get out with our cover intact.” Natasha tips the cake over and swipes another raspberry through the sticky ganache on top. Tony’s mouth is lined with sweet chocolate and he can feel the sugar revving through him already.
“We have dinner, everything’s going great, our marks are eating out of our hands. I’m finally starting to relax a little, thinking maybe everything can be this easy. Dessert comes out and it’s on a side table - a buffet type thing to grab whatever you want. I’m talking to the Ambassador of Redacted-stan and Clint, ever the attentive fake husband, asks me what I want. I say, ‘anything,’ focused on my mission.
“So Clint comes back with ice cream for him - because he’s five years old - and hazelnut chocolate cake for me.” At this, Nat swoops another piece of the cake into her mouth and turns her eyes on Tony.
Tony, always willing to give an assist even though he suspects he knows where this is going, offers, “What was wrong with the cake?”
“I am deathly allergic to hazelnuts.”
Tony can’t help it, he snorts into his hand. “Classic.”
“But of course, I thought it was just regular chocolate cake. I’d never told SHIELD I had an allergy, I was afraid they would reject me if they found out. So, he had absolutely no idea he was poisoning me.”
“What happened with the mission?”
“If I’d been paying attention, I would have smelt it, but as it was, I knew as soon as I tasted it, so I didn’t eat much, but I knew it was going to hit. So I politely excused myself to the bathroom, climbed out the window, over a fence, and to our handler’s truck where they hit me with an epi pen. They extracted Barton shortly after and got me to a hospital. I looked like that dog who ate a bee. He felt so bad.” Nat smiles softly to herself at the memory. “Good times.”
Tony breaks into full laughter at that, having to knock back a hasty gulp of water when the sweet icing turns the laughter into coughing. There’s only one mouthful of cake left, and Tony gestures his fork towards Nat. She takes it with a smile. Tony pays with one of his sleek, black credit cards that has no name on it, leaving a tip big enough to be Handsome Waiter’s ticket out, and they saunter out of the diner, full and dopey from food. It was nice to forget, for a few minutes, what they’re doing here.
“Happy anniversary, sweetie,” Nat simpers. Tony laughs and grabs her hand, winding their fingers together as they walk back to the car. And she lets him.
For the next hour of driving, everything smells pleasantly like chocolate, and Nat sings along softly to the radio.
When they arrive in Lexington, it takes them a while to find the cafe from Steve’s receipt. It’s not listed online, and the town is small and poorly signed, but with the help of two locals, they find their way there. Nat finds a place to park, and they go in. Tony’s on edge this time, unlike the diner at the rest stop, this is all business.
It’s seat yourself, so they pick a table by the window and take in as much as they can, trying to figure out why they’re here. For all they know, this is a complete dead-end. Steve stopped here on his way through town to get a late snack and left. But it feels wrong. And Steve dumping his pockets in the trash feels pointed.
Maybe it’s wishful thinking.
The waitress is an older woman with a tired smile. When she brings them menus and water, Nat swipes her phone open and holds it up. “Have you seen this man in here?”
Steve has always expressed surprise at how few people recognize him, but out of the context of Captain America, he’s actually pretty good at blending in. It’s usually when he’s out with Tony that they get caught out by the paps, so Tony’s not surprised when the woman stares at the photo thoughtfully, but without recognition.
“I’m not sure…”
“It was Saturday afternoon,” Tony adds. “He might have been here for a while - coffee and fries? Big tip?”
“Oh, yeah… I think I do remember him. He was nice, very polite, but he wore his hat the whole time so I didn’t get a good look at him.” She tips her head at the phone screen then nods. “Yes, I think it was him. He was here for a long time - hours. He sat at that table and read a book. Didn’t get a look at which one.”
They thank her, order, then ask if it’s okay if they move to Steve’s table. She nods and they settle in. It’s also in front of the window, but on the other side of the door. “Read a book my ass,” Tony says, and Nat doesn’t even bother to nod.
Tony scans the view out the window, but it’s depressingly mundane. There’s a storefront with a gym above it, a residential building, an office building, and a parking lot.
“What do you think he was watching?”
Nat is quiet for a long time, her eyes trained professionally at the buildings across the street. Their food has come by the time she says, “Office building.”
Tony doesn’t even ask how she knows, she’s always right. They eat quickly, eyes on the building, then leave. They cross the quiet street and circle the building once.
Now that they’re close up, Tony can see some of the things that must have tipped Natasha off. The units are all empty and there’s a For Rent sign in the window. It’s unusual, in a small town like this, for a whole building to be rented out to one tenant, but it’s clear, even from the ground, that all the units have been cleared out.
Nat picks the lock on the back door and they make their way through the building, but nothing’s been left behind. It looks like the tenants left in a hurry - there are cables pulled out of the wall and piles of dirt where furniture was moved, but there’s no helpful business card stuck in the baseboards, or logo-ed awning tucked into a corner.
They’d split up to search, but Tony finds Natasha a few minutes later, half hanging out of one of the fourth floor windows. “There.” She’s pointing, so Tony shoves in behind her. The window opens out over the parking lot next door, and there’s a dumpster up against the side, right below them. It’s brimming with stuff and most of it looks like broken office furniture instead of black garbage bags.
The temperature has skyrocketed in the last few hours and the ground hums with summer heat when they step outside. The dumpster smells horrible. Tony finds himself wishing, not for the first time, that he was back home in his climate-controlled workshop with nothing but his bots to worry about. And Steve safe in the apartment a few floors up, where he belongs. But instead, they’re here.
Nat doesn’t hesitate to climb in the dumpster and starts handing stuff up to Tony. Finally, she comes up with two computer towers and a cracked monitor. Tony cheers softly, and Nat laughs, pleased as well, then climbs out. They lay the computers out on the asphalt and take them apart. They deem one hopeless and one saveable, with some parts from the other. There’s no telling if anything they find on them will be of any use, but it’s all they have to go on.
Tony unpacks some tools from his luggage and sets to work, dipping into the zone-out trance that lets him engineer for twelve hours straight without a break. Part of him registers Nat leaving and coming back, and at some point there’s coffee, but after a couple hours, he plugs the computer into the outlet in the trunk of the car and gets a boot.
He cheers again and tips over onto his back with a groan. There’s no keyboard or mouse, so Nat hooks her phone up and starts the process of breaking through the encryptions. As soon as Tony sees the tight security, he knows they’ve found something worthwhile.
An hour later, he almost wishes they hadn’t found it.
“Red Skull?” he bites out, incredulous.
Natasha hums, reading and relaying at the same time. Tony almost shoves her out of the way to read it himself, but he figures that’s probably a good way to lose a hand. “Yes. They’re a… cult. There’s no better word for it. They worship Red Skull as their leader. It looks like they’ve been trying to... reincarnate or maybe… recreate him?”
Tony can feel things clicking into place in his mind. “That’s why Steve was so sucked into this… recreate? Are they trying to make the serum?”
“They’re trying to make a serum,” Nat corrects. “But not the one that made Steve. The one that made Schmidt. They were here, operating, recruiting people to test on. And then the file updates just stop, Sunday morning at 4am.”
“Steve was here Saturday night.”
“Yes. He obviously tracked the group here, and when they knew they’d been seen, they bailed. But how did he find them here? And what does this have to do with him breaking into a SHIELD HQ?”
“You said recruiting?”
Nat flicks through the files on her phone. “Yes. They were recruiting people to undergo the testing. It doesn’t say how. Either lies or promises. I’ve got a bit of info on some of them. Not all the files are recoverable, but there are maybe twenty or thirty.”
Tony reaches for the phone. “Let me give them to JARVIS. He’ll collate the info into something useful.”
Nat nods and hands it over. Tony transfers the files, damaged and whole, to his own phone and sets JARVIS to work, trawling through them for something interesting. While JARVIS plugs away, they pack the computers up in the car, then slump in their seats with the air conditioning on full blast.
Nat has both her feet on the dash, her sunglasses on, and her hair pushed back in a messy bun. Her black tank top clings to her sweaty skin. She looks like a piece of art there, gazing out the window at the little town, but also so human, so real. So touchable. She’s always felt distant to Tony, but it’s probably on him, really. Finding out she’d been lying to him as his PA had been a blow that was hard to recover from, as much as he pretended he didn’t mind, and then getting her report after that.
It hits him out of nowhere that she was right, back in the diner. He does hold it against her. Or he did. He feels the bitterness evaporate in the rush of air from the car vents, just this side of too humid to really be comfortable. He’s struck with a visceral flood of forgiveness, and for a moment it steals his breath away.
Then JARVIS is talking to him, and he shakes his head to clear it and turns to his phone. 60% of the people recruited were from the same city, about three hours away. He and Natasha share a look, then he puts the car in gear and pulls away without another word.
“I invited Sam to join in on the training exercises tomorrow,” Steve says as he breezes through the kitchen, grabbing a power bar and heading for the door.
Tony tries to shake the memory, focus on the road, but it’s quiet in the car and the scene plays out like a movie in his mind.
There must be something in the way Tony says, “Oh?” because even though he tries to make it sound indifferent, Steve tenses and stops.
He turns on his heel, slowly. “Is there a problem with that?” he asks.
Tony considers saying, “No, nevermind,” and shooing Steve away, but he’s tired and a little pissy about his latest project not going well, so instead he says, “I didn’t know all it took to become an Avenger was being your running buddy.”
Steve doesn’t take the bait on Sam, but he does come in and sit down across from Tony. “It’s just training exercises.”
Tony shoots him a look.
“Do you have a problem with Sam? Or with adding people in general?”
Tony takes a moment to think about that. “I have a problem with adding people breezily,” he says finally, and Steve’s eyebrow goes up.
“Don’t you think it’s risky to just pile anyone with a special skill and a ‘screw authority’ attitude onto the team? Besides, if that’s really all you’re looking for, you never asked Rhodey to join training exercises.”
Steve peels open his power bar and picks at it. “I did actually. He said no thanks.”
Tony’s not really sure what to think of that, but it’s definitely something he needs to talk to Rhodey about. That’s a sidebar though, to what is actually bothering him, which is… he’s not quite sure. “I just don’t like it,” he mutters.
He predicts that Steve’s next question will be, “Why?” and he’s right.
Tony shrugs then lets his tongue take over. “If we’re a small group it's… easier or something. Easier to get along, to agree on things. The bigger the group, the stricter the structure has to be, I should know, I own a massive corporation. And the board can’t agree on anything. I can’t tell you how often we’ve spent so much time trying to make a decision on something that the opportunity passed and our hand was forced anyway. I trust you, but every time someone new joins on, especially without, you know, extensive vetting or something, I -” Tony runs out of words and stutters a bit before shrugging again.
Steve’s expression softens, but his shoulders are braced for a fight. Tony can smell his snack and there’s something sickly sweet and off-putting about it. His stomach rolls; he can’t remember the last time he ate. “Tony… I know you don’t trust people lightly. I’m not asking you to trust Sam right away, or even for him to be on the team. I just want everyone to have a chance to know him a little and see him in action before I bring the idea to the group, okay?”
“Yeah, whatever.” Tony really has nothing against Sam. He’s probably better Avengers material than Tony is anyway.
Steve doesn’t leave, though. He stays in his seat, twisting the power bar wrapper between his fingers, piercing eyes on Tony. “You don’t want the team to be any bigger,” he finally says.
“I don’t want the team at all,” Tony mutters, mostly to himself, but of course, Steve’s superhearing picks up everything.
“Do you want off the team?” The wrapper squeaks as Steve twists it too hard. It tears.
“No, I -” Tony rubs his fingers over his eyes then squeezes them against his temples. His headache fades, but the relief is temporary. His next heartbeat brings it back twofold. “Ugh. I don’t think we should focus on making the team bigger. I feel like you’re building an army when what we need is a shield - one shield. And I don’t mean vibranium.”
“We’ve talked about this, Tony. Sometimes I feel like it’s all we talk about.” Steve’s tired, and Tony’s tired and they should drop it, but Tony can’t help feeling like there must be something he’s said wrong, some way he can rephrase, because if Steve just understood -
“‘A Hard Day’s Night.’” Natasha’s voice sucks Tony back into the present.
“Can we agree on ‘A Hard Day’s Night’?” She has her phone in her hand, cycling through options.
He’d forgotten what they’d been arguing about - trying to agree on music they both wanted to listen to. It was late, and he’d been getting grumpy, every mile of road stretching into the ones before and after, and he’d wanted something to help keep him awake. But Natasha had only suffered hard rock for an hour before she put her foot down.
Beatles though… “Sure. Better than nothing.”
She plugs her phone into the console and taps a few buttons and a moment later “Can’t Buy Me Love” fills the car because Nat always listens to everything on shuffle. It’s better. Better than silence. Better than arguing, that’s for sure.
The most complete file they have is for a man named Andrew Fredricks and google gives them four hits for Fredricks in Lexington. The first two have never heard of Andrew, but the third is an elderly woman who nods with a sad smile and lets them inside. When it’s clear she doesn’t recognize them, Nat explains that they’re FBI and they're investigating a string of disappearances in another town that they think might be similar to the ones that happened here. The woman is resigned but doesn’t seem to mind talking about it.
“He’s my son,” she starts. “And I don’t know what possessed him to get involved with that group.”
“Tell us about the group,” Tony prompts.
“That church downtown.” The woman purses her lips. “I told him it seemed too good to be true, that it sounded like a cult, but he didn't care. He was looking for a place to belong, and I guess he found it.”
“Do you have any idea what happened to him?”
A few painful emotions flit across her face. She shakes her head, but it’s not a no, it’s a yes. “If he were still alive, he would have contacted me. No matter how they twisted his head. He would have done that.”
They leave. It feels like progress up until they realize they haven’t got anything else to go on. But JARVIS has still been working on the files and he determines that all of the people share a similar designation: deceased. Except for one.
The one is a teenage girl named Audrey Thomas and it only takes a little poking online to determine that she goes to a private boarding school just outside of town. She’s been missing for two weeks. So their next stop is the school. They park the car down the street, in an empty field behind some trees, because the last thing they need is a bunch of teenagers poking at their crap-filled Audi and accidentally setting off the armour or something.
The headmistress recognizes them, but they tell her it’s Avengers business, and she seems to accept that. She leads them up to Audrey’s room and hovers awkwardly in the corner while they poke around. Audrey’s got the usual teen girl assortment of “I’m a kid” and “I’m an adult” blended throughout her things. There are also a few holes, empty places where it seems like she grabbed the most important things when she left.
Three stuffed animals on the bed, then a gap, then two more. A diary-sized hole on the bookshelf. No cell phone. No wallet. It looks like she left voluntarily.
Tony boots up her computer while Natasha talks to the headmistress. He can hear bits of their conversation floating behind him - who were her friends, did she seem happy, did she suffer from any mental or physical ailments, was she religious.
She’d logged out of most of her social media; Tony tries them all and only twitter auto-logs in, but it doesn’t seem like she used it much. She has her homework, some chat programs with nothing of interest on them, memes she’s saved… it’s the usual stuff. Tony goes to a few common sites for online shopping and starts typing in her name and bingo - the browser has saved her credit card info. He records it on his phone and shuts the computer down.
“Thank you,” he says, as Natasha winds up her questioning. Her eyes meet his, and he nods.
Back at the car, Tony takes the time to set up a proper trace on the credit card. If she uses it, they’ll know right away. It’s all they can do for now. Nat doesn’t sit beside him for long. She gets up and paces around the field, and he gets it. He doesn’t want to sit here either. When he gets up and stretches tall she calls, “Wanna spar?” from the other side of the field.
He shoots her an incredulous look, and she runs across the grass, does two backflips and stops in front of him. “With no mats?” he asks. “You’ll put me in the hospital.”
“I’ll go easy on you.” She has a playful light in her eyes, and there really isn’t much else to do, though Tony has a brief flash of the police showing up because two crazy people are wrestling in a field. But the truth is, they’re pretty far out of town, and it’s unlikely anyone will even see them, let alone care.
“...Alright.” Tony has braced himself, but he still doesn’t even see the first hit coming. Nat hooks her arm under his and twists him around until he’s heading straight for the ground. She catches him a second before he does a faceplant and tips him gently onto his side in the grass instead. And then she laughs.
“I’ve changed my mind,” he groans, pushing to his feet. The dirt is hard and dry under his knees and they creak at him grumpily as he straightens.
“I won’t do that again,” she says, sounding like again is exactly what she wants to do. “There’s actually something I want to show you, come here.”
Once bitten, twice shy, Tony approaches her cautiously, but it turns out he’s been favouring his left side, even in the suit, and she’s noticed. She runs him through some balance and symmetry exercises, and they actually work some of the road trip kinks out of his back which is nice. They spar lightly - no more throws - and Tony can see what she means, and he works hard to correct it. After a while, he starts to feel like he’s getting the hang of it.
When Natasha gets sick of giving Tony new bruises, she pulls out her cell and orders pizza to the empty lot. The delivery driver is very confused and very clearly recognizes Tony, but he doesn’t say anything, and Tony gives him a 200% tip.
They struggle awkwardly up onto the hood of the car, because that’s what people do in movies and it’s all silly and uncomfortable for a while as they try to get settled with their drinks and food - and keep from sliding off the hood onto the ground.
“We should get some sleep,” Nat says, when the pizza is done. It’s barely 9, but they’ve both been up for a horrific amount of time. It feels wrong to sleep when Audrey is out there needing their help - besides, Steve is sleeping enough for the both of them - but there’s only so many times Tony can check his phone for a hit on the credit card. Plus he’s fucking exhausted.
So Tony drags a couple jackets out of the back, and they spread them over themselves like blankets and settle down for an uncomfortable nap on the car hood that’s still less cramped and less overheated than the inside of the car would be. Tony’s sure he’ll never sleep - he’s on edge, waiting for his phone to buzz - but it’s not long before he sinks into a sort of half-sleep doze. He’s dreaming, but it’s lucid and twisted up with a memory - or many, many memories sewn together.
The TV at the tower is playing a movie, but he can’t seem to focus on it long enough to figure out which movie it is. Steve is next to him, and when he looks once, the other Avengers are there too, but during the next blink they all disappear, leaving the two of them alone.
“I’m not going to make it upstairs,” Steve mumbles. He slumps to the side, and Tony can feel the weight of his head on his shoulder. And this memory is wrong - when this happened they were in Steve’s living room, not the big common room. As he thinks it, the surrounding shifts, and he’s not sure it wasn’t always like that after all.
“Don’t bother,” Tony answers. He tries to turn his face to catch sight of Steve, but he hadn’t done it then, and he can’t now. The warm pressure of Steve against his side is intense and overwhelming, dialed up until it’s the only sensation Tony can really recognize. He still wants to see Steve, and it’s becoming increasingly frustrating that he can’t.
Steve’s apartment is full of boxes and that’s wrong too because this happened only a month or two ago, well after Steve had moved in. Steve didn’t even have this much stuff when he did move in. But the boxes have Tony curious so he pulls one to him, somehow able to open it and paw through it without dislodging Steve from his shoulder.
The box is full of Iron Man action figures.
Tony opens another one.
It’s the same.
And suddenly he really needs to wake Steve up, to ask him what he’s doing with countless Iron Man action figures. But he can’t turn and see Steve’s face and Steve won’t wake, and it’s so fucking frustrating, and Tony is sitting up like a shot on the car hood, his phone blaring at him. Natasha’s heat blazes up his left side.
They’ve got a hit on the credit card.
It’s a motel two hours away, back towards the SHIELD HQ building, and Tony floors it the whole way. It’s so late it’s almost morning by the time they get there. The motel is a shitty, off-the-highway dump. A strip of rooms on a single story opens to a parking lot full of broken glass and tufts of courageous grass poking through the cracked asphalt. The whole place reeks of cigarette smoke, and it’s reawakening a long-dormant craving in Tony.
The woman behind the desk won’t give them the time of day, let alone Audrey’s room number, so they go back to the car and Nat pulls out some of her spy gear. With infrared and a microphone, she picks out Audrey’s room easily enough - and she’s alone.
Tony pops the trunk and suits up - they have no idea what they’re about to face - while Nat pulls on her own defenses.
They don’t bother knocking, Nat just kicks the door down and they charge in. There’s a glimpse of a tall, too-thin girl with long, dark hair and a dancer’s grace, before she’s hidden behind Steve’s shield. Now all they have is wide brown eyes and scuffed vibranium. Seeing his shield wielded by someone else makes Tony’s gut twist, and he has to lock the joints in the suit to stop himself from ripping it out of her hands. Tony holds both hands up - it’s a submissive gesture from most, but with the repulsors in his palms, it puts him in his best defensive position at the same time.
Her eyes flick back and forth between them. “I know you,” she says, and there’s a hint of a french accent there.
“About time someone did,” Tony says. “Those sunglasses must be magical or something. I’ve been recognized fewer times on this entire trip than I usually am on a regular morning in Starbucks.”
“Stark,” Nat grits out. Her bites are awake and clicking little jolts of electricity into the humid air.
Tony spreads his hands. “Of course you know us. Because you know, Steve, right? He gave you that shield. He was trying to help you, rescue you, right?” He takes half a step forward. “Steve’s my best friend, and if he trusted you, I trust you too.” The armour clicks open, and Tony steps out of it, hands raised. “We’re here to help you.”
The shield lowers a scant inch, and Audrey eyes Tony uncertainly. “I won’t go back. They want me to go back.”
“I know. They were holding you there, weren’t they? At the SHIELD facility. Only it wasn’t a SHIELD facility - it had been overrun by these Red Skull fanatics and they were hoping to use you. As a weapon.”
“Yes.” Her voice wavers. “When I survived the process, they hailed me as a second coming of their dead leader, but I wasn’t what they expected. The machine made me see things more clearly, understand better. I wanted out.” The shield starts to shake, only a little bit, but Tony can see it move. “They wouldn’t let me go. They trapped me, in that building. I was alone until he came. He gave me this shield. He told me to run. I - what happened to him? I tried watching the news here, but there was nothing.”
Natasha shifts out of her defensive stance and powers down her bites. “It’s being kept quiet. He was hurt - pretty badly. He’s in the hospital right now, but he couldn’t tell us what happened, so we came looking. We knew he must have a good reason for what he did, and he obviously did. The reason was you. But we know people who can help you. The people who took you? They’re going down, but the rest of the organization is run by good people. Will you let us help you? I’m sure it’s what Steve would have done, if he could.”
“I -” but Audrey is cut off by a clang outside followed by a thud. They both turn towards the door, and Tony steps up into the suit again, letting it close around him. He and Nat shift, slowly, bringing themselves between Audrey and the door, but she’s moving too, bracing, sliding into a fighting stance. She’s not afraid.
The Red Skull nutjobs must have been tracking the card too, because not three minutes later they burst through the door. They’re in SHIELD uniforms, but they have a fanatical light in their eyes, and now that Tony looks, they’ve each got a simple, red pendant on a chain around their neck. He recognizes the one who shot Steve.
There’s no talking, no negotiations, they just charge.
It’s kind of terrifying and kind of exhilarating to see Audrey fight. She’s unpolished and untrained, but she moves like Steve, with that fluid grace that comes with the confidence of knowing what your body can handle - which is almost anything. She plows through the onslaught with the shield. She’s not as skilled with it as Steve but she makes up for it with sheer power, using it as a battering ram instead of a ranged attack.
The Red Skulls aren’t prepared to find Iron Man and Black Widow there, and they fall like dominos. Nat evidently recognizes Steve’s shooter from the video too, because Tony has to drag her off him before even his dentals wouldn’t be enough to identify him. They snap zip ties around everyone’s wrists and shove them into a messy group by the door. Audrey took a hit and is sitting on the floor by the TV, apparently too shocked or too upset to move. Tony offers her a hand, but she shakes her head. Maybe she needs to be on the floor right now.
“Steve found out that the VA branch of SHIELD was corrupted and he didn’t know who to trust,” Tony explains, half for her and half to get his own thoughts in order. He can hear Natasha on the phone to Coulson in the background. “He hunted down the group that had infiltrated them - the new age Red Skulls - and found out about you. He probably felt responsible.” Tony sighs “He always feels that way about the serum. So instead of asking his team for backup, he rushed in like the big, dumb hero that he is.”
Audrey nods. She’s crying silently now, but Tony politely doesn’t mention it.
Nat’s off the phone. She crouches down next to Audrey. “They were trying to make a new Red Skull but they made you instead.” She sounds considering. “More like… another Cap.” Audrey’s eyes go wide at that. “You’re not a weapon unless you choose to be,” Nat adds carefully, an undercurrent of crackling electricity in her voice. “I called someone, someone you can trust, will you go with him?”
Audrey’s clearly not sure, but she’s also exhausted and not cut out for endless running so she nods, resigned. Less than an hour later, they hear the sound of helicopter blades, and Tony stands to look out the window. Coulson is here and he’s brought HIll. Neither is wearing a SHIELD uniform. Tony breathes a sigh of relief. He stands next to Audrey and nods.
Audrey pushes herself to her feet, and as she does, she tips the shield towards Tony, letting it lean against his legs. Nat eases a hand under her elbow and walks her towards the door, and suddenly Tony is alone with the shield. He reaches out and the suit peels back to let him sink to his knees, the edge of the shield digging into his palms. He hasn’t even tried to lift it and the weight is already too much, taking him to the floor. He’s not crying, but he feels like he’s been sobbing for hours, twisted up and dried out. Ground down to a sore throat and red eyes and a hollow ache in his chest. He’s filled up in that moment, drowning and utterly dehydrated at the same time and for split second, he actually thinks it might be too much and his heart will stop.
Natasha’s knees appear in his vision and then she’s tugging his face towards her, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and letting him bury his face in her chest. She’s warm and soft and manages to smell like sweet curry even though they’ve been on the road for three days and Tony’s pretty sure he smells like Slim Jims and gas station bathrooms. She presses her face in his hair, and he chokes out, “I love him, Nat. I’ve loved him for ages, and I never told him.”
Nat’s fingers land on the side of his neck, and it’s comforting but also a little like she’s taking his pulse, but somehow that’s comforting too. “He knows. I’m sure he knows.”
“No,” Tony nearly sobs out the word. “He can’t. Maybe he suspected, or wondered or even - god - hoped, but he can’t know unless I say it. And I never said it when I had the chance.”
She’s quiet for a moment, letting him hunch there, clutching the shield, and then she says the six words he’s longing to hear more than anything.
“I’m going to get you drunk.”
“I love you too,” he mutters into the stinging nip of her jacket zipper, and her shoulders shake as she laughs.
Neither wants to be drunk in public, so they stop at a grocery store, and Nat goes in while Tony sits in the car and does not stare in the rearview at the shield in the backseat and does not stare at his phone and will it to ring. He’s somehow pissed off, as if that makes any sense at all, that Steve hasn’t woken up. It’s like - we fixed it, you can get up now. Which uncomfortably makes him the Prince Charming to Steve’s Sleeping Beauty, but fuck it, he’ll take it. As long as Steve wakes up. Which he doesn’t seem inclined to do.
Nat comes back with three bottles, none of which Tony can read, and a bag of candy so outrageous, Tony can feel his dentist cringing across three state lines. She’s also got a bag of ice, and it’s feeling a bit more like he’s going to wake up in a bathtub with a few choice organs missing, but he kinda always feels that way around Nat so he goes with it. They drive until they see a hotel that’s somewhere between the shitholes Nat’s used to hiding out in and the decadent five-stars Tony’s used to being found in, and they get a room.
They haul their bags up, and Nat takes the shield without asking and tucks it in the corner, where Tony can see it’s there, but doesn’t have to look at it. There are two beds but when he falls on one with a humph she ignores the other and crawls in next to him instead.
She eventually gets up to get two drinking glasses from the bathroom, and when she returns, she claims the same spot, sitting cross-legged next to Tony’s hip. Tony drags himself up until he’s sitting with his back against the headboard. She puts three ice cubes and a shocking amount of clear liquid into a glass and hands it to him. He figures it’s probably the kind of thing that’s best downed before your tongue figures out what’s happening, so he knocks back half of it then rips open a bag of Skittles. He coughs, sucking on the sweet candy and feeling the burn of the drink all the way down into the pit of his stomach.
“What’s in this stuff?” Tony slurs, after another drink.
And Tony supposes that’s the point. There’s nothing to soften the blow, so he’s drunk almost instantaneously. He can feel his inebriated red blood cells singing, “weeee,” as they bounce violently off the insides of his veins. If anything, the candy makes it worse. The two of them are hopped up on sugar and nothing else and drunk as two skunks, lounging around in the hotel room. It isn’t long before Tony’s babbling.
“I never told him. He needs to know. He’s been out there, in the world, being loved by me all this time, and I couldn’t even admit it to myself so I never told him. So, he’s going to die, and he’ll never have known. You know? That I do.” The room spins a little, and Tony winds his fingers in the blanket to keep from tipping over. Nat just stares at him. “Love him,” he adds, in case it wasn’t clear.
“Yeah,” Nat says, and Tony glares at her cause what the fuck use is that?
“What the fuck use is that?”
She replies in Russian - which Tony has never heard her speak at all so that’s fucked up - then tips over on her side and sighs. Tony shrugs then gives in, spreading out on his back beside her. She hooks her chin over his shoulder. “I was in love once,” she says.
She lets out a hot breath against Tony’s neck, and suddenly the room is three million degrees. The alcohol burns inside him until he can’t feel anything but the heat. It’s incredible.
“I fucked it up.” Then she goes on, in Russian again, and Tony can only assume she’s telling the story. He doesn’t understand, but the words are soothing so he closes his eyes and sinks into them. He holds his breath and slides down until her voice covers him over and fills his ears and his nose. Until he floats deep in it.
He’s all but asleep when she stops talking. She shifts, sharply, and there’s a thunk as something hits the floor. Nat’s ankle hooks around Tony’s calf, and he chokes back something lumpy and painful that’s trying to crawl out of his throat. Why couldn’t he see this before? When he had a chance to say something. “It’s shitty timing,” he manages to grit out, horrified at how weak and broken he sounds.
“Shut up,” Nat says, and Tony laughs. She presses a kiss to his cheek, hard and unforgiving, then settles down beside him.
He’s crying now, but silently, so he just holds her tight and falls asleep.
He’s disgusting when he wakes up. And his heart is pounding violently in his chest. He’s out of bed and halfway across the room before he realizes:
- He’s not at home
- It wasn’t an Avengers alarm waking him up, it was Natasha
- Natasha, shockingly, looks even worse than he feels
She’s semi-slumped on the other side of the bed they’ve shared, her red hair in a wild halo around her head. She’s got dark circles under her eyes and a phone pressed to her ear. She’s frowning.
Tony breathes steadily for a moment and tries to calm the wild thumping of his heart and the wretched roll of his stomach. Nat’s eyes are fixed on him as she nods to what she’s hearing on the phone.
“Okay.” She hangs up with nothing more. “They think he’s waking up. The brain monitors are going nuts. We need to go.”
“What?” Tony’s first wild thought is it worked, which is crazy, obviously. His second thought is, “Fuck, I’m still too drunk to drive. And we’re eight hours away from home, Nat. Fuck.”
Nat considers him for a moment. “Can you fly the suit drunk?”
“Sure. J can keep me in the air. I’m sober enough to trust him, at least.”
“Then you take the suit. I’ll dry out for a bit, then follow in the car.”
Tony twists his mouth in displeasure. “Nat, you’re one of his best friends, I can’t -”
“Tony.” Her voice in gentle in a way he’s never heard it before, and it sends tendrils of something electric and anticipatory through him. “You have to tell him, right?”
The anticipation wells up even stronger, and Tony nods. “Yeah, I do.”
“And I can’t fly the suit anyway, even with Jarvis. So go. Tell him I’ll be there when he comes home and needs someone to sit on him so he doesn’t try to go to the gym before he’s ready.”
Tony chuckles, then regrets it since he can’t seem to get back the air he pushed out with the laugh. Nat’s hand lands on his arm and the adrenaline is sobering him up pretty well as it is. She gives him a little push, and he staggers across the room and grabs the shield. He pulls Nat into an awkward one-armed hug, even as she’s pushing him out the door.
He pops the trunk and calls the armour. It explodes out of its case and assembles around him and he’s in the air before the last plates have locked together. He snaps the shield to his back, activating the magnets that call it back to Steve’s arm, and gives JARVIS directions. His stomach rolls at the sudden force but he manages to well it down, wishing he’d had some water before he took off.
He has this horrible feeling like he’s going to be too late, and he’s not sure why. Too late for what? he keeps asking himself, but he can’t name it. There’s this unreasonable, baseless feeling that Steve’s going to wake just long enough to say goodbye, just long enough to think that everyone still hates him, and then he’s going to die. And Tony’s going to miss it. And if Steve dies, well, that will - that’s unthinkable. But no matter what happens to him - because he’s got to die at some point, right? - but no matter what happens now, he needs to know he’s loved. But someway, somehow, Tony is going to be too late.
He lands on the third-floor balcony and shucks the suit right there, trusting JARVIS to either lock it or fly it out of harm’s way. He’s past the level where he needs to check in to use the elevators so he just charges through the hallways until he gets to Steve’s room.
He’s too late.
He pushes open the door, and Steve’s sitting up in bed, looking around him, bright and alert. And that’s when Tony realizes that he needed to have been there, holding his hand, when those beautiful blue eyes opened again. He’s had enough trouble convincing himself he loves Steve, how is Steve going to believe it if he wasn’t even here?
But Steve turns as the door opens, and his eyes alight on Tony, and he just - glows.
That’s the last of the fears, because lurking under everything else was the possibility that the bullet carved out the piece of Steve’s brain that remembers Tony. But he’s smiling and blinking at Tony and then he says, “Tony,” and it’s barely a word, but it is, it is, Tony’s name. He stumbles forward, suddenly mindful of the fact that he’s still a bit drunk and he hasn’t showered and he’s wearing the clothes he slept in, and wraps his hand around Steve’s.
Bruce, Thor, and Clint are there. So are two nurses and a doctor. Bruce talks to the medical staff while Tony pets Steve’s hand and never ever lets that blue gaze go in case it disappears again.
“He’s still not really with it,” Bruce whispers gently in Tony’s ear. “But he’s going to be alright.”
“Hey, mon ami,” Tony says, squeezing Steve’s fingers and thrilling when he squeezes back.
Steve smiles again, and Tony can tell by the way he’s blinking that he’s checking out again already, so even though the room is full of people, he leans over and says, “I love you.”
Steve’s smile is soft and warm and happy, and Tony knows it isn’t the kind of I love you that’s a revelation right now, but that’s okay. Because between this breath and the next, Steve’s eyes drift closed and he’s out again. Tony’s heart swells and something raging inside him calms. Steve knows now; everything’s okay.
Tony’s there, the next time, and right away he can tell that Steve’s no longer out of it. He twitches before he wakes, his fingers tapping a rhythm on Tony’s hand, and then his eyes shoot open. His brow creases, and he’s struggling to sit up before he’s even taken a breath.
“Steve,” Tony says, as calm and collected as he can be. His body is already pumping adrenaline into his bloodstream in an automatic response to Steve’s stress.
“No - I -” Steve coughs and groans, his free hand slapping to the spot where the first bullet nicked his rib. “Audrey -”
“No,” Steve protests, still struggling to sit. His hand stays clasped in Tony’s though, and Tony wishes he knew if Steve’s noticed and doesn’t want to let him go or just hasn’t realized it yet. “They’re going to get her. It’s the - SHIELD - Red Skulls -”
“Steve. Stop for a second. Do you trust me?”
Steve stills, his eyes landing on Tony’s. He lets out a shaky breath then nods.
“Okay, good.” Once he’s breathing steadily and settled back on the pillows, Tony rubs his thumb soothingly over the back of Steve’s hand and tells him everything. It’s back to front and sideways, because their road trip was backwards to Steve’s, and Audrey’s trip was back the other way again. But he starts with her story, assures Steve she’s fine, in good hands, and the part of SHIELD that’s untainted is handling the rest of the Red Skulls. Then, because Steve seems interested - and maybe a little comforted by hearing Tony’s steady voice - he tells him about the road trip, about him and Nat and chocolate cake and wrestling in a field. About hacking computers in a parking lot and how brilliant Steve was to leave them a clue. And maybe it’s a little bit of an apology too, for not being here, for letting him wake up with no one holding his hand the first time.
Steve stays awake for the whole story, but Tony can tell he’s tired. “You’re healing,” he says, and Steve nods.
“I can feel it. Everything’s getting clearer, more solid. I think I woke up before? But it was all… fuzzy.”
“Yeah, yeah you did. You were pretty out of it. This is a good sign, though. You’re getting better.” Tony squeezes his hand, - he can’t help it - and Steve squeezes back. And that’s everything.
“Is there anything to eat?” Steve asks tentatively, like he’s not sure which answer is the one he wants.
Tony looks around the room. His own lunch is still half-eaten on a tray. “Yogurt?” he offers and Steve nods. Tony peels back the foil top and sticks a plastic spoon in it. It’s ridiculous watching Captain America eat a tiny yogurt cup with a miniature plastic spoon. He usually just knocks back an entire tub at once. But that seems to be all Steve wants, or maybe all his stomach can handle right now, because he’s slowing down even before he gets to the end.
Tony takes the trash away and smooths Steve’s blanket and refills his water. Steve’s eyes are heavy, and when Tony comes back from tidying up, Steve reaches for him. Tony takes his hand back gratefully, wrapping it in both of his and squeezing. “Nap?” Tony asks.
Steve nods. “Sorry. I want to hear more about - about what’s happened, but I -”
“It’s okay. You need to sleep to heal.” Tony fixes his blanket again, then curls into a more comfortable shape in his chair, Steve’s hand still held in his. “Close your eyes.” Steve does. “Sleep well, I love you.”
Steve’s eyes flicker open again and there’s something in them, a little confused, a little delighted. Tony smiles back, blinks slow, and Steve blinks with him, like a cat - and he’s out.
Tony has books and tablets and work emails by the millions, but he ignores it all. He sits in his stiff-backed hospital chair, his feet tucked up on the edge of the hospital bed and Steve’s warm hand in his.
It’s only a few days before they’re packing Steve up and bringing him home. Nat has long since been back by now, and has spent her fair share of time keeping Steve entertained while he’s stuck in bed. But now she’s been sucked up in dealing with the aftermath of Virginia, and Clint along with her, so it’s Thor, Bruce, and Tony who accompany Steve back to the tower. He looks good, tucked up in too many layers in the back seat of the limo Tony ordered, but Tony knows he’s not one hundred percent yet. He’s still sleeping too much, he still gets random headaches, and every now and then his breathing hitches and a hand goes to his ribs. The serum is doing its magic, healing him shockingly fast, but healing takes time, no matter what.
Thor and Bruce bring in food and Steve’s bags and start unpacking while Tony hovers anxiously at Steve’s side, very cognizant of the fact that if all 220 pounds of super soldier passes out, Tony’s more likely to be crushed underneath him than stand a chance of catching him. But Steve doesn’t seem likely to pass out, and he keeps smiling at Tony and tugging at his sleeve or bumping their shoulders together so Tony likes to think he wants him there.
When they make it to the kitchen, Steve falls into conversation with Bruce about which food to freeze and which to leave out for later, and Tony finds himself wandering around Steve’s apartment. He hasn’t been in it since the couch-sleeping incident, and every time he is, he’s always so glued to Steve that he doesn’t really notice his surroundings. Now that he’s looking back with the benefit of perspective, some things are painfully obvious, really.
Thor’s unpacking Steve’s clothes in the bedroom so Tony joins him, ready to offer to help, but this is a room he hasn’t been in in months and when he pushes through the door he’s so struck he screeches to a halt.
He remembers the Iron Man figure from his dream because it’s right here, and now he knows where he’d seen it before. When Steve first came to live at the tower, Tony had set up an apartment for him. Tony led Steve into the room to show it off...
“What’s that?” Steve asks with a smirk, gesturing to the bookshelves tacked to the wall, empty save for the single red and gold occupant.
Tony laughs. Having Steve here at the tower is going to be fun. “It’s so I can keep an eye on you.” He winks, then shoves Steve towards the bathroom to show him how many settings the shower jets have.
The memory overlays with the present day, and Tony can see Thor unpacking Steve’s duffle into the laundry basket, and his old self gesturing wildly as he explains how to ask JARVIS to control the apartment at the same time. But one thing hasn’t changed. The little Iron Man toy still sits on the shelf, surrounded now by books and knick knacks. And there’s something new beside it: a matching Captain America toy. Steve actually has the whole set, now that Tony looks around, but Hawkeye and Black Widow and Hulk and Thor are scattered around the room, hanging off light fixtures and tucked on the top of dressers. But Iron Man still sits where he sat on day one, and Cap sits right there beside him.
When Tony comes fully back to the present, Thor and Bruce are gone and Steve’s appeared at his elbow.
“Thank you,” Steve says softly, and Tony swears the arc reactor glows brighter for a second.
“I love you,” Tony repeats, leaning his cheek against Steve’s shoulder for a second. Steve stiffens a little, and Tony shifts away, not planning on making anything out of it if Steve doesn’t want to, but Steve’s fingers catch his wrist and still him.
“Why do you keep saying that?” Steve asks. His voice is soft, lightly questioning, as if he knows how harshly his words could come off, and he wants to make sure it’s clear he’s not dismissing it or angry or displeased.
Tony shrugs then laughs a little. “Because I do? Because I ran across three states trying to save a man I didn’t really believe was ever going to wake up. And I solved it all and held your shield, and all I wanted was to be holding your hand instead. Because I love you, and it killed me that there was a chance you would die not knowing you were loved.”
Steve is still for a long time, but it’s not in a scary way. Tony feels deeply safe here in Steve’s bedroom, pouring his heart out. There’s a light in Steve’s eyes that Tony has never seen before, and he watches while it glows brighter and brighter. Steve smiles, open and free and perfect and holds his hand out. Tony takes it. “That’s lovely,” Steve says, barely more than a whisper, but Tony finds himself tugged close so he can hear it. “I love you too.”
Tony burrows his face in Steve’s shirt, and he smells awful - like sweat and hospital - but he’s close and alive and that’s incredible. They stand like that for as long as Steve’s legs can hold out, arms draped loosely around one another, Tony’s face in Steve’s disgusting shirt and Steve’s cheek pressed against the side of Tony’s head.
But eventually Steve wobbles and sighs, and Tony pulls back. “Tired?”
Steve nods. “I should take a shower but -” He eyes the bed. “I think I need to sleep more.”
Tony leads him over to the bed and pulls fresh sweatpants and a t-shirt out of Steve’s dresser. He hands them over, and Steve strips down without any hint of modesty, pulling on the clean clothes with a relieved sigh. He sits down hard, and Tony fusses pointlessly over sheets and pillows and brushing Steve’s hair out of his eyes until Steve catches his hand and draws him in to stand between his knees. Steve pulls Tony down a little and leans up to press a kiss to his cheek, his breath soft and warm on Tony’s skin. It feels more like coming home than stepping into the elevator at the tower ever has.
Steve scoots back onto the pillow and says, “Stay,” but Tony is already climbing over him to settle on the other side of the bed. He stacks the remaining pillows behind his back and makes sure his tablet is in reach then winds his fingers back through Steve’s. Steve curls on his side, facing Tony, and sinks into the bed with a happy groan.
Tony sits, tilted a little awkwardly so he can watch Steve drift off to sleep, unable to resist squeezing his fingers every now and then, to remind himself that Steve is really here, he’s really alive.
And every time he does, Steve squeezes back.