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Steve could see his exhalations in the air, a cloud drifting upwards for a moment before dispersing in the air. It looked like a visual representation of his body-heat escaping. His body shuddered at the thought.

The near-constant sloshing sound increased as Tony moved closer to him, the water they were submersed in feeling instantly warmer. “Come on, Cap,” Tony crooned, almost teasing, “you can hold out a bit longer.”

Steve shifted, his hold still secure on the beam above them. For a moment he lifted himself a bit further out of the water, but the relief was minimal with the cool air hitting his wet uniform. Giving up, he allowed his body to sink lower again until he was chest-deep in the water.

It would have been very dark, the night long since fallen, but Tony’s skin was a-glow almost constantly now. Tony’s reassurance that Extremis would keep him safe had been the only reason why Steve had let him stay while Tony’s suit had flown off to take the last of the ship’s crew to a safe location that wasn’t sinking beneath their feet. Steve didn’t know how exactly Extremis worked, but even being close to Tony made the water feel almost tropically warm – which it certainly wasn’t without the heat pulsing from the other man’s body.

“You’re not getting tired, are you?” Steve asked back. Tony didn’t look tired – another side-effect of Extremis – but he wanted to make sure, feeling bad that Tony had even had to consider staying behind with him.

“No, and it won’t be much longer before the suit comes back and we’ll be on our way to dry land, too,” Tony reassured.

Steve nodded and tried to think of something pleasant instead of the dark, cool water lapping against the sides of the boat, slowly lured into sinking lower and lower. Much more of that and they would have to move – which perhaps they should have done some time ago, knowing that the water was not safe to stay in. Steve didn’t feel hypothermic yet, thanks to the serum, but the way his mind kept drifting back to icier water filling the cabin of Red Skull’s plane…

“Hey,” Tony called out to him, moving his foot in the water, poking Steve’s leg with it. “You’re getting that look on your face again.”

“What look?” Steve pretended not to know.

“The ‘I don’t want to become an icicle again’ look. Stop thinking about it!”

“It’s not that easy,” Steve confessed. He didn’t like talking about it but he knew why Tony had stayed – knew that Tony knew – and that was why it felt like he should be honest about his misgivings.

“The suit will be back soon,” Tony reassured him again. “I’ll fly us back real quick and then buy you a cup of hot chocolate. Deal?”

“Marshmallows on top?” Steve dared to suggest.

“Loads,” Tony nodded, inching a bit closer. The heat coming from his body might have burned Steve had he not been wet and cold. In their current situation it was like basking in front of a roaring fire, on the edge of too hot, and he focused on that, ignoring the cold and the water and the darkness.

“Thank you,” he finally said, “for staying with me.”

“No problem,” Tony replied.

An hour ago Tony had insisted that if he got out of the suit, it could carry one extra person and then it would just be him and Cap on the last flight, the ship’s crew secured. He didn’t pretend that was the main reason anymore and Steve was thankful for it.

A faint roar reached them then, growing steadily stronger, at which point the entire boat shifted and lights moved in the darkness, zeroing in on them – or rather on Tony, because if the suit and the AI controlling it had to choose, Steve would be the one left waiting for rescue.

“Sir,” Tony’s AI, J.A.R.V.I.S., greeted from above, “the crew is now safely on board a nearby tanker and would wish to convey their thanks to you.”

“Great,” Tony said and allowed himself to drop into the water. Steve could see his grimace after his head went under briefly. “Get me back in the suit and let’s get out of here.”

“Yes, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. responded and pulled them both up the side of the half-submerged boat, long enough for Tony to get inside the armor and Steve to get a good hold on it before they took off into the sky.

“This is nice,” Tony said, hands wrapped around a half-empty cup of hot chocolate – with marshmallows; his portion had peppermint in it, so much that Steve could easily smell the schnapps. “We should do this more often.”

“Float in cold water inside a sinking boat?” Steve raised an eyebrow. He was slowly warming up, dressed in hand-made wool clothes Tony had bought for both of them from a local gift shop in the small town where they had decided to get dry and rest. The inn’s dining area had a big fireplace – in front of which they were seated side by side, feet up near the flames, and it was hard to imagine that just two hours ago Steve had wondered if he could survive another watery grave.

Tony snorted. “That mission sucked – although it would have sucked a lot more with someone else,” he admitted with the kind of smile one didn’t often see on Tony Stark’s face. “I was talking about the drinks and the fireplace.”

“This is nice,” Steve admitted, sipping his second cup of hot chocolate. It was thick and held just the right amount of sweetness. “We could do this again – without the swimming part.”

“We could,” Tony agreed.

Steve nodded then smiled, chuckling to himself.

“What?” Tony asked.

“It almost sounded like we agreed to go on a second date.” After the water and sharing his vulnerability with Tony, Steve had the guts to dare a look at the other man. “I’ve never been on a second date with anyone.”

Instead of giving him a weird look or cracking a joke – which had been a possibility – Tony just smiled and tilted the foot closest to Steve’s, touching their toes together. “Maybe I’ll have to clean up my act, then, and not put out until our second date. Make it special for you.”

Steve considered his words, wanting to be sure what Tony meant by ‘putting out’. He knew the man’s reputation from before he became Iron Man – and the reputation he still liked to keep up, after he and Pepper split up, but which was a front more than anything else. “I wouldn’t be opposed to some putting out on a first date,” he dared to say. “I’ve never had that, either.”

Tony guffawed and covered his mouth, then laughed again, the sound brilliant and real. “Who did you go out on dates with?” Tony marveled.

Steve grinned with some nostalgia. “When you’re double-dating with Bucky Barnes… let’s just say the girls tended to like him a whole lot more than me.”

Tony sobered a bit, nodding. “Well,” he mused and slid a hand over to Steve’s thigh, giving him a completely disarming, seductive look, “Bucky Barnes isn’t here tonight. You might just get lucky, soldier.” His fingers caressed his clothed thigh, not even near his cock but the sensation was pleasant nonetheless. It was clear Tony had done this before. “Shall we go back to our room?”

“Let’s finish these first,” Steve decided, gesturing with his mug, and Tony smiled and nodded, leaning back into his spot on the couch – yet it wasn’t lost on Steve how he leaned against him just a bit, the promise still there.

They finished their drinks and left the dining room, taking the creaky steps upstairs to their room. Once the door closed behind them, Steve felt giddy – especially when Tony turned towards him, clearly waiting for something. His expression was soft – not the guarded one he wore when they were ready to argue over something – and Steve dared himself to take a few steps closer, to see what Tony would do.

What Tony did was lift his hands and tug Steve in the rest of the way by his shoulders. Once that was accomplished, Tony’s hands ran inwards, smoothly sliding up along Steve’s neck and to his face, gracefully guiding him into a kiss he hadn’t been all that prepared for.

It was nice, the first touch of their lips. Steve had half-expected Tony to take over, to show him every trick in the book, but it was slow and almost shy, like Tony was willing to take his time to learn the new territory. Steve was the one who grew bolder, licking the seam of Tony’s lips, gaining a smile – then a yawn. Tony tried suppressing it, looking bashful, but Steve felt a yawn of his own approaching and let it take over, feeling weariness creep in.

“Perhaps we should just go to bed,” Steve suggested.

Tony nodded, managing to hide his next yawn behind his hand.

They stripped and took turns going to the bathroom. Steve was the first to settle down on one of the two beds – the one closest to the door, as if they might come under attack and he would need to protect the other occupants of the room. It was an old habit from the war.

Tony flushed the toilet and emerged from the bathroom, dressed in a pair of boxer briefs and nothing else. Steve was wearing the same since they hadn’t thought to purchase anything but what they would need to replace their wet uniforms. Tony halted briefly between the beds, looking over at Steve – then took a step and leaned over Steve’s upper body, dropping a kiss on his lips.

It had perhaps been intended as a ‘good night’ kiss, but Steve drew Tony closer, dragging it out, and eventually it was easier to let Tony settle properly beside him, under the covers, and keep kissing him that way until they were yawning again.

“Do you want me to go to my bed?” Tony asked, eyelids drooping.

“Not really,” Steve admitted.

Tony gave him a lopsided, tired smile, and settled down to sleep.

Steve smiled briefly, turned off the lamp between the beds and followed his lead.

“I promise a better performance on our second date,” Tony murmured in the darkness.

“Looking forward to it,” Steve replied – and he really was. He hadn’t felt so eager for quite a while and it was refreshing. Also, he wasn’t worried about stepping on anyone’s toes this time because he knew Tony and how much he could take – and how much he could dish out. He was happy, to put it simply, even after something as simple as kissing and lying next to Tony, their combined body heat between the sheets driving away the last of the cold from the water.

Steve had not slept so well since waking up from the ice.

Upon their return to New York City, Steve was a little concerned that the familiar environment would give them a reality check. Surviving stressful and dangerous situations often created a sort of bond between people – a bond that was easily broken once everyone returned to their daily routines.

He needn’t have worried because Tony didn’t function like most people.

They were riding the elevator up to the Tower’s top floors, fresh from debriefing with S.H.I.E.L.D., when Tony gave him a look from the corner of his eye. “You doing anything next Monday?”

“I don’t think so,” Steve replied. They both knew how quickly those plans – or lack of plans – could change should there be a mission that required their participation.

Tony nodded and crossed his arms over his chest. He was nervous, Steve could tell, but not in the way that could turn hostile in a heartbeat. “Well, then,” he started after a beat, “perhaps if we still have a mutual interest in that second date…”

Steve turned towards him, seeing as it was unfair to make Tony do all the work. “I would say I’m still pretty interested.”

Tony turned his head in the captain’s direction, his shoulders relaxing a bit. Steve wondered how long it had been since Tony last feared rejection. “Fantastic. I’ll set something up,” Tony promised.

“Don’t stress about it,” Steve said. “It doesn’t need to be anything fancy.”

“Not even if I want to impress you?” Tony quirked an eyebrow.

“I’ve seen your suit; I’m already impressed.” Steve knew that was the right thing to say. Some people had their fancy cars, others a beautiful wife on their arm; Tony had his suits, a solid, iron extension of his ego and manhood alike, and Steve was not above rubbing that spot.

“Much more of that and I’ll take you to third base right here in the elevator,” Tony promised and turned his body to face Steve’s, clever hands sliding up his waist and if that wasn’t an invitation for a kiss then Steve needed serious help to figure this dating thing out.

Taking the initiative, Steve framed Tony’s face with his hands and leaned in, finding the other man willingly meeting him half-way. Whatever ‘third base’ meant – he was pretty sure that term hadn’t existed outside a baseball field in his day – Steve was fairly sure it was something they should wait for until their next date, at least.

The elevator halted, the motion so smooth they didn’t notice it until the doors opened and someone cleared their throat from the outside. “I assume you’re both fine despite the conditions of the last mission,” Bruce Banner’s voice inquired.

Tony, of course, grinned without shame at his fellow scientist and slapped him on the shoulder while exiting the elevator. “Just huddling for warmth,” he claimed although there had been very little huddling going on in the elevator.

Steve gave Bruce a sheepish look and took off in the direction of his own floor, mentally circling Monday’s date in his mind over and over, wishing that no one would try to take over the world before then.

Monday arrived sunny and warm. On his morning run Steve wondered what Tony had planned; a dinner in some fancy restaurant that Steve could never afford – nor would he want to – and to which you had to reserve a table a year in advance unless you happened to be Tony Stark; a rented get-away near the city in some villa that was closed to the public – or a house of such modern design it would make Steve stare at all the architectural choices in puzzlement; a supper on one of the luxury boats Steve knew Tony owned –one of which was actually anchored in one of Manhattan’s marinas.

Steve felt a little less enthusiastic with all those options in mind, seeing as he would have rather done something simple. This was Tony, though, and Tony did nothing by halves.

Deciding that he would just roll with it, Steve headed back to the Tower and rode the elevator up to his floor, trying not to over-analyze the date ahead of him. Of course, he hadn’t seen Tony yet that morning so there was a small chance Tony had forgotten…

The elevator stopped suddenly a few floors below his, the opening doors revealing Tony. “Hi,” the man gave him a quick smile and leaned on the door to keep it open. “Just getting back from your morning run?”

“Yes,” Steve replied, seeing as that was rather obvious.

“Would it be okay with you if you skipped the rest of your morning workout, ran up to your floor to shower and change and then met me in the garage?”

Steve blinked. “Do you need help with something?”

“I was thinking we might head out on that date we agreed on – unless something’s come up and you’re busy,” Tony shrugged one shoulder, playing indifferent.

“It’s seven in the morning,” Steve clarified. Usually Tony hadn’t even gone to bed at this hour.

“I’m aware,” Tony replied. “We don’t have to leave now but I’ll have to re-arrange some things if we don’t –”

“It’s fine,” Steve cut in before Tony could think he wasn’t into it. “I’ll get cleaned up and meet you in the garage,” he agreed.

Tony nodded and stepped back from the doorway, allowing the elevator doors to close once again and take Steve up to his floor. It was entirely possible Tony’s day was booked and they had to get their date over with before his other duties interfered. Steve had half a mind to tell Tony that they could just do this on another day, but then, he had been looking forward to today and who knew when their schedules would be clear again at the same time.

He showered and then struggled to decide what to wear; Tony had been dressed in jeans and a tank top, but that didn’t mean the man wouldn’t be wearing an expensive suit by the time Steve got down to the garage. Not wanting to dress inappropriately and kind of disliking Tony for not giving him any cues on what to wear, Steve huffed at his limited options and gazed at the ceiling. “J.A.R.V.I.S., do you have any idea of what Tony has planned?”

“Indeed I do, Captain,” the AI responded at once.

“What should I wear?”

“Something casual will do.”

Casual it was, then: a button-up shirt that he could pull off even if they ended up going somewhere a bit fancier, stone-washed jeans – because his khaki pants made Tony purse his lips more often than not – and a leather jacket just in case. He was just about to pick out a pair of shoes when J.A.R.V.I.S. made a noise almost like clearing his throat. “The sneakers would work best, Captain Rogers,” the AI informed him.

Steve frowned, not thinking sneakers would go well with anything he had imagined they might be doing, but he trusted the AI and put on those shoes, then grabbed his wallet and phone before walking to the elevator and riding it down in genuine puzzlement.

When he reached the garage, Tony already had a car selected and parked near the elevators. The genius himself was leaning against the side of the vehicle, his phone in hand, eyes fixed on the screen. Steve noted that he wasn’t underdressed at all because Tony hadn’t changed since he last saw him, sporting the same jeans, top, and sneakers he had worn when he stopped Steve in the elevator.

Tony raised his gaze and smiled briefly. “All set?” he asked but didn’t wait for an answer as he moved to open the driver’s door and get in, waiting for Steve to round the vehicle and sit down beside him.

“Where are we going?” Steve asked the moment Tony started the engine and drove out of the garage.

“It’s a surprise,” Tony stated and took them to a north-bound street.

Steve kept guessing, wondering if some of his earlier ideas had been correct. They left Manhattan and headed towards the Bronx, the destination a complete mystery to Steve even when they pulled into an empty parking lot in front of the New York Botanical Garden.

Tony got out of the car, fully intending to stay here by the looks of it, so Steve followed his lead and walked behind Tony to the gate. The signs suggested the garden was closed on Mondays but a young woman let them in with a warm smile. Tony thanked her and beckoned for Steve to follow him.

The gardens, as expected, were amazing, full of exotic flowers in full bloom under the morning sun. They saw a few garden employees as they walked but otherwise it was silent, save for the chirping of the birds.

After a mile’s trek from the gate, Tony took them down a smaller path to an area that had been restricted with a chain hanging between two stone pillars.

“Are we supposed to go there?” Steve asked.

“Yeah,” Tony flashed him a smile.

“Wait,” Steve blinked in surprise. “You arranged for us to have a date at a closed botanical garden?”

Tony shrugged and led them over to what looked like a picnic spot, with a basket and a cooler sitting by a folded blanket. “I knew you wouldn’t like a fancy dinner and frankly, any place I’d go to, people would talk.”

“What did you tell the staff here?” Steve frowned.

“I told them you’re my friend and an artist,” Tony shrugged again and reached down to grab the blanket, then shook it open and laid it out on the grass. “They selected a real nice spot for us, too,” he gestured at the flowers and trees, then unlatched the cooler and pulled out a couple beers, offering one to Steve. “My other option was to book the observation deck of One World Trade Center but I thought this was, in the end, the better option – seeing as we already spend enough time on a skyscraper.”

“I like this better,” Steve confessed, sitting down next to Tony and opening his beer. It was an old brand he liked – a small gesture from Tony that he appreciated.

“Good,” Tony smiled and opened his own bottle, clinking it against Steve’s and taking a sip.

“Should you be drinking?” Steve frowned in puzzlement.

“If you think me too drunk to drive after a few beers, I’ll just have you drive us back, Mr. Sobriety,” Tony teased. His words weren’t malicious, however, and Steve decided to let it go, taking in the beautiful scenery instead. Truth be told, he could find a lot of things to sketch here.

His gazing eventually circulated back to Tony – who was being uncharacteristically quiet. “I hope this date isn’t too mundane for your tastes,” Steve mused.

“I find it in my… current level of experience in the dating pool,” Tony started, carefully sidestepping the word ‘age’, “that it’s the company that matters.”

“I half expected you to take us to your yacht,” Steve revealed.

“We can do that later if you want,” Tony chuckled.

“Sail off into the sunset? I don’t think either one of us wants to do that after the last mission,” Steve snorted.

Tony shook his head in agreement and sipped his beer again, then reached into the basket and pulled out two wrapped items of food that smelled like sandwiches from one of the cafés Steve liked: their breads were always fresh, as were the other ingredients, and the portions were big enough to satisfy his hunger.

“You’re frighteningly aware of my eating habits,” Steve acknowledged but accepted the bigger of the two wraps and opened it after setting his beer bottle down on the grass. He hadn’t gotten to eat after his run and took the first bite gratefully.

“You’re not much of a mystery,” Tony claimed and dug into his own sandwich with a little less enthusiasm, seeing as he had no serum-enhanced metabolism to maintain.

“Are you calling me simple?” he asked, knowing he was a pretty transparent person but wanting to tease Tony just a little bit.

“Simple isn’t always bad,” Tony argued. “Makes my life easier,” he added.

“I might surprise you yet.”

“I’m betting on it.”

While Steve ate he tried to think of ways to be unpredictable – in a good way. They had fought side by side for a few years now and having lived in the Tower, they had sort of become part of a small community of superheroes. That didn’t mean there weren’t a lot of things they didn’t know about each other and Steve looked forward to learning more about Tony.

He was finishing his sandwich while thinking of questions to ask the other man when both their phones chimed at the same time. Tony groaned and Steve sighed, both of them knowing what it meant: a call to assemble.

“Well, this was nice,” Tony groused as he cleaned his hands on a napkin and picked up his phone, pulling an earpiece from his pocket and placing it in his ear. “Go ahead,” he said to someone at the other end and listened intently.

Steve used the time to finish his food, washing down the last of the bread with his beer because that’s what was available and he couldn’t get drunk anyway.

“A.I.M.,” Tony informed him a few seconds later, rising to his feet. “Let’s go.”

Steve nodded and followed his lead, giving their picnic spot a mournful look before focusing on the mission ahead of them.

All the other Avengers were unavailable to partake in the mission and Bruce thought it best not to risk bringing the Hulk into a situation where success didn’t rely on their heaviest hitter, so Steve and Tony moved out together once again, Iron Man providing the means of transport since the A.I.M. sighting had been just outside New York City.

The seaport they landed in was quiet, a maze of shipping containers spreading out around them. A single ship was fastened to the dock and preparing to leave by the looks of it.

“We better hurry,” Tony said through the comm. “It will be easier to apprehend them before the ship gets moving.”

Steve voiced his approval and made sure his shield was secure on his back, then began moving out towards the ship that was hiding some kind of A.I.M. device on board. Tony waited for a moment, allowing Steve to get much closer, then rose to the air again, the thrusters working quietly compared to the usual sound; Steve knew Tony was using the stealth mode of his suit to not alarm anyone who might be lying in wait for intruders.

“Anything from the external scans?” Steve asked, keeping his voice low, knowing Tony would catch his words anyway.

“Nothing conclusive but there’s definitely something inside the main cargo hold – something big. I’m also getting some mild radiation counts but nothing serious.”

Steve moved a bit closer still, halting to take a look around. There was no one in sight but he knew that rarely meant anything. Slowly he slid the shield free from his back, looked up in case he could see the suit, but for the time being he couldn’t tell where Tony was. “I’m going in,” Steve decided them. “If I engage the enemy, feel free to go and take a look inside. Otherwise we’ll start exploring the ship and secure it.”

“Copy that.”

Steve approached the ramp leading up to the ship’s deck, still not seeing or hearing anyone, so he decided to take the easy way in and rushed up the gangway. He did so with all the silence he could muster yet prepared for enemy retaliation – which never came. Once on the deck, he could still see no one and doubt began to gnaw at the back of his mind. “Are you sure we’re in the right place?” Steve asked, walking along the deck to find a way to the hold.

“That’s what the intel said,” Tony replied. Steve couldn’t hear him moving around but knew Tony had to be close by.

With a small frown, Steve moved out along the deck, trying to find a door or stairs that might lead in the right direction – then heard something move on his right side. He barely had time to lift his shield before some kind of energy weapon was fired at him, the impact sending him flying back despite the vibranium absorbing any dangerous effects.

He slammed down hard, felt something creak beneath him – then fell all over again as whatever he had fallen on disappeared. After a rather long drop that completely winded him and possibly cracked a few ribs, he landed on what felt like a stack of wooden crates. The wood gave beneath the impact, snapping and collapsing, sending him rolling down onto the floor along with a shower of dust and pieces of wood.

“Cap?!” Tony called out to him.

Steve groaned, supposing that was enough of a sign that he was still alive.

“You found the hold. I’ll be there in a second.” This time Steve heard the thrusters, a quick whine followed by a repulsor blast – possibly aimed at whoever had shot him – and then the suit landed heavily on the bottom of the hold a few feet from him. “Can you get up?” Tony asked.

“I think I’ll need a minute,” Steve managed. His body was on fire but he didn’t think he was bleeding. The serum was already working to restore his mobility and he tried to relax, to let it work, knowing he would get back to his feet faster that way.

Iron Man moved around, bright lights washing the area, burning Steve’s eyes. “I think you broke whatever they were transporting,” Tony announced – then swore sharply. “Okay, we have a problem. Try to lie very still.”

“Why?” Steve asked and blinked, slowly raising a hand to his face in the hopes that rubbing his eyes might restore his vision to normal. He saw a flash of red before he got that far, though, and the armor gripped his forearm tight.

“You’re lying in a pool of liquid heavily infused with gamma radiation.”

Steve supposed that was bad and focused on keeping still, not wanting the liquid to get anywhere it already wasn’t. “Don’t touch it,” he ordered.

“The suit will protect me,” Tony reassured. “I need to call Bruce in. He can do an analysis much faster than I can.”

“What about A.I.M.?” Steve asked. He heard the armor move, just a little, and he guessed Tony was either looking around or scanning his surroundings.

“Hightailing, by the looks of it. I’ll alert S.H.I.E.L.D., see if they want to try and catch them, but right now we’ll worry about getting you cleaned up, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve agreed and remained as still as humanly possible.

Bruce arrived on a S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet in less than half an hour. By that time Tony had secured the machine and helped Steve to his feet, away from the pool of the oily substance that had leaked out of the machine he’d fallen on. Steve was sore all over but he didn’t think the liquid was actually affecting him. They needed to be sure, though, and that was why Bruce entered the hold alone – with a load of diagnostic equipment.

“What was A.I.M. trying to do with this machine?” Bruce mused as he instructed Steve to strip his uniform, piece by piece.

“Who knows,” Tony shrugged, still fully inside the armor; the area had been sealed and there was no fear of contamination, at least no more than what Steve had been subjected to. “If S.H.I.E.L.D. catches them, I’ll be sure to ask.”

Steve cringed as his ribs protested against the pull as he removed his arms from the sleeves, one at a time. Bruce gave him a worried look, shining extra light at visible skin. “There doesn’t appear to be irritation.”

“Maybe it didn’t seep through,” Steve offered.

“I’m fairly certain it did, plus the liquid is releasing fumes as we speak while vaporizing…”

“Before you ask me to hold my breath, let me tell you it’s probably too late to protect me against that,” Steve said.

“Duly noted,” Bruce replied. “Tony, can you help him out?”

Steve watched the armor approach, then moved his arms to help Tony tug off the top of his uniform, baring him down to the waist.

“This is not how I imagined undressing you tonight,” Tony noted.

Bruce cleared his throat as if to remind them that he was still standing right there.

Steve didn’t bother apologizing, knowing what Tony meant. “Just help me get the rest of it off and we can head home.”

“Through a quarantine,” Bruce added.

“Spoilsport,” Tony muttered and moved his armored hands to Steve’s waist.

“We may have a problem,” Bruce said.

They were inside a mobile quarantine unit and Steve was slowly starting to feel like a healthy human being again; his body was healed to a point that left him mostly pain-free and he couldn’t believe Bruce had found something to be wrong with him.

“What’s wrong, doc?” Tony asked from the other side of a protective wall, the wide observation window giving him an unrestricted view to the other side where Bruce and Steve were.

“Every test suggests he’s been exposed to gamma radiation – yet there are no ill effects,” Bruce said.

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Steve frowned.

“Your body is clinging to the radiation and until I know for certain whether it’s going to be released or neutralized by the serum, I’m considering it a problem,” Bruce explained.

“That’s your scientific take on this?” Tony rolled his eyes. Bruce didn’t see it, his back to the glass, but Steve did and he shook his head, knowing that Bruce was doing his best to sort things out.

“What do I need to do?” Steve asked.

“Stay in isolation, unfortunately. We can transport you back to a S.H.I.E.L.D. base or even the Tower, whichever you would prefer. I’ll monitor any changes and you should try and rest.”

Steve was tired, his body craving sustenance and rest after being pushed through the healing process. “I think I would like the Tower better but whatever works best,” he replied.

Tony nodded. “I’ll get one of the quarantine quarters ready; can’t risk you irradiating your floor,” he added. “Anything you think you might want in there?”

Steve did have one thing in mind – a thing he and Tony had sort of skirted around – but he knew that was out of the question. “Food and a bed will do,” he replied, holding Tony’s gaze for a moment.

If Tony knew what he was really thinking about, he didn’t say anything. There was something in his eyes, though, that made Steve presume Tony was well aware of his regret at how their date had ended.

After three days in quarantine, Bruce began to consider the possibility that Steve’s body was not going to release the radiation after all and that he was safe to be around people.

Steve, after all the extensive tests, was relieved by the news, but the uncertainty made him wary. “Perhaps I should stay in the Tower for a few more days, just to be sure,” he suggested.

Bruce nodded, clearly appreciating his caution. “The gamma radiation may be harmless to you and me, but others are not as fortunate.”

Tony walked in just then, making them both stiffen, but Tony rolled their eyes at them. “Relax. I’ve done some tests with J.A.R.V.I.S. and it would appear Extremis is more than capable of battling low levels of gamma rays.” He gave Steve a suggestive look.

“Don’t risk it,” Bruce cautioned. “I think the radiation should have vanished by now, seeing as his other injuries have completely healed, but there’s no prior data on how exactly the SSS stands against radiation in general. We all know gamma radiation’s capabilities so I won’t consider Steve free of danger until every last bit of it has vanished from his system.”

It made Steve feel like he was a walking time bomb and he considered staying in quarantine for a while longer, just for Bruce’s peace of mind. Tony, however, was having none of it: “We’ll keep an eye on things. Actually, I was wondering if you would stay on my floor until the situation’s cleared.”

Steve looked at him in surprise. “Why?” he asked.

“The detectors are way sharper in my quarters,” Tony shrugged as if he had no ulterior motives whatsoever. “J.A.R.V.I.S. will be able to monitor you 24/7 and none of us will have to worry quite so much.”

It was enough of a reason for Steve although he suspected his floor was equipped with enough such gadgets to get the same results. However, Tony’s floor was Tony’s and Bruce seemed to approve of the idea. “I’ll go and… pack a bag, I guess,” Steve finally agreed. He half-expected Tony to tell him he’d already done that for him, but Tony just nodded and told him to come up when he was ready.

Although his quarantine quarters had been more comfortable than could have been expected, it was wonderful to be able to move around freely. Steve was a little tempted to go to the gym but stuck to the plan and went to his rooms, packing a bag of items he thought he might need.

He took the stairs up, J.A.R.V.I.S. unlocking the access door to Tony’s floor without asking. Tony was already there, food on the kitchen table.

“You can put your things in the guest room,” Tony told him without looking up from the tablet he was using.

Steve halted, a bit confused. “I thought…” He cut himself off, realizing how stupid that thought had been to begin with. Where else would Tony put him? The master bedroom – where Tony slept? Just because they had spent that one night in the same bed… Steve furiously hoped Tony hadn’t heard him, too engrossed in his current project.

Tony looked up at him sharply a moment later, dashing Steve’s hopes of a graceful way out. “I thought you would be more comfortable in a room of your own.”

“You’re right, of course,” Steve nodded. “Which way…?”

“If you want,” Tony went on, not showing him the right direction, “you can stay in my bedroom, too.”

“I’m your guest so the guestroom is more than fine,” Steve reassured. “Frankly, I was expecting the couch.”

Tony narrowed his eyes, just a little. “I don’t think you were,” he said slowly. “I think…” he got up from his seat and moved over to Steve, a small smile pulling his lips. “Have you thought about it?” he asked then, voice lower, nearing that seductive tone Steve had experienced before. “That night at the inn, sharing a bed?”

Steve swallowed. “I have a very good memory,” he answered, knowing that wasn’t what Tony wanted to hear.

He got a smile in response, Tony’s eyes filled with mirth and something Steve had seen when they sat in the botanical garden before the disastrous mission. “The master bedroom’s over there,” Tony said finally, gesturing towards an open door. “Make yourself at home.”

“You’re not going to… go anywhere, are you?” Steve asked to make sure there were no misunderstandings.

“Nope,” Tony told him then leaned up to land a small kiss on Steve’s lower lip before moving back to the dining area, picking up his tablet again.

Steve went to the master bedroom, placing his bag in a corner. The bed was big enough for a large family back in his day, and if either of them started to feel crowded they could easily share a bed and have their own space. Not that Steve had felt crowded that night at the inn and he smiled a little to himself, feeling that giddy happiness flutter in his stomach again – a stomach that growled a moment later, prompting him to turn and go to the kitchen, seeing as there was food that wasn’t going to eat itself.

The first day with Tony was much like what Steve had thought could have happened after their second date: they ate, talked, then settled on the couch to talk some more and ended up making out. Steve had always known Tony didn’t handle his down-time well – not without starting a dozen projects – and it was possible he had no real work to attend to so locking lips with Steve was a way for the other man to occupy himself.

Steve didn’t complain.

Neither did he complain when they actually ended up in the same bed; while Tony had agreed to it, Steve wouldn’t have blamed him for changing his mind because sleeping with another person was regarded as an intimate experience by some. Steve, of course, had spent most of his nights before crashing into the ice sharing his mattress or at least sleeping in a room that had been smaller than Tony’s walk-in closet, so it was more like settling back into a familiar routine. Not that Tony’s mattress was anywhere near as small or hard, and it was clear that them sharing a bed was different from what Steve had done in the past.

“This is probably the most decent hour I’ve ever gone to bed,” Tony admitted once they were between the sheets, a comfortable distance between their bodies.

“You can stay up if you want,” Steve told him. “I’m worn out from all of Bruce’s tests so I won’t be much fun for much longer.”

Tony chuckled and shifted a bit closer to him. “And here I had the whole evening planned out…”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Steve apologized even though he knew Tony was joking.

Steve leaned in to kiss him again, and one kiss led to another, but eventually Steve yawned and gave up, shuffling down to a good sleeping position. Tony left him to it, rolling over with his back to Steve – something Steve was starting to see as a pattern, perhaps from the years when Tony still carried the arc reactor in his chest.

Steve debated calling ‘good night’ but fell asleep before he could decide whether Tony would kick him out of bed for that.

An itch forced Steve out of his slumber. His fingers had already reached towards his back before he was fully awake, trying to scratch the disturbance, but the momentary comfort soon transformed into a burning pain – as if someone was stubbing out their cigarette on his skin.

Steve groaned and sat up slowly, cringing as the motion seemed to irritate his back even further. He looked around, eyes adjusting to the weak light. Tony was still asleep beside him so Steve tried to move as stealthily as possible as he got off the bed and went to the bathroom.

He tried to find the light switch for a moment until J.A.R.V.I.S. must have realized what he was looking for and slowly turned on the lights for him. Steve smiled quickly then stepped up to the large mirror, turning his back to it to see what the problem was – then froze.

There were eight dots of angry red color on his back, in two neat columns. They seemed quite evenly spaced in between his ribs, all of them roughly the same size, and while he watched, transparent liquid began to seep out of them. Frankly, he would have been less alarmed had it been blood, and he reached out for a clean towel to try and reach around in order to keep the substance from making a mess.

The marks seemed to be changing, too slowly to notice if one stared straight at them, but when Steve took a better look at them again, they seemed almost like giant pores, leaving clear indentations in the middle as if he could stick a finger into his body through one of them. The idea made him shudder.

“Is there any change in the gamma radiation levels?” Steve asked, voice shaking a little as he kept an eye on the marks, trying to force them to stay as they were with his gaze alone.

“None that I can detect, Captain,” J.A.R.V.I.S. replied.

“Is there any change you can’t detect it?” Steve would never forgive himself if he ended up hurting Tony. He was starting to think sharing Tony’s living space had been a stupid idea and he should have known better than to accept.

“Minimal but not impossible,” the AI replied a bit snidely.

“What’s the ruckus?” Tony’s voice asked as he appeared in the bathroom doorway, rubbing his face – then stopped to stare at the reflection of Steve’s backside in the mirror. “What the hell?” he frowned and stepped inside.

Steve reached out with the hand that wasn’t holding the towel. “Don’t. It could be dangerous.”

“I’m assuming those are not super-soldier zits,” Tony said, trying to get closer despite Steve’s attempts to block his entrance.

“Classic remark, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. commented. “Shall I wake up Dr. Banner?”

Tony checked Steve’s face. “Shall we?”

“I don’t know,” Steve admitted and reached back to dab at what was now eight rather visible holes, transparent liquid still oozing out of them. He scrunched up his nose at the faint smell although it wasn’t exactly unpleasant. “Maybe I should go back to quarantine, just in case,” he suggested.

Tony stepped closer to him, taking a proper look. “These weren’t here last night,” he said unnecessarily.

“I woke up to an itch literally ten minutes ago. Since then they’ve transformed from angry red marks into… this,” Steve told him, trying to gesture at the strange holes on his back. He wasn’t sure he liked the look on Tony’s face, like he was gazing at some scientific anomaly. He definitely didn’t like it when Tony actually caressed one of the holes with his finger, testing its edges and luring more of the substance out of it. “Can you not do that?” he asked with a grimace.

“Does it hurt?” Tony looked up from it.

“No, but… I feel icky.”

Tony chuckled. “Right. Let me take a sample and maybe we’ll end up being smarter.”

They went to a small lab area on the floor below Tony’s. Steve was very much aware of his half-naked state and the fact that Tony hadn’t bothered to put on more than a shirt to accompany his underwear. Not that he protested this sight, of course, but the situation was unnerving him more than just a little. Steve thought he might have benefited from a professional examination instead of the half-intimate touches Tony bestowed on his back once he had some sample equipment ready.

It still didn’t hurt and the way Tony moved his finger around one of the holes was starting to border on pleasant. It coaxed out more of the liquid, which was what Tony had been aiming for, yet when he began to move back to do something with the sample, Steve felt something shifting against his side and towards his back.

The sensation was somewhere between a tickle and someone moving a needle under the skin; no pain but a certain sensation of pressure. It traveled further back and then there was something akin to relief, his muscles contracting and releasing.

“Holy shit!” Tony yelled and dropped the sample.

Steve jumped, unsure what had happened. He looked back at Tony, confused, then craned his neck to see what the other was seeing, instantly regretting it: something had come out of the hole Tony had been touching. It looked almost like some kind of slug or a strange under-water probe, but as it stretched out further and grew in length – the shifting sensation returning inside Steve as if it were coming from somewhere within him – it resembled some kind of strange tentacle.

Tony reached out cautiously, and although Steve had half a mind to tell him not to touch it, he couldn’t form the words in the midst of watching the slick, smooth thing protrude from his back. The moment Tony’s finger very lightly touched the tentacle thing, Steve felt it. For a second it didn’t seem his nervous system knew how to handle it – and then it most certainly did, sending a familiar thrill down his spine.

His cock got hard.

Steve shifted his legs, desperately trying to hide the effect he hadn’t been at all prepared for. Luckily Tony was still behind him, mesmerized by the tentacle – and it seemed the tentacle was mesmerized by him, too, moving towards his hovering hand as if knowing it was there, and then Tony touched it again, with the determined look of a person handling a worm or some such, and Steve gasped, the sensation of Tony’s forefinger and thumb running along the tentacle’s length transmitting straight to his hardening erection.

“Does it hurt?” Tony asked again, then cocked his head and stroked the tentacle.

“No,” Steve managed, hoping he didn’t sound off. “It’s a bit weird, though, so maybe you should stop –”

“It’s expanding,” Tony noted. “I think I can feel a pulse, faint but there.”

Steve knew exactly how it felt, shifting his legs again to hide another part of him that had a pulse point.

“I wonder…” Tony mused and then his other hand landed on Steve’s back, near another one of the holes. He began circling it much like before.

As soon as the shifting sensation started, Steve jumped up and away, knowing what was coming. One of them was bad enough and he wasn’t about to have Tony fondle two of them at once!

Tony looked startled, standing there with both his hands glistening a bit with the substance that had dripped out of the holes. “Did that hurt?”

Steve stood awkwardly, torn between hiding his erection and hoping Tony wouldn’t notice if he didn’t draw attention to it. However, he was poorly dressed to hide anything at all and Tony’s eyes landed on his crotch in three seconds flat when he didn’t respond.

“Maybe we should wake Bruce up,” Steve suggested, beyond mortified.

“Yeah,” Tony agreed. Steve was somewhat surprised he didn’t say anything else before telling J.A.R.V.I.S. to connect him to Bruce’s room and proceeded to wake the other man up as gently as possible.

If Tony had restrained himself against any tasteless jokes before, that restraint disappeared as soon as Bruce was up, they were all in a bigger lab, and Steve had eight tentacle-like appendages coming out of his back.

“There’s muscle tissue, veins… the surface is highly sensitive to temperature changes,” Bruce said, looking at some images J.A.R.V.I.S. had taken during various scans, “and I think they sense the proximity of a living being’s body heat and electricity.”

“So, basically, eight semi-sentient tentacles of erectile tissue,” Tony cracked from the side.

“I’m happy you’re amused,” Bruce said dryly.

“What about the mucus?” Steve asked, bemused to be the source of Tony’s endless jokes. At first it had taken away some of his anxiousness but it wasn’t all that amusing anymore. He wished it would all just vanish as fast it had appeared.

“I think it serves to lubricate the hydrostatic extensions,” Bruce explained. Tony snorted in time with the word ‘lubricate’. “It seems harmless enough although I would advise against wearing your best shirt until the problem’s been resolved; the substance appears water-based but it might leave a stain.”

“How long do you think this will last?” Steve dared to ask.

Bruce gave him a cautious look. “I’m of the opinion that the gamma radiation is causing this. Hopefully the super-soldier serum will be able to fight it off in time.”

“And if not?” Steve dared to ask. He needed to be aware of the alternatives.

“Worst case scenario?” Bruce frowned. “You’ll keep on mutating as your body accepts the gamma radiation instead of expelling it.”

Steve nodded slowly, trying to absorb the information. Accepting it was another matter entirely but it was not the first time his body had failed to live up to his hopes and dreams. That fact should have worked to his advantage but it really didn’t; he was already getting frustrated and it had just been a few hours!

“Don’t worry,” Tony smiled, running a hand down Steve’s side, making the closest tentacles twitch and try to reach towards his hand before he pulled it away. “I’m sure they’ll be a bundle of joy! Eight bundles, to be exact.”

Steve scowled at him and so did Bruce, which made Tony back off for a moment, focusing on analyzing some of the latest samples.

While the jokes were tiresome and not helping his mounting mortification, Steve wondered whether they were just a smokescreen to hide something else: disgust. Steve had no desire to look at himself in the mirror right now – or any other reflective surface – and seeing as he and Tony had been planning on expanding their brand new intimacy… Was there any hope of it happening now? Steve was horrified by his own appearance and he had no desire to upset anyone else – or force them to act as if they were okay with his monstrous condition.

Bruce patted his shoulder, far away from the nearest tentacle, and Steve sighed, hanging his head for a bit, feeling the tentacles slowly retreat back into his body as there was no further stimulation to lure them outside. Even that didn’t make him feel like less of a freak and he doubted even Tony could fake interest in that for much longer.

After the examination, Steve stayed in the quarantine quarters although no one had suggested he should do so. At night he slept poorly, lying awake in bed, curled on his side. While he knew it was a waste of time he tortured himself with images of what he might have been doing instead had the gamma radiation accident not happened.

Their date would have ended smoothly – or they would have returned after a successful mission to shower and continue their day, perhaps ending up in the same bed again. Because he could, Steve imagined they might have done more than just kiss; Tony’s clever fingers would have touched his back without anything alien about it, and they could have done anything they wanted…

He sighed and rolled onto his back – then instantly rolled back to the side, his backside feeling wet instantly. He hated it, all of it, from the harmless, slimy substance to the light tickle against his ribs, beneath his skin; he hated being that someone people looked at with pity, whether it was because he was weak or a freak.

With a disgusted sound, Steve rolled off the bed and onto his feet; he wasn’t going to be able to rest so he might as well do something to take out his frustration. As always when he was anxious these days, he chose to go to the gym and work out. He wasn’t sure if that was smart, but no one had told him to isolate himself so the desire to punch something eventually won and he headed out, taking the stairs to their main training floor to set everything up there.

It was strange walking around half-clothed, seeing as he refused to put on a shirt just to have the large pores oozing out the disgusting lubrication and stain the fabric.

Focusing on his punches gave him a distraction from his and Tony’s botched date and where he had hoped it was leading. It was also a relief to know that, at least for a while, the wetness running down his back was sweat and little else. The work-out made him feel normal – which clearly wasn’t meant to last because Tony walked into the gym after half an hour.

“Hey, porcupine,” the other man called out and Steve instantly stiffened, giving the bag one more solid punch before angling his body so that Tony didn’t have a clear view of his back.

“Would you stop with that?” Steve asked, voice snappy, mood low.

Tony didn’t give a visible reaction to his angry request but Steve felt like it had an impact. “Sure,” the brunet agreed. “Sorry,” he added. “I know you’re on edge…”

“Do you?” Steve raised a challenging eyebrow. He wasn’t proud of it but arguing made him feel normal, too, and he refused to believe Tony was done with his stupid jokes and clever remarks.

“Yes,” Tony said simply. “I’ll behave, I promise.”

Steve snorted, unable to help it. He was allowed to be in a bad mood under these circumstances and Tony had not been helpful in the least. “What do you want?” he asked, knowing that arguing wasn’t what he really wanted to do; punching a bag was.

“J.A.R.V.I.S. told me you’re staying in quarantine,” Tony replied.

“Do you have a problem with that?” Steve asked, shifting his stance into a defensive one.

Tony lifted his hands as if he saw it as an offense. “No,” he started. “I just wanted to let you know you don’t have to stay there, seeing as your condition isn’t contagious or anything.”

“My condition,” Steve repeated.

“Do you have a better name for it?” Tony asked, clearly trying to hold onto his temper and not join Steve in the one-sided argument. That was probably the first time Tony didn’t jump head-first into a verbal battle and Steve wondered why he was creating a problem where one didn’t necessarily need to exist.

“No,” Steve admitted and looked at the floor. “Was there something you needed?” he asked then, keeping his voice level and free of the frustration that was quickly taking over the angry parts of his mind.

Tony hesitated – which wasn’t like him either – then took a decisive breath and walked over to Steve. He halted a comfortable distance away, not crowding but showing no caution either. “I’ve been an insensitive dick to you for most of today and I need to apologize for that,” Tony said, just as unabashedly as he did everything. Only, it usually wasn’t an apology that passed his lips so fluently and Steve nodded in appreciation.

“Apology accepted,” Steve replied.

Tony nodded, visibly pleased, and something earnest appeared in his expression. “Will you come up to my floor when you’re done here?” he asked.

Steve frowned. “Why?” He imagined there would be more tests but Tony’s floor wasn’t the place for those.

“Because I don’t want you to be hiding down in quarantine,” Tony said boldly.

“I’m not hiding; it’s a precaution –”

“Steve,” Tony said in a tone that was a warning against bullshit, “don’t give me that. You’re hiding down there or in here. It’s been a crappy few days for everyone and all I want to do is get a good night’s sleep.”

“You should go to bed, then,” Steve suggested.

“I will when you join me,” Tony stated and it sounded like the final offer.

Steve wondered if Tony knew how much he wanted to say ‘yes’ – and how much he feared what it might mean. He doubted Tony had thought this through, either, and would come to regret it. “I can’t,” he said instead.

“Yes, you can,” Tony pressed, getting impatient now, his brow creasing as he tried to find the right words to get his way – and the ones that would make Steve putty in his hands. Steve knew Tony had plenty of those words, which meant he had to be extra cautious for the next few seconds. “We don’t know how long this will last,” Tony went on at length. “I don’t want to put what we have on ice for an undefined length of time.”

Steve’s heart jumped at that – which meant Tony was succeeding. “It could be permanent,” Steve retaliated quickly, his argument shaky at best. “It could get worse.”

“And it if does, we’ll deal with it,” Tony insisted. “You’re Steve Rogers, and no amount of freaky on your back is going to change that.”

Steve wanted to think that was the truth. All those years ago, the serum hadn’t changed the man he was. An unhealthy dose of gamma radiation would not put him down, either, but he wasn’t sure how dating Tony factored into any of it.

He felt like the little guy again – the guy women used to look at with pity or like a speck of dirt – and the fact that Tony was inviting him back to his floor was unseemly and threw him off balance. “You’ll regret it,” he told Tony. “I can’t control those things and I’m not sure we should see each other while they’re still there.” It was the right thing to do. He didn’t want Tony’s pity. When they first decided on a date they had been equal partners in it, with similar goals, and Steve didn’t want to put Tony into a position where he had to fake interest in Steve.

Tony gave him a theatrical sigh. “How about you let me decide what I’ll regret?” he said then took a step closer and seized Steve’s face in a firm grip. Frankly, Steve should have seen it coming, but he allowed himself to be dragged into a kiss, his body wanting to melt into the intimate touch and just float there forever. Before anything could start floating anywhere, Tony pulled back, his face only inches from Steve’s when he whispered: “Come to bed with me.”

Steve had never been a particularly weak person but he could resist only so much. The open, honest invitation in Tony’s words banishing the mortification of his situation and promising something better. “To sleep?” he asked, knowing he was going to end up saying yes either way.

“If you want,” Tony said, voice sultry and promising many things other than sleep. He leaned in to land a small kiss on Steve’s lips. “Sleep would be good,” he added.


Tony might still change his mind but Steve was prepared to take it like a man when it happened and accept his losses.

They ended up sleeping in the same bed despite Steve’s feeble protestations. As a last resort, Steve put on a shirt although Tony said it wasn’t necessary if Steve didn’t like how the fabric felt against his back – which he didn’t. Tony also stated he had no issue with Steve walking around shirtless all day.

Steve counted himself fortunate that Tony was in such good humor about it – in the absence of the nasty jokes – and tried to make the best of the otherwise horrible situation: he kept his front to Tony at all times, even spooning him a little at night when Tony inched into his embrace, and for the most part it went very well.

They both slept late into the morning, seeing as they had been up half the night and hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep the previous night either. Steve’s body didn’t usually require so much rest but he was comfortable laying there with Tony in a loose embrace, the smell of the other man’s cologne overpowering the faint odor of the tentacle mucus that seemed to cling to Steve’s body even when the pores weren’t releasing it.

Tony woke up in stages – something Steve had learned by now: first he stirred and stilled, checking that he wasn’t alone and probably trying to figure out whom he was with. Then, after coming to a satisfactory conclusion, he would drift in and out of sleep – or at least fake that he wasn’t awake and aware. Steve had never thought Tony to be a lazy person so he took it as a sign of trust and comfort and didn’t hurry to get up either.

Eventually Tony’s hand shifted and his fingers fell on Steve’s arm, starting a maddening circle of light caresses that were pleasant and itchy at the same time. It may have passed as idleness but Tony always did things with a purpose and so Steve smiled and pressed a kiss to the other man’s neck. “Do you want to get up?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Tony replied, sounding just as awake as Steve had expected. The fingers stilled and Tony wriggled around to face him, his hair adorably tousled from sleep. He looked less put-together than usual and although it wasn’t the first time Steve got to see him like this, it hit him the hardest in the midst of his own issues. That was why he pressed closer when Tony kissed him, wanting to prolong this moment where everything felt normal and was going according to the plan they’d formed at the inn, in front of the fire with cups of hot chocolate and marshmallows in their hands.

They ended up rolling to the side so that Steve was on top of Tony. Steve tried balancing his weight so that it wouldn’t rest on the other man, but every time Tony squirmed to pull him closer Steve eventually decided the other man wasn’t going to break. It was funny how he had to bring himself to that conclusion all over again when he had thought he’d already grasped that fact before they even kissed for the first time.

It was in the midst of lingering kisses that bordered on wanting more when Tony suddenly exhaled sharply against Steve’s mouth and let out a sound very close to a giggle.

Amused, Steve drew back – only to find Tony giving him a weird look. “What?”

“That tickles,” the other man confessed, and Steve tried to think back to what he had been doing that could possibly be ticklish. That was when he felt it, far less alarming and alien than the day before – as if he were getting used to it: the tentacles were out and one of them was, to his utter horror, dragging a wet line of slime along Tony’s naked thigh.

“Fuck,” Steve hissed with gusto and reached back, yanking it away. “I’m so sorry,” he added and tried to wipe the stain from Tony’s skin, disgusted with himself and his lack of attention. How was it that he hadn’t noticed anything at all? Now that his focus was on the appendages on his back, he could feel them moving and trails of mucus running along his skin, but it was subtle like moving his toes – only he couldn’t really connect to them and tell them to get the hell back inside his body instead of trying to feel up Tony.

While he debated just cleaning the slick mark with the edge of the sheet, his mind became totally distracted by a sudden sensation he couldn’t exactly narrow down, but which felt like someone was pulling a particularly good nerve in his groin – which in turn made his cock harden. It was like the sweetest of caresses along his prick, inside and out, making his blood surge down there to respond to it.

“That’s… neat,” Tony murmured, and Steve’s head whipped around. While he had been obsessing over the patch of slime, Tony had started caressing another tentacle, which was positively pulsing and growing under the attention – just like Steve’s cock. He wasn’t sure if he should have been happy or upset that Tony had clearly noticed the correlation between the two.

“I wouldn’t call it that,” Steve tried, then groaned as Tony’s fingers slid along the tentacle, purposeful, the skin of his hand shining with the wetness covering it. There was no mistaking the glint of lust in Tony’s eyes.

“I just realized why you were acting the way you were when I touched these the first time,” Tony noted and two more tentacles moved closer to the one being lavished with attention, as if jealous of it.

“Please,” Steve managed, in between balancing his weight and thrusting his hips down, accidently grinding his hard-on on Tony’s other thigh.

“Do you want me to stop?” Tony asked, a silky edge to his voice. He even levered himself up to kiss Steve’s jaw, teasingly close to his lips.

Steve thought it would be best to stop, but he was also fairly certain he was going to come in about five seconds. Tony moved to kiss his shoulder, dexterous fingers working the pulsing tentacle until Steve could barely feel anything at all through the sensory overload and came with a helpless gasp, soiling his underwear.

“That was hot,” Tony decided from beneath him, sounding completely unfazed and simply in awe of the spectacle that was Steve’s utter humiliation.

“Really?” Steve dared to ask. His voice was a little hoarse and his hips kept grinding slightly, back and forth, although he wanted them to stop.

Tony’s thigh shifted beneath him, pressing shamelessly against the wet front of his boxers. “Really,” he said, then freed his hand from the tentacles with some effort, needing to bring up his other hand as well, then examined his slick fingers. He seemed mesmerized, then took a sniff of the slime they already knew to be harmless – and made an experimental lick.

Steve blinked, freezing, and felt his cock jerk back to attention despite how much he wanted to be repulsed by the sight.

Tony didn’t make a fake moan of bliss or suck all his fingers into his mouth. He reached down with the stained hand instead, most likely to clean it on the sheets – which left Steve surprised when the hand wedged itself between them. Tony pulled down his own underwear before attacking Steve’s with zero hesitation, fingers thrusting beneath his waistband and grasping his cum-covered cock. “You can come again, right?” Tony asked him, meeting Steve’s eyes while both his hands proceeded to rid him of his boxers, fingers firmly wrapped around his hard flesh, playing with the foreskin like it was the most fascinating thing he had ever done.

“Yes,” Steve replied tightly. “I’m not sure we should –”

“We should,” Tony told him. “Now, either you start moving…” he started, moving his hands and lifting his hips so that their cocks brushed together, Tony’s not yet as hard as Steve’s but definitely getting there. “Either you move, or I’ll get on top of you and move for you, which will make more of a mess and I really like it this way.”

Steve moved helplessly, like someone had placed a spell on him. He felt Tony getting hard against him, their cocks twitching out of synch but with a mutual goal, and whenever it started to get a bit too uncomfortable, Tony ran his hand up Steve’s back, scooping up some of the slick sliding out from the pores and rubbed it right on their cocks. Again Steve thought he should have been repulsed and lost his hard-on, but it made things easier, the warm friction dancing on the edge of painful made wet and slick instead.

When Tony wasn’t scooping up slime, his hands rested on Steve’s waist, just below the lowest two pores. More often than not his fingers would stray up and tease the edges, which made the tentacles twitch and move towards his touch. Steve was certain that at more than one point the tentacles had Tony’s wrists captive, but their grasp wasn’t firm enough to hold him for long and as they both neared their peak, Tony hunted down Steve’s lips for a kiss and Steve leaned down on him more, riding through it almost violently as he felt his orgasm approach.

He was right there on the edge, certain that Tony was very close behind him if not ahead of him, when he thought he felt something strange – almost like if Tony were touching the tentacles again. It delivered the last rush of pleasure and he let it happen, coming with more control than before, and he immediately saw the funny look on Tony’s face as the other man’s hips jerked as if he were so close to coming, yet something was holding him back.

Steve shifted to give him a hand, his motion tugging at something. Tony breathed sharply and Steve looked down, seeing one of the lowest tentacles stretching down past his own leg into the shadow between their bodies. The tentacle shifted and Tony jerked, coming before Steve could help him, then with an unsteady hand Tony reached down and pulled the errant tentacle up from where it had apparently wedged itself between his legs.

“That was unexpectedly nice,” Tony said.

Steve didn’t think he was talking about the humping. “What was?” He had to know, because he wasn’t sure what had just happened.

“This fellow,” Tony said, still holding the lightly squirming tentacle, “was trying to worm its way up my ass. Felt rather nice,” he shrugged one shoulder and let the tentacle go.

Steve felt a thrill in his stomach at the touch, but for once it had nothing on the horrific realization that the freakish gamma mutation had tried to score with Tony way before Steve even got to that base. There was something profoundly wrong about that. The sense of betrayal wasn’t borne of who got to do it first but that a part of Steve’s anatomy had done something Tony had in no way asked for – without Steve knowing it.

“Stop looking so horrified,” Tony rolled his eyes at him like it wasn’t a big deal. “Worse things have happened –”

Steve was off the bed and dashing into the bathroom before Tony could finish the sentence. He slammed the door shut and broke the lock with one precise strike, then looked frantically around – only to land on the large mirror on the wall. He looked at himself, his shirt riding up and the tentacles writhing there, some of them out of view. He could feel them, though, and that was enough.

“Steve?” Tony called out from the other side of the door. “What are you doing?”

“Getting rid of the problem,” Steve said, more to himself than Tony.

Tony’s AI, of course, was listening, and must have repeated his words to the man on the other side of the door. “What do you mean, ‘getting rid of the problem’? Steve? Open the door.” A small silence followed as Steve searched the cabinets and shelves for something he could use. “Unlock it,” Tony said on the other side of the door, voice lower than before – clearly talking to J.A.R.V.I.S. “Well, force it open, then! What is he doing?”

Steve didn’t hear the AI’s reply but knew he would run out of time if he didn’t get moving. Having not found anything useful he reached back and tried not to cringe as he grasped one of the tentacles tightly in his hand. It shrank in his grip, as if knowing what he was about to do. Keeping his hold was hard, but all he needed was one precise pull –

The door crashed inwards as Tony came tumbling in, completely naked save for the tank top that covered very little. He rolled to his feet, burning red dancing beneath his skin. “Don’t!” he shouted, jumping at Steve and shoving him into the sink, making him lose his grip on the tentacle. “You can’t just pull them out,” he went on angrily. “They’re connected to major arteries; you would bleed to death!”

“I prefer that option to unwittingly molesting a person I care about!” Steve shouted back.

“What?” Tony blinked, Extremis still visible beneath his skin. “What we just did was consensual, one-hundred percent. Did you space out? Were you not…” Tony looked horrified for a moment.

“I was there,” Steve told him before there could be more misunderstandings. “I just… I couldn’t control them and one of them tried to… get inside you,” he finished.

Tony let out a lungful of air and closed his eyes for a second. The burn of Extremis disappeared from his skin. “Nothing bad happened,” he told Steve with a patience he reserved only for people far less intelligent than himself. He opened his eyes, looking Steve straight in the face. “If I hadn’t wanted that, on any level, I would have told you to move or pulled it away. I was surprised but not hurt. I also suppose this isn’t the best time to tell you I may have a tentacle kink and I came right when it pushed just a teensy bit inside.” He made a gesture with his hand, leaving about an inch in between his thumb and forefinger.

Considering that he was describing the tentacle pushing into his ass, Steve didn’t think an inch was a ‘teensy bit’. Still, his brain seemed more interested in the ‘tentacle kink’ part of the sentence and he tried to relax a little as the tentacles promptly withdrew into his body – as if knowing he had just been about to rip them out with his two bare hands if necessary. “Did we just have sex because I have eight tentacles on my back?” he asked, trying to feign disappointment while he was simply relieved.

Tony gave him one of his best seductive looks and walked over to him, leaning his half-naked body against Steve’s equally unclothed form. “I had sex with you because that’s been on the menu for a while, but I think we should consider making the best of this horrible situation,” he finished, fingers trailing against Steve’s back in a fleeting caress as Tony coaxed Steve into a kiss.

They didn’t tell Bruce about the sex, but Tony must have made some sort of comment about Steve’s desire to violently solve his problem because Bruce sat Steve down with a worried expression and explained to him, at length, why they couldn’t surgically remove the tentacles.

“The risk of uncontrolled hemorrhage is just too great,” he finished.

“Wouldn’t my enhanced healing cover that?” Steve insisted. “If this… condition doesn’t come to a natural end, I’ll want to do something about it.”

Perhaps Bruce was the wrong person to talk to about it, seeing as he hadn’t been able to get rid of the Hulk – and many people, Tony being the most vocal among them, told him the rage monster was a good thing in disguise. Then again, perhaps Bruce’s willingness to continue battling his own double-edged curse was why he wasn’t outright telling Steve there was nothing to be done.

Bruce gave his healing abilities a fair amount of thought, then shook his head. “We would need to knock you out just in order to operate, and that might compromise the serum’s normal functions. It’s not worth the risk.”

Steve nodded. An obstacle had never changed his mind, though, however insurmountable. He just needed to find a different approach to it.

After Bruce dismissed him to tackle a new set of samples, Tony promptly intercepted Steve’s attempt to go to the gym and work out.

“I have something I want to try,” Tony said and took Steve to his main lab. Near the middle of the room was a platform where he ran extensive diagnostics on his suit and gear, the area surrounded by hundreds of different sensors and scanners. “Undress, please,” Tony requested then.

“Why?” Steve asked but started removing his clothing before Tony could answer. His shirt was already stained at the back from where Bruce had manipulated the pores and tentacles earlier. He felt disgusting, to be honest, with dried and fresh slime mixing on his skin, the pores itching under the fabric.

“I want to experiment with your neural connections,” Tony explained.

Steve wasn’t sure what that meant but it wasn’t the first time the scientists he knew talked over his head. “Everything?” he asked Tony when he was standing there just in his underwear.

Tony licked his lips in a way that made Steve doubt the scientific goals of this ‘experiment’. “Yeah,” he replied then.

Steve frowned and hooked his fingers under the waistband of his boxers.

“I can undress if it makes you feel less uncomfortable,” Tony suggested.

“I thought this was an experiment.”

“It is.”

“How is it an experiment if you’re naked?”

“It ought to stimulate you,” Tony flashed him a grin and began tugging off his clothes.

Steve watched Tony while he stripped. He wasn’t embarrassed by being naked in a room full of clothed people. Before and after the serum, that had happened often enough – yet if truth be told, he was kind of glad Tony was disrobing; it would be a welcome distraction from whatever the other man had planned.

Tony appeared plenty distracted himself, eyes darting towards Steve while he set something up at the computer terminal. It should have been strange, seeing him naked in his workshop, but such a big part of Tony’s life was born in a space like this that it felt almost fitting. Unsafe but fitting,

“Where do you want me?” Steve asked, giving the slightly elevated platform a look.

“Over there is fine,” Tony gestured at it and Steve stepped up. He felt like he was being put on display – especially when the rows of sensors lit up briefly around him. “Switch to verbal commands. Begin baseline mapping and proceed to full-scale neural tracking,” Tony said. The words weren’t meant for Steve, obviously, even when Tony stepped back from the controls and moved towards him, no longer pretending to be looking at anything but Steve.

“Shall I exclude your bio-signature from the results?” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice inquired.

“Of course,” Tony rolled his eyes and stepped up to the platform with Steve. The setting was suddenly far more intimate, seeing as they had never been this naked with one another before. Steve swallowed and waited for guidance but Tony simply closed the distance between them and reached up to bow Steve’s head so that he could reach his lips with his own.

Steve’s eyes fell shut for a moment, yet an instant later he thought he saw lights turn on around him. He opened them just in time to see machine parts rising from the floor, others descending from the ceiling, forming a kind of loose cocoon around them. Thousands of tiny lights shone at them from within the parts and Steve felt almost warmer, as if they were heating up the air.

Either that or Tony, who was an easy source of warmth these days.

“What’s happening?” Steve asked.

“It’s just some scanning equipment,” Tony told him.

“Do I need to stay still?”

“No,” Tony chuckled. “Not for this.”

“Baseline readings complete,” the AI announced.

“Relax,” Tony whispered to him then reached towards Steve’s back.

Steve stiffened instantly, knowing where Tony’s touch was going. By now he expected the reaction from his body but it was no more welcome when Tony’s fingertips circled the pores on his back and lured the tentacles out. Steve closed his eyes and turned his head away – not that Tony was really paying attention to him now – wanting it to be over. He felt the faint bulging beneath his skin and a slight twinge of pain, as if the tentacle in question were getting a bit too excited before pushing out.

Tony’s lips landed on his chest suddenly, drawing Steve out of the cocoon of shame he had begun to construct around himself. He met the other man’s gaze, firmly fixed on his face now, a touch of concern drawing a line between Tony’s eyebrows. “If you don’t want to do this then we don’t have to.”

“I don’t know what we’re doing,” Steve confessed.

As Tony’s lips parted to let out his response, his fingers slid along one tentacle, the sensation instantly traveling to Steve’s cock. “I want to map the responses between the tentacles and your natural neural pathways.”

“Is… this the only way to do that?” Steve asked, forcing himself not to cover his crotch as his cock swelled and hardened; they were standing so close to each other that Tony would notice it very soon.

Tony gave him a smile while his fingers continued to stroke the excited tentacle. “It’s the most effective, for sure,” he replied.

Steve cleared his throat, deciding it was a waste of his time to try and hide his responses to Tony’s touch. Wasn’t that the point of this test, anyway? “Are you sure you’re not doing this just to fulfill your kink?” he asked, not having forgotten Tony’s admission about the tentacles.

He got a cheeky grin in return. “Why do you say it like it’s a bad thing?” Tony challenged him and took a firmer hold of the tentacle – which translated directly to his cock, as if Tony had just taken a good hold of it instead. Steve groaned and pulled Tony closer, feeling strangely like an outsider in the act, and Tony initiated another kiss while he kept on caressing the tentacle, then switching onto another that kept pushing at his hand as if wanting its share of the fun; Steve could feel it, his brain slowly recognizing the tentacles’ motions as part of him.

His arousal heightening, Steve gave in and wrapped his arms around Tony’s body, eager hands drawing his hips to Steve’s own so that he could grind against him. Tony didn’t tell him to stop – Steve had half-expected Tony to want him to come untouched from mere tentacle stimulation – but Tony moaned and kept touching his back, his face resting on Steve’s shoulder for a bit before he looked to the side.

“Are you close?” he asked Steve without looking at him.

“Quite,” Steve admitted, jaw tight in anticipation.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., open a screen. Show me real-time imaging.”

Steve turned to look as well, and through a gap in the cocoon he could see a holographic screen opening, building an image of a body layer by layer. It took him a second to realize it was him – judging by the gyrating motions as he sought relief against Tony’s hip, and he could suddenly see the tentacles, each of them glowing and connecting throughout his being into one maze of bursts and warm colors.

In front of him there was a pitch-black area, empty and cold, and it felt incredibly wrong to him; that was where Tony stood, flush against his body, yet the image completely blocked him out.

“J.A.R.V.I.S., can you show Tony in that image as well?” he requested, knowing Tony had asked only for Steve’s readings but he didn’t care. He had to make the image complete.

Tony gave him a look but the AI complied, Tony’s shape appearing to fill the void in seconds.

Steve halted for a moment to just look at it; Tony’s colors were brighter, as if he were burning from the inside. His body was vibrant and alive, so beautiful it almost made Steve tear up, and to see their forms entwined in such an intimate embrace…

“Steve?” Tony asked, voice hesitant.

Steve blinked and looked down at the other man, flesh and blood, none of the colors visible. He knew they were there, though, deep beneath the skin, unseen by mere mortal eyes. And as different as their images were from one another, Steve couldn’t help but notice the similarities. Stripped of their flesh and blood to their mere cores, Steve didn’t stand out as a monster next to Tony despite the mutation on his back.

“Keep going,” Steve urged, pulling Tony just a bit closer to himself. From the corner of his eye he saw their lights almost joining, then watched as some of the tentacles reached forward, touching Tony where his arms weren’t in the way, seeking a connection.

Tony sighed, not jumping or pulling away, his hand returning to caress the tentacles that still yearned for his touch, building Steve’s pleasure until he came against Tony’s upper thigh, sighing Tony’s name in his ear and holding him close even more firmly, basking in the aftershocks that were lingering just as Tony’s fingers lingered on the tentacles.

He knew, then and there, that Tony had really meant it when he said they would deal with it if things didn’t return to normal.

Steve had never been so happy to have Tony in his life.

Steve should have known things didn’t last in the lives of people such as them – the good or the bad.

Almost as soon as he finally came to terms with his new freakish looks and considered the possibilities it presented – with Tony and otherwise – his body began to revert back to normal. Like before, it happened almost overnight, and in the morning as he once again sat half-naked in Bruce’s lab, waiting for the verdict, he mused whether that was a key factor: had his acceptance of the situation spurred his body to finally overcome the gamma radiation it had clung to since the accident?

He looked at Tony who was leaning against a wall and thoughtfully biting his thumb, trying to mask his nervousness with boredom. Tony was no stranger to things changing in a heartbeat and had had his share of bad things happen to him. Steve wondered what made him so worried, seeing as Tony had examined Steve’s backside extensively while J.A.R.V.I.S. had awakened Bruce and prepped the lab.

“For now it looks like everything’s gone back to normal,” Bruce decided, looking perplexed yet relieved. “To be sure, we’ll keep monitoring you for any changes, but most of that J.A.R.V.I.S. can do remotely.”

“Indeed,” the AI agreed.

Bruce nodded and tugged off his gloves, walking to the other side of the lab.

Tony slowly pushed away from the wall, still appearing cautious. “How are you feeling?” he asked Steve.

“Normal,” Steve admitted and lifted one foot, just reaching Tony’s body with his toes, giving him a tiny shove. “Are you upset?”

“About what?” Tony asked, blinking.

“That the tentacles are gone.”

Tony’s jaw worked for a second as if he were considering his answer carefully. “You know,” he started, “they were kind of growing on me.”

Steve raised an eyebrow, not having expected Tony to admit that – but this was Tony and Tony worked differently than everyone else.

“However,” Tony went on, walking over to where Steve sat on the edge of the examination table, “they were like an accessory you could try on and return to the store if you didn’t like it.” He smiled and looked down, avoiding Steve’s gaze, running his hands up Steve’s thighs instead – buying himself time. “I like the original package just fine without the bells and whistles,” he finished.

“The original package is relieved,” Steve chuckled. “How about we celebrate?”

“Yeah?” Tony looked up at him. “You have something in mind?”

“Another date, if you’re willing. Our second one got interrupted and I have a feeling you had more planned for it than what we got to do.”

“You bet,” Tony nodded, fingers drumming a fast beat on Steve’s thighs. “Where would you like to go this time?”

“If you’re free next Monday, maybe we could go to the Botanical Garden again.”

“Let me guess, you want to sketch the pretty flowers?” Tony grinned at him.

“More like try and redo this thing from the beginning,” Steve admitted. “Without A.I.M. or gamma radiation.”

Tony pursed his lips. “I don’t know, the tentacles are pretty hard to forget…” Obviously he was joking, so Steve played along.

“We’ll do something memorable,” he promised and pulled Tony between his legs, kissing him softly.

“If you plan on having sex in the New York Botanical Garden, please inform me of the location so that I never accidentally sit down in that spot!” Bruce called out to them.

Steve hid his face against Tony’s chest, feeling Tony’s bright laughter and fingers sliding into his hair, holding him close.



The End