"So, that could have gone better," Cap observed to no one in particular.
"Do you think this is still a training exercise, or did we just get our asses handed to us by actual bad guys?" asked Clint.
"If this is training I'm going to find Fury and hurt him," Tony declared from the floor, where he was laying on his back, hands folded on his stomach. It was the least painful position he could manage. "And by 'hurt him' I mean 'locate his bank accounts and make them disappear'."
"I don't know if that would slow him down at all," Clint said, tone speculative.
"I'll hide all his spare eye patches."
"Don't," Clint said with feeling. "He'd assign me to kill your ass out of spite and I don't want that on my conscience."
"Aw, Barton. You say the sweetest things!"
"Sweet, nothing. It'd be way too easy. I have a reputation to maintain."
"Gentlemen," Cap said reprovingly. Tony tilted his head to get a better look, but the angle was wrong. It sounded like Cap was standing closer to the bars of their cell, looking out and, probably, doing responsible, sensible things like formulating escape plans.
"Christ, it's cold," Tony declared after a space of silence, watching his breath cloud the air above his head.
They'd been attacked by frost giants. One moment, The Avengers had been running a mock battle simulation and the next there had been six inches of ice on everything and monsters had been pouring out of what looked like a black rip in the world, rimmed in a hazy rainbow. Okay, the rainbow hadn't been very frightening, but the rest of it had been crazy. Tony's armor was fortified against everything imaginable, except, apparently a magically induced snow storm.
He'd lost visual contact, then his communicator had become nothing but static and then the ice had started to latch on like a living thing, searching out the seams in his armor, weighing it down and breaking it apart mid-flight.
He'd crashed, he thought, maybe. The memories were scattered at best. When he'd woken up, he'd been stripped down to threadbare jeans and t-shirt and slumped haphazardly on the floor of a very cold cell constructed out of what appeared to be stone and snow, like he'd been tossed in carelessly and left where he fell. Everything had hurt and sparks kept appearing at the edge of his vision, followed by dark blotches that indicated probable concussion. Cap and Clint had already been awake, on their feet and mobile. Tony would join them in a minute. Just give him a little while longer of laying as still as possible, at least until he felt he could move without throwing up.
Cap's snazzy red boots stepped into his vision, and then Cap leaned into Tony's line of sight with a worried expression, or possibly it was annoyance. Difficult to tell with the cowl up.
"You might do better if you got off the floor," Cap said. "It's colder than the air."
"Nah, I'm good. Last time I was in a situation like this, it was three months in the desert. This is way better." Tony saw the frown that meant Cap was going to ask for elaboration and pushed on hastily. "Anyway, have you come up with how we're getting out of here, yet?"
Sometimes he mentioned the desert just to prove to himself that he could, that he could work it casually into a sentence and not feel the tremors start somewhere behind his breastbone, not taste blood and sand, but that didn't mean he wanted to talk about it.
Cap was duly distracted. "I'm not even sure where we are. It's just ice caverns out there."
"The torches are glowing blue," Clint reported, having taken point, up near the bars of their cell. "We may not even be in Kansas anymore, Dorothy."
"Does that make you Toto?" Cap asked with a quirked grin that looked gorgeous even from Tony's awkward angle.
"Which makes Stark the Tin Man."
It was rare that Cap bantered, especially when they were still technically on a mission, and one part of Tony wanted to join in. On the other hand, he was freezing and couldn't feel his toes anymore, and that was the only part of him that didn't hurt.
"I hate magic," Tony said. He was pretty sure it was an opinion he'd stated before, but it bore repeating.
"Do we know where Dr. Banner is?" Steve asked.
"No," Clint answered, "I haven't--hold on." There was a scraping sound as Clint straightened from his slump against the wall. "I see something. They're bringing someone around."
The ice giants sounded like what Tony assumed glaciers would sound like if they could grow legs and walk--the creak of dense, shifting snow and the crunch of ice. Clint backed away from the front of the cell until Tony could see him again and then, suddenly, Cap was crouched over him, wrapping ridiculously strong arms around Tony's torso and shoulder blades and lifting.
"Up you go," Cap said. "Come on."
Tony sucked in a breath and had to clench his teeth against a yelp of pain as Cap pulled him to his feet and pushed him toward the back of the cell, leaning him up against up against the wall and taking a defensive position in front of him. The well-meaning but rough handling made every nerve ending in all his bruises--which seemed to comprise wholly sixty percent of his body, at the moment--light up like he was being electrocuted. His head felt like it was trying to rupture several blood vessels at once, pounding with a sudden spike of fierce, aggressive pain.
Tony scrabbled for purchase against the wall, attempting to pull himself upright, at least, but his knees just wouldn't solidify. He found himself, rather embarrassingly, leaning against Captain America's back, feeling the beat of Cap's heart, his body heat sinking through Tony's thin shirt and straight through to his bones.
Everything in Tony balked at being protected. Well, everything but a small, squishy part of his heart that he'd tried most of his life to kill off with cynicism and alcohol. So he refused to take comfort in the solid, protective presence Cap projected and, instead, concentrated on breathing and trying to blink the widening black splotches out of his vision. He was not particularly successful.
When he came back to his senses, he was on his knees and Cap had a grip on one shoulder, saying "Tony?" in much the same worried tone as Clint was saying, "Bruce?" over the prone form of Bruce Banner. Tony was confused for a moment, and then realized that the giants must have dropped him off while Tony was busy having a dizzy spell like some wilting flower.
As Tony shifted his weight, gathering himself to pull away from Cap, nausea tried to choke him and an anxiousness tightened the skin on his shoulder blades like he was expecting a blow. That was weird. Tony had no idea what was wrong--well, besides the obvious a) stuck in a cave, b) surrounded by enemies of unknown strength, number and abilities, c) weaponless and easy to squish without his suit, d) in close quarters with Clint, who had once challenged Tony to a snark-off and won, the cheating bastard. So, basically it was a Tuesday.
Then pain sank claws into his chest and raked down his arm as his heart stalled, a long breathless moment before it stuttered and returned to what felt like a very tentative rhythm.
Tony breathed through it and said, "I'm fine," when the crushing agony receded and he was relatively certain that he wasn't immediately about to pass out. He tried to pull away from Cap, but there was a stubborn set to Cap's mouth that said Tony might have more luck moving mountains. Or building impossible escape plans out of scrap metal. "What's going on with our good doctor?"
"Not sure," Clint reported, turning Bruce onto his back with a surprisingly gentle touch. "Pulse is good. He's breathing. They've drawn...symbols on him." Gloved hands skimmed down Banner's bare arms and torso. He was dressed in only the pants that Tony had designed to survive the Hulk transformation, even those a bit ragged at the cuffs despite being nearly indestructible.
Tony squinted at the semi-familiar writing that snaked in bands up the visible portions of Banner's skin. Cap was staring at him intently, so he did his best to keep the pain off his face and his voice even as he said, "Runes. Probably to keep him from transforming."
"Are they also keeping him unconsci--"
Banner interrupted speculations when he groaned, eyes flickering open.
"Morning, Sleeping Beauty," Clint drawled.
"No Disney before coffee," Banner said in a low murmur, eyes sliding shut again.
"Disney didn't originate the fairy tale, you know. It was actually--"
"No Stark before coffee," Banner declared, no louder, but perfectly pitched to override Tony's lecture. Tony wanted to know how he did that.
"Sorry, sweetheart, no coffee to be had." Clint helped Banner sit up. "What happened to you?"
"To be honest, I don't know." Bruce pressed the heel of one slightly shaky hand over an eye. "One moment--Hulk. Next--nothing." He opened his eyes again to peer up at Clint. "You?"
"I was attacked by a blizzard. With teeth."
"I was encased in ice. Again." Cap almost managed to sound unaffected, except that he swallowed at the end and paled a bit. Tony, still held upright mostly by Cap's strong grip, leaned into him a little more without really realizing it, until Cap squeezed his shoulder and offered him a small smile that made that squishy part of his heart feel syrupy-warm.
Bruce held his arms up to inspect the black markings that were stark against his paleness, and then took a look around. "Oh, this can't be good. Do we have an escape plan, yet?"
"We wait," Steve said, firmly. "Conserve energy and heat and observe. We don't know enough about what's going on to plan any kind of retaliation, and even if we did we don't have the resources. If they give us an opening, then we take it, but if they don't, someone is bound to come after us, sooner or later."
"Yeah, if they can find Thor, this seems like exactly his thing. Giants and magic."
Everyone carefully didn't talk about Black Widow and no one looked at Clint.
"Right. Sounds like a plan," Clint agreed. "Dibs on Bruce as my body-heat-buddy."
Tony opened his mouth to snark and put in a token protest about Cap being his default partner when the arc reactor juddered to a brief halt before slamming to life again with a shock of screaming pain that seized all of Tony's muscles. His vision went black like someone had pulled a curtain down--or a bag--and suddenly it was the cave and the smell of kerosene and the constant, clawing presence of terror, almost worse than the low-throbbing burn of the thing they had shoved in his chest.
"What the hell is going on?"
Then it was over--as over as it ever was, anyway--and he was cold, in an entirely different cave-cum-jail cell, flat on his back again, with Cap and Clint bent over him and Bruce hovering a few paces away, the fingertips of one outstretched hand pressed against the wall for balance.
Tony was too exhausted to be embarrassed, but he had a decent go at it, anyway.
"Sorry about that," he managed, instead, attempting a grin. From the way that everyone looked even more concerned, he'd probably failed to be anything like reassuring.
"What happened?" Cap asked in his Commanding Officer voice.
"Spell?" Clint guessed. "Latent injury? Melodramatics?" At Banner's reproving look he offered again, "Spell?"
"Nothing," Tony insisted and opened the arc reactor blueprints in his head. It was supposed to be impervious to harm. Tony's body should've been able to disintegrate around it and leave it whole. How the hell had the frost giants fucked it up? Goddamn magic.
The silence around him was so pointed that it managed to cut through Tony's concentration. He looked at the disbelieving faces that stared him down and sighed.
"Okay, so, obviously something," Tony conceded reluctantly, trying for flip, but the hoarseness of his voice probably wasn't helping his case. "But nothing I can't handle and nothing you can help with. So. That's that."
"Clint?" Cap said, not taking his eyes off Tony.
Clint tilted his head, gaze skimming Tony's face and body. "He's not lying. Not entirely."
"Hey," Tony protested. "No ninja secret agent mind-reading tricks. That's creepy."
"I'd still like to know what's going on."
Tony glanced up at the softening of Cap's tone, and saw that he was bringing out a hint of puppy eyes. Tony looked away quickly. Dammit, he wouldn't be able to hold out against that for very long.
There was a tightening in his chest, like someone had reached through bone and flesh and squeezed his heart. A fiery burn flared at Tony's left shoulder again, and it felt like his ribs were constricting in a slow, deadly press.
"Okay. Just." Now was not the time for pride, but it was still damned difficult talking about the arc reactor casually. He broke out in a cold sweat and had trouble catching his breath and oh, yes, breathing. That was important, too. "Is there any chance we can maybe condense our timeline for escape?"
"Why?" Cap asked.
"Because there's a very good possibility that I'm dying."
There. That sounded easy enough. Not dramatic or anything. Well, relatively.
Tony watched the softness leave Cap's gaze and, like a switch, flip into the hard, assessing eyes of team captain. Tony missed the gentleness, but he was also grateful, because Cap in this mode would take care of things, solve all their problems, and Tony wouldn't have to think or do anything else anymore and oh god. He really was dying. Nothing else could explain this sudden complacency.
"Clarify," Cap said.
"Help me up," Tony demanded, because damned if he was doing this lying down, debilitating pain or no. The pressure in his chest was easing up, actually, though not in a way that meant it was gone forever. The threat of it hovered as an anxious knot in the part of Tony's brain that could tell something was horribly wrong.
Cap's impressive jaw flexed for a moment, but he pulled Tony into a sitting position and when Tony couldn't help but hiss with a sudden spike of pain and nausea, held him so that Banner could slide in behind Tony and prop him up. Then Cap captured his attention with very solid eye contact and said, "Now talk."
So Tony told them about the arc reactor, the basics of how it worked and its main function--which was not, like they had assumed, to power the Iron Man armor.
When he was finished, Clint gave a low whistle. "You don't do anything easy, do you, Stark?"
"Okay, new plan," Cap declared, overriding whatever comeback Tony might have made. "We get out of here now."
"Sure," Tony said. "Easy to say that. But we're still right where we were before. No actual idea of where we are and no resources."
"I have this knife," Clint offered, flicking a small but lethal-looking blade from somewhere.
Tony stared at him. "Why didn't you say so earlier?"
Clint shrugged. "Didn't seem relevant. Also, forgot it was there. It's not much use against frost giants. But it might be some use against the door. I think it's just made of regular, unmagical ice. You can chip ice, can't you?"
Cap, unfazed, nodded and stood. "Clint, come give me an assessment on these bars."
While Cap and Clint stood near the opening of their cell, heads bent in deep discussion, Bruce was busy behind him. He tilted Tony's head back to check his pupils, then lifted his hand to study his fingertips, then touched his own cold fingertips to Tony's throat to time his pulse.
"Do you actually know what you're doing?" Tony asked, aiming for sarcasm but landing somewhere near genuine curiosity. Neither one of them was anything like a medical doctor, but Banner did have biology studies somewhere in his background.
Bruce shrugged. His hand dropped to trace the letters on Tony's shirt that spelled Nick Fury's Missing Eye: Final Tour. "I like your shirt."
"First tour was also the last, but man it was fun."
"A shame Director Fury made you break up."
"Yeah..." Tony said sadly, then perked. "Do you want one? You were part of the band, too."
"Do I qualify? I was only your drummer understudy."
"That counts," Tony insisted.
"All right, then."
Bruce put a hand on Tony's forehead. Tony had no idea what information he thought he could glean. They were both too cold for measurements to be accurate, but Tony found he didn't mind the touch--another sign of impending doom because Tony was not normally someone who enjoyed this much close contact.
"I was wearing it under the armor," Tony murmured, and he may have closed his eyes and blissed out a little when Bruce brushed a tentative hand through Tony's hair, but Tony would never admit to it. "Nice of our gentle hosts to leave it when they stripped everything useful."
"I'm surprised you're wearing anything at all, then. Didn't you say your favorite outfit under the armor is your birthday suit?" Bruce paused to think about it. "You were forbidden, weren't you? I think I got a memo about it."
Fury sent memos out to all personnel--of which he considered Tony one apparently, horror of horrors--whenever they did something he deemed irresponsible or somehow otherwise deserving of rebuke, which was pretty much everything. Everything fun, anyway. He'd had to switch to paperless e-Memos just to slow down deforestation. Tony liked to obey them to the letter, in the most obnoxious way possible.
Tony opened his eyes and smirked. "Well, Nick did ask so nicely."
Fury had actually said that he'd take anything, anything, including a thong, over Tony's alleged habit of going commando under the armor. Tony had tried the thong, but, unfortunately, it had a tendency to ride up.
Banner smiled, but that faded slowly as he considered Tony. "It's bad, isn't it?"
"Could be worse," Tony assured him, because it was true. The pain in his chest had faded to a dull roar, and his head actually felt a little better, so that was something. Tony would take what he could get.
"If I could transform..."
"But you can't, so don't sweat it."
Banner's arms tightened around him, briefly, and it felt a little weird, taking comfort from the least touchy-feely of the group. Moreso than Tony, which he hadn't thought possible.
"Thor was teaching you ancient Norse, wasn't he?" Banner asked, after a long moment.
Tony had already considered the idea he thought Banner was about to pose, and dismissed it in turn. "Yeah, but not enough that I think it's a good idea to mess with something attached to your skin."
"I think it's a good idea. It's my skin."
"Dr. Banner," Tony said in the tone he used to warn over-enthusiastic junior executives from over-extending their project projection.
"Mr. Stark," Banner returned in much the same tone.
They eyeballed each other until Tony exhaled, a frustrated huff of breath. "More stubborn than Cap. How did I not notice this before?"
"My bull-headedness is very stealthy," Banner said, and Tony heard the smile in his tone, even though his expression was entirely solemn.
"You taking ninja lessons from Barton?"
"I give him lessons."
Tony grinned outright. "Yeah, you do."
The silence settled between them again. No one could speak by not speaking like Bruce. He was a champion at the silent retort.
Decisively, Banner held his arms out so Tony could inspect them. It was likely because Tony was only a few short paces from passing out, but he could feel himself losing the battle of wills.
"All right, fine," Tony muttered and bent over the task.
A few minutes later, Cap wandered over to find them in a heated debate.
"Wunjo," Banner said.
"Why would that be Wunjo? That makes no sense. See that little tail piece? It's Thurisaz, definitely."
Cap stood, listening to them for a few minutes, and maybe watching Tony. Tony had felt strong enough to sit up on his own, so now he was cross-legged opposite Banner, leaning forward to debate practically nose-to-nose. Cap's regard was a buzz at the edge of Tony's awareness, but most of his focus was on Banner and his incorrigible lack of insight into ancient runes. Then Cap crouched down, a hand landing steady between Tony's shoulder blades and all his thought processes stalled out.
"Do you have something?" Cap asked.
Tony stared at him and tried to form a sentence. "Yeah, well, sort of, maybe..."
Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw Banner smirk, but by the time Cap's regard turned toward him his expression was wide-eyed and earnest. Bastard. How had Tony ever fallen for his tweedy-professor façade? It was probably a testament to how low Tony's core temperature actually was, but Cap's hand felt warm even through his glove, and that warmth turned into a focus point that made Tony realize that the rest of him was chilled to the bone and wracked with little surges of shivering.
Then, casual as could be, Captain America dropped the outer layer of his body armor suit over Tony's shoulders.
"Oh hell no," and it came out a lot more vicious than it might have under different circumstances, but Tony was in pain and feeling helpless and those were two of his least favorite things.
Cap blinked at the hostility, startled and working on defensive. "You're cold."
"So? Everyone's cold. This is an ice cave. There is no way I'm taking your letter jacket, team quarterback."
Oh, right. When had that started being a thing? The fifties?
"Never mind," Tony said as he shrugged out of the jacket and held it up. "Just...take it back. I'm not your girl."
Tony winced as his little Internal Pepper kicked him in the shin with a sharp mental shoe at the implied idea that to be the girl meant that you were the weaker one.
There were edges of anger in Cap's tone, but it was still mostly bewildered. "I'm not trying to make you a girl, I'm just trying to--"
"Yes?" Tony was still fuming, but he was also honestly curious about how Cap had been about to finish that sentence.
But Cap clamped his mouth shut over it and took the jacket back. "Nothing. Fine." He turned back toward Banner, shrugging his clothing on with precise, irritated movements. "The plan?"
Tony should've been used to triumphs tasting bitter.
Banner glanced between them, then apparently deciding the minefield was safe to cross, said to Cap. "You're not going to like it."
"I don't like any of this. Let's hear it."
"We think the runes that have been inscribed on me are a kind of spell, chaining the Hulk down. If we can break the spell, I can release the Hulk."
"Break the spell," Cap said, misgiving in his tone if not his expression.
"Yeah," Tony put in. "It's...probably exactly what you think."
Cap looked at Banner. "This is okay with you?"
"Oh, thanks!" Tony snapped, hackles still up from the jacket incident and slightly put off that Cap apparently thought this was his idea and he wouldn't have consulted Banner first.
"Yes. I was the one that suggested it."
Cap threw Tony a quick, apologetic look, and then sat back on his heels, a considering expression on his face. Clint wandered back over, flicking ice off his knife-edge. He stopped when he caught the atmosphere and frowned at them.
"How comfortable do you feel with that blade?" Banner asked.
"Well, that's a disturbing lead-in."
Tony and Banner made short work of sketching their plan out for both Cap and Clint, which mainly involved Clint cutting away the bits of the spell that kept the Hulk in check. No one looked particularly happy about it, but Cap hadn't rejected it outright and Banner was determined.
"You okay with this?" Clint asked Banner.
"Hey!" Tony said, because that was two people who didn't trust him to be a basically decent human being and, okay, so sometimes he deserved that, but he felt he'd always been nice to Banner. Well, what passed as nice from him.
"My idea," Banner said firmly. "Tony, we should determine the order."
"Yeah," he said after a moment, already having second thoughts. "Well, get up, let's see everything."
Banner stood and Tony made to follow, stopping when his vision darkened at the edges. For a second, he hesitated, debating whether or not he could get away with doing this on his knees--and okay, inappropriate time for a flash of dirty thoughts, stay on track stupid brain--or if he was just going to have to humiliate himself by asking for help. Then Cap stepped up and hauled him to his feet with that inexorable Super Soldier strength, not wavering in the slightest when Tony staggered slightly and had to lean on him for support.
There was a brief struggle to see if Tony could get his feet under him and if Cap would let go, Cap grim-faced, mouth a hard line and Tony practically snarling. After a few moments--and the realization that he wasn't getting away unless Cap let him go--Tony decided to stand as straight as he could and try to ignore that Cap was more or less holding him upright with a hand on his hip and one of Tony's arms slung over his shoulder.
"Are you ladies done dancing?" Clint drawled.
"Right," Tony said with what he decided was perfect dignity. "Do a little turn on the catwalk, if you please, Dr. Banner."
Banner turned in a slow spin as Tony picked out the appropriate runes.
Tony glared at Banner. "Not, Wunjo."
"If you put the inflection on the--"
"Hey, nerds," Clint snapped, and then he grinned a bit when it shut both of them up. "Just point to them. It's not like I need to know what they're called."
When they did, Clint studied the symbols. "Some of these repeat."
"Yeah," Tony said unhappily.
"Am I going to have to cut all of them?"
Clint blew out a breath. "Worst plan ever."
That stabbed a sharp pain of guilt in Tony's chest, a sharp moment of ice amid the consuming fire of his failing reactor. It was his fault they had to rush things.
"Clint." Banner pinned the other man with a dark, steady look. "It's fine."
They locked eyes for a moment, then Clint said, "Yeah, yeah," sounding dismissive but looking strangely reassured. His hands were steady as he took Banner's arm and pressed the knife to his skin.
Clint's skill was obvious, rather disturbingly so. Tony didn't want to watch, but he forced himself to, directing Clint to the next rune in a low murmur. Bruce put on a brave front, but he tensed and then shuddered with each quick-sure slice of the blade, until there was blood everywhere and he was shaking almost continuously.
Eventually, Tony pushed Cap off him gently--because he was a nice guy and not at all because he still felt horrifyingly weak--and toward Banner. Cap took up position on Banner's other side, griping high on his forearm where the skin was untouched, steadying the smaller man.
Suddenly, Banner bent double. "I think," he gritted out, "I...Clint!"
The knife vanished immediately, in that same disturbingly smooth way that it had shown up, and then Clint stepped around to Bruce's front side and, without warning, slapped him hard across the face.
"Sorry, sweetheart," he murmured, and though he sounded quiet and apologetic, he was backing away hastily while he talked. Banner answered with a low, inhuman growl that exploded into the rage-filled scream that Tony was coming to know so well. Cap was thrown free, hitting the wall with a painful-sounding thud and Tony staggered back, then gathered his strength and lunged, trying to get to Cap, because Cap was prone and likely unconscious and vulnerable and--
Then the Hulk...happened. As he was wont to do.
Tony took half a snow cave in the face and everything went dark.
"So," Captain America was saying when Tony blinked open his eyes, "that went surprisingly well, actually."
They were in a hospital. Tony could tell because he instantly disliked it and hated everyone, even as the fuzzy blur of a happy cocktail of drugs mellowed Tony's knee-jerk revulsion. The room was trying to disguise itself with nice things like flowers and cards, a whole wealth of mylar balloons, mostly with Iron Man's arc reactor in the circle, but dotted through with Cap's shield, a green balloon with the yellow exaggerated letters spelling "SMASH!!", Spider-Man's blue and red nonsense, and even one or two of Black Widow's red hourglass on a black background, much to his surprise. Clint had always been upset that he didn't have a symbol that fit neatly inside a circle. He pretended it was a blessing, but Tony knew better. In the interest of being a good friend, Tony would just have to come up with something and immediately merchandise it everywhere possible.
"Not a completely unmitigated disaster," Fury's rough growl agreed from somewhere nearby.
Tony turned his head in what seemed like a monumental effort to see Cap standing beside his bed at ease, hands clasped loosely behind his back as he reported to Fury, who loomed a dark shadow in the doorway, abrupt against all the soft neutral colors and lighting.
"Property damage marginal. Loss of personnel minimal," Cap said.
"You set off an interdimensional incident with a foreign power."
"In all due fairness, sir, they did start it."
"Yes," Fury quirked a smile that was mostly teeth. "However, I hope you find some way of putting that in your paperwork that doesn't sound like we're five-year-olds at a playground dispute."
"Will do, sir. It will be all very mature and adult-like. I'll use big words and everything."
Cap gave Fury cheek? Well, good on him.
"Also, your team is going to put in a lot more hours of training. Many, many hours."
"Really, sir? After this, it seems almost less hassle to send us on actual missions."
Fury grimaced; then he noticed Tony was awake and didn't look any happier. "Welcome back to the land of the living, Stark."
"I'm alive?" Tony's first words were only slightly slurred. "Oh, good."
Fury was not the type of person who rolled his eyes. Er. Eye. But if he was he'd certainly have rolled them--it--at Tony, now. Tony stuck out his tongue, or tried to. It seemed to be glued to the roof of his mouth.
"I'll leave you to it, Captain Rogers. Reports due in by tomorrow. Take the rest of the day off."
"Thank you, sir," Cap said to Fury's retreating back. After a moment, he looked down at Tony. "Hey."
Tony unstuck his tongue enough to return. "Hey." Normally he would've squirmed a bit under Cap's warm, serious regard, but now he just basked in it. He was on some decently strong drugs, then. "It's true, though? We're alive?"
"Yes," Cap said with a smile, reaching for a cup at Tony's bedside and pouring a measure of water before sticking a straw in and offering it to Tony.
"Everyone?" Tony asked before taking a sip, and then another, and then finishing off the cup because that was the best water Tony had ever tasted. Or possibly he was just very thirsty.
Tony took a deep breath, testing his ribs--because if he was going to break anything it was inevitably ribs--and, when he recalled vaguely something about chest pains, looked down at the arc reactor, but it was covered by the hospital gown and, from the looks of things, bandages. He figured he looked a bit of a mess, judging from what he could see, but he felt fine. Kind of dreamily disconnected, but otherwise okay.
"Not to downplay how awesome we are or anything, but--how?"
That was answer enough. Tony brightened at the idea of having the Asgardian back in their ranks. "Oh, they found him. Where's he bee--"
"And Agent Romanov."
Tony felt a little slow on the uptake. Weren't they not talking about Black Widow for some reason? Especially around Clint. "Natasha? What about the whole--betrayal thing?" He flailed a bit, some sort of hand gesture that meant to stand in for all the details he couldn't remember at the moment. IV tubing pulled and the little plastic bits clicked against the metal bedframe, causing a slight ruckus that sounded a lot louder to Tony than it probably was. Tony winced. Cap caught his hand and held it still.
"A deception necessary for a mission, apparently."
"Oh. How are they?" Tony probably should have clarified which "they" he was talking about; he meant Clint and Natasha, but Cap seemed to follow.
"As good as can be expected, I guess."
"Talking to each other?"
"Not really. A lot of 'sparring.'"
Tony stared as Cap sketched out air quotes with his fingers, and then quirked a grin. "So they're having sex?"
Cap started, looking both vaguely horrified and mildly scandalized. "What? No! Well--maybe. Is that what that means?"
Tony felt his heart, strong and sure again, beat twice before he gave into the bubbly feeling that welled up inside him and burst out laughing.
"I meant," Cap raised his voice with as much dignity as he could over the sound of Tony having a mild hysterical breakdown, "that they seem to be beating each other up as therapy."
It probably wasn't as funny as Tony thought it was, but he just couldn't catch his breath.
Cap sunk lower in his chair, the red in his cheeks creeping up to his hairline, and mumbled, "They think we do that, you know."
"What?" Tony--well, he certainly didn't squeak, but it came out more high-pitched than usual. "Why?"
"Because we do spar!"
"And also occasionally beat each other up as therapy," Tony said with understanding.
"Not so much, any more."
That was true enough.
"And someone asked you--with the air quotes, and you thought--"
"So you said 'yes.'"
If Cap sunk any lower in that chair he'd fall right out. He tried to tug away from Tony's grip, but Tony held on, stubborn and enjoying the warm hand, slightly rough with callouses, too much to let go. So Cap covered his face with only his free hand and said, "Yes."
And Tony was laughing again. His stomach hurt and his cheeks ached, but he'd take this kind of pain any day. The sound of his mirth almost drowned out the next thing Cap said. Almost, but not quite.
Tony sat up abruptly and winced a little as the sudden movement pulled something sharply enough that the drugs couldn't quite cover it up, but that didn't matter because all of Tony's focus was on Cap. Cap and his wide-eyed mortification. "Say that again."
"I said, uh." Cap's tongue darted out to wet his lips and suddenly Tony was fascinated by the faint sheen of moisture it left behind. "I said I wouldn't mind. If. We were doing that. What everyone already thinks we're doing."
"Probably," Cap said with a slightly apologetic air.
It wasn't fair. That had to have been the most awkward proposition ever, and yet, probably also one of the most sincere and, certainly, the only one in recent months that Tony had wanted at all. Cap was gorgeous and sweet and considerate and way too good for Tony.
"I am too drugged to deal with this," he declared, and then felt guilty as Cap's expression crumpled a little.
"Yes, I know." He straightened. "I'm sorry. Really. I should go--"
He tried to tug his hand free again, but Tony kept hanging on, and took some comfort in the hazy knowledge that if Cap really wanted to get free then Stark stubbornness was no match for Super Soldier strength.
"Just...take me home and ravish me, please," Tony requested with his best imitation of a sweet look.
But Cap had his own stubbornness and it was formidable. He shook his head, eyebrows furrowing, looking serious even though his color was still high. "No."
Tony frowned, trying to chase down the line of reasoning that would get him his way. "I'm going to go home today one way or another so you might as well be the one to take me."
"Tony, no. You had emergency heart surgery; you're staying here until the doctors okay you to leave."
Abruptly, all the warm fuzzy feelings vanished and this time it was Tony who tried to take his hand back and Cap who kept their fingers twined.
"You don't get to make that call," Tony said.
"I do. I'm your boss."
"Not outside The Avengers."
"I'm your friend."
"Could've fooled me."
Hurt flashed through Cap's expression, and Tony felt like a heel, but he wasn't going to back down, either.
"Tony, you had emergency heart surgery."
"You already said that." Tony pressed himself back into the pillows and resisted the urge to touch the arc reactor. "Can we get past that, please?"
"No. Because not only was it emergency, it was also experimental, something that had no precedent. Except that Ms. Potts showed up with detailed instructions. This was something you'd planned for."
"So what? I know my weaknesses and I plan ahead. What's so bad about that?"
"Nothing bad, just--why didn't you say something? We're a team. We need to be included in these sorts of things."
Tony gritted his teeth. "No one needed to know. I was dealing with it."
"Everyone has weaknesses, Tony. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"Like you would know about that."
Because Cap was perfect: golden and kind hearted and sure in battle. Unwaveringly solid in body in soul. It wasn't necessarily something Tony envied, except in his most maudlin moments, because those kinds of qualities meant people flocked to you, and depended on you, and Tony liked to pick and choose who he felt responsible for and blithely ignore the rest. But he wasn't going to sit here and be lectured about giving in to the team spirit by someone so strong that a god followed his orders.
Then Cap said, quietly. "I wasn't always like this."
Okay, point. Not necessarily a strong point, since Super Soldier serum still negated a lot of the argument, but Tony was willing to concede some of their invisible tally. Especially if it ended this argument sooner and Tony could proceed to flirt, barter, bribe and bully his way out of here.
Tony eyed the IV lines and wondered if he could strangle himself on them and get out of this conversation. He hadn't had to talk this intensely about feelings since the follow up to the whole Dating Pepper Debacle, and he still had occasional flashbacks from that.
"And," Cap continued, "there are still things I don't do well with. Airplanes. Cold. Sometimes I barely function in this century." Cap squeezed his hand and made Tony look at him. "You're the one that helps me with that."
"That's not the same."
Tony had difficulty piecing together an argument, though he was sure there was one in his brain, somewhere. He was just having trouble accessing it, at the moment.
"Are you really going to do this while I'm drugged to the gills and barely forming coherent sentences?" It was a dirty trick, but it was also the truth, and Tony watched as Cap gave him a once over, proceeded to look guilty, and then visibly come off the offensive, pulling back a little.
"I'm sorry. I just..." Just when Tony thought he might have won--or forestalled indefinitely, in any case--the argument, Cap's eyes sharpened and he leaned in. "Do you remember the last thing you did? In the ice world, before the hospital."
Tony thought about that. "Get pelted with a large piece of ceiling?"
"You jumped on me to protect me as our cell broke apart. You were--dying," his breath hitched slightly on the word, "and you protected me. If our roles were reversed, I would try to protect you. We watch each other's back. It's okay to let someone step in and defend you, occasionally. It's what you would do for us."
Tony felt something hot and bright settle behind his breast bone, where the desert and the blood and sand and terrible darkness usually resided. "You don't know that."
"I do. That's how it is, Tony. Please don't make it any more, or--or any less. We're here for you, and you're here for us."
Tony wasn't sure that he was the person that Cap saw, that Cap talked about with such conviction, but he knew that's who he wanted to be.
He came to a decision, slid his hand up until it grasped Cap's wrist and said, "Kiss me, Cap."
The blush that had been fading came back in full force. Under normal circumstances, Tony would've found that fascinating, but now it signaled a hesitance that was just frustrating.
"Tony, I--you're not completely yourself and I shouldn't--"
"I consent. I'll sign whatever form you need me to. Just get over here."
"I don't think it counts if you sign them under the influence of narcotics," Steve said with sudden seriousness that meant he was quoting something by rote.
"Cap, I will stab you."
Tony cast a quick look around the room that was, admittedly, free of anything particularly sharp. "My straw if I have to."
Cap's frantic panic was dying down a little, and he let himself be pulled closer. "I think only Agent Romanov can make that a lethal weapon."
"I don't want to kill you. Just maim you a bit."
"Ah, well, in that case..." Cap leaned in and then pulled up short at the last minute. Tony groped for the straw with the hand that wasn't already caught in Cap's warm grip. Cap grinned a bit, ignoring the impending danger. "I will if you do one thing for me."
"Which is?" Tony was fully prepared to sign away large chunks of his fortune, at this point, much to his Internal Pepper's horror.
Cap smiled the sweetest of smiles and said, "Call me Steve, please."
That smile was not fair play at all. Tony felt slightly faint as he echoed dutifully, "Steve."
Steve kissed him, and Tony thought, okay, I can do this. He could do the team thing and possibly even the boyfriend thing, and maybe even the decent human being thing. Steve's kiss was just that convincing. Also, Tony's toes were curling, and fireworks were going off in his head, and okay, he was still more than a little doped up, but even so. Affection unfolded from the bright spot that Steve had created for himself in Tony's chest, bathing all the world in heat and a tentative joy. Tony loved the world, and he loved Steve and he loved all his teammates.
"Ah, friends!" Thor's booming voice filled the room and crashed against the walls. "Oh ho, I see you are 'sparring.' I shall return later!"
Not that he also didn't hate them and want them to all die, occasionally. Steve straightened and turned slightly toward the door as Thor's heavy booted step retreated down the corridor, pausing to relay in what Thor probably believed to be a whisper, but was, in fact, a volume that carried all the way down the hall, "Our friends need but a minute, for they are 'sparring'."
"I should..." Steve murmured, but he was already bending back toward Tony.
"Don't you dare, Steve."
Steve didn't, and, instead, kissed him again. Quite possibly, all was not right with the world. But in that moment, everything was perfect.