The dragon would not leave Captain America alone.
"Did you piss off the dragon god in another life, Cap?" Tony asked as the large golden lizard lunged for Steve again. He fired his repulsors at the eyes and Steve brought up his shield to block the torrent of flame spewing from the dragon's mouth.
"Iron Man, Hawkeye, keep aiming for the eyes. Widow, see if you can reduce its maneuverability by tangling its legs. Thor, cover for me. I'll try to keep it occupied," Steve shouted, even as Clint fired another arrow.
The dragon either had insane reflexes or precognitive abilities, because like every other time, it blinked just before the arrow or the repulsor blast hit, rendering the attacks harmless. This plan was crap, and Tony decided it was better not to follow it.
However, he really had been trying to play nicely the past couple of weeks, so instead of just blasting off to do his own thing, he tried the coms. Plus, it meant he could gloat. "This isn't working, Cap," Tony said, flying over the massive creature's golden back. He swooped out of the way of a spiked wing tip as he tried blasting the wings again. He cursed under his breath, since not even Thor's hammer was denting those scales. Blasting it did make him feel a little better, even if it was useless.
"I, for one, am open to other ideas," Clint chimed from his perch on a fire escape. He heard Steve's sigh, but for once there was no shouting for Tony to stick to the plan. Right then. Tony flew higher to avoid the golden tail and switched to his internal com. "JARVIS, what's Bruce's status?"
"Still unconscious at SHIELD, Sir, but the bleeding has stopped and the doctors assure a full recovery."
Relief at Bruce's status warred with frustration. No Hulk meant no chance of teaming up with Thor to break those scales. It might just have been enough to break. "Run a full diagnostic on those scales and find me something that can break it."
"Have you tried your own head or Captain Rogers', Sir?" JARVIS suggested as temperature and density readings appeared on the HUD.
Unknown substance, naturally. Wonderful. "Ha, ha, JARVIS. Give me a more practical solution," he said, fighting the strain from showing, even if he was just talking to JARVIS.
"The substance exceeds any known quantity on the Mohs scale, Sir. I don't believe that even a diamond could scratch it," the AI said apologetically.
"Iron Man, report," he heard Steve say.
Cursing a few more times before he switched back over to the Avengers coms, Tony continued to scan through the information JARVIS gave him. "This thing is like a 20 on the Mohs scale."
"I thought that only went up to ten," Natasha said with an unimpressed grunt as she rolled out from under the dragon's legs. The ropes she had been winding around them pulled taut and then snapped, only Steve's shield-throwing saving her from the recoil.
"That's my point," Tony said, gritting his teeth as he searched through the data again. "Not even a- JARVIS, maximize the image on the dragon's neck, ten inches up and four to the left."
"Have you found the great beast's weakness, Man of Iron?" Thor asked hopefully, dispersing the dragon's fire with Mjölnir as Steve caught his shield. "Just tell me where to strike and we shall defeat this foe!"
"Whoa, big guy. Give me a sec." Tony found the golden scale he had spotted from the corner of his eye, slightly elevated from the ones surrounding it. There was a very, very small gap between it and the scale below it. He was comparing the dimensions of the space to the schematics of Natasha's knives when the screech of dragon's claws on vibranium caught his attention.
"Cap!" he called out as the dragon tried to crush Captain America's shield with one claw. When that didn't work, it pushed Steve to the ground to crush him beneath his own weapon. Steve bit back a sharp cry as Thor threw Mjölnir and Tony flew in low. The hammer didn't make a dent in the scales, but the force of impact pushed the creature back. "JARVIS, two second unibeam blast!" Tony shouted as he flew under the creature. He felt the chest plate whine as the power gathered for a unified repulsor blast, adding to the blow.
The combined force was enough to push the creature off long enough for Tony to grab Steve as he flew by.
"You alright?" Tony asked as he flew them a safe distance from the dragon, Steve's vitals already flashing up on the HUD as he scanned through them.
Steve's eyes were closed and his breathing was a little rough, but he nodded. JARVIS chimed in that it was only a few bruises and the blast had prevented any further damage to Steve's ribs. "Yeah, just give me a minute," Steve said as Tony set them down on the ground. "It knocked the breath out of me."
Tony gave a curt nod that wouldn't be seen outside of the suit, but Steve still hasn't opened his eyes anyway. He didn't let go of Steve, wishing, not for the first time, that he could feel through the armor to reassure himself that Steve was okay. Terrible idea, of course, but still. He always felt better with even just a casual touch hidden under the guise of being annoying, whether it's to poke Bruce or invade someone's personal space.
Sadly, he only had five point seven seconds of what comfort he could take before the dragon roared and charged them. They both rolled to opposite sides in a move that had nothing to do with Steve's team practice and everything to do with Tony's own reflexes, thank you very much, though Tony might admit those practices had helped a little in reading each other's movements. While Tony mourned the extra four point three seconds he would have allowed himself of holding onto Steve, he rolled to his feet.
The dragon ignored him completely even as he fired off repulsor blasts, its swirling, rainbow-colored eyes never leaving Steve. "Son of a bitch..." It was not eating Steve on his watch.
"Widow, how sharp are your knives?" Tony bit out, after quickly discarding one of Clint's exploding arrows as being too round.
"I can give you a practical demonstration, Iron Man."
Ignoring the underlining threat in that statement, Tony flew to her position and hovered. He was nearly batted to the side by a golden spike on the dragon's tail. "Yeah, actually. Ten inches up from the base of the neck on the third left most scale sounds like a good test environment for a demonstration."
Natasha threw him a contemplative glance as she calculated the distance. "I'll need a lift. The scale is cracked?"
"It's slightly elevated on the bottom of the scale. The knife should give you the leverage needed to lift it further." Proving once again that Science was awesome. Tony made a note to tell Bruce when he woke up.
"That's great, Stark, but I don't think a pinprick in the neck will kill it," Clint said, his voice tense as the sound of his bow drawing tight was heard over the com. "Can't you come up with something, I dunno, more permanent?"
Steve let out a small yelp as sharp teeth grazed his thigh and broke through the leather. He bit down on a gasp of pain as he stumbled back, enough to worry Tony until JARVIS intoned the blood was from a minor scratch. "I'm in favor of permanent," Steve said, gritting his teeth against the pain for a few seconds. "You're right about this plan not working."
"The pain should theoretically distract it enough that we can get a clean shot at its mouth or eyes," Tony replied. Clint groused at the word 'theoretical,' but Natasha nodded and he swooped beside her. The arm that slid around her waist was firm but careful. He'd had fantasies of touching her there and several other places beside, but he valued his balls enough to not even consider acting on one of those now. Or ever. Wet dreams aside, he still hadn't quite forgiven or lost his fear of her for the whole 'Natalie' incident. Besides, he still couldn't feel anything through the armor and that was just a waste of potential. He wasn't going to complain about having her this close to him, though, no matter how chaste it was. Tony would take what he could get.
"Alright, new plan. I'll try to keep its jaw open with my shield," Steve said. "Hawkeye, use explosive arrows once you get a clear shot. Thor, if you can see an opening take it. Iron Man, keep an eye on Widow and make sure she's secure."
Tony bristled over the fact that Steve was still giving orders, even though it was Tony's plan. Tony's plan that was much better than Steve's plan. Natasha knocked against Tony's helmet to pull him from his thoughts. "Sulk later, Stark," she said, thankfully not over the coms.
"Not sulking," Tony insisted, as he flew them over the dragon's back as close as he dared. "You see the scale?"
"I see it," Natasha responded. "We're in place."
"Roger that, Widow. Then on my mark." Steve held up his shield to block more of the dragon's flames as the fiery torrents slowly died. He then rolled to the side in a graceful movement. "Mark!"
He flew Natasha in as close to the dragon's bobbing neck as he could, dropping her after giving her hip a small squeeze in warning. She had a perfect landing as Steve thew his shield directly at the monster's mouth.
Tony flew out of range of the spiked wings while keeping an eye on Natasha in case it bucked her off or attempted to take her out with a spike. He made a mental note never to bet against Natasha's thighs of death on a mechanical bull, though it was a fascinating mental image. "JARVIS, make a note to find a western themed bar after this fight," Tony said as Natasha shoved her knife in the small opening.
"There is a bar six blocks from the tower, Sir. Your schedule next Saturday is clear. Shall I pencil in an appointment?"
The shield bounced off the dragon's snout and returned to Steve's hand as Natasha stabbed a knife in. Tony saw the dragon's neck buck back and he flew to catch Natasha as Steve rushed forward. He lost track of the rest of the fight as he pulled her into a controlled momentum stop, because he really didn't want Steve's lecture on not breaking his team mates' necks. "You alright?" Tony asked as he ducked under the dragon's tail and moved them to a safer landing point. The dragon roared in pain, and for a moment Tony wondered if she'd even heard over the noise.
She gave a minute nod though, and Tony flew back to the dragon's front, dropping Natasha at her short command. She rolled, controlling her fall as Steve struggled to slip out of the straps on his shield. It was prying open the dragon's jaw and he hung about a foot from the ground.
"Time to take Ramoth down," Tony said, firing repulsor blasts down the dragon's still screaming throat. Three of Clint's arrows followed. Tony could see Thor's frustration since lightning would too easily hit Steve as well, but that problem was solved as the dragon tossed its head and Steve finally found the right angle to slip out of the shield's grasp.
Thor caught their tossed comrade, not stopping as they flew passed. From the other side of the dragon's head, he gathered power to throw a lightning-bolt at the white star that faced the inside of the dragon's throat. Thankfully, lightning just reflected into the dragon rather than the massive concussive force that Thor's hammer striking the shield had done back when they first met. Tony didn't think the buildings around them would have survived that.
The dragon roared one last time before dropping heavily to the pavement. The whirling eyes, more red and yellow than the other colors now, slowly stilled as the lids closed for a final time.
"JARVIS?" he asked, going over the scans of the still dragon.
"The creature's body temperature remains the same. It is difficult to ascertain a heart beat due to the nature of the scales, but the dragon appears to be dead," JARVIS responded, anticipating the question. Tony loved his AI.
"Status?" Steve asked as Thor set him down gently, rolling his shoulder with a wince.
He waited until the others chimed in before reporting the information JARVIS was feeding him. "JARVIS says Puff the Magic Dragon is dead. Probably. It's not moving at any rate. The Fantastic Four are still working on the portals, but Reed's found the source and it should be an easy fix. They have an ETA of seventeen minutes. There's an ETA of eight minutes before the next portal appears, the dragon taking a whole twenty-three minutes longer than the rest of the fights have. Bruce still hasn't woken up, but Agent Hill has taken care of Ross's double agent."
"Hill SMASH!" Clint said with a smirk. None of them were particularly fond of Maria Hill, but leaving the guy who hurt Bruce in her tender mercies was far from a hardship.
"Iron Man, status," Steve said in a voice that booked no arguments.
Tony blinked, before remembering Steve liked to know when his team mates were injured. Not that Tony would actually broadcast a major injury when Steve would more than likely bench him for the next fight, but he'd gotten out of this one with just a few light bruises. Sliding back the face plate, Tony rolled his eyes. "I'm fine, Cap. You're the one who nearly had his leg gnawed off and got tossed around."
A month ago, they'd have been half-way to fist fight after a statement like that. Now Cap took a deep breath and nodded curtly. Somehow, they've started the slow process of learning to deal with each other, and Tony bit back a smug retort about his plan working in deference to their shaky truce.
Clint folded his bow as he crossed his arms, gearing up for a rant. "So we've fought a dragon, a frost giant, a zombie-"
"Jiang Shi," Tony interrupted, for the sake of accuracy. "It had Chinese necromancy writing on it."
Clint flipped him off before continuing his rant. "-A chimera, and a Rusalka."
All the men shivered at the mention of the last, even Thor. "She was indeed a frightful foe. I am very grateful to Lady Natasha for vanquishing her."
Natasha pet Thor on the arm as she eyed the dragon's neck. Steve shook his head in warning once he realized she wanted her knife back, which went over about as well as could be hoped. Not well at all. Tony gleefully filed that glare under Steve's problems.
"The Kappa wasn't so bad. All we had to do was feed it cucumbers and Natasha's boobs," Tony remarked, earning himself a glare from Natasha. Which wasn't fair at all, considering she should be annoyed at Steve. "Better than the rompo... thing, no matter how timid it was. Did you guys know Wikipedia says it croons while eating dead things?"
"List of things I didn't want to know, Stark," Clint said dryly. "The point is, five out of seven of these portals have thrown us multicultural nightmares. If a vampire comes out next, the Fantastic Four can clean up their own mess."
"Sparkly or normal?" Natasha asked innocently.
"If sparkly vampires really exist, then we'd have been better off letting Puff take care of us," Tony replied.
"I got the Ramoth reference, but Puff?" Steve asked, wincing as the vampires were mentioned. Not even national icons frozen in ice for seventy years could escape Twilight. For once, he and Tony were in agreement that horrified denial was the only suitable reaction.
"The Magic Dragon," Clint said, high-fiving Tony for the reference. Steve and Thor just looked blank. Tony made a mental note that while Steve had obviously progressed in terms of fantasy novels, both he and Thor needed more exposure to classic children's songs.
A new update about Bruce drove all thoughts of cultural differences from his mind, however. Poison was mixed in with the anti-adrenaline shots. Tony's fingers twitched in the gauntlets, forming fists. Ross was going to regret messing with his team.
"Shield-brother, are you well?" Thor's hand rested on Tony's shoulder, and he desperately wished he could feel it through the armor. Even if it wouldn't knock the anger out of him, anything would be a comfort after that news.
But, hey. Now there's a pleasant thought. "I'm great, buddy. I was just thinking of what to do after the Fantastic Four gets their asses in gear, and then I remembered I'm on a team now! I should be sharing the wealth. Because I'm good at getting in trouble by myself, but with the rest of you guys? It'd be the stuff of ballads."
Thor still looked confused, but he relaxed a little at Tony's grin. "I would be honored to spend time with you this evening, friend Anthony. Let the bards tell our epic tale."
Seriously, who said the word epic and meant it in a non-Internet annoying way? Thor was awesome. "Cool," Tony said, looking straight at Natasha. "What about you, honey bunch? Come on, it'll be kinky. You, me, and a Stark pad while Thor makes sure it goes down in history."
"You call me honey bunch again and I can think of a few epic places to shove that Stark pad," Natasha said without any real heat. Tony counted that as a win. She had a blank expression, but she hadn't turned him down yet either, so she had to be curious.
Tony checked the time again, noting they still had six minutes till the next portal opened. He flashed her the patented Stark smile. "Come on. Barton can join us. And I'm in the mood for some exhibitionism, so Cap and Thor can watch."
"I did not sign up for a threesome," Clint stated firmly, hands in front of him in mock horror. "Not without dinner and flowers first. Expensive dinner. I'm talking five-star buffet all I can eat, Stark."
"Foursome, Barton, foursome. Don't forget my baby Stark pad."
"What are you talking about, Stark?" Steve asked, rubbing his temples as if to prove he wasn't amused by his team negotiating an orgy. He probably wasn't. Spoil-sport with a stick up his ass.
The grin fell from Tony's face as his fists clenched in anger as he thought over the reason for the joking. Not at Steve, but at General Ross. "Those weren't just anti-adrenaline shots they gave Bruce. There was enough poison in there to kill an elephant," he said darkly, before slipping back into a PR smile, though his hands were still clenched. He could see his team's - his team? Great, now he was claiming them. Could be worse, he supposed - reaction to the words, despite two of them being super-spies trained at hiding their emotions. It made his own smile easier to maintain. "Now, I'm all for a little alone time, but you're always telling me I should be a better team player and I'll even take everyone's input seriously. So who's up for a massive tech orgy to make sure Ross learns not to mess with the Avengers? I'll make it the best nerd-gasm you've ever had."
Then something absolutely terrifying happened. Natasha smiled. Tony gulped, very, very glad that the smile wasn't meant for him. "That's a date, Stark. I expect chocolate and good wine."
"Sir, a portal is opening," JARVIS interrupted.
"What the hell?" Tony said as he snapped the face plate back down. "It's three minutes early."
"Dr. Richards has asked me to relay to you that there was a slight hiccup in the proceeding."
"Yeah, I think we noticed that. Thanks, Reed," Tony muttered as he stepped in front of his team, the diagnosis of the portal blinking for his attention on the HUD.
Behind him, the other Avengers fell into combat ready stances. Steve had learned not to argue when Tony said he needed to be in front for the suit to make the best scan. Which wasn't exactly true, but Tony had the best chance of surviving whatever the portal threw at them, other than Thor. "What are we dealing with here, JARVIS? Sparkly vampires?"
"Systems are unable to- I believe, Sir, it is what you would call a Unicorn."
"Huh," was as intelligent a response as Tony could get out, his eyes going wide at the pure white creature that jumped through the portal. It was smaller than he'd have thought a unicorn would be, only a little bigger than a pony and much more delicate-looking than a horse. Its cloven hooves beat against the concrete, sounding like bells. On the center of its forehead was a gleaming spiral horn the suit told him was from an unknown alloy. It was... beautiful. Tony was awed for a few seconds, unable to look away.
But certainly not unable to speak. "Well, I wasn't expecting-" Tony started, realizing half a second too late that the unicorn was charging him. Even then, he wasn't too worried because, hello, gold-titanium alloy. He really should have known better when dealing with unknown alloys, however. Pain seared though his shoulder as the horn pierced through the armor like a piece of cloth.
"Iron Man!" he heard someone shout over the blood roaring in his ears. Right. Unicorns apparently don't like playboys. Fuck, that hurt. Except that wasn't right, not completely. It wasn't that Tony was far from virginal, but he was in too much pain to sort it out the new upload of information on his own.
As the unicorn started to draw its horn out, Tony fell forward and the armor chipped the horn. He could feel it still lodged in his shoulder even as he saw the unicorn rear back. He could feel the unicorn's hurt and fear, and it nearly overwhelmed the agony of his shoulder. Tony's eyes widened as he stumbled back and saw the blood sliding down the spirals of the horn, a stark contrast to the blinding white.
There was a sudden burning in his thigh that caused him to fall, colliding back against something firm and solid before he was lifted off the ground. He looked down from the new height to see one of Clint's arrows lodged in the unicorn's back flank. "Wait!" he said, trying to squirm away.
The arms grasping him held firm, only serving to panic him more, but they were no longer moving away. "Man of Iron, you are wounded."
Tony shook his head, pain surging up as he jarred his shoulder against Thor. He saw the unicorn charge Natasha as Steve prepared to throw his shield. "Don't hurt it!"
Steve faltered as Natasha dodged to the side, a small dagger in her hand just barely grazing the Unicorn's neck. Tony could feel the blood as if it were dripping down his own. Hell, maybe it was. He could smell the copper fear it brought.
"I don't want to hurt a unicorn anymore than you, Stark, but this one is trying to kill us. You included," Natasha said, though she didn't draw her gun or throw the dagger.
"It's scared," Tony gasped as the unicorn continued to gallop despite the pins and needles down Tony's leg. The terror was nearly overwhelming, and Tony fought against being held by Thor and a hostile take-over of the unicorn's emotions. "It's terrified. I can feel it. I can't-This place, it's too much."
"We may not have much choice in killing it, my friend," Thor said gently in his ear. "Please, do not struggle so."
Tony barely heard him. He screamed as the arrow dug further into his thigh as Clint and Natasha ran the unicorn too close to one of the abandoned cars. They both looked up, startled. As the unicorn attempted to break past them, Clint was only saved from being trampled at the last second by rolling to the side.
Tony's throat felt raw as his leg throbbed, pulsing new terror through his veins. He heard Steve yelling at Thor to get the armor off him and for Widow and Hawkeye to keep the unicorn away, but the suit's cameras were tracking the unicorn as it reared on its hind legs to force Natasha out of the way. It jumped over the abandoned car for freedom.
But the unicorn, Clint, and Natasha were soon out of sight of the armor's sensors as Thor lowered them down. The helmet was ripped off as Tony dazedly stared up at the two blonds hovering over him, hissing as he felt a cut open on his cheek.
"Widow, Hawkeye. Did either of you just hurt the unicorn?" Steve demanded as Thor's hands gently searched for the catches on the armor. With the helmet off, Tony couldn't hear Natasha's reply, but he saw Steve go pale, muttering a surprisingly soft string of curses. Steve. Steve. He had to get closer... "Whatever you do, do not harm it. It's connected to Iron Man somehow and he's getting hurt when the unicorn is. A cut just opened on his cheek, right in front of us."
"JARVIS," Tony managed, the small part of him still in control pushed himself up on his elbows before remembering his bad shoulder. He couldn't lean closer to Steve that way. "Put the coms on speaker."
"You shouldn't try to move, friend Anthony," Thor said, trying to soothe Tony's hair.
He batted Thor's hand away as Natasha's voice was heard on the external speakers of the suit "-do you expect us to do? It keeps charging us, and we can't let it out of the evacuated area!"
"Is there any way to tame the beast?" Thor asked in a worried voice, fighting with Tony to get one of the gauntlets off. Tony raised his good hand to send a repulsor blast at Thor, only just managing to control the terror to stop himself. Thor didn't seem to realize what had nearly happened, finding the catch and pulling the gauntlet off.
"Virgins, Goldilocks," Clint said, his voice tight over the com. "But with all the civilians evacuated, I doubt we'll find one of those any time soon."
"Stay where you are, I'm coming to your location," Steve commanded as he made to stand.
Which was absolutely and completely unacceptable.
"No! You can't leave," Tony shouted, ignoring the blinding pain to grab onto Steve's arm. Steve couldn't leave. Tony didn't know why, but Steve could not leave. It was the only thing that was keeping Tony sane.
"Shield-brother, you must let go of-" Tony shrank away in fear from a very hurt-looking Thor, still clinging to Steve's hand.
"I think it's his connection to the unicorn, Thor, not that he doesn't trust you," Steve said, kneeling down and running a hand through Tony's hair. It was reassuring, and Tony felt calmer despite the unicorn's terror still racing through him. He didn't let go of Steve, but he let them push him back down.
"Change of plans. Hawkeye, Widow, try to herd the unicorn over here. I might be able to calm it. Thor, if this doesn't work..." Steve paused, looking down at Tony with worried eyes, which Tony met with a small smile. "If it doesn't work, I want you to take Tony and get him to a medic ASAP, no matter how much he struggles." That last sentence should have worried Tony, but the calming hand was still running through his hair and he sighed into it. He'd never realized how nice Steve's hands were. So big and clean, almost like Tony could smell the purity on them. It was even better when Steve took off those ridiculous red gloves and Tony just had Steve's skin. He leaned into the touch, a small noise of contentment escaping his throat as Thor watched on with an odd expression on his face. Even the pain started to ease a little, though his thigh and shoulder still hurt.
"No offense, Cap, but I don't think patriotism alone is going to calm this little guy, and he's pretty vicious," Clint said. Tony felt a fresh pain in his leg and his breath hitched, Steve's fingers interlocking with his non-gauntleted hand.
Over the com, Natasha cursed. "Sorry. The unicorn stumbled, but we should be there soon. ETA, two minutes. And Hawkeye has point, Captain."
Steve sighed, squeezing Tony's hand gently and alleviating some of the renewed tension. "It's working for Tony who's connected to the unicorn. And it's... it's not just patriotism I'm counting on."
"Wait, what?" Clint asked, his voice incredulous. "Cap, you're shitting me here."
A faint blush crossed Steve's face as he took a deep breath, returning Tony's smile. "I'm not. I'm still a virgin."
There was silence on the coms and Tony attempted to move closer to Steve. His shoulder wound and Steve's hands kept him down. "You smell nice," Tony said, since no one else was talking. "Steeeeeeeeve."
"We are not letting Stark live this one down." Tony frowned at the bark of laughter that followed that statement, knowing he needed to regain control and do something about the smirk that was probably on Clint's face, but Steve's hand resumed stroking his hair, and that was what mattered, anyway. Natasha was giving an ETA of sixty seconds, but by this point Tony had forgotten why that was important.
He did start to protest as Thor gathered him up, moving him away from Steve. But Steve continued to hold his hand, rubbing his thumb over the back of it. "It'll be okay, Tony," he said softly, standing with Thor and raising his shield to protect them. It didn't help. Tony could feel the terror getting stronger no matter what Steve did. This place had so many buildings and noises. Where was his forest? He wanted quiet and Steve, and-
The unicorn came into view, tripling the fear coursing through him. Its eyes were wild, and blood stained the white coat in a horrific reminder of how much this strange world hurt. Tony thrashed in Thor's arms, trying to break away and stay closer to the one thing that was good in this world. Steve let go of Tony's hand and walked towards the unicorn with his palms up, shield still strapped to his arm.
"Hey, there, little guy," Steve said, his voice soft and calming. "There's nothing to be-"
The unicorn reared back on its hind legs, sending spikes of pain through Tony. It hurt so badly he had to stop fighting Thor to catch his breath. It charged at Steve then, the jagged and bloody horn pointed right at the star on Steve's chest. He didn't even raise his shield as the other Avengers called out in warning, but stayed still.
As the unicorn got close, it reared back again, nostrils flaring as it got wind of Steve's scent. It whinnied in confusion, nervously prancing backwards.
"It's alright," Steve soothed, taking a step closer. Tony could feel the panic fading, even though the longing to be closer to Steve was still strong. It was enough to relax in Thor's arms as the unicorn hesitantly snuffed at Steve's palm. "No one's gonna hurt you," Steve promised, petting the unicorn's nose and letting his hand ghost over the line of blood on its neck. "I'm sorry you were hurt before, but no one's gonna hurt you now, I promise."
Tony felt like he could breathe properly for the first time since this mess started, though the air was still too thick with some horrible smell the unicorn didn't recognize. Then again, breathing deeply reminded him of how much he hurt and Steve wasn't here to mitigate the pain, so maybe not such a great idea. He closed his eyes as he heard a pitiable whinny, feeling so, so tired...
"Stark, stay with us," a sharp voice said next to him.
He opened his eyes to see a very worried Thor and a very annoyed-worried Natasha. "Steve... I need... Please. Steve," he said, his voice cracking lightly as he tried to walk closer. Except his legs weren't exactly capable of movement while being held in Thor's arms.
"I will take you to his side, my friend," Thor assured him.
"He needs to go to the hospital to-" Natasha started, cutting off as Tony started thrashing again.
"No, Steve!" Tony said, using even his bad arm to try to break Thor's hold. They couldn't take him away. He had to get to Steve.
"I do not think it is wise while he is still connected to this small, yet noble creature," Thor said gravely, worry in his eyes. He caught Tony's bare hand and rubbed it to pacify him. "Do not worry, Shield-brother. I will take you to him."
This was why Thor was his favorite.
As Thor closed the distance, Tony felt the unicorn's calm overtake him again. He looked out from his vantage point in Thor's arms to see Steve sitting on the concrete looking massive with the unicorn's head in his lap. It was a breathtaking picture that even the part of him that was still Tony could only stare in wonder. Both were bloody and beaten, but the unicorn now had a look of pure bliss, while Steve... Steve wasn't Captain America right now. The cowl was pulled down and his gloves were off, the scratch marks from the dragon's claws on his leg still visible. But that wasn't what made him Steve. It was the lost expression on his face that Tony caught on him sometimes when he thought no one was looking, or when Steve realized there was a skyscraper where a bakery, whose owner's he'd known his whole life, should have been. Steve ran a shaky hand through the unicorn's blood-matted mane, looking like a wayward knight who had lost his cause.
"Captain," Thor greeted him as he carefully set Tony down next to Steve. It was even on his good side, so that Tony could lean on Steve without hurting his shoulder. Thor was definitely his favorite.
"Thor, he needs medical-"
"Not advised until the connection is severed, Captain," Natasha repeated as Tony leaned his head against Steve's shoulder and closed his eyes to breath in the purity surrounding Steve. Someone this special shouldn't look that lost all the time. Steve needed to smile more.
"Tony, do not go to sleep," Natasha snapped again. There was less annoyance and more panic in her voice this time, which was odd considering how calm Tony felt. A small part of him recognized the worry and his given name were probably an attempt to manipulate him into doing what she said, but for once he didn't mind. Mainly because her hands traced his cheek, so much smaller than Steve's but still nice to feel. Well, if she was going to keep petting him, he supposed that he could keep his eyes open like she asked.
"We need to get the armor off him," he heard Clint say as Tony struggled to open his eyes. "Because this situation isn't nearly as funny as it would be if he weren't actively bleeding to death."
"-'m good now," Tony mumbled, raising the still gauntleted arm to wave them off, gasping in pain as it jarred his bad shoulder. The unicorn raised its head and whinnied pitifully.
"You aren't okay, Tony," Steve said. There was something important about that. It wasn't Natasha using his name. Steve had never done that before, but he couldn't figure out why that was important. The unicorn's calmed happiness sailed through him as much as the terror and pain had, keeping him from making the connection. He'd figure it out later. It was definitely nice though, and it took him a few repetitions of his name to realize that Steve was trying to get his attention over the elation. "Tony, listen to me Tony. You have to authorize JARVIS to take off the armor, because ripping it off might hurt you more," he continued urgently. "Please, Tony. Give the authorization."
The request was punctuated by Natasha's hand running though his hair, so he nodded, giving them all a blissful smile. "Okay," he said sleepily, looking down at the armor as he tried to remember the overrides. "JARVIS..."
"Sir, your vitals are reaching distressing levels. Please permit me to disengage the locks before Mr. Odinson breaks any more of them," JARVIS said, his voice bordering between worry and sarcasm.
"Yeah, okay. Sounds good," Tony said.
There was silence for a long moment as if they were waiting on something. Then Natasha spoke again. "JARVIS, is that enough to override the protocols?"
"Only with Captain Rogers' authorization."
"Mine?" Steve asked, sounding surprised. A prod from Clint made him collect himself. "Um, disengage the locks, please."
There was no response from JARVIS other than the click of the armor. Then there were hands pulling him away from Steve as the armor was taken off. "No, Steve!" he cried, panic rising as his agitation bled through to the unicorn.
"Easy, Tony. I'm right here. Sh..." Steve kept up a litany of reassurances as the armor came off and Tony forced himself to concentrate on Steve's voice. The part of him that still had a small grip on sanity knew he couldn't panic again, not when the unicorn could easily trample his friends with its small, cloven hooves. It was a bit harder to do when Clint was cursing as Tony's wounds became visible.
"Barton, I need a tourniquet for his leg," Natasha said, pressing her small hands into his bad shoulder to stop the blood flow. It hurt, but with the armor off now Tony could rest his head against Steve's shoulder and feel it, which helped. He should have taken the armor off ages ago.
"Thor, do you know what could be causing the link?" Steve asked urgently. He kept one hand subduing the unicorn while the other wrapped comfortingly around Tony's wrist. He could feel Steve's awkwardness, but it felt so good that Tony leaned into it.
"I am sorry, Steven, but I am unfamiliar with this creature," Thor replied.
Thor sounded so down-hearted that Tony struggled to put together a coherent sentence to cheer him up. The slightly loopy grin was much easier to manage. "It's okay, big guy. It's probably just the..."
"Just the what, Tony?"
There it was, that urgent voice and the odd use of his name. It kept him from fading off as he tried to focus. "The horn," he said finally, as if it were obvious.
"What's Stark babbling about?" Clint asked, but Steve was already tracing the jagged edges of the unicorn's horn. It sent a shiver of pleasure down Tony's spine.
"It's broken..." Steve said, wincing as he pressed too hard against an edge.
The unicorn let out a concerned huff as Tony gripped Steve's arm. "Steve..."
"I'm okay," Steve said hastily, sucking on his finger as if hiding the blood would make things better. "Just a scratch. But how did... Natasha, can you check the wound on Tony's shoulder for the broken off bit of the horn? We also need to check in with the Baxter Building..."
"On it, Cap," Clint said, pressing the com unit in his ear as Natasha's fingers probed at the wound. Tony bit back the small whine in protest.
"I shall take the tourniquet for Anthony's leg," Thor said, leaving Tony's back as Clint nodded, moving a little ways away. Tony mourned the loss of warmth that had been helping him sit up, but at least it meant he could snuggle closer to properly claim Steve's arm. He sighed blissfully, curling up to Steve's bicep like the over-sized teddy bear he was.
Steve froze, looking to Natasha for assurance as Tony felt something tighten on his upper thigh. "Wh-What do..."
"He'll never admit it," Natasha said, keeping her eyes solidly on the wound in front of her, "but Stark likes physical affection. Just focus on keeping the two of them calm and we can tease him about his cuddling tendencies later."
He knew it! Pure manipulation on Natasha's part. Didn't matter if it was for his own good or not, this was... This was... Steve smelled so nice, like apples and liberty. He'd get back at her for that later.
Nodding, Steve forced himself to relax again, managing to free his arm from Tony's clingy grip. Before Tony could complain, however, that arm wrapped around him and Steve's hand started rubbing small circles into his back. Tony hummed in appreciation, burying his face into Steve's neck. He felt like he was floating, ignoring the conversation around him in favor of reveling in the comfort he'd never get normally. Tony caught a few words like 'Richards,' 'arrow,' 'medic,' and his own name occasionally, but for the most part he and the unicorn were in agreement: Steve was one of the best highs either of them could think of. It gave a whole new meaning to the words 'virginity kink.'
There was a sharp pain in his thigh that Tony recognized as Clint pulling the remains of the arrow shaft out of the unicorn's leg, but they were both too blissed-out and coasting to care. Obviously, they needed to market Steve as a painkiller. What he didn't appreciate were the strangers that started coming up, trying to push his friends away. Tony weakly batted the unknown, non-pure people away as the unicorn waved its horn threateningly, until his team were back by his side and soothing them again.
"Feels good," he sighed as Natasha ran a hand through his hair again. He should stop her, because her hands were bloody and getting blood out of his hair was a royal pain, but he couldn't find the will to argue against the pleasure.
"Tony, we're going to take the horn out now," she said. Thor was back behind him again, a large comforting heat that was just as solid as Steve, if not quite as nice. It took him a moment to refocus on her voice, missing some of what she said. "-will hurt when it comes out, but we've got to break the connection."
"Cool with me," Tony said when he realized they were waiting for a confirmation. It was going to hurt like a bitch, suddenly having his magical morphine drip in the form of the unicorn's calm taken away. But regardless of how many times Steve had yelled at him on this subject, Tony did have some survival instincts, and the blood loss thing was starting to become an issue.
With Thor and Steve bracing him, he smiled up at Natasha as she pushed a pair of tweezers into the hole in his shoulder. It hurt, but he didn't mind it so much going in. It was when she pulled the tweezers out that- "Fuck," Tony gasped, his body ripped out of the euphoria and pushed into agony as the tip of the unicorn's horn left his body. Fire raced through him as strong hands held him down. No, he couldn't breathe, he couldn't-
Thor pressed an oxygen mask over his mouth, which made breathing easier even if his body couldn't stop writhing in pain. His ears roared from the sudden pounding of his own heart, and he could just barely make out voices yelling over his head as someone picked him up. A needle slipped into his neck, and that wasn't a welcome surprise. But there was one noise that drowned out even the blood pounding in his ears: the roar of the dragon.
Thor dragged him away as Steve raised his shield to block the flame. The dragon was supposed to be dead, so how was it-
"NO!" Tony cried, self-preservation be damned as he tried to stumble out of Thor's arms and force his shaking body to work. The unicorn was in front of Steve as soon as the flame dissolved, rearing back defiantly. Tony could see the purple bandage on its leg that must have been Clint's doing, a stark contrast between the pure white and bloody red. It looked so tiny compared to the dragon, no more than a toy to the monstrous bulk. So tiny, yet so determined. The unicorn charged forward with a furious neigh, its horn raised as bells rang out against the concrete. Just before the dragon's claw swiped the unicorn's body, its horn pierced through the impenetrable scales.
Battered into one of the nearby buildings, the horn broke off the unicorn's forehead entirely. Tony knew even before the dragon's death keel that it was lodged in the dragon's heart. He wasn't connected, but he still knew, and could feel the unicorn's dying breaths as his own ripped through his lungs.
The last thing Tony saw before his eyes blurred was Steven Rogers kneeling beside the broken body of the unicorn, cradling it against him with that same lost expression on his face.
* * *
Tony was grateful that he passed out soon after that, because admitting the reason why his eyes had gone blurry was on his top ten list of things he never wanted to do in his life. He slept through thirty-six hours and a blood transfusion, worrying the other Avengers to no end. It was a pretty nice surprise to see all of them in his hospital room upon waking, though. Even if he did get yelled at.
No one mentioned his time linked to the unicorn, and he never quite met Steve's eyes.
Bruce stayed after the others had left, handing him the fragment of alicorn that had been lodged in his shoulder and telling him it was the only thing that remained of any of the creatures they fought after Reed Richards had fixed the portal problem. Then he gave Tony a hug, because Bruce was awesome and understood, no matter how much Tony denied it, and he let Tony babble about the kinds of tests he'd run over the horn fragment as he held it close against the arc reactor.
Pepper got him a swanky cane to match the sling that she and Bruce bullied him into wearing, which was all Tony needed to force his and Bruce's way out of the medical ward, because, God, they were depressing places. Tony Stark was through with depressing right now. He was fine, the poison was out of Bruce's system, and look, he's even wearing the goddamned sling. No reason to keep him there.
The medical personnel eventually admitted they were out-classed by Tony's pimping cane and let him go with a few pain meds that Tony proceeded to ignore in favor of alcohol and actually being able to think. It was worth the dark look Pepper gave him, and sure, it hurt, but touching the small fragment he kept hidden in his pocket dulled some of the pain. The last thing he wanted was pain medication messing with his head and ending up maudlin. He'd had more than enough of things messing with his emotions for a while.
Therefore the best thing to do was to throw himself into his and Natasha's 'date' the moment he got back to the tower. Sadly, only Thor showed up for some sexy techboner funtimes. The tech-orgy turned tech-threesome was fantastic, however, so it was everyone else's loss. Teamwork should be fun like that all the time!
With Tony's computer expertise and Natasha's nightmare inducing suggestions, General Ross would not be messing with one of their team mates any time soon. Because of Tony's arm being in the sling, they were both surprised to find out that Thor was a decently competent typist. Tony pondered that as his good hand kept going back to the alicorn fragment, touching the now smoothed edges. He came to the conclusion that poli-sci major who followed Thor's girlfriend around had had a hand in it.
His thoughts kept moving back to the fragment. Would the unicorn have died if General Ross had kept his grubby hands off his science bro? Tony took a few more of Natasha's suggestions to heart while dictating the code.
He needed time down in his workshop, no matter what Bruce or Pepper said. Pushing the unicorn out of his mind even if he couldn't seem to let go of the horn fragment, Tony forced himself to whistle as he headed for the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee. Denial was an awesome coping method, if he did say so himself.
So intent on not thinking about things was he that Tony didn't notice Clint and Steve were in the living room until it was too late. Clint was waving him over gleefully, while Steve looked like he'd just swallowed a bug. Not that Tony spared Steve more than a quick glance. "Stark! Come back me up on this!" Clint said with a lazy grin.
"Hourly rates apply, Barton. You can't afford my consultation fees," Tony said, hiding behind a smirk as he calculated the chances of Clint dragging him back in the room for whatever was going on. Clint was too smug. His chances weren't good.
A quick glance at Steve told him what this was about. The good captain was turning an interesting shade of red and looking like he'd rather be anywhere else other than in a room with Tony in it. Normally, Tony would be all over a round of Cap-baiting. Right now, he just wanted his coffee so he could hide in his workshop for a week.
"Forget the rates, Stark. This is our patriotic duty," Clint insisted dryly, placing a hand over his heart.
Internally, Tony sighed. This would go quicker if he played along. He limped over and leaned over the couch with his best PR smile. "Do tell."
"We need to get Cap laid," Clint explained, like this was a sacred duty he was appalled at Tony for forgetting. "The man's a ninety-year old virgin, and that's just unacceptable."
Steve looked miserable, and all Tony could think of as his fingers brushed the horn was how much he'd wanted Steve to smile while he was linked to the unicorn. "I've already told you, I don't want to just 'get laid' or whatever the slang is now. I want to wait for..." Steve trailed off, that lost expression on his face again. "I wanted to wait for the right partner."
Tony Stark was done with depressing things. Seriously done. Which means this conversation? Not gonna happen, at least not the way Clint had planned. "Sounds like a valid reason to me. Drop it, Clint."
Jaws dropped, if not the conversation topic. That was enough to regain something closer to a real smile from Tony. There was always no small amount of glee to be gained when he managed to shock and surprise people.
"Wait, back up a second," Clint said once his brain got over the shock. "Tony Stark, playboy, billionaire, philanthropist, doesn't think Cap needs to have his cherry popped? Did that unicorn mind-meld do something to your head?"
All Tony had to do was close his eyes and see Steve cradling the small, broken body. He could still feel the pain in his broken collarbone as if the horn were still lodged in it. Cold replaced the glee as he went into full press mode. "That's 100% Tony Stark. No unicorns, rainbows, or magical friendship included."
"Nuh-uh. Don't believe you." Clint dropped right back into teasing, this time with a new target. "I think you need to get your head checked again."
"I like sex," Tony started, smiling lewdly, because hey, maybe he's up for a bit of Cap baiting after all. "I like being touched. I like being surrounded and filled, and I like having someone's arms around me, clinging to me as we lift off. It's the only feeling as good as flying."
Steve had been awfully quiet through the conversation considering he was the topic, watching Tony like he was something surprising and new that he'd never seen before. Now, however, it returned to his normal blushing glare of disapproval. Clint just laughed. "What's wrong, Stark? Daddy not hug you enough?"
Again, the words hit Tony deep, but he smiled easily with years of practice as his fingers slipped into his pocket again to touch the horn fragment (not becoming a habit, really, it's not. He wasn't relying on the damned thing for comfort, and he had enough of a nervous tick tapping at the reactor). Clint would have to have been born around the same time as Steve to catch Tony off his guard. "You better believe it, Cupid." Unfortunately, Steve's frown was less disapproval and more... something Tony probably didn't want to think about or listen to a lecture on, so he dropped the grin and went right in for the hit, his eyes growing cold as he went on. "Do you know what happens when someone is peer-pressured into sex, Barton? I'm all for a good, consensual time to be had by all. I don't like girls bursting into tears before, after, or during because they didn't really want it in the first place and are only there because someone else pressured them into it."
This time, Clint's grin slid off and he didn't meet either Steve's or Tony's eyes. "That happened to you, didn't it?" Steve asked quietly after a few moments of silence.
"Only once," Tony replied, thinking back to the girl. A real beauty, with golden curls and keen green eyes. He didn't remember her name, but he remembered those eyes. "I stopped immediately once I realized what was going on. She was asexual, but her friends convinced her that she just hadn't tried sex yet and didn't know how good it was. By the time we found a bedroom, she was convinced there was something wrong with her since she couldn't even feel attracted to me, sexiest guy on Earth. Which, granted, is a point, since everyone should be attracted to me." Tony winked at this, gesturing wide with the cane as he leaned his weight on his good foot.
That got a disapproving sigh from Steve, and Clint finally looked up at him, shaking his head lightly. Tony had to think for a moment where he'd left his point before jumping right back in. "But a sexually frustrated evening spent sleeping on the couch was a lot better than knowing someone was terrified and hating every moment of the sex. It doesn't matter why someone doesn't want sex, it matters that they don't want it. If Cap says he doesn't want it right now, then drop it. I'm sure he'll find the 'right partner' in his own time." And Tony had made damned sure after that with all his other partners. He'd learned tells and watched carefully, because he didn't want to think about what would happen if he'd gone through with it. Plus, he hated it when women cried. Sleeping on the couch (the couch) after calming down a pair of beautiful green eyes in case she had more tears for waking up in a strange bed had sucked. Especially since his couch back then had been more for looks than for comfort.
"Didn't think about it like that," Clint said with a soft shrug. "Sorry, man. Next time tell me when I'm being an idiot."
"You're always an idiot, Barton!" Tony said cheerfully as Steve said "It's fine."
Steve was looking at Tony with another odd expression on his face, which was Tony's cue to make a hasty retreat for coffee. "Awesome. Great. With that out of the way, I need coffee. Later."
He hobbled his way to the kitchen, staring at the coffee machine gloomily once he made it there. As he said, great. Fantastic. Feelings. Just what he'd been trying to avoid. He pulled the alicorn fragment out of his pocket and looked it over, but all he could see was the broken body of the creature he'd been mentally linked to. A creature who stood for purity and virginity. How was this his life? He felt like he should be insulted that the unicorn only liked virgins, but couldn't muster the heart to really grump over it.
Tony huffed and tried to retain his earlier good cheer as he made a fist around the broken horn. He grabbed his favorite mug and started the wonderful sound of coffee percolating.
The thing was, after being linked to it? Tony understood, at least in terms of purity if not virginity. The other Avengers didn't quite see things the way he did, but unbelievable as it was, the unicorn had. Unicorns were symbols of purity, sure, but not because of itself. That unicorn had blood on its horn long before it impaled itself in Tony Stark. It protected that which was pure, because it wasn't pure itself. Though it had a pretty messed up notion of pure if a requirement was to be a virgin. That was a bit too pervy even for Tony, and he'd known enough pure people who weren't virgins. Not to mention there were probably some virgins that were complete jackasses, so it was a pretty crappy way to scientifically measure purity.
Perhaps he really needed to stop applying logic to mythical creatures before he'd had his coffee.
Tony mentally cataloged the number of times he'd taken the bullet for Steve, or for any of the other Avengers, in the handful of weeks they since they had started this gig, and came to the conclusion he wasn't all that dissimilar. He didn't give a flip either way if Steve was a virgin, but Steve was definitely special. He was good in all the ways Tony wasn't, and sometimes... sometimes, more and more often, Tony felt like Steve being here in this time could make him better. That Tony could be better, even if he didn't like admitting that Steve was the cause. The unicorn had given its life for the same reason Tony would have, to save someone who was better.
He was debating the pros and cons of taking off the sling and putting the workshop in full lock down (Pro: Armor gets fixed and probably fantastically upgraded. Con: Pepper and Bruce will kill him and put his head on a pike as an example of why not to cross them the moment he took the workshop out of lock down. And that was only if they were feeling merciful, because what they could do to him while keeping him alive? It would give Natasha nightmares), when he heard someone clear his throat. "Stark."
"Cap," Tony said in reply, picking up the coffee with his other hand (Okay, so not wanting to let go of the horn was a little pathetic, but it was making his bad hand feel better, damn it) instead of turning around. He mourned the lack of his given name, which he'd been too loopy on the unicorn mind-meld to fully appreciate earlier. He ignored the sling and took a sip before responding, noting how cool it was in comparison to how hot it should have been. How long had he been standing there, staring at the damned coffee machine while lost in thought? Tony resolutely pushed his thoughts away until he was alone again. "What can I do you for? Someone else you'd like me to defend your virtue to?"
"I don't need anyone to-" Here it comes, one of their fights. And they'd been doing so well this week too.
Except Steve cut himself off and took a deep breath. Tony turned around this time to see Steve visibly collecting himself. He waited, watching in fascination as Steve reigned his temper in. "I never know what to think of you," Steve said finally.
"The worst, usually. That's what everyone else does." Tony didn't even mind anymore. He'd had more than enough practice living with other people's disappointment.
Any remaining lines of frustration in Steve's body were replaced by something Tony really didn't want to examine too deeply. Pity mixed with guilt was a nauseating combination and meant that Tony's stay in the kitchen was five minutes too long.
He rolled the horn fragment in his hand as he considered another retreat. Steve was blocking the doorway, however. All Tony could do was fidget off his bad leg and drink his coffee as he waited for whatever lecture Steve deemed fit to give. He hoped he wouldn't gag on the talk before he could get to his workshop.
Steve ran a hand through his hair, thinking through his words before speaking. Tony almost envied the ability, except he couldn't think of a time when he'd willingly use it, even if he did have a filter. "It's just... I thought that out of everyone, you'd tease me the most about this."
Now that, that Tony could respond to without going into feelings. "Whoa, Cap. Who said anything about not teasing you? This is way too good to let you live down. Unicorns get high on your all-American goodness. I've only just gotten out of medical, so don't get your star spangled panties in a twist thinking I've ignored you. Just let me get some caffeine in my system and I'll put Barton to shame."
Instead of rising to the bait, Steve actually smiled fondly. Tony had to hold the coffee mug in front of him to hide his shock, wondering if maybe the unicorn hadn't done something to Steve as well. "But you won't try to change me like Clint," he stated confidently.
"Nope," Tony agreed warily, not certain where Steve was taking this. "I can't expect you guys to be okay with my sleeping around the block if I can't accept that the other side of celibacy is equally valid. I'm a man-whore, not a hypocrite, at least not with this. Not my thing, sure, and you're really missing out on a whole world of fantastic orgasms, by the way, but it's your choice, not mine." And Tony knew his life choices generally weren't the greatest anyway, so who was he to judge?
"Congratulations, Cap. Your dark age moral sensibilities literally saved this poor, wretched sinner. I probably wouldn't have survived if you hadn't managed to calm the unicorn down." He smiled, easing into the joke with practiced grace as he held the tip of the horn that much tighter. It was as close to a thank you that Steve was going to get, and he should be grateful for even that much. Tony could at least acknowledge that it wasn't just anyone who would put up with a clingy, virgin-high team mate.
If Steve heard the unspoken thanks, he didn't let on, which Tony was privately glad of. "I really don't understand you sometimes," Steve said, shaking his head. Tony just shrugged, because Steve was far from the first. "But I think I should be trying a lot harder than I have been. I'm sorry for taking this long to understand that."
Steve was-What was Tony supposed to do with such an earnest apology? He gripped the coffee mug tighter as he fought to keep his expression neutral. What the hell? He needed alcohol to deal with a conversation like this, because coffee was not cutting it. "Don't sweat it, Cap," he said, starting to wave it off with his good arm before remembering he was still clutching at the horn. He slipped it back into his pocket with a slight of the hand to hide it from Steve. "I'm more of a headache than it's worth, and you'd need at least five courses in engineering to even begin to understand everything that comes out of-"
He felt his eyes widen in surprise before he could control the reaction. Tony hated being on the other end of surprises, no matter how nice it was to hear his name. He only used everyone's given name in the safety of his own head for a reason, after all. People always wanted more distance from him than he did from them. "Yeah?" he asked, his voice mostly natural.
Steve plucked the coffee mug out of his hands and that was all the warning Tony got before arms carefully, but firmly, wrapped around him. "Steve?" Okay, that tremor in his voice was completely unacceptable, and he needed to get a grip and - Hello, Captain America's pectoral muscles. Damn. Those were... well, Thor's were out of this world, technically, but Steve's weren't far behind. Those were nice, very nice, and he could get used to the biceps around him, if this was going to become A Thing. God, he hoped so.
Steve's arms tightened around him, though they were careful of his bad shoulder. The hug wasn't as all encompassing as one of Thor's (There was a reason Thor was his favorite, because those bear hugs? Totally awesome and all sorts of amazing), but it was warm and very... very Steve. Special. A different sort of good from Thor's, and it was feeding his affection addiction like crazy. Tony was surprised to find he enjoyed the hug more now than when he was mind-melded to the unicorn. He didn't really think he'd enjoy a hug from Steve like this. Well, there goes that hypothesis.
"Thank you," Steve said simply.
"For not wanting to change me." Tony was about to point out that any attempt on his part to change Steve would more than likely end with the stick farther up Steve's ass, but his breath ghosted over Tony's ear and that kept his mouth from running if just to hide the slight hitch in his own breathing. His leg was starting to hurt from standing too long, but he couldn't work up the will to pull away. Except Steve apparently wasn't done talking. "And you don't have to hide that you're hurting. I'd like to help."
That was enough to wake Tony up and attempt to put some space between them, but Steve wasn't having it. "My shoulder's fine," Tony snapped as he leaned away from that perfect chest. "And my leg should be better in-"
"That's not what I meant, Tony." And yeah, thanks. Tony got that. He didn't need help though. He didn't need... Ah, who was he kidding, of course he did, but that didn't mean Tony Stark was going to admit it. He was putting his foot- okay, not putting his foot down, because that actually hurt. Ow. Note to self, stomp with the non-wounded leg.
Steve chuckled as Tony worked up a glare. "Natasha's right. You won't admit it, will you? Then what if I said I was also hurting because of the unicorn's death and wanted a hug?"
"That... that might be acceptable. Maybe. If the variables don't include the word 'also,' because I don't need-"
"Shut up, Stark," Steve said, with more fondness than bite in his voice.
Hesitantly, Tony returned the hug with his good arm, and he let himself relax. He could still feel the piece of horn in his pocket, and his throat constricted as he closed his eyes. Leaning forward against Steve, Tony supposed it was alright, so long as Steve needed it too.
"What I still don't understand is why it-Er, sorry. We didn't mean to interrupt."
Tony felt like one of Thor's lightning strikes had hit him square in the reactor as soon as he heard Bruce's voice, and he tried to jump back. Terrible idea, considering jumping only made his leg hurt worse, but Steve held him in place anyway. "No problem," Steve responded without any embarrassment (which really wasn't fair at all), giving Tony a final squeeze as Natasha raised an eyebrow at both of them. He still wouldn't let go of Tony, though, helping him limp over to the kitchen table with a hand at the small of his back. Tony couldn't decide if he wanted to resolutely ignore the feeling or lean into it.
He hissed in pain as he sat down, but it was a relief to take the weight off his bad leg. Steve gave him a pat on the shoulder before moving away, and Tony definitely did not miss the contact. At all. Really.
Maybe a little.
"Sure the mental link with the unicorn was broken, Stark?" Natasha asked skeptically, though he'd known her long enough now to see her lips were twitching into a slight smile.
"Positive. Without a doubt. When have I ever been wrong?" Tony answered, reclaiming some of his usual charm. He shoved his hand into his pocket and ran a finger down the smooth horn. "Absolutely pos-"
Apparently, he spoke too soon. Steve was reheating Tony's coffee and bringing both it and his cane over to him, throwing him off again. How the hell was he supposed to respond to someone being nice to him? That never usually happened unless someone wanted something from him, and Steve wasn't the sort of person to do anything like that. Admittedly, snark was his usual fallback for anything surprising, but Steve's smile, which was one again directed at Tony, made any cutting remark feel unpatriotic. And... he had wanted Steve to smile more.
"Positive," Tony finished, wanting the weirdness to end. This was why he didn't do feelings, it always threw him off. "Um, thanks," he muttered as Steve set the reheated coffee in front of him.
"What were you asking about when you came in, Dr. Banner?" Steve asked, innocently directing the topic away so that Tony could get a proper hold of himself. It was almost disturbing, this sudden change in Steve's attitude toward him. Tony was going to have to reclassify a lot of reactions if this kept up, and it was too early to tell if he really minded or not.
Bruce pulled up a chair next to Tony and ruffled his hair. He received a scowl in return, but Bruce understood how those sorts of things affected Tony and could get away with it so long as he didn't fuss. Science bros were the best. "Just trying to figure out why the dragon kept attacking you in particular, Captain," Bruce responded.
"That's easy," Tony cut in, taking his hand out of his pocket to take a drink of his coffee. "Haven't you heard the song?"
'Which one?" Bruce asked, frowning slightly.
Tony grinned as everyone looked at him expectantly. This time he really was back in his game. He did, after all, promise Cap a proper teasing and he was getting behind on schedule. "You know, the one with the dragon's retort to the age old question? Virgins do taste better than those who are not."
That earned him a laugh out of Natasha, a small smile from Bruce, and a long-suffering sigh from Steve. Slipping his hand back in his pocket again, Tony's fingers danced along the point of the horn and he decided. These people? He could be a team player for them, every so often. But only on Sundays, or the occasional day when Steve doesn't mind leaving his hand on Tony's shoulder. And sometimes? Sometimes he might do it just to keep Steve smiling.