The scorpion spun around while Steve was in mid-leap, its gleaming black bulk moving far faster than anything that big had a right to. It was the biggest one they'd faced so far, nearly twelve feet long from the tip of its wedge-shaped head to the base of its tail. The tail added another ten feet or so, and the barbed sting that was currently trying to impale Steve in mid-air looked big enough to serve as a bayonet. If it hit, it wouldn't need the venom to kill him.
Steve got the shield up in front of his face just in time. The sting glanced off the smooth metal surface with a high-pitched scraping noise. The blow knocked Steve sideways from his intended trajectory and sent him spinning head over heels toward one of the billboards that framed the approach to the Holland Tunnel entrance on the Manhattan side. Steve twisted in mid-air, let his legs absorb the force of the impact as a ten-foot-high replica of the Mercedes logo buckled and cracked under his feet. There was just enough give in the billboard's surface to let him spring back in a semi-controlled bounce that landed him in the middle of the scorpion's chitin-plated back.
"You all right, Cap?" Jan zoomed down to circle just above his head.
"I'm fine." Steve gave her a quick wave. The scorpion clicked its pincers in the air above his head. It sounded more like the clash of swords than like anything organic. Each pincer looked as if it could snap Steve in half, but the thing wasn't flexible enough to get at its own back. It just kept thrashing and spinning, bits of asphalt flying off in all directions every time its feet struck the pavement.
Jan fired a few stinger blasts at its eyes, making it swing toward her and giving Steve space to stand up. He pivoted, wobbling a little as his boots skidded on the chitin, and launched himself at his original target -- the thick metal cuff that encircled the scorpion's tail just below the sting.
Somewhere off to the side, Agent Hill was yelling at her team to take aim just as Steve's fingers closed around the cuff. He snapped it off with a hard twist of his hand, let the momentum of his leap carry him past the swinging scorpion tail, and hit the ground rolling just as Hill yelled, "Fire!"
Without the force-shield generated by the cuff, the SHIELD team's explosive rounds tore the scorpion apart in seconds. Steve had just enough time to raise the shield above his head as chunks of exploded giant bug began to rain down.
"That will never stop being gross." There was a light tickle of wings against his jaw as Jan landed on his shoulder. "Is it me, or are these things getting smarter?"
"And bigger," Steve said.
"Sometimes, being a superhero is the funnest thing ever." Jan breathed a dramatic sigh next to his ear. "And sometimes it's no fun at all."
"Getting slow, Rogers." Hill stomped over, unmindful of the squelch of scorpion guts beneath the thick soles of her combat boots. She was a short, compactly muscled woman with a tousled pixie cut and a hostile manner. Steve suspected she didn't like him, or the Avengers, or superheroes in general. But she was the agent in charge of his current support team and she was doing her job with gritty efficiency, so he saw no reason to take issue with her. "You have forty-five seconds max before the next one."
"Great. Plenty of time." Steve hauled himself to his feet, hoping he didn't look half as battered as he felt. His back felt like one giant bruise, and his arms and legs were lead-heavy with exhaustion, but he knew from experience that he could go on fighting at least twice as long as he'd already gone before the fatigue began to slow him enough to matter. Jan took off from his shoulder to hover in a tight circle six feet above his head. Between them, they had honed what Jan called their "bug-mugging routine" down to under a minute. Which was good, because the portal was spitting them out every one hundred and fifty seconds now.
There were twenty-seven portals currently active, spitting out giant bugs at steadily shrinking intervals all over Manhattan. No one knew what caused them, or how, or why. Hank and Thor were dealing with the one in Riverside Park, the Fantastic Four were split between Bryant Park and TriBeCa, and Spider-Man had been sighted in Inwood. Every police officer and SHIELD agent in the city was out in the field, and the National Guard had been called in.
"Thirty seconds!" Hill yelled. "Everyone in position! Rogers, Van Dyne, are you two ready?"
"Ready." Steve faced the spot where he knew the portal would reopen and crouched down, ready to leap.
"I wish Iron Man was here," Jan muttered, her voice barely audible through the communicator in Steve's ear. "A few repulsor blasts might come in really useful just about now."
"Yeah," Steve sighed. "I wish he was here, too."
It started out as a nice, relaxing evening -- just another one of Tony's sporadic attempts to get Steve "caught up" with the twenty-first century. Over the past year, these attempts had included everything from movie marathons to visits to the Museum of Natural History to long, aimless walks around Manhattan, accompanied by Tony's rambling monologues about the way each neighborhood had changed over the past six and a half decades.
This night's outing was a bit more formal than usual, and included Hank and Jan as well as dinner reservations and tickets to a chamber music recital at Alice Tully Hall. Steve wasn't entirely sure how an evening of eighteenth-century music was supposed to catch him up to the twenty-first century, but the harpsichord player was a former schoolmate of Jan's, which was more than enough reason for all of them to go. And the sparkling cluster of theaters in Lincoln Square was certainly a striking sight for someone whose clearest memories of the neighborhood, despite feeling only a year old, came from the late thirties. An opera house where the 9th Avenue El used to run. Designer boutiques and pricey restaurants in place of apartment blocks and rooming houses. Steve wondered where all the people had gone when their homes got plowed under for concert halls and fountains. Tony might know. He'd ask him later.
Steve suspected that Tony had actually slept through most of the recital, but that was okay. He hadn't snored or anything, and he could probably use the sleep. Tony slept far less than any healthy human being should.
Maybe he could ask Jarvis to start piping classical music into the lab every night around midnight. Tony would probably wind up sleeping face down on a workbench with a soldering iron clasped in his hand, but it would still be good for him.
Tony seemed awake enough now, flirting with the hostess and ordering a scotch on the rocks even before they all finished seating themselves around their table at Fiorello's, with Steve across from Tony and Hank across from Jan. The place was filled with the after-theater crowd, waiters in white shirts and tuxedo vests navigating around the tables with harried expressions. Steve would've preferred someplace more low-key, and the way Hank kept tugging at his shirt collar suggested that he might've preferred another planet, but Tony and Jan were both in their element. A glamorous young woman at the bar had actually stopped Jan for an autograph, and the busboy who came to fill their water glasses stared at Tony so intently, he nearly let Steve's glass overflow into his lap.
"Do I know you?" Tony demanded abruptly.
"N-no, sir," the busboy stammered. He was skinny and pale, and clearly thrown off his stride by the presence of a celebrity at his table. The ice cubes in the water pitcher rattled as he pulled it back.
"Are you sure?" Tony grinned. "Because the way you've been staring, I'm starting to think we might've dated once or something."
"Tony." Jan smacked him on the arm. "Behave."
"What?" Tony quirked his eyebrows at her. "I'm just saying, you never know. The mid-nineties were kind of a blur for me."
"You're hopeless." Jan pouted, but her eyes were amused. "I'm only talking to Hank and Steve from now on." She picked up her menu and leafed through it with the inattentive air of someone who already knew what she was ordering. "If I were you," she said to Hank, "I'd skip the appetizers and save room for dessert. If you order the dark-and-white chocolate mousse, they bring it to the table in a bucket."
Hank turned faintly pink, the way he always did if Jan said anything more to him than "Hi" or "Watch out for that alien death ray!"
"I thought you never ordered dessert," he said.
"I didn't say I would order it. I'm just making a suggestion for your own benefit. As a concerned friend."
"Uh-huh," Tony said. "Watch yourself, Hank, she's an accomplished dessert thief. That's why she never orders any herself. And you're a prime target, sitting where you are."
"I don't steal," Jan said primly, "I sample."
"Right. I've seen you sample. It was like that movie where the army ants ate Bolivia."
"Brazil," Hank said, "not Bolivia. And that movie was totally inaccurate."
"Tony Stark?" The busboy was back, without a water pitcher this time. He was looking even more pale than before and clutching a coffee mug, which struck Steve as slightly odd, since none of them had ordered any coffee.
"Yes?" Tony looked up from his menu, his charm-the-little-people smile instantly in place. "What can I do you for?"
"See if you remember me after this," the man spat, and threw the contents of the mug into Tony's face.
"Hey!" Even as he leaped to his feet and grabbed the busboy's arm, Steve didn't think there had been any harm done. Jealous boyfriend or protective brother making a scene, that was what he thought, and his main concern was to defuse the situation before it escalated into something that would end with Tony's face in the tabloids and all of them banned from the restaurant.
But the guy let out a stream of obscenities that might've made Nick Fury blush, and actually took a swing at Steve, unexpected enough to clip his jaw before he could fully dodge.
Steve rocked his head back a little, but didn't let go. The guy swung again, and again. When he tried for a knee to the groin, Steve decided he'd had enough and wrestled him to the floor, pinning him face down with both arms twisted behind his back.
He looked over his shoulder to find that Tony and Hank were nowhere to be seen and Jan was snapping her cell phone shut.
"I called 911," she said in a strained voice. "The police and the paramedics are on their way."
Paramedics? Steve's felt the first stab of fear, compounded by Tony and Hank's absence and Jan's ashen face. He gritted his teeth and gave the man beneath him a couple of rough shakes.
"What did you throw at him?" he demanded.
All he got in return was a high-pitched cackle and more swearing. The guy wasn't even struggling anymore.
Jan bent down to pick something up from the floor. It was the coffee mug, intact except for a small chip at the edge.
"There's still some liquid left at the bottom." Jan sniffed at it, coughed, and pressed the back of her hand against her mouth for a moment. "I think it's drain cleaner."
Jesus. Tony. Steve took a deep, shaky breath and slowly let it out. He needed to calm down. He needed to see Tony. He needed to hand over this cackling bastard to somebody who'd be less likely to smash his face into a bloody pulp against the floor.
Steve loosened his tie with one hand and pulled it over his head, then used it to tightly bind the busboy's hands behind his back. He hauled the man to his feet and shoved him at one of the burlier waiters he saw standing nearby.
"Hold on to him until the police arrive," he growled, then turned toward Jan. "Kitchen, you said?"
Jan pointed toward the swinging double doors by the bar. There was a small crowd in the way, but they quickly moved aside when Steve glared at them. He noticed that a few of the gawkers had cameras, while others were holding up their cell phones. Dammit, this was going to be all over the news tomorrow, and Tony would hate it.
The kitchen was warmer and much more brightly lit than the restaurant space. People in white jackets and aprons scurried out of Steve's way.
"Over there," someone said, pointing, and Steve turned to see Hank and Tony at what appeared to be a pot-scrubbing station at the back of the room, crowded into a narrow space between a metal cabinet and a drying rack full of pots and pans. He ran over, vaguely aware of the click of Jan's heels on the floor behind him.
Hank had grown to nearly eight feet tall, and was using his extra bulk and strength to grip Tony by the back of the neck and keep him bent over the sink while Hank used the hose attachment on the faucet to direct the water into Tony's eyes.
"Come on, come on," Hank was saying in a tight voice. His lower lip was split and bleeding sluggishly down his chin. "I know it hurts, Tony, but you gotta let me do this."
Tony made a small, strangled noise. He was shaking all over, straining against Hank's hold in obvious panic. Steve couldn't see his face, but his hands gripped the edge of the sink in a white-knuckled grip that looked as if it might dent the steel.
"What can I do?" Steve said.
"Make him hold still." Hank moved aside to make room for Steve to stand closer. "I can't do this and fight him at the same time. He's already smacked me once, see?"
"No," Tony gasped. It came out as more of a sob than a word.
Steve put his hands on Tony's shoulders, felt them twitch and shudder at the contact. He didn't want to be rough, but Tony was struggling in earnest, and it took a surprising amount of force to keep him in place. The sounds he kept making didn't help, either. Just listening to them made Steve's chest hurt.
"Look," he said, "maybe we could let him up for a minute, just to calm--"
"You think I'm doing this shit for fun?" Hank barked.
That alone was enough to make Steve tighten his hold on Tony. He'd known Hank for just over a year now, and while the man occasionally had a temper, he'd never yelled at Steve like that before.
"Tony." Steve leaned forward to put his face close to Tony's. He wanted to be able to talk without yelling and still be heard. "It's Steve. You'll be all right; the ambulance is coming. Can you hear me? It's Steve."
He kept repeating the same words, over and over, and something must've sunk in, because after a while Tony quieted somewhat. His breathing was still ragged and his hands never relaxed their death-grip on the sink's edge, but at least he was no longer fighting them.
"Good. That's good." Steve slid his right hand from Tony's shoulder to the middle of Tony's back, and rubbed in slow circles. "You'll be okay, Tony. We've got you. You'll be fine."
Somewhere in the distance, a siren wailed.
They weren't allowed to ride in the ambulance, but the police officers on the scene gave them a lift to New York Presbyterian once they were done giving their statements. By the time they arrived, Tony had already been transferred from the ER to ophthalmology. He was apparently conscious and lucid enough to have given instructions to the hospital staff, because no one questioned the Avengers' right to be there or to ask for information about his condition. Not that there was much information to be had.
"I'm holding off on a full examination until we've restored neutral PH in is eyes," Dr. Goldman told them. She was a small, stocky woman with short gray-streaked hair and wire-rimmed glasses. According to the brass nameplate on her office door, she was the head of the ophthalmology department. "Based on the initial slit lamp exam, I would say that the damage in both eyes is limited to the epithelium, which is the outermost layer of the cornea. If that's the case, and if there are no further complications, Mr. Stark should eventually regain full vision."
Steve tried to feel reassured, but there were too many ifs and shoulds in the doctor's statement for his liking. "And if that's not the case?"
The slight hesitation before Dr. Goldman's answer was even less reassuring. "Unfortunately, alkali burns to the eye tend to be more damaging than acids, and are more prone to scarring and secondary complications such as cataracts or glaucoma. In that case, there would be surgical options to consider. It's not the most likely scenario, but I can't completely rule it out at this stage. We'll have to wait for the corneas to heal over before we can assess for permanent damage."
It was insane. Three days ago, they'd all walked away without a scratch after taking out a heavily guarded HYDRA compound upstate. Now Tony was in the hospital, and all they'd done was go out to dinner. Steve fought down an irrational urge to protest that there had to be some sort of mistake, that things just weren't supposed to happen this way.
"I know this seems like small comfort right now," Dr. Goldman said gently, "but you did exactly the right thing at the restaurant. I've seen much milder chemicals result in much more severe injuries without proper first aid. Mr. Stark was lucky to have you there."
"That was mostly Hank," Steve said. "He's the one who knew what to do and made sure it got done."
Hank ducked his head and gave an awkward shrug, which was more or less his standard response to praise. "I've sat through enough lab safety meetings in my life to know the drill," he mumbled past the ice pack he was holding to his lip. "In theory, anyway. Could've happily gone my whole life without putting it into practice."
"Like I said," Dr. Goldman told him, "Mr. Stark was lucky."
Steve managed not to laugh at the idea of anything about this godawful mess being referred to as "lucky."
"Can we see him?" he asked.
"No reason why not." Dr. Goldman stood up from behind her desk. "I'll just check on him first, make sure he's up for having visitors." She gave them one last professionally reassuring smile and walked out.
"Somebody should call Pepper," Jan said quietly.
"Of course." Steve felt guilty for not thinking of it himself. Tony's assistant spent one week out of every month at the Stark Industries offices in LA. She was there now, and the last thing she needed was to hear the news from CNN. "Do you have her number?"
"Tony will have it in his phone." Jan got up, visibly relieved at having something constructive to do. "I'll go find out where his things are."
"Call Jarvis, too," Steve said. "Have him send out a message on our communicator frequency. That way Thor will know." No one knew where Thor disappeared to between missions, but he always answered his communicator. Well, almost always. And this way, Jarvis would know too. Steve was never quite sure how sentient the AI was supposed to be, and Tony, when asked, tended to spout endless streams of technical mumbo-jumbo that made Steve suspect he didn't know either. On the whole, Steve preferred to err on the side of more sentient rather than less.
He tried to make a list of other people who might care to know that Tony was hurt, and drew a blank after Happy Hogan, whom Jarvis would tell, and somebody named Rhodey in California, whose full name Steve didn't even know. Pepper would know, presumably, just as she'd know who needed to be notified at Stark Industries. But it was startling to realize, after a year of living in Tony's house, fighting at Tony's side and being Tony's friend, just how little he knew about the man's personal life.
"Eeeeeeeeew," Jan said, "you have tubes stuck in your eyeballs!"
"Thank you, Jan, that's very inspiring," Tony drawled in what Steve thought was a pretty pale imitation of his usual sarcasm. "Nothing cheers a wounded hero on his sickbed like the sound of a beautiful woman cringing in disgust at the very sight of him. And for the record, I do not have tubes stuck in my eyeballs. I have huge and very itchy plastic lenses stuck on my eyeballs, and the tubes are stuck in those. You'll never get anywhere in life if you don't pay attention to the little details."
Good as it was to see Tony awake and alert, Steve had to agree with Jan: the tubes dripping saline solution from an IV bag into Tony's eyes were a pretty disturbing sight. Not that the rest of him looked much better. His face was pale and haggard, with angry red blotches beneath shiny smears of antibiotic cream all around his eyes where the lye had splashed on skin. His hair had dried in a tangled mess. He still wore his trousers and socks, but the shirt and jacket had been replaced with a hospital gown, and the arc reactor glowed ghostly-white through the thin fabric.
"So who else is here?" Tony drummed his fingers against the sides of the bed in a ragged, nervous rhythm. "Hank? Steve? The FOX News crew? I better not hear any cameras clicking, that's all I'm saying."
"It's just us," Steve said.
"Though now that you mention it," Jan put in, "there were a few reporter types hanging around in the reception area while I was making phone calls. I think I saw Ben Urich from the Bugle, and that little slimy guy from the Post."
"No reporters," Tony said sharply. "Not even that hot tattooed chick from the Village Voice. Seriously, I gotta get out of here, this is no good. Did they tell you when I can get out of here?"
"At least another two hours," Hank said. Tony swore.
"We won't let any reporters in," Steve promised. "Want me to go kick out the ones in the hallway?"
"Nah." Tony sighed. "I'll have to do a press conference sooner or later. It'll go better if we don't piss 'em off first. So... anyone want to place bets on tomorrow's stock drop?"
In the end, it took another four hours before Dr. Goldman examined Tony again and cleared him to go home, accompanied by an endless list of instructions and enough prescription drugs to outfit a medium-size pharmacy. Though perhaps "cleared" wasn't exactly the right word for "lost a lengthy and acrimonious argument during which Tony flatly refused to be admitted overnight." By then, the number of reporters in the reception area had grown to a small mob, and the Avengers' departure ended up turning into something resembling a covert op. Hank and Jan had provided the distraction, wheeling a dark-haired orderly with a bandaged face out to the front exit, while Steve smuggled Tony out to a service elevator, down to the basement, and through a side door into a driveway, where Happy Hogan was waiting in a nondescript beige Toyota that couldn't possibly have belonged to Tony.
"Never a dull moment, huh?" Tony slumped in his seat and let his head loll back. Dressed in his own clothes again, eyes hidden behind a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses, he looked a bit more like his normal self, or at least his normal self after a wild weekend. Only the edges of the gauze patches over his eyes, barely visible behind the glasses, indicated that something was wrong.
"I think," Steve said, "I've had less trouble sneaking resistance leaders past German lines. You're a popular man, Tony Stark."
"Yeah." Tony's voice was brittle. "The little people love me... I remembered who that guy was, you know."
"The one who attacked you?"
Tony nodded. "Oswald Browne. Used to be a lab tech at our facility in New Brunswick. Got fired after one of the data entry clerks filed a sexual harassment complaint against him. Did you know Stark Industries was one of the first major companies to have an anti-harassment policy?" Tony raised one shaky hand and rubbed his forehead just above the glasses, as if trying to hold back a headache. "It was my mother's one big contribution to the business. She was... it was important to her."
Steve wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. Tony hardly ever talked about his parents, and never in the middle of a conversation about something else. Steve suspected that the painkillers were taking their toll.
"So what happened?" he prompted.
Tony shrugged and let his hand fall back to his lap. "Like I said, woman filed a complaint, Browne got canned. Three days later, he tried to attack her in the parking lot as she was leaving."
"When was this?" Steve asked.
Tony frowned a little. "Five... no, six years ago. I happened to be in New Brunswick that day, because Ob-- my CFO at the time had this thing about making me inspect all the labs in person once a year. So I come out into the parking lot, hear the girl scream, charge in like a great conquering hero just in time to see her mace Browne into submission. I help her hold him down until security arrives, then testify at the trial."
"And he's held a grudge all this time?"
"Apparently." Tony's smile looked more like a grimace. "Disgruntled ex-employee, can you believe it? The press corps are going to weep at the banality."
"It's not your job to entertain the press corps."
"Try telling them that," Tony said.
"Five seconds!" Hill called out. "Four... three...two... incoming!"
The green shimmer followed by the blinding flash and the whip-crack noise of the portal were an all-too-familiar occurrence by now. Steve blinked the afterimage from his eyes, and felt his heart sink as he realized he was suddenly looking at two newly-appeared scorpions.
"Well," Jan muttered softly from above, "this just got a lot more interesting."
"Interesting" was one word for it. If the creatures started popping up in groups, there was no way they'd be able to put them all down fast enough. They'd be overrun by sheer numbers in minutes.
No time to think about it now. "Move in," Steve said, just as one of the agents behind him shouted "Reinforcements!"
"What?" Hill turned, lowered her rifle, and raised a pair of binoculars to her eyes. She appeared to be looking up at the sky somewhere behind Steve. "I thought he was supposed to be on medical leave or something."
That was when Steve realized for the first time that the ambient noise around him included the muted whoosh of Iron Man's jet boots approaching from a distance. He'd become so accustomed to hearing that sound as he went into battle that his conscious mind didn't even register it anymore, even when he knew perfectly well that Tony wasn't supposed to be there.
And now Tony was there, swooping from the sky in a graceful arc to come down on the strip of no man's land that lay behind the scorpions and in front of the tunnel entrance. He wobbled visibly on the landing, staggered back a step to regain his footing, and stood still as if trying to get his bearings.
“Tony!” Steve took a step forward, hefting the shield. “What are you doing, get out of there!”
Tony made no response. He had some sort of jury-rigged device in one hand, a small metal box with a tangle of wires attached, and he was poking at it with an air of intense concentration that somehow managed to come through even from behind the smooth metal face plate. Both scorpions were turning around to face him, which normally would've been the perfect cue for Steve to attack, but he didn't want to engage when Tony was standing so close to the things. Once they started thrashing around, they could just as easily strike him by accident as on purpose.
He threw the shield instead. It bounced harmlessly off the force field as it always did, but it at least got one of the scorpions to turn veer away from Tony and toward Steve, which was a good start.
“Jan,” he yelled, “get the other one to move this way!”
“I'm on it.” Jan was already zooming forward. “Tony, fall back, you're too close to them!”
“I'm almost done.” Tony sounded tense, as well he should've, but Steve suspected it was for all the wrong reasons. He poked at the device in his hand again. “There. Now it's--”
A three-foot-long claw slammed into his chest, just below the arc reactor. The blow lifted him clear off his feet and sent him flying backwards in a flailing tangle of armored limbs. He slammed into the stone railing above the tunnel, and fell straight down with a pavement-shattering crash Steve could feel in his own bones.
“Tony!” Steve ran toward him, only to be stopped in his tracks by another green flash going off in his face. This one was much brighter than the ones he'd grown used to, and came without the warning shimmer. For a few endless seconds, all Steve could do was stand there and blink. He could hear Hill yelling behind them, ordering her team to hold their fire, but he had no idea what was going on. Then his vision cleared, and he realized that both of the scorpions were gone. Not destroyed, gone.
Ahead of him, Tony was up on his hands and knees. This wasn't nearly as much of a relief as it should've been. Steve had seen Tony in action enough to know that the armor could keep him moving through just about any injury, even a life-threatening one. And considering that Tony shouldn’t have been there to begin with...
As if to confirm all of Steve's anxiety, the armor's face plate slid open to reveal Tony's pale, sweat-streaked face.
“Hey, Cap,” he gasped, then let his head fall forward and threw up all over the pavement.
“Hey.” Steve crouched down and put one hand on the armor's shoulder. “Tony, what were you -- never mind. How badly are you hurt?”
“I'm all right.” Tony held out his right hand, and Steve realized that he'd somehow managed to hold on to the device he'd been fiddling with. “Here. It's calibrated now. Get it within six feet of any portal and press this switch. It'll reverse the teleport beam and send your giant bugs back where they came from.”
“You figured it out?” Steve tucked the device into a pouch at his belt. “Where are they coming from? How do we keep them from coming back?”
“Won't... come... back.” Tony's voice was getting weaker and shakier with every word. “Took out... the satellite.”
“Satellite?” Even by Tony Stark standards, this conversation was making very little sense. “What satellite?”
“Jarvis... has... my notes,” Tony told him, and keeled over.
Tired as he was after spending most of the night at the hospital, Steve found himself resisting sleep. It wasn't quite as bad as his first few weeks out of the ice, when he used to lie awake in the dark in a state of low-grade panic, afraid of what he might see if he closed his eyes, but the feeling was similar. He just knew he wasn't going to like his dreams.
Fortunately, those bad weeks had taught him how to cope. Steve changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt, went down to the gym, and spent several hours taking out his frustration on the gymnastics equipment and the punching bag. It was, perhaps, a little vengeful and petty of him to imagine Oswald Browne's face on the bag, but Steve was okay with that. He could be petty and vengeful in his own head as long as it didn't bleed over into real life.
By the time he came back upstairs, intending to grab an early breakfast, it was nearly sunrise. By all rights, everyone else in the house should've been asleep, but Steve wasn't surprised to hear Tony's voice in the living room.
"I said no. Listen to me, Potts, are you listening? I'm going to explain it one more time, in very short words. I. Don't. Want. You. Here."
The tone and the words brought Steve to an abrupt stop in the kitchen doorway, torn between discomfort at overhearing a conversation that was clearly none of his business and an urgent impulse to go and see what was wrong, because this was not the way Tony Stark talked to Pepper Potts. Steve hesitated for a few moments, then turned and headed for the living room.
The window blinds were shut, and the only light in the room came from the muted glow of the arc reactor and the cell phone in Tony's hand. Tony was sprawled on the sofa in sweatpants and undershirt, bare feet propped up on the coffee table. It should've been a relaxed pose, but he didn't look relaxed, just exhausted. He'd exchanged the plastic sunglasses from the hospital for a pair of tinted lab goggles. There was a glass in his left hand, which probably explained the faint slur in his voice.
"Wait," he was saying now, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that. Look, you know how those assholes on the board are, they're circling like vultures; if we don't go on with business as usual -- yes, I know, but you're scheduled to come back on Friday anyhow. And I'm in a house full of superheroes, okay? I've got Captain America hovering like a mother hen even as we speak, I can survive three days without you... I know. Don't worry. Tell Rhodey not to worry, either... I know... Go get some sleep, will you? I'll see you Friday." He clicked the phone shut and dropped it on the cushion next to him. "Good morning, Steve. Are you going to just stand there all day, or what?"
Steve came over and sat down on the sofa about two feet away from Tony. "How did you know I was there?"
"I'm not totally blind, you know." Tony took a sip from his glass. There wasn't a bottle anywhere in sight, but Steve could smell the whisky from where he sat. "I can tell the difference between a backlit doorway and a backlit doorway with a big Captain America-shaped blur in front of it."
"Did you take your bandages off?" The goggles were twice the size of ordinary sunglasses, and he couldn't tell if Tony still had the gauze patches behind them. "You know you're not supposed to take them off."
"They're itchy," Tony said in a voice that made him sound less like a CEO of a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate and more like a disgruntled five-year-old with the measles.
"That's not the point. If those burns get infected --"
"I know, I know. I'll put them back on in a few minutes. I just... needed to have them off for a bit, okay?" Tony took another sip of his drink.
"Are you supposed to be mixing that with the pain killers?" Steve asked.
"Absolutely." Tony set the glass down on the table with a loud clank, and Steve couldn't tell if he was being emphatic or just couldn't see where the table top was. "Two great tastes that taste great together. You want some?"
"No, thank you." Steve really wished he could see Tony's expression. He thought about turning on the floor lamp, but Tony was supposed to avoid bright lights, and Steve wasn't entirely sure what counted as bright under the circumstances. "How much have you had?"
"Just the one glass, Henny Penny." Steve didn't need to see Tony's smirk this time, it was loud and clear in his voice. "You know, when I called you a mother hen a minute ago, that wasn't an invitation for you to actually start acting like my mother."
"I'm acting," Steve said with what he thought was pretty admirable restraint, "like your friend. It's a funny habit I have."
"Yeah, you should do something about that." Tony reached for his drink again, slowly sweeping his hand through the air above the table until his fingers brushed the glass. He picked it up and swirled the contents around, but didn't actually drink. "And stop staring at me, it's very discomfiting."
"I'm not staring."
"Yes you are, I can feel it. Go on, ask me. You know you want to."
"Why I told Pepper not to come back. You're dying to know, aren't you?"
"I'm curious," Steve said, "but if you don't want to tell me, I'm pretty sure I'll live."
Tony made a small, aborted movement toward his face with his free hand, as if he was going to rub his eyes and then caught himself. He slouched down a little in his seat and leaned his head against the back of the sofa. It was the same position he'd adopted in the car on the way home from the hospital. Steve wondered if it hurt him to hold his head upright.
"Things are a little... tense at my company these days." Tony's voice was flat, drained of his earlier brittle sarcasm. "It's not new or anything, it's been like this since I shut down the weapons division."
Steve nodded, then remembered that Tony probably couldn't see him. "I've heard." He hadn't been around during Tony's captivity in Afghanistan or his first public appearances as Iron Man, but he'd learned the story in bits and pieces later -- some from the other Avengers, most from Google searches and on-line newspaper archives. Tony himself had said very little on the subject.
Steve had even found YouTube videos of Tony's two post-Afghanistan press conferences. The one where he'd announced himself as Iron Man was legendary, but it was the earlier one that had stuck in Steve's mind the most. Tony with his face gaunt and his arm in a sling, sitting on the floor, rambling wistfully about his dead father before standing up to proclaim that Stark Industries weren't going to build weapons anymore. He'd been hustled off the stage before he could finish his sentence, removed from sight like some sort of public embarrassment. Steve had spent weeks harboring an irrational posthumous resentment toward Obadiah Stane.
"The board hates me," Tony continued in the same flat tone, "but so far they haven't worked up the nerve to actually boot me out, because at the end of the day I'm still more productive than the entire R&D division put together. Which is great, but it'll only keep on being true as long as I keep on being productive."
"Tony..." Steve rubbed his own eyes, wincing at the first warning twinge of a headache that was half sleep deprivation and half trying to have a rational conversation with Tony Stark. "You know that this is temporary, right? Dr. Goldman said your eyes will be fine." Dr. Goldman had, in fact, hedged her statements a little more than Steve was entirely comfortable with. But doctors had to do that didn't they? Always mention the worst-case scenario just so they wouldn't get sued if it somehow happened. Which in this case definitely wasn't going to.
"Sure," Tony said. "The doc was great, very comforting, I think I'm in love. I'm going to have her come out and do her whole 'complete recovery' spiel at my next press conference. But the thing is, it won't do any good if people don't believe it. And people aren't going to believe it if Pepper comes rushing in from California as if the world is coming to an end."
Steve's headache was getting worse by the second. "Wait. Are you trying to tell me that you think your board of directors will fire you on the off chance that you might be going blind and lying about it? Isn't that illegal these days? Not to mention really stupid, because even if it was true -- which it isn't -- being blind wouldn't make you be any less of an engineering genius."
"You seem," Tony said in his best I'm Tony Stark and I'm smarter than you drawl, "to be operating under the impression that the world of corporate high finance is populated by sane, law-abiding people. How did you manage to be friends with me for a year and still believe that?"
"I don't think I'm under any illusions," Steve said. "I think you're being paranoid. More than usual, I mean." He hesitated. "I also think you don't like the idea of Pepper seeing you like this, so you're making excuses."
"Thank you for the diagnosis, Dr. Rogers." Tony drained the rest of his whisky in one gulp and banged the glass down on the table. "If you're done with the amateur psychoanalysis, I think I'm going to bed now."
About time, Steve thought but didn't say. Given the mood Tony was in, an expression of approval was likely to make him change his mind just for spite.
"Need a hand?" He took hold of Tony's arm, but Tony shook him off as he rose to his feet.
"I'm fine, I know my way around." Tony took a step away from the sofa and promptly barked his shins on the coffee table. "Ow. Fuck!"
"Come on." Steve took Tony's arm again and steered him around the table and toward the door. Tony let himself be guided until they were out in the lit hallway, then pulled free again.
"I'm good from here." He trailed one hand along the wall as he walked toward the stairs. Steve followed, close enough to intercept a fall but far enough (he hoped) to not make Tony feel crowded.
"How much can you see, exactly?"
He was prepared for more evasive sarcasm, or maybe a flat-out refusal to answer, but Tony stopped at the foot of the stairs and shoved his hands in his pockets, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head as he spoke.
"I can tell dark from light. If I take off the goggles, it's a bit like seeing underwater. I can make out some details, but then it kind of hurts a hell of a lot. So yeah, not having the best time ever, but I'm all right, I can deal, okay? I can deal."
"I know you can," Steve said.
"Good. I'll talk to you later, then." Tony found the banister with his right hand and slowly began to navigate his way up the stairs. Steve squashed the immediate urge to follow and went into the kitchen instead.
He got the coffeemaker going, sat down at the table with a bowl of cereal and then, feeling faintly foolish, looked up at the ceiling.
"Yes, Captain Rogers?"
Steve knew perfectly well that Jarvis didn't really live in the ceiling. Well, technically Jarvis didn't really live anywhere. But the voice always seemed to come from the ceiling, and Steve had grown used to tilting his head back whenever he spoke to the AI.
"Keep an eye on Tony, will you? Let me know if he's... overextending himself or something."
"Of course." Jarvis sounded faintly affronted by the idea of having to be asked. "I've been monitoring Mr. Stark's condition since his return to the house."
"Thanks. And, uhm... don't tell him I asked, okay?"
"My metaphorical lips are sealed," Jarvis assured him. Steve shook his head and smiled. Sometimes it was all too easy to tell that Jarvis's personality had been programmed by Tony.
The coffeemaker pinged. Steve poured himself a mug, then picked up his cereal bowl and carried both upstairs to his room. He wasn't normally in the habit of eating his breakfast in bed, but being just down the hall from Tony instead of a floor away suddenly seemed like a good idea. He wasn't hovering, he was merely... making himself available, just in case.
That's what friends were for.
"TONY STARK ASSAULTED IN RESTAURANT," proclaimed the Daily News. "IS THIS THE END OF IRON MAN?" demanded the Bugle. "AVENGER ACID ATTACK!" screamed the Post, sending Hank on a tirade about sloppy journalists who couldn't be bothered to tell an acid from a base.
"I think they just wanted the alliteration," Jan said.
Hank looked deeply offended. "That's no excuse. They could've said alkali. And besides, journalists are supposed to care about facts, not alliterative headlines."
"Wherefore is this a matter for the front pages to begin with?" Thor rumbled. "Have war, plague and hunger become so rare in Midgard that your scribblers must waste their ink on this?"
"My God," Tony said, "I'm surrounded by idealists. How did that ever happen?"
"You funded a superhero team," Jan reminded him.
Tony was what Steve's mother used to refer to as In a Mood this morning. He'd come down to breakfast about half an hour after everyone else, still wearing his lab goggles and guiding himself with one hand on the wall. He'd promptly declared Jan's coffee -- which he'd never had a problem with before -- to be "undrinkable watery crap," poured the entire carafe down the sink, and proceeded to brew a new pot himself, rejecting all attempts to help with a level of sarcasm that was impressive even by his standards. There was some spillage of coffee grounds and water, but no actual damage done. Tony drank two cups, then worked himself up to what might've been a spectacular shouting match with Steve about his ability to use a knife and a blender.
"It's my goddamn kitchen," Tony had snapped in a flat, clipped voice. "I've been having breakfast in it every day for over a year now, not to mention for a large chunk of my childhood. I know where everything is. I know what I'm doing. I haven't magically turned incompetent overnight."
"It's not a matter of incompetence!" Steve had not-quite-shouted at him. "It's a matter of you handling sharp objects when you're blind, sleep-deprived, hurting, doped up on alcohol and painkillers, and wait, did I mention blind? Because I think it's kind of important."
"Yeah." Tony had scowled at him. "You've made it very clear just how important you think it is."
It was probably a good thing that Thor had burst in just then, full of concern and outrage and ready to swear vengeance on Tony's behalf. He'd been almost disappointed to discover that Tony's attacker was already in police custody and did not require smiting or rending asunder. Thor's appearance had provided a distraction, and by the time things had settled down, Tony was back in his chair, looking smug as he sipped one of those godawful veggie-and-protein shakes he tended to substitute for meals when he was working. The stuff looked even greener and gloppier than usual, and Steve wondered if Tony knew exactly what he'd put into it this time around. But he wasn't the one who had to drink it, and Tony hadn't actually sliced his fingers off, so Steve decided to let it go.
"Pardon me, sir," Jarvis spoke up out of nowhere, "but you have one hundred and ninety-one new voice messages since your discharge from the hospital. Perhaps you would consider answering some --"
"Not really in the mood, Jarvis."
"Very well, sir." It was kind of amazing, how much long-suffering patience Jarvis could express in three computer-generated words. Tony sighed and fidgeted in his chair a little.
"All right, you slave driver, break it down for me. Who's been calling?"
"One hundred and twelve calls are from members of the press. I can subcategorize by--"
"Don't bother. Delete all of those." Tony winced and adjusted his goggles. "Who else?"
"Forty-three messages are from members of the board of directors. Twenty-eight are from senior R&D employees in Los Angeles, Austin and San Francisco. Two are from Agent Coulson, one is from Director Fury, two are from Miss Potts, and three are from Colonel Rhodes."
"Wow, I feel loved today." Tony took a gulp of his shake and grimaced, confirming Steve's suspicion that he hadn't made it quite right. "Dump 'em all. Call Pepper, tell her whatever it is, it can wait till Friday. Call Rhodey, tell him I'm fine and he needs to get laid more. Call Sarah Day, tell her to make like a good little publicist and schedule a press conference for tomorrow morning. Then go away and stop bothering me."
"Press conference?" Jan frowned. "Do you really want to do that so soon?"
"The sooner the better," Tony said firmly. "If I don't talk to these bozos, they're going to start making stuff up just so they have something to print, and do you really want to see what a bunch of guys who can't tell acids from bases would come up with?"
"Well, no, but --"
"Not actually soliciting your opinion, Van Dyne."
"Fine," Jan muttered, looking put out. "Don't come whining to me when you can't see yourself in the mirror and have to ask Jarvis for fashion advice."
"You're probably not soliciting my opinion, either," Steve said, "but shouldn't you be calling Rhodey yourself? He's bound to be worried about you."
Tony shrugged. "What else is new? Rhodey's been worrying about me since I was fourteen, it's his natural state. Besides, he must've talked to Pepper by now, and in a couple of minutes he'll have talked to Jarvis. He'll know I'm fine."
"Tony." Steve tried hard to keep the exasperation out of his voice but didn't entirely succeed. "I'm sitting across the breakfast table from you and I don't know you're fine!"
"Is that so?" Tony pushed his chair back and stood up, wobbling a little as his hip bumped the table. He flung out his hand to find the counter, steadied himself, turned slowly until he was facing the door. "Tell you what then, I'll remove my worrisome self so you can finish your breakfast undisturbed. I can tell we'll all be much happier. Ciao."
As an exit line, this clearly called for a determined march out of the room. Unfortunately, all Tony could manage was a cautious shuffle. There was a muffled flurry of movement as Hank and Thor moved out of his way before he could trip over them. Tony pointedly ignored them, even when his fingers brushed Hank's arm on their way to finding the door frame.
It made Steve's throat ache a little, watching him be so clumsy and hesitant in his movements. In the year since he'd met the man, Steve had grown accustomed both to Tony Stark's expansive swagger and to Iron Man's graceful competence in battle. This -- this was like watching a stranger in his friend's body.
"Tony, wait --" he began, but Tony was already out of sight in the hallway. Steve moved to follow, but Jan grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back.
"Let him be," she said. "He's clearly not fit for company right now."
Steve shook his head. "Did that conversation even make sense? I mean, was there an actual connection between what I said and what he said, or was it totally random?"
"I believe the lovely Wasp speaks true," said Thor. "Iron Man is a hero and a warrior. He's been brought low by a coward's treachery. Is it any wonder if he does not wish for his comrades in arms to witness his disgrace?"
"What disgrace?" Steve nearly yelled. "He was attacked, he's injured. It has happened to all of us. He's done nothing to be ashamed of!"
"I never claimed he has." Thor's voice softened a little. "But it is always humiliating when the strong are defeated by the weak, even when there's no true shame in it. If Tony wishes for some time apart, then he should be granted it."
Steve bit his tongue to keep from pointing out that Tony hadn't been defeated since there hadn't, in fact, been any sort of battle. This was, he suspected, just one more of the many ways in which Thor did not think like ordinary mortals did.
He had a point, though. Tony clearly wanted to be alone, and it was probably best to let him. At least for a while.
"Fine," Steve sighed. "Let him sulk. I'll check on him later."
"Yeah, I'll bet you will," Jan said wryly, and then totally refused to explain what she meant by that.
Steve spent the rest of the morning and half the afternoon up on the rooftop terrace, sketching. It was normally his most reliable method of coping with bad moods that weren't quite bad enough to require punching things. The careful, detailed drawings he liked to make required a certain level of concentration, enough to distract him from any subject he might otherwise brood on; the process itself was relaxing, and having something concrete to show for his efforts was satisfying. Most of the time. In theory. Today, it wasn't working so well.
Steve wasn't really sure why he was suddenly so hung up on the fact that he wouldn't be able to show his work to Tony when he was done. It wasn't as if he normally ran to Tony with every finished drawing. In fact, he never did. But if he left his sketch pad lying around anywhere outside of his room, Tony usually ended up commenting on it. His opinions tended to be more favorable than Steve's own -- if there was one thing Steve had learned in art school, it was the extent of his own limitations -- but he always seemed sincere. And he'd framed one charcoal sketch of the Brooklyn Bridge and put it up in his room, which Steve found both flattering and slightly embarrassing.
He didn't draw to be flattered, however, and it was ridiculous to suddenly be obsessing over Tony's nonexistent reaction now. And yet here he was, obsessing. Steve glared down at the half-completed Midtown skyline on the page in front of him, admitted that it was never going to come out looking the way he'd intended it to look, and flipped to a blank page to start over for the fourth time.
Half an hour later, the new sketch was coming out no better than the old one. Steve admitted defeat, gathered up his supplies, and went back inside.
He flipped through the TV channels in search of something distracting to watch, but that quickly proved to be a mistake. Somebody from Fiorello's had struck gold with their video camera, and all the local news shows were running endless repeats of the same shaky footage of Hank manhandling a struggling, clearly terrified Tony away from their table. Steve punched the power button on the remote with unnecessary force.
"Mr. Stark is in the workshop."
"Workshop?" Steve frowned. "How long has he been down there?"
"Five hours, thirty-seven minutes, and twelve seconds, sir."
"Is he all ri -- never mind, stupid question." Steve dumped the sketchpad and pencils back in his room and went into the kitchen. There was some Chinese takeout in the fridge, left over from poker night earlier in the week. Steve microwaved a half-full tub of hot and sour soup and carried it downstairs.
The lights in the workshop were off, though the ambient glow from the computer monitors and assorted instrument panels ensured that the place was never entirely dark. Steve entered his access code into the touchpad on the glass doors, and they obligingly slid open for him. Tony was seated at a worktable with what appeared to be one of Iron Man's gauntlets disassembled in front of him, all the pieces laid out in a perfect grid. He was holding up something that looked like a set of small concentric gears attached to a wire coil, and was cleaning the whole contraption with a tiny brush.
"Hi," Steve said.
Tony kept on with whatever he was doing. "Jarvis, I thought I told you not to let anyone in until I said so."
"Did you, sir?" Jarvis sounded mildly startled. "I must've forgotten."
"Great," Tony muttered, "my own house is conspiring against me. How am I supposed to -- hey, is that Chinese I'm smelling?"
"Hot and sour soup from that place on Eighty-Sixth Street." Steve pried the lid off and waved the container about six inches in front of Tony's nose. "Want some?"
Tony looked as if he was actually considering saying no just to be contrary, then shook his head and put down the part he was cleaning, placing into its slot in the worktable grid.
"Okay," he said, "I guess I can forgive Jarvis for letting you in against my orders, but just this once."
"Your generosity is astounding," Jarvis said.
Tony took the soup container from Steve, reached out as if to put it on the table, then changed his mind and held it against his chest instead. Steve pulled up a chair and sat down at the opposite side of the table.
"What are you working on?" he asked.
"Just some maintenance." Tony waved his spoon in the general direction of the table. "There's some salt build-up in the joints, probably from that A.I.M. bust we did two weeks ago. What is it with crazy high-tech terrorists and secret undersea bases, anyhow? I think we took out, like, three in the past year. You'd think they'd learn by now."
"Personally," Steve said, "I'm quite happy to have bad guys who don't learn."
"Good point." Tony ate some more soup, looking increasingly distracted. "Hey, maybe I should make a separate armor just for the underwater missions. It shouldn't be too hard to make all the seams watertight and incorporate a rebreather. Jarvis, make a note."
"Watertight seams, rebreather. Duly noted, sir."
"Anyway," Tony continued, "I've been putting off the cleanup for a couple of weeks, so I figured I might as well do it now, since I'm pretty much useless for anything else for the next couple of weeks. And hey, I've always said I could take the armor apart and put it together again with my eyes closed; now we get to find out if it's true."
"I think we all know it's true," Steve said.
"Flatterer." Tony smirked. He was looking much more cheerful and relaxed than he'd looked in the kitchen this morning, his posture straighter, his movements less awkward. The workshop, more than any other place Steve could think of, was Tony's natural habitat; just being in the place seemed to give him confidence. Plus the sweats-and-lab goggles look actually worked here, which probably didn't matter much to Tony, but it made Steve feel irrationally better.
"I called Rhodey," Tony blurted out after a few moments' silence.
"Okay," Steve said. Once upon a time, he would've been startled by the abrupt change of topic, but now he took it in stride. Tony's mind could make a lot of seemingly random leaps in the course of a single conversation. Once, at some charity function or other, he'd segued from flirting with a supermodel into a lengthy ramble about cold fusion, apparently inspired by the pattern on some other woman's scarf. Steve had been highly amused. The supermodel hadn't been.
Tony shrugged. "Just thought I'd mention it. In case you were keeping tabs."
"You're a grown man, Tony, I don't keep tabs on your phone calls."
"Really?" Tony looked skeptical. "After the way you were going on this morning, I wasn't sure."
Now that was just plain unfair. Steve fought down an irritated sigh. "Is it really that annoying to have me feel concerned for you?"
"Okay," Steve said, "then I'll stop."
"Liar," Tony said, but he sounded more amused than anything else.
"Well, maybe I won't stop being concerned," Steve admitted, "but I'll try to stop being annoying."
"Promises, promises." Tony reached behind him to put the now mostly-empty soup container on top of an empty bench. "Jarvis, lights, thirty-three percent."
There was a faint hum as every third one of the fluorescent panels in the ceiling flickered to life. Tony picked up the little gear contraption he'd been working on earlier, weighed it in his hand, and held it out toward Steve.
"Here. Dummy's still in Malibu, so you can be Dummy for a day."
"Okay." Steve reached across the table to take the part from Tony's hand. "What does being Dummy for a day entail, or don't I want to know?"
"Grunt work. Take the nut off the central bolt, then hand the gears to me one at a time when I tell you to. Think you can do that without being annoying?"
"I think I can manage." Steve said. "You'll notice I'm not asking you to make any promises about not being annoying."
"I'm an eccentric genius," Tony said. "I'm supposed to be annoying. It's part of my eccentric genius charm."
The sad thing was, Steve thought, that was actually true most of the time.
Jarvis did have Tony's notes, if one defined "notes" as "several hundred gigs' worth of raw satellite data files and about twenty pages of math that Tony had dictated on the fly." Tony, apparently, had monitored SHIELD communication channels to find out what was going on and guessed that the scorpions' tail cuffs served not just as force field generators but also as activation and targeting devices for the teleport beam that delivered them to New York. He then used Jarvis to scan for the beam's energy signature, traced it back to a Latverian weather satellite, and used a combination of Stark Industries' own still-in-development teleport technology and Victor von Doom's old published papers to jury rig a device that would reactivate the beam and send the scorpions back to their point of origin.
That, at least, was the story as pieced together by Reed Richards and related by Sue Storm translating from genius-speak to normal English. There hadn't been any time to clear up the details before the whole thing was hushed up in order to "avoid an international incident" and the Fantastic Four flew off to Latveria to have it out with von Doom where the media couldn't see it happen.
The mysterious collision between the Latverian satellite and a Stark Industries telecommunications satellite got about a days' worth of news coverage before bigger headlines displaced it. SI stock dropped five points. According to Pepper, that was barely a blip these days.
Tony himself was in no condition to add to the story. The battle at the tunnel had left him with a mild concussion, the sort Steve was used to seeing him shake off after a couple of Tylenol and a long nap. This time, combined with his damaged eyes, it laid him out completely. After three days, it was still all he could do to lie flat on his back in a darkened room at New York Presbyterian and make piteous noises at the nurses who came in to change his bandages and give him his medication.
On the upside, being unable to move meant that Tony was also unable to rip off his bandages, stay up in the workshop all night, mix alcohol with his painkillers, or have ill-advised press conferences in brightly lit rooms.
"I'm not in the habit of wishing cranial injuries on my patients," Dr. Goldman said, "but if I'd known that this is what it would take to make him stay put, I would've conked him on the head myself."
"Don't worry about it," Pepper told her. "It's a common sentiment."
The first day, Steve had tried to talk to Tony during visiting hours, but it had quickly become clear that Tony wasn't comfortable having him there. He hadn't actually said anything, but he'd turned his face away whenever Steve started to speak, and eventually faked a rather unconvincing snore to pretend he was asleep.
In the days that followed, Steve had made sure that Tony really was asleep before he came in to sit with him. The others all thought he was overreacting, he knew that. Tony was hurting, but he wasn't in any actual danger. There was no need for a bedside vigil. Steve didn't care, though. It made him feel better just to be near Tony, to see him, to know that he was safe and resting.
God, he had it bad. No point in trying to hide it from himself anymore. He was falling in love with Tony Stark, and Tony... Tony turned away from him when he was awake.
Steve sat in a plastic chair by Tony's bed and watched Tony's pale, drawn face twitch faintly in response to whatever he was dreaming. The white strip of the bandage made a sharp contrast against his dark hair and several days' worth of beard stubble. He was an utter mess, and Steve still wanted to sit and look at him all day, and if that wasn't irrefutable proof of having it bad, then nothing was.
They'd have to talk about it sooner or later, no matter how much Tony might want to avoid the conversation. In all honesty, Steve wanted to avoid it too, but he knew it had to be done. He'd have to apologize, to do whatever he needed to do so that the two of them could still work together, could still be friends. That, Steve told himself, was the important thing. Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love. He could deal with Tony not wanting him. But if Tony chose to shut him out completely...
He'd have to leave the Avengers, then, and Steve honestly wasn't sure what else he might do with himself. He supposed he would find something. The Super Soldier serum in his blood ensured that he wouldn't be left alone to sit on the dole even if he'd wanted to. SHIELD would have a use for him, or the military. But it wouldn't be the same without the Avengers at his side. Without Tony at his side.
Tony made a small, muffled sound and tossed his head from side to side on the pillow. Steve tensed, but the monitors above the bed continued their comforting, steady rhythm of soft beeps and hums. Tony was all right, he was only dreaming. Steve was tempted to take his hand, but he'd already presumed enough, and it would make for an awkward moment if Tony woke up unexpectedly. It hurt to think that. Only a few days ago, there had been no need to worry about awkward moments around Tony.
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "I messed up. We'll work it out when you're better, I promise."
Tony slept on.
Tony's press conference was held in an auditorium at the Stark Industries corporate building in Midtown. Unlike most of Tony's public appearances, which he tended to improvise, this one was choreographed within an inch of its life. Dr. Goldman spoke first, delivering one of her carefully worded reassurances about probable lack of permanent damage and Tony's almost certain full recovery. Then Tony himself strutted out, slick and confident in a pinstriped suit and wraparound mirrored sunglasses, and spent several minutes flirting with a woman reporter in the front row before taking questions.
It all went remarkably smoothly. Of course, the press hadn't been around to see Tony practice his walk to the podium until he could do it without the slightest stumble or hesitation. Nor did any of them notice the Wasp flying in slow circles above their heads. Steve, standing in the wings with his own Avengers communicator on, could hear her prompting Tony with bits of visual trivia on whichever reporter she wanted him to call on next.
"Ben Urich, Daily Bugle," she'd whisper, "middle of the room, ten degrees to your left. He's wearing a Snoopy tie." Or, "Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair, third row straight ahead. She's cut her hair short." Tony worked the cues into his banter without missing a beat. The tense set of his shoulders was the only hint that he wasn't having the time of his life, and Steve was pretty sure he was the only one who noticed that.
They had planned to leave as soon as the reporters were all herded down to the lobby, but Tony stayed in place even after Jan gave the all-clear. He slumped forward to rest his forehead against the top of the podium, looking far more tired than he should've after a forty-five minute press conference, until Steve came up and put one hand on his shoulder.
"You all right, Tony?"
"There's an executive washroom just past the elevator bank," Tony muttered. "Help me get over there, will you?"
"Sure." Steve let Tony take his arm and steered him toward the door. "But you didn't answer my question. Are you all right? Should I see if Dr. Goldman is still around?"
"No, it's fine." Tony's voice was light, but his fingers had a death-grip on Steve's arm. "It's just, maybe all these lights weren't such a bright idea. Uhm, no pun intended."
Of course. They'd forbidden flash photography at the conference because Dr. Goldman had insisted on it, but they couldn't very well have held the entire event in a dark room. The fluorescent lights in the auditorium were the brightest illumination Tony had been exposed to since he'd left the hospital. They should've thought of that. Or rather, Steve should've thought of it, since there was no point ever expecting Tony to think of anything that resembled self-preservation.
"How bad is it? Do you have something you can take?"
"Yes. Are we there yet? How long is this hallway, anyhow?"
"We're here." Steve stopped in front of what he assumed was the right door; it wasn't actually labeled or anything. "There's a combination lock."
"Eight-one-three-nine-enter." Despite his obvious pain, Tony actually managed a smirk. "Remember it well. If you ever need extra cash, some of the junior executives will trade their year-end bonuses for these numbers."
"Spare me your bizarre corporate culture rituals." Steve punched in the numbers and pushed the door open.
Inside was all tasteful wood paneling and brass fixtures, recessed lighting and framed Art Deco prints on the walls. There was a sitting room off to the side, with a leather couch and some chairs and a glass coffee table with some magazines on it. Tony sank into the nearest chair and fished a small plastic bottle of eye drops from the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket.
"Thanks, Cap. You can go now."
"I'm fine right here," Steve said.
Tony was trying to get the cap off the bottle, but his hands were shaking too badly to get the job done.
"If I offer to help," Steve said, "will that be annoying?"
"Yes." Tony had another try at the cap and ended up dropping the bottle. "Fuck. Fine, do it anyway."
Steve fished the bottle from under the coffee table and popped the cap off. "How many drops?"
"Two in each eye." Tony took off the sunglasses and tipped his head back. "Go on, get it over with." He shifted restlessly in the chair and tapped the glasses against his knee.
Steve stood behind the chair and looked down at Tony's upturned face. It was a disturbing sight. He'd taken off the patches before the conference started, much to Dr. Goldman's displeasure, and had Jan put some sort of concealer around his eyes to mask the damage that the glasses wouldn't cover, but it still looked as if Tony had a really nasty sunburn going. His eyes were cloudy and bloodshot, the pupils unnaturally wide given the amount of light in the room.
Steve brushed Tony's hair back from his forehead and gently pulled one eyelid back with his thumb. Tony flinched, but didn't make a sound.
"Sorry." Steve resisted the instinct to jerk his hand back. If this was as painful as it looked, then he wouldn't be doing Tony any favors by hesitating. So he cupped his hand against the side of Tony's face and squeezed two drops from the bottle as quickly as he could, then shifted his hold and did the other eye. Tony flinched again and breathed noisily through clenched teeth.
"It's okay," Steve said, though it clearly wasn't. "It's okay, it's done. There. You're fine."
"Yeah," Tony breathed out, blinking rapidly. "I'm fantastic." His face was very pale. He made no move to get up from the chair, and Steve wasn't about to make him, so they just stayed where they were for a while.
Kind of a long while, actually. And the more seconds ticked by, the more sharply Steve was aware that he was still cupping Tony's face in his hands, and that Tony seemed perfectly okay with that. His eyes were closed and the pain lines around his eyes and mouth were slowly smoothing out. The eye drops were working, apparently.
Tony's face looked odd from this angle. Steve was reminded of one of the first drawing classes he'd ever taken, still in high school. The teacher had placed an engraving of the Chrysler Building upside down on an easel and made the class copy it. Steve still remembered how long it had taken, how closely he'd had to examine every inch of the inverted picture in order to reproduce it because his mind was no longer automatically filling in the familiar details he expected to see. By the time the assignment was done, Steve could close his eyes and visualize every line and curve from memory, more vividly than he ever had before.
Now Steve found himself making the same mental inventory of Tony's jaw line, the sharp angle of his cheekbones, the exposed curve of his throat. He wanted to muss Tony's hair, to lean forward and kiss him, to run his thumb along Tony's mouth and turn that cynical smirk into a real smile. He wanted --
A light brush of Tony's hands against his snapped Steve back to reality from what had been shaping up to be a highly inappropriate fantasy. Tony had put his sunglasses back on but still showed no inclination to move.
"Hey," Steve said, "how are you doing?" He hoped he didn't sound as breathless and off-balance as he felt.
"Much better." Tony took a deep breath and slowly let it out. "All right, so it kind of feels like my eyeballs are coated in ground glass, but believe it or not, that's a great improvement over five minutes ago. So, Captain America saves the day again. Three cheers for the red, white and blue, and if you really want to be my hero, you'll turn the lights off."
Steve clicked the light switch by the door. It killed the lights in the sitting room, but there was still enough illumination spilling over from the main bathroom area to let him make his way back without tripping over the furniture.
"Are you sure you don't want me to call somebody?"
"Positive. I'm just going to sit here for a few minutes. You can go if you want."
"Will you please stop saying that?" Steve was starting to wonder about the sort of people Tony was accustomed to dealing with, if he really expected Steve to leave him sitting there alone when he was so obviously hurting. "Or is there a particular reason you're trying to get rid of me?"
"I'm not trying to get rid of you." Tony adjusted his glasses and shifted restlessly in his chair. "I just figure you have better things to do that hang around in the dark babysitting a blind guy."
"This isn't babysitting," Steve said. "And no, as a matter of fact I don't have anything better to do."
"You need to get a life," Tony muttered.
Steve decided not to dignify that with an answer.
Someone rattled the doorknob, then thumped vigorously on the door.
"Tony?" Jan called out. "Steve? Are you guys all right in there? I have Dr. Goldman with me."
"Please make them go away," Tony muttered.
"I heard that." Dr. Goldman had that exasperated edge in her voice that most people got after dealing with Tony long enough. "Mr. Stark, you've already ignored my advice for the sake of this ridiculous conference. Do you really want to --"
"I took my Scopolomine drops," Tony raised his voice enough to make himself heard clearly through the door. "I can't have another Percocet for an hour. I'm willing to bet you won't let me have any Scotch. Is there anything you can do if I let you in that would actually be more useful than just letting me sit here in the dark for a while?"
Steve couldn't quite make out the half-whispered conference that followed between Jan and Dr. Goldman, but he was pretty sure that the words "stubborn idiot" were repeated several times.
"Okay," Jan said after a while, "we'll go, assuming you promise that Tony will get his eyes properly bandaged again as soon as he gets home. "
"He will," Steve said.
"And keep them properly bandaged until I say so." That was Dr. Goldman.
"He is sitting right here," Tony growled.
"What was that, Tony?" Jan again, deceptively sweet.
"He says yes." Steve patted Tony's shoulder. "Behave," he whispered, "or I'll let them in."
"Hmph." Tony folded his arms across his chest. "You're all a bunch of bullies. Ordering a poor, helpless blind man around."
Steve decided not to dignify that with an answer, either.
Jan gave them both a concerned look when they emerged from the washroom fifteen minutes later, but Tony immediately launched into a play-by-play review of the conference, which effectively prevented her from asking questions as well as kept her attention focused away from Steve. Which was a great relief, because Steve really didn't feel up to either evading Jan's probing questions or to explaining that he just had a personal epiphany in the executive washroom.
Then again, an epiphany was supposed to be a sudden and unexpected revelation, and this... really wasn't. Steve had been living in Tony's house for a year; he'd had plenty of chances to see the man at his best and at his worst. Tony was brilliant and funny and stubborn and exasperating and scarily competent and brave to the point of suicidal recklessness and, oh yeah, pretty easy on the eyes, too. Steve knew all that. It was just that so many other things had happened in that same year. He'd woken from a frozen sleep into a new century and a new world that, all this time later, he was still trying to figure out.
Cell phones. Computers. Space travel. A long list of wars fought in places he'd only heard of in geography class. Rock music, color television, desegregation. Polio vaccine. Cookie dough ice cream. Ever since he came out of the ice, Steve had been living in a permanent state of information overload, and even that had been a phrase Tony had needed to explain to him. So when the possibility that his employer/teammate/best friend might become something more than an employer/teammate/best friend had first occurred to him, he'd filed it at the back of his mind as Something To Deal With Later.
He could do it again now. Could, in fact, keep the whole notion filed away forever and never deal with it at all. But was there any reason to?
They'd never specifically discussed the topic, but based on the occasional casual comment, Steve was reasonably sure that Tony liked men as well as women. Or at least wasn't completely repulsed by the idea. He might not return Steve's interest, but he was unlikely to scream "Pervert!" and boot him off the team, either. And Steve was fairly sure that none of the other Avengers would care.
It was strange. Back in the time Steve still tended to think of as "his," he could've been arrested for doing most of the things he wanted to do with Tony. Now... he wasn't sure how things worked, exactly. Apparently, men liking men was acceptable, except when it wasn't. You could get married in some places, but if you went someplace else it didn't count, and you could serve in the military as long as people didn't find out. That last part made no sense at all; as far Steve had seen, soldiers had always been not asking and not telling, so what was the point in making a law about it?
In any case, Steve wasn't in the military anymore. The Avengers had some sort of government oversight, mostly in the form of Nick Fury showing up to yell at them every now and then, but they were still a civilian entity, funded by the Maria Stark Foundation, and the Maria Stark Foundation had a very thorough non-discrimination policy. Pepper Potts had made him read the whole thing and initial at the bottom of the form back when he'd formally joined the team. The foundation, he was informed, did not discriminate on the basis of age, race, color, religion, marital status, pregnancy, national origin, ancestry, disability, medical condition, citizenship, military status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or metaphysical realm of origin. That last one, Tony explained, was put in at Thor's request.
Steve didn't really care about all the legalese. What he did care about was knowing that coming out (an odd thing to call it, as if he was some sort of debutante) was unlikely to wreck his life. So all he really had to fear was... well, what anyone had to fear if a relationship didn't work out. Which was scary enough on its own, but he was a superhero, he could handle it.
Not that he was going to say anything now. Not until Tony was better. There was just no good way to say "Hey, I'm sorry you're blind and in pain, but do you want to go out sometime?" Steve was okay with waiting, though, now that he knew what wanted.
It would be worth it in the end.
Pepper Potts came back on Friday, and suddenly the world was a saner, more organized place. The board of directors became calmer, the journalists became more polite, Tony began to return phone calls and eat regular meals. Steve sometimes wondered if Pepper had secret superpowers. She seemed to always appear at just the right time, radiating some sort of mystical force field that caused everyone within range to remember deadlines and keep appointments.
"We should send her out against HYDRA," Jan said when Steve presented her with the theory. "She'd have them all surrendering to SHIELD in alphabetical order, on a conveniently staggered schedule, with time off for lunch and coffee breaks."
Even with Pepper's secret powers, it took a coordinated tactical assault from her, Steve, Happy and Jarvis to get Tony out of the workshop and into Dr. Goldman's office for his follow-up appointment, only ten minutes late.
"I know it may not feel like it right now," Dr. Goldman said, "but you're doing very well. I'm seeing normal epithelial healing in both eyes, and there's no sign of scarring or infection. Your intraocular pressure is a little higher than I'd like. That's not unusual with this kind of injury, but we do need to bring it down. I'd given you Diamox to control it, but I'm going to switch it to Neptazane, just to see if that works any better." She handed Pepper a prescription slip. "It might cause a slight rash--"
"Funny." Tony smirked. "That's what my last date said."
Pepper kicked him in the ankle.
Dr. Goldman was apparently getting the hang of dealing with Tony's antics, because she went on as if he hadn't spoken. "-- or other allergy symptoms, but based on your medical history I don't think it's likely. You may also notice some decrease in mental alertness and physical coordination, but it shouldn' t--"
"No," Tony said.
Dr. Goldman looked startled. "Excuse me?"
"Those are not acceptable side effects." Tony waved one hand in Pepper's general direction. "Did she give you a prescription slip, Potts? Give it back."
"Tony." Pepper made no move to return the slip. "Be reasonable."
"Reasonable? I'm already zoned out on Percocet half the time, not to mention, oh yeah, practically blind. It's taking me a week to do routine maintenance on one goddamn gauntlet that I'd normally have finished in an afternoon. Now you want to throw in something that'll make me clumsy and stupid, too? How am I supposed to work?"
"You're not supposed to work," Pepper said, "you're supposed to be taking time off to recuperate." She fixed Steve with a stern glare. "What has he been doing all this time?"
"Tinkering in the workshop, mostly." Steve felt oddly defensive, as if Tony's failure to act like a rational human being was somehow his fault. "I thought it was all right."
"It's all right for short periods of time," Dr. Goldman said, "provided he doesn't overstrain his eyes. And takes his medication."
"Hey!" Tony said, loudly enough to make everyone in the room jump a little, "I know a fun thing we can all do. Let's all talk about Tony as if he's not there! Won't that be a barrel of laughs? Sure it will!"
"Tony," Pepper sighed, "we're only trying to --"
"Whatever. I'm done here." Tony pushed himself to his feet. "Hogan!"
Happy Hogan stuck his head through the door. "Yes, boss?"
"Get me out of here."
"Sure thing, boss."
There was a lengthy silence, broken only by the sound of the door clicking shut behind Happy and Tony's retreating backs.
"Well," Pepper murmured after a while, "that went well."
"He'll come around," Steve said with more hope than conviction. "You just scared him off with that list of side effects, that's all."
"You should talk to him," Pepper said. "According to Jan, you're the only person whose company he'll tolerate these days."
"I'm not sure he's tolerating me, either," Steve said. "But I'll try."
Steve waited a couple of hours to give Tony a chance to settle before he came down to the workshop with a peace offering of coffee. To his surprise, Tony wasn't there.
"Mr. Stark is in his room, Captain."
Oh. "Is he awake?"
"Thanks." Steve trudged back up the stairs and knocked on Tony's door.
No answer. Steve waited a few more seconds, then came in, braced to duck anything that might be thrown at him.
All the window blinds in the room were down and the lights were off. Tony was sprawled on his back on top of the bed covers, still in the jeans and button-down shirt he'd worn to the hospital, goggles firmly in place. There was an empty glass and a half-empty whisky bottle on the nightstand.
"Hey," Steve said, "I have coffee. No milk, two sugars."
Tony didn't move. "Let me guess, it's to keep me awake while you lecture me about my not following doctor's orders. Or working too much. Or mixing booze with my pills. Which is it today? Go on, tell me, I can take it."
Steve could think of a few choice words on all of those subjects, and probably a few more, but he bit his tongue, put the coffee down next to the whisky, and sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Actually, I came to apologize. You were right, back at the hospital. We were talking about you as if you weren't there. It was rude and... and patronizing. I'm sorry."
"Huh." Tony looked wary. "Did Pepper put you up to this?"
"Pepper told me I should talk to you," Steve admitted. "But she didn't say about what. So, pick a topic."
Tony said nothing for a long time. Steve waited in silence, wondering if he should push or just leave. Two more minutes, he decided. Two minutes, and then he'd go if that was what Tony wanted. Or maybe three minutes. Four.
"It's dark," Tony said, and Steve actually jumped a little at the unexpected sound.
"I know." Steve glanced at the closed window blinds. "The light hurts your eyes, doesn't it?"
"It's dark," Tony repeated, going on as if Steve hadn't spoken, "and my eyes hurt all the time. My head's in a fog from all these goddamn pills. I can't sleep. Tried to get Jarvis to read to me, but I can't focus. Tried to listen to music, but that hurt too. What the hell is up with that, anyway? It's not as if I listen to music with my eyeballs." Tony lifted his head about an inch from the pillow, combed one hand through his hair and dropped back again. "If I concentrate very, very hard and move very, very slowly, I can sit in the workshop with the lights off and spend a few hours doing fifteen minutes' worth of work. Only now it seems I'm not supposed to be doing that, either. I'm supposed to take idiot pills and sit in my room like a good boy, doing nothing useful whatsoever. Superhero of the year, that's me."
"You're healing," Steve said, "that's the most useful thing you could be doing right now."
Tony's muffled snort conveyed exactly what he thought of that.
"Tony." Steve leaned in a little closer and rested his right hand over Tony's wrist on the covers. As soon as he did it, he wondered if the gesture was inappropriate somehow. Acknowledging his feelings for Tony had been a huge relief, but deciding to wait was proving to be a curse. Steve kept second-guessing all his words and actions around Tony, wondering if he was intruding or sending messages he didn't mean to send. "You're not obligated to be useful twenty-four/seven to justify your place on the team. You have a right to your recovery time, just as Hank had a right when he had that broken leg four months ago, just as Jan and I will have a right if we're ever out of action. You don't have to--"
The high-pitched wail of a Priority One alert drowned him out mid-sentence. Trained response took over immediately; he was on his feet and halfway to the door before he was done snapping "Jarvis, report!" at the ceiling.
"Agent Coulson from SHIELD on Channel One, sir." Jarvis always took on a clipped, military tone when he responded to SHIELD communications. "Avengers' aid is requested in Riverside Park."
"Assemble the team," Steve ordered, and only then did he notice that Tony was on his feet and trying to follow. Steve grabbed his shoulder and pushed him back down to sit on the bed. "Not you, Tony."
"Not me," Tony agreed, "Iron Man. The armor has autopilot, I can--"
"Can you pilot it remotely?"
"No. It needs the arc reactor for its power source. But I --"
"No." Steve hardened his voice. Was the hell was Tony thinking, wanting to go into battle like this? What was wrong with him? He was lifting his chin in a way that threatened a lengthy argument, and they didn't have time for this, not now. Steve bit his lip, knowing he was about to be cruel. "Autopilot isn't meant for combat. You won't help. You'll be in the way."
Tony rocked back as if reeling from a blow, then folded in on himself, shoulders forward and head down.
"Fine," he said in a flat, defeated voice. "Go."
It was the voice, Steve told himself later. The voice, or the dejected slump of Tony's back, or just the adrenaline rush of the alarm and the fact that Steve had been thinking about little else for two days. Whatever the reason, that was the moment when he shifted his hand from Tony's shoulder to the back of Tony's neck, then leaned forward and pressed his mouth against Tony's in a rushed, clumsy kiss. It lasted two or three seconds at most, then Steve let go and staggered back a step. Tony just stared at him, open-mouthed and obviously stunned.
"Wait for me," Steve told him, and ran out the door.
Normally, when the Avengers needed to make their way around the city at distances too short for the Quinn Jet, Iron Man would carry Steve and Thor would carry Hank. With Tony out of the lineup, Steve flew with Thor while Hank shrank down to the same size as the Wasp and perched on Steve's shoulder. It felt strange to be clinging to Thor's thickly muscled bulk as they crossed Manhattan rather than to Iron Man's smooth metal surfaces. Fortunately, they had a fairly short distance to travel. It only took a couple of minutes before Thor set them down in front of the 79th Street Boat Basin, a little rumpled but none the worse for wear. Jan, Wasp-sized, had arrived just ahead of them and was now circling overhead.
There were three black scorpions sitting on the bike path and the mangled remains of at least two more splattered on the grassy slope that separated the path from the raised terrace of the Basin Cafe. That in itself would've been unusual enough. The fact that the smallest of the scorpions was the size of a large SUV moved the situation from "unusual" to "sci-fi B-movie." The gleam of sunlight on the Hudson and the gently swaying forest of sailboat masts behind the monsters only made the sight more surreal.
A squad of SHIELD agents had the area cordoned off in a twenty-foot radius around the scorpions, but they were making no move to attack. An armored truck and an ambulance were parked near the cafe rotunda. Agent Coulson, looking weary and stiff, climbed out of the truck as the Avengers approached. He was wearing SHIELD's standard black battle fatigues, rumpled and torn at the right shoulder seam, and his face was dirt-smudged beneath his kevlar helmet. His left arm was in a sling.
"Captain." Coulson gave Steve a somewhat distracted salute. "Good timing. We have about six minutes."
"Six minutes until what?" Steve asked. "What's the situation?"
Somebody yelled behind him, the words quickly drowned out by the familiar roar of a flamethrower accompanied by a wave of hot air against Steve's back. He turned to see two agents aiming arcs of flame at the scorpions, which scurried backwards along the bike path with surprising speed, swinging their tails from side to side. Their clawed feet left deep gouges in the pavement.
"They don't like fire," Coulson said. "Doesn't hurt them much, but they'll move to stay away from it. Unfortunately, we can't use the flamethrowers when we actually have people fighting the things."
"How do you kill them?" Jan asked. She was hovering about six inches above Steve's right shoulder, close enough that he could feel the breeze from her wings on his face.
Coulson gestured with his good hand. "See those metal things on their tails?"
"No." Steve turned and squinted against the sun. "Wait, yes, I see them."
Each of the scorpions had a thick, wide cuff encircling its tail just below the sting. The bands were brushed to a dull gray finish that made them hard to see against the black carapaces, especially with the way the things kept moving around, but Steve thought he could make out some sort of complex design etched into the metal.
"They emit some kind of protective force field." Coulson had to raise his voice to make himself heard over the noise of another flame thrower blast. "Get those off, and a few explosive rounds will do the trick. Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it sounds."
"Is that what happened to you?" Hank asked.
Coulson nodded jerkily. "I got one, before it tossed me into the rotunda. One of my men got the other, but it stung him before he could get back. For the record, it takes ninety-three seconds for a two-hundred-pound man to die from the venom."
"I'm sorry," Jan said. Coulson gave her a stony look.
"We all knew the risks when we took the job, ma'am. Now the way I see it, your team is better suited for close combat with these things than my people are. You get those cuffs of them, we'll do the rest."
"We shall aid you as best we can." Thor hefted Mjolnir to his shoulder. "Perhaps a good blow from a strong arm can do what your bullets cannot."
Coulson shrugged. "You want to go squashing bugs with your hammer, be my guest. Just be quick about it. We have just over two minutes before--"
"Incoming!" someone yelled.
The air above the bike path shimmered. A pale green glow formed, outlining an circular portal about ten feet in diameter. It grew brighter and brighter until Steve had to look away, and then there was an ear-splitting crack like the snap of a bullwhip, and the light blinked out, leaving another scorpion squatting on the path.
"Damn," Coulson said. "They're coming faster now. It was supposed to be seven minutes."
"You mean they're going to keep coming?" Hank rolled his eyes. "Well, that's just fabulous."
"We'd better move fast then," Steve said. "Jan, go for their eyes, keep them distracted."
"There will be extra pairs of lateral eyes at the sides of their heads," Hank said. "If you can't get at them, go for the gaps between the chitin plates, that's where they'll be most vulnerable to your stings."
"Got it," Jan said.
Steve hefted his shield. "Ready? All right, team, move in."
The scorpions had to have some sort of rudimentary intelligence, because they became instantly more aggressive as the SHIELD team fell back to make room for the Avengers. It was as if they knew that the flame throwers would no longer be a threat. One of the mid-sized ones -- about eight feet long, not counting the tail -- charged straight at Steve, claws raised and clicking.
Jan darted in, firing her stingers at the scorpion's eyes, or at least at where it looked as if its eyes might be. It was kind of hard to tell. The scorpion snapped its claws at her, but she was too quick, too small, too maneuverable. It spun in a half-circle trying to get at her and ended up facing the river with its tail swishing back and forth in front of Steve.
Perfect. Steve crouched and threw his shield. It smacked edge-first into the scorpion's tail cuff, exactly where he'd aimed it. The impact should've shattered the cuff into bits. Instead, there was a buzzing sound and a brief electric crackle as the force field activated. The shield bounced off at an oblique angle, and Steve had to make a diving leap across the path to catch it.
All right, then, they'd do it the hard way. Steve backed up a few yards to get a good running start and launched himself through the air toward the swinging tail.
It was like smacking into a flexible, rapidly moving telephone pole. Steve's fingers slipped on the smooth chitin and he had to scramble for a more secure hold, getting one arm and both legs wrapped around just as the scorpion began to whip its tail from side to side with dizzying speed.
The world turned into a dizzying blur of green and gray and blue. Steve gritted his teeth and held on, slowly inched his way upward toward the cuff. The sky tilted and spun above him, and then the ground was rushing up at him, much too fast. No time to let go and jump clear, no time to do anything except tuck his head in a split second before the impact. His back hit the pavement with bone-jarring force, and for a few agonizing seconds Steve couldn't breathe. But he didn't let go, and the cuff was within his reach now. All he had to do was wrap his fingers around the thick ring of metal and twist and... there. A satisfying snap, and half the cuff was in his hand while the rest went spinning off into the distance. The tail whipped around again. Steve held on a moment longer, letting go at the top of the arc. He landed on the grass, rolled, and came up on his feet just in time to see the scorpion come apart in a spray of gunfire and thick black blood.
He looked around for Jan and saw her zooming toward the lawn in front of the cafe, where Hank, twelve feet tall and growing, had the largest of the scorpions pinned down against the grass.
"I got it," she called out, her voice small and tinny on the communicator channel. "Just hold it still."
"Sure," Hank grunted, "no problem."
Jan landed on the cuff, and Steve watched her disappear inside what must've been the lock. A few seconds later, the cuff clicked open and dropped to the ground. Hank rapidly shrank back to his normal size and rolled free, just as SHIELD opened fire.
Steve thought they were doing pretty well there, so it was a little humiliating to look the other way up the path and see Thor standing there between two thoroughly smooshed scorpions, grinning like a maniac despite being spattered head to toe in black goo.
"Did I not tell you?" Thor boomed out cheerfully. "A good blow from a strong arm is all that is needed in a battle like this."
He looked so pleased with himself and the world that Steve couldn't help but start grinning too, but his mirth died abruptly as Thor swayed, took an unsteady step backwards and sank to one knee.
Steve rushed forward, with Hank right behind him. Jan joined them a few seconds later, returning to her normal size as soon as her feet touched the path. Thor stayed where he was, hunched forward, one hand still gripping his hammer and the other planted on the ground for support.
"It is well," Thor muttered in a slurred voice. "I am well. It's only... my arm."
There was an angry red puncture wound just above his left elbow where a stinger must've hit him. Ninety-three seconds to kill a two-hundred-pound man, according to Coulson. Thor was heavier than that and not, technically, a man. Still, he was clearly weakened by the venom, and that in itself was a disturbing sight.
"Stay down," Steve told him. "Give yourself time to recover."
"Nice work." Coulson walked up to them, glancing pointedly at his watch. "Two minutes, forty-three seconds. That means you have between two and four minutes before the next one shows up. Unless they start appearing faster."
"Lovely." Steve pressed one fist against the base of his spine and winced. He didn't think anything was actually broken, but his entire back felt deeply bruised. The smallest movement made his muscles protest. "Where the devil are these things coming from?"
"Don't know," Coulson said. "But they didn't put those cuffs on their own tails, and they're probably not teleporting themselves in, either. Somebody's sending them in. We've got people looking into it."
"So this is, what, an invasion of some sort?" Jan looked around with an incredulous expression on her face. "Here? Who the hell lands an invasion in a yacht club?"
"It's not just here," Coulson told her. "We had a message from Director Fury while you were fighting. They're popping up in Bryant Park, too. Reed Richards and his team are on it. Also, the police frequencies are reporting some sort of disturbance in Union Square. I think it might be spreading."
"Incoming!" Someone yelled behind them.
"Shit," Hank said.
Steve couldn't really argue with the sentiment.
By the fourth day of his hospital stay, Tony recovered enough to start complaining at the nurses in complete, if short, sentences. Over the next couple of days, the sentences grew steadily longer and more obscenely inventive. At the end of the week, Dr. Goldman gave him another ophthalmologic exam and pronounced him fit to go home.
"The bandages can stay off for good," she said, "provided you don't go planting yourself face down in the dirt, which frankly I wouldn't put past you. Keep your eyes shaded for as long as you need to, remember all your drops, and at least try to minimize the amount of eye-straining work you do every day. I'll see you for a follow-up in three days."
Steve heard all this second-hand from Pepper, because he thought it best to keep out of the way while she and Happy brought Tony home. He would've kept out of the way even longer, but it would've seemed too conspicuous when all the other Avengers were meeting Tony at the door. Fortunately, the little welcoming crowd in the foyer made it easy enough to hang back, to allow Jan to give Tony a hug and Hank and Thor to thump him on the back in a show of manly camaraderie without having to get too close himself.
"It's good to have you home, Tony," he said, smiling from behind Thor's massive shoulder.
"Thanks," Tony grunted, and disappeared into the workshop so fast, he practically left skid marks on the carpet.
"He just needs time to settle," Pepper told Steve later, when they were both having a late lunch in the kitchen. "He hates hospitals, and he's never had to stay in one this long before, not even after Afghanistan."
"Sure," Steve said, "I understand."
Then he went down to the gym and did judo for an hour.
By the time he'd showered, changed into clean clothes and made his way to the workshop, Steve felt more or less ready to have a rational conversation. Problem was, it took two to have a conversation, rational or otherwise, and Tony wasn't cooperating.
He shouldn't have kissed Tony like that, just out of the blue. Should've waited for a more appropriate time, should've said something first, should've made more of an effort to find out how Tony might react to being kissed by his male teammate. This wasn't something you could just assume about another person. What the hell had he been thinking?
He couldn't go back and undo his own foolishness, but he could take responsibility and make amends. It was the least he owed Tony.
"I'm very sorry, sir." Jarvis sounded genuinely regretful as Steve punched his access code into the panel on the workshop door for the third time. "But everyone's codes have been reset. And Mr. Stark has specifically instructed me not to let anyone in until further notice."
Of course he did. Steve scowled at his own reflection in the door. The normally clear glass panes had all been darkened to mirror-shiny black. They looked like the sunglasses Tony wore in public. "Jarvis, you've let me in before when Tony told you not to."
"I'm aware of that. And so is Mr. Stark, which is why he was very emphatic about his instructions this time."
"It's important that I --"
"I cannot do as you ask, sir."
The faint emphasis on the "cannot" brought Steve up short. It was all to easy to forget sometimes that for all that he sounded unnervingly like a person, Jarvis was still a computer and Tony was the programmer.
"All right, then." Steve sat down at the bottom of the stairs and folded his arms across his knees. "I'll just wait here until he comes out."
"It maybe several hours, sir."
"That's all right." Steve shrugged. "I was in the army. I've had extensive training in hurry-up-and-wait. You might want to tell Tony that."
"I'll be sure to mention it at first opportunity."
It was kind of like being on guard duty, except that he had a place to sit and no one was likely to actually jump out and shoot him. Paradise, really. Steve made himself as comfortable as a man could be while sitting on an uncarpeted staircase, and settled in for the long haul. He was perfectly prepared to wait all day and all night, but in the end it took just over an hour before the access panel beeped and the doors slid open.
Inside the workshop, the ceiling lights were off. Tony was seated at his worktable with the disassembled repulsor gauntlet laid out in front of him and an empty coffee cup sitting on top of a stack of blueprints, but to Steve's eye it didn't look as if he'd actually been working. All the pieces lay undisturbed in their places in the grid, and there were no tools within reach. Tony stood when Steve came in, but didn't speak. His posture was stiff, and his face was disturbingly blank. He was wearing jeans and a grease-stained white tank top with a hole cut out over the arc reactor. With the goggles over his eyes and the blue glow in his chest, he looked more like some sort of automaton than the expansive and passionate man Steve was used to dealing with. Normally, Steve thought he was pretty good at reading Tony's body language and expressions, but right now he might as well have been wearing the armor.
"Hey," Steve said uncertainly. "Thanks for letting me in."
"As if I had much choice." Tony's voice was as expressionless as the rest of him. "What do you want, Steve?"
"Just to talk. I mean..." Steve forced a smile that Tony didn't return. "Don't you think we should?"
"Should we?" Tony took a step backwards, away from Steve, and folded his arms across his chest. "All right then, talk."
"Tony." Steve wasn't normally given to fidgeting, but now he found himself shifting his weight from foot to foot and running one hand through his hair. "I know I... behaved inappropriately the last time we talked. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have presumed --"
"Is that what you really think of me?" Tony burst out, all his eerie calm shattered in an instant. "That I'm useless? That I'm a drag on the team?"
"What?" Steve rocked back on his heels a bit. This was not at all the direction he'd expected the conversation to go. "Of course not. How could anyone think you're useless?"
"Oh, I don't know," Tony said bitterly, "you seemed pretty positive about it. 'You won't help. You'll be in the way.' Nice to know where I stand, I guess."
Is that what this is all about? Steve had almost forgotten what he'd said to Tony just before he kissed him. The kiss itself had loomed so huge in his mind that everything else sort of faded into the corners. And while he'd known that his words were hurtful, had regretted the need for them even as he'd spoken, it had never occurred to him that Tony would take them to heart like that, that he would actually think --
"Tony." Steve stepped toward him. Tony looked as if he might step back again, but then he set his jaw and held his ground. "I wanted you out of that one fight for the same reason I would've wanted any injured teammate out of the fight: because you were hurt. Wounded soldiers don't go into battle, they stay behind to recover. You know this, Tony, it's not exactly rocket science."
On second thought, maybe that wasn't the best comparison to use. Tony could do rocket science in his sleep. It was everything else he seemed to have trouble with.
"I'm not a soldier," Tony growled, "I'm an Avenger. I'm Iron Man. The whole point of the armor is to compensate where I'm weak. I could've gone out with you."
"If you had, there would've been no one left to figure out how to reverse the teleport beam. You did more good by staying here."
"Oh, please." Tony waved off his entire contribution with a casual flick of his hand, as if he hadn't saved them all single-handedly. "Reed Richards could've done it. He used to work with von Doom, he knows his methods better than I do. He could've figured it out in half the time if he hadn't been too busy fighting."
"You don't know that. And he would've been out fighting even if you'd gone with us. Everyone was out fighting. You won that battle for us, Tony, how can you not see what you did? How can you think I don't see what you did?"
Tony didn't seem to have an answer to that, so Steve took another step closer and put his hands on Tony's shoulders.
"You're the smartest person I know. And you always have my back, and you give more of yourself than anyone could possibly ask, and... you know there's no one alive I'd rather have with me in a fight, don't you? Don't you?"
Standing this close, Tony had to tilt his head back a little to meet Steve's gaze. Steve couldn't see his eyes, but the determined look on his face was clear enough.
"Don't ever try to leave me behind again. Promise."
"Sure," Steve said, "as long as you promise to let me go off and fight when I'm blind and in pain."
"How? And don't say it's the armor, because we both know that doesn't make you invulnerable. Remember the HYDRA guys with the EMP canon last month?"
"I've put in new shielding for that," Tony said quickly.
"That --" Steve clenched his jaw and reminded himself that shaking a man who was recovering from a concussion probably wasn't a good idea. "That's entirely besides the point. The point is, I'm not going to promise to let you do stupid things that will get you hurt, and I'm not going to ask you to promise that for me, either. But I'll promise you one thing -- I'm never again going to say that you can't help."
"Well." Tony gave him a grudging half-smile. "That's a start, I guess."
"Will you stop avoiding me now?"
"I suppose." Tony looked thoughtful. "I have a question, though."
"This isn't what you wanted to talk about when you came in here, is it?"
"Uhm." Steve felt his face grow warm. He was suddenly, selfishly glad that Tony couldn't see him blushing. "No, not really."
"So what is it, then?"
"It's..." Steve bit his lip and took a deep breath. "I meant to talk about how I, uhm, kissed you."
"Oh. That." Tony shrugged. "I thought that was a pity kiss or something."
"A what?" Steve wondered if he heard that right.
"Pity kiss. You know, like a mercy fuck only less work."
"Ah..." Steve rubbed the back of his neck. "Is that really what you thought? I think I'm insulted."
"Well, what was I supposed to believe?" Tony demanded. "You tell me I'm useless, and then you kiss me, and then you tell me to wait while you run off to fight giant teleporting bugs from Latveria. Way to send mixed signals there, Rogers."
"Oh, come on, it wasn't as if I'd wanted to run off and fight giant teleporting bugs from Latveria. I didn't even know --"
"-- And what kind of a half-assed kiss was that, anyhow?" Tony was clearly warming to his subject now. "Scientifically designed to be the peak of human perfection, and that was the best you could do? There wasn't even any tongue! You'll have to do better than that if you want a guy to believe you're interested."
"I will, if you stop talking for a minute," Steve said.
"...Okay." Tony finally let his arms drop to his sides and leaned forward a little. He was close enough now for Steve to hear his quickened breathing, to feel the faint warmth radiating from the arc reactor. "Go ahead, then."
There was no alarm clamoring for his attention this time, no distractions, no need to hurry. Steve could take the time to savor the feel of Tony's hair beneath his fingers, the warmth of Tony's mouth, the faint taste of black coffee on Tony's tongue. He could've happily done this all day, but Tony, as usual, was less patient. He made a low, urgent sound, hooked his fingers into the belt loops of Steve's jeans, and tugged him closer.
Steve moaned and clenched his hand in Tony's hair as their bodies pressed together. He was already uncomfortably hard, and the sudden rush of pure need that hit when he swayed forward and felt Tony's erection press against his hip was dizzying. He had to break the kiss and tilt his head back to gasp for air.
"Steve..." Tony slid his hands beneath Steve's t-shirt, pressed his palms against Steve's back. "Stevestevesteve... please don't stop."
"I won't," Steve said, and kissed him again.
He didn't even realize that he was pressing forward and making Tony step backward until Tony's ass bumped the worktable behind him. There was a great deal of banging and rattling as the coffee cup toppled over on its side and the gauntlet parts bounced from their assigned places, some of them spilling over the edge and onto the floor.
"Hey." Now it was Tony's turn to pull away. "I had those in order."
Steve raised an eyebrow at him. "You want to stop and clean up?"
Tony dug his fingernails into Steve's back, hard. "Hell, no."
"Good," Steve said, and reached for Tony's belt buckle.
It took only a few seconds to get Tony's jeans and underwear pushed down to his knees, though Tony's inability to stop moving made the task a bit more complicated than it needed to be. He did go still when Steve wrapped one hand around his cock, but only for a moment or two. Then he was gasping Steve's name in a ragged voice and rocking his hips hard enough to make the table rattle again.
For a short while, Steve just let Tony thrust into his hand. Then he put his left hand on Tony's hip to hold him in place and took over, stroking in a slow, steady rhythm that made Tony shake and whimper. Every sound he made was like a physical caress, sending a jolt of heat straight to Steve's groin. He was just starting to consider the logistics of unfastening his own jeans without interrupting what he was doing, when Tony reached for his fly. Steve made himself hold still just long enough for Tony to pull the zipper down, then squirmed in helpless, unashamed need as Tony shoved his hand down his pants.
Tony's grip was warm and strong and rough. Tony's skin was slick beneath Steve's hands. It wasn't enough to touch anymore, not enough to see the rapt expression on Tony's face or hear his stifled gasps. Steve rocked forward on his feet a little, buried his face in the crook of Tony's neck, sucked hard at the tender skin just above Tony's collarbone. He thought he could happily lose himself forever in the solid strength of Tony's body against his, in the taste and smell of Tony's sweat-damp skin.
"Yesss..." Tony hissed in a hoarse whisper, and came all over Steve's hand.
"Yes," Steve echoed, voice muffled against Tony's throat. Tony's hand had stilled briefly as he came, but now it was moving again, stroking him just so, and then he flattened his other hand against the small of Steve's back, slid it down between cloth and skin to cup Steve's ass. Steve's breath hitched as he felt a finger press inside him, and his knees buckled. He made a small, desperate noise that would've been embarrassing under any other circumstances, and let himself go.
For a while after, all they could do was stand there, slumped against each other and panting for breath. Then Tony gave a low, barely audible chuckle and raised one hand to stroke Steve's hair.
"Well," he muttered, "I've never done that in the workshop before. Jarvis, I hope you weren't monitoring that."
"Monitoring what, sir?" Jarvis asked blandly.
"Good." Tony dipped his head and kissed the side of Steve's neck, just above the collar of his T-shirt. "Damn, I wish I could see your face properly. You must look so hot right now, all disheveled and debauched. Are you blushing? Please tell me you're blushing."
"If I wasn't before," Steve said, "I certainly am now."
"Then my cunning plan is working." Tony planted another kiss, this one just below Steve's left ear, then pulled away with obvious reluctance. "Hold on."
He opened a drawer at the side of the table, rummaged around until he came up with a pack of tissues and handed one to Steve. There was a brief, awkward shuffle as they both cleaned themselves up and straightened their clothes, and Steve found himself feeling increasingly self-conscious. It occurred to him, possibly later than it should have, that Tony did this sort of thing all the time, that it probably didn't mean to him anything like what it meant to Steve.
"Tony," he began, then hesitated, unsure of what to say next.
"Uh-oh." The look Tony gave him was an odd mixture of wariness and amusement. "I feel a speech coming on."
"Not a speech." Steve said. "It's just that I'm not... that is, I wouldn't... I don't do this sort of thing casually, you understand?"
"No, really?" Tony smirked at him. "And here I thought you were such a player."
"I know, I know. Hey, are you frowning?" Tony brushed his thumb across he furrowed skin between Steve's eyebrows. "You are. Stop it." He kept moving his hand, tracing his thumb along Steve's brow, down his cheek, across his mouth. "I have done this casually, any number of times. And if I wanted to do it casually again, there’s plenty of people I could call who’d be okay with that. I don’t need to spoil a perfectly good friendship just to get my rocks off."
"I… see," Steve said hesitantly. "I think. So you're saying--"
"I'm saying, not casual. Not this time."
"Oh." Steve let out a relieved sigh. "Good."
"I'm not proposing or anything. I'm just saying. If you're worried that I'm playing games here -- I wouldn't. Not with you."
"Good," Steve repeated, because he wasn't sure what else to say. This wasn't a conversation he'd ever expected to have with Tony Stark.
"Besides." Tony leered at him. "At the very least, we'll have to do this again when I'm all better. I really want to see your face when you come."
Steve shook his head. "I wish you'd be more serious about this."
"No, you don't," Tony said. "You like me just the way I am."
Steve thought about it for a moment.
"Yes," he said, "I do."